Sunday, 27 December 2009

Because I've nothing better to do.

Not very seasonal. Or very seasonal, depending on how your christmas has gone. Mostly because I was short of something to post.

End at the Beginning.

Were we doomed by beginning
Is love a downward trend
Is loss required by winning
Do starts imply an end

Do break ups start with flowers
The finish meant to be
I know you think that ours
Had more to do with me

With silence and with pauses
My love's inconstant rate
I'd rather think the causes
Had more to do with fate

Or else I could just lay it
On your too frantic heart
Better both to say it
Was all down to the start

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Receipt for a Dragon

A quick plug for my piece 'Receipt for a Dragon' which is up in Aphelion's Dec/Jan issue. I'm hoping to send most of my Brian Northington stories that way (I'm currently thinking of them as the Brianiad, for some reason) so look out for more of them in the months to come.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Don't Have To v Shouldn't

Of course, we know that know aesthetic endeavour actually has rules, and we can in theory do anything we want, but should we? It's one of those questions that inevitably comes to me when I run into a particularly incomprehensible piece of modern art, or inaccessible piece of poetry, or apparrently random piece of jazz-fusion guitar (I'm looking at you, Alan Holdsworth. Incidentally, what is it about the north of England, where he and John McLaughlin both hail from, and jazz-fusion? Even I've started playing wrong notes.)

Not that there's anything wrong with any of those things when they're done well, but is there perhaps a difference between recognising that you don't have to do something (such as playing something that vaguely relates to the melody) and deciding that you never should? And is merely being informed of modern approaches to the theory of something necessarily going to ensure that you do it well?

Still, that's enough ranting. What I actually wanted to look at was the idea that fiction, and especially particular genres, does have some rules if you want it to be recognisable as such. There are certain elements that have to be present to produce a Western, or an Urban Fantasy novel, or a Romance, in the same way that there are certain elements that identify a piece of music as blues, or rock, or jazz. (Or jazz fusion. Sorry fusioners, but "you must play squillions of wrong notes and it can't sound like pop" is as much a rule as any other)

I think that one of the most useful things you can do as a writer is to work out what the key elements of your genre or usual story-type are. What are the things that customarily show up in all pieces of this type? What are the things that never show up? What, if anything, is absolutely essential for the piece to be recognised as being in a particular genre? Do it now, if you like. Take your favourite genre and write down the essentials.

Having done that, you're in a position to ask why they're essential. What are they there to do? Are they actually essential? Are they something that you can legitimately change or parody, or would doing so change the whole scope of what you write? I'm not saying that you have to change anything. There's fun to be had using the traditional elements of a style around a good, strong story and some beautiful writing. But at the very least it reminds you that most of these elements are there to achieve something, rather than simply elements that you have to include because everyone does. If you'll permit me yet another musical analogy, it's the same as looking through all those blues licks people learn by heart and changing a few notes here and there to suit yourself. The result is not unlistenable oddness, or bland repetition, but is instead the reinvigouration of a sound that you know works.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Anthology

I received my copy of Semaphore Magazine's 2009 anthology this morning. Two points from that. One is that it's really rather good, and not just the bits that happen to involve me. The other is that it came wrapped in what must have been most of the packing tape in New Zeeland. My brother, who I let open it because he's nozy enough to want to know what's in these things, spent a good five minutes unwrapping it.

I've also received my list of corrections for the PhD. There doesn't seem to be anything very major, and in fact most of them are minor typos and requests for extra references. Though I do need to find a map of the medieval Archdiocese of York to include. Also, I need to find a copy of the York edition of the English Episcopal Acta series, since for some reason Hull's library just has Lincoln and Canterbury. I'm sure I've read one somewhere. I just need to remember where. I suppose I could try... York.

England aren't doing very well in the Test at the moment, but it's their own fault. First, South Africa got too many, because they didn't bowl that well and the four bowler attack got quite tired. Then the extra batter that they'd put in, Ian Bell, didn't get many runs. Still, at least they've avoided the follow on.

I've also signed up to volunteer at the Beverley Community Museum. There's lots of things to help out with there, though I can't help but feel that more people would help if it were a bit more obvious. Currently, it has to play second fiddle to the museum/treasure house/gallery over the local library. I only found out about it by accident, since it happens to be next to the post office.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

A busy day

Spent the day doing SEO articles. Not terribly inspired, but better than doing nothing. Marginally.

On Thursday, I'll find out the corrections I need for my thesis. Hopefully there aren't too many. In theory, I've got three months to do them, but that's three months from the official letter, which might take a while. In practice I'm hoping to get them done rather quicker than that.

One of my pieces of flash fiction has been accepted for the January issue of Expressions magazine, while my short story "Receipt for a Dragon" is going to make an appearance in the Dec/Jan issue of Aphelion, due up some time next week.

Currently re-reading Robert Asprin's Mythion Improbable. He can be a bit preachy in places, but it's still funny.

I seem to be writing poetry again. Rhyming poetry, so I doubt it's going to be taken seriously any time soon, but definitely poetry.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

An apple a day...

Well, the good news is that I've passed, subject to some corrections that apparently aren't major but which I'll get a list of shortly. The viva went better than I expected, and there weren't really any questions I hadn't got an answer for.

The slightly less good news, of course, is that the pre-budget report has just seen (assuming I read this right) something like £600 million taken off education and research budgets. Now, I know (and you possibly know, since I go on about it often enough) that medieval history is as relevant as any other humanity, and has intellectual rigour on its side, but I can't see universities looking to expand that direction when their budgets are going to be cut.

Bidding for freelance writing work is an intriguing experience: dozens of people doing the online equivalent of jumping up and down shouting "pick me, pick me!". I'm trying a slightly less frantic approach, on the theory that the sheer contrast should stand out a little.

I'm currently writing a short story containing apples. It's probably good for you.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Twenty Six

I haven't been posting much because I've been busy revising for the viva. Twenty six hours to go. I'm nervous, obviously, but I think the core of my PhD is a good one, and the facts that I hadn't bothered memorising at the time are starting to sink in.

I am going fencing tonight, if only because if I don't I'll be sat around worrying. Also, since the foil tournament has finished, there's a good chance people will be sufficiently sick of the sight of it to want to fence sabre.

I've got a couple of short story ideas bubbling away, but I haven't written them yet. I started one, but I didn't quite have the tone right. Maybe tomorrow, then.

I'm currently reading Beyond the Deepwoods. Yes, it's a childrens' book, but it's wonderfully imaginative, and the illustrations are perfect.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Hull's Results BUCS Individuals 2009


Epee (118)


51 Scott Stevens
80 Joe Banks
82 Oliver Hector
90 Neil Collins
91 Kieran O'Connor
94 Matthew Jones


Foil (137)

25 Scott Stevens
42 Ben Downman
104 Joe Banks
112 Kieran O'Connor
127 Lindsay Cox
134 Paul Lawrence

Sabre (108)

9 Keita Azuma
17 Oliver Hector
36 Abilius Wong
43 Richard Hutchinson
96 Neil Collins


Womens Epee (79)

45 Harriet Lodge


Congratulations to everyone who was able to go. Especially to Richard Hutchinson, who apparently hasn't been fencing very long, and at whom I spent much of last monday evening shouting instructions. It's slightly worrying that only one of our female fencers felt the inclination to attend, but I can hardly complain about people having better things to do, can I?

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Final Run

The BUCS individual sabre started a little over an hour ago in Nottingham. Since I'm here, it's fair to say I'm not there. Too busy, and also I've done that. I'm slightly annoyed to find that my friend Scott finished one place higher in the foil than I did in the sabre last year. Still, at least Keita will make both our efforts look pretty poor in comparison.

How do you take your mind off an impending viva? Well, you don't, not really. You've still got to revise, prepare, and try not to panic whenever you find a bit you suspect that the examiners won't like. Still, I've found one way, which involves spending some time going through other people's work.

I sent off a couple of short stories the other day, including my only piece of flash fiction. Normally, I find flash fiction a bit short for my style, but hopefully this works. I've got three or four more pieces to find homes for, along with a few more ideas I'll probably get stuck into after Friday.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Big Idea

Interviews with authors are pretty predictable sometimes, aren't they? You can guess half the questions in advance, presumably because there are only so many questions relevant to the topic of writing, and because if you ask everyone the same questions, then it becomes easier to spot trends and differences. Since I suspect we at least partly read the interviews in the hopes that they will reveal some big secret of writing that we don't already know, it may even be a good thing.

The question that always slightly annoys me though is "where do you get your ideas?". Partly because of the assumption that it is the ideas rather than what the author does with them that is important, partly because it raises the image of someone nipping out to the shops for some pasta and a value pack of fresh ideas, but mostly because I suspect it is the wrong question.

What's the right question then I hear you... oh. Look, if one of you could ask it, it would really help. Much better. For me, at least, the question is "how do you decide between the twenty million ideas you've got? Do you throw a dart and see what it hits?" The world is full of inspiration, full of potential ideas. Full of opportunities to give up on what you're currently writing and write something that grabs your attention. I know that at least one person reading this is like this, and I'm going to go further, and say that quite a lot of writers are. You see something in the street, or the newspaper, or hear a reference to something, and you think "that's a great idea! I should write something about that!"

