Research For Writers


Writers have imaginations. But we also have to do research to get our facts right, so we don't just repeat common mistakes. And, as a reader, if something is wrong it immediately throws me out of the story (depending on the severity). Sometimes it is a lack of understanding on the writer's part, where they just copy what they have seen in other fictions; occasionally it is ignoring facts to make a scene more "dramatic".

Example One - Kaboom!

"Maybe she should just jam her pen into the ballspring valve of one of the oxygen tanks and fill the air with flammable gas. She could spark a match and take out a few of those fuckers with her ... so she can make an explosion." (Source)

The problem is, oxygen isn't explosive. Without some other fuel or explosive element, it would do nothing except make the match burn a bit brighter. You can read more about this misconception.

Example Two - Kathump kathump!

A frequent scene in books and films (so frequent it counts as a hoary cliche) is when someone has drowned or been electrocuted and stopped breathing, apparently died; then a friend gives mouth to mouth, thumps their chest, cries a bit or says "You have to live because I love you!", and with a sudden gurgle the victim wakes up okay, just a little dizzy.

This happened in Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire (Finnick restarts Peeta's heart with CPR), and a million other books and films. Whenever it appears I groan inwardly.

1. If someone's breathing has stopped, chances are their heart has, too.

2. CPR is done when the heart stops; but CPR does not restart the heart, it just helps keeps the brain alive until help comes. CPR is a method to pump oxygen around the body and keep someone alive long enough for proper medical attention to arrive. Mouth to mouth adds more oxygen to their bloodstream, though that isn't necessary for the first few minutes anyway, the victim has enough oxygen in their blood already.

3. It takes a defibrillator to restart the heart (or rather, to shock the heart out of an erratic rhythm - in other cases more advanced techniques and drugs can be used). CPR and mouth to mouth will not restart a heart (except in very rare cases - whereas in books and films it works 99% of the time, as long as the character is important to the author ... which dangerously misleads readers/viewers about first aid, and could lead to real-life deaths).

In the average case in Western society, even with CPR from a bystander, followed by a medical team arriving, hospital, and defibrillation, the survival rate is 10-15%.

"Without immediate treatment from a defibrillator, 90-95 percent of SDA [Sudden Cardiac Arrest] victims will die. [...] The only effective treatment for SDA is to deliver an electrical shock using a device called a defibrillator. [...] Survival rates drop 10% as each minute passes without defibrillation." (Source)

This is why writers need to do a bit of research, as well as knowing the basics of how the world works

Research - And When To Do It

I'm not saying that we have to do every bit of research before we write - in that case, we'd never get started! It's fine to write and just make things up as you go. But you need to check your facts later on.
 
I do research in two stages. The first is the research I have to do before I can plot and write. For example, there'd be no point me writing scenes about medical practice without researching first - I'd be wasting my time sending the plot down avenues that wouldn't exist in real life. However, in many cases you can let your imagination run free and do the secondary research (which is mostly just fact checking and adding of local detail) afterwards as part of the editing process (as detailed here). I enjoy the second type most since it has a logical end - the problem with the first type of research is that you could keep doing it forever.

Another example: if I was writing about a prison escape, I would definitely do research first into penal systems, lock technologies, famous escapes from the past and so on, letting it fire my imagination. But as I wrote the first draft I wouldn't keep stopping to check things. I'd just make it up, or write "[insert lockpick description here]", or add a note to check something later. Never break the flow when you are actually writing, whether to check facts or correct typos or whatever. The flow, and immersion, is important. But later on in the rewrites you will definitely do research into the bits you made up.

Sources Of Information - Interviews

Many sources are the obvious ones: books, journals, and the Internet. Read around a topic and follow interesting leads. I was interested to find that there are telephone numbers for use in fiction.

But don't forget another key resource: people. I sometimes interview people about aspects of their life, usually to do with employment (since I can't do every job in the world, so it is fascinating to interview a dental technician, or a supermarket check-out assistant, or a sound engineer, or to find out about the pressures from management to achieve sales targets in a busy retail establishment). Recording those details enables us to make the fictions real, and when combined with other research it enables us to get into the mindset of a person with a job or hobby we have never done ourselves, or experiencing something we haven't. Everyone has a tale to tell.

Let me know your thoughts on research for writers!

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!
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Chasing Solace - February Blog Tour


In February 2020 there will be an exciting blog tour for Chasing Solace, organised by Random Things Through My Letterbox.

Mon 24th Feb: The Caffeinated Reader
Tue 25th Feb: The Bookwormery
Wed 26th Feb: Miss Known
Fri 28th Feb: Ramblingmads / Scintilla
Sat 29th Feb: Jessica Belmont
Mon 2nd Mar: A Novel Love
Tue 3rd Mar: Rosie Writes
Wed 4th Mar: Annie The Book Slayer

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!
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Cold Fusion 2000 - February Blog Tour


In February 2020 there will be an exciting blog tour for Cold Fusion 2000, organised by Book On The Bright Side Publicity & Promo Services.


10th Feb: Books From Dusk Till Dawn / Yes More Blogs
11th Feb: Me And My Books / Donnas Book Blog
12th Feb: Shalini's Books And Reviews / Books 'N' All
13th Feb: Cathy's World / So Many Books, So Little Time
14th Feb: Hair Past A Freckle / bytheletterbookreviews


Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!
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The Life Of A Weirdo (Specifically, Karl Drinkwater)

How it all began: me and my blue teddy c.1972

I've been interviewed many times, and it is mostly (and understandably) about my writing. So I thought I'd write a post about my personal beliefs and how they affect my life. Even my friends and family won't know everything in this post, though they probably already think I'm bonkers.

This isn't a manifesto, it's just me musing on various topics that I tend to return to and think about a lot.

I'd also be surprised if anyone reads through this whole post. It's 11,300 words. Here are links to all the sections in case you are only interested in one or two:
First, a key point.

Everything Is Political

Note that all authors and writing and life choices are political. Politics isn't about voting for a party, it's about how we should live our lives and organise ourselves. Politics is always there. It's the example we set, as well as the things we say and do.
 
Pride and Prejudice is political (class politics, wealth divisions, sex roles, normalisation of marriage as fulfilment). Books by Tom Clancy are political (fetishisation of the military and weapons, justification for military actions and killing, us-and-them role creations). The news is political (what is chosen for inclusion, how much coverage it gets, what perspective is adopted). Science is political. Going to the shops and buying something is political.

When people think there is no political content in something they support, they're wrong - it's just that the politics is a viewpoint they agree with, so it becomes invisible to them.

Once we realise that politics is everywhere, we can see it, trace the bias, and unravel it. This is the same as how an understanding of the sly techniques of advertising, or the pressure of conformity, can help you to resist those things. They lose some of their power and we can then judge things more effectively.

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We Can Believe Different Things Without It Being An Attack

I prefer to be open about my beliefs, but I'm not here to persuade or argue. If you're not interested, just stop reading! It's fine. If you don't agree, that's fine too. Keep your beliefs, I don't mind. But don't bother arguing or telling me I'm wrong, as if only one person can determine the truth and what is right for everyone else. We are sentient beings. Any time someone tells us their beliefs are true and ours are wrong, the correct response is to get suspicious, or to shout "Bullshit".

