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.'