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The splendid and nice take over the asylum
I’m back from the Lincoln steampunk festival, Asylum, so named because it started off in a building built for the insane, and I had a revelation there.

I first came across steampunk at SF conventions and it seemed like fun, a fashion that might last a couple of years, nothing more. Co-incidentally, I started writing an adventure series set in Victorian times, which featured some genre elements, and realised that The Derring-Do Club was steampunk.

However, it’s the cultural side that I want to talk about here and I think it’s why the subgenre isn’t a mere fad and has gained longevity.

The literature strand at Asylum was in a school hall and the playground was a food court. There were burger bars, vegetarian dishes and a double decker bus, a proper red routemaster, serving proper ales with a gin bar on the top deck. I walked in when some Morris dancers were doing a show to the gentlemen and ladies in their finery, and it struck me, quite forcibly, that I was surrounded by Britishness.

Of course, I was: it was a steampunk festival.

It was an all-inclusive, welcoming crowd bringing to the fore Morris dancing, politeness, tea drinking, industrial heritage, invention, eccentricity and a pride in – yes – the Empire. (The British Empire spanned the globe, the sun never set, etc, and it did bring civilisation to the colonies along with a global Pax Britannica. OK, OK, we mustn’t forget the atrocities and stupidities, I don’t wish to white wash history, but ours was the only empire where the subjugated nations, having gained independence, joined a club, so we could all get together to reminisce and play cricket. That’s something of which one ought to be proud.)

Steampunk is a mechanism to celebrate British culture that’s a million miles away from that nonsense on the nationalistic far right, EDL, BNP tabloid reading moronic gibberish. Englishness is inclusion, not exclusion; Englishness is politeness, not raised fists and shouting; Englishness is eccentricity and individuality, not identikit skinheads; Englishness is about appreciating other cultures (Balti anyone?), not forcing tea on anyone.

For example, there was a talk about etiquette that included how to shake hands. Men and women should present their hands differently: males with the usual start, but women ought to present the backs of their hands as if to initiate a hand kiss, though it becomes a handshake. It sounds quaint, old-fashioned, perhaps sexist, but the talk went on to say that transgender people can use this to easily indicate whether they wish to identify as male or female. That’s extraordinary when you think about it. Such diversity included and celebrated by the recreation of staid, repressive Victorian values – bizarre.

But it makes sense. The Victorians for all their faults were trying: the abolition of slavery, suffrage, rights, education, etc, etc, in a stumbling fashion, perhaps, but they went in the right direction nonetheless.

Steampunk is British pride done properly. Long live the Queen.

A Writer Not Writing
I’ve not blogged in a long time.

I was preparing a piece on the importance of touch typing, and the irony is not lost on me.  I’ve been ill.  It started with a slight swelling in my right foot accompanied by numbness and a tingling sensation that spread to my legs.  It wasn’t unpleasant, pulling my trousers up over a mad tingling was oddly thrilling; but, particularly when it reached my bottom, it was fear inducing terrifying.  Around the same time I also caught hypochondria off the internet.

After a while, it flipped: below the waist went back to normal, but above the waist various parts took it in turn to swell up, go numb, tingle or a combination of the all three.  I’ve seen eight Doctors (sadly medical, rather than the actors in my favourite TV show), who have all shrugged in various ways.  What are the criteria before I can claim Wake’s Syndrome?

Finally, after weeks, it settled in my hands.

My hands!

My motor skills were still there, I could feel textures and temperature, but the ‘signal noise’ meant anything I used to do purely by touch became impossible.  I couldn’t do up buttons, I couldn’t handwrite and, worst of all, I couldn’t touch type.  A writer who can’t write is a truly useless thing.
I tried dictation software, correct ‘so oft were’, no don’t write ‘so oft were’, oh undo, no, not the whole paragraph, don’t type that youth king stew bit computer... and so on, until there’s just a document full of swearing.  It’s affected the way I speak.

“Hello comma Andy comma how are you question mark.”

Things like being unable to get my credit card wallet out of my pocket, while the cashier looked at me disparagingly and the queue behind built up impatiently, have given me a real appreciation of disability issues.

