Saturday, April 22, 2017


- Look both ways before crossing the road.
- Be prepared[1]
- Be yourself
- To be yourself you have to know yourself[2]
- To be yourself you have to know your place in the world which means you have to know enough of the the world to find your place which may not be obvious
- To be yourself you will have to have been other people
- If you love someone you should probably tell them
- If you love someone you should probably tell them soon
- If you love someone you should probably... look I'm not the person to tell you when is the right time, my qualifications are more on the wrong time, and waiting too long, and maybe one day finding yourself with one hand full of regrets and the other holding a beer, sitting dry eyed while someone tells you about someone you loved once and how that story is pretty much over
- A hat can keep your head cool in summer
- A hat can keep your head warm in winter
- A hat can keep your head dry, even when there's a lot of wind that would turn your umbrella inside out, though a hat with a brim, which keeps the rain off you, can also catch the wind and go flying down the street where you'd lose it except a friendly passing motorist runs over it so you can catch up
- The right advice at the wrong time can be as bad as the wrong advice at the right time, though it's never the right time to give wrong advice
- The timing of advice can be as important as the quality and often people don't want advice they want someone to listen or just sympathise with them
- Maybe think a bit before offering advice as even good advice at the right time might not be welcome or the best response to the situation
- Maybe measure twice, cut once is what I'm saying[3]
- If someone says they have one piece of advice they probably have more
- If someone says they have one piece of advice and they actually only have one then it's worth listening to if only because it's what they think is important
- If someone says they have one piece of advice and they write a rambling essay on their blog they've probably got something on their mind and even if the advice is terrible or irrelevant or impossible to tease out from the tangents it may still be worth reading because they think it's something they want to say
- Try to get some sleep and eat a couple of meals every day, and keep hydrated.

This is an entry for the Thanet Creative Writer's Writers Writing Competition responding to the prompt  The one piece of advice I feel qualified to give. In real life I have many qualifications, both official and otherwise, and as this piece no doubt shows if I am shy about giving advice based on them it is because often advice is not as welcome or useful as we might hope. If you have a comment or, indeed, advice on this piece then you can do so either below or at this subreddit.

[1] This is of course the Scout motto. "Run a team like a Scout patrol, run a meeting like a game of D&D" is advice I'm qualified to give but may be over-specific.

[2] "Know Yourself" was carved on the Oracle at Delphi, as was "Everything in Moderation." Presumably when they say everything, that includes doing things to excess, so long as you're moderate about it; after all even moderation should only be taken in moderation.

[3] An old woodworking proverb I first came across in Neuromancer.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

I Read Books: Nailbiters

Full Disclosure: This copy of Nailbiters was provided by Steve Shaw of Black Shuck Books who I have known for not quite thirty years and may have once hidden a bottle of Bishop's Finger in the cistern of my parent's toilet.

This is a collection of Paul Kane's short fiction, ranging from mundane crime to outright fantastic horror, but mostly lurking somewhere in between as psychological thrillers. As is the case with these genres, and with short stories, most of them depend for their effect on a twist, a subversion of expectations, a sudden revelation. As such I should try and avoid spoilers. In addition a simple list of stories with a brief description is not usually the best way to review an anthology. So obviously, let's get on with it.

Stalking The Stalker - A poem that uses the form to reveal an amusing and slightly over-clever story.

Grief Stricken - Revenge gone wrong. Lots of twists and turns for such a short piece - perhaps too many although as I saw some coming in fact the right amount?

Check-Out - Janet works in a supermarket and also lives inside her own head. It may end badly if someone buys beans.

The Opportunity - More stalking. Another twist.

Cold Call - Strange things happen in a call centre, which is odd as when I worked in one it was extremely dull.

The Torturer - Kidnapped, tortured, Andy Brooks can't answer his interrogator's questions. The answers may be in his dreams.[1]

Remote - Remote viewing leads to emotional distance.

Gemini Rising - A strange story about twins, murder and growing up.

The Anniversary - A story of a couple's thirty year marriage.

1,2,3... 1,2,3 - Obsessive compulsive counting and fairytales.

The Greatest Mystery - Dr Watson commits a murder and Sherlock Holmes grapples with death.

Baggage - The metaphor of carrying around baggage from previous relationships is literalised.

Graffitiland - A small time criminal finds himself in a deadly game. This story, although one of the longer ones, feels as though it could do more; characters have more to say and because of the structure the epilogue doesn't fit. I think this is an interesting failure.

Protégé - Pride in a child.

Nine Tenths - A story of thefts.

At The Heart Of The Maze - A man has an horrific fantasy.

