Saturday, 19 December 2015

Star Wars, Pressure and Thoughts

Today has been a good day - I got to see Star Wars: A Force Awakens and despite my massive misgivings about the continuation of the saga I loved it. Can't claim it's perfect but it comes close enough for me. Fear not - no spoilers here. But if you haven't seen it and you loved A New Hope, you have to watch this one; you're going to love it.

I'm in the process of clearing out the many emails I have as I'm terrible at keeping up with them. This has resulted in a present I was buying not being sent, as apparently I had an invoice sent to me a week ago which I didn't see. Why businesses can't just take the money when I've given them my Paypal details I don't know, but here we are; one pleading email of "please charge me again, I promise I'll pay this time" and now waiting for a response. Fingers and toes are crossed.

One email that got my attention was from Goodreads, "Your year in books". It listed how many books I've read, how many I challenged myself to read, how many I added to my "To Read" pile... essentially a lot of numbers that told me I've not been particularly productive this year. That got me to thinking, Why do we put this pressure on ourselves?  It makes sense for companies to bombard us with messages and what better way to prompt someone to interact with their product then setting goals, otherwise known as "gamification". But why do we so willingly play? In my case I think it's a fear of missing out, of not doing enough in my life and just turning into a couch potato mindlessly consuming and never creating. We see so many inspirational stories of people who turned their life around through hard work and dedication, so many examples of how good it could be if we only put a bit of effort in. In reality though "effort" can often translate into burning out or being unhappy. Spending hours on something that you don't really enjoy all in the hope of a pay off at the end, whether that's setting up a small business, or trying to read your way through a Colossus sized pile of books.

This is not me saying it's not worth it; it is. Of equal importance though is your sanity - I've been much happier since I put the brakes on my writing and instead focused on doing little things one at a time or one big thing over a period of time, rather than everything plus day job, plus reading, plus games, plus keeping up with TV shows... There's only so much the brain can cope with. So this year coming will be my year of focus on only one thing at a time, with no guilt if I change my focus to relax or to learn or to grow in other ways. Because while there are many paths to success, you can't walk all of them at once. Sometimes you've just got to stick to the one your own and not worry about what you might be missing.

Happy Winter Solstice!

Sunday, 8 November 2015

USA Bound

Work are sending me off to Seattle for the week - I finally get to see the mothership. Sunday has been spent fighting with my hand luggage to make sure it's within the measly 10kg the airline allows. Turns out my work laptop and charger weigh half of that so I can safely say I did not enjoy this game of 4D Tetris. Somehow it all came together and I'm now in the "what have I forgotten" phase.

I've never had a chance to go to the original head office until now. We're kind of big on the whole "frugality" thing and so far I've not had a good reason to go. But at last I get to see where it all began. I also get to see the city I heard about growing up watching Frasier. Though I can't promise I'll partake of the (in)famous coffee - maybe a hot chocolate instead.

The result of my minimalist packing has also been getting some apps on my phone to make blogging and writing easier. This post is entirely written on my iPhone - an experiment to see if I can get more writing practise by removing the need for a computer of any kind. I predict there may be an exponential rise in typos... But it should make it easier to write updates and I'm even going to give writing stories a go, though the thumb typing will either give me arthritis or drive me crazy. Only time will tell. The main point is that I'm trying to stop letting little things get in the way of dreams - it's so easy for mini excuses to pile up and blockade progress. So instead I'm going to remove those little problems one at a time, starting with the whole "but I don't have a laptop to write on" or "my laptop's too heavy to take everywhere". 

Now I just have to hope I get time away from work to actually do the thumb typing. No doubt the jet lag will help with that...

Monday, 26 October 2015

Steering the Craft - The Sound of Your Writing

This is the first in my exercises for Steering the Craft. It was actually really enjoyable, an opportunity to play with language in a way I normally forget to do when I'm writing. What you can discover just by not worrying about the final result is remarkable. There's still progress to make, but I'm pretty pleased with the results. Hopefully you'll enjoy them too, and I highly recommend giving these exercises a go yourself: the discovery alone will make it worth it.

Exercise One: Being Gorgeous

"Part One: Write a paragraph to a page of narrative that's meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect - any kinds of sound effect you like - but NOT rhyme or meter."

