Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Wednesday Stuff

What can I say? I have a talent for titles.

I finished off the short story using the method I got from Anatomy of Story and it's turned out pretty well. The ending is certainly more coherent than some of my short stories. Thanks to some positive feedback from my 'is this any good after all' readers, I've also reached the point where I'm happy to start sending out the novel again, and I've just realised that there's a publisher who specialises in fantasy and horror just up the road from me. It seems better than sending it half way round the world like last time.

I enjoyed Pygmalion, particularly the playfulness with accents. Beowulf, on the other hand, I didn't finish. Perhaps it was because I've read it before, though I suspect it didn't help that I kept remembering a comment from one of Terry Pratchett's novels, made by a random barbarian hero. 'I fought a monster the other day and its mum came round to complain.' It's hard to take Gredel's mother's desire for revenge seriously when you're reduced to thinking in terms of her as a parent showing up to complain that the other boys have been bullying her son.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Villanelle 2

It occurs to me that I wasn't terribly clear in my attempts to describe the villanelle. In an effort to clarify things then (and not at all because I enjoy subjecting people to silly poetry) I've written one. I assure you, I do occasionally write serious poetry. Honestly. It just isn't here.

The Woman Who Made Houses Out of Sticks

The woman who made houses out of sticks
Wouldn’t work with breezeblocks, stone or mud
I think she had an allergy to bricks

When there was a house to build or fix
She’d show up with a stock of pre-split wood
The woman who made houses out of sticks

She couldn’t point or tile or grout or mix
Up concrete like another builder could
I think she had an allergy to bricks

Despite her lack of other building tricks
Her homes turned out exactly as they should
The woman who made houses out of sticks

They call her odd and on that score she’s quick
To point out that she’s been misunderstood
That she just has and allergy to bricks

But now the national housing timebomb ticks
She’s lauded by the great and by the good
The woman who made houses out of sticks
Is thankful for her allergy to bricks

Saturday, 26 April 2008

A bit tired

I was stupid enough to suggest 5 hits winner stays on at sabre when I was fencing last night. Without Olly there, I ended up fencing ten or twelve bouts in a row. I'm now half dead. Bulletpoints then.

  • I memorised Shakespeare's 18th sonnet last night on a whim. People don't remember poetry nearly as much as they used to. On the other hand, they can probably remember the lyrics to every song in their collection.
  • Just about ready to move from planning to writing on the short story, if I can find the energy.
  • People who do a little bit of history in their degrees invariably think they know all of it, meaning I end up trying to explain the problems with the concept of feudalism in a pub at some odd hour.
  • It turns out that Adam is the king of origami, though his efforts yesterday resulted in some sort of strange twirly thing.
  • Things I'm reading: Beowulf (Seamus Heany trans), Shakespeare's sonnets, Sandworms of Dune (Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson) Pygmalion (George Bernard Shaw)

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Planning Before I Write

One of the hardest things for me to do when I write is to slow down a little. I go through phases that are pretty much manic, with the urge to do everything, all at once, right now! Reading The Anatomy of Story has helped me to see that it might not be a good thing. Before, I thought, 'I've got a good enough plan, I'll run with it from here' and it worked, more or less. Now though, I can see the ways that has sometimes left my writing seeming fragmented and forced.

As an experiment, I've decided to try working through a short story in the way recommended in the book, which seems to come down to building things organically from a few simple ideas. Although the idea of planning a short story in that sort of detail seems less fun than getting on with the writing, it should hopefully give me an idea of how well this approach works before I try it on anything longer.

I've also been trying to write some villanelles. Think of Dylan Thomas' The Dying of the Light. The form is quite complicated (but then, I never seem to choose simple poetic forms, do I) and I keep making the mistake of having the first and second repeating lines take different rhymes. It works like that, but apparently it's supposed to go more like this:

A1 (first repeating line with a rhyme)
b (Line with b rhyme)
A2 (Second repeating line with a rhyme)






Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Inspiration Again

I finally got round to looking up the results for the Yorkshire Sabre, which I fenced in January. I knew I'd made the last sixteen, but their official leaderboard shows me as twelfth. That's about four places higher than I expected, and also, mercifully, two places higher than my friend Scott. He would have been insufferable otherwise. Of course, they also spelled my name wrong, but you can't have everything. My unnaturally tall friend Olly finished a good five places higher than either of us.

