How To Turn A Maze Into A Labyrinth

Well, the manuscript – and the cover – for my first novel, The White And Silver Shore, have been uploaded on CreateSpace. Hurray! They were both accepted at the initial stage last night, for Formatting Review. I wait with baited breath.

So this morning, I thought I would tackle a different aspect of this publishing malarky – the finances. This involves working one’s way through – yes, you’ve guessed it – a maze of information on Royalty Payments, Tax Deductions, Book Production Costs, Pricing and I’m certain a few other categories yet to be revealed.

My favourite section so far has been about the acquisition of an EIN (not a TIN) for the purposes of Exemption from Tax Withholding by Amazon on behalf of the IRS, courtesy of an International Treaty arrangement between my country (UK) and Amazon’s (US). This is one part of the requirement to complete an on-line Tax Interview, which is accompanied by an array of notes bearing the proud title of Tax Interview Help.

This magnificent set of instructions, which I have no doubt contains the answers to all my questions, including ones I didn’t even know I needed to ask, was almost impenetrable. Today is actually the third time I have tried to read this through, and at each attempt, I have been reminded of a Marx Brothers’ sketch which runs something along the lines of: “The party of the first party …” On each of my previous attempts, I have ended up switching films and going for “Let’s call the whole thing off”!

This morning, however, CreateSpace weren’t really going to let me go much further in my publishing quest without facing this demon. So I started to collate all the information I was reliably informed I would need to make the dreaded international phonecall to the IRS’s special helpline for the application of an Employee Identification Number (EIN), including calculating what time I could begin said phonecall, given that the UK’s clocks are currently five hours ahead of those on the ‘East Coast’.

By this stage, I was close to panic, which isn’t really like me. But something about phonecalls, timezones and uncertainty re necessary information, not to mention the atrocious behaviour of my dog when I ring someone (apparently, playing ball with accompanying squeaks, barks and whines is an essential ingredient of any good phone conversation) all colluded to make me feel this was going to be an impossible task. And various on-line comments and blogs I’d discovered on the subject seemed to confirm my misgivings.

So, before I began, I thought to take a look at the Tax Interview itself – rather stupidly, something I had not yet done, only something I’d read about. The first page required merely straight-forward information such as my name and address. Even in my current state of anxiety, I could manage this.

Having been exceedingly impressed by CreateSpace’s on-line processes so far, (they appear to automatically save anything you put in there and to regurgitate it in a more appropriate form when you need it again, offering you multiple opportunities to edit along the way,) I thought I would follow the Interview pages as far as they would let me go until the infamous EIN issue was raised.

To my complete amazement, and eternal gratitude, I discovered this morning that they’ve changed the procedure. I no longer need an EIN (only obtainable from the IRS themselves) but can use instead whatever my local taxing authority recognise as a TIN (Tax Identification Number). In this case, my National Insurance Number suffices (what one might call a NIN, I suppose). In a matter of minutes, I had exempted myself from Tax Withholding of my royalties – a task it has taken several months of courage-building to tackle. Duh!

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1/ A maze is an intrigue of misleading directions, a complex of pathways designed to get you lost, never taking you anywhere useful or enjoyable, and never allowing either escape or satisfactory conclusion.

2/ A labyrinth is a meandering pathway which only travels in one direction – albeit taking interesting detours along the way – its ultimate goal being a special destination at its heart, which allows a return journey from a changed perspective.

3/ A maze can be turned into a labyrinth by:                                                                                   a) finding the right way in                                                                                                             b) walking the path in trust                                                                                                           c) taking note of the scenery                                                                                               and d) not banging your head against every brick wall you encounter – especially the ones you create for yourself!

All the right words, just not necessarily …

As production on my book draws to a close, (yes, I finally worked out how to load the cover I made into a CreateSpace template, only to discover it didn’t actually fit, and had to go back to the drawing board – literally – to resize bits of it …) I have recently found myself reflecting on the rules for writing a good book.

I say ‘rules’ because that is the way that some people sell this glorious enterprise to me. There are accepted ways of doing things, apparently. Like how to design a good plot (this one before you ever start writing), how to structure your story into chapters (also before you start writing), how to ‘design’ believable characters (before they visit your page) and create enticing dialogue (before … you guessed it).

What is your main conflict? they ask. Who are your protagonists and what are their flaws? Have you decided on a setting and collected suitable descriptions to portray it? Does your story have pace, intrigue and consumer-interest? What will be your ending? Who is your target market? Do I care anymore?!!!

It’s hardly any wonder that many people who’d like to try writing a novel, never get started. By the time you’ve waded through all that pre-planning, it takes a very determined and strongly aligned personality to remember what it was you wanted to create in the first place.

And of the people who do get going – even finishing a piece of work – I know of a good many who believe that what they’ve written is not really any good because it doesn’t ‘fit’ the rules, and their confidence is completely undermined.