When the day is swallowed by the sneaking dark and shadows stretch their arms to share their cloak, that's when the Ingrilin come out. No one sees them, that's their gift, their curse, but they see all. The long fingers slide over the ground ahead, scraping away the soil in the days when forests ruled the land. Now they simply slither over the concrete, their sleekit forms sliding over the tacky tarmac, past the cars careening to their destinations. Around the people bobbing along under their umbrellas, oblivious to the pitch black shadows by their feet.
Ingrilin do not know wherefor they go, only that they must. Each night they depart, only to be concealed in their lairs by the time the first rays of the sun kiss the ground. No one knows what they do in the between time, but even people in the enlightened age shiver and hurry past the black alley, avoid the street where the lamps are off. The shadow, with its languorous stretch across the uneven paving stones, is stepped over quickly. The mind remembers, even if the person does not.
What of those who forget completely? Those who step off the luminous path and into the unlit nook? Mostly, they are safe to trot away, continue their life of oblivion. But some are not so fortunate. And the Ingrilin are always waiting.

"Part Two: In a paragraph or so, describe an action, or a person feeling strong emotion - joy, fear, grief. Try to make the rhythm and movement of the sentences embody or represent the physical reality you're writing about."

There are some who enjoy speaking in public. Those people are mad. Most feel their insides quiver, their tongue retreat to their throat, as though to escape via the oesophagus. Sweat breaks out in all the worst places, and before they know it their nails are nibbled and turned to stubs. The notes so carefully taken are made damp, crushed under the pressure of what's to come. All this before the performance itself when the many eyes stare, expectant.
The voice croaks, the words all trying to beat the others to be heard. The tumbling oratory is matched by the rolling gut, just waiting for it to be over. The many eyes glaze, lost to inner thoughts. But still the vernacular somersaults must go on until, by a miracle of time and space, the notes are read, the words are said. The polite applause releases the speaker to their freedom. As they sit, a rush of comfort settles. And they hope next time will be easier.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Forcing the Muse

Three weeks since returning from my holiday, I'm making myself post something as it's safe to say the writing bug has not been with me lately. It's not that I don't want to write but I'm finding the words are stuck; I need a plumber to remove the blockage with one of those amusingly shaped plungers. Though I have just realised how much I like the word "plunger".

To combat the lack of words I've decided I need to approach this like I do going to the gym; make myself do it at set times, on set days, no matter how I feel. When exercise is the activity this often leads to a lot of internal whinging and negotiation with my inner self; bargains are proposed and regrettably rejected. Wails of "but I can't" are met with "but you must". So far I haven't had a routine for the writing to allow this fun dialogue to happen in my head, but here we are. Now I have two activities in which to explore the depths of my insanity.

I tried to do a bit of writing on holiday but was never that optimistic it would lead to much. In Magaluf there are lots of distractions of the sun, pool, drinks and dancing variety. And as it turned out food poisoning, when me and my man made the mistake of having the hotel's freshly cooked omelettes. I may never eat an omelette again. Couple with a decided lack of sun, grumpy neighbours, and a gym that was more a death trap then a work out area, it wasn't the smoothest of holidays, but it was still fun.

Another aid to writing I'm trying is working my way through Ursula K. Le Guin's "Steering the Craft - A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story". It's a short book on writing, with exercises to do at the end of each chapter, and I plan to post my attempts here. Alongside this I've set out my writing goals for the next three months, broken down into the actual pieces I want to have finished in that time and what should be in progress. Waiting for inspiration just isn't working, so a checklist will have to do. I'm even getting up earlier with the express purpose of writing something everyday, before I do anything else. I really like my sleep, so this is a significant step for me.

Hopefully all of this will mean more words on the page, and more posts on this ol' blog. And maybe, just maybe, some stories to show for it all.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Rachel Dolezal: Is Identity Skin Deep?

Identity. It isn't what it used to be. Religion, gender, sexuality, all have seen the barriers that once existed come crashing down, leading to a more fluid notion of where one group ends and another begins. The most recent challenger is now race, brought to the fore by the revelations around rights activist Rachel Dolezal. This has prompted a furore in the media and online about whether or not she is black and whether you can change your racial identity through desire alone.

