Wednesday, 30 July 2008


It's been a while since I posted anything music related. I've been working on a few unusal things on the guitar, but making music should be about more than just the limitations of the instrument. Consequently, I've included below some assorted ways of playing music that's more... musical:

  • As the old joke says, you hum it and I'll play it. Try humming, singing, or working things out on the kazoo before playing them on your instrument of choice. It's a good way of avoiding cliches.
  • Use the chords. Guitarists in particular have a tendency to wander up and down a scale that sort of fits everything, with no consideration for chord changes. Ideally, if all other backing were to stop, the listener should still have a fair idea of what's going on harmonically.
  • The small techniques matter as much as the flashy ones. I have a friend who can play classical piano at a good portion of the speed of light. Chopin, Rachmaninov, it's all the same to him. Unfortunately, his left hand is still very heavy on the bass notes, which rather ruins the effect. Sometimes, learning to inflect the notes exactly the way you want them is more important than being able to, for example, pull off perfect sweep picked arpeggios. Don't believe me? Ask Jeff Beck.
  • Talking of whom... one for those musicians whose instruments habitually involve the use of plectrums. Try fingerpicking for more direct control over each note. You lose a couple of notes per second, but really, you gain far more.
  • Learn some new music theory. A scale you haven't used before. A hideously extended chord. Anything might turn out to be just what you're looking for.
  • Improve your ear. By working on recognising intervals, or less formally by working things out off CDs, you improve your chances of being able to play what you hear rather than relying on where your fingers take you.
  • Pause between each phrase. Instead of a stream of notes, concentrate on playing distinct musical phrases. Silence can be just as effective as sound.

Above all, really concentrate on the sound of what you're playing. It's easy to get sucked into playing exercises, working faster and faster until the sound quality is just mush. Instead, make sure that the sound you're getting is musical and exactly the one you want.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Victory is (almost) mine!

I've just had an e-mail confirming that my villanelle 'An Abbreviation' has taken 2nd place in Trellis magazine's villanelle competition, which I entered a while back. I'll post again when it comes out in their summer issue. My other entries also received some positive comments. Lots of thanks to April for pointing me in the direction of the thing in the first place.

20/20 Finals

I saw some of Twenty20 finals day on Saturday, and it was pretty good. I particularly enjoyed watching Dirk Nannes bowl, mostly because his story's a little odd. Now a 90mph left armer, until a couple of years ago he hadn't really played cricket, he was too busy competing internationally as a skier. He also speaks Japanese and plays the saxaphone, presumably not at the same time. Bizarrely, he seems to be qualified to play cricket for Holland, which means we might never see him in the Test arena (Holland not being a Test playing country), but he certainly helped Middlesex to their victories. Also, congratulations to Middlesex on their decision to wear pink Twenty20 kit this year and donate the procedes from mecendising on it to breast cancer research.

I also managed to get another 4000 words written, which is good, but would have been more had I not got stuck asking what happens when assorted nightmare creatures decide to head for the nearest pub. Maybe I'll get some more done today, but I've got work to do on the PhD first.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Writing Prompts

Some assorted writing prompts, all taken from things I've had to do in the course of writing other pieces. I've pulled them back to basics, so that they're nice and general. In fact, I might take a few of them and use them in other places now.

  1. Your main character has to do something rather unusual to claim an inheritance.
  2. Write a conversation with a plant.
  3. A new creation myth for the world.
  4. The hero is being chased by assorted worst nightmares.
  5. A parody of the traditional saloon bar fight.
  6. The main character finds a receipt for something that shouldn't exist.
  7. Why happiness isn't always a good thing.
  8. The world's strangest escape attempt

Saturday, 26 July 2008


  • I've been reading my way through most of Robert Asprin's Myth Inc series, which is a lot of fun. Possibly a little heavy handed when it comes to handing out the life lessons, but very funny anyway.
  • 20Twenty finals day today, which should be worth watching. Then again, I really want to get some writing done, so I might be running back and forth between the computer and the TV a lot.
  • Haven't written anything except on the novel in a few days. I should probably try a bit of poetry or something just to keep from getting too obsessed. Though it's probably too late for that.
  • Funny how I go through phases when it comes to musical taste. A week ago and it was practically all folk, jazz and fusion. Now I seem to have gone all metal again.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Keeping Track

