About davidbrookesuk

David Brookes is an English writer living in Sheffield. His first novel "Half Discovered Wings" was published in 2009 - more details at his website http://www.spinninglizard.co.uk

STP blog and editorial services

Hasn’t the blog been quiet…?

The good news is that it’s because I’ve been busy working for my new and regular clients. Use the Contact page if you’d like to get in touch about any proofreading or editing project.

Services are largely uninterrupted during the current pandemic crisis.

If there’s anything you’d like to see on the STP blog, feel free to let me know what your interests are. Would you like to understand more about the proofreading and editing process? Writing tips for fiction and non-fiction? Editorial comments on what’s happening in the literary world? Get in touch any time.

—db

CELTA/TEFL training

In 2014 I trained and qualified as a CELTA teacher of English as a foreign language (TEFL). My closed blog from the time, “Mr Brookes Abroad”, still gets a lot of hits for posts relating to my experiences training and looking for work.

Since that blog is now defunct, I’m happy to reproduce those posts in this single super-post for anyone who is interested. There were too many responses, questions and answers left in the comments section of those posts to copy here, but I welcome any questions to this post.

Hopefully this information, though now a few years old, will still be useful to those seeking qualification as a teacher of the English language abroad.

—db, September 2019


“Re-begin”

Originally posted 9th July 2014

This is the day that I decided to give up on making a living in the UK.

For years I’ve been a struggling writer wading through corporate jobs and lack of literary success.   If you want you can read about that in my old blog (no longer updated):

[Original link removed.]

In October 2012 I took off on a 5 month tour of India and Asia, including China.  If you want you can read about that too, in the travel blog I shared with Lisa Cooper (no longer updated):

[Original link removed.]

It was these travels that gave me something more to love about the world.  I owe credit for this endeavor in no small part to the ex-pats I met out there, especially in China, who showed me what was possible if I had an interest in it.

Since I returned to the UK last year  I’ve taken a sequence of crappy office jobs.  Agencies and employers are surprised to find that I have two degrees.  They wonder why I’m settling for twelve grand as a typist or temporary receptionist.  They wonder why, if I have qualifications in writing and a published novel, I’m taking two week assignments with a temping agency instead of “being the next J K Rowling”.  It’s difficult for people to understand just how screwed up the job market is at the moment (let alone the publishing industry).  To these people, I smile patiently but have no answer for them.

I’ve long considered teaching English, ever since I undertook my BA at Bretton Hall University in Yorkshire.  Unfortunately attempts to pursue this recently were less than successful, in part thanks to Education Secretary Michael Gove’s grand efforts to screw the curriculum and throttle the training of new teachers, especially in English.  I was told a few months ago that last year there were over 50 funded training slots for new teachers in the current scheme.  This year there was about 15.

The idea of teaching English as a second language abroad is one I’ve been playing with for 18 months now.

Today I applied for a place on an intensive 4-week CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) course at the University of Sheffield.

After that: the world!

—db


“Interview for the course”

Originally posted 20 July 2014

This week I attended an interview as part of my enrollment for a CELTA course.

I’d considered taking the CELTA course abroad. Many people choose to do this, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each option. In the end I opted to study in my hometown of Sheffield, as I already have first-hand experience of China, and this way I can save money on accommodation instead of paying for a hostel in Beijing for the duration.

Initially I hadn’t expected there to be an interview, especially for a 1 month course. The more I looked into the CELTA and similar courses, the more I realised that I should be prepared for an interview to secure my place.

Not only that, but all schools expected me to complete an ominous sounding “pre-interview task”. Mine was e-mailed to me following application. Thankfully it was only a 2-page document with a few questions on grammar, as well as serving as an early assessment of my capability to teach.

Around noon I walked into the Language Centre of University of Sheffield. The small reception area was empty but for the reception desk – I was half an hour early.   As usual I was prepared with a book to read as I waited, but it wasn’t easy to get engrossed. The lunchtime school crowd soon filled the room and adjoining corridor, bustling into the street or pressed against the glass partition, texting and chatting. Sheffield’s large Chinese population was well-represented here, with only one non-Chinese person there. He sat next to me and wrote neat Hindi script in his notebook.

I didn’t notice my interviewer approach, although you would spot him in the street. Will is not a small man, but equally apparent is his welcoming smile and open attitude. We shook hands and I was led to his office, where a neat-and-tidy couch and table in one corner was in stark contrast with the cluttered desk and busy bookcase on the opposite side. One part of the room was clearly set aside for visitors and arranged with a purpose. I wondered when I would be asked to sit at that round coffee table, and why.

