Monday, 20 June 2011

How to Write a Novel

This article covers some basic tips on writing a good novel, by sticking to well-known and accepted conventions. Breaking these conventions outlined here is something that only the very brave or famous can afford to do.

These rules of thumb are pretty much standard across modern novels. If you are skeptical of any of them, pick up any famous, recent novel, read it, and you'll see that it's true.


Ensure that you use the right tense. Most novels are written in the past tense third-person: "Smith went to the shop." Some authors use first-person: "I went to the shop." This is more unusual these days; novels from the 19th century and prior used this tense a lot, but it's very rare nowadays and it sounds odd. Some authors, extremely rare indeed, use first-person present-tense: "I am going to the shop". Avoid this. Another thing to be aware about with tense is that speech and thought in the novel is technically present tense for the actors; they don't think "I went to the shop" or say "Smith - went to the shop". Speech and thought is present-tense in a novel: "I will go to the shop," or "I am going to the shop", or, "Smith - go to the shop!". This also means that when a person in the novel is thinking or talking about the past, you have to indicate this with "would/should/could have", and "have had" or "had had": "Smith had wanted to go to the shop, but couldn't." "I should have had the courage to go to the shop". Or even more importantly: "He had had enough. He had tried so hard to get it right, but couldn't." If there's no-one speaking or thinking, just use the straight past tense.

Chapter Length

Chapters must be of equal length. They should be less than 40 and more than 10 pages long. Take your book, and divide its number of pages by 20. That's roughly how many chapters you should have. Try to not have chapters of unequal length; it makes reading much harder because the reader starts to wonder when the chapter is going to end so that he or she can go to sleep.


Characters are developed by describing their thoughts and actions. You do not need to apply adjectives to them to create an impression of their character. E.g. it's considered amateurish to say something like this: "Smith was a scoundrel." It's better to use descriptions of behaviour, body language, and psychology: "Smith leered at Mary, whilst contemplating how much money she may have in her purse". That kind of thing.

You should have a clear protagonist (hero) and antagonist. The antagonist or "bad guy" does not have to be blatantly obvious or present from the outset. It is more interesting to let the bad guy reveal himself gradually through clues. A common device in modern novels is to trick the reader into believing a character is bad, and then reveal how it's actually someone else that has been causing all the trouble.

The ending or resolution of the story is called the "denouement" (pronounced day-new-mong, roughly). It's recommended that you have a denouement; stories that are left hanging are frustrating to the reader. If you want to do cliff-hangers, put it at the end of each chapter but not the last. It creates a sense of certain characters or storylines having been pointless if they're left unresolved.

Avoid indirect speech or narrations of descriptions of conversations. Rather use direct speech exchanges; they are useful for displaying or developing characters. E.g.: Smith then said to Jones that he didn't really like him as a person - versus - "Jones! You imbecile! Why do you always have to insult me in front of Mary? What's your problem?"

Multiple heads. Each scene has one protagonist from whose perspective the scene is narrated. The chief protagonist of your novel must have the most scenes in which he is the person whose perspective is taken. So, you shouldn't have a scene in which you psychologise about two different people. E.g. "Mary was wondering what John was thinking." "I don't think she likes me, John thought". Choose whose head you're inside, and use only that. E.g. "Mary was wondering what John was thinking" "She looked at John's face. It seemed to her that he was unsure about something." You mustn't confuse your reader about who they're supposed to be sympathetic to, and focusing on. Similarly, you can't say "they thought", as this implies that the narrator is in everyone's heads. You have to say "they agreed", which implies that they said it out loud. "They thought" implies that the narrator could read all their minds. Also, separate scenes in which you've switched from one protagonist's head into another's, with three asterisks and two line breaks or carriage returns above and below the asterisks, like so:

*         *         *

Diction and Style

Only write as you speak if you are writing the direct speech of one of your characters inside quotation marks. In descriptive paragraphs, do not use casual or spoken style.

Break your sentences into shorter sentences, especially in action scenes. Use commas. The word "however", for example, is almost always surrounded by commas. Use one clause (section of meaning) per sentence.