Having different beliefs makes us more interesting. It gives us new ideas to consider. Maybe the end result is a shift in our beliefs, or maybe it will just reinforce that we were happy with our original beliefs. This is part of being human.

I won't therefore write "I think ..." or "I believe ..." in front of everything in this post. That would get old very quickly. Please just mentally insert them.

I realise that in many ways my beliefs are unconventional. My life choices exclude marriage, having kids, owning a car or TV, using titles for people, flying around the world on holiday, eating animal products, being religious, and many more. If someone else wants to get married or believe in a religion, I don't care. It's up to them. This is a post about me and my beliefs, not me telling other people what to believe. It's a key point to bear in mind if you read on.

[An aside: I just had a thought about the way I question many conventions. Maybe it's why I try crazy stuff with some of my writing? Examples include one book where I only explain what the protagonist was risking their life for at the end of the novel; a book where it turns out a major character wasn't alive in any of their scenes; and a book where I introduce a major character for the first time at the end of the novel, skipping the pages of notes and history I had on them and truncating all that background information into a few lines of action and dialogue. Feel free to guess which books I am referring to. Sometimes we need to break the rules.]

Regardless of the end conclusions, I do recommend always questioning things, and also seeking to understand ourselves. For the latter, I recommend this book, whatever your age. I always pick up something new when I read it.

Okay, where to start? Well, almost everyone knows I love eating, so that seems like a good place to begin.

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Food, And Coming From The Vegan Star System

I gave up all animal products around 1990, so have been vegan for about thirty years. But it wasn't always that way.

I grew up eating all sorts of meat - it wasn't unusual to be chomping on kidneys, liver, even lamb's hearts full of veins (yes, I can't believe it when I look back, though I remember I wasn't a fan of those at the time).

I left school, where I'd been a bit of a trouble-making anti-authority rebel, and went to a Further Education college to do A Levels and resit some GCSEs which I hadn't turned up for because I'd gone on holiday with my girlfriend instead.

College was the first time when I was treated like an adult by the education system. If I didn't hand in homework no-one would nag me - I'd just get no marks. As a result I changed, took responsibility for my own actions, and started to care about my course and my homework.

I also met people who broadened my world views. One girl told me she was a vegetarian and I used to rib her about it, and try to point out how silly it was. Instead of getting angry, she patiently answered my questions and continued to be nice. It planted seeds. I started to doubt myself. I secretly wrote off to The Vegetarian Society, asking for information. When it arrived, I took the package to a field behind my house, lay there in the sun while my dog lay beside me, and I read everything I'd received. And found I agreed with it all. I decided to go vegetarian. I walked home and told my family. They were surprised. We'd never known a vegetarian before. I was about eighteen. I joined The Vegetarian Society (eventually becoming a local contact).

But that wasn't the end. In the Vegetarian Society magazine I kept seeing adverts for 'The Next Step'. What was that? How could there be a next step beyond vegetarianism? I had no idea. So I wrote off to The Vegan Society to find out more, and the pattern repeated. What they said made perfect sense. I did care about the issues they were campaigning on. I made the decision to go vegan that day and never looked back.

As to the specific reasons - at first it was mainly the animal rights angle. I decided it was wrong to cause suffering to other beings just because I wanted to exploit or eat them. That's always been my main reason, but over time I came to understand the environmental, health, human rights issues and so on, realising that it was all connected, a huge cycle of exploitation that degraded us. Humans have a tremendous capacity for compassion but it is often overwhelmed by pettiness and selfishness. We have to overcome those negative drives if we wish to call ourselves civilised.

Going vegan also taught me to cook, and introduced me to new cuisines. I'd never had olives, houmous, cous cous, bulgur wheat, pitta breads, and hundreds of other exciting new foods. I bought some cookbooks and worked my way through them, discovering all these new tastes and textures. I make meals from scratch every day now, but rarely bother with recipes any more. I try to incorporate more raw elements such as salads, and love to whizz up a smoothie for dinner. I'm lucky to have a local independent greengrocer - so many of them have been forced to shut as people shifted to supermarkets. In fact, I do most of my shopping in independent shops.

So, when I buy food, I get lots of fresh fruit and vegetables (as well as pulses and so on). I prefer local, seasonal, organic, and unpackaged. There's usually a compromise or two to be made there, since it is rare for all four criteria to be available at once. So much for capitalism. We can grow lots of things in the UK (my family grow pumpkins and grapes in Inverness) - we should go back to doing that. The Government could subsidise local organic/veganic produce, so it is cheaper than importing it, and encourages a home market. I don't really buy fruit juice (I prefer to eat the whole fruit), but if I do then I re-use the bottle as a water bottle for a few day trips before recycling it.

I became aware of the issues with palm oil some years ago, and rarely buy anything with it in now. I weaned myself off margarine. It wasn't too difficult. I cook in Scottish rapeseed oil and use that as a base to mash or dress things. For savoury sandwiches I use mayo instead of marge. I reuse leftovers in stuffed peppers rather than pastry pies now (easier and healthier!)

Over the years I've become aware of how many historical figures were vegan. When I lived in Wales I found it a bit sad that people would celebrate Saint David's day by eating meat - Saint David was vegan and would turn in his grave to be used as an excuse for something he disagreed with.

Talking of disagreements: I get annoyed by politicians with obvious ties to animal industries trying to pass laws to favour animal products, while ignoring what words mean nowadays. For example, I've seen it with soya milk, and burgers.

The last thing about what I eat or don't: I never eat Kellogg's cereals. My father was killed in a Kellogg's factory when I was young, and it was a difficult time.

My Relationship To Other Species

My basic philosophy that governs my attitudes to all beings - including humans - is that I don't believe we should cause suffering to others just to benefit ourselves. Fuck slavery. Screw colonialism. And liking the taste of meat is not a sufficient reason to kill other beings. I try to treat others how I'd want to be treated, with fairness and respect.

If I was on a desert island and starving, would I eat another being to survive? Possibly. I'd hate doing it, but maybe I would. Maybe I wouldn't. But in the modern world we aren't in that position, and we have the luxury of choosing to be just and compassionate.

For me, a core principle is that this planet doesn't belong to humans. It belongs to all the beings that make it their home. Our laws are speciesist and say humans can own land and species, all for us to exploit. What a surprise, we create laws to benefit ourselves. That attitude of a group making laws that benefit the group the lawmakers belong to is the underlying cause of all past injustices to subjugated natives. It led to institutionalised slavery, sexism, and racism, as Western laws were made by human white males, and therefore favoured human white males. The law is not divine or demanding respect, it is a human-created tool that has been used as often for oppression, discrimination and prejudice as for justice. This remaining speciesist bias is not addressed because our species benefits too much from it. It wouldn't be "economic" to be just and fair - which shows that perhaps being "economic" focussed isn't the right way to go.

I should also explain that I don't separate "humans" from "animals". Humans are a species of mammal, as are dogs and whales and cows. We're all animals.

An illustration of how our legal system views other species. A UK QC thinks this is a normal and uncontentious thing to do, rather than a psychotic act against wildlife.

