Sunday, 22 December 2013

Three Cricketing Surprises

Three bits of cricket related stuff to chat about. First, Graham Swann has retired from Test and first class cricket with immediate effect, pulling out of England's tour to Australia. That was a shock, although looking at his performances in the last two Tests, it now seems obvious that his body wasn't up to it. It brings to an end a 60 Test career in which he took 255 wickets.

How good was he? Where does he sit amongst England's spinners from history. Well, it's probably fair to say that the likes of Laker and Underwood were better, but honestly, he's probably only a step or two down from that level. He was the no.1 bowler in the world at one point, after all, and the cutting edge of England's attack for several years. Swann spun it more than any other orthodox finger spinner in his prime, and he had the happy knack of taking early wickets. Yes, he was probably helped a bit by the development of DRS, which showed umpires that deliveries they would previously have given not out were in fact out, but Swann still had to be good enough to capitalise on it.

To some extent, that's just down to when his career was, but that's true of a lot of things. Former England fast bowler Steve Harmison made the point that Swann is probably the last world beating orthodox finger spinner we'll see, and that's largely a matter of timing too. Swann came up in a world where Muralidaran and Mustaq were starting to create a more wrist-spinning type of off break bowler. He ended his career in one where Jack Iverson's pet delivery of the 1950s has been rebranded the 'carom' ball and is an essential part of the new style off spinner's skill set. For any young bowler not to have it in future will be a failing, even if they don't fancy the risks Murali's doosra poses to the action, so Swann is likely to be the last major offie not to have at least some form of disguised leg break.

Since his retirement speech said nothing about T20 cricket, I assume that there's still a chance we'll see Swann doing the travelling cricketer bit for a few years. Which is the second thing. I've been watching the Big Bash in Australia, and it's like all my favourite players from yesteryear have been brought together, cricketing old age notwithstanding. Brad Hogg is still bowling his left arm wrist spin at 42. Brett Lee, who retired from Tests years ago, is still firing them down (even if it's ten mph slower than his 95mph best). Murali is there, which seems quite amusing in a country where he was repeatedly called for throwing in his Test career. Even Shane Warne is around somewhere. Oh, and there's Dirk Nannes, the cricketer about whom it is obligatory to mention the phases as a former skier who is fluent in Japanese and plays the saxophone.

Interesting cricket, unlike the end of the South Africa v India Test earlier. These are officially the two best sides in the world, and for a lot of the day South Africa played like it, fighting their way back from a massive deficit in pursuit of 458 in the last innings. Which would have been a record for a successful chase. They got so close, so very close. Which is why it makes me so angry that they didn't even try to get over the line at the end. With seven overs left, they needed 30 runs. They had wickets in hand. And they blocked. They blocked to make certain of the draw, rather than going for the win. India were no better, with all their fielders on the boundary to stop runs, rather than trying to take wickets. The commentators say that neither team deserves to lose. Well, perhaps the team that loses the series when they lose the next match should remember that they had the opportunity to go in front, and they threw it away.

A possible writing market

As part of the on-going process of apologising for a rather badly thought out and put together article I published earlier in the year, I'd like to point anyone who hasn't seen it in the direction of Lightspeed Online's all women SF issue "Women Destroy Science Fiction". The link is to Alex Wolfe's note on it over at the wrywriter, partly because she explains it all nicely, and partly because her site is also well worth checking out.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Ashes So Far

Watching the Ashes, England not managing to get through the Australian batting line up, and I thought I'd talk about how the series has gone so far. England have lost the first two tests, so what has gone wrong?

The first point I should make is that it says a lot that we now think in terms of things going badly wrong when England aren't winning in Australia. We expect them to win there, where once we expected them to get beaten 5-0.

A lot of what is happening is down to Australia doing things right, not England's failures. Mitchell Johnson's pace (and even his batting) has been crucial. Indeed, the generally high pace of the Australian attack means that they can take wickets in conditions that make other seamers look ordinary. The aggression of their batting line up has been able to take games away effectively.

And yet, there are worrying signs from England. Their fast bowlers remain consistently slower than Australia's, despite having picked their pace up a little since the first Test. Their default setting seems to be to bore people out, too, which rarely produces cheap wickets. Graham Swann seems not to be getting the turn that Nathan Lyon is for Australia, when before this tour it seemed so obvious that Swann would be the superior bowler.

Several England players look, frankly, a bit old and tired. Anderson feels like he is coming to the end of his best. Broad feels like he never showed more than flashes of it, settling for being a grumpy mid-80s bowler rather than the fast bowling hope we thought he might be and not producing consistently with the bat. KP's batting has become more inconsistent, with the result that he now averages the high forties of a good test player rather than the mid-fifties of a potential great.

England's batting line up has been blown away at least once in each of the previous two games. Their lower order hasn't handled Johnson's pace, but that's understandable. What's less understandable is the way the top order has crumbled. There are promising signs, in Carberry's form and Root's score last time around. They'll certainly need to bat well in Perth.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Cover news and editing

Exciting news. I have the first sketches/workups of Duncan Eagleson's cover for my novel 'The Glass', which I'm hoping to bring out in the early part of next year. It's looking good. Now, I could do with some advice on how to go about promoting this kind of thing when you're putting it out yourself. Apparently, cover reveals are over? Oh well, consider this me deliberately not revealing anything.

On the editing front, here's a thought for anyone reading through someone else's work: tell them everything. No matter how basic it is, or stupid, tell them. Because there really are people out there who haven't heard all the stuff you have yet. Who still head hop, or plot by numbers, or pace things badly. Tell them. It might feel like insulting them, but it isn't. It's helping them to make it better.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

December IWSG

This one is for the IWSG for December. For me, because it contains my birthday as well as all the usual year ending stuff, December tends to be about looking back to think about what I've done in the year. Often, I wonder if I could have done more, but this year is actually quite a weird one:

On the one hand, I've probably written fewer books than for the last three years or so, because I gave up working for a book packager this time last year. My volume has dropped considerably as a result. I've also found that it's quite hard to break back into the academic life from the outside, which is annoying because done right, it could be exactly the sort of regular work that complements my writing.

But I've still done quite a bit this year. I worked on three collaborations with Eve Paludan (Witchy Business, Witch and Famous, Witch Way Out), I wrote five or so romance novels with a client I'm not going to name. I've worked at editing a few novels, helped to produce outlines for a couple, produced one major piece of non-fiction, gotten thirty thousand words through another... oh, and in the meantime I've finished one novel of my own (The Glass, which I'm planning on putting out myself some time at the start of next year), and got through the first draft of another (although it feels like it's not quite the book I want it to be yet).

That is, sort of a quieter year for me, but it's about where I want it to be. How did your writing year go?

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Where Next?

Apologies to anyone who reads this one, because this gets a little whiny. It's just that there's a vague feeling that things might be coming to an end for me at the moment. It is, I suppose, one of the inevitabilities of the freelance writer/editor. That there will be moments when the work isn't lined up neatly. This time last year, when my father had his first health worries, I had a nice big series of novels to write, a non-fiction thing coming up, and I was thinking about getting into creative writing lecturing.

Now, when he's gone and I feel like I can't afford to slip up, I'm coming to the end of the series of novels (I don't know whether or not there will be another. I hope I'm making the client money by being her, but I can't be sure). The non-fiction thing will also come to an end in a few months. And as far as I can see, merely having written more novels than entire English departments matters far less than the fact that my PhD is in the wrong thing (and it is in the wrong thing. I knew that at the time. I would have loved to have done one in creative writing, but by that point, I was already committed).

I have vague plans for the next little while, but they feel flawed too: a first draft of an urban fantasy novel is in the bag, even though I told myself after the last two bombed that I wouldn't write urban fantasy anymore and I don't know if I want to write things without an edge of humour to them. I've started work on a book about writing and the kind of lessons you learn in close to fifty novels as a ghost writer, but would anyone really want to read it? A first vague attempt at a page or two of script writing, which I enjoyed, but it's not something where I have the connections that I do for novels.

Oh, and various attempts to line up future gigs, but whether anything will come of them, I don't know. The fact is that people want cheap, while I need to make a living. This is what I do full time. It's all I do full time. I suspect it's all I can do. I'm not ghost writing and editing because they're all I've ever wanted to do. I'm doing them because I got to the point, being told that I was underqualified for academia while being overqualified for everything else, where they were really the only options left. I've worked hard for three years now at this, and now I need to work out where it goes next.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Mitchell Johnson

There's an interesting article in cricket blog The Full Toss, suggesting that when the Ashes start tonight, it will be Mitchell Johnson who decides them, and that picking a bowler because he is fast even if he concedes runs is a mistake. It suggests that England have had no problems with some quite fast bowlers (Tino Best and Fidel Edwards of the West Indies were mentioned), but that they have trouble with accurate ones. The suggestion is that Johnson's occasional lack of direction will make it easy to score.

I think this possibly misunderstands Mitchell Johnson's capacity for destruction. When he swings the ball around at more than 90mph, things happen. Yes, Ryan Harris dried up the runs against England earlier this year, but the reason we remember him is that he took wickets. Peter Siddle, bowling from the other end, has always been a 'tight' bowler, but it was Harris' extra pace and movement that made him really dangerous.

