Friday, February 27, 2009

Getting Started

Ever have one of those days when just as you start writing, someone interrupts you with vital information or a request? Welcome to my day.

My nine-year old is home from school today as he has a bent wrist bone. Nine-year olds rarely get broken bones as they are still developing, so the doctor said. Instead they get bent (so to speak).

After three days he still in some discomfort, so there's the odd interruption to ask for more painkillers. Especially after several minutes bouncing on a trampoline or fighting with his home-educated brothers. Hmmmm.

'Can you print this out for me', my ex-wife asks. 'Sure' I reply.

And so it continues.

Not anymore. I have shut the front-room door, put headphones on, started Media Player, powered up OpenOffice, opened the first chapter of my novel...and realised I hadn't updated my blog.

I have now.

Back to the....'Oh, what do you want now? Isn't there anyone else you can ask? Your mother, a poisonous reptile?'

Thursday, February 26, 2009

More music

After yesterday's blog, I started to think about other music that gives me a lift. So here's a short list.

Flying Start - Mike Oldfield
Four Seasons - Vivaldi
Pastoral Symphony - Vaughn Williams
If I Can Dream - Barry Manilow
Star Trekkin' - The Firm
Together My Friend - Sonia King
To Turn the Stone - Frida
Jupiter - Holst

With the advent of MP3 players and PC playlists, it has become much easier to arrange a positive musical selection to write to.

What do you do?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

New Song

I've come across a new song (new to me anyway) that gives me a lift when I hear it. Guess how often I play it.

The song is called 'To Be Free', by Mike Oldfield and is from his 'Tres Lunas' CD.

The CD itself is described as a 'chill out' album and after several listenings I understand why as it relaxes me. Even the lyrics are not disturbing me when I write or read.

The music supports the words, most of which are spoken by his sister Sally, all fitting together to carry the listener to a peaceful plateau....sorry, I got carried away there.

Given everything that's falling down around me at the moment, it's the kind of lift I need. I'd prefer a warm, loving hug, but this will suffice in the meantime.

.................................................

To Be Free by Mike Oldfield

You find yourself alone, sometimes
Without a home, no protection
You don't know which way to go
You're lost, no direction

Suddenly, out of the blue
Some kind of magic comes to you
You don't know how, you don't know why
But someday, gonna take off, fly

(wish, make a wish)
My wish would be...

To be free
To be wild
And to be
Just like a child

And if I get lost
I really don't mind
Cos I'm me
Doing just fine

You're out in the cold, sometimes
As far as you can see, misty
And you want to run, into the sun
The road is lost, sand shifty

Suddenly, out of the blue
Some kind of magic pushes you through
You don't know when, how or why
But someday, gonna take off and fly

And if I had a wish, my wish would be...

To be free
To be wild
And to be
Just like a child

And if I get lost
I really don't mind
Cos I'm me
Doing just fine

Just like a child
I really don't mind
Cos I'm free
Doing just fine

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Losing your Vitality

Depression affects a lot of people, some surveys say as many as one in ten. But what does it cost the sufferer?

I have lived with depression my entire life. As a child I was unable to get out of bed some mornings, mentally paralysed, something that has occasionally afflicted me as an adult. I've attempted suicide twice and considered it seriously on many other occasions, including the recent past.

The piece below was written two years ago in one of 'my moods', as some people have chosen to call them. I titled it 'A Dying Flame of Hope'. My current 'mood' is the same as it was when I wrote this piece, though the life I lead is slightly different. If all goes according to the normal cycle, I shall feel better by Friday.

...................................................................................................

There are moments in everyone's life, at least in the lives of those who have a heart, when all you want is for someone to come and hold you and take away your troubles. You want them to fix it all, to make the world right. You want them to fix your problems, the world around you and give hope where there is none.

Those are the moments when life seems darkest and most cruel. For me, that moment has arrived...again.

I thought that I had left that feeling behind. That sense of utter helplessness which you can fall into, often through no fault of your own.

My first eighteen years of life were filled with despair. In my very early years I didn't know what this was. I also assumed that it was natural. But as I grew, I felt more and more alone, as if I was outside of life, looking in.

I became aware of my uniqueness and individuality at a very early age. I came to know that there would never be another like me, nor had there ever been before. No one else could, or would, ever see through my eyes. Only me.