Gradually, at a Plutonic frozen nitrogen glacial speed, it’s gradually getting better.  Typing became possible with an error every other word, then two per sentence and so on, until now it just feels really strange.  I’ve not tried a thousand word sprint yet, but I am back to typing – phew.

However, the idea of finishing the third Derring-Do Club novel by the Steampunk convention, Asylum, has been blown out of the water.  My heroines are nowhere near surviving the terrible events of the Invasion of the Grey, but I’m finally writing their adventures again.

Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2010
My version of office is saying I've 28 days to activate.  The shop can give me a new product key for a year's worth of use, but I kind of want a more permanent solution.  So I thought I'd ask for advice?

Is going to Open Office wise?
Buying Microsoft Office?
Paying the £30 a year?

Car Stereo
So, my car, a rather fetching, pink Honda Jazz, only had a CD player, a format that is well and truly being bypassed much like vinyl. (I know, I know, there will be collectors who say that you can’t get the music quality from anything other than a shiny disk or what you need for that real genuine experience is a string quartet in the backseat, but, you know, I’m an SF writer, people expect me to be cutting edge.) Also, I keep forgetting to change the CDs in the car, so my choice of music has become somewhat limited.

As I had to go to a Honda dealership anyway due to the nearly annual car recall to fix a minor electrical part that might possible, 1 time in 10 trillion, burst into flames and oh, while you are here, do you fancy a new Honda; so, while there, I asked if there was an upgrade for the stereo – nope. Try Halfords, they said.

So, I went to Halfords and asked if there were any options. The chap there said he had the same problem with his Honda Civic (which as he works in a car place, probably wasn’t pink), why not try a Car Audio Specialist.

I tried the nearby Car Audio Specialists and they said, no problem at all, that’ll be £120 for the kit, 2 hours work at a sucking-of-teeth price, shall we call it a reasonable £240 all in. I thought not. I can surely beat £240.

There were options on-line. I should have thought of that in the first place. I ordered one for £21, including postage from Portugal, and I set about dismantling the car and fitting it. It took half an hour of fear and worry to take the dashboard apart, five minutes to plug it in and say ten minutes to put it all back together again.

So, £240, including two hours of expert, versus £21 and an hour of amateur.

Even if I include the aborted Plan A, which was to build the kit from scratch, is only adds £27.75 and an hour of a faffing in Maplins. That’s only becomes £48.75 and three hours of amateur, and I have a perfectly good soldering iron, which is bound to come in useful for something.

Since my success, I’ve added a Bluetooth receiver for £11.99, so I can play anything at all from my phone while it’s still tucked inside my pocket. Technology eh?

But, and here’s the downside, I resent having to become an expert on so many things. I’ve added car maintenance to bricklaying, plastering, fire installation... etc, etc, etc.

I’m an Indie Publisher, so I’m also an editor, proof reader, cover designer, copy editor, accountant, marketing director (thinking of firing myself from that one), lawyer, CEO, the poor intern who makes the tea and so on and on. I want to be a writer.
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A Tale of Two Talks

I’ve given two readings recently: the first at Dysprosium (the 66th Eastercon) and another in Moseley. The first was for a friend’s book, Touchstone by Andy Conway (well worth a look) leading into a discussion about Indie Publishing, and the second was to promote the Festival of Writing on Sun 26th April in Moseley’s Prince of Wales pub for the Pow-wow writing group. I read my own work for that one. By co-incidence, Andy Conway’s time travelling saga is set in and around Moseley and has a few scenes in the Prince of Wales, both today and at various points in the past.
At both I had a box of books, Andy’s and my own, for sale.

I didn’t sell any.

Of course, this isn’t that surprising; the audience for both talks were all fellow writers intent on selling their own books (or writing their own books and then selling ‘em).
I remember flying at the Edinburgh Fringe and realising that the utterly packed Royal Mile was full, absolutely full, of actors, directors, stage hands and so on, all trying to sell their show to others who were trying to sell their show. There were no punters at all. People were agreeing to swap flyers. It was an exercise in getting rid of flyers, not in selling tickets.

The audience at both talks enjoyed them, I think (I hope), and that’s what it was all about. There may be another indie author created by the first talk eventually. I’m not sure we sold the Festival of Writing at the second one as such, everyone was going to go anyway. It was another flyer swap experience as we were all already in the same show.

