Happy Birthday, Debra
Book maven and uber-blogger Debra Hamel celebrates her birthday today. I don't know what the magic number may be, but here's to many more of them...Happy birthday, Debra!
The story so far: I'm a writer based in Canterbury, UK. My first novel, a technothriller called Déjà Vu, was published to critical acclaim in 2005. This blog shoots the writerly breeze on upcoming projects, marketing, and anything else writing-related that springs to mind.
Book maven and uber-blogger Debra Hamel celebrates her birthday today. I don't know what the magic number may be, but here's to many more of them...Happy birthday, Debra!
This morning I finished Kidnapped (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). The tale concerns the fortunes of David Balfour, a young man who sets out to seek his fortune but soon falls afoul of his wicked uncle, Ebeneezer. David is kidnapped - sold into slavery and shipped the Carolinas - but, aided by a timely shipwreck, escapes into the heart of Highland Scotland with his companion, Alan Breck. The Jacobite backdrop is one of the elements that elevates this story above similar pot-boilers. Another is the prose: let it be said, Stevenson is one of the most formidable prose stylists you'll ever encounter. This guy can really write. According to Wikipedia, 'Kidnapped' has attracted praise from writers as diverse as Henry James, Jorge Luis Borges and Seamus Heaney, and it is not difficult to see why. This is typical:
Next day (the fourth of my travels) we were up before five upon the clock; but my rascal guide got to the bottle at once, and it was three hours before I had him clear of the house, and then (as you shall hear) only for a worse disappointment.
The temptation to draw a lesson from Stevenson's fiction is always great, and the particular message I take home from 'Kidnapped' is that the writer should not be afraid to wear the hat of the poet on occasion; something of a genre piece can indeed be elevated by a little ambition, even if (as is probably true in my case) that ambition might overreach the writer's talent. But 'Kidnapped' proves that it is technically possible to produce a work that is (a) a genre piece and (b) held to the standards of prose and metaphor that often comes with the label 'literary'. As I say, while this might lead to a glorious fuck-up in my case, I can continue refining my chapters - I do between six and seven drafts a day - in the knowledge that, in the hands of master like Stevenson, 'genreness' and 'literariness' are not necessarily *immiscible.
'Kidnapped' is available freely at Project Gutenberg.
As an aside, I can't help but include the text of Stevenson's poem 'Requiem', which went on to serve as his epitaph:
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me;
"Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill."
* In a charming demonstration of the limits of my own writing ability, I've just realised that I've been spelling this word wrong for years. (I just assumed that the Word spell checker didn't know 'immissible'. Muppet!)
Look, I'm no Mac fanboy - you'll notice that I don't write Microsoft as Micro$oft - but I've just about had it with Microsoft products, and a few minutes ago the final straw came using Microsoft Word. (Today's rant shoots hot lead John Woo-style - you know, sideways through the air and in slow motion - at Word for Mac 2004.)
My novel, Proper Job, is a nice, single Word document (not too big; only a meg or so) with carefully applied styles, continuous section breaks, and chapter numbering that automatically updates, and has a neat list of chapters in the table of contents. In other words, this is not an exceptional document. Its complexity should be well within the grasp of Word.
Well, m'friends, it ain't.
Today, while removing some snippets of Proper Job to put on the new PJ page, I noticed that - steady, Ian; deep breaths - Word has randomly removed line breaks between sections (those blank lines that indicate a change of viewpoint). I can't describe how angry this makes me, but will attempt to do so. I put those frickin' breaks between the sections because, otherwise, the ever-lovin' reader will get confused when one section appears to run into the other. Not only that, but, dammit, I spent more than a week proofreading the entire novel and, though typos will doubtless remain, any agent/publisher looking at the manuscript will think, 'Tcha! He hasn't even read it - and this guy wants to be taken seriously as a writer? I've got a million writers lined up behind him who can actually format their manuscripts. I haven't got time for morons. Next!'
I am so fed up with Microsoft Word. This whole incident brings back fond memories of the day of my PhD submission deadline, when I foolishly wanted to print out a couple of pages in colour. Because the colour printer was attached to different computer, I loaded up the document on that computer's version of Word (which was, ostensibly, identical to the version that I'd written the PhD on in the first place) and oh! how I chortled when I discovered that the second computer had paginated my thesis in a completely different fashion. That second copy of Word had a whole different take on what my thesis should look like, and if I didn't like it I could eff off and use Notepad.
Over the past month or so, I've been evaluating some Word-replacement products, and though I haven't found one that completely fits the bill, there are several candidates. In a future post, I'll write a brief review of each.
