razieltwelve

Because writing should be fun

Structure and Learning

Educating is about more than providing students with information; it is about providing that information in a way that makes it easier to understand and comprehend. In other words, it’s not about the quantity of information you provide; it’s about the quality of the information you provide.

One of the best ways to make it easier for your students to learn is to structure the information you provide in a clear, logical manner. So much of how we learn is through associations. Presenting information in a logical manner makes it easier for students to build the mental associations that lead to solid memory and understanding.

So how do you decide upon the best structure for the information that you are presenting? Here are several methods that may help:

  • Present information in the form of a narrative. The human mind is exceptionally good at organising information into a story. If you present your information in the form of a story, then your students are likely to have a much easier time remembering it (e.g., Walking With Dinosaurs).
  • Contextualise and personalise the information. People make sense of the world through their own experiences, and students are no different. Putting information in a context that is familiar to your students can help make it more accessible (e.g., adapting Romeo and Juliet for a more contemporary audience).
  • Follow an argument or line of reasoning. Information in isolation is difficult to remember and absorb. But information that fits together and leads toward a particular conclusion or point of view is much easier to remember and absorb because it is information that fits together, with each part linking to each other part (e.g., a magazine article).
  • Expand or contract your focus systematically. There are different levels of analysis for each topic: you can present things in a general way, or you can get down to the specifics. Most of the time it is easier for students to remember and understand information if the focus changes systematically (e.g., if you move from the general to the specific or the specific to the general). It’s no coincidence that many essays start from the general, move to the specific, and then drift back to the general.

Each of the methods presented above has something in common: all of them present information in terms of logical relationships, as opposed to in isolation. Presenting information in this way helps students learn by providing a kind of mental scaffolding around which to structure the information and their thoughts.

I’ve had the opportunity to try out these strategies on students of varying ages, from primary (elementary) school to university. Although they don’t work for everyone, I do think they help most people.

You can find more on my thoughts about writing here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

 

An Important Announcement

Due to recent events in my life, I’ve had plenty of time to re-evaluate which relationships I support. After much careful consideration, I’ve decided to withdraw my support from the Fang/Lightning pairing.

I cannot in good conscience support a pairing where the two individuals involved are so poorly matched with each other. Quite frankly, there is no way that someone as quiet, introverted, and reserved as Lightning could ever get along with someone as brash, arrogant, and stubborn as Fang.

I’m both surprised and horrified that it’s taken me this long to realise my mistakes. However, I am glad to announce that I’ve finally selected a much more appropriate pairing, one that I think truly suits the two individuals involved.

From now on, I will be shipping Lightning/Sazh. I can think of no one better suited to help Lightning deal with her various emotional issues than Sazh, who would provide a warm, stable, and caring emotional environment.

I hope that all of you will continue to support me as I begin to switch over to Lightning/Sazh fiction. Given the lack of an appropriate shipping name, I’ve decided to call it “Stormy Afro”.

Regards,

Raziel12

P. S. Happy April Fools’ Day.

Writing to Inform and Writing to Persuade

Writing can serve many purposes. It can entertain, but it can also inform and persuade. When you are writing – and when you are reading – you must always be aware of what purpose a piece of writing serves. There are several reasons for this. If you are reading, then being aware of the purpose of the text you are reading will help minimise the odds of you being misled. For example, if you know that an article is trying to persuade you, rather than inform you, then you will be on your guard. As a writer, knowing what you want to achieve will help you reach your goals.

Now, let us define our two most important terms: persuading and informing.

Persuading

Persuading is all about changing someone’s opinion. Specifically, a piece of writing that attempts to persuade is one that tries to bring the reader around to a particular point of view. In contrast, informing is more about a thorough and balanced presentation of the facts. An informative piece of writing does not necessarily attempt to push a reader towards a particular conclusion – instead it provides the reader with the information necessary for them to draw their own conclusion.

This is not to say that informing and persuading are mutually exclusive. There are cases where the facts themselves are so persuasive that they naturally lead toward a single, incontrovertible conclusion. Persuading can also masquerade as informing when an imbalanced, biased set of facts is presented.

One of the very first things that you must realise about persuading others is that it does not require honesty. Indeed, many of the techniques used to persuade others are based on nothing more than empty rhetoric. Logic, of course, is useful, but it is rarely necessary. If something is said often enough and in the right ways, it can become, for all intents and purposes, true.

Here are a few of the things you should watch out for when you are reading something. If a piece of writing relies on these things, then it is probably trying to persuade you (and it may not be doing so honestly):

Appeals to Emotion

Highly emotive language is seldom present in writing intended to inform. It is almost always there for the express purpose of appealing to your emotions and thereby circumventing your intellect.

Selective Presentation of Information

A piece of writing that omits, twists, or glosses over pertinent facts is likely to be persuasive in nature rather than informative. By presenting only those facts that bolster its cases, the arguments presented in a piece of writing may appear stronger and more logical than they actually are.

Oversimplification

In general, if a piece of writing appears to intentionally oversimplify an issue, then it is trying to deceive you and win you over. We are naturally inclined toward simplicity. We like it when right and wrong are easily distinguished. However, many issues are quite complex. Oversimplifying encourages us to accept the facts as they are presented because it is convenient and aesthetically pleasing to do so – even when it is wrong.

Reliance on Rhetorical Devices

When unable to win a debate through logic, a skilled debater will instead rely on rhetoric, and rhetoric is a powerful thing. Some common examples include launching powerful (but irrelevant) personal attacks on proponents of opposing views, the posing of interesting (but pointless) questions to shift the subject under discussion, equivocation, and attempts to inspire and manipulate certain emotions. If you are reading something and you notice a reliance on rhetorical devices, be extremely wary. Rhetoric is the single best way to win an argument when logic, reason, and evidence are not on your side.

I do not support dishonesty, but I also want to talk about some of the techniques you can use if you want to persuade others. The dishonest rely heavily on the techniques of persuasion, and the honest would be foolish to overlook those techniques. Here are a few things you might find useful if you ever need to write something to persuade others:

Emotion is a Powerful Weapon – Use It

Most people believe they make decisions based on logic. This is seldom true. Instead, most of us rely heavily on our emotions to make a judgement. To bring someone around to your point of view, you need to identify the things most likely to elicit an emotional response in the reader and then appeal to those things.

