I finally worked out what my novel is about

I finally worked out what my novel is about.

This came on the back of some anticipated anxiety ahead of going to a BBQ with some new family friends over the weekend. My passion for writing is not something I volunteer unless directly asked. But I always imagine under what circumstances the subject may arise and how I’d handle it. And with this chat-route programmed into the Google (Conversation) Map app in my head, I played out a scene every writer and wannabe author has encountered in response to the statement, ‘I love to write’:

 

Them:   Oh (as if this is in some way unfortunate). Have you had anything published?

Me:        No.

Them:   (look of both disappointment and smugness right away apparent) What sort of, um, (searches for a word that might bridge the gap between their understanding of what a writer is and does and what I might do), things do you write about?

Me:        Fictional stories, mostly, in a modern, contemporary setting. I’m interested in journeys that see a person pushed far beyond what they thought they could handle and what happens next.

Them:   Are you writing anything now?

Me:        Yes. I’ve been working on a novel for a little over a year.

Them:   (here it comes…) What’s it about?

Me:        Um…(pauses, uncertainty and bashfulness writ large upon my face)

Laptop-with-blank-notepad

I always felt I needed to be able to sum up whatever I am writing into one brief sentence, into a tag-line, or log-line. This statement needs to convey the totality of my novel and my inability to do so (see my previous post about the dreaded synopsis) confirms my failure as a writer and communicator.

Not that I’m in such an insecure place as a writer at the moment. But now and then doubt creeps in.

In fact, while this situation was playing out in my head I happened to be washing dishes, the sudsy water especially hot. I’ve decided that washing dishes is akin to hot showers and the link to creativity and idea-generation. Any act that can sufficiently absorb us and consume our primary attention can be a godsend when it comes to releasing repressed epiphanies.

In the middle of my gentlest attempts to clean our best champagne flutes, it came to me, what my novel is about.

For so long, I’ve being trying to formulate it in the following way:

My novel is about [this].

This’ being the one singular and overriding theme or purpose of the story.

As I rinsed excess soapy bubbles off the base and stem of the glasses, it all became so evident. My novel is actually about [this] and [this], and [this] too. There’s a few other things I could throw in, but hey, for right now, it’s a good place to start.

It’s what any novel is about. One sentence just won’t do it. And it doesn’t have to.

interstellar-posterIt was while watching the film Interstellar a year ago when I saw how the many tectonic plates that comprised the world created by writers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan fused together to form one larger world. A world where there was not one prevailing idea, but many, all co-existing, each ebbing and flowing as the story unfolded:

 

  • What does having hope, making a promise and faith in others cost us?
  • When are we best served by being brave or cautious?
  • Love as truly a tangible, observable phenomenon
  • To be able to move on (in the case of the movie, survive) we have to be willing to let go and lose something

 

On some level of comprehension, in that cinema, it made perfect sense to me. Though it’s taken another 12 months before I’ve been really able to absorb this understanding and make it manifest in my own writing.

christopher-nolan-jonathan-nolan

So much of my own writing journey over the past 4 years has been about unlearning what I thought I knew, then humbling myself and my presumed abilities so that I can learn anew what’s really important about writing, and myself as a writer and person.

As I left the glasses to drain and went to work on the breakfast plates, this all felt very big. And so I did what I’m learning to do more often. I took a breath, dried my hands, grabbed a pen and paper and wrote down a few notes. Then I finished the rest of the dishes, a little happy with myself, a little awed by how much I still have to learn.

How to change the world into words

My top three pieces of writing advice? Stop whining and write. Stop fucking around and write. Stop making excuses and write.    – Nora Roberts

