Barbarians At The Gate

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The Wheel Of Time, here we GO.

I grew up in libraries. This may seem a strange statement from the rakish man-about-town that you all know and tolerate, but it’s true. I was a bookish child. The mobile library that called once a fortnight to the small Cambridgeshire village where I spent my formative years was both fuel and engine to my imagination. Later, a long low building in Woodford was almost a second home –  a refuge, a place of discovery and contemplation, a place where I was free to simply be a reader and writer. I have held a library card as soon as I was able. I hold one now. It  gets heavy use.

I don’t really think I need to tell you what I think of the ConDem’s plans to eviscerate our library service. A better writer than I has beaten me to it anyway. Philip Pullman gave a speech last month that tells the sorry tale truthfully, with passion and anger. The whole thing is here, and I agree with every word.

Mr Pullman’s right to be furious. My home county, Berkshire, seems to have found a way not to cull their libraries. His home and my neighbour, Oxfordshire, isn’t so lucky. The number of libraries in an area that houses one of the great seats of learning on the planet is set to be halved. In Essex, one of the libraries for the chop is Woodford, my old refuge, my second home, the place where I discovered Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Andre Norton, Stephen King, Joseph Heller, John Irving, John Wyndham, Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker.

The thought that kids are going to grow up in this country without the opportunity to learn, discover and grow that I had sickens and scares me in equal measure. Libraries are community spaces, somewhere safe for mums to bring their kids for story time, their internet connections vital lifelines for the 27% of British citizens that still don’t have a hookup to the web at home. Free access to news, information and education is a central tent pole of civilisation. Hacking away at it is the act of a barbarian.

Tomorrow is Save Our Libraries Day. Actions will be going on up and down the country. It’s a chance to show your local bookhouse some love. Go and join if you don’t have a card. Get something to read out if you do. Get lots out. Snag some DVDs or some music. Maybe a graphic novel or two. Use up that allowance. That’s what it’s there for.

I want to be clear on my feelings. Libraries are a light in the soul of a community, and snuffing that light is not just small-minded, short-term penny pinching. It wounds us all in ways that are hard to explain, but easy to feel.

(The excellent WW1 remix poster I’ve used as illustration is part of a set by Phil Bradley, that he put together to help publicise the issue. They’re all great, and you can check them out on Flickr here).

A Walthamstow Story (or two)

They say that you’re at least partly a product of your environment. Walthamstow, which marks the transition from East London into Essex, is the place I was born, spent a huge chunk of my most formative years, and made a home with TLC until we moved west in 2004. It’s a place that still fills me with mixed feelings, nostalgia mixed in with a sadness that the place has never really lived up to it’s potential. For a while, it was also the setting for some of my short stories. And Then I Woke Up is a Walthamstow tale, and so is the one below. They’re both pretty unpleasant. I’m not sure you can read anything into that.

The story I’m about to tell you features two of the ‘Stow’s most recognisable features – The High Street, one of the longest in Europe, and the old, grade 2 listed cinema. It’s now referred to as the EMD, but when I went it was called the ABC, and when my mum and dad used to go, it was the Granada. It’s been a fixture of the cultural life of my family for at least two generations then. The way it’s been treated over the past few years simply breaks my heart.

Read more about the cinema and the fight to save it at The Macguffins site.

Now, please to enjoy your Tale For Monday: a nasty little vignette that I call

SINGLES NIGHT AT THE ENGRAMART

(Advisory. I wrote this. There are swears and gore.)

Continue reading A Walthamstow Story (or two)

The Sunday Lao Tzu: Quiet Time

“Silence is a source of great strength.”


When I write, I like to be in a quiet place, physically and spiritually. On a day off, if I’m working on a blog post or getting some word count down, there will be no music on, and no sound to be heard apart from the soft tick of fingers on keyboard. It’s a simple fact that I’m not much of a multi-tasker, and I’m very easily distracted. It’s better for me just to switch off and work.

I find quiet time to be an important source of inspiration, too. I like to walk, wandering like a flaneur with no real sense of destination or purpose, content to see where the road leads. This will often put me in a contemplative mood. That’s the moment where ideas often arrive, or solutions to a narrative problem solve themselves. On occasion, a character has simply popped into my head and started talking. Because I’m quiet, I’m able to listen to them. Rory Armstrong introduced herself to me in this way. If I’d had headphones on, it’s likely that she would have been drowned out.

Being quiet, and open to the world around us, I think we’re much more likely to find inspiration and strength in everyday life. Sometimes, all you have to do is shut up for a minute and listen.