For instance, if you wish to convince a group of concerned parents that you are right about something, then the best approach would be to gain their trust as a member of their group and the target what they are most concerned about (i.e., their children). So, let’s say you want to get parents at a school to approve a particular change in protocol, then you would start by first establishing your credentials as part of their group. Write about your children and how important they are to you and make yourself seem as typical of the group as possible. We are naturally inclined to thinking better of people who are like us and thinking worse of people who are different. It takes effort – often significant effort – to avoid discriminating against others.

Once you have established yourself as a member of the concerned parent group, you then go after their children. Point out, using emotive language where possible, how the proposed change in protocol would benefit them and their children, and how not supporting the changes would endanger the children and put them at risk.

Authority Matters

People live very busy lives. We have families to care for and jobs to do. We simply don’t have the time to process everything going on around us and to fully investigate every single issue that comes up. Instead, we turn to experts. Even if you are completely wrong about something, you can often convince people that you are right if you set yourself up as an expert of some kind.

This doesn’t have to involve actual claims of expertise (i.e., you don’t have to claim that you’re a PhD or anything like that). What matters, more often than not, is that you sound like an expert. If you come across as intelligent, caring, and successful, people will almost always listen to you. After all, why would you sound that way unless you were? Of course, that’s not a good way of thinking about things – there are people who can write with apparent authority on matters about which they know nothing. But few people will ever bother to check.

If you write like an expert (complete with just the right mix of warmth, jargon, and condescension), then people will usually listen. You can make this approach even more effective by writing in a manner that makes the reader feel as though you think highly of them. By making the reader feel good about themselves, you make them more likely to agree with you.

The Opposite of Defeat is Victory

A common technique used by those in the business of persuading is to first provide their own opinion before attacking the position of their chief opponents. This attack can either be done logically (e.g., by identifying legitimate problems with the position of their opponents), or it can be achieved by relying on rhetoric.

The goal of this attack is actually quite simple. It is very easy to think of arguments in a binary fashion, with either one group being right or another group being right. By showing that their opponents are wrong, the writer using this techniques hopes to convince the reader that their position is correct. After all, if their opponents are wrong, then they have to be right.

Actually, no, that’s not true. It’s possible that both the writer and their opponents are wrong. However, the fact is that many people can be convinced that a particular position is right if the opposing position can be made to appear wrong (regardless of how illogical this actually is).

People Like Being Right

In general, people like being right because it makes them feel good. If you have an audience that you believe may be predisposed towards a particular conclusion, then all you need to do is provide the facts that best lead toward that conclusion, omitting those that lead toward other conclusions.

Treat Conjecture as Fact and it Becomes Fact

In an ideal world, readers would derive their conclusions only after a thorough consideration of the facts. In the real world, however, few people have the time or inclination to check every single statement that they read. If something is repeated often enough and with sufficient authority, then it is likely to be treated as a fact – even if it is only conjecture.

There is no better example of this than in politics. Rumours regarding the character of an opponent can, after enough repetition, become regarded as fact by the voting public. The same is true in writing. If you have something you want people to believe, then treat it as though it were true. In time, others will believe it is true.

The Morality of Persuasion

Many of the techniques I’ve talked about with regards to persuading are intellectually dishonest. This is not a mistake. Although persuasion can be done through logical means, by and large, it is conducted through what I consider to be intellectually dishonest tactics. Read any magazine, watch any television show, and you will see what I mean.

I do not like most of the techniques I’ve described, and I don’t enjoy using them, save only in jest. But, when confronted by others who use these same techniques to cause harm, you may have no choice but to retaliate in kind. The ongoing battle between various forms of harmful pseudoscience and actual science is a prime example of this – the science side is winning not simply because it has fact on its side but also because it has begun to employ the same persuading devices as its opponents.

Informing 

Informing is, in my opinion, a noble endeavour, especially when it is performed as it should be – fairly and thoroughly. Indeed, I definitely prefer providing people with the facts they need to make an informed decision, as opposed to trying to force them toward a conclusion of my choosing. One of the main reasons I feel this way is because we live in a participatory democracy – it is absolutely essential that the public possess a certain level of proficiency in critical thinking.

A piece of writing that is trying to inform – and only inform – will typically do several things:

  • It will provide a balanced presentation of the facts
  • It will not advocate strongly for a particular position. If it does examine a position closely, it will usually examine several others as well, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each.
  • It will avoid the use of emotive language.
  • It will not resort to rhetoric.

Likewise, if you wish to write something that informs others, a sound approach would involve the following:

  • Provide a balanced and thorough survey of all the relevant facts.
  • Avoid needless oversimplification. There are some topics that are complicated and simplifying them may lead to the loss of important nuances. The geopolitical history of the United States, for example, is not something you could cover in half a page.
  • Avoid emotive language.
  • Do not rely on rhetoric.
  • Stick to the facts as much as possible. If conjecture is required, then be sure to adopt a strictly logical approach, laying out your reasoning clearly so that your readers can easily follow it.

Summary

As you can see, there are many ways to inform and persuade others. Unfortunately, not all of these ways involve honesty. Indeed, some of the techniques of persuasion are designed specially to circumvent reason to appeal to our emotions. I would encourage all of you to be careful when reading – and to be careful when writing. The words we write can inspire great evil and great good. I myself hope only to inspire good, and I hope you feel the same.

If you want to read more of my thoughts on writing, you can find them here.

I also write original fiction. You can find that here. I have also recently release my first novel, Durendal, on Amazon, and you can find that here.

The Last Huntress Free Today On Amazon (Sunday 23rd March, Pacific Standard Time)

The Last Huntress will be available for free on Amazon today (23rd March, Pacific Standard Time). Get it here. If you enjoy fantasy with a healthy dose of atmosphere and action, give it a try! Here’s the blurb:

Scarlett is the last of her line – a huntress sworn to kill all monsters.

Rose is a girl searching for the power to take back her homeland.

In the icy forests of the north, on the trail of the only werewolf to escape her, Scarlett will teach Rose what it means to be a huntress. There can be no room for softness in a huntress’s heart, no room for weakness. And a huntress must be willing to kill anything – and anyone – that poses a threat to the innocent.

