Forbidden Words

On Sunday I’m going to my writing group. There are number of authors there, some well established, some newer. All of them provide valuable feedback. As I’ve written elsewhere, the advice I’d give my younger self as a writer would be to join a writing group much sooner.

Anyway, one of the stories I’m currently critting has caught my attention. It’s by a new member: it’s a great story and is very well written apart from one thing. I think the rest of the group will already know what I’m going to say when I talk about this one…

I don’t like made up words.

R’hellono. Zhve-lenga. iSto(click)xxz.

I just made those up. They’re supposed to sound exotic, they’re supposed to evoke an otherworldly atmosphere and I suppose they do providing you don’t drench the MS in them. You can just about get away with that sort of thing in fantasy when you have humans speaking.

But it has no place in SF.

The chances of an alien being able to communicate with us directly are small. The chances that they would actually use sounds in the human range – rather than using radio waves; or making light flicker or even just moving their ears like a dog are infinitesimal. Why would a crystalline alien race who communicate by changing the ionic balance in chemical solutions be called the V’llorr? The aliens wouldn’t be able to make those sounds, so why would humans call them that? Surely they’d give them nicknames, scientific names, or name them after their place of origin.

I dwelt on this in my Penrose series. The robots came from another planet, everything they said was translated into English (or the language of the edition). Read A Note from the Author in Stories from the Northern Road for more details.

If you were to be friends with an alien, you might as well call it Hilary. You’re not insulting it, it can’t understand the sounds you’re making. And it’s probably calling you a similar name in its own language.

Show Don’t Tell

Show don’t tell.

There’s online debate at the moment about this advice traditionally given to writers. A lot of people are saying it’s over rated, that there are many times when trying to show not tell ends up getting in the way of the story. Sometimes a quick information dump is best.

They’re right. But they’re missing the point.

As Sol Stein said, story telling is all about communicating emotion. And as every romance reader and writer (and I used to be one of them) knows, it’s not enough to tell someone you love them, you have to show them.

How can a writer convince the reader that two people are in love?

It’s not enough to say that someone is attractive. In a traditional romance the man is nearly always tall and dark and handsome. Does this make him desirable? Maybe, if that’s your type, but it’s not enough. Maybe he’s good with his hands, maybe he’s thoughtful and compassionate. Better, but this is still really just telling.

How do you show that two people are attracted to each other? They blink, they blush, they get tongue tied, they laugh too long at each other’s jokes, they touch each other on the arm… They do things for each other.

Romance is a big emotion, it drives a plot. In some ways it’s an easier thing to write. How do you show that two people simply like each other, that they get along?

Learning how to do this is part of the craft writing, it comes with practice. It’s great to see it done well. Here’s a good example.


I was delighted to be asked to contribute a monologue to Pen to Print. I was even more delighted when I heard the results.

If you want to know how I write books, take a listen. Even if you don’t, take a listen. They’ve done a stunning job!

Listen on Anchor FM–An-audio-monologue-by-Tony-Ballantyne–Write-On–Audio-Weekly-e1s309c

Listen on Spotify

Reaching for the Same Packet

I’ve just finished reading Everything I know about Love by Dolly Alderton (paid link). She’s a funny and perceptive writer, who gives a remarkably honest account of her life. This is not an SF book, in fact it’s the opposite of SF. Part of the pleasure of reading a book like this is the insight into another life…

… although I occasionally thought that her struggles sometimes resembled a journey to the shops through a swamp and an artillery range when there was a perfectly good bus running from the end of the street. She never seemed to take the trouble to read the timetable. But I’m sure we all sometimes go the long way round in our lives to discover truths that are obvious to others.

What really struck me, though, was what we had in common.

We both love Joni Mitchell and John Martyn. I think we’re very different people, but we were both drawn to something in their music. It makes me think of two people on opposite aisles reaching for the same packet on a supermarket shelf.

Joni Mitchell’s lyrics exist in CD booklets and liner notes, they’re on the internet (here’s an example of a writers song if there ever was one) but, great as they are, those lyrics are dead until people read them and breathe their own lives into them.

All writing is the same.

So Much Not Said

I was surprised when my daughter told me she’d never seen 2001: A Space Oddysey, so we watched it together.

This film grows on me each time I see it. I love the length of the scenes and how slowly they develop. I love how little action there is and yet how much spectacle. I love the fact that this is a film for adults.

Most of all I love how much is left for the viewer to observe.