I'm looking forward to catching the highlights. Australia on their own grounds should be a handful. Especially with Mitchell Johnson playing.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Tendulkar

The other day, Brian Lara apparently said that Sachin Tendulkar was the greatest cricketer ever. Certainly, that's how it was reported. Now, I can see why he will have said it: Tendulkar is certainly a great cricketer. He has more aggregate runs than anyone else ever. He's in his final match, so naturally everyone is a little emotional.

It's also quite a nice gesture from Brian Lara. While they were both playing, the debate was over which of these supreme batsmen was the best, the one who was setting records for total runs and numbers of hundreds, or the one who was setting records for the highest individual score in first class and test matches.

Yet I think it's an argument that simply cannot be sustained, and I think I should say that even though I'm probably going to get shouted down by any passing Tendulkar fans. He is certainly a great, but the greatest? As a batsman, one obvious figure makes that a problem: Bradman. Sachin Tendulkar, on relatively friendly modern pitches, wearing a helmet and all the protection afforded to players these days, averaged 53.72 runs per test match innings completed before the start of his final match earlier today. It may go up a fraction, but it's only going to be a tiny fraction. Sir Donald Bradman had a much shorter career, thanks to the combination of the Second World War and the difficulties of international travel in those days, but he averaged 99.94 runs per innings over the course of 52 test matches. Or, to put it another way, he was worth very nearly two Sachins. Which just goes to show how special he was. Yes, we can make a case for Sachin having done more for the pride of his country, but please remember that Australia was emerging as a nation in its own right while Bradman was playing. He carried Australian hopes on his shoulders at least as much as Sachin. Even in the fame stakes, there are serious comparisons in the way he was mobbed by autograph hunters and fans through his career, far above his team mates or opponents.

All this is before we pick up on the other point in that comment by Lara, which is that as usual, the batters have forgotten about us bowlers. Even if we were somehow to forget about the Don, would that leave Sachin as the best cricketer ever? No. As amusing as his spin bowling is, it's a part time option. Which is problematic when we consider two of the best all rounders to grace the game: Sobers and Kallis.

Jaques Kallis is often overlooked among modern greats, perhaps because he's an all-rounder and seems to fit a different category, or perhaps because his batting has occasionally faced accusations of dullness. He currently plays all the same teams as India do, and he averages more than Tendulkar does with the bat (at 55.44) as well as taking wickets at 32.61 a piece, to make him a front line part of South Africa's bowling attack. No one else has made more than 10000 test runs and taken more than 200 wickets as well (at 288, he should go past 300). And if the reason Tendulkar has made so many runs needs more explanation, consider this: Tendulkar is playing his 200th test. Kallis, who is of the same generation of players and who is a major workhorse for South Africa, has played 164.

Finally, let's talk about the man who has the biggest claim to being the best all round cricketer ever: Sir Garfield Sobers. Gary Sobers averaged 57.78 with the bat and 34.03 with the ball, bowling a mixture of fast-medium, finger spin and wrist spin as required. He took more than a hundred catches. More than that, so many of the achievements of others, he did first. Lara's test batting record was previously held by Sobers. He was the first man to hit six sixes in an over, too. Until Kallis came along, his 200 wickets and 8000 runs left him in a join aggregate class of his own as an all rounder. He knew what it was like to be a national and regional icon too, playing for and captaining the West Indies at a time when it was an important symbol of the islands' identities.

So that's why, for me, Tendulkar is great, but not the greatest.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Things We've Learned from the Warm Up

Today is the final day of England's warm up game against Australia A, and so far, there hasn't been much play. It has rained pretty steadily, but even so, we've learned a few things from the game:

  • The obvious one is that the rain can hit even in Australia. Just a couple of weeks after wild fires were ravaging the country, we have whole days washed out. Which just goes to show that the England Cricket Team can still do the business when it comes to combatting drought wherever they go.
  • Michael Carberry. The Hampshire batsman had enough time to hit a hundred alongside Alistair Cook, and may well have cemented a place at the top of the order for the first Test.
  • Joe Root. One knock on effect of Carberry's success is that it probably tells us the shape of the batting order. There were some question marks over whether Root was going to open or bat in the middle, with commentators such as Shane Warne suggesting that the latter might be better. Of course, Warne used to captain Carberry at Hampshire, so there might be a reason for that. Certainly, it now looks like England is going with Carberry to open and Root at six.
  • The likely bowling line up. None of England's players bowled in this game (only two of them got to bat), but the selection of Broad, Anderson and Swann suggests that this was meant to be the first choice attack. So that makes it looks like Chris Tremlett, who was also selected, is currently ahead of Steven Finn and Boyd Rankin in the 'tall fast bowler' stakes.
  • Either Australia are trying to ambush England, or their bowling reserves aren't great. The bowling on the first day of this game was quite ordinary. Not bad, just not particularly special. The fastest anyone bowled was in the low/mid 80s. There wasn't any particular mystery in the spin. It was fine, but compared to a Test attack that contains 90mph bowlers like Johnson and Harris, and potentially a decent leg spinner in Fawad Ahmed, it seems like limited practise.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

A Couple of Projects

It's the first Wednesday of the month, so it's IWSG. I've got a few things on at the moment, from a romance novel I've got to finish for someone else to a memoir that's kind of a long term thing for someone. As always, the ghost writing means that it's a case of balancing projects and their different deadlines/requirements.

But I do have a couple of things of my own. I've found an illustrator for the cover of my novel 'The Glass', and I'm guessing that we're going to have it out in early 2014 now. It started life as a parody of the whole angels and demons strand of paranormal/urban fantasy, and ended up managing to fit a broadly humanist outlook into the middle of jokes about Bede and fights between supernatural powers.

I'm also working on what is currently looking like a big UF thing with lots of faeries in, but it doesn't have that many jokes for once (so it's more in the vein of Searching or Witch Hunt). But with this one it feels like it's going to need a lot of work on the second draft to turn it from something fairly standard into something interesting enough to bother with. How do you go about turning your work into something more than just the norm? Are you balancing lots of projects at the moment?

Monday, 4 November 2013

Warm Up Matches

So, England drew their first warm up match in Australia a couple of days ago. That was pretty much a given, but it occurs to me that not everyone will know that, or indeed understand any of what's going on with this cricket related stuff. Here then, is my guide to everything you need to look out for with cricket tour warm ups:

  • First, someone will complain that there aren't enough of them/are far too many of them. Because we don't go on six month tours on ships to foreign places anymore, there are far fewer games beyond the actual international ones. This is, according to some commentators, one of the reasons why our chaps have trouble with their first games of tours. Of course, that applies when they're at home, too. Others say that games against Derbyshire 2nd XI do nothing to prepare you for the realities of international cricket, and so should be dropped altogether. So we have one or two warm ups and please no one.
  • Opposition sides for warm ups will typically be depleted. The big overseas player generally doesn't want to play a friendly game he hasn't been contracted for. The older players in the club really don't want yet another game in the season. The Australian authorities might or might not have deliberately put on warm ups on the same days the sides concerned are playing other matches. The result is almost invariably an XI with plenty of faces in no one has ever heard of. Even their team mates.
  • It will not be First Class. First Class refers to the 'right' kind of cricket being played at the 'right' kind of level, according to the rules as they're set out. It matters because only First Class games count towards the averages of the players. Weirdness crops up with these friendlies because, although they feature plenty of top level cricketers (on at least one side), they often aren't played according to the rules. Extra players can find themselves substituted in for extra practise (cricket doesn't do substitutes). Teams can swap batting line ups between innings. Things like that. This can be unfortunate for some players. England played a warm up against Essex before the home Ashes series this summer. It started out as a first class game, during which a couple of young Essex bowlers, one on debut, did well. Then David Masters got injured (he opened the bowling for Essex, and was on paper their best bowler). The management asked that he be replaced to give the England boys better practise. Those debut first class wickets magically no longer counted.
  • Someone will be injured. It is a minor rule of these things that either someone on the touring team will be too injured or stiff from the flight to play ("But he'll be fine for the first Test!"), or players from the other team will get injured as the game grinds on, reducing the quality of the game, or one of the big names from the Test team will ping a muscle in a way that takes them out of the whole tour.
  • The bowl off. Touring teams take more players than they need, so that they have spares when people get hurt or forget what they're meant to be doing. There is probably nothing duller than being the second best spinner/wicket keeper on an England tour. Yet often, teams aren't quite sure what their starting XI is even when they hit the warm up games, so we have the institution of the bowl off. If there are three seam bowling spots available in the coach's master plan, and you've taken five seamers on tour, you don't play the three probable best in the warm up game. No, what you do is give the two you're certain about a few days off to relax/seize up, while the other three all play, knowing that whoever gets lucky with conditions/decisions is going to get the last spot. Occasionally, this is done with batsmen too, especially openers, but more generally with them, management works on the theory that they need 'time to bed down'.
  • The opposition will try to win, but if they can't, they will try to be frustrating. For years, English touring teams would lose to Australian state sides in the first warm up game. This is because the state sides took things more seriously than most people expected (even down to... gasp, picking their best side). They wanted to beat England. They wanted to inflict psychological damage before the first Test. At the very least, all the young players there wanted to make names for themselves at the expense of international players. Failing that, some host teams want to deprive the tourists of practise. So they'll prepare the flattest wicket they can and pile on five hundred. Thankfully, that seems to have died out a little.
  • Despite all that, it will be a draw. Well, what did you expect? First Class games are typically four days. Warm up games are three, and are played by teams preparing for five day cricket. There will be some mad, scrambling declarations, but honestly, no one expects these things to come to a real finish.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Partial Drafts

I thought I'd talk about the approach to writing I currently favour for my own writing. When I'm ghosting, things differ a little, because I'm looking to work from a chapter by chapter outline produced either by the client to show me what they want, or by me to make sure that I've understood what the client wants.

