Monthly Archives: February 2011

Reasons to be cheerful – Part 7

One of the things that most often makes me cheerful is people going and showing off. I don’t mean this in a horrible ‘look at me’ kind of way, I mean it in relation to when a person creates a space that allows smart people room to show how clever they are. And especially one that requires those people to explain things in a way that makes sense to people who aren’t supposed to be experts in their area.

One of the great new areas of the internet is question and answer sites. The network I like the most is stackexchange. This gives you a taste of the kind of thing it covers: somebody wandered onto the maths stackexchange site and asked, “Given an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite amount of time would one of them write Hamlet?”. Now in a lot of places, a question like that would just be ignored or worse, shouted down, but if you read the answers to the question they really are intricate and fascinating. I love the effort that these super smart people have put in to something that is solely about giving a guy the answer to a kind of joke question.

He’s only a waiter

About six months ago I was sitting in a pub writing up some notes for my novel. Several people had, very kindly, read an early draft for me and I had interviewed each of them to get their feedback. This had created lots of notes and I was trying to pull them together into some kind of document.

I was therefore sitting in the pub with the notes to one side of my laptop and was typing them up. I touch type and so I can look around while I type. This can be rather disconcerting for people, but usually I don’t use my touch typing just to do this, most usefully I can concentrate on the notes I am typing up which makes the copying of them much faster. This is one of the main places where you really see how much faster touch typists are than those who hunt and peck.

So as I was working away, a group of guys wandered into the pub. They didn’t seem like Londoners and I was slightly distracted by their boisterousness. They were a bunch of about 10 guys and I was trying to work out what the connection between them was. They were all wearing jackets, the younger guys from the group were wearing jeans, the older guys were wearing chinos. I realised that some of them didn’t know each other and were being introduced. Some seemed to know each other well but hadn’t seen each other for a while. The younger guys, who were in their twenties, all seemed to be sons of a couple of the older guys.

I couldn’t work it out, so I put my head down and started doing some more typing. While I was concentrating on my typing, I wasn’t looking at them but clearly I was causing a bit of a stir. They were obviously trying to play the same game with me – what was I doing? Eventually one of them came over to me and said, “Excuse me?”.

“Yes, hello,” I replied.
“Can I ask what you do?,” one of the parents asked.
“Sorry, it’s just that we noticed you typing at… Well typing pretty bloody fast and we were trying to work out what you were doing.”
“Ah, I’m a writer.”
“Right okay, thanks. Sorry to disturb.”

I kind of tried to look back down and get back to work but I couldn’t help but overhear them discussing me.

“He said he’s a waiter”, said the guy who had come over to me.
“He’s only a waiter. Told you, Will,” said another parent addressing his son. “Everybody can type properly nowadays, not just secretaries.”
“He said ‘writer’ not ‘waiter’,” Will replied, “Bob’s as deaf as you Dad.”

Bob shuffled back towards me.

“Excuse me, sorry to disturb, did you say you were a waiter?”
“No, sorry,” I replied, “I’m a writer.”
“Well that would explain the fast typing.”
“I suppose it would. I do type a lot.”
“Well thank you for your time.”

Bob made to head back to his group, but before he left I wanted to get a question in.

“What do you fellows do?”
“Ah, well we’re all farmers. I’m a Potato farmer myself.”
“Farmers eh…”
“Yes, well in the main. Steven and his son over there,” he pointed over to Will and his dad, “are leek farmers.”
“I could make a soup with you two.”
“Absolutely, and it would be bloody lovely, here’s my card. Steven where’s your card.”

Steven strode over and suddenly I had the business cards of a potato farmer and a leek farmer.

Steven turned to Bob and said, “What’s he want with our cards?”
Bob said, “I’m going to get him to put us in his book,” then he turned back to me and said, “now what’s your name and while you’re telling me that, let me buy you a pint.”

Reasons to be cheerful – Part 4

Katherine is pregnant

Those pictures are from the end of December… And things aren’t due until July. In this case cheerful doesn’t really cover it.

(The scan where you can find out the sex isn’t for another few weeks.)

Editing while airborne

The other day I posted a short story here called Airborne. If you haven’t read it then you may want to go back and take a look, it’s only short, and the rest of this won’t really make sense otherwise. Here it is:

After reading the article on the site, my friend Fourstar let me know what he thought about it offline. One of the things he said was that he wasn’t sure the story needed the last line:

“Well, um, well… Honestly, I thought I had been dreaming, but…”

It’s an interesting point and something I thought about before I pressed ‘publish’. Without that line, the story has a very formal ending. If you imagine it like an episode of the Twilight Zone, this would be the moment that the opening title sequence kicks in with some music and the cheesy graphics.

The problem, for me, is that removing that line makes the story the main character is telling emphatically true to the reader. Ending it on that line would fit so much into the pattern that it would make the whole situation true. But is it true? Did he really see what he thought he saw? That’s what I was aiming at.

Perhaps shorter isn’t the way to go either? If, after where the story currently ends, there were an extra line, it would probably have involved the air stewardess looking at him unbelievingly. Then she’d probably say something about how she would just have to keep looking and our character would realise that both he and the stewardess are looking at his empty vodka and tonic glass.

Now if I had added that, it would have been more deliberately ambiguous. I tried to have my cake and eat it by stopping half-way between these two normal places to end. I probably overthink these things (this story was first written in October), and in this case it probably means that it satisfies neither set of reader (the ones who want it to be true and the ones who suspect it was a dream).

When writing this kind of short story, you are trying to arm a slingshot. What I always want to do when writing these very short mysterious stories is to set you up so that you can finish the story. Getting the last line correct is key to this. I’m always trying to find a good way to get you to wonder, ‘what happened next?’. I want to store up kinetic energy of plot and character in your head and then with the last line pull the trigger for you to continue the story yourself.

So I’m always wary of ending the story too formally because then you don’t get that effect. I think that if I had stopped a line earlier it would probably have been a better story. I think on balance I probably should have written more and made you deliberately question if he saw the man or was dreaming or drunk. That might have set you all going more. But I don’t know, what do you think?

Please do let me know, remember Fourstar mentioned what he thought and that might make the story better. I’d love to hear your comments, whatever they are.

Reasons to be cheerful – Part 3

Well Ian Dury sang a song called Reasons to be cheerful – Part 3 so it’s only fitting that he leads us off with today’s reason to be cheerful.

I’ve always liked this song especially because it mentions Woody Allen in it. I think the reason that Woody gets mentioned is for the scene in Manhattan where Woody is upset and then reminds himself of all of the reasons he shouldn’t be so upset. He asks, “so why is life worth living” and then proceeds to mention the reasons.

These are both big parts of the inspiration for this series so here’s that scene to look at too:

It’s one of my favourite scenes from one of my favourite movies (Manhattan). I love that movie, so there’s another reason to be cheerful!


Stephan sits back in his chair and tries to make his head comfortable. The muscles on the right of his neck ache slightly, it’s impossible to get comfortable back here in cattle class. Stephan had asked them what the “current economic climate” had to do with his nine o’clock tomorrow, but to no avail.

He tried to move his head again, nothing, this was hopeless. He looked out the window and there, to his immense surprise, he saw a man. A man in a business suit flying next to the ‘plane, his legs and arms out in a star shape. Was he flying or falling? A lurch in Stephan’s stomach told him that the plane was falling but had recovered. Out the window the man fell under the cloud cover.

Did he have a parachute on? Was he fine? Why hadn’t Stephan shouted out? Why had he remained silent? But what could he have done? Was he still asleep? Was it a dream?

He turned to the guy next to him… Or rather he turned to where he had been. The words, “did you see that…” just kind of petered out. He must have gone to the bathroom and missed it. He thought about telling somebody, but had he just imagined it?

He picked up the glass of Vodka tonic on his tray table and drained it. He closed his eyes and thought about what he just had seen. Surely if he just opened his eyes everything would be back to normal. But he didn’t re-open his eyes, he fell asleep somewhere over Connecticut.

The shake on his bicep gently waking him didn’t seem to him to be as gentle as he, as a seasoned traveler, was used to.

“Excuse me sir, sir…”
“Sorry, I must have dropped off. Have we landed?”
“Excellent, sorry I…”

Stephan looked up and noticed that the face of the stewardess was not fixed in the fake kindly gentle face he was used to but instead looked rather concerned.

“What’s the problem?”

Stephan looked around and decided that they were certainly still flying.

“Sir, we are about to make our decent and we have been unable to find your… Well the gentleman who was sitting here.”

She pointed to the still empty seat.

“Sir, do you know where he’s gone? I know it’s a funny question.”
“Um… I… I assumed he had gone to the bathroom.”
“They are all empty.”
“Well, um, well… Honestly, I thought I had been dreaming, but…”

Reasons to be cheerful – Part 2

This is an occasional series pointing out how despite a continuing stream of ‘if it bleeds it leads’ stories on the news, humans are actually out there doing some amazingly positive things.

Today’s reason is the direct result of human ingenuity, humanity’s inevitable and unquenchable thirst to answer the question, “Why did you climb Everest?”, with the answer, “Because it was there”. This is what we do.

Within single life spans the Wright brothers invented powered human flight in the air (1903) and we sent Yuri Gagarin into space (1961). We’ve still got eight years to go for the next step! But we’re doing well. During the partial eclipse in early 2011 this picture was taken in Oman. And you can clearly make out the international space station in this picture. At the time there were 5 people on board, living in space.

IIS Eclipse

For a high resolution version of this image and the credit information please see this: