Monday, 29 December 2014

My Obsession With Horror

In my teenage years I devoured King and Koontz books.

I discovered Dean Koontz when I was given a second hand copy of Phantoms by my grandmother. I was gripped from the very first page, and although I'd read scary stories before, I'd never read anything so absorbing. I curled up in an armchair and just kept reading. In fact, I think Phantoms and Midnight are my two favourite Koontz novels (though others such as Intensity are great at "doing what they say on the tin", an impressive match of form and theme). I loved the way Koontz novels would open with either action or tension, then ramp them both up along with the stakes throughout the novel. The ideas also grabbed me. Ever-living protoplasmic beings of unstoppable power? Human-computer interfaces for emotionless killers? Wow!

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Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs


I recently finished playing Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs (which came after Amnesia: The Dark Descent). A criticism I'd heard was that A Machine For Pigs was "less of a game" than The Dark Descent; it's true in part. A Machine For Pigs focusses much more on telling a story, to the extent that it removes many gamey elements such as the need to light candles; oil supplies for your lantern; injuries and healing; and physics-based puzzles. In their place is another disturbing story, but the tense way it unravels and the nature of it more than make up for the loss of some of the interactivity. It's the story that kept me playing, made up of many elements, some of which resonated more strongly with me.

I'll avoid specifics but there are strong and as-relevant-as-ever themes of suffering, treating other beings as resources, cultures of inhumanity, loss, mechanisation and industrialisation. I can't really talk about some of the most upsetting parts for me without giving away spoilers, but the premise is discovered fairly early on: it's the very end of the nineteenth century; you wake in a bed with a cage around it worried about your children; your mansion seems to be unoccupied, but you don't feel like you are alone, and there are strange red stains in some areas; and the house is part of a compound that includes a sausage factory. There's enough there to make you uneasy, and believe me, the game's reality is worse.

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Friday, 12 December 2014

That Time Of Year

I last celebrated xmas about 20 years ago. As such, I recommend this article The Gift of Death by George Monbiot. And this poem by Benjamin Zephaniah, performed here. And if you wore a jumper for Save The Children, consider this.

You want more? Here's a silly story I wrote back in 2000. It's not one that'll ever published, just a bit of unedited whimsy, but what do you expect for free? :-)



The Importance Of Being Humbug


December 22nd. Magnificent golden light shone horizontally across the silent library in the burg of Hushingdon. Peace was settled on that little place dedicated to the gathering of knowledge and dust, which swirled and danced in the shafts of light. The only sound was the turning of pages.
The Librarian sat at the Enquiry Desk, deciphering the Holy Trinity of mysteries that were Dewey, USMARC and XML. He knew that there was only one other person in the library – a trendy-looking blonde girl who had asked where The New Statesman was kept. Since then she had been sat in the centre of the reading room, surrounded by a dead forest of empty desks. She was intent and intense, and The Librarian couldn’t help but look over at her, for indeed, she was beautiful. Beautiful in a cold way – the beauty of a bright Winter’s morning, or the Ice Queen. Austere and something to worship, but possibly unforgiving.
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Saturday, 29 November 2014

Amazon's Kindle Fire

I have a Kindle Fire HD - it was a gift from someone, since normally I wouldn't be keen to support Amazon. The Kindle Fire mostly works well as a simplified tablet but with irritations, including:
  • Regularly refilling the carousel with music I had deleted.
  • You can't get rid of nagging "Customers Also Bought..." icons.
I don't care what they bought!
  • You can't put a lockscreen image of your choosing up, such as one with a visible contact number if lost.
  • It has a cluttered top menu with options trying to sell you things which you can't get rid of even though you don't use them such as Audiobooks, Newsstand, Videos, Shop.
  • Some clunkiness - I made new documents in a word processing package and the Kindle could see them and open them, but they didn't show up when I connected the Kindle to my PC - it turned out I had to reset the Kindle before they showed up.
  • Kindle Automatic Updates doesn't work. I updated my books many times. The Kindle never downloads the new versions unless I speak to Amazon directly and ask them to send the update! Also, to get the new covers to show, I had to de-register then re-register the device. Kindle purchasers would assume that if updates to Kindle books are made available then the updated version will appear on their device, but Amazon doesn't use that sensible approach. Instead the publisher has to contact Amazon and tell them, provide evidence, wait weeks, and maybe Amazon will make the option of an update available. It's a far cry from having the latest version always there, and depends on both the publisher and Kindle-owner going out of their way.
  • I remove docs (pdfs) from the device after I have read them, using the hold>menu option, but when I look at the Kindle's storage space directly by connecting it to my PC the documents are often still there, invisible to the Kindle but taking up loads of space (with altered filenames). I have to delete them a second time manually. The Kindle seems to duplicate and rename pdfs, and only delete the originals through the OS shell options.
What you see on the Kindle - a Docs folder with only one item,
which I then removed from the device

What I see in Windows Explorer: 44 files taking up space, 

all of which had supposedly been removed from the device 

via the Remove From Device option in the Kindle's interface
How they look on my PC

