Saturday, 30 May 2009

Guilty Pleasures

I'm not normally, but for this week I thought I'd have a go at being a Weekly Geek.

That's principally because they're writing about guilty pleasures, and it seemed like fun. So here are mine.

  1. 80s Heavy Metal/Shred. Yes, I play the guitar. Yes, I play it far quicker than is actually good for me. It's almost natural that Yngwie Malmsteen is going to be involved at some point, even if I'd much rather listen to Guthrie Govan.
  2. Midgit Gems. Possibly the most addictive sweets in the known universe. I have been known to stick them to warm cups, because they taste better afterwards.
  3. Light poetry. I'm sure someone in a cardigan is looking disapproving. Not that I care.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Mellissa Marr: Ink Exchange

That's right, more YA fantasy. And a sequel too, being the follow up to Wicked Lovely. The plot? Iriel, King of the Dark Court of Farie, needs human emotion to feed his Court. He gets it through a magical tattoo on the main character, Leslie, who finds herself bound up with the farie courts whether she wants to be or not. Meanwhile her friend Aislinn, who happens to be Queen of the Summer Court after Wicked Lovely, would like to keep her safe, as would Nial, one of the summer fey.

It sounds like it should be twee and horrible, doesn't it? And yet Marr produces quite a powerful story around addiction, friendship, secrets, and the question of what it's right to do in defence of those who are yours. It's filled throughout with beautiful writing, and with characters who seem to have real depth. There are perhaps some slight issues, over the lack of real choice for much of what goes on, for example, but they are forced out by the overall quality of the writing.

Monday, 25 May 2009


  • Footnotes are currently the bane of my existence. All those moments when I said to myself, "I won't look it up now, it will break my writing flow" have come back to haunt me. And the couple of chapters I've gone through so far have both been around 100 footnotes in 10000 words.
  • Also obscure little books on the history of York Minster, that seem to have "facts" in that contradict my own findings, thus making me spend time checking to make sure that I am in fact correct. Which I am, as it happens. So there.
  • I've been considering a short story based on one of the events that has shown up in my research, but can't make up my mind if is A: too specialised an area to be interesting, and B: too likely to confuse things.
  • For some inexplicable reason I've been thinking about good and bad book cover art. Some of my favourites: The assorted Terry Pratchett covers, Rachel Green's An Ungodly Child, The weirdly minimalist Tom Holt covers. My least favourites: The 'grown up' Harry Potter covers, most penguin classics, the weirdly minimalist Tom Holt covers (I'm a little conflicted about them).

Friday, 22 May 2009

Searching by... me!

I've just found out, rather suddenly, that my first novel, Searching, has been released in an assortment of e-book formats. It can be found here, and if you like the whole urban fantasy genre, I think you might enjoy reading it. The cover, in as much as e-books have covers, is below, and I'll include the blurb from it shortly. This has all come rather out of the blue, so apologies for the lack of a decent build up. To those who choose to read it, I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009


  • I would say that rewriting is like painting the Forth Bridge, except that I'm told they have longer lasting paint for that now, so it's actually worse. Round and round the cycles of re-writes and comments we go. Where we stop...
  • The European Elections are coming up in the UK. One thing that is annoying me quite a lot is that assorted parties are doing their election broadcasts, only to talk solely about things that, if by some miracle they should happen to win seats in Brussels, they would have no power to affect. My favourites were the English Democrats, who spent almost their whole broadcast going on about UK immigration and the need for a seperate English parliament, both issues for Westminister. The same with the many parties calling for a referendum on the EU. Essentially, every party that does this is saying "vote for me, and I'll do whatever I want".
  • Things I'm reading: The Great Gatsby, Coraline, the Touch of Twilight by Vicky Pettersson, Kathleen Edwards' The English Secular Cathedrals in the Middle Ages.
  • I need longer fingers. My attempts to play the stretchy bits out of Paul Gilbert songs don't work.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Poetry or Poets?

It has been a season of programmes about poetry on BBC4 recently, to coincide with the switchover in poet laureates, and I found myself watching one documentary about previous holders of the post. What struck me was not the quality of the poetry, but rather the emphasis there on the mythology of the individuals concerned. Watching other programmes in the season confirmed this thought, because, even though there was some very good poetry on offer, the main focus was always the poets.

I suspect that's true of other areas of the arts too. More people know about the myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to be able to play the blues than would recognise his music. Probably more people know about Ozzy Osboure biting the head of a bat than would recognise 'Bark at the Moon' or 'Crazy Train', even before we throw his reality TV forays into the mix. Even with long dead writers, some aspects of their personal selves survive at least as well as the work they produced, whether it's Marlowe dying in a knife fight or Shakespeare leaving his second best bed to his wife.

I'm not passing judgement on the process, I have an annoying tendency to remember medieval figures in terms of the same sort of event, but merely find it interesting that something about people makes them at least as interested in the gossip and myth that surrounds the creation of art as in the art itself. What is it that drives us to mythologise them rather than just appreciating the work? Or do they need to build up a cult of celebrity just to stand a chance of being heard in the first place? If so, should those of us inclined to write a bit be booking scale replicas of Stonehenge and finding drummers to sack?

Saturday, 16 May 2009


For no better reason than that I feel like it, a random poem about mornings after, nights before... and socks.

