August Links Post

Things other people have done

  • Designed, and funded, a 3D-printer that runs on recycled rubbish as its “ink”. Part of me, which still remembers dot matrix daisy-wheel printers as the norm and is still secretly excited by laser printers even though I’ve owned one for 10 years (the same one, which is getting a bit doddery now), steadfastly refuses to believe that 3-D printing is a real thing. This is in spite of owning a piece of jewellery and a random thingamy both 3-D printed from metals. It’s strange to find yourself living in the future.
  • Started printing tiny 3-D versions of people from photographs for no apparent reason.
  • Written a witty and accessible article myth-busting on some common misconceptions about the Vikings.
  • In Texas, some glorious people have converted a disused/abandoned Walmart into the world’s largest public library. Well done.
  • Created a pen out of a pen nib out of a beer can, and made a tutorial about it.
  • Set up a fantastic thing called Forage London, which encourages us urban parasites to look at wild plants and actually use them! Something I’ve done since I was a kid but which is apparently in need of a resurgence.
  • Brilliantly transformed some chaps with long hair into Guys With Fancy Lady Hair, thus scaling back my recent objections to man-tails and reviving my adolescent interest in fellas with long locks.
  • Written a beautiful article about the genius of The Young Ones, one of my favourite sitcoms in TV history.
  • Unearthed a forgotten sporting hero from Britain’s past, Cuthbert Ottaway, who as well as revelling in an absurd name which gives Benedict Cumberbatch a run for his money, also served as the first England football captain and “once shared a 150-run partnership with WG Grace in the highest level of cricket.” He was also a Barrister, and died at 28, presumably leaving most modern gentlemen feeling that they’d achieved nothing in their lives.
  • Made a synaesthetic map of the Tube.

Things People I Know Have Done

  • Made a redbubble account after I nagged them a lot to. Ossifier is the photographer responsible for the cover of Saint Grimbald’s Men, and has a lot of other very beautiful pictures to her credit. Worth checking out for postcards and prints.

New Book Cover: The Breaking of M

I enjoyed making the cover for Saint Grimbald’s Men so much that I decided to take another of Ms Reilly’s photographs and make a similar one for The Breaking of MAs the latter is also an eBook only, it’s easier to change covers on a whim. Do you think this one is better? Or was the old one more suitable to the story?

new breaking of m cover

No change to the actual book itself, although I took the opportunity to make the listing on Amazon a little clearer about the book’s content (because I do read my reviews, and when people are commenting that they got a different book to the one they expected, even when they downloaded it on one of the free offer days, I listen).

Book Release: Saint Grimbald’s Men

After the fashion of Hannah Matchmaker’s New Skates, I’m letting this little story go on the Kindle for a pittance. At some point when I’ve amassed enough of these little stories I’ll put them together in a print collection, like I did with Tiny Fictions, so if you’re all about the dead tree format (and I don’t blame you, there is great satisfaction in being able to throw a book you don’t like across the room, and deleting something from your Kindle just isn’t the same!) don’t worry, it will eventually come to pass in a throwable, self-fillable format as well.

Unlike Hannah Matchmaker’s New Skates, this is also available as a PDF, without fussing about with Amazon’s interface (and profit margin); just pop me an email at [myname] at gmail dot com and ask about Paypal (it’ll be the same price as it’s listed on Amazon).

A grim tale.
A grim tale.

Unlike the roller derby story, this is very much not a sweet tale about overcoming the odds and learning to believe in yourself; instead it’s about the terrible consequences of repression, as expressed by body horror in a monastery. Or at least, I decided it was about the terrible consequences of repression: it’s actually about two monks who fall in love.

The Kindle edition is available from here ( .com instead of .co.uk if you’re not in the UK, obviously) , for a cover price of $0.99 USD or whatever that is in your local currency (in mine it usually works out at about 77p). For a sample of some of my fiction that you don’t have to pay for (besides the free previews on Lulu etc), there’s this.

And if you enjoyed the cover photograph, it is the work of one J. Reilly, and you can find more of her photography here.

Cordialgeddon

Witness the fruits of my labours.

Apparently I am the only person in Haringey who can correctly identify elderberries and understands that they are edible and in fact make a wicked purple cordial as well as a very syrupy wine, and also has the patience to strip half a tree while waiting for the bus, and then remove those fiddly little fucks from bunches and stew them.

I bought the Voss water because I liked the bottle, and it’s turned out useful.

Spiced Elderberry Cordial Syrup is the recipe I used, adjusted for quantity and what was available in my house (I put in cinnamon and cloves because my love for cinnamon bears no resemblance to reason). This involved turning my hands, one of my t-shirts, and a certain amount of the kitchen a vivid dark purple, and now I feel like my mother: the smell of stewed fruit is probably reminiscent of many people’s childhoods, but I do sort of wonder how common that really is in London.

(in an attempt to avoid editing and plotting/researching, we made brownies yesterday as well).

Browniegeddon

Sometimes the desire for extremely chocolatey goodness overpowers simple things like common sense and the notion of food groups, and drives one to acquire flour, sugar, butter, three bars of cooking chocolate, and a punnet of raspberries to accompany the “purchased in a fit of pique” packet of cocoa powder from Paul A Young, and work on this recipe courtesy of BBC Good Food.

And sometimes one goes a little overboard on the shopping trip and also buys chocolate fudge frosting and a jar of salted caramel sauce as well to put on top of said brownies.

I should point out that the process of cooking – baking especially – is usually far beyond me and my contribution to this project was to weigh and sieve the flour and cocoa, and shout relayed instructions from the recipe to My Glamorous (and less stupid) assistant, and then set a timer. Which, apparently, you can do by typing “set timer to [x] minutes” into Google. It even has an alarm.

Photo by Glamorous Assistant

This is the end result with salted caramel on it. It is unfeasibly moist, exceptionally chocolatey, and possibly lethal. I haven’t even managed to eat a whole piece of it on my own yet.

 

Photo also by Glamorous Assistant

Which is a problem because there are two trays of this distressingly delicious stuff and they only stay good for three days … there is a distinct possibility that I’m going to assault people in the street and try to feed it to them in the manner of a baked goods evangelist…

The little indentations are where the raspberries lurk.

On the plus side, I now know what kind of bribery system to use should I ever incur the mild displeasure of a boss.

(Glamorous Assistant has just indignantly pointed out that she did most of the work, and paid for the ingredients barring the cocoa powder, and that my major contribution was to repeat the amounts as many times as she asked me. I also “iced” the salt caramel sauce, which should explain why it’s such a mess.)

Memory Palace at the V and A

One of the useful things my National Art Fund Pass does, besides getting me into Kew at half price and giving extra money to various museums, is to give me half-price entry to exhibitions at the V&A Museum in London. Getting into exhibitions more cheaply makes it all the more likely that I’ll go to them on a whim, and yesterday while my friend Susanne and I were killing time before going to see the Penguins 3D IMAX at the Science Museum across the road (and the accompanying Q&A by Sir David Attenborough, which was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that you can’t really accept is happening at the time, or indeed afterwards), we popped into the Memory Palace exhibition for a quick look.

The advertising image does not appear in the exhibition.

The exhibition is a kind of collaborative birthing pool, taking a work of fiction by Hari Kunzru which examines through the lens of a dystopian London (which has lost the technology and knowledge of the current era and returned to a kind of cultural wilderness) the value of memory and shared information, a topic which is of particular interest to a museum! The fiction is worked into a display by a variety of artists through a variety of different media, including comic strips, strange religious icons depicting misremembered scientists and poets, a cabinet of misunderstandings of technology brought to life, and walls of words. The exhibition culminates in an interactive section (one terminal of which was not working when I got there – anyone who read about my visit to the Saints Alive! exhibit will recognise a theme in interactive exhibitions breaking down just before I get to them) where you can draw or write about a particular memory, and it will be added to the boards of the Memory Palace.

As with anything that allows the public to write or draw, not all of the input on the Memory Palace was, strictly speaking, a “memory” so much as a communication of existence or philosophy, but there were still many in a variety of languages and art styles, and the way they were collated was visually quite pleasing. Being a morbid sort, I added a memory from childhood which involved a rather sad realisation of human cruelty, that of an elephant in a zoo in Ahmedabad who had been chained to the walls of her elephant house by each leg, and was subject to the indignity of having coins and other small items thrown to her (thankfully not at her) for her to gently hand back. Not the happy memory that protagonist of the narrative that drove the exhibition had chosen, but a clear one none the less.

While we were filtering towards the exit/entrance (which was flanked by a number of copies of the book on which the exhibition is based, and little vocab to make understanding the exhibition easier, which I didn’t actually notice on the way in due to the angle of the wall), my friend remarked to me that while she liked the idea she couldn’t work out which side of the line of “too pretentious” it fell.

I am inclined to agree. Taken individually the works of art on display themselves are fascinating, beautiful, and often eerie – a combination I love. Taken as a clear commentary on current events and the nature of a greed-driven, floundering society, they and the narrative behind them seem clumsy, as if written for the benefit of someone significantly younger than me. In a sense it reminded me of a complaint I read by a fantasy author some years ago, that literary fiction authors are never required to have internal consistency or convincing world-building in their books because everything is metaphor or commentary, and that their work is weaker for it. On contemplation of this I think there is a tendency to be so swept up in how clever one thinks one’s own idea is, or how moving a particular moment is (in this case, the selection of a memory to save), or how stupendous one’s analogy is, that the story itself suffers. Then again, I suppose we cannot all be William Golding.

The art itself is well worth a look, and my concerns/disappointment in the narrative and prose quality/conceits might very well just be nitpicking. It should be a determination the viewer makes for themselves – which, I suspect, makes this review a little pointless.

Immoderation and the pitfall of the superlative

Currently I am editing (very slowly, because I hate editing) Brown Bread Boys, and reading Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker, and contemplating something I find off-putting in fiction, in order to prevent myself from deploying it and putting other, like-minded readers off.

In grammar, the superlative is the form of an adverb or adjective that expresses a degree of the adverb or adjective being used that is greater than any other possible degree of the given descriptor.

Thanks, Wikipedia

By this I mean: the most, the best, the worst, the least, the dramatic bookend of the spectrum of whatever quality is being discussed. The greatest prize-fighter the world has ever seen; the most beautiful love interest; the worst catastrophe. The kind of demarcation the news, circus barkers, and people who write adverts for beer are enamoured of. As I’ve previously written while trying to explain litotes, I’m not keen on the use of hyperbole unless it’s ironic: standing in front of a zoo containing three animals and bellowing that it is the most exceptional selection of wildlife the world has ever allowed to congregate in one urban environment, for example, is both funny and sad. It’s a wonderful, almost cruel humour. Using it with sincerity just strikes me as over-saturating every colour until none of them stand out, providing no effect at all.

Hyperbole isn’t the only offender: we all know that flawless characters are unforgivably tedious, and far more coherent writers than me have waxed lengthy about which particular “flaws” are most often wheeled out in order to disguise someone having been written as off-puttingly flawless (clumsiness, inability to sing, and being ‘plain’ by nomination but not by description for female characters; being unable to fight, bad at relationships, or functionally alcoholic to a point that does not damage their health in male characters; and “aloof” for both genders). Sometimes a character can be rendered boring by simply being too good at things.

The real problem comes when, after the author has taken pains to make their characters different, and their settings three-dimensional, and they are still naggingly dull because everything is the most. The worst dive, the best restaurant, the best fighter, the worst crook, the cleverest scientist, the greatest defeat, the biggest victory. Peril fatigue happens often in serial fiction (televised or comics) when every drama is the end of the fucking world yet again (particularly when you know the world isn’t going to end because they’re coming back next week).

This kind of amplification of features is understandable in fairytales, where the story itself is required to be big and bold and in broad strokes, the characters easily-transferred archetypes, and the moral of the narrative is the most important part. You are not being asked to suspend your disbelief in talking wolves in order to examine the character growth of Little Red Riding Hood, but because the story “be careful with strangers and things may not be as they seem” is an important lesson.

When we come to adult fiction, the point at which childhood reliance on big bright colours and “VERY GOOD” and “VERY BAD” is supposed to die away, narratives need to focus on personal importance: when we grow up, we understand that our personal dramas do not have global importance, but that they are also still worthwhile and have value to us (and that other people’s do to them, too). Stories reflect this change by giving us validation as adults: your non-superlative life still matters.

What I find is that this is somewhat undercut when there is no one in a story who isn’t a caricature, or no situation that isn’t life-or-death. And saying “well these people lead more interesting lives” doesn’t cut it, either: real life spies have quiet days, real life soldiers have long periods of boring nothingness, real life astronauts have to do mundane reporting duties (and brilliant videos of them singing in a space station), real life explorers have moments in which they twiddle their thumbs and wait for the weather to change. Of course the purpose of stories is to bring form and heightened feeling to reality, but it’s hard to believe in a story where everyone is conveniently the MOSTEST BESTEST EVER, particularly when the setting doesn’t lend itself to that. There have to be people who aren’t the best but are good; there have to be people who aren’t the worst but are lousy, in the same way that muted shades allow for a more engaging picture, with deeper shadows and lighter highlights no long baffling or blinding or robbing all meaning.

This is not, despite what it sounds like, to suggest that world-saving narratives have no value. I enjoyed Pacific Rim as much as the next person who loves watching a bunch of giant robots punching a bunch of enormous interdimensional monsters.