Others have written at length about the Rachel Dolezal case but few are diving into the issue of identity and what it means in the 21st century. Self-identity has and will always be important to human beings: it's who we are, what we like, even why we are. Globalisation has massively affected our identity concepts; it would be hard to identify with a demographic if you didn't know anything about them or even if they existed. In fact one of the greatest strengths of a connected world, with open communication available to all, is the opportunity to learn about other people and their identity. But it has it's pitfalls; it's a thin line between self-identity and appropriation.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Reboots, Remakes and Nostalgia

Summer blockbusters this year seem to all be about nostalgia. First there was "Mad Max: Fury Road", bringing the road warrior back to the big screen for the first time since 1985. Then we had "Jurassic World", to enormous blockbuster success. Now we have "Terminator: Genisys", living up to the eternal promise of 'I'll be back'. Like a lot of people my age (let's say, thirty-ish) I remember the original films from the first time around (except for Mad Max, which I watched in the Nineties) and have a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings about them. I was too young to see Terminator until about a decade after its release but I watched T:2 when it came out on VHS and absolutely loved it. Of the three franchises, it was Jurassic Park that held a very special place in my heart; I saw it four times in the cinema when it came out in 1993 and loved every minute of it.

I'll admit, I'm still a little sad that movies aren't all that original anymore and rely on glories of the past to get bums on seats. If it's not superhero movies getting a reboot every two years, it's sequels to franchises that have been out of the limelight for two decades. Saying that, I have been thoroughly enjoying the current wave of sequels. Watching the latest Terminator addition got me thinking about this; I should probably hate all these films, for not living up to my memories of their founders, for trying to ruthlessly cash-in on established franchises with a strong fan-base. But I don't. All have been entertaining, all have made going to the cinema something I wanted to do (it's rare for any film to make me want to spend the cash for the big screen anymore) and most of all, I've felt that all have respected their origins. Some have done it better than others but none have made me feel like they're shitting all over their roots. In fact one of the things I like best about Terminator: Genisys is that it removes films 3 and 4 entirely from the timeline, two films that did not respect the original at all. Still hate the title though.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

No erotica before ten - at least in Germany

Something I find endlessly fascinating are the differences between cultures and countries on this fair planet of ours; the varieties in aesthetics, practices and outlooks is a great reminder to take nothing for granted. However, sometimes you're left boggled by decisions made in parts of the world.

Germany have now introduced a law that prohibits ebooks aimed at adults to be sold before 10 PM and after 6 AM, local time. The German Publishers & Booksellers Association has been told by the Youth Protection Authority that all ebooks are now subject to the same controls that have existed for print media since 2002, which limits the sale of hardcovers, paperbacks, magazines, and graphic novels to minors when those material are clearly aimed at adults. From now on all publishing houses and self-publishers will need to fill in a new field in the metadata calling out if the content is for an adult audience.

The oddness of this decision is mitigated by the fact that it may not in fact be enforced; Germany have a number of rules around what can and can't be sold or shown but these aren't always followed. With the fine being €500,000 for breaking the law though it will be surprising if new adult sections don't start popping up in online book stores across Germany.

From my time in the DVD world, I know that similar rules exist for rated 18 and up movies and TV, to the point where even buying them abroad can result in them being confiscated by customs until you prove your age (though it's a rare occurrence). But books are an odd medium to put these kind of age limits on; reading isn't as easy as sitting back and watching a movie, or playing a video game. Britain doesn't currently (and hopefully never will) have an age rating on books. Graphic novels are also not rated, though there may be an argument for that given they're much more of a visual medium then books. I'm not sure where I stand on this; I read a lot of non-age appropriate books and comics growing up, but then again my mum bought those for me after checking them... 

Is it okay to sell a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey to an eight-year-old, without a guardian present? Do we control the distribution of books by a person's age? And why does the idea of  that make a shiver go down my spine? Worth puzzling over, but I suspect there are no easy answers; and in the meantime each culture will do what works (or seems to) for them. See, I told you cultural variety is interesting.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Tanith Lee - Strange, Magical and Irreplaceable

It was a shock to hear that Tanith Lee died Sunday 24th May at the age of 67. To say she's influenced my reading and writing habits would be a massive understatement. It was her book, The Birthgrave, that was the very first fantasy novel I ever read that was intended for adults. I was eleven and in desperate need of MORE STORIES, particularly anything with a girl as the main character and having magical adventures. There weren't a lot of those kind of books when I was a kid in the early Nineties so my mum gave me a book with a semi-naked woman on the cover:

Written entirely in first-person, it tells the story of a woman who wakes up in a cavern under a volcano that is erupting. Barely escaping with her life she's rescued by some locals, who worship her as a god. Oh, and did I mention she takes one look at herself in some water and is confronted with a hideous deformed visage, so she covers her face for the rest of the book? That happens too. I adored the story, the characters and the epic yet personal themes. I read my way through it and the two follow ups in a matter of weeks. Then promptly read them again. From that point on I became a firm fantasy and science-fiction fan for life.

Lee's books are a wonderful mixture of high-fantasy, urban fantasy, horror and magic; with a large dose of weirdness. And through all of her stories was the ever present female point of view. Her stories were genuinely unique, beautifully written but so strange at times they could be hard to get into. With more than 90 books to her name I haven't come close to reading them all but to honour this great writer, who was sadly much under appreciated in her lifetime, I've listed below some of her works I have read and would highly recommend for all speculative fiction fans. Her high-fantasy books always reminded me of the Conan worlds, but with women as the focus, and there's a strong current of horror running through most of her stories. Her science fiction stories by comparison brought unusual takes on sci-fi tropes to create truly unique stories that I haven't yet found from other writers.

Black Unicorn
Silver Metal Lover

When the Lights Go Out
The Castle of Dark

I'm genuinely saddened that there will be no new Tanith Lee stories ever again, so will be making the effort to read those books of hers I haven't got to yet. For a personal and touching post about the loss of this great writer to the world, I highly recommend this post from her editor and friend.

And in the words of Tanith Lee herself: 

"Though we come and go, and pass into the shadows, where we leave behind us stories told -- on paper, on the wings of butterflies, on the wind, on the hearts of others -- there we are remembered, there we work magic and great change -- passing on the fire like a torch -- forever and forever. Till the sky falls, and all things are flawless and need no words at all."

Thursday, 23 April 2015


This is not going to be one of those "Gee, I sure haven't written a post in a while" posts. The ones where the writer apologises to the masses of disappointed and frustrated readers, ravenously waiting for their next hit of amateur blogging. Even if those masses are mainly made up of their mum and their cat. No, I'm not going to do that. But I am going to talk about the not writing, and how it's an odd reflection of my state of mind.

For a long time now I haven't wanted to write anything. Actually let me rephrase that; I have wanted to have written, to see my words on the page and even to have been paid for those words. But the actual process of writing, the sitting down and typing those words - that I haven't wanted. So I didn't do it. If the last year has taught me anything it's to not be too hard on yourself and to recognise when you just have to stop. So I stopped. I've been reading lots of books (reviews coming soon), watching TV and lots of movies. I haven't been playing games so much because, like writing, I just can't find the energy to actually do it. I have been wanting passive pastimes, rather than active ones. Even the gym took a bit of a backseat, with my regular three visits a week dropping to one, maybe two if I could be arsed.

I think I've seemed okay to others, and have largely felt "okay", but I know that I've been under a shadow for a while now. I only recognised this because it seems to be lifting, letting in some light that had been unknowingly missing. I still haven't gone back to games yet, but ideas for stories are being explored, as well as a lot of research into freelance writing opportunities. The gym is also being graced with my presence a bit more (though work hours conspire to make that as difficult as possible). Chores are (mostly) getting done rather than thought about, dismissed and finally done in a fit of "fine, if you won't clean/cook/wash yourself then I'll bloody well do it". It's odd how a return to normal patterns makes you realise how abnormal they've been.

I've also begun to feel a bit more confident. I think I do a good job most of the time of seeming pretty confident and sure of myself. The reality is I often am struck with impostor syndrome, feeling like I'm going to be found out at any moment. That sensation got a lot worse after Dad died, and coupled with the panic attacks I occasionally got on public transport, left me feeling like a shell made of sugar glass. That's also fading, though not entirely absent - I'm just getting better at telling myself to suck it up and see what happens, rather than worry what the outcome may or may not be.

The roller coaster ride is definitely not over, eight months in and counting, but I'm starting to learn how to deal with the dips and peaks better. It's just a pity I hate roller coasters... 