Avoid redundancies, like "sat himself down", "stood up", "shrugged his shoulders", "thought to himself", "five days' time", etc. Replace all of these with "sat", "stood" or "rose", "shrugged", "thought", "five days". Why? Because you can only sit down, you can only stand up, you can only shrug your shoulders, you can only think to yourself, five days are only in time.
"Got/Get". Avoid using this word altogether. It's casual speech. "He got confused" should be "He became confused". "He got into the boat" should be "He boarded". Etc. It's ok in direct speech, e.g. "GET OUT!"

Do not imitate accents, e.g. '"Zey are comeeng," Jacques said.' Rather just try to capture the style of the language through its unique structure. E.g. '"The enemy, they are coming, my friends. It is the life!", Jacques mumbled.'

Avoid -ing on verbs. Replace "he was walking" with "he walked". It's shorter and snappier.
Avoid adverbs and adjectives if you can replace the noun with one that implies both. For example: "he walked rapidly" - swap with - "he strode" or "he jogged." "He beat the enemy severely" - replace with "He smashed the enemy". Etc. It makes the pace seem faster. Obviously, in slow scenes, you use more adverbs and adjectives.

Repetition: avoid using the same word on the same page more than once, especially nouns, adverbs and adjectives. I've noticed many instances in which informal writers use the same word over and over. Unless the word's unavoidable, like "the" or "an" or "but", or unless it's technical, like "bandwidth", use a different word. So, "She was happy, she had no idea how it was possible to be so happy" is repetitive. Rather try "cheerful, cheery, merry, joyful, jovial,jolly, jocular, gleeful, carefree, untroubled, delighted, smiling,beaming, grinning, in good spirits, in a good mood, lighthearted,pleased, contented, content, satisfied, gratified, buoyant, radiant,sunny, blithe, joyous, beatific; thrilled, elated, exhilarated, ecstatic,blissful, euphoric, overjoyed, exultant, rapturous, in seventh heaven,on cloud nine, walking on air, jumping for joy, jubilant". English is not short of synonyms.

It's not conventional to end sentences on prepositions. ("Can I come with?") - Prepositions being things like "in", "on", "around", "at", etc.

Passive voice/active voice. Passive voice: the man was hit by the ball. Active voice: The ball hit the man. Rather use active voice in a novel.

Check that each sentence has a verb. -ing words don't count as verbs. "Walking there", for example, isn't a sentence, it has to be "He was walking there", where "Was" is the verb.
Hyphens. Quite a lot of words are hyphenated in English. Double-barrelled, for example. It's hard to explain the rule. Effectively, if two words have been together for a long time, they gradually acquire a hyphen, and then become one word. So, in Old English, tomorrow was "to morgen". In early modern English, it was "to-morrow". Nowadays, it's just "tomorrow" - one word. I think the easiest way to explain it is to say: put a hyphen or combine the words if the two words that make up a term make it into a new term by being together. So, a red coat is a coat that is red, but a redcoat is a British soldier. And so on.

Write everything in full; do not use digits, e.g., "1st", "1 AM", and so on. Rather: "First," "one in the morning". Only use digits for very large numbers, like a house number in a long street in an address: "Mary lived at 1024 Smith Street".

Don't forget to check my Correct English page, in the menus above.

Sentence run-on. Keep one clause per sentence. Otherwise it sounds rambling. E.g., "The sun was shining and the birds were singing and Smith went for a jog and it was a good jog and it was hard for him to think that just the day before he had been stuck in an office." Rather have this: "The sun was shining. The birds were singing. Smith went for a jog. It was good. It was hard for him to think that just the day before, he had been stuck in an office." Note how it's been split into individual clauses. It makes it easier to follow and read. You may ramble only in direct speech where the character or person speaking is prone to rambling.

Storyline Structure

Gone are the days where you could have a straight, linear story with only one protagonist and everyone else is incidental or peripheral. You have to have different scenes which feature different characters, and the protagonist (hero) must not be in every scene. You should also have scenes which show the world view and experiences of the antagonist, to give him (or it) some depth of character.

