Tuesday, 30 December 2008

30000

Having said that I might not be doing much on the novel, that's 30000 words out of the way.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Stuff

  • No books for Christmas other than some strange 'How to do just about everything' one.
  • As a result, I resorted to hitting the sales (also known as getting as far away from the house as possible) acquired the complete works of Shakespeare in hardback for £3. Apparently I'm the only person in my part of Yorkshire who would read it for fun.
  • I've also started reading a children's book called 'Sword of Davalon' by Tom Jolley, who is local to me. A review will probably follow, if I can remember not to be too picky about something aimed at the 8-12 market.
  • But before I do that, I've got yet more work to do on the PhD, which should be getting into its end stages. I just want the thing finished, though that will get me out of university just in time to hit the declining job market.
  • As a result, I've not been doing that much work on the novel. Frankly, I've still got a couple to sell before it, so it's not a priority.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Derek Landy, Skulduggery Pleasant

My brother bought me this for my birthday a week or two ago, so I thought I'd have a go at reviewing it. I have to say that young adult fiction isn't always my thing, but has caught my attention a few times, so I was more than willing to give this a fair go.

The first thing to say is that my friend Scott probably won't like this book. He insists that the Harry Potter series shamelessly rips off fundamental elements of the Lord of the Rings, and is therefore not worth reading. Since Landy has a young heroine who discovers a magical world around her that she never knew existed, along with the fact that she has a potentially special place in it, right around the time that she starts having to fight against an ultimate evil that everyone had thought was defeated, it's fairly obvious where he got some of his inspiration.

Bizarrely though, I actually liked this more than a lot of Rowling's stuff. Stephanie Edgley is a far more likeable, far less petulant, character than Potter, while the writing has a tight, adventurous edge to it that's hard to fault. The basic adventure is quite simple, of course, but what exactly did I expect? It was fun, funny, and full of characters who held my interest, even if they did have silly names.

I think occasionally Landy's background in kenpo karate gets on top of him a little in the fight scenes, letting them descend into something a little too complicated and not spectacular enough, but that's a minor flaw. So is his mildly annoying habit of having almost all description at the start of a chapter, consistently leaving acres of unchecked speech towards the end. Neither issue spoils the flow of the book, or makes it any less of a fun read.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

20000

That's 20000 words out of the way. I may have to pause briefly to rewrite my PhD literature review, but hopefully only briefly. Then again, I might just do both. One in the mornings and one in the afternoons, perhaps.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Getting off the Point

One difference that I've noticed between writing out and out comedy and what I must laughingly call 'serious' urban fantasy is the extent to which it's acceptable to get off the point. Obviously, everything should contribute something, but in serious writing that becomes an imperative to cut every word that isn't catapulting things forward. With the comic stuff, there's slightly more scope for digression, so long as it connects to the main point. As an example, yesterday I got to write an extended bit about urban wasteland as a lead in to the arrival of a group of characters. It's the sort of thing that I would have cut immediately from either of the serious books, but which is absolutely perfect for what I'm working on now.

The best bit, of course, is that if you plan it properly beforehand, even the weirdest excursions end up adding to the overall piece, because the plan ensures that everything you're building the funny stuff around is an essential piece of the plot.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Again?

And I've started another one. Another novel, that is. It's a sequel to the comic fantasy one I've just written but haven't yet sold, which is possibly getting rather ahead of myself. Nevertheless, the first three thousand words or so are down as of yesterday, so here we go again.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Aphelion December 2008

The December edition of Aphelion is up and I have, not one, but two things in it.

First, there's my short story 'cats and fairies'

Then, there's my silly poem 'alternate fuel'

Enjoy. Or not. Or possibly make up some sort of strange dance instead.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Stuff

  • I've been fact and reference checking on the PhD, which means that all those times I've thought 'I know it's in there somewhere, but I don't want to break my writing flow to look up the page' have come back to haunt me.
  • Adagio Verse Quarterly have their chapbook competition on at the moment, which means I've been writing poetry frantically. The difficulty is that the thing has to follow a theme, and I normally wouldn't write enough consistently on one thing.
  • The first Test between England and India is underway after initial security concerns following the attacks on Mumbai. I'm glad they decided to go. After all, it's not like Britain is exactly safe at the moment, is it?
  • I went to see HU Drama Society's production of Cinderella the other day, mostly because a friend of mine was in it. Thankfully, she played her part quite well, but much of the rest of it was truly awful. And not even in a fun way.
  • I've learned that Pavels Guzanov is at York University. I know who I'll be going out to in the Yorkshire Sabre then.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

It's behind you

It's the season for, among other things, pantomimes. As such, I'll be going to the Hull University Drama Society's production of Cinderella shortly.

Other things it seems to be the season for:

  • Salvation Army bands who have never heard of counterpoint. Stick one reasonably avid guitarist and a couple of pianists in a cafe opposite some of them (as happened when myself, Tim and Scott were on the way back from Nottingham) and it's hard not to cringe.
  • Incredibly over the top light displays. People who might otherwise turn off every light they aren't using will still shove several miles of fairy lights around their houses. If every house on a street does this, I suspect there might be a chance of light aircraft mistaking it for a runway.
  • Slush, ice and other things that aren't nearly as much fun as snow. It's traditional to make fun of the British weather, but truthfully, we don't get the really bad stuff that often. What we get instead is awkward, nothing weather- drizzle, sleet, occasional bursts of hailstones. It's hard to have a proper snowball fight with sleet.
  • Grumpy people such as myself making lists.

Monday, 8 December 2008

BUCS sabre pt2

The final lists have gone up, and I actually finished 26th. I still should have done a much better job of closing down Pavels Guzanov when he went backwards, though.

BUCS individuals

I went to the British Universities and Colleges Sports individual fencing tournament yesterday, driving down to Nottingham just for the sabre. I could have stayed over the weekend instead, but didn't feel like fencing the foil or epee. Naturally, they'd managed to pick the coldest day of the year so far for the trip down, so East Yorkshire's back roads weren't exactly fun.

I'd promised myself that I wasn't going to take this competition too seriously, since that tends to leave me as a nervous wreck barely able to compete. Even so, since this is probably the last student tournament I'll be doing, I wanted to do reasonably well.

First a note on Hull's other entrants. Apparently they didn't do as well as they'd hoped. The official results for the men's epee are up on the BUCS website, and our highest placed competitor was 85th. He probably made it to about 64th in the foil too, which is more than thirty places lower than he managed last year. Really, we needed some sort of positive result from the sabre.

I'd like to think I did ok. I finished second in my pool to the eventual third place winner, and was placed 28th at that point. I had a bye to the last 64 as a result, and won my first match of direct elimination to take me to the last 32. Unfortunately, my next match wasn't even close. I ran into a Latvian student who beat me 15-6, though he then went on to lose to the guy who'd won my pool. Exactly where I'll finished based on that will depend on how all the other fights went, but a last 32 place seems reasonable, and hopefully I've seen some areas that will allow me to improve.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Last Minutes

Last minutes can be interesting. Take now, for example. A friend who wasn't originally going to be able to do the British Universities Individual Sabre tommorrow has suddenly realised that he might be able to, so we're doing some last minute arranging on the transport. There's nothing like a sense of urgency to concentrate the mind.

Even so, it's usually better to avoid this sort of thing, particularly with anything important. One of my old law lecturers once pointed out that people do 90% of the work for their essays in the last 10% of the time, but still have to worry about them. If they did it in the first 10% of the time instead, they could have the rest of the time off.

Where this applies to writing is in the idea of getting the work done. The act of writing is wonderfully good fun, but so many people put it off almost indefinitely. 50 or 70, or however many thousand words of writing is intimidating, until you've written the first few thousand, and all you've got to worry about is what you're writing next.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Estella's Up

The new issue of Estella's Revenge, with my article 'Where have all the goblins gone?' has gone up here.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Individuals on Sunday

On Sunday I'll be travelling down to Nottingham to fence in the British Universities Individual Sabre. It's become a little more individual than I was originally intending, since neither of Hull's other specialist sabreurs can make it. I shouldn't feel nervous about such a minor open (I think it rates something ludicrously low on the BFA's 'difficulty multiplier' for ranking points) but somehow I'm managing it. Maybe it's just that this year is my last chance to do this one, and also the first time I'll have made it down there. Needless to say, with the individuals for all three weapons contested over the weekend, training has cranked up a gear, as everyone tries to get into competition mode.

It's weird, that divide between a competition approach and a normal one, and it's something I think applies to many other things, including writing. How we write when we're trying to produce an important piece of work is different from how we write for things that don't matter, or for exercises. But should that be the case? The japanese sword master Miyamoto Musashi pointed out that, when fighting with a sword, training with a sword, or just going about your life, your mindset shouldn't change too much. If the pen is truly mightier than the sword (fired out of some sort of catapult perhaps) maybe that applies to the writing too.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Frost

The bulbs snuggle under the first frost
Warm beneath a frozen blanket
Of winter rime and icy earth
The first cold turned to insulation
Against the winter’s harsher thrusts

The tiny furred things feel this touch
And know the warning that it brings
They seek the safety of some borrowed
Warmth, stolen in the hidden parts
Of houses. As safe as buried bulbs, ‘til spring.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Semaphore Magazine

I'd like to take a moment to direct your attention to www.semaphoremagazine.com

Partly, this is because it's a lovely magazine, but mostly, it's because I have a couple of things up there.