If you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry. You can download a free Kindle app from Amazon from here.

You can find my original fiction here.

The Last Huntress Free On Amazon This Sunday (23rd March)

This Sunday, 23rd March, The Last Huntress will be available for free on Amazon.

My New Novel “Durendal” Is Now Available On Amazon!

My newest original story, Durendal, is now available on Amazon! You can get it here. It runs to ~80,000 words (and goes for $3.99), making it the first novel-length original story that I’ve made available to the public. It’s a coming-of-age story and a Western with elements of science fiction. If you’ve enjoyed my other stories, I know you’ll love this one. Here’s the blurb (you can read a longer preview if you keep scrolling down):

Twelve-year-old Billy Winchester’s got a feeling that the war made Duren a monster, but maybe he and his sister can make him a man again.

Billy’s always dreamed of leaving Sahara VII, a backwater mining planet, for some adventure. But with the galaxy still reeling from decades of war, and an older sister desperate to hang onto the only family she’s got left, he’s not having much luck.

Then he meets Duren, and suddenly adventure’s right on his doorstep.

The rugged stranger from another planet is everything Billy wishes he could be. When his sister hires Duren to help at their diner, Billy does his best to make him a part of their family. Trouble is, Duren’s got a past, and it’s the worst sort of bloody. To Billy though, he’s just a man, and a good one at that.

But danger’s never far on a planet like Sahara VII.

A cruel mining magnate, Stratton sets his eyes on Billy’s sister, and he won’t take no for an answer. When Stratton kidnaps her, Billy’s going to need the man Duren used to be, the man he hoped Billy would never have to see.

But Stratton isn’t stupid, and he isn’t alone. He knows Duren is coming for him, and there are people who’ve been waiting a long time for Duren to show himself. Duren won’t have to beat just Stratton and his men – he’ll have to stand toe-to-toe with the vengeful ghosts of his past while keeping Billy clear of the crossfire. Billy’s finally got his adventure, but it might cost him the only family he’s ever known.

Finally, if you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry. You can download a free App from Amazon that lets you use whatever device you want instead (e.g., PC, laptop, mac, phone, iphone/ipad/ipod). You can find the App here.

Chapter One

            I was only a kid the first time that I saw Duren. I was at the spaceport watching the ships go up and down, wishing I were on one of them. There wasn’t much else for a boy of twelve to do back then, at least, not on a dustbowl of a planet like Sahara VII.

And I do mean dustbowl. Sahara VII was named after a great, big desert back on Earth, and the name was spot on. Most of the planet was desert, all red, rust-coloured sand and dry heat. Lots of people died then thinking being tough was good enough. Problem was, the desert didn’t care much about tough. You had to be smart too since even a short trip could turn fatal if you got cocky. In any case, there wasn’t a lot of farmland to speak of. All up, there was barely enough to support a hundred thousand colonists too dumb or too poor to go someplace else. Naturally, though, prices on anything fresh were mighty steep.

So there I was, whiling the hours away at the spaceport dreaming of oceans and cloudy skies, when another ship pulled in. It was a real rickety piece of work, the kind that left you wondering how it ever made it through the atmosphere, let alone made the jump into hyperspace. The outside of it was all banged up, and there were more than a few holes in the hull that looked to have come from laser fire. As it landed, its engines gave an angry whine and sputtered out.

The passengers filed out, and I gave them a good looking over. Most people who came to Sahara VII took one look at everything and got right back on the ship. Those who stayed never looked too happy about being there, except for the ones running from the law. Yeah, we had plenty of them in those days, especially since no one really kept tabs on who was coming in or going out. And there were plenty of people going out.

Times were tough back then, and not only on Sahara VII. We’d had a decade of peace but that wasn’t much, not after thirty years of war, and there wasn’t a system that hadn’t seen its fair share of combat. Even the First Planets – Earth and Mars – had taken a beating, so things were downright miserable for small, out-of-the-way planets like mine. It would be another four years before the galaxy finally pulled itself back together and the Federation of Free Worlds formed. In the meantime, rich men and their money ruled, and the rest of us had no choice but to hang onto what little we could and hope it would be enough.

When I first saw Duren, I didn’t think too much of him. He wasn’t a tall man, but he wasn’t a short man either. He was old though, closer to sixty than fifty, with features that looked like they’d been sculpted by long years of hard weather. But there was something about him that set him apart from the other dull-eyed passengers shuffling away from the ship. For one, his eyes were a steely grey, sharp and keen, and filled with hard-won experience. And there was the way he carried himself. He had a large, heavy looking rucksack and a long bundle slung over his shoulder, but his back was straight and every movement was smooth and easy like all the things he was carrying didn’t bother him at all.

As the other passengers made their way toward the gate into town, he broke away and walked over to the big wall with all the help-wanted posters. He stopped, and his eyes flicked from poster to poster. I was kind of curious by then, seeing as how I couldn’t understand what sort of man would come to a planet like Sahara VII without a job already lined up. I was curious, as well, to see what kind of job he’d take. Even then I could tell there was something different about him, something that maybe made him better than anyone else on that ship, at least on any scale that mattered.

Finally, he reached forward and tore a small poster off the wall. My eyes widened. It was the poster my sister had put up a few days ago. Now, I was confused. You see, my sister and I lived on our own, and although I was only a boy, I took a few jobs on the side to help us get along. Really though, my sister was the one who kept us fed and with a roof over our heads. She owned a diner in a scrappy part of town, and even if it wasn’t the best-looking place, she had a way with cooking that let her turn even the driest, most horrible ration bar into a meal worth looking forward to. We lived in a couple of rooms above the diner, and although it wasn’t exactly roomy, it was home, and so long as we had each other, it wasn’t so bad.

Lately though, business had been good. There was talk of another mine being set up maybe an hour or two out of town, and that meant workers with money who’d need some decent food. The place next door had closed up – the owner had gone for a trip into the desert and never come back – so my sister had bought it and was thinking of expanding the diner a little. To do that, she’d need an extra cook to help her out, and that’s why she’d put the poster up.

I had a feeling about Duren that made me think he could probably do well at almost anything. Yet looking at the easy way he moved and the strength that showed in his lean frame, I couldn’t help but think he’d be better suited to the battlefield than the kitchen. All the same, I followed him as he folded the poster up neatly, pocketed it, and headed off into town.