The Sunday Lao Tzu: starting small

(In the attempt to keep the blog fresh as I make the attempt to give you something new every day, I have decided to theme my Sunday posts arounds the teachings of Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism. Expect the Sunday X&HT to be a bit more philosophical, if not necessarily spiritual).

“All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small.”

I don’t do new Year Resolutions, for the same reason that I no longer keep diaries. They always seem like a good idea, and I start off strongly, entering whole-heartedly into the agreement with myself to be a better person, to journal my every move. I have a stack of notebooks that have entries through the first week of January, an apologetic second burst somewhere in mid-February (when I was a teenager these usually coincided with Valentine’s Day, and consisted of bursts of woeful spite and, if things had been going really badly, love poems) then nothing. Rueful, shameful blank pages. Most of my resolutions have started and ended this way, and I view it as a sign of finally growing up that I stopped making unrealistic pledges that would be quickly abandoned.

I’ve realised that I was going about things in the wrong way. Rather than launching with both feet into a project and losing interest in the face of the hard and sustained effort that was required, I would have been better starting gently, easing into the task. This was a lesson that Lao Tzu teaches, but that Nanowrimo allowed me to apply to real life. By doing something every day, the task soon becomes a habit, then a part of your daily routine. No matter how little, the daily bit is the important bit. (Sidebar: yes, I know Nanowrimo is a 1667 word a day challenge, and that doesn’t sound like a little thing. By by breaking that task down into further 500 word chunks, it’s surprising how quickly you make your daily, weekly and monthly goals.)

The Habit is something that I hope to achieve with the PostaDay exercise. The point where I feel twitchy if there’s a danger of not posting is the point where I know I have accomplished something important.

When your objective stops being a chore, and becomes a daily pleasure, then you have succeeded in your goal.

2011: The Cleardown

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The beacon is lit. The Gateway opens. The sleeper awakes.

A sense of peace and order descends on Casa Conojito as the Xmas deccoes are packed up and put away, signalling the end of all merriness and joy for the next eleven months. It’s been a straightforward clearup, as we went minimal on the froth, frippery and frou-frou this year.

The exception to that rule is, as ever, the unknotting of the lights from the tree, a process that requires the application of non-Euclidian geometry and much swearing to complete. I was quite proud of the amount of quantum entanglement I achieved this go-round. It was an exercise in four-dimensional shared-plane dynamics that took some thought and a tearful breakdown before I applied good old Gordian theoretics to the problem and took the tree apart with the lights still attached.

Even then, the bastard things were tighter than Kylie’s dress on New Year’s Eve. The final knot-form that the lights evolved to once I had finally freed them from the tree was unsetting, otherworldly. The bundle of green wires seemed to twist serpent-like in my hands as I stuffed them back in the box. ‘Twas if somehow the form had described a pathway, a map to eldritch other dimensions. A beacon that the dwellers of these side-shifted places could follow to find their way here.

I fear for what awaits me when I go back up to the loft next Christmas. I fear that the deity whose arrival we celebrate on December 25th will not be the one we usually greet.

Ho ho ho. Cthulhu fhtagn.

This Was The Year

…that Twitter turned me into an activist.

The 38 Degrees and Avaaz guys had me signing petitions and writing angry letters to my MP (admittedly, I’ve been annoying Rob Wilson for a while now, but surely the point to democracy is to make sure your elected representative to government is aware of your needs?), forwarding links on, and in general becoming one of those people that the mainstream press like to demonise as a kneejerk reactionary. I make no apology for that. I’ve watched in horror as we ended up with a government that nobody voted for, that seems dead set on a swingeing series of cuts to essential services that is not only unjustified, but un-necessary. Not only un-necessary, but ideologically motivated. This, from Adam Ramsay on the @ukuncut blog:

…what George Osborne spotted is what right wing politicians around the world have known for the last 40 years: a disaster is a great time to radically change a country. From the privatisation of New Orleans’ schools after Katrina, to the corporate plunder of Iraq after the 2003 invasion, this trick is nothing new. Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine describes in detail how it has been used the world over.

There is a big problem. People understand this might require a big solution. And so they accept policies they would never normally countenance – policies not designed to solve the problem, but to radically change society in a way no one ever voted for.

And like this sleight of hand, Osborne’s “solutions” too are nothing new. The Conservative students I studied with at university – the generation who were born under Thatcher, and are now the researchers and aids to this government – were arguing for 30% spending cuts long before the recession. And their predecessors did too – in fact, in 1910, the Conservative Party brought down the Government rather than allow the people’s budget, the foundation of the welfare state, to pass. And they have used every opportunity since to rid this country of what they see as a dangerous socialist experiment.