Will and I both mopped our foreheads; it’s been a humid month in Sheffield with an unusual amount of sun, and apparently we were both suffering. For the next hour we went over my answers to the task and talked about my reasons for wanting to take the course. I was also given an “at-interview task” to complete at the coffee table, which testing my writing and editing skills.

Presumably I did well, because I was offered a place on the waiting list. Hooray! The courses book up fast – I’d missed the July-August course by the time I’d submitted my application – so the list is a place for accepted candidates to wait for a day or two before being found a slot. Pending that, I would need to formally accept the offer and pay the deposit.

Immediately came the caveats: a full A4 printed sheet of what the student should expect from the course. I gathered that people often underestimated how intensive the four-week CELTA course was. This was something I’d already read a lot about during research: for a whole month, you will have no spare evening. You will have no weekends. You will have no time for work or socialising. You will probably not have much time for sleep. Because of the compact and intense nature of the course, missing two or more days could put a person so far behind that they would be unable to catch up.

I discovered that the course starts a week earlier than I expected, which would mean I would have to take a day out of studying to celebrate the happy wedding of my best and oldest friend about four weeks from now. It had been made clear to me that if any absence was anticipated that I should discuss it in advance, and so I’m waiting for approval before actually signing onto the August-September course.

We will see!

–db

“CELTA/TEFL: What to expect from your interview and pre-interview task”

Originally posted 22 July 2014

So you’ve decided to apply for a TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) course, and you’ve been asked to come to interview. Daunting! Worse, they’ve probably asked you to complete “a pre-interview task”. What should you expect? If you like, you can read about my experience with the CELTA interview at this post here [Original link removed].

The pre-interview task

My experience with the task was not too terrifying. I don’t believe my English BA and MA were much advantage in this case. My task testing my knowledge of:

  • tense and verb forms, i.e. “past continuous” or “future perfect”
  •  word meanings connotations, i.e. “fat” and “plump”
  •  modal verbs, i.e. “You must” expresses obligation
  •  pronunciation theory, i.e. “How many syllables are in the world ‘telephone’ and on which syllable is the main stress placed?”

It also questioned:

  •  how I would explain the meaning of certain phrases to a class, i.e. “Would you mind if I opened the window”? How do I get across the point that this is a polite question?
  •  what, from experience, makes a good learning experience

The questions were fairly clear (even if the answers weren’t!) and there were examples to help. Needless to say that you are free to use Google to help find answers, however presumably that’s not the point. My task from the University of Sheffield in England had a front sheet with useful resources, which I will list later in this post.You will probably be asked to bring the completed task with you to the interview. Expect to go through your answers with the interviewer.

The interview

At my interview, the interviewer went over how the next hour would go. He warned me that although it might seem that he would be “prodding a bit”, it was only to assess my knowledge and reactions, and not to grill me. Retrospectively I can’t see much of a difference, but it reassured me at the time!

We went through my answers to the pre-interview task. As expected, I fluffed a few definitions for terms like “future perfect continuous tense” – something that school never prepared me for, and that the average person probably wouldn’t need.Despite this I was told my understanding was “above average” and that most people starting the CELTA wouldn’t know any better than I did. Gradually it dawned on me that I was being tested more for how I responded to apparent failure and my own willingness to learn, as well as capacity for understanding, than I was for simple correct answers on the page.it might help you to bear that in mind: even though you might have given wrong answers, this is not necessarily going to stop you getting a place – but arguing or showing an unwillingness to develop will.

The at-interview task

At my interview I was surprised by a second assessment, and asked to complete this during the interview at a separate table. My heart did a little twist. A test!? With no access to Google!? How dependent I am on instant access to data!I needn’t have worried. The first part of the task was to correct the spelling and punctuation in a paragraph littered with typos. This I did easily (although I was told off for correcting the “writer” for redundant words and clarity – oops!) and I don’t think many people would really struggle. Mainly it was misspelled words and a bit of clumsy phrasing.If you get a similar task, just take your time and, once you’ve finished, re-read the whole thing again to be sure you haven’t missed anything. Nerves won’t help you with this one, so allow yourself to relax, take a sip of water, and pretend you’re just proof reading an e-mail before you send it to a friend.

The second part of the task was to write a page on a given topic. I was offered a few choices, which were all simple questions on the theme of teaching. This isn’t an assessment of your answer, i.e. the content of what you write – rather, it’s testing your ability to write off the cuff, like you might have to in class, without the aid of a spell-checker or time to proof-read a dozen times. It’s also testing your handwriting – being the son of a doctor, I’m surprised my writing is legible at all!

