6.2.15

Typewriter Music

The clouds are pink in the sky and I know what the old wives are thinking: Red in the morning, sailor’s warning. The clouds thicken and become bright red before the light in the room brightens and sharpens, and the clouds turn white. The strips of light angled by the venetian blind illuminate the desk of the typewriter. Another day of school holidays – another day of writing – has begun.

The sounds of morning silence: Birds, cars, a solitary morning express bus always being threatened with cancellation due to lack of patronage. An aeroplane flies overheard, probably heading to Melbourne.

I wind the desk clock which I had accidently left to run down. It starts its tinny ticking again.

I haven’t had breakfast, so that is attended to with the sound of plastic screw-top lids scraping on their threads and spoons ringing along faded Willow Pattern bowls. The television might go on: insipid advertising and things I’ve already seen on Twitter. The television might go off again.

The day starts in longhand, on paper with a fountain pen. Another sound of screw lid on the rim, this time of the Pelikan 4001 glass ink bottle: royal blue.

Quiet morning writer’s sounds. Paper being torn. Sticky tape dispenser dispersing tape – the metallic sound of the break the moment the cutter cuts – to fix the improperly torn pieces of paper. Pencils being sharpened, a scraping noise. The tinkling of paper clips, fingers searching for the right one amongst hundreds. The creak of the chair and the honing of the fountain pen nib across the cheap notepaper torn from a binder exercise book, eight millimetre ruled.

No typewriter music yet.

The clock ticks and the fountain pen clinks as it is laid back on its glass stand at the back of the desk. The clock is left to tick and the cool air is left to burn off as the sun edges up past the new second storey belonging to a neighbour.

When I come back the mail has come, the phone has rung – a proper one with a real, musical bell – and I have returned to make typewriter music.

The typewriter is brought forward from the back of the desk and its mechanical noises begin to sing and dance to a syncopated clock. The typewriter is a Triumph Perfekt, one from my collection of 44. Heavy and tactile, it is the closest, it seems, I’ll ever get to heavy machinery.

Words are punched out, letter by jerky letter. But there is still no typewriter music.

I consult the CD player. Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky is selected and the Deutsche Grammophon CD is inserted. I hit “play” with a strutting index finger and unnecessarily flamboyant wrist action.

Now there is typewriter music. Words punched out in time and orderly. Pages don’t fly out of the typewriter (they never do; theatrical, cinematic nonsense) but they roll through much more easily while Tchaikovsky, from his early cholera-caused grave, conducts the madness. The concerto’s tension builds or the symphony gets louder (Tchaikovsky’s No. 5 is a favourite), and then the typing gets quicker. The risk, as the brass section is brought out of hibernation, is that the purple haze surrounding the prose becomes impenetrably thick. But who cares? Who cares that the tea has gone cold? Who cares that ink has been spilled and the desk drawers are a mess? Who cares that the typewriter could do with a new ribbon and that I should eat lunch? No one. It doesn’t matter because Tchaikovsky is playing and I am writing and the clock is ticking.

No music equates to no magic, no fun, no quiet soft bits and loud, thumping triumphant bits – no dynamics. No music, no art, no literature: no Beat poetry, no Jazz Age, no typewriter music.


This blog post appeared as a part of the February Teens Can Write Too Blog Chain, with the prompt: “How does music relate to your writing?” For more information, visit: http://teenscanwritetoo.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/february-2015-tcwt-blog-chain and visit the other blogs in the chain:

6 – http://vergeofexisting.wordpress.com/ & http://jasperlindell.blogspot.com/ [You are here.]

7 – http://novelexemplar.wordpress.com/

8 – http://www.juliathewritergirl.com/

9 – http://musingsfromnevillesnavel.wordpress.com/ & http://freeasagirlwithwings.wordpress.com/

10 – http://ramblingsofaravis.wordpress.com/

11 – http://butterfliesoftheimagination.wordpress.com/

12 – http://randommorbidinsanity.blogspot.com/

13 – http://miriamjoywrites.com/ & http://whileishouldbedoingprecal.weebly.com/

14 – http://kirabudge.weebly.com/

15 – http://lilianmwoodall.wordpress.com/ & http://erinkenobi2893.wordpress.com/

16 – http://theedfiles.blogspot.com/ & http://fantasiesofapockethuman.blogspot.com/