Here's a summary of what I hate about Word:
Here's what I like about it:
Book blogger extraordinary Debra Hamel has lobbed a meme grenade in the direction of This Writing Life and, lacking a cricket bat to send the bugger into deep square leg, here goes with 'five things about me'. (Coincidentally, this is quite similar to the title of Aliya Whiteley's acclaimed debut novel, Three Things About Me.)
PLEASE LEAVE THE FOLLOWING IN ALL PEOPLE COLLECTION POSTS'Remember that it isn't always the sensational stuff that writers are looking for, it can just as easily be something that you take for granted like having raised twins or knowing how to grow beetroot. Mind you, if you know how to fly a helicopter or have worked as a film extra, do feel free to let the rest of us know about it.'
(1) When I was a secondary (high) school pupil, some friends and I designed a hypertext guide for the Commodore Amiga, which won a Spark design award. That was in 1990, a while before the world wide web had 'happened'. I think we earned about seventy pounds from royalties, which one of group squandered on an alarmingly expensive money box in which to store future earnings, which never arrived.
(2) I can become spectacularly travel sick if (a) I sit in the back of a car, (b) run up the stairs too fast or (c) watch Supernanny without my Joo-Janta 500 Super-Chromatic Peril-Sensitive sunglasses.
(3) My girlfriend shares her name, though not 100% of the spelling, of a water-filter company.
(4) By the age of fourteen or so, I had read all the available novelisations of Doctor Who serials, as well as several quiz books. When Doctor Who was the specialist subject of a Mastermind contestant, he scored about 70%. I, in the comfort of my computerized lair/bedroom, romped home with 100%.
(5) Remember the Karate Kid films? The protagonist, Danny LaRusso, studied a style of karate called goju-ryu. I also have a black belt in this style of karate, although I've never worn one of those nifty headbands, and the beard of my teacher (are we back to beards again?) was honeysuckle, not white. (I haven't been to a class in about fifteen years, though, so don't expect any high kicks on the webcam.)
Wax on, dudes.
This afternoon saw my second visit to the Exeter and District Writers' Club. In the past, I haven't been 100% keen on writing groups. Some members won't want criticism, or provide criticism to make one wonder if writing is really what they should do for living. But the Exeter group is a slightly different beast. New members must submit to a reading committee before they are allowed to join. Now, I don't have any information about the acceptance-to-rejection ratio, but my experience of hearing pieces read aloud suggests the group contains a fair number of talented writers who are serious about their development.
So I took the opportunity to road test the first chapter of Proper Job, my comedy novel. It's at a fairly advanced drafting stage, so I'm confident that it isn't awful, but is it funny? Well, to my embarrassment, I giggled at my own material as I spoke - a little surprising, since I've read the thing well over one hundred times - and the manuscript was quite well received. Criticisms? The first page is quite demanding of the reader, and I'll be taking steps to address this (because this confirms my own suspicion). Otherwise, it holds up pretty well. The group comprises, for the most part, ladies of a certain age (I'm sure they won't mind me saying this), and I wanted to see if the story of a eighteen-year-old Cornish lad trying to chat up a girl would capture their interest. It did seem to, and I'm determined to grasp the positive message of this. (My usual habit is to ignore positive feedback and concentrate on the negative; not sure why; perhaps the negative is more worrying if it turned out to be true.)
Anyway, if Proper Job were a newly-designed car, then I took it out in slippery conditions this morning and survived the test drive. I might be in danger of losing my indifference about the rejections that the manuscript is garnering, day by day...but, meh, maybe not.
I'm presently in the thick of editing Flashback (including its title, confusingly), and haven't got much time to blog. To compensate somewhat, I thought I'd point you to a couple of movies I recently come across on YouTube. First up is an Ali G interview with Noam Chomsky (about whom I wrote a great deal in my doctoral thesis). I think this will interest those of us who giggled a bit at the destruction of radical behaviourism.
Oh, and here's some monkey karate. (OK; it's a chimp. Sue me.)
(The title of this post to be pronounced a la Battle of the Planets.) It's high time that I announce the winner of my beard idiom competition, which was run in support of Debra Hamel's Buy a Friend a Book Week. Well, the best beard idiom supplied in the comments has to be Freeven's 'nibbling at the beard'. Thusly:
"Nibbling at the beard"
That is, to have arrived at a state of destitution (in condition, thought, action, etc.) due to attrition. (As in one who is so starved that his only sustenance is gotten from the crumbs that remain in his beard from meals long eaten.)
Example: Though his initial works were highly lauded, the film maker has been nibbling at the beard for some time.
OK, so it's Sunday night, but that won't stop me writing a post about The Friday Project. TFP is a publisher that appears to specialise in web-to-print books (as well little books that sometimes appear on the tills of Waterstone's branches). Notably, it also picked up a new Commercial Director by the name of Scott Pack. Scott used to be the Chief Buying Manager for Waterstone's, and I interviewed him a few weeks back over on Pacifist Guerilla.
According to Publishing News, TFP will soon make the majority of its titles available for download free of charge under a creative commons licence. This means (depending on the flavour of licence chosen) that users will be given permission to download, copy and perhaps redistribute TFP books while keeping authorship and publisher information intact. Commercial suicide? Not really. To paraphrase sciffy author and digital rights evangelist Cory Doctorow, most authors lose sales not because their material is available for free, but because nobody has heard of them. TFP has already, apparently, released Blood, Sweat and Tea - based on a blogging ambulance driver - under a creative commons licence, and commercial (physical) copies of that book has sold very well. Good luck to 'em, I say. I think the creative commons represents an excellent, commonsensical relaxation of ancient copyright laws that should benefit artists everywhere. The podcast of my novel Déjà Vu is available under a creative commons licence (check out the archive here.)
This morning, a report into the crash of Helios Airways 522 - a Boeing 737-315 - was published (or, at least, made available to the press; I can't find the bloody thing). Over the past few months, I've become acquainted with some aspects of aviation safety during research for Flashback, and my girlfriend and I were involved in an incident that somewhat resembles the events that led to the Helios crash on 14th August last year. I thought it might be worth a post. Be aware that this is not a comprehensive review of air safety, and I'm not an expert.
The information available is sketchy, but here's a summary of what happened on board flight 522. The night before the accident, the aircraft - only eight years old - underwent maintenance. First mistake: Technicians tested the Pressurization Mode Selector (PMS), which is a system that permits pilots to control cabin altitude (i.e. pressure), and left the switch on 'manual'. Normally, this is set to 'automatic', so that the pressurization system adapts as the aircraft climbs. Second mistake: The pilots should have checked this setting during their pre-flight procedure, but they did not.
The next day, 522 took off on its route from Larnaca to Prague, with a stop at Athens. As the aircraft climbed over the Mediterranean, the pilots heard the cabin alert horn. Third mistake: This horn sounds quite like the horn that indicates a takeoff configuration warning (i.e. the computer ain't happy for some reason), so the pilots ignored it. Meanwhile, cabin altitude, which is usually held at 8,000 feet (not sea-level) began to increase. The pilots carried on regardless. At 14,000 feet, oxygen masks were automatically deployed and the master caution light flashed in the cockpit. On top of this came another alarm: a temperature warning for the avionics bay.
This kind of confusion often precedes catastrophic crashes in modern airliners. A 'single' event - here, the failure to maintain pressurization - produces a number of alarm correlates, and it is up to the pilots to turn detectives with a very short deadline. In this case, the captain was a German and the co-pilot a Cypriot; already suffering from hypoxia, they had difficulty talking to one another in English. Fourth mistake: Having discounted the cabin altitude warning alarm as a takeoff configuration error, they did not don their oxygen masks and begin an emergency descent. Instead, they made contact with Helios maintenance engineers and were told to remove the alarm circuit breaker. The captain left his seat to deal with this and probably became unconscious during his search. A short time after, so did the co-pilot. The aircraft continued to climb until its flight management computer knew it had reached cruising height. The computer took the plane into Athens airspace and entered a holding pattern.
The rest is fairly grisly. Because the plane did not identify itself, two Greek fighters intercepted the aircraft and established that the captain was not at the controls and the first-officer appeared to be unconscious. Some minutes later, a steward, who had just begun flying lessons, attempted to take control of the plane. Remember that all the flight attendants would have donned their oxygen masks. Airspeed was increased and the plane banked right. Then it turned left. Having been in the air for three hours, Flight 522 ran out of fuel and crashed north of Athens.
What's to learn from this flight? First off, I'm not sure whether Helios could be called a 'budget airline', but time and again catastrophic (and minor) aircraft accidents result from improper maintenance, which itself is the first to suffer from aggressive cost-cutting that is often a feature of stripped-down fleets. Technician training can be jeopardised, and lower wages attract staff with less experience. Then a mistake like an incorrect PMS system setting can be made (though, in this instance, the pilots should have caught the error). An example of how this directly affects safety is when ground technicians are required to read and digest aircraft safety bulletins posted by manufacturers like Boeing. These are extremely technical documents, and their details are occasionally lost, leading to safety compromises and, when circumstances conspire, fatality. When you pay two Euros one-way for a trip handled by a budget airline, you may not be jeopardising yourself completely, but it's worth bearing in mind that the pressure of financial margins does have an impact on safety. An airline might have the motto 'Safety first' but this cannot be true - in reality, the airline will provide you with as much safety as it possibility can given its financial constraints. 'Profits first, but you come a close second.' For your information, Helios is now called Ajet.
I'm not one who likes to collect first-hand research (just ask my old PhD supervisor), but, in early August of this year, my girlfriend and I were on board a plane that was forced to return to its originating airport because an issue that is probably maintenance-related. Just after take off from Rijeka airport, Croatia, our pilot levelled off at a very low altitude. Over the public address, he told us passengers that there had been a technical problem serious enough for him to abandon the flight. No mention was made of what the problem might be. We made a fairly sharp turn and headed back to Rijeka. The most panicky bit came a few seconds later, when the aircraft appeared to make a severe, uncommanded bank to the right. I thought, Hmm, either the pilot needs to avoid a imminent collision or the technical problem relates to the control surfaces, and we're about die. I knew from my research that a technical problem - however minor - can be related to serious underlying problems that might threaten the integrity of plane. As the captain told us later, somewhat wistfully, these modern aircraft are essentially computers with wings. And do these computers have buggy software? You bet they do. (Though, to be fair, accidents caused by computer errors tend to be misunderstandings between the pilot and the computer.)
Anyway, the problem turned out to be that computer reported the forward door was not 'armed' (i.e. shut and verifiably shut). I've not heard anything about this flight on air safety forums, but I'd be willing to bet that this was caused by faulty maintenance of the door; i.e. some part of it had failed because it had not been checked or replaced within its engineered life cycle. Lots of other things might have caused the 'armed' error, like software bugs or wiring malfunctions, but I prefer not to think of those. For your information, our carrier was budget airline EasyJet - who have been in the news recently for charging customers an arm and a leg (so to speak) when they try to complain about a poor standard of service.
Well, that's my two cents. Will I end on the message 'flying is the safest form of travel'? No. Though this is true. I'll end by repeating some of the advice on last week's BBC Horizon programme about surviving an air crash: (1) Remember that an aircraft lap belt opens with a pull, not a push like a car belt; (2) Don't try to find your friends first when asked to evacuate a plane by the cabin crew - go immediately to the exit; (3) Sit yourself within seven rows of a working exit, preferrably one that's in front of you; (4) Count the number of rows between your seat and the exits ahead and behind so that you can exit if the cabin is filled with smoke; (5) Keep your shoes on.
I do. The irrepressible (not that you'd want to) Debra Hamel is running another Buy A Friend A Book Week. Across the blogosphere, word geeks are a-chatter and readers are carefully selecting books to send their friends. I've considered running a counter promotion called 'Buy An Enemy A Book Week' but there are only so many copies of Life of Pi.
To celebrate BAFAB Week, I'm giving away one signed copy of my science fiction novel, Déjà Vu. To win it, all you have to do is add a comment to this post. You can provide a reason that illustrates how deserving you are, if you want, but your entry will be judged solely on your use of the word 'beard'.
Writers don't seem to have beards any more. Sure, you've got your Hemmingways, Kings, and, well...various others, but it is no exaggeration to say they're sadly lacking from the writing population at large. I used to work in a psychology department, and we had an impressive number of beards. I would venture that the beardless men were somewhat frowned upon. Anyway, in preparation for my winter hibernation, a certain amount of hairiness has seized my chin and gripped my jowls. (See pictorial evidence below.)
There's always a debate when one grows a beard. To what extent will it repel the ladies? Well, since I'm spoken for, I don't need to worry about that. Will it itch? Perhaps. Will its insulating properties cause my brain to overheat during light exercise? Certainly. So I was vacillating about whether to shave it off. Last night, however, the girlfriend and I took receipt of two friends who have arrived from Germany, and one of them asked me about this unholy fur on my face, using the German for beard, 'Bart'. Ah-hah! I thought. There is clearly an etymological connection between 'beard' and 'bard'. I'll keep the beard!
During a quick visit to the OED, which confirmed that my initial intuition about the connection was quite, quite wrong, I came across a number of phrases under the entry for 'beard' that I feel duty-bound to share with you, dear reader.
Phrase Meaning in spite of or maugre any one's beard in defiance of or direct opposition to his purpose to be, meet, or run in any one's beard to oppose him openly and resolutely, to BEARD. to take by the beard to attack resolutely to make a man's beard (lit.) to dress his beard, (fig.) to outwit or delude him to make a man's beard without a razor (in later sense) to behead him to put something against a man's beard to taunt him with it to one's beard to one's face, openly
Examples of usage: "Can you believe the Prime Minister of Great Britain would stoop so low as to take Mr Hussein by the beard? It comes as little surprise, perhaps, given the latter's constant bearding and the frankly canine persistence that drives him to shove his weapons of mass destruction in Mr Blair's beard, and, famously, other beards. One would hardly be surprised if our illustrious premier took Mr Hussein's beard without a razor. The whole situation beggars my beard."
So! Think up your own expression that involves the word 'beard' and post a comment below! The best will get a copy of my book.