The thing is, most of these ideas aren't that good. They're just ideas, distractions. Try to run with them and they'll unravel. Or worse, you'll be good enough as a writer to do something with them. Yes, I said worse. Think about it. How long does it take you to write a novel? Or even a short story? Flash fiction? When you accept an idea for a particular format, you're going to be running with it for anything from minutes to years. So that's the big question you have to ask: Is this idea worth the time I'm going to have to put in? Or, to look at it another way: is this an idea I want to spend the next X amount of time on?

It's why I'm not usually a fan of the more cynical end of the "write for the market" approach. Absolutely, do it if you are a fan of the genre. Do it if you think that your big idea that fits the market is what you want to spend months writing. Don't do it if you'd much rather do something else. Write that, instead. You'll make a better job of it.

That is, incidentally, what I try to do, rather than what I always do. And, failing that, there's always the dartboard option.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Lists part two

Further to my post on lists, I've been writing a couple of them when I've been short of ideas, resulting in one finished short story, and the beginnings of another. The trick for me seems to lie in the transition between an interesting list and an interesting story, in particular finding some fragment of plot to create movement in what's otherwise quite static. I'm currently playing around with the idea of a BBC Un-natural History Unit, and going from a fun idea to an actual story idea with that was harder than I thought it might be.

The novel I've drifted into writing is ambling along at what's quite a slow pace for me, not because I'm unenthusiastic, but because I don't feel any particular need to race through the first draft of this. I want to cram as much in as possible, and that means going a little more slowly.

Good luck to Hull's fencing team against Durham 2nds today. It's potentially a banana skin match for them, if only because last year Durham's foil and epee sections caused us so much trouble. Again, this year's team is very sabre heavy, but hopefully the other two sections will do enough. I'm slightly worried that the team captain has been pointing out that I'm technically still a student while trying to get me to fence today. If a sabre squad with my most evenly matched training partner AB and a former Japanese international in Keita Azuma can't win, I'm not sure I make that much difference.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Start, end, and middle

I have started not one, but two novels, with the beginnings of a third probably on their way. This doesn't strike me as a terribly good idea, since it almost certainly deflects effort away from them, but I'm doing it anyway. I find that I get quite heavily involved in the tone of what I'm writing, and maybe writing things with contrasting feels will keep me a bit more balanced.

I'm reading through the submitted version of the PhD before the viva (ten days and counting), and am slightly annoyed to find that small mistakes still made it through my rounds of proofreading. I suspect that there comes a point when you've simply read things too many times to see what's there. I'm sure they'll be mentioned.

My local fencing club's foil tournament is stretching to two weeks. I might scrape third place, if I'm lucky. Bring on the sabre, that's what I say.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Acceptances

I've had another short story acceptance, again with a bit of a wait, since it's for Mirror Dance's spring issue. It's for my piece 'Your Evil Horde Needs You'. I'll undoubtedly mention it again nearer the time.

An idea for what is potentially quite a funny novel has come to me, and I'll probably see what I can do with it, even though I've got one series up and running with DDP and the start of what could be another out to a couple of other publishers. I'm planning this as more of a one off anyway, though there's part of me that automatically starts thinking of all the other stories I could set in the same sort of world.

Continued joblessness has me contemplating trying my hand at freelancing. It's undoubtedly the worst possible time to start doing so, but it's one thing I hopefully have the skills to do, and might help me pay off a few of the more urgent debts. I briefly looked into it a couple of years ago, before wandering off to write silly novels.

Universities seem to be experiencing a trend towards modern and early modern history. I'm not entirely sure why. The Middle Ages are far more fun. Though it does run into the minor problem that they aren't really taught in schools that much. My own GCSE and A level experiences encompassed: A history of medicine, some eighteenth and nineteenth century US history, a project on the architectural development of a local church (sixteenth century, so still not medieval), World War Two/the Weimar Republic/Nazi Germany, Eighteenth/Nineteenth century Europe. There seems to be an underlying assumption that anything further back can't be particularly relevant. Which is not only nonsense, but ignores the whole narrativist strand of historical theory completely.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Lists

I read an interview with Neil Gaiman a while ago that was helpfully included in the copy of Neverwhere I've got lying around. In it, he suggested that probably the most fun part of the whole process was putting together the stalls at the floating market; coming up with random things that might be sold without it having any particular impact on the plot. More recently, I got to play much the same game, coming up with some random bits of backstory for one character, then coming up with some interesting shops of my own for a very short part of one of the novels. I came to one simple conclusion:

Making Lists is Fun.

Um... before anyone accuses me of being some sort of train spotter, I should probably point out that I mean that it's quite fun to do those parts of writing that involve making up groups of things without them particularly impacting upon the story, rather than that I derive any particular pleasure from compiling my shopping lists. Accordingly, and because I thought I'd like to spread the fun a little, I thought I'd make a list of lists the writers among you might like to try for yourselves. Or not, or a list of your own devising. In fact, that can be point one, can't it...

  1. A list of odd lists someone might make. Either as a starting point for then writing those lists, or simply because some odd character might have a thing for writing lists. Though what sort of person might want to do that?
  2. A series of shops, market stalls, or other places for acquiring things. Well, it is where this whole rambling thought started, after all.
  3. A list of inherently unlikely jobs, along with some suitably unlikely candidates for them.
  4. A list of the contents of someone's pockets. (The particular someone I had in mind for this habitually wears one of those coats that has more pockets than material. Rather like one of my coats, come to think of it)
  5. A list of all the people that a double glazing (or encyclopedia, or unicycle) salesperson has attempted to sell things to so far today.
  6. A list of things that the official "greatest thief in the universe ever" has stolen. Fire and the crown jewels have been done, but don't let that stop you.
  7. A list of places that a pair of rather elderly friends have travelled, having decided that they want some excitement, along with things they might have done there.
  8. A list of places someone might look for someone else, whether lost, avoiding them, or simply not met yet.
  9. A list of slightly odd things the fortune teller might really have seen in the cards/crystal ball/tea leaves.
  10. A list of stories that a particular character might tell, which has the amusing twist of forcing you to try and boil a story down to just a few words.

Long Term Thinking

One of my short pieces has just been accepted for publication in July of next year. That's quite a lead time, so I'll have to make sure I put a sufficiently obvious note on the computer file in question, just so I don't forget that it's already taken.

Today is the last day that it's possible to pre-order semaphore's anthology with no P&P, if anyone should wish to do so. I just thought I'd mention it, and attempt to apply my mental powers to any passing brains.

I'm toying with re-writing at least one piece in script form, which just goes to show what a damp sponge my brain can be at times. One little book by a well known script writer, and suddenly I have the urge to play around with that format. It's as bad as the "all sonnets, all the time" phase Shakespeare sent me through. I must get more of a grip, or at least a good book on the technicalities of scriptwriting.

You know what I've read today? Nothing. That's right. Nothing. It's the first time in I don't know how long, and I suspect it isn't going to last much longer. More Hamlet, I think.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

More edits

Another burst of editing on the comic fantasy novel. It's funny how, no matter how much you do, there's always something that can be tightened up or improved. It's a bit like DIY in that respect. I've also finished my short story about antiques, and am currently resisting the urge towards a bad pun as title. (It has turning-people-into-frogs and antiques in it. If British TV watchers don't get the pun in question, I'll be very surprised).

I might be fencing the british student sabre again after all. Someone from the fencing club asked, and Hull's Athletic Union agreed that I am indeed still enough of a student to do so. Now I only have to work out if it's a good idea. And if I want an early start to get to a fencing tournament.

I'm reading Hamlet at the moment. Wyrd Sisters makes so much more sense now. Oh, if this seems quite short, I'm typing this with one hand. Another bout of two hand tapping.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The Characters that Aren't

Following on from my earlier thought on the sudden injection of Catherine Tate into Dr Who for a full series, I've been thinking about the character who sort of disappeared to make way for her. It must be odd, that; creating a character, getting to know it, maybe imagining all the adventures it might have, and then, just like that, it's gone. (Is it just me or did I fit about a year's worth of commas in that sentence?)

It got me thinking about those characters of mine who end up disappearing from the final drafts of things, or who change so much they're unrecognisable. Between the two versions of the novel I finished the first couple of drafts on recently, I changed perhaps three major characters so much that they might as well not exist. One of them, a sort of worldly wize monster hunting chap, disappeared completely. Another went from being the central character to a supporting role. A third remained similar only in the broadest description, and now I'm wondering if I can use the original character somewhere else in the future.

I tend not to do it so much with short stories, perhaps because there's less of a temptation to put in extra characters just to see what will happen, or to run a sub-plot. There's rarely time for sub-plot. Even so, in one story recently I took out the father of a couple of the characters, or at least made it clear he was dead, since the memory of him was probably more effective. In another, I reduced a potential cast of about five to just three, simply to tighten things up as much as possible.

There's invariably a temptation to see if it's possible to write something specifically for them, but usually that doesn't work. They're mostly minor characters, and they can't sustain a story on their own. Even so, I find myself keeping an eye out for moments that might possibly need these cast off characters, and I think on the whole they're happier for it.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Notebooks are Killing the Epic

I've been writing poetry in the last few days, getting it down in one of those tatty notebooks that are the inevitable home of all poetry while it's being written. Though it does raise one obvious point. The great greek and roman writers were notorious for epic poetry, right? But they didn't have tatty notebooks, only stone, clay tablets, and papyrus. Even for the likes of Milton, Byron, etc. paper and writing materials would have been quite expensive, and again- epic poetry. So, has the cheap A5 notebook killed off epic poetry?