In summary

  •  Don’t worry! Neither the interview or the task is scary
  •  You don’t have to be a grammar expert…
  •  …But a little knowledge will impress the interviewer – see resources below
  •  Brush up on your general spelling and punctuation
  •  Show a willingness to develop – that’s what the course is for!
  •  Display your enthusiasm for teaching

Resources

If anyone has any experiences of a CELTA or TEFL course interview and tasks, please post your comments here! I’d love to hear about everybody’s individual experiences, and make this page more useful to people about to undertake their TEFL qualification.

— db


“Challenge accepted”

Originally posted 28 July 2014

So I heard last week that I’ve been accepted onto the 1 month CELTA training course!  This should give me what I need to teach spoken English.  It begins in 3 short weeks, meaning that by the time I qualify (hopefully) in mid-September, I’ll be ready to fly.

After using highly sophisticated up-to-date deduction techniques (not really) I have decided to teach in Xi’an, China. This will give me a mix of Western comfort and a good “genuine Chinesy feel”, and a good balance between availability of work and plenty of things to see or do nearby.  More on this in later posts.

It’s weirdly easy to find teaching work in China. One of the reasons I decided to take the course was because work is so hard to come by in the UK (at least, in the North).  I’m in the wonderful position of being highly qualified in English (i.e. not in a specialised enough subject to win me jobs on its own merit) and being perfectly over-qualified for any job that’s currently available. I can’t even get the jobs I don’t want. The luxury of being an English-speaker in China, where the percentage of English speakers is about 7%, is that if you’re qualified to teach there’ll be dozens of jobs available at any given time.  It’s not a position I’m used to being in!

Whilst looking for work in Xi’an, I’m being especially picky.  I don’t want to jump in too deep, and I want to allow myself enough free time to get accustomed to the new lifestyle and to explore. I visited China for about a month in 2012 and really liked it, despite the difficulty of the language barrier. My favourite cities were Chengdu and Xi’an, and although the salary is proportionately much lower than in bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing (approximately one third) the living costs are also much lower. On top of that, I’d be earning about the same as I’m earning now on UK minimum wage, only in China this is enough to live quite comfortably, and far more than Chinese teachers get (sorry, locals). Research never equals experience, but I’m hoping that I will also have a little room to save money.

Although it’s a big life choice, I’ve not been afraid of taking big leaps.  I’m very happy I’ve made the choice and that University of Sheffield has granted me a space on the course.  Fingers crossed the course goes well!

—db


“Not dead yet”

Originally posted 17 September 2014

It’s been three weeks since I last posted [Actually it was five – I originally posted this two weeks late]. In that time I had a birthday, was best man at my best friend’s wedding, appeared as a guest on a podcast – and completed the first half of my CELTA teacher training course.

They weren’t kidding when they said that the CELTA course was brutal. “Don’t expect to have time to work or have a social life,” I was warned. I’ve disappointed so many friends by cancelling plans or forgetting to reply to texts. Did I mention the disclaimer the school had me sign, acknowledging how tough it was going to be?

Tough indeed. By the end of the first day of classes I was exhausted. From 9:30 to 6 my class of 16 listened, observed, scribbled frantic notes and tried to wrap our heads around the finer points of grammar.

By day three, two people had dropped out of the course, and another was on the verge.

Day four, I’d been granted permission to miss the day and attend the wedding. After a relatively leisurely morning of drinking tea and eating pastries, putting ribbons on the car and feeling rather dapper in our wedding finery, the groom and I took off for his big day. I’ve never been prouder of the man. As for the best man, he had a speech to deliver. Standing in front of a group of people and saying actual words in a coherent sequence has always made me nervous. You might wonder why I’ve thought about teaching all these years. As it happened, it was good practice for teaching class and reminded me that it’s not something to feel too nervous about.

But there was no time for frivolity. Marriage is a serious business. Vows and speeches went without a hitch (so to speak), but after the delicious “breakfast” I had to retire to a quiet room to work. I must have looked pretty peculiar in the little “restaurant lounge” wearing a cream waistcoat and pink rouche, bashing out lesson plans into my laptop and trying not to sweat.

Day five back in class, I’d done just enough work to scrape by my first two sessions of actual teaching. Everyone else had taught their first class whilst I was stuffing my face with wedding cake and wondering how many of the complimentary marshmallows I could stuff into my waistcoat without being noticed. Now I had to catch up with Thursday’s teaching class on top of Friday’s.

