Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Quality or Quantity?

Many years ago, there was a fad for spending 'quality time' with children. The reasoning behind it was that kids wanted to do enjoyable things with parents rather than just have them there for as long as possible. It was not something I subscribed to then (I didn't have kids at the time) and I don't subscribe to now (I have three boys now).

There are times and situations where it isn't possible to spend quantity time with children, ranging from economic need to a short term hiatus. I can't help wondering, though, if this fad had more to do with some parents desire to be wealthy, rather than with the needs of their children.

We need as parents to do quality things with the kids, but I also feel that we need as much quantity 'being there' as possible, especially if they're young.

This is even more true with writing. It's all well and good us spending 'quality time' with our books and writing, but if we don't spend enough 'quantity time', how do we get to the detail of the plot lines or find our inspiration?

As amateur writers we have pressing economic needs and families that take us away from this quantity time, but we need to be aware of this time problem and be less hard on ourselves.

Doing our best for our children means making some sacrifices, yet despite that we won't always be able to spend 'quantity time' with them. It's the same with our writing. We aren't professional writers, yet, and need to cut ourselves some slack.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Carry On Dreaming

I've been ill.

Last Monday was spent in hospital with a saline drip attached to my arm, whilst several vampires dressed up as doctors and nurses so they could take a quick snack on my blood.

The biggest problem with the medication I've been given is the wind from the attic and the slight feeling of sickness. This, I am told, will pass.

I was ordered to take it easy last week, so I just HAD to read a lot, sleep well and take the occasional walk for some fresh air.

Thankfully, all is back to normal...or at least as normal as my life ever gets.

One of the books I read was 'Physics of the Impossible' by Michio Kaku, in which he takes a look at some standards of SF such as warp speed, time travel and shields.

The impossibles are divided into three classes. Class 1 impossibilities are technologies that do not violate the known laws of physics and may be possible within a century or two, albeit in a modified form (shields, teleportation, telekenesis).

Class 2 impossibilities are at the very edge of current scientific knowledge and would take millenia, at least, to be possible (hyperspace and time travel). Class 3 impossibilities are those that would require a fundamental shift in our knowledge of the laws of physics (precognition).

Reading the book reminded me that our understanding of physics is not set in stone. The laws we know today are different to the laws we knew two hundred years ago or a thousand years ago. Whilst our current knowledge builds on the past, some things have been pushed aside and who knows what we will discover in the future.

It also reminded me that those in the world of SF who dismiss Star Trek and Star Wars as unrealistic need to open their minds. Understanding is fluid and will always change as we discover new things. Some ideas are proven false over time and the fiction looks dated, such as some stories by Jules Verne and HG Wells, but if we ever stop and think we know all there is to know, we will stagnate.

I, for one, will carry on dreaming.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Burning Man

The Burning Man festival is an annual event that takes place in Black Rock Desert, Nevada and ends with the burning of a wooden man and his dog.

About 40,000 people attend and, according to Dan Ariely in his book 'Predictably Irrational', no money changes hands. What people do is bring along something to give, be it their time, their skills, some food etc.

People give free massages, free counseling, home made jewelry and various other things all weekend: it's a gift exchange.

This is important for two reasons. Firstly, it shows that if we want to create a moneyless, gift-based society in our stories, it is a realistic possibility and not some 'pie in the sky' or fanciful idea. How we translate one weekend a year into a whole society is a different matter, but the foundational idea is there for us.

More importantly than that, it set me to thinking about how much the advice and support that is handed around by agents, writers and ourselves on our blogs is worth in a 'market'?

I would imagine that it would cost a fortune to buy, even it was collated into a small (or large) book.

In honour of all of you who give free advice, this weekend I'm going to set fire to a man (made out of paper) to remind me of all the good, free, advice and help that blogs have given.

Thankyou, one and all.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


I've been published...

A small one line joke on newsbiscuit about Hazel Blears. No payment, just kudos. You can see it on the top right as it scrolls through.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Death and Taxes

"There is nothing so certain in life as death and taxes".

Whereas taxes can be avoided, death cannot: it comes to us all eventually and not even God will spare us from dying once (Hebrews 9:27).

How do we face that death?