I've also started a short story about antiques. Well, sort of antiques. Well, more the sort of magic thingamies that adventures seem to pick up, really. But also antiques. Mostly because a friend mentioned that he was writing a story about antiques, and I wanted to see how different the two would end up from that one shared point. Possibly I should look around for some of those zines that use themes for short stories, and see what I can do with those.

I currently have more pieces of work submitted than at any other time ever. Now, if only that came to double figures.

At some point in the next few days I must remember to print out a spare copy of my PhD, so that I've got something to refer to in the viva. Presumably, that's going to mean all the fun with my various printers that I had the first time around. (They seem to have something against medieval history).

Friday, 13 November 2009

Monologue

Well yes, it usually is, isn't it? But this is actually a reference to the fact that I wrote a monologue this afternoon, after starting it some time last night in a notebook. It's odd how little I write into notebooks these days, though perhaps that's because I actually prefer the computer. Maybe it has something to do with typing rather faster than I can write, and with achieving legible results afterwards.

Before that, I dropped a form round to volunteer at my local community museum. It seems slightly odd that you have to do so much to be allowed to volunteer, including filling in a section about hobbies and interests. Surely, so long as I don't list mine as axe-murder and the destruction of historic buildings, it shouldn't matter that much.

While in town, I ended up in the library, reading through a book about Russell T Davies' (Dr Who writer) creative process, constructed from e-mails sent about his thoughts as he was working on the last series. Very few writers ever seem to go that deeply into their process, so it was quite enlightening. Also rather funny at the point where he had to scrap the idea for the new Doctor's Assistant he'd been working tirelessly on after Catherine Tate agreed to do the series, if only for the speed with which he got enthusiastic about completely scrapping a character.

My article is away to the journal I'm hoping will accept it, though it does rather rely on nice people in Limerick A: having heard of obscure parts of Nottinghamshire, and B: caring.

England have just hit 202 in 20 overs against South Africa. If I were Ireland, I'd be asking for Eoin Morgan back.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Semaphore anthology 2009

Semaphore Magazine's second anthology has just started taking pre-orders. It contains, among other slightly more sensible things, a couple of my short stories in the form of "A Madder Scientist" and "The Apocalypse Factor". You can find more details of what's inside here

Apparently there are also three copies of the first anthology still unsold. Get them while they're, um... still rectangular things with pretty covers.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Fencing

I popped in to the university fencing club last night, on the basis that I am technically still a student. Far too energetic. They're doing warm ups and things now, whereas my idea of warming up is usually to grab a weak foilist and fence them at half speed. On the other hand I did get to fence the university's new sabre expert, a nice young man from Japan named Kaito Azuma, over in Hull as an international student. Apparently he's already won the Coventry open, and I can see why. Talking of technically being a student, I now have a date for my viva. I'm not as nervous about it as I thought I'd be, but maybe that's because it's still a month off.

On the writing front, I'm still looking for homes for a few of my pieces, perhaps because there aren't that many places that look for the sillier sort of fantasy. Still, I have a list, and I shall work through it dilligently (with occasional blackmail where necessary).

I've also nearly finished a short historical article, which I'm hoping to submit to a journal that happened to send me (and, admittedly everyone else in my university. And probably several other universities. But they don't count) an e-mail asking for articles. The trick is finding a way to make something quite local seem like it might be of national importance. Or at least of importance outside a small corner of Nottinghamshire.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Research and Planning

Just a short thought on research, and how much people do for various pieces of writing, because my friend Adam Wilson has been revealing over the last couple of days just how much planning goes into his short story writing process. For one piece, "Eight plus Eight" (largely about communicating without a shared language, through the underlying concepts of numbers) he spent an afternoon sitting a mile from his girlfriend, attempting to teach her the language used in the story over an internet link, through a programme he put together in QBASIC, without using a word of English at any point. Even for his normal stories, Adam ends up with bizarre mind maps that I can only make any sense of if I happen to have the story in question to hand.

Contrast this with my own approach, which hardly ever involves any specific research at all. Though admittedly, that's because I'll look into these things for fun, without the need for the prompting of a story. In that sense, I guess you could say that the research is pretty constant, and that the difference isn't quite as pronounced as you might first think. I've even been known to write page after page of notes on occasion. The only difference being that I then generally forget where I left the things and have to write from memory.

Even so, I think that the two approaches result in quite different types of story. Adam's short (ish, one of the things this seems to do is push up the length considerably) pieces are generally meticulously detailed, elegantly plotted, and quite deceptive up to the end. (Also rather good. Read them if you get the chance). They're like some delicately fitted together watch, where all the pieces fit perfectly so that nothing goes "spoooiiing" at an unfortunate moment. Mine are generally a bit more vague, they certainly won't count as hard sci-fi any time soon, and frankly I quite enjoy it when bits go "spoooiiing" in a suitably amusing way somewhere in the middle.

And the best bit, the absolute best bit, is that both approaches work. Which is just as well really, since I haven't got a clue when it comes to QBASIC.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Themes

I was revising some short stories the other day, and I couldn't help but notice something. There were four of them: one about where evil fantasy villains come from (and no, it doesn't go "One day, when a mummy villain and a daddy villain love one another very much..."), one about where supervillains get their plans, one about what it's like guarding your basic stronghold of evil, and one about zombie furniture.

Now, I don't know about you, but I'm sensing a bit of a pattern here. Which is slightly interesting, because I've never really been able to understand how those themed collections that authors and poets produce occasionally come into being. I guess I thought that they sat down and said "right, I'm jolly well going to write a collection, and it's going to be about..." (because of course all authors speak like rejects from Wodehouse).

What yesterday seems to suggest, instead, is that they have a look through their work one day and think "Gosh, these short stories all seem a bit similar. I wonder what I should do with them" at which point they obviously call over their butler/manservant, who suggests the cunning plan of calling them a collection and pretending that they meant it all along. (Look, I'm sorry, I'll stop now.) That certainly seems to have been the case with Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man, where the joining idea of all the stories being individual moving tattoos, while very clever, clearly came as an afterthought.

Of course, it might not be like that at all. It might be that people genuinely do sit down with a theme, a blank series of computer files, and the will to turn that theme into an amazing series of stories/poems. It's possibly slightly more likely that they think "that's a great theme", power through the first few from sheer inspiration, and then somehow scrape the rest together. I don't know. Maybe you do. Have you ever sat down and tried to write to a theme? Or have you found your work following the same theme without noticing you were doing it? Have you ever heard authors talking like something from the nineteen twenties? I'd like to know.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Remember, remember...

It's Guy Fawkes Night over in the UK tonight, nicely timed for the rain, I think. Though I'm planning on fencing this evening rather than standing watching small figures in the distance blow things into brightly coloured smithereens. (I love the word smithereen, don't you? It sounds like it ought to be an alien from Dr Who really. A tiny one.) If I wanted to do that, I'd go to watch the efforts of a few of my more chemistry inclined friends as they worked. That's one slight downside to history, I suppose. You hardly ever end up blowing up your workspace by accident. Though it occurs to me that, since they can cover just about anything that has ever been done in the past, up to and including slightly pyrotechnic experiments, the words "experimental archaeology" might be my friends here.

On a completely different note, I've managed to find this old review of semaphore magazine's first anthology, and I rather liked it. In fact it's made my day.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Hang on, I like Hull?

I came to a rather bizarre conclusion yesterday, which is that I actually quite like Hull. Now, any of the inhabitants would understand the sheer oddness of this instantly, but for everyone else, I should probably explain. There is something of an fashion in Hull for regarding it as the worst city in the UK. Which is probably why it came top of the list in the book "100 c**p towns". Yes, that's right, people in Hull actually voted for their hometown as the worst in Britain. Even the name is generally depressing. I was on a train yesterday coming into the place and the driver was reading out the coming stops. "Selby" she said brightly. "Brough" was in a tone of voice that at least seemed reasonably happy. But when it came to "and Hull", things frankly went downhill a bit. She sounded almost apologetic about the fact that she had to take some of us there.

But the thing is, I was on a train, having just been to Horsforth by way of Leeds(a note to any southerners out there. Northern place names ending in forth are not pronounced as though they come after Horsthird. Instead, it's Horsfuth. This has been an announcement by the Yorkshire Received Pronounciation Initiative) . Now, I accept that nowhere looks particularly nice from around its train station, but Leeds in particular seemed to lack any character. It was just an endless parade of identical concrete and glass boxes, crammed to the brim.

It was at about that point I realised that Hull actually makes a real effort when it comes to preserving the character of the place. Or at least, so few people want to live and do business there that there isn't the same pressure to rebuild with a lack of style. (You see, we can't help ourselves.) Maybe it's also that Hull's smaller size appeals to those of us who don't really get on with inner city living. I've lived in suburbs, villages, small farms and one one occasion on an island, none of which really gel with sudden insertion into one of the busier cities. Personally, I'd like to think that it's because East Yorkshire is generally a nice place to live, once you get over the weather.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Stepping Down

Right, first thing's first. I've stepped down as fiction editor of Gloom Cupboard. I've been responsible for perhaps half a dozen prose issues (the last of which has just gone up, so pop across and look) and a nice interview with Gary Murning. I'd like to wish the best of luck to the magazine's remaining editors.

Also importantly, I've found the e-mail I was looking for, telling me where I submitted the short story. I'm glad I found it before I did something silly, like sending it somewhere else. (Or worse yet, submitting it to the same people. That would probably reach whole new heights of embarrassing). Just as a random question, do you ever set out to write pieces for particular markets? I don't, as a rule, but I've heard that some people do, and I find myself interested in how people manage to kick their assorted bits of inspiration into approximately the right shape.