17 – http://irisbloomsblog.wordpress.com/

18 – http://semilegacy.blogspot.com/ & http://from-stacy.blogspot.com/

19 – http://horsfeathersblog.com/

20 – http://clockworkdesires.wordpress.com/

21 – http://stayandwatchthestars.wordpress.com/ & http://arielkalati.blogspot.com/

22 – http://loonyliterate.com/ & http://www.mirrormadeofwords.wordpress.com/

23 – http://unikkelyfe.wordpress.com/

24 – http://themagicviolinist.blogspot.com/ & http://allisonthewriter.wordpress.com/

25 – http://missalexandrinabrant.wordpress.com/

26 – http://awritersfaith.blogspot.com/ & http://thelonglifeofalifelongfangirl.wordpress.com/

27 – http://thelittleenginethatcouldnt.wordpress.com/

6.1.15

Good Writing, Bad Writing

On the corner of George and Park Streets, right in the middle of Sydney, there is an old fashioned Woolworths. On the top floor there is a cafeteria that sells a cheap, hearty lunch. Looking out of the windows across the intersection to the Queen Victoria Building and watching people coming and going, heading out and heading in, one might feel inspired. One might realise that one required a good book.

On the second floor of the supermarket, between shelves marked Magazines and Stationery, there is a selection of books. They are exclusively paperbacks. No one is really looking at them, even though they are good value. Most are priced at four dollars each. But you get what you pay for: these are bad books.

Despite snippets of reviews from reputable newspapers, and even, in some cases, proclamations of best seller-status, these are not good books. They are not nearly as inspiring as the view of the people on the street from the top floor.

It was this sort of book selection at an Exeter train station kiosk that lead publisher Sir Allen Lane to found Penguin Books in 1935. “He just wanted a decent book to read...” the line from Penguin reads today. So now that decent books are available, why are these Woolworths books still around? Why are they still being written?

The answer as to why there are bad books still being written is very simple: there are bad writers. Generally, a bad book contains turgid dialogue, a plot that is either too unlikely or too predictable and characters which were printed on and then cut out of a cereal packet. There are bad books just as there are bad paintings. Not everyone can produce a masterpiece. This isn’t their fault; this is just the hard, unpleasant truth.

“Good prose,” George Orwell said, “is like a window pane.” One should be able to see through it. A good book has a few passages that stick with you and haunt you for a while – or perhaps forever – but the bulk of the words are forgotten; only the enthralling story remains. One should just be left with the story. A bad book, however, has language that is grubby and covered with grease streaks. It obscures the story and stays with you for all the wrong reasons. A bad book might be poorly edited or be filled with long, pointless passages in which the writer thinks they’re showing off. (They’re not.)

The ultimate litmus test for a bad book is dialogue. The best novelists have an ear for it. The dialogue they write sounds like the characters are actually saying it. It doesn’t jolt around in one’s mind as it is read. It doesn’t provoke the question, “Would anyone actually say that?”

There’s another thing that has to be considered though. The books for sale on the second floor of Woolworths in Sydney are published novels. They weren’t rejected and nor have they been pulped. People – out there somewhere – must therefore be reading them.

They must be easy reads, the books in Woolworths. Graham Greene might have called them Entertainments; not serious novels. People are welcome to read them. Perhaps they want to have a laugh, to not take things too seriously.

Of course not all books are literature with a capital “L”. There are books with no philosophical depth, life-changing meaning or artistic purpose. These books exist and many of them are also well-written. The Woolworths ones are not – there is too much uncomfortable, stilted dialogue to afford them any such recognition.

If dialogue and description passages (which are wholly irrelevant) are the two tell-tale signs of a bad book, they stand out as the two things which are generally poorly written in fiction. The thing which is usually the best written in fiction is the first sentence. A bad book with a good first sentence – which is like letting off the biggest firework first – might succeed to suck in the publisher and get it published. If it’s very lucky it might suck in the Booker Prize committee. Good books with a good opening sentence will stand ever above.

  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities;
  • “When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city – which was strange because it began before I knew what a city was,” wrote John Wyndham in The Chrysalids;
  • “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen,” wrote George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four;
  • “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between; and,
  • “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died,” wrote Paul Harding in Tinkers.

