One thing at a time

When I started this blog almost a year ago my main intention was to put more of my energy into writing. Well, mission accomplished – to a degree. I’ve certainly done that, just not on the blog. Why is that?

The simple answer is that of the time that I’ve been able to make available to write, most of it has gone into writing stories. As of today I find myself mercifully within reach of completing Dark Streets – a story that has grown in the writing – and with several other stories in progress that will require much less effort to finish.

The main thing I’ve learned in the last year is that I’m not good at estimating time for this kind of project. I find it hard to believe that it’s coming up on a year since I began this venture, but there it is.

I’ve mentioned before that Dark Streets began as a series of connected short stories and evolved into a full length narrative. I think that evolution is partially responsible for this story taking more time to complete. I’ve had to think more deeply about structure and plot elements than I would have had to if they had stayed short stories.

Whatever the cause, the path is clear now, and there are a handful of chapters left to complete the story. I’ve revised the publication date several times since last November, but I now feel confident that I’m going to get across the finish line in time to publish at the end of March, more or less the anniversary of starting this journey.

After that, it’s on to the next story – Shadow Paths but one thing at a time, one thing at a time…

December Twenty First, Twenty Five Years On

I stand on top of Parliament Hill and look out at the city.  Up here I can see it all. The mass of brick and concrete cut through with tangled roads and alleys, the rich complexity of the old stones piled up one on top of another.  Every day millions of people walk among them, carrying their past, their present, their future.

I’ve done my share of walking these streets.  Night, day, drunk, sober, there isn’t much of the city that I haven’t seen.  I once walked from here to Tower Bridge, late one drunken night.  It was a very long way past increasingly old landmarks: Camden Lock, the gothic façade of St Pancras, the long dead length of Grays Inn Road to St Paul’s, the Monument, Cheapside, the Roman wall, to the Tower of London and the distant Thames flowing slowly in the grey dawn.

That’s six miles, as the crow flies.  Six miles.  I look up into the sky.  The contrails of two planes have left a giant X across the heavens like the signature of a great illiterate god.  I look back down in the direction of the Thames.  Six miles.  A long way to fall.

Le mot juste

In the recent round of edits that my editor Karen completed on Dark Streets she pointed out a recurring tic in my language that I hadn’t noticed. In my descriptions of London at night I used the word ‘obsidian’ to describe the Thames no fewer than three times in the first dozen chapters.

There is nothing like edits and rewrites to focus you on your writing style and repeated themes, and this sort of thing is to be expected, but it got me to thinking about why this word in particular? Why ‘obsidian’? Is this just happenstance, or is there something about the word that goes deeper than that.  At the risk of gathering enough navel fluff to knit a sweater I thought I’d dig into it a bit.

Let’s be clear at the outset that it’s the perfect descriptive word for the river at night. I want to convey that it’s black, but has a faint sheen. I want something a bit exotic, but also of plain meaning.  Obsidian is volcanic glass, and at one time it would have flowed, so describing the river as obsidian extends some meaning beyond the obvious. At slack tide the river seems hardly to be flowing at all and at night, in my London at least, it looks like a solid sheet of black glass. This is the world of Dark Streets, after all, and the river is a sort of dark street that winds through the city, a street paved in obsidian. Or something of that sort.

In any event, it carries multiple layers of meaning in a way that other words can’t.  Black, dark, Stygian, bituminous, other words don’t really cut it, each for its own reason.

As to reasons other than it being entirely apposite, there might be something in my past that explains my affection for the word. In high school I studied geology, and was very taken by the language of rocks. Out of the three ways that rock is formed, volcanicity is the most interesting to the teenage mind and I loved learning about pahoehoe, volcanic tuff, basalt massifs, and underground magma reservoirs. Geology is about physical material influenced by physics and the elements over time, and it is filled with interesting words, quite a few of which are in common parlance but many of which are novel to the everyday ear.

Then there is the influence of the writers who have most impressed me over the years. From the age of about 15 onwards I devoured everything I could find by Michael Moorcock, who was then and is now one of the finest genre and literary writers to come out of London. I was especially taken with his fantasy work and I think it’s there that I picked up a penchant for words like obsidian. It features in a number of his works, including the Elric series, and there is a story in the Eternal Champion sequence titled ‘Phoenix In Obsidian’1.