I've got, by my standards at least, quite a bit of work out in the ether at the moment. A quick count up reveals something in the order of 38 poems, 3 short stories and 3 articles at various points along the submission-initial rejection-frantic reworking-eventual acceptance-publication trail. Keeping track of everything I've submitted to various places is a little awkward. In the end, I've settled for a rather mixed system of keeping my submission e-mails and letters, marking submitted pieces with OUT in large letters so I don't simultaneously submit by accident. This would all be rather less complicated, but I'm also keeping track of hundreds of pages of PhD, the novel I will (all right... might) get round to submitting some more, the sequel to it I wrote when I thought the thing was going to be published, and the comic fantasy thing I'm working on at the moment. It's all getting a bit complicated.


I hit 40000 words last night, though I'm worried that I also tweaked a couple of points in the plan. It could just be adaptability, I supose, but it feels more like the thing pulling slightly out of shape.

A meeting with the PhD supervisor this afternoon. It's been weeks since I went into the university. I just want to get this thing finished so I can get on with my life. I'd probably be more motivated if I really needed the qualification for what I was planning on doing anymore, or if I weren't about to get further in debt to pay for it.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Getting More Out of Old Work

Some random ways of getting new pieces of writing out of old ones:

  • Telling the story of minor characters. Have you ever had a minor character so compelling that they almost threatened to steal the story? Maybe they deserve one of their own. I'm sure they'd be grateful.
  • Sequels and Prequels. A recipe for disaster in films, but maybe not so much in writing. Some genres of writing almost demand it, with series that go on, and on, and...
  • Re-using settings. Not quite a sequel, since different characters show up, but you re-use the story world you spent so much time and effort putting together. Incredibly common when the world in question is full of elves and orcs (someone really needs to get the pest control people in) there's no reason why it can't still work if your 'world' is, for example, a small Norweigian village.
  • Re-telling the story. Take the same basic story and re-tell it with completely different characters and settings. David Gemmell made a career out of this, more or less.
  • The other side of the story. Re-tell the thing from the other side, from the point of view of the main opponent, for example, or with a minor character narrating. They might see the thing very differently.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Point of View Thoughts

One thing I've been doing with a couple of the things I'm working on is focussing on different characters in different scenes. This is entirely normal for the sort of third person viewpoint I'm working with, but since I've done a lot of my previous writing in 1st person, it's presenting some interesting challenges. The main one is to capture their different personalities and voices without slipping out of the third person, using the change of viewpoint to illuminate them differently rather than simply for it's own sake. The other main challenge (and as we know after years of having business jargon people telling us it there are no problems, only challenges) is to work around the fact that logically they would know slightly different amounts about some of the central issues of the work. I'm currently working around it by using it almost as foreshadowing, letting them suspect and hint at thoughts without actually confirming them until the main character catches up. So far it seems to be working, and fairly transparently.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

A Poem is Up

Well, that has to be some sort of record. Earlier, I submitted a poem to poetry zine Ancient Heart Magazine, and the editor obviously liked it because it's up there ( It probably helps that the place is very new, having just re-started after a lay off. So new, in fact, that my poem is apparently the first on the place. Still, when you're used to waiting weeks until people are able to overcome the contents of their inboxes sufficiently to get round to you, it's a pleasant surprise. Incidentally, this is one of those rare things from me; a mostly serious poem. Who'd have thought it?

Not Playing Fayre

In the absence of anything much to blog about, or at least of the energy to do it properly, I thought I'd 'treat' you to a random piece of poetry. Between this being the proper season for village fetes, Dwain Chambers trying to overturn his British Olympic Association lifetime ban for using performance enhancing drugs, and Mohammed Asif getting caught using them, it seemed like an appropriate bit of fun.