“I’d know him by his socks” she said

The night spent, she thought, in his bed

Or maybe on his bedroom floor

Her flashes of the night before

Without a face, that door still locked

Instead, they show just stripy socks

Worn with grace and great élan

Set just below her perfect man

Who brought her home and left her there

With visions of his underwear

Sometime after they were through

With what the sockless sometimes do

But left without a certain way

To see his socks again some day

No number or e-mail address

Just memories of stripiness

Monday, 11 May 2009


  • I've found that writing less has been reasonably conducive to getting more done on the PhD, if only because, when I'm bored, I've got nothing else to do but rework academic writing.
  • It's a pity then, that I've started a short story and a few poems. The short story is provisionally entitled 'The Apocalypse Factor' and yes, it involves reality TV.
  • I got quite excited about the whole MPs expenses row, but only because I misheard, and wanted to know what a "second gnome allowance" was.
  • One of those incredibly annoying Facebook quizzes has informed me that my signature fencing action is the riposte. Facebook knows nothing. My signature action goes flunge, miss, and get whacked on the head.
  • I just thought I'd say the word flunge again, because I love the sound of it so much. Flunge. There, I said it. Just think, without stupid mid-90s rule changes in sabre, I wouldn't have that lovely word to play with.
  • I've read Mary Janice-Davidson's A Fish Out of Water. Call that a way to wrap up a trilogy? Because I don't.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

I think I've found somewhere that might hire me.

Because Tom Holt's publicity people obviously have too much time on their hands: The J.W. Wells recruitment quiz! (from 'You don't have to be evil to work here, but it helps'). As you can see, I got the hang of it quite quickly.

I got an Evil Rating of 97 and got the job!

Are you evil enough to get a job too?

Friday, 8 May 2009

Graham Greene, The Human Factor

Graham Greene's novel set in the British intelligence community in the seventies presents a very different view from, for example, those of Ian Fleming. There are no car chases, no explosions, and a surprising lack of cunning supervillains. As with most of Greene's work, in fact, the point is more that no one is particularly super. Instead of dashing secret agents, this novel presents a world of overworked and largely bored ones who drink too much, feel constantly disconnected from life, and are apt to make mistakes.

Into this environment, he throws the suspicion of a leak, closely followed by attempts to track it down that reveal more about the prejudices of the people doing the tracking than about the underlying conspiracy. It's a scenario that most people would have turned into a straightforward whodoneit or thriller. Instead, Greene turns the thing into one of his precise studies of the ordinary, throwing the banal at the reader until they're forced to understand how easily perfectly normal principled people could slide into betrayal, murder, or deception when confronted by a world with little in the way of clear cut boundaries.

The best of it is the sense of fallibility that cuts through the book, from the constant small errors of the characters' daily lives up to the final undercutting of each character's attempts to do what they see as the right thing. Greene backs that up by creating an environment where the lack of trust means that the reader isn't sure even at the end if they have the whole picture of what is going on. I picked this up half-hoping for escapism, but it's hard to be disappointed with the tense, perfectly sketched human drama that showed up instead.

Monday, 4 May 2009

PG Wodehouse: The Inimitable Jeeves

There are, it seems, few things funnier than an idiotic English gentleman being hauled out of trouble by his far cleverer manservant. At least, there are few things funnier the way Wodehouse writes it. This book, one of the reasonably recent Arrow Books editions, fits into a collection of works that usually come up somewhere in almost any discussion of the funniest writing in the language.

Here, it's in the context of a series of linked short stories, all featuring Jeeves and Wooster. Most of them share common themes too. There's Bertie's friend Bingo, with his unfortunate habit of continually falling in love. There are strange bets, fixed bets and lost bets. There is a recurring tendency for Bertie to be in the position of problem solver here too, or at least to attempt it, which is a nice play on his relationship with Jeeves.

Some aspects of this collection perhaps suffer from the nature of the whole. Small themes, such as Jeeve's hatred of Wooster's occasional forays into garish clothing, end up over repeated due to their presence in several stories. Bingo's random forays into love become a little predictable too, while, as a collection of separate stories, there isn't quite the expert pacing over the whole collection that might normally be found in one of Wodehouse's novels.

That said, it's still very funny, and there are moments of brilliance. 'The Great Sermon Handicap' is a ludicrous idea perfectly executed, for example, and absolutely essential reading. The rest of it is possibly less so, compared with the novels, but that still puts it streets ahead of most of the alternatives.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Big picture?

When writing, or researching (or indeed writing up research), one of the biggest challenges is getting the mix right between the big picture and the fine detail. On the one hand, it's easy to get so caught up in creating wonderful individual scenes, or in picking apart individual points of argument, that the overall story is lost. At the other extreme, it's easy to get so caught up in the big idea that you lose track of the little details that make it work perfectly.

Currently, I tend more towards the latter, trying to focus on a core idea and sometimes pushing it too hard. It wasn't always the case, and I have phases when I get caught up in the details, too. My strategy for dealing with it seems to be a combination of trying to write in the right sort of mood, and making use of focussed re-drafts to fix mistakes.

Sometimes though I wonder if the emphasis on re-drafting is the right one. Re-working is a wonderful thing, and absolutely necessary in almost every case. Even so, I suspect that a basic core of things needs to be right from the start. That's partly why I'm so focussed on the big stuff; structural elements are much harder to change than elements of detail. If you're saying 'I'll sort the plot/thesis out in the next draft' that's a lot harder than if you're trying to get some more detailed descriptions in.

That said, I suspect that in one way whatever bit we leave out turns out to be the difficult bit. It will be, almost without exception, the bit of writing we don't like, and so gloss over. So we're left with hours of doing precisely the bit we like least, and that's never easy. Hmm... maybe we should get some interesting bits wrong deliberately, to give ourselves something fun to fix?