The Cambridge CELTA course (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) is one of the most highly regarded TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) courses available, mainly because it provides 120 hours of learning, with several hours of actual teaching practice in front of a real group of English language learners. And so, last Friday, I stood in front of a dozen or so men and women, young and old, from countries such as Iran, China, Poland, Italy and Brazil, and tried to teach them something.

Amazingly, this exhausted young man managed to provide two half-hour classes without going dumb, falling over, or leaping out the window. Success!

The weekend wasn’t much easier. There were lesson plans to write for the following week, and the first of four 1,000 word assignments to prepare, not to mention reading and revision. It’s amazing how little native speakers think about the grammar of their language (the foreigners on my course already had a great understanding of grammar terminology, as they’d been taught much as my students will be taught – a much more structured and detailed process than simply acquiring English as a toddler).

This second week … happened, with even more classes to teach (one of which was a more standard 60 minutes long), one or two mammoth 11 hour days of class/teaching time, and two more assignments to write.

The class is smaller now, but there is an increased level of enthusiasm and even a buzz, as we all find ourselves creeping towards becoming half decent at teaching. We are into a bit of a routine, are more familiar with terminology and technique, and are beginning to think about where we might want to fly out to after the course ends. I’ll give more info on my own job hunt in another post, but for now just wanted to let people know that I’m still alive. Huzzah! The best the average CELTA student can claim to be after two weeks: Not dead yet!

—db


 

Localis(z)ing Fiction – The Metal Gear Solid story

I recently wrote about translation and some of the challenges that comes with it.

It’s difficult to exactly describe the artistry required to truly localise a text. To characterise the skill and finesse of translation as an art isn’t just puffery – as described in this excellent account of the localisation of the classic video game Metal Gear Solid, featured on Polygon.com this week.

In this fascinating narrative, Jeremy Blaustein describes the “overwhelming job” of translating and localising the 1998 game, which is heavy in plot and dialogue. He writes, “The word “localization” barely existed in the business in 1997”:

I also knew that I couldn’t just jump into a translation without first getting a deep look into the world that [game creator Hideo Kojima] had been swimming in for years while conceiving Metal Gear Solid.

Metal Gear Solid 2

Konami Computer Entertainment Japan/Konami

Metal Gear Solid 1

Konami Computer Entertainment Japan/Konami

 

Interestingly, Blaustein relays his intent during the extended – and isolating – challenge of bringing the philosophical military espionage thriller to a Western audience. It was necessary not just to transpose Japanese words into English, but to convey the correct tone, the subtle characterisation, and even the relationship between characters:

[I tried] to look past the Japanese words to capture the essence of each conversation. I was desperately trying to keep the feeling that Kojima was himself trying to inspire in player.

[…] Translation is not a science; it is an art. One must take liberties with the text to capture the essence of the words, in an attempt to recreate the feeling of the original for a very different audience with a very different cultural background. That essence is found less in the words themselves than in the spaces between the words. It is a tone, an ever-present, unspoken attitude, and in this case it was a very confident tone. It is the mark of a single hand that often gives a work integrity and power, and I didn’t want to put my fingerprint on Metal Gear Solid. I wanted to imitate what I thought Kojima desired from the text.

I recommend reading the engaging full article on Polygon.com. There’s also an interesting take on the need for over-emphasised dialogue and voice acting in PlayStation One-era games in this article from Levelskip.

—DB

Tips – Writing Translations

Translation.jpg

What makes a good translation? As talented as my translator clients are, they still sometimes have questions about how they can improve.

So you’ve already read through your text to get a full understanding of its content and style. You’ve taken out your bi-lingual dictionary and style guide. Google is open on-screen, waiting to assist. And you’re ready to begin.

What can you keep in mind as you go about your translation task? Here are a few simple tips.

1. Read around the subject
If you’re lucky enough to have a regular client, you will develop an understanding of their main topics as you work with them. But when you are introduced to a new field it helps to read about the subject in books or online. This will help you to learn the terminology and understand your audience. Be sure to refer to reputable sources, and don’t assume their spelling or grammar is up to scratch – check for yourself.

2. Give yourself plenty of time
Your job is difficult enough without putting yourself under unnecessary time pressure. Sometimes it can’t be helped if you’re working to tight time constraints, but if you have the luxury of starting a few days earlier than your deadline, give yourself that flexibility. It will give you more time to read around the subject (point 1); to find that succinct, clearest word or phrase (points 4, 5 & 6); and to proofread your latest draft (point 8).

3. Take advantage of your client’s glossary
If your client has included a glossary with your project details, this will help you with terminology and phrasing. Of course, you won’t be given a glossary for every task, which is where reading around the subject will help you – especially your client’s website or previous publications.