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

How to Blow Your Mind in One Easy Step

I read a thing about artificial intelligence here and here. And I can't recommend enough for you all to do the same. It took me about 40 minutes to get through it all, mostly with this facial expression:

It's seriously terrifying shit. If you can't be arsed to read it all, it boils down to this:

1. Scientific advancement increases exponentially (the more you know, the easier it is to work shit out). So what we did in the whole of the 20th Century will probably take us, ooh, ten years to do now.

2. AI comes in three types: stupid, human level, and super. So far we only have the stupid kind, that can be really good at one thing and one thing only (think Siri, Google Cars, anything where computers do the thinking for you). But we are in the process of creating human level AI. But...

3. The rules of 'exponentiality' means that as soon as we do, that human AI is likely to turn into Super AI in about an hour, real-time.

4. Super AI is going to make us like ants looking at the Hadron Collider and being totally unable to comprehend what it is, let alone how it was built or what it does.

The smartest people on the planet seem to be in two camps; one side see super AI as the saviour of not just humanity but of the Universe. It will be able to manipulate matter at an atomic (or even sub-atomic) level. It will be able to solve all of the puzzles of physics and the universe, even the ones we don't know about yet. It will be able to make us immortal. And all this in less than fifty years from now (at optimistic estimates).

The other group of super smart people... well, they're not so happy-flappy and ready to welcome the computer deity we'd be creating. They point out that while humans have mushy things like feelings, empathy, morals, ethics, etc, a computer wouldn't. This could be the extinction event for humanity. Maybe all life on earth.

Now, while a part of me is all like "Oh, shit!" another, bigger bit of me is thinking of all the stories I could make out of this. Which probably says a lot about my tendency to retreat into fantasy rather than deal with reality, but is also a demonstration of something I think may be the key to stopping the AI destruction of the world. Make the thing love stories, particularly stories about people and then it will have a good reason to keep us around.

Unless we all end up having to reenact Game of Thrones for the computerised overlord's amusement...

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Pressuring Productivity

I can safely say I have just gone through one of the busiest (work-wise) January's I think I've ever had. Learning new skills, desperately trying to keep up with the tasks and events that come up; it's been a total mind-melt. You know, that feeling when you get home, like there's a sloshy sound in your skull, only relieved with crap TV and junk food. That.

This though is not a complaint. One of the reasons I was so dissatisfied in my previous job(s) was the feeling of not having much to do, and that what I was doing didn't really matter or get noticed much. In contrast everything I do now is under a microscope and does have an impact on how many people engage with the streaming service I work for. If I fuck up they won't know about the latest addition or those really cool shows we made (*cough* watch Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle *cough*). So job satisfaction is pretty high, even if stress levels aren't far behind.

The consequence has been not a lot of my own writing has been happening. Aside from getting home late more often than not, my inspiration energy points are pretty low even when I do get back at a decent time. This has also resulted in fewer tweets, Facebook posts or blog updates. And I really couldn't care less. Which is why I'm here, typing again.

I've realised I've been putting pressure on myself, and feeling obligated, to write. To be productive. With the knock on effect that it just seems like a huge mountain each time I take on any of these small acts of creation. So I procrastinated, put things off and then just never did them. But this last month I've purposely put my energy into my day-job, recognising that this would mean I have less to put into other things. And that that's okay.

One of the worst things for any creative endeavour is resenting the act of creating, feeling like you're being made to do it. With the constant mantras of having to write daily, or put 10,000 hours into your craft before you'll be any good, it's very easy to get bogged down. Well, I've discovered not giving a shit has made me more, not less, productive. I still think about my stories, making small notes about how I can work out plot or character points that aren't working. And I write a small amount whenever I can make the time. But I no longer feel guilty for blowing the writing off to play Dragon Age: Inquisition (love it), or reading the final book in the Wool trilogy (amazing) or watching yet another episode of Community (cool, cool, cool). The removal of that pressure has released me to enjoy it all again, and just do what I can. And knowing, one way or another, that it will be enough.*

They'd only end up covering you in pink and blue anyway.
*Not that this is a green-light to being a lazy git; if you truly want to be something in your life you can't just sit about and wait for the fairies to come along and grant your wish. You've got to do something - but that something doesn't have to crush you under its boot of demands.