Birthday week sale!

DSCN7810Once again, it’s the week before my birthday, so I’ve reduced all my e-books to $0.99!

You can find them all on my Amazon.com author page , but if you’ve never read this blog before, here’s a run down of each one:

Coffee Time Tales – five stories perfect for your coffee break, from back in the days when I wrote for magazines.

Coffee Time Tales 2 – more of the same.

Sci-Fi Shorts – four short tales of science fiction, including the award-winning “Boglet” and the Golden Age of Sci-Fi style “Twist Stiffly and the Hounds of Zenit Emoga”

Troubled Souls – Three stories from a uniquely male perspective, and the opening chapters of “Eddie and the Kingdom”

Tribute – My YA novella about Lisa, who wants to step out of the shadow of her famous musician father, but runs into his old bandmate and begins to see things a bit differently.

The Great Canadian Adventure – The real-life account of our first year in British Columbia

Eddie and the Kingdom - My novella of the zombie apocalypse. Eddie has carved out a comfortable life in the post apocalyptic world, until Jackie arrive and tells him about the Kingdom that’s about to engulf his home.

The Poems of Edwin Plant – A short collection of odd poems.

If you’ve already bought any of these e-books, then the perfect birthday present would be for you to leave a review on Amazon. Doesn’t matter what you say, honesty is always best, and very much appreciated.

Looking forward to another year!

New York, New York….

CONGRATULATIONS!

You are the lucky winner of our all-expenses paid, two week stay in NEW YORK CITY!

Yes, the city that never sleeps, immortalized in song and on the silver screen, just waiting for you and one other person. We have laid on five star hotel accommodation, and included tickets to a Broadway show, but the rest is up to you! Everything about this glorious city is iconic – the Statue of Liberty! The Empire State Building! Yankee Stadium! Times Square! Central Park!

There’s just so much that we can’t wait to show you – please reply to this email confirming that you’re available for this experience of a lifetime!

Congratulations again!

Charlie Millard

New York Days Ltd

 

Dear Charlie,

 

Thanks, but no thanks.

 

D

 

Dear D,

Thanks for your swift response, but I’m not sure I quite understood you. Are you saying you’re not available for the dates of the prize? Is there someone you wish to gift the prize to? Or would you like me to investigate the possibility of moving the dates ? (I can’t make any promises about that, but obviously I’ll do my best! New York!)

Charlie

 

Dear Charlie,

Thanks again, this time for your offer to work so hard on my behalf. Let me lay it out for you: I’m not interested in visiting New York. There’s no one I’m likely to pass the prize to. Sounds like you’re pretty keen on the place – why don’t you take the tickets?

Thanks again,

D

 

Dear D,

I’m afraid the rules of the competition prevent me from taking part or benefitting from the prize. But are you seriously saying you don’t want to come to NYC? Surely you’ve seen film of the place? It’s in countless movies, and not all of them included alien invasions! Whatever your passion is, we have it here, world class: Art, music, cinema, opera, street theatre, architecture, museums, galleries, cafes, restaurants, bars, clubs, discos, sports events, shopping… I could go on for hours. All the world is right here, and we’re giving you two weeks for free! You can’t seriously want to turn it down. Let me know if alternate dates would work for you.

 Charlie

 

Dear Charlie,

I’m beginning to be a little worried about you.

“All the world is here…” Well, no. I’m sure New York is a fine city, and there’s no denying that you have all the attractions you’ve mentioned. There are some fine museums and the zoo, and certainly there’s architecture and so on, but I’m just not that excited about the idea of going there.

Look, have you heard of Liverpool? That has museums and nightlife. It has restaurants and architecture. It has culture and history. It’s the birthplace of the Beatles! But you know what? I bet you’ve never really wanted to go there. Maybe if someone offered you two week’s free accommodation, you’d consider it, might even think it was a great idea, but it’s not on your bucket list, right? Well, so it is with me and New York. I can’t get really excited about going because none of those great attractions mean that much to me.

Really, they don’t. Sorry. I’ve got a lot of stuff to be getting on with here, and two weeks in the States would mess with my schedule. Give the tickets to your Mum or someone.

Thanks,

D

Dear D,

I have heard of Liverpool. I even did a bit of research following your last email, and frankly, it’s an awesome place. I would LOVE two weeks there! European Capital of Culture in 2008? Links to the Titanic? Of course, the Beatles! SO MUCH history!

I get that coming out to the US can be a big step, but isn’t New York worth it? What other experience would match it?

 Charlie

 

Dear Charlie,

Why do I have to match it? If I wanted a New York-style experience, I’d just take your offer and go to New York. But I don’t want to. There’s seriously nothing there that I’m bothered about seeing. The Statue of Liberty? Come on, you guys don’t even mean the words that are written on the base anymore! The Empire State Building? The only reason to go up there is to get a view of New York. Yankee Stadium? I don’t want to watch a sport invented by Americans that’s played only by Americans and the Japanese. You do know your “World Series” doesn’t include the rest of the world, right?

I don’t want to come off all anti-American. There’s plenty of great and beautiful things in your country, and many marvellous people too. You’ve produced great scientists, politicians, philosophers and role models. Seems like even your darkest times bring forth worthy people, like Rosa Parks.

But here’s the thing, Charlie. I live in a little town in Hertfordshire. Have done all my life. And the other day, I went to another little town nearby. I’d been there a few times, but this time I found out something new. Under the main street, only open a couple of times a week, there’s a cave. A cave carved out of the chalk the town is built on. It’s old, but no one knows how old. They think the Templars might have carved it, and there’s all kinds of weird carvings in the wall of the cave. You can read about it here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royston_Cave

Something so strange, so unique, practically on my doorstep, and I’d never heard about it. Tell me again why I should travel halfway around the world to see something half as wonderful, when there are things like this to be discovered, if I only take the time to look?

D

 

 

Dear Charlie,

Hope you don’t mind me dropping you another line – I was enjoying our conversation, and I haven’t heard from you. Is everything ok?

D

 

Dear D,

I apologise for the lack of response from our office, but Charlie Millard has left the company and didn’t alert us to your situation. I’m afraid the time for accepting the offer of our fabulous two-week all expenses paid vacation in New York City has lapsed, and you are no longer eligible to take up the offer.

We will be running further competitions in the future, and I look forward to receiving your entries.

 Regards,

 Stephen Altingford

New York Days Ltd

 

Brian, destroyer of a city…

Yesterday was bad, creatively speaking. I had time, I had projects, I had opportunity, but I produced nothing.

As a response, I sat down this morning, when I had no time, and wrote this piece:

Brian scratched idly at the fading letter D on his keyboard. The paragraph on the screen seemed to pulse gently in time with the flashing cursor, mocking him with its brevity.

Write something.

Write something.

Write anything.

Three times he began a fresh sentence, and three times he deleted the words before they were completed. He sighed again, the millionth since he began that morning’s avoidance of work, and re-read the paragraph.

It didn’t feel like a paragraph, didn’t look like one to him. When he read it, he saw the bustling street, the rain-soaked pavements reflecting the bright lights of the cafes and shops along the road. He could hear the hum of traffic and smell the sour tang of a city alive with the early evening, but the pavements were empty. There was no one there because Brian didn’t have a clue who the story was about. He didn’t know if his protagonist was a man or a woman, didn’t know if they were even in this scene. Perhaps this story, whatever it was, should begin with the antagonist, the villain. Perhaps the villain had chosen the busy street to….to… To what? Plant a bomb? Release a virus? Rob a bank?

With his mind’s eye, Brian scanned the street, seeing a furtive figure dash out from a café, moments before a tsunami of vivid orange fire burst through the windows and bathed the street, consuming cars and peppering the walkways with glass fragments. Car alarms would shriek into the night like startled…pigeons…who…

“Pigeons.” muttered Brian in disgust. “Like pigeons, for god’s sake!”

For a moment, his tired and abused brain showed him a flock of cars, startled by the explosion, taking wing into the night sky, wheeling in perfect formation, their doors flapping anxiously as they struggled to gain height. He seriously considered it. Would it count as magical realism? Was there a metaphor there, in cars flying?

Brian sullenly reminded himself that, when using a metaphor in fiction, it’s usually best to understand what it means yourself, rather than figuring it out after you’ve written it. He returned to his contemplation of the city street, once more quiet and undamaged. Somewhere, behind one of those bright but opaque windows, his protagonist was hiding. Not waiting, hiding.

They knew, the smug, irritating bastard! They knew he needed them to come out, to walk a path for him, to show him the story, and they weren’t going to do it. They were sat, perhaps sipping at a damn latte, scanning idly through the day’s paper, determined to wait him out. They could sense, he was sure, the prickle at the corners of his eyes, the ache in his shoulders and that pain in the sole of his foot that told him he’d been sitting too long. Any minute now he would have to give it up, admit there was no progress to be made and stand up. They’d have won. They’d have escaped. And he would have nothing.

Brian scowled at the screen. His rotated his shoulders, stamped his foot. One last time he stretched out his fingers and began a fresh paragraph.

“The occupants of the city felt it first as a sick, swooping in the pit of the stomach, like when a train pulls away unexpectedly. Those with experience glanced up, catching the eyes of friends and strangers. They framed the words ‘Did you feel that?’, the innate human response to the first rumblings of an earthquake. But the words were snatched away by the second shock, the real shock as the mantle of the planet flexed and rumbled. The people were flung to the ground, and had no time to do more than scream as the building folded around them, on top of them. The earthquake ground on, shifting the piles of rubble, extinguishing a few fires that had leapt up and starting dozens more. Car alarms honked unnoticed amidst the screaming of the concrete and metal, the wails of the dying and the hiss of water and gas.

Though the aftershocks rumbled on for hours, no city remained to bear witness to them.”

Brian closed the quotes and tapped Enter a couple of times. He re-read his vengeance, seeing the destruction anew, killing the hidden characters a second and third time, burying them in the rubble of their hiding places. Then he stood, stretched, and went to put the coffee on.

Getting Unbored

This summer holiday is likely to be the longest ever, since Christie Clark’s son doesn’t attend regular schools and so she doesn’t care how long the teachers stay on strike. That being the case, there’s a lot of time to fill in, so I borrowed the excellent “Unbored” book from my local library.

One of the many, many great suggestions for activities and entertainments was using old vinyl LPs to make bowls. I know many guys my age argue passionately for the quality and brilliance of vinyl, intimating that it was somehow the zenith of sound recording and reproduction. I’m more of the opinion that it was easy to scratch, hard to find the track you wanted, prone to skipping and that the only positive was the size of the sleeve meant you got some pretty decent artwork. And no, I’m not a Pink Floyd fan.

So, to turn those useless old Duran Duran LPs into handy chip bowls (because who doesn’t need more of them?):

Step One:

WP_20140812_011Take your ordinary LP. Wipe it clean. Pre-heat your oven to 200 degrees C. While you’re at it, you might want to open the window. A melting record smells a lot like burning plastic.

Step Two:

WP_20140812_012Place the record on a small upturned bowl. Place both record and bowl on a baking sheet and put them in the oven. Get a small child to watch through the window as the record slowly droops onto the bowl. Tell them this was what we did before there was TV.

Step Three:

WP_20140812_010Take a second, larger bowl. When the record has drooped sufficiently, hoik the entire collection out of the oven and place the big bowl over the record and small bowl, squashing it into shape. Flip over both bowls and remove the smaller bowl from the middle. Remember, it’ll be hot. Wear oven gloves (should I have mentioned that earlier?) and press the record to the edges of the bowl. Wait a couple of minutes. This would be a good time to tell the small child what records actually used to be used for.

Step Four:

WP_20140812_14_47_52_ProTurn out your new chip bowl. Or, in this case, FOUR new chip bowls. I don’t actually get to eat that many chips. Or listen to records, come to think of it.

I really enjoyed this pointless activity, of turning something I didn’t use into something else I’m not going to use. Lucky for me, I added a couple of things to this week’s shopping list, so tomorrow I shall be helping the kids experiment with Mentos and Diet Coke. What could possibly go wrong?

 

Have a great summer. (Except you, Christie Clark. I hope yours is rubbish.)

What a lot of people say to me:

“It must be tough, being the only guy in the family…”

_0002

I have three daughters and one wife. When people are told the dog, Moose, is a female too, the reaction is often as above. As if Moose being male would be some kind of compensation, as if we could share a beer in my workshop and talk about sports and carburetors while the little women got on with their knitting upstairs…

Why do I need this sympathy? How am I disadvantaged by being surrounded by my family? Am I supposed to be unable to empathise with my daughters? Is there something about their gender that means I can’t speak to them, understand them, laugh with them? Eldest Weasel knows more about Doctor Who than I do, it’s true, and I wouldn’t try and beat Middle Weasel when it comes to Sherlock Trivia. Tiny Weasel has more style in her little finger than I managed to acquire in 42 years, but I don’t wish she was a boy.

Men have a lousy reputation these days. We’re portrayed in the media as stupid and forgetful. We forget birthdays and anniversaries, we don’t get the right gifts for Valentines Day (which isn’t about the men, remember). We’re smellier than girls, untidier than girls, we leave the toilet seat up ALL THE TIME, we can’t cook for ourselves, we’re obsessed with sports to the exclusion of our loved ones and we can’t talk about our emotions.

So, if you want to sympathise with someone, sympathise with a poor lady who has a husband and three sons. Or, you know, talk to her a bit first and see how SHE feels about it. Maybe she likes them, or something. Weirder things have happened*.

 

 

 

*”Jersey shore”, for example.

When is a job not a job?

I found this note in my pigeonhole at work yesterday.

I found this note in my pigeonhole at work yesterday.

I mentioned in my last post that I enjoy talking to library patrons about the choices they have made in reading material or movies. A few weeks ago, a lady was borrowing a documentary I had seen a trailer for : Tim’s Vermeer.

There were a number of reasons I was interested in this documentary. Firstly, the very first screenplay I wrote was about a Vermeer painting – “The Lacemaker“. It was a complex plot involving Salvador Dali, the Louvre, art fraud and a rhinoceros. The script is still available for development.

Secondly, the documentary is made by Penn and Teller, whom I admire for their magical skills and their zeal in uncovering fraudsters of the allegedly psychic variety.

Finally, it’s just an interesting concept. The subject – Tim Jenison – decided that Vermeer couldn’t possibly have managed to paint the variations of colour and texture the picture (he uses “The Music Lesson“) shows. There must, says Tim, have been some kind of device to allow Vermeer to see those variations as a camera sees them, not as an eye.

While keen to see the documentary, I hadn’t been able to get hold of a copy, and mentioned this to the lady, asking if she would let me know what she thought of it. She said she would, and took my name, remarking that it’s rare to be served by the same person twice at the library, since shifts change so often.

I was incredibly touched to return from my short break to find the handwritten review of the documentary shown above. That’s a great example of the OTHER kind of “Customer Service”.

The review reads:

Hi,

Verdict of Tim’s Vermeer:

The direction was clunky, more narration would have been good, and it would have been nice to hear more from the art world and less from Penn Jillette.

However, the subject matter was fascinating. The theory posited was intriguing, as was the way he proved it. I would have loved to hear more about the art world’s reaction to his experiment.

I wouldn’t suggest this as a good example of a documentary, but I do suggest it on the basis of the subject matter.”

All the things I plan to do.

I talk to people, when they check out their books. Part of it is Customer Service, that good old “engage with the patrons” philosophy that makes their trip to the library more than just one more chore on the list. But a lot of it is human interaction that I need, and the genuine desire to share my pleasure and excitement about some of the books I see crossing the desk every day.

If you don't get this, I'm sorry. Go watch "Labyrinth" and then "Game of Thrones". But don't get attached to any of the characters. You have been warned.

If you don’t get this, I’m sorry. Go watch “Labyrinth” and then “Game of Thrones”. But don’t get attached to any of the characters. You have been warned.

Right now, of course, there’s a lot of people checking out the various books from “A song of Fire and Ice”, more commonly known as “Game of Thrones“. If someone is picking up the first, I warn them they’re in for a long haul, and that they shouldn’t get too attached to any of the characters. If they’re picking up something later in the series, like book five or six, we exchange some words about the long wait for the next book, and the chances that the tv series will outpace the novels.

I had a plan on the wall, but it also covered the sofa....

I had a plan on the wall, but it also covered the sofa….

Something I say a lot, when talking about GoT, is that I hope George R.R. Martin has a big plan on his wall. I want it to start with the history he hints at – the Targaryan conquest of the Seven Kingdoms by dragon, all the way through the death of the Mad King and Robert’s seizing of the Iron Throne to a decent conclusion. (Don’t worry if this is all meaningless gibberish to you, I have a point coming up…)

The point is the plan, the shape of the whole story. The books are wonderfully compelling, and Westeros is a great place to visit from the safety of your couch or your favourite reading nook, but I really, really want to know that George has an end in mind, that he’s not just moving his pieces round a Risk board and wondering who’s going to come out on top.

For years, I’ve been what’s known in the trade as  a “pantser”. I wrote by the seat of my pants, starting with a vague premise, or some lines of dialogue and simply following the trail, only able to see a little way ahead as I wrote. It was fun, and sometimes the result was particularly good. Even as recently as “Love in a Time of Zombies”, a chance line in the early pages turned into a crucial plot point at the climax of the play, something a review called a “classic example of Chekhov’s Gun“.

The flyer for the show - you can still get tickets!

The flyer for the show

But the satisfaction of pantsing has been tempered by the number of projects that stalled because I didn’t know where to go next. They reached a quiet point, where the characters stop and turn to you and say “Yeah? What now?” Raymond Chandler once said that when things got boring in his books, he would have a guy walk through the door with a gun. It’s nice philosophy, very much in the Panster tradition, but when they were filming “The Big Sleep”, the director suddenly realised he didn’t know who had killed one of the characters, the Chauffeur. Chandler was called and quizzed, but admitted he had no idea either. It just wasn’t that important to the plot he was building. Pantsing can leave plot holes.

The Big Sleep (1946) Poster

So my last two plays and the two e-books that came before them have been planned. I’ve written a short precis, which expanded into a pitch document, which became an outline, which got broken into scenes on a huge sheet of paper on the wall. Now, instead of aiming for word count targets, I’m writing a scene a day, knocking off sections of the project and knowing exactly how many I have to go before the end. I haven’t noticed any dip in creativity, but there has been a drop in the number of abandoned drafts.

Holidays... Don't you just hate 'em? The sunshine, the calm, the beauty... Ick.

Holidays… Don’t you just hate ‘em? The sunshine, the calm, the beauty… Ick.

This last week, staying out in Osoyoos with my parents on their third trip to Canada, I discussed a new play with Mrs Dim. From no real idea, to a neat concept in the course of ten minutes by the pool. When August begins, I’ll start my new planning document, and what is only a sentence now will begin to grow.

So what’s YOUR preferred method? Is planning the writing putting a straightjacket on the creative muscles, or is pantsing an amateur mistake?