How the same email looks on my Kindle
  • Some issues specifically about the keyboard and typing:
  • I think I have turned off all the autocorrect options but it still manages to make typing a pain e.g. as I type each word it underlines it - if you tap anywhere else on the screen before pressing space, the whole word disappears.
  • It's slow. I press delete a few times, start typing replacement letters - it didn't record all the keypresses, only deleted a few letters, started the new ones, and now the word needs fixing again. Sometimes you have to just type very slowly, which makes typing a pain - no good for long messages, or drafting a story. I think the unremovable autocorrect is partly at fault - every tiem you add or delete a letter ti is checking its dictionary to see what words to "offer", slowing ti down even if you don't use that feature.
  • Words are underlined in red if kindle doesn't know them, which is distracting.
  • I type in landscape view for bigger keys, but it still wastes a line displaying words you might want, leaving an unnecessarily narrow window.
  • There is no easy way to move the selection cursor. I end up tapping loads of times trying to get the pixel-perfect placement (especially between narrow letters like i's or l's), which takes ages because a fingertip is bigger then the point you're trying to select. The answer would be to zoom in: but you can't zoom in on the text box on a Kindle. My phone has a button that acts like a mousepad, ideal for finetuning cursor positions, but the Kindle (and more recent smartphones) don't have an option like that.
  • When you switch to typing in numbers there is no option to add a full stop/decimal point. You have to jump back and forth between screens to do numbers with decimals, classmarks etc.
The number screen, lots of symbols, but no full stop

There are nice features too, such as the ability to email documents to a special address and they then appear on the Kindle (though copies are also stored on Amazon's servers by default: a setting I recommend changing).

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Monday, 24 November 2014

The Doom Wars


What are the key personality traits of writers?

I recently read a post on Rock Paper Shotgun about key gaming moments. It got me thinking, and I wrote this:

One of my key gaming memories was "Ending the Doom Wars". Nowadays I have 101 FPS games to play. Back then, an undergraduate at university with my first PC (I had to work full time at Asda for a week, sometimes 12-hour days, to get the money for my 486DX to replace my beloved Amiga 1200) I had one, and it was called Doom. I had played the free shareware episode again and again. Then a university lecturer lent me the CD with the full game on so I could install it, and I began to play in earnest. The rules I set for myself were originally that I had to play on the Ultraviolence difficulty level (the hardest one before respawning enemies appeared) and I was not allowed to reload a game if I died. Instead I pressed spacebar to respawn with just a pistol. No level in Doom was impossible - it just meant a different approach as you sneaked around, led monsters to fight each other, and gathered weapons all over again. In fact, that was often more fun than entering a level with a full loadout. It made it tense again. Scary, even. It meant your skills and knowledge of the level improved. And the feeling of satisfaction as you survived to hit the exit switch was all the better.

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Monday, 17 November 2014

Lykke Li

At the weekend I went to Manchester to see Lykke Li perform at the Albert Hall. She's a very exciting, super-talented Swedish woman who writes songs, sings, and performs, but is hands-on as a creator and re-creator in other areas. Her videos are striking, she's been in films, and she is happy to reinterpret her previous work (the versions of songs performed at the concert were often subtly changed from the album versions).

If you've never heard of her, here are some of my favourite songs and videos: the funky Get Some; her new Gunshot; the mesmerising Sadness Is A Blessing; and I Follow Rivers.

This concert was at the Albert Hall. I'd never been before, it's a cool venue, with its stained glass windows and cavernous interior. I chose to be stood in front of the stage rather than sitting on the balcony and being restrained. Eliot Sumner was the support. I’d not come across her before but she came on and owned the stage with her big bass and punky attitude, singing catchy and energetic songs with such gusto it was a really great surprise bonus to see her too.

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Friday, 7 November 2014

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Walking Dead


I enjoy PC games that tell stories, and games where you get pulled in, to become an actor in that story, making decisions that can change things. We all love it when we read a book or film and think: "What would I do in that situation?" With a good game you can find out.

Since it's Halloween, I decided to replay the PC game The Walking Dead (Season 1). Forget the zombies, it's an emotional tale of a man redeeming himself and protecting a young girl. By the end of the fifth and final episode many gamers reported being upset and emotional in a way they had not experienced before in a game - something more familiar to book readers. To be upset you have to care about the characters. This is a game that is all about characters, and difficult (if sometimes artificial) decisions. I couldn't help but be impressed at how this story was told. And if you enjoy The Walking Dead comics, and Romero's first three zombie films (Night, Dawn, Day), this will certainly scratch your itch. Remember the paradox: the biggest danger, but also sometimes your best help, is other people.

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Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Readers Wanted!


Hello my discerning, intelligent, attractive friends. I'm fine, thanks. Wow, you look good today, John. That pin-stripe suit goes so well with the Fender Strat on your back. Now, if I - oh, that dress really suits your drumsticks, Susan. That's it, take a drink. I've gathered you all in my castle today to talk about my next novel, 2000 Tunes. It's nearly there. I've had good feedback from my editor, which was a cause for rejoicing. I was told the novel is well-written, immaculately plotted, and entertaining. The one issue left is that it's too long for most publishers, so needs a bit of trimming back, and a few other small touches.

"What's it about?"

Thanks for asking, Roger. It's set in the year 2000 and is about a music-obsessed young man waiting for The Hacienda to re-open. And about love. And family. And criminals. It can be read as a partner to Cold Fusion 2000, though that isn't necessary, since 2000 Tunes stands alone. It's just that if you enjoyed Cold Fusion 2000 then you should like 2000 Tunes. (Whereas if you prefer my horror stories then this probably won't be your cup of tea, or glass of Pineau des Charentes).