I've started reading Toby Frost's God Emperor of Didcot. I just spent five minutes trying to locate my friend James' interview with him, but I can't, so you're going to have to do without the link. Read the book instead.

I have finished (that's right, finished! Hang on, why am I getting excited about 3000 words of short story?) my short story featuring the zombie sofa. Honestly, at least one of the novels was easier than this.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Some writing

  • I'm editing and polishing CofD again, since the first few chapters are out to a couple of publishers. Nothing major, which is probably a good sign, I'm just sharpening up a turn of phrase here and there while finding occasional opportunities for extra funniness.
  • What little fitness I had as a fencer seems to be ebbing away. Maybe it's the result of going from six hours of training plus a competition per week to a measly two hours. Or maybe I'm just getting old. (It should probably be noted that I've said the words "I'm getting too old for this" at the start of every fencing season since the age of about twenty)
  • In the absence of anything better to do (come on, UK economy, recover to the point where I'm vaguely employable) I'm considering starting the third in the series containing Searching and Witch Hunt. It depends on if I can come up with a plot that actually excites me before I get distracted.
  • I'm trying to work out whether I have actually submitted my story "Your Evil Horde Needs You" to anyone. I sort of remember doing so, but my e-mail suggests otherwise. Then again, I also remember one of those online submission forms, and they presumably wouldn't show up. Yes, that must be it. I really must write these things down.
  • I'm nearly, nearly at the end of my zombie sofa short story. Much harder to write than it should have been, though maybe the weird font I've been using while I did so (making it unreadable, must go back to TNR before sending) had something to do with it.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

400

It sounds like it should be a sequel full of spartans, but this is, as it happens, my four hundreth post. That's a lot of bullet points, given the number of "stuff" posts in there. As a random celebration, a few links to old posts. I've tried to spread them out a bit, just for variety's sake:

  1. The very first one, because it was the very first one. And also because the poem was very silly indeed.
  2. The writing meme. I actually did this twice, here and here. It's fun to see what has changed, and slightly worrying to see what hasn't.
  3. A post on collaborations between bands and orchestras, to prove that I do occasionally blog about something other than writing or research.
  4. And history, of course, like this one.
  5. And apparently the odd interview.
  6. But mostly writing. Like this one about dealing with rejection in a grown up, sensible fashion that in no way involves kidnapping the editors concerned and making them listen to my poetry for hours on end until they give in.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

It's a matter of...

Timing, of course. Or, as Frank Carson insisted on saying at every opportunity "It's the way I tell 'em". Timing is supposedly at the heart of comedy, and it's almost certainly true. Think about Bruce Forsythe for a moment (yes, I know, I'm sorry). His jokes on Strictly Come Dancing have generally veered between the simply un-funny and the truly awful, but my theory is that most of them would actually have done quite well in the hands of someone else. Most of them are based on the sort of punning and wordplay that have earned the likes of Lee Mack and Jimmy Carr good followings. They fall flat because of the way they're told, rather than the content.

The tricky bit is what that implies for attempts to be funny with the written word. After all, if you're speaking, you can control the speed of delivery and the timing of any punchline just by altering the rate at which you speak. You can't control the speed at which people read, can you?

Of course you can. I'm doing it now, more or less (mostly less). Everything that would normally affect the flow of writing, from sentence structure and length, to use of punctuation, to word choice is a vital part of getting the timing right in comic writing. A few of the more obvious ones, and their silly applications.

  • Brackets. Now, most of us don't put that many brackets in our work, mostly because they signal that what you're about to say has no real place in the sentence, but is just an aside you thought might work. But comic asides and random non-sequiteurs are an essential comic tool (unlike a hammer, unless you happen to think that Timmy Mallett was funny). Terry Pratchett prefers footnotes. It's more or less the same thing.
  • ... is possibly the most useful symbol going, because it both lets you slow the reader down and frequently primes them for what's coming... unless it happens to be a bus.
  • In which case we need short sentences. Like this one. And this. And possibly this. But definitely not this one, because it's going to go on, and on, and on, and... Sorry, I got a bit carried away there. The point is that the very short sentence sometimes works here, even if you might normally join things with commas, simply because of the impact and the break in information. For me, the break gives you a moment to think that it's a normal thought, before hitting you with the odd one. Or possibly a custard pie, for the traditionalists.
  • For extra impact, the funny bit gets its own paragraph. A tiny one. A little paragraph-ette running to just a line or two. And I've just realised that all these pauses are making me sound a little like David Tennant in full Dr Who mode, which isn't really what I was aiming for, so I apologise.
  • Short words keep things sharp. Elongated examples provide an opportunity to produce a more lazily rambling effect. Before you stop. Neither is wrong, and I think that this is where the biggest opportunity to assert an individual taste in humour exists. I probably lean a little more towards the second than the first, but only because I've read too much Wodehouse. (I'm not entirely sure whether such a state is actually possible, but any port in an excuse).
What about you? When you do funny, how do you do it? (Seriously... I need the help).

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A trip to the minster

I finally took a wander around Beverley Minster yesterday, a little more than a month after submitting the PhD featuring it. Sounds silly, doesn't it? The thing is, since I wasn't doing anything remotely related to architectural history, actually seeing the inside wasn't so much a necessity as seeing all the relevant documents. Since I did it on the spur of the moment, I didn't have a camera to hand, but some nice pictures that go with what follows can be found here. Notice that it's the official website. I quite like the idea that someone thinks other people might make unofficial ones.

I wandered around the thirteenth century building (rebuilt after the fire of Beverley in c.1190) for a bit, particularly taking in the nineteenth century stained glass and the stone misericords worked into the alcoves, before deciding to take the tour of the attic level and north tower. I'm glad I did, despite the stairs up being sufficiently cramped that I barely fit up them towards the top. The view was impressive, but not so impressive as some of the stuff hidden away up there.

There's the early phase of the roof joists, which are essentially whole trees stripped of their bark and cut vaguely to shape. Those look worryingly badly done, but they've certainly lasted long enough. There are the bits that show the failure of the original plans for a much taller tower, such as the beginnings of a spiral staircase just below the roof, along with the acompanying cracks that show why they had to put a roof on it, walk away quietly, and pretend that they meant it all along. There was an opportunity to meet Steve; former plumber, current repairman, and apparently part-time hamster, given that he has to run round in a giant wheel to operate the oldest wheel hoist in the country.

I think I probably got a slightly different angle on things from the other people on the tour. Not so much because I already know the history, though I do, but because I don't much like architectural history for its own sake. A big building is impressive, but not as impressive as the human systems that brought it about and scurried within it. Something like the correction of the four foot lean in one tower wall in the eighteenth century by constructing a huge wooden framework to catch the wall, hacking the wall off, and then lifting the whole thing back into place is less impressive to me for the ingenuity involved than for the success in persuading people to go along with such an odd idea.

I particularly like the little touches that show something of ordinary people involved in repairs. One, in the top window of the tower, was put in by the man making repairs in the 1960s, who happened to be a planespotter, and put in little etchings of planes on the glass. Other panes show that a grandfather and grandson both worked on the same thing, and apparently the grandson had no idea that his grandfather had done so. I also rather like the pride that the current verger takes in the fact that Westminster Abbey's current appearance was copied almost completely from the minster's west end.

Overall, I'm glad I went, because it feels like a nice conclusion. It's a nice, big, stone full stop to my efforts of the last few years.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Stuff

  • Watching Mark Knopfler play a live show on tv the other day, I found that the star of the piece wasn't the balding fingerpicker from Dire Straits, but rather his collection of guitars. It seemed that practically every song called for a different one, along with a story about where he got it. Maybe that's why he plays fingerstyle. He's spent so much on vintage Les Pauls and strats that he now can't afford plectrums (ok, technically plectra, but who uses that? Not Mark Knopfler, for a start.)
  • I did one of those literacy, numeracy and core competancy things for a job earlier, and discovered that the life of a medievalist is not a good way to remember all the things I learned in GCSE maths. Still, I can but hope.
  • I have, possibly for the first time ever, actually got lots of short stories out to editors at once. I've even tried to find a home for the series I keep mentioning from time to time. I'm also editing three or four more pieces, so hopefully they'll be ready to go soon.
  • Should anyone need an illustrator (preferably for reasons that don't involve firing them out of cannons, since she's a friend) I'd like to point you in the direction of Bronwyn Coveney's blog, which has a few examples of her work along with comments on her current projects.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Gloom Cupboard

I've put the latest fiction issue up over at Gloom Cupboard.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Self Censoring

This isn't the post I was originally writing. That was going to be a thought on the way the amount of free stuff on the internet has effectively made not getting paid the default setting of writers the world over. But then I realised that it would probably come across as me whinging about people not giving me enough money, which wasn't really my intention, but would probably make me look bad anyway. (Incidentally, should anyone feel the uncontrollable urge to give me money at this point, I'm not arguing. No, I didn't think so.)

It's amazing the things we self censor. I almost deleted the bit in brackets there. I'm also struggling with the short story I mentioned a few days ago because I'm having a hard time writing it the way round that works while still squaring it with my feelings on hunting with dogs (which are that it is A: generally a rather cruel approach to pest control, and that B: it is particularly annoying when it scares my cat first thing in the morning). The problem seems to be the constant feeling that somebody reading it will react rather badly to it, leading me to alter things as I go.