Firstly, my short story 'A Madder Scientist' is in their downloadable current issue.

Secondly, my short story 'Fishing for Worlds' has made it into their print anthology for 2008

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Outside

I could sleep like this
The night pressing in on me
A cool breath that clears
In passing, emptying me again

There is no reason to doubt
Not here, hemmed in by darkness
Only the spill of daylight
Brings choices, the constant fracturing

The grass whispers over skin
Puppet of the night wind
A caress that shifts, teasing
As I trace the climbing moon’s ellipse

Soon enough I know I’ll stand
Slip within four walls to rest
Drive brick between the two of us
The night air and my flesh

For now though, there is peace in it
Gazed upon by countless, hanging stars
The press of earth beneath my back
And the night air brushing past

Geoff Boycott, The Best XI

It's getting to that time of year again when families start buying books for their cricket loving members. Books of facts, books of anecdotes, bad autobiographies. They're all out there. There is actually a good autobiography of Marcus Trescothick out at the moment which has just won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award. I, though, have elected to read through this 'pick your best teams so people can argue about them' book by the world's grumpiest Yorkshireman.

So is it any good? Well, in some respects it holds the reader's interest. Boycott has the credentials as a player and commentator to make reasonable selections for most of the Test playing countries (except Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, which we'll come back to). He also has the sheer bloodymindedness to pick who he wants, regardless of opinion. Even I, who agree wholeheartedly with his choice of S.F.Barnes in his all time England eleven, would never have thought to go further back and pick George Lohmann.

Ultimately, however, the actual choices aren't important here. As even Boycott points out, ask two cricket fans (or indeed fans of any sport) to name a best ever team, and you'll get two completely different ones. Where this book has to stand or fall, therefore, is on the strength of the writing, the accuracy of the facts and the quality of the arguments advanced.

Which is where things go rather wrong, really. Boycott, despite spells writing for national newspapers on the sport, is no more than a functional writer, whose attempts to play up to his 'opinionated Yorkshireman' image invariably come off terse and dull. There is certainly none of the elegance of construction or language to be found in the writing of Gideon Haigh, or even ex-England captains Mike Brearly and Michael Atherton.

Secondly, for a man who tries to approach the topic factually, and back his claims up with statistics, he makes at least one glaringly obvious factual error. In the section mulling over potential bowlers for his best Indian XI, Boycott mentions Mohammed Asif. That's Mohammed Asif, who has opened the bowling not for India, but for Pakistan.

And then there's his protracted attack on Muralitharin's bowling action, parroting the occasionally heard view that the ICC introduced the idea of a 15 degree tolerance of arm straightening only in response to Murali's problems with being called for throwing. In fact, although Muralitharin was caught up in it, the adjustment came only after biomechanical evidence was brought out proving that almost every bowler straightened their arm to some imperceptible degree, and that many of those thought to have perfect actions straightened their arms just as much. Boycott dismisses this evidence with an approach that boils down to him simply asserting that the findings are a nonsense on the basis of no apparent evidence at all. This is particularly galling in that he is quite happy to pick convicted drugs cheat Shane Warne for his Australian side without once mentioning the fact.

Almost as bad is his refusal to even contemplate picking Bangladeshi or Zimbabwean best XIs. I happen to agree that neither is currently strong enough to compete at Test level. Nevertheless, would mentions for some of their finer players have been so very much to ask? There was a period when (former zimbabwean wicketkeeper and current England batting coach) Andy Flower was the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world. Perhaps Boycott could have picked out some sort of 'best of the rest' combined team if he didn't think there were enough decent players in each country. It might even have given him a chance to recognise someone like former Kenyan captain Steve Tikolo, who managed to be virtually a one man Kenyan team a couple of world cups ago, rather than simply dismissing these cricketing nations to save himself some effort.

In all then, as much as this is the sort of book that people tend to buy cricketing friends, I really think they shouldn't with this one.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Simon Armitage, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

An awkward one to review in some ways. What am I reviewing? Armitage's editing and rendering of the text into modern English? The balance of his poetry as he does so? The original story?

Possibly all of the above. The basic story is very simple. A big green bloke wanders into Arthur's court, issues a challenge that he'll let someone take a swing at him with a sword if he then gets one in return, and goads Gawain into accepting. By fourteenth century standards it's actually quite good. Certainly better than the anemic tripe that is Merlin, the BBC's take on the Arthurian story.

Poetically, the heavy alliteration can be annoying at first, but that's more medieval poetry's fault than Armitage's. There's a reason Shakespeare made such fun of that sort of thing in A Midsummer Night's Dream. If anything, this slight irritation shows just how well Armitage has captured the spirit of the stuff.

I'm probably being a fraction harsh anyway, since mostly the piece is wonderfully unobtrusive. The trick seems to be not to read it slowly, as with poetry, but at a normal sort of speed, letting the poetic devices and the rhythms of the language do their work unseen. Read like that, this is really well worth reading.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Stuff

  • A week on Sunday, I'll be competing in the BUCS individual sabre down in Nottingham, so inevitably, last night I discovered a massive flaw that had crept into my sabre technique.
  • I'm at the stage of the PhD when I'm going back and putting in more. More what? More of everything of course. Historiography, precision, analysis, structure... I've lost track of the number of versions I've gone through.
  • A friend has kindly agreed to look through novel no.3 for me. She thinks that she'll have read it by about friday, so I know what I'm doing this weekend. Rewrites.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Some Thoughts on Titles

Titles are always awkward, and I have to admit I've never been particularly good with them. Even so, some random thoughts on them:

  1. Good titles are an advertising tool. They position the piece/story/book within its field, and are one of the first parts of a book the reader comes into contact with. Make them nice and memorable then.
  2. The formula for an academic title seems to go Snappy Title/Bad Pun: Much Longer Boring Title. You know you've done it. Now stop it.
  3. Well meaning, or picky, or simply annoying editors will want to change your titles. Let them. It's their publication, after all, and it's better than them changing everything else.
  4. Short is good, but these days half the books out there seem to have one word titles. A few words is perfectly acceptable too.
  5. It's possible, if you're sufficiently stuck for ideas, to write stories from the title outwards. Come up with a great title, then write what has to go with it. If you're in a rut, coming up with great, and strange, titles can be a good way out.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Meme

Heather over at a High and Hidden Place tagged me with this meme which goes:

Open the closest book to you—not your favorite or most intellectual book, but the book closest to you at the moment. Turn to page 56 and write out the fifth sentence as well as the next two to five sentences. Pass this on to five blogging friends.

Now, since the book nearest me is my brother's copy of the complete novels of George Orwell, the relevent section is:

'The dogs flanked the procession and at the head of all marched Napoleon's black cockerel. Boxer and Clover always carried between them a green banner marked with the hoof and the horn and the caption, 'Long Live Comrade Napoleon!' Afterwards there were recitations of poems composed in Napoleon's honour, and a speech by Squealer giving particulars of the latest increases in the production of foodstuffs, and on occasion a shot was fired from the gun.'

As usual, I'm not going to tag anyone. I suspect they're all NaNoWrMoing anyway, but if you should happen to want to do this meme, go ahead.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Laurell K. Hamilton: Swallowing Darkness

No, don't look away. Despite the probably double entendre of the title, this is that rarest of things, a LKH book without that much sex. Still some, of course, but not nearly so much as usual. Mind you, coming in at the seventh book of the Meredith Gentry series you'd have to read through the earlier ones to get to it, but it might actually be worth the effort.

To summarise the plot briefly without giving too much away, this opens looking like the climax of the attempts to put the main character on the throne of the unseelie sidhe, but things are never that simple. Having finally succeeded in becoming pregnant, and in bringing power back to much of fairie while she was going about it, Merry must now survive the last attempts of her cousin Cel, and others, to kill her before she can take it.

The simplicity of that basic plot belies the power of this book. It's beautifully, if very darkly, written, with a sensuousness to the prose that never spills over into floridness. The pacing is perfect, and the choices the characters make actually feel like they matter. I have a slight quibble with the level of divine intervention that keeps showing up through the series, since I feel that it removes some of the sense of danger from the characters, but even this is quite carefully managed here. In short, instead of the sort of enjoyable romp that we might have been expecting, Hamilton has reined herself in to produce a darkly thrilling tale of political intrigue and power.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Exercises?

A quick question about writing exercises. Do you do them? If so, do you have any favourites? I have to admit that I tend not to. Which is an interesting choice of words, isn't it? Why should I have to admit to it, like I'm doing something wrong by not working through writing exercises?

My objections have always been quite simple ones. Firstly, writing is something where you can usually do the full activity safely and completely. It does not need a more limited version for the same reason that a dangerous sport might, for example. As such, I tend to get the feeling that time I might spend doing exercises is time I might spend more usfully producing complete writing.