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Thursday, 23 October 2014

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Friday, 10 October 2014

My Childhood Home

What makes a house a home? For me it was the last house when we were a family, before Dad left, before Dad died. Red brick council estate, anonymous on the outside, all the character behind the door. The wildlife too, with mice that nibbled our power-cut candles, and maggoty caterpillars that dangled and spun from the lace in my bedroom, a part of every view.

As a kid you don't think about money. It was a great treat when Pot Noodles were launched and we had them for our tea. The first clue that money mattered was when I got a Scalextric set for Christmas. I loved racing the cars with Dad until one of us spun out. It was gone by Easter, disappearing from the top of my wardrobe one night, taken by the anti-Santa. Mum told me we needed the money. I didn't mind. We'd all give a thousand Scalextric sets to go back in time and live one week again. Family beats racing cars in the stone, paper, scissors of life. A few years later and my dad was gone too, taken in the night.
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Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Bad Language - the roundup


I hate the way language gets mangled. I might be enjoying a nice pint of beer when a scruffy oik enters my domain and tells me that something is "addicting": he is pelted with left over jam roly-poly. The silly oaf who tells me that "Team GB did well" is kicked up the posterior and informed that the adjective comes before the noun - it is "the British team". The voluminously-robed lady who tells me her "gender is female" is forced out of the castle and into the moat, along with a sheet of papers explaining that male and female are sexes, not genders. Once they are dismissed the wolves howl and and the owls hoot during another lovely evening of refinement and System Shock.

What 3 things are wrong with the English text? 

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Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard


I recommend watching this free documentary about The Pirate Bay - the power of the big media companies in collusion with governments is terrifying.

"Oh, the judge was actually part of the organisation doing the prosecution and never announced it? Never mind, we don't see any conflict of interest there."

Watch it here or download it with subtitles for free from GOG.

No surprise that Hollywood then used US copyright laws to try and silence free speech. On principle I avoid ISPs which block The Pirate Bay (I'm with GreenISP).

---

[An aside, added after publishing the post]: For background it's worth knowing that as well as a writer I am a librarian, so I make a living from my creative works AND am involved in making information available to all, which helps me see both sides. I think we're currently far too entrenched in restrictions (DRM, blocking, legal cases, take downs etc), and the multimedia industry are incredibly short-sighted and backwards. The loaning of a DVD is a good example, since if I lend a friend a hammer then the hammer industry could argue they are losing a sale, but they'd never get away with acting like Hollywood does. In some cases I've bought a CD/film/book only because I could pass it on to someone else when I'm bored with it (I try not to have too many possessions) - as soon as things are more restrictive then I just don't buy it and they lose out on a sale. Reminds me of when you buy a DVD and are forced to sit through 5 minutes of video clips accusing you of being a potential criminal, and you just wonder why you bothered buying it in the first place. Anyway, here's hoping for some sense in the future - I read this good news earlier today.
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Saturday, 13 September 2014

FTL (Faster Than Light)

Things are not going well for this ship

I love stories in all their formats, not just books. Give me a good film and I'll be lost for two hours. Give me a good computer game and I can be lost for far longer. For that reason I sometimes avoid games that I know I'll love, particularly perma-death roguelikes. I recently gave in and tried FTL (Faster Than Light). It is a big mistake for productivity! It is one of those "Just one more game!" specials, because when you die you always feel you can do better, that it won't take long to play one more game, and suddenly you are lost again, being the captain of a small space ship on a tense race against time.

The game captures the atmosphere of a cross between a cut-down Star Trek and Firefly. Be a goodie. Be a baddie. No game takes too long to play, each one tells its own story. You can rename your ship and crew to make things more personal (use the names from your favourite sci-fi show or film, or those of your friends, neighbours and loved ones; it's a lovely personal touch which makes each crew member more memorable). Forget the USS Enterprise - my most successful mission so far was in the supership known around the universe as The Kitchen Sink. (I was low on inspiration that day).

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Monday, 8 September 2014

Something is wrong

Something is wrong in this place.

Stares can be cruel, yes, I see that. Scar tissue does not bleed, it is a sign that things are planned, not random, yes, stories and people, the world's architect, self-evident. I see and know. I am not hurt any more. Look all you like. And I will look back at you. And we will see who is the strongest. I am bigger. Mind, body, scar tissue. Yes. I do not like "vibrations". The term is imprecise. No. It is mood I feel. Mood comes from choices. Mood comes from entities, from people and things which pass through or rest in a place. Rest, yes. All choices.

Dark panelling. A choice. Lighting that makes one area - that one by the bar - bright, that is choice, that makes shadow elsewhere, yes. The mood. It is wrong. I see. I will unravel. I see architect's plans, yes, I see.

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Sunday, 17 August 2014

Friday, 15 August 2014

It was done


It was done. You grip as hard as you can, and sometimes you still fall. The straps were tight, the white knuckles that were stronger than her own, and the chair shuddered forth onto the track, whip-cracking her neck. Then it began to rumble backwards. She watched the hospital ward recede. Just as the surface had receded. The light was yellow, flickering and artificial. This place had never seen daylight.

There was a shriek from behind her, the direction she was moving, every jerk of the chair punctuated by mechanical clanks. It was a cry of fear, not pain. That would come.

