Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Two poems

My poems 'In the Morning' and 'At the Summit' have gone up in what is going to be the last issue of Adagio Verse Quarterly here

Monday, 30 March 2009

Short stories found

It's easy to forget about things sometimes. I was looking back through some old work to see if there was a short story suitable for submission somewhere, and I discovered a half forgotten series of six of them, for which I promptly wrote a seventh.

It seems like an odd thing to forget about; after all, it's hardly an odd sock or a set of car keys. I used to think, when I saw collections of short stories by famous authors who claimed that they'd just 're-discovered' them in the back of notebooks, that it was all nonesense. Now I know better. I suppose it's because, with something like that, you write them more for yourself than with any hope of actually successfully submitting them. I can't imagine anyone agreeing to an extended series in a hurry.

Maybe that's part of why they're actually quite good, because I'm not particularly trying with them. I've found a lot of times that if I write something just for a bit of fun, it turns out a lot better than if I sit down and think "right, this time I'm going to produce something the editors will love".

On the reading front, I've been enjoying Wodehouse's Ring for Jeeves, which is quite an odd one in that Bertie Wooster is nowhere to be found, having gone off to a school that teaches the idle rich to fend for themselves. It's perfectly pitched and very funny.

I've also been trying to remember everything I've read so far this year, with limited success. Perhaps I should keep a list. (Incidentally, there's nothing quite like seeing your own name show up on someone else's list, as happened when my friend Adam, who read through the first novel, included it on his list of everything he'd read last year). Maybe if I go and stare at my bookshelves, something will come back to me.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Third Place

Did I mention that I took 3rd place overall in the club's internal fencing championship? No, I obviously didn't, that's why I'm doing it now. I knew we should have stopped things after the sabre.

Friday, 27 March 2009

45-0

Did I say 45000? I meant none, of course. That's right, it's happened again. I've stared at the thing and stared at it, and tried to find a way to reconcile this whole plot/sub-plot thing, and it hasn't worked. What it has actually done is convince me that I have written, not a plot and sub-plot, but two competing plots that only touch in places. Now, the logical thing there would be to get rid of the bit I thought was a sub plot, but if I do that, I get rid of the main thing connecting it to the first book.

There seems to be a solution, but again, it seems to involve serious re-writing. I'm beginning to wonder if I've wandered into an "unable to finish" patch, or worse, that I've become so attached to writing this particular novel that I'm just finding excuses not to finish. I don't think it's that, though. I've finished enough other things. I think it's just me that didn't plan it well enough. Still, third time lucky, hopefully.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

45000

I'm up past 45000 words on the re-write, and things are getting interesting. I'm convinced that I made the right choice in changing things, since it makes for a much more coherent plot (not to mention a decent parody) but I'm just hitting the stage where the changes are having an important impact on what is happening.

One of the most intriguing challenges is tying the main plot in with the most important subplot, which is essential both for reinforcing the ideas at the heart of the thing and for connecting it to the series as a whole. The trick is to do it in a way that doesn't seem too forced, and to make sure that the sub-plot plays a useful role in the resolution of the main plot. Possibly that still needs tweaking, just so that it doesn't seem like parts of two stories mashed randomly together.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Stuff

  • I've just gotten back from posting a query letter, synopsis and sample chapters of the first of my comic fantasy novels to an agent who seems to specialise in the right sort of area. I thought that, as much as I'm happy with the relationship I seem to be building with the e-book and POD publisher who took my first urban fantasy number, I'd like to see if this one is a viable prospect for the more traditional publishing route, simply because that still seems to be the route that comes with the best marketing and distribution. Well, not just because of that. There's also still a part of me that sees success not so much in terms of having written and sold what I hope is a good book, but in terms of seeing the finished product on the shelves of my local bookshop. Yes, I know it's sad and weird, but there you go.
  • Having said that, I'm open to suggestions for how to promote the urban fantasy novel. While the publisher will no doubt make efforts in that direction (on the basis that selling copies is good) I'm sure I should be adding to them as much as possible. Since I don't particularly know how, any hints in that direction are welcome.
  • My PhD seems to have been at a reading through and making comments stage for a while. I must chase it up. After all, the progress in the thing is down to me, not anyone else.
  • It seems to be the season for AGMs. The university fencing club have had theirs (I didn't stand for anything, what with not being there next year), and the cricket team I play for are having theirs on Monday. I've briefly toyed with the idea of standing for 2nd team captain, but that runs into two problems. One: because I don't currently get picked for the seconds, (leaving me as an occasional first team player), I don't have enough knowledge of the players involved to do a good job. Two: I have a sneaking suspicion that my brother would do something stupid like declaring he was only playing for the seconds at some point in the season, when he is manifestly one of the best players in our first team.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

And Then...