Secondly, many exercises seem to have little or no direct application. Do I want to know how my characters would react if they were all suddenly in a submarine, or at a tea party thrown by the Red Queen? No, not particularly. Not unless I'm going to put them there in a piece of work. Which I might. To borrow a musical analogy, it's the equivalent of a guitarist practising huge sweep picked arpeggios over the whole neck, when their actual use of the technique is more likely to involve three or four strings in a quick lead into their next note. You end up practising something because you can, and not because it contributes to the music/writing.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there's a tendency among some of those I've met who do these things to simply work through huge books of them from beginning to end, with no regard for what they're getting out of them. I can see the point of doing exercises, or at least focussed pieces of writing similar to musical etudes, to improve in a specific area if you feel it needs strengthening. Too many people of my acquaintance, however, seem to be doing exercises for their own sake. They'd get far more done if they only did the (probably quite small number of) exercises relevant to them, and spent the rest of the time actually writing.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Reputations

It's curious the reputations people or groups get. Take Durham's 2nd men's fencing team, who we beat yesterday. Being Durham, and therefore trained by former Hungarian national sabre coach Lazlo Jacab, we expected a specialist sabre team. What we got, instead, was a decent foil and epee outfit who we then beat comprehensively in the weapon they had the reputation for being best at. Leeds, on the other hand, had a reputation for being obnoxious, but last year those particular members had graduated, leaving a perfectly pleasant team.

Think about the sorts of reputations you have for a moment. There will be more than one, depending on the range of roles you fulfil in life. How would people think of you as a blogger, or a writer, or, in my case, as an historian? More to the point, does that tally with the way you want to be perceived in those roles. Thankfully, most of us are sufficiently unknown that we can change reputations with only a little work.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Bill


A picture in memory of Bill, my cat, who died today.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Thinking by Numbers

From the dangers of writing by numbers to the dangers of thinking by them. No, not statistics. I like a good stat as much as the next person. Possibly more so, given that many of the next people are medieval historians. I'm talking instead about a certain sort of textbook, usually in the field of business.

They provide diagrams, step by step processes for success in whatever field they devote themselves to, and a general feeling that, just by following their instructions, you too will be an expert at Selling, or Negotiation, or Human Resource Rightsizing (Something with a capital letter, anyway). I've recently been reading something on Creativity, on the basis that being creative... sorry, Creative, is a useful sort of thing when you're writing. The trouble is, I'm not sure I actually learnt that much.

The processes involved were mostly very simple, and frankly didn't deserve a full chapter each. The writing was very positive and encouraging, but the message of it seemed at odds with what they were purporting to teach. 'Follow the same simple methods as everyone else' doesn't strike me as a path to the new or even the interesting. Worse, to 'prove' the validity of these methods, the author (like practically all authors in the genre) resorted to anecdotes. Entertaining, but not exactly evidence.

My chief objection to this sort of thing lies in the relationship between technique in something, general attributes such as intelligence, and actual ability in the chosen activity. Too often, the goal of this sort of thing is stated as 'excellence' (which makes me come over all Bill and Ted for a moment) when in fact the likely outcome is dragging people up to a very basic level. On the basis of what is sometimes no more than a vague thought, people are learning rigid approaches to life, business, and worst, their own thinking processes. Thinking ought to demand more than just going through a series of flowcharts.

They claim to be following the processes used by the best people in particular fields, but one thing I've noticed from my own (equally anecdotal, so look for yourselves) observations on people who are quite good at what they do is that 'method' is a secondary concern. The way you find some of the real experts at something is to look for the ones who are doing things rather less by numbers, not the ones who are stood there trying to remember what the book said they should be doing next rather than giving the activity they are engaged with their full attention.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Stella Duffy: Mills and Boon

There was an interesting documentary on TV last night, featuring serious literary novelist Stella Duffy as she had a go at writing a Mills and Boon romance. It raised some intriguing thoughts.

  1. People still look down far too much on things that aren't 'literary' enough for their tastes. At one point Duffy said 'I write reality, not fantasy.' Which is utter nonsense. She writes a fictional representation of reality, which is really just another way of saying that it's every bit as made up as other fiction.
  2. People's writing habits vary enormously. Stella Duffy's main approach seems to have been to dive in and see what came out, with only vague mental planning beforehand. I don't know about anyone else, but I couldn't do anything without notes and plans and scribbled drawings and...
  3. Which leads us to the question of writing to a formula, or trying to second guess the market. Duffy's main problem throughout seemed to be a tension between what she wanted to write and what she thought she ought to. Maybe if you're aiming for a specific genre or area there are markers you need to hit, but even so, I have to think that writing by numbers can't work that well. Think about it, would you put up a painting that was painted by numbers.
  4. Finally, it seems that a pretty important component of writing is the desire to do the writing, or the involvement with the piece. If you're doing it just because you think a particular thing will sell, or will be easy to write, you're probably at a disadvantage compared to others who genuinely care about the type of book concerned. It took Duffy the whole documentary, not to mention a lot of time, effort and commitment, just to come up with the typical 'first three chapters plus synopsis' bundle. Which has to be about the best advert for writing what you really want to write there is.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

Nobody Owens lives in the graveyard, having been brought up there since the death of his family. Taught by inhabitants that range from the dead, to the neither dead nor alive, he learns to Fade and Haunt, and to keep out of the way of the people who are still looking for him to complete what they began with his family.

The blurb on the back, inevitably, describes this as the best book Gaiman has written. Personally, I think that might be pushing things a little, if only because he has written so much else of worth. It certainly compares well against the rest of his books aimed at younger readers, such as Corraline, but adult readers will still want to go for the likes of Anansi Boys, Neverwhere or American Gods first.

That said, this is a highly entertaining book, filled with well sketched characters and bizzare places. I particularly like the ghouls named after their first meal, resulting in names like 'The Bishop of Bath and Wells' or 'The Famous Writer Victor Hugo' and the way Gaiman takes a small graveyard and makes its many corners function as completely differently places, from the burial mound at its heart to the collection of unconsecrated graves over on one side.

Structurally, it's quite an episodic book, which is probably a necessary device when you're compressing someone's entire childhood into a book this size. The result is that the chapters function almost as short stories, which probably keeps them compressed and intriguing, but perhaps limits the extent to which the main plot makes its presence felt throughout. The ending, though certainly powerful enough and beautifully written, ends up feeling quite sudden as a result.

Even so, this is a wonderful book. It speeds along and demands to be read for just a few more pages. It maintains a sense of fun from the first to last pages, and it takes growing up and turns the idea inside out by making it happen in the one place where nothing is going to be normal.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Bewildering Stories

My 'anti-haiku' which again might look vaguely familiar, has gone up here

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Estella's Up

The November issue of Estella's Revenge is up, with many lovely articles and reviews and things, including my '10 bookish things to be grateful for.'

Friday, 31 October 2008

Terry Pratchett, Nation

Pratchett seems to have tackled a whole barrel load of big questions here: what makes societies work, the nature of belief, the nature of 'civilisation', the unfortunate tendency of people wearing rather more clothes to conquer people wearing less. In the hands of most other authors, it would probably seem like too much.

Pratchett handles it all with his customary skill and hilarity. Taking a simple story about a young woman (Daphne) shipwrecked on an island with a young man (Mau) and an increasing number of people left homeless by the tidal wave that wiped out the island's population, he weaves in uncouth parrots, grandfather spirits whose main concern is getting their beer on time, and a plot about finding the heir to the throne just in time thanks to the version of Magna Carta they don't show the public. It's utterly ludicrous and tremendous fun at the same time.

A Terry Pratchett book, in other words.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Stuff

  • I've spent much of the afternoon deleting tab indents on the second draft of the sequel and replacing them with automatic first line indents, which is about the most boring of the sort of necessary formatting things that needs doing. Just going through quickly like that gives more of a sense of the pacing of the thing, and how it needs to be altered. My main worry at the moment is the amount of information being introduced, and making that as natural seeming as possible. I could just eliminate it, but with something intended to be a continuing series, it seems important to develop other plot strands beyond the main one, so that I can build from them later or use them as continuing elements.
  • That said, going back to something after leaving it for a while to write other things is a weird experience. Not least, that's because you've inevitably learned more about writing since then, and so the problems left in the thing are more apparent. Of course, if I can see them, I can have a go at fixing them.
  • England won their warm up match against Trinidad and Tobago by 1 run last night, having fielded a team consisting of all 11 of those players who weren't laid low by stomach bugs. I still think that Graham Swann is a much better spinner than Samit Patel, but I suspect that the England management team doesn't agree with me, so I'm not expecting to see him on the park come Saturday's $20 million match. It's almost like they think they know more about cricket than me or something.
  • One thing I do know is the name of the spectator who keeps showing up in Hull's soccer kit on the TV footage, because I happen to have played cricket with Ashley. Strange how people show up in odd places.
  • Grants to England's undergraduate students have been cut as of next year, thanks to there being more of them than expected. Aside from my own complaint about the much more limited funding for postgraduate study in the UK, I'd like to say that cutting funding so suddenly is irresponsible, since it gives the students and their families no real time to set aside additional money. Is it too cynical to note that this sort of thing might not be happening if the Prime Minister weren't Scottish, thus ensuring that his children would come under the much more generous provisions put into place by Scotland's devolved regional parliament?