Me and my lovely dog Toby, c.1985 - we were best friends, 
and he still turns up in my dreams regularly

I live with a cat, called Dolly. I don't use the term "pets". Dolly is not a possession, and doesn't belong to me even though human law treats most non-humans as possessions. She's also not a child or a surrogate baby. To me, she is an independent adult being of another species. She came into my life and chose me as her friend when she left her previous home as a kitten. She has her own mind, personality, habits, and preferences (which evolve over time). I consider her to be one of my best friends, despite obvious (but surprisingly passable, with patience and perception) communication issues. We have common interests. So when I say she's "my cat", I'm not saying she belongs to me like a possession. The relationship is that she's "my cat" in the same way that I'm "her human" - one of equality, not possession. The same as when we say someone is our mother/father/friend/sister/brother. We're not saying we own them, just that we have a reciprocal relationship with them.

As an aside, Dolly has been vegan for nearly her whole life (apart from when she rarely catches and eats something outside). Her diet is mostly dried foods which contain all the essential nutrients (taurine etc), with occasional treats when I find something she likes, such as a tablespoon of gravy, or a sprinkle of brewer's yeast, or a tiny scraping of vegan cheese (she likes Cheshire and Feta, hates Edam and Mozzarella). All her health checks, weight etc at the vets have always been perfect. She is active, happy, friendly, playful, and ten years old.

Terminology Of Mealtimes

Now for a food issue that is nothing to do with veganism, but is to do with terms for meals.

I'm from a working class northern background. To us, posh people had lunch and dinner. But we called those meals dinner and tea. I still have this debate occasionally with people who don't understand that regional differences are valid, and culture isn't homogenised. It's one of the reasons I like living in Scotland - here, London isn't the centre of standardisation as most UK media implies, it's a distant irrelevance.

Back to my word choices for meals.

"Thanks for cooking me a lovely lunch, Karl."

"You're welcome, but I didn't cook lunch, I cooked dinner."

"No, that was lunch."

"Dinner."

"Lunch."

"At school, when you had that meal, were the people who served and supervised called lunch ladies, or dinner ladies?"

That always leads to a realisation and defensive manoeuvres. Habits are hard to break in humans.

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Health

I try to exercise fairly regularly, and drink enough water. You have to, with my surname. I occasionally fast (no food) for 48-72 hours at a time. I also try to work standing up some of the time. It obviously works - when I worked for a university my sick leave over a decade averaged half a day a year. The UK average back then was 6-7 days a year. I usually get a cold every few years. I'm never going to be as fit as vegans like Frank Medrano, or the people in Game Changers though.

Fun fact: I've never had any inoculations. I'm not against them, but it should be personal choice, since side affects can disable or kill you, or you may have ethical objections to the ingredients and how they're obtained, what growth medium is used, the ethical policies of the companies manufacturing them etc. That information is often hidden from recipients. It's a human right to have a say over what is done to your body.

As you can guess, I don't have much trust in the profit-based pharmaceutical industry, with its endless animal testing for "me too" drugs that are about profitability, not need, and are often more concerned with removing symptoms than with prevention (while side effects cause other complications - for which they usually have another medication, until you have people dependent on cocktails of drugs).

2008, when I used to teach and base my life around aikido

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Transport

I don't fly, and have never owned a car. I run, walk, cycle, get lifts, use the bus and the train.

Fun fact: I once had a job supporting colleges across Wales. I was told it couldn't be done without a car. Then I did it without a car. Just saying. Mostly via public transport and communications tech like video conferencing, or travelling with others to do joint teaching. The fun thing about travelling on public transport rather than driving is that my travel time was work time, rather than wasted time, and I could do all my prep or research during a journey.

Because this has always been my mindset, I've never found it to be a hindrance. I just plan ahead, and avoid unnecessary journeys. I used to see neighbours get in their car to drive to the shop at the bottom of the road. Crazy. I've always chosen jobs nearby, or where I could easily travel to them.

Even as cars slowly move away from petrol as a fuel source, they still require lots of energy and resources to make, still require roads cutting across the world, still lead to loss of green spaces for car parks and front gardens for parking spaces.

Air travel seems equally bad to me. Our culture has little middle ground between banning something, and having a free for all. It's more often the latter, with no restrictions, only encouragements to fly more via cheaper fares and no tax on plane fuel. All that's required to find a middle ground is to say people can only fly at the normal rate once every two years, and if they travel more frequently the price increases massively each time, with the extra money going to support public transport or reforesting.

It would be good if cycle lanes connected every town and city and residential area, so it was easy to have traffic-free cycling around the world. It could create new businesses with stopover accommodation all along the route so people could do multi-day journeys between towns easily. It would do a lot for our health. My annual holiday in Wales was to cycle for a few days, crossing three mountains in each direction, staying in a hotel or guest house at night. I loved it, and got better at it each year, so by the time I left Wales I hardly ever had to get off the bike to push, even on ascents that had destroyed me the first time I tried them.

In general we need far better public transport, all connected up, clean, cheap (screw privatisation and the complications and increased costs it brings in), while discouraging car use. Currently it is a Catch 22 situation: more people are using cars, so fewer people pay for public transport, so there are fewer options and higher costs. We need radical actions to break this cycle, so that instead of taking something away, we're being given something better.

Fun fact from a science fiction writer: I don't support space travel. Not until we learn to live in peace and within our means on our own planet, with self control and respect for other life. At that point, when we become fully civilised, I would support space travel and exploration.

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The Natural Environment

It should be clear that this is something I care about dearly.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Yes, I try to live by that. Repair is important and counts as "Reuse" to me. It is better environmentally to repair, rather than throwing things out and creating more waste. So I mend clothes myself, or use other people for more advanced stuff like replacing zips. I've glued or replaced soles sometimes on trainers and slippers. I got my laser printer fixed recently at an independent tech repair shop. It works perfectly again now. I once had an iron and a kettle fixed, which cost about the same as getting new ones, but saved waste. It all depends on the fault - sometimes it is just a broken connection that can be soldered, or a broken switch that can be replaced.

Obviously it's harder nowadays - most people just bin and replace so there's less of a market for repair (even with easy to repair things like clothes!). Also, many white goods and tech manufacturers purposefully make gadgets hard to repair, in order to get more new sales. Hopefully we can break out of that wasteful cycle one day. All products and white goods should be guaranteed for fifteen years - then manufacturers would have to cease planned obsolescence, and build things to last and be repairable.

Packaging

Packaging is a bugbear of mine. So much food is in non-recyclable mixed materials (combinations of foils and plastics and cardboard), such as crap like Tetrapak, or most crisp packets nowadays; or it is over-packaged, especially by supermarkets. This has got worse in recent years. Zero waste shops are starting to appear though, which helps counteract it. You can get loose dried pulses, nuts, herbs and spices, shampoo bars, basic staples - and it all encourages simpler cooking too. Like it used to be!

Packaging that's biodegradable is another good option, made from things like corn starches. You just compost it. I see this a lot now on ethical chocolates where the "foil" and paper are fully plant-based. The packaging on Vego chocolate spread is great too - when the jar is empty you peel off the label and either use it with the lid as a herb/spice jar, or recycle the lid and have a lovely drinking glass/tumbler.

Maybe to try and fix the excess packaging issue there should be no tax on things that are unpackaged and sold loose, while increasingly taxing overpackaged things. Supermarkets would soon stop wrapping bananas in plastic, or selling junk ready-meals in multiple layers of packaging and containing separate pots and packets.

