Sunday, August 20, 2017

Flash Fiction Adventures

This is the story of me entering a writing competition and making a boneheaded mistake.

So website Podcastle publishes audio fantasy stories, mostly ones that have been previously published elsewhere. They are holding a flash fiction competition, for fantasy stories of 500 words or less, which are voted for by members of their forums.

I wrote a story about magic swords and how you shouldn’t put two in the same room, re-wrote it and then, just before entering it, I checked it one last time, made a change or two, copied it into the submission box and then ignored it until the closing date.
.
They got 196 entries and split them into 16 groups to be voted on. For each group members of the forum got three votes and the top three went through.

My story turned up in group three and due to me being an idiot it was missing the last two paragraphs. (I checked and these paragraphs were on the second page of the Word document I’d written it in Presumably I only copied and pasted one page.)

So what to do? People had already read, commented and voted for the story. You get all the set up of how bad things happen when you put two magic swords together, and then they open the door and... it stops. A classic if inadvertent cliffhanger ending.

It was missing the description of what the room looks like now and the explanation of what’s actually happened. (Many commenters noted that there was a lot of setup that didn’t pay off and the ending was abrupt. Quite.)

I could have written to the moderators and explained what happened. I could have withdrawn my story. Or... I could let the accidental thing carry on as it is. Give it a chance.

I did. I planned, when I revealed myself as author after it was voted out, to also reveal the story behind the story, which is what you’ve read so far.

By one vote my story made it through to the second stage (semi-final). (Yes I voted for it. If I won’t love my poor misshapen writing who will? This, of course, makes the situation from hereon entirely my fault. If I had swapped my vote for Swordplay to the fourth place story they would have gone through.)

Sorry Before Woodsmoke Danced at the Enati Tree
. (My notes suggest I ranked it fourth). Thank you everyone who cared enough about the six sevenths of my story to vote for it.

So there you have it. The Swordplay I entered was not the Swordplay I intended, but it was its own thing anyway and it had a good run, making it into the semis. I don’t know if there’s a lesson in this. Maybe always check before hitting send. Maybe don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Maybe just that I’m an idiot.

And that’s the story of how I broke my story but some people kind of liked it anyway

Monday, June 05, 2017

5 Things to Keep In Your Pockets If, God Forbid, You Should Have An Accident And Lose Your Memory

1. A matchbook from sleazy club. Not too sleazy though. The waitresses keep their tops on. It’s always good to have somewhere you can get a drink on your investigation trail. [1]

2. A 1937 Silver Half Crown. These go for about £10 which is not a lot, but enough to get you started. Also when the antiques guy notes that it is suspiciously unworn it will raise the question of time travel.

3. A small screwdriver. Always useful.

4. Page 3 of 5 of a letter in which the unnamed writer talks about their reasons for doing something that they don’t explain on that page. Mystery and foreshadowing and some ideas for questions to ask. [2]

5. A key ring advertising Bob’s garage, but unfortunately the phone number has rubbed off, and the key is a copy, not readily identifiable. Whatever it opens will offer at least as many questions as it answers.


[1] Do clubs and bars have matchbooks anymore? Back in the 80s my Dad worked for the Port of Dover and amongst the souvenir/swag items they would give away to visitors were Port of Dover matchbooks, which had the slogan “Matchless”, which now I think of it is not actually that good a slogan to put on a book of matches? Anyway, the actual joke was that the dockers, finding that the matchbook was of low quality and feeling slightly out of sorts with their union at the time claimed the slogan should be “We Never Strike”.

[2] Does anyone write letters anymore? I’m thinking about it and other than formal business and notes in cards I think I maybe wrote two last year?

Monday, May 29, 2017

Don't Use The Seat Of Your Pants, Use a Keyboard Like Me

This is an entry in the Thanet Creative Writers Competition; if this interests you then you can follow that previous link to their blog, or this one to go to the reddit page created for it and find other entires to vote for if you like them. There will be a short advertisment at the end of this post.

Plotting or Pantsing: What is best for me?

It's plotting.


What, you want more? Okay.

Here's a scan of an A4 sheet of paper I had as my plan for writing a novel. (Click on it to make it bigger) The first picture is the relationship and brief character descriptions for the suspects in the murder mystery that would take up the first third of the book. At the top is the question that drives the story: Who Killed Lord Allenmore And Why?

Other notable features of this page include the seating arrangements for the dinner party scene, the word count for the first few days before I decided to record them elsewhere and a few other notes ("Coronation", "Off course betting illegal", and "Canoodling") that I scribbled there because the sheet was to hand and I wanted to write them down before I forgot.

How did I use this page? Essentially, whenever a character appeared I would glance at their motive and relationship and decide what information they would give; when reviewing a scene I would ask if what they said and did was consistent with the details on this page and also check that a motive and whereabouts had explained at some point.

Now the reverse side. At the top the three acts of the novel. Then a list of the events that need to occur in the first act, in the approximate order they would occur in. It's not quite a scene-by-scene breakdown; there are more scenes in the finished work, and some events span more than one scene. However essentially everything that I've noted there occurs in about that order.

At the bottom, upside down, are a few things to remember. So you don't have to stand on your head they say:

Storm? Cutoff?
Telegrams? conflict! (between being cutoff and telegrams. I did not cut them off in the final story.)

The Murder Weapon
- Missing?
- Occult Links?
- Seance!
Marzipan

Servants - Class
ignored? - noticed by Schneemann?

Clothes - Edwardian Casual
Food - Kitchen disrupted
Wigs, makeup, disguise
Cigars - Diving Helmet!

Not all of these elements made it into the final writing (the marzipan and diving helmet are nowhere to be seen and although there is a threat of a seance, it did not occur until Act 3). One of the servants, not noted amongst the list of people, went on to become a major character in the story.

My plotting is not so much a blueprint as a framework to hang things on. I knew I wanted a parlour scene because it's a classic mystery denouement, and I had some good jokes for it. Exactly what would be revealed, who would be accused, what the solution was - all that was up for grabs. "The Police" appears once on the sheet, and relatively late, but they are major drivers of the plot, forcing people to declare their innocence, investigating things better left undiscovered, trampling the flowerbeds looking for the weapon.