Screen-shot-2011-04-01-at-9.05.04-PM

Sean Macgillicuddy: There’s writing, and there’s being a writer. Writing doesn’t always make you a writer any more than being a writer makes for better writing. That said, a good rule of thumb in becoming and being a writer is to turn up. Whatever that might be – a couple of hours a morning, late at night, or a number of assigned days a week that slot in with your other job, the one you do part-time for money – the hours you turn up are like surgery, or a precision athlete mid race. It’s a contract, this turning up to write. If you want a personal day or you don’t feel well, it’s a big deal. A really big deal. And don’t be shy. Let everybody know that this space is where and when you turn up to write and, within, reason, if the world wants you for anything it can go fuck itself. Alternatively, and this applies more to emerging writers than writers with an established path or agent or contract, find a writer you admire and pretend to be them: clothes, habits, hair. If they’re alive, attend a function as them. If they’re dead, the same. Transcribe one of their better known works – Illywhacker, say, if you’re Peter Carey – and look for a publisher under your own name. Enter it into competitions, a master class or two at Varuna, use it to find a mentor. If people ask what you’re working on, tell them. If they say it sounds a lot like Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, deny you’ve read it, or accuse Peter Carey of plagiarism, or confound them with some sleight of hand question like, ‘You’re not one of those people who never read anything they haven’t written themselves, are you?’ When you’re inevitably discovered, the lesson to take from the exercise, the tip, is to believe you have something to say. That inherent within you is something that matters, that’s legitimate, that carries with it an urgency and how it’s told will come. At that point, see above.

Ken: The view from my desk.

Ken Ward: Write when it’s hard to, when you don’t want to – are too tired, too disinterested, not inspired enough. It’s here your efforts will satisfy you the most.

The view from my desk.

 

 

Jane: Current workplace.

Jane Abbott: Forget everything the books tell you. Write with passion, as one possessed; write what you would love to read. Sacrifice everything else in order to write. And never, ever give up.

 

 

 

Elise: The State Library of NSW is most conducive. Except they won't let me sleep here.

Elise Janes: Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Life’s too short, and there’s too much to be said and done to waste time measuring sticks. You may need to leave the country to get any useful artistic work done because Australia is small and insecure and so are most of its cultural gatekeepers. Don’t let them trick you into thinking the world is small. They are just afraid. Don’t be afraid. Write what you want to write and forget everyone else.

Conan Elphicke: When my children’s books ‘go Rowling’, or even get published, then I’ll start dispensing tips. You won’t be able to shut me up. Until then …

Carmel: My workspace is wherever I happen to put my laptop. Usually, I have a mug of tea by my side.

Carmel Purcell: I don’t feel that I am skilled enough to give tips because I am still learning. But, I guess if I have any advice it is…learn to appreciate criticism. Criticism is inevitable and very important in the field of writing. I am a very stubborn person so this is something I will always struggle with.

My workspace is wherever I happen to put my laptop. Usually, I have a mug of tea by my side.

 

 

Ashlee: An obvious addiction to Apple products.

Ashlee Poeppmann: Keep writing! Every day, about something or about nothing! It’s all about practise and finding what you’re comfortable with. This is the best advice I’ve received from other writers, and it works best for me.

An obvious addiction to Apple products.

 

 

 

 

 

The Dreaded Synopsis

This week I had a wobbly moment. Old fears resurfaced. Past anxieties tried to sink their claws in.

Efforts to prepare my work for submission saw me make blundering attempt after blundering attempt to write a synopsis. What is it with these short forms of message conveyance that terrify me so?

writing_humour_synopsis-scaled500

Over the years I’ve had no shortage of conversations with fellow writers on this subject. We say their names with scorn and undisguised disrespect: Log lines. Blurbs. Outlines.

A common question is uttered with disdain: How am I expected to condense my entire novel into 25 words, 1 paragraph, two pages? (choose your poison)

We sigh. We cringe. We try not to show how daunted we are at the prospect of doing these very things.

And so, for my part, I remained dismissive of these stalwarts of the publishing world’s submission requirements. I put those unaddressed fears in an envelope, put the envelope in the post addressed to a day that’s always tomorrow.

Except, this week, I was forced to peek inside the envelope. And there it was – the fear that my inability to address flaws in my last project were back and a ticking time bomb at the core of this current project.

These flaws include:

  • An overreliance on back story
  • Key moments that occur outside of the scope of the novels’ time frame (that possibly should not)
  • And the worst one of all – that the character’s struggle does not make sense.

Questions (criticisms and self-chastising) ensued.

  • How could I end up here again?
  • Have I learned nothing?
  • Why do I keep repeating the same mistakes?

I wobbled. My stomach did a few flip-flops. I spent a testing 50 minutes on the train home from work wondering whether eight months of work was about to slip through my fingeman-writing-booksrs. It was all disappearing and the version of reality where I am not good enough was bearing down upon me.