Monday, 27 October 2008

20-20

The Stanford 20/20 cricket series is well underway, with the 'Stanford Superstars' (basically a West Indies team) beating Trinidad and Tobago in a warm up game two days ago and England beating domestic 20Twenty champions Middlesex yesterday. Tonight brings the first game with something riding on it: Middlesex v Trinidad and Tobago in a battle of the teams that have won their domestic tournaments. The winning team gets 280 000 US dollars, the losers 100 000, and the man of the match 20 000. All of this is building up to the 20 million dollar winner takes all match next Saturday between England and the 'Superstars'.

So, there's a lot of money, but what's the cricket like? Obviously, it's 20Twenty, so we want things fairly frenetic, and it looks like the teams are trying to oblige, but it seems that the ground is conspiring against them. You see, the whole thing is being played at Alan Stanford's private stadium in Antigua, which seems to have wonderful facilities for the crowd and players, but which has a couple of flaws when it comes to the playing side of things. The first problem comes in the form of the lights, which are apparently quite poor compared to the best day/night venues. This means that catch after catch is going down, making the fielding appear farcical.

The second problem is, if anything, worse. A combination of a slow outfield (which means that the ball doesn't travel very fast across it towards the boundaries) and a pitch that is both slow and uneven in bounce (which means that no one can time their shots properly) has resulted in quite low scoring games. Interesting for the cricket purist, but not quite the crowd pleasing spectaculars that Stanford wants. Also, there's a trumpeter somewhere in the crowd who really needs to be taught the rest of the tune. No wonder the islands aren't famed for their cavalry regiments. No one can sound the charge properly. Right, that's me done. I'm off to watch it.

Bewildering Stories

The new issue of Bewildering Stories has gone up, featuring my 'essay' Frankenstein: Monsters and Morality. If it looks familiar, it's because it started life here, as a bit of a book review.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

The Novel's back on

You may recall that a while back, the e-publisher who was going to put out my novel Searching ceased trading, leaving me looking for someone else interested in it. Well, it seems I've found them. One of the larger of the bunch of e-publishers that have grown up, Double Dragon Publishing, has accepted it for publication, probably in mid-2009. This, as well as being good news, probably means I need to shift my writing focus back to the on-hold sequel, and away from the revisions of what I've just written, though I'm not giving up on that by any means.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Charlaine Harris, From Dead to Worse

The Sookie Stackhouse series of modern fantasy novels is usually a lot lighter in tone than some of the others, and this, despite several killings, a minor war and an assortment of unpleasant people, keeps up that vibe. As usual, the characters are elegantly, if briefly, drawn, the dialogue has a quirky edge to it lent by the central character's mind reading, and the whole thing has the feeling of bouncing along.

The only problem is that it doesn't seem to be going anywhere in particular. There's a plot, or rather there are plots, ranging from a werewolf war to a vampire takeover to a series of revelations about Sookie and her family. All of them are entertaining in their way, but none spans the entire book. It's like Harris has written a bunch of good, engaging sub-plots and then forgotten the main one. It doesn't make this a bad book, but it does completely throw off the story arc, and leave this one with the feel of a 'loose ends and set ups' book. A few old plotlines are tied off neatly, a few old characters killed rather too neatly, and half a dozen new possibilities opened up for the future. It makes the things that might happen next intriguing, but it also means that this one is for those readers who have already read the rest of Harris' books.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Bradford

And so to the first fencing match of the season, against possibly one of the weaker teams in the division. Particularly since one of their better fencers is now fencing for us, having decided to do his medical training at Hull. We won, and better yet, we won by a distance. The foil and epee types did their parts in a way they weren't able to last year, winning their sections comfortably, so that really, those of us who don't believe in silly proddy weapons didn't have much left to do. We still did it though, winning the sabre 45-15. Good work all round.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Stuff

  • I wrote my assessed piece for my archive skills course earlier. It's remarkably difficult to write just 2000 words when you're in the middle of something that could be up to 50 times that much.
  • It's Hull's first fencing match of the season tomorrow afternoon, against Bradford. Now that the BUSA fencing structure has been reorganised, we're in the unusual position of possibly being favourites to win our league. If we can get our strongest side out with any sort of consistency, we should have a reasonable foil and epee set-up, along with the strongest three-fencer sabre combination we've been able to put out in years. It all depends on what time my unnaturally tall friend Olly gets out of his morning lectures.
  • I got hold of a copy of The Graveyard Book earlier today, though I've got several other things I'm reading first.

Monday, 20 October 2008

2nd Draft

Finished the second draft of the novel last night. Still no title. Appear to have been infected with telegramitis. Still, could be worse. Could be txt msg wr...

O bggr...

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Tanka

Watching the shadows

Reflections of the fire's dance

Instead of the flames

Sometimes we need the darkness

As well as just the firelight

Phantom in the Night

Ordinarily, I quite like Sherrilyn Kenyon's writing. Her Dark Hunter series is tremendously good fun, and Acheron, the most recent in that series, actually had some depth to it, despite one or two technical flaws. This collaboration with Dianna Love though, just doesn't work.

Firstly, there's the mildly preposterous plot. Terri, working for a government agency so secretive that they can't get a decent acronym (Bureau of American Defence. Given the quality of the book, it's apt) is looking into local crime boss Mareaux, who was probably behind the death of her partner and setting her up, when a body shows up. It's supposedly that of ex-special forces man Nathan Drake, but is actually that of his twin brother Jamie, Nathan having taken his place in prison by pretending to be him. Nathan gets out and starts hunting for his brother's killer, sending the pair of them after a couple of layers of ancient secret societies. It's difficult to ignore the temptation to ask whether Kenyon has Jean Claude Van Damme writing her plots these days. Ok, I thought on reading the blurb, it's utterly silly, but no more so than some of the stuff going around these days. Handled well, it might even be fun.

It wasn't. Fun or handled well, that is. Most of the characters are one dimensional stereotypes, and that applies just as much to the main characters as the supporting cast. The authors had clearly worked out pasts for them, but having the characters tell us about the million and one things that happened to them in endless exposition does not equal character depth. Worse, the female lead, despite a supposed DEA background, has neither common sense nor the ability to protect herself. It leaves her both as unbelievable, and as the sort of helpless romantic heroine that's an insult to both the reader's intelligence and women in general.

And then there's the part where the authors forget that in the first few pages, she gets a good look at the corpse of the dead twin. And yet she still doesn't work out who Drake is when she first sees his face. There are pointless coincidences and plot holes throughout, this is just the worst, and it leaves the book feeling more like a clash between the authors than a genuine collaboration. Worse, it leaves the thing as a disappointment, because I know Kenyon can write much better stuff than this.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Alternate v Economy

I occasionally toss around terms like alternate and economy picking without thinking, forgetting that not everyone is a mildly obsessive guitarist. So, an explanation then.

Both relate to how you use a plectrum to pick a guitar. Normally, if playing on one string, you would play with alternating downstrokes and upstrokes of the pick. This makes sense from an ease of movement point of view. If you tried to play all downstrokes instead, for example, you would have to move the pick up again to be in the position for the next movement after every downstroke. Using both up and down strokes simply makes use of this movement. Because you alternate between the two, this is a very basic form of alternate picking.

The difference between what's called 'strict' alternate picking and economy picking comes when moving between strings. The alternate picker continues to move up and down alternately, regardless of their movement between the strings. So if they had just played a note on the D string (the 4th string of the guitar) with a downstroke, and were going to play one on the G string next (nothing to do with underwear, I'm afraid, but simply the next highest string in pitch, and positioned immediately below the D string physically) they would play it with an upstroke. What this means, you might have noticed, is that they would go down past the string to come back up again.

Economy picking says that this is a waste of effort, and so would play the same combination of notes with another downstroke (well, technically as part of the follow through from the original downstroke, but you get the idea.) This is because the basis of economy picking is to always move directly to the next string when changing strings, regardless of what you were doing before.

So, to play a string positioned below the one they're on, an economy picker would always use a downstroke, while to play one where they're moving upwards to get to it, they would play the first note with an upstroke. An alternate picker, by contrast, would keep going down-up-down-up regardless.

The reasons people (and by people, I of course mean myself) can't make up their minds between the two are that they, and slight variations on them, offer different advantages.

Economy picking has the advantage of economy of effort. You never have to go past a string to come back and play it, as you do with alternate picking. You can arrange things so that they barely take any pick strokes at all to play. Arpeggios, in particular, are easy with this approach (which tends to get called sweep picking once you're dealing with arpeggios) allowing you to do your best Yngwie Malmsteen impersonation. And yes, I have an Yngwie Malmsteen impersonation. I never claimed to have any musical taste. There's also an argument for saying that it produces a smoother sound than alternate picking.

Alternate picking has a few main advantages. Firstly, it's quite easy to keep track of. You don't have to work out what your next few pick strokes are, because you know it's going to be down-up-down-up... Secondly, there is an occasional tendency for economy picking to descend into mush, where you can't tell one note from the next. Alternate picking tends to give better definition to the notes, even if it is harder to do.

Currently, I'm on mostly alternate picking with the occasional sweep for arpeggios (and also some hybrid picking, which a fancy name for using pick and fingers together), but presumably you'll want examples you might have heard. So, some reasonably well known guitarists who...