And this “solution” is, of course, nothing of the sort. The idea that you solve a deficit caused by unemployment by cutting jobs is economically illiterate. Don’t take it from me – look at what is being said by the world’s leading economists, including most recent Nobel prize winners: Britain is embarking on a radical economic experiment which is not only un-necessary, but probably going to make the recession worse.

(The whole post is well worth reading if you want to whip yourself into a spiralling rage about the lies and nonsense that we are being fed about the state of our economy, it’s causes, and why the phrase “We’re all in this together” is the sickest joke of 2010.)

Twitter has also been the sharpest way to stay up to date on the happenings of the happy pranksters that have been shutting down tax avoiders Vodafone, HSBC, Boots and Topshop every weekend for a while now. Reading the streams from participants like @pennyred as stuff was happening had a giddy, unprocessed thrill to it. In events like this, the mainstream news media was left floundering to catch up.

Rest assured, there’ll be a lot more of this from me next year.

 

…that I was up on the main stage at FrightFest.

A seriously heady moment, as the writers and directors of Habeas Corpus (with the exception of Ben Woodiwiss, sadly) introduced the teaser, which was shown on the giant main screen at the Empire Leicester Square. This is a big deal, and we’re working towards getting the whole thing done in time to be screened next year. Once we can get the funding, of course… In the meantime, the final shot of the teaser is getting a rep on YouTube as “The Most Revolting Kiss EVAR”, which fills us all with a quiet sense of pride.

…that I wrote my head off.

Count ’em up. Nanowrimo and Script Frenzy this year left me with a completed 100 page graphic novel and two-thirds of a first draft of the second “Moon” novel. Five short stories. Innumerable blog posts. The thing is, I still feel like I’ve been slacking this year. God only knows what could happen if I light a fire under myself.

…that I made short films.

Dom and I finished Time Out, finally. It’s off to festivals, and we’re quietly hopeful of a screening somewhere. Meanwhile, experiments with a dirt-cheap Kodak digicamcorder and Garageband led to a flurry of creative output in July as I squirted out five short mood pieces in short order.  They were fun to do, and worked as document and commentary on a quiet moment. It’s a zen approach to film-making, and one that suits me. There will be more of these next year, promise.

…that I changed my reading habits.

Thanks to the Kindle. This thin, light, clever piece of kit has turned me back into a voracious reader and helped me to rediscover the hidden gems I had tucked in the depths of my hard drive as PDFs. My early worries about the open nature of the device were calmed as soon as I realised that it would flawlessly open just about any book format out there (and if it couldn’t I use the brilliant Calibre to convert it) and I am now a complete drooling convert. Much in the way that 2010 marked the end of my purchasing music in physical form (and, thanks to Spotify, barely buying music at all), 2011 will give the over-worked bookshelves at X&HTowers a much needed break. I’m eyeing up a couple of magazine subscriptions, as well as revisiting glorious indulgences from the past for surprisingly small amounts of money. I’m a blissful little bibliophile, I can tell you.

 

And as for 2011? Well, I want to be looking at getting something available for download on Amazon – probably Satan’s Schoolgirls as a start. Who knows, maybe even make some money off it.

Work continues on Habeas Corpus, Ghosts Of The Moon and Dom’s ongoing Banksy doco, which he hopes to have done by the end of January.

I want to start drawing more, as a complement to TLC’s interest in crafty stuff. A life drawing class is going to be vital, I feel.

 

Oh, and I pledge to blog more. No, really, I mean it this time. I’m signing up to WordPress.com’s PostADay initiative. That’s something new from me every single bloody day. You’re going to be sick of me by the the time I give up some time in February. There’s a very good chance, therefore, that X&HT will devolve into single line posts, photos and the occasional recipe. It’ll be different, that’s fur shure.

Right. 2011. Here we flippin’ well GO.

 

 

 

Kindle, Spotify and the view outside the box

TLC bought me a Kindle for my birthday. It was bound to happen. She swears by the Sony e-reader I got her last year, and both Leading Man Clive and Wetdarkandwild are advocates of Amazon’s sexy new toy.

I have to say, I love it. It’s as skinny as an overweight fashion model, perches in the hand like an attentive bird, and is almost Mac-like in it’s simplicity of use. It’s funny how many people I’ve shown it to that have begun prodding at the e-ink screen as if it’s an iPad. In a lot of ways the dedicated controls are even easier to use than the swipe-to-turn gesture that the iPhone uses on it’s Kindle app.

My one concern was that it would not be able to read the electronic library I’ve accrued over the last couple of years. This was unfounded. It’ll happily read PDFs, .rtf and even .txt files with aplomb, keeping the formatting impeccably. I have a chunk of cash to spend, which will granted mostly be going to the Kindle store, but I am still downloading and reading other formats – most notably Cory Doctorow’s new collection With A Little Help, available in all kinds of free and paid versions. I hadn’t realised just how much I had to read in electronic form. As publishing models begin to inexorably change, and readers begin to embrace new formats as a complement to the existing ones (I, for example, have no interest in reading comics and graphic novels in an e-format. I really don’t like reading things panel-to-panel, and Comixology’s Guided Technology is just infuriating) it’s going to be very interesting to see how things open up. Certainly, as a writer with a vested interest in new markets and opportunities for my work, it feels like exciting times.

With that in mind,  can I point out that this looks great on a Kindle right now?

Meanwhile, my love affair with Spotify continues, getting sloppier and ickier by the second. I have an Unlimited account, which for a fiver a month gives me all the music I can eat with none of the ads. There are some obvious omissions and holdouts on the service, of course. Most annoyingly for me, The Arcade Fire aren’t there. But then I bought The Suburbs on the day it came out so it’s no biggy.

But the point is that The Arcade Fire was one of about five albums I’ve bought this year, down from a figure that was getting up to ten times that five years ago. I have not downloaded anything from a link that does not have the creators stamp of approval, and does not put money into their pockets. I’m using sites like Bandcamp (where I discovered and bought Zoe Keating’s astonishing album Into The Trees) a lot more. Everything else has been streamed. I’ll probably treat myself to the new/old Springsteen. Apart from that, the subscription has me covered. On those rare occasions when the service does go down, I still have a hundred gigs or so of tunes in the drives. Granted, if the service is ever bought or merged (witness the reports earlier in the year that Google wanted it) it could change in ways that would make it a lot less attractive. But for me, for now, streaming this playlist to our surround amp through Airport Express and Airport, the world seems like a very big, very musical place.

For the most part I use Spotify in conjunction with music blogs like The Quietus and No Rock And Roll Fun, which broaden and open up my horizons without having to budge off the sofa. At this time of year, when all the best-of-the-year playlists come up, Spotify comes into it’s own as a way of catching up and finding new things to love.

Looks like 2011 is the year when I don’t just start thinking outside the box, but living outside it too.

Life After Nano: and then this happened

First things first, then.

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I hit 50, 000 words on the evening of November 29th, which is slow by my standards, but perfectly acceptable in the scheme of things. As ever, the moment when I upload wordcount to the Nanowrimo site (painfully slow on the first and last couple of the days of November, a phenomenon we refer to as “the robust nature of the nano servers”) to get redirected to the winners page is a bittersweet one.  You expect fireworks, or a party, and what you get is… well, a very nice round of applause from the Nano staff, and a couple of downloads. But then the point is not to have the world fall at your feet at the enormity of your achievement. If you’re anything like me, the end of Nano is not the end of the story. Nowhere near, in my case. Ghosts is dangling on a massive cliffhanger. The casual reader may consider that I have written myself into a corner. Not the case, kids. But if you want to find out what happens next, you’re going to have to let me know.

Work on Ghosts will now continue behind the scenes. The first draft will stay up until the new year, at which point it’s being pulled into Scrivener so I can start work on the second draft. As for the first part of the story, Pirates of The Moon – well, I have plans for that, which I’ll share with you in due course.

 

On the same subject, you can now view Simon Aitken’s brilliant Blood + Roses on a rental pass at the all new revamped site. I can’t recommend it enough, and I’m not alone. Critical Film called it “a turning point, for the better, in the constant evolution of the modern cinematic vampire”, and I agree. This is a great opportunity to support an acclaimed independent horror, and you should run, not walk (well, metaphorically speaking, as you’re no doubt reading this at home in your slippers with no intention of budging off the sofa) to the site and check it out.

 

Finally, a little self-promotion that I can’t believe slipped through the gaps. Time Out is now available to view at Raindance.TV, at significantly improved quality from the YouTube link. Those who sniff that it was only shot on Super 8 in the first place are so very missing the point it’s not even funny. Go check it out, and witness the glory. Also, we get a tiny morsel of cash for every view, so that’s nice, isn’t it?

Right, back to work. The twist I have in mind won’t write itself…

Life During Nano: The week in wordcount.