For my own stuff though, I have it in my head that I'm a pantser. I'm not, but I like to think that I am because several of my favourite authors seem to be. But I'm not really a full plotter either. I find that can get in the way of the spontaneity I want.

So what I find I do is I write thirty or forty thousand words and then I stop, trying to work out where I'm up to. I look through the scenes and the ideas and then I go back to plan out the whole novel. The part I have tells me where my imagination really wants to go, but I'm still in a position to plan it and re work it to make it what it needs to be.

One of the big questions I find myself asking is 'what is this really about?' What are my themes? How can I make it all relate more to those themes. In Court of Dreams, I took a lot of disparate ideas and tied them to concepts of duty and family. In my novel The Glass (which I plan on putting out myself) I took a few standard paranormal ideas and tied them into a bigger question about responsibility and humanity. Currently, I'm writing one, and I realised that actually, my plot didn't connect to my main character's central problem that well. So I was in a position to go back and change it before I'd written the whole thing.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Voice

I am a number of American women writing romance. I'm a Kurdish man with a memoir to sell. An Irish comedy writer. A US based blogger and internet specialist. An Australian or two. A number of English martial arts and self protection experts.

Which is to say that I've written things for people matching all those descriptions. I won't go into any more detail, because that would be wrong given the nature of my job, but I wanted to give you the vaguest sense of the scope of the people I've worked for at various points.

Why? Because I want to make a point about voice. About individuality. About the fact that no one has questioned whether they have ghost writers or not. No one has said that the finished pieces don't read like them. Certainly, no one has ever said "you know, these books read more like that minor English chap no one has heard of than like X".

I'd like to be able to take credit for that. I'd like to be able to say that I can mimic a client's voice perfectly when I write, so that no one ever knows the difference. And there is a little bit of that. But honestly? It's only a little bit. Another bit of it is probably that clients see samples of my work before they hire me, so there's a chance for them to pick me because I match their voice, but again, that's only a little bit of the answer.

Rather more of it seems to be that people make a bit much of voice. We're individual as writers, certainly. We have patterns of writing and little elements that are ours. We have ways of telling stories. But do we really believe that we're so individual that no one else will ever write like us? That if we put another name on it, people would instantly work it out? People worry so much about getting their voice right, but surely if I can be a voice that fits with all these different people, the voice you have is going to be fine for... well, you?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

IWSG

So here we are with another IWSG. I'm feeling insecure about two or three writerly things this month, so here goes:

  • The imminent (by which I mean tomorrow) release of the Second Avenue Second Hand anthology, which obviously brings with it the need to plug the anthology wherever I can, so there's now a marketing phase for me to get on with in the middle of other things.
  • Cover art. The cover artist I was going to use for my novel 'The Glass' has fallen through, pretty much disappearing off the face of the Earth, so now I need to find another one whose work I like in my budget. Or I may just ask the one person I suspect may be way outside my budget, just to see what happens.
  • Editing. I sent it to friends who are editors for developmental editing, and I'm reasonably sure it's good, but even so, common sense dictates another round of nitpicky line editing while there's time. I don't suppose anyone in need of editing for their work fancies a swap?
  • I'm waiting for clients on two ghostwriting projects to get back to me with stuff, which means things are quiet now, but I can't let myself go hunting after more work, because they will be back to me by next week and it will go crazy. I've had moments when I've been writing four things at once before.
  • Oh, and I'm currently twenty thousand words into an urban fantasy thing that I'm pantsing. Which, given that I don't really write that way and I don't do UF anymore is a bit weird.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Book Trailer

Continuing the build up to the Second Avenue Second Hand anthology, Wendy Tyler Ryan has done a book trailer. To have a look at it, go over to her blog, here.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

York Open

I'm off to York to fence today. Having been around a few fencing competitions over the past couple of years, here are some things to expect at any one you go to:

  • Lots of standing around. Every fencing competition I've been to features multiple weapons on one day, meaning a lot of organisational work, meaning there are large gaps between anything happening while people add things up.
  • The presiding will be awful. Because no one has read the rules.
  • Getting there too early is standard, because you build in time for getting lost and then don't get lost. Except for the one time you forget to do it.
  • Because it is a healthy event, taking place in a sports hall, the only food for miles around will be cake.
  • The main event is not the fencing. It is finding a space to park first your car then your fencing bag.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Another Martial Arts Rant

The title should signpost where this one is going fairly clearly. No, I didn't go back to the jujitsu class that wound me up last time. Instead, having Monday free, I travelled most of the way to York, to Pocklington, to go to a class in a form of Eskrima. Where we spent an hour and a half working our way through basic angles of attack first solo and then with a partner in a kind of prearranged drill.

There's the word that always worries me. Prearranged. As in you know exactly what is coming next and can be in position to respond. Now, I'm willing to accept that it may have simply been an introductory class for me, but a student who had been there since the start of the class several months ago got what was apparently his first taste of his teacher feeding him these angles in a random order. After more than six months. I get kids choosing which parry they'll need with a sword on their first night of fencing. On which they will spar, because that is the foundation of practice. (As I'm sure it is with much other Eskrima. As with my blog on the jujitsu class, this is about training practices at a specific gym, not about an art as a whole).

Feeding someone random techniques is still a big step down from sparring. Trust me. I feed people techniques as a fencing coach, making them do what I want and choose an appropriate response. It still doesn't mean they'll do it when they have to take it into a bout. That requires the building of additional attributes. So if you find yourself in Pocklington looking for weapons work, get down to their rather wonderful sabre club instead. Sport fencing might not be terribly realistic, but you'll learn a lot more.

Which brings me to a brief public service bit, on signs to watch out for if you walk into a martial arts club for the first time. And when to walk away. None of these is necessarily a red flag on its own, and you might find that you like what a particular school offers despite some of them, since only you know what you're trying to get out of your training (it might just be getting moving and making friends, for example). Yet in my opinion, based on twenty-seven years to date of assorted training, each of these should have you asking questions:

Teaching purely by way of forms, whether those are solo forms, two person drills, or set piece techniques where the attacker and defender's roles are pre-determined. These do have a place in martial arts practise, to get repetitions in of techniques, but if they are all you do, then you will never develop the additional elements that make the moves work in an alive context. For me at the moment, this is the single most important thing.

Claiming to be too dangerous to spar with. This connects to the point above, but also comes up in a couple of modern 'self defence' classes I've observed which are ostensibly against forms. So they have you hit pads instead. Or practise thin air strikes against an opponent who throws an attack and stops. Commonly, the suggestion is that this lethal technique they have not practised in any meaningful way will come out under pressure and defeat anything else. We would never think that someone who goes to a fitness kickboxing class could beat up a pro Thai boxer just because they've done the same moves on the pads, so why would we think this is any better?

Doing three techniques to an attacker's one. This is common, and not entirely invalid. After all, boxers throw combinations, don't they? But if someone is standing still while someone else throws a couple of punches, does a throw, and then sets up a lock, please ask yourself why they have suddenly lost interest in beating you up.

Lots of talk about ancient grandmasters who did incredible things. Alternatively, lots of talk about all the military who may or may not have used this system. Or going on excessively about Bruce Lee/their founder. This is something of a judgement call, because it's fine to be proud of an art's history, and the achievements of those who have gone before. Judo players all learn a bit about Kano founding the art, and that's fine. But things happening in the past should never be a replacement for the ability to do things now.

Not breaking a sweat. If it's your first class, you presumably aren't so far in advance of your partners' skills that you can defeat them all without breaking a sweat in anything where they are resisting intelligently.

Mystical powers. I was taken in by this for years as a kid, by well meaning people who weren't trying to con me, because they genuinely believed that they could do impossible things too. Things like non-contact knockdowns. The trouble is, they couldn't do it to anyone but their own students. As far as I know, no one can. If someone starts talking about chi doing all the work in self defence, it is perfectly reasonable to ask them what it is and if they can demonstrate that it exists. At the other end of the scale, the same thing applies to any scientific claim made with big, complicated language. Sometimes, people make claims about skill acquisition, biomechanics, gross motor skills and the human startle response that they've acquired second or third hand, without taking the time to read any of the research. Modern pseudo-science can be just as annoying as the old fashioned sort.