...Alternate pick a lot: Steve Morse (Deep Purple), John Pettrucci (Dream Theatre), Al di Meola, Guthrie Govan.

...Economy pick a lot: Frank Gambale, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Stuff

  • I find myself writing short stories centred around beer for no particular reason, other than that a couple of nice scenes in pubs cropped up in the comic fantasy novel I've been working on. It's a useful thought that: that you can go through longer pieces and pick out little scenes that, re-done and re-imagined, might work as additional short stories. Still, since I don't drink, this is still slightly odd.
  • I've really got to get round to writing the essay for my archive skills module. It's just that, because I have to do it, I'm putting it off until I really have to do it. See, I can remember how to do this studenting stuff.
  • In the great alternate v economy picking debate, I'm back to alternate picking, again. I give it a month.
  • One of the stranger facets of keeping a blog: the other day I mentioned it in the bio for a short story, and now the lovely editory people have asked to use a poem and a short essay off here.
  • I really must get better at titles. Not just blog titles.
  • I keep writing short stories for a character I made up as a joke. The trouble is, with what's becoming a bit of an ongoing series of essentially quite daft stories, I'm not sure what to do with them next. I'm sure a thought will occur.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

A Free Country?

The House of Lords did the sensible thing and voted down the bill for 42 days detention without trial the other day. It's a pity though that it got as far as it did, since it represents a fundamental erosion of freedoms that ought to be taken as read. The House of Commons ought to be ashamed of itself for passing their stage of the bill. Unfortunately, we're still in a position where up to a month of detention without trial is possible, on the grounds of 'security'. Well, funnily enough, I actually feel less secure knowing that the Government could snatch anyone they wanted off the street for a month than I do thinking that a small improvement has been made in the ability to stop terrorist suspects.

Terrorism is, of course, a very emotive word. The trouble is, it's a word that's being used to destroy freedoms that our ancestors have fought over since 1215 and before. I know that people will say 'and how many freedoms would you have if the terrorists had their way?', but that is a non-argument. Two wrongs, as I'm sure everybody's mother pointed out, don't make a right. To the other common argument, that 'it doesn't matter what we do to them because they're terrorists.' I would make two points.

Firstly, how do we know that they are? That is rather the point of a trial. How many times have police genuinely believed that they've had evidence that someone has committed a crime, only for a judge or jury to dismiss it as insufficient? More to the point, do we think that these powers are being used solely on people trying to blow other people up? A couple of years ago, a man was arrested under the terrorism act for heckling at the Labour Party Conference. He wasn't a terrorist, but there was no immediate obligation to prove that he was.

Secondly, concepts of basic rights and freedoms are only truly effective when applied to people we don't like. People who are just like us, who we get on with, who we do like, are protected by that fact, not by a list of rights. It is the person whose religion/lifestyle/possible tendency to try to kill you you don't agree with who needs that protection. And, as a society, we should be extending those rights for the simple reason that next time it might be us society doesn't like.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Fishing For Worlds 2

My short story 'Fishing for Worlds' has just been accepted for inclusion in Semaphore Magazine's 2008 print anthology. Which is nice.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

In a lot of ways this wasn't quite what I expected. I suppose the main thing was that most of the pieces that have based themselves around the Frankenstein story have placed quite a lot of emphasis on the act of creating the monster. The original, on the other hand, deals with it in just a couple of pages. Where I was perhaps expecting an extensive discourse on the nature of life and on the morality of bringing about new life, this is more a book about morality, belonging, and the vital importance of human connections in making us human.

For those who don't know the basics of the story, Frankenstein gets obsessed with the nature of life, makes a creature, brings it to life, and rejects it. The monster then spends the rest of the book utterly destroying his life by preying on those around him, while simultaneously blaming Frankenstein for forcing it to be that way.

For the most part it's well written, though there are times when you can see impatience in its nineteen year old writer. The instant hate of Frankenstein for his creation doesn't strike me as entirely convincing, while the ability of the thing to miraculously track down those around him doesn't quite work either. The thing is, I'm not sure it matters that much. The centre of the story is more the monster's motivation than it is the actual mechanics of vengence. Is it evil because it was created that way? Is it evil because of repeated rejection? Do human concepts of morality even apply to something non-human?

It raises some intriguing questions about the role of other people in making us who we are. The monster, cut off from others and abandoned, is left without a moral compass. As, it might be argued, is Frankenstein, who slips into solitude well away from his family while working on the thing. When the monster wants to destroy him, moreover, it is not Frankenstein he attacks, but those around him. I suspect, on the whole, that it's a book not about what it means to make a monster, but about what others do to keep us human.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Trellis Magazine

The pdf of the new issue of Trellis magazine has gone up here, featuring my second place winning villanelle 'An Abbreviation'.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Aphelion October 2008

My poem 'Mary's Little Alien' has gone up here. It's quite an old one, but I like it, on the basis that most things work better with aliens. Especially nursery rhymes.

Archive Skills

I had my first seminar of an archives skills module I'm taking (for the credits) today, and it went all right. Even so, I can't help but feel that after years of study in archives an libraries, I kind of know this stuff already. Not to mention the fact that my major archive skill is an ability to navigate the motorway around Nottingham, where Southwell's main chartulary is located. I suppose that's one of the strange things with doing a PhD. You have to employ these different skills, and if you don't do the official training straight away, then by the time it comes to do it (did I mention that it was for the credits?) you've been using the skills for years. It makes things a little more awkward that many of the modules available are also there for MA and some third year undergrad students, meaning that I've actually done them before. It means I'm scouring the PGTS handbook, searching for relevant things that are fresh to me. Quantitative Methods for Historians, anyone? Actually, that sounds like one of the better options at the moment.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Graham Greene, A Gun For Sale

I was planning on finishing Frankenstein by this point, but this got in the way. In theory, it's quite a simple plot: Raven the harelipped hitman kills the Minister for War but is double crossed, leading him to try and chase down those hiring him. So far, so straightforward.

The powerful elements of the book come through the sort of characterisation at which Greene excelled, showing us flawed people at every turn who sometimes do what is right, but more often don't. Even those who are clearly set up as protagonists, such as Mather the policeman and his girlfriend Anne, are troubled. Mather, in the best tradition of detectives everywhere, cares more about his job than his girl, while Anne, who is quite happy with the thought of infidelity if it might get her ahead in her own career, spends about half the book helping Raven. The rest of it finds itself full of the sort of collection of de-frocked priests, sundae loving villains and hard drinking chiefs of police who would probably be taken as caricatures if they appeared in anything modern, but who appear vibrant and necessary when given Greene's touch.

Very quickly a couple of themes appear. One is whether it is possible to escape a bad background, worked through in greatest depth by the assassin, Raven, but placed in wonderful contrast to his employers too. The other, focussing on war, the desire for it, and the ease with which people can be manipulated into it, comes through, not just in the deeper plot behind Raven's actions, but also in the fictional setting of Nottwich, which has heard the news of a possibly impending war and, in some cases at least, is quite excited by the prospect.

This is one of those books that starts out looking like it will just hit the markers of its genre, but ends up doing rather more. It makes no particular claims to be more than a brief thriller, and in a couple of areas looks worryingly like its going to start following an obvious formula, but then you remember that Greene is one of the main reasons that there is such a formula, and you're free to enjoy the parts of it that are better than that.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

First Fencing

Some things are inevitable for the first fencing session of the year. We'll spend an inordinate amount of time standing around waiting for things to be organised. There will never quite be enough kit to go around, and the fencers who said 'yes I'm really good' a week ago will turn out to be... ok, I guess.

Actually, one of our new sabreurs is all right, and should mean that we have a strong sabre segment in the team this year, but our perpetual worries over epee and foil remain. Actually, my perpetual worries over epee and foil are that someone will make me fence them, and at least we're probably going to avoid that.

It's just a pity really that our Athletics Union has decided to make Monday nights 'AU training night' and to cram as many clubs as possible into the evening. It means two things that I can see. Firstly, half the people who said they might give fencing a go have been given better things to do on a monday, in the form of other sports training. Secondly, we have to switch from our reasonably large training hall to a tiny upstairs salle half way through, which gets remarkably cramped with even just the dozen experienced fencers trying to squeeze in. Still, at least we've got the whole place on friday. For some reason, students can think of better things to do on a friday night than prod people with swords. Weirdos.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Haiku

Haiku's main problem:
Running out of syllables
Before you reach the-

Drugs in Sport

A second sport related rant in about twenty minutes. Clearly I have things to work through. Firstly, I'd like to do something almost nobody else does, and applaude athletics and cycling. What? You can't hear me? You'll just have to trust that I am.

It sounds daft, doesn't it? After all, they're the sports with reputations for having drug problems, and have had for a while. Now think about why they still have that reputation. It's because, despite some still fairly large problems with the system, they are catching drug cheats on a pretty regular basis, and they are banning them. More than that, they usually try not to let them back near the sport, or if they do, it's with the taint of nobody quite trusting any of your performances.

