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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.
Read more...Collapse )

U for Understanding, V for Vendetta, W for Wishful Thinking
“People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.”

Er... no.

I have a soft spot for the film “V for Vendetta”, it’s really stylish and effective, a good movie, often sniffed at I think, because it isn’t as good as the graphic novel. Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s classic was translated by the Wachowski Brothers (sic) is something of an updated version. After all, we’ve moved on from Thatcherism: so, whereas Maggie wouldn’t sell the Royal Mail, Cameron did, and... well, read up about various modern abuses of power regarding political reporting and anti-fracking demo measures.

The film has a few odd Americanisms. I think Natalie Portman is excellent by the way, very plum voiced, and fine. There are bowls of peanuts on the bar in British pubs, but clearly living under a fascist state would change the cuisine. V and then Stephen Fry serves ‘eggy in the basket’, which is what? Fried egg on fried toast, but you throw the middle away and only keep the crusts!?! Obviously not a dish created in the land of the little cucumber triangles. But V and Stephen Fry’s character probably had an American aunt or again fascism banned all programmes, except some weird cookery competition.
However, the real Americanism is the concept, stated by V, that “people should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.”

That’s basic Second Amendment nonsense: the United States was born in revolution, fighting free of those heinous bastards from over the pond. You know, we Brits, who had the temerity to tax tea. This, coupled with the frontier spirit of a man doing what a man’s got to do with his ‘peacemaker’ led to an enshrined basic distrust of government. Ever since the declaration of independence, the American people have been fighting a cold war with themselves.

The people should not be afraid of their governments, certainly, and the government should not be afraid of their people. We should be in it together, respecting our laws makers as they respect everyone’s rights. Sadly, we have a government full of those more interested feeding their personal greed than anything else. Not so much Orwell’s boot stamping on a human face - forever, but a deluge of bills for everything from water, reading ebooks, health and bailing out bankers whose bets for their own wallets went sour.

You know, I have a novel I could rewrite with this in mind.  If only I could think of a good title.

Doctor Who's Master Plan
I’ve just watched “Time and the Rani” followed directly by “Ghost Light”, the worst story and then the best (arguably) of Andrew Cartmel’s era as script editor. There couldn’t be two stories so utterly different. Andrew Cartmel was a Guest of Honour at the recent ArmadaCon and was interviewed about his writing, and then about Doctor Who. I bought his memoirs, “Script Doctor”, and I’ve just finished it. It’s a fascinating insight. So, I thought I’d watched the first and worst story – and, boy, was it bad – and the one he considered the best. Now, I’d argue (hence ‘arguably’ above) that “The Curse of Fenric” was marginally better, but they are both truly excellent.

Andrew Cartmel sort of inherited Pip and Jane Baker’s opener for Sylvester McCoy and… oh dear. The problem with it was the pantomime attitude to the programme that came in with Colin Baker’s jacket and the introduction of Bonnie Langford’s character. (I’ve met Colin Baker and he even persuaded me to break the law for him, and I’ve a lot of respect for him, and I’ve Bonnie Langford’s signature somewhere.) The issue is that his jacket is loud, therefore he’s loud, therefore Bonnie is loud to compete, everyone else does the same and we’ve ‘behind you’ and the playing of spoons. It’s just hopeless and into this fray comes Sylvester McCoy doing pratfalls and physical comedy.

Andrew Cartmel believes in proper science fiction. His book outlines his attempts to turn the ship and he does so. I was, during Andrew’s spot at the convention, disparaging about his first season in a question, but I was unfair. Even with “Paradise Towers”, the second story, you can see evidence of a better approach, but we were trained by that stage to spot nonsense, so we all looked for it.

Most periods of Doctor Who can be identified by the companion(s). This is the way that the production team stamp their identity upon the programme. Because Mel, Bonne Langford’s character, came from the pantomime style, so the Doctor remained defined by it, but as soon as Ace came on the scene, the whole dynamic of the pairing changed, the 7th Doctor matured and the programme jumped up leaps and bounds. Basically, Cartmel’s Master Plan, as it’s been erroneously called, could make itself felt. There was no Master Plan according to how I understood Andrew during his guest spot, but, I think, a correct attitude to Science Fiction (and writing for that matter). The stories come from a sound idea rather than being nonsense decorated with an “it’s sci-fi so you can do anything you like” attitude. (Was that a Moffat quote creeping in… you know, I think it was.)

Some of the best Doctor Who was the Ace period, Seasons 25 and 26: good solid pure SF with a brilliant companion and a mysterious and manipulative Doctor. It is such a shame that he wasn’t allowed to move forward and give us Seasons 27, 28, 29 and so on. He had a good relationship with a Producer, who trusted his opinion, and a good batch of writers, who understood SF, and had learnt how to avoid certain pitfalls with the way television was made in those days.