Everything was buried down here. The graveyard of the dirty secrets, and the inconvenients, and the thinkers. Strapped-down freedom, buried hope. She would be in good company, and she wouldn't cry. She was past that. Walk through fire once more. Raw, without painkillers, she'd burn, whatever they did, she'd burn. Friction caused a reaction, always. She was the blister. They were going to cut her out.

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Monday, 11 August 2014

Kurt Vonnegut tips


Last week I was at an inspirational Ty Newydd writing course in north Wales, led by Mavis Cheek and Francesca Rhydderch. One of the many, many things we learnt in passing was Kurt Vonnegut's 8 rules of writing. I recommend reading them if you do any creative writing. They're in his usual dry and irreverent style. If you enjoy them then his talk about story structures is well worth watching too (I have seen it many times!)
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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

One of my stories was shortlisted in the Writers' Village International Short Fiction Award

I just got back from a writing trip to find this email waiting for me:
Congratulations! Your story has been short listed in the Writers' Village summer contest 2014. This is a magnificent achievement, given that your story competed against many hundreds of contestants and the number and standard of entries in this round was even greater than before.

Meanwhile, here is some brief feedback on your story, Sweet Nothing.

Overall power to engage the reader incl. conflict (points out of 10): 9
Originality of story concept (points out of 10): 9
Appeal of first paragraph(s) (points out of 8): 7
Unity of story structure incl. closure (points out of 8): 8
Aptness of language to story-line (points out of 6): 6
Professionalism of presentation (points out of 3): 3
Total marks out of 45: 42

Remarks: This poignant story of a flinty mother with a well hidden heart of gold certainly moves the reader!
For a full explanation of how these judging criteria were applied, please see this page.

What a lovely surprise! It came with a cash prize too.
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Monday, 21 July 2014

Wherefore art thou, style?


For some time I have wanted a style guide that matches my own preferences. A single book to rule them all, and to replace my own rapidly-growing style document. Every time I pick a style guide up and flick through it I'll find an entry recommending something that looks inelegant or counter-intuitive or inconsistent. The point of a style guide is to standardise things; by standardizing a style, you promote a standard for language.

After flicking through Guardian Style I thought my search was over. At first glance it seemed sensible and comprehensive. And it is the guide for a Manchester newspaper, which earns bonus marks. So I bought it. Today I finished reading it from cover to cover, as is my wont. Sadly, although often interesting, it turns out that my search must continue for a style guide that I can accept.

What made me unhappy with Guardian Style?

Firstly it was the lack of internal consistency, meaning that they end up needing 50 entries when a single rule applied throughout would have been much more … stylish. And required only one entry, saving a lot of time. Here are some examples of this inconsistency:
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Friday, 18 July 2014

Thanks

Never underestimate how happy it makes a writer when we receive positive comments.
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Thursday, 17 July 2014

Focus on your writing

I'm currently reading Focus: A Simplicity Manifesto In The Age Of Distraction by Leo Babuta. There are lots of tips for cutting distractions from your life: later I will be tidying the window ledge next to my PC so that it is not full of pots, paperclips, pads and pens.

One of the sections that interested me was about plain text, full-screen word processors. They strip things back to basics to give you a blank screen to focus on, without buttons, popups or a visible Windows taskbar; even formatting options such as italics and bold are gone. Just bang out the words. Removing bloat can increase the power. For a writer these tools make a viable alternative to using Microsoft Word, especially when you are starting from fresh on a new project. Below I have included screenshots and links to the three I plan to spend more time with.




All are free; none need installing, and they seem to be portable via a USB memory stick.

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Monday, 14 July 2014

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Trial new cover


As an experiment I have uploaded a new cover for Cold Fusion 2000. It's only for the e-book versions, and will probably just be for a limited time. You can get a look at it by clicking the image above. There's a few elements I like, in terms of it fitting the story:

  • Manchester city streets;
  • The hand-drawn font implies something childish (Alex!);
  • The sun could be rising or setting: either way it is a liminal time, a story set somewhere between other things; it maybe resembles a halo of light (which makes sense if you have read the novel);
  • There's something lonely about those streets;
  • There are shadows at the edges, things may not be perfect;
  • The subtitle gives a bit more of an idea about what the novel might contain.
Better or worse than the previous cover?

Base image by Danka & Peter, downloaded from unsplash.
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Thursday, 3 July 2014

Some short stories I like

This list isn't comprehensive, just some stories that stuck in my mind because of the plot, setting, twist, characters, or even just the writing. What are your favourite short stories?
  • Lot (Ward Moore, 1953). End-of-the-world panic. It's as unsettling as you'd expect.
  • The Last Rung On The Ladder, and Children Of The Corn (Stephen King, 1978, in Night Shift). One serious, non-horror King story that punches you in the stomach; and one gripping horror that captures a sense of place brilliantly (and happens to be one of the many inspirations for Turner).
  • To Build A Fire (Jack London, 1908). I read it as a child and decided I would rather freeze to death than burn. It captured my imagination.
  • Weekend (Fay Weldon, 1978). On re-reading it, I realise it must have been in my subconscious when I wrote my short story It Will Be Quick.
  • Let Me Count The Times (Martin Amis, 1981). Once I realised where the story was going it brought a smile to my face.
  • More Tomorrow (Michael Marshall Smith, 1995). You put this one down with a mix of relief and horror.
  • Splatter Of Black (Charles A. Gramlich, 1995). A great example of how to write an action-packed tale.
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Sunday, 22 June 2014

11 questions

My friend and fellow writer Shaun Horton has answered 11 questions on his blog; he has now told me to answer 11 questions of his choosing too. Writers like passing words back and forth. In the past I've interviewed him and he's interviewed me. Okay, off the cuff, let's go.