It's a common device nowadays to have multiple unrelated scenes with unrelated characters that eventually come into conflict or cooperation through chance. The idea is that initially, the reader can't tell which character is important and what is ultimately going to happen to them. If you start with a particular character and always show the world from their point of view, you're ensuring that the reader knows immediately that this person is the protagonist and is going to be immortal throughout the story, since they cannot disappear from the story if the story is only told from their point of view. A recent modern example is the Sookie Stackhouse series, upon which the TV series "True Blood" is based. You can have no fear or suspense in such a novel because the reader knows that no real harm can come to the character, since the novel is exclusively from her first-person perspective. This is one of the disadvantages to the first-person perspective narrative point of view. From a third-person point of view, all people are equal.

You can, if you like, tell the story asynchronously, that is, start by revealing scenes from later in time, and then lead back to them through subsequent chapters, to show how the starting scene came about. This is a very common device in modern films.

Make sure that you draw up a timeline spreadsheet. Each row is a chapter. Each column is an event that happens to a character in that chapter. You should do this to ensure that you don't end up with anachronisms; where an event happens to character (A) ostensibly at the same time as an event that happens to character (B), but reference is made to an event that happens to character (C) at the same time, but the event that happens to character (C) is impossible because it happened before the event that happened to character (A). To avoid this, simply make a spreadsheet with a row called "Chapter 1", and columns as follows: Character A, Character B, Character C. Then under each character's column, write a word or two about what happens to that character in that chapter, if anything. Then repeat for Chapter 2, etc. That way, your story cannot become asynchronous or anachronistic.


Most stories rely on certain facts. Some stories twist the facts, and some aim to be revisionist. That's OK. The most important thing in writing a story is to make sure your facts are correct. This is especially important in historical or political novels. So, you can't have James Bond going to kill a Communist General in Soviet Russia in the year 2010. And if you want your story to be about that, you can't have Bond driving a BMW Z4, since Communism fell before the Z4 came out. You get the picture. The only time you can introduce anachronisms is if you're doing a re-imagined revisionist history, such as the film "Inglourious Basterds", or some kind of graphic novel or Steam Punk story, whose time and geographical setting are unclear. Introducing an anachronism deliberately is only OK if that anachronism is the entire point of the story, e.g., Jurassic Park, the Land that Time Forgot, and so on.

Sex, Violence and Cursing/Swearing

You may want to include some sex and/or violence (verbal or otherwise) in your novel. Take the following into account. Firstly, is the novel intended for an audience of adults only? What are the odds of a child reading the novel? If you do not intend your novel for adults only, you should probably not have explicit sex or violence in the novel. If, however, it is a romance novel or a horror story, then by all means, put the explicit material in. If it is a story intended for adults, and it's not specifically intended as a horror story, then balance the violence with sex; violence-only doesn't make for a good story. And vice versa.

Publishing your Novel

The hardest thing with a novel is to be seen; I call this the "wood for the trees" problem. Unfortunately, the easiest way to get your book read is to publish it for free on a site like If, however, you want to make money off it and have it widely read, you probably still need to persuade a traditional paper publisher to take it on. This means that it really has to be good and have something unique. If, however, you're mainly wanting to publish it for a few friends to read, then consider online publishers like Lulu. This does not mean that you can't succeed through an online publisher; there are many success stories.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Should America fund Restructuring in the Middle East? - Part 3 of 3


It has recently been argued by (Julie Taylor)[] that there is a case to be made for American funding restructuring in the Middle East - especially the Arab Spring states. (The Arab Spring being the term for the civil uprisings in many Muslim states this year). The arguments in favour are obvious: it will engender good feelings towards America, who has, thus far, been painted as everything pernicious from “The Great Satan” all the way through to “The Crusader”. The argument against, of course, is the Budget Deficit. America has already spent a huge fortune on the Middle East - most notably on wrecking it and depositing large armies in its terrain. The USA, the argument goes, should focus now on spending its tax dollars at home: helping the poor, for example, or on health care (God of the Republicans, forbid!).