Stephen Moffat wrote a forward to “Script Doctor”, but I’m not sure he read the book. Andrew Cartmel would not have allowed the moon to be an egg, etc.

This fantasy novel feels like it's just me battling against the odds, the mighty, much-muscled hero wielding his wireless keyboard.

On Tuesday, the gap between my 'Here' and 'There' markers was around 30 pages, yesterday about 20 and now just over ten. Of couse, during my post-lunch stroll I thought up a major theme that needs incorporating, but that'll be for draft two. But first I must rescue my heroines trapped in a labyrinth, much like her author, as she tries to get from 'Here', about to be killed by nasties, to 'There', the bit were she escapes into the fire of another danger, but luckly in a secion I've finished. A thousand words I have added as a thread through this maze. Another day lost in these twists and turns, I think.

ArmadaCon 26
I was at ArmadaCon in Plymouth last weekend, looking forward to a small and relaxing con, but unfortunately I volunteered to do a play, a film and a talk. But then I don’t really like cons where I’ve nothing to do. So I did a play on the Friday, a restaging of “One of Our Eastercons is Missing”, Saturday some filming, on Sunday I set the alarm for 7:40am - conventions have that time in the morning, who’d have thought!? - in order to do some more filming and that afternoon I gave a talk. So, a very full con.

The film was Alan and Linda Marques “Convention of Death”, set at a convention with death. I did some 1st ADing, so I got to shout a lot. I also got to do some acting, both in reality and in front of a green screen. I’m looking forward to seeing the results.

I tested my ‘trundler’, a cut down coffee table from Loncon’s Tartan play, which is a sort of boxy, zimmer frame that doubles as a portable bookshop and beer garden. There were numerous suggestions to install optics (or an alcohol drip) and remote control. Quite a few people came up to me for the sequel to the Derring-Do Club. It was grand to have the books selling themselves. I was called to film my death scene and someone caught me to sign a copy: I put “The last book I signed before my death”, then, as I was filming my death scene, I became rather concerned that I was tempting fate, so I was relived to sell another copy and so write “The first book I signed after my death”. Phew really. Not that I’m - touch wood - superstitious for anything.

I think I went to more programme items than at Worldcon. Certainly stayed to the end of more, 100%, as opposed to Loncon’s somewhat lower total.

But really conventions are made by the people. The usual crowd, of course, Gary, Liz, Ali, David, Ros and - now I’ve started a list I’m going to miss someone and they’ll feel left out - everyone. They made me very welcome last year when I was Guest of Honour for their 25th Anniversary. This year was Andrew Cartmel and Philip Reeve. I thoroughly enjoyed Andrew Cartmel’s interview and live audio commentary as well as a natter in the dealer’s room. Nice to meet someone who has the same attitude to SF as you do. i.e. we should have SF. Now I’m half-way through his memoirs of his time as Doctor Who’s script editor, I’d like another conversation.

Philip Reeve was the other Guest of Honour, timetabled against morning’s or filming, so I missed his programme items and we only chatted in passing. He was in my play though, which name checked him and Andrew Cartmel.
I sat with three people I didn’t know for the convention meal and we had a lively conversation about a research idea I have for a novel - very useful. That’s what’s great, meeting people.

Cat, Sam and Jon were the other theatre group (ah, the ego, but our play was on first) and we shared rather too much red wine and talked theatre, writing and so forth. Their Friday piece was a collection of shorts acts on the theme of horror... and burlesque. On Sunday, I did a talk on writing and they helped out first with a reading and then, as we took a short break for tea and biscuits sponsored by the Plymouth Tea Company, they talked about their writing method. I stopped them: we should share this with everyone, so we reconvened the talk and used that as a spring board.

I came back very unrelaxed and somewhat exhausted, but I had a good time.

Interior Design
The Interior Design Challenge is on the telly.  I'm a sucker for house porn.  But they get three days to sort a room out.

I've just redeorated around my bathroom sink and took the tiles off around the bath.  Now, removing the tiles took 20 minutes, cleaning, etc, say, half an hour, replastering sections took another half hour, and then I had to wait 24 hours... and another 24 hours because it wouldn't dry, then patience running out, I painted and that required 24-36 hours to dry according to the tin, but only 24 hours according to my schedule.  Second coat, another 24 hour wait and then I could squidge in the caulk sealant and wait another 24 hours for that to dry.

So, maybe 2.5 man-hours work (the caulk was a bit of a swine) and 5 days waiting for thing to dry.  So, how does it work on Changing Interior Rooms Whatever?


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