1. If you could travel anywhere at all, where would you go for a vacation and why?
If I could get there without burning fossil fuels (rockets are so blimmin' wasteful) - say via teleportation, or flying there like Superman - then maybe the moon. For the solitude. The views. The chance to contemplate our insignificance. And to claim it as my own, a free state built on ethics.

2. Giant monsters or viral outbreaks? 
Viral outbreaks. I loves me some zombies. I find it easier to believe that outbreaks of that kind would occur than giant monsters. Nasty military germ warfare viruses always escape into the wild. Something that's too small to see is too small to fight.

3. Your neighbor is being unruly. What kind of fence do you build?
Some kind of living hedge. Tall, good for wildlife, but with prickly bits to stop the neighbour sticking their head through and ruining my peace.

4. What book or movie is your "guilty pleasure" that people wouldn't believe you like?
People who know me wouldn't be surprised by anything. But let's go with An Officer And A Gentleman.

5. Do a google search for Ink Blots, post the 3rd picture in the second row and describe what you see.

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Friday, 20 June 2014

Lots of visits!

While I wasn't looking the blog shot past 50,000 views (currently 50,141). Many thanks to all my loyal readers! My most recent giveaways ended today, which had attracted hundreds of entries, so I'll count that as my way of saying thank you more formally. I now have a pile of books to lovingly package and post. Well done to all the winners!
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Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Monday, 16 June 2014

Numbers ticking over


Almost 50,000 page views! What should I do when I reach that goal? Suggestions on a postcard (or in the comments below).
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Sunday, 15 June 2014

Why I like Rock Band


I've always been into the various forms of creativity, and appreciated music without being musical myself. Over the years of playing Rock Band I've been inspired to take it to the next level and start learning to play the guitar. I'm getting started with a combination of online tutorials, rote learning from Rock Band 3 (using a game guitar that resembles a real one), and various practice exercises with a real electric guitar in Rocksmith.

A group of friends regularly join me to play in our fictional band, Organic Apocalypse, and we're moving towards doing all the other parts for real too: we have a bassist; singers; and drummer with an impressive midi drumkit that works both in the games and through a real amplifier.

The video below goes into a bit more detail about what Rock Band is and why I love it. And yes, I realised afterwards that I got the string order wrong, which shows what a noob I am. It should be EADGBE (I thought of Bad Girl rather than Great Britain).



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Saturday, 7 June 2014

Friday, 6 June 2014

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

On poetry

Yeah, I can read. Get over it.

I read a lot. I recently started reading a poetry book (to go with all the other books I have on the go - sci-fi graphic novels, Idoru by William Gibson, Guardian Style, Oxford English Dictionary, Green Party new members' guide, Society for Editors and Proofreaders' Code of Practice, and a veggie cookbook bigger than my head).

This collection is written by one of my friends, The Shape of a Forest by Jemma King. One of the things I love about poetry is the way words are used so concisely, not one word wasted, always the correct one chosen. Long fiction writers can learn a lot from this. Here are some that struck me as I started this collection.
The damning thing was
the finger bone. Hers, they said. 
(Amelia Earhart)
Words, slipped into a narrative where you don't expect them (e.g. on turning a page) can have the ability to shock and pause.

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Friday, 9 May 2014

The Artist

I'm always interested in succinct ways of telling a story, whatever the media: campfire tale, novel, microfiction, graphic novel, film. I think that's one of the reasons that I enjoyed The Artist so much. It's amazing that a story can be told in so few words, and those used were apt. It teaches many lessons in what we show and how we show it as writers. Everything is done to perfection. The music, cinematography, acting ... all are really charming and without a wasted scene or any time when there was nothing worth looking at. The main performers were incredibly charming and likeable. It's not often I see a film where I can't see any flaws at all. I really recommend it as evening viewing if you have nothing else lined up this weekend! Here's the trailer:

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Friday, 2 May 2014

Sci-fi city names

Great place to live. That or Jockstrapberg.

A while ago I had a discussion with another writer: he was looking for ideas for fictional city names and had run out of magical inspiration glitter. It's an interesting query. Often it makes sense to use real locations, as I have done with my novels so far, but sometimes it is nice to be able to start afresh. This applies particularly to sci-fi novels. In some of those cases you will want something exotic and completely new, but in others you want names that could be real world cities.

Coming up with that kind of name is fun. I like to use serendipity: open a dictionary at random then try the words in combination, or with suffixes such as -don/den, -berg, -ville, -ester and so on, or with a prefix such as San or New. Or pick words from the dictionary that have some positive connotation or sound. Silverdon, Angelberg, Glowville, San Aqua, Worthester, New Canville and so on. You’ll probably get 60 options within the hour to pick from, at least one should work (probably something more subtle than those above).

I also have letter dice, originally used to come up with fantasy names for roleplaying games, but they could work here too. Just throw, shuffle, see what comes up, modify it if necessary.