These are just a few starting points. The main thing is to take a questioning mind set with you. Most genuine, straightforward teachers won't mind you asking why you do stuff, or where the proof is for the claims they make. If they call what they do the most effective system ever, or even a tested system, as how it has been tested and by whom. If a move or a training method seems to have an obvious problem, ask and see why they do things that way. It may be that they do things a particular way as a form of historical recreation, or for sporting reasons. Both are fine if you understand what you're getting. Remember, you're potentially entrusting your safety to this, so take the time to check it out properly.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Author Bio

Wendy Tyler Ryan is putting up the author bios from the contributors to the Second Avenue Second Hand anthology. Today, it's me. Pop over there to find out more about the anthology, the other authors, and the build up to publication.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Alex Cavanaugh- Cassastorm



A storm gathers across the galaxy…

Commanding the Cassan base on Tgren, Byron thought he’d put the days of battle behind him. As a galaxy-wide war encroaches upon the desert planet, Byron’s ideal life is threatened and he’s caught between the Tgrens and the Cassans.

After enemy ships attack the desert planet, Byron discovers another battle within his own family. The declaration of war between all ten races triggers nightmares in his son, threatening to destroy the boy’s mind.

Meanwhile the ancient alien ship is transmitting a code that might signal the end of all life in the galaxy. And the mysterious probe that almost destroyed Tgren twenty years ago could return. As his world begins to crumble, Byron suspects a connection. The storm is about to break, and Byron is caught in the middle…

According to his blog, Cassastorm, the concluding part of Alex Cavanaugh's sci-fi trilogy, releases today. Head to his blog for more. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Long Series

One element of the current publishing climate seems to be a tendency in genre fiction at least towards long series. It makes sense for the author, because they know that they'll have a readership for their characters. It makes sense for their publishers (If they have publishers. This is very much a trend in the independent market too. Perhaps even more so). It even makes some sense for readers, because they know what they're getting.

I've written series for other people, although for myself I've so far not gone beyond a single sequel. I like to be able to have a custom world for the story I'm writing. As a reader, there are also a couple of things that I watch out for in a series:

The first is for books that only make sense if you have read the rest of the series. Where everything in them relies on things before it, and where all the in jokes, internal logic and so forth are so established that the new reader can't jump in.

The second is the 'linking' book. That's the book in a series that only exists to get to the next one where the big stuff happens. It's a book long set up, where its own plot is secondary at best, and suggests that the series arc has taken over from the story arc.

The third one is the tendency to reset. In soap operas, characters don't grow quickly, if at all. They might 'learn a lesson' in one episode, but by the next, they're still basically back to being themselves. When characters gain more power but don't really change, that's a sign of the author wanting to preserve the central dynamic of a series.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Ju Jitsu

I've been dropping by a traditional ju jitsu class for the pass few weeks, figuring that it offered a wider array of techniques to add to the Brazilian jiu jitsu I've been practising (throws and striking to go with the groundwork). Now, this isn't a comment on classical ju jitsu as a whole, because I'm sure there are many great classes out there, but after last night, I'm not going back. The way this particular class is taught (and frankly, the way two of the three other clubs I've been to were taught) really worries me. Here's why:

In two hours of training last night, we didn't do a single minute of sparring. We didn't roll bjj style. We didn't do any judo style randori. We didn't do some kind of all in, MMA-esque sparring that would seem to best represent the multiple ranges the art works at. We didn't even do the point karate stuff that we did in the first week. It has been a hundred and thirty years since judo demonstrated the importance of alive, randori focused training as a path to learning to really do things against a resisting opponent. In the first week I was there, for a grading, we did some non contact stand up sparring, followed by some ground grappling. On my second week, where the main coach wasn't there, we did some ground grappling at the end as our only sparring of the night, because I suggested it.

In both of those ground sessions, I dominated completely, despite being a bjj white belt. Despite having spent most of my Sunday afternoons getting absolutely smashed by blue and purple belts. This is not because of some inherent superiority of the art, the traditional club did some of the same movements on the ground, but it is because I have had a chance to grapple flat out with people every week for a couple of years and they choose not to. I also more than held my own against them in the stand up sparring, essentially because it was just that peculiar 1950s brand of karate that is neither hyper traditional and brutal nor modern and based on the lessons of full contact tournaments. This is in some ways more worrying, because they considered themselves to be a very striking based club, and although I do have a background in both karate and kung fu, I know from my MMA training that I am not a serious striker. Boxers and Muay Thai guys have to hold back with me to the point where I feel the need to apologise to them for not giving them good training. And then choke them.

Learning techniques was frequently by way of either the kind of pairs technique where the attacker does something and then stands still while you do three things back, or by way of kata in the case of the ground work. No one seemed to care where these kata had come from, or if the techniques were genuinely effective. Because it was just a kata, some of the small things that you need to be aware of when using the techniques involved were completely missing. For example, when it started with kesa gatame, no one pointed out what both judo and bjj people have put in different ways to me, which is that it's a great hold down, but that you need to do this to stop getting rolled, and this to stop them immediately taking your back.

This came out most when we did a kata for leg locks. Leg locks are my 'thing' on the floor. I was doing them before I took up BJJ, most of my submissions against better people come from them, and they're the one area where I really feel like I'm in a position to comment. So I'm sure you can understand how upset I was when of the seven locks we did, four would never work against a resisting opponent, one (a version of the English Pretzel, which is quite rare) would have needed some serious adjustment to make it functional, and the remaining two, while fine, were taught without any of the fine detail needed to make them tight, and without any sense of how you enter into them. When I actually lost my temper enough to politely mention this problem, they shrugged it off.

Perhaps this reflects a broader error in how this particular group judges the effectiveness of a technique, which is to say that a joint lock or throw seems to be deemed effective if it produces pain at the end, whereas I would also include such criteria as 'can I actually do this to someone who is resisting intelligently' and 'is there an easy escape that anyone can do even if they haven't been taught it'.

Let's move to another area for an example and take kote gaeshi (the classic aikido throw where you evade and draw someone on, taking hold of their wrist, then reverse directions, using a twist of the wrist to force an already off balance opponent to the ground). I've picked this one for three reasons. One, we did it a lot last night, including against knife attacks. Two, I trained in aikido for about three years, so I should have a decent chance of making it work if it can be made to under normal circumstances. Three, it's a move that I have tried to mess around with in a bjj context, when people have reached out for me on their knees, so I know how it behaves in a live context.

It's a move that seems to work really well when you practise it with a partner. I know people go on about aikidoka jumping, but with kotegaeshi, the reason you jump is that it really hurts when you don't. The initial lead can draw you right off balance, the turn back gets you into all kinds of tangles, and the wrist lock is both painful and controlling once it's on. It's a move that looks and feels deceptively effective. Doubly so from the knees (where aikido does a lot of practise, which is why I tried it in bjj)

So why have I never been able to make it work in any kind of competitive sparring, either on the ground or wrestling on the feet? Well, the answer is twofold. First, in situations where the striking is not predetermined and/or from a longish distance, I have had real trouble catching people's punches. Because people trying to hit you hard tend to do so from close range. And because they typically withdraw their punches quickly, before you can catch them. Secondly, where I have grabbed their hands, and even started to put the lock on, in a wrestling/bjj context, they've just pulled their hands out of my grip. You know all those easy wrist grab escapes that used to form part of every self defence curriculum? Well, it turns out other people do them too, often by instinct. The same is true for a number of other wrist locks that really hurt once they're on, like nikyo. I actually use that now as a way of breaking a grip, because I know that even if I try to hold the hand, a sensible opponent just rives his hand away as I try to apply it.

So, is this a broad attack on classical jujitsu and aikido? No, but it is an attack on a way of practising, and more importantly on a way of teaching. Because a teacher who passes on techniques that he or she has not tried and tested in a meaningful form of interaction (or who has not at least seen them used that way- I will teach the counter attack with the sabre even though it doesn't suit me, because it is used extensively in international competition) is passing on techniques that they do not know will work. Their students will take what they say at face value most of the time, so they are potentially putting them in serious danger. Worse, those students will go on to be black belts in their turn, perpetuating the cycle.

I was going to end it there, but I feel I need to go one further. If you are a teacher of a martial art, and you have never trained against a resisting opponent in moderate/full effort/contact sparring (even once or twice would be enough, but there are differences from non-contact) then please do me a favour and stop teaching until such time as you have. If you don't fancy being punched in the face (and it's not my favourite thing in the world) then by all means do it through some hard grappling rather than boxing. But please don't pretend to be some kind of expert on fighting until you have actually fought, even if it is only in a controlled context. Trust me, everything you think you know changes in that one moment someone hits you, or doesn't let you past their legs to apply your lock, or actually fights for grips.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Release Date



We have a release date for the second avenue second hand anthology, an interesting collection of tales connected by objects from one of those mysterious second hand shops that seem to crop up occasionally. Apparently, the stories will cover a lot of different styles, and I'm in it to add a touch of comedy, with my comic fantasy story 'A Sense of Adventure' about knights, villains, and how exactly you keep such important traditional industries going in a modern world without much use for them.