Here’s my two cents’ worth. Why is America in a huge deficit over a Middle-Eastern war anyway? Is it not because, in the first instance, America needs to defend herself against an enemy which she ostensibly created in the first place? Up until the World War I, America’s official policy was non-interventionism - the Monroe Doctrine. In practice, America deviated from this, intervening in the Philippines and Panama - but these were not the rule. The non-interventionist or isolationist sentiments persisted even beyond the 19th Century. After helping in World War I, America refused to join the League of Nations or get involved in the Treaty of Versailles. She kept her distance again until Hitler arrived. In part, the US response to Hitler may have been due to the Stock Market crash. As we see now, with the “look to your own house first” sentiments from the American Left, the same applied in 1940 - people were concerned that the US Government was wasting time and money on foreign adventures. But as it turned out, America discovered that war was a profitable business. War was useful for fixing a collapsed economy, when there was nothing else to export but military equipment. This Roosevelt promoted in 1941, when he sold arms to the Allies. Effectively, this tied America’s economy to Allied Victory, and hence, it bound the US to assist her economic allies. The official excuse, of course, was that America stood for liberty, and Hitler and his allies for Fascism, and that America could not tolerate that. As we know, Pearl Harbour provided the required pretext. How is this different to today? Not at all; just swap out the names of the enemy countries involved. And so entered the new era of _America - World Police_.

Skim forward about six decades, to some falling skyscrapers, and we see the results of American interventionism. It is my belief that if America hadn’t meddled so much in Muslim politics - siding first with Saddam and then against him, for example, or not establishing military bases all around the Middle East - those skyscrapers may still have been standing. But could America have pursued a policy of non-intervention in the Middle East? It’s not clear. The threat of nuclear proliferation, or the Muslim nations possibly allying with Soviet Russia (and hence again, subsequent nuclear proliferation), made this impossible. The need for assured access to a primary supply of oil, in addition to the nuclear threat, made it unavoidable. America needed to have forces within striking distance of the Soviets. Interventionism had to happen. 9/11, in a manner of speaking, was an inevitable outcome of the Cold War and geography. Witness, as proof, how America helped the Taliban against the Soviets, but promptly exterminated the Taliban after 9/11.

Soviet Russia has, in the interim, collapsed. Forty-five years of paranoia about a great enemy, threatening the American way of life, is gone. What has happened since? Chaos has ensued. All the strategies developed by the US on the basis of the assumption of a single mega-enemy are no longer relevant. Our modern world is more complex. The biggest threat is no longer an ICBM to be met with a laser-armed satellite; it is now a single anonymous man with a dirty bomb in his backpack. The approach, of a military presence situated in specific strategic points, is not really relevant anymore - it just makes you look like an occupying army. A change in strategy is called for.

Let’s think about some of America’s putative successes: South Korea, Japan and Germany. If America had washed its hands of these nations after dealing with the conflict, what would have happened? Would they be the prosperous first-world democracies that they are today? Look at what happened to East Germany under Soviet rule. When the Berlin Wall fell, it was discovered that East Germany, socially, economically and technologically, was far behind the West. This could only be a result of the two different governmental strategies. I must conclude that the best thing that could happen to the states that have been involved in the Arab Spring, is that they could ask America for restructuring support - and get it.

Poverty breeds ignorance and anger. All the states with the highest rates of infant mortality, low life expectancy, poor governance, corruption, civil strife and violence, are those which have low GDPs and high levels of illiteracy. The worst terrorists come from theocracies - states run by priests with a vested interest in keeping people ignorant. The most human rights violations, per capita, occur in poverty-stricken states such as those in Central Africa. It is therefore imperative, that if America really wants to stem the tide of resentment and anger against her “Bad Cop” foreign policy thus far, that she puts her money where her mouth is - and helps rebuild a geopolitical area which she has in part contributed towards breaking down. It’s analogous to the socialist policies in South Africa. The more poor, starving people there are, the more crime there will be. Increase the social support for the poor, and you’ll reduce the crime levels.