Olly happened to mention a few of the guys he'd trained with over the years last night, which has started me thinking about just how much of an impact a few people have on you. They might be teachers, or family members, or random people who pass on Yoda-like nuggets of wisdom for no apparent reason, but they're easy to forget about. You, or at least I, remember who our heroes were in particular things; who exactly we looked up to as, for example, writers. It's sometimes harder to remember the people who actually taught us the important lessons, even when they've probably shaped us more than attempts to copy someone farther off.

To return to fencing for a moment, the guy who really did me the most good was Bob Bales. I remember doing lessons a couple of minutes long with him and coming out of them absolutely exhasted. Not only was he the one to tell me that I should be fencing sabre, but he also managed to instill the attitude of the thing. It's turned out more important than all the technical lessons that have followed.

To break away from that particular trip down memory lane, my friend Adam happened to mention last night that he was suffering from writer's block and had run out of things to write about. For Adam then (should he ever read it) five random tips for coming up with ideas. I may even follow some of them myself.

1- Write a list of things you know something about. Most people restrict themselves to writing about one or two things, but know about far more.

2- Try and remember all the cool characters you came up with but never really did anything with. They might not have fit in what you were writing, or you might have come up with a minor character who really deserves something of their own.

3- Boil another story down to its absolute essentials and then build it up in a different way. You can even do this with something you didn't write, though here you have to be careful just to pull the most basic elements of the idea out, and not to actually copy anything.

4- Write a wish list of all the amazing stories you wish other people had written. This will invariably be longer than the list you've written for yourself, because it will contain things that are completely out of your usual area.

5- Ask a friend or family member (or complete stranger if you're feeling brave) to give you something to write about. If you want to do it more subtly than that, ask them about stories they'd like to see. The first way sounds like more of a fun challenge though.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Some Photos

A couple more pictures.

This one's of the view over the fields from my house.

While this one's an attempt to see if things really do look more 'arty' in mono. Actually, I've left a little hint of colour in the background.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Things I've Been Doing Today

1- Wondering what my friend Adam will make of the novel, since I gave him a copy last night. I figured someone should read it.

2- Reading The Fourth Bear, A Beginner's Guide to Wittgenstein, and The Anatomy of Story. The first of these is entertaining, the second mildly confusing, and the third makes me wonder how anybody ever gets anything written.

3- Guitar practise for the first time in several days. The new Satriani album helped inspire this one, but I should probably play more regularly if I want to keep my hands up to speed. Also, trying to improvise the illusion of separate bass and melody lines is surprisingly fun once you have the hang of it.

4- Recovering from a tough fencing session. I spent about an hour last night working with my friend Olly, and as a result I'm a little exhausted today. Taking on someone who is not only better than me but also seven inches taller is hard work. A few more sessions like that and I might even be able to keep up in Sheffield.

Some Poetry Reviews

Since I've been reading a fair bit of poetry in the last few months, I thought I'd go through a few collections here. They're only very short reviews, and at least a couple of them are quite old, but hopefully they'll be of some use.

Sophie Hannah, Hotels Like Houses, (Carcanet, 1996)
Pessimism for Beginners (Carcanet, 2007)

It probably doesn't come as a surprise to anyone that Sophie Hannah is my favourite poet. These two collections, her second and her most recent, both contain everything that makes her so wonderful: acid wit, a use of rhyme and form that is both clever and playful, and an ability to use apparently light poetry as a way into some of the more serious areas of human emotion. Of the two, Hotels Like Houses is the one that strikes the more upbeat note, with poems on everything from falling in love to learning to drive. There are too many high points to pick out just a couple, but 'Double that Amount' and 'Preventative Elegy' are particularly good.

Pessimism For Beginners is a little more sombre, with fewer poems on the beginnings of relationships and more on their end. In between, she touches on everything from imaginary friends to the problems faced by new mothers. All are dissected with the sharpest of eyes and a knack for finding the least obvious of rhymes (Who else would have thought to pair sex with Toulouse-Lautrec, as she does in White Feathers?). For me, the best poems are probably the title piece and 'No Ball Games etc.' but the joy of reading her work is that there's enough variety and skill in it to suit practically everyone.