It was going on dusk then, and I realised I must have lost track of the time. It was easy to do that watching the ships and dreaming of all the things in the galaxy that I’d never get to see. But it was dangerous too. Things weren’t that bad during the day, but once night fell it could get dicey. There were some bad folks in town, and most of them waited till the sun went down to do their dirty work.

But if Duren was worried, he didn’t look it. Instead, he walked on with that same calm but confident stride, and I did my best to keep up as he walked down the main street toward my sister’s diner like he’d been born knowing where it was. A few minutes later, he stopped and then, with a brief glance at a battered street sign, turned off the main street and into the maze of smaller streets and alleys that would take him the rest of the way to the diner.

I made sure to keep far back enough that he wouldn’t get suspicious, but as some of the lowlifes started to come out, I couldn’t stop myself from closing in. He didn’t turn, but he must have noticed me because he slowed his pace a little. As he walked down one particularly bad alley, I saw a couple of young men walk up to him. They had a rugged look about them, and one of them reached for the small stunner he kept at his side. I opened my mouth to yell a warning, but Duren stopped and stared right into the eyes of that young man.

I was behind them, so I couldn’t see for certain, but whatever that young man saw in Duren’s eyes must have scared him something fierce. His hand dropped from his stunner, and he muttered what sounded an awful lot like an apology. And then he was gone, he and his friend slipping back into the shadows.

It was the most remarkable thing I’d ever seen, and Duren hadn’t even lifted a finger. He’d stopped the young man with nothing more than a look.

Finally, we reached my sister’s diner, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I nodded at the familiar neon sign and slipped inside. It was already a bit busy, and the minute she saw me, my sister had me taking orders and waiting tables. I would have grumbled, but I knew she’d been working all day, so the least I could do was help.

As I went from table to table, I kept an eye on Duren. I was glad when he finally looked my way to make an order.

“Evening,” I said. “What’ll it be?”

“Orange juice,” he said, and his voice was rough but sort of kind. “Cold if you can, but if you can’t, then warm’s fine too.”

I nodded and went over to get a glass of orange juice out of the fridge. It was a matter of pride for my sister. Our planet might be downright miserable, but she was determined to give folks something good to eat and drink, and after a hard day’s work, there wasn’t anything better than a nice, cold drink.

“Here,” I said, laying the glass out in front of him. “That’s three credits.”

He nodded and slipped a five credit bill my way. “It’s cold. That’s good. Keep the change.”

It wasn’t often people got generous, so I wasn’t about to argue. As the night wore on, I watched him nurse that one glass of orange juice for close to an hour. At the same time, he watched everything, taking in the good food and the easy-going atmosphere. I kept wondering when he was going to ask about the job, but then I realised what he was doing. He was taking the measure of our place, seeing if it was the kind of place he’d like to work. Well, he’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere better in town, and I knew for a fact he’d never find a fairer boss than my sister.

At last, he seemed satisfied with what he’d seen because he got to his feet and headed toward the kitchen where my sister was. However, he was only halfway there when trouble came in through the front door. A trio of miners burst in, their faces flushed with alcohol.

“Hey, Ellie!” the one in front yelled. “You come on out here and show us that pretty face of yours!”

My sister’s name was Elizabeth, and she was pretty. Lots of men had tried to get a hold of her, but she wasn’t interested in settling down, at least not for a while. Of course, some of the men didn’t take to that too kindly, and these miners were some of the worst.

“That’s enough,” my sister said as she came out of the kitchen, frying pan in hand. “I’ve got customers to serve, so either buy something or get out.”

The sheer daring of the words had the miner reeling back, but he was half drunk, and his cheeks flushed as the anger coursed through him. He upended a table and stomped over with one hand raised. I darted forward to try and stop him – twelve years old or not, I wasn’t about to watch some drunk hit my sister – but there was no need.

Duren stepped between them, and though his voice was warm and almost friendly, those grey eyes of his were icy cold. “I think the lady asked you to buy something or get out.”

The miner looked at Duren and laughed. Sure, Duren was lean and fit, but he was old. The miner was a young man with a powerful build. “Get out of the way, old man, before I move you myself.”

“You’ll try,” Duren said. “But you won’t. Now, go back the way you came and there’ll be no trouble.”

The miner laughed again, and then his fist lashed out, so fast that I could barely see it. But Duren had. Smooth as water, he brought one arm up to block the blow even as his other arm snapped up to drive his fist right into the miner’s chin. The blow lifted the miner off his feet, and the young man crashed to the ground. He lay there for a moment, dazed, before he stumbled back up, angry right down to the soles of his dusty boots.

“Get him!” he screamed at the two others who’d come in with him. “Get him!”

As the customers moved out of the way, Duren breezed forward, light and easy on his feet. One of the miners kicked out at his stomach, but he stepped to the side and caught the man’s leg. With a flick of his wrist, he sent the man flying, and the miner let out a muffled curse as he fell heavily to the ground by the door. The second rushed at him from behind, but Duren was ready for him. He drove one elbow up and back, and as the miner reeled, he reached back and tossed him over his shoulder and out the door. The third one, the one who’d started the whole mess, took one more look at Duren and then turned tail and ran, stopping just long enough to grab his friend by the door.

As things got back to normal, my sister went up to him. “Thank you kindly for the help. It’s much appreciated.”

Duren glanced past her at the customers. “I’m a mite surprised that no one else stepped in, although maybe I shouldn’t be.”

“Don’t blame them,” my sister said. “Those miners are trouble, and they’ve a knack for fighting though it seems you’ve got one too.”

“I suppose I do,” Duren said. “But that’s not why I’m here.”

“Oh?” My sister raised one eyebrow. “What are you here about then?”

Duren pulled out the poster. “I’m looking for a job.”

My sister stared for a moment and then caught herself. “You can cook?”

Duren smiled faintly. “I’ve been known to, and I could sure use the work.”

“That so?” My sister grinned. “Well, I suppose I could give you a try tomorrow, see if you can cook or not.” She extended one hand. “My name’s Elizabeth, Elizabeth Winchester.” She looked at me. “And that’s my brother, William Winchester, although most folks call him Billy.”