It's due out on the 3rd of October, so keep an eye out for it.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Standards

This is for the IWSG. I'm in an ongoing process of trying to get my old novel 'the Glass' to a standard where it's publishable, and one question I've been asking myself is if that is ever going to happen. No, that's not right. Not 'is it going to be publishable' but 'is it going to be as brilliant as I want it to be'.

Those are two very different standards, because I think it's very easy to settle, when writing. I know, because I believe I do it quite easily. I think 'it's good enough. It's funny. It's not meant to be the greatest piece of fiction someone has ever read. It's just meant to be a good read.'

Yet is that standard a high enough one to hold writing to? Maybe it's just because I've been reading some of the more literary end of fantasy recently (like Mary Gentle's Black Opera), and I've been thinking that actually, yes, writing should be more than a few hours of fun for the reader. It should move them. It should change something for them. It should do all the things that poetry does, as well as all the things that prose does. I have, in isolated moments, done bits of that, which is what makes it so awkward. Should we push to do more of that kind of thing as writers, or is it okay to just put out a perfectly enjoyable book that will probably sell okay and then repeat a couple of months down the line?

Friday, 30 August 2013

Second Avenue Second Hand Cover

Wendy Tyler Ryan has just done a cover reveal for this anthology, which I have a story in. There's quite a minimalist feel to the cover, and there's a real mixture of styles inside too.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Obvious Things

One of the big problems I run into when I'm editing, and to a lesser extent when I'm simply writing with other people, is what I think of as the "how can they not see this?" issue. That moment when you're staring at a piece of work, and it is so obviously full of holes/difficulties that it's hard to believe that the author hasn't seen them. Why would they send you this thing, when surely any reasonable person could see that the whole of chapter one should be removed, that there's no plot, that the characters are flat, that they're using the kind of over the top language in dialogue that no one would ever use when speaking, or whatever else the problem is? It's hard to believe sometimes that they're serious.

And yet they are, because they really can't see this, any more than I can see what's wrong with mine. This is a lesson that I've learned at least partly through coaching fencing. There's a moment in lessons where a part of me goes 'You really can't do this move? This is easy' and I have to remind myself that it's easy for me because I've been doing it for decades. Sometimes I try to fence left handed just to remind myself of the difficulties of having to think about things. The same problem applies with writing. It's something people do for a long time, and do often quite naturally. It seems so natural that it's somehow impossible that anyone else couldn't do it the same way. But they can't, because no one has told them to, or because they don't have the practise in yet.

So what I'd like to suggest is that, if you get the opportunity today, you take a moment to tell the world something really basic and obvious about writing. Something that seems so obvious you shouldn't have to say it. You might find that there are plenty of people out there who have never heard it before.

Here's one- Even in those genres where villains are the norm, no one should normally do evil stuff for the sake of it, because real people do even bad things for reasons that seem right and sensible to them at the time. One of the best ways to achieve this is to write down your villain/opponent's argument, and try to make it convincing enough that in another world, they might potentially convince the main character. So to take a classic example or two, we have Gordon Gecko trying to convince us that 'greed is good', and the Emperor in Star Wars telling Luke that giving in to anger is the route to real power.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Matt Prior

The other day, Matt Prior the England wicketkeeper put a couple of things in his Telegraph column that I feel it's important to address. One was the idea that people should lay off criticism of the England side and 'show us some respect' to quote the front page, on the basis that they are currently 3-0 up in a five test series and are so doing very well. The other was an idea that he mentioned further in, that the British public just wants to see England winning, and doesn't care how they do it.

For the first idea, should the press/public lay off? It seems like there is a point where criticism becomes unacceptable and turns into abuse/hounding. It seems like there are inevitably a few very vocal individuals who can appear to represent the majority just because they shout louder. There is a point where it is appropriate to remember to simply be nice, or at least civil, to other people.

Yet it doesn't seem right that the England wicketkeeper should tell us that winning means we should avoid criticism. There are legitimate issues to be raised, from the persistent negativity of England's tactics against batsmen who aren't blasted out immediately, to the fragility of some of their batting (and since Bairstow has gone for this test, it seems clear that England shared that view) to some drops in the field and a few moments when the bowlers have started to look tired/less than convincing.

Should we ignore all of these because of the score line? Or, to put it another way, would it be okay if England did poorly so long as their opponents did worse? That brings us around to Prior's second point: that people only care if England are winning. Speaking as one of the English public concerned, I can only say that for me, it isn't true.

I care about good, entertaining cricket played in the right spirit. I will not make a claim for how many other people feel the same way, because I have no way of knowing. I suspect Matt Prior doesn't have one either. I will say that the reactions of the crowd at the tests seem to suggest that they are there to be entertained.

For myself, 'we're just there to win' sounds like an obviation of duty. A sportsman's get out clause. Sport is always caught between the twin elements of victory and enjoyment. Players want to win. Fans probably want them to win when there are fans to watch. Yet amateur players of a sport take it up for enjoyment too, and the followers of professional sport follow it because they enjoy doing so. It is a balancing act that is difficult to achieve, but it is a balancing act. It is not enough to say that you are simply there to win.

As evidence of this, I would throw in the fact that I started to really watch cricket in the 1990s, when victory for the England team didn't really seem to be an option. The way the cricket was played must have mattered more to me, because if it had been just about the win, then surely I would have been off watching another sport?

Indeed, the whole of Test cricket makes the point that it is not just about the win quite convincingly. The presence of the draw makes the point that it is not just about being better than the opposition by default. It's about playing good enough, positive enough, cricket to take the win. Then there's the part where it's over five days. A win can be had in an hour or five in one day cricket, yet players continue to say that test cricket is the pinnacle. Why? Because of the demands it makes on your cricket. It is not just the fact of winning, but the trials and tribulations along the way.

At the other end of the scale T20 has consistently shown better crowds than longer format one day games. Why? Some of it is convenience. Atmosphere. Rather more of it, I suspect, is that it is entertaining. Things happen in T20. I don't think Matt Prior can legitimately argue when we complain that they aren't happening right in a Test.






Tuesday, 20 August 2013

You're Getting Better, Honest

Just a quick reassurance to... well, anyone who wants it, really. Including, hopefully, myself. You are getting better at this writing stuff. Honestly. I know it doesn't feel like it, but you almost certainly are.

What has prompted me to say that? Have I read everyone's writing? Well no. Actually, what prompted it was a jujitsu session yesterday. Traditional jujitsu, for once, rather than the BJJ I mostly train in. The thing is, when I train in BJJ, it's mostly with the same group of people, and they're getting better at least as fast as I am, if not faster (being the sort of people who train every night of the week, they certainly deserve to). I have no sense of getting better, because I'm still getting beaten by the same people I was.

So the other night, I went to train in some traditional jujitsu for a change, and for the broad range of techniques. We spent some time on the ground, and suddenly I realised I was getting the better of rolls with their brown belts. That's not any kind of a dig at the ground skills of traditional jujitsu (although since BJJ specialises, it tends to end up better at that in the same way that judo players end up better at throws). It's more about that realisation that I had actually learned something and was doing it naturally.

The same sort of thing applies to writing. You get better without noticing. You pick up tricks and ways of writing, new rhythms to it and approaches. But because changes happen slowly, it can often be hard to notice them when they're happening. I'll say it again though: you are getting better.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Sticking Points

I get feelings about projects I'm working on. It's inevitable. I live with them for eight hours a day. I come to know them and where they're going. Sometimes, the feeling is one of genuine excitement, because I know it has the potential to be special. Sometimes, it's a 'this is straightforward enough' kind of feeling.

And sometimes, it's a 'I don't know where this is going' feeling. I've been having that one for the last week or two with something that's potentially quite big. It's that feeling that there's no shape to it yet, no direction. That I don't have enough information. There's always a bit of a trick with non-fiction, which is that you can't do accurate research until you know where you're going, and you don't know where you're going until you've started the research.

It's also... I have small worries about things around the work. Part of me says 'just get on with it'. More of me is worried that if I do, those will just grow.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

IWSG August




This post is for the insecure writers' support group. Last month has been fairly chaotic for me, trying to get a number of things in order following some family stuff. So, some brief things I'm being insecure about this month:

  • A major ghost writing project. By which I mean around 100 000 words of non-fiction, which would make it my longest work ever, including my rather short PhD and my own novels. It's a quite daunting amount, and it seems almost impossible to write at the moment. Of course, that's normal, and the feeling should hopefully recede a little as I get to grips with the research.
  • Getting to grips with Scrivener. There are things about it I definitely like, such as being able to see the shape of an overall project and being able to move things around easily. I've still got a lot to learn with it though.
  • It does seem to have pushed me in the direction of multiple projects again, which is always a weakness of mine. I'm hoping that Scrivener will help me to avoid my tendency to delete things when I get stuck, by allowing me to jump around more.
  • I'm almost definitely going down the self publishing route with my novel 'The Glass'. Now I just need to work out what I'm doing.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Night Watchmen

Tim Bresnan's dismissal last night has reopened the debate about night watchmen in cricket, and for me shows everything that is wrong with the idea. For anyone who doesn't know, a night watchman is a lower order player in Test cricket who is sent in much higher than usual to 'protect' the regularly scheduled batters by taking their place and batting through the last few minutes of a day.