I’m looking forward to the Festival of Writing (it was the Birmingham LitFest until Writing West Midlands created another one and nicked the name), but they don’t appear to have any programme items on Indie Publishing. To my mind, you can’t discuss publishing today without reference to this revolution. My talk at Eastercon was preaching to the converted as it was full of indies, and again it was flyers for those with flyers.

I should really have swapped the talks over: sold the festival to Eastercon, Indie Publishing to the festival crowd...  and worn a different shirt.

Three Books
At the end of the film The Time Machine, Filby and the Housekeeper realise that three books are missing from the shelf. They have been taken into the future!

There’s a scheme by Porcupine Books at the next Eastercon for people to give a short talk on a book that has influenced them. I’m one of the writers due to whiffle on about a book, but not one of the following three.

A friend of mine gave me three books for my sorry, birthday. They were The Mortdecai Trilogy by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Einstein’s Monsters by Martin Amis (for the essay Thinkability) and Who Will Remember the People by Jean Raspail. The three books that influenced his life.

What are these books for me, I wonder.

I think they are The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, Introduction to Pascal (Second Edition) by Jim Welsh and John Elder and Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran. It’s rather an odd collection now I write it down.

The Day of the Triffids is also rather a stand-in. I could have chosen The Chrysalides, also by Wyndham, or any number of others. I trying to recall that book that got me into Science Fiction, but I’m not sure I remember it or that there even was one. I wish there was one, but there really isn’t. It might be one of the Target Doctor Who books. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came much later and I’m a fan of the radio (and perhaps a theatre) version. Telly with Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. It’s all a bit rubbish compared to those who say The Lord of the Rings changed my life.

On the other hand, Introduction to Pascal was the manual of a life change. I went to University to do Civil Engineering - mad idea, what was I thinking - and I realised my enormous mistake about four weeks into the course. Somewhere I have the very fluid mechanics test that left me high and dry, and pushed me over the edge and into deep water - as it were. I turned the page over and made notes on the back as I went through the University prospectus to find an alternative course, any alternative course. So, after Anthropology, Astrology, Astronomy, Biology and Carpentry had all turned me down, Computer Science was next in the alphabet. They accepted me on a Friday to start the following Monday. I was four weeks behind, I panicked. (As it turned out I was further behind in Civil Engineering than I was in Computer Science, but I didn’t realise that at the time.) I bought the only book on the recommended reading list that I’d been told about and I read it cover-to-cover - twice. I didn’t think I followed it at all. During the first workshop on programming, we were given twelve questions and I was hopelessly stuck on Question 6. You can’t turn a computer round and make notes on the back about Cover Design, Drama, Education or English Language. (As if I’d do any of those.) Oh god, I thought, I have just wasted my life.

I turned to one of my brand new colleagues and whispered, “I’m stuck on Question 6 - help!”

“What!” they replied, “but we’re all stuck on Question 2.”

I love programming in Pascal, still do, even though it’s now hidden in an IDE called Lazarus.

Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran did change my life. I wanted to know where I was academically with writing, so I did the MA at Birmingham City University. I sort of walked it, but then I had been doing all the modules on an ad hoc basis over and over for the past dozen years. I wish I’d not done the intensive version and spread it out over two years, because I enjoyed it so much and it would have been nice to appreciate the scenery during the journey. I even snuck into film course I wasn’t doing run by Andy Conway. (It’s his book I’ll be whiffling about at Eastercon.) We got chatting, I started to give him lifts home and he said I should self-publish.

“Oh, but isn’t that vanity publishing.”

“No, not at all, read this ebook by David Gaughran.”

So I did. Interesting, I thought. By page 5, I thought I must get a Kindle one day; by page 10, it was on my Christmas list; by page 15, I’d ordered one and by page 20, I was coding in html. My conversation from occasional playwright to committed indie publisher was faster than someone with a road map to Damascus asking for a bit of light to read by.

Would I take these three books off to the future with me?

Probably not, because I’ve read them.

A Kindle can contain more books than you can read in a lifetime, so, if you could only take three books to the future, surely you’d choose a Kindle and... two other Kindles.

You know, perhaps I should have added the first novel I published to this list of books that changed my life, but it’s kind of cheating. Or should it be the first one I completed? To steal and paraphrase an anecdote from Peter Ustinov, the favourite book of my own is, of course, the next one. (Actually, it’s not as it’s being a bit awkward.)