Obviously, there are some key differences in the Arab Spring cases. Firstly, none of the Arab Spring states were under attack by the US, or even threatened. Secondly, the movement to demand democracy was, to use business-speak, a grassroots initiative. It was not imposed by the US. Third, none of the Arab Spring states posed an immediate threat to the West. But there is nonetheless a strong argument to be made in offering help: creating a perception that the US is not an imperialist aggressor. It will give credibility to the claim that the primary concern of the US is the “spread of democracy”. It will give the US a chance to play “Good Cop”.

Remember: the only reason America has to spend so much money on a military presence in the Middle East is _because_ these states are unstable, and in many cases, impoverished theocracies or dictatorships. If they, too, could be helped to flourish, like Germany, Japan and South Korea were, perhaps America would then be able to realistically think about a much-ballyhooed “exit strategy”. But not until then. Until then, these states pose a risk of terror cells, threats to the oil supply, and human rights abuses. Of course, remaining in occupation will bring resentment with it; but if the occupancy was sweetened with restructuring benefits, that resentment might be lessened. West Germany was, in 1945, a military enemy of the US, and was occupied by a US military presence. By 1989, West Germany was a friendly US ally. The same could happen in the Middle East. Can you imagine a future in which you can tour the Middle East without fear of terrorists? It’s possible. America just has to finish the job they started.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Dr Death Dies

After serving eight years in prison, (Jack Kevorkian has died of a thrombosis at the age of 83)[]. For those of you who don’t remember, he’s the doctor who had a special injection machine that helped people to commit suicide when they discovered that they were terminally ill. He was sentenced to jail for second-degree murder. My first thought when I saw the headlines were that it’s a pity he didn’t have the integrity to commit suicide himself using his own machine. At least that would have been consistent. I mean, he was pretty old, and very sick.

Here’s the part I want to debate: helping people to commit suicide. Is it OK? Under what conditions? Nietzsche, the infamous German philosopher from the late 19th Century, felt that suicide, or, as he put it, ‘dying at the right time’, was quite honourable. He admired the Ancient Greeks for exiting at their chosen moment. In fact, he even said: “The thought of suicide is a powerful solace: by means of it one gets through many a bad night.”

I can see three separate issues here. One: ought a person to be allowed to commit suicide? Do they have that right? Two: ought a person to be allowed to assist someone in the process of suicide? Ought it to be legal? Three: is suicide immoral?

Firstly, I will tackle the question of morality. To me, this is a fairly cut-and-dried question. Clearly, if suicide is a form of murder - it’s called “self-murder” in many languages that don’t have a specific word - then suicide is wrong. Indeed, the Bible seems to prohibit it with the Commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, and 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (KJV), which says that your body is the Lord’s Temple. But there’s no clear injunction - nothing as clear as the injunctions against sex, for example. From a modern moral standpoint, however, people are held to have an inviolable right to life, and therefore, any suicide is wrong from a modern interpretation, too.

I don’t know if this is true, however. If I think about the Utilitarian conception of morality, for example, which takes “the Good” to be the sum of the various possible outcomes, it seems to me that there may be a circumstance under which suicide is better, and therefore the right course of action. Think, for example, of a mass murderer suffering remorse. Would it be better that he lived? Or think of someone captured by a malevolent foreign army, who is certain to be tortured to death. Suppose he has a cyanide pill with him, and if he takes it, he will not be tortured into revealing military secrets. By his suicide, he will spare himself hours of agony and subsequently the defeat of his nation’s army and the deaths of thousands of others. A Utilitarian would say his suicide would be good. But perhaps it’s not so much _good_ as the lesser of two evils. Now take the example a person in a persistent vegetative state, on life support, or someone dying of incurable terminal cancer. Should they be allowed to commit suicide? My intuition says “yes”.