As I approached my teenage years, as I watched life happen to everyone else, I withdrew, locking my hopes onto the one thought that kept me going. A fervent, almost religious belief that life would get better once I left childhood behind, once I entered the world of adults.

It didn't work out and I entered my first period of hopelessness. There followed two failed suicide attempts, before I made my first big decision. I resigned my job and walked away from the painful security I had come to know.

What lay beyond? I didn't know. All I knew was that it couldn't be worse: and I was right. My life slowly improved over the years and it seemed to reach new heights each year, culminating in the day I married. It was as high as I got.

The last 16 years have been a slow agonising descent into the misery and despair that I thought I had left behind. Twisting and turning, my life sunk back, more painful than before. At each step down into the darkness I tried to halt the decline, hoping that it would end there and I would sink no lower.

There were occasional moments when my life rose a step or two. The births of my children, my graduation, a new job. But they were only candles in the gloom that I was sinking into. Now all is dark and I have only one candle of hope left: my children. I doubt they will ever know how much I have sacrificed so they could have both parents with them for as long as possible. I'm not sure that I want them to know.

My marriage is over, destroyed by the woman in whom I invested so much trust and all the love I could muster. The woman to whom I gave my soul, my life, my hopes. It only remains for the law to finish its work and cut the final cord that holds us together as man and wife.

My last remaining candle is my hope that I will be able to keep them near me until they are ready to make their own lives. When that is done, when they are able to live their own lives, make their own decisions and their own mistakes I can lie back and rest.

But there are struggles ahead, struggles which I feel too weak to continue.

I know I am weak and feeble. Small problems that only a year ago I would have faced calmly seem now to be immovable rocks in my path. Were I alone I would surely give up and let waves of despair roll over me and wash me out to sea. But there are three lives that, whether they know it or not, need me. For them I continue on. Without them there is no reason to continue living in pain.

I need someone to hold me, to wrap me up in warmth and take away my pain. But that won't happen. I choose to continue for now, while there is still hope, whilst the solitary candle continues to burn. Should the flame ever die, then.......

Monday, February 23, 2009

Reasoning with the Unreasonable

How do you maintain your standards when others are ignoring theirs to take advantage of you? How do you avoid a fight without being a doormat?

Avoiding people with these attitudes is not always possible, especially when that person lives with you. Moving out is not easy if there are children involved. If there is no violence, it becomes harder still.

I'm facing these problems in my personal life and in dealing with a local government department.

On the personal side I am having my buttons pressed and falling into the trap. I have managed on a couple of occasions to resist, but then the tactic switches to catching me when I'm tired or feeling low. To the children it looks as though I'm being unreasonable or petty.

On the other side, I am being pursued with full vigour, even though the department has admitted the original cause was their own error. How do you fight without resorting to the same tactics or threats? Standing by the rightness of your cause doesn't always help when you're dealing with a bureaucracy.

There are times when good intentions and high morals don't help the situation, but you know that it's the right thing to do. Sometimes 'the self' is all you have.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Whistle While You Work

Do you listen to music when you write?

I do. What I listen to depends on my mood, what I'm writing and if I need to shut out the noise of the kids. At the moment I have Vivaldi's Bassoon Concertos playing in the background. I also use music by Enya, Mike Oldfield and the Shadows.

I find songs distracting because of the lyrics, so I only use instrumental music, though that is not a hard and fast rule.

Why music? Someone's well thought out and executed creativity helps stimulate my own.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Are YOU an Author?

At what point does someone who scribbles become a writer? When do they become an author?

Lots of people claim to be writers or authors. When you ask them what they do, it can usually best be summed up as 'scribbling'. So what makes a writer/author? Here's a couple of definitions for you to consider, and, yes, the definition of writer conveniently gives me that title.

Writer: A person who writes with aim of being published, not necessarily for reward.

A writer will usually have numerous rejection slips or emails and possibly an occasional piece of writing published somewhere. Anyone who regularly publishes (2-3 times a week) on a blog in coherent and spell-checked prose could be classed as a writer. Posting on forums or other people's blogs doesn't count, neither does contributing to online discussions or 'letter writing'.

Author: A person with a string of published works to their name.