And your three books?

The Bechdel Test
There was an interesting talk at Redemption on the Bechdel Test. It’s the one that checks whether films have a) two named female characters, who b) have a conversation with each other that c) doesn’t involve men. Originally it was a cartoon by Alison Bechdel, a comment on the under representation of women in Hollywood films, and I think it really makes a valid point.

A few people mistakenly thought that it was a test as to whether a film was good or bad. In fact it says nothing about quality, but put simply if the raft of output from a film studio fails the test a lot, then it’s underrepresenting women. I found a figure that says 44% of films fail the test. That’s truly appalling, particularly when films that pass the test can have dozens of male characters with triple barrelled names and super hero alter egos, while the only two women in the film have the briefest natter about shoes. The Bechdel Test can be seen as a bare minimum. Passing the test means women are represented, just not necessarily well.

(The Mako Mori Test is an interesting contrast and it requires at least a) one female character, who b) has her own narrative arc that c) isn’t about supporting a man’s story. There’s also the Sexy Lamp Test: if you replace the female character with a sexy lamp, would it change the plot? She may look beautiful, have endless conversations with other named sexy lamps, and be won by the man at the end, but she doesn’t actually do anything other than get turned on. She doesn’t affect the narrative.)

Some films will fail because of their subject matter. The Great Escape was the film used as an example, and obviously there aren’t going to be any female characters in a WWII POW camp. But, for every POW film there ought to be a film set in a nunnery. The balance of, say, a dozen films ought to be representative, just as the average gender balance on panels at a convention should be about fifty-fifty.

I thought about my published books. I’ve five.

The Other Christmas Carol’s protagonist is Carol Christmas and she has a conversation with Mrs Claus about Christmas quite early on. Well done me, I suppose, and yet most of the other characters, bar one important one, are male. Father Christmas, the three Wise Men, Rudolf - the source material is all about men.

The Derring-Do Club and the Empire of the Dead and The Derring-Do Club and the Year of the Chrononauts are steampunk adventures about three sisters. These novels romp through the test with flying colours. It’s a male world, the Victorian age, but these three young ladies hack a path through life, are named and constantly talk about life, the need to learn Latin, sword fighting, the dastardly plot to bring down the British Empire and, you know, stuff. (And men as well.)

The two near-future SF stories are more interesting in this regard. I, Phone does pass the test. The second most important character, Alice, is female and does interact with a named female friend early on. They do go out on the pull as it were, but not all the conversation is about men.

Hashtag, on the other hand, perhaps doesn’t pass the test. There are conversations between two named female characters that aren’t about men, I can think of one straight away, but only one of them is ‘on stage’ as it were. It may pass the Bechdel Test on a technicality, but I feel that, in the spirit of being brutally honest, it fails the test. It’s interesting why. The protagonist, Oliver Braddon, is male, it’s a first person narrative and the plot doesn’t really allow him to ‘overhear’ any ‘real’ female-female conversations. (The quotes are a fiddle factor here, because the story is set in a world where everyone receives everyone’s thoughts via social media, so there are billions of named females talking incessantly to every other female on the planet, mostly, judging by social media today, about cats.)

I’m not worried that I’ve decided to fail one novel for the sake of argument. Only 20% of my protagonists are male, the other 80% are female. It’s those sisters skewing the data, but it is a surprising bias. Forthcoming novels, despite a heavily male political thriller, are going to maintain that slant. Does that make me a feminist writer? Probably not.

In defence of wannabe writers
Referring to someone as a ‘wannabe’ writer (or a ‘wannabe’ anything) is insulting. It’s definitely used in writing circles to refer to those who aren’t really going to contribute to a group. I’ve used it myself. We don’t want wannabes in this group, because we want to talk about ‘real writing’, etc.

Occasionally, I attend an excellent beginners group that meets in local pub, and I’d certainly recommend it. It has its share of wannabes, I suppose. Rather difficult to spot them, because people contribute so well, but I’d guess they are there. I’ve certainly met wannabes on writing courses. There’s always one or two, who you think ‘they’re never going to write anything’. They just talk about writing.

