Redhead by the Side of the Road

I always think you can map a book to two axes: focus and travel.

The more you move along one axis, the less you move along the other. So if your story is packed full of excitement and plot twists (travel) there is less time to explore character (focus).

Ann Tyler’s books provide a good illustration of this. While many books mentioned on this site contain a cast of thousands and a span of light years and centuries, her books have a much narrower focus.

I love Ann Tyler’s books, though I haven’t read one in a long time. I started reading Redhead by the Side of the Road (sponsored link) on a long journey last week and finished it in two sittings. The story deals with one man living in a basement apartment. It rarely moves beyond that setting, and that’s a necessary part of its charm.

It’s all about breadth v depth. Both are worth exploring when writing. Both lead to fascinating books. But don’t try and do both at the same time.

Roald Dahl’s SF

Speaking of Roald Dahl, I’ve been re reading some of his short stories following the rewriting debate. I’d forgotten that he’d written SF. I’m thinking of stories such as Royal Jelly and, more topically, The Great Automatic Grammatizator which goes some way towards predicting the effects of software such as ChatGPT.

What I’m particularly noticing is a marked difference in his regular style and that of his SF stories. These have more in common with the SF that was current when he was writing (certainly the SF that I was reading when I first encountered Dahl.)

In those days SF tended to be about people solving a problem: why did the robot behave in a such a way? Why did the people on the planet disappear? There is this element to Dahl’s SF stories: a premise is extrapolated and then unravelled by the hero.

But compare this with Dahl’s regular stories. In these the protagonist is more likely to take risks. They create the problems, rather than solving them. They jump off a ship to make it slow down so they can win a sweepstake. They use identical dogs to raise the odds at a greyhound race. In these often macabre stories the tension is built internally to the protagonist, rather than externally.

There’s a very different feel to these stories, one that I’ve been thinking about over the past few days as I write myself.


I’ve never had someone change my stories in a way that I disagree with.

My work has been edited – of course it has. Editors have suggested many many changes to my work. They’ve clarified sentences that were hard to understand, they’ve cut boring passages and moved other passages around to make them more interesting.

No one has ever forced me to write something I don’t believe in.

So I’ve been wondering what I would think if an editor asked me to change the description of a character from fat to enormous. They might feel that the story was implying that to be fat was to be greedy. As I don’t believe that to be the case I’d probably want to change the word to avoid misunderstanding.

I mention this because of the recent news about Roald Dahl’s books being rewritten.

When I first read the above article I was against the idea of rewriting books, but the more I think about it the more I wonder if I’m really upset about the feeling that it’s my childhood that’s being rewritten. When I take the time to consider, many of the changes listed in the article seem quite reasonable. Language and attitudes change over time.

Rewrite is an emotive word. Is it a rewrite if the sense of the text isn’t changing, or is it just a judicious edit?

By way of illustration, I’ll quote my daughter. I bought her a collection of Jeeves and Wooster stories for Christmas. This is what she said:

“Dad this book you’ve bought me has so many iterations of the N word, and the climax involves him getting into black face.”

Should that text be edited to change the N word, should the climax be rewritten? Or should it be left as it is? I have my own opinion on this, but that’s for another post.

I Wrote a Sentence Today

Something like don’t forget the pasta, and I found myself just looking at the words.

I was thinking about all these things that we write, all these words that we scribble with a pen or tap out on a keyboard or thumb onto a phone and then think nothing else of them. And yet those words were important enough to write at the time, and the fact of writing them lends them a certain permanence.

I type up so many words – emails confirming my attendance at a meeting or messages thanking a friend – and those words are backed up and the backups backed up to three generations and then those words reside on servers probably never to be seen again. All those words that were important enough to put down at the time and are then forgotten.

Words like this blog post. I like to think it’s interesting enough to read now, I’m under no illusions that people will be looking at in 100 years time.

I’ve been looking at ChatGPT – the AI writer. It’s very impressive, but there’s no intent behind the words, no history or provenance or web of interactions that led to its words being written in the first place.

For that reason alone what ChatGPT writes will always be less interesting than something written by a human.

How Many Times do I Have to Say This?

My advice to would be writers: start blogging.

Why? Because blogging once a week helps instill the discipline necessary to becoming a writer. It forces you to actually publish your work rather endlessly revising it. If you’re lucky somebody might even read what you’ve written: treat that as a bonus.

I’ve given this advice many times: it’s rarely acted upon.

Even by myself.

My writing juddered to a halt around 2018. Family circumstances slowed me down, then Covid finished me off. Spending up to fourteen hours a day at a computer in my day job as teacher meant I had no wish to sit down afterwards and write. The ideas kept coming thick and fast, I’d just lost the urge to knit them together.

And then last year I finally followed my own advice. The discipline of posting here once a week has been enough for me to start writing properly again. I’m now 60K into a novel (that’s probably about a third of the way, see here for why) and I’m working on short stories again.

Thank you to all those who’ve given feedback here. Your encouragement has kept me blogging which has got me writing again.

Hitchhiking to the Discworld

I’m currently reading Terry Pratchett’s biography. (sponsored link). There’s a passage in there on the effect that the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy had on him. It was a passage I recognised. I first encountered Hitchhikers in the 1981 BBC TV version [1] [2] and I thought it the cleverest and funniest thing I’d ever seen. 

Like all wannabe writers I wanted to do the fantasy version, but I could never get the ideas to fly. When I picked up the first Discworld book I realised that this was it, the book we had all been trying to write. Terry, of course, did it far better than I could. 

