Monthly Archives: February 2012

Where do ideas go?

It could be said that unpublished writers can be divided into roughly two types: those that have lots of partial projects and those that nurse only a few. Well, maybe that’s not entirely fair. But sad tales are not that hard to find of unpublished authors with one nearly finished manuscript that they’ve been working on for the last decade.

It does make me think, though, about what people do with story ideas. Some are clearly big ones that can generate an epic book series (J. K. Rowling comes to mind). Others are only big enough to distract a secondary character for a page-and-a-half, maybe to help differentiate them from the main protagonist. Not that this is a bad thing. A lot of writing requires creation of these little ideas and many many many articles and blog posts are written about where to find these. They can often come out of two characters interacting: it is common during NaNoWriMo for writers to discover that character interactions can drive their story in new and unexpected directions. Sometimes annoyingly so.

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The struggle to write

I realised whilst walking to work this morning that I had compiled a mental list of things I wanted to do this morning. Trouble was, none of them were to do with what I am actually at work to do. It just so happens they all required a PC or Internet access and I was outside, walking.

Yes, I could have sat down somewhere and done it all on my tablet. But that’s not the point. I would have also been late to work. And that’s not the point, either. What I want to be able to do is to commute somewhere where I can then do writing stuff. And get paid for it.

My life is currently not set up this way, unfortunately.

I could take more single days off, I guess, but that almost always leaves me at home goofing off. Or out on a random drive somewhere. Neither add much to my writing, unfortunately.

Maybe I need to finally re-arrange that second bedroom so that it’s a proper Office For Writing In.



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The Apple That Steve Built.

The late Steve Jobs was undeniably passionate about what he wanted to achieve, and more importantly, passionate and driven about how. Many of those who have worked with him, both inside and outside of Apple, have expressed surprise at how fast Apple made design-oriented decisions. This was largely because of What Steve Says Goes.

As Isaacson has chronicled, Steve Jobs built Apple Computer up from two guys in a garage to a company with billions of dollars in turnover selling iconic products that are instantly recognisable. He had a vision of computing made easy, but not by asking people what they wanted. Instead he would create something new, different and compelling. The Apple that Apple became after it bought NeXT, and therefore, Steve Jobs, was focussed in a way it never really had been.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the product range. Jobs clearly believed that a multitude of products in a marketplace was not the way to go. When they introduced the iPod, there was just one model. Compare with Sony’s adventures with MiniDisc: the last major iteration (the 1Gb format) had at least five models. It was difficult to distinguish the various models apart.

Apple also observed that sales of their iPods drove sales of their Macintosh computers. This has also been observed with the iPhone and iPad: you need to develop on a Mac to write apps for the iPhone or iPad. But I’ve also seen people go down the Mac route for their computing “because It Just Works”. Hmm.

Apple is passionate about a good end-to-end computing experience. People like that. But just like I can respect what AC/DC did for the rock industry, I don’t have to like them.

I happen to dislike a number of Apple’s technology choices. Unsurprisingly, this was not Steve Job’s forte. Sometimes this is because I have investments in other technologies. The first one was that my music was in Ogg Vorbis long before AAC and the iPod appeared. Other times it is a difference in politics. Nowhere is this more prominent than in their curation of iPhone and iPad apps. But I grew up where once you owned the hardware, you could do what you like with it. This is why I run Linux on my PCs.

But it does make me wonder about the sacrifices necessary to honour an investment in passion. Steve Jobs firmly believed in that and made choices, unashamed at alienating people and their opinions. As a result, Apple believes that. I wonder how long that will remain true.

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Books that changed me.

Inspired by a tweet from a friend which inspired a blog post by another, I wondered what books I’ve read that have been life-changing. There are several ways to tackle that question!

One book I particularly remember was “The White Dragon” by Anne McCaffrey. It was the first time I’d read McCaffrey. My year 7 English teacher had one lesson a week where we could simply read. I discovered only later that the intention was to read the books we were assigned for English as a number of my classmates would avoid reading anything resembling a book if they could, but I was already a voracious reader. The White Dragon was recommended to my by a friend. I’d rather naïvely asked which was the best one, and he’d foolishly pointed to this one instead of answering the question I should have asked: which one should I start with? It was likely my first exposure to a new type of fantasy. One with realistic people dealing with very human problems tightly meshed with a wonderfully realized and unique fantasy world.

I’ve since bought and read nearly everything McCaffrey wrote. She was very good at characterisation and developing her characters throughout a story. There was realistic sounding dialogue. There were scenes to make you cry. There were amazing victories over incredible odds. There was, quite simply, daring and wonderful writing.

Another work of hers that I’ve also come to value was “Get Off The Unicorn“. This is, unusually, a collection of short stories written by McCaffrey. Many of these were from her earliest times as a writer and show a lot of daring ideas. She arguably became more conservative as she got older. There are stories here that later formed the basis for a series of movels, but there are also stories here that did not. Again, the amazing variety of characterisation is apparant, as is the tightly-meshed world each story is set in.

In one of his many essays, C. S. Lewis wrote about out how many would-be authors will create a fantastic background and then proceed to tell (for example) an ordinary love story in front of it. McCaffrey could do that, but she obviously preferred to make the fantastic background part of the story. The frantic search that Daffiyd Op Owen ran for an unregistered telepath could not have worked outside the fragile environment of newly emerged telepaths in a future earth. Lord Jaxom’s life was forever altered because he impressed a white dragon. Take away the fantastic and the story disintegrates. This is a skill I want to be good at.

Another book which changed me was actually a series of books: The Belgariad by David Eddings. This is a more traditional fantasy adventure at first blush, but with two significant tricks. The first is incredibly detailed characters. They have distinct speech patterns, unique approaches to solving problems and special ways of interacting with each other. They can also make mistakes, and do, sometimes with significant consequences. I have re-read these books many many times, enjoying the journey they take me on. I know the ending well. But they taught me that the journey is also important. Maybe moreso.

The other difference I only discovered much later, after Eddings had published a version of his original notes. Turns out he had a degree in English literature and he had deliberately indulged in a number of old tropes common to adventure stories to write his own, in particular The Hero’s Journey. It has been argued by some that Eddings’ down-to-earth and accessible characters is what revitalised the fantasy adventure genre. Which is probably what he intended to do.

I didn’t know it at the time, but The Hero’s Journey is at the core of a lot of stories and myths from time immemorial. You can’t get away from it because human beings have been telling each stories since forever.  The way a hero addresses a problem is the source of many an inspirational act. It is, in fact, the desire to tell these kinds of stories myself that have led me to seriously focus on being a writer.




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