Then I made the decision not to accept this – to fight back. I swallowed my pride. I reached out. Through social media and email I asked friends for help with writing a synopsis. Saviours came to my aid. Their kind words and offers of assistance gave me renewed hope.

The wobble passed and I was still standing, my latest project still intact. And the synopsis?

It’s three pages long with aspirations to be a slender two. I’m getting there…with a little help from my friends.

The Necessary Delusion

I’ve written extensively these past few months about the various ways in which my last manuscript fell apart and the effect it’s had upon me as a writer, and person. In the end, where I fell over was a combination of insufficient planning and my rewriting skills not being up to scratch. More than 8 months since making the decision to step away from that project, I feel the coldness toward it only time and absence can bring.

However, for the 18 months I lived and breathed life in the fictional Northern Oregon township of Kennedy I was convinced of the immenseness of what I was working on. When I look back now, I can see there was a clear axis around which the helices of a double-helix spiralled.

Digital illustration of a dna

One helices was the writing process.  The practical act of writing, planning, revising, plotting, rewriting. Creating time in my day to execute the task of getting words from my imagination onto a computer screen.

Carried along the second helices, though, was the fuel that stoked the fires of my imagination. The flames began as small thoughts: Wouldn’t it be great if this novel was published? Moments of pure serendipity and hours of hard work were kindling to the fire: How will getting published change my life?

In no time at all a great inferno was burning: Imagine this book was really good, really important?

As the story’s characters and struggles became infused into the very core of my being, so did the fantastical notions I had about the impact I was about to make on the literary world. I can tell you know, at different times I imagined winning the Man-Booker Prize, being on Oprah’s Book of the Week club and even winning an Oscar for Best Screen Play for the movie adaptation of the novel. These were all intensely lived fantasies. Each left an emotional mark upon me and served to spur me on the write more, write quicker.

BRENTWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Nate Sanders displays the collection of Oscar statuettes that his auction company will sell online to the highest bidder on February 24, 2012 in Brentwood, California. (Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images)

In my head, I was on top of the world. As one part of me toiled away with the pragmatic business of producing a novel, the other part of me basked in all manner of glories that were soon to be bestowed upon because of the impact this book would have.

Yes, you can say it. It’s okay.

I was delusional. A part of me had lost the run of itself.

For a time as I stood in the smouldering embers of the novel when I had burnt it to the ground, I was quite hard on myself because of how far I had let myself go.

But now, I’m softening. Why?

I think a writer or an artist, any creative soul, needs a healthy dose of delusion to help fan the flames of inspiration and motivation. I’ll keep the ‘we’ out of this as I don’t want to be overly prescriptive, and instead stick to the ‘I’ of this matter.

I need to believe my story is fresh and original – only I can tell this story in this way, no one else. I need to believe I’m expressing an idea that speaks to people about some facet of humanity they can understand. I need to believe that some greater good will come to me as a result of all the time, effort and passion I will pour into this project.

I’m learning how to manage this idea of ‘greater good’ so that my delusions remain healthy and in check. Greater good is writing for my own pleasure. It’s about being grateful for the sense of purpose expressing myself through writing brings to my life. And, how being a writer connects me to likeminded souls.

I’ve been working on my latest novel since January. What’s helping keep my emotions and expectations in check is a mantra designed to quell the rampant demands of my writerly delusions:

I’m writing for my own pleasure, for the joy it brings me and how being a writer gives me the courage to live more intensely.

Everything above and beyond this is a bonus.

I still have desires to be published, to see my stories on the shelves of books stores everywhere (or anywhere!). I’ve reigned in thoughts of international literary awards and Hollywood fame.  Now, though, I keep my focus on the work I do each day. Page by page, scene by scene, toward the completion of a complete manuscript. And the resolution to the puzzle this story poses me.

From there, well, let’s wait and see.

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vintage-hearing-aid

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Sir P Speaks: That vain stab at immortality

Dear Sir Partridge

My husband and I have 10 children. Should we have another one so we can field a complete cricket team? Or should we get a pet? If so, which species and breed? Seven of my children want a border collie; two want a cheetah; one wants a meerkat to feed to the cheetah.