To be considered an author, a person must have had books/short stories/articles published over a period of several years and be making a living from writing. It is possible to be an ex-author, part-time author or aspiring author. Self publication may count, but only for books with an ISBN number and only if a number have been published over a significant period.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Don't Force it to Fit.

I've just finished writing a bit more of my novel. Whew.

Although I think that wit and humour are going to play a large role in the book (most of the characters are strange and funny), there is a darker more moody side to it.

It's not a Pratchett style comedy, more a Carla Lane style: comedy and pathos.

It may be hard to pull off, but if that's the story, then that's they way it will be told.

There is no way any story should be shoe-horned into a genre. I'm writing the story as it is and if agents and publisher like it, great. I've tried my hand at writing stories that I have no love for and they don't work.

Now for chapter 2.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Temptation

"I can resist anything except temptation." (Oscar Wilde)

Sometimes the temptation is to scream blue murder at someone, or lie about yourself on a form or website. Do you? Have you ever done so?

When you're on benefits, the temptation to tell a lie, or exaggerate, or leave something out is real. It may get you an extra couple of pounds, or sometimes more. The amounts are small usually ten pounds at most. There are occasions when you have the chance of a days work for twenty pounds, cash in hand. Do the work and declare it, it gets taken off your benefit. Don't declare it and you can get your kid a pair of new trousers for school.

There are people out there who defraud the benefits system for everything they can get in order to have beer money for a Caribbean holiday.

The vast majority of benefit 'fraud', however, is perpetrated by people trying to make ends meet. Like the hungry apple stealer of Victorian times, we should sympathise with them and ask what we're doing wrong as a society to cause this.

Lumping the desperate in with the criminals is wrong. Lying for a few pounds is also wrong. But where does the root cause lie? With the desperate, or with those who created the situation?

Monday, February 16, 2009

How Much (and what) Research?

When creating a believable world in any novel, how much and what kind of research should you do?

There is no simple answer to this, but in order to create a balanced and believable world, you need at least a passing knowledge of history.

For instance, if you're background is a crumbling empire, a knowledge of Byzantium would not go amiss. If it's a conquered planet seeking renewal, a history of Africa would give you an insight into what happens and how.

What about slavery? Any number of personal accounts will give you an insight into slavery, both ancient and modern. Mythology? The standard western ideas involve Rome, Greece and Scandinavia, but have you considered Aboriginal or Hindu myths?

Here's a few books to get you started:

Byzantium by Judith Herrin
Story of Mary Prince by Mary Prince
Africa: A History by Basil Davidson
Medieval Lives by Terry Jones

Have fun researching.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Home Work

There are advantages and disadvantages of working at home.

One of the advantages is that I get to spend time with my boys...which is also a disadvantage. I have my own start time (good and bad, depending on my mood), can stop when I want, do what I want.

But in order to be a successful home-worker, you have to have a degree of self-discipline, you have to set targets. As a web-designer you set a target number of webpages, as a writer, a certain number of words, chapters, a whole short story or article.

For the boys, it's certain amount of 'education' or reading.

The biggest disadvantage, to my mind, is trying to meet my own targets. That could a lack of discipline or just depression seeping back into my mind for weeks at a time.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

New Style

Ever had those 'lightbulb' moments where a sudden realisation or inspiration hits you? I had one this morning.

Instead of starting on an Alastair Reynolds book (Absolution Gap), I decided to read a book that I bought on the off chance it might be good called 'Space Captain Smith'.

Having recently started my trawl through Discworld, I decided that a bit more light relief was needed before I continue my research into sci-fi writing. I'm so glad I did.

Not only have I found a book that I can laugh out loud to, I have also found my spiritual literary home. Space Humour. I realised that I write in a similar vein to Pratchett and Frost and, hopefully, as wittily.

More importantly, I'm happier writing in this vein than the serious space and time-faring stories that I've been struggling with.

I've also noticed that my most enjoyable characters (and easiest to write) are ones that suit humourous work better: the evil genius, the deranged robot and the grumpy old man (not me, honest).

It also helps prove the old adage: write what you know (or what you're interested in researching).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Randomness rules

How much control do we really have over events, or even over our lives?

Not much if you believe Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I've read two of his books and his basic thesis seems to be, 'don't think you're in charge of things, you're not'.

According to his theory, politicians are not in control of events, nor are traders in control of the stock market. Everything that controls our society is a random event.

