Sunday, 27 December 2009

Because I've nothing better to do.

Not very seasonal. Or very seasonal, depending on how your christmas has gone. Mostly because I was short of something to post.

End at the Beginning.

Were we doomed by beginning
Is love a downward trend
Is loss required by winning
Do starts imply an end

Do break ups start with flowers
The finish meant to be
I know you think that ours
Had more to do with me

With silence and with pauses
My love's inconstant rate
I'd rather think the causes
Had more to do with fate

Or else I could just lay it
On your too frantic heart
Better both to say it
Was all down to the start

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Receipt for a Dragon

A quick plug for my piece 'Receipt for a Dragon' which is up in Aphelion's Dec/Jan issue. I'm hoping to send most of my Brian Northington stories that way (I'm currently thinking of them as the Brianiad, for some reason) so look out for more of them in the months to come.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Don't Have To v Shouldn't

Of course, we know that know aesthetic endeavour actually has rules, and we can in theory do anything we want, but should we? It's one of those questions that inevitably comes to me when I run into a particularly incomprehensible piece of modern art, or inaccessible piece of poetry, or apparrently random piece of jazz-fusion guitar (I'm looking at you, Alan Holdsworth. Incidentally, what is it about the north of England, where he and John McLaughlin both hail from, and jazz-fusion? Even I've started playing wrong notes.)

Not that there's anything wrong with any of those things when they're done well, but is there perhaps a difference between recognising that you don't have to do something (such as playing something that vaguely relates to the melody) and deciding that you never should? And is merely being informed of modern approaches to the theory of something necessarily going to ensure that you do it well?

Still, that's enough ranting. What I actually wanted to look at was the idea that fiction, and especially particular genres, does have some rules if you want it to be recognisable as such. There are certain elements that have to be present to produce a Western, or an Urban Fantasy novel, or a Romance, in the same way that there are certain elements that identify a piece of music as blues, or rock, or jazz. (Or jazz fusion. Sorry fusioners, but "you must play squillions of wrong notes and it can't sound like pop" is as much a rule as any other)

I think that one of the most useful things you can do as a writer is to work out what the key elements of your genre or usual story-type are. What are the things that customarily show up in all pieces of this type? What are the things that never show up? What, if anything, is absolutely essential for the piece to be recognised as being in a particular genre? Do it now, if you like. Take your favourite genre and write down the essentials.

Having done that, you're in a position to ask why they're essential. What are they there to do? Are they actually essential? Are they something that you can legitimately change or parody, or would doing so change the whole scope of what you write? I'm not saying that you have to change anything. There's fun to be had using the traditional elements of a style around a good, strong story and some beautiful writing. But at the very least it reminds you that most of these elements are there to achieve something, rather than simply elements that you have to include because everyone does. If you'll permit me yet another musical analogy, it's the same as looking through all those blues licks people learn by heart and changing a few notes here and there to suit yourself. The result is not unlistenable oddness, or bland repetition, but is instead the reinvigouration of a sound that you know works.

Friday, 18 December 2009


I received my copy of Semaphore Magazine's 2009 anthology this morning. Two points from that. One is that it's really rather good, and not just the bits that happen to involve me. The other is that it came wrapped in what must have been most of the packing tape in New Zeeland. My brother, who I let open it because he's nozy enough to want to know what's in these things, spent a good five minutes unwrapping it.

I've also received my list of corrections for the PhD. There doesn't seem to be anything very major, and in fact most of them are minor typos and requests for extra references. Though I do need to find a map of the medieval Archdiocese of York to include. Also, I need to find a copy of the York edition of the English Episcopal Acta series, since for some reason Hull's library just has Lincoln and Canterbury. I'm sure I've read one somewhere. I just need to remember where. I suppose I could try... York.

England aren't doing very well in the Test at the moment, but it's their own fault. First, South Africa got too many, because they didn't bowl that well and the four bowler attack got quite tired. Then the extra batter that they'd put in, Ian Bell, didn't get many runs. Still, at least they've avoided the follow on.

I've also signed up to volunteer at the Beverley Community Museum. There's lots of things to help out with there, though I can't help but feel that more people would help if it were a bit more obvious. Currently, it has to play second fiddle to the museum/treasure house/gallery over the local library. I only found out about it by accident, since it happens to be next to the post office.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

A busy day

Spent the day doing SEO articles. Not terribly inspired, but better than doing nothing. Marginally.

On Thursday, I'll find out the corrections I need for my thesis. Hopefully there aren't too many. In theory, I've got three months to do them, but that's three months from the official letter, which might take a while. In practice I'm hoping to get them done rather quicker than that.

One of my pieces of flash fiction has been accepted for the January issue of Expressions magazine, while my short story "Receipt for a Dragon" is going to make an appearance in the Dec/Jan issue of Aphelion, due up some time next week.

Currently re-reading Robert Asprin's Mythion Improbable. He can be a bit preachy in places, but it's still funny.

I seem to be writing poetry again. Rhyming poetry, so I doubt it's going to be taken seriously any time soon, but definitely poetry.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

An apple a day...

Well, the good news is that I've passed, subject to some corrections that apparently aren't major but which I'll get a list of shortly. The viva went better than I expected, and there weren't really any questions I hadn't got an answer for.

The slightly less good news, of course, is that the pre-budget report has just seen (assuming I read this right) something like £600 million taken off education and research budgets. Now, I know (and you possibly know, since I go on about it often enough) that medieval history is as relevant as any other humanity, and has intellectual rigour on its side, but I can't see universities looking to expand that direction when their budgets are going to be cut.

