Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 TW3

Looking back at this year and writing about how I fared, whether I hit my goals or not, and all I have to offer are excuses. Though they are good ones. A serious bout of illness for both me and the missus, albeit not overlapping, punched a huge hole in the year. As a result I didn't get close to hitting that target of writing nine stories in 2009. Instead, I managed 4. I have another ready to edit and if I can get it done before the end of the year I'll improve on that so it's not an utter write off.

The keyboard of the Malling-Hansen writing bal...Image via Wikipedia

On the upside I did manage to get a lot of stories accepted and published this year. Five. Far more than ever before. On the downside most of those were written/edited in 2008 and early 2009. Following the same logic I can expect a lull as I get more stories written, edited and sent out. Fingers crossed that the success I have had will breed more.

I also feel better about writing than I have for a long time. I've had two ideas for strong stories clamouring for attention and wanting to be written. Both feel like they will be pretty easy to turn around. That's not happened for a while, a long while. So that's good.

I shouldn't forget that despite taking months off to heal I still beat my record on submissions. Some of that is because e-zines turn stories around far quicker than those that accept posted submissions. But also I've been diligent about sending them out and logging who had what. It does mean I'm close to hitting 150 rejections but that goes with the territory. I've made my peace with that. Generally, I feel good about this. It's just a matter of getting on with it - as ever.
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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Bigger spaces

A follow up to my short exploration of trap streets. Not a street this time, but an entire, imaginary town. A mistake, says Google. No, says I, a vampire retirement home.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Saxon kings

A list of Saxon kings. Shamelessly stolen from here.

Offa (757-796)
Egbert, King of Wessex (802-839)
Ethelwulf (839-856)
Ethelbald (856-860)
Ethelbert (860-866)
Ethelred (866-871)
Alfred The Great (871-899)
Edward The Elder (899-924)
Athelstan (924-939)
Edmund I (939-946)
Edred (946-55)
Edwy (955-959)
Edgar (959-975)
Edward II The Martyr (975-979)
Ethelred II The Unready (979-1013 and 1014-1016)
Sweyn (1013-1014)
Edmund II Ironside' (Apr - Nov 1016)
Canute The Great' (1016-1035)
Harold Harefoot (1035-1040)
Hardicanute (1035-1042)
Edward III The Confessor (1042-1066)
Harold II (Jan - Oct 1066)
Edgar Atheling (Oct - Dec 1066)

I'm getting more interested in this period because it looks like a very fertile setting for stories because of the ceaseless conflict at work. For a start that romans had left and that meant a power vacuum that the kings, some of whom were little more than robber barons, tried to fill.

Plus there was the threat of invasions from Vikings and others - and that ended in 1066 with the conquest.

Alongside this goes the gradual conversion to Christianity and its wholesale pinching of earlier pagan beliefs. Given that there must be lots of people looking for their place in the world or just trying to extend their power.

There is also the great source of the Exeter Book to call on to get a sense of place and time. I've read some excerpts from it and the feeling of the times it gives is eerie.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Psycho smell

Schizophrenics have a goatish smell, if Hannibal Lecter (via Thomas Harris in

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal LecterImage via Wikipedia

The Silence of the Lambs) is to be believed. The claim that the sweat of schizophrenics is laced with trans-3-methyl-2 hexenoic acid always intrigued me and it is a pity that it turns out not to be true. This paper declares "there is no relationship between TMHA and schizophrenia". Which seems pretty definitive.

There are other studies which suggest that volatile organic compounds can be used to diagnose the condition. It turns out that some of them do have distinctive odours:Image via Wikipedia
  • trichlorofluoromethane - sweet smell
  • pentane - petrolish
  • dichloromethane - sweet smell
  • trichloroethene - sweet smell
  • benzene - sweet smell
  • 2,2-dimethylbutane - tarry, hospital smell
  • tetrachloroethene - sweet smell
I can see a pattern there. Though I guess there are caveats as schizophrenia, I think, is a broadly based condition and hard to definitively diagnose.

But that got me thinking about other odours and what they might reveal if they can be smelled. And it turns out that there are lots of them. Lots of conditions and diseases have very characteristic odours.

For instance, the smell of decomposing apples (again, a sweet smell) is associated with diabetic acidosis and that can strike diabetics if they have low blood sugar. Others too such as typhoid giving rise to a smell of brown bread or liver failure a "fetor hepaticus" (aka breath of the dead) which again is a sweet smell.

There are also research projects to develop electronic noses that can spot the characteristics odours of many diseases - particularly cancer. The thinking is that cancerous cells produce different waste products than normal cells and those can be detected - the key chemicals appear to be ethane, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.

Fantastic. My current work in progress revolves around smell and having those to call on will help emphasise the strangeness of the central character. Ooh, not just smell either, when she kisses someone will she get a blast of what they are feeling.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Guides to the other side

19th Century mediums and psychics - stolen from The Fortean Times.
Kate, Leah and Margaret Fox
Allan Kardec
DD Home

The Fox SistersImage via Wikipedia

William Stainton Moses
Sir William Barrett
Nathaniel Talmadge
Robert Hare
James Mapes
Mrs Piper
Gladys Osborne Leonard
Frank Stockton
Hamlin Garland
Patience Worth
Frederick Bligh Bond
Charles S Mundell
Carl Wickland
Sir Hugh Lane
William Stead
Eusapia Palladino
Mina Crandon
Helen Duncan

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hyperspace glutton

Pretty much every writer of fiction craves an idea or setting that they can make their own - their signature dish. They want such a world of their own so they can stamp o

Sandra Dee as Gidget in the 1959 film, (VHS cover)Image via Wikipedia

ut their territory, stretch their arms and sign multi-book deals to keep themselves in pizza and jellybeans. I know I do.

I've long been jealous of Charles Stross' use of abstruse mathematics as a way through to other dimensions where man can truck with named and nameless horrors. I really enjoyed The Laundry series of books that update the Mythos (so peeved by that use of Lake Vostok) and add in Turing's well-known paper "Phase Conjugate Grammars for Extra-dimensional Summoning" to give it a modern twist. How I'd love to have such an idea for myself. Oh, mustn't forget that it all first appeared in A Colder War - though that is much bleaker than the subsequent books.

It's not entirely his own though because, even though he did not perhaps realise it, HP Lovecraft made use of such an idea in Dreams in the Witch House. Keziah Mason escapes jail by using mathematics to reach other dimensions enabling her to reach the modern world and kill again. Fritz Leiber pointed out that this was one of the first uses of hyperspace. A term coined by John W. Campbell and that first arose as a concept in the 19th century.

Mention of not the "spaces we know, but between them" crops up in other stories too - including one of my faves The Dunwich Horror. The whippoorwills! Here's something I didn't know - it was turned into a movie - twice. Looks like neither was any good. Though the 1970s one has Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee in it. Dean Stockwell pops up in the second too but as the good guy rather than one of the Whateleys. The Wikipedia page lists lots of times it has been turned into media of one sort or another.

I first read that story in a book of classic ghost stories. Lots of MR James, HH Munro et al - all very staid and Edwardian. In that context HP Lovecraft's story stuck out a mile. To this day I'm still struggling to picture what the Horror looked like but can remember parts of it clearly. How old must I have been when I read that? 12? 13? No wonder I ended up playing so much Call of Cthulhu. Shapeless congerie of protoplasmic bubbles anyone?
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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Character notes

Hmm. I'm getting back into writing pretty well and have a few stories bubbling up. But, sigh, most of the rejections I have been getting have to do with character. Either the characters are not well enough drawn for people to sympathise with or there are too many of them or

Character MapImage via Wikipedia

yadda yadda. It's all about the character. This worries me.

In some senses I don't think it should. Part of that is because I know that often the editors of many of the magazines I am submitting to are looking for reasons to say "no". They will seize on any deficiency so they can reject a story and clear a space in the slush pile. I've realised that it is not the best stories that get published but the ones that the editors like the most.

Plus I am not getting rejections on the basis of character from the pro-mags. Perhaps those smaller mags have higher standards. Perhaps.

Now that I have extracted the upside from this I need the downside. What I also worry about is that there is something that needs fixing. What?

Well, it has to be said that the last few stories I've written have been done in a more ad hoc fashion. I've avoided doing all that thinking and note making and just plunged in. The results have not been great. I realised today that the story I've written has almost no conflict, no resolution and almost no peril for the main characters. Not good. Maybe that is what needs fixing. The story I am about to write feels better already because I've done lots of thinking beforehand.

What I might try to do for the next story after this one is make sure that it is a character piece. Explicitly ensure that I know the main character and do all the things the book says to do.

Though this is tempered by the thought that if I do fix this lack then it may not lead to more acceptances from those mags.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Tools you can trust

I've long lusted after Scrivener but never had a Mac on which to run it. Now I have a MacBook Pro, thanks to work, so have downloaded it and I am giving it a whirl.

Lots of people have written about the tools they used when writing and I would guess that writers have many different reasons for pursuing the perfect aids to composition. For me, it is partly a way of avoiding work but at the same time feeling like I am making progress. Just as a poor workman will blame his tools a mediocre workman looks for a crutch to help them limp along.

In 2008 I used Rough Draft for a while and it did help me think about the way some of the stories were structured and how all the bits should go together. A couple of things stopped me using it. Some craziness at work meant I fell off the wagon in terms of regular writing so did not have as much need for it. Now I have got back into it I have relied on Word because it is installed on every computer I use.

The other reason I stopped is because my working methods are so chaotic that it did not quite chime with that pattern of writing and revision. I think that is the reason that, so far, I'm a bit underwhelmed. That might be because I am only getting used to it and have yet to plumb all its features. There are some bits I like about it but so far I have only used it for a work in progress rather than a new project.

The downside is that it only works on the Mac so whenever I do have to do some work I'll have to use that. That is a problem because I don't think it will be easy to export a document prepared in Scrivener. Time will tell.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Red and dead

Mars. Martians. Martian invaders. HG Wells. I re-read War of the Worlds for the story I am working on to refresh my memory about some details I wanted to use.

Alien tripod illustration by Alvim Corréa, fro...Image via Wikipedia

I was surprised at how much I'd forgotten. In particular I had no memory of the black smoke the martians used to clear towns and cities nor of the red weed that they used to choke the landscape. That was good to know because I want to make the destruction they wrought far more widespread. I think I can stretch things enough to make that work. Plus there's nothing to say that the Martians didn't come back. Chances are that, if they did, they'd be much better prepared. Or just really annoyed.