Some people don't want to face it at all and want to live forever, others search for a way to die as quickly as possible, whilst for the unfortunate it's in front of them every day.

But what of our own death? Do we consider how we will be remembered by those who are alive? Do we care?

Undoubtedly, there are those who live only for themselves and for now and who care nothing for how they will be remembered. For them, there is only their needs and desires to be fulfilled in this life and everyone else can go hang. There are also those who want to be remembered by history in some vein for either good or bad and some don't care how they are remembered as long as they are.

I've always divided people into two groups when it comes to death: those whose death leaves the world a better place to live in and those whose death leave it a worse place.

When my father died three years ago, the world felt a little colder. It also felt a little colder when I discovered that an old acquaintance of mine, the musician Tony Ashton, had died.

For my part, I don't know how people will view my death, whenever it comes, but I hope that people will feel the world is a little colder for my passing.

Monday, June 15, 2009

To Diary or Not To Diary

Keeping a diary, I have read in many places, is something that every writer should do, but I've never been convinced of it: until recently.

I've heard both Michael Palin and John Altman talk about their diarying and realised that it's not such a bad idea.

Altman and Palin both record the mundane, the price of milk and where they went for dinner etc, alongside thoughts and revelations. Not only does it remind them what they were doing at a certain point in their lives, but also what they were thinking.

This might seem only to be valuable for those who crave fame, but to a writer it can help build a character. An insight into other people's daily lives, and a writer's own past, can round out the writing about anyone in a book or short story.

The milk they prefer to buy and why, the odd thoughts that go through their mind build up a picture.

Diary writing is not for everyone, and only occasionally for me, but I'm less dismissive of diary writing than I used to be.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Perfecting the Imperfect

On my computing blog, I wrote about how we will never have bug free software and why. It set me wondering about how a writer decides that their story is finished.

I've been working in computing for over a decade as a programmer, web designer and fixer. I have designed and built computer systems from scratch, tested them to death, watched them fail on first contact with reality and then fixed them.

I've also pored over a story until I can't think straight, decided that it's finished, put it out for review and been shown some obvious howlers.

In both cases I've corrected the errors. Whereas with a program it either works or it doesn't, with a story there is always degree of latitude about what is right or wrong. Does that sentence really need a comma there, or should it be a semi-colon? Should you use the British spelling, the American or the Australian?

There is no such thing as a bug-free program, nor will there ever be. Neither will there be a perfectly written story. In both fields, we'll come close to perfection, but the effort must always be on doing the best we can, fixing the obvious and then moving on. If not, we'll spend a lifetime trying to perfect the imperfect.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Curiosity Killed the Cat...

...but helped the writer.

You can't be a writer unless you're curious about things. We ask questions such as,
What would happen if the Martians invaded Earth?
What is the life of a governess like?

and then we answer them with a 100,000 word answer (try that in an English exam).

There isn't a single story that doesn't answer one, or sometimes more than one, question. As each answer is given, other questions arise which also need to be answered.

By the time we get to the end of the story we've answered them all...we hope.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

10 Things I Know About You.

Well, not you exactly, but my main character.

Here's a list of ten odd and unknown things about my main character

Name: Alan Radford

1 - Likes to dress informally
2 - LOVES Creme Eggs
3 - He considered being a soldier when he was young, but was put off the idea after spending a year in the school cadet force
4 - Favourite song is 'Caravan' by Barbra Dickson
5 - Watches Babylon 5 on DVD for fun
6 - His dream woman is a 5'3" tall brunette, with brown eyes and a huge smile
7 - Plays the piano and passed grade 5
8 - Doesn't drink alcohol
9 - He has dressed up as Santa Claus several times for the local pre-school children's Christmas party
10 - He won an art competition when he was 9...although there were only two entries.

Given that I base most of my main characters on my own life, can you guess which five of these are characteristics are mine?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Old Books are Good Books?

I've just finished reading 'The Pyrates' by George MacDonald Fraser. It was entertaining, interesting and I learnt something about writing and my style of writing, but it feels so old.

Some books date very quickly, others don't date at all. There are also books that reflect the time in which they were written, but are still enjoyed a century later.

