Thursday, 28 February 2008


Recently, I've been trying to play around with a few different forms of poetry in an effort to break free of my tendency to use the same approaches for everything. Today, I had a go at writing a sestina. For those who don't know, that's a poem of six stanzas of six lines each where the last words on the lines repeat but in a changed order. Each stanza takes the 123456 of the last stanza and rearranges it 615243.

All very complicated, and there's a real danger with this sort of thing that the form of it overtakes the content, but it can be a fun challenge. I just wrote the first stanza without thinking about the repeating words too much, so when the word biscuit ended up as one of them, I had to think quite hard. Combine that with working on the PhD, rewrites on the novel, reading and a spot of job hunting and the day turned out quite full.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008


A fairly down kind of day generally, despite it being the first nice day weatherwise for a while. No particular reason for it beyond the usual, but it has left me disinclined to write much today. Maybe I'll get onto something later.

I've been proofreading a short story for a friend, and it's good, but there's always the part of me that wonders if I should be quite so brutally honest about the bits I think need changing. I'm aiming for constructive criticism, but it can be a hard balance to find sometimes. Thankfully, there's not much that needs doing to this one.

I've been putting together a few pieces of love poetry for another friend to read. No, it isn't some sort of attempt to seduce her, but she heard me mention poetry to Adam and asked if she could read some. Fair enough, but it has shown me how little straight ahead love poetry I've written. I normally end up twisting the whole thing round and approaching it from some quite silly angles. The last love poem I wrote ended up being about stamp collecting.

In more geological news, we had a small earthquake last night. Actually it was centered on Lincoln, but we caught the edge of it. At 5.5 on the Richter scale, it probably doesn't count as big by any objective standard, but it came as a shock given how few earthquakes we get in the UK. It was enough to wake up everyone in my house. Everyone, that is, except me. No, I'm not that heavy a sleeper. I was just awake already, trying to think of a decent rhyme for love that wasn't either above or glove.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Not Mother's Day

I am, depending on your point of view, either a loving son or a very scatterbrained one. Seeing the constant reminders about mother's day, I went out card shopping on Saturday, bought her a nice gift, and then realised on Sunday that mother's day isn't until next week. This was after I'd handed over the card, of course.

On a slightly less idiotic note, my local library's closed for refurbishment, so I'm taking the opportunity to reread the contents of my bookshelves. It's surprising how little time I have to leave a book before I've forgotten the detail. On the other hand, I can come back to some books years from when I first read them and remember every last thing.

(Warning, cricket related rant ahead)

I've also been watching the Stanford 20-20 cricket competition over the last few days. Apparently it's been broadcast to America as an advert for the game. I really hope not. The teams that supply a lot of players for the West Indies were all right, but a lot of the cricket was truly awful. Too often, the teams looked like club sides, with ropey medium pacers, non-turning spinners and batting that was neither inventive nor explosive. I normally stay away from comparing professionals with club level sport, because it's always faster and tougher than it looks on TV, but this lot really did look like they'd walked out of someone's evening league side.

(I did warn you.)

Saturday, 23 February 2008

More important things

I've been doing another round of edits on the second novel. It's amazing how easy it is to miss things the first time round, but then the first one took maybe half a dozen redrafts before I was satisfied.

I've also been playing around with free poetry after reading Tracy Ryan's The Willing Eye. Normally I stick to metrical stuff, not least because of a penchant for light (not to mention silly) poetry. But reading this has inspired me a little. Just a quick question to anyone reading. When was the last time you bought (not borrowed, stole or got given) a book of poetry? Almost everyone seems to go through a phase of writing the stuff, but if they also went through a phase of buying it, good poetry might be easier to come by.

A musical point that also (sort of) connects to writing. A friend of mine who plays the piano has been trying to learn jazz after years of classical piano. I heard him play the other night, and while he has the usual technical ability, he hasn't got the hang of making the stuff swing yet. Too often, when playing music or when writing, it's easy to get caught up in technique and forget about more fundamental things. One without the other doesn't work that well.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

My Nerd Type

What Be Your Nerd Type?
Your Result: Literature Nerd

Does sitting by a nice cozy fire, with a cup of hot tea/chocolate, and a book you can read for hours even when your eyes grow red and dry and you look sort of scary sitting there with your insomniac appearance? Then you fit this category perfectly! You love the power of the written word and it's eloquence; and you may like to read/write poetry or novels. You contribute to the smart people of today's society, however you can probably be overly-critical of works.

It's okay. I understand.

Gamer/Computer Nerd
Artistic Nerd
Science/Math Nerd
Anime Nerd
Social Nerd
Drama Nerd
What Be Your Nerd Type?
Quizzes for MySpace

This was too much fun to resist. It seems (big surprise) that I'm a literature nerd, with musician a close second.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

PhD writing

I've finally gotten some more work done on the PhD. It seems to come in fits and starts as work and research percolate into ideas for the thesis. Although in terms of words it's only the length of a long novel (100 000) it's infinitely harder than writing fiction, probably because of the constant need to check facts and build arguments. Making stuff up is definitely more fun.

