First Drafts

I finished the first draft of Dream Paris on Wednesday (at 14:40pm precisely. I know that, because I texted my wife to let her know.)

I think of first drafts as being partially inflated, like a half pumped up a bouncy castle or an air bed: you can see the rough outline of the finished article but it’s bent out of shape, it’s still full of creases.

Today I started on my favourite part of the creative process, the second draft. Now I know that the story works, now that I am sure of the shape of the piece I can go through and put in the detail. I can take my time, I can enjoy the scenery, I can really get to know the novel.

I remember once hearing John Cleese talking about writing Fawlty Towers. He said how he and Connie Booth would spend ages plotting the scenes. It was only at the end they put in the jokes.

I started that this afternoon. Not putting in jokes, but beginning to make the book more like I want it to. This isn’t the end of the process. There are quite a few drafts before that comes about, but, for me, this is the best part.

I Have no Opinion

Who says that Weetos are just for breakfast?

I have no idea. I’ve never heard anyone express an opinion on the right time to eat Weetos, one way or the other.

But advertisers love these sort of challenges. They appeal to the rebel in people (hey, no one tells me when to eat my breakfast). More than that though, they want to make you part of the debate. Advertisers validate the thing they are trying to sell by tricking you into having an opinion on it one way or another, because once you have an opinion on something it becomes important. That’s why the adverts want you to believe that you have to either love or hate Marmite, they want you to believe that indifference is not an option.

Well, yes it is. Indifference is a vital thing. I have no opinion on many things. I haven’t got time to have an opinion on everything, because if I were to try it would stop me concentrating on the things that are really important.

This is the politician’s trick. Concentrate on the fact that it’s important to vote and you validate the people you are voting for, the politicians themselves. Keep telling people that they have to vote or the wrong party will get in, and they’ll forget to check if the right party has anything going for it.

The Internet is full of people with opinions, many of them keen to get you involved in their debates. That’s how they validate themselves. That’s how they promote themselves. They want to drag you into the argument, they’ll tell you that you have to be involved, that if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.

Well, no. You’ll just have to excuse my indifference.

Live Writing

I’ve just returned from a few days in Paris where I’ve been finishing off the first draft of my next novel, Dream Paris.

Did I have to finish the book in Paris? Well, there’s no denying it was an enjoyable experience: walking down the boulevards in the unseasonable autumn sun; stopping at a cafe to drink a Leffe and watch the world go by; taking my time over coffee in a restaurant at the end of a meal…

But was it really necessary to go to Paris? I think so. It gave me the opportunity to take lots of photos to use as reference images. But more importantly, It gave me the opportunity to use my note book. I’ve written about this before (and I’ll mention it again in the future), there’s nothing like capturing a scene live. One of my favourite definitions of a novelist comes from Sol Stein: a novelist is someone who communicates emotion.

I’m not a photographer, I can’t capture the emotion in a scene with a camera, all I can do is to take snapshots. I do like to think that I can capture a scene in words, however, and this has to be done live. You’re capturing your emotional reaction to the scene, or the imagined reaction of your characters. Failing to realise this is a mistake that many beginners make: a simple description of the scene before you is not good writing, no matter how detailed that description, no matter how many fancy words you use.

In a story, the scene you are describing should be there to communicate some emotion: tension, happiness, fear, excitement. You can recreate this emotion at your desk or in the coffee shop, but if you are moved by what you see before you remember, it’s not play of sun on the leaves that you are trying to record, capture those emotions there and then.

Cherry Blossom in the Moonlight

Years ago I read a passage in a book about an ancient Japanese party.

During the day the snow had fallen amongst the cherry trees. On the night of the party, someone commanded that snow be brought into the room, and a bough of cherry blossom placed upon it. The lanterns were dimmed so that the scene could be viewed by moonlight.

A poet was present, no doubt the greatest of Japanese poets, for that would make the story better. The poet was asked to write a poem about the scene. He replied

The snow, the blossom, the moonlight. Sometimes things do not need to be improved upon.

Or words to that effect. I’m sure he put it a lot better. I’ve hunted through my books for the passage many times and never found the original passage.

Then again, as the sense of the passage has stayed with me, perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins

Something to read on a Sunday morning…

I often think about this poem when people ask me about a novel I’ve written. Usually people are being polite: they’re making small talk. I ask them about how their weekend went, if they had a successful fishing trip, and they ask me about the family and how the book is going.

But occasionally someone is genuinely asking the question, they really want me to distill 100 000 words down into a couple of sentences. That’s when I think of this poem…

The Waters of Meribah

I was contacted by a college SF class, asking me about my short story The Waters of Meribah. In particular, they wanted to know, what did it mean? Here’s my reply…

My degree was in Mathematics. I’m fascinated by what can be mathematically proven and what can’t. I’m intrigued by the fact that maths reveals so much about the universe, and that leads me to wonder about the things that aren’t revealed. The things we simply can’t comprehend.

I’d been planning a story describing the gradual process of changing from human into the other whe(so, in the story, Buddy can’t know if the other aliens exist or not whilst he is still Buddy). n a friend of mine lent me a book. Inside it was a photocopy of the passage from The Waters of Meribah, being used as a bookmark. I don’t remember what the book was, but the bookmark captivated me. What really struck me about the passage was that Moses and Aaron’s reaction was quintessentially human: they questioned.