The three bodies in a line.

The second ring being built on the space station seen as the Blue Danube is played. 

And always, the silence in space.

This is a different sort of story telling to fantasies like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Those have deep backstories that are recounted at the appropriate times. Lineages are listed, tales are recounted.  There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s appropriate to the form. 

The science in 2001 is equally deeply rooted but it’s never recounted, only implied.

It’s often said that good SF writing explores the edges of ideas. This film is a model of the form.  

It’s worth noting that this way of writing isn’t exclusive to SF. The series Mad Men was constructed this way.  The story isn’t presented as one continuous sweep, but rather as series of disconnected events. It’s left to the viewer to fill in the gaps.

This is my favourite sort of writing

Incidentally, I searched for a picture of silence to accompany this post. I chose the old man as it looked different. Why are so many stock photos of young women?

The Muppets Christmas Carol

As anyone who has seen it will attest, the Muppet’s Christmas Carol is the definitive version of the story. Dickens’s version, whilst competent, fails in a number of rather obvious areas. These include only having one Marley and glossing over the role played by Rizzo the Rat. Worst of all, he neglected to write a number of songs that sound good being sung by Kermit the Frog; Statler and Waldorf; and, hardest of all, Michael Caine.

I’ve watched the film every Christmas practically since it came out. However, when I heard that the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester was screening the film accompanied by a live orchestra I must admit I was confused.

Who’s idea was that, I wondered? Who looked out the movie score? Who put together the click track for the conductor to play along with? Who thought people would pay money to see something that airs for free on TV every December.

Whoever they were, they knew what they were doing. The hall was packed with families. When I say families, I should point out I saw about three actual youngsters there. Most of the children in the families present were now adults, my own two included.

Did the addition of live music add anything to the film? If I’m honest, I kept forgetting there was an orchestra present until someone made a mistake. The music was too loud, it tended to drown the speaking.

But that didn’t matter. Everyone knew the dialog. Not only that, they sang along quite happily.

So it was a great show, though not for the reason I was expecting. When I booked the tickets part of my motivation was to support an orchestra, not out of any idea that orchestras need protecting, but because I like orchestras and if no one goes then they’ll stop playing.

But this wasn’t about the orchestra. It wasn’t about the music. It was all about the feeling of community.

The Muppets Christmas Carol accompanied by a live orchestra. Surely this must be the cultural event of the year.

The Food Bin

This is a green bag. A green bag of food waste.

The green bag contains things like potato peelings and leftover scraps: the sort of things that can’t go on the compost heap. The green bag normally lives in a container. When the bag is full, it’s taken out to the green bin. Here, someone has taken it from the container and left it on the kitchen counter.

This is very much the COP26 solution to the problem of keeping the house tidy. It has the appearance of doing something to help the housing environment, but it achieves nothing. It’s actually offloading the real problem (taking the green bag out to the green bin) onto someone else, all the while giving the culprit the chance to boast about their green bag credentials.

Who was it? Investigations are ongoing, but I’m pretty confident it will turn out to be the dog. The dog seems to be behind most of the crimes committed in our house, including drinking the last of the milk, not putting the butter back in the fridge and failing to turn on the dishwasher.


On Friday night I saw Genesis for what will probably be the last time. It was was an excellent, though flawed, gig. Excellent because of the warmth of the crowd, the good humour of the band and the body of work they played. Flawed because they are getting too old for performing. Much comment has been made in the media about how Phil Collins performs seated (as does Mike Rutherford for part of the performance). What’s not really been mentioned is how often Phil Collins is off key and out of time. If I’m to brutally honest, the other original band members weren’t at the top of their game either in terms of their playing.

But this isn’t a problem. Phil Collins still has great stage presence and charisma, he controls the audience with a wave of his hand. And there is is something rather magnificent about seeing him refusing to give up, walking onto stage using a stick. Unlike some other groups still touring, I don’t imagine that Genesis need the money. They were performing because they wanted to. 

I’ve written before about Second Rate Entertainment and how much I enjoy it. This was hardly a second rate entertainment. The light show was of typically high standard, a lot of time had clearly been spent on arranging and rehearsing. I’ve seen a number of older bands in the past few years using backing vocalists and musicians to support ageing singers and players. It’s usually done thoughtfully and honestly, the audience is under no illusions about what they’re hearing.