I have lots of tubs, washable veg bags, and folding canvas shopping bags. I've always used those when shopping, though if I am just buying one or two things and don't have a bag, I just carry them in my hands. That's what hands can do! On the rare occasion I buy any kind of takeaway food I always collect it in my own containers so there's no waste or packaging - and in one takeaway I used to occasionally take in my own plate and cutlery, and eat the food in the shop.

Possessions

I don't buy new stuff lightly. I often hold back on urges to buy something, and see how I feel a week later. Three quarters of the time I don't want it any more, so that habit works. And since I don't celebrate birthdays or Xmas I don't accrue crap in the form of unwanted gifts. Even then, I have gathered too many things in my past. In our culture it is easier to acquire items than get rid of them (ethically: i.e. not just throwing things in the bin). When I no longer want an item I think about whether it would be enjoyed by someone I know, or could be sold, or given to charity.

Now many things are digital it has let me clear a lot of physical items. I have no tapes, cds, dvds, or boxed computer games now. I have fewer print books, and of those left, many I just plan to reread then get rid of. Fewer possessions, clearer mind. I try to only keep things that are regularly-used or well-loved. If I have not bothered with something for a year, it is a candidate for rehoming.

If I do buy something I try to consider the scores and reports from Ethical Consumer. Fun fact: I have only ever owned one mobile phone. I still have it and use it, whereas I know other people who have had more than ten in that time. The culture of "new phones by contract" is a terrible one for the environment, leading to e-waste and pollution.

Clothing

I don't wear branded stuff - in the sense of me paying to advertise a company such as Nike. I do sometimes wear T-shirts connected to films or books that I love, though (and when I set up my own book-related clothing items I picked the most ethical one).

To make things last longer, and adopt the reuse approach, I categorise my clothes by level, with corresponding places in the wardrobe. New items are the top level, for when I want to look my best. When clothes get a bit older they go to the lower level, which is things I might wear to pop to the shops or go for a walk, but which I wouldn't wear to a social event or pub. Lastly, there are the house clothes. These are the more worn items, or maybe they have a bit of a stain. As the name implies, these are just layers for when I'm at home. Usually they are my comfiest clothes, connected to many happy memories. They are kept in drawers. Their next step from there is to be cut up for cleaning cloths or padding, or to go to the rag bank.

A side issue related to clothing is keeping warm. I often wear extra layers at home, rather than spend a lot of money and resources heating up a house, especially if I am in on my own. It's tied to the idea of heating the people, rather than the building. Likewise I have a heated throw or hot water bottle. If there are more people around then we're more likely to gather in one room in the evening and just heat that one. There's something pleasingly social about that.

Toiletries

Many of my choices here are aimed at avoiding plastic. I use compostable plastic-free dental floss that comes in a glass container. Instead of shampoo in bottles, I use shampoo bars which have no packaging at all (and they double as a shower gel replacement). Leftover soap bits are kept, and when I have enough after a year or so I melt them down like this, add scents and extra ingredients, and reform them into new bars of soap. (I do the same with leftover candle bits.) I often make my own laundry liquid out of conkers. Instead of toothpaste I like to make my own tooth powder, and one dentist said it must be working because a small cavity seemed to have been remineralised by it.

Toilet paper - obviously I use paper that is 100% post-consumer waste. It seems a no brainer to me that all toilet paper sold in UK should be that kind. Yet, despite most supermarkets having shelves and shelves of toilet paper brands and types, you are lucky to find even one option that is 100% post-consumer waste! We wipe our arses with it and flush it down the toilet, so why are we cutting down forests for that? Especially when masses of waste paper is not being recycled into anything because there's apparently not enough demand for recycled paper products?

Where possible and desirable I am against throwaway and disposable things. So I use washable cotton hankies. I have enough in my drawer to cope with a cold or hayfever, and still have spares. Connected to that, I like doing laundry (told you I was weird!) and I've lived in houses with women who have reusable sanitary products at some points of their period. It doesn't phase me at all when they're in the laundry (since they've already been soaked so aren't bloody, and they're often bright colours nowadays anyway - obviously I am talking cloth sanitary pads and tampons, not Mooncups etc, which get cleaned differently). I totally support their choice, since it prevents plastic in landfill, and women have many options nowadays. My point is just that reusable sanitary products aren't some taboo thing, or disgusting, or needing to be hidden from anyone else. And men needn't be squeamish about women's bodies and natural processes. It's no biggie.

Human Power!

Just as human-powered transport (walking, running, cycling, kayaking etc) is my favourite, because it is better for humans and the environment and our feeling of accomplishment, the principle could be applied to many forms of labour. We have mass unemployment, yet still keep choosing ways of doing things that are less environmental and remove jobs, a process that began with factory and agricultural mechanisation. Humans were replaced by robots on production lines. Our fields used to have communal hay cutting, and towering haystacks - now massive machines do it all, harming the soil by heavily compacting it, and wrapping the hay in wasteful plastic. Trenches dug by machines could be done with less disruption and damage by humans, and there doesn't then need to be big road infrastructure to get the machinery there either. Things can be done by hand much more gently. It takes more people, and keeps us more active, which is a multiple benefit.

Trees In Urban Locations

All towns and cities could support more trees and green spaces. Those in charge should also think bigger. Instead of working on the principle of single trees dotted around like exclamation marks, there is usually potential to remove larger areas of paving, so there's an area of good soil connected to the earth. Then the area could include one or more trees, then bushes, then flowers, so the largest things are in the centre. This has a big plus – leaves which fall on the bushes and flowers and grass don’t need sweeping up, they just break back down into the soil. It also avoids terrible leaf blowers. All the topiary could be native and wildlife-friendly, and maybe also include fruit or food source items, such as apple or pear, that people can also help themselves to in the autumn. Those are ways of making a big difference – not just small ornaments, but areas that enhance towns and which people can be proud of, with all sorts of people- and wildlife-supporting plants. Some of them could be raised up areas so that the edge wall can double as seating, shaded by trees from summer sun or winter rain. This is far better than single trees surrounded by concrete, or trees in pots, or displays of non-native flowers that need to be replanted each year and do nothing for wildlife. And we absolutely need to avoid the destruction of trees as Labour did in Sheffield.

Litter And The Local Area

Litter is a pet hate, as anyone can tell when I last visited Manchester. Littering betrays a mindset of selfishness or carelessness and self-absorption. I try to be active about it rather than passive. I clear litter (and occasionally clean road signs). Recently I visited Loch Arthur. There's a pull-in there with an open area next to the loch. Unfortunately, there is no bin, and whenever I go there is loads of litter left from barbecues and picnics - bottles, metal, plastic. I had a bag with me so filled it with all the litter, then took it away and put it in a bin when I got home.

There should be a lot more responsiveness from councils and police to catch offenders. Litter is endemic in many areas. If I take some routes I see litter for miles and miles, chucked out of cars or blown there from laybys or dropped by pedestrians. It's even more noticeable when councils cut back bushes and grass but leave the litter. This kind of pollution needs clearing up so it doesn't infest waterways and kill wildlife and encourage more litter. What more could be done? Sometimes it's as simple as a bin in a layby. Yes, people should take their litter home, there's no excuse not to. But at least lazy people might put it in a bin then. But it is more cost and time for councils. They also need to be more proactive at catching offenders with mobile cameras set up in known hotspots. If caught and prosecuted and shamed, it might prevent some of the thoughtless litter dropping. It's tied to lifelong mindsets, public pride, attitude to the environment, responsibility, self control, planning ahead, and cutting down on waste in the first place. (Hey, council, maybe allowing more junkfood takeaways isn't such a great idea after all?)