I'm aching a little after having won the sabre section of the Hull University Fencing Championship (my thanks to Tim, who did me a favour by knocking Ollie out before the final), so this is possibly going to be a touch incoherent.

Anyway, I've been thinking about endings. They never seem to be quite as fixed or neat in life as you'd think they should be. Take my fencing season, for example. First, there's the last league match, then our run in the cup goes on a while longer, then there's this internal championship, then there's some friendly game against a local club on Thursday, as a sort of farewell match... things drift on without the sort of clear stopping point that as a writer you know should be just after the climactic events. Maybe that's the thing with real life; it doesn't follow the plot. It's almost the same thing with my PhD at the moment. I feel I'm near the end, but I'm not exactly certain how near, since it's a case of when I can get the quality up to the required standard, and that is something judged to a great extent by other people. I'm hoping for an end relatively soon, simply because I don't feel I can justify any more time on the thing, but it drags on.

It might, in fact, be better to say that in terms of plotting it, life doesn't do endings so much as a series of "and then..." moments. Since my chances of ever going into research are essentially destroyed, I've still got to work out what my next "and then..." is.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Spring has Sprung

Some random signs of spring:

  • It's raining.
  • My various essays are more or less due, meaning that I will now find out that there are things horribly wrong with them and they need re-writing urgently.
  • A series of neat, foot sized holes have appeared on my front lawn, thanks to my incessant preparations for the cricket season.
  • I hardly see my cat long enough to remember that I have a cat.
  • It's stopped raining... no, it's started again.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Gideon Haigh: A Green and Gold Age

Another collection of cricket related articles by Gideon Haigh? There's a part of me that wishes he would get on with a full length biography now and again, given the quality of Mystery Spinner (about Jack Iverson) and The Big Ship (Warwick Armstrong). There's a rather larger part of me that is secretly hoping for a sequel to his account of life in a small Melbourne cricket club, Many a Slip. Does the world really need another collection of reprints from him instead?

Maybe not, but I'd rather read Haigh's incisive comments on the game than any of the ghost-written columns, ghost-written biographies or other nonsense that passes for the majority of cricket writing. Haigh can write, does admirable amounts of research, and isn't above intelligent criticism when the issue requires it. He even seems to have overcome his normal tendency to throw in the most difficult word he can think of every couple of pages, which can only be good.

There is, as the title suggests, a distinctly Australian focus here. There are a few articles on cricket in general, but for the most part we find things on such burning topics as the Simon Katich vs Phil Jaques debate, Adam Gilchrist's role in the team's most potent incarnation, and Belinda Clark's batting perfection in the woman's game. That's hardly surprising, given that Haigh lives and works in the country, but possibly an entire section of the book devoted to Shane Warne articles is pushing things a little.

There is also a slight question mark with anything like this over how quickly the articles age. Shane Warne still has enough presence in the game for tracing the progression of his career to be intelligible, but digging out articles that talk of Shaun Pollock and Jaques Kallis in terms of their all rounder potential is pushing things. Pollock has retired with his place as the best bowling allrounder in the world secure (assuming no one has talked him into yet another last round of twenty20), while Kallis is very much the elder statesman of the South African team. Perhaps it was just to put in something that wasn't focussed so much on the Australians, or perhaps it was just a thought that it might produce a nice reminder of how recently it was that they were thought of in those terms.

Either way, this is a good collection, but possibly not an essential one. Still, it will do until Haigh thinks of enough long words for his next full length offering.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Learning Latin

A little side note to my earlier post on different approaches to learning. As a medieval historian, I had to learn Latin to get by. As a medieval historian who went to his local comprehensive school, which has probably never even considered teaching the language, I had to learn it from scratch as part of my MA.

Cue a twelve week course in the language, at the end of which... I couldn't speak or read Latin. No matter how useful being taught the basics is, no one can learn a dead language with a different grammatical structure in the course of three months. What I did instead was to struggle with a dictionary and a grammar book for the next few months until gradually I started to pick up phrases, allowing me to understand the bits of the language I actually needed to get by.

I mention this because, until recently, I thought that I was alone in this. That all the other medieval historians could read the language fluently, and would be quite happy chatting away to Bernard of Clairvaux, should he stop being dead long enough to pop round for a cup of tea. Perhaps this is because the pair of medieval historians I'd spent the most time around did have that much of the language. Then, one of my lecturers happened to mention to a couple of people doing the MA that he'd learned bits of Latin in much the same way I had, which made me feel rather better about the whole thing.