4. Be consistent and clear with terminology
You might find that there four or five words you could use to refer to the same thing. That doesn’t mean you should use them all! Whereas some people preach that variety makes for a more interesting text, you could also risk losing your reader if they mistakenly think you’re talking about two or more different things. Maintain clarity in your text by using the same term or phrase every time.

5. Use clear nouns/pronouns
In the same way, it’s better to say “Harriet said” / “Harriet did” then ambiguously refer to “she”. You can always remove any unnecessary repetition later.

6. Keep sentences brief
Short sentences are very clear. They are harder to misinterpret. Longer sentences like this, full of sub-clauses or long lists of nouns, verbs or other terms, which may or may not cover more than one topic – such as your client’s approach to computer technology in addition to their human resource policy – may technically be grammatically correct, but they will strain the focus of your reader and leave more room for error or misunderstanding.

7. Translate meaning, not words
The website Anglocom says, “Be the reader’s advocate … make the effort to understand the content and purpose of your text, then translate it as simply as possible.” This is especially important when translating idioms, which rarely translate literally. You will have a deeper understanding of the meaning in your text if you read around the subject (point 1) and take advantage of your client’s glossary (point 2).

8. Run it through a free grammar checker
Microsoft Word, or a website like Grammarly, can give you a quick check on your spelling, punctuation and grammar. They are far from perfect and can’t be relied on, but they might help you catch some stray typos. It will get your text in better shape to pass to your editor, client or supervisor even if it’s not the final draft.

9. Add notes for your editor or client
If a sentence was particularly challenging, add a comment to your text to explain what you’re trying to say. This may be impractical if you’re writing back to your client (who expects flawless work), but if you work with a proofreader or editor then they may find this invaluable, and it may possibly avoid errors due to misinterpretation, and save you time on back-and-forth questions.

10. Learn about translation itself
Whenever you aren’t translating, do some reading about translation itself. Translatorthoughts is a specialised website that provides translators with tips and some very helpful tools, including techniques and a translator’s glossary of terms. The advice to writers is: when you’re not writing, read. The same applies to translators – the more reading you do of the language you’re translating into, the more you will improve your skills.

Is there any advice you’d like on translating? If you have a question or comment, let me know!

—db

Introducing “Support Sheffield” page

Today visitors will notice a new page on this website’s banner: “Support Sheffield“.

I was born and raised in Sheffield, England, and many of my clients are local businesses, writers or students at Sheffield’s respected universities. I went to school here and completed my M.A. degree here. Sheffield is where I continue to live and work.

The new page features information about charities operating within Sheffield, a cosmopolitan city that thrives on its welcomeness and diversity.

From that page you can learn about charities supporting Sheffield’s homeless, sick, youth, arts, diversity and environment.

If you were born in Sheffield, work or study here, or even if you’re just visiting, please take a little time to read about an issue that interests you, and offer your time or spare change for those Sheffielders in need.

Thank you.

–db

Finding time to write

So, what’s new with you?

You get up, go to work, then have a shorter evening than you’d like before bed. Maybe you have to bundle the kids off to school in the morning and collect them later, cook for them and watch over them. Maybe you’re single and dating even though it’s dark and cold out. Maybe you have a beloved dog to walk or a house to clean or a relative to take care of. Maybe there’s just a lot of TV to catch up on.

How do you find time to write with all that going on?

As a proofreader and editor I work with students, translators, prose and poetry writers. When I’m fortunate enough to get return business, the gaps are often explained as being the result of simply being too busy, or not finding the time to write lately.

So what’s the solution?

You can’t make more time. You probably can’t stop doing one thing to make more room for writing, either (although if your problem is TV, sort it out. No TV is that good).

Lifestyles can be busy, especially when we make them busy. Are we so social because we hate to be alone? Do we succumb to all of that easy entertainment because we don’t want to have the space to think? Not only are these problems that should be sorted out, they’re also problems with a built-in solution for your writing woes: stop doing them for a while, and write about them instead, or at least the things that motivated you to do them. Take two weeks off and try.

When my life gets busy, my problem isn’t that I don’t have time to write, but that when I do have time I don’t feel like it. I’m not ready to think and work after all the thinking and working I do at my day job and then freelancing in the evening and at weekends. If I feel a moment of creative inspiration, I have to get home (or at least move from one room to another) and get set up. By the time I have a steaming cup of tea on my desk and the laptop is booted up, I’ve lost it. The inspiration is gone and I’m staring at a blinking cursor in an empty Word document.