Can life survive without the microbes that the Martians lack? They do good things for us humans. In fact, I'm pretty sure that all life got started via the medium of such things. I guess Wells didn't know about that though. The classic Miller-Urey experiment on primordial soup wasn't done until 1953 and a lot of subsequent work has been done on the evolution of unicellular and multi-cellular organisms. The shift from uni (prokaryotes) to multi (eukaryotes) is a pretty pivotal moment in the history of life on Earth. Here's a thought - a good one for a story. What if in travelling to Mars we find no evidence of them evolving there. So they came from somewhere else.

Re-reading the book, which took about 3.5 commutes, also made me realise how faithful the Spielberg movie was. I was expecting that to be a story of plucky-humans-beating-the-martians-by-dint-of-their-unquenchable-spirit with Tom in the role of hero. But it was pretty bleak and Tom Cruise's character was not very likeable. I suspect part of the reason for the reviews saying it was mediocre were because it didn't submit to that Hollywood idealisation of struggle against the alien oppressors. Ooh, hark at him.

What struck me when I was looking into WotW was how many people have used it as a starting point for more stories. Lots of anthologies have been produced taking the invasion as their starting point. What is also interesting is what they did not consider. Well, almost all of them. Superstition forbids me from saying more.
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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Before they were famous

Number One in an occasional series.

So I thought I would take a look, when time and opportunity permit, to read and review the early stories of writers that I rate.

The Clash, Chateau Neuf, Oslo, Norway, May 21s...Image via Wikipedia

I think I'm doing to make myself feel better, in that I'll find that some of their early stuff was as bad as my stuff and therefore kid myself that my career, such as it is, resembles theirs enough to give me hope that I can make this work. I suspect I'll find it's a bit more complicated than that.

Justification over, I'll move on to the first choice which is "Fragments of a Hologram Rose" by William Gibson. Even before I read it, again, I found out two startling facts. First, it was published in 1977. When I was a mighty ten. And second that William Gibson is over 60 years old.

That 1977 publication date knocked me out. That's why, I guess, the punk label gets applied to stuff done in the same style because of the chronological suture with the proper punk. Hmm.

It was published in UnEarth 3. Which, I read, was a short-lived SF mag (1977-79) and he got paid $23 for it. Holy crap there is a copy available still to buy. How about that. It was edited by Jonathan Ostrowsky-Lantz and John M. Landsberg. JML wrote a few stories and a couple of novels and JOL didn't. This story knocked me out. Look for "What baggery is this?"

On to the story. Which is really short, about 2,000 words or so I'd guess. And its pretty damn good. Whole and polished. No stuttering lights here, just full beam all the way. Pretty much all the elements in later Gibson are there in the first instar. The neat technology, the astonishing attention to detail, and the human element too. It's all about the end of a relationship and the tech is used to underline just what is lost and how it all went wrong. Poignant too.

Some of the names that crop up in later Gibson works are there too - Sendai, in particular.

I bought a copy of Burning Chrome, the anthology, to get at Fragments and I've picked through a few of the stories. Most of which are good, some great and some, like the title work, out and out fab.

In the spirit of wanting to learn from reading I'll mention what I have spotted. And this builds on something I noticed last week. Details are important, essential even, to establishing that sense of place.

EssayImage by Martin Kingsley via Flickr

Though one passage, in New Rose Hotel, did make me snort it seemed so over the top. This is it

"He'd found a German girl with a taste for conservative loden and riding boots polished the shade of a fresh chestnut."

Fabulous. For reference loden is that houndstoothy, twilly cloth seen in traditional German costumes.

What I also picked up on though was their simplicity. The profundity of the stories comes from how straight-forward they are. They do not attempt to be clever before they are clear. I've often been accused of doing the opposite. Good lessons from Mr Gibson. He'll go far.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Drive, he said

You never know what you need to know until you get started on a story. Knowing it is essential too if you are to establish the right tone, setting and give a story the details that give

American TabloidImage by Pip via Flickr

it enough of an air of versimilitude.

Without details then stories have a habit of vanishing in a "something happened, someone did something, a thing happened in response and then something else happened. The End" kind of fog.

I have a feeling that the story I have just started working on is going to involve a lot of research for those salient details. Some of it is easy to find, such as the history of the US secret service, the number of US presidents that have been successfully assassinated (4) and there have been about 90 attempts to assassinate presidents. Richard Paul Pavlick threatened JFK in 1960.

Trickier though are the lifestyle questions. In particular, what make of car did federal agents drive in the 1950s and 60s? I thought it might be a Packard of some kind but they all look too old. I did an image search and thought I had found the perfect one, a Packard coupe Opera, but it turned out to be from 1925 and was seen in the TinTin stories. So, not that one then.

It's proving hard to find out. Maybe a Plymouth. It was one of the bigger car makers, had an eye for style and it has to be said that the Special De Luxe Coupe and f-door sedan h

1931 Ford CoupeImage by MyBarina via Flickr

ave the look I'm aiming for even if they are not exactly the right ones.

Ooh, this site has lots of good pictures that might help. It might even be a five-window Dodge, thgouh that did come out a bit early for the purposes of the story. What I have in my mind is a great sweeping rear of a car and the snub nose front. It'll has to have four doors too if the opening scene is going to work.