The idea is that the good player has nothing to gain from twenty minutes at the end of a day and everything to lose. They have to settle in and get comfortable twice over (once at the end of the day and once in the morning). They have a greater chance of getting out if the light starts to fail at the end of the day. The end of the day often also features a spell from a new ball, since there are 90 overs in a day and a new ball is available after 80. The idea is that a bowler who can bat a bit comes in at the back end, blocks a bit, and ensures that we don't lose a real batter.

I have always felt like it's a nonsense. Why is a bowler better placed to do that job than one of the best batters in the country? Why should that bowler have to do the hard work if someone far more skilled is scared of it? More to the point, why should we gift the opposition an easy wicket, either that night or first thing the next morning? Taking away a lower order player from the back end of the innings means that the rest of the batters have less support with them while they try to score later on. It also potentially gifts the opposition momentum, since cricket is often a confidence game. The opposition doesn't see that they've only got Tim Bresnan out. They see that England are 52-2.

But this isn't about the anomaly of the night watchman so much as what it reveals about the decision making process in the team that allows it. It says to me that the desires of the individuals who ask for a night watchman (the next batter who doesn't fancy it out in the middle) come before the needs of the team. Because a night watchman brings no benefit to the team. Only to the next batter in. It says that individual players have the power to overrule the needs of the whole, and that isn't a good thing in international team competition.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Outlining

I've decided that I really like outlining as part of my method for producing work. It's something I started doing with those ghost writing clients who only provided a vague idea, primarily as a way of showing them that I did know where the story was going, and that the things they did have could be drawn into a coherent story. Several of my other clients also favoured it as the main way of telling me what to write.

Now, it has become indispensable for me. I find that pieces where I try to plan every detail don't work for me well (because I get bored) and pieces where I try to just write don't work well (because I'm never sure where I'm going). Outlining provides a happy medium. It tells me that I know the story, lets me work on the elements of it in a simple form, and gives me the minimum details of character and setting I need to make things work.

Outlining is story boiled down to an essence. Or to look at it another way, it's the compositional sketch before you start a painting. It's a way of investing a few hours and knowing whether you have a functional story or not.

Even writers who famously just write sometimes use outlining. Neil Gaiman wrote an outline for the Sandman series, for example (although that may have had something to do with the collaborative nature of comics production). The other bonus from all this is that it gives you a tool with which to sell the resulting piece. An outline/synopsis is exactly what publishers ask for as part of a submission.

So I'm enjoying outlining. Now, to get from there to the actual writing.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Literary fiction and the 'rules'

One interesting thing I've noticed about literary fiction is that it doesn't really obey the same 'rules' as genre fiction. I'm not talking about the rules of structure or the formulas of plot, although it certainly doesn't do those the same way. I'm talking more about those simple little rules that everyone (particularly on the internet, and usually including me) feels are so important to successful writing.

Take the big one. Show, don't tell. In popular (genre) fiction, this rule has been fetishized to the point where it's practically a crime to say anything directly about a character. Yet for those literary writers I've read, it seems to be almost a given to tell a story at more of a distance, with less moment to moment immersion and only a few telling details.

Another seems to be the primacy of dialogue. Genre writers like to put things in dialogue. I like to put things in dialogue. Some writers go so far that there's very little else, perhaps because description looks more like telling. Yet literary works often seem to have much less, perhaps again because of that sense of literary distance.

These differences are just things I've observed, and I'd be interested to see if anyone else has seen the same things.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Second Test Round Up

Okay, so the test ended a few days ago now, but I've been distracted. Anyway, things to take away from the rather one sided England victory:

  • Injuries. Everyone seems to be injured. Kevin Pietersen has done his calf. James Pattinson has gone home with a stress fracture of the back. Ashton Agar was struggling with some sort of hip thing. Graham Swann got elbowed in the lower back by Usman Kawaja while the latter was going for a run. In this kind of 'double' series, injuries really matter.
  • 'Fragile' batting. Fragile used to be a word applied to England's batting order, particularly in the 1990s. Good days, glimmers of promise, but ultimately collapse. The same seems to be true of Australia. They have potentially good top order players, but none of them are converting that into big runs.
  • Australia's spin question. I like the look of Ashton Agar. He seems promising. Yet he isn't the finished article, and he hasn't taken many wickets yet. Part timer/all rounder Steve Smith out bowled him this time around. Now, I feel like Smith needs to stay as the second spinner, but Agar needs a good third test if he's going to keep his place.
  • Joe Root/Jonny Bairstow. Root nailed down his place in this test with 180 and a couple of wickets. Fellow Yorkshire player Bairstow hasn't really cemented his test spot yet, with his bottom handed technique seeming ideal for one day cricket, but not the longer stuff where even slight technical issues can be preyed on for hours.
  • DRS. Again. The Australians really aren't very good at it. It's simple. If the decision is so bad that you want to swear at the umpire for being so utterly blind, use it. Otherwise, leave it alone.

Pink Narcissus Kickstarter

Pink Narcissus Press, the publishers of my novel Court of Dreams, have decided to try out kickstarter funding for their next project, which is an anthology of sci-fi short stories. Although I don't have anything in this one, it sounds like fun, and some of the kickstarter offers include original artwork from Duncan Eagleson (who worked on Sandman issue 'The Hunt') or the chance to bundle one of PN's existing novels/anthologies with the anthology.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Second Test Build up

A quick look back at the first test and a few thoughts on what we can expect from the second one:

  • Steven Finn to keep his place. Although he was probably the weakest of England's bowlers in the first test, Lords will suit him better. England are also quite wary of changing a winning side, and even if Tim Bresnan offers lower order runs/reverse swing, it probably isn't enough to offset what seems like a recent lack of pace.
  • Swann to take a few wickets. Everyone was saying that Nottingham was dry and he'd get hatfulls. What that ignores is that Swanny can turn it most places, and the pitches that suit him best are probably those that have a bit more pace. Also that the 1st test was at arguably his least productive venue. Although Lords is hardly a spinner's paradise, he has done better there, and will probably enjoy the help it gives to the seamers so that he doesn't feel he has to do all the work.
  • Michael Clarke to get runs. It would be nice if we could keep Australia's captain quiet, but realistically, he's likely to get big runs at some point in the series. England's advantage is more about the way their whole top order bats as a unit. Hopefully, a quicker pitch will suit KP's strokeplay more too.
  • James Pattinson to do well. Lords suits a particular type of seamer. One who might or might not be quick (he is) but who also hits a length accurately and forces the batsman to play. Glenn Mcgrath used to clean up at Lords. Pattinson could do so too. Of course, Finn and Broad also like to bowl there, so it won't all be one way.
  • The tailenders to get fewer runs. Agar looked good with a bat. So did Pattinson. Broad did pretty well (obvious edges notwithstanding). But it was a slow pitch. One where they knew they weren't going to get a killer surprise bouncer. That changes the way people play, a lot.
  • Australia to get better use of the DRS. Broad's non-dismissal was a big mistake by the umpire, and not terribly sporting by Broad (although perfectly within the rules, and pretty common on faint edges). But it was also a failure by Australia, because they used up their decision reviews on bad reviews earlier in the match. They tried to use a system designed to reduce bad calls to get a marginal tactical advantage, and it blew up in their faces. They won't make that mistake again.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Scrivener?

Just out of interest, does anyone use scrivener? I acquired a copy, since I thought it would be a useful tool for work, but at the moment I'm not convinced enough about what it can do for me to move away from a big folder full of Word documents.

So does anyone have any tips on using it? Does it suit a particular style of working more (at the moment, it feels like it's a 'write lots and sort it out after' tool, which isn't really the way I write)? I'm trying it out by writing down some random thoughts on writing as part of a project I've always had half an eye on, but I could use some thoughts on good ways to get up to speed.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

My Dad, 1939-2013

My father used to read my blog posts on a regular basis. It was a fact I hated; one that always felt like I had to hold back because of. I'm writing this because of something that has just happened. About half an hour ago, I was told that my father had just died in hospital, following complications in an operation. It was the outcome we all expected, but it is one that still feels like a shock.

I'll be honest: there were days when I hated my father. He was variously a drunk, a thug, a bully and inclined to preface anything in any family member's life by telling them that he couldn't help them. He was inclined to play the martyr when anyone stood up to him, accusing them of bullying him in turn.

Yet he was also there on some of the occasions that mattered most. He brought me home when I suffered my first breakdown, at Reading University. He helped me put things back together when I suffered my second, during my PhD. He allowed me to stay at home while I built up my ghostwriting business to a level where I can now, just about, support myself. As a child, he was the one ferrying me about to fencing training and kung fu lessons, things that stay with me even now.

And, now that he's gone, I can see that somewhere in amongst the rest of it, he was probably proud of me and my brother too. He never really showed it, he certainly never said it. He once picked up a work I'd ghost written and his only comment was that there was a grammatical mistake on the first page. Yet he did read it, just as he read this blog. Just as he read practically everything else I produced.