Let's compare that to cricket for a moment, shall we? The other year, two Pakistani fast bowlers submitted positive drugs samples. They were initially due to be banned, but then let off on appeal to their own board. (Though I should probably point out in the interests of fairness that I don't have sufficiently close knowledge of the events to comment on the circumstances of the appeal. It would, therefore, be a bit premature to suggest that this had anything to do with their key places in the World Cup side, particularly as the PCB pulled them out of it at the last minute. This of course had nothing to do with the suggestions that they would be drug tested to within an inch of their lives at the World Cup.)

This is the same board, mind you, that was quite willing to try banning one of them, Shoaib Acktar, for five years for lambasting their competence in a press conference. The other, Mohammed Asif, has since been caught at an airport carrying recreational drugs in his luggage.

So far, so bad. But the one that gets to me, really gets to me, is Shane Warne. Shane Warne, usually billed as the 'greatest leg spinner ever' by the press. Frequently as 'the greatest bowler ever', despite the probably greater claims of Sri Lankan offspinner Muralidarin, mostly because commentators are still convinced that he throws the ball instead of bowling it with a nice non-straightening arm. Which is apparently the greatest crime in cricket.

Not as great, in my opinion, as being a drugs cheat. As a result of a random test, Shane Warne was found guilty of having a banned diuretic in his bloodstream that is banned for its potential as a masking agent for steriod use. Thanks to turning on the charm, not to mention blaming his mother (who, he said, gave him a pill to help get rid of a few double chins for some TV appearances. Which he didn't check, because of course your mummy is never going to give you anything bad) he got away with a one year ban.

And I do mean got away. He got away from cricket for a year, healed up a persistent shoulder injury, and came back stronger than ever to win the 2007 Ashes for Australia, captain Hampshire, and then earn an absolute fortune in cricket-mad India captaining the unfancied Rajastan Royals to victory in the first IPL 20-20 competition. Meanwhile Murali faces the sort of cloud of continuing suspicion that would normally surround a drugs cheat, and all because his permanently bent arm and double jointed wrist give him bowling superpowers. Not only is it unfair, it's an indictment of a sport that used to be held up as an example of fair play.

Rules, What Rules?

There are many reasons why fencing will never be quite as popular as football is: the expensive kit, the perceived danger (Look, it was just the one person in our club who got poked in the eye. Just once) the fact that it's not usually a big, shouty team sport.

Mostly though, I think it's down to the rules.

You watch the Olympics (presumably not on the BBC, since they showed about five minutes of fencing, none of it live) and I have to admit that even I'm guessing about whose hit it is. My friend Tim, who has somehow come to be worshipped by the Irish as the God of Presiding (we sent him over there to look through some telescopes... or something) can't work out whose hit it is. Even with the slow motion I can't work out whose hit it is consistently. How is anybody else supposed to?

The biggest problem isn't the over-complicated right of way rules, or in my own lack of knowledge (tommorrow I'll be stepping into a room where I've been fencing longer than almost anybody there has been alive) but one simple point: no one fences to the rules as they are written.

It's insane. The rules say that an attack shall last one unit of fencing time (basically one step). The presidents usually give it as lasting as long as the person continuously extends their arm. The rules say that an attack must threaten the target area, but when some respected coaches point out that the modern tendency to trail the arm below waist level (and yes, I'm guilty of this) doesn't threaten much of anything, they're shouted down. The rules make no mention of a defence through distance, but we still treat it as though there is (by giving the right of way to whoever has just made their opponent miss and look silly).

What other sport would do this? Would an American Football referee say 'I know it says ten yards in the rulebook, but I'm interpreting it as eleven?' Would a cricket umpire ignore the rule about where the bowler is allowed to deliver from, giving them the sort of advantage that sabre people are getting by extending an attack all the way down the piste?

More importantly, how am I supposed to go into fencing training tomorrow and explain all this to the group of newbies I'll get assigned while maintaining a straight face?

Friday, 3 October 2008

Stuff

Things I've been doing:

  • Starting to read Frankenstein, which is ok, but seems to have a couple of minor flaws. Maybe the rest of the book will make up for it.
  • Trying to remember how to wave a sword about properly. I might actually have to make an effort to get into the university team for once, so I am.
  • Starting short stories and then deleting them. I've been trying to force myself to write them, when I'm clearly not in the mood.
  • Learning to crochet from my mother. Curiously she seems to think that 'bogie hook' isn't the proper term for the main implement.
  • Digging out all of my old paints and finding out which were dried up. I also produced a painting of a tree better suited to a ten year old, but I'm going to pretend I didn't. I'm not going to let a complete lack of any discernible talent stop me, or I'd never get anything done.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Estella's Up

The October issue of Estella's Revenge is up, featuring my article 'So Many Books...'

Scaffolding

Written after a trip to York a while ago, while the minster was undergoing repairs:

Scaffolding

The building disappears
Beneath the mask of scaffold
Pipe and wood and plastic sheeting
Exoskeletal structure

I assume the church is there
Somewhere under that wrapping
That no one's taken worse than lead
From antique roofs

This is needed, so you say
Because it would be a shame
If such a grand old building
Went to ruin

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Thomas Becket

A post about Thomas Becket, mostly because you think about all sorts of things while mindlessly trying new tactics to get people to take up fencing (Most effective: 'You! Yes you, in the hat! Join the fencing club. Particularly useful if they weren't in fact wearing a hat, since they were usually sufficiently confused by it to do as they were told)

Things people know about Thomas Becket: He was Archbishop of Canterbury. He was killed, possibly at the suggestion of Henry II, on 29th December 1170.

Things slightly fewer people know about Thomas Becket: He was never, ever, EVER called Thomas a Becket. You wouldn't call me Stuart a Sharp, would you? No? Then stop it. The murder came after a long build up of tension over the relative claims over justice of the English King and the Pope, with such things as the Constitutions of Clarendon in 1164, and a statute in 1169 warning of dire consequences should anyone actually observe the Pope's interdict against the King. All of this, as we know, led eventually to Henry doing a spot of sledging in 1174 so that he could get to the Pope and ask forgiveness, which the Pope couldn't really refuse, getting rid of several of Henry's problems at a stroke.

Things almost no one knows about Thomas Becket: He was Provost of the Minster church of my home town of Beverley in 1163, though he gave it up when he got the abovementioned better offer from Canterbury. There isn't much sign of him actually going there, though he does briefly recommend in one of his letters that a friend should go there because the air or the water or something there will be good for his health. More evidence that he just got the gig as a way for Beverley's canons to get an impressive name on-side, since much of Beverley was apparently surrounded by stinking marsh at that point.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Back to School

Well, not school, but you get the idea. My first day back at university (not that I actually get holidays) and several things are immediately obvious.

  • They keep making freshers younger just to wind me up
  • The queues never get any shorter
  • I'll still be working on this PhD when I'm ninety. Except I won't, because I'm finishing it this year. I'll just have to work harder. Maybe I'll have to promise no more novel length pieces of writing until it's done.
  • My computer doesn't have much longer. It does, it turns out, have a USB port, but is back from the days when people thought that was mostly just for printers. It doesn't have the drivers for actual USB stick functions. Anyway, the thing is hidden behind the back where I have to tip the whole console out of its cubby hole to get at it. And it's running slower these days. Probably time to upgrade. Like I can afford that after paying my tuition fees.
  • Fencing equipment supplier Leon Paul still haven't got the idea that we don't want to pay £100 for a mask or a jacket, not when one of their competitors is offering them for half that. On the other hand, they did send the fencing club some lovely posters that we will no doubt be using for advertising in tomorrow's attempt to part freshers from their cash. The AU's annual sports fayre, as it's otherwise known.

Loud Enough?

The other day, I was listening to radio four, for no apparent reason, and ran into their segment 'Poetry Please' where listeners' poetry requests are read out. Aside from reinforcing my thought that the average person, when they think of poetry at all, thinks of old poetry, it did reinforce the importance of the way poetry is read. They had someone reading through Rossetti's 'Goblin Market' and the reading was, to my ears at least, utterly awful. But it did get me thinking. How often, when you read poetry, do you read it aloud? If you don't, I'd recommend it. It captures the rhythm and weight of the words better than the eye ever can. At least when not read on radio four by someone who insists on silly voices and unnattural stresses.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Dead Poets...

Take a look at my bookshelves for a moment. Don't mind the mess. You'll probably notice that there's a copy of Christina Rossetti's collected poems sitting airily somewhere towards the top. Sylvia Plath's Ariel is sulking further down. Somewhere in the middle there's Donne, Blake, Yeats, Murray...

They've all got one thing in common, which is that they're, not to put too fine a point on it, dead. I've also got some stuff by living poets tucked away, but I suspect that the dead poets outnumber them. More importantly, I suspect that's true of almost every other poetry reader's bookcase as well.