It occurred to me that it was probably Ford that had the US government contract back then to supply cars so I had a look on the same site and came across the standard coupe. There's no doubt that the Ford's have that distinctive snout on them. So maybe that's what I need to use. The Ford Coupe or the Super Deluxe. Most of them look like they only have two doors though, which could be a problem. Only a minor one, the MC could get in the front. The coupe has it. Thank you internet for sorting that problem.
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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Words, words, words

I paraphrased the first line of Neuromancer for a story I'm working on and, when I looked it up to ensure I'd got it right, I got a surprise. I thought it read: "The sky o

vortices in mixing layer from direct numerical...Image via Wikipedia

ver the port..." but it actually is: "The sky above the port..." I was knocked out by that. Using 'above' makes a reader, unknowingly, think about places with roofs. The sky is over everything but a roof is above you. I guess it also makes people think about 2D scenes too - simulations and virtual spaces being one of the subjects of the story. It also made me think how carefully the word was chosen.

I thought more about while reading some Dennis Lehane and Michael Chabon too. Both write very dense texts - if that makes any sense. The words seem thick on the page and the sentences are flooded with details. This is from "Mystic River".

"Sean sat up on the old red bar stool and fingered the inside of the thick black vise, felt the oil and sawdust mixed in there..."

In that fragment what catches my eye is "sat up" which he uses rather than just sat. Sean is being told off by his father and it is reminiscient of parents telling kids to sit up straight. But also there is an echo in it that reminds the reader Sean is still a kid. Sitting up rather than just sitting, sprawling or any other way he could be on the stool. Then for the other elements in the scene both get two qualifiers - "old red" and "thick black".

The effect is more apparent in Michael Chabon who revels in detailed description. This from "House Hunting"

"The profusion of hats on the hatstand - three berets in the colors of sherberts, a tweedy homburg, a new-looking Stetson with a snakeskin band, several billed golf caps..."

Admittedly this is done to a different end in a story about a couple finding their place but there is a lot of detail there. Leaving aside the many different ways it uses to describe headgear, it made me think about how I use words. The story I am working on at the moment is just close to the end of its first draft. I'm going back now and adding in the bits I feel to be missing. Doubtless I'll oversteer but a lot of that will be caught when I turn it over to OWW and get so

Cover of Cover of The Yiddish Policemen's Union

me other eyes on it. There's no doubt though that my prose does look a bit thin in comparison to Lehane and Chabon. Though too much of the fatty adjectival froth and a story can get hard to read. Yeah, that's right. Make yourself feel better by belittling the best-selling authors.

There is a point there, though. The Dennis Lehane book does suffer towards the end because it is so dense and layered and detailed. Sometimes I just wanted him to get on with the story and action rather that launch yet another detour into the history of the Plains and the Flats. Even towards the end when the story was winding up he couldn't stop.

The only story I've read of Michael Chabon's where it really worked well was the Yiddish Policemen's Union which was full of brilliant descriptions rather than just scene dressing. No way to belittle that, just sit at its feet and be impressed.
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Friday, May 15, 2009

A road to nowhere

Maps. I like maps. I'm not sure why. Partly that is an aesthetic response

{{Potd/-- (en)}}Image via Wikipedia

and partly because they are engrossing to pore over. Though that does make me a very bad navigator as I'm more than likely looking at the wrong page when approaching a key junction. If you are planning a trip to the hinterlands then don't take me along if you want to be sure to get there. I'm ballast. A great passenger but as a driver or directioneer? Not so good.

When I'm poring over them I've got one mental eye open for trap streets - fictitious roads and locations put on printed maps to catch out copyright thieves. The reasoning being that anyone making a map for themselves would not reproduce those made-up places.

The story I'm working on at the moment caused me to look more closely at trap streets. I thought they would be pretty rare. Word has it that there are more than 100 in the 2005 edition of the London A-Z. 100! I guess that puts one on pretty much every page to catch people who copy any part of it.

There's been court cases over it so I guess they are real and work too. One of the first such fakes to be put in a reference work was Lillian Mountweazel who appeared in the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia.

Despite the claims that there are lots, not many have been found. A few here and there but no comprehensive list. There are even supposed to be phantom churches. Add a few more fake buildings and suddenly you have got a shadow city that exists only in cyberspace. Perhaps it is populated by those fake characters too. Fabulous.

Copyright symbolImage via Wikipedia

It's not quite that fab, though as often the trap streets do not last very long. Perhaps that's why they are so useful. On new developments, mappers give unnamed places a holding name until they get an official title. Hmm. That might work outside London but there can't be that many new streets popping up in the centre of town.

I wonder what would want to exploit, use or live in that parallel metropolis? Vampires? At least they'd be out of the sun all day. How would they get there. How would anyone get there?

Monday, May 11, 2009

This way please

Planning again. Because that's where I am with my current story. I feel like I'm rediscovering how to do this after those few months off though the one constant has been my dithering over whether to just sit down and write or do the planning thing so I know in which dir

Three small ammonite fossils, each approximate...Image via Wikipedia

ection the words should point. The missus keeps saying that I am very quiet at the moment, more so than usual, and that's because I'm processing all the ways the current story can play out.

Re-reading, for the umpteenth time, Stephen King's On Writing I was struck by his belief that a story is a found object. A fossil, he says, that has to be uncovered piece by piece. For him plotting and planning are jackhammers that destroy the fine detail at the expense of the gross structure. Far better, for him, is to set the situation up and then work/write through it. Those are far finer tools that can preserve the eyelashes and scales. An idea of the ending is needed but he has little sense of what he will uncover on the way. Often, he says, he is surprised by how the characters act/react in the situation. I suspect he is being a bit disingenuous and that some of this is down to his vast experience and native talent. For others, such as Tobias Buckell, the same is likely to be true.

For myself I don't find it that easy to just turn it over to Trev and let him drive. Last year I did and it produced some great stuff. Certainly judging by sales and reader reaction I'm doing better but it took time to get in to that mindset. I've got to get it back, if I can, and I think the rest will follow.

Take the story I'm working on right now. Thinking about the setting has got me enthused about it and I know how it will, kind of, fall out. I am split between doing the planning and letting it all flow leaving me in a tricky neither/nor limbo when I do a bit of both. The stories that is producing do not have that breezy feel some of the others have though the story itself is fine. Or so I think.

What Mr S does think about is character. Annie Wilkes, for instance, he first describes as having an "absence of hiatus". No, I don't know either. And that's not something I've been doing a lot of. Partly because this latest story is kind of about me and a lost friend and I know those folks well enough to wing it.

Annie, in a rare depressing moment.Image via Wikipedia

I guess part of my reluctance to hand it to Trev is because I do not want to get in to a situation where whatever success I have is based on a method resistant to understanding, change and improvement. And that brings me to another of Mr King's beliefs; that talent is a finite quantity. Whatever you have, that's all you get. If you don't have it then you'll only ever be a hack. If you have some you can improve via technique but if you are talented then lucky you. I have no idea where I fit on that scale and my lack of confidence makes me eye the hack end more than the other. It's not for me to say. What I have realised is that that perception of talent will not be universal. For every person that likes a story there will be as many, probably more, that are utterly indifferent. As many will hate it as love it. Now there's a recipe for misery if ever I heard one.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How much?

When I were a lad, between the ages of six and nine, it was an article of faith that the biggest number was not just infinity but triple infinity. It was one of those facts passed a

Views of spacetime along the world line of a r...Image via Wikipedia

round the playground regularly by anyone keen to put one over their playmates. There was no better way than asserting your maturity over the little 'uns than by dropping such a deathless fact into a conversation. If nothing else it would stun them into submission - knowing the biggest number you can is pretty much magic as far as an infant is concerned.

My kids are about the age now I was when I was bandying around such facts with abandon. Their world too is filled with similarly accepted items of knowledge. For instance, one of my boys told me today that if you die you become a ghost. When I said that would be bad as there would be no more computer games, he corrected me and said a ghost could get into the computer and play all day. It was kind of hard, not to say cruel, to argue with such conviction.

When I was a nipper I was as ignorant, perhaps more so, than the average kid and had no idea who was the first to assert that "triple infinity" was the biggest number there is. I've a feeling that Peter Reilly told me - he was my best mate and it was the kind of secret knowledge that we were likely to share. We also decided that when we were older we'd share a house and drive Range Rovers.

Now, 35 or so years later, it's finally occurred to me to see if triple infinity is actually a thing and work out how such an idea came to be on the lips of kids in the early 70s. It turns out that triple infinity is a thing but nothing, as far as I can work out, to do with counting. That being one of the main preoccupations of schoolkids of that age.

Hyperbolic Order-3 heptakis heptagonal tilingImage via Wikipedia

Triple infinity looks like it is a concept that can be of use in a wide variety of subjects - geometry, particle phyics, in discussions of the special theory of relativity and others. And that's about as far as my understanding goes.

There are other triple infinities - but I don't think Peter meant any of those.

The unanswered question will be how it got from those abstruse theories into a first school in Yorkshire. Was there something on TV or an older brother or sister studying such things? God only knows.
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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Another one bites the dust

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I'm going to abandon the story I've been writing for the last couple of weeks. The decision will dent my chances of hitting my target for the number of stories I want to write this year. But I can live with that.

I learned to my cost with a previous story that it is not a good idea to take a break while in the middle of writing. This time that derailed me again but, looking to the positive, it stopped me persevering with a tale that now looks unworkable.

It's all part of learning how I go about writing which, if I'm honest, it is a pretty chaotic process.

That may not be a bad thing. I've read a lot of books about how to do the writing thing and the advice they offer is very different. It has struck me that what all those authors of those books are laying out is how they go about writing.

There's no single process that everyone should follow to success - though there are tricks of the trade that are worth knowing.

I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it is important to discover how you work rather than do what works for others. Though it might be worth trying what they say if only to eliminate what doesn't work and get a sense of all the ways it can be done.

However, it might be just success that convinces me I've found my way to work. The last two stories I've written have felt a lot better than almost anything I've done and I wrote both of them in a pretty chaotic way. Instead of working it all out and sticking to that plan I'm setting off and adjusting as I go along.

Other writers have said that you never get the trick of writing a novel. While writing one you only discover how to write that novel. There might be something of that for the different way people approach short stories. As always though I'm wary of routine. Feeling like I'm on top of a subject is usually the moment when I faceplant and show the world what an arse I am. And as I am often heard to declare: I'm not disorganised, I'm spontaneous.