A solution that works for my particular lifestyle is routine. One of my favourite writers, Haruki Murakami, has a famously rigid routine that he says not only makes him productive, but also brings him great joy. Murakami-san has the luxury of being successful enough to not need a day job, but a writing routine certainly helps the rest of us, too. Not the usual insipid “write 500 words a day, every day!” advice, but more allocate yourself a time slot amidst the chaos to write. It doesn’t even have to be daily. Just choose a particular time of the week (or day) that is set aside solely for writing. Not only will you find peace in the routine, but you might also even look forward to it. On days where your inspiration comes at other times, jump right in. Then, when your routine writing window arrives, you can rejoice in how you’re already two pages further into that thesis or novel you’re working on.

Personally, I try to get home from the office and immediately start writing. My brain isn’t yet fried, or numbed from a couple of hours of evening TV, and I’m still ‘on the go’ and energised. I’ll aim for 30-60, and if I’m inspired to write for longer then I will. Unfortunately that time is usually when I want to be whipping up a quick meal and stuffing my face, so there’s sometimes a compromise. In any case, I’m slowly making progress with my creative work as a result of choosing a routine instead of hoping for a break in the storm.

Give it a try and let me know what you think.

—db

 

Notice: ‘Half Discovered Wings’ – Last chance to buy

Update 16 Mar 2019: ‘Half Discovered Wings’, as well as the following of my publications, are no longer available to purchase or read online:

  • Cycles of Udaipur
  • The Gun of Our Maker
  • Love is an Eye that Doesn’t See

Thanks to all of my readers and reviewers who enjoyed my stories over the years.

—db


My 2009 novel ‘Half Discovered Wings’ and its 2015 e-book re-release will be removed from sale Friday 2nd November.

It will remain available from Amazon for Kindle or Smashwords for other e-readers until that date.

—db

 

‘Rick and Morty’ – Why do we love Rick?

Rick-and-morty-wallpaper

‘Rick and Morty’ is a much-beloved animated TV show that follows a nihilistic super-genius scientist (Rick) and his hapless grandson (Morty) on madcap adventures involving time-travel, dimension-hopping and interstellar travel.

If you haven’t seen the show, its popularity might seem strange when you learn that Rick Sanchez is one of the most unpleasant characters on television. He’s the hero of the show, but he’s also a high-functioning alcoholic who constantly wears a splash of discoloured saliva on his chin, belches obnoxiously mid-sentence, and generally does whatever takes his fancy or whatever will further his quest for scientific discovery – including theft, cold-blooded murder and brutally insulting his family members, which whom he lives.

Rick 5

To Rick, young Morty is a “walking burlap sack of turds”. He calls his grandchildren “pieces of shit” and claims he can prove it mathematically. He said of Jerry, his daughter Beth’s cowardly self-victimising husband, “You survive because people think ‘Oh, this poor piece of shit, he never gets a break, I can’t stand the deafening silent wails of his wilting soul, I’ll hire him or marry him’.”

Harsh.

Rick asserts that he is “surrounded by inferior pieces of shit” and savagely insults the intelligence of his mostly-likeable grandkids and just about anyone else around him. Granted, he is a proven genius of significant resource and guile, so his arrogance may not be misplaced. But he is undoubtedly mean, selfish and disgusting.

Rick 2

So why is Rick one of the most likeable characters on the show?

Could it lie in the show’s great writing?

Most of the characters on ‘Rick and Morty’ are three-dimensional and endearing, despite possessed of some pretty serious emotional problems. The success of the show could come down to the balancing of its fine comedy (at the same time blindingly intelligent and scatological) against its ability to make us care about the characters, their flaws, and the promise of their redemption. Even Jerry’s doomed marriage to Beth (they are described as co-dependent and hateful of both themselves and each other) is a point of remorse for the characters’ many fans.

Viewers were unexpectedly moved in an early episode, when Morty is forced to replace a dead version of himself in a parallel reality and carry on with his life as though nothing happened. Morty sits on the sofa with the doppelgangers of his family, staring at an identical version of his home in bewilderment.

On the surface, Rick is vicious, egotistical and self-centred. But the show gradually reveals his nihilistic world-view (or universes-view), which might explain his often-dour expression. Nothing matters in an uncaring reality, he would say. Rick abandoned his daughter as a child to pursue his scientific endeavours and never showed any sign of regret, even though Beth’s abandonment issues are the reason she is trapped in a depressing marriage and is too afraid to confront her dad about the dungeon he built under their garage where he imprisons aliens.