I supose what this adds to my thoughts on learning amounts to two things. One, it's a pretty good example of the usefulness of experience, since my work has left me able to translate at least the bits I need quite easily, and able to slowly work through difficult bits if I need to. Two, it shows the benefit of what you're learning having an immediate application. It means you get far more practise, and you know that you're not learning something that you'll never use.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Perfectionism?

Having been involved in the editing process over the last couple of days, I've found myself thinking about perfectionism. After all, editing is about making your work perfect, isn't it?

Well actually, probably not. It is about making something as good as you can make it at the time, certainly, and maybe even the best it can be, possibly. But perfect? I suspect that for my work to be perfect it would require two things: several hundred re-writes and a completely different writer.

I'll take the second part first. I'm not a perfect writer, not by a long way. Then again, neither is any writer I've read, up to and including Shakespeare. The great writers will still have things they don't do so well, or at least not perfectly, while all the rest of us spend our time sidestepping holes in our technique or inspiration to focus on the bits we do well.

Re-writes are the other part of this. Have you ever had something that you've rewritten again and again in the hope of making it perfect before you do anything with it? If you have, my guess would be that it never got sent out. These things can never be quite as good as you want them to be, perhaps because moments of inspiration don't have to bother with awkward things like words.

Where does this urge for perfection come from, anyway? As I just suggested, part of it may be an attempt to live up to a moment of inspiration which can't truly be captured in your preferred medium. Rather more of it may be the example of perfectionist writers and performers who have done quite well as a result. I'm told that the team behind the four Blackadder series got to the point of being utterly obsessive about small points in the script, and the quality of the resulting comedy would seem to be an argument in favour of that approach. Likewise, for those of a more literary bent, Joyce's obsessive pursuit of the perfect words might be seen as the main cause of some of the language's greatest literature.

Personally, I see it as resulting in difficult and awkward literature that is great more for its innovation than for the perfectionism behind it. As for the Blackadder team, as a counter argument, I can only point to Rowan Atkinson's later work with Mr Bean.

The thing is, while a certain amount of concern for quality is obviously a good thing, I suspect that outright perfectionism can do more harm than good. It can turn into a sort of writer's block (or indeed any other sort of block), preventing you from turning out good, enjoyable work because it isn't perfect or important enough. I think I'll settle for being imperfect, thank you.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

30000... again

I'm up past 30000 words on the re-write, which means I'm past the dreaded 28000 mark. I hate 28000 words, for some reason I've ended up stopping at about that point a couple of times.

With poetry, I've started doing something obvious that had nevertheless failed to occur to me before; composing poems aloud. People talk about reading poems aloud, indeed I'm one of them, but somehow that didn't translate to the point that working aloud as you compose them creates a better sense of whether the thing is working.

I've also been re-reading Barking by Tom Holt. It's probably the real test of comic fantasy to see whether it's as funny second time round as it was the first. So far, it's doing well.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Learn from the best?

When we start learning something, naturally we want to do it well, or at least competently, or at least not so incompetently that people actually laugh. What's interesting though is that, to improve their various endeavours people employ all sorts of different strategies.

Some people will just try to get on with it and work it out. The old joke runs "I don't know if I can play the violin, I've never tried". It sounds like the sort of thing that should never work. But it can, up to a point. If you know roughly what you were aiming to do, then with enough trial and error you can indeed improve at most things. Even on the violin, you could sort of piece together a technique that might produce a functional sound. This is actually quite a popular approach in the various martial arts at the moment, working on the basis that "your body knows what to do". For me, that's nonsense. One look at footage of this sort of thing shows that what actually happens in these "make it up for yourself" moments is that you learn what to do in the course of a series of carefully designed exercises, and because you've learnt it in that way, you don't have the awkward readjustment to make between learning a neat little technique and applying it to a live situation. Generally then, without at least some guidance, this approach is likely to be quite inefficient.

The other end of the spectrum is to work from an accepted basic technique. We might look into what are the accepted techniques for writing a novel, or composing a sonnet, or hitting a cricket ball somewhere into an adjoining river. We might assiduously learn those techniques. We might then, as I suggested above, find that they have only a certain amount to do with the actual execution of the endeavour in any sort of real setting. Generally though, we learn enough to improve, maybe even to become very good. Certainly a lack of gaping technical flaws is unlikely to harm most things.