Someone gave me a book to read recently – one that’s out there, in the market – and I dutifully started to read it. Perhaps they’d enjoyed it, perhaps they were trying to  encourage me – I don’t know. But it was dry. Stiff and stilted. At least to my reading mind.

Sure, the author had followed the rules – set up the conflicts (there were several), introduced their characters ‘properly’, structured their dialogue according to etiquette. Yes, they’d definitely followed the rules. The story passed through all the appropriate and recommended phases – the invitation to engage, the resulting challenge, the struggle to succeed, the apparent failure leading to eventual success. But, boy, could you spot the manual! It was like writing by numbers …

In contrast, I watched something this weekend, the like of which I would not normally countenance. It was a detective story but one that had gory violence, overt sex scenes, disturbing images, unlikeable characters and a lot of ‘darkness’. Not really my cup of tea at all, on the face of it. But it had two superb actors heading up the cast: Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. And I was intrigued.

An eight-episode series, available as a box-set, which I came across by accident while trawling the internet. (This was one of my more fortunate internet accidents.) Called True Detective. I sat and watched three straight episodes on Saturday afternoon. Something else I never do; I’m not a TV glutton. But I was completely blown away by the standard of the writing, of the acting, the pacing, the characters, the structure and story-telling … not to mention the philosophising, which McConaughey’s character engages in. It was utterly compelling. I can honestly say it is years since I have seen something of that calibre on TV.

So what is it that made the box set so awesome and the book so tedious? What is that magical ingredient? They both used the rules but one came out merely as a ‘kit’ – a set of instructions, pieced together technically and scientifically. The other began in the middle, with heart, and slowly expanded outwards, feeling its way with authenticity – like a mandala. Using the rules, but never once letting them make the decisions.

When it comes to rules, I’m with the Pirates: “The Code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules”.

A Little Something And Nothing

An extra long offering this week. I thought I would share a piece I wrote last week for group I go to. The brief for the evening was: Choose something in history and write about your own take on it ….

It will probably not be a surprise to hear that I’ve never had much time for conventional history. Stories of great men doing great things … As far as I can see, the greatness often has an exponential relationship with the number of dead bodies accumulated. Not a fact that’s going to impress me.

I am much more interested in the history of ideas and of particular people. So when I read the brief for this evening – ‘Choose something in history’ – my mind immediately went to a topic that covers both those interests. I decided to write something about nothing. I chose to delve into the history of Zero.

Zero is a fascinating concept, not least because it has not always existed. Obviously, the absence of things has always been a possibility but the representation of this as a numerical digit has not. Even the ancient Babylonians, who are commonly credited with the introduction of a place-holder (a symbol representing the absence of a digit in a longer number such as 204 in decimal systems), did not actually use a circle for this, nor indeed, any consistent notation.

Zero does not appear in Europe until 1202 when Fibonacci used it as part of his numerical system, developed from the Hindu-Arabic decimal system which included a circle ‘to keep the rows’. This circle was named sifr, an Arabic word for ‘empty’. Even then, it took a further four hundred years before the first recorded English use of the word.

At various times, the concept of zero has created enormous controversy, even being considered as dangerous. And one can get a glimpse of why, when its numerous mathematical functions are considered. Added to, or subtracted from, any other number, it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. Similarly, when placed at the start of a longer number, or at the end of a number including a decimal point, it has no impact at all.

However, use zero in multiplication and it has the power to wipe out any other number completely. And if one were foolish enough to consider using it in division, one would quickly conjure up that other numerical anomaly: infinity.

A very dangerous idea, indeed.

The ancient Greeks took the safe approach by having no name for zero, and by never using a place-holder, for – as any logical person knows – how can nothing be something?

The challenge, however, could not be ignored. Any philosopher worth his salt would be found bringing an argument to bear about the uncertain interpretation of, the nature and existence of, zero. The debates summoned the best minds in both philosophy and religion. Enter Zeno of Elea.

Zeno was a Greek philosopher who pre-dated Aristotle and Plato, and just about overlapped Socrates. But Zeno was, perhaps, less interested in ascertaining the truth than it pointing out it wasn’t really there. He was a lover of paradox, and reminds me of those children I used to teach who, after I had delivered a brilliant and carefully prepared explanation of some mathematical or scientific theorem, would ask the single question that immediately exposed its flaws. This appears to have been Zeno’s talent, too.

I’m sure you have within your panoply of knowledge a record of his famous explanations for why the arrow can never reach its target, and how Achilles can never overtake the tortoise. But just in case you have forgotten, I’ll reiterate the second story, as briefly as I can. I was brought up on these anomalies so they are favourites of mine – for what is life without paradox?

However, as a youngster, there was always an added complication for me, since I was also often quoted the story of the hare and the tortoise. Sometimes, it was difficult to remember which tortoise I was dealing with, since they both seemed to be involved in a race which they could not possibly win, but always did. I believe, when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I privately thought: ‘a tortoise’.