'The Pyrates' was written in 1983 and some of its cultural references are old 25 years later. I dare say some of them were old within 10 years.

In the last decade I have also read books by Ismay Thorn and Florence Barclay that have also dated badly, but were still an entertaining, if brief, read.

So what's my point? When writing, don't worry about your book 'dating'. Some of the earliest SF books look quite comical now as they have been overtaken by science and culture, but they are still a thumping good read (War of The Worlds for instance).

Thomas Hardy's books are long-winded as his descriptions of the background are so exhaustive, but they are still great stories. Try writing that level of description now and at such a slow pace. The same can be said for Dickens and many other 19th century authors.

These books have lasted because the story and the characters are strong, as well as being expertly written.

It's our characters and stories that will see our work last, no matter what part of the background later looks odd. (Three legged Martians?)

Monday, June 08, 2009

Writers Group

How important is it to be a member of a writer's group?

Personally, I think it is vital for any aspiring writer. As a member of a group, you get support and feedback from people who share the same passion for writing...or at the very least a mild interest.

A good group will share helpful information, successes and provide honest feedback on any story or novel you are writing. It will also be a social club of (mostly) like-minded people.

A writing group need not be a physical entity as you can form one via Yahoo groups or any one of the other online groups and meet in cyberspace. With the advent of Skype and IM software you could hold meetings at any time, day or night.

If you're not a member of a writing group, you're missing out. Join one today...or at least put it on your to-do list.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Do You Cringe?

How often do you cringe when you hear bad dialogue in a film or tv show? Do you cringe over 'bad writing' in a novel, short story of newspaper?

The bigger question is how much more do you cringe now that you've become a writer than before?

As a young man (yes I was young once), I would be the one watching war films and complaining that the aircraft was the wrong model for that part of the war, or that a particular machine gun wasn't issued to paratroopers.

Now that I have become a better writer, I find myself using that pedantic attitude and wincing at bad grammar and inappropriate phrasing and cliches.

As much as I enjoy Star Trek and Star Wars, I visibly wince at some dialogue or scenes and have been known to articulate an 'ooooh that's bad' on occasion.

I take it as a positive sign that I'm improving as a writer rather than me just being a pedantic pain in the rear.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

What is Writing?

What do you consider to be 'proper' writing.

There's a joke (of sorts) that passes round the writer's group where people say 'I'm going to do some writing tomorrow', to which is added 'emails don't count'.

What would count as proper writing? Short stories and novels would seem to be obvious, but what about blogs, or writing the text for a website? How about an essay for school/college/university?

Where does writing end and non-writing begin?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

John Cleese's answer to this question, was "from a little man in Swindon".

Me? History books and magazines are a great source of story ideas, as are songs.

The best songs are those that tell a story that can easily be 're-imagined' (that's a posh word for stolen).

History supplies an endless source of inspiration for stories and characters.

Then there's the Stephen King approach: ask a question and your story comes from the answer.

At some point in the future I may well hire someone in Swindon, but for now I have enough to be getting on with.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

When Life and Writing Collide

When your life and your desire to write collide, which one wins?

If you have an upcoming deadline, then can b tricky to balance the two. As most of us are 'aspiring writers' (or is that expiring), then it's rarely an issue.

Over the last few weeks I've had 'life' get in the way. Not just family and moving, but also misery and loneliness.

I've decided that I'm not going to beat myself up over it and I'll keep doing what I can when I can.

When things collide, what do you do?

Monday, June 01, 2009

Learning Through Reading

What lessons about writing have you learned recently?

I have discarded a couple of books recently after reading 50-100 pages and thought to myself, 'How did that get published?'

After thinking about it for a day or two I came to the conclusion that just because I didn't like the books, it doesn't mean that they are terrible: it's just that I didn't like them.

A more sober reflection on each of the books brings me to the realisation that they are also not as bad as I thought. OK, I may not have cared about the characters and thought the story was bad, but the writing is fine, the story is good and it's reasonably well executed.

The books have something about them that appealed to an agent, even if they don't appeal to me as a reader. There will also be many others who enjoy the book and will probably read it again in the future.

For me, the lesson is that there will always be someone, somewhere who will like what I write. The hard part is finding them. But I should never give up.