“Billy, eh?” Duren glanced at me. “You followed me all the way from the spaceport, didn’t you?”

I flushed. “I guess so.”

“You dreaming of getting off-world?” he asked. I nodded, afraid he would laugh, but all he did was give me a gentle smile. “Well, it’s good to have dreams.” He looked back at my sister and shook her hand. “I go by Duren in most places.”

My sister smiled. “It’s nice to meet you then, Mr Duren.”

“Just Duren,” he said. “I haven’t gone by mister for a long time now.”

“Duren it is then.” My sister glanced back at the empty glass of orange juice on his table. “How about I fetch you another glass of orange juice? It’s the least I can do after you helped out tonight.”

Duren shook his head. “It’s fine. I’ll pay.”

And that was how I met Duren. It wasn’t exactly an ordinary meeting, but as I’d find out later, he wasn’t exactly an ordinary fellow.

Chapter Two

Duren spent the rest of that first night nursing his orange juice in a way that told me he’d spent a lot of time making do with not much. Still, I kind of expected someone to say something about it, but I guess the thought of what he could do was still fresh in everybody’s minds. Closing time came by without any more trouble, and my sister waved off the two young women who helped wait the tables and then wandered over to talk to him.

“We’ve got some rooms next door that we could put you up in starting from tomorrow night, but they’re not quite ready yet.” She paused, and I could tell she was embarrassed because her cheeks were flushed enough for me to see even through the tan all of us settlers had. “I didn’t expect someone from out of town, let alone off-world to apply.”

Duren didn’t look surprised. “That’s fine. I saw a boarding house on my way here that looked all right, and if I have to, I can sleep rough for a night.” He saw the look of shock cross my sister’s face, and his lips curled at the edges. “Don’t worry, I can handle myself for one night.”

My sister nodded quickly. “I don’t doubt that you can.” She glanced back at the kitchen. “I’ve got some washing up to do now, but if you want to see the rooms next door, you can come back at ten o’clock tomorrow morning.”

“You still do your washing by hand?” Duren didn’t say the words in a mean way, even though he could have, since even back then most people had machines for washing.

My sister smiled thinly. “Well, it saves on the money a little, and it saves on the water a lot, which is important in a place like this. Not to mention, machines need parts, and parts aren’t easy to come by or cheap, not here.”

“I thought so.” Duren lifted his glass and drained away the last of the orange juice. “Even before the war, folks never cared for anybody but themselves.” He stood and started toward the kitchen. “Tell you what, why don’t I do the dishes for you tonight? If I’m going to be working here, I might as well get used to washing dishes.”

“Oh!” My sister bustled after him, but he was moving quickly, each step smooth and easy. “It’s quite alright, I can do it myself.” But all he did was toss her a faint smile and keep right on going to the kitchen, stopping only to gather the last of the dishes off the tables.

I followed him into the kitchen as my sister got set on cleaning up the tables. I was keen to see him work, silly as that sounds. The way he moved, the strength I saw hidden behind those stern yet gentle, grey eyes, they made me think that he was meant for better things than washing dishes. But right away, I saw that he was at home in the kitchen, like being there made him happy. He looked at everything, and an odd sort of smile crossed his face. Personally, I didn’t see what he was smiling about. Everything in our kitchen was a bit old, and more than a bit worn. In fact, my sister was always talking big about fixing it up, only she never seemed to get around to it.

Still smiling that small smile of his, he set the dishes down next to all the others that my sister had gathered and turned his attention to the sink. The sink was a tricky thing, set to save as much water as possible, and almost everyone took a few tries to get used to it. However, he reached on over and got it working like he’d been working here all his life. When the sink was nice and full with hot water, he got a sponge and some soap out, and got to work.

The plates we used were made of some hard plastic that tended to go grey after a while. But until then, they were nice to look at. You see, they had pictures on them, pictures of places and things I’d never seen, not in real life. Sometimes, I’d take forever to wash the dishes because I’d stop and stare, and imagine what it would be like to see a real beach with real water. I must have been staring right that moment because he gave a quiet chuckle. I flushed, but there was a teasing light in his eyes, and he inclined his head toward the door. The message, I figured, was that I should go take a look and see if there were any other dishes out there that he might’ve missed.

My sister was still tidying up the tables when I got back to the dining room, and the two of us shared a glance. Despite how tough things were, there were plenty of people who thought they were too good to wash dishes. Clearly, Duren wasn’t one of them, and that was what really made my sister start warming up to him, maybe even more than him sorting those miners out.

When I got back to the kitchen, I could see he’d made decent progress. He was quick and efficient in his movements, those rough, calloused hands oddly gentle as he scrubbed each plate clean and stacked it neatly in the pile by the sink. Once they were all done, he’d probably rinse them all together. My sister had a habit of singing while she washed the dishes, and as much as I loved her, I’ll say right now that while she had many talents, singing wasn’t one of them. Duren though, was quiet, his eyes locked onto the dishes like they were the only things that existed in the whole world. It was kind of eerie seeing someone give so much attention to such a simple task, but then the strangest thing happened.

He was scrubbing one plate clean, and then he froze. I was about to ask him if something was wrong, when I saw the plate that he was holding. It was my favourite plate, one with a beach on it, all golden sand and crystal water. When I’d first seen it, I’d been curious to know if it was based on anything real, and after some asking around, I’d gotten an answer. It turned out the beach on the plate was a famous one – the biggest beach on Eden IV, a resort world. Or at least, it had been.

During the war, Eden IV had tried to keep neutral, but that hadn’t worked, not for long. Eventually, one of the sides had got it into their head that Eden IV was helping the other side out and had decided to do something about it. They’d glassed Eden IV, bombing it from high orbit until the surface was little more than molten glass and lava. Still, that hadn’t been enough to take out the shielded areas, so they’d had to send troops in. I shook my head. People said it was the closest thing to hell they’d ever heard of, fighting on a planet that was mostly molten rock. Finally, Duren put the plate aside, and I was about to ask him about it when my sister all but dragged me out of the kitchen by my ear.

“Don’t you even think of asking that man about what you saw!” my sister said as I rubbed at my ear. Back in those days, my sister was taller than me, and she had one heck of a grip in those fingers of hers. “I’m not about to lose a decent worker because of your snooping.”

