Saturday, 31 January 2009

Resolutions 2

So, the end of January. The obvious question is whether I've managed to keep any of my resolutions for a whole month. As a reminder, they were:

  1. Remember to send things out once I've written them.
  2. Don't start new work part way through the old.
  3. Try to fence smarter, leaving the Nu-sabre well alone.
  4. Include more penguins in my stories. (Because I like them)
  5. Actually remember to write something shorter than a novel occasionally
  6. Finish the PhD. I mean it this time.

And the answers are:

  1. Sort of. I've sent out a couple of short stories anyway. Of course, I've just had an e-mail back saying that one of the places I sent them no longer exists, so maybe I'll have to start trying places that do.
  2. Umm... I've started lots of short poems and things while I'm still working on this novel (which in line with most of mine doesn't quite have a good title yet). I am, however, resisting the urge to do anything about an entirely seperate novel idea.
  3. Let's see: hand at the base of the grip, emphasis on distance almost to the exclusion of everything, blade down half the time, use of the flunge... I think it's safe to say this one never really had a chance after I finished a pathetic 8th in the Yorkshire Sabre.
  4. There's one (or at least a giant statue of one) in one of the novels I've finished. Other than that, I still need more.
  5. See 2. Though also see the fact that I haven't written a decent short story all month.
  6. Oh come on. It's the end of January. I've got months yet.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Stuff

  • My copy of Rachel Green's 'An Ungodly Child' has finally arrived in the post. So far it's about as good and laid back a take on the apocolypse as you can find outside of the Pratchett/Gaiman collaboration 'Good Omens', even if nothing can quite live up to that standard.
  • On monday I start the second of my 'I have to get some credits to complete the PhD' modules. It's potentially something of a bannana skin course, since it's on Yorkshire in the years immediately after the Norman Conquest. Given that my PhD is based in Yorkshire in the years immediately after the Norman Conquest, I'm going to look an idiot if I don't get close to full marks.
  • I'm currently stuck in the mid 50k of the novel, but that's ok, since I'm supposed to be concentrating on the PhD anyway at the moment. At least until I do something with the pair of unsold ones I've got lying around, I can afford to take things a little slower.
  • There's less than a week until Hull's fencing team meets Sheffield in the match that will decide who wins our league. Cue everyone turning up and desperately trying to remember which end you're supposed to prod people with.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Haruki Murakami: After Dark

I haven't read any Murakami before, though I'd heard good things about him. I'd also heard that he tended towards the odd, which was certainly the case here. I would summarise the plot, but he seems to be largely exploring anti-plot in the style of Joyce's Ulysses, so there isn't really much point. A rough description would be that the main (ish) character, Mari, spends time first in a coffee shop, then in a Japanese love hotel, meeting unusual characters, possibly (maybe) changing things for them, while her sister, who has spent months just sleeping, undergoes a rather surreal experience that looks like it ought to be a dream, but probably isn't. Confused yet? I was.

Thankfully, I remembered reading somewhere that one key to the whole thing is a moment near the end where a random stranger picks up a cell phone discarded by someone responsible for an attack on a prostitute earlier in the book, and is told "we know what you did", only to have it mean something to them. The point there, it seems, is that any meaning we find herein is our own, imposed on something that is otherwise disconnected and chance based. It's certainly a thought.

Murakami's writing, or rather the translation of it, has an almost telegrammatic feel, being punchy and to the point almost to the extent that it does away with any kind of flow. Intriguingly, the book is built largely on a series of pointed, accurate descriptions of people, backed up by diologue in which they reveal more about themselves. It's less of a continuous piece than a series of character studies, but it works because the way Murakami writes it invests the whole with at least the sense that something special is happening, even if it never quite seems to. I got to the end and, instead of being utterly disappointed with what should have been an essentially empty book, I couldn't help but feel that something significant had happened, even though I couldn't quite grasp what. It was probably a mistaken feeling, given the hints of deliberate non-significance, but part of the appeal of this book is that you can guess that's what's happening about half way through, and still feel it.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Off Plan

One thing I've been noticing about working through a reasonably full plan of something is that, no matter how well you think you've got it planned out, no matter how much you swear that this time you'll do it by the outline that you've got, when it comes to the actual writing bit, things end up having to be changed.

Partly, that's probably because my plans are never as perfect as I think. I get the pacing wrong, or I jump about too much. They're things that I should be able to fix at the planning stage, but always look different once the words are down on the page.

Partly, it comes down to a question of creating tension/interest in each scene. Sometimes, a segment might serve the whole perfectly, but when you're talking about a thousand words or so, it has to be something as well as simply adding something, if you see what I mean.