Why should that be? Unless we're from the seventeenth century, I suspect that Seamus Heaney or Tracy Ryan speaks more to our immediate concerns than John Donne, and yet I'm more likely to return to 'the fever' than anything out of District and Circle. Perhaps the answer is that very often modern poets don't address universal concerns so much as the minutiae of life. As it happens, I think that both of the above modern poets do manage to cover broader themes by expanding from moments of narrow focus, but many don't. Somehow, the classic poets seem to have been more inclined to touch on the big themes. Maybe it's just that they were expected to.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

The Write Idea

I've finally gotten round to adding a link to the online writing group I favour: The Write Idea. Anyone in search of such a thing should certainly give the place a try. They're a friendly bunch, and have even been known to put up with my poetry.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Stuff

  • It's suprisingly hard to create good, serious copy. Not only have I been trying to put together some short articles, which is proving hard enough, but also I had to come up with something for Hull University's Fencing Club, because the AU wanted 100 words on each of their sports. Trying to pare everything down to 100 words while still trying to attract people to the club was surprisingly difficult, despite the selling point that you get to hit complete strangers with swords.
  • My poem 'Tea Ceremony' has gone up here:
  • I'm about half-way through the first batch of rewrites on the novel. So far I haven't run into anything that needs huge amounts of changing, which maybe shows that this planning-it-in-detail-first stuff works. Or I'm utterly blind to my own faults, one or the other.
  • Yorkshire's cricket team probably won't get relegated to the second division of the County Championship after all. Yay!

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Three Retirements

Since it's very nearly the end of the cricket season in England, there has been the usual wave of retirements recently. Three of them in particular seemed to deserve some comment.

  1. Graham Hick. Worcester and England batter with more first class hundreds than any player currently in the game. He came to England from Zimbabwe in his teens, and had to wait 5 years to qualify for England's national side. During that time, everyone was talking about how he was the greatest player they'd ever seen and how he'd score millions at international level. It never quite worked out like that, since a succession of very fast bowlers worked him over, leading to an international average only in the thirties. He was messed around by the national selectors, being picked and dropped again far too many times. At county level though, he was, even at the age of forty, a player to be feared.
  2. Darren Gough. Yorkshire, England, Essex and then Yorkshire again fast bowler who formed one half of England's only real bowling partnership in the 1990s with Andy Caddick. It probably would have worked better if the two of them could have got on for five minutes, but Gough was still dangerous, swinging the ball at over 90 mph at his best. Even towards the end of his career he remained capable of operating in the mid-80s, and his knack of bowling in the final few overs of a one day match earned him a call up as recently as a couple of years ago. He has also spent the season captaining Yorkshire (mostly to a series of defeats) Will probably be remembered as much for his exuberant personality as for his achievements on that score.
  3. Mushtaq Ahmed. Short, fat, and with a beard with more grey in it than the rest of the county circuit put together, Mushie hardly looked like the most dangerous leg-spinner on the county circuit. He was though, bowling Sussex to consecutive county championships while taking more wickets than anyone else might have thought possible. His international career was less spectacular, and he found himself overshadowed both by the great Pakistani pace attacks he shared a team with and by the emergence of great spinners in the form of Warne, Kumble, Muralitharan etc... Even so, it was a sad day when his knees finally called time on a hugely prolific career.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

A Silly Poem

A silly poem about my occasional tendency to write poems about cheese. Yes, I know it's weird, but I'm easily bored. Also I tend to send out my serious poems so that they can sit on people's desks for a few weeks before being rejected. It's a nice holiday for them.

A Poem About Cheese Poems

I’m writing poems about cheese
Nothing you can do to stop me
Not cry, rage, threaten or say please
Or place large weights atop me

Cheese poems are, you say, perverse
Strange, weird, and so you pester
I grin and set my thoughts to verse
On cheddar and Red Leicester

I cannot say what set me off
On products made of milk
Just that I love to rhyme with Brie,
And others of that ilk

You said I didn’t give a damn
About you and you left dear
But left me rhyming with Edam
And so I didn’t quite hear

But now, my sweet, for you I’ve gone
And stopped, I’ve given up the ghost
Instead, I’ll write my poems on
Cornflakes, marmalade and toast

Monday, 22 September 2008

Flash Magazine

If anyone reading this has a fondness for writing very short fiction, someone over at Chester University has started Flash Magazine, featuring pieces of work of 360 words or less. Submission details can be found through the link below.

http://www.chester.ac.uk/flash.magazine/submit.html

Fencing

Over the past few days, I've been trying to remember how to fence, ahead of going back to university. Just doing the little things, like trying to remember how those dents got into the guard of my sabre (the answer: my friend John's face. I've never really got the hang of moving out of the way) The thing is, I invariably take the summer off, because the local clubs happen to clash with nights when I'm playing cricket in the summer (or not playing cricket because it's all been rained off at the last minute) so every September I have to get the feel of the thing back. The actual techniques are the easy part, but it's the small things (distance, timing, remembering not to call the opponent names) that seem to go. Unfortunately they're the important things.

It's probably similar with writing. The obvious things seem to come easily, but the important things, the feel, the control of pacing and the rest of it, can slip away very quickly if you aren't careful. With the novel I'm doing rewrites on at the moment, the hardest thing is getting the timing right on the moments of comedy that litter the thing without sacrificing anything that contributes to the story. Even when you're trying to make people laugh, that comes first.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop

Florence Green feels that what her small town could really use is a bookshop, so she opens one. The decision isn't popular, however, because she chooses the house that local bigwigs have earmarked as a possible Arts Centre. The book maps the course of the bookshop's brief life, taking in a host of minor stories in the process, from whether Florence's young assistant will pass her 11+ exam to whether anything will ever be done about the rapper (poltergeist) in the shop's cellars.

The word that springs to mind for this book is charming. It has a quiet, almost quaint beauty to it, and Fitzgerald's elegant prose carries the piece along. It's short, at only 123 pages, and doesn't set out to do huge things, but it captures the petty rivalries and self importance of village lives perfectly.

Bizarrely, it reminds me a little of Hemmingway's The Old Man and the Sea, though with a very different prose style. That book takes the central dreams of people's lives and shows them worn down inevitably by age and weakness despite the nobility of any stand. Fitzgerald seems to deal with similar sorts of issues here, taking people's simple dreams, from Mrs Green's desire to open a bookshop, to her neighbour's desire to simply live happily with his girlfriend Kattie, and letting them ebb away. The difference is that where Hemmingway shows us powerless against nature, Fitzgerald chooses far more human mechanisms of dissolution, from relentless social pressure, to the small intrigues that almost everyone seems to indulge in, to the patronising 'practicalities' put in the way.

I wasn't expecting this to be nearly as powerful as it was, but the whole works surprisingly well, even though it initially seems like a book in which nothing is destined to occur. It's certainly worth reading.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Registration Build Up

Earlier I completed a draft of the conclusion to the PhD, which means I've now got versions of all of it. It's just a question of rewrites and alterations from now. I've also begun the process of re-registering for next year (otherwise known as ten days from now) but I've got to settle old debts first. The university thinks I owe it the grand total of 60p for something. I'm not entirely sure what, but since I won't be allowed to register when I owe them money, I'll be along to the finance office with a bag full of 1p coins first thing Monday.

I'm also thinking of volunteering to help out with the work needed for a conference coming up. It doesn't sound like a great deal of work, and I suppose it will look reasonably good that I'm involved with the research community. Much better than driving hundreds of miles to get away from them, which is what happened when I was due to give a paper at one in December.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Stuff

  • I received my copy of the first issue of Inside Out Magazine today and it looks great. Of course, everyone else there is putting together poetry and short stories while I was just filling in on that on, knocking out copy for a less artistic section. Even so, it's a good thing to have been part of.
  • I keep forgetting to do revision on the new novel. I'm too easily distracted by other things.
  • Such as the short story I finished last night. I'm writing slightly longer short stories than I used to, but since I can't think of a way of making them shorter without losing something that feels right, I'm sure they're the length they need to be.
  • I'm still working on the conclusion to the PhD, a little bit at a time.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Two Poems

My poems 'On My Feet' and 'Lived In' have gone up in the summer edition of Adagio Verse Quarterly. It can be found here: http://www.geocities.com/adagioversequarterly/p6.html

Monday, 15 September 2008

Four Runs Found

Two or three weeks back, some cricket scorer with too much time on his hands 'found' the missing four runs that would take the late Sir Donald Bradman's batting average from 99.96 to an even 100.

I mention this because in almost no other field is it quite so easy to work out who the greatest practictioner of it ever is. The Don's nearest rival over a reasonable number of games is fellow Australian Mike Hussey, whose average is 70 odd and falling. Of those with completed careers, the phenomenal George Headly has an average somewhere in the 60s, while most of the other greats are stuck somewhere in the 50s. Bradman was, in short, two-thirds again as good as the next best ever, and twice as good as the 'average' great player.

You don't get this certainty in most other sports, and you definitely don't get it in writing. What would you do? Tot up total book sales? That only shows popularity. Ultimately, all you're left with is a personal judgement of quality, and that is so variable that it means very little. If I want to be silly and claim that Roald Dahl was the greatest writer ever, there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. Not that I want to. Although the BFG was rather good...