More than the immediate obvious meaning of the word, it carries an extended meaning in my personal literary psychogeography.  This may be a false memory, but if I remember correctly there’s at least one end-of-all-things Moorcock story that has a protagonist standing on the black sand coast of a weary ocean watching the molasses-thick waves lap at his feet. I might be mixing that up with Jack Vance’s ‘Dying Earth’ series of short stories, but the influence on my associations with the word is there, nevertheless. When I hear ‘obsidian’ I think of those things. It’s a word that speaks to me not just of a vitreous darkness, but also of time.

So where am I going with this, other than to wonder where the words come from and why we obsess around some particular words? Not very far, and if you’re feeling like you might have to reach in really high to grab my ankles and pull me out of where I’ve gone, it’s probably time I stopped.

It’s merely this: the choice of the correct word in the correct place is the essence of writing. Sometimes you realize that there is too much of a good thing and you have to choose not to use the correct word and find something almost as precise. I wonder if Marlow would have told the story of his travels in Africa sitting on a boat bobbing on the piceous Thames?

 

1 Mike has other writing tics with respect to favoured words. ‘Sardonic’ is one of them, as anyone who has read Elric and Jerry Cornelius will testify.

A Writer Writes. Always.

Writing here on my website today I’m surprised by the passing of a month between my previous post and this one. I shouldn’t be. Life has been busy in the interim – family members have moved homes, work has been very demanding, and there has been the usual plethora of autumn activities. It’s been a very lively time.

What frustrates me about the gap in time is that despite my own best reminders to myself and my urging of fellow writers to “write every day” very little of it has been filled with writing.  I used to laugh at Billy Crystal’s exhortation to Danny DeVito in ‘Throw Mama From The Train’ that “A writer writes. Always”.  It struck me as being somehow trite or stating the obvious, but like most clichés it’s also a truism.

Here I am a month down the road with a large stack of editorial comments and revisions to review and incorporate into rewrites, and chapters screaming to be written. I had an ill-formed notion that somehow I was going to be able to complete both of my current works in progress by Christmas. After all, I’d written them once. This was only going to be about editing and revisions, right?

Well chalk one up to experience. I’m more sanguine about the speed at which I can move. I know one thing very clearly, though. I have to follow Billy Crystal’s advice.

Hopefully my output will be a little more sophisticated than the pop-up classic ‘Momma, Owen, and Owen’s Friend Larry’.

Getting the hang of things – my first short story is now free

This self-publishing lark involves a number of compromises, especially with respect to writing time vs publishing time. For a few weeks now I’ve meant to try to find a way to put my first short story – The Facebook Genocide – out for free and I’ve finally got the hang of it. I think.

It’s now available for free by clicking here: Smashwords or on the cover image at top left of my home page, and selecting your preferred format. It’s available in a variety of standard formats as well as for iPad, Nook, and Sony Reader. As it propagates from Smashwords to the various distribution channels, the price reduction will also appear there.

From what I can tell getting it out for free on the Kindle takes a little more work as Amazon set a minimum price of 0.99c, which is only lowered if it can be demonstrated that it has been available for a lower price on other major distribution sites. I’ll hassle Amazon about that once the free price point is out there on Nook so I can point to it.

As always, I’d appreciate any reviews or comments. I think the story has become more relevant in the context of the flurry of NSA activity in the months since I published it, and I hope it strikes a chord with readers.

Spamalot

Unlike WordPress.org installations, WordPress.com doesn’t come with much installed under the hood. One of the most important things I did in the first week or two while I was setting up this website was install a spam filter.  The site doesn’t get a lot of traffic from interested visitors at the moment, which is fine – there has to be something to attract attention first – but it has pulled its fair share of spam.

The spam posts are rather charming in their way, using syntax that sounds like it was written by a software program (which it probably was) to try to say something that sounds like a real post. Here are a few selected items to illustrate what I’m talking about.

Authequer sent me this:

“I’m impressed, I must say. Truly rarely do I encounter a weblog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. Your notion is outstanding; the concern is something that not enough individuals are speaking intelligently about. I am really happy that I stumbled across this in my search for something relating to this.”