Bidding for freelance writing work is an intriguing experience: dozens of people doing the online equivalent of jumping up and down shouting "pick me, pick me!". I'm trying a slightly less frantic approach, on the theory that the sheer contrast should stand out a little.

I'm currently writing a short story containing apples. It's probably good for you.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Twenty Six

I haven't been posting much because I've been busy revising for the viva. Twenty six hours to go. I'm nervous, obviously, but I think the core of my PhD is a good one, and the facts that I hadn't bothered memorising at the time are starting to sink in.

I am going fencing tonight, if only because if I don't I'll be sat around worrying. Also, since the foil tournament has finished, there's a good chance people will be sufficiently sick of the sight of it to want to fence sabre.

I've got a couple of short story ideas bubbling away, but I haven't written them yet. I started one, but I didn't quite have the tone right. Maybe tomorrow, then.

I'm currently reading Beyond the Deepwoods. Yes, it's a childrens' book, but it's wonderfully imaginative, and the illustrations are perfect.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Hull's Results BUCS Individuals 2009

Epee (118)

51 Scott Stevens
80 Joe Banks
82 Oliver Hector
90 Neil Collins
91 Kieran O'Connor
94 Matthew Jones

Foil (137)

25 Scott Stevens
42 Ben Downman
104 Joe Banks
112 Kieran O'Connor
127 Lindsay Cox
134 Paul Lawrence

Sabre (108)

9 Keita Azuma
17 Oliver Hector
36 Abilius Wong
43 Richard Hutchinson
96 Neil Collins

Womens Epee (79)

45 Harriet Lodge

Congratulations to everyone who was able to go. Especially to Richard Hutchinson, who apparently hasn't been fencing very long, and at whom I spent much of last monday evening shouting instructions. It's slightly worrying that only one of our female fencers felt the inclination to attend, but I can hardly complain about people having better things to do, can I?

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Final Run

The BUCS individual sabre started a little over an hour ago in Nottingham. Since I'm here, it's fair to say I'm not there. Too busy, and also I've done that. I'm slightly annoyed to find that my friend Scott finished one place higher in the foil than I did in the sabre last year. Still, at least Keita will make both our efforts look pretty poor in comparison.

How do you take your mind off an impending viva? Well, you don't, not really. You've still got to revise, prepare, and try not to panic whenever you find a bit you suspect that the examiners won't like. Still, I've found one way, which involves spending some time going through other people's work.

I sent off a couple of short stories the other day, including my only piece of flash fiction. Normally, I find flash fiction a bit short for my style, but hopefully this works. I've got three or four more pieces to find homes for, along with a few more ideas I'll probably get stuck into after Friday.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Big Idea

Interviews with authors are pretty predictable sometimes, aren't they? You can guess half the questions in advance, presumably because there are only so many questions relevant to the topic of writing, and because if you ask everyone the same questions, then it becomes easier to spot trends and differences. Since I suspect we at least partly read the interviews in the hopes that they will reveal some big secret of writing that we don't already know, it may even be a good thing.

The question that always slightly annoys me though is "where do you get your ideas?". Partly because of the assumption that it is the ideas rather than what the author does with them that is important, partly because it raises the image of someone nipping out to the shops for some pasta and a value pack of fresh ideas, but mostly because I suspect it is the wrong question.

What's the right question then I hear you... oh. Look, if one of you could ask it, it would really help. Much better. For me, at least, the question is "how do you decide between the twenty million ideas you've got? Do you throw a dart and see what it hits?" The world is full of inspiration, full of potential ideas. Full of opportunities to give up on what you're currently writing and write something that grabs your attention. I know that at least one person reading this is like this, and I'm going to go further, and say that quite a lot of writers are. You see something in the street, or the newspaper, or hear a reference to something, and you think "that's a great idea! I should write something about that!"

The thing is, most of these ideas aren't that good. They're just ideas, distractions. Try to run with them and they'll unravel. Or worse, you'll be good enough as a writer to do something with them. Yes, I said worse. Think about it. How long does it take you to write a novel? Or even a short story? Flash fiction? When you accept an idea for a particular format, you're going to be running with it for anything from minutes to years. So that's the big question you have to ask: Is this idea worth the time I'm going to have to put in? Or, to look at it another way: is this an idea I want to spend the next X amount of time on?

It's why I'm not usually a fan of the more cynical end of the "write for the market" approach. Absolutely, do it if you are a fan of the genre. Do it if you think that your big idea that fits the market is what you want to spend months writing. Don't do it if you'd much rather do something else. Write that, instead. You'll make a better job of it.

That is, incidentally, what I try to do, rather than what I always do. And, failing that, there's always the dartboard option.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Lists part two

Further to my post on lists, I've been writing a couple of them when I've been short of ideas, resulting in one finished short story, and the beginnings of another. The trick for me seems to lie in the transition between an interesting list and an interesting story, in particular finding some fragment of plot to create movement in what's otherwise quite static. I'm currently playing around with the idea of a BBC Un-natural History Unit, and going from a fun idea to an actual story idea with that was harder than I thought it might be.

The novel I've drifted into writing is ambling along at what's quite a slow pace for me, not because I'm unenthusiastic, but because I don't feel any particular need to race through the first draft of this. I want to cram as much in as possible, and that means going a little more slowly.

Good luck to Hull's fencing team against Durham 2nds today. It's potentially a banana skin match for them, if only because last year Durham's foil and epee sections caused us so much trouble. Again, this year's team is very sabre heavy, but hopefully the other two sections will do enough. I'm slightly worried that the team captain has been pointing out that I'm technically still a student while trying to get me to fence today. If a sabre squad with my most evenly matched training partner AB and a former Japanese international in Keita Azuma can't win, I'm not sure I make that much difference.