This was a gig aware of mortality. The song Fading Lights, the last song on Genesis’ last album together was used to introduce a medley of old hits.  The most poignant moment was in the middle of I Know What I Like. Many of us remember how Phil Collins would perform a lively dance with the tambourine. Now all he could do was rather wryly hit it on his head.

I  don’t know what non fans would make of the event. I saw a lot of history in this performance a certain  bravery and quiet resolution not to gentle into that dark night.  I was very moved.

And I knew that’s not just because of the gig.  I’ve been a Genesis fan since I was a teenager. That concert felt like an end bracket on part of my life, one reflected in the fact that I was taking my son to university the following day. The end of another era.  But another built on a solid body of work that I will certainly remember.

Genesis AO Arena Manchester 24/9/21

Seduced by Productivity

I feel that I’ve been seduced by productivity. 

It’s been a gradual process. It began when I discovered GTD. At the time I was swamped with work. I constantly felt there was something else more important that I should be doing. GTD reassured me that I wasn’t neglecting anything, it organised my life. You can implement GTD with a pen and paper. I used Emacs.

That’s where the seduction began. You see, Emacs is just too useful. You can use it for everything, and for years I did. I used Emacs for everything from writing novels to reminding me to chase people for returns at work. It was my calendar, my project planner, my note taking system, everything. 

But slowly I started to introduce other applications into my workflow. Like most people, I spend a lot of my time away from my desktop computer and so I had gradually moved some of my work onto Evernote and Todoist: apps that work well in a web browser or an a mobile phone.   

I spent most of 2020 at my desk: it will probably be the last year that I use Emacs for everything. Emacs remains a powerful, flexible tool that I will use for many aspects of my writing, tech and personal life, however despite such excellent applications as Orgzly and Beorg (both of which I use), there’s no getting away from the fact that Emacs works best as a desktop application.   

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Evernote for years. I currently love it and the direction it’s going, but therein lies the problem. Like Emacs, Evernote is getting just too useful.

I’ve heard it said that before there were washing machines and vacuum cleaners people were content to wash and clean much less frequently. New technology made these tasks easier and so people did them more often.

It’s the same with tools like Emacs and Evernote and Todoist. They mean I can be more productive, and so I am.

But since when did being productive become my primary aim?

Productivity tools mean I can be a more productive writer, but I didn’t start writing because I wanted to be productive. I started because I enjoyed writing, because I had something to say. Over the years I found I was writing because my todo list told me to.

Yes, I want to be more efficient, yes, I don’t want to forget things, but why should productivity be my principle goal? I can understand that it’s my boss’s aim for me to be more productive, but why should it be mine? 

I had a revelation a few months ago about my writing regime. I wrote about it here, and what I said there still holds true. 

I continue to use Emacs, Evernote, Todoist, but now I try to use them to improve my work life balance. I use them to try and maximize enjoyment of what I’m doing. Yes, I frequently forget this and slip back into old habits, but I’m getting the hang of a new way of working.

It’s much more satisfying.

Educational Research

Why not do your own educational research? It’s easier than you might think. Just follow the steps below.

1: Choose a hypothesis.

This is the hardest bit. You could try something obvious such as you get better with practice. You could also try to demonstrate something that is patently ridiculous, for example, sniffing oranges improves grades. To be honest, it makes no difference what you decide on, someone will believe it.

I’m going to choose an obvious hypothesis as it will make it harder for someone to disagree with my conclusions.

Hypothesis: students get better at something when they practice it.

2: Find some Citations

Use this random name generator to find some authors to cite. Here are three I generated as an example

Bradford Jamison Elliott, Geoffrey Maitland Roach, Teresa Dorean Robbins

3: Graphs and Charts

Research looks more convincing with a graph or chart. I’m going to create a cycle chart. Educational researchers love cycle charts. Here’s one I knocked up using Graphviz.

Dissatisfaction -> practice -> improvement -> testing

4: Test your Hypothesis

Split one of your classes in two halves. Test your hypothesis on one half, leave the other as a control group. If you don’t get the results you want, just ignore some of the students or swap them around between groups.

5: You’re going to need an Acronym

Think of a word. Some good words to use the basis for your acronym are VECTOR, INSPIRE and RAISE

I chose ERIC, as my friend is called Eric. Eric could stand for

Expectations, Rewards, Involvement and Consequences.

That looks a bit boring, so here it is rewritten as a flowchart:

6: It must be true, I read it on a blog

Publish your research on your blog and then tweet what you’ve done. Retweet other people’s research in the hope that they return the favour.