Mostly, of course, it's because I'm inclined to get carried away. Or I figure out a great way of achieving the main goal of a scene, but it requires me to set things up further back, thus pulling things out of shape.

So, should I be doing this? Should I be improvising like this, or should I accept that plans are occasionally there to be stuck to.

Friday, 23 January 2009

The Spoken Academic Paper is Dead (I Hope)

Academic conference papers seem to me to be a special torture reserved for those of us who don't much like public speaking. It might be reasonable to assume that this, along with the bit where my own attendance at such a conference coincided with a bit of a breakdown this time last year, is behind my hatred of the things. In fact, it's rather simpler. I don't think they work.

  • They are orally presented things, and so don't allow for rereading as an article would.
  • Nor do they allow for the level of detail that an article would, since the audience won't be able to write that fast.
  • But they do generally insist on a complete written version, being 'papers' that are presented. This is absolutely at odds with most techniques for giving a good talk that actually communicates something.
  • As such, they turn even people who would normally be highly entertaining speakers into boring automatons. Someone I know, who is an excellent lecturer, and one of the few historians I know who can genuinely write, presented one of these papers not that long ago, on a subject that was of direct interest to me, and I was still bored.
  • Half the people that go to them do so because they think they ought to, or because their academic department has insisted. This is in the name of producing a 'research culture' when such a culture is probably more dependent on the individuals involved than on compulsory structures.
Please, if you happen to be involved in an institution that engages in this nonsense, encourage them to stop it. Written articles are more user friendly. Seminar type presentations are more informative. Even public lectures have their place, but please, do away with this bizarre, useless hybrid.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

50000

I'm up past 50000 words on the current novel, which seems like quite slow going for me, but then I've been doing other things as well. Anyway, I might as well take my time, given the queue of things stacked in front of it on the finished pile.

The copy-editor on the first novel has been in touch, explaining the process, which I thought was a nice touch. I really must remember not to be one of those 'It's perfect as it is!' authors, which should be fairly straightforward. The joy of having moved onto something else is that you lose some of the protectiveness towards the last one.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Mike Sedgwick: My Sword Hand Is Singing

More vampires. Maybe it's just that I'm presently making fun of them, but they do seem to be everywhere at the moment. Sedgwick's big idea is to write a novel about vampires as they used to be in european myth and legend, rather than as they've come to be in a post-Anne Rice world.

What that seems to mean is an interesting enough gothic horror novel filled with scary things that are more like zombies than anything, and certainly aren't going to be attending high school at any point in the near future. It's an interesting take on something that is being done to death everywhere else, though I can't help wondering if Sedgwick, in getting rid of the modern, sexy, ever so confident things that we're used to, hasn't gotten rid of the main thing that makes this stuff so readable.

Except of course that it's not actually about the vampires. This is literature, apparently, so the novel is presumably as much about the relationship between the woodcutter son and his father, the superstitious villagers and their rituals, and the sudden influx of travellers, as it is about the supernatural. There are certainly hints of that being the case, particularly with the father-son dynamic, though I suspect the strands aren't as fully developed as they could be. To a certain extent, it feels like Sedgwick has got hold of a great idea, and then has had little idea what to do around it, resulting in emphasis in odd places. What would seem like an important climactic point for the book, with everyone heading back into town to deal with the things, is dealt with in a fairly perfunctory manner, while the relationship between the woodcutter and Agnes, who he thinks he loves, is dealt with equally briefly.

The saving grace here is Sedgwick's writing. He has a knack for the brooding, dark and sinister, drawing it out of the ordinary in inventive ways. Equally, by working with slightly old fashioned vampires he's found a way of making them feel fresh again, and thus actually frightening. For that alone, it might be worth reading.

Following

I thought I'd give the following stuff a go, after a good point made by Alex Moore on the subject, which was that it allows people to show up on your sidebar who you might otherwise forget to link to. It also includes pretty pictures, which are always more inviting than a bunch of random blog names. So that's nice.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Stuff

I didn't place in the Yorkshire Sabre at the weekend. I only made it as far as the last eight before running into the chap who went on to win it. I could blame exhaustion from lack of sleep, or a pulled muscle from the bout before, but those excuses would all be lies. He was simply considerably better with a sabre.

I've decided that the best approach for rewriting the historiography on the PhD is to re-do it from scratch. Normally, I like to rework things from the existing draft, keeping some bits and changing others. I know there's a school that says you should rewrite everything, but I think computers make that excessively convoluted. At the very least, open a new file and paste in the bits you actually like. This time though, everything's too tangled up for that, and a couple of the problems are structural, so I'm starting again.

I've decided to write quite a lot of short and light poems, since the novel has pushed poetry a bit to the side for me at the moment. These should at least allow me to keep my hand in.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

We're off to see the wizard...