Next, let’s ask whether someone has the right to commit suicide. Let’s think about a common occurrence in our own society. We euthanise our terminally ill or extremely senescent pets. We deem it immoral to allow the animal to continue to suffer with cancer or kidney failure, or dragging itself around on its forelegs with its effluence matting its fur. We give our pets an opportunity to die with dignity, while they are still relatively comfortable. Why not humans? Animals, I argue, have as much a right to life as humans. I do not see them, generally speaking, as lesser beings, disposable like garbage. Why then, while we have the (R/A)SPCA to prevent rights abuses towards animals, do we not acknowledge that maybe the human Right to Life is circumscribed by people’s choices? Surely the right to life entails something about quality of life? I know that if I were in a persistent vegetative state, I’d not want to persist. Remember the huge fuss about (Terry Schiavo)[]?

Life is not just about biological functions. A plant has a circulatory system, takes in food, processes it, grows new cells, etc. Yet we do not hesitate to kill plants, without the slightest regard for their “feelings” or “right to life”. This is why it’s called a “vegetative” state. What really makes a person a person is his or her personality - their ability to interact with others, their conscious mind. If that is completely gone, and is irreparable, what is the point?

Obviously, many people who commit suicide are not in a persistent vegetative state. Indeed, being in that state precludes you from committing suicide, since you can’t make any decisions at all, and suicide is a decision. Most people who commit suicide do it for irrational reasons - such as having been jilted or fired from work or divorced, or even ludicrous things, such as wanting to have their souls taken up by the (Hale-Bopp comet)[]. I think that these cases ought to be excluded by law. This is not hard to work out. A depressed teenager has no right to commit suicide - they have a right to psychological counselling. A person dying of terminal cancer, in my view, does have a right to suicide.

But what about the family, that love the dying person? Surely their rights count too? Surely they have a right to not be put through the anguish of the person’s death? Well, the fact is, if the person is in a vegetative state, or diagnosed with terminal cancer, then the person is either effectively dead or shortly going to be. Insisting that they drag their existence on for another month, six months, or a year, is really just postponing the inevitable. It just prolongs the suffering. If these “loving” people are so loving, and not actually just selfish, they’d want the best for the suffering person - which is an end to their suffering. Just like a dog or a cat that is suffering, they should allow the person they love to choose to end their suffering early.

And what about the argument that it’s cowardly? Well, we’re all going to die. In my view, clinging to life as long as possible is more cowardly than boldly going to face one’s own end. I think that takes far more courage than hanging on as long as possible. Sure, the person fears the potentially lengthy period of suffering that lies ahead, but what benefit, what accolade, will that person gain by enduring it? Admiration? Unlikely - they’ll more likely get people’s pity and condescension.

Lastly, this brings us to the question of assisted suicide. This is the tricky part. Is the person, who helps in the suicide, effectively a murderer or accomplice to murder? Let’s take the case of Armien Meiwes, which I’ve referred to before. His lover volunteered to be eaten. The German courts ruled that Meiwes was therefore only guilty of manslaughter, since his lover had volunteered. The same logic might apply here: the accomplice in the suicide would be guilty of manslaughter. But it also depends on how the accomplice operates. For example, in Kevorkian’s case, he provided the chemicals. I think that if he pressed the button that delivered the chemicals, then he probably was guilty of murder, or at least manslaughter. If, on the other hand, he merely provided the chemicals and the mechanism, and handed the trigger to the person wishing to commit suicide, then he was at most an accomplice in manslaughter, legally speaking.

The point is that governments need to make a decision on this particular series of cases: a terminally ill conscious person, and a person in a persistent vegetative state. Both cases need simple, clear legislation; firstly, to circumscribe the conditions under which euthanasia is legally permissible, and secondly, to specify which methods are legally permissible and exonerate the person performing the euthanasia. It will have to work in a similar way to the logic of an abortion clinic. The medical professional will need to be protected from not only legal ramifications, but also religious persecution. And there will need to be provision for medical professionals to, on grounds of conscience or on religious grounds, to refuse in any particular case, to perform the procedure.

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