Not Playing Fayre

We’re going to win the medals
This year, we’re going to beat
The others at our village fete
Because we’re going to cheat

We’ve rigged the egg and spoon race
By gluing down our eggs
And as for the three-legged race
We’re using two false legs

The ferret run’s been nobbled
To make our ferret win
We’ve sealed off all the other holes
In the ferret bin

The Morris troupe’s on steroids
The sack race PCP
And so the judge won’t notice
There’s mushrooms in her tea

We’ve blackmailed other judges
With details from their pasts
We’ve spent too many bloody years
Coming close to last

I know this might seem crazy
Twisted and perverse
Trust me, others at the fayre
Are doing much, much worse.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008


Right, that's 30000 words out of the way. All I've got to worry about now are all the usual things: forgetting what the plot was supposed to be, getting carried away and giving away half of it too early, realising that I've got to completely re-work the ending, and so on.

I went to an exhibition the other day of the work of Bridlington based artist Karen Trower, who sculpts in leather and gemstones on wire frames. It's quite an interesting experience walking into what's usually Fred Elwell central only to be confronted by eight and a half feet of ostrich. Not to mention the lifesize sculpture of a black rhino.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Classics Meme

A meme from Andi over at Andilit with the following questions 1. What is the best classic you were “forced” to read in school (and why)?2. What was the worst classic you were forced to endure (and why)?3. Which classic should every student be required to read (and why)?4. Which classic should be put to rest immediately (and why)?5. **Bonus** Why do you think certain books become classics?

And now for some answers.

1. The Doll's House by Ibsen was probably the best of them, though at the time I remember being disappointed that we weren't covering Shaw. I used to read his work, among other things, in the school library for fun.

2. The worst? I have to say I found Emma hugely annoying, which may well be a bad thing to admit given that people around here seem to quite like Jane Austen. I just found the pacing all over the place and too much happened off stage for my liking.

3. Make them read Raoul de Cambrai in translation from the Old French. As well as being my favourite very old book, it does a nice line in the sort of violence and action that people keep assuring us is essential to getting boys in particular to read the classics.

4. Not so much put to death as toned down a bit. It seems that British kids (at least if my own recollections are anything to go by) get Poets of the First World War and Women Poets in school and very little else. Worse, they will usually focus on just one of the poets in the module (which will be Owen for the War Poets, and almost certainly Carol Ann Duffy for the Women Poets) with only occasional forays into the works of others. While this might make it nice and easy for the teachers to draw out themes for exams, there is so much more to poetry than this. I remember a fragment from Wastelands being passed around by a teacher before we were told that we wouldn't actually be covering it, and being hugely annoyed.

5. A quick look at the history of the works of Shakespeare and Donne suggests that the way to become a classic is to be moderately popular in your own time, deeply unpopular and almost forgotten for the next couple of centuries, and then get championed by a mildly eccentric aristocrat or two with enough money to re-publish your work and really push it.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Poetry Questions

There's a faint chance I could be writing some articles based on various aspects of reading poetry, depending on how my early submissions go, and while I've got several ideas I'm always looking for more. So, a quick question. Are there any poetry related questions or topics anyone has particularly wanted answers to or comments on? Not that I'm the world expert on poetry or anything, but I thought I'd ask.

Friday, 11 July 2008

The 28,000 Curse

28,000 words has traditionally been a stopping point of sorts for me. Some writers have trouble starting, some have awkward spots right at the end when they realise that they're running out of words and they still haven't tied everything up (one look at any Richard Adams ending should prove that) for me, it's 28 000 words. I don't know why, though I imagine it has something to do with that being about as far as I can push in an initial burst of enthusiasm. The question is what happens after that? I have several false starts filed away, and a couple of others that I deleted. Hopefully, this won't be one of them. I have a plan that's stronger than usual. I know the story, and I'm enjoying the business of making the elements that go together to produce it as much fun as possible. Even so, I'll feel better when I hit 30000.

Having mentioned a couple of filed away pieces, it seems appropriate to note that I tend to hoard old pieces, forgetting about them until I finally drag them out of the hard drive. I've spent the day rooting through old stuff and sending off a couple of pieces that I forgot about after the initial fun of writing them. That's kind of the problem. I love the writing side of things so much that I sometimes leave the selling side of it in favour of... more writing. I still haven't done much with the last novel since the publisher went down. I've just been too caught up in getting past that magic 30000 mark.