I think I'll probably miss that.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

July IWSG

This is for the IWSG for this month. So, what's making me insecure about writing this month?

  • Waiting for replies. How long is it before it becomes acceptable to gently nudge a publisher and ask whether they've lost your stuff, because one of my current submissions seems to have taken longer than any previous one. I wouldn't mind, but if this doesn't come off, I'll probably put the novel out myself, and I'd like to be able to do that while I'm still getting some benefit from working with a couple of bigger authors.
  • Sequels. I'm on/building up to a couple of sequels at the moment, and the thing with them is having to live up to the last one or make it better. It's also about the thing of having to fit a new story into an old world, where normally, I like my settings to come out of the story that needs to be told.
  • Volume. I had a quick count up last month and found that I'd worked on over 45 published novel length pieces to date, some of which have done interesting and impressive things like making it into the NYT top twenty. Of those pieces, exactly three are mine, and they haven't done anything like as much. More than that, my own writing generally seems to be taking a back seat to all the ghostwriting at the moment. I have ideas, even ideas I'm working on, but they just don't seem to be happening right now. It's not just the full time nature of my ghosting. It's being full time writing, so that I don't really want to do more writing in my off hours.
So that's what I'm being insecure about this month. I'll see you all next month.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Witchy Business, Witch and Famous, and more

I haven't blogged in ages, and frankly, I'm not sure if I'm going to be here regularly again, but I did want to take a moment to talk about some projects I've been working on. There's my current work in progress, which seems to be vaguely Arthurian in tone. There are a few old ideas that I've never really been able to pin down, that I might have another crack at when I get a chance, including one where I have an introduction that more or less came out of nowhere, and I don't know what to attach it to. There are plenty of pieces I can't talk about, because they're for other people, but I do look like being busy for the next few months.

And then there's a new release. I know, I know, there's only one new release anyone is excited about right now, and that's 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane'. Even I went to the email telling me that my copy had been dispatched first, before checking the one that told me the other good news. The other good news, in this case, is that Witch and Famous, the sequel to Witchy Business (which I wrote working with Eve Paludan) is out on kindle. The Amazon UK link is here. The Amazon.com link is here. Witchy business is also out in paperback, for those who prefer it.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

IWSG: Things I Learned In April

In April, a paranormal romance I worked on with Eve Paludan and then JR Rain (Witchy Business, watch out for the sequel shortly) came out. It went to #1 in Amazon's free fantasy chart for a brief while, and since going paid has jumped into the top ten of at least a couple of their sub-categories. In the course of all this, I've learned a wide variety of things about both the process of writing and publicity (which I've never been that good at). Here are just a few:

  1. Giving away a book doesn't guarrantee anything, but it doesn't actually hurt your sales. The people who get the free version aren't the people who were going to give you money for it. They might be the people who will give you a good review though, or get your ebook up near the top of a chart where other people will see it, or simply buy your next one.
  2. Blogtours might or might not do anything. One curiosity about the way this one came out was that there wasn't the huge fanfare that comes with some releases. JR Rain announced it on his facebook and twitter, Eve and I did the same with the various places we were. That was enough for it to do fine. I'm not suggesting that interviews etc never do anything, yet my own experience of them is that they're a thing in their own right rather than a route to sales.
  3. Covers that look a bit over bright and splashy when big are perfect when you've got a thumbnail an inch across to play with.
  4. You can write much faster than you think when you're in the grip of a story (15 days for the original novella that became the novel)
  5. That one star reviews happen, even if other people are giving you five stars, and it doesn't matter to me as much as it used to.
  6. That genuine half and half collaboration can work surprisingly well. (Although I worked in my capacity as ghost on this one, it was a lot more evenly balanced than many of the projects I've been in on).
  7. That self/small publishing might be more interesting than I thought.

Promise in Cricket

So, Yorkshire are playing Derbyshire, Chesney Hughes has hit 270 not out for Derbyshire and what do I want to concentrate on? The way Adil Rashid is bowling, primarily.

A year or two ago, he was a close contender for an England Test place. He even played some limited overs cricket for the national side, although he since seems to have been overtaken in the spare one day spinner spot by a variety of other people ranging from Scott Borthwick to Danny Briggs. In Derbyshire's first innings, he managed three wickets for just over 120 runs. Not disastrous, given the scale of the total, and at least he was taking wickets. David Wainwright's lack of any for Derbyshire with his left arm spin may suggest that it was not the most helpful of pitches. Yet Rashid went for those runs off around thirty overs, meaning an economy rate far higher than is really ideal.

What has happened to him? What has happened to the bowler who showed such promise at the start of his career?

Actually, I would argue that nothing much has happened, and that the case of Rashid shows us more about the way the current system works than about any major failings on his part. I should explain. Over the years, we have seen a number of bowlers pulled into the fringes of the England set up because of their 'potential'. The public, the media, and even the England management get excited about up and coming players, particularly, it seems, young fast bowlers with decent pace and spinners. Wrist spinners more than most.

They look at these players and they almost never see what they are. Instead, they see what they 'could' be with the right encouragement and exposure. It seems obvious that in just a few years, the kid bowling at 85mph in the county game might be strong enough to bowl 90mph for his country. That the 90mph bowler with accuracy issues might be taught to tame them. That the spinner with only one trick could be taught a few more. That the wrist spinner who currently goes for too many runs will metamorphosise into the next Shane Warne.

There's a level of natural optimism in this process. It says 'the kid has the right attributes, so we can build on that'. It also recognises that there is a sort of arc to a playing career, based on the rise and decline of physical attributes, acquired skills and experience. And there have been instances where players picked with less than perfect county records have done better for England (Duncan Fletcher's determination to stick with Michael Vaughn and Marcus Trescothick, for example).

And yet...

All of this feels like it is predicated on a couple of key assumptions. First, that players will grow and improve once they have reached the top level. Second, that we can accurately predict the ways in which young players will develop. I would question both of those assumptions.

The first is probably the more important of the two. It is the idea that we can take a player who is 'almost there' or who has most of the things he needs for success and give him the rest. That because Rashid spins the ball, we can build on that foundation to create a world beater. Yet frequently, when you look at players, their 'learning' phase is actually quite short. They are essentially the same players at the start of their careers as at the end, unless forced to change through the reduction of their powers, or through injury.

Yes, there are players who change and grow. Richard Hadlee famously sat down and decided to become a fast/medium bowler because he felt New Zeeland needed that more than a tearaway fast bowler. Yes, there are players who learn new tricks, such as Murali acquiring his doosra or Matthew Hoggard learning to cut the ball in. Yes, Shane Warne changed his bag of tricks as injuries forced him to put away the googly and flipper.

Yet fundamentally, how many players go from being nothing to something on the back of changes? Steve Harmison was still bowling slightly short and straight at the end of his England career despite plenty of attempts to get him to learn more tricks. Saj Mahmood never did learn to bowl accurately. Warne's restricted options never changed the type of bowler he was, and Murali was a massively spinning off spinner before the arrival of the other one. Monty Panesar is still bowling just like Monty, despite all the shouting at him to flight it or not flight it, acquire a slower one or a quicker one. Tinkering with a bowler doesn't change who he is. Unless there is a specific technical deficiency stopping him from being great, a bowler is unlikely to magically gain 5-10mph of pace, or change his approach to bowling, or indeed become more accurate. Most of these people have been playing the game all their lives. Their development is about as developed as it gets.

More than that, when we do tinker, we don't know what result we'll get. There might conceivably be an improvement if, as I just suggested, there is a specific problem holding someone back. Yet we must look at the example of James Anderson to see that it isn't always a good idea trying to change people. He started well, with deliveries that swung either way in the mid-high eighties and occasionally low nineties. Then someone pointed out that he wasn't looking where he was bowling at the point of release, and proceeded to tinker with his action. He actually dropped out of the England team, experiencing a slump. Now, he is back, not looking where he is bowling, and swinging it both ways in the mid 80s to (occasionally) low 90s.

What does all this mean for Adil Rashid? Well, perhaps it means that we shouldn't be wondering where the promise of his England days went. Perhaps it also means that no one is going to be turning him into Shane Warne soon. Maybe the main thing here is what happens to the next young spinner. Maybe we should acknowledge that what we have by the time he's playing first team county cricket probably is pretty close to the finished product.

Of course, having said all this, I'd still love for Rashid to prove me wrong. It just goes to show that this sort of optimism doesn't go away.




Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Thing With Dragons

This being St George's Day, I thought I'd have a look at dragons, and specifically at the key problems with dragons when it comes to fantasy literature.

They've obviously been a part of literature and consciousness for a long time. We have creatures of broadly that 'family' showing up in Ancient Greek myths (what is the hydra but a multiple choice dragon?) in Chinese and Northern European traditions, all sorts of different places.

Yet for the modern fantasy writer, they have a couple of small difficulties. They aren't humanoid. They're big. They're solitary. They're generally intelligent in a lot of cases. They're also immensely powerful, to the extent that if they're common, we have to ask the question of why humans are in charge and not them.

So, we have a creature that is hard to humanise on one level, because it can't fit into human cities, or relate to humans on a casual level. We have a creature that is also so powerful that it's a little unbalancing in many settings.

How can anyone possibly use one of those?

Well, obviously they have, using a number of pretty consistent strategies:

There's the strategy that has the dragon as a singular monster to be defeated. It's powerful, it's big. It's terrifying. But it's a monster. It's not really much of a character. It sits around on a pile of gold (because it's planning for its retirement, or just because it's a big, scaly magpie) and waits for heroes to come along and try to stab it. Occasionally, there are lots of them, but that doesn't change the part where it's just another sort of monster.

There's the strategy that has dragons as something to be tamed. Yes, they are powerful, but in this they are usually not also intelligent. So a great hero (or just a particular class of knight, depending on the series in question) may be able to prove their worth enough to control and use dragons.

Occasionally, we get the dragon as a mentor and/or manipulator. In this approach, it is intelligent, but its difficulties in fitting into a human society mean it is relegated to working through intermediaries, like the heroes. Exactly why it should care is often not established.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Quantity and Outlining

A few thoughts, all jumbled up together this time. First is on quantity of output. One thing I've noticed is that authors at the moment seem to be aiming for relatively high output. Even quite famous authors seem to have multiple projects on the go, while e-book based authors in particular seem to put work out at a tremendous rate.

I'm not complaining about this. Indeed, as a ghost writer, I tend to write a lot of stuff myself. But it is interesting that quantity seems to have become one of the key dynamics of the writing game at the moment. Rather than that one big hit, it feels like everyone is aiming for multiple smaller ones, with each one making just enough of a profit. Yet there's also a balancing act there. It's easy to rush things, and settle for producing something okay when you could produce something that will be life changing for the reader.

My other thought was on outlining. I change the way I plan a lot, yet the ability to sit down and simply write out a one or two page synopsis seems to have been at the heart of all the novels I've finished. If I can do that, I know that I know the shape of the story, complete with the ending and the major stops along the way. If I can't, then there's probably a problem in there that I haven't seen in other planning.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

What do you have to say

A friend of mine once told me that he wasn't planning to write any more stories at that time because he felt like he didn't have anything he hugely wanted to say. At the time, I didn't get that. It felt like waiting around for that perfect piece of inspiration and a burning topic just to write short stories was a bit over the top. After all, he could still write something entertaining and interesting.

Yet now I have a few novels under my belt, I can sort of see where he was coming from. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with the purely 'fun' novel. Indeed, that is something occasionally levelled at Court of Dreams as though it is an acusation, when it really shouldn't be. Wodehouse built a career on 'fun' novels. Although I do worry a little, because CofD was actually meant to contain quite a bit about family, duty and responsibility, so if that isn't coming through, maybe I got that part wrong.

Certainly now, I can feel the importance of having something to say. It isn't enough to knock out a novel for the sake of putting one out there. It isn't enough to just follow a vague genre template with a few twists of location or character (although there are obviously genres where doing so is considered the norm). I think this is perhaps one of the pressures of a world where people can publish whatever they want, in whatever volume they want. It's easy to be caught up in a competition to keep up.

Instead, I currently feel like the competition is to say things better. To have something that you feel deeply interested in and explore it. That doesn't necessarily have to be what other people would think of as a big issue (although I explore some pretty big ones in 'The Glass', for the current WIP I'm thinking about history and the ways we think about it, which is clearly primarily of interest to me). It does have to be something that means enough to you to be worth seventy or eight thousand words.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Multiple works.

Novels, novels, everywhere... I'm working on about three at the moment, although it may be two again after my attempts to play around with my own the other night.

Sometimes people ask me how I keep everything distinct in my head when I happen to have more than one thing running at once. The answer is complicated. Partly, it's because I don't try to do it all in my head: I'm relying on carefully written plans/outlines to give me the shape.

Partly, it's because characters in books are closer to one another than most people admit. We see so little of them, and in such a controlled way, that creating differences between them is relatively straightforward. Particularly if you happen to view them as a part of the story as a whole rather than separate individuals, because that helps to give each one some of the flavour of the story.

Partly, it's an organisational thing. I tend to work on particular pieces at different times of the day (or at least in a consistent order) so I know which space my head has to be in for each one.

On a separate note I may just have given up on the idea of complete spontenaity for novels. Pantsing through the current idea has been giving me some nice ideas, but I just realised I have no idea where it is going.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Witchy Business part 2

It occurs to me that I only put in a link to the amazon uk page for Witchy Business in the last post. So, for all those elsewhere here's the link to it on amazon.com. Currently, it's running at #2 overall in free books for fantasy, and was briefly the bestseller (bestgivaway? bestfreebie?) in the 'witches and wizards' sub category. I enjoyed working on this one with Eve Paludan, and I hope it does well for her and JR Rain. Especially because I'm writing this while procrastinating on writing the sequel.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Witchy Business.

A novel I worked on, Witchy Business, is out now and for the next few days, it is apparently going to be free on kindle. It's the story of Elle Chambers, insurance investigator and witch, who finds out during the course of the search for a missing painting that most of what she has believed about herself through her life has been a lie. Oh, and that she can't trust even the people closest to her.

I worked on this one with Eve Paludan, doing a lot of the work on the original novella and then doing some work helping to blend together our different parts on this. Writer JR Rain has since taken on the project, and is promoting it in association with Eve. You can find the free kindle version on amazon.co.uk here

Friday, 5 April 2013

Pieces Stacking Up

Just a quick check in that's partly about writing, but more just about things I've been doing. I've got a variety of things that are out with people, or building up to publication, or something similar. There's a project that is due out in the next couple of days that I worked on in that interesting space between ghosting and collaborating, that could potentially be moderately big, but that I can't talk about until it happens.

There's my last manuscript, which is out with a publisher at the moment, waiting for them to say yes or no (a very small publisher already said yes a while back, but I wasn't sure what they could do that I couldn't).

There's my short story 'A Sense of Adventure' which is due out there in Wendy Tyler Ryan's Second Avenue Second Hand anthology shortly, or soon, or eventually. One of those, it being a truism of editing land that time never seems to do what anyone thinks it's going to once you're there. I'm sure that it's going to be good, though.

I also found a fencing mask that I can wear my glasses in, which is probably a fairly random thing to add in here, but seems worth mentioning. It means that, for the first time in years, I can see perfectly as I fence. It's amazing how often, you only notice the difficulty with something once you've found a better way.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

IWSG

The quest for perfection is an oddity. Towards the start of last month, I wanted to start writing something amazing. Something brilliant. Something that will change the life of whoever reads it. So naturally, I wrote something, and deleted it as not good enough, and wrote something, and deleted it, and so on.

Instead now, I'm just accepting the likelihood that my first draft isn't going to be wonderful, and now words are flowing. I'm not even entirely sure what happens next half the time, but that isn't the point. The point is that, by allowing myself the luxury of possibly writing poorly (something I can't always afford in the day job. I'd never meet the ghost-writing deadlines) I'm getting stuff written. Stuff that I can then make better as needed.

And yet... well, there's always the other side of this, isn't there? The writers who churn out the same old stuff again and again. The ones who don't have anything interesting to say, or just produce another teen vampire romance exactly like everyone else's teen vampire romance (is anyone still doing this?) There is a point where it's important to say to yourself that you can do better than that, so where does the balance lie?

For myself, I just want to do the best with an idea I can. Preferably by trusting myself to keep going until the end. There's enough red ink waiting after that.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Sequels

I have an uneasy relationship with sequels. I have written them. I have read them. Yet I'm not sure that the sequel is generally such a wonderful thing, artistically speaking.

I've read plenty of sequels. As a reader of fantasy fiction, I am, almost by definition, a reader of triolgies and sequences, cycles and series. From the three parts of the Lord of the Rings, to the extended runs of most urban fantasy authors, sequels are unavoidable. They have their moments, too. Over time, authors grow into characters, so that they get more from them and start to understand the detail of them better. I would argue here that Jim Butcher's current Harry Dresden is a very different character to the one at the start of the series.

I've written them, too. Well, that's obvious. I'm a ghostwriter. I write a lot of YA and romance, and sequels are commercial. The reader knows what they're getting, and if they liked the first one, then there's a much better chance that they'll buy the second one. There's even a trend towards giving away the first book in a long series free, to get people hooked on it. I've even written sequels for my own work, in the form of Witch Hunt, and in a never quite right sequel to court of dreams that sort of makes fun of vampires, and which probably won't see the light of day.

And yet...

My current thinking is that sequels have inherent problems to go with their benefits. Ones that can be quite hard to overcome. You see, if you've written a complete story in the first one, then you've already had the main character undergo a meaningful character change. So what is there to do in the second one? And the world... well, if you're doing it right, the world is a reflection of the themes and needs of the first novel.

It is, I suppose, a little like cooking. You create this amazing dish out of the best ingredients you can, blending them together perfectly... and then you want to try to make something else out of the leftovers. It isn't impossible to do it as well, or even better, but it isn't easy.