Tracy Ryan, The Willing Eye (Bloodaxe, 1999)

This is a very different collection, certainly on a technical level. Tracy Ryan avoids most of the traditional forms and rhymes that Sophie Hannah plays with, choosing instead to bind the poems together with strong, sudden images. And what images they are. She has the knack of taking the smallest details of everyday life and, by connecting them unflinchingly to emotion and personal experience, making them seem anything but ordinary. With some other poets, it's an approach that can lead to a closed off feeling, as though the poem isn't for anyone but themselves, but in this collection Tracy Ryan's mix of perfectly chosen language and imagery that is immediately powerful make it impossible not to connect with the poems.

Julia Copus, In Defence of Adultery (Bloodaxe, 2003)

Julia Copus is probably a little less immediate with her images than Tracy Ryan, building them up slower and seeming to linger with them. In the best cases, as with 'Love, like water', that results in a feast for the reader's senses. In a few (but only a few) other cases, that probably results in poems that run a little longer than they should, or at least longer than their matter can contain. She's better, and the perfect example here is 'Essence', when the focus is a little narrower, forcing the language to push against the edges of the lack of space. Her evocations of places are particularly powerful, as in 'Glimpses of Caribou', and help to make this, overall, a collection well worth reading.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

The Prize for the Weirdest Title Goes To...

Time for a quick music review, since I've just got Joe Satriani's most recent album, Professor Satchafunkalicious and the Musterium of Rock. Feel free to take a moment to laugh, I did. Normally he takes one reasonably strange title from one track as an album title, but this time he's combined parts from three into something that sounds like it should be the title of a children's book.

So, is it any good? That depends a lot on whether we mean good by Satch's standards or by the general standards of instrumental rock. It isn't his best work, but the playing is still flawless, melodic and varied. A lot of other players would have been happy to have released this album.

The problems are most easily summed up by the track 'I just wanna rock'. It has great tone throughout, some good moments of rock and blues playing, not to mention all the classic Satriani-isms like silly noises, whammy bar antics and fluid legato. At the same time, it seems a little too concerned with the unusual noises and with layering sounds. Equally, while it expresses classic (not to mention cliched) rock sentiments in the crowd chanting chorus, it doesn't quite have the playfulness or passion you might expect.

The biggest difficulty is that this album doesn't seem to have moved on much from his last two, while the rest of the instrumental rock universe has. With the likes of Guthrie Govan and John Pettruci producing incredible albums in the last couple of years, Satch no longer sounds as far away from the pack as he did. It's a good album, and one that fans will enjoy, but it isn't one that's going to win him many new fans.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Finishing Things

Another random flower photo. I've just started reading Jasper Fforde's The Fourth Bear, and hopefully I'll finish it too. I've been going through a phase recently of not finishing things, and not just books. I'm finding that I'm getting down part of writing pieces and then going off on tangents half way through. Maybe finishing something, anything, will help.
I've also allowed myself to be talked into the Sheffield Open sabre, sometime in May. I suspect I'd better get some training in before then. The last time I went to Sheffield, for the Yorkshire Sabre, I didn't do nearly as well as I wanted to. Maybe I don't have the talent to beat Mike Berry (He won for the 5th year in a row), but that doesn't mean I can't do well.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

One Thousand and Sixty-Six Rewrites

There are days when I hate history. It can just be so boring, not to mention having few real uses. But then, this could just be me thinking about the prospect of having to rewrite the first chapter of the PhD again, this time to include more on the published work on Domesday Book. It doesn't help that I came back through the English Department and made the mistake of glancing at their module choices board. All those fun looking courses on things I would be reading anyway.

On the other hand, practically every student I've met gets that 'grass is greener on the other side' feeling from time to time. The law students like the idea of philosophy, the English students would quite like to do chemistry, and a few of them even seem to think that a PhD in medieval history is a lot more impressive than what they're doing. Poor deluded fools.