Blackout - Kelly is afraid of the dark. One night it comes for her.

Cyclops - Possession and violence.

R.S.V.P. - A job applicant asks for a second chance.

Nightmare on 34th Street - Christmas is New York can be trouble if you're a cop.

Sin - A fairytale turned upside down, inside out, and quite as nasty as the original. My favourite of the collection.

Suit of Lies - Lies, or perhaps fabrications, take on a literal life of their own.

A Suspicious Mind - Riffing off the Elvis classic.
As noted this gets quite grim at times though the cover should give you a hint on that so don't say you haven't been warned. I found quite so many twists and shocks in one go exhausting, so I would recommend dipping in and out rather than sitting down and consuming them all at once. That said the reveals were never less than competently executed and occasionally truly disturbing. The minutiae of sad and gritty lives is always well observed. I did like the fairytale inspired ones a lot, though that's me and fairytales.

Read This: For twists, turns, shocks, scares and most especially if Steve hands you a copy.
Don't Read This: If murder, rape, mutilation and the tension in the expectation of something horrible doesn't float your boat.
Also: Check out other books Steve has published. See if there's something you like!

[1] This one was pretty grim in a book full of unpleasant things happening. Still a title like The Torturer, you can't say you haven't been warned.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

What Stops Me Writing

This is an entry for the Thanet Creative Writers Writers Writing Competition which this week has the topic:

What Stops Me Writing

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was famously interrupted by a visitor from Porlock while writing the poem Kubla Khan and lost the thread. We should all be so lucky as to get that far before being distracted. He would have found the twenty-first century a terrible time to write, and not just because opium is now illegal[1].

Interruptions however are not my personal Achilles heel. As I said in What Gets Me Writing; or I am Easily Distract... “Is all this over-analysis of kid’s cartoons a distraction? Well yes. It’s also what gets me writing.” Kid’s cartoons, or Coleridge poems, or mummies and hieroglyphs or, (checks open tabs on the web browser) a 1908 “true” account of a visit into the Hollow Earth[2]. It all goes into the pot.

My usual method is to write, or more properly type, in bursts of 100-300 words after which I pause to consider the next section. I have distraction built into my writing process. In part this is because my ideas don’t always come linearly. I’ll be nicely describing a room, blue curtains, comfy leather armchair under a reading light, and a neat garden out the window, when I have the idea of a super villain building a pyramid with an eye on top. (Famously on the one dollar bill, it’s the Eye of Providence. Look it up). I could just let it go. Ideas are cheap and this isn’t all that great – using well known imagery (linked to various conspiracy theories) for a sight gag, especially when I don’t really have an artist to collaborate with.

On the other hand I had been throwing ideas at a friend for a superhero, the Siege Engineer, who fights crime in the most inconvenient way possible, namely by using a trebuchet. This seems like a good match; a trebuchet would initially seem a good device to use against a stationary building, but the pyramid would obviously turn out to be super-strong and the slope would help resist thrown rocks. And perhaps most importantly I already have a page in my notebook for Siege Engineer.

So I come to the end of the paragraph, flip pages and scribble the idea down. Have a drink of water. Flick over to the web browser to look up the Eye of Providence (maybe the pyramid is a bank? Bank of Providence?). Check messages. Have another idea for a siege engineer plot[3]. Write that down.

(The things in the notebook are often of use later, though sometimes they come too late. I didn’t write for Who Do I Admire, mostly because of lack of time, but also because I didn’t have a good idea to write about. Later though I saw an especially stupid comment on a YouTube video, made a note and was inspired; no matter how poorly thought out my writing is it is infinitely better than that guy’s so I’ve improved the quality of online. I can only admire a guy who can make me look good.)

By now my subconscious has got on with, if not actual composing, certainly putting the pieces together so I can write the next few paragraphs more fluidly. I can grind it out when it’s not coming naturally but it’s hard, it’s tiring, and the result isn’t as good. I don’t get blocked though sometimes I get the message that I should maybe take a break – ten minutes for coffee, or a day, or a month even to let things fall into place.

Now we’re finally getting to the point, the actual title of the essay, Why I Stop Writing. You see...

I’m sorry. There’s somebody at the door. I’ll come back to this[5].

[1] Unless, of course, one is licensed to possess it or has had it lawfully prescribed.

[2] The Smoky God by Willis George Emerson. It is not very good.

[3] Basically use this video for Miike Snow’s song Genghis Khan[4] as the back-story for a three way stand-off.
[4] Kubla Khan’s grandfather of course.

[5] SPOILERS: I didn’t come back to it.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Solving 3000 Year Old Crimes

How do you solve a 3,000 year old murder?