Which is, of course, rather stupid. Practically everything that has ever been written will have been disliked or disagreed with by someone. Attempting to please everyone quickly degenerates into trying not to displease anyone, which in turn becomes writing nothing. But at the same time we are told to write with our audience in mind. So at what point does one become the other? Should we agonize over the potential for our writing/blogging/other work to annoy the audience? Have you ever started writing something and then changed your mind because of the reaction you suspected you'd get? Should I stop being such a weed about the whole thing?

(It occurs to me that, in my last few short stories, I've probably managed to offend security guards, personnel managers, recruitment people, practically everyone with a love of either Shelley or Wodehouse, pub landlords, actors and reality TV contestants. And you know what? I'm not going to apologise. I'm not. I'm absolutely... oh all right, sorry. But not about the reality TV.)

Monday, 12 October 2009

Editing Methods

Since I've been editing Gloom Cupboard's fiction section, I've tried a couple of different approaches to editing, switching recently to a sort of "edit as you go" approach after I let a bit of a backlog build up at the end of last month. That sent me looking for the approaches favoured by other people involved in online stuff, and what I found is that there are a huge number of different approaches to the topic. Some that I found include:

  1. Reading everything as soon as you get it, deciding then and there whether you like it enough to include it. It's what I'm working with at the moment, more or less. It has the advantage that you get stuff done, but the disadvantage that you can't really compare pieces before making a decision.
  2. Save everything, decide in one go. What I was doing, which allows you to pick the best from whatever group of submissions you get, but means you end up trying to do everything in a day or two. Also, you have to hold onto submissions for a while.
  3. Special "submission periods". These seem remarkably similar to option two, except that you possibly give yourself a little longer to decide. I suspect they still mean you end up trying to do most things at once though.
  4. Complex, multi-stage processes. Australian publication ASIM (Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine) has a three stage process, involving multiple editors. Incredibly professional, and probably the only way of coping with masses of submissions, but possibly also way out of my league. I don't have any spare editors lying around, for a start.
If you've got any thoughts about the best approach, or if you know of any others, please let me know in the comments.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

England in South Africa

Since the submission of the PhD means that almost everything has been writing related for a week or two, and since I'm short of something to do, a cricket related post.

England announced their test team for the tour to South Africa the other day, and there were a few inclusions and omissions worth commenting on:

Steve Harmison is out, probably for the last time. The Durham fast bowler has had a poor few years, but kept getting second chances (and presumably third/fourth/fifth, why do we always call them second chances?) because A: he once demolished the West Indies on a bouncy pitch at Sabina Park, B: he did rather well in the 2005 Ashes, and C: because he has a reputation for frightening batters. Unfortunately, he also has a reputation for homesickness, and for showing up for winter tours half-fit. And, sadly, he never seems to have equalled his burst in and around 2005 since. I suspect this is the end of his international career, and it doesn't particularly bother me as a fan.

Ravi Bopara is out, probably only temporarily. The Essex batter (let's not pretend that some medium pace dribblies make him a test all rounder) had a horrible Ashes series, and nothing better came along in the Champions' Trophy. Presumably the idea is that he goes back to county cricket, gets things together, and comes back.

Which brings us nicely to Owais Shah, also dropped. Again. He seems to be in and out of the side as often as Mark Ramprakash and Grahame Hick were before him, though possibly without quite their talent. Perhaps the lack of consistent runs is the problem, but if England are going to have an official one day policy of all out batting attack, they have to expect a certain amount of inconsistency.

Flintoff, of course, has retired from test cricket. Irreplacable according to the commentators. I doubt it. Stuart Broad already has a better average with the bat, and seems to have worked out what he's supposed to be doing with the ball. Plus he's nabbed Flintoff's place on the physio's bench with an impressive streak of minor injuries.

Tim Bresnan's performances in the one day Champions' Trophy weren't enough to earn a test place, perhaps because people latch onto ideas about bowlers and get stuck. People refer to him as a fast medium bowler, or an honest seam and swing bowler, apparently ignoring the bit where the speed gun is consistently in the top half of the 80s. He's replaced, instead, by Liam Plunkett. Admittedly Plunkett seems to have improved as a bowler, but with little to choose between the two, it does feel awfully like change for change's sake.

Adil Rashid of Yorkshire has cemented the second spinner's spot, ahead of Monty Panesar. This probably says more for Panesar's loss of effectiveness than Rashid's growth as a bowler, and probably also has something to do with Rashid's ability to bat. My only slight worry is that, following his back injury, Rashid seems not quite as dangerous with the ball.

Steve Davies gets a go with the wicket keeper's gloves. Why not? Everyone else has. Though there is the little matter of Chris Read, who was dropped for not being good enough with the bat, being third in the county batting averages for the season.

Oh, and Sajid Mahmood is back for the one day series. Expect the extras count to rise.

Stuff

  • The hunt swept across the farm we live on earlier, managing to terrify our cat. There has to be something better for people who want to think they're posh to do at ungodly hours of the morning. On the other hand, it has vaguely inspired a short story.
  • I went out and bought a copy of Toby Frost's Space Captain Smith, having decided that I'll almost certainly want to re-read it. This approach to library books strikes me as a little bit similar to throwing money to buskers if you like the tune, begging the question of if, were we to offer one or two other authors quite a lot of money, they'd move along quietly.
  • It's possible that this month will feature two prose editions of Gloom Cupboard, people having sent me lots of stuff. I think we're finally being a little more successful in attracting work.
  • I've made it as far as C so far, and have noticed one thing about French: it does have a lot of very similar words. Also, I doubt I'm remembering very much.
  • I've started some editing on the sequel. No matter how much you like something when you're writing it, there are still lots of bits that need changing. Also, I've decided between the two versions. Maybe I'll keep the other so that in the event I sell millions, it can go out as a bonus feature thing (also, I might change my mind again).

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Stuff

  • I've finally got a complete first draft of one of the articles I've been working on, though I suspect that it may be on the short side. Brevity seems to be the name of the game for me at the moment.
  • I finished off K.E.Mills' Witches Incorporated earlier, and it's a good, fun story. Being a mystery, I'm not so sure about the re-read value, but it was certainly fun the first time through.
  • Unemployment seems to be creeping into my short stories. At least, the one I finished yesterday had a lot about recruitment consultancy, stereotypical fantasy villain style. Also worrying amounts of HR jargon.
  • Talking of which, I've gone through my computer files, deleting the stories I'll never be able to do anything with and submitting a few of the others. I do have an unfortunate tendency to leave things and forget them.
  • Rather oddly, I took it upon myself last night to start reading a french dictionary from cover to cover. I'm not entirely sure why, except that I generally don't do that well with normal approaches to language learning, so maybe randomly memorising words will help instead.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Terry Pratchett: Unseen Academicals

It almost seems like a waste of time reviewing a Terry Pratchett book. After all, you almost certainly know whether you're going to buy it, and you've probably got a pretty good idea of what you're going to find once you do. Jokes, strange and interesting characters, more jokes, a plot that makes perfect sense while also managing to parody at least two or three other things, and a few more jokes.

Actually, you can probably take the last lot of jokes out in favour of a bit more story and characterisation, as seems to have been the case with several of the last few Pratchett offerings. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but is rather simply a very slight shift in style that leaves us more with stories with funny bits than comedy routines with a story weaving in and out of them.

Unseen Academicals deals with the arrival of football in Ankh Morpork, or at least its modernisation from a form that seems either like a simple brawl or worryingly like several traditional English sports, Eton's wall game included. For about ten seconds this seemed like a problem to me, for the simple reason that I can't stand football. As it happens though, this works anyway, because it expertly parodies the traditional plot employed by almost every sports film ever made, where a team of unlikely sorts must play a game for equally unlikely reasons, bond themselves into a unit, and deal with some suitably nasty opposition at the last minute.

Of course, being Pratchett, there's also time for a quick run on the themes of Romeo and Juliet, some stuff about celebrity culture spinning off from the footballer's wives/girlfriends angle, and also a plot running in parallel about the arrival of a new species in Ankh Morpork's famously mixed up environs. It's as expertly written as ever, and very funny in places. Possibly my favourite moment comes just after one member of the UU team scores a goal, and promptly insists that the crowd chant of 'One Macarona, there's only one Macarona' include his full list of titles and achievements. I would include the subsequent version here, but I don't have the space.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Comedy Characters And Where To Get Them

I've been reading some really good funny stuff recently, from Pratchett's new book Unseen Academicals to Rachel Green's An Ungodly Child to Toby Frost's amazing Space Captain Smith. It occurs to me that one thing most really good comic fantasy/sci fi/other books have in common is a collection of really good characters, usually with at least some inherent potential for funniness. Exactly how much seems to vary by the author. Frost seems to favour outrageously overblown variations on stereotypes, while Rachel's characters are at least superficially normal, at least until they start to speak or act. Pratchett seems to have gone from one to the other, starting with what we might call inherently funny character types (such as wizards who can't do magic, very old barbarian heroes, and six foot six "dwarfs") and drifting gradually towards characters who are perhaps more "normal", to allow a fuller story, the comedy coming more in what happens.