Here we go: what fictional city will you live in?
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Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Writers' Village International Novel award

A £500 cash prize can be won for a debut novel in the Writers' Village International Novel award, closing 30th June. Novels that have previously been self-published are also eligible. The winning author will be assessed by international literary agency A. M. Heath for possible representation and the top eight contestants will receive personal feedback on their novels by the judge, novelist Michelle Spring, Royal Literary Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Entry is £14.
Details here.
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Monday, 21 April 2014

Feed the beast with me

Two quick notes.

First is an open invite. Does anyone want to do a guest post on my blog? Other authors: talk about any aspect of writing, or your own experiences as a reader. Readers: what do you love or hate in terms of books or reading experiences? I'm open to suggestions from anyone, just get in touch if you'd like to write a guest post.

Secondly, there's freebies for people buying my books. Also, if you Tweet, blog or Facebook about one of my books, or put up a new review somewhere, then send me a link - you can have something from the list too. Offer valid until June.

Thank you all. Now go and enjoy a nice cup of tea and some victoria sponge cake.
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Tuesday, 15 April 2014

It were only a shilling and sixpence in my day


Here's a fun tool which is also a fantastic resource for writers and educators. What would a pint of beer have cost back in 1976? How much does that 1989 salary equate to nowadays? This "Historic Inflation Calculator" tool will answer that for you, back and forth through time.

Writers keep all sorts of information. I have a folder of very old bank statements and receipts - not for tax purposes, but so that when I write any story set in the past I can go through items from the time, and identify how much I paid for things. The inflation calculator tool is a handy add-on for that.

Inflation is a weird thing. I sometimes worry about the day when buying a bar of chocolate will cost me a million pounds. Then I lie awake in bed wondering why humans haven't decided to stamp out inflation so that it exists no more. Then I decide that I'm weird and go back to sleep.
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Friday, 11 April 2014

Monday, 7 April 2014

Night Z


"I'm here to kick ass and chew gum. And I'm all out of ass."
(Mmm, doesn't sound as tough as the original when I put it like that).

This Saturday I took part in a Battlefield Live special zombie event down in Pembrokeshire. I love interactive stories, especially those created by doing, where you are a true participant; I also savour a bit of fictional horror and darkness, so these kind of events are a perfect fit for me.

There was a lot of excitement as my family group made our way there - a fog descended that was incredibly creepy, along with light rain. We were dressed for the apocalypse though, so the damp didn't matter. It was also getting dark, as we chose the session that began as the last of the daylight faded. Put all this together and you have trepidation even before you arrive!

After a briefing the players split into two teams of eight: we were humans versus humans in a battle for supplies (food, water, ammunition) during a zombie apocalypse. So how did the zombies fit in? They were "walkers" who randomly wandered the paths moaning, then they came after you if they detected you. The paths were just wide enough that you could dodge past them but usually it was better to run another way and hope you didn't sprint head-first into another walker! Some of them moved silently so you got a real shock when you rounded a corner and came face to face with one. The make-up and acting was great, totally convincing, giving you a visceral thrill as you abandoned your goal and just retreated full speed. It is obvious that everyone involved put lots of thought, time and effort into the whole event.

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Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Goodreads, giveaways, marketing, getting into trouble


I really like Goodreads. Although I also use Shelfari and LibraryThing, it is Goodreads where I interact most with books and readers.

I have done giveaways in the past. They seem like a good idea and are favoured by Goodreads staff because it means their users get freebies without it costing Goodreads a penny. I've found it has one large benefit for authors: it means people who haven't heard of your book become aware of it. More people mark it as "to read". There is a downside though. Every book has an ideal audience which is smaller than the full reading population (Karl's Law). Whether it's a Western or a young adult vampire romance, some readers will devour it, others will revile it. You want to target your book only at the former. Then everybody is happy. However, in a Goodreads giveaway any reader can tick that they'd like a copy. So you get people applying for every book just to get something for free. Then Goodreads software chooses who gets the books. This is where it goes wrong. My experience is that of all the books I've sent out for free via Goodreads giveaways, only a small percentage (possibly one in ten, but hard to know for sure since Goodreads doesn't share this data with authors) actually reviewed the book. This is a far lower percentage than if I'd chosen my own readers. It gets worse: I've seen reviews along the lines of "This book really isn't my kind of thing..." THEN WHY DID YOU SAY YOU WANTED A COPY? DON'T YOU READ THE SYNOPSIS? So the end result can leave you worse off. Goodreads also makes costly mistakes. Once I selected a giveaway just for the UK. I triple-checked the details as usual. Then Goodreads sent me a list of US readers to send the book to! It was incredibly expensive. The end result is that Goodreads giveaways can be a mixed bag for authors.

What else can you do? A targeted giveaway is much better. It's the logical approach. In August last year I made the mistake of being logical, even though I thought I was adopting best practice.

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Friday, 21 March 2014

Touting the hot-cold theorem

I'm interested in how different types of artist communicate with their audiences, and how fans support and "consume" them. With authors the main form is for fans to buy their books and read them. This is certainly the main financial transaction. Some authors do readings and author events, which can enable personal interaction, though there's usually little (if any) income generated for the author. It's just a nice chance to meet readers. So the principle relationship is written words, transmitted after the event "cold" (even though they may have been written in heat).