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It’s always an exciting moment. November 1st. The first day of NaNoWriMo. And let me tell you, Readership, this time I was ready. I was primed. I knew my story, I knew my characters. I was plotted up and ready to go. I stepped onto a slightly slower train than usual at Reading, all the better to get a good start on the day’s wordcount. It was perfect. There was a seat with a table for my coffee, and room to perch my netbook. I had the software I needed, I had my backup strategy sorted out. I was good, as any number of eighties action movie icons would tell you, to go.

I opened my netbook. It was dead. I’d forgotten to charge it. And of course, I was on a train with no handy power outlets. Not, I have to say, the best of starts.

I coped by using my phone. I’ve quietly refined my typing skills to the point where I can double-thumb with pleasing rapidity. But even I was surprised to see that I’d managed over 700 hundred words on that first morning. It’s not an experiment I’d choose to replicate, but it’s good to know I can do it if I need to.

What this shows is that Nano is about getting the wordcount, any which way you can, in any way that suits you. Do it on the kitchen table. Do it on your lunchbreak. Do it like me, on the train or the bus. Yes, I’m still talking about writing, mostly.

Nano does funny things to your head. It makes you write and think in much longer sentences than you would normally. It’s always there, nagging at the back of the head. Have you done your words? Why haven’t you done your words? Why are you hoovering? Shouldn’t you be writing?

And the world around you becomes fair game. That funny thing the old dear in front of you said on the bus? You can use that in the book. That silly thing that happened at work today? You can use that in the book? That book you’ve been reading? You can use that in… oh, maybe not.

There are, of course, the freaks of nature that will finish Nano in absurdly short periods of time. Four days. Although there are writers on the forums that had hit 300,000 words in a week. The mind boggles and the fingers tingle at the thought of that much writing. I’m at … well, have a look to your left. See the widget? That’s how well I’m doing. At the time of writing I’m at 17,000 words, which will get me to the 50,000 word mark a day or so early, although I’m planning on improving on that. The story has a long way to go yet, and I’m enjoying the way it’s changing and reforming under my fingers. The John Carpenter influences are coming out a lot more clearly than I’d expected, which means the story is much more actiony and horrific than I’d thought. None of this is a problem. I’d planned on a big, fast-moving story. And hoo boy, that’s what I’ve got.

A gentle reminder that I’m posting every word I write this month up in the Ghosts Of The Moon link above, so feel free to read and comment. Pointing out spelling mistakes and grammatical errors will be met with hollow laughter. This is writing in the raw, Readership. Out of my head and into your hands. Fiction doesn’t get any purer than that.

 

Life During Nano: Something for December, Perhaps

OK, this has nothing to do with anything apart from the fact that working on NanoWriMo tends to tune your brain into slightly different frequencies and you pick up on connections that you maybe wouldn’t normally notice.

Also, that you write in run-on sentences more. They normally get cut in half in the edit. But anyway.

Charlie Stross recently wrote a wonderful, curmudgeonly piece on steampunk (here it is). He made the point that the innovations of the early stories have devolved into mere set-dressing. If steampunk authors took the time to look at the worlds they were building, there would be very little glamour to be had, and a great deal of poverty and deprivation. He also cracked the joke that steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown, which made me snort tea back into my mug through my nose. He called out SF sites Tor.com and i09 as being particularly to blame for the spike in interest in the genre.

This is pretty nicely timed, as Tor have just been running a Steampunk fortnight. A lot of the critical thought and articles have been on the reinvention of the genre. Amal El-Mohtar’s piece, Winding Down The House is especially good in this regard, and successfully makes the point that steampunk’s tropes and conventions really are holding things back. If steampunk is to grow and stay interesting, it needs to move away from the Victoriana/Old West/Ruritanian bit, and find new directions.

Amal points out her frustrations neatly here:

I wrote a story in what, to my mind, would be a steampunky Damascus: a Damascus that was part of a vibrant trading nation in its own right, that would not be colonised by European powers, where women displayed their trades by the patterns of braids and knots in their hair, and where some women were pioneering the art of crafting dream-provoking devices through new gem-cutting techniques.

Once I’d written it, though, I found myself uncertain whether or not it was steampunk. It didn’t look like anything called steampunk that I’d seen. Sure, there were goggles involved in gem-crafting, and sure, copper was a necessary component of the dream-device—but where was the steam? My editor asked the same question, and suggested my problem could be fixed by a liberal application of steamworks to the setting. Who could naysay me if my story had all the trappings of the subgenre?

Syria, you may be aware, is a fairly arid country. There are better things to do with water than make steam.

Both articles are worth a read, not just as criticisms of the subgenre, but as roadmaps to a new future past.

And I have an unfinished steampunk book that could use a little attention…