My children never appreciated Hitchhikers anywhere near as much as the Discworld, but that’s probably to be expected.

As Douglas Adam’s himself said about inventions…

1 . Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I’m sure something similar applies to books and music. 


  1. When I was at university we all claimed to have heard the original series broadcast on Radio 4 in 1978. I suspect it wasn’t just me lying when we made this claim. I’d have been 11 or 12 when the program was first broadcast and probably too young to understand the humour. And of course I didn’t listen to Radio 4 in those days. 
  2. As this post is about Terry Pratchett it seemed appropriate to include footnotes.

Three Times I Predicted the Future

I took a parcel to be returned to Amazon to the shop around the corner and I realised I’d predicted this in Recursion. It might not seem that big a deal, but when I wrote my first novel a communication shop seemed a pretty good extrapolation of the world at the time. Back then if you wanted to return a parcel you had to go to the post office.

Better than that, though, is when I thought people lying in bed sending text messages in the middle of the night. This is was in my story Restoring the Balance, Too, first published in Interzone. Texting was a new thing, and it occurred to me that people feeling lonely in the night might speak to their friends in this manner.

Lots of other people had the same idea, of course, but it was original to me at the time and I got really quite excited by the possibilities.

All of this sounds pretty mundane, I’m sure.

And all of this is pretty irrelevant. SF isn’t there to predict the future, but to extrapolate the present, and getting it right doesn’t make a good story. Still, there’s a quiet sense of satisfaction on getting it right slightly ahead of every one else.

The third time I predicted the future was when I wrote about the robots on Penrose, but you’ll have to wait a couple of hundred years to see that one come true.

The Crown S5 E3

I  remember being pushed aside by one of Mohamed Al-Fayed’s goons as I walked through Harrods in the 1990s. They were clearing a path for their boss; I was heading to meet my wife who worked there at the time. She told me stories of Al-Fayed’s behaviour that I won’t repeat here.

I see a lot of people are saying that the Crown isn’t an accurate portrayal of events. I never thought it was. Nor do I care, the Royal Family have the money and power to get their point of view across. 

Accurate or not, the Crown S5 E3 has some of the best writing I’ve seen on TV in a long time. 

This episode showed a racist, social climbing bully and an entitled princess find something in common. I don’t know if the story is true. I don’t care, to be honest. As far as this post goes I’m only concerned with the fact that two very different people were shown by the end of the episode to form a connection, to like each other.  

I started my writing career with romantic short stories. It’s there that I learned it’s not enough to say two people love each other, you have to show it. This episode showed humanity in unlikeable character, (the Crown has done this before: it’s the only show that ever made me feel sorry for Thatcher), it laid down enough emotional connectors for the final scene between Al-Fayed and Princess Diana to be completely believable. 

Don’t be distracted by the veracity, the costumes, even by the superb acting: this was a masterclass in writing. 

Rings of Partridge

Richard Feynman coined the term Cargo Cult Science: something that copies the form of science whilst ignoring the underlying rigour. 

Watching some old episodes recently I realised that Alan Partridge is a Cargo Cult TV presenter.

He understands the chat show form perfectly. He knows that, to be a presenter, you need to dress in a certain way, you need to ask questions and to listen, to tell jokes and to be serious. 

He embodies the form, so much so that he repeatedly manages to get himself onto TV.

But he doesn’t understand the underlying mechanism. His jokes come at the wrong time or are inappropriate, he’s full of bathos. All of this is what makes him such a great comic character.

Rings of Power is a Cargo Cult television show. It has the form of a fantasy, the elves and dwarves and orcs, it has battles and  rivalries and fellowships and the best scenery of any TV show I’ve seen. It has everything that Middle Earth should have.

Apart from any sense of connection. People fall out because the plot arc demands it. Dwarves and Elves distrust each other because that’s what dwarves and elves do. People ride to battle and then ride back home again. Nobody likes the orcs. 

Tolkien built distrust out of little things. A steward who would be king. A father who favoured one son over the other.

These things take up as much space on the page as the battles do, they’re what make you believe in one side over the other. A list of kings isn’t enough to give a story a sense of history. An epic battle needs to have people at the heart of it, and they need to have real emotions, not just a cut and paste back story.

I really wanted to like Rings of Power. Sadly, this is what happens when you throw too much money at something.

It’s not the big things that make something an epic, it’s the little things.


I was teaching object-oriented programming the other day (don’t worry this isn’t a post about computers… ) when I came to the part where I say that instantiating an object is like Harry Potter casting a spell (computer part over) and I realised by the blank looks given that the wizarding world is no longer a big deal amongst students.

I’ve seen this many times over my teaching career: a cultural reference point passing.

I remember when Monty Python lost their appeal to sixth formers. Back in the 90s, a student danced before me with two plastic fish in his hands, much to the delight of the class. Come the noughties and students learning the Python programming language didn’t care it was named after a flying circus.

Was Monty Python really that good? Part of the problem is that the comedy they introduced has become mainstream. But there’s something else: people usually refer back to things they enjoyed in their childhood and just because you like something doesn’t make it good. Or to put it another way, when people talk about having good taste what they usually mean is that they have tastes in common with their audience.

Does it matter if a TV program or book is objectively good?

If you enjoy it then that’s enough. Why spoil the pleasure by analysing the life out of it?

But if you want to improve as an artist then be prepared to critically evaluate what you find. I’m looking at you, Doctor Who