A writing project I am planning involves mummies and I thought a fun sub-plot would be for our heroes to find out how they died, essentially solving a 3,000 year old murder. This presents some problems; would it actually be possible? Not solving a murder can make an interesting story, but not as cool as finding out what happened in Ancient Egypt.

The first question is what do I mean by solve? Here's four questions that, if answered properly, would "solve" a murder:

WHO is the victim?
WHO is the murderer?
HOW was the murder committed?
WHY was the murder committed?

(WHY, the motive, is not strictly needed but is probably desirable in a fictional crime. Note that the killer being insane is a perfectly good explanation: see The January Man for example. Similarly the identity of the victim is not required though it is more satisfying, as well as giving detectives some people and places to investigate.)
This is probably a name but I don't know whose.
This is probably a name but I don't know whose

Ancient Egyptian names would be written in either hieroglyphs (yay!) or hieratic script (boring). The demotic script was not developed until 650 BCE so later than the time period I intend to focus on. Earlier time periods also have sketchier history allowing me to, perhaps, slip more unlikely ideas into the gaps in the record. Stone monuments and objects (also metal and ceramic) exist that have hieroglyphs on; also papyrus from this period still can be read (they have often deteriorated rapidly with handling and transport, and in the damper climate of Europe). These would have to be the sources of the identities. Presumably then they would be royal (or noble, or priestly), which might give a handle on motive.

As for the cause of death, how do we learn such things from mummies without destroying the evidence of such fragile remains? MRI scans or X-rays would be best.

Did I mention that the story is set in 1902?

That still leaves an autopsy. Of course the process of mummification involves removing several organs, like in an autopsy, so the clues might have been erased... or preserved in a canoptic jar.

A final note: just as designing a mystery story with the crime first can lead to our detectives making dubious leaps of intuition to solve it, designing the solution first can lead to a crime that makes no sense at all and relies on several far-fetched coincidences. This is fine in real life, which is full of nonsensical crimes and ridiculous coincidences, but people hope for more coherence from fiction. It is my intention to run through the sequence of events, of both crime and detection, and ask at each stage - is this is a stupid thing for the characters to do? If so, then I need to give them a reason for being such idiots.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Stealing Ideas

“I say we go for Sci-Fi,” said Benny, scratching at his stubble. He looked tired, eyes drooping, shirt collar wilting.  Even his voice sounded as though it had been up all night and was surviving on coffee and despair. “There’s literally no limit but the imagination. We could empty out the good stuff, bring it back and spend the rest of our lives drinking Romulan ale while wearing a jetpack. The cops couldn’t touch us.”

Rusty shook his head. “First thing is, it’s SF or Science Fiction. Man, you call it sci-fi everyone’s gonna spot you as an imposter. You’d stick out like a donkey in a pig farm. Second, sure, we steal the stuff out of SF and it could be anything, literally impossible to put a price on. But it’s the same story with the protection. You wanna go up against an artificial super-intelligence with an army of cyborg hyenas guarding a vault hidden beneath the sands of Mars, be my guest. Count me out buddy.” Sweat gleamed on his dark skin, the menace of his giant form denying any argument.

Chastity McKitten put her feet up on the table and stretched her long, stocking-clad legs. She ran her fingers through her wavy blonde hair. “You know boys, I said I wanted to do something other than shake my hips and distract the man in charge at the vital moment with my feminine wiles. But I’ve heard that in sci-fi – sorry Science Fiction – even queens and princesses have to shoot, climb, run about the place. Just doesn’t seem right. Not lady-like at all.” She plucked a cigarette from a pack and chose a flame from amongst the forest of offered lighters.

“Gentlemen,” said Flash John, standing up from the far end of the table to show off his immaculately cut suit. His hair was plastered to his narrow skull and a thin moustache graced his upper lip. “Miss McKitten. Entertaining as this discussion is we must make a decision.” He pointed to a chalkboard with a list of names, some crossed out. “Dead-eye Bill has vetoed Horror,” the black-clad, pallid skinned man gave no response, “after his previous experiences. I think we can all agree that Non-Fiction is a non-starter.”

“Aye, the things they get away with there. No one would believe it in a proper crime story,” rasped Scotty from the corner by the drinks table.

“I’m personally opposed to attempting to steal from Comedy as I think that too many of us run the risk of becoming mere two-dimensional parodies of ourselves. Westerns are, if anything, too closely related; we remain ourselves, still holding up banks and robbing trains, with more dust and wider hats.”

“Poetry,” said Rusty. “No one would expect us to steal from them.”