With musicians there is a similarity when you buy their music on CD, LP, MP3, or whatever format. The finished product, set in stone with fiery lithography then cooled as the heat fades to leave the impression of the sounds and words, unchanging and final. And it is good. But the extra option of seeing an artist perform live, in the heat of flux, is actually a major income source for many singer-songwriters and bands. You get the immediacy, the warm malleability of a live performance, an extra level of closeness as the sound vibrations reach your ears unmediated - a valuable form of contact with an artist.

You'd think when some concept has been around for a long time that all the kinks would have been removed from the process, the loopholes closed. But it's not so.

I really admire Lykke Li. Captivating presence, emotional communication, haunting voice, talented songwriter and wordsmith. It's not often that I go to see live music. I live at the end of the line - literally. But when I saw that she was playing in the UK it was a no brainer. I didn't care that I would have to travel to England, and to a big city (I have no love for London, though the venue itself sounded cool). I assumed the tickets would sell out fairly quickly but there were two London dates, and I got up on the day they went on sale and went straight online: but less than an hour after sales began, they had sold out.


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Thursday, 13 March 2014

Free book


See the "Special Offer" link at the top of my blog? You might be surprised to know that it links to a special offer.

(Hopefully not too surprised: the clientele who frequent this blog are a select bunch, 75% more intelligent, 23% more attractive, and 64% more lovely than the statistical human average.)

I always have a pile of books I've read. If you buy one of my novels in print, or two of them in e-book format, I'll post a book to you (pick it from the list) to say thanks!
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Saturday, 1 March 2014

Read an e-book week


Tomorrow is the start of "Read an e-book week" (an event that has been taking place since 2004). Some places to go for special offers:

Smashwords Read an E-book Week Catalogue - nearly 40,000 multi-format books regularly priced at free, and thousands more that are free or deep-discounted for one week only.

Apple iBooks - for iPhone, iPad and iTunes users, a click on this link brings up a selection of free e-books at the Apple iBooks store, organized by categories such as Featured Titles, Fiction & Literature, Non-Fiction, Children & Teens, Romance, Mysteries & Thrillers, Sci-fi & Fantasy, Biographies & Memoirs, Arts & Entertainment and more.

Barnes & Noble - a neat and well-organized collection of thousands of free e-books organized primarily around Fiction, Romance, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and Mystery. Click the "See all" link to drill down into multiple other categories of free books.

Kindle - the usual site, and note the "Top 100 free" link on the right.

"Buy My Work" at the top of this blog leads you to places that sell (or give away!) my e-books, and there are some which aren't yet included on that page, e.g. these freebies.

Have fun!
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Friday, 28 February 2014

Writers' Village competition


The Writers' Village site has a short story competition.
  • Prizes totalling £4500.
  • Deadline is 30th June 2014.
  • Entry fee is £15.
  • Stories can be up to 3000 words, any genre.
  • Rules and entry here.
It should be noted that the top 50 contestants get a brief personal critique of their stories. I've had those, and thought they were very useful.
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Sunday, 23 February 2014

Review: Little Brother


Little Brother
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I think this is an important book, like a modern reworking of 1984 but with a more positive outcome. The latter is possibly because it is written in a style accessible to teenagers – great, get them interested in questioning things, empower them to take action rather than bow down to oppressive regimes. People need to be politicised!

It made me laugh out loud in a few places, e.g. “The web browser we used was supplied with the machine. It was a locked-down spyware version of Internet Explorer, Microsoft’s crashware turd that no one under the age of forty used voluntarily.”

It works as a story; it works as a warning; it works as a believable interpretation of many governments, since we learn more and more about how much they spy on us, how unclear the law is on the matter, and how they silence people who spread the truth with imprisonment and draconian laws. (My favourite recent UK example is http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jan/31/footage-released-guardian-editors-snowden-hard-drives-gchq ).

The other thing about the story – it works at making you angry. Angry at the assumption by those in power that they are not our servants, but rather, that we are theirs. To be secretly spied on. And most countries have systems whereby your only vote options are between parties that will let this continue. Is it any wonder that people feel disenfranchised by the formal political systems? Politics is about how you live your life. Politics is about the right to express yourself free from interference. We don’t have this. Legitimate concerns and dissatisfaction are interpreted as ‘terrorism’ by Governments, showing how out of touch they are with the people. And this book captures that zeitgeist.

PS Download it for free from Cory's site.

View all my reviews
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Monday, 10 February 2014

Apostrophes

I've been thinking about apostrophes recently, following Cambridge Council's dropping of them, then their reinstatement following public pressure (including my digging). I've been asked questions about apostrophes, and when they should be used. I thought I would do a bit more public service and explain the rule I work by.

Traditionally we talk about apostrophes as being there to show omission and possession. The issue of omission is quite straightforward, and I'll link to some good guides on that. The idea of possession is not quite so simple though, since it does not fully explain the many cases where there is no possession or ownership in any traditional sense.

"That is Karl's book." This is straightforward. I own the book. But then we come across cases like these:

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Monday, 3 February 2014

Stages in writing a novel - rewriting

There are various stages involved in writing a novel. This is a simplified view, which generally represents my own process.


