Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Thanks to Jen for passing on the Kreative Blogger award


I am supposed to list 10 things about myself. But I have done a bit of that already on this blog, so, like a Catholic Priest at a Beauty Pageant, I intend to break the rules.

Here then are ten things I learned about creating things from nine of the great things our civilization has created (and one of the worst)

Lesson 1:  Go big or go home. Learned from: Michelangelo'sDavid. You have to see it to understand, but the sheer creative arrogance of it just slaps you in the face. Forget for a minute the exquisite detail of the sculpture itself, and just consider the block of marble. Then think about thinking about chiseling away at that block to scratch out even your name. And to do it all to make a symbol of creative independence for your own home town. Go big, or go home.
David von Michelangelo

 Lesson 2: True love is everything, but it has to be fought for. Learned from: The Princess Bride. I am talking of the movie, but of course the book is brilliant too. Yet the lesson I think the movie makes so strikingly clear is that true love easily found is weak, and worse, boring. Only after conquering fire swamps, dread pirates, poison and death does love acquire some resonance, and that is what turns even the most cynical of hearts.

 Lesson 3: You have to change to stay sane. Learned from: GreatExpectations. I have never read it, but my wife forced me to watch last years BBC adaption. The performances were great in parts, and stilted in others, but the story really got me. If you have read/watched it you know, if you haven't you must. Change or die.

Lesson 4: Some things are better not planned. Learned from: Venice. No one in their right mind would build a city on a swamp, but if you have been there, you'll understand why it is considered by many to be the most beautiful city ever built.

Lesson 5: Beauty does not have to be true, but all true things are beautiful: Learned from: Newton's Principia. I have not read this book directly of course, but having read Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, I can start to appreciate how it changed the world. People always lament the fact that it took so long for the modern age to get started, but due to the seductive nature of beauty not having to be truthful, I am glad we are still not in the Dark Ages. Sometimes I even worry we may go back. But the point is simple, honesty takes bravery, but in the end, truth is beauty.

Lesson 6: Limitations can breed brilliance. Learned from the Original StarWars trilogy

Lesson 7: Complete freedom can be creative death. Learned from, the StarWars prequels. Enough has been written on these two points, but the definitive breakdown is here. (Warning, link contains hours of the best formal cinema analysis I have ever seen)

Lesson 8: Say what you think needs to be said, not what you think people want to hear. Learned from all the songs John – not Paul – wrote for the Beatles. You can pick any specific example you want but you know I am right.

Lesson 9: People will think what they will of what you make. Learned from: Stonehenge. When you visit the place, the first thing you notice is how it is now a streamlined tourist attraction, crafted to squeeze money out of looking at something. But that can be said of most things. Then you look around at the people with you, and you see a good cross section of belief systems. From modern Christians, to Wiccan Witches; Hippy Hipsters and drugged out shamans -- each believing the place resonates for them. The one thing I am certain of, is that Stonehenge was built for one very specific purpose, and no matter what you believe that to be, the creators would laugh at what we guess that to be. Even when we do know the exact purpose of a thing, eg. The Pyramids, people will still make up all kinds of crazy crap. Those of us who write ambiguous things like books have no chance.

Lesson 10: Bad guys are often heroes with bad PR, and vice versa. Learned from: The Bible. And I'm not talking about Cain. God would have made more of an impact on me had his nemesis not been so rational.
And now to pass on the award to 6 deserving recipiants.

1.     Angela Brown of Who believes ghosts can posses toy cars.
2.     Aldrea Alien of Who is an artist as well as a writer.
3.     Claire Hennessy of Who loves Puff the magic dragon – and not just for the drugs.
4.     Sarah McCabe of Who knows magic is real.
5.     Laila Knight of Who was my first ever follower and needs a kick start to her 2012 blogging.
6.     Natalie Whipple of Whose pain I feel.

About me.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas
Consider Phlebas by Iain Banks

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book changed my life. I was in the last year of high-school, studying literature I hated and escaping in golden era classics like the Lensmen series and Asimov. Problem was that I could see the limitations these books had when compared to "real literature" They lacked the finess of language, the dialogue was at times cliche and stilted, and any themes or greater meaning they offered were shallow and best summed up as "white man will beat everyone with their superior cleverness"

Iain M. Banks's first culture novel, Consider Phlebas, changed all that. It allowed me my geeky escapism, and at the same time proved that the world of literature could have spaceships as much as period costumes. It also helped that one of the poems I had to read for that year was "The Waste Land" by TS Elliot -- the very poem the title of this Culture book comes from.

View all my reviews

Your favourite dragon

I am celebrating this auspicious year by giving away a signed copy of my book. All you have to do is tell me in 200 words or less, who your favorite dragon is, and why. You can pick any dragon from literature, film, art or history. Post your submissions in the comments below and my favourite entry will be chosen on the 13th of Feb. The winner shall be showered in praise and promptly mailed a signed, first edition copy of The Dragon and the Crow to whatever corner of the world they call home.

Please spread the word.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

A song of magic and science

I am up to book 4 of Song of Ice and Fire, and something has been troubling me. In GRRM's world where magic is real, and by extension, the gods both old and new, it is irrational to be an atheist. To deny the power of a god or magician is to deny the nature of reality. As much as there is merit in scientific thought (a big chain over the mouth of the river was a deft move after all, napalm or no) when obsidian kills a zombie with +11 fire magic, all bets are off.

This is a fundamental difference between our world and fantasy lands but the rules of life should change accordingly. Yet religion is still presented as a slightly absurd notion, and magic often treated with the scepticism we rightly place on the David Copperfields of our world. I didn't notice or mind this when I was 11, but I have to say I find this more than a little disconcerting as a 33 year old atheist. In a world of magic, religious fundementalists are completely sane and justified in their fire and brimstone beliefs. And if a Seer sees your death in the flames of a fire, you'd be a damn fool not to put on fresh underwear. All this is fine as long as the world is consistent, all the way down. But in the land of Westeros -- like so many fantasy lands -- there are little things that bother me, and these details make all the difference. If magic is real, then why bother with leaches and potions at all? If the gods are real, then burn the non believers at the stake.

In a recent interview for google authors, GRR Martin commented on how happy he was to see the uber geeks of silicone valley -- traditionally Scifi nerds -- embrace fantasy. He went on to say how there has been a divide between the two genres, but that this is closing as the fans of both find themselves drawn equaly between fantasy and scifi. Group hug. Perhaps he has a point, if you consider how much scifi is mere fantasy with laser swords. But this is my point, there should be a divide between fantasy and scifi, just as big as there is beween a theist and an atheist. 

Magic 1, Atheism 0.

This might seem like an absurd argument to be making, after all a fantasy land is fantastical by default. Doubly absurd is the fact that I myself have created one such land for my own book. But if you read my book, you'll see that it is pretty much a long winded answer to this problem. Everything in my world is done with magick, and there is no place for science at all, other than the mundane application of heat to food you achieve when you cast a spell to cause a rock to ignite. And the more I think about it, thew more certain I am that this is an important distinction to make. A world that tries to incorporate both magic and science is doomed to have logic faults that run down to the core. And by extenstion there is a fundamental difference between scifi and fantasy. One of the very first arguments I had online (in an "Aintitcool news forum of all places back in the late 1990s) was about this very argument. The argument got into the absurd bickering about which sub genre was superior -- which is silly, but at the start it was about defining terms. I think the definitions still stand:

Science says the world is chaotic, yet works because of elegant principles that we humans can comprehend with reason and experimentation, and perhaps even exploit to make the world a better place (that is, better for humans)

Magic says the world is intrinsically a balanced system of light/dark, good/bad, chaotic/ordered powers, that humans stand in the center of, to exploit it all by the power of our will (or some choice spoken words and few pints of blood as the case may be). 

In a magic world, the universe (gods or force or whatever) cares about us, is effected by us, is created, in essence, for us. The scientific world (ie. the real world) could not care less if humans conquer the galaxy or are reduced to bacteria. I don't think you can have it both ways.

I love a Song of Ice and Fire more than any other story I have read for a long while. The characters are real, I feel their plight and pain and am shocked and saddened by the twists of fate that befall them. But in the end, magic will win, because in GRR Martin's world, it is real. 

The heros of our real world that I belive in; Sagan, Darwin, Dawkins, Hawkins -- these men would be fools in the land of Westeros, madmen who would need locking away for insisting that a comet is merely a large lump of ice in orbit, or that there is no evolutionary benefit for a reptile to develop the ability to breath fire. Madmen, the lot of them -- burn them at the stake in the name of R'hllor. 

About me.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Reading this 5 years ago made me stop looking for excuses. The next day I started to write.

I've taken the liberty to liberate this from behind iron curtain of the NYT paywall. Hope you enjoy it. Hope some of you even find it as inspiring as I did.

Write Till You Drop

People love pretty much the same things best. A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all. Strange seizures beset us. Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickinson her slant of light; Richard Selzer loves the glistening peritoneum, Faulkner the muddy bottom of a little girl's drawers visible when she's up a pear tree. ''Each student of the ferns,'' I once read, ''will have his own list of plants that for some reason or another stir his emotions.''

Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

Write about winter in the summer. Describe Norway as Ibsen did, from a desk in Italy; describe Dublin as James Joyce did, from a desk in Paris. Willa Cather wrote her prairie novels in New York City; Mark Twain wrote ''Huckleberry Finn'' in Hartford. Recently scholars learned that Walt Whitman rarely left his room.

The writer studies literature, not the world. She lives in the world; she cannot miss it. If she has ever bought a hamburger, or taken a commercial airplane flight, she spares her readers a report of her experience. She is careful of what she reads, for that is what she will write. She is careful of what she learns, because that is what she will know.

The writer knows her field - what has been done, what could be done, the limits - the way a tennis player knows the court. And like that expert, she, too, plays the edges. That is where the exhilaration is. She hits up the line. In writing, she can push the edges. Beyond this limit, here, the reader must recoil. Reason balks, poetry snaps; some madness enters, or strain. Now gingerly, can she enlarge it, can she nudge the bounds? And enclose what wild power?

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ''Do you think I could be a writer?''

''Well,'' the writer said, ''I don't know. . . . Do you like sentences?''

The writer could see the student's amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ''I liked the smell of the paint.''

Hemingway studied, as models, the novels of Knut Hamsun and Ivan Turgenev. Isaac Bashevis Singer, as it happened, also chose Hamsun and Turgenev as models. Ralph Ellison studied Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Thoreau loved Homer; Eudora Welty loved Chekhov. Faulkner described his debt to Sherwood Anderson and Joyce; E. M. Forster, his debt to Jane Austen and Proust. By contrast, if you ask a 21-year-old poet whose poetry he likes, he might say, unblushing, ''Nobody's.'' He has not yet understood that poets like poetry, and novelists like novels; he himself likes only the role, the thought of himself in a hat. Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Bohr and Gauguin, possessed powerful hearts, not powerful wills. They loved the range of materials they used. The work's possibilities excited them; the field's complexities fired their imaginations. The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and then loved them. They worked, respectfully, out of their love and knowledge, and they produced complex bodies of work that endure. Then, and only then, the world harassed them with some sort of wretched hat, which, if they were still living, they knocked away as well as they could, to keep at their tasks.

It makes more sense to write one big book - a novel or nonfiction narrative - than to write many stories or essays. Into a long, ambitious project you can fit or pour all you possess and learn. A project that takes five years will accumulate those years' inventions and richnesses. Much of those years' reading will feed the work. Further, writing sentences is difficult whatever their subject. It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in ''Moby-Dick.'' So you might as well write ''Moby-Dick.'' Similarly, since every original work requires a unique form, it is more prudent to struggle with the outcome of only one form - that of a long work - than to struggle with the many forms of a collection.

Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too - the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. He writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air and it holds. Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hopes for literary forms? Why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking. If we are reading for these things, why would anyone read books with advertising slogans and brand names in them? Why would anyone write such books? We should mass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.

No manipulation is possible in a work of art, but every miracle is. Those artists who dabble in eternity, or who aim never to manipulate but only to lay out hard truths, grow accustomed to miracles. Their sureness is hard won. ''Given a large canvas,'' said Veronese, ''I enriched it as I saw fit.''

The sensation of writing a book is the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring. It is the sensation of a stunt pilot's turning barrel rolls, or an inchworm's blind rearing from a stem in search of a route. At its worst, it feels like alligator wrestling, at the level of the sentence.

At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then - and only then -it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk's.

One line of a poem, the poet said - only one line, but thank God for that one line - drops from the ceiling. Thornton Wilder cited this unnamed writer of sonnets: one line of a sonnet falls from the ceiling, and you tap in the others around it with a jeweler's hammer. Nobody whispers it in your ear. It is like something you memorized once and forgot. Now it comes back and rips away your breath. You find and finger a phrase at a time; you lay it down as if with tongs, restraining your strength, and wait suspended and fierce until the next one finds you: yes, this; and yes, praise be, then this.

Einstein likened the generation of a new idea to a chicken's laying an egg: ''Kieks - auf einmal ist es da.'' Cheep - and all at once there it is. Of course, Einstein was not above playing to the crowd.

Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art; do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength. Giacometti's drawings and paintings show his bewilderment and persistence. If he had not acknowledged his bewilderment, he would not have persisted. A master of drawing, Rico Lebrun, discovered that ''the draftsman must aggress; only by persistent assault will the live image capitulate and give up its secret to an unrelenting line.'' Who but an artist fierce to know - not fierce to seem to know - would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe any way but with the instruments' faint tracks.

Admire the world for never ending on you as you would admire an opponent, without taking your eyes off him, or walking away.

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: ''Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.''

About me.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Obligatory new year post

I was going to do a post before 2011 ended about the amazing year of getting my first book published, but it feels better to do this in the first week of 2012. To be honest, December left me utterly exhausted.

If anyone had told me at the start of 2011 that by Christmas I'd have my novel in print, and on amazon, I'd have laughed -- then quickly made them give me the details of how they had come upon such detailed knowledge of my future. Time machine? or tachyon future phone? Spill the beans you damn time traveller! Honestly though, at the start of 2011, I had no blog and a 150,000 word manuscript nobody wanted. 

But things can happen fast sometimes (cue writing montage) and what followed is better documented in the basement posts of this blog. Along the way I have managed to pick up some amazing followers, and learned a little about this social networking thing. 

So now I should be throwing myself into book 2, but have decided instead to renovate our garage. Turns out demolishing brink walls and tin roofs in 30+ heat is just what the doctor ordered to take my mind off writing (and checking my sales on Amazon) The renovation will more importantly also give me a study, and so book 2 will not be written on the kitchen table. 

I really hope you have all started this year with a sense of enthusiasm and determination. The book world is changing fast, and I truly believe there has never been a better time to be a writer.

Next post will be about my book launch I promise, and then I'll start the real push to sell my novel with blog tours (contact me if you're interested) and competitions. 

I have a feeling 2012 is only going to get busier. 


About me.