By contrast, many of the other stories have been pretty mechanical and I was getting a bit tired of going through those motions just to turn out a story that wasn't great. And didn't enthuse me. I needed a change because I could see that writing was going to be a grind if I kept up with that method. And this is supposed to be fun, right?

Which brings me to the story I've abandoned. One of the many tricks that is supposed to turn those ideas into workable stories is find out who has most to lose in the cast of characters you have assembled and then make all the action revolve around them.

I did that and the story sucked. All the life in it, and my enthusiasm for it,

Illustration of a scribe writingImage via Wikipedia

died on its arse. In working out what should happen the original impetus drained away. I ended up with a story that had no tension or conflict in it and was for far away from my original conceit that it felt like someone else's work. So, I gave up on it. Which is a pity because I've spent a long time trying to put it together. Like, months.

The story I have picked to get working on has instantly enthused me and got me thinking about how it can all work out. During my commute this morning I got it into a pretty good shape and know what is going to happen. All I need to do now is pick the main character and get on with it.
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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Slartibartfarst, I feel your pain

I'm sure I've written before that you only find out what you need to know when you are writing a story. I often find that progress on a story screeches to a halt when I hit a deep pothole in the form of a missing detail that, it turns out, is crucial to the world I'm imagining. Perhaps I should not celebrate that lack of foresight too much but it's surprising what trips me up.

Bust of Emperor Augustus wearing the Corona Ci...Image via Wikipedia

Take as a for instance a story I have just finished. I worked out a way to crowbar in a key part of the plot only to bump up against the realisation that, to do that, I needed to know the names of the months in this imaginary world.

That's not something I've thought about before. I did commit a few cycles to this problem because I like the world I've invented and I wanted it to have that Colgate ring of authenticity. Plus, with an eye on the very long term future, I wanted it worked out if it ever became a novel. Yeah, right.

So, I looked into why Earth months are called that. This is what I found.

January - after the Latin for door ianua (Janus/Ianuarius).
February - Latin - Februum - purification. The ceremony was all about washing and cleaning. Februatio (Lupercalia) was the full name.
March – Latin - Mars - God of War - not for the God but for the fact that it marked the start of the military campaigning season.
April - This one is a bit of a mystery. Thought to be from Aperire, Latin for "to open" but meaning buds and flowers rather than doors. April was sacred to Venus/Aphrodite and might be related to her Etruscan name Apru.
May – Greek goddess Maia.
June – Roman goddess Juno – goddess of marriage.
July – for Julius Caesar.
August – for Augustus – lots of the events that led to his rise to power happened during this month.
September – Septem – seventh - because it used to be the seventh month.
October – Octo – eighth - because it used to be the eighth month.
November – novem – nine - because it used to be the ninth month.
December – Decem – ten - because it used to be the tenth month.

To be honest, it all gets a bit dull once September heaves into view but the general feel is gods, goddesses, numbers and an Emperor or two. Interesting but no cigar. There are lots of other ways though that the Wikipedia has detailed for those that are interested. I am so I had a look and a lot of it is about gods and goddesses but there are other things there too - Sikhs have a day celebrating when a god leaves its Earthly existence. That could be useful.

Minor factoid. Almost all the domains for the months are owned by do

The DiggerImage by macrorain via Flickr

main management companies.

All this is just part of the bigger problem of world building and how to make it cohere or sound convincing enough for the length of the novel or short story. There are some times I really like doing it, sometimes when it is much easier to do than at others. Oddly, I find it easier to do for fantasy rather than SF settings. I'm currently wrestling with a problem for a stranded group of colonists. What do they use instead of matches? Answers on a postcard, please.
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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Lonely as the grave

You can do all the planning you want but you only find out what you forgot wh

A closeup of astronaut Alan Shepard in his spa...Image via Wikipedia

en you get on with the job. And so it has proved with the story I've decided to write this month. I've got it plotted, the list of scenes written and the main characters sketched out. The POV shifts are going to be a bit of a bugger but I'll confront that during the writing of the thing.

But I was getting on with it and realised that I'd neglected one key part of it - the psychological effect of isolation. In particular, how astronauts and other colonists would get on when suffering under extreme duress for a long time. How that is handled is a key part of the story and I need to understand it better for the story to work - or at least be plausible.

One of the key elements seems to be displacement - so those who are isolated tend to blame those who sent them there for anything that goes wrong. And, importantly, it does not solve the problem. I guess its related to attribution error that humans are prone to making. So if I trip it's because of a bump in the pavement but if you do it then it's because you are a clumsy idiot. That kind of thing.

There's also the stress of living with the same people for a long time. Their habits become annoying, you feel simultaneously crowded and lonely. No way to get away but no novelty either. There'd be a need for this stress to be released, perhaps regular sessions with a psychologist or counsellor who could help to defuse them.

That last is important. Variety - essential to stopping people going nuts with bo

Atmosphere of Mars taken from low orbitImage via Wikipedia

redom. They need plenty to do. I guess this comes back to super-ordinate goals. Give people an over-arching threat and they'll pull together and ignore their differences. There was the famous Robber's Cave experiment by Muzafer Sherif in 1954 at a boys camp which divided then into two factions - the Rattlers and the Eagles. The experiment emphasises their differences and provoked outbursts of violence that then evaporated when a larger problem (a super-ordinate goal), namely the breakdown of the water and food supply, presented itself.