If you're scratching your head, or reading this and thinking, 'what a load of bollocks, I am in control', consider this: Did you decide your genetic makeup, who your parents were going to be, which country or period of time you would be born in? Didn't think so. Your very creation as a sentient, independent being was a random event.

Can you control the housing market? Who does? Can you control currency fluctuations? Who does? So how much control have you had, or do you have in any aspect of your life?

Taleb makes a convincing argument in favour of randomness that is hard to repudiate, though whether you believe him or not is up to you.

If you want to read more, his two main books are 'Fooled by Randomness' and 'The Black Swan'.

One last thing: if you believe in the accuracy of the Bell Curve, then 'The Black Swan' may destroy some cherished ideas. You have been warned.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sex or No Sex?

How much sex should you put into a novel when writing it?

If you even think about asking that question, then you're writing porn. If a sex scene is squeezed into a story, then it won't tell us something about any of the characters involved we don't know or won't find out elsewhere. In these cases, it is only there to titilate the reader, and that is one definition of pornography.

Sex scenes SHOULD be a natural part of the story, but in too many books it seems as though they have been inserted in order to prove that the writer isn't scared to tackle (pardon the pun) difficult areas. Iain (M) Banks comes to mind, as does Stephen Baxter. It could also be that they are just trying to prove how artistic they are, or another reason entirely.

And, as you may be asking, yes, I do have a bee in my bonnet about this.

I see sex scenes in films and TV shows that could be replaced with a passionate kiss and not be missed. There are pages of books that could replaced with the phrase 'and then they had sex', without destroying the story line.

There is an argument that readers and viewers demand these scenes and that is true to some extent. But which readers and viewers are doing the 'demanding' and, more importantly, why? The flip side is, should writers and performers give into these demands, or should we be more 'moral'?

Lots of questions, so few answers.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Good or Bad?

One of the questions often asked of the religious is 'if God is so great why do we have nasty bacteria around?'

It's a fair question that cannot be answered by people without a scientific background. If you're desperate for an answer, then read on.

E.Coli is a nasty bug that can kill. It's also at the root of one of the most successful US genetic engineering companies. It has helped produce some of the most effective drugs in the world, including insulin and human growth hormone.

How? By recombining DNA it offers "amazing prospects of exploiting the normally malevolent capacity of a bacterium to make millions of copies of itself in day. The hybrid plasmid, infiltrated with the appropriate gene, could in theory convert the bacterium into a pharmaceutical factory."

You can get further details in the article on the BBC.

Next time someone questions the existence of 'nasty' bugs, tell them about insulin. And remind them to always wash their hands and cook poultry properly.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Life...

....is like an hourglass.

We all have roughly the same shaped hourglass and a roughly equal amount of sand. But because of minor differences in the size of the hole and the differences in the sand granules (large, small, square, rectangular) some of us will exhaust our supply quicker than others.

What do we do in our hourglasses? Some of us will spend our entire lives cataloguing each grain of sand and forget to look outside. Others will build huge castles on the sand assuming a long life, then panic as the last grains disappear down the hole.

Some will spend their lives trying to prevent the grains disappearing and try to cling to the glass as time runs out. Still others will sit and build sandcastles. When a hole appears they'll cry 'Whoa, I wonder what's down there?' and jump.

There are many more types that inhabit the hourglass of life. What's your life like?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

One Man's Wine Is Another Man's Poison

I'm looking out at snow covered paths and houses, thinking...'I hate this'.

To me snow looks good (it covers up the muck that is usually lying around), but it's cold, damp and a danger for traffic and people. To my kids it's an endless source of fun and means a day off school. For the dogs it's a pain in the bum...well they are little dogs and their backsides touch the stuff when they walk outside.

Different people will view the snow according to the circumstances. The executive who complains that it keeps his staff from going to work will complain if there's none on the slopes for his ski-ing holiday.

Today, I complain about the snow. On Christmas Day, I'll sigh and enjoy it.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Predicting a crash

Can economic crashes be predicted? Surprisingly, yes.

Back in the early days of Stalin's Russia, an economist was set to work to predict the future of the Russian and World economies. He predicted that there would be a massive depression in the 1930s and that the collectivisation of agriculture would be a disaster.

He was promptly packed off to Siberia and was never heard from again.