Yours in desporation (desperation and adoration)

Beatrice S

vintage family

It’s funny you should mention this, Beatrice, because of late my legion devotees have been hounding me to breed (usually with them). “Do it for the sake of humanity!” they wail. But I refuse. Here’s why: my cleaning lady told me she once walked into her bathroom to find her two-year-old ‘cleaning’ his teeth with the toilet brush. She took this incident in her stride; I have entirely failed to do so.

Yes, having children passes the baton of your title and/or surname to another generation in the great spiralling relay race our DNA makes us run. But in exchange there is much to be endured. One analogy is that children are hugely demanding, wildly expensive pets it takes years to house train. Another is that they are helpless, fickle, merciless, deranged masters who are as unwilling to pay you as they are unable.

Kiddy-winks are diametrically opposite to how they should be. These are the phases a child, in an ideal world, would pass through:

  • 0–12 months: lounging about in their cot, sleeping more or less constantly and making charming gurgling sounds when required
  • 1–5 years: impeccably behaved, self-vaccinating creatures of delight who excel in all sporting and quasi-academic endeavours, putting all your friends’ kids to shame
  • 6–12: perfectly capable of managing your tax and other financial affairs, mixing you a decent cocktail, and capable of and inclined to cook and clean without any expectation of payment
  • 13–18: never surly, sullen or in any way inclined to interact with the wrong type of boy/girl or express any interest in becoming an actor, dancer, poet, artist, writer etc.

There is also a need to interrogate your ancestry and ask yourself what it really has to offer. I am the eldest of the Gormley mass spawning and neither I nor my six siblings are terrific advertisements for passing on our genome. They are all in varying degrees deranged, profligate and perverted:

  • Pemmican – buffoon, male palm-reader, thinks he’s a hipster
  • Petunia – the brains of the outfit but a bit dry and tiresome, truth be told
  • Puddock – amateur mortician and professional taxidermist (or possibly the other way round), Internet troll and general shit
  • Plenitude – psychopath and femme fatale (sorry, Plenny dear, but it’s true)
  • Prunella – lady drunkard; cockatiel-fancier; psoriasis-sufferer
  • Picaroon – diminutive gigolo and all-round Queenslander

So, my dear, ditch the Beatrice XI idea and opt for a pet. Forget the border collie though. Offer your kids either a stick insect or an orang-utan. If they plump for the former, your troubles are over. If they select the latter, don’t be dismayed. These excellent apes are fantastic animal companions for two reasons: a) they make cheap, if mediocre, butlers, and b) when the time comes, their pelts make exceptional throw rugs.

Luv-dubs,

Gormley

Conan Elphicke

Sir Partridge Gormley’s emissions are rendered as coherent as they can be by the ever-patient @ConanElphicke. If you are confused and bewildered, and we suspect you are, by all means send your queries to thecringeblog@gmail.com.

Being a writer: what do you need to make it happen?

I once heard someone say, ‘We would never talk to another person the way we talk to ourselves.’ As writers our self-talk can be highly critical and extremely biting:tumblr_mbffz2ntyg1rtheg4o1_400-323x450

‘This is terrible.’

‘I’ve written nothing today.’

‘I’ll never finish this.’

‘I’m a failure.’

While we’re not always gentle with ourselves, sometimes the gloves need to come off. There’s a state of agitation that exists between satisfaction and dissatisfaction where creativity and motivation are born: the constant arm wrestle between low and high pressure weather systems that vomit thunder and spit lightning.

In these moments we can be at our very best and at our very worst – the line can be very thin. It’s not easy to be both Good Cop and Bad Cop to the vulnerable and sometimes insecure writer inside of us. As I battled, knee-deep, through the detritus of rejection and seeming failure during the latter part of last year I found my only companion was Bad Cop. It wasn’t long before his tired cynicism began to sound like Truth.

And just as I felt the vestiges of one novel and eighteen-months of work slip through my fingers, I experienced a moment of quiet calm. Soon though, whispers of doubt grew louder and seeds of undoing sprouted stems. It was as I resisted this return to negativity that a question emerged from the ether of my subconscious: What do I need to write?

A challenge and carrot. A push and a pull. In the tug-of-war between Good Cop and Bad Cop, the little agitated atoms within me were shaken into a state of heated friction and proposed a way forward.