In an effort to try out graphic novels, I've just finished Neil Gaiman's 'The Wake'. Coming in at the tenth book in the Sandman series probably wasn't a good idea, as I hadn't much of a clue what was going on. Trying to play catch up with the plot while Gaiman was being his usual odd self didn't work out that well. Perhaps I should try starting somewhere near the beginning.

England's cricket team have somehow contrived to tie the 4th one-dayer against New Zealand after scoring 340. It was fun to watch, but I'm a little disappointed that they seem to be leaving out Graham Swann the moment the boundaries are short. Owais Shah showed that even a part time spinner can be awkward, and this policy of dropping the spinner seems to reflect the distrust of them at the heart of the English game. Too often, they seem to be in teams as an afterthought. Maybe that's just me being bitter, since I'm a leggie myself, though I've been lucky enough recently to find a captain who appreciates that not all bowlers need to hurl a cricket ball down as fast as possible.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008


It can be easy to get overamitious with projects, and particularly with writing. I've been finding this out as I tried to put together an article for next month's estella's revenge. The theme was history, so as a historian, I thought that perhaps I should be writing this great article serving as a guide to the whole of historical writing. It simply wasn't realistic. As it is, I've put together a brief guide to my own little niche of medieval history, hopefully dressing it up enough to be entertaining as well as useful.

The message here seems to be about knowing when something isn't quite achievable. With my novel, I know that one early attempt had to be abandoned when I tried (understandably) to make it the best novel ever written. When I settled for producing a good piece of writing that readers would enjoy, it turned out rather better than I hoped.

So, what am I saying? I'm not trying to suggest that we should all give up on trying to produce good art, or that we shouldn't have ambition, far from it. Instead, I think the important message here is about the dangers of prejudging what something creative is going to be. If I had the inspiration to write a jig, I wouldn't try and make an opera out of it just because it was better 'art', so why should I do something similar with writing? The second point seems to be about the dangers of making writing stressful when it doesn't have to be. It shouldn't be a case of 'I HAVE to do this' but rather 'wouldn't it be great if I...'

I, like most writers, do this because I enjoy it. Biting off more than I can chew seems like a great way of forgetting that.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Mary's Little Alien

Normally, it takes a while to get a decision back on submitted work, unless the editor has decided that they hate it within about five seconds of seeing it. I was surprised, therefore, to get a positive reply today to a submission I made to poetry site I don't know exactly when my poem will be going up, but it's still good news. The site itself is great, full of funny poems aimed at kids and well worth a look. My poem 'Mary's Little Alien' is, as you've probably guessed from the title, a reworking of Mary had a Little Lamb to include more creatures from outer space. I know, I know, I should be writing angst filled odes that touch the heart, but on the whole I'd really rather make people laugh.

I've spent some of the rest of the weekend updating my CV. It's amazing how a long list of articles can paper over a few of the more gaping holes in it.

Friday, 15 February 2008


I've sent some poetry to a 'proper' poetry magazine. I hadn't realised until then just how much I had lying around. The trick is sifting through it, trying to work out which bits are any good, which bits will communicate something to a reader rather than just myself. I don't know if any of it will be accepted, but it seems better to at least take the chance.

I'd just like to take a moment to wish good luck to my friend Adam, who has an interview today. The PhD he's applying for seems like a good one, so here's hoping he gets in.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

A Valentines Day Poem

Since it's Valentine's day, I can probably get away with a poem. As usual, I have trouble taking this sort of thing seriously. Still, enjoy.

Love is not a Swiss Army Knife

They say that love can bridge an ocean’s width
But isn’t that what planes and boats are for?
That it can raise you to a mountain top
But ropes and pitons seem far more secure
It’s not some spell or special potion mix
To make you more than what you always are
Or rocket fuel to take you speeding out
Into the orbit of the nearest stars
But why should love be any of those things
Be some magic blend of showy stuff
If you can look into your lover’s eyes
And see you’re loved, that is, surely, enough.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008


The PhD has been giving me some trouble recently. In fact, it's been a problem since before Christmas, when I was scheduled to speak at a conference in Canterbury. Partly the problems have been down to lack of interest, medieval ecclesiastical history is not my favourite area by a long way; partly it's been due to worries over my ability to complete, worries that may be unfounded anyway; partly it's been due to worries over funding. A couple of weeks ago, I was really ready to give up.

There's a stubborn part of me though that refuses to do so. I have committed so much to this already in terms of time, money and effort that not finishing seems unconscionable, even if I'm unlikely to be able to move into acedemia afterwards (suffice it to say that Canterbury did not go well) Add to that what employers would surely think if I bailed out now, and non-completion isn't an option.

What I will say to anyone reading this is that, if you're considering a PhD, make very sure your subject is something YOU want to commit years of your life to. It's very easy to go along with something that suits a supervisor's research interests, particularly since they're trying to help by suggesting areas they can supervise and which don't have work in them. The trouble is, it's easy for your own interests to get left behind. If we divide medieval history roughly into social, military and ecclesiastical history, then that is probably the order of my interest in them.