In fact when I sat down to write (not the first scene, which I had previously written as an exercise, so I began on page three, always a nice feeling) I hadn't decided on the killer; at least two and possibly four of them were in the frame. I intended to choose whoever seemed appropriate at the time.

Or in other words I was going to improvise, create the solution by the seat of my pants, and then edit the clues to make sense in the second draft. That's the way to write, leaving it all open, a space in which to just let loose.

Might be worth noting that my ideas for Act 2 when I started writing Act 1 were - heist, seven statues, boss, apprentice, crew, villains, chase, vault, misdirection. By the time I got there I had several pieces of paper like the ones you see here.

Act 3 was - Things Get Weird. CONFRONTATION WITH THE BAD GUY.

There you go.

----
The novel that emerged from this planning some four and a half drafts later is an Edwardian comedy crime story called The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman and is available at Amazon.co.uk for both Kindle ebook and in paperback. Before you rush off and buy it, a friend is currently giving it a solid line reading to try and make things like capitalisation and punctuation consistent so I shall be creating a new version of it, hopefully towards the end of June. The ebook will update when that happens; any paperbacks printed before that will, sadly, have both missing and unecessary commas. The book can be purchased here.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Thanet Love

This is an entry into the Thanet Creative Writers Writers Writing Competition responding to The Thing I Love Most About Thanet Creative Writers. I have, of course, approached it obliquely in the actual piece so I'll say I like that it gets me feedback, I'm not just throwing words out on the internet for them to vanish without a trace.

What do you love most about Thanet Creative Writers?

Well this is awkward. Obviously it’s possible to feel love for an organisation, a group, a gathering of people formal or informal. Even fictional things can be loved. Sometimes I think that everyone I’ve ever loved were fictional!

That came out wrong.

I mean we’ve been hanging out for a few months now so perhaps I should have expected this. It’s just, you know, it feels like we’ve skipped a step or two.

It’s like this: I know you value words and don’t use them lightly. So when you say ‘What do you love about Thanet Creative Writers?’ you’re not using the word to mean something like ‘I would really love some ice cream’. There’s more emotion there. Not that there isn’t emotion about ice cream, but it’s an ephemeral thing, more of a crush than a...

Still, we’re not talking about settling down forever are we. It’s just, you know, a thing. You knew from the start I write elsewhere.

I knew you’d understand. That’s what I... that’s one of the great things about you. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Writing Advice

Classic Writing Advice: Show, Don’t Tell

Alternate Writing Advice:

Tell us everything we need to know. Pour that information out on us. Cut out the unneeded drama and description and have a character blurt out a hundred years of family history. Boil your story down to the one key scene and explain to us how we got here and why we should care. Make sure we understand what is going on, then hit us with your best shot.

Classic Writing Advice: Write What You Know

Alternate Writing Advice:
 
Write what you don’t know. Write things you’ve barely glimpsed, half-imagined. Write of places you haven’t been, that don’t exist, that are impossible. Write about people who surprise you, events you can’t predict, emotions you’ve never felt. Make up stories you never thought of. Tell tales only you can tell, and only today because you didn’t know them until now. Use words you had to look up, figures of speech you hadn’t heard before, slang so fresh and raw you don’t know how rude it is.

Dive deep into a pool of ignorance and pluck pearls from the bottom. Create situations that are unfamiliar and then break them so they are unrecognisable. Turn off into an unfamiliar genre, then ignore the conventions and write it into uncharted territories. Write what you know, then delete it and write something else, new and dark and unexpected.

Classic Writing Advice: Write From The Heart

Alternate Writing Advice:

Fingers, feet, voice, or, at a pinch, some sort of eye movement detecting system are probably better choices.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Some Things That Are Not Wrong And Some Things That Clearly Are In The Video To Tragedy By Steps

Some Things That Are Not Wrong With The Steps Video of Tragedy

The Steps girls are easily convinced to not go through with their weddings
- Get married or go on wacky girl-boy-band adventures? I know which I'd choose.

They all go to the reception
- Why not? It's already paid for.

The dance H and Lisa do for about one second at 4:12

- This is the best dance.

Some Things That Are Clearly Wrong With The Steps Video Tragedy

All three Steps girls get married on the same day but in different venues
- This is extremely inefficent and prevents any of them attending each others weddings. Now perhaps they AREN'T that close or have fallen out. But in that case why leave their husbands at the altar and go off for more pop band hijinks? None of this makes sense.

H and Lee are driving in a two-seater vintage convertible
- They successfully convince the girls to abandon their wedding, but they don't have a vehicle ready to make a retreat. This is bad planning. Admittedly on the evidence of their videos the Steps boys are not good at planning AT ALL but still.

Lisa's fiance is blond, but his place is taken by Lee who is dark haired
- There's a lot to take think about when you're walking up the aisle, or so I'm told, and that's even if you aren't singing at the time. Does Lisa know who it is and fake surprise? (have a look from 1:40-ish) Either way poor planning by the Steps boys. AGAIN.

The three jilted grooms end up together in Lisa's church and fail to untie Lisa's former finace
- How did they get there? Why haven't they turned the lights on? And why is he still tied up? Are they all too polite to mention it?

H goes up the aisle on a scooter
- Unnecessary.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Advice

- 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.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Ideas to Steal

Here is a free one-page roleplaying game called Honey Heist about criminal bears stealing honey by Grant Howitt.

Here is an article on using MacGuffins in fiction by Robert Wood.

If you understand these two items then you are ready to plan your first heist*. Please get writing.

If not here are some films to watch until you do understand:
Ocean's Eleven
The Thomas Crown Affair
The Italian Job
Inside Man
Snatch
Die Hard
Point Break
How to Beat the High Cost of Living
The Ladykillers
The Lavender Hill Mob
The remakes of those first three, and the Ocean sequels
The League of Gentlemen
Heat

For bonus marks:
Inception
A Fish Called Wanda
The Great Muppet Caper
Kelly's Heroes

Also Swordfish, maybe, and Hudson Hawk if you really feel the need. Sorry.