Rick 1

And yet, in the Season 2 finale, Rick sacrifices his freedom for the sake of his family, a moment meaningfully underscored by “Hurt” from Nine Inch Nails. Rick’s nonsensical catchphrase, always said with verve and a smile, is revealed to secretly translate as “I am in great pain, please help me”.

But it isn’t Rick’s unforced depth of character, unusual for an animated TV series, that makes a largely hateful man likable.

It’s because no matter his methods, Rick is good at what he does.

It would be pointless to list Rick’s fictional scientific achievements (like the microscopic universe containing a civilization he created to power his car battery), but they are beside the point. It’s Rick’s surety and expertise that frequently save the day.

This essay on writing from writer Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) explains the need to have your protagonist be good at what they do – He calls it establishing your authority. By showing your reader that your protagonist really knows what they’re talking about, you are creating a character that not only feels real, but is endearing. No matter how flawed or even evil your character may be, if they are an expert at something then there is something for the reader to admire. At the same time, the reader will trust you to tell a story that is convincing:

“Prove to your reader that you’ve done your research. That your narrator is the best, most-qualified person to tell this story. This method won’t engage the reader emotionally […] but it can be impressive and compelling.”

Palahniuk calls this the “Head Method”. It counterbalances the more common “Heart Method”, appealing to your character’s feelings and making them emotionally believable.

“You could also argue that Tom Clancy uses the Head Method. The way military and government procedures and technology are used to assure a reader that the protagonist is smart and trained – and therefore worth spending time with. This includes wonderful insider, jargon-y language.”

Palahniuk refers to The Contortionist’s Handbook, a novel by Craig Clevenger, who uses “a wealth of information to establish the narrator’s authority as a forger – a criminal so adept at his job that we can forgive his crimes because we’re so impressed by his obsessive, methodical work habits and skill.”

Palahnium knows what he’s talking about: One of the best things about Fight Club (book or film) is that every other line is a bit of information you didn’t know – what goes into a homemade bomb, or how a cinema project reel works. Learning as you go, you begin to intimiately trust the narrator as well as the writer. You realise you’re reading “something good”, not to mention informative and fun.

Rick is an arsehole, but he can always explain a complicated situation and how he is going to resolve it. Whether it’s more basic expositional dialogue, like explaining the characteristics of a particular alien race to the clueless Morty, or filling the viewer in on the plot so far, the result is that Rick is shown to be knowledgeable and capable.

How capable is Rick? In one episode he finds himself transformed into a sentient pickle, unable to move, and washed into a sewer. When anyone else would shrivel up and rot, Rick bites the head off a cockroach, uses his tongue to stimulate the nerves in its exposed brain, and uses its corpse to build an exoskeleton out of rat bones and sinew. Soon enough he’s on his way home to get himself de-picklised. The episode is a celebration of his unbridled genius, even though meanwhile his family is in a therapy session discussing Rick’s unrelenting selfishness.

Rick 6

But the ‘Head Method’ is as dicey a writing approach as any other. Take it too far and you run the risk of realising the ‘unique protagonist asset‘ trope, basically making your hero a superhero and suspending disbelief (Think MacGyver making a functional defibrillator out of some candlesticks and a live wire). A moderate example would be Jason Bourne, whose excellent combat skills set him apart from his foes even though he doesn’t remember how he got them.

‘Rick and Morty’ has come highly recommended by me for some time, but it’s only the most recent two seasons that have shown Rick at his worst, and at his best. For writers looking for tips on characterisation, pay close attention to the twisted psychology of Beth and Jerry and the co-dependent conflict evident in their marriage, and the scientific brilliance of an otherwise hateful Rick.

Imagine a Rick who was bad at science, who had no expertise at all … Would he still be likeable?

—db

A temporary notice to clients

Dear current and future clients,

I will be unavailable for work between 26th April and 6th May 2018.

I will have some limited access to my emails, so please feel free to send any queries or quote requests that you might like me to look at upon my return.

This will not affect any current, ongoing projects.

With kind regards,

David

Bollywood’s latest legal wrangle is more than a petty squabble

626518-padmavati-deepika-shahid-ranveer-collage

You may not have heard, since British news seems largely uninterested in covering the story, but a Bollywood film has had major attention across India this week. “Padmavat”, the story of a Hindu rani defying a Muslim ruler, has been barred from release in four of India’s states. Since November, India’s High Court has been involved to overturn the local bans amidst a violent outcry.

The film stars favourite leads Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, who have previously been paired up in similar epics Ram-Leela, a 2013 Romeo and Juliet-type tragedy, and Bajirao Mastani (2015).