While gratifying to hear that my notion is outstanding, the warm sentiments expressed by Authequer were somewhat undermined by the link they provided to a website selling Michael Kors bags.

Bio Oil Reviews was a little more obscure in meaning:

“How did you have the ability to develop this kind of excellent masses associated with commenters to your website?”

I’m note quite sure how those excellent masses were developed, or indeed what they are, so I’ll have to leave Bio Oil in the dark for now.

Vimax was even more incoherent, with the following rambling statement, doubtless the product of staying up too late reading my trenchant comments:

“Attractive component to content. I simply stumbled upon your website and in accession capital to assert that I get in fact enjoyed account your weblog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing for your augment or even I achievement you get right of entry to constantly fast.”

And then I heard from Michael Kors’ website directly:

The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as significantly as this one. I mean, I know it was my selection to read, but I actually thought youd have something fascinating to say. All I hear can be a bunch of whining about something that you simply could fix should you werent too busy looking for attention.

So much for Mr Nice Guy. The mail included a link to a Michael Kors diaper bag. A not-so-subtle hint, I think.

By far the largest percentage of the spam is from sites promoting clothing and fashion accessories – Nike, Michael Kors, Redbottom shoes, Lululemon, Christian Louboutin. By far the biggest offender is Michael Kors. Clearly he has far too much time on his hands now that he’s not a regular judge on Project Runway.

There it is, a quick cross-section of the sort of junk that blogs attract. I wait in hope for the day when the legitimate posts outnumber the spam…

 

 

Dystopias – the future is being written

Dark Streets and Shadow Paths? Ok, so it’s not the happiest title in the world for a blog, and it’s all a bit probably-going-to-rain. This isn’t intended to be a Gloomy Patch of the Hundred Acre Wood but it is intended to be a place that looks at the future with a skeptical eye, and the streets of London, a place I know well, seemed like a good place to start if I wanted to contemplate a dystopic future.

Why dystopias in the first place? Well, I’ve always found them attractive. There’s something oddly compelling about the way they take our present concerns or worst imaginings and project them on to a usually-not-so-distant future.  Of course, I’m not alone in this. You only have to look at the success of so much recent popular fiction in this genre. ‘The Hunger Games’ and now the new bestseller ‘Wool‘, both deal with hyperbolically unattractive futures in which entire populations are living in a world of many external controls and few personal options.

I think they’re attractive to readers because future dystopias are a way of seeing the present in extremis, and they are particularly appealing during times of rapid and significant social and cultural change. They allow us to look at the worries of today and think about the consequences that we may have to live with tomorrow. They give us a place to voice our concerns about the future that we may inherit.

And why is that future always so gloomy? It is almost a sine qua non of fiction about future societies that it be dark and gloomy. Otherwise, where’s the entertainment value? The only people who write about the future as a brighter, happier place are company CEO’s and politicians, and we all know how much fun it is to read company prospectuses and political speeches. And so, Dark Streets, it is.

My own views on the future are coloured by the rapid advances in technology that we are seeing, many of them made in the last couple of decades. Like many of my generation I am living in a period when much of the technology that existed before I was born and that I grew up with has become obsolete. More than that, we are living in a period when technologies appear for the first time and become obsolete in the space of years. It is the societal impact of those technologies that interests me, and the possible future paths that are already being charted.

So what do my future dystopias look like? They have varied shapes., but the first one that I’ll be self-publishing is a short story about a world of information and prediction, of what can happen when the entire population of the planet is fully connected and everything that can be known about that population is known.

As well as that, I’m close to completing the umpteenth redraft of a novel-length story of London in the near future. It started as a collection of short stories, and evolved into a more complete story almost by accident, but the city was always the focus.

In a comment attributed to William Gibson he is reported to have said: “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed”. If he did indeed say that, he’s right, and the place where it is most concentrated and where it first comes out of the shadows is in the city.

Goodreads

I’m a latecomer to Goodreads. In fact I joined just two days ago, and here we are with the announcement that the site has been acquired by Amazon. I have no idea what that means for either site, but I have to say I’m undergoing something of a revelation in using the site.

One of the first things you do when you register is to rate books that you’ve read. The site, as many others do, uses a background algorithm to use that information to suggest other things that you might like to read.

I don’t know if I’m like everyone else that uses the site, but my first instinct was to rate everything I’ve read that I really enjoyed. All the authors and books that I searched for and rated were getting four and five stars. That’s reasonable enough, I suppose. Rating what I’ve enjoyed before is what is likely to point me at other writers I might want to take a look at, and the easiest books to think of are the ones I’ve really enjoyed.

I started wondering, though, if I should go in and rate books that I thought were truly dreadful. I’ve done one or two, but I’m wondering how many I could actually come up with if I tried. If I pick up a book and it’s boring me after the first few pages, I’ll put it down and not pick it up again. Recent examples are A Game Of Thrones and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, neither of which spoke to me, and both of which I put down after a couple of chapters.

As I gave it some thought, I realized that I couldn’t name more than a handful of titles to which I would give a negative review. It’s not that there aren’t poorly written or dull books out there, it’s just that they don’t get any attention or effort, and it’s so easy these days to avoid anything awful by looking at reader comments on websites and by talking to your friends.

In going through Goodreads and rating the books I liked, I was quickly reminded of my interests and influences – Michael Moorcock, Iain M Banks, Philip K Dick, Alfred Bester, Stanislaw Lem, and many others. Joining Goodreads and rating what you’ve read is a great way to reconnect with the writers who you’ve enjoyed in the past, and I found myself browsing titles on my bookshelf that I hadn’t looked at in a good long time.

Now I’m looking forward to seeing what Goodreads, using the information it has on my preferences, suggests that I ought to read. I’m hoping for some hidden gems and missed treasures. I’m not quite sure what I’ll think if it comes up with A Game Of Thrones or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo…

The thing that really matters

Although not much has changed in terms of what’s visible on the site since my first post, I’ve been putting in quite a bit of time over the last five days in behind-the-scenes prep and organization. As the many who’ve already gone down this path will no doubt tell you, this is not a trivial thing to do.

I didn’t expect it to be a breeze, but it’s nonetheless sobering to look at the variety of things you have to be at least reasonably competent at in order to make a blog site work. You can just go live with the out-of-the-box package that you get with WordPress, but there are so many things to consider that if you’re a tinkerer like me you’ll soon get sucked into learning what you can tweak.

Layout, plugins, design. How do I do an RSS feed? Hell, what *is* an RSS feed? How do I stop spam? Should I be even worrying about spam when no-one’s even seen my site yet? What about Twitter, Facebook, email? Should I be on other social media?

Well, I worried about it a fair bit over the last week, and today I took a small step back to put it all in to perspective. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. The space you work in is important, but It’s the writing that’s vital. If you don’t write, all the window dressing in the world won’t make a difference. In business they call it not sweating the small stuff.

I’ll make some tweaks and changes, nonetheless. There are some things I have to add to make this a halfway-decent place to visit, but that’s it. The writing is the important thing, and it’s already later than I think.

A Journey of a Thousand Li Starts Beneath One’s Feet or: You Have To Start Somewhere

Ever since I left Facebook, for a variety of reasons that I’m sure I’ll get into soon enough, I’ve felt a growing itch.

It’s as if the energy that used to go into reading other peoples’ posts and writing my own has built up like an electrical charge under my skin and if it doesn’t find an outlet somewhere I’ll end up like Louis Del Grande in the ConSec press conference scene in Scanners.

On top of that I’ve been working recently with more interest and enthusiasm on many long-stalled writing projects that I’d like to finish and publish.  Part of the intent of this website is to have an outlet for those projects and see if they connect with a wider audience.

The main reason, though, is to have fun. Your kind of fun and my kind of fun might be quite different, but hopefully there’s enough overlap in the Venn diagrams of our many interests for you to want to pull up a seat at the table and join in the conversation.

What sorts of things are going to be talked about here? There isn’t much go to on at the moment, is there? But there will be, and soon enough. Literature, art, writing and films will take a front seat but the whole universe is fair game.

With luck that journey of a thousand li will turn out to be a journey of a thousand light years.