On a fencing note, one of our beginners suffered a dislocated knee last night, though it popped straight back in. It's odd that some people (like me so far), can play a sport for decades without serious injury, and then something like that can hit someone else after only a few months.

Monday, 14 April 2008

An Old Aquaintance

A quick look through the blog profiles has revealed the blog of a guy I used to play cricket with. Anyone with a suitably obsessive interest in model trains should check out the link to eastmoor models below. He's a good model maker, but last time I saw him in action, the off-spin needed work.

Also, I got bored with my template and switched. I think this looks better.

On the novel front, I've decided to concentrate my efforts on the one I've just begun, starting with an almost complete rework. I've been reading various books on novel writing, and while none of them ever seem to be written by the world's greatest authors, they have helped me to realise that part of the reason I've been avoiding working too much on this one is that I don't like the central character very much. I think the best thing I can do is rework it with the character I'm most interested in at the heart of the thing.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

The Novel's Off

If you thought I was annoyed earlier, it's nothing compared to now. My publisher has just e-mailed me informing me that they are getting out of the publishing game completely, and that, as a result, my first novel will not be coming out.

That puts me right back to square one, submitting it somewhere else and seeing what happens. There are days when I wonder if it's worth the hassle. I know that when I do get round to doing so, I won't be going anywhere near a new publishing house again. It might increase the odds of acceptance, but the whole point is to have someone behind things who knows more than I do. Of course, now I've got to persuade a whole new publisher that the novel is worth their effort to publish. I'm incredibly angry about this right now. You put in months of work, and then spend more months waiting, and nothing comes out of it.

Joe and Bill

The writer's site has in fact been kind enough to refund my payment, and remarkably quickly too, so full marks to them for customer service. It doesn't invalidate what I said before about the quality of their job opps, though.

I thought I'd take a moment to introduce my cats. This is Joe.

And this is Bill.

Not as Cancelled as I Thought

I've just received an e-mail confirming the renewal of my subscription to a website that bills itself as a 'writer's community'. Fine, except for one minor point. I had no intention of renewing that subscription. I signed up in the hopes of finding freelance opportunities in the UK, but ended up making just one successful article submission based on it, along with maybe two unsuccessful ones. Its 'job opportunities' mostly turned out to be competitions and training days, not paying gigs. I've had better results with a combination of search engines and the annual Writer's Market reference book. As soon as I'm finished whining about it here, I'm going to try e-mailing them, but I don't hold out much hope. Looks like I'm stuck with them another year.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Look, pretty flowers

Another picture from the garden. I've been toying with the idea of writing a series of poems based on images like this, but I don't know if anything will come of it. To make it work, I suspect I'd have to rope in my brother's superior photographic talents.

I haven't written much in the last few days. Mostly, I've been concerned about the fate of things I've already written, sending off a few poetry submissions and trying to work out where in the publication chain my first novel is. It seems a little silly to put in a lot of effort on a third before the first is even out. I'm starting to get slightly worried there, because now Amazon's decision to force people to use their POD has started to hit the publisher. Combine that with what seems like low sales on their first print volume and it's probably not a good thing.

I've got my anual PhD appraisal coming up in a few weeks. It shouldn't be too big a deal. All I've got to do is work out a nice way of saying that the only reason I'm completing is because, after three years part-time, it's really too late to pull out.

After all that minor league grumpiness, I suppose I should try and find something to be happier about. Well... I guess my leg spin is coming out quite well ahead of the cricket season, I've finally gotten round to setting up my main guitar to get rid of the buzzing problems caused by an unbalanced whammy bar, and Kim Harrison, Jim Butcher and Kelly Armstrong all brought out new books at roughly the same time. Also, my friend Adam was kind enough to describe me as a twisted genius thanks to my short story 'a madder scientist'. That probably counts as a good thing, so long as I ignore the 'twisted' part.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Some Photos

Today, I had an assessment to be an exam support worker at my university. That's a fancy way of saying a scribe. It was fairly simple in approach; they read stuff out and I wrote it down by hand and on computer. I remembered part way through why I used to hate exams so much. I don't write quickly and my hand tends to cramp up if I try to push it. The typing section wasn't much better. The only consolation was that everybody taking the assessment seemed to find it almost as difficult, so perhaps I wasn't the worst.

