The Roundtable Podcast

I’m a huge fan of podcasts. I’ve got about a dozen set up on my phone to automagically download and I’ll usually stick one on whilst on the way to or from work, or when I’m out and about.

Recently one of my writer friends mentioned The Roundtable Podcast and I decided to check it out. As you may recall from an earlier post, I’ve been prompted by my friend John to do some writing, so I’ve been looking out for good resources online.

I *love* the Roundtable. Hosted by Dave Robison episodes alternate from a ’20 minutes with… [insert name of awesome author here]‘ one week to a longer workshop session the following week with that author.

The workshop consists of Dave, his co-host, and [awesome author] working through a story idea with a guest author – the guest has 5-8 minutes to pitch their story idea, setting, characters and plot before Dave and the others brainstorm their way through the tale, unearthing a veritable cornucopia of Literary Gold, picking at plot points, brainstorming, asking questions and getting to the nub of the story nuggets within.

It’s brilliant. So many ideas, so many bits of advice that I find myself wanting to apply to my own story ideas. The awesome guest authors are great too (recent episodes have featured Cat Rambo and Kameron Hurley) and I’ve had to add a number of books to my list as a result!

If you’re interested in writing, or the writing process, I highly recommend it.

NaNoWriMo Eve

Ask most people what October 31st means and they’ll say one thing: Halloween.

Some people will look you in the eye with a slightly manic expression.

NaNoWriMo Eve, they’ll say. Ah, the writers…

The day before the month-long writing extravaganza that is National Novel Writing Month.

I won NaNoWriMo 2011

I did NaNo a couple of years ago (and learned a few things). I’ve even got a copy of the ‘novel’  that I wrote sat on the desk next to me in hard copy. I’ve re-read bits of it, and whilst it’s not entirely terrible, there are huge swathes of it which are completely horrible. My protagonist, the Big Idea for that year’s effort, promptly disappears after the first chapter, only to be rediscovered sometime much later in the story. I have no idea what happened to her. She just… vanished.

That’s the thing about NaNo thought – it’s entirely about the wordcount. Quantity over quality. It forces you to put your butt in the seat and write. Pour the thoughts from your head out of your fingertips and onto the page. There are whole sections of the proto-novel which could easily (and humanely) be removed and replaced with a single line of prose. I also started to lose track of who was doing what to who, and why.

That said, I really enjoyed NaNo in 2011. I got to the end of the month (not necessarily the end of the story, mind you) having turned out something slightly in excess of 50,000 words in thirty days. I’d drunk an awful lot of coffee in the process.

And I’ve written virtually nothing since. Apart from this blog, obviously.  Almost no fiction. Monty, the character who I’ve written the most about, has languished in my subconscious, waiting for the day to come for his hiinks to ensue once more.

So, here I sit, on NaNo Eve, pondering. Do I begin? The excuses are already lined up and waiting – it’s already going to be a busy couple of weeks – this weekend is a write off and we’re getting some decorating done next week for starters. Should I commit myself to another herculean task, churning out another 50k words?

Half of me says yes. Half of me looks at the other half and wonders if the other half is insane. Should I throw Monty at NaNo and see what happens? See if I can get a full story out there?

How about you, dear reader? Have you tackled NaNoWriMo? Are you doing it this year?

Iain Banks – farewell

It was only recently that I wrote about hearing the news that Iain Banks was (very) ill, then yesterday heard the news that he’d passed away.

Damnit.

He was an enormous influence on my reading from the late 80’s and early 90’s. A new book by Banks (M. or not) was always an event, and something to be anticipated, savoured and enjoyed. His books have long been a staple foundation of my bookshelves, often in multiple copies as they fall victim to much re-reading and passing around.

There was an outpouring of grief and condolences on my twitter feed yesterday (though, interestingly, virtually nothing on FB – Twitter, you have exceptional taste).

Lots of people wrote lovely things about Iain – Nick Harkaway’s “So long, IMB, I never knew ye” and Neil Gaiman’s “Iain Banks. With or without the M.” being the first of many which come to mind.

There’s also a truly fantastic collection of quotes on GoodReads from Iain and from his books. If you’ve never read any of his stuff, start there. Find a quote you like, then go buy the  book. Or, if you’re already a fan, buy a book for someone who’s never read any of his work. As Neil himself puts it:

Even the bad ones were good, and the good ones were astonishing.

Me? I can only echo what everyone else has already said, in many other places, and far better than I am able.

Farewell, Iain. Here’s to you and your stories.

writing meme

It’s a writing meme! The idea is that writers answer ten questions about the book they are currently working on, then tag five writing friends to do likewise. Jon was kind enough to tag me, so I’ll answer the questions here.

1. What is the working title of your next book?

It doesn’t really have one. Although ‘next’ book kind of suggests that there’s a book for it to be next from. Which there isn’t. I have written a few short stories though, and have started a couple of non-Monty stories.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

Monty isinspired in no small part by the adventures of one James Bolivar ‘Slippery Jim’ di Griz, aka The Stainless Steel Rat, with a dash of Thomas Crown (the Brosnan version), soupçon of Danny Ocean. Basically a bunch of heist books/flicks with a smart-talking main character.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

See #2. Heist/Con with added funny. Wisecracking one-liners a speciality.