Rewilding

In Wales people talked of the dramatic hillsides as being "natural". They weren't to me, though. The land and hills used to be covered in forest, which humans cut down (after killing the large wildlife that lived there). They then used the hills to farm sheep. But they could be reforested, there and elsewhere. Wildlife could be reintroduced if we set our minds to it. But it is always harder to fix things than to break them.

In the same way, Forestry Commissions and their ilk shouldn't be allowed to clearcut. Hillsides are scalped and devastated, all wildlife potential lost, topsoil washing away, then the cycle is repeated with more quick profit trees. Instead they should only plant trees native to the area. Then they should coppice sustainably, so they never clear cut massive areas. We get less wood, but can then do bigger plantations, since we're adding to biodiversity, nature habitats, beautiful places to explore, and we would always have sturdy woods there as part of the landscape and as gifts to those who come after us.

"Net Gain Nature"

This is one of the ideas I play around with when I fantasise about ruling the world. It's based on the idea that any change humans make to the world shouldn't just be taking, but also giving. So when we make changes for developments, there has to be a net gain for nature. This would counteract losses at every scale, from mass deforestation for meat and palm oil, down to making changes to a front garden.

It's probably best illustrated with a few examples. At a small scale, someone wants to cut down a tree. It would be a net gain if they do it, but plant three more native trees somewhere else. At a bigger level, the Government wants to build a road. How could that be done with Net Gain Nature? They could calculate how much area of concrete and borders they are going to lay, then plant double that area of native trees and bushes and flowers on each side of it and elsewhere, or restore wetlands of a greater area, or reclaim industrial areas and restore them to nature. The area plus more = a net gain. They would also need to look at wildlife effects, since the road will kill wildlife, and make things worse for them by interfering with their ability to roam their territory. Maybe there could be regular tunnels underneath or wildlife bridges, or even raise the road up with a series of bridges (the latter meaning not so much land is destroyed). More of the connecting habitats the wildlife used could be restored and protected.

All these would minimise developments, make them harder to push through, but still possible if the argument was strong enough. That increased difficulty and cost gives a vital pause for thought rather than rushing ahead as we always have in the past. It would help to prevent a deteriorating world, and instead help to restore and enhance it.

As an aside, I've always thought there should be loads of cemeteries where, instead of a sterile gravestone, native plants, trees, and bushes should be planted to remember the dead with living monuments. This would create new parks and woods, all protected for the future.

A fresh-faced me at 16, about to start college

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Titles Of Address

I have covered some heavy topics, and more to come. So I'm going to take a step back for a moment. Here's one that will annoy some people, and surprise others. I generally refuse to use titles for myself or others, or identify with them. To me it is an old-fashioned system intended to categorise people via a whole structure of discrimination built around sex, privilege, and prioritising certain professions over others. Often titles are honorifics based on philosophies that have nothing to do with my life (e.g. religion, monarchy), or on honorifics for people whose morals I would probably deplore.

It's why I get annoyed when forms include title fields and make them mandatory. Either don't bother including a title field, or at least make it optional. The former is simpler. Here's an example from one website I tried to enter details on:



It isn't even a complete list! It misses off new ones like Mx, and some traditional ones that have crossed between cultures, and those where jobs for the privileged become titles (Chancellor, Ambassador etc). It is all just attempts to fudge the titles system to be more inclusive, when really it doesn’t do anything useful anyway, and is just used by some groups to imply they are better than others. Why would an aikido instructor who spent 30 years researching and practising aikido every day not have the title of Sensei, when they may have done a lot more than someone with a PhD?

Titles are archaic, and my butler Sir Bobbins has been instructed to place them all in the compost bin.

Politeness And Honesty

Since I have been talking about a formal convention ... recently someone was accused of being "terribly rude". I didn't find that at all. The accused made dry observations but that is not rudeness. In fact, I appreciated the honesty. Too often what we call politeness is actually dishonesty or hypocrisy, where true feelings are hidden and false ones projected. Since I hate dishonesty I would favour doing away with politeness in some cases. Nowadays many people seem to almost seek to be offended, rather than learning to rise above offence. Conversely, in terms of the communicator rather than the receiver, self-censorship for fear of offending people is the same as politeness in that it doesn't change attitudes, it just means that people hide their true attitudes, leading to yet more dishonesty. Maybe it's because I'm from the less pretentious north.

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Entertainment

Actually, one more lighter topic before I move on to population.

For escapist entertainment I love books, films, music, computer games, and board games (the last one with friends).

I don't own a TV, and haven't since the early 1990s. I used to own a TV when I had computers that needed one (Atari 2600, C64, Amiga), but once I moved to PCs c.1996 I got rid of the TV. There hasn't been one in my house since then. Broadcast television just seems old fashioned to me. As such, I hate the way TV screens appear everywhere (pubs, dentist waiting rooms etc). If I don't have one at home, the last thing I want is to see them when I am out! As such I generally avoid pubs that have TVs on, and seek out those screenless bastions of civilisation. I like music in a pub, but am equally happy with the chatter of conversation.

Why do I dislike TVs? There are a lot of reasons. Part of it is the idea of having no choice as to what's on. I now just watch what I want via streaming services, either on my PC or via a tablet that uses another device as a display e.g. monitor, projector (or just on the tablet if in bed). Another thing I hate about TV is adverts. I detest advertising in most forms. I don't even go to the cinema any more because, even though I've paid to go in, I'm still forced to sit through adverts for things I dislike - cars, joining the army, McDonald's junkfood or whatever. My PC browser blocks ads, so by avoiding TV, I rarely see them now.

I don't listen to the radio or read normal newspapers, since I get my news from other sources.

Entertainment becomes frustration when DRM is tied in. I hate it in books and games and films. Denuvo ruins games. DRM is just a way of restricting things for your customers, which is a shitty attitude. Likewise I have issues with the current restrictive copyright laws, EULAs, and collecting societies.

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Children And Population

I chose not to have children. And yes, it is for environmental reasons. Even though the birth rate has dropped slightly in some parts of world, the overall human population is growing massively.


As the number of humans grows, it means more roads, infrastructure, consumption, pollution, resource use, and housing. It puts us in conflict with the other life on our planet. All the big mammals in the UK were already wiped out by humans long ago. It's happening all over the world as the largest are endangered, with species officially going extinct most days (it was Sumatran rhinos the other day). Insects and plants are dying off too.

"Humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals. In the last 50 years alone, the populations of all mammals, birds, reptiles and fish have fallen by an average of 60%."
 [Guardian, 2019 - that was based on a study showing "Humans are just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals."]

Note that I am against overpopulation, but as individuals I love kids. My nephews are like surrogate sons. When friends with children visit I enjoy our big family boardgames. Playing the surrogate father/uncle/godparent role is always a pleasure. Kids, dogs and cats all seem to take to me (kind people might say I am playful and imaginative, unkind people might say immature). I'm happy to listen to children telling me about the stories they write, what their dog got up to, how much they like my books, and even giving me writing advice. They see the world in such an unfiltered and fresh way. Plus, it means when I write about children in my fiction, I'm at least aware of how they speak and what they say, so my young characters can be more authentic.