A recurring theme in Science Fiction is our relationship with the alien. I wanted to examine the totally alien, something so alien that humans couldn’t comprehend it. Something so alien that in order to understand it, we would have to stop being human.

I didn’t know the ending to the story when I began writing, but as it progressed, as Buddy Joe changed, I realized that what made something truly alien wasn’t a different body, or different emotions, it was something that struck at the heart of what it is to be human: to think, to reason, to question. If something is truly alien, it won’t think as we do. If the alien visits our world, we won’t be able to comprehend it,

If we are to understand the alien, if we are to gain a greater understanding, we have to do what Buddy Joe does at the end of the story. We have leave to our current minds behind in this world.

I’m not sure that the above answers any questions, I’m not sure it even answers mine. I suppose if the answers were clear cut, I wouldn’t have written the story, I’d have just done some maths instead…

The Myth of Digital Natives

There’s a myth that children are digital natives, at ease with IT, whilst adults are digital immigrants, at sea in a world of new developments. It’s a myth reinforced by the cliched stories of adults unable to program their video recorder (who has a video recorder nowadays, anyway?) or of mothers and fathers asking their children to enable the parental control on the latest piece of technology.

It’s an easy joke for a TV comedy, a piece of stock footage for a news report and another way for someone to make a name for themselves with a half-baked piece of research.

As anyone who has spent any time teaching children IT or programming will tell you, it’s not true.

Children may like to use devices, they may be "always on" the computer, but they rarely use them properly. I sat through a meeting recently were it was suggested that students should give staff in service training on how to use software. Great idea if the software in question is Tumblr or Snapchat, not such a good idea if we want people to use a word processor properly (I still despair at the number of people who don’t know how to use styles).

There may have been some reason to believe the Digital Natives myth fifteen or twenty years ago. Back when adults didn’t use IT that much, when computers were still making their way into the home and workplace. Back then, when children were the only ones to have experience of IT – maybe through gaming or exposure at school – it was easy to believe they were a race apart. But not any more.

Children are enthusiastic about many things: horses, football, fashion, music, cars… They often amass a great deal of information about their interests and can appear very knowledgeable, but knowing all the players in the premier division doesn’t make you a professional footballer, and knowing how to find the Easter Eggs in the latest computer game doesn’t make you an IT professional.

Apple, Microsoft, Google and the like have made great strides in making IT intuitive. This is a great thing, it means everyone shares in the benefits that computers bring. But that doesn’t mean everyone uses computers properly. Ask a Digital Native how to use PowerPoint and they’ll show you how to add images, music, animations and slide transitions. They won’t show you how to produce a consistent set of slides that support a spoken presentation.

That’s the sort of thing a Digital Immigrant is more likely to know about.


I’ve just changed the hosting for my websites. I’ve been meaning to do it for a couple of years now, but there are always other things to do. Add to that the worry that there are so many services dependent upon the hosting provider its no surprise that I ended up staying where I was, paying over the odds for a declining service.

That’s the modern business model, get you tied down to so many different services you find it harder and harder to move. That’s why Apple and Google like to make themselves so indispensable to all the different parts of your life. That’s why people hate to move banks: they’re worried about the fuss of changing all their standing orders. Well, I moved banks in the mid 90’s, and once I’d done it I realised how easy it was to do it a second time. Once you become aware of how something works you become free to uproot and move somewhere better. People accept second best because they’re afraid to move on. They’re afraid because they don’t know how.

That’s my view, at least.

Vincent Deary writes far more convincingly on why people find it so difficult to change in his book How We Are (How to Live Trilogy 1).

Vincent Deary is a health psychologist, but don’t hold that against him. He’s written a quietly literary book that meanders through an impressive range of sources and references on just why people are creatures of habit. From urban planners to Terry Pratchett, from Primo Levi to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is a book packed full of small revelations that unite to form an oddly positive and refreshingly different perspective on what it is to be human.

As for the new webhosting… Well, so far it’s very, very good indeed. So good I’m thinking of giving them a mention on my tech site.

How to Read a Short Story

  1. Put aside some time. A short story is not a novel, it should be read in one sitting.
  2. Turn off the TV and the radio. Rid yourself of any distractions.
  3. The writing in a short story is usually more concentrated: expect to spend a little more time on the page than you would for a novel.
  4. Remember that a short story is like a glass of beer. The first one of the day is always the best.

Leave It to the Experts

I’ve only just resisted the temptation to write a theme for this blog. I’ve looked at the documentation, I’ve downloaded a couple of themes and had a look around inside, but I’ve managed to summon the self control to say "no".

It was difficult. I hand coded the first websites I published, I dabbled in Dreamweaver, I wrote my own WordPress themes… I’m really tempted to get under the bonnet of Ghost, but over the years I’ve come to realise that whatever I do will never be as good as something done by a proper designer – by which I mean someone with a flair for design. I’m a writer first and foremost. I like Ghost because it allows me to concentrate on what I’m good at. It’s the mark of the amateur to think they can do everything. It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect: the less you know, the more you think you know.

So, I’m sticking to writing for the moment, and I’m keeping this blog on the basic Casper theme. No comments, no menus – nothing but blogging and a real sense of freedom. I’ll wait for someone else to make it look good.