Since it's a genre I like to write, since characters are notoriously difficult to get right, and quite frankly since I haven't posted in a few days and I can't think of anything better to do, I thought I'd have a look at some ways of getting good comedy characters, hopefully with reference to those mentioned above (and probably also Tom Holt, since the odds of my getting through a post like this without mentioning him are- I just did, didn't I? Well, that's that out of the way)

  1. Remember that they are still characters. Even if they are going to be funny, even if you love the idea of them, make sure that they fit. Make sure that they do something relevant. Admittedly, in the case of a minor character that might be nothing more than to provide a suitably weird encounter to slow the pacing a bit towards the end of chapter three, but don't shove them in the work for the sake of it...
  2. Unless you really want to. This is the same warning as usual, really. Ultimately, do whatever works. Don't assume that I know everything (or indeed anything). As the great jazz guitarist Martin Taylor is apparently fond of pointing out, if it sounds right, it is right.
  3. Right, now that's out of the way... ideas. Where do you get them? Well, out of your head, obviously. But before that? Sometimes keeping your eyes open will provide suggestions. Truth really is stranger than fiction sometimes (though I suspect nobody who habitually uses that phrase is thinking of Douglas Adams). Also, random things you hear, or better yet slightly mishear, can be an intriguing source of things to use. I wouldn't have been able to include references to zombie sofas without it.
  4. It's often fun to take a literary archetype (or stereotype, but not usually a single character unless it's one so iconic that it has become an archetype. Try ramming two together at speed instead) and twist it into something else. An easy way is to apply relentless logic until it starts to look suitably stupid. If the basic barbarian hero your grandad told you about is very good at not dying, then of course he's going to be quite old by now, isn't he?
  5. Failing that, just take what might be the defining characteristic of the type and do something strange to it. So you get wizards who can't do (or are allergic to) magic, vampires who don't like the taste of blood (or, for those of us who watched enough cartoons, prefer tomato ketchup), princesses who are neither beautiful nor particularly nice, and other staples. The only slight difficulty is that many of these have been done a few times by now, so you might have to go further.
  6. One way of doing that is to simply add on comic elements, like weird incongruities, general cluelessness, irritating honesty etc. until you get something interesting. The problem with this approach is that, having cobbled the character together out of parts, it feels... well, cobbled together out of parts, really.
  7. Perhaps a better option is to ensure that you get an appropriate character by starting with a normal character who would fit the story. That gives you a sense of the shape of the hole you have to fill. What you do then is to brainstorm all the different ways that hole could be filled. Generally, the idea is to take the weirdest option that is still viable. This can sometimes provide fun little subplots, and new (but still weird) takes on the central themes of the story.
  8. How thick should your character be? Always an awkward one this. A little bit of stupidity can be really good fun, but too much and they are either unbelievable (though if you look around, you might decide you can go quite far before you hit that point) or unsympathetic. Perhaps the best examples come from Tom Holt, whose early heroes didn't seem to be that bright. In his more recent stuff though they are a bit cleverer, making up for it with a sort of general sense of loser-ness. With main characters, that seems like a better option, though very specialised forms of stupidity (such as a general cluelessness around women or innuendo, an inability to see just how bad genuinely unpleasant people are, or a mindless and automatic reaction under certain circumstances) can still be useful.
  9. One point is that characters very often get funnier as you start to tie them into the plot. They start off doing one thing, but if you're in a position to have them do a couple of others too, then the traits that are funniest start spilling over and affecting those secondary areas, while still seeming perfectly reasonable. In particular, looking for excuses to have characters do seemingly incongruous things for perfectly justifiable reasons is great fun.
  10. Finally, remember to have fun with them. If you don't like them, the reader won't. Make them big, and overblown, and weird. And then, just when the whole edifice of bizarre characterisation looks set to topple with a crash, have them do something sincere or sensible, and remind the audience that they aren't just a joke, but a funny character.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Toby Frost: Space Captain Smith

Captain Isembard Smith of the British Space Empire has a ship (which is admittedly more rust than metal), a crew (consisting of a mildly psychopathic alien, an android sex toy who's reprogrammed herself as a pilot, and a hamster named Gerald) and a mission to retrieve one of those new age, whale saving types and bring her safely to Earth. All while maintaining a suitably stiff upper lip, doing battle with the Ghast insect empire, and avoiding fundamentalists from New Eden, who all seem to want his passenger for themselves.

It's hilarious. Somehow, Frost has taken every sci-fi reference imaginable (and there's a lot of fun to be had playing "spot the reference") crammed it together with the sort of over the top historical fiction you get in Sharpe, or better yet Hornblower, and thrown in enough jokes to get us all the way through a wonderful story. Imagine if Douglas Adams could do endings properly, and you'll have the right sort of idea. Definitely read this.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

First Draft

About half an hour ago I completed a draft of the alternate version of the sequel to the comic fantasy novel I've been working on. It's still a little on the short side in this form compared to usual, at 73000 words, but so far I like it much better than the original approach. Presumably the thing to do is read it after a few days so that I can judge that more effectively, though at the moment it does seem to have the advantage of holding a single, coherent storyline, where the other feels like it's trying to split in two.

Obviously, I've got the various rounds of revisions to do on it, but it also means I'll probably be doing slightly more short fiction in the coming weeks, since I don't want to start another novel length effort straight away. I hadn't noticed until I looked just how few short stories I actually write. Maybe it's just that, when I get a nice idea, I tend to get a bit carried away.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Story: What is it good for?

Absolutely... no, hang on, that's something else isn't it? A very short post in a brief attempt to be interactive. Stories, what are they actually for? Well obviously, for entertainment. And for telling us stuff in a way that actually affects us. But other than that? I've tried to come up with some other possibilities, and I hope you'll feel up to joining what (almost certainly won't be) an important debate.

  1. Preventing most bookshops these days from being just coffee shops.
  2. Keeping daydreaming artistic types in front of computers, rather than out on the street where they might bump into things.
  3. Effectively immobilising the world's avid readers, so that they're easy to find again once you've put them down.
  4. Preventing books from being big, blank, papery bricks.
  5. They mean that the illustrators don't have to fill up so much space.
  6. Using up the world's zombie/vampire surplus, so that we don't have to keep them under the stairs.
  7. Taking people whose main ability is to make things up, and calling it a job skill rather than simple oddness, thus reducing unemployment.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

K.E.Mills: The Accidental Sorceror

I bought this largely on the strength of one of those recommendation notes you get in bookshops, which happened to use the words "humerous" and "fantasy" in close combination. Always a good way to get me to buy books. The basic plot is that third grade wizard Gerald Dunwoody finds himself jobless after an accident that suggests he might be a bit more powerful than everyone thought, ends up taking a job as royal wizard to the tiny country of New Ottosland, and then has to deal with a bossy princess, a possibly mad king, and a prince more interested in butterflies than people.

It reads well, flowing beautifully from one difficulty to the next, and there's some nice work on character development with Gerald, who suddenly has to cope with rather more responsibility than he ever saw as a magical compliance officer. There are some very unexpected characters, and it plays with traditional elements quite nicely. I like the light tone throughout, though I think that it is more of a proper story told lightly than one that stacks up the jokes after the fashion of full blown comic fantasy. That though is more of a quibble with the people who write those little cards in bookshops than with the writer, who has produced something that is a wonderfully fun story, and which trips along at a great pace.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Stuff

  • I'm up to 57 000 words on the alternate version of the sequel, and I suspect that at this rate the thing will end up about 10 000 words shorter than I originally intended. That's normal for me though, and tends to get corrected in the editing, once I put in all the bits I forgot in the first draft.
  • It is possible, but far from straightforward, to make a pick and fingers approach to guitar playing sound suitably heavy metal. I found this when I looked down the other day and found that I wasn't sweep picking the bits I thought I was.
  • My short stories 'A Madder Scientist' and 'The Apocalypse Factor' have both been accepted for Semaphore Magazine's print anthology.
  • My job hunting has intensified, and seems to involve a lot of careful phrasing on the cover letters, largely to make it clear how medieval history is relevant to anything normal.
  • On the editing front, there seem to be a few more short story submissions for GC than last month. Either it's a seasonal thing, or the efforts to publicise it by all our editors are having an effect. Mostly the effect of me having a lot more stories to check than I expected, suggesting that I should possibly have spread my efforts out more over the month.
  • One kind (joking I hope) comment that nevertheless shows much of what's wrong with british fencing. 'You should be in the olympics or something'. Only if I get a lot better very quickly. Still, it made me laugh.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Breaks

Having put the PhD into the binders, I've gone back to the novel I was working on before academic stuff took priority. It's an intriguing experience going back to things after a short break. You come at it with fresh eyes, and so very quickly get a feeling for whether what's there is any good or not. I'm happy to say that I liked what I'd already written, and quickly got on with writing the next bit.

I think that's the other main thing you get from breaks: a burst of enthusiasm and ideas afterwards. In fact, in creative contexts other than writing, it's considered fairly normal advice that you should take a break now and then, so that you can come back with new inspiration. Of course, that runs counter to the normal writing idea of writing every day to get into the habit of being creative, so which approach works best?

I suspect that, as a general thing, it's better to write than not. Stopping every time you don't particularly feel like writing anything that day can easily turn into "I haven't written anything for weeks" without you realising. Writing something each day is probably a good base point. Probably better still is wanting to write something each day. After all, we do this because we enjoy it, don't we?

At the same time, there are times when it's easy to get stuck in a rut. You've written essentially the same story a few times in a row. You've repeated ideas throughout the novel. You can't tell the last half dozen poems apart. That sort of thing. Or worse, whatever your creative endeavour, it's starting to feel like Work. I'm pretty sure that's the oposite of the sort of thing we normally want.