To make myself feel better, I've bought a copy of Kim Harrison' s new book, Where Demons Dare. I've also decided to liven things up here a bit by working out how to post photos. These were all taken on a cheap (and, to me, free) digital camera, and I make no claims to any sort of photographic talent. The most I can say is that I've tried to listen to my brother, who is into photography. These were all taken in my back garden.

I got this one at sunset, looking out towards Beverley. It's an angle that conveniently ignores agricultural machinery, the local ambulance station, and the rest of the world. And yes, the sky was that colour before the picture hit photoshop.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Kelly Armstrong, Personal Demon

The latest in Kelly Armstrong's series of supernatural thrillers sees half-demon Hope Adams taking on an 'easy' job, infiltrating a gang of rebellious supernaturals, in order to repay a debt owed to Benicio Cortez. Obviously, nothing turns out to be anywhere near that simple, landing her in the middle of a much larger plot, and much more danger. That main plot pushes along nicely, with the sense of danger enhanced by Hope's lack of serious supernatural abilities. Being much more vulnerable than Kelly Armstrong's usual witches and werewolves, there's that much more tension.

Aside from the main thrust of the plot, the story provides two principal strands of interest. One focusses on Hope's attempts to control the more chaotic side of her nature, while the other is her on-off relationship with werewolf Karl Marsten. Between them, these sub-plots are what keep the book intriguing, balancing the breathless pace of the main plot with some more introspective sections.

Two slight quibbles. First, she throws in a last minute plot twist that feels a bit too obviously like an attempt to push the emotional level higher. It is, ultimately, justified in terms of forcing the characters to confront the consequences of their actions, but because it comes so much from nowhere, it initially feels like shocking the reader for its own sake. The second is that the sections written from the point of view of Lucas don't quite have the same verve to them as the rest of the book. Perhaps this is just a reflection of the reservedness at the character's heart, but I found myself much preferring the sections written in Hope's voice.

Overall though, this is a wonderful supernatural thriller, full of action, yet balanced by more than enough character depth and genuine emotion to make it a really worthwhile read.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Parrot Fashion

We had a parrot drop in today. My brother came up the driveway with the thing on his shoulder, having found it nearby. Now, parrots aren't really native to the UK, so this was obviously someone's pet. His name, as he told us repeatedly, was Jester, and he spent about an hour sitting on my kitchen door until we were able to contact his owner. Most of it, we spent keeping the cats from trying to eat him. Admittedly, they did seem quite put out by the idea of a bird that could talk to them, but they still seemed to see it more as breakfast than anything else.

My hopes to get anything much done have been largely dashed by feeling ill, so I'm mostly just reading Kelly Armstrong's Personal Demon. It's pretty good so far, but that could just be the medication talking.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Off Colour

Just a brief post, partly because I'm not feeling particularly well, but mostly because I have a lot to do. I've got to go through Domesday Book again, revising some of my figures, and since my university library doesn't seem to have signed up to the database version, I'm doing it the old fashioned way. It's slightly annoying when you consider that it was a group from the same university that put the thing together.

I've just got hold of the new books by Kelly Armstrong and Jim Butcher, so it's fairly certain that nothing else is going to get much of a look in reading wise for the next few days, except perhaps for Sophie Hannah's Pessimism for Beginners, her most recent collection of poetry. My own writing is somewhere further down the list, though I've been getting a decent amount of poetry together in the last few days.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

An Excuse to Find Things Out

It's strange the directions that research can take you in. What I'm writing at the moment seems to have acquired Morris dancers from somewhere, so I've been dragged off into finding out a little bit about the stuff. And no, I'm not sure how they got in there either. I've always been vaguely interested in everything, but with a bit of writing, I'm suddenly looking into things properly. Things that I might have filed away to look at later, I now have an excuse to look into in case there might be a poem or story in it somewhere. And, should someone ask silly questions like 'why exactly are you trying to find out about the mating habits of penguins?' I finally have an answer. That was a hypothetical example, incidentally, though I suddenly find myself wanting to know.