But this leads to the obvious question: how do you know if what you're producing is any good? There's no absolute way of checking, so you're left with your own opinion (which in my case swings between 'It's a work of genius!' and 'It's the worst thing anyone's ever written!' often over the course of about five minutes) The opinions of assorted friends and relatives (who often try to be kind) or, if you're lucky and brave enough, the opinions of your writing group. Ultimately though, there's no way of knowing for sure, so you might as well just post it out and see.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

A Picture of Bill


Bill's normally too lazy to play, until you bring curtains into the equation. Then, he'll happily chase after and pounce on our other cat, Joe. Well, until he gets bored and goes to sleep, leaving Joe waiting behind the curtains.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Stuff

  • I've finally started reworking the novel, though I didn't get much done today.
  • I've been playing around with a short story idea after coming up with what I thought was a nice title, only to realise I didn't have anything else.
  • I've put in a request for some credit exemptions at the university based on my previous post graduate training scheme stuff. In a couple of weeks, I should find out whether I'll need to take any modules to make up credits or not.
  • I spent most of the morning frantically backing things up after suddenly realising I hadn't done it for ages. If the computer gremlins got to the clapped out thing I work on, I'd lose hundreds of thousands of words of work. It took a while, because the computer in question is sufficiently old fashioned to only take floppy disks. Its main advantage is that, because it has no modem, nasty viruses aren't likely to get in.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Other thing that Happened Today

Understandably enough, the majority of people's focus today is going to be on the attack on the twin-towers back in 2001. I don't think I can do that subject justice, so I'm not going to try. Instead, I'm going to drift into my role of medieval historian for a moment and point out the other important event 11th September is the anniversary of: the death in 1087 of William the Conqueror.

It probably seems like an insignificant thing, but without this man's life, things would almost certainly be rather different. The words on this page definitely would be, because without the invasion of an Old French speaking nobility, English would have been influenced far less by that language. Even little words like pork and beef wouldn't be part of it, deriving as they do from the French.

There also wouldn't have been the continuing connection to Normandy until approximately the Third Crusade (when Philip II of France pulled a sickie so he could run back and steal it) resulting in an important Northern European force in the form of the Angevin Empire. Without that, maybe European politics for the next few hundred years (the consequences of which still pop up now and again) would have been very different indeed.

And then there are all the deaths.

Without William, there probably wouldn't have been the mass displacement and killing known popularly now as the 'harrowing of the north'. I forget the exact figures involved, and I wouldn't like to risk being wrong when we're dealing with what I suspect are tens of thousands, but I don't need them anyway. I just need you to imagine for a moment an almost total scorched earth policy over much of the north (and particularly the north east) of England. My home town of Beverley was lucky, because, according to John Kettel, writing a couple of hundred years later, William was impressed by what he heard of St John of Beverley. Most places weren't so lucky. Even taking into account some of the problems with the term waste in Domesday Book, large swathes of countryside were still trying to recover almost twenty years later.

And then there's that book. No one knows for sure what he wanted it for, with arguments usually ranging between taxation and a record of 'feudal' landholding. It was just a snapshot, and it wasn't even finished in his lifetime, but the level of organisation it took was impressive.

So there we have it, at least in as much as I can be bothered. William I: typically ruthless medieval monarch, Conqueror of England, cause of a lot of rivalry between England and France in the long run, and probably also one of the first sad, anorak wearing stattos. Not to mention the only King of England the average school child has heard of these days.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Something to shake a stick at

There's the final of the BBC's show Maestro on at the moment, and I can't watch it because the sight of a bunch of 'celebrities' trying to conduct the BBC concert orchestra just makes me laugh too much.

It's part of a wider problem I have with the idea of conductors. These celebrities are going up there, conducting with varying degrees of vigour and skill, and it isn't making one iota of difference to the sound being produced by the orchestra. Given that, it seems monstrously unfair that conductors should gain the accolades they do for something that could be taken by the uninitiated as some bizarre form of interpretative dance.

Maybe it's just that I'm used to forms of music where the groups are never large enough, or indeed drummerless enough, to require a baton twirler. I've only worked with a conductor once, and that's when my school choir was one of half a dozen or so taking part in an episode of Songs of Praise. I don't remember them being much use then either.

I'm sure they do something important, but surely not so important that they should get more attention than the musicians. After all, everyone who plays in a renowned orchestra like the BBC concert will possess practically virtuoso level skills on their instrument, achieved through years of practise. It annoys me that someone whose main function could be replaced by a metronome is more important than that. (yes I'm sure they do more. I'm just not sure what.)

It's just that, with jazz (the only other genre that uses bands that large I can think of off the top of my head) orchestras often get on perfectly well with a leader who is also playing. Presumably they're too busy to wave a stick as well, so it must be possible for an orchestra to do perfectly well without. Not that I'm ever likely to find out. Almost everything I've ever done musically has been geared towards having as few musicians as possible. Mostly, that means shoving everything on one guitar, or maybe having two or three instruments at most. All you need there is for everyone to be paying some kind of attention.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Estella's Up

This month's edition of Estella's Revenge is up, featuring my article '10 ways of starting a literary argument.'

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Stuff

  • Today is apparently Australia's endangered species day, which has no particular connection to me beyond a certain interest in the thylacine, which has been extinct since 1936
  • I'm trying to get my brain back into short story gear. After spending so long writing the novel, it's hard to suddenly switch back to things that are dealt with in a few thousand words. The one idea I have feels like the sort of thing that would need a certain amount of space to breathe.
  • To that end, I'm trying to come up with a stock of basic ideas by asking myself what stories I wish had been written. Maybe something will catch my attention.
  • I'm getting stuck into a draft for my PhD's conclusion. It's probably the most fun part, since I've already gone through all the facts and detail. It means I don't have to stop every couple of lines to check references. I can just write for once. That's the part of the PhD that's hardest, and what sets it aside from writing fiction, or even a lot of non-fiction. You think you're just going to write for the best part of a hundred thousand words, but you don't really build momentum. It's always write...pause...check fact...write...

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Eric Roche

On a slightly more sombre note, today marks the anniversary of the death of acoustic guitar... there's no other word for it but genius, Eric Roche.

For those who don't know, and that remains far too great a number, Eric Roche was one of the most complete acoustic guitarists of his lifetime, managing delicate celtic fingerpicking, perfectly controlled jazz, and all out percussive acoustic workouts with equal aplomb. He could switch from the sort of things associated with Pierre Bensusan or Adrian Legg to blasting through the sort of pieces more associated with Michael Hedges or Preston Reed without a blink. Along with some truly beautiful original pieces, he did a particularly inventive line in covers, with instrumental versions of everything from Van Halen's Jump to Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground, to Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. And if the rock numbers in there make you think 'oh no... cheesy acoustic versions' don't. Thanks to his mix of percussive and arranging skills, the covers have all the punch and more of the originals. I'm a Van Halen fan, and I still prefer Roche's version.

Almost more important, though, is what he achieved as an educator at the ACM and as a writer for Guitar Techniques Magazine. Guitarists such as Austrian acoustic virtuoso Thomas Leeb studied under him, and so did the multi-something selling singer songwriter Newton Faulkner. On a personal level, his columns in Guitar Techniques are one of the main reasons I got back into playing the acoustic guitar after a long spell playing only electric. One of my regrets as a guitarist is that he did a workshop in my home town, and I forgot about it.

For anyone who wants to know more, check out the website mantained by his family.

http://www.ericroche.com/

Nothing Doing

I've spent the day doing nothing, or as near as makes no difference. I re-read quite a bit of Jim Butcher's Small Favour but wrote nothing. No poetry, no re-writes, no short stories, no work on the PhD, nothing. The idea was that, since I was still exhausted after finishing the novel, I'd just re-charge. It's apparently quite common to just crash a bit, and I've experienced it before after finishing other time consuming projects, but I'm not sure I'll remain inactive long. It was far too boring.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Inside Out

Issue 1 of the magazine Inside Out, featuring my article 'healing narratives' has finally gone to print and is available from their website http://www.myinsideout.co.uk

Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Clegg Effect

A question to which I'll tell you the answer in a minute if you don't know: Who is Nick Clegg?

Actually, I'll make it easier: Who is David Cameron? Gordon Brown?

The answers are that Nick Clegg is the leader of the UK's Liberal Democrat party, while David Cameron is the current leader of the Conservative party (and likely to be next prime minister) and Gordon Brown is the current prime minister.

Why is this relevant? Well, as interesting as the upcoming US elections are, for the past few weeks in the UK we've been getting them right at the top of the news, ahead even of our own political stories. That annoys me, since it implies that the showiness of an election over which we have no say is winning out over elements of politics central to our wellbeing.

It also annoys me a little that the UK's media in general pay an awful lot of attention to US politics. The names of obscure members of the US government are common questions on TV quiz shows, the detail of the political discussions show up not just on our news but on our discussion programmes, and even our topical comedy shows give us a steady diet of US politics.

On a couple of levels I can understand it. The USA is currently the world's dominant power, so those politics affect us. Equally, the fact that those politics are conducted in English (or something vaguely approximating it in the case of the current president) makes them nice and accessible. Also there's the rather nonsensical idea of a 'special relationship' between Britain and the US, which seems to largely ignore the way countries work, but there you go.

Wouldn't it be useful though to occasionally hear about our own politicians? Just the other night, news of Palin's speach at the Republican whotsit made it onto British domestic news ahead of the story about Alex Salmond (the Scottish First Minister) opening the Scottish parliament for the session and setting out his legislative plans for the year. Wouldn't it also be nice if occasionally we also heard something about the politics of all those other countries that affect us in the UK. You know, the various members of the EU, Russia, China, the massive emerging economy of India...