Achilles, it seems, did not share my admiration of tortoises and rather cockily, began his race by giving the tortoise a head start. In fact, he was so confident, that he suggested the tortoise start halfway down the track. Zeno would explain to his audience that by the time Achilles had reached this halfway point, the tortoise would have moved forward by, say, a tenth of the distance Achilles had covered. Then, as Achilles, moved across the ground to reach this tenth further, the tortoise would have moved a further tenth of that distance, thus remaining in front of his pursuer.

Obviously, however far Achilles ran down the track, the tortoise would always be just one tenth of the previous distance ahead of him. Obviously.

By all accounts, Zeno would drive his contemporaries nuts with his stories. And not just his contemporaries. All down the ages, from Diogenes the Cynic to Bertrand Russell, philosophers have proposed solutions to, and refutations of, the tortoise’s success. Men the world over have spent valuable time trying their best to point out logically just where Zeno got it wrong. Though I find Diogenes’ highly intellectual response one of the most amusing. Apparently, he just turned his back and left the room!

I think Lewis Carroll had the best take on it when he transcribed an imaginary conversation between Achilles and the tortoise, which concludes with yet another innocent question on the part of the tortoise, who refuses to accept the logic placed in front of him. Achilles’ logical response? ‘Then Logic would take you by the throat and force you to do it!’

Zeno, you see, understood that logic alone cannot account for the workings of the Universe. He was also a student of metaphysics, so concepts such as zero and infinity held only fascination for him, not fear. In fact, his stories turn out to be pre-cursors of the wonderful paradoxes which are now a recognised part of quantum physics: Schrodinger’s cat, for example, who is both alive and dead at the same time; the discovery that light behaves both as a wave and particles at once; the realisation that the position of an electron in an atom can only be estimated as a probability, never as a certainty, since as soon as an observer observes, the scenario changes. This last phenomenon has now been labelled as the Quantum Zeno Effect. And let’s not forget that most of what’s in the atom is emptiness, anyway!

Which brings us full circle. Circle. Sifr. Zero.

I am with Zeno and Carroll on this. I find myself a subscriber to Conventionalism. The proposition that fundamental principles are often grounded on shared societal agreements rather than on an external reality. Zero, you see, is both something and nothing.


Imbolc: A New Hope

Last Wednesday, I celebrated the start of Spring in the Celtic calendar – Imbolc. This is always a very special time of year for me. The festival of Brighid, Bride, Ffraid, Brigantia …. depending on your tradition and culture. The point at which it becomes obvious that the days are lengthening and the earth – the soil – is warming. The appearance of Snowdrops.

The first flowers to show their heads – though never their faces – these are magical little flowers. With their drooping, shy demeanor, reflecting their light back into the earth to renew, encourage and beckon forth the hidden life that lies there, waiting. Waiting for just the right moment.

For me, it often seems as if this is the start of the new year. The energy changes, somehow, giving glimpses of opportunities yet to be made apparent, and summoning us to leave behind our comforting sleepiness and to venture out. Our wintry hibernation has had its place and if we used it well, we will feel renewed and ready for what might come.

…… Provided we can leave the past behind ……

And there’s the rub. For many of us – and I definitely include myself  in this – despite our protestations that we’re turning over a new leaf, setting new goals, moving on with our lives, etc., sometimes it just doesn’t happen. For all that the scenery has changed – maybe a new job, a new hobby, different food – if we forget to release the past at a conscious level, we suddenly find we’re in the same old, same old.

This used to happen to me over and over, and I never understood why until someone shared a very simple affirmation with me: I release the old to make way for the new.

It took me quite a while to get my head round this. After all, I grew up in a culture where accumulation was prized. The only things we threw away were those labelled ‘disposable’, which, as we now sadly realise, has led to the accumulation of land pollution, sea pollution and air pollution.

Having ‘things’ was a habit we cultivated, so the idea that I couldn’t take on something new without first clearing a space for it, was strange and alien to me. Especially in the world of beliefs, thoughts, behaviours, …

The Snowdrop, with its simple innocence, reminds me every year of the importance of this truth. It braves the snows and frosts, leaving behind the security of the dark, the warmth, the familiar. It puts its delicate bloom above the parapet to sing and dance in the chilly breezes. It lets go of where it has been to declare a new way of being – one born of light and love.

In the uncertainty that many people are experiencing at this time, I believe this fragile little flower has a powerful message to impart. It symbolises, I feel, that nothing has to stay the same. That if old ways are no longer working, we can bring changes to bear. That if lots of vulnerable beings come together to create a swathe of beauty, the truth of that is unstoppable.

Just as in one of my all-time favourite films, if each one of us reveals what sits in our hearts, the world can only become a better place. And the delicate Snowdrop speaks to us of that New Hope.