In that, I've obviously made mistakes. Hopefully someone else out there can learn from them.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Robert Twigger, Voyageur

I finally got round to reading the rest of Robert Twigger's Voyageur, his account of his attempt to cross Canada in a birchbark canoe. I'm glad I did, because, as well as the sheer scale of the feat, the book is an entertaining and thought provoking travel log that's as much about the places passed through as the expedition.

I won't claim that this is a fantastically light or easy read. At 390 pages, it's not, and Twigger's matter of fact prose doesn't lend itself to marathon reading sessions. At the same time, it's this tone that manages to bring across the reality of the trip so well. He reminds us at every turn that, while he'd probably love to be heroic, he and his crew are just ordinary people. That makes their successes and failures far more touching than if they'd been those of a 'professional' explorer. His concern for doing the journey in an 'authentic' way seems at odds with the modern tendency to take the easiest way possible, but also speaks to the part of many people that distrusts modern, easy solutions to problems. It's definitely worth reading.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Best Of

Well the first piece of good news is that my poem 'pest control' has made the 2007 best of issue of Aphelion ( proving that there's still a place in the universe for extremely silly poems. It started out as a nice, twee fantasy poem about sweet little flower fairies, but didn't quite turn out that way. It's actually the first piece of my work that I've allowed a member of my family to see, which probably sounds weird, but I find I get hugely embarrassed about my writing. I can cope with strangers seeing things I've written, but not the people who know me best.

One other person who's been seeing a lot of my writing recently is my mate Adam. He does some writing himself, and I've talked him into swapping the odd piece. Since neither of us is really a 'formal writing group' sort of person, this seems like the next best way of getting feedback and encouragement. On the short story front, it seems we have more or less opposite faults. I tend towards extreme brevity, which can leave things feeling undercooked, while he seems to write just a little too much. Hopefully, we'll each catch a little of the other's fault.

I read Graham Greene's The Third Man the other day and, while not as good as the film, I enjoyed it a lot. Perhaps because it was written originally as a screenplay, there's a slightly odd feel to it, a lot of emphasis on the character, but quite a lot of space where you might expect description of things happening, as though he was deliberately leaving room for the director.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

I'm reading... everything.

Just how many books is it possible to read simultaneously? No doubt there's an official figure somewhere, or someone's tried for a world record, but whatever the figure is I've got to be close. The trouble is I'm quite forgetful about books, so I put them down part way through and promptly start something else, thinking that I'm not reading anything. I found a copy of Robert Twigger's Voyageur the other day. Now, of the 'do stupidly adventurous things and then write about them' school he's probably my favourite, but I still completely forgot I was reading it. Possibly I should start making lists. Or notes, since the main problem is that I forget what was in the first half of the book when I get back round to it.

I gave a short story to my friend Adam to read the other day. Since he's inclined to write longish short stories, he was quite impressed that I'd managed to write something that entertained him in 1500 words or so. Hopefully he's going to let me read through one of his in return. It ironic that the last place I submitted it rejected it on the grounds that it was too long.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Jasper Fforde, Something Rotten

Jasper Fforde's Something Rotten follows on from The Well of Lost Plots and resolves the series pretty well. It follows Thursday Next's attempts to get her husband uneradicated, her continuing conflict with Yorrick Kaine and the Goliath Corporation by way of the prophesies of a thirteenth century saint, and continuing interference in her life from the various inhabitants of Bookworld. It's a joyous mishmash of literature and time travelling, allowing Hamlet to show up alongside Emma Hamilton and Otto von Bismark, fictional emperor of the known universe Zhark to show up alongside 'president for life' George Formby.

The first good news is that my pet hate, the footnotes, have gone. The second is that for the most part this is a hugely enjoyable book that keeps twisting and turning until the very end. Perhaps it does so a little too much, setting itself up in a series of time travelling paradoxes that are just a little too neat. I also have to admit to a little annoyance with some of the liberties taken with history as we know it, not because I don't enjoy that sort of thing elsewhere, but because it leaves the 'real' world seeming much, much stranger than Bookworld. That seems to defeat half the point of jumping over into a fictional world where odd things happen. Still, on the whole these are minor points that soon fade in the face of more important things, like whether Swindon will win the croquet final or whether Hamlet will ever make up his mind, and this proves to be a very satisfying end to the series.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Charlaine Harris, Definitely Dead

Charlaine Harris has really created an enjoyable heroine in the form of Sookie Stackhouse, the mostly normal woman thrown into a world of vampires and shapeshifters thanks to her 'talent' for reading minds. The books featuring her are mostly at the lighter end of the vampire spectrum, and manage to inject a sense of fun into a genre that can all too easily slip over into taking itself far too seriously. Definitely Dead manages the same trick, as Sookie Stackhouse heads to New Orleans to deal with an inheritance from her dead cousin Hadley, then finds herself caught up in a round of vampire politics.

The characters are elegantly realised, and something different from the usual run of the mill, while the plot moves along at a brisk pace. Perhaps the ending is a little quick, not to mention slightly too easy to spot in advance, but it's so well executed that you forgive that almost as soon as you read it. Parts of the plot are quite obviously lifted from Alexandre Dumas, but openly and in a sense of good fun. Besides, who else would think to run part of the three musketeers with vampires?