* Fictional heist. If you are going to try and steal something in real life then that is outside the bounds of this post.


Thursday, March 09, 2017

More on Time Travel

So while discussing Time Machines (see previous post for more details) the song 3000 by Busted was mentioned to me.
There's a lot going on here, although most of it was not worth the time we spent on it. However this part of the lyrics caught my eye:
I took a trip to the year 3000
This song had gone multi-platinum
Everybody bought our seventh album
Which means that the song had been reported as going multi-platinum by the year 3000 before completion of this version of the song. This is paradoxical; the song could not have been written and recorded in this form before the neighbour returned from their time trip to report on it's success*.

This song exists at the intersection between the complexity of self-referential songs** and the paradoxes of time-travel stories. And I'm not a Busted fan and this isn't even the song of there's I like most.

* For the curious I checked and Busted have released three studio and one live album so their seventh album has not yet been released.

** For example: I was 21 years when I wrote this song/ I'm 22 now but I won't be for long which makes a prediction in the lyrics (Billy Bragg, New England, although perhaps the Kirsty MacColl version is better known)


Travelling in Time 24 Hours per Day

If I had a time machine I would bury it in a hole
Or burn it on the waste ground behind the car park
Or dismantle it and post each piece to a different city
Or smash it with a hammer, or several hammers
Or seal it in a vault, deep underground
Lock it tight and lose the key
Tear up the combination
Cover it in concrete three metres deep
Then change the records so that anyone who looked
Would know for sure it was in a different vault in a different place

Because if I know anything about time machines
Then their use has unintended consequences
Unpinning cause from effect
So that events have no history and all of time
Becomes madness and chaos and old night
And no one wants that to happen

So that’s what I’m going to do
But to pay for the vault and all that concrete
I’m going to nip out and get the lotto numbers
For next Saturday
(One little trip can’t do any harm)

This is week two of the Thanet Creative Writers Writers Writing Competition. This turns out to be the fourth Time Travel poem I've put up on this site.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

What Gets Me Writing; Or, I Am Easily Distract...

This is my Thanet Creative Writers Competition entry. The theme is:

What gets me writing

I write because it’s a good way to deal with the thoughts that zoom around my head. Meanwhile as I go about my daily life I keep myself interested by looking for ideas to write about.

Recently my three year old nephew came to stay and introduced me to Planes 2: Fire and Rescue, a fairly straightforward animated film with an excellent scene that is a parody of 80s TV show CHiPs. One of the more notable things about the Cars/Planes films is that not only are there no humans amongst the sentient vehicles, but that there is no animal life at all; tractors replacing cattle and deer, tiny planes for birds, and winged VW beetles in the place of flies.

This ties into my current warm-up exercise, the couple of hundred words I write when I’m not writing something else and I’m editing or need to research or plan the next part. It’s a set of silly science fiction stories starring Lieutenant Commander Tommy “Ray” Gunn of the Deep Patrol, who has crazy adventures in a dark, grim, post-apocalyptic, post-human-singularity future. The all-animals-replaced-by-machines planet/habitat/ecology notes now cover half a page of my notebook.

Including a note on The Transformers: The Movie (the 80s cartoon with the final voice-work of Orson Welles, not the later Michael Bay helmed film) in which every planet except Earth is not only inhabited by robots, but by transforming robots. There are actually reasons for this in the film (don’t ask) yet logically it is a problem. If everything is a robot in disguise then surely it wouldn’t work as a disguise. Better to just be a machine that’s good at what it does rather than a compromised design that does two (or three) (or more) things poorly.

I’m probably not going to write the machine-animal planet episode as it doesn’t seem to generate an interesting story (it may get mentioned in conversation or appear in flashback).

Meanwhile according to my plan I’m supposed to be working on a crime story. Is all this over-analysis of kid’s cartoons a distraction? Well yes. It’s also what gets me writing.

(CHiPs theme tune for no very good reason)

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Video Game Romance Poetry

Twitter friend Mumbles has a competition giving away a game to best poem about a video game romance and I don't care about winning but will almost always type out some doggerel on demand.

And then it got a bit out of hand. This needs a lot of polishing but it's basically there as a pantun.

Alicia and Welkin are soldiers
(Valkyria Chronicles by the way)
And inevitably also lovers
Game hidden in my tankpunk anime

Valkyria Chronicles by the way
Turn-based tactical third/first person
Game hidden in my tankpunk anime
With magic, tanks and explosions and guns

Turn-based tactical third/first person
And while their country is being burned
With magic, tanks and explosions and guns
Their friendship grows and deepens and turns

And while their country is being burned
Alicia and Welkin are soldiers
Their friendship grows and deepens and turns
And inevitably also lovers

Too much game review not enough romance. Where it does succeed is my whole thing of trying to get the second time a line appears in a pantun to have a different meaning and/or weight.

(My introduction to the pantun or pantoum can be found here. My best one is here.)

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

I Read Books: The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu

I've been reading The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu also published as The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu and I've written up each chapter as I came to it. Now though it's time for considering the novel as a whole.

With over 100 years of covers I was able to get a different image for each chapter
What Can Be Done With Fu-Manchu?

A chapter-by-chapter daily reading is, as it turns out, a bad way to read the novel. Published in sections originally, although they build on each other to add up to something more, you can and should read each individual section which detail one of (mostly) Petrie and Smith's attempts to stop Fu-Manchu from killing someone, or (towards the end) a raid on one of his bases and the fallout. The chapter end cliffhangers draw you in, maintaining the pace and disguising the fact that they don't actually get much done.

The style is almost always overwrought by modern standards. Every appearance or event caused by Dr Fu-Manchu is THE MOST TERRIFYING AND OVERWHELMING EVER, which makes it feel as though Petrie is a teen girl writing a diary in a poor quality horror movie. In fact I like that so much I'm keeping that idea.