Each of those sentences is designed to suck that inspired person from the top of Woolworths into the story, to make them wonder what comes next. A lot of thought has gone into each word, put simply, and with every intention of leading you on further. A readable novel must merely make you read the next sentence – again and again; it’s a bonus if it is a good novel.

There is nothing quite as subjective as the classification of good and bad fiction writing, but I would be pleased if good first sentences were able to lead me in and then proceed to not subject me to hard-as-rock dialogue and sleep-inducing descriptions.


This post appeared as a part of the January 2015 Teens Can Write Too blog chain. The topic was, “What is something you feel is generally written well in fiction? What is something you feel is generally written poorly?” The other participants were:

Days in January:
5 http://whileishouldbedoingprecal.weebly.com/
6 http://jasperlindell.blogspot.com.au/ [You are here.]
7 http://erinkenobi2893.wordpress.com/ & http://nasrielsfanfics.wordpress.com/
8 http://www.miriamjoywrites.com/
9 http://ramblingsofaravis.wordpress.com/
10 http://semilegacy.blogspot.com/
11 http://kirabudge.weebly.com/
12 http://thelittleenginethatcouldnt.wordpress.com/
13 http://maralaurey.wordpress.com/
14 http://dynamicramblings.wordpress.com/
15 http://theedfiles.blogspot.com.au/
16 http://horsfeathersblog.wordpress.com/
17 http://juliathewritergirl.com/
18 http://butterfliesoftheimaginationa.wordpress.com/
19 http://gallopingfree.wordpress.com/
20 http://alwaysopinionatedgirl.wordpress.com/
21 http://deorahcocheleau.wordpress.com/
22 http://irisbloomsblog.wordpress.com/
23 http://clockworkdesires.wordpress.com/
24 http://introspectioncreative.wordpress.com/
25 http://wanderinginablur.blogspot.com/
26 http://anotefromthenerd.wordpress.com/
27 http://randommorbidinsanity.wordpress.com/
28 http://unikkelyfe.wordpress.com/

Phoneless Café? Brilliant!

In the Northern Territory – that state with a wild reputation in the hearts and minds of the rest of Australia – there is a wildly different café that will charge you a two dollar fee to use your mobile phone or other electronic device on the premises. This fee will be donated to a charity dedicated to families.

The knee-jerk reaction from my compatriots in the age bracket of a late ‘90s birth is that this is a stupid idea. Their not-so-well articulated arguments against it are that it is a nice and cute way to go promptly out of business.

Despite being a similar age to these people who become restive at the thought of being without their phones, I disagree. A café which actively promotes the non-use of phones, iPads and other gadgets is, I think a bastion of hope.

Comments on Facebook – perhaps posted from a smartphone – go along the lines of, Well, a phone is an important communication tool and sometimes you just need to access it – you shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege. Though, if you can’t survive the duration of a coffee without “keeping in touch with the universe”, there is a problem. And if there is something important – and I mean really important – it will be important enough for you to leave the café for.

Of course, I have a phone and I use it regularly – even, I’m sorry to say, late into the night – but I am strongly attracted to the phone-free café.

Besides, there would be other benefits to a non-phone friendly café. Indeed, something totally foreign and scary might occur, not that there is any guarantee of it. Perhaps strangers – random patrons of the café who come in regularly – might talk to each other. This is shocking, I know, but although it is something that I, as a 16-year-old, have only ever been able to witness in re-runs of Cheers on digital television, I think otherwise would-be strangers talking and meeting in a café is something that wouldn’t be too bad at all.

Never mind about strangers, though, there are friends you’ve already got to worry about first. I feel disheartened when, while having coffee with a friend, the first thing they do is get their phone out and check it. Is my conversational prowess in fact boring? Are there other people they would rather be talking with? Is that what they’re doing on their phones? Am I just the fall back option?

This is not about some quaint ideal of living in the past and returning to a simpler time. It wasn’t simpler. How did people organise to go out with each other when they didn’t even have a landline telephone at home? That’s impressive, but not something I suggest we return to. There’s no thin edge of the wedge effect imminent here. No, I’m just suggesting that after we’ve organised to meet up we could actually talk to each other or even open ourselves up to the possibility of meeting some new.

With that, my best wishes to the Cornucopia café at the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery.