May the Fours be with you…

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Still putting one foot in front of the other, with three Weasels in tow…

It’s my forty-fourth birthday. Despite dire warnings regarding fruit and vegetables and the necessity thereof, I’m still here. Which is nice.

This summer has been long and very, very pleasant. We’ve had a visit from my parents and been out to see new places, as well as revisiting some old favourites. The Weasels have had independent adventure time, and plenty of family time too. Mrs Dim and I managed to take simultaneous vacations and discovered that we still like each other very much.

In past years I’ve put my books on sale and encouraged new readers to try them, but I think there’s enough misery in the world right now thanks to Brexit and the US elections, so instead I’m encouraging everyone to embrace the spirit of the Fours and review four books. ANY four books. Doesn’t matter if it’s a book you read last week, or your childhood favourite. Doesn’t matter if you post the review on Amazon, or on Facebook, or on a sheet of A4 pinned to the nearest telephone pole.

Reviews matter. They matter to the poor author who has torn their hair out arranging these 100,000 words into that specific order for your pleasure. They matter to other readers, who want to know if this is a book they should devote time to. And if Oprah and Richard and Judy and their ilk can influence entire countries to buy a book (“50 Shades” and “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” respectively) then you can encourage people too. Even if it’s just the author, relieved that someone has READ their book, thank you.

You don’t have to be a literary critic. You don’t have to analyse the beats of the plot, or the structure, or the effectiveness of the b-story. Did you like the book? Did it grip you from the beginning? Could you see it happening in your head as you read it? Did you want to read it right to the end? Were you sad when it was finished? These are the things people want to know about the books, not whether the symbolism was richly influenced by the pre-modernistic fiction of Northern France.

Summer’s pretty much done, and as Sean Bean is always here to remind us….

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Dammit, Sean, YOU HAD ONE JOB! Try again….

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Right. Thank you.

Yes, Winter is coming, so no more lying in a hammock reading books. Now comes the time for curling up in an armchair near the fire with books. It’s completely different.

So, may the fours be with you. Go FOURth and review books.

Be careful what you wish for…

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I saw something on Twitter today that reminded me of an embarrassing moment everyone (particularly writers) should hear.

I had just finished writing my second full length novel. It was as bad as the first, although I wasn’t going to admit that to anyone. I was determined that this one would get published. I did my research and tracked down several publishers that dealt in similar books (similar in content and theme, not the fact that they were rubbish…)

But not for me the query letter, the polite introduction and gentle submission. Oh no, I was just going to bravely call these people and sell them my book over the phone! Yes!

I dialled the first number and asked to speak to the name I had found.  I told him that I had just written a great book, maybe the greatest book of the year.

I did. And I am cringing now as I type that.

He then did the worst thing he could possibly do. He asked me to tell him about the book.

It was only then I realised the importance of preparation. I thought that, having spent months bashing out this pile of paper, that I knew the story. That I understood the essence of it, that was was aware of every nuance of my tale.

I blathered. I hemmed and hawed. I may even have gibbered. I’m pretty sure I ended the call by apologising and thanking him for his time.

Calling publishers or agents direct may or may not be a good way to get their attention. Calling them without preparing what you’re going to say is a lunatic idea that will not help you in the slightest.

That book, like the first, remains unpublished, and rightly so.

Mina Murray and the future of television

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Ok, so maybe they got their fascination with screens early on….

My two younger Weasels spend a lot of time on screens. Since we cut the cable a few years ago, there’s no “regular” tv programming, so they watch YouTube or Netflix or films and tv shows we already have on DVD. What baffles me is that YouTube is the favourite. They are transfixed by videos produced by people not much older than themselves which divide into roughly two categories:

Videos about the makers : What Phil and Dan have been up to this week.

Videos about other content: What Phil and Dan have been playing/ watching/listening to this week.

This isn’t the place to argue the right of wrong of this behaviour – their time on screens is monitored as much as is possible, and they’re aware that 24/7 anything is bad for you. They’re encouraged to defend their viewing choices, and weird behaviour like “I can’t go out because they’re going to post the new Gamegrumps video this afternoon” is not greeted with sympathy.

Mrs Dim reminds me frequently that our own parents despaired of our viewing habits, thinking that “Tiswas” was a strange, anarchic waste of time. My counter is that we only had three channels growing up, and the amount of programming devoted to our age group was strictly limited. This devolves into the Four Yorkshiremen sketch in no time flat, but the point is, I think, quite valid.

What I wonder about mostly is the future of visual entertainment. I like the hi-tech shows available right now. I watch “Agents of SHIELD” and “CSI” and “Killjoys”. Are those kinds of shows going to be around in ten years time? Or will they have been replaced with lonely late-teen boys in their bedrooms, making guest appearances on each other’s channels to talk about the games they’ve watched other people playing on their YouTube channels?