Fu-Manchu's technology is mostly biological, and two of his plots revolve around stealing plans for an "aero-torpedo*" and faking the death and kidnapping an engineer. This is of course one of the oppositions the novel sets forth; mechanical vs medical, forthright vs cunning, honourable vs cruel, western vs oriental. As might be expected, the methods Rohmer explains are slightly implausible, although perhaps not totally out of the question, given the state of knowledge at the time it was written. Era-appropriate advanced technology.

Which leads me to anachronistically place it in a genre that it exemplifies; an obsession with accurate locations, technologies, and techniques at the expense of character; a gloss of political and international realities with good terminologies but fanciful detail; a somewhat jingoistic view of country vs country, so that Fu-Manchu operating in England is horrific, but Smith acting as commissioner in Burma is just, you know, the British Empire** doing it's business. Transplant it into the Cold War, replacing the Evil Empire with the Yellow Peril, and it would be immediately obvious that the book is a techno-thriller

Things That Haven't Aged Well

Is it racist? Yes, yes it is. Fu-Manchu is cruel because he is a member of a cruel race and he is the cruelest of them and his cruelty proves how cruel the Chinese are. I'm not going to go too much into this as you know, 1912, people got judged on their nationality and ancestry all the time. You're part of you race/nation/gender/class first and any individual details come in later. There's little characterisation of either the policemen led by Smith or the dacoits who serve Fu-Manchu. The majority of Fu-Manchu's victims are mature men, often single, slightly eccentric and mostly of interest for either travelling to Asia or inventing something. Prominent professionals and upper-class men, the backbone of the Empire. Of course Fu-Manchu might have been murdering lower class enemies - sailors, clerks, soldiers who had served in China - by the boat load and Smith would never know because they never came to his attention or were recorded in the papers.

What is interesting is how complex Fu-Manchu becomes by the end. He doesn't regret the crimes he committed out of "conviction" but he does those of "necessity", self-defence etc. He respects Smith and Petrie and undoes one of his cruelest injuries. At the same time he uses the of curing Weymouth to cover his escape. He's cunning like that, like all Chinese, and he's the most cunning etc.

Talking of complex there's Karamaneh, the only female character who really does anything. She is a slave who rebels against Fu-Manchu - but only to look for a new master in Petrie. This, according to Smith is the way of women in the Orient, who desire to be controlled. Yet by the end she walks away from both Fu-Manchu and Petrie*** with her brother.

Perhaps notably Petrie and Smith would have not only got nowhere without the aid of Karamaneh, they would almost certainly have been killed by Fu-Manchu before they became interesting enough for him to decide to capture them. Yes, I'm calling it here. Dr Fu-Manchu's greatest enemy is not Nayland Smith as most people believe; it is Karamaneh, his own slave girl. As such we might rightly say that he has sown the seeds of his own destruction.

To Sum Up

We can read this as a Technothriller-Invasion-Spy novel straightforwardly, accepting the frame that Fu-Manchu has reached out halfway around the world as the fore-funner of the Yellow Peril**** to assault the innocent people of England. Yet one does not have to be very revisionary to note that many of Dr Fu-Manchu's targets are Europeans deeply embedded in Asian countries. Smith was part of the colonial government in Burma; how shocking that China might have ambitions in that part of the world while Britain's rule is obviously the natural order of things. Both Smith and Fu-Manchu use deception and disguise, both use violence in pursuit of their (national) goals. If we see Nayland Smith and Dr Fu-Manchu as dark mirrors of each other then it becomes clear why Smith does not think Fu-Manchu is a homicidal maniac. And also why, despite his ruthlessness, he has scruples and tries to put right a wrong or two he has done along the way. Both agents of globe-spanning Imperial powers.

Now that's an interesting concept for a series.

Read This: For a fast paced and entertaining hundred year old thriller with one of the all time great villains.
Don't Read This: If hundred year old over wrought prose aggravates you, or you aren't interested in people falling into death traps. Also if you aren't on board for racism, sexism, classism, and possibly some other bigotry of sorts.
Will The World hear From You Again?: Dr Fu-Manchu returns in, um, The Return of Dr Fu-Manchu. Which I will read eventually.


* This may in fact have been an aeroplane.

** Fu-Manchu comes to Europe and is a SPY and a TERRORIST. Smith goes to Asia and is an agent of His Majesties Government.

*** Who promptly stalks her. Reading romantic cues across cultural boundaries is difficult, and the method used in (fictional) early 20th Century England is to stoically say nothing for several chapters then express you feelings in flowery prose for about a page and a half, so maybe Petrie needs to be a bit more straightforward. Anyway, enough of this; let's just say that Rohmer seems determined to keep the romantic tension taut.

**** "People of Europe, Guard Your Most Sacred Possessions," a somewhat mixed allegorical lithograph used by Kaiser Wilhelm II to promote his colonial response to what he called the Yellow Peril.
From the left we have (possibly) Athena for Greece but it's not clear; Britannia, Italia, Mother Russia, Germania who has her arm around Austria, Marianne representing France, St Michael with a flaming sword and in the distance the threatening figure of the Buddha.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Fu-Manchu Chapter Thirty

(I have been reading the book published in the US as The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu and in the UK and Commonwealth as The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu and have come to the final chapter. If you are one of the approximately two people who have followed the entire series, or even if you aren't, and have a suggestion for anything else I should read etc. let me know. There will be another entry tomorrow in which I sum up.)

Petrie jumps ahead and tells us what we already guessed and didn't really need to know; Inspector Weymouth, turned mad by Dr Fu-Manchu, has been living rough near his old house.  "Literally, he had returned to primitive savagery and some of his food had been that of the lower animals, though he had not scrupled to steal, as we learned when his lair was discovered."*

We return to the night they captured him and travel by car to New Court Inn where Professor Monde has been arrested in his rooms filled with Asian knick-knacks. Smith approaches him. "Almost savagely, he tore away the beard, tore off the snowy wig dashed the smoked glasses upon the floor. A great, high brow was revealed, and green, malignant eyes, which fixed themselves upon him with an expression I never can forget. IT WAS DR. FU-MANCHU!"

Fu-Manchu reveals that the real Professor Monde has been detained in China**. Smith and Petrie interrogate him alone.

Smith asks if he can restore Inspector Weymouth's sanity, admitting that he has nothing to offer***. Fu-Manchu agrees; he injected him from necessity and regrets it.**** He says he will not reveal the antidote, but put him and Weymouth together, alone, and he will cure him. Smith suspects a trick but Fu-Manchu swears not to "The God of Cathay."

"The most awful visitor who ever threatened the peace of England, the end of the visit of Fu-Manchu was characteristic—terrible—inexplicable." Great Petrie, now we know what you think of it. Weymouth emerges from a cottage the police have surrounded, sane, then it explodes in flame. "From the heat of the holocaust a voice proclaimed itself—a voice raised, not in anguish but in TRIUMPH!"*****

Petrie admits that the ending he's writing is bad. Don't be so hard on yourself old man! So after the fire in the cottage dies down there is no sign of any human bones. In Weymouth's pocket is this note:

 "To Mr. Commissioner NAYLAND SMITH and Dr. PETRIE—

"Greeting! I am recalled home by One who may not be denied. In much that I came to do I have failed. Much that I have done I would undo; some little I have undone. Out of fire I came—the smoldering fire of a thing one day to be a consuming flame; in fire I go. Seek not my ashes. I am the lord of the fires! Farewell.

"FU-MANCHU."

How, then," says Petrie, "shall I conclude this very unsatisfactory account? Shall I tell you, finally, of my parting with lovely, dark-eyed Karamaneh, on board the liner which was to bear her to Egypt?"

Apparently not as he actually finishes with this call to adventure from Nayland Smith:

"I sail for Burma in a fortnight, Petrie. I have leave to break my journey at the Ditch******. How would a run up the Nile fit your programme? Bit early for the season, but you might find something to amuse you!"

Roll credits.


* Also "his trick of knocking upon his own door at half-past two each morning (a sort of dawning of sanity mysteriously linked with old custom) will be a familiar class of symptom to all students of alienation." Alienation was the discipline that includes what we would term psychology and psychiatry.

** "In truth and in justice I am compelled to say that Fu-Manchu was absolutely fearless." Fu-Manchu is as self possessed when captured as when he is in control.

*** "I cannot save you from the hangman, nor"—his fists clenched convulsively—"would I if I could; but—"

**** He could be lying but this, Fu-Manchu as ruthless yet with scruples, knocks a hole in the "incredible cruelty" part of his character.

***** I assume he's telling them that the world will hear from him again.

****** The Suez Canal

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Fu-Manchu Chapter Twenty Nine

(I have reached the penultimate chapter of The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu and our heroes are returning to the home of the missing-presumed-dead Inspector Weymouth where strange things have been going on.)

They return to Maple Cottage at dusk and Nayland Smith is interested in "an extensive estate... not yet cut up by the builder". Sub-urbanisation is coming guys. He talks to the local bobby*, who admits that tramps living there stealing loaves and milk is a problem - for the man who relieves him in the morning.

They arrive at the cottage which is under surveillance by plain clothes detectives, and Petrie makes sure they've drugged Mrs Weymouth so she won't wake. Smith smokes his pipe and we learn he's bad at it**. Petrie uses the time to write up some notes on Fu-Manchu, and comes up with this sentence : "Imagine a person, tall, lean, and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green: invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect…"***

An owl hoots three times, which means something to Smith and then it's two thirty in the morning and they hear the bells of St Paul's, apparently, and there's a knocking on the door. Smith opens it. "It was a wild, unkempt figure, with straggling beard, hideously staring eyes." They begin to laugh. Sounds like me coming home after... oh never mind.

James Weymouth recognises him as his brother John, the Inspector Weymouth who vanished in the Thames fighting Fu-Manchu while the latter was holding a needle that turns people mad. I think we're all pretty clear on what's happened. They grab him, all five of them, and Petrie injects him with something that Smith asked him to bring (presumably a sedative; I don't think they have a cure for Fu-Manchu's serum). Weymouth is subdued.

Smith then questions the Scotland Yard messenger and discovers that "He" is arrested at his chambers. Petrie/Rohmer are a little coy about it here but it's Professor Monde, because there's no one else left in the story to arrest. Smith says "Come, then. Our night's labors are not nearly complete." No, because the final chapter awaits.


* I initially mispelt this as "booby" and very nearly left it in but eventually changed it. Keep it subtle guys. Fu-Manchu wouldn't make jokes about knockers and/or sea-birds.

** "At intervals of some five to ten minutes, his blackened briar (which I never knew him to clean or scrape) would go out. I think Smith used more matches than any other smoker I have ever met, and he invariably carried three boxes in various pockets of his garments."

*** From this it seems he's writing up Chapter Two (or possibly Chapter Eight which paraphrases this sentence). Better hurry up Petrie; there's only this chapter and the next to finish the first draft! He goes on to note that this was "the night upon which I had learned of the existence of the wonderful and evil being born of that secret quickening which stirred in the womb of the yellow races." I, um, don't quite know what to make of that.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Fu-Manchu Chapter Twenty Eight

(I'm reading The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu and these are my notes on chapter twenty eight; as there are thirty chapters in the book we are towards the end of the story, which is more of a series of related stories rather than a single integrated novel anyway)

"OF all that we had hoped for in our pursuit of Fu-Manchu how little had we accomplished," begins Petrie before listing their failures. Interestingly he notes as a success that Nayland Smith managed to keep everything out of the press*.

Petrie also talks about Karamaneh. "Many there are, I doubt not, who will regard the Eastern girl with horror." He quite likes her, although being foreign and oriental he doesn't understand her. So, at her request, they book passage for her and her brother to Egypt, their native land, to leave in three days.