There is also a need for a different kind of leader at different times. Early on the group would need a charismatic leader who could show the way and lead. They'd have to be confident, outgoing and arrogant to get things done. Later on though the colony would need someone much better at looking after people's feelings. Someone much more concerned with morale than action.
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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bad knights

Why does anyone trust the Jedi or anything they say? Why are they seen as the guardians of the galaxy. Who says? They did. Well, Obi Wan did. But I'm not sure. They could tell us anything and, via the power of their mind tricks, we'd believe it.

WattoImage via Wikipedia

Unless you are a Toydarian or a Hutt it is hard to resist being persuaded. We know they work on the weak-minded and to that Qui-Gon Jinn adds that the greedy (for which read Watto and Jabba) can resist too. But, note, that is only resistance. Not immunity. For any sufficiently powerful Jedi surely even that reistance could be overcome.

The Star Wars universe shows us it can. The for instance comes in Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Season 2: Episode 5 (the Genndy Tartakovsky TV series) where Padme's Captain Gregar Typho falls foul of Yoda's mind manipulation despite, you'd think, having a sound and strong mind. This scene of crude trickery triggered this train of thought and made me think rather less of Yoda.

Given all this, surely everyone would be suspicious of any negotiations carried out with the Jedi present. If they came to my planet I'd have them chained and locked up before they could say "Sith". Also I'd have the meeting filmed and watched elsewhere by independent witnesses to ensure no tricks were pulled. Any race that was immune would surely become the instant choice for a negotiator or diplomat. Droids? They might be the ones you are looking for.

It'd be great to see some Jedi try to cope in a setting where the mind tricks were off limits. Where suspicion of any use of force powers made them act like mere mortals and cope without. That'd teach the smug sonsabitches a lesson or two. Force your way out of that why don't you.
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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Back in the saddle

So, it's taken a while but I'm getting back in to the groove of writing and reviewing. I've re-activated my links to OWW and racked up a few favours so folks will, hopefully, take a look at the stuff I'm posting.

It does feel like I'm coming back to it from a long way away. Last year when I was in that creative surge I had made several friends via OWW and it was easier to get stories reviewed. Now, I'm going through that process of finding sympathetic reviewers again.

I have just finished one story off and hope to do a flash one before the end of the month to put me back in contention. It does mean that, sometime this year, I'll have to write two in a month rather than one. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Little Bitch album coverImage via Wikipedia

Anyhoo, what has surprised me is how much happier I feel now that I've got back into writing. I've always resisted that slightly arch declaration that "I have to write". I know I choose to do it but the rightness of that choice has been brought home to me these last few days. It could be coincidence though as getting back in to it has gone along with the best period of success I have ever had in submitting stories and getting them accepted and published. It's not just payback that is a bitch. Irony runs it a close second.

I also harbour this nagging fear that my reason for writing is just to prove I can do it. And, once I've done that to Trev's satisfaction he'll pack up and refuse to produce the goods. Time will tell, I guess.

What I do need to do is get some stories in the bag. I'm down to four that are ready for circulation instead of the eight or nine I had last year. If anymore get accepted I'll be in real trouble.
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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Reading redux

So it wasn't just the James Herbert books that I brought back from the visit to my mum. And over the last few weeks I've been re-reading a few of them. What I find amazing is how present to my memory they all are. Just looking at the covers I can call up names, places and incidents from all of them - though I haven't cracked the covers of any of them for more than a decade. It makes me realise how influential they were on me. The downside is that I'm spotting lots of the tropes that I use popping up in these texts. Hmm. Anyhoo.

Harry Harrison - most of the Stainless Steel Rat series. Still very enjoyable - though very light. The breezy style and insouciant charm of slippery Jim DiGriz sweeps each tale along but what I notice now is what escaped me back then. Even now I can remember

The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World - Cove...Image via Wikipedia

reading the first page of The Stainless Steel Rat in Miss Ellison's class when I was 10? 11? She gave it to me, Nick Dodd, Mark Sanderson and Des (?) as part of a lesson on different sorts of writing. We all hated Miss Ellison as she closed her eyes whenever she said a word with an "s" in it. I'm not sure why that made us hate her but it did.

What I loved back then was the radical feel of the thing and the sheer confidence that Jim oozed; but now I see how adept HH was at using that style to skip over the holes in the plot and bamboozle the reader.

What is also fascinating is its attitude to technology. For instance, in The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted when Jim and his sidekick need to record some video ready for broadcast they go to a TV studio and use the equipment there. Now, of course, it'd be done with a camera on a phone or a web cam and posted online - etc etc. It shows exactly how stories of the future are mired in the present of their creators. But that's also quite liberating because it was never supposed to be THE FUTURE simply a future which means that pretty much anything goes.

William Gibson - Count Zero. Such a great read. Better, by far, than I remember. Just astonishing in places and so dense with ideas and insights. Now that the net is everywhere some of the supposed changes it documents make it looks a little dated.
- No cellphones.
- Using the net involves travelling to places.
- Rampant AIs
- Gods in the net
I had a sense when I was reading it that I was missing something that would become clear as I got older. Well, I am and its not. I guess I'm just too thick to catch on.