  1. First is the 'gathering ideas and thinking' stage. This doesn't mean planning everything out, but does lead to convincing details, key plot points, and ideas about some of the characters. And although some of the research can come after the first draft is written, with the imagination filling in the blanks for now, at least a bit of research is appropriate here since it will save you time. The system I use is quite efficient. I have folders for future novels, and even though I am not working on them yet I save snippets whenever I come across a phrase, description, bit of information or scene idea that is relevant. By the time I come to start that project I will already have a lot of material to work from.
  2. Then you will write a first draft. I'm not going to say much about that today. During the process you'll also do some editing and further research.
  3. The mysterious process of 'rewriting'. More on this below.
  4. Probably an external literary editor. This is a bit like a game of snakes and ladders: if you are unlucky you might get sent back to the rewriting stage. If you rolled a six then you can move on.
  5. Make the changes and edits your literary editor suggested. Keep polishing the stone.
  6. Get it proofread. Do some tweaks, more polish, and then you could be finished. Celebrate with some cake and a nice glass of ginger wine.


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Monday, 27 January 2014

Cambridge Council's inability to understand guidance and punctuation

A Cambridge sign corrected by language campaigners
after the council's apostrophe vandalism

Well well well. This is interesting. I've being doing a bit of investigative journalism.

I recently posted about councils dropping the apostrophes from road names. I suspected the council found them to be too complicated. They had used the excuse of it being a recommendation:

"Cambridge City Council said they were only following national guidelines [...] Nick Milne, the city council officer responsible for street naming, said [...] the policy brought the council into line with the National Land and Property Gazetteer where all new street names are registered." [Source]

"Councillor Tim Ward, the Executive Councillor for planning, told the Cambridge News: “We are following national guidelines [...] If they change their view we might change our policy." [Source]

So I contacted the National Land and Property Gazetteer. It turns out it is worse than I feared - the guidance does not advise against apostophes in street names or on signs at all. The council had either completely misunderstood the guidance, or wilfully misinterpreted it. According to the email I received from the NLPG this morning:

"GeoPlace does not advise that councils include or remove punctuation in official naming or on the street name plate. Street naming and numbering is a council policy decision."

So the council's claims to be dumbing down language for some official reason are utter nonsense.

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Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Syrup


Well, that's the last 3,000+ words written on the current draft of my next novel. It felt emotional to me, tying things up, even if it will seem cheesy in the cold light of editing day. It was one of the brand new scenes, so I wasn't even 100% sure how it would go, what characters would say or do, which added to my impetus. The novel still isn't finished, since I have some scenes to re-write, new elements to introduce, a new character called Bazzy Brown-Rider to consider building in, and then at least one full re-read and close edit before it goes to an independent editor (then back to me for more re-writing) but... it's getting there. Has a shape, a start, an end, a development. Some heart, too. Many times better than the previous draft.

Many writing days are a struggle. You wring syrup from a stone, then stare at it, wishing it was better, more, brighter, cleverer. But you shouldn't judge syrup so harshly. And you occasionally get these days to make up for it, when the sweet stuff flows and and you feel that amongst all those words you've captured at least a fragment of truth about life.
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Sunday, 19 January 2014

Too complicated for councils

Cambridge City Council is dropping apostrophes from their street signs because they think they are too complicated. I know, it sounds like some kind of absurdist joke, but it turns out that it is true.

The thought that ran through my head when I first read that:

  • Maybe the council think apostrophes are too complicated for their residents? That would surely be an indictment of their education system, and suggest they need to run things better. More likely it is the councillors who have trouble with them.
  • They mention the emergency services in that piece, but it is a red herring - any tools the emergency services use for finding addresses should be based on free text, so a search for "scholar road" would find every variant (Scholar's Road, Scholar Road, Scholars' Road). At least with apostrophes they could then be differentiated.
  • The council's other option would be to just avoid possessives in street names. Call it Scholar Street. Queen Row. Densecouncil Lane. Then they could sidestep the whole issue, still match the guidelines, and nobody would mind. The irritation is that they use half the rules for possessives (a letter 's') but ignore the other half of the rules (the apostrophe). All that achieves is making things more confusing and ambiguous.
  • They say they only had one objection, but if they are anything like the council's I know, they will have kept the whole thing very quiet, so probably only one person knew about it before they made the decision.
I know that this is only a minor issue when compared to massive problems such as human impacts on the environment, loss of wildlife, wars, the abuse of other species (and our own); still, it doesn't mean we should therefore ignore it. Any thoughts?

Update: 27th January 2014, I did a bit of digging.
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Monday, 13 January 2014

Public Lending Right


I'm now registered for Public Lending Right (PLR). It took a while to organise, since you have to send evidence to the UK PLR office and set up an online account. It now means that if my books were regularly borrowed from public libraries I would get a small annual income from it in lieu of the sales I would otherwise have (possibly) received from readers. The system is a bit clunky, and since I am a wholehearted supporter of libraries it wouldn't even bother me if a PLR system wasn't in place. I don't kid myself that I'll be in a "most borrowed" list (there's an archive of previous lists here).

The way it works: each year the PLR staff sample a selection of library authorities, analyse the loan data from the public libraries, then the authors receive payments. The authorities sampled change each time. Ideally my books would be in all UK public libraries so that there is a chance of me being included in the sampling. I had publicised my books to libraries when they came out but most library authorities tend to ignore authors, whereas if a local library member wants a book they usually order it without question, pretty quickly too! So please ask your local library to get a copy of one or both novels - all you need is the author and title (if you have the ISBN it is a bonus, and mine are listed on each book page).

If you aren't a member of your local public library, then join up - it is free, and provides you with a wealth of education and entertainment. The following links take you to details of how to join, depending on where you live in the British Isles.

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