I’ve met the equivalent on film courses: those who haven’t written their blockbuster script yet, but have memorised their Oscar acceptance speech.

So, I want to be in a writing group that doesn’t have any wannabes.

I’m being unfair, I know I am, and yet...

Of course, there ought to be a range of groups. You can find one that’s not too hot, not too cold, not too salty, not too sweet, but is just the right distance from the star for your kind of life. No point trying to discuss Indie Publishing marketing strategy with someone who’s asking where you get your ideas from and vice versa. (“I want to know where you get your ideas from, but you all just sit around saying you don’t have a proper marketing strategy!!!”)

Clearly, after a while, perhaps you’ll need to be promoted to a higher league or, in my case demoted a league to learn about commas yet again. Or a new idea may need one approach and rewriting another set of opinions.

There are obviously professional writers, those who make a living out of writing down to those who make a few bucks a year. (Bucks, because we all sell on Amazon.) There’s also professional in terms of approach: those who approach the task with the right attitude. They may not make any money - yet - but they seem to be going about it in the right way.

  •  Professional-professional - pick a crime writer.
  •  Professional-amateur - gets paid loads for just messing about (hate them).
  •  Amateur-professional - works at it, but hasn’t made dollar one, yet.
  • Amateur-amateur - somewhat hopeless.
  •  Wannabe - er...

You see, they don’t quite fit into the scheme, do they? It’s someone who attends a group or course, usually diligently, and talks about the novel they are planning, but doesn’t put fingertip to key.

But I’m being unfair (and so are others, hint, hint).

Part of being a child is playing and part of playing is daydreaming. However, once we become adults, we’re not allowed to daydream. It’s a waste of time, you must be serious, get a job!

But, for quite a lot of my time, I’m entertaining myself in my own head, and it’s called ‘writing’. Some of it is dry technical stuff, the blood seeping from the forehead, the agony of repetitive strain injury, the damage to the liver that inspiration extorts and so on, but most of the time it’s daydreaming. Flicking to channel ‘steampunk’ and watching the mental movie unfold. And it’s fun.

Now, if you can do that without all the dreadful hard work of typing, then why not?

Except you are an adult.

So, do a writing course or join a writing group, and you are given permission.

And that seems a good thing to me.

Good place writing, bad place technologically
I seem to be in a good place with my writing (although this morning was blood from a stone). There’s a theory that when you finished something, you should put it in a drawer for a few weeks, so that you can come back to it afresh. I seem to be handing them to beta-readers and then getting on with something else, which is very productive. I’ve a fantasy trilogy (The Jackdaw’s Choice, The Crows’ Banquet and The Raven’s Way) and a political thriller (We’ll Cross That Bridge) being scribbled on in red ink. (Actually black ink and Word comments, I think.)

In the meantime, I’m writing a first draft of the next Derring-Do Club steampunk adventure. I got a fan letter (email) asking when the next book was due, and this was all the excuse that the sisters required to get back into my head. It’s good to be in their company again.

The real trick has been to ban myself from social media until I’ve done my thousand words, morning and afternoon.

Facebook, Wordpress, LiveJournal and Google+, where you are reading this, are such vampires of time and creative energy. It feels like you are busy, catching up, making progress and generally being constructive, but I’m just not convinced. The other time waster in my life is also technological. We had our cable TV upgraded to the point of complexity. The remote control has more buttons, so they are smaller and therefore I need my reading glasses to work out what the tiny white letters mean.

Can anyone recommend a good, easy to use all-in-one remote control?

I’ve one of the sonic screwdrivers, but you can’t put it down without accidentally changing channel or screen mode.

I really need one with one big button labelled “Telly!” The equivalent of Spotify’s ‘Discover’: gimme something to watch and now. A trillion options take a long time to scroll through. I had to buy a video recorder when there were only four channels, now it’s “come on, there must be something on.” I’ve actually forgotten how to set the DVD recorder and as for getting the new Tivo to do its thing... later.

Ah well, things are much simpler in Victorian times.

Freeform roleplaying
  I was nattering over New Year with some University chums, and the subject of roleplaying games came up. Back in the day, we used to run these gigantic freeform entertainments.
  “When was this?” Martin Ellis asked. “Were you the first?”
  I can’t believe we were actually the first, but we must have been in that mix.
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