They take a break and go and see some water colours in Bond Street when Aziz "feels" the presence of Fu-Manchu. They look but can't see him.  "Who could mistake that long, gaunt shape, with the high, mummy-like shoulders, and the indescribable gait, which I can only liken to that of an awkward cat?" Despite last being seen falling in the Thames none of them believe that "the lord of strange deaths... was no more."

Smith investigates "a tall, old man, wearing a black Inverness coat and a rather shabby silk hat. He had long white hair and a patriarchal beard, wore smoked glasses and walked slowly, leaning upon a stick."

The commissionaire recognises the man as Professor Jenner Monde, who he knew when he was a sergeant out in China, so obviously he's not Fu-Manchu. Smith ponders for a moment if a man who has spent so much time out in China might be an ally of the doctor, but Petrie points out that the unnatural feeling of disquiet would only be caused by Fu-Manchu himself, and he isn't Fu-Manchu as they now know.

They investigate; the professor has been in London for a week, and he is well known at the British Museum; for the greater part of the year he goes abroad**.

They are interrupted by James Weymouth who is shaken by "something uncanny going on at Maple Cottage.***" There was more knocking in the middle of the night. When he looked Mr Weymouth saw nothing but he did hear "SOMEONE LAUGHING!"

Smith and Petrie decide to go; they are not sure if it would be safe to remove Mrs Weymouth (the widow), but Petrie reckons he can administer "an opiate" to keep her out of the way while they investigate. They all want to know what Smith thinks they will find. "I dare not tell you what I hope, Petrie, nor what I fear."

* "In the absence of such a veto a veritable panic must have seized upon the entire country; for a monster—a thing more than humanly evil—existed in our midst." I mean, true, what good would it do to publicise Fu-Manchu's activities, other than for every natural death to be laid at his door, and uninvolved foreigners to be persecuted (Fu-Manchu and his associates being masters of disguise would probably escape notice)? Yet by putting it out there, it would at the very least aggravate him, a man who wishes his moves to be secret, and perhaps push him into making a mistake. And maybe the great British public would demand something be done and they could invade China or similar.

** Where exactly is he a professor of? They should question that institution. Or is it an honourary title? Perhaps Fu-Manchu has a side business in selling false degrees and honours.

*** Not so shaken as to fail to take advantage of their hospitality. "Weymouth took a cigarette from the box which I proffered and poured out a peg of whisky. His hand was not quite steady."

Friday, January 27, 2017

I Watch TV: Colonel March of Scotland Yard

Boris Karloff wears an eyepatch

He solves impossible crimes

It was based on a book called The Department of Queer Complaints

Colonel March of Scotland Yard (1956)

Fu-Manchu Chapter Twenty Seven

(I'm reading The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu or actually the American edition which was published under the title The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu. Later in the series Fu-Manchu loses the hyphen and becomes Fu Manchu, in line with twentieth century romanisation of Chinese words and names. This hasn't happened yet; as Chapter Twenty Seven opens our heroes have just managed to escape Fu-Manchu and are stranded on the bank of the Thames, or conceivably a tributary but probably not.)

After hanging about for a while a police boat picks them up (and reveals they are on the mud-flats below Greenwich). They are brought up to date; eight men died in Fu-Manchu's fungus-poisoned cellar and "an uncanny howling, and peals of laughter that I'm going to dream about for weeks..." suggest Inspector Weymouth was injected with the stuff that turns you mad.

Smith is unhappy. "Pray God the river has that yellow Satan. I would sacrifice a year of my life to see his rat's body on the end of a grappling-iron!" He doesn't like Fu-Manchu.

They talk to Karamaneh who reveals that Fu-Manchu brought seven dacoits to England with him. Only one (probably) was still unaccounted for. As previously suspected he used the Thames as a highway, having several boats including at least one sea-going vessel, which she is unable to describe but believes has already left for China.

They meet with James Weymouth, the brother of Inspector Weymouth "four and a half miles S.S.E. of St. Paul's" in a "quaint little cottage, with its rustic garden, shadowed by the tall trees which had so lined the village street before motor 'buses were... a spot as peaceful and secluded as any in broad England."* They tell him all they can and Smith expands on his ignorance**.

Then Mr Weymouth tells them a story; Inspector Weymouth's wife, Mary had been thought to be having delusions; "for the last three nights poor John's*** widow has cried out at the same time—half-past two—that someone was knocking on the door." He was often late back from the yard before his disappearance. But then last night Weymouth's wife also heard it.

Petrie has other things on his mind. "Karamaneh laid her hand upon mine, in a quaint, childish fashion peculiarly her own. Her hand was cold, but its touch thrilled me. For Karamaneh was not a child, but a rarely beautiful girl—a pearl of the East such as many a monarch has fought for." Yes yes. If you like her so much why don't you marry her?

* Contrasting this idea of peaceful rural England with the horrors brought out of China by Fu-Manchu of course. Four and a half miles SSE of St Paul's is Forest Hill or Lewisham maybe.

** "Dr. Fu-Manchu was the ultimate expression of Chinese cunning; a phenomenon such as occurs but once in many generations. He was a superman of incredible genius, who, had he willed, could have revolutionized science. There is a superstition in some parts of China according to which, under certain peculiar conditions (one of which is proximity to a deserted burial-ground) an evil spirit of incredible age may enter unto the body of a new-born infant. All my efforts thus far have not availed me to trace the genealogy of the man called Dr. Fu-Manchu. Even Karamaneh cannot help me in this. But I have sometimes thought that he was a member of a certain very old Kiangsu family—and that the peculiar conditions I have mentioned prevailed at his birth!" So he's literally possessed by a demon? Interesting theory Smith.

*** John's brother is named James? Siblings with the same initial? What, is this the 1500s when they only had ten names?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Fu-Manchu Chapter Twenty Six

(I'm reading The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu and at the start of chapter twenty six our heroes have been captured by Fu-Manchu. Again.)

Petrie wakes up bound, gagged, secured to an iron ring and aboard "an electric launch". Unfortunately this is not the result of a stag night gone wrong, and he, Nayland Smith, and Inspector Weymouth are all prisoners of Fu-Manchu. It's very foggy.