There are dangers though. One is becoming so obsessed with getting technique right that you lose everything else, whether it's lining up all your poetic feet neatly in an utterly passionless poem or keeping the left elbow nice and high in a forward defensive shot that nevertheless misses the ball. Another problem is that set techniques are simply what the people who designed them thought to be the best approach for getting consistent results from most people. It does not mean that what they are suggesting is automatically the best way of doing things, or that it is right for you. The Sri Lankan cricketer Ajantha Mendis has an incredibly unorthodox technique, but is extremely successful because of it. Had he been subjected to the "You won't succeed if you don't do it properly" approach so common in England, I doubt he would have been half as successful. Even worse, these techniques can date quickly. The sabre technique I was taught as an eight year-old has only a partial connection with what the best sabreurs are doing these days, while free-poetry is so much the norm among top poets that it makes a mockery of most people's basic training in it, which is usually in a more formal brand of the stuff.

Which brings us nicely to one last way of learning things: copy the people who are best at what you want to do. Again here, there are advantages and disadvantages. The proponents of the approach, most notably the NLP people, insist that modelling the techniques of the best practitioners of things is the only way of producing a high level of ability on a consistent basis. You certainly have a certain reassurance that what you're learning has already met with success. It's also quite fun in its way. Spending an afternoon doing impersonations of famous cricketers' bowling actions is far more fun than learning the basics by rote, while stealing good players' best licks has long been a guitarist's main way of improving.

The difficulties are slightly less obvious, but no less real. Firstly, you need to beware of the gap between what the best people say/think they are doing and what they are actually doing. Secondly, have they become the best because of or in spite of their technique? For yet another cricket based example (I assure you that this sort of thing applies to writing too, but this is what comes to mind) there is the case of Brian Lara's backlift.

Much like a golfer, cricket's batters have a backswing before they swing at the ball. The great West Indian batsman Brian Lara had a particularly exagerated backlift, but there are two schools of thought on its significance. One says that he was great partly because this backlift let him hit the ball harder. The other says "fair enough, but he was only able to do it because he was so talented. If you try it, you won't have time to hit the ball. Now go back to doing it properly".

This possibly connects into the last point, which is what you're capable of doing, both physically and mentally. It's obvious that I will never bowl like 6'4" 90mph fast bowler Steve Harmison. It's slightly less obvious that I will never be mentally set up to write in the same vein as Murakami, but it's just as true.

So what, after all this, is the answer? I suspect (fence sitting ahead) that the answer lies in doing a bit of all three. There's nothing wrong with learning a basic technique for things. There's also nothing wrong with learning from experience. If both of those happen to take you in the direction of what the best people are doing, so much the better.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

So what's the point...

...of all this history stuff anyway? It's a question worth asking, even if I'm not necessarily inclined to think that human behaviour has to be obviously practical to be valid. It's more a question of understanding what sort of thing historical research/writing/reading actually is.

Traditional answers to this tend to be of the 'You need to know about the past to know who you are/avoid its mistakes' variety. There may be some truth to this perhaps, but they tend to be points that remain largely unexamined. They're what people have been taught to think about history as a discipline rather than something that comes from an understanding of it.

My approach to the practice of history, and one that I've only settled on in the last couple of years, is that it is essentially a branch of storytelling. Factual storytelling, perhaps, but storytelling nontheless. It weaves isolated (and rather meaningless on their own) facts into coherent wholes whose meanings are created by the historian within a plausible set of perameters. It then presents them as an account of things happening over time. A story, in other words. Or at least, that's my approach for the moment. I'm sure someone will disagree.

But, working from this position, it becomes a lot easier to see the sorts of things that history is for. After all, what are stories for in general? Entertainment, teaching moral or other lessons, helping to construct or reinforce an identity, more entertainment, making a point about the way we think about things, and so on.

The interesting thing is that generally no-one seems to question the usefulness of stories. Compare that to the 'history is a waste of time' brigade and the contrast is obvious. Does a story cease to fulfil its useful functions just because it A: happens to be about the past and B: happens to fit within a range of possibilities presented by surviving evidence? Of course not. It just makes it remarkably awkward to research.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Local History

Local history sometimes gets a bad press with historians. Perhaps it's just that it happens to be the sort of historical research less likely to be undertaken by the academic than the interested amateur. Perhaps it is because it is in some respects the natural successor to the work of antiquarians, which has often been superceded. Perhaps it's just a feeling that history should be big, important, and concerned with more than when a local town got its buildings.

This attitude, thankfully, is far from universal. For me, history, as with any form of "storytelling" art, should be at least partly about comprehending the world around you. It should also follow interest as much as a potentially mistaken sense of what is important. Local history seems important to both processes.