So getting away from things is sometimes a good idea. The trick is to judge when you need it, and I suspect that comes back to the idea I mentioned above, of wanting to write every day. Ultimately, most of us aren't paid for this. Or at least, we aren't getting rich from it. We write because we want to. I think that the key to knowing when to back off is paying attention to whether you're enjoying it. If you have a day when things aren't going well, then fine, you might want to push through it. If you have a string of days when you just hit a blank, or when it feels more like work than fun, then it might be time to have a break.

I once went through a phase of trying to practise the guitar properly every day. I'd do my warm ups and my scales, and try to move up a notch on the metronome. I'd do the same exercises over and over, and pretty soon I found that I wasn't looking forward to playing. Now, I play more or less when I feel like it. The thing is, I probably play more now than I did then, and my playing is better for it. Sometimes, if you focus on simply enjoying what you're doing, you get far more done than when you try to force it.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Stuff

  • The first training session of the new fencing season over at Hull's fairly social fencing club was on Thursday. It's a bit odd not preparing for the university one for the first time in years, but I'd like to think I'm having a positive effect. At least, there was a sudden outbreak of sabre-ing, which has to be a good thing.
  • On the other hand, I have apparently become monumentally unfit over the summer, probably from the lack of cricket. As in "ready to collapse by the end of a match" unfit. I may have to do something about that. Or just settle for sticking my arm out and waiting for the other person to run onto it.
  • Lots of printing to do today. I hope my tired old printer feels up to 576 pages of research, but suspect it probably isn't going to like it. Since we're off to the bindary on Tuesday, it will just have to cope. Spare printers are on hand.
  • For the first time in ages, I've started a history book that I'm simply interested in, rather than because I suspect it may have the word "minster" tucked away in it somewhere. Actually, Arnold's Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe still might, but that's not why I'm reading it.
  • I'm continuing to break bits of research down into articles, basically rewriting relevant bits of chapters, but I'm taking my time. It doesn't strike me as something to do in a rush, and I want the main thesis in first.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Guest Post

Although any ideas of an extended blog tour are currently on hold while I take the time to learn how best to do it, Jodie over at Book Gazing has been kind enough to let me put up a guest post over there.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Jasper Fforde: First Among Sequels

By now, I imagine some of you will know that I'm something of a Jasper Fforde fan. I liked the first four novels of the Thursday Next series, and loved the spin offs dealing with the activities of Reading's "Nursery Crime" division. It is with some sadness then that I have to agree with my mate Adam's assessment of this book as really not very good.

The basic plot is... actually, I suspect that may be the problem. As I understand it, the plot is that Thursday Next must save the bookworld from being turned into reality TV, prevent the time travelling Chronoguard from getting hold of the secret of time travel, and do something about falling reader rates at the same time. It seems a bit thin for 350+ pages, really.

In fact, there's plenty going on. There are some extra Thursdays wandering around, a couple of assasination attempts, some stuff about doing away with a national "stupidity surplus", some fairly random stuff about Thursday's children, jokes, arguments, and all sorts of other stuff that should be fairly good when nailed to a strong central idea.

The trouble is, there isn't one. Stuff turns up. Stuff happens. Quite a lot of it seems to come out of nowhere. There's a whole segment with a minor villainous henchman that doesn't come from anything in the book, but apparently sets up things in the next. In fact, if I try and put my finger on it, that's probably the problem. This book feels a lot like one of those in-between ones, tying up loose ends, introducing new bits, and not really concentrating on its own story. There are still some nice gags (and a surprisingly random guest appearance from Dr Temperance Brennan) but the whole thing feels like a patchwork cobbled together from bits Fforde thought "this is great, let's include it" about.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

zombie chicken


Jodie over at Book Gazing has been kind enough to present me with this zombie chicken award. Though if it comes with actual zombie chickens there might be problems. The cat has enough problems chasing pheasants.


Friday, 4 September 2009

Gary Murning

There's an interview up over at Gloom Cupboard that I did with Gary Murning, author of If I Never.

Stuff

  • I think I've finished the writing and proofreading on the PhD. I think. It's hard to be certain with this sort of thing, because my supervisor might make a last minute suggestion, or I might need to re-do bits to get it through, but I think it's finally done. Of course, I've still got the sitting waiting and hoping the examiners like it to do, and then the viva to get through, even once it's in.
  • The first royalty statement for Searching came through this morning, and more than the anticipated (by me in my more pessimistic moments) three people bought it. Still not likely to start troubling the bestseller lists in the near future, but good anyway.
  • Because of these two factors, I might actually do some work on some fiction in a minute.
  • Then again, I might continue working on the history articles, which are probably a better use of my time, but slightly harder to fit jokes into. Though I suppose I could try.
  • I'm reading Jasper Fforde's First Among Sequels with a certain amount of trepidation. My friend Adam, whose opinion I respect on these things, was really quite scathing about this one. I can only hope that his occasional chemistry related accidents have temporarily knocked his sense of humour sideways. (Try standing further from the exploding test tubes, Adam)

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Help please...

I'm trapped in this computer thingie. No, not there, under the grills. You'll need a screwdriver...

Sorry, I was having a bit of a flashback to the Amiga game "Cannon Fodder", which in the interminable installation took a moment to ask for a cup of tea. I can't help but wonder if anyone ever did pour it into the vents as it asked.

Now to what I'm actually asking for help with. It occurs to me that, what with one thing and another (mostly 900 year old things, but also the bit where I didn't notice it happening), I didn't really do that much publicity when Searching was launched. For all that it's not nearly silly enough for my current tastes, I'd quite like to put together a bit of a blog tour to promote it, on the basis that I'm probably a lot more confident and outgoing this side of a computer screen than I'll ever be face to face.

If anyone feels kind enough to host me, please let me know.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Semaphore Magazine

The September edition of Semaphore Magazine is up, and contains my rather odd take on reality TV talent shows, "The Apocalypse Factor". I like it, and hopefully you will too. Don't forget to check out the rest of the magazine, since there's usually lots of good stuff in there. If you feel inclined to give me high marks in their reader survey thingy to decide the contents of the anthology, so much the better.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Gloom Cupboard

The September edition of Gloom Cupboard's fiction section has gone up here. I hope you enjoy it.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Inspiration and Craft

It's a subject that catches my attention every so often, mostly about the time I do something horrible to either my fencing or guitar playing techniques, but the relationship between inspiration and the technique of doing things is an intriguing one, so I thought I'd look at it again.

Particularly, I find myself interested by the relationship between the "plan it from the start" and "just get on and write it" approaches to writing. I know some people will prefer one or the other, and they tend to be pretty adamant about it. It's as though they suspect that doing something different will result in things going horribly wrong, either by the end result making no sense, or it looking like it was produced by numbers.

I've tried both, and I think that there's probably a case for picking a method according to the type of piece you're writing. Extensive planning tends to result in tight, efficient pieces that rarely put a foot wrong. A more "write it and see" approach could produce almost anything, but in my case tends to produce things that ramble and wander, but flow a little more.

For all my talk about planning and "just writing" though, neither is the method that I actually use when I'm writing well. That method goes a little more like this:

  1. I start to think about an idea. Maybe I write it down, so I won't forget about it. Possibly I'll do some incredibly detailed planning on paper. Rather more possibly, I'll do some sketchy planning in my head.
  2. I then forget about it. If I've written it down, I forget where I've written it down. Curiously, this is an important part of the process, giving me time to think about it. Or to do some work I'm actually supposed to be doing. One or the other.
  3. After a bit, I get inspired (or so monumentally bored it feels like the same thing). I will then attempt to write the piece/novel.
  4. It will then go wrong. Occasionally, it will only go wrong a little bit, and I can fix it with a few edits, a few jokes, and a lot of encouragement from people who should know better (as happened with one of my favourite short stories, A Madder Scientist). More commonly, it will go horribly wrong, or fall flatter than most of my attempts at baking. (That's a lie, actually. Most of my very occasional attempts at baking do the opposite, rise far too much, and attempt to barricade themselves in the oven.)
  5. Having gone wrong, I will probably engage in a certain amount of Valuable Thinking Time (or sulking, as it's otherwise known). I might end up throwing the whole thing out and keeping nothing but the idea. I might also decide that there are some bits I like, and keep more of it.
  6. It's generally at about this point that I do some proper planning. Sounds insane, doesn't it? The thing is, what do I have at this point? Something that is alive, and vibrant, and also not set in stone. It's easy to change, but it probably also has some good ideas in there. Ideas that I might well not have come up with had I planned things at the start. From here, I can put the thing together in a way that actually works, but hopefully without sacrificing anything important.
  7. Having done that planning, I will attempt to rewrite, edit, and generally shout at the thing until it comes together. I generally know it's working well when bits I've added to fill holes start to take on their own life, do odd things in conjunction with what's already there, and generally behave like they've been there all along.
  8. Hopefully, the resulting chaos produces something I'm happy to have written.
The weird part is that it generally does. The pieces I'm less ecstatic about tend to show up when I either plan too much (which is the more common problem) or too little. This seems to work because it combines a couple of planning stages (and yes, generally thinking about things at the start counts) with enough freedom to let me do all the slightly odd things I do when I'm writing well.