4. What actors would you choose to play the characters in a movie rendition?

Monty: For a long time at the start he was going to be played by Ewan McGregor, though currently I’ve cast Tim Roth (albeit a slightly younger version) after seeing him in Lie To Me.
tim roth

Molly: This is the one I have the most trouble with. Kelly Macdonald?

600full-kelly-macdonald
Jenny (the cute barista): not sure. Had been thinking Carey Mulligan perhaps. Maybe.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Monty, ace gentleman thief, gets himself into trouble, again. Dangerous amounts of coffee are consumed. Hijinks ensue.

6. Is your book represented by an agency?

Good lord no. Using the word ‘book’ is scary enough.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Again, this sort of implies that I’ve finished a first draft. Which is not entirely true.

8. What other books would you compare this to within your genre?

See #2. Possibly with a bit of Donald E. Westlake thrown into the mix.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Lawks. I can’t quite remember. I do recall doing a character sketch for Monty many many years ago, which turned into a Chapter One, which was pulled apart (in the nicest possible sense) by my friend Pete. So I rewrote it from scratch. It’s better now. However, I’ve done lots of Chapter Ones, but not many Chapter Twos.

10. What else about this book might pique the reader’s interest?

FREE CHOCOLATE WITH EVERY COPY[1]

I’m not tagging any other writers though. If you want to be tagged, consider yourself tagged.

If you want to read some of my Monty stuff, it’s collected here

[1] the chocolate may be a lie.

Tower of strength

Let me take you on a journey through time and space, back some twenty-odd years (and trust me, some of those years were very odd), and about 80 miles north from my current location…

Are we sitting comfortably? I’d get a coffee or something[1], as this is pretty long.

Ready?

Then I’ll begin…

Hereby hangs a tale of shameless self-aggrandisement. We journey to 1986. Durham university. YT[2] has been chosen, though he knows not why, to take part in an inter-schools technology conference, called Input ’86. Schools from around the North East send promising young things to the conference, to Learn Stuff and Do Exciting Things.

We’re split into teams of four, and given Tasks. First task is to build a machine which will transport a can of Coke (or generic soft drink of choice) down a ramp, into a swimming pool, across thepool and up a ramp on the other side. Without sinking, tipping over or otherwise falling apart. Much in the style of The Great Egg Race. The great Heinz Wolff himself is in attendance, of course, though there is no sign of the lovely Lesley Judd.

English: Professor Heinz Wolff at the Ealing C...
English: Professor Heinz Wolff at the Ealing Civic Society public annual lecture. Location: The Queen’s Hall, Ealing Town Hall, Ealing W5. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our team spent several hours constructing our device, only for it to fall apart, tip over and sink, approximately halfway across the pool. Kind of embarrassing, really.

Our heads hung in shame, we retreat to lick our wounds and await the next task the following day.

We are to construct a tower, from assorted pieces of metal. This tower must not exceed one metre in height, and must be capable of supporting a weight of 50kg. We cackle with glee[3], and start drawing plans of a *really* short tower, say about an inch high, made of solid metal. Our hopes are soon crushed when we are told that the rules had been hastily amended, as everyone had the same idea.

Curses.

New rule: The tower must not be less than 75cm in height.

Darn.

So, we crumple up our original plan and start again. We devise a tower *exactly* 75cm tall. With legs just slightly off vertical, for balance. Comprising of lots of triangles, as triangles are Strong and A Good Thing. We reinforce the top of our tower with lots of metal, as this is where the weight will go. We also strengthen the base, as this is where a lot of the outward force will go.

At the very last minute, we add a band of metal around the centre of the tower, to try and hold it together, as the legs would otherwise buckle.

Our tower is a flimsy little thing. Four legs, where they should be. Rivets cover every joint. Surely not up to the task in hand.

Time’s up. Testing begins.

There are about ten teams, and the winner will be the one whose tower holds the most weight. Our team is last in the running order.

Each tower is tested at various loads up to 50kg. The first tower passes. Their team heaves a sigh of relief. More weight is added, and it quickly buckles under the stress. Pretty good.

Towers come and go. Each passes the 50kg mark easily. Some crack early, some last slightly longer. Towers of various shapes and sizes are put under the test rig and, eventually, destroyed.

Time for the penultimate tower. The record at this point is around the 200kg mark. Pretty impressive.

Tower 9 is loaded up on the rig.

150kg. Pass.
175kg. Pass.
200kg. Pass.
250kg, 275kg, 300kg. Pass. Pass. Pass.

325kg. Pass. The uni guys are nervous, the test rig can only supply a load of 350kg. Students mill around, looking for the weaknesses.
330kg…
340kg…
350kg…

ping

One joint finally collapses under the strain. Legs skew and buckle, and Tower 9 is crushed.