It didn’t take me long to come up with the three core things I needed to enable me to write and remain committed to my practice of writing on a regular basis:pencil-writing-ftr

 

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Energy

 

  1. Space

Need:    Somewhere I can go where it’s conducive to be a writer and to write.

Action:  I converted the spare room in my house into a writer’s den. I moved in my book cases and stacks of CDs. My notes and plot structures adorn the walls. I’m cocooned in my craft and my stories and my characters.

Result:  I’m writing more regularly, more spontaneously and I’m really enjoying how and what I’m creating.

 

  1. Time

Need:    To carve out thirty, sixty or more minutes per day (or at least five days a week) to write.

Action:  I’m eating more lasagne. I’ve found the 40 minutes while the dish is on the oven a great time to work on some new scenes. On the nights where I’m not eating lasagne it’s either the second I get home from work (thirty minutes of power writing leaves me free to relax for the rest of the evening) or just after a scalding hot shower (the ideas I have in the shower never cease to amaze me).

Result:  Slowly but surely the first draft of my new project is coming together. I’m making steady progress which is very satisfying and keeps Bad Cop at bay.

 

  1. Energy

Need:    To not be fatigued, hungry or tired when I sit down to write. To have the reserves to bring passion and intensity and clarity to my writing.

Action:  Eat better throughout the day. A better breakfast. A good lunch. Some fruit. Something in the afternoon before I leave work. A good dinner when I get home. Exercise – basketball mid-week, football on the weekends. Get a good night’s sleep.

And when I’m not writing, don’t attack myself for not writing. If I’m going to chill out and watch a movie or spend time with a loved one or friend, enjoy that as much as I can. No guilt. No regrets.

Result:  I’m able to get a lot done in a limited amount of time. My writing desk is at a height where I can comfortably stand and type – so I do. And this allows me to bring a lot of movement and dynamism to how write. I’m having so much fun doing what I’m doing.

 

This is the prescription that’s helping me stay on the edge and be sharp in my practice. It’s going to be different for everyone. Each of us will have different elements we’ll need to bring to the table to make our writing work for us. So there’s no one size fits all approach here.

But by starting with one simple and direct question, you’ll be amazed, given application, patience and dedication, where it will lead you. Here’s the challenge:

What do you need to write?

 

Ken Ward

 

Body Image credit: morethanflesh / http://www.lydiamccall.com/heal-negative-body-image/

Sam Simon: A Writer’s Life (Taxi, The Simpsons and so much more)

Up until last week, thesimpsons credits reference Sam Simon was nothing more to me than a name on the credits rolls of The Simpsons. I knew nothing of the man, his life, his achievements, and his role as co-creator on one of the greatest animated series ever. Without The Simpsons, I never would have met my wife and my life would be unimaginably different (not for the better).

sam simon

Sam Simon died on 8th March after a battle with cancer, aged 49. It was only seeing his name alongside The Simpsons in online headlines made me stop and take notice. And having taken notice, his story, his life as a writer and producer offers a lot to inspire.

 

Simon wamighty mouses always a skilled and inventive when it came to drawing. Aged 24, after years of sketching comic strips for the San Francisco Chronicle, he got his first writing credit on The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse soon followed by Heckle & Jeckle and Fat Albert. ‘What I learned, honestly, that was so valuable was…they made me a writer. They said we want you to write scripts.’

Over the next couple of years he worked on a number of shows that were either going nowhere or seemed to be leading him nowhere. The measure of the man came in 1982 when he submitted a script on spec to the TV show Taxi (starring Danny DeVito and Andy Kaufmann).

taxi

‘I wrote a script and I mailed it in…I decided as long as I’m writing TV I should write something I’m not embarrassed about.’

How Simon forged a path for himself based on talent, desire and integrity, reminded me of @elise_janes recent post on The Cringe where she got real about shoulda, coulda, woulda and how bullshit that all is – we need to go after what we want.

These lessons and examples are all around us: people who achieve through a willingness to work hard with no guarantee of a return, no guarantee of acknowledgement or success. Those who commit themselves to following through on their creative endeavour, because it matters. Maybe you know someone like this. Maybe this is who are working hard to become. I know I am.