Why the uproar? Although specific complaints have been about the sexualised treatment of Rajput legendary figure Padmavati (the “i” was removed from the film’s name in a superficial bid to appease some, following a recommendation by the Central Board of Film Certification, who approved the film’s release uncut). In a single scene, Muslim ‘king’ Alauddin Khilji dreams of a saucy tryst with the revered beauty Padmavati, the depiction of which has outraged Hindus across India.

To be clear, the film is not, strictly speaking, a romantic picture. So what is the real problem?

As usual, it’s about Hindus and Muslims, who just can’t seem to get along. It’s not surprising following centuries of invasions, massacres, Partition, heated rhetoric and ongoing bloody conflict. Frustrating is the way that the two sides can’t leave history where it belongs, in the past, and work towards a future of peace and cooperation. It’s easy for me to say. But it’s also easy to do. One simply puts down the sword.

I’ve simplified: it’s not just about Hindus and Muslims. It’s also about India and Pakistan, and about women and men. Women have a pretty shit deal in both countries. Padmavati is idolised as a powerful woman, despite her act of power being sati, suicide-by-fire. In this case her self-immolation was to protect herself from being ravaged by the enemy, but almost always sati was and is an act of social pressure and culturally-imbued madness on behalf of a widow, whose death must inevitably follow that of her husband if she is to remain pure and respectful. She does not, in any real sense, feel like she has a choice. I myself have seen the red paint handprints on walls of village buildings and forts that were the historic signatures of those about to die because of men.

I would like to say that the film controversy is, in some way, in sisterhood with the powerful MeToo movement/s here in the West, but it’s not. Boil it down, and it’s still about Hindus and Muslims.

So powerful is the outrage that the as-yet unreleased film has inspired the following:

  • Mass protests across large portions of the country, primarily Hindu-strong regions such as Rajasthan
  • Legal attempts to ban the film, or at least censor it
  • The invasion of the film set by one of India’s growing sinister caste groups, and personal attacks on the director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali
  • Vandalism of cinemas who hadn’t denounced the film
  • Threats of violence against the lead actress, Padukone
  • The burning of effigies of Bhansali, and
  • A £1m+ bounty on the heads of Padukone and Bhansali.

Bhansali has denied that the film includes such a sequence at all.

But such is the mass madness that comes with the peculiar mob mentality of some Indians. Fuelled by ignorance of the truth, validated by the belief that they are on the side of God or gods, and buoyed by centuries of bloodshed and bigotry (against both faith and gender), violence has washed across the country yet again.

Padmavati is not a historical figure, but a fictional heroine, here portrayed in a work of fiction.

Is it naive to expect sense from hordes who are lit on such fuel? Yes, obviously, but to paraphrase Lenon, I’m not the only dreamer. My India novel ‘Cycles of Udaipur‘ was a necessarily naive novel, written from the outside by someone who doesn’t have a stake in the ancient fued between Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Only, I do have a stake, and it is a desire for less death and suffering in the world, on behalf of humanity, and as a member of the human race I was more than happy to speak out in my own modest if offensive way.

When I passed free copies of ‘Cycles’ to my Indian and Pakistani friends I was always told that the first chapter was good. But then followed silence. The novel is about the growing pains of modern India, a grand attestation I make, with some embarrassment, through a more modest analogy of teen rabblerousers in Rajasthan. In part it is also about the romance between near-atheist Hindu boy, Shivlal, and near-irreverent Muslim girl, Mariam. Told, I hope, sweetly, but paying due respect, I also hope, to the fierce history that precedes my shallow experience with the societies involved, I expected the star-crossed romance to go by without much offense caused. My desi friends, after all, were worldly-wise and, in their small ways, irreverent of their own traditions to get involved with this gora backpacker/kafir scribbler. But their silence spoke volumes.

I make explanations for my naivety: It is naivety that will allow dreams to pave the way for future change. I make explanations but not excuses, since I was deliberately naive, and because an ‘enforced naivety’ – the choosing to forget about the things that don’t matter, in order to make things better for ourselves and our children – is what India and Pakistan need. But who am I to say this? I am a human stakeholder, that’s who.

It’s hard for me to hide my sad, weary disappointment. There is a lot of love in the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been. But passion is a double-edged sword, and it continues to threaten to slice on both swings. I hope that there can be some new peace and cooperation found once this latest scandal blows over.

—db


The BBC has given some small coverage to the controversy, here, here and here.

You can read about ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ here. 50% of profits go to Action Village India.

I strongly encourage discussion on this and related matters! Leave a comment here or email me at davidbrookesuk(at)gmail(dot)com.