Time for Tower 10. Our tower. Our little bit of metal, against The Rig.

50kg. Pass. A sigh of relief. Imagine the embarrassment if this had failed as spectacularly as the coke-carrying machine.

We make it to 200kg, and it’s looking good. 250kg. 300kg. Our team looks nervous, apprehensive. Beads of sweat appear on furrowed brows. Could we match the 350kg? We’re in comfortable 2nd place already.

325kg.

350kg.

Solid. Absolutely rock solid. We’ve won! We’ve beaten the rest.

Cheers and pats on the back, grins all round. We’re presented with a souvenir pen of some description, to mark the achievement.

A couple of weeks later, I’m back at school. The teacher comes into the lesson, and hands me an envelope. It’s from Durham uni. They decided to set up a stronger test rig, to see what our tower could take.

It finally *started* to go at 682kg, nearly doubling Tower 9’s record. Our tower weighed in at less than a kilo, the lightest of the lot.

My point? I don’t really have one. This is a story that has made me smile with a fierce kind of pride since that day back over 20 years ago.

I just wanted to share it with you.

[1] other hot drinks are available.
[2] Yours Truly. Me. Hi!
[3] no, not literally

To write, or not to write

On "Aspiring" Writers...
On “Aspiring” Writers… by curious_spider on Flickr, aka Chuck Wendig

Sage words (as ever) from Chuck. If you’re even remotely interested in writing, get yourself over to his blog, sign up for his emails and buy his books.

I’ll wait.

Right. I’m done waiting. Onwards.

I’ve got ‘writer’ down in my bio on most places around the internet but I usually feel slightly fraudulent in putting it there.

Then again, I *do* write. I write this, for example. I also do a mean line in email.

I’ve written a couple of short stories which have been published[1] and well over thirty thousand words featuring Monty, arch gentleman thief. Some of which ends up on here. I’ve ‘won’ NaNoWriMo, though the sheer effort of churning out 50 thousand words in 30 days left my writing mojo quivering in a dessicated heap, sobbing quietly to itself.

I learned some lessons in the process, but I’m not sure I’ve entirely recovered from the experience.

It’s just that it never feels like *proper* writing. My friend Rachel over at Courtyard Lullaby summed up it up in a recent blog post:

Whenever I read a great novel like Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman or A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin, the sheer gravitas to these books makes me want to shrink away and hide like the amateur I am.

Which captures exactly how I feel about my writing.

I’ve read a ton of brilliant books this year – Nick Harkaway‘s stunningly brilliant Angelmaker is just one example. I marvelled at the sheer scale and inventiveness of the ideas, and the beauty of the prose. There were sentences and paragraphs in there which I stopped and read and re-read several times just so I could savour them.

Then I looked back at the stuff I’ve written, and it’s just a pale shadow, wilting in comparison.

OK, I know it’s probably an unfair comparison, and I strongly suspect (nay, hope) that Angelmaker didn’t leap fully-formed from Nick’s head onto the page. His first draft probably sucked.

Then I saw Chuck’s post this morning and was struck by the statement.  Yoda summed it up neatly too.

Do, or do not.

I write, therefore I am.

Look out world.

Writer on the loose.

[1] though I suspect that I’m one of the few people with actual physical copies of the publications in question. One was a very trendy artsy heavy-on-the-style magazine, full of beautiful people doing beautiful things, mostly wearing sunglasses indoors. One of *those* types of magazine.

spaaaaaam

Spam spam spam spam... [cue the vikings]
Spam spam spam spam… [cue the vikings]
Do you ever read the spam comments on your blog? I’ve noticed a few creeping through the usually excellent automatic filter and into my inbox for approval. One of them caught my eye:

First of all I would like to say excellent blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing. I have had a tough time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out there. I do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are usually wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or hints? Appreciate it!

First of all, thank you for the kind words, random spambot! I’m ever-so glad you like my blog, and don’t mind answering your question at all.

I also have a tough time clearing my thoughts to get my ideas out there.

Well, that’s not entirely true. What usually happens is that I cast about wildly for something interesting to talk about, something catches my eye (hello, spam comment!) and I waffle on about that for a bit, try and find a suitable photo to go with it, and Robert’s your mother’s brother[1].

The hardest bit of writing I find is getting the first few words on the page. Once they’re there, it’s like opening a tap and the words just fall out of my head via my fingers onto the keyboard.

It’s jolly messy.

Once I’ve knocked out a quick draft I’ll sit on it for a while to let it brew properly, go back and fix the various things that are wrong, sit on it some more, fix the other typos, then schedule a post.

I used to skip past the whole editing thing and the process would go idea > draft > post > realise I’d missed a bit > edit > repost > realise I’d said something stupid > re-edit > re-post > delete > start over. The new way is so much quicker, plus you get a blog post which has had a bit of thought (no, honestly) and care & attention.

Stop laughing at the back.

[1] Bob’s your uncle. Keep up.