“But don’t tell me you aren’t curious,” I said. “You saw how he was looking at that plate.”

Her eyes narrowed. “A person has got a right to keep things private, Billy. How would you like it if someone dropped by and started asking you about father?”

I winced. Father was a sore spot for both of us, but for me most of all. At least she had more than a few pictures and some stories to go on. “I guess you’re right.” I sighed. “I wouldn’t like it.”

A quiet cough from the door of the kitchen got our attention. “I’m about done,” Duren said, and the two of us sprang apart like we were in trouble. “You want to take a look?”

“I think I might.” My sister headed into the kitchen, and I padded along after her. Like I thought, the dishes were done right and proper, and he hadn’t used too much water either. “You’ve done a good job, Duren.”

“Thank you kindly. A man should always give his best when he’s got work to do.” He nodded at us both. “Ten o’clock tomorrow morning you said?”

My sister smiled. “That’s right. The morning rush should be over by then, so I should have the time to show you around next door.” She paused and then added, “If you’re going to that boarding house, drop my name, that ought to lower the price a little.”

His eyes widened for a second. “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.” His lips tugged up at the corners. “And you two should watch how loud you talk, a fellow with good hearing can hear you from way back in the kitchen.” His eyes were twinkling, so I knew he was only joking around, that we hadn’t offended him any. “But I guess you know what happened to that beach – it got blown to bits in the war. I heard though, that they’re trying to get Eden IV fixed up again, but I don’t know if it’ll ever be the same.” His eyes hardened a fraction. “There are some things that you can’t fix no matter how hard you try, not after you’ve broken them.” And then he was out the door and gone, his lean frame fading into the night.

The next morning rolled around, and I was mighty glad that it was a weekend. On most weekdays I went to school, and I was curious to see Duren get settled in. Of course, if it were a weekday, I could have tried to skip school, but one way or another, my sister would have found out. Everyone in town knew her, and I had a feeling she had a free cup of coffee waiting for anyone who turned me in if I was misbehaving, even if no one would admit it. The last time I’d skipped out on school, she’d popped up like some kind of desert snake, and it was a whole day before I could walk right after the walloping she gave me.

Duren appeared at exactly ten o’clock, and I gave him a lazy wave from inside the diner. He returned it with a curt nod and waited patiently for my sister to come out and meet him. It wasn’t that busy then, so the diner would be okay with just Lucy and Emma – two of my sister’s workers – to watch over it. Come back in another hour and a half though, and the place would be close to full.

She led Duren over next door, and I tagged along. The place next door had been a flower shop once. Yeah, that’s right. Someone had tried to sell flowers on a desert world. It wasn’t a bad idea, but folks out here were too practical to spend their money on things like that, not to mention there wasn’t a lot of money to go around in the first place. A while back, the owner had gone off into the desert and never returned. So, the place had gone up for sale, and my sister had managed to grab hold of it. It was a good place too, seeing as how it and our diner shared one wall, and there were rooms upstairs that Duren could use.

It took a couple of tries to get the front door open – it had a habit of sticking – and then my sister was showing him around. I’d already helped her clean out the inside of the place, so it was decent enough, but even so, I could still smell the faintest hint of flowers. Duren must have smelled it too because he took a deep, deep breath and closed his eyes for a few moments. When he opened them, he laughed.

“Flowers,” he whispered. “I didn’t think I’d find any here.”

My sister stopped and looked at him for a second and then shook her head. “There aren’t any, not anymore.” She paused. “Now, there are some rooms upstairs that you can use. I’ve had the electricity and water connected, but I’d appreciate it if you could use those carefully.”

“Seems fair enough,” Duren said. “Though I was thinking of paying those bills myself, if I got the job.”

My sister grinned. “If you get the job, I think I might let you do that.” She gestured at the stairs. “Come with me, I’ll show you around upstairs.”

“You thinking of expanding into here?” Duren asked as we walked up the stairs.

My sister’s eyes lit up. She was always dreaming, and nothing pleased her more than to talk about it. “That’s right, Duren. Things have been going well lately, so I was thinking I would knock down part of the wall between this place and the diner and get the dining area widened out. The kitchen is big enough already that I won’t have to expand it.” She gave him a grin. “All I need now is an extra cook.”

Duren turned her words over in his head for a bit. “Have you worked out how you’ll do it yet?” He wasn’t saying this to make fun of her like some people did. No, he seemed genuinely curious, especially since his eyes were already flicking over the whole place as though he were trying to imagine how it would all look.

“I’ve been doing some thinking,” my sister said. “But I haven’t got it all nailed down yet. Architects are pricey out here, and I don’t know much about building things myself.” She gave Duren a cool look. “I don’t suppose you’ve got any ideas, do you?”

He met her gaze evenly. “I might.” But the way he said it made me think he had more than a few ideas. Heck, I got the feeling he’d already worked out exactly how he’d do it. He was that kind of man. “But I suppose it would be better to ask me after you’ve had a chance to see me cook.”

“I have a feeling you’ll do fine,” my sister said. “Now, come on, your room is right around the corner.”

Duren’s room wasn’t big, but it was clean and tidy. My sister had made sure of that, dragging me out of bed to help her get everything ready earlier in the morning. If he was going to work for us, then, damn it, he’d live someplace decent. I knew she wouldn’t have it said that she couldn’t look after her own. There was a bed in there with fresh sheets and pillows along with a closet and a set of drawers. On the wall farthest from the door was a window looking out onto the street.

“Well, here it is, Duren,” my sister said. “And there’s a bathroom at the end of the hall.” She looked back, and I realised that while my sister and I had both gone inside, Duren was still standing a touch outside the door. “Go on,” she said softly. “Take a look around.”

Duren shook himself and stepped into the room. His eyes swept over everything, and slowly he began to work his way around the room. It was strange to watch him pace from side to side, and I got the impression that he was counting how many steps it took to get from place to place. But why would someone need to know how many steps it took to reach the door? Or how many steps it took to go from the bed to the window? And speaking of the window, his gaze was intense, almost frighteningly so, as he glanced out it and took careful stock of everything he could see. Finally, some of the tension drained out of him, and he wandered back toward us. His fingers skimmed the top of the drawers.