I'm also not saying no-one should ever have children. I'm not against population, only overpopulation. I just think we have to grasp this urgent issue, since we're probably more than a hundred times beyond what is sustainable, and it could take a century of planning to rectify that. In the long run it would benefit humans, our species' children, and the rest of the planet. Just imagine if our population was a hundredth of what it is today. There would be no need for new housing estates on greenfield sites, new power stations, new mines, new roads and infrastructure. We'd have more than enough already. Individuals could have ten times the land they currently have, and be able to afford it without lifelong debt, and still leave another 90% to go back to nature. We could restore national forest and other environments. We would give a world to the children that they deserve, with plentiful natural spaces near their homes, rather than bringing them into one that is despoiled, and increasingly devoid of wildlife. That's why I think adoption is such a good option for many people - giving a loving home to a child that needs it, rather than adding to overpopulation and leaving those parentless children unloved.

Last point on this topic! Not having children definitely benefited me financially. Someone once asked, surprised (years ago) how I could afford my own house when she could still only afford to rent, yet we were on the same salary. I pointed out I didn't have a car, children, holidays abroad, or big expenses such as a wedding. The money saved meant I could buy a house - and it was only five minutes walk to my workplace, down a country lane and through the edge of a lovely wood. Many of my decisions feed in and support others in this way, creating a synergy. Eventually I was able to work just part time, and fill the rest of my time with things I loved doing - writing, voluntary work, whatever - and still be doing okay.

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Friends And My Opinions Of People And Racism

When I meet people and am getting to know them, I always try to find common ground and areas where we agree, and focus on those. With some people (luckily very rarely) that's not easy and it is best to walk away. For the people closest to me I'm most interested in their outlook, what ethical choices they make, how good their sense of humour is, what common interests we have, and how interesting they are.

I don't give the slightest shit about superficialities, things with no moral significance whatsoever: skin colour, hair colour, sex, sexual orientation, age, ability, educational achievements, tattoos, where they were born or grew up, how much money they earn, and so on. None of those are important, even though our culture often seems to imply the opposite.

It's a bit like the concept of race. There aren't really discrete races, it's a social construct to categorise people. But if you took photos of every person on the planet and a super computer mapped us so that we were similar to those around us, we'd see a continuum. And it's not a line, where someone could try and argue one end was better than another - it would be mapped onto a hypothetical globe, and wherever we randomly started we would see gradual shifts in appearance whatever direction we went in, with changes in hair, colour tone, facial structure etc until we ended up back where we started. There are no distinct groups with clear boundaries. We can even see this in the real world, where people from North Africa might have a more similar appearance to their neighbours in southern Spain than those further away in South Africa. It is a gradual transition of superficial differences, all beautiful and varied and fascinating.

Yes, I know the concept of race has some importance in order to understand past and present inequalities, historical cruelties etc but it is still an artificial categorisation, things don't fall into neat binary categories, humans least of all. We're all one species, for good and bad. Those who think some of those slight changes in appearance mean anything significant always seem to come to the conclusion that - oh my! - their own appearance is the best one. What a surprise. But that's just racism born of a narrow world view.

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Monogamy And Marriage

It probably won't surprise anyone that I'm not married and the concept of marriage is not for me. I have some issues with pure monogamy too.

I still remember an argument I had with a lover many years ago. She was an American straight edge with all sorts of ideas that challenged me at the time. In this argument I had been criticising her because she didn't believe in monogamy. She was arguing that I didn't either.

"You're not a monogamist," she said. "You're a serial monogamist. That's why you've had more partners than me."

I'd never even thought about things like that before. I'm surrounded by millions of people who believe in monogamy, but have relationship after relationship, ending one to start another. My lover's argument was that it's often a choice between two people, neither of which are perfect matches, so one is picked and the other discarded until another choice comes along. It puts pressure on people to find "their perfect soul mate" which advertising tells them exists, but because reality rarely lives up to what we're sold by TV and film, people become dissatisfied. In desperation they then try to shape and mould and change their partner, to create a better fit, which leads to conflict. Her argument was that we don't seek a single perfect friend, we accept friends for who they are. They're all different, with different combinations of interests and attitudes, and they broaden our minds. If we want to party, we might hang out with the popular outgoing friend who always knows where to go. If we want exercise, we hang out with the fit friend that keeps trying to get us to go running/hillwalking/swimming. Our moods and needs change, and we don't force friends to fit that, we accept them because they connect with our lives in mutual ways that make both people stronger and happier, and they make us want to be better people. Her argument was that it's no different with someone you're close to. She also said that, because she didn't necessarily want monogamy, she could envisage a system where she had two close friends and lovers who accepted each other and were part of her life forever. She might then only have those two sexual partners during her whole time on this planet, compared to a serial monogamist that might have ten, twenty, or more. And, since intimacy doesn't always need to mean sex, her non-monogamy can include more shades of relationship than a serial monogamist, who generally equates a partner with being a sexual partner.

I'm just repeating some of what she said, because it stuck with me, whether I fully agree with it or not. She made me question things and myself, and for that I am always grateful to her. Particularly her ideas of intimacy, and how holding someone else's hand can be more intimate and important than having sex with them - but generally marriage and monogamy exclude you from holding hands with a person outside of your sexual relationship.

As to marriage ... well, to my mind it is either a contract made before the god you believe in, which is fine, but because I am not religious (oops, spoiler warning for a later section) it doesn't apply to me. I would argue it doesn't apply to most people who get married in a church or with religious vows, but that's another issue. Or, with civil marriage, it is a contract made before a Government. Well, since I think it's none of the Government's business, that wouldn't apply to me either. A third reason is to make some kind of showy statement that you are a couple - but anyone who is close to you would already know, and it is irrelevant to anyone else. So, if it comes down to two people being in love, why not just be two people in love without the ridiculous expense (c.£30,000) of a wedding?

I do wonder about the glass jar effect which I think sometimes applies. What's the glass jar effect? Glad you asked. Imagine you are lying on a grassy bank in summer. There are flowers, and warmth, and a beautiful view. You'd happily stay there and relax for an hour. Then imagine that same scenario, but this time aliens put some invisible forcefield a hundred metres in diameter around the area. The view is identical. It lets the breeze through in the same way. But even though you would normally want to relax for an hour, now it changes - the knowledge that you are trapped means you can't relax, you suddenly wonder about escape, and spend time and thought on that. Nothing has changed in the physical sensations or what is within that forcefield from the moment before it dropped, to the moment after, but just the knowledge that something is stopping you from going beyond it now fills you with an intense desire to get away. The area beyond seems more attractive. Peace is gone. Maybe for some people a relationship before marriage is like the field, and they're happy, and there would be no reason to move away. But as soon as they are married and make vows to never love anyone else again, they create the invisible jar. Some people's minds can't take that, and they now feel trapped. A situation that could have continued indefinitely now feels psychologically limiting. Since I've never been married, I don't know if this is true or not, but since so many marriages fail, it may play a part in some of them. I'm an author, it's my job to try and understand what is in my fellow humans' heads.