Or possibly just off to the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield for the Yorkshire Sabre. As such, the nerves are kicking in, because I'd quite like to place in this. The blokes who came joint third last year seem to be about my level. Oh well, probably best not to take it too seriously. Also must remember not to get awestruck around Sheffield Sword Club Coach James Williams, even if he is the best sabreur this country has produced, and even if he still moves better giving lessons than I do on piste.

All together now 'A heart, a brain, a stop-hit technique...'

Friday, 16 January 2009

History and Writing

You'd think historians would be better writers, really. Somehow, though, despite the largely literary nature of our undertaking, good historical writing is hard to find. I'm not going to claim any superiority in this respect, either, because I have a mode of history writing that is dull, fact laden, and complicated.

Since I'd like to think that my other writing is vaguely readable, something to do with history or the way it is taught must be to blame. I suspect that the idea of a special way of writing to which historians have to conform has something to do with it, especially when the need to write in that way for essays and articles helps to perpetuate it.

I also think, though, that it has something to do with the historiography of the subject, particularly the continuing insistance in some quarters on historical empiricism. Writing in too normal or entertaining a way runs the risk of not sounding dry and factual enough, and of revealing the historian's involvement in the process of creating the work. What was it they used to say to me at school? 'Avoid the word "I" in history essays. It makes it sound like you aren't being objective.'

I could make the point that no one ever truly is. But that would take a while. I'd rather just suggest that, if historians paid as much attention to writing in a readable way as they did in a precise way, more people would probably read the work in question.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Entropy Tanka

The Universe cools
Like last night’s pizza left out
On some kitchen top
I wonder who will eat it
And who put in anchovies

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

England Cricket Sackings

Over the past week or so, a bit of a drama has been playing out in English cricket. First the captain of the national team, Kevin Petersen, made it known that he didn't like the coach, Peter Moores. Then he demanded that the ECB sack Peter Moores. Then the ECB sacked them both.

Along with saying something about the organisational talents of the individuals involved, I think it says something about the differences between captaincy in something like cricket and its equivalents in other sports. Cricket has to be one of the few sports where the captain could even get into a position of thinking that they might be able to ask for a different coach, mostly because it is one of the rare sports where the captain is making the majority of the tactical decisions. Sports such as Rugby or Soccer are too continuous to allow for real tactical imput beyond the calling of predetermined set plays, while other stop-start team sports, such as Baseball or American Football, seem to allow far greater on field input from the coaches.

It's unlikely that much will change in the wake of the sackings. The captain will still be in charge on the field, while the small army of coaches will continue to do what they want off it. Still, it goes to show that sometimes, it helps to take into account the personalities of the individuals involved before you appoint them.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

I'm Postmodern?

It turns out I've been doing up to the minute history all this time. Who'd have thought it? I've come to the point in the PhD when I'm reworking the initial literature review and placing myself more firmly somewhere within the historiographical context, and as such I've been looking through the various trends in history writing.

I had originally thought that my PhD would be quite an old fashioned sort of project; a big institutional history of three medieval minster churches, but I've found a clever way of pointing out that I am in fact doing history that A: plays up to postmodernist concerns and B: plays up to recent thoughts about historical networks and institutional development.

The slightly worrying facet of all this is that I actually find historiography and the theory of history slightly more interesting than the actual writing of history. Amongst other things, it means that I won't be spending much time in Texas in the near future since that (probably otherwise lovely) state acquired laws under the other Bush forbidding the teaching of historical interpretation and insisting that American history be seen as solid fact. This may have been introduced for the entirely reasonable aim of preventing ideologically driven pseudo historians from making up whatever they wanted, but it still causes problems for those of us inclined to think that historical meaning is something constructed by the historian.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Re: re-reads

You see what I did there? Anyway, I'm in a bit of a re-reading phase at the moment (Tanya Huff's Smoke and Ashes, since you ask) which seems to be something that not everyone does. But I always have. I read and re-read most of the books I had as a child, and the habit seems to have stuck. Besides, it strikes me as the best criterion for whether to buy a book. If you're not going to read it twice, get it out from the library.

On the other hand, most things seem worth reading more than once. The first time, you get the excitement and the surprise. The second, and third, and so on, you get to simply enjoy the beauty of the writing, to revel in the way the story's done, and to anticipate the good bits. Think about it. You wouldn't only listen to a song once and then declare that you'd heard it. You'd play it in the background, listen to it when the mood took you, maybe plot the untimely demise of the people singing it (as my brother has been known to do whenever a boy band shows up on TV) and definitely hear it so many times that you can almost, but never quite perfectly, remember the lyrics.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Make Me Laugh

One thing you've got to ask yourself if you're writing something with a comic edge is what exactly is funny. As anyone who's ever listened to a long winded joke in a pub knows, it's very easy to get wrong. More to the point, how do you make comedy work best when you're writing? Is it about essentially ludicrous characters, silly situations, and jokey plots?