The boat is hailed by a familiar voice, Inspector Ryland of the river police and his boat is "within biscuit-throw* of that upon which we lay!" Fu-Manchu races away and Ryland's launch is in pursuit.

Weymouth gets his hands free but before he can do more has to pretend to be tied again as Fu-Manchu explains why he hasn't killed them (yet). "Dr. Petrie you shall be my honored guest at my home in China. You shall assist me to revolutionize chemistry. Mr. Smith, I fear you know more of my plans than I had deemed it possible for you to have learned, and I am anxious to know if you have a confidant. Where your memory fails you, and my files and wire jackets** prove ineffectual, Inspector Weymouth's recollections may prove more accurate."

Fu Manchu has also finally noticed that Petrie has a crush. "You have seemed to display an undue interest in the peach and pearl*** which render my Karamaneh so delightful, In the supple grace of her movements and the sparkle of her eyes." He is going to inject her with something that will turn her into a shrieking hag so she won't distract him, when Weymouth attacks. They grapple, the needle being a point of danger, until they both fall over the side.

"There are moments of which no man can recall his mental impressions, moments so acutely horrible that, mercifully, our memory retains nothing of the emotions they occasioned." Petrie skips a bit and the next thing he knows they have run aground and are being flooded. Fortunately the water wakes Karamaneh and she lets them loose.

* This is a nautical term; if you could throw a piece of hard tack and hit something from the deck then you are sailing TOO CLOSE. In this case, Petrie is happy they are that close and would happily throw biscuits at them if he were free and had a packet to hand.

** Methods of torture. A wire jacket might be used to perform 'the death of a thousand cuts', a practice that had been outlawed in China (in 1905).

*** Oo-er.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Fu-Manchu Chapter Twenty Five

(I'm reading The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu also known as The Mystery of Fu-Manchu. As Chapter Twenty Five opens our heroes have been captured.)

Petrie wakes, and is being carried along a corridor with strange giant mushrooms in. I know the feeling. He's dumped on the ground and hears Smith's voice as well as the sound of something being hit but he is too dozy to react. I know that feeling as well. Then Fu-Manchu arrives. "Fu-Manchu picked his way through the fungi ranks as daintily as though the distorted, tumid things had been viper-headed."

The noise stops as Fu-Manchu closes a door. Fu-Manchu admits to being impressed by their exploits and so will keep them alive... for now. But maybe not Inspector Weymouth. "You are about to enjoy an unique opportunity of studying fungology. I have already drawn your attention to the anaesthetic properties of the lycoperdon, or common puff-ball." He has a new variety of his own*.


Petrie is unhappy**. Fu-Manchu "the greatest fungologist the world has ever known" has set a trap for the detectives assaulting his house. The toadstools explode when exposed to light the spores causing the men to go mad. Then the white empusa falls from the ceiling, covering them and growing over them.

"It is my fly-trap!" shrieked the Chinaman. "And I am the god of destruction!"***

* "Note the snowy growth upon the roof, Doctor. Do not be deceived by its size. It is a giant variety of my own culture and is of the order empusa. You, in England, are familiar with the death of the common house-fly—which is found attached to the window-pane by a coating of white mold. I have developed the spores of this mold and have produced a giant species. Observe the interesting effect of the strong light upon my orange and blue amanita fungus!"

** "For my own part, I could have shrieked in pure horror. FOR I KNEW WHAT WAS COMING."

*** Petrie also remarks, "I felt assured of something I had long suspected: that that magnificent, perverted brain was the brain of a homicidal maniac—though Smith would never accept the theory." May have to come back to that; why does Smith not think that Fu-Manchu is a homicidal maniac? Is there some subtlety to the way a doctor would use the term a hundred years ago? ("Not a psychopath, a high functioning sociopath.")

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Just A Brief Interlude On Art, Promotion and Me Being Bad At Things

Welcome to Night of the Hats and also to Late Capitalism*.

There are so many things available out there that if I have something to sell, I have to give things away, or pay people to promote it, or engage in various other dark arts of PR that I am bad at, and, to a close approximation, so is everyone else. Meanwhile if someone gives something away there are people who will monetise it, so we occasionally find ourselves in the situation of giving things away to sell things and selling them to give things away.

This is on my mind because I have a book to sell, currently exclusively as an e-book at the Amazon Kindle Store, soon (hopefully), to be in other places and also in paperback. As might be expected statistically my PR is bad. I need to improve, probably by giving several something away.

I'm bringing this up as this morning I received an email from Artsy.net, a website funded by tech-tycoons and dedicated to putting images of artwork on line. Their unsolicited request was in response to my rather stupid joke about Jackson Pollock.

If I'm going to attempt to convince people to promote my book, I suppose I shall have to quid pro quo, and to indicate my openness to this here's some quo (or quid maybe, which way round is this?):

IF you want a fun crime novel about heists and plots set in the Edwardian period, buy my book The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman.

IF you feel like some abstract impressionism, powerful images that exist without telling you what they mean, then Artsy.net can assist. Knock yourself out.

I now return you to your regular programming.

* This may not be Late Capitalism, it might be High Capitalism, or Mid Capitalism, or everything between merchant guilds and satellite tax-haven trade-wars might later be bundled together into Early Capitalism. Come back in a thousand years and check it out.

Fu-Manchu Chapter Twenty Four

(I'm reading The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu and this is Chapter Twenty Four.)

Petrie: "I have been asked many times since the days with which these records deal: Who WAS Dr. Fu-Manchu? Let me confess here that my final answer must be postponed." Foreshadowing!

He considers a few things including the overthrow of the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty by 'Young China', who Fu-Manchu had disparaged to his face and 'assuming that the name were not an assumed one, he clearly can have been no anti-Manchu, no Republican.' Well maybe, but just because you're called Scott doesn't make you pro-Scottish Independence. After a brief discussion of Young China* he suggests that in times of turmoil there will often by a third party, and that Fu-Manchu is a leader of such a group**.