“It’s a fine room,” he said. “And it’d be nice to have someplace permanent to bed down in for a change.”

“You’ve been on the road for a while then?” I asked, ignoring the glare that my sister shot me. Personally, I found it a bit odd that we still used expressions like that, seeing as how spaceships didn’t use roads.

But if my question bothered Duren, it didn’t show. “You could say that,” he replied and then more softly, “Sometimes, I can’t even remember when I first started.”

My sister laughed awkwardly. “Okay, well, how about we head back? The lunch time rush is coming up soon, and there’s no better way to see if you’re up to it than to throw you into the deep end.”

“That’s the truth, all right,” Duren said wryly.

“Don’t worry.” My sister smiled. “Most of the stuff we make isn’t too complicated, and mostly I’ll be there to tell you what to do. I want to see if you can keep up.”

Duren smiled back, eyes crinkling a little. “I’ll keep up. You have my word on that.” The way he said it made me certain he’d do fine. Better than fine, really.

Lessons in Writing III: The Value of Texture

So much of the information we receive about the world around us comes to us through our eyes. Our sight allows us to quickly and easily judge an object’s size, shape, and colour. When we meet people for the first time, their appearance is usually the very first thing we notice and often what we remember best, long after we have parted.

But our sense of touch is important too, albeit more subtle. As children we love plush toys because of the softness they have in comparison to everything else. When we’re toddlers, we put our hands on everything because we relish how different things feel from one another: the fibres of thick carpet contrast with the smoothness of wooden floorboards; our parents’ hands feel so much larger and rougher than our own; and the graininess of sand stands apart from the clumping of mud.

As adults, we retain our love of textures, particularly contrasting textures. One of the things I love most about antique furniture is the wonderful mix of smoothness and roughness, of finely sanded finishes and cracks. Texture isn’t just something we can feel – it’s something we can put into our writing.

The greatest gift that a writer can have is the ability to make people feel. People read stories because they want to feel something. It doesn’t always matter what that something is. A story can make someone feel sad, or it can make them feel happy. A story can make some laugh, or it can make them weep. What matters most is that it makes them feel something because a reader who feels something about a story is a reader who is going to engage with the story. There is nothing worse than a story that leaves a reader feeling nothing at all.

But how, as a writer, can we make people feel things? There is no sure-fire way to do this, but one of the best ways is through texture, through establishing a contrast. After all, it’s hard to appreciate just how smooth glass is if you’ve never touched anything as rough as sandpaper.

Let’s start off by considering what happens in a tragic story. If things are horrible and depressing throughout the entire story, then a reader can very easily become numb and inured to what is happening. As the story reaches a zenith of tragedy, the reader may simply become bored because they’ve already been exposed to too much of the same. But what happens if you adopt a different approach, one that moves from happiness to tragedy? Then the reader is less likely to become hardened to the dark side of the story because they’ve been less exposed to it. Furthermore, the contrast between the goods things that begin the story and the bad things that end it will only highlight the tragedy of what is going on.

The reverse is also true. The stories that most uplift people’s hearts are often those that show a movement from great struggle and adversity to triumph and happiness. By contrasting the eventual success and contentment of the protagonist against their earlier struggles and pains, that protagonist’s victory gains added significance. Would Cinderella have enchanted so many children over the years if she hadn’t risen from a position of squalor to one of splendour? Would all the feel-good sports movies we watch mean anything if the people involved didn’t start off as underdogs?

The importance of texture is evident in other areas as well. Violence is another example of how texture can be used to great effect. If you offer the reader a world of relentless and brutal violence, then you wear them down, you weary them. If you then provide them with a few idyllic scenes of peace, those scenes will stick out – and the intrusion of violence into such scenes will be far more shocking than if there was no contrast. Humour is yet another area where texture can be important. If you try to make every single line of a story funny, it is almost inevitable that the reader becomes exhausted. By giving the reader time to breathe and recover, you can increase the impact of your humour.

The technical aspects of a story – its length and its composition – are usually the easiest things to notice. They are, in a way, what we see when we look at a story. The texture of a story is what we feel when we read it. A story can make us feel happy or sad, excited or bored. But like so many things in life, the best textures are those that inspire a plethora of feelings and sensations. Happiness accentuates tragedy and vice versa. Violence and peace go hand in hand.

The usefulness of varying a story’s texture is one of the reasons that I think a good writer needs to be willing to try out different styles and techniques. Only by broadening their range can a writer hope to truly provide a story of varied and engaging texture.

If you want to read more of my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here. If you like fantasy, you’ll love The Last Huntress.

Back At Home

Well, I’m back at home now.

I was originally supposed to go in for day surgery, but they decided to keep me overnight. Anyway, the surgery went pretty well. They did an arthroscopy and some repair to my meniscus. It will be difficult to know for sure how well that worked until later.

At the moment, my leg is locked straight in a brace. That makes things quite difficult. Even something as simple as sitting on the toilet is made much more difficult when one of my legs is kept completely straight. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you try it. It’s actually quite hard. Having the leg straight also makes for some difficult situations involving underwear and shorts (seriously, try putting those on with one leg completely straight).

It’s also been interesting getting used to my crutches again. I’ll admit that I was glad to have the pair I’d gotten used to back – they’re familiar to me now. But I can’t use them the same way since the leg can’t take very much weight at all at the moment.

My night at the hospital was an interesting one. The staff there were wonderfully professional and very attentive. I really can’t speak highly enough of them. Australian public hospitals are understaffed and under resourced, but they have some of the hardest working nurses and doctors in the world. It’s amazing how much it helps having a nurse remember your name and help you come up with a way to go to the bathroom yourself, rather than having to call for help every time. It’s a question of dignity, and the nurses and doctors at the hospital helped me keep mine.

There were a number of other patients there (and you guys know that I like to people watch). There was the younger man fighting off some complications after surgery and staying cheerful throughout. There was the mother who’d been at the hospital for six days and was desperately missing her family. She actually cried this morning, but when they told her that she was fine and could be discharged, her smile could have lit up the room.