Of course, put like that, it sounds a bit too much like a list of instructions. It isn't. It's simply an attempt to be truthful about what I actually do. I'm not sure I'd necessarily recommend this to anyone else. What I do recommend is looking at the way you work, and finding out what you really do when you're working well. More people than you might think do something surprisingly similar to this, building on an initial burst of inspiration with the craft they've learned. Possibly fewer of them sulk quite so much in the middle, but each to their own, I say.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Stuff

  • Still proofreading. It's one of those tasks that takes far, far longer than it should. Today's objective: go through all the footnotes again, sorting out tiny details in line with the usual style sheets, then number the chapters and sub-chapters properly. Such an annoying little job, but hours of work.
  • I've noticed that it seems harder to start an article based on the PhD than it is to start a short story, even though the former is what I've got the training in (although putting it that way makes it sound like I was composing essays on the way round assault courses, rather than merely trying to make sense of twelfth century handwriting)
  • I've been trying poetry for the first time in months, presumably as a result of my "no work on the novel while I'm finishing the PhD" rule. I seem to have forgotten how.
  • I read Richelle Mead's Thorn Queen earlier, and enjoyed it, though why I started it when I'm already half-way through both Paradise Lost and Tom Holt's Grailblazers I don't know. The latter has less pizza than anticipated, but more reindeer and atlanteans, so that's all right. The former has surprisingly few of either.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Jonathon Pinnock

I just thought I'd take a moment to point you in the direction of fellow writer (and occasional inhabitant of The Write Idea, which is linked to on my sidebar if you haven't already dropped in) Jon Pinnock. Partly on the basis that one of his pieces will be showing up in the next edition of Gloom Cupboard, when I put it up at the end of the week, but mostly on the basis that I like what I've seen of his writing, and because he was so quick coming back to me when I wrote the words 'Please, please can someone send in something that isn't so deathly serious'.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

On Submissions

I'll be typing this somewhat hesitantly, since anything with even a remote connection to my right shoulder is quite painful today. I've found out the hard way that the diving stop is for professional cricketers, not the rest of us. Talking of which, well done to England.

Right, with that out of the way, on to what this is really about, which is submitting things. This being mostly on the basis that, for no apparent reasons beyond the fact that I think it's rather good, and the fact that I happened to wander onto their submissions page, I've just submitted a query for CofD to the biggest publisher I could find. It might not (and statistically, probably won't) get a positive response, but you never know.

Which is sort of my first point. How many times have you targeted a small, or non-paying, market with work that you really liked? Have you ever had a piece accepted that, in hindsight, you thought might have done better than the market you targeted? It's something I'm not sure about. Generally, I don't have that much idea whether my stuff is good or not. My main clue in this regard (which may have prompted my sudden leap in ambition) was finding a very positive comment attached to my "Motto of the Gnomish Postal Service" poem, asking why I didn't send it to a paying fantasy market.

The initial thought in circumstances like that is, obviously "because it's just a bit of fun", or "it's ok, but it's nothing special". And who knows, they might even be the right thoughts. I'm not going to claim that one kind comment makes fifteen minutes' work a masterpiece. But the thought that followed that for me was "because this is where I submit my silly fantasy poems". Looking at it written down like that, it's not as good a reason as it sounded when I first used it, is it?

So is this just me having an arrogant five minutes? Actually no, I have a serious point to make here. In theory, if you're looking to build as a writer, the plan is that you maybe gain some experience and skills through zines and other non-paying markets, then steadily head upwards, through paying markets, to building a readership, to eventual world dominiation (I may have missed some steps out here. If anyone can tell me what they are, I'd be delighted to know).

But how many of us actually do this? How many of us let our (perfectly natural) modesty get the better of us, and stick with safe avenues for our creative output in the form of places we already know? Even when we go for new places, how many of us stick to ones that are similar to ones we've already been published in? Is there a case for saying that it's worth being more ambitious on occasion, even if the risk is being told no (as might well happen with the novel. Have you noticed that you're generally a lot less confident about work in the moments after it's gone out)?

Just for me, give it a go. Pick somewhere that you wouldn't normally think of sending work to because you "aren't good enough" and submit the piece you like the most. I have no idea if it will work, but given the wonderful writing of some of the people who drop in here, it might, and you don't lose anything much if it doesn't.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Stuff

  • I'm through the first bout of proofreading for the PhD. I'll probably try to make a couple of parts more readable, have another go, then see if there are any comments from my supervisor.
  • England are in a position where they might win the last Test, and thus the Ashes. I can but hope.
  • Proving that life doesn't stop, I'm already thinking of ways I might break up parts of the PhD for some articles. Several articles seems like a better way to build attention in history circles than one book, particularly since I'm not entirely convinced by the whole "book of the research project" concept in general. It seems like you're trying to take something designed for one end, then use it for another.
  • I'm still on my Tom Holt kick, having aquired a copy of Grailblazers, which promises knights, quests for the Grail, and pizza, in no particular order.
  • The radio mentioned one of those annoying "top ten guitarists of all time" lists earlier. Apparently Les Paul is on it. No. Just because he's died doesn't mean he was one of the greatest. Great inventor yes (of both the eponymous Gibson guitar and multitrack recording), but immensely influential guitarist?
  • It's amazing how many jokes you can get out of someone jumping out of a window, as I did in the scene I wrote earlier.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Tom Holt: May Contain Traces of Magic

This did contain some time travel after all, but I thought I'd review it anyway. It's (broadly) another in the series containing The Portable Door, Earth Air Fire and Custard, The Better Mousetrap and You Don't Have To Be Evil To Work Here But It Helps. Its hero, Chris Popham, works as a sales rep for J.W.Wells' various products, ranging from the annoying (a book of all human knowledge that insists on telling him about Gandhi), to the useful (in the form of portable parking spaces), to... well no one has ever quite worked out what they use the dessicated water for, but it's certainly selling well.

Chris quickly finds himself not-quite attacked by demons, saddled with graduate trainees, and talking to his Sat Nav, which is talking back, and would quite like to get out of the horrible plastic box, thank you. As if that weren't enough, he's got his failing relationship with Karen to deal with, while his usually supportive friend Jill is doing a good job of dealing with the supernatural incursions, but getting remarkably preoccupied about some missing digestive biscuits.

It's good fun, though as usual quite baffling until Holt explains it at the end. The gags are as good as ever, and it's a fast paced read, even when half of what's going on doesn't make much sense. Holt plays with the business of being a sales rep expertly, and as usual my only slight annoyance is the time travelling plot, which seems to make a surprising amount of what follows only semi-relevant. Having said that, it only comes in towards the end, and doesn't detract from what are some very funny characters, so this is still very much worth reading.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Proofreading: Some Thoughts

Because I'm gearing up to the submission of the PhD, I've been going through all the last minute things, including a few final rounds of proofreading. I've also had chance to do this in the preparation of novels, and to work with an editor in the pre-publication editing of Searching. As such, it seemed like a good opportunity to offer some tips on the process of proof-reading your work.

  1. Do it. Basic, obvious, but frequently ignored. Maybe people think that their work is perfect. Maybe they think that editors somehow have reserves of patience beyond those of ordinary mortals (which rather suggests they haven't been paying attention). Maybe they just can't be bothered. More likely, they've been correcting as they go, which doesn't work, because you're concentrating on content, not presentation. Putting together work is like the bit on those cookery shows where the chef has about a dozen pans on the go at once. Proofreading is more like the bit at the end where they go around wiping stray bits of sauce off plates.
  2. Do it again. One pass through is not enough. You will miss something. Everyone always misses something.
  3. Then get someone else to do it. If the work is remotely important, get someone else to look through at the end. This is different from the usual reading and suggestions, because the content is not their first concern (though if something major becomes obvious, be prepared to change it, on which, see below). They are looking specifically for spelling, grammar, layout, etc. Give them a red biro if you really want them to do an obsessively thorough job. Most people can't resist.
  4. Have a goal with each pass. Today, I was correcting my footnotes. I didn't even look at the body of the text. The bits you are correcting at this stage are the boring bits. If you allow yourself to look at the other bits of the piece, they will distract you from the parts you are supposed to be doing.
  5. Don't try to do it all at once. Making corrections takes longer than you think. You're correcting every mistake you made over what might have been months or years of writing. You're also correcting every mistake you put off as too time consuming. Guess what? You were right. I've had to split the corrections on my footnotes over two days, though to be fair, their were more than 750 of them to check and fit to my chosen style.
  6. Which is probably the most important point of the process. Be consistent. Pick what abbreviations you'll allow, and stick to it. Choose what you plan to do with thoughts, random asides, footnote conventions, and all the other little parts of layout. If the place you're aiming at has a house style, it should probably be in line with that.
  7. Now sit back, relax, and... hang on, there's something horribly wrong with chapter three. No, not there, about five paragraphs down. You'll have to re-write half the chapter. Only of course now you don't want to because you've done the proof reading. If you're on a tight deadline, you might have to leave it and hope that it's just your imagination, but more usually, the better response is to go ahead and fix it. The piece is not final until it's out of your hands, or even until it goes up to be published. I once put an article together for a magazine, checked it, sent it to the editor, who checked it, made some corrections, checked it again, sent it back, had it accepted as fine, and then found a spelling mistake on the galley proofs. But that was fine, because it meant we could correct it before it went to print.
  8. Above all, if you want to stay sane while you do it, remember that the purpose is to make the whole thing better. If you want to see it for yourself, keep a copy of the un-edited version, then compare it to what goes out. Even small changes will end up making it look far more professional.