On the whole, I'd like to think not. Exagerated characters and plots certainly have their place, but they are central to the basic story that you're telling. Mess with them, and you run the risk of the whole thing falling flat to get a laugh. My short story 'A Madder Scientist' (click on the link to Semaphore Magazine now, or I'll cry) comes pretty close to doing this, but it's A: quite a short short-story, so it doesn't really have room to go wrong in that way, B: essentially a parody, and C: in complete possession of a fairly normal plot somewhere under there (i.e. "the nephew who must go into the family business for an inheritance while others try to steal it." It's a hoary old chestnut, but is quite fun when the business in question is Mad Scientist) even if the details are all silly.

I think that's maybe the point here. Start with something normal, something that, if stated in general terms, sounds sensible. Only then branch out into the ludicrous.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Stuff

Almost no one showed up to yesterday's first fencing session back, suggesting that people are taking longer to get over their christmas holidays than I thought. This left two of us practising in advance of what's usually the busy season for competitions. Hopefully some will make an appearance at some point before the Yorkshire Sabre in a fortnight, because one thing I've noticed in almost all sports is that your own success comes, not just from talent, or effort, or the quality of your coaches, but also very much from the standards of the people you train with, since they push you to do better. This is particularly true in a directly interactive sport like fencing, where your opponent's ability to respond determines how good you need to be to win.

Things I'm currently working on: The PhD, edits for novel no 3, first draft of novel no 4, some poems to try and put something together for the Beverley Poetry competition. All in all it's rather a lot, though I feel happier about the PhD now I'm over the minimum word count of 80000. It also helps that I've tied down a few of the small but awkward things that just build up in the course of writing. With the novels, I'm hoping to have 3 finished by the time my publishers open their submissions window again in the spring. It should allow me to submit it at the same time as the sequel to my first one then. This probably sounds like bombarding them with too much stuff, but it seems like a good idea to get this second, separate, series going before the first one gets entrenched. Especially since I suspect it may be rather better. Or at least funnier.

I've got a book on order from fantasy writer Rachel Green, having run into her on a couple of writing forums. It's strange how that seems a sufficient basis for buying someone's novel. Then again, she is a fellow comic fantasy writer, and if her shorter work and poetry is anything to go by, it ought to be rather good. It's probably proof that this sort of online self-promotion has at least some effect. A link to one of her many blogs, When the Dogs Bark, is on the sidebar.

The Tom Jolley book I started, 'Sword of Davelon', is bad. Sufficiently so that I doubt I'll finish it.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Derek Landy, Playing with Fire

The sequel to Skulduggery Pleasant, this YA adventure has a fair bit to live up to. After the events of the first book, Stephanie Edgeley is settling into life having assorted supernatural adventures, but a bigger threat is on the horizon, with the evil Baron Vengeous being broken out of jail.

The names haven't improved, then. The story's just as fast paced though, with plenty of action right from the start. Possibly slightly too much, since the endless fighting and running and throwing magic around rather gets in the way of the mystery supposed to be at the heart of the book. Perhaps because it's not so much a mystery as simply a case of finding and destroying the big evil monster, it doesn't quite fill out the heart of the book in the same way as the first book did.

That's not to say that this is a bad book. It's still an excellent adventure, well written and with some memorable characters. It's still a little too much in the shadow of a certain other series about a young wizard, but that doesn't stop it being tremendously good fun.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Quantity and Quality

Over the past couple of days, I've been producing less on the novel, since I've been working on a combination of the PhD and on various rewrites. The slight reduction to just a thousand words or so seems to be having an interesting effect, since the bits I've been doing seem to be slightly better as a result. Perhaps it's simply that I'm not rushing ahead, or maybe that I'm just giving one segment of the whole my attention at a time, but the reduction in quantity genuinely seems to be sparking an improvement in the quality, putting it maybe a draft ahead. Possibly the people who did NaNoWrMo may have found the same thing, though I suspect this won't last long with me. I get the urge to write the next bit of the story far too much.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Resolutions

Some random resolutions for 2009, none of which I'll probably keep:

  1. Remember to send things out once I've written them.
  2. Don't start new work part way through the old.
  3. Try to fence smarter, leaving the Nu-sabre well alone.
  4. Include more penguins in my stories. (Because I like them)
  5. Actually remember to write something shorter than a novel occasionally
  6. Finish the PhD. I mean it this time.