But the patient that caught my eye was this old man. The old man had come in for some kind of treatment, and he was doing quite poorly last night. The staff were watching him closely, especially since he wasn’t able to walk around steadily on his own. He was much better this morning, and his wife came to visit, and he just seemed so much happier and more alive. And the hospital people were great. This couple lives out in the country, so they would have had to catch a train and a bus and then walk. But the hospital organised it so they could fly back to the town where they lived (it’s one of the larger towns in Australia, but a rural one, nonetheless). It was a great display of kindness.

But yeah, I’m out of hospital and at home. It looks like I’ve got another appointment with the doctor in two weeks, but I’ll probably be wearing the brace for longer than that. I also have a handy supply of painkillers since, apparently, it’s not going to be pleasant when I start getting more mobile and the last effects of the hospital painkillers wear off. Bath times now involve a lot of tape and a plastic bag (I have to keep the brace dry).

I Am Having Knee Surgery

Tomorrow, I will be having surgery on my right knee. To put it simply, I’ve badly torn my lateral meniscus. In fact, I’ve torn it so badly that it’s ended up on the other side of my knee. Without surgery, the odds of it healing properly are very slim. Not having the surgery will also leave me in pain and render me unable to straighten my leg. Surgery is thus the only option. Once the surgery is complete and they’ve salvaged what they can from it, I’ll be spending weeks with a brace on my knee followed by physiotherapy. I’m looking at 4-5 months before I’m back to normal activity.

So, if I don’t reply to any message or the like, don’t be discouraged. I am reading them, but I simply may not be in a condition to respond.

Also, I would like to thank everyone who has offered me their best wishes and support. It has been truly appreciated during this difficult time.

Injuries and Anxiety

The rational part of me understands that there is no point in worrying about something I can’t change. I blew my right knee out  last Tuesday, and whatever injury I have, I have. Worrying won’t – can’t – change what’s already happened. But I find myself worrying anyway.

I’ve had so many problems over the years with my knee that the prospect of rebuilding it – again – is a daunting one. I spent years strengthening it to the point where I could jog without pain or any real soreness. But then, just like that, it quit on me again. And it wasn’t from anything strenuous. It wasn’t from anything bizarre. I crouched down and then tried to stand up and – bang – it was gone.

I remember the first time I really injured that knee. I was wheeled out of my martial arts class on a stretcher and I spent six weeks on crutches. But even after I got off crutches, that injury and the debilitating pain and loss of mobility it caused weighed heavily on my mind. It was more than a year before I could jog or run without wondering, in the back of my mind, if my knee was going to give out again. It didn’t help that every time I felt comfortable, every time I felt good, the knee would start to play up. It was nowhere near as bad as what started the whole thing, but it was always enough to make me sit up and take notice – and wonder. Would it happen again?

It’s not a coincidence that I’ve never been able to practice martial arts the way I used to before my first big knee injury. I suppose it’s a combination of psychological and physical factors. The knee never felt strong enough to put through that kind of punishment again, and I knew that failing to commit properly to my strikes and other techniques would only increase the risk of injury. That was one of the main reasons I started to work a lot more on my hands. Despite having broken my hand and my arm (badly enough to have a plate put in), I’ve never felt the same sense of trepidation with those injuries that I’ve felt for my knee. I could still function with those injuries, albeit with a little help. When my knee failed me the first time – and now for a second time – even the most basic things become difficult. I treasure my ability to do things for myself, and I’ve had that taken away. I love mowing the lawn and looking after the garden. I enjoy that simple, honest kind of labour. I won’t be enjoying it for a while now.

So I had the MRI on Sunday. I won’t talk about the results since I’ll be seeing the specialist on Thursday. However, some of the people I saw at the hospital had their suspicions as to what the injury might be (and the person who gave me the MRI thought they might be right as well). If they are right – and I don’t know that they are, that’s what the specialist is for – I’ll likely be facing either a prolonged period of rehabilitation without surgery or surgery followed by rehabilitation.

Either way, I find the whole thing weighing on my mind more and more frequently. Whatever the diagnosis ends up being (and I’m still trying to be positive and hope for the best while also preparing for the worst), I’m going to have to steel myself for another round of rebuilding.

There’s a great line from Rocky that goes something like this: It’s not about how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.

This knee has been hitting me for years now, long, long years, and it’s going to keep on hitting me. All I can do now is to keep plodding forward. I don’t have a choice. The only thing I can do is to square up to the truth of the matter, whatever that truth happens to be.

I’ve been here before. When I first broke my arm, I had a cast on for six weeks. But when they cut the cast off, my arm wouldn’t move. They told me that was normal, that maybe it was a little numb from being in the cast for so long. Then they took an x-ray. The break – it was a bad one – had never healed right.

I’d spent six weeks looking forward to getting the cast off, and right then and there, they told me that I would need surgery – they had to put a plate and screws into my arm. I had maybe a couple of minutes to grasp what they were saying before we started talking about the scheduling. I don’t even remember how that conversation went. All I could think about was the plate they were going to put into my arm and the screws they were going to drill into the bone. I remember waking up after the surgery – it couldn’t have been more than a few days after that conversation – and running my fingers along my arm. I could feel the plate sitting on top of the bone, and I could feel the soreness where the screws had gone in.

I had a lot of time to think that night, too much time. When you’re alone and it’s dark, the time seems to go on forever. But I pushed on, I kept going, because what else was there to do? When I was finally well enough, I went back to martial arts. I couldn’t have been back for long before, wouldn’t you know it, that’s when I blew my knee out the first time. And do you want to know what the funniest thing was? Some of the people at the hospital actually recognised me, and not just because my dad worked there. They recognised me because it would have been the third time that year I came in with something broken or blown out. And as they were wheeling me into the emergency ward on a stretcher, I couldn’t help but think about how familiar it all was. But familiarity isn’t always a good thing, and it’s hard looking into the mirror in a hospital bathroom without wondering if there was anything you could have done to avoid coming back.

And so there you have it. And on Thursday, I suppose I’ll find out if I have to do it all again. If I do, I’ll look for that same stuff that kept me going the last time and the time before that and the time before that. If there is anything beautiful about the human spirit, it is the fact that it is inexhaustible. When you don’t think you can dig any deeper, you find that, yes, you can. Yes, there is just a little bit left, and that little bit always seems to be enough. I hope it’s enough this time too.

Post Navigation

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 38 other followers