I also think affection and intimacy are often restricted to one person in marriage and monogamous relationships. Intimacy doesn't necessarily mean sex. Intimacy can mean a hug, or holding a hand, or sharing your secrets and knowing a person really well. It's just a closeness beyond normal, everyday acquiantances.

Maybe it's partly my background in things like logic: I have issues with formal statements that a person will love someone else forever. People change. Anyone who claims to know what they will feel in the future based on the present, without including any element of scepticism or self-understanding or acknowledging any possibility that they might be wrong (even though we'd all hope they end up being proved right) is, perhaps, not being fully rational. Maybe that's why so many relationships fail. We're human. Imperfect. We get things wrong. The Delphic Oracle said we should know ourselves, because it is a hard thing to do. So I would never tell someone I will love them forever. I could say with all honesty that I love them at that time; that I've loved them in the past; that I think, based on my past, that I am likely to love them for the rest of my life, and that I would like that - but to state something with certainty when it is in an unknown future is something that concerns me.

I hope most marriages and relationships come from love and compatibility, but I know that in some cases there can also be subconscious causes based on fear and low self esteem rather than more positive drivers. Likewise, I have issues with how monogamy and marriage historically grew from desires to treat women as possessions; to tie it to the transfer of property and land; and as a way for males to prove paternity. None of those apply any more.

I hope it's clear from earlier disclaimers, but just in case: I don't care if people are monogamous, I don't care if people get married. I wish them all the luck and happiness in the world, and I am pleased for them. I only question the system's applicability to me and my beliefs. And, because I am human, I don't even know all the answers for myself, something I fully admit. We only get four score years and ten, which is hardly enough time to work anything out.

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Religion

Damn, I've already spoilered this one. :-)

It's no surprise that I don't follow a religion. It doesn't mean I feel like I know all the answers, or can't accept that I may be wrong, or don't warm to the idea of forces more powerful than me: though I wouldn't expect those forces to resemble my species in any way, which is why anthropomorphic religions and those that preach humans as superior push me away.

As should also be clear, I don't care if other people follow a religion. Whatever works for them, and helps them get through life, and gives comfort and structure. When religions preach good messages I do support those. Though I may object to certain religious practices on ethical grounds e.g. ritual slaughter in some religions without stunning (though obviously as a vegan I don't want any beings being killed, stun or not!), genital mutilation of children (male or female), or other aspects where religious practice leads not to tolerance, but to cruelty. But that's objection to a single practice within a religion, not the religion as a whole - just as there would be other practices within the religion that I favour. As long as religion isn't forced on anyone and children are free to believe or not as they wish, then it's not an ethical issue for me whether someone chooses to believe in gods and supernatural beings or not. It's an individual difference, and one that creates interesting differences between us. We can learn from those differences.

(As an aside: by genital mutilation I mean any unnecessary irreversible surgical procedures done to a child's sex organs. That includes male circumcision. I am not against circumcision: like many things, if an adult makes the choice to do that, it's totally up to them and no-one else's business, and I would support their right to be in charge of their own bodies. But doing it to a child should always be a crime as a human rights violation. And in this case I'm speaking as someone who was circumcised as a child - something I'd have refused if I had been given any choice in a decision affecting my own body. My human rights were violated when that was done to me as a child, and I have always felt a sense of anger about that practice.)

Fun fact: I don't celebrate things like Christmas, New Year, birthdays, Easter, bonfire night etc. Long ago, when I was about nineteen, I questioned all those things I'd been presented with as normal for my whole life in culture, TV, books, and I asked myself whether I really believed in them. I decided not. Some were religious, some arbitrary, some excuses for consumerism, some were events where the messages have been twisted, or altered and co-opted by religions. None of them had the vaguest interest for me. Like titles of address, a summary that might apply to me could be this phrase from Dean Koontz's Fear Nothing novel: "What most people find important, you do not."

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Public Conformity And Mandated Silences

Since I mentioned how I don't take part in many of the celebrations other people in my culture follow, the same includes things like silences and remembrance days for events (e.g. the 11th November silence many people do in the UK).

I feel uneasy with announced public silences because I also have a resistance to conformity and obedience ever since I first studied them at college and university during psychology, sociology and philosophy courses. I worry about how the announcements and expectations push people to conform to the point where they are afraid not to take part. For example, politicians see it as political suicide not to wear a red poppy and join in the November silence. When people are forced into pretence, that encourages hypocrisy and shame culture.

Silences are a political statement. So someone chooses which events merit a silence - in the last decade there have been silences mainly for people killed in large scale terrorist attacks, but far fewer, if any, for natural disasters, or for the people who die every day from ... well, anything else ... domestic violence, road deaths, suicide. As I said earlier, everything is political, which is something feminists taught us in the 70s and 80s with "the personal is political".

I also have issues with when a particular day or moment is chosen to represent something bigger, since it gives undue importance to that moment, but correspondingly weakens it the rest of time. "Ah, I've done a minute's silence / celebrated that person / felt momentary sadness for that event, now I can get on with life and forget about it for the rest of the year."

Sometimes people challenge me about why I don't celebrate someone on their birthday. It's because I celebrate people I love much more often than once a year. Likewise I do buy presents, I just don't buy one for them because it is a particular day - I buy one because I love the person and see something I know will make them happy and then give it to them regardless of what day it is. It's less wasteful, and also means they are always on my mind. Buying a present isn't a chore I do because a certain date approaches, it is a pleasure because the person I care about is in my mind and I see a way to add to their happiness.

Back to silences, and the way the part comes to represent the whole. I worry about how that focus hides other tragedies, in the same way that the news picks on singular events but ignores the smaller tragedies taking place every day, even though they add up to more tragedy overall. They're not news, so they are hidden. They're not on the day, so they're invisible. We have a culture of choosing one thing, focussing on one moment so we can get on with life and consumerism, when really we should be focussed on war and conflict and hunger and injustice and slavery far more often, because those purchasing decisions that we're pushed to in the adverts are often things that finance the same injustices we say we care about. If we are against war and killing then we should be campaigning about those things right now, not standing in silence for ones from the past. Reducing personal attitudes and beliefs to public actions and sound bites is trivialising all concerned, oversimplifying complex issues. Trying to pressure people into participation in these events is offensive to me.

Just to be clear: I'm not against someone having reflective silence about something. A meditative silence because that's the time you pick, rather than because that's when you're told to have it, is a good thing. It needn't last only a paltry minute. I don't even mind people doing them together. That's supportive. I'm just against then letting it pressure other people to take part as well. All these "respectful" events so easily turn into accusation and an attack on anyone not joining in, to try and force conformity and prevent discussion.

We know that many people join in because it is easier than resisting, but they really don't give a shit. They aren't thinking deep thoughts when they go along with it, they're just wondering when it's going to end, and what they're going to eat that evening, and whether someone fancies them or not. The public performance of concern creates falsity and hidden hypocrisy. But no-one can admit any of that.

Obviously I could never be an MP, because I refuse to act falsely, or pretend to believe something. I'd never get voted in. (Plus, you probably have to promise to love the Queen or something, and I'm against hereditary privilege and royalty, so I'd never be allowed into the House of Commons.)

Talking of silences: I used to be a university librarian (2014 pic)

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Governments Versus The People

Shit, how did I get onto such heavy topics when I started out planning to talk about food and my favourite pancake recipe?