I remember reading this account in History Today some years ago, but can't remember who the economist was or if the story was apocryphal. But it is possible, to a certain degree, to predict some economic cycles.

Seven year stock cycles are well known to most businesses (certainly those that survive), but what is less well known is the 60 year cycle of depressions.

The 1990's and the 1930's spring immediately to mind. But were you aware of the European economic depressions of the 1870's and 1810's? Thought not.

The world was dragged out of the 1930's depression by WW2 and the massive investment in industry it required to fight the war, though there was a short recession in many western nations for a few years immediately afterwards.

The depression of the 1870's was lifted by the investment in creating the European African Empires in the 1880's and the subsequent trading/exploitation that took place.

The depression of the 1810's had no war or imperial expansion to lower it's effects so people suffered a greater problem after the end of the Napoleonic wars. Economies began to recover in the 1820's and the western world saw an increase in the number of new inventions from this time on (steam power being a good example) as well as increased industrialisation.

But people still starved, there was little, if any, help for those in need and rebellion bubbled beneath the surface. There were major revolutions in France in 1830 and across Europe in 1848, which brought about a change in the way people were governed.

So can we predict what will happen over the next few decades? In a rough outline, yes and I'm going to stick my neck out and make the following predictions for Britain and the world:

1 - Increasing disillusionment with current politics will result in mass demonstrations against parliament resulting in a significant change in how we are governed. Some of those that gain from this will try and make sure that the 'lower' elements of British life do not gain.
2 - The world economy will become more protectionist, but it will be the West that suffers more as we have exported our industry to the developing world and it is also the developing world that holds most of the world's natural resources.
3 - There will be a surge in innovation and technological development in the next decade that will reduce one nation's dependence on another.
4 - There will be no 'global' war until after 2050. The conflict will start indirectly from the next major crash around 2049 and will be based mostly around the Pacific and the Middle East.
5 - The crash of 2049ish, will derive from a mass surge of investment into something that gives the appearance of constantly increasing wealth and that people will borrow stupidly to invest in.
6 - Life for the vast majority of humanity will only improve after mid-century and as a direct result of the global war.

Number 6 maybe sound like an optimistic assessment based solely on the experience of Europe after WW2, but there are several other precedents as well: women's rights after WW1; increased pay for the poor after the Black Death; political involvement for more people after the Napoleonic and the British Civil Wars.

What are your predictions?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Things I learned at work...and never knew it

Following on from yesterday's 'lessons from school', here are some things I've learned from working in an office.

- Efficiency matters when it doesn't interfere with the paperwork
- Management courses teach you how to fill out paperwork, not how to manage people
- If the system works on paper, it's the fault of the staff if it doesn't work in practice
- People rise up the career ladder until they reach a job they cannot do
- 'Supply and Demand' in wages only works at board level
- Managers who spend only two days a week in the office need comfier chairs than staff who are there five days a week
- Managers who spend only two days a week in the office need bigger desks than staff who are there five days a week
- Managers who spend only two days a week in the office need more floor space than staff who are there five days a week
- New customers matter, existing customers don't
- Recent graduates have a better view on a business than staff who've worked there for years
- Staff exist for the sole purpose of getting a manager promotoed

Feel free to add your own 'lessons'.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Things I learnt in school...but didn't realise it.

School is a place of learning, of education, that prepares us for life. Here's some of the things I learned.

- Shouting at someone helps them to learn more easily
- Cold showers after exercise are good for you
- Standing in the rain in shorts, thin shirt and studded boots is exercise
- If someone doesn't understand you, they are thick. It has nothing to do with your presentation skills
- Bullying people is the road to success
- Good looking people are the only ones capable of holding positions of responsibility
- There is only one answer to a question
- Violent rulers are to be admired for bringing stability
- Poor people are irrelevant
- Violence is the natural human condition
- Men and Women should always be separated as they are a bad influence on each other
- Elders are betters and are always wiser and more intelligent
- Punctuality is very important...unless you're in charge
- Everyone has to dress the same way...unless you're in charge
- Respect must always be shown...to people in charge
- Tribal loyalties are good...to your own tribe
- Other people have problems...you just whine
- You should always have your own opinion on matters...providing that it agrees with received wisdom
- Sarcasm is a sign of stupidity
- Teachers are never sarcastic...they are witty

Feel free to add to the list.