Terry Pratchett
- The Colour of Magic/Light Fantastic. My good friend Carl Berks recommended the first one to me when I was 15/16. I met him via a gaming group that I joined. Reading it again I remember the "watcher-of-the-skies-new-planet" feeling I got having read it. It was also much funnier than I remember. And the Discworld portrayed in the first two books is very different to what it becomes later on in the series. Death is murderous in these books, the Gods are much more present and there are lots of standard fantasy wallpaper to bulk out the story.
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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Their teeming hordes

James Herbert. There's a name from the past. I visited my folks recently and, as ever, grabbed a few of the books I've left there to bring back home. Three I took were The Rats, The Dark and The Fog by Mr H.

I first read these when I was 11 and, re-reading them now, I'm shocked that I did. What poor parents I had. They are very bloody, gruesome and graphically sexual in some places. Something I'm not sure I would want my kids reading when they were 11. The year I hit 11 Trevor Pickersgill told me what men and women did in bed. For what its worth - I didn't believe him. Though reading the books of Mr Herbert was incontrovertible evidence that he was right.

I remember all his books were a big deal at my school and we regularly used to sit around and read out the rude or gruesome bits to each other. Des, Strawb, Sandra Walker, Jackie Bell and Sniff were all part of that reading group.

The Rats in particular left a mark on me. Even now, if I am on a station platform or anywhere without something to read, then I'll work out what I would do if a swarm of giant rats attacked. My escape typically involves me performing some ridiculous feat of acrobatics to scale a wall, edge out on to a light bracket or beam and reach a point the ravenous creatures would not be able to get to.

What I had also forgotten was how apocalyptic the books were. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people die in each one. In The Fog the entire population of Bournemouth marches in to the sea and commits suicide en masse.

Where they any good? Not really. The Rats had a lot of bounce, I really liked his device of turning the story on new characters and, usually, their gruesome demise, and they all were easy on the eye. For an 11 year old they were great but for jaded old me they didn't quite hit the mark. The third word of opening sentence of The Rats was an adverb for fricks sake. But, hey, who am I to say. The blurb on the books describes them as supersellers - not just bestsellers. What writer would not settle for that kind of success?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pennines and pavements

My good friend John Pullan is dead. My oldest friend John Pullan is dead. He died a while ago now, on the morning of Sunday 30 November 2008. He had spent two years battling cancer - if that is the word I should use. Whenever there is talk about the way people deal with cancer the word always trotted out is "battle", but I'm not sure that describes what John did. Better to say that medicine and surgery helped him resist it with a courage that was admirable and an insouciance that was, at times, disquieting. Despite being progressively worn down by the most aggressive of brain tumours he tried to keep his life as normal as possible. For a long time, until the funeral, I didn't understand why that was. It was just one of John's traits that I didn't really get. Pity he had to die for me to come to terms with who he was and his reasons.

The funeral was held at the crematorium in Skipton and I arrived there the day before when scraps of snow littered the streets and a persistent drizzle wrapped everything in a obscuring mist. I didn't want to be there, didn't want my friend to be dead, wanted time to say all the things I should have done and did not want a chapter of my life to close with such finality.

That night, and the next as I was wandering about Skipton, my head was down to match my mood and all I saw was the untidy, gritty pavements passing beneath my feet. And then, I'm not sure why, I lifted my head and had a startling moment of clarity. People do not visit Skipton to look at its pavements. The town sits in an adverbially pretty part of North Yorkshire. The hills circling it are beautiful in any and every weather. Clad in deep frost, light snow and low winter light they looked picture perfect.

It was then that light dawned about why John stayed in Yorkshire; why he went back after studying at Newcastle. He only had to look out of the window - any number of times a day - to know he had chosen well. The way the hills looked on that cold December morning showed how smart John was to stay and what he had seen that I, and others, had missed. And left behind.

But John didn't. That was why he stayed, I think. He had everything he needed; family, friends, a sense of belonging. Enough for anyone. For someone as rootless and faithless as me the sense of his choice, why he did not want to change, was hard to appreciate. But not now. Now I know why. And it makes me miss him all the more. If that were possible. My good friend, my oldest friend, John Pullan is dead.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Back to the future

As is traditional I'll start with a look back at the last 12 months to see how I did. In December 2007 I set myself some big objectives for 2008 which included writing at least nine stories, making a pro-sale and joining the Codex Writing Group.

How did I fare?

I managed to write six in total and had two others almost finished by the end of the year - so I almost hit that target but not quite. And it is actual rather than almost that matters so I was way off. Given the lack of output I didn't make a pro-sale either. I got close. I've had nice rejection letters from some of the finest genre publications. Many, many times I've got the 'good, but not for us' letter or e-mail back with a rejection. It's rejectomancy to read too much into that but I'm looking for crumbs here so I'll take that as progress. No pro-sale meant no joining the Codex Group either.

On the upside I did have two stories published in 2008. One of which I'm getting paid for. And that is progress. In each of the three previous years I've only had one published. Both were accepted much faster when they were taken on too. That's definitely progress. I managed to put out the same number of stories despite only writing until August when work went crazy and the writing stopped.

I long ago realised that if I do anything well, it's start. And so last year proved. Though seven months of start is a sign of a certain amount of dedication.

Turning to this year. What can I do? I guess re-iterate my goals for last year. Try to write a story a month but do at least nine. Make a pro-sale. Join Codex. And I'll add another one. Don't quit.

See you in 12 months for the reckoning.