Thursday, 10 July 2008


  • Holidays are annoying. Other people's holidays at least. I would apologise to anyone on holiday, but then they're probably not reading this. That's part of it. I like people to be where I expect them to be, particularly since their holidays invariably coincide with the moment I need to get hold of them most. The other part is that they're invariably in caravans in front of me, doing about 40mph.

Things I've been reading in the last few days: The Picture of Dorian Grey (Oscar Wilde), Little Myth Marker (Robert Asprin), Hit or Myth (Robert Asprin), The Old Man and the Sea (Hemmingway). Asprin's Myth Inc series doesn't get the attention it deserves. In comic fantasy terms, it's as good as the stuff put out by the likes of Terry Pratchett and Tom Holt, but doesn't seem to get much shelf space in bookshops these days.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008


I've just had what usually gets referred to as a 'fresh air' game in cricket; a game where you don't do anything except get out in the fresh air for a bit. Annoying enough in itself, but the opposition had a pair of their first team players in, both of whom were rather arrogant. I've never really understood this business of arrogance in sport, or indeed in other fields.

There are those who say you have to have a touch of arrogance to succeed, but it seems to me that what you really need in that regard is self confidence, and that arrogance and bluster are slightly different things. In my other sport of fencing, I've had the good fortune to run into some fairly top notch players (in other words, I've had the chance to get beaten horribly by them) and they are, for the most part, perfectly nice people. James Williams, who won Britain a silver medal in the Olympics at sabre, seems to be a lovely bloke on the occasions when I've been around him at opens.

Instead, the arrogant ones often seem to be at that next level down, where they're better than most people, but still not good enough to be top notch. It seems that their insecurity is such that they can only feel better about themselves by rubbing in how much better they are than other people. Then again, maybe they just haven't grown up enough to realise something important: without your opponents, there wouldn't be a game at all.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Aphelion's Up

The new issue of Aphelion is up, featuring my silly fantasy poem 'Hrongar the Barbarian Goes Shopping.'

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Estella's Up

This month's (and indeed last month's, since it's a double issue) Estella's Revenge is up, featuring my piece 'Reading-Outside'.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Rain, rain...

I was due to play cricket tonight and, of course, it rained...

But we played anyway. I have no idea who it was against, partly because I didn't think to ask, and partly because I couldn't read the name on their shirts; I had to hand my glasses to an umpire part way through because I couldn't see through the film of water on the lenses. Sadly, since I got them back in time to bowl, I can't use that as an excuse for bowling a bunch of wide (generally unreachable) deliveries. On the other hand, when I did finally bowl one straight, the poor bloke batting against it was so surprised that he hit it straight to a fielder. In cricket, as sometimes in life, luck counts for a lot. Mind you, since they beat us by over 50 runs, I'm not sure it counts for as much as skill.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

An Update

A quick update on the serious and light poetry divide. I submitted a few poems to a magazine and included with some light poems, mostly for variety, a 'serious' poem that I didn't think was quite as good, though still acceptable. Guess which one got accepted by the magazine earlier today.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Taking Over

More flower things from the garden.

It's funny how characters really can start to take on a life of their own. I'd heard of this, and sort of experienced it a little, but the last few days it's been happening a lot more. Interestingly, it's very rarely the main characters that it happens to with me. Those I plan out in meticulous detail, think about, really get to know. But with minor characters, I tend to rely more on inventing appropriate things and being consistent afterwards. It means that sometimes they can go off in all sorts of fun directions, but I don't lose sight of who my real main character is. The really odd bit comes with characters who just... show up. Maybe I have a scene that needs a minor character, barely more than an extra, and on some whim I put in some tiny detail. Maybe I then realise, 'hey, I could use this character later on to do this other thing'. Even stranger is when, strictly speaking, a scene doesn't need another character, but it just seems a bit empty without one. I create one in a couple of lines, and suddenly they're demanding extra space, worming their way into the subplots or something. I'd like to think it shows my desire for an economy of effort, not wasting characters, or that it perhaps shows that even the most minor of my characters has something to them. I'd like to, but I'm not sure it's true. Instead, I have a horrible feeling that I'm letting my characters boss me about. I know exactly how silly that sounds. I would have said 'they're your characters, they only do what you write' only a little while ago, but it really does feel like that sometimes.