McKitten blew out a cloud of smoke that everyone watched crawl up towards the ceiling. “That’s because you can’t make any money out of it. No point in stealing what no one is willing to pay for.”

“Just so.” Flash John crossed it off.”We have rejected Religious Fiction for obvious reasons and unless we eliminate everything else as impossible I suggest we steer clear of Children’s Fiction. So from the remainder I propose we attempt to steal from this one.” He pointed at the name. “I have no doubt that it will widen our appeal and make us significantly more valuable commodities.”

The dim smoky room filled with murmurs and the scrape of chairs. It seemed that no one would voice an objection.

“Yes gentlemen and Miss McKitten, I think this should be the target of our heist. Romance.” He smiled at them. “After all, how hard can it be to steal a heart?”

This is a piece for the Thanet Creative Writers Writers Writing Competition, in response to the theme "Why I write in my genre," the actual answer being "If not mine, whose genre would I write in?"

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Wigwam: Wigwam

Wigwam, a 2006 collaboration between Betty Boo and Alex James of Blur was brought to my attention.
(They're playing on a roof with a backing band of furries)

Now this is pretty good. There's bits of the music that sound very like Blur* and Betty Boo doing her thing of using her voice as an instrument (all that oo-oo and the cat sounds) is a little intrusive. I think there's a lot of potential here, if they worked on it and tried to get their own sound together...

But they didn't. That's it. Either the police shut them down or the that orange cat wanted in on the action and ruined it and no album was ever recorded. So that's a thing.

* Is it a bit Coffee and TV?
You know what's good about the video? Yes, yes, dancing milk carton. But ALSO at 4:15 when Graham leaves the basement they're jamming in Damon's like "where's he off to?", Dave just drums away and Alex is grooving on, "hey, lead guitarist has gone, looks like it's time for the bass player." That's my interpretation anyway.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Theological Mistakes

This week Thanet Creative Writers had the writing prompt If I Invented My Own Religion. I wasn't going to attempt this writing challenge because if I can't be trusted with a time machine then I certainly shouldn't try to create a religion. Still, one important lesson the tutor of a creative writing class taught me was that you're not on oath when you write your autobiography. You don't have to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you god. You can edit, improve things, emphasise here, blur things there. You shouldn't flat out lie, but you can tell the best version of the story. So bearing that in mind...

Some years ago while hiking in Brittany we came up out of a wood, on to a wide clearing with stones in the middle. As it was raised up on a hill top there was a magnificent view of miles of countryside ahead. I stopped and opened my mouth, not knowing what was going to come out. What came out was:

"This is a holy place."

As it turns out there had been a chapel there until the French Revolution, and before it was a chapel it was an older chapel, and before that was a Roman temple, which historians think was built on a pre-Roman Gaulish worship site. So I'm not the first to have had that reaction, having been beaten to it by at least two thousand years.

A year or two later I was in the Orkney Islands on the unhelpfully named island of Mainland. I didn't know it at the time but I was coming down with a bug. I did know, as I strolled along the beach, that everything was very strange and that I was not feeling normal. I came to a dead seagull, lying like a puff of feathers on the sand and had the strongest suspicion that it wanted to talk to me. Obviously it couldn't open the conversation, being dead, and I was damned if I was going to talk to a dead seagull, no matter what it had to say. I went back to the youth hostel and spent a very uncomfortable, restless and, since it was two days after midsummer, very bright night there, the incident rolling around in my head.
Made in a giant teacup by a wizard

The naturalistic explanation is that I am sensitive to this kind of stuff; my brain has access to a spiritual state of mind in which I am receptive to feelings of this sort. As another example there are a variety of foods and drinks that give me particularly vivid and lucid dreams. I'd had them the night before the hike in Brittany, after several glasses of local cidre fermier. (I had been completely sober the night before I went to Orkney as the bus left Inverness at some ungodly hour in the morning).

While thinking about this stuff for the piece you're reading, some of the towns Jehovah's Witnesses knocked on the door and asked me if I had considered the big questions in life. Not being on oath (still) I politely dismissed them, saying that I was working and concentrating on the small questions at that moment. I prefer, for the moment, to seek my own salvation and damnation in my own way. And it was then as I fumbled with my keys to lock the door that I knew - that I had the revelation - that I was going to write this piece.

So anyway, there's some of the raw material, the leftover scraps I'd find myself using for a religion were I to make the mistake of building one. A dead seagull that reveals nothing. A site on a hill that other people thought was holy. Cider, or chartreuse, or absinthe, or rice pudding with raisins. to give vision-dreams. And politely turning away adherents of other religions.