He goes on to discuss Fu-Manchu's bases of operations and eventually stops expositing and tells us about their raid on the East End riverside building. Karamaneh insists that Petrie and Smith enter first and get her brother Aziz to safety. They enter, along with Inspector Weymouth of Scotland Yard.

"From the time when Nayland Smith had come from Burma in pursuit of this advance-guard of a cogent Yellow Peril, the face of Dr. Fu-Manchu rarely had been absent from my dreams day or night. The millions might sleep in peace—the millions in whose cause we labored!—but we who knew the reality of the danger knew that a veritable octopus had fastened upon England—a yellow octopus whose head was that of Dr. Fu-Manchu, whose tentacles were dacoity, thuggee, modes of death, secret and swift, which in the darkness plucked men from life and left no clew behind." Petrie really building up the atmosphere there.

They revive Aziz, but Fu-Manchu's laboratory has been stripped of it's contents. Next door they discover him, yet  "the cunning mind was torpid—lost in a brutish world of dreams." He's been smoking opium. Karamaneh begs them not to enter. Weymouth pulls out his handcuffs and goes in.

"As though cast up by a volcano, the silken cushions, the inlaid table with its blue-shaded lamp, the garish walls, the sprawling figure with the ghastly light playing upon its features—quivered, and shot upward!" It's actually a trapdoor and Petrie passes out leaving us with a cliffhanger.

* "The Chinese Republican is of the mandarin class, but of a new generation which veneers its Confucianism with Western polish."

** Petrie enormously under-describes the complexity of the Xinhai Revolution.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Fu-Manchu Chapter Twenty Three

 (I'm reading The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu also known as The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu and have reached Chapter Twenty Three. Three days after Henry Stradwick, Lord Southrey died very unsuspiciously Petrie and Smith are going to save him)

"YOUR extraordinary proposal fills me with horror, Mr. Smith!"

"The sleek little man in the dress suit, who looked like a head waiter (but was the trusted legal adviser of the house of Southery) puffed at his cigar indignantly. Nayland Smith, whose restless pacing had led him to the far end of the library, turned, a remote but virile figure, and looked back to where I stood by the open hearth with the solicitor."

Oo-er. So opens this chapter. Eventually Smith convinces Mr Henderson and they go to the tombs of the Stradwicks. Petrie explains: "For, under conditions which, in the event of failure and exposure, must have led to an unpleasant inquiry by the British Medical Association, I was about to attempt an experiment never before essayed by a physician of the white races." So, something medically unethical and only done by non-whites. Sounds a bit dodgy. He injects Lord Southery with the amber fluid that Fu-Manchu used to resurrect Aziz and he comes back to life. Mr Henderson faints.

Then Smith warns them all to be quiet. "HE is here." The HE in capital letters can only refer to Dr Fu-Manchu, obviously. "At last the cunning Chinaman was about to fall into a trap. It would require all his genius, I thought, to save him to-night. Unless his suspicions were aroused by the unlocked door, his capture was imminent."

There's a fight; Fu-Manchu brought a dacoit who stabs Smith and is shot in return. They escape in a car. Trying to chase them would be futile, but Smith thinks he knows where they are going. "Stradwick Hall is less than ten miles from the coast."* He points out the easiest way to get an unconscious man to either his base on the Thames or indeed to China would be in a boat, probably a yacht.

Lord Southery interrupts. "Gentlemen," he said, "it seems I am raised from the dead." Classy!

Smith acknowledges this and then says that, as he knows Fu-Manchu was in Germany three years ago when the great engineer Von Homber died or "died", he predicts that his group has him. "And the futurist group in China knows how to MAKE men work!" Ouch.

* Okay then, so L- is NOT Leicester. Could still be Lancaster or Liverpool. Still very puzzled as to why it's not a named place. Is THIS why the book is called The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu in the UK?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Fu-Manchu Chapter Twenty Two

(The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu/Chapter Twenty Two/Watcha gonna do/Rhymes coming out like woo)

Smith and Petrie are at an impasse. Petrie must keep his promise to Karamaneh to save her brother, but doesn't know what the drug that makes him appear dead is, nor the amber fluid that revives him. Smith, of course, wants to raid Fu-Manchu's house now they know where it is.

Petrie ponders on Fu-Manchu's abilities. "What perverted genius was his! If that treasury of obscure wisdom which he, perhaps alone of living men, had rifled, could but be thrown open to the sick and suffering, the name of Dr. Fu-Manchu would rank with the golden ones in the history of healing."

Smith comes to a decision; to catch the next train to L-.* They race off, comparing great engineers; Petrie admits that the recently deceased Lord Southery might not have been as good as Von Homber of Berlin, but he's been dead for three years. And was German.

Smith muffles himself "up to his eyes" to try and inspect the others on the train without being identified and has Petrie hide in a compartment. "At present I am hopelessly mystified," he says.

At Rugby Smith talks to the stationmaster and when they arrive at L-** a "high-power"*** car is waiting. It takes 20 minutes (so a few miles out of town) to arrive. "Stradwick Hall," said Smith. "The home of Lord Southery. We are first—but Dr. Fu-Manchu was on the train."

Maybe you should have arrested him Smith. Just saying.

*  "Look up the next train to L—!" he rapped.
"To L—? What—?"
What indeed! Is it obscene? Fictional? Is he going to libel, I don't know Liverpool or Leicester or Lee-on-sea?

** So, is L- Leicester, or did they go on to Leeds or Lancaster? Or Liverpool, although I'd have thought they'd need to change at Crewe on that line maybe? Why leave it ambiguous? Is Lord Southery based on someone? This is the greatest mystery of the book so far.

*** 1912 everyone. How high-powered was it? Maybe something like this:
a Vauxhall Prince Henry, state-of-the-art in 1911, sometimes considered the first sports car as it got it's speed from design and construction rather than jamming in the biggest engine possible. Or more likely as it's provincial England, it'll be one of those ones that gets speed from a big engine in a heavy chassis.