But right now, I’m reading a book which is so full of self-consciously “cool” ideas that it’s beginning to grate. The characters are all wonderful, but they’re the same kind of wonderful, with the same kind of sparkly, witty, circumlocutive dialogue. They all have an excess of snark, even the few not blessed with Harkaway’s thesaurus-filling vocabulary, and it occurs to me that what I want from fiction is recognisable characters. I want people who make dumb mistakes or aren’t the best but are the best you can get at short notice. They can’t bend the world to their will, they just think they can. I don’t mind delusions of perfection from a character PoV when the reality of the story is showing me they’re full of shit: I mind when the author believes them. I mind when someone shows me a palace of proportions perplexing and perfection untold and there are no scuffs on the skirting board.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up on Pratchett. Terry’s writing has always carried in it a good-humoured but sharp-edged first-hand appreciation of poverty. There are consequences, levels, and depths in his characters even when he’s taking on dark vs light world-saving narratives (and as his writing matured, the frequency of those narratives diminished rapidly. Most of the time the dramas are small, personal, or at best civic and national; Terry champions throughout all his work the importance of individuals); people are almost never the best in the world and even when they are they don’t win by being “the best”. They win by luck, or desperation, or a momentary reprieve. They win, often, by being unflinchingly human: Douglas Adams used to pull of the same trick, of the heroic mediocre and the banality of evil.

Perhaps it’s because I’m post-war British, and I simply don’t believe in big moral narratives, and I can’t make myself. Perhaps I just have too much cynicism thanks to errant brainwaves making me observe that even the greatest athletes do fucking stupid things and the people in positions of political power get there by lying, cronyism, nepotism, bribery, and more lying. Perhaps rationalism and materialism, two terrible habits I have developed too late in life to do me any good (where were these things when I was being dragged around homeopaths while my mother tried to cure me of my personality?), refuse to allow me to take the idea of a quantifiable Best Person; perhaps too many sociology essays and discussions about cultural bias and classism have taken their toll and I can’t take seriously the idea that the person labelled the “best” is actually “the best” (rather than the recipient of privilege, luck, or a biased measuring system).

Evolution allows mad things to pass through the net of extinction simply because they managed to not die. And if evolution by natural selection doesn’t require that things be the best, and various religions require only that individual souls try to be the best that is possible for them, I am pretty sure that narratives don’t need and are diminished by their constituent characters being the unquestioned superlatives of their category.


For more effectively worthless opinionated writing advice, why not buy “How Not To Write“? It’s cheap.

 

Preparations and planning: how not to book.

As part of an ongoing struggle against procrastination and a blind spot with book plotting, I’ve implemented one change to my internet habits and one to my plotting plans, using new technology for one and very basic practical adaptation for the other.

1. I waste far too much of my time, every day, on the least productive activity imaginable: reblogging things on Tumblr.com. I have lots of other procrastination activities: making jewellery, making clothing, tidying things, reading books which aren’t for research, watching documentaries about the Saxons, watching documentaries about the physics of bubbles, listening to The Bugle, listening to old episodes of The News Quiz, embroidering foul-mouthed samplers onto an old lab coat, doodling, trying to think up ways to make a jacket that can be transformed into a tent, aimless wandering around London, pointless conversations with my partner about the origin of a specific word, visiting friends, mending clothes, scouring charity shops for a better bowl for my pet moss balls, reading sundry articles all over the internet about Google making an island disappear, or progress in 3-D printing, and sometimes I go through three hundred and eighty-four pages of listings for “fabric” on Amazon to see if there’s anything I want but hadn’t thought of the right search term for. All of these seem more useful than watching people break up the soothing flow of kittens and photos of their lunch with unnecessarily bitter fights about whether Supernatural is misogynist as a show, whether all people of [insert group here] should kill themselves, and competitive passive-aggression enhanced with inexplicable Japanese emoticons.

In order to limit my procrastination to actually useful behaviour, or at least behaviour that doesn’t result in me swearing violently at my laptop, I installed a Chrome extension called Block Site from wips.com. The idea is very simple: you put in a url, a domain or subdomain, or simple an individual page, and choose an optional redirect url. Thus I chose the dashboard of Tumblr, which allows me to still access individual tumblrs full of pretty pictures, or links that I have saved containing tutorials, and to go to my Tumblr inbox if necessary – but not to access my dashboard and get a full stream of irritation.

Instead, I’ll end up at Write or Die, which should remind me of what I am meant to be doing.

2. I need to sort out a timeline for this novel. I don’t seem to get on with any timelining software that I can find for free, and don’t enjoy sideways scrolling much anyway. An ordinary size notebook of the sort I use for taking notes when I’m not glued to my laptop will not suffice.

But I do have a roll of wrapping paper down the back of the bookshelf, and it is plain on the obverse. TIME LINE IS GO.