But then James Moran launched the teaser for his new web series, “Mina Murray’s Journal”. It’s the story of Dracula, but told in the form of a Vlog. This might just be the thing! The content that bridges the gap between current quality programming and the YouTube attention span. James Moran is a skilled and experienced writer. He made his name with the movie “Severance” and then went on to cement his reputation with work on Doctor Who, Torchwood, Crusoe and many other shows. I’m looking forward to it, and I’ll be encouraging the Weasels to watch it too.

 

Finding Balance

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It’s been Summer Holidays for more than a month. Traditionally, it’s a time of year where I lose my mind, trying to fit in the demands of the irregular work schedule, my own writing desires and the various activities (or not) of the Weasels.

This year has seen a few changes, with Eldest Weasel leaving school and filling some of her free time with volunteering at the Vancouver Aquarium and the Pacific Northwest Raptor Centre.DSCN8839

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Middle Weasel took a brief course that will help her if she decides to continue helping out on ice – she’s done her Ringette Ref training, and now is ready to help teach a new generation of Ringette players.

Tiny Weasel took two weeks of the school-run summer entertainments and we’ve all traveled with my parents who were over for a fortnight.

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None of us are in this picture, but we were there – it’s Long Beach, Tofino.

What I have to relearn every year is the trick of balance. I’m not being denied my work time, or my solitude, and the kids aren’t being forced to go out and have fun. There’s time for writing, time for relaxing, time for exploring and time for socialising. There’s even, god help us all, time for watching brainless twits on YouTube blathering about the very latest thing that they found in their breakfast cereal….. I may be a little prejudiced about the value of YouTube as an entertainment delivery system.

Anyway, for every five minutes where I’m convinced we’re not going to get anywhere or do anything, there’s times like this:

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or places like this:

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or discoveries like this:

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I don’t know what state we’ll be in when we reach September, but most years we seem to have done alright. We’ve had fun, been to some interesting places, seen some good people and and spent a healthy amount of time outdoors, as well as getting in some good screen time. This year, I’m going to remember that Summer isn’t about what you can cram in, or what you worry about missing out.

It’s about the balance.

 

Adventures in Tech

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Writing is always going to be difficult, one way or another. If it was easy to write brilliantly, we’d all do it and no author would ever have a crisis of confidence, or hangups about plot or character.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are plenty of books that will tell you they have a surefire method to make the process of writing easier, and just like them there’s a lot of software geared towards helping the struggling author sort their ideas out and get them written down.

This week my struggles have been of a different nature. My dear old netbook, veteran of a dozen plays and several e-books, has reached the point of no return. After rejecting Windows 10 over fifteen times, it finally caved and installed the new OS, resulting in a twenty minute start-up time, followed by enough time to brew fresh coffee in between opening programs, or switching from one thing to another. This could not stand, but since this is a Dell Netbook, there’s no chance of upgrading the hardware (not at my level of expertise, anyway…)

There were two options:

  1. Buy a new Netbook. $399 or more.
  2. Experiment with reviving the netbook as a Chromebook for free.

Option 1 was my favourite, so I looked at my finances. Option 2, then.

Now, I’m not very technically gifted. But I had the distinct advantage here of starting with a machine that could get no more broken. Even if I totally borked this installation, things would be no worse than they already were. Yay.

I did some careful research…well, ok, I Googled a couple of things and then took my folks out for the day.

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(My parents are visiting from the UK.)

I asked about on Google Plus and people seemed moderately ok about the idea of working on a Chromebook. Not overwhelmingly enthusiastic, but it seemed that I would at least be able to do SOMETHING on the new machine which is, as stated, a step up.

I visited the Neverware site to use their “Cloudready” software. The step by step guide I was using really wanted me to understand that I would be losing everything from the hard drive of the machine I was Chroming, but that was ok with me. If I hadn’t backed it up by now, I didn’t need it. Probably.

Things weren’t quite as easy as the guide suggested, but I was able to manage. My main issue was that, once I had created the boot disc on the USB stick (wait, shouldn’t that be “boot stick”? What kind of world are we living in where people need a boot stick?), the machine didn’t recognise the file. I had to restart the computer (as we know, a twenty minute process) and then catch that brief moment when you’re offered boot options if you hit F12.

Once I did that, Cloudready took over and the process began. In about an hour it was done, though I wasn’t entirely sure when I was supposed to remove the USB. As a result I wasn’t actually working on the real installation for the first twenty minutes, but the one running from the stick, however that works.

A whole day later, and I have the machine a little better organised. I have some music and movies stored on the local hard drive (more or less), since I’ll often be working on the machine while it’s offline. I’ve ensured that the Google Docs software is configured to allow me to work on files while offline too, and the whole thing runs a lot faster than it used to. It’s still not as fast as a new machine, but I can switch it on and be working in five minutes instead of twenty. And actually working, not poking at the keyboard and swearing while I wait for it to catch up.

The big test will come in a couple of weeks, when an aspect of my library work will give me three hours of peace and uninterrupted quiet to work on the final third of the latest play. I’m going to be using the Chromebook. As long as I have figured out exactly who DID dun it for my whodunnit, I’ll be relying on my revitalised machine to get the words down.

After another visit to the pub…

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Favourite books of the week

Since I raved about LJ Cohen’s space masterpiece last week (or thereabouts) it seems only fair that I mention two books that have been delighting me since then.

Available from Amazon

A colleague at the library asked me if I’d read this book, and I had to admit I’d picked it up a couple of times but not committed to reading it. Finally convinced by the presence of Toffos on the cover, I took it home and read half of it that night, only putting it down because 1am is too late to be reading when you have a 6am start.

The book is a collection of letters written by Nina to her sister Victoria. Nina is working as a nanny to a couple of boys in London in the 1980s, and the letters really concern themselves mostly with everyday life, which sounds dull, but the family live over the street from Alan Bennett (who drops in regularly for tea), a few doors along from Jonathan Miller (who lends them a saw to trim their Christmas tree) and round the corner from a famous novelist.

The everyday life that Nina describes is crazy and strange, and yet completely believable. You only catch a glimpse of Margaret Thatcher once or twice, and there’s no mention of The Falklands War, or Northern Ireland, or unemployment (which are my abiding memories of the 80’s). It’s just the real (and sometimes surreal) life of a single Mum and her two boys, along with the young woman who helps them out with the little things, like cooking and playing, but not cleaning.

And it’s a lot more funny and interesting than I made it sound. Sorry.

Available from Amazon

Continuing the theme of real lives from a time I remember, I picked up Simon Pegg’s autobiography expecting the kind of detail-lite life story that I’ve often read in other celeb’s books. But this is not the case here. While the non-linear structure can make it tricky to parse the actual timeline of Simon’s life (he leaps about through time talking about his developing love of acting and comedy, the girls he’s loved and the major influences on his life and his work), this is a book worth reading. He uses his academic chops to dissect the appeal of Star Wars to the generation upon which it burst, and while I’ve read similar explanations in drier books, Pegg’s love of the movie and his unapologetic dislike of the prequels is backed up with solid reasoning. He’s famous for a quote about being a geek… Hang on, I’ll go find it….

This attitude comes through strongly in the book – Simon has discovered things he loves, and he doesn’t see why they should be treated with any less reverence than sports fanaticism, or classical theatre.

Another thing worth mentioning is his theory of microcosmic accretion (although that’s my term for it). He’s looking at the reason he became part of a group that went on to such success – Edgar Wright, David Walliams, Jessica Hynes and many others. His theory is that similar interests and life views filter people towards one another, which I guess only works if you embrace those loves and are willing to stand up for them. He’s discovered that both he and Edgar Wright were in the same movie theatre for the premiere of “Akira” in the UK when they were in their teens, though they didn’t meet and begin collaborating until years later. He and the woman who ultimately became his wife had many friends in common and had even been in the same locations a couple of times before actually meeting.

We (outsiders) often look at groups that change their chosen field and remark how strange it is that so many people of a similar mind should emerge at the same time – Monty Python, or George Lucas, Spielberg and Coppola. Pegg’s theory is that this is not Fate, but the inevitable consequence of admitting the things you love, and giving full rein to your enthusiasms.

I’m in awe of the fact that he’s met so many of his childhood idols – Leonard Nimoy, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Carrie Fisher, Gillian Anderson, JJ Abrams. It seems the only one he missed out on was Lee Majors. There may be an argument that fortune plays a part in his success, but if so, it’s a very minor one. Simon identified his loves early on, and worked hard to achieve his success. Stand up is no easy route to take, and along the way he’s made sure he kept his friends around him and makes no secret of his admiration for the talents of others.

 

 

Slow progress all round

Workshop progress

There seems to be something of a tradition on this blog of not talking about Fathers’ Day until it’s done. Well, it was over a week ago, so I think we’re safe now….

This year I didn’t ask for presents. I asked for help. My workshop had reached crisis point, and it was so messed up, I couldn’t actually do any work in it. My latest project (Handles, from Doctor Who) has been mostly made in the kids’ playroom, and the bathroom reno has been carried out in situ.

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Handles still has a long way to go….

Anyway, the point of this post, apart from the opportunity to publicly thank my entire family for helping me sort out my crisis of a workshop, was to remind everyone that getting things done often means getting other things done first. With a tidy workshop, I’ve been able to get a whole load of pending things done, because I know where everything is (as opposed to “I know I saw that a week ago…”). Clearing out the junk meant I was doing a tip run, which means the other junk waiting got taken away.

Bathroom comparison

I like to think the bathroom progress is more noticeable..

Best of all, I feel things are possible again. I wish it was as easy to clear out the clutter from my brain, and leave only the useful, clean and modern tools. But if I can’t do that, I can be sure that the workspace I go to is ready for me to work in.