Sam Simon left us writers and creators with three tips. In his own words, this is ‘the best advice ever’:

  1. Story above all
  2. Don’t be afraid of the quiet moments
  3. Love your characters

I’ll give the last word to The Simpsons themselves. On the most recent show, which aired in the US on Sunday 15th March, they ended the episode with a simple and touching tribute:

thank you

 

Ken Ward

 

(Quotes sourced from Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF, ‘Episode 389 – Sam Simon’, May 16, 2013)

Sir P Speaks: The Problem of First-World Problems

Dear Sir P

I’m worried that all my travails are essentially First-World problems. I no longer feel entitled to complain, or even feel aggrieved. This has left a gnawing, hollow sensation inside of me. Which is itself, I suppose, a First-World problem. And so I find myself wandering around in ever-decreasing circles of self-loathing. How do I continue to complain without feeling like a bit of a dickhead?

Adoringly,

Terrance V

 

Well, dear Terrance, we can’t have you loathing yourself. However, it is a tiresome thing when people witter about the built-in redundancy of their iFads or how their favourite charcuterie has just been closed down. While it’s true that people in the Third World suffer from bunions at least as much as people in the West do, it would be fair to say that bunions are the least of their problems.

graveyard_of_indiscretions

If First World Problems Could Kill

Meanwhile, the issue for us Westerners is, when does a particular problem become legitimately whinge-worthy? If say, your beloved girlfriend dispenses with you, it is a bad thing and you are entitled to moan about it. But let’s call that a Second-World problem (and, dear readers, please don’t email me explaining the proper definition of the Second World; even baronets go to school).

But what about when your hitherto excellent wife leaves you for a lion-tamer or similar and takes the kids with her, plus half the house and Augustus, your Labrador-kelpie cross on whom you’ve doted since he was a puppy? Now, that’s a legitimate, bare-knuckled disaster wherever in the world you happen to live. Particularly when said wife then updates her Facebook status to: ‘Free at last from that fat, inbred nutter’.

Though I’m not very insightful generally I have noticed that most people get around the problem you’ve raised, dear Terrance, by not even bothering to do so. If you’ve not spent your childhood grubbing about on a Manila garbage dump then premature hair loss or unusually bulbous earlobes will seem very problematic indeed. You will say to yourself, ‘I can only address the problems that are before me, not the ones I might have experienced had I been incarnated as a Mumbai leper’. It highlights in a way how animal we remain. A gerbil struggling for survival in the desert is hardwired, like all animals, to utterly preoccupy itself with the fact that it is hours away from starvation. It is not interested in the plight of other gerbils. Such matters are not its business, even if it had the smarts to comprehend such things. We do have the smarts but we also have the hardwiring, so coveting my neighbour’s 65-inch 100hz flat-screen 3D TV fills my magnificent human brain to bursting.

However, there may be some value in putting our own issues into perspective. You can start by doing the following quiz. Which of these problems are First, Second or Third World?

  1. The difficulty of finding a band-aid large enough to cover a graze large enough to justify a band-aid.
  2. Reconciling yourself to sharing the world with cyclists and horses.
  3. You want to call your son Tarquin because you’re pretentious, but you know the name will humiliate him.
  4. The presence on the road of silver or grey cars that hover in your blind spot on rainy days (it’s possible I’ve raised this vital issue before).
  5. A man-eating tiger lives near your house. Be careful, or one day it will eat you too.
  6. You’re so exhausted packing for your family holiday to Hawaii it’s almost not worth going.
  7. The excruciatingly awkward nightmare that is Skype.
  8. You would like to wear your tiger onesie out in the street but you are a fully grown man and you would be mocked.
  9. Should you have your child’s 4th birthday at home and endure the appalling mess 15 children inevitably make, or hold it at a soft-play centre and endure the deafening cacophony of a billion screeching children smacked up on pink sugar?
  10. The Patent Office refuses to patent your exciting new invention called ‘Comfort-Go’ – for when you get caught short in heavy traffic.

What are the correct answers, you ask? Who cares? The reassuring thing is that no matter how First-World, inane, self-indulgent or deranged your questions are, good bloggoids, I will always give them the attention they richly deserve.

Devotedly

Gormley

 

Conan Elphicke

Sir Partridge’s emissions are rendered as coherent as they can be by the ever-patient @ConanElphicke. If you are confused and bewildered, and we suspect you are, by all means send your queries to thecringeblog@gmail.com.