You'll be pleased to know that I'll make this my last topic. I have words to write that will actually sell as books and make me a living, rather than blog posts that won't ever earn me a penny.

I just want to say that there is a separation of the people governed, and the Government. Governments like to claim that they represent the people, but they rarely do. We just had an election in the UK. The Conservatives now have a majority in parliament, with 56% of the seats. However, only 43% of the people who turned up on election day actually voted for the Conservatives (13,966,565 votes). The UK's election system isn't proportional, which is why the Conservatives got more power than those votes would have meant proportionally. Further, only 67% of the eligible voters actually voted - 31,829,630 people out of 47,587,254 registered voters. So the Conservatives have control of the Government even though they only got 13,966,565 votes out of the 47,587,254 registered voters - which is 27.6%. So, at best, under a third of the registered voters in a country actually voted for the ruling party. In addition, there could have been another 9 million people who should have been allowed to vote, but who weren't registered. Then there are the people who live in this country and are subject to the Government's dictates but aren't allowed to vote (e.g. under 16s). The number of people living in the UK in December 2019 is thought to be 67,698,000. The Conservatives received votes from 13,966,565 of them - that's 19.4%. Both of those mean an even lower popular mandate than 27.6%. So the idea that a Government represents the people or popular will of a country is facetious and misleading. There is a connection, but they are also separate.

Even when someone did vote for a party, it doesn't mean they support all the decisions that party will make in the future. It's always just a gamble and a hope and then a lack of power as things go on as normal and the rich and powerful get more rich and powerful, while the poor and disenfranchised get poorer and even more subjugated.

My working principle is that the majority of people in any country are decent and good, regardless of what their rulers do. Modern democracy does not give people much of a say in individual policies. We get a small say in who is elected every few years, and then we can only hope they do more things that we support than things that we are against.

I live in the UK. I regularly criticise the UK Government's choices. I've never been ruled by anyone that I voted for. Hell, even past actions piss me off, since England has such an evil history of conquering and exploiting other countries, and leading to the crimes against the native inhabitants of America, Australia etc. It does not mean I hate my fellow citizens, nor that I hate myself. The People and the Government are separate. Likewise I criticise the current US administration led by Trump. Many Americans do too. I love my American friends. Their Government is a separate matter.

So it is legitimate - and, in fact, an important part of international democracy and politics - to criticise the bad things that a Government does, to hold them to account and push them towards more civilised courses of action. (Ideally, also to praise the good things that they do - it is easy to fall into negativity, but good things should be supported as well.) If we criticise Trump's policies, or those of the Conservative Party, or those of Israel regarding Palestine, or those of Australia, or France, or Scotland, it is not the same as attacking the lovely people of America, or Scots, or Jews, or the French, and so on. We can criticise Government actions while loving the people who live there (and many of which may feel just as powerless as us to change things).

This is something prejudiced people have a hard time grasping. They dislike something a Government is doing, and unfairly extend that dislike to the people of the country, many of which don't support that Government's choices either! We always have to make a distinction between people in power, and the people as a whole.

I should also add that in many countries, anyone criticising their country's policies might be branded by the Government and their tame media and supporters as "traitors". That is doublespeak nonsense. Sometimes people criticise the most because they love their country, and just hate some of the choices the Government is making. We only have to look at the divisions of Brexit in the UK for numerous examples of that. A parent who let their child do whatever it wanted and didn't guide it would be a poor parent. It is our job as citizens to criticise Government policies we disagree with (both our own, and those of other countries), from a position of evidence and fairness. That does not mean we hate the people subject to the policies.

Peace and love.

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Helene (LToS) In Amazon's Top 5 Sci-fi Books In Canada


On 19th November Helene was selling well in Canada and in the top 5 sci-fi books on Amazon! By the time I got round to taking this screenshot it had dropped to #6, but it was still in good company with other woman-focussed sci-fi from Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments).

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Breaking Writing Rules / Chekhov's Gun



There is a difference between a rule and a law. In theory, rules apply in most cases but not all. Laws always apply.

(As an aside, this distinction includes an element of myth, since it’s impossible to know for sure if something is a law or a rule – science fudges it and claims more certainty, but it’s a fundamental flaw based on limited human perspectives.)

New writers are often given "rules of writing" or storytelling. But if we followed every rule then storytelling would become as static and formulaic as a Holywood thriller, where certain events and twists have to happen at certain times in order to please focus groups. To avoid staleness and predictability, some of the rules have to be broken. The end result may not always work, but it might lead to new things and freshness. It’s a risk any good writer must be willing to take.

A key element: you can break rules, but you still need to understand them and be experienced at following them first. You break them with intention and understanding of the effect, not randomly.

I’ll illustrate this with one example. Chekhov’s Gun. I know many writers swear by this. It's the rule that, if you introduce an element into a story, then it must have relevance. If it isn't used in the plot, it should be excluded as extraneous. In general, it helps lead to tighter writing and plotting, a way of cutting the flab from a story.

Can you see the problem, though? If all writers follow it, then it becomes predictable and boring. Stories become childish puzzles where the key pieces are obvious, rather than being immersive experiences.

Recently I listened to the audiobook of Alien Covenant (I haven’t seen the film, which may be different). Because I know about Chekhov’s Gun, it means when I am presented with writing that follows such rules, I have a key to predicting some outcomes, since I have both data and a formula. So, at one point in the story, a synthetic changed his hairstyle so he was identical to another. The incident passed without much comment, but I immediately thought "that’s a detail presented, so it must have some plot significance later". I guessed that there would be a scene where there was a confusion of identities between the two synthetics. And when one of the two appeared later, and the other characters studiously avoided even considering the 50/50 possibility that the synthetic they spoke to was not who he seemed to be (the kind of sleight of hand authors do to distract their audience, even though it defies internal logic), I immediately knew for sure that I was right. I knew it was the other synthetic; there would be a twist later where he was in their trust and could betray them. And yes, it happened just like that.

So you see, following all the rules can end up destroying the effect of the creation because it means unpredictability is lost. A rule is a formula, and a formula fed the same data will lead to the same results. Audiences nowadays consume so much storytelling in books and film and TV that – even if they can’t consciously formulate the rules being followed – they instinctively feel them through repetition. The more a story follows rules to fit the formula sold as successful, the less effective the end result is through repetition and predictability. And so the “rule” that some thought might even be a law, turns out to be less than a rule. Or rather, its definition reverses. Instead of “follow this rule in order to create maximum satisfaction”, it ends up being “follow this rule in order to create predictability”.

Thus it is for any rules that state something which seems inviolate. Smoking gun moments. Character arcs. Requirements for character development. Mid-book reversals. Denouements. Rations of dialogue to action. Order of events. There are always examples of successful works which threw those rules out, and seemed all the fresher for it. And I say that as someone who reads a lot of contemporary fiction, and has judged international fiction competitions. The two biggest problems with the bulk of things that get submitted are problems of bad writing, and problems of predictability and overfamiliarity. The latter problems come from following all the rules, all the time.

So rules are things a writer needs to understand and have experience with – but then the real fun can begin. Because with that understanding, the rules can be reversed in surprising ways, to avoid falling into the rut of sameness.

If you think I'm talking nonsense, feel free to tell me in the comments. :-)

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