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…”

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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?

The Quidditch Global Games… Wait, what?

There’s a joke circulating on the internet that goes something like this:

Despite the darkening tone of the books, there’s no denying the appeal of the magical world depicted by J.K. Rowling, but it’s nonetheless surprising that one of the few things to leave the books and arrive in the Muggle world, along with Chocolate Frogs and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, is Quidditch.

A GB player attempts to defend the goal from another determined US attack.

A GB player attempts to defend the goal from another determined US attack.

Ok, the admissions: Firstly, clearly, no one is flying here. None of the balls in play are moving of their own accord. And the Golden Snitch is not a tiny magical metal marvel, it’s…well, see for yourself:

He's the Snitch. To score, you have to grab what's dangling from his shorts.

He’s the Snitch. To score, you have to grab what’s dangling from his shorts.

But there are more similarities with the written game of Quidditch than differences. All players have to be on broomsticks, making catching the thrown Quaffle (here substituted by a Volleyball) that much harder. The Beaters may not have bats, but they throw the Bludgers (gym balls) at opposing players, and if you’re hit, you have to drop the Quaffle (if you’re carrying it) and run back to touch your own goalposts before returning to play. And there are three goalposts at each end of the field of play, two low hoops on either side of a higher central hoop.

This shot of Team GB leaping into action at the start of the game shows the three goals nicely. Also the ACE team strip!

This shot of Team GB leaping into action at the start of the game shows the three goals nicely. Also the ACE team strip!

Like the books say, Quidditch is a fast and furious game. There were no injuries in the UK/US match we watched, but the game preceding it was stopped twice for injured players to be helped off the pitch.

What astonished me most was that teams had travelled from distant countries to compete here in BC for the Global Games (sadly, and for whatever reason, not The Quidditch World Cup). There was a team from Australia, for pete’s sake! Each team was enthusiastic and dedicated, and played hard, though it’s hard to deny that the UK were outclassed by reigning champions USA, as they went down 150 to…. zero! (In this game, capturing the snitch only awards 30 points.)

It made a good spectator sport, and I was sorry we only had time to watch one and a half games. There was a good crowd, made up of supporters from around the world, and there seems to be a good chance that Quidditch will stick around as a sport, though whether it will make the jump from amateur University teams to the Pro Leagues is anyone’s guess…

Two beaters...er...tussle over the Bludger. Eventually a UK Beater tapped the US player with the other Bludger and released his team mate.

Two beaters…er…tussle over the Bludger. Eventually a UK Beater tapped the US player with the other Bludger and released his team mate.

The UK team manager/coach had the right outfit, the exuberance and the team spirit. Possibly he should have studied the tactics as well....

The UK team manager/coach had the right outfit, the exuberance and the team spirit. Possibly he should have studied the tactics as well….

Keeping astride the broomstick may be authentic, it may be part of the rules, but it isn't graceful...

Keeping astride the broomstick may be authentic, it may be part of the rules, but it isn’t graceful…

For more information on playing Quidditch in the real world, check out www.usquidditch.org

 

 

A week in reading

Sometimes reading feels like famine or feast. I go through periods of brilliant books, then can’t find a damn thing to read anywhere (and when you consider that I work in a library…)

This last week has been a feast period. I started with two fun Star Wars books, downloaded a gripping audio book and found a bargain e-book written by a friend. So let’s start with that one.

Jane Turley is an English writer who I have come to know through G+. She’s cheerful and friendly and encouraging, and has often mentioned that she’s been working on her novel. That novel is “The Changing Room“, and she posted it online this last week. I downloaded a copy, keen to see what she’d produced, expecting – hoping – to enjoy it.

What I didn’t expect was to be totally swept away by it. The book is written from the point of view of Sandy, a wife and mum who is a great salesperson. She doesn’t love her job at the furniture store, but she likes people, and her work helps support her husband’s building company in the tough times of recession. During the course of the novel, Sandy moves from her sales job at the store to a more flexible one working from home, then finds a surprising extra source of income when a friend reveals she runs a sex chat phone service.

Throughout all this Sandy is caring for her mother, who is sliding deeper and deeper into Alzheimer’s. Sandy wants to put off taking her mother into care, but it has to happen eventually, for her own safety as much as for Sandy’s sanity.

I won’t detail everything that happens in the book, but suffice to say, I read it in two sittings. Sandy’s life is busy, it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s unexpected and familiar at the same time. More than anything, this book feels REAL. I have no hesitation in recommending this book.

The two Star Wars books I read this week were “Allegiance” and “Choices of One” by Timothy Zahn. Both these books are now available under the “Star Wars – Legends” banner, since Disney decided all books produced after “Return of the Jedi” were non-canon. HERESY! Ahem.

I thought I had read both these books before, but I was delighted to discover that I had made a silly mistake. “Allegiance” is the first of the two, and I had only read the second book. When I picked up “Allegiance” last time, I read the blurb and thought it sounded familiar, so I assumed I’d read it. Here’s why:

The first book deals with Mara Jade, the Emperor’s Hand. She’s got a mission to fulfill. A group of stormtroopers, disgusted with some Xeno-cleansing they have been ordered to take part in, accidentally kill a political officer and go on the run, fortuitously stealing a fully-equipped and disguised ship. They elect to continue as rogue stormtroopers, serving their image of the Empire, as a just bastion of stability and order. Meanwhile, three very familiar rebels are also on a mission – Han, Luke and Leia (and Chewie!) – that takes them into the same area of space.

What follows is a clever dance. Zahn introduced the character of Mara Jade in the first post ROTJ book “Heir to the Empire” and showed us then that she had not met Luke Skywalker previously, though she knew of him and hated him for killing the Emperor. By writing these prequels, Zahn risked contradicting his own work, so he has managed to manipulate the characters and events so that the stormtroopers work with both rebels and Jade, but those two groups never communicate directly with one another.

It’s not world-changing stuff, and it’s really most fun if you’re a fan of Zahn’s previous work and want to see Mara in her prime and Luke as a know-nothing proto-jedi. Read them in order, and be surprised at how you can come to admire a group of stormtroopers.

The audio book I’ve been enjoying this week is “The Silkworm” by Robert Galbraith (Or JK Rowling, as he’s also known….). Mrs Dim and I both enjoyed “The Cuckoo’s Calling”, finding it mildly less grim than “The Casual Vacancy”, and “The Silkworm” is in much the same vein. Of course, since solving the high-profile Lula Landry murder, Cormoran Strike and Robin are on a much better financial footing, and Cormoran himself has finally found a new place to live, so he’s not sleeping in the office any more.

The book is slower to start, lingering more on the details of Robin and Strike’s lives, but I was perfectly happy with that. Rowling didn’t go into a great deal of detail on her principal characters in the first book, and I was interested in how things had gone for them in the intervening time. There’s still plenty to be told – mention is made several times during the book of the traumatic events that made Robin drop out of her course at university, but unless I missed something, we never found out exactly what it was. Her fiance does express surprise that she wants to become an investigator herself “after what happened”, so there’s a clue there, maybe…

I found myself making excuses to plug my headphones in so I could listen to the story, and inevitably got cross with myself after finishing it. What am I going to listen to now? I enjoyed it so much, i found it hard to understand the negative reviews it garnered on Amazon. Not many, certainly, but I think most were still looking for another Harry Potter book.