There are, moreover, some excellent examples of it out there. While the precise pieces in question obviously vary considerably from place to place, the revised editions of the Victoria County Histories are always a good place to start for English places. That said, it's important to treat any work on local history (though also any history book) with care. Some of it is done with love and skill, but there are always examples around that are poorly researched, willing to present anecdotal evidence as fact, and generally terrible. The best way of sorting out which is which is probably to ask your nearest local history society.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Stuff

Working through old notebooks is always an odd experience. Part of me wonders why I've just left so much stuff lying around without getting it onto computer. Part of me wonders what I was thinking writing some of it, and part of me is pleasantly surprised by other pieces. Equally, notebooks work almost like a diary, serving as aides memoir to what I was thinking at the time I wrote them.

Re-writes are still going well, though it helps that only relatively minor changes seem to be needed. Am I alone in actually enjoying the process of re-writing? Possibly.

I've hit the point in the year that usually marks the change over between fencing and cricket for me, though it doesn't seem to have happened quite yet. Fencing has slowed down a little with the end of team competitions, but there are no signs of any practise sessions for the cricket, so it seems to be a waiting point at the moment.

One good thing about having to do a module for my Post Graduate Training Scheme credits is that it gives me a rare chance to discuss things with other historians. In theory, some sort of seminar series to promote a "research culture" might do much the same thing, but that strikes me as something lacking the same degree of actual interest in the subject. This way, I get to discuss things with three people with similar research interests to myself. Also, since I'm not completely out of my depth, I get reassurance that I occasionally know what I'm talking about when it comes to medieval history. That's actually not something you get a lot with a PhD, because you don't see many other people, and those you do, in the form of supervisors or specialists, invariably know so much more than you do that you wonder if you're doing the right thing.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

20000

Actually 21000, as it happens, that being the number of words I'm up to with the rewrite. My main character now occupies about as many scenes as she should, and, more importantly, I want her to do so. Before, she wasn't the most interesting character in the thing. Now, while I still have to admit to a certain fondness for Bob the Vampire, she's both interesting and capable of being funny without looking like an idiot. That's quite a hard balance to strike, but possibly an important one where comic fantasy is concerned.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Blues

These notes do not flash

They do not skitter

Spiderwise from the fretboard


The hands that wring them, calloused

And cracked from living

Know more than simply practise


They linger as a lover’s should

Knowing the curves of neck and body

How to wring the weeping cry


These notes know smoke and darkness

Speak of years in bar rooms

And of times spent before that


Sharing their knowledge of suffering

Hard earned, kept beneath smiles

A legacy held well disguised


Except here, in moments given

To changing wood and wire to more

A fingerborn alchemy, blended things

Heart, and fire, and hard worked notes

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Estella's Up

This month's edition of Estella's Revenge has gone up here, with my article 'Who reads classic novels?'

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Semaphore Magazine

The March edition of Semaphore Magazine has gone up, with my short story 'Last Orders' in it. Also some other short stories that were looking quite good until my printer ran out of ink, so enjoy.

Zombie Sofas?

I spent much of yesterday putting together a book review for my Early Norman Yorkshire module, and found out that I seem to be incredibly argumentative when faced with the work of other historians. Faced with a work I know to have been very influential over at least a few of the last fifteen years, I couldn't resist the urge to pick holes in the arguments. Maybe that's just me. On the other hand, since this is being marked, I should probably find something nice to say too.

I've also started noticing that I tend to do different types of work at different points in the day, possibly as a way of keeping them separate. I'll usually do academic work earlier in the day while fiction tends to happen later on. As for poetry, it mostly seems to have confined itself to ungodly hours of the night. Is there a poet in the world who hasn't occasionally written on insomnia?

And now I suppose I should explain the title. It's very simple really. Last monday I accepted a challenge from some (apparently quite odd) friends, to try and get the words 'zombie sofa' into the novel. I have now successfully done so. What's slightly worrying is how well they fit.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Aching Fingers

I've re-plotted and re-started the novel, and the good news is that the general outline of a lot of the scenes will still work. Unfortunately, the detail needs changing completely, since two of the characters have more or less switched places. In terms of pressure to get it done, I have plenty of time, since this is a couple of books down the line from where I'm up to on the selling front. It's just a question of fitting it around the PhD.

I've been reading The Glass House by Rachel Caine, one of the glut of YA vampire novels that have come out recently. It's ok, and possibly worth reading if you're into that sort of thing, but I had some issues with the lack of foreshadowing and with the lack of meaningful character change. I like characters, particularly YA characters, to grow and change more than happened here.

From a musical point of view, I've been on a bit of a Preston Reed kick the last few days, particularly trying to get my version of his piece 'Blasting Cap' up to speed without losing clarity. After all that left hand tapping, I'm going to have to give it a rest. My fingers have started to ache.