Category Archives: Uncategorized

A game of cat and mouse

Thursdays are archive day on Gamboling at the moment. I have tried to come up with a solution that can highlight some of the short stories from the archives. For that I am going to be recording an audio version of a story featured in The Book With The Missing First Page (still available from Amazon) as the last archive of each month. Today’s short story is ‘A game of cat and mouse’.

The five whys of why you like the internet?

This is the continuing series of questions for you in the comments, here’s how it works. I’ll ask you a question, and you either answer in the comments or on your own blog and drop a link to the post.


The five whys of why you like the internet.

Now this might need some explaining. Toyota apparently run a lot of their business on the theory that simply asking why once isn’t enough. If I say “my car will not start” and you say, “why” and I say “the battery is dead” then you may be left with the impression that the battery is at fault. But apparently this is all wrong. Here’s a sample conversation from wikipedia:

My car will not start. (the problem)

1. Why? – The battery is dead. (first why)
2. Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
3. Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
4. Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and has never been replaced. (fourth why)
5. Why? – I have not been maintaining my car according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)

Crazy huh? Well anyway. I want us to do the same for why we like the internet. The point is not to list five things that you like about the internet, but to go deeper each time into whatever you said in the previous answer.

Hopefully my answer will help you with yours.

Here’s my answer:

1. Why do you like the internet? – Because it is an amazing communications tool.
2. Why do you like that? – Because it lets you sometimes talk to everyone, and sometimes just focus on one person.
3. Why do you like that? – Because I can find my friends and talk directly to them and make new friends by talking to lots.
4. Why do you like that? – Because communication is at the heart of us all and I don’t know my neighbors.
5. Why do you like that? – Because it far more likely you’ll meet people you like if you use the whole world (rather than your road) as your starting point.

So what are your five whys of why you like the internet?

Presents of mind

Buying a present for somebody is trouble. Of course we all know this, but we don’t admit it. It’s better to give than to receive, they say. But at Christmas you are doing both and that’s got to be a recipe for disaster.

So where does this all come from? It would seem to be something to do with those supposedly wise men. I mean surely a rattle would have been a better present than what they bought? History doesn’t record what Jesus returned their favour with, but my guess is that it was more at the peace and enlightenment to all men end of the spectrum and I happen to know that the guy who bought the gold was hoping for a hifi. Shouldn’t have given gold to an infant then should you?

But therein lies the problem. You don’t know what scale the other person is working to until it is too late. Sorry, if I had known you were buying me a 1:1 size aircraft carrier with both dry and wet dock, I wouldn’t have simply bought you a bottle of Netto’s own wine wrapped in an already half-composted plastic bag.

It’s a nightmare. But the solution of withdrawing from the entire sorry affair marks you out as a complete weirdo. I personally think it’s quite a reasonable strategy, but I’m sure when you tell people you don’t celebrate Christmas, they look at you like you have two heads. And then try and explain why you shouldn’t have two heads and end up shaking their own heads at the impossibility of it all.

Come on Jedi. We invented you for this very reason. It’s your destiny. We can say, “sorry I don’t celebrate Christmas because of my religion”. And people will shut up.

Despite all of this, I am a soft touch. I know at some point on Christmas morning I will look across the vista before me, and a small tear will come to my eye. Probably as I’m trying to defrost the turkey with a hammer and my hand slips.

Merry Christmas!

Creative endeavours

You may well have been wondering what I have been getting up to of late. The novel is progressing well. I have started getting feedback on my second draft – I have two and a half responses so far and it has been a fascinating process.

In the meantime, it is stunting my writing ability. I’m not sure why, but I’m in some kind of pause mode. Only on the writing front though. So if you are looking for something to keep you occupied, I have two projects to occupy your mind.

One is brand new and ideal for the season – an advent calendar. Every day, instead of a chocolate, you get a joke. Surely that’s a fair exchange?

Also I have made some interesting updates to There has been a second episode of the podcast and after seeing the Anish Kapoor exhibition, I made a video which I think explains what it felt to visit the exhibition. Check it out!

I hope this tides you over till the novel is done.

The Writer’s Prerogative

I was talking with a friend the other day, and he admitted that since our last conversation I had blown his mind. What, I wondered, was this amazing thing that I had done?

Earlier in the year he had read my first book: The book with the missing first page. That hadn’t blown his mind, I think he had liked it, but that wasn’t the issue at hand. When we had last chatted, we had talked about the book and he had casually asked about one of the stories, I forget which one exactly, but one of the stories that stops quite abruptly. He said, “it stopped so abruptly, but it’s been bugging me, what actually happened next?”

“Well,” I said, “whatever you want.”

“No. There must be an actual answer. You wrote the story. What happened next?”

“I could make up something,” I said, “but it would only be as valid as whatever you made up. And to be honest I don’t know.”

He’d gone away at the end of this conversation, and thought about it. And now he was back to say, his mind had been blown.

After that, he had gone away and found that everything he had read had seemed more fake to him. As though he hadn’t realised that authors were making up the stories he was reading.

“Surely,” I said, “you knew that authors were making up the stories that you were reading.”

“Yes, of course I do,” he said.

But the part he hadn’t been aware of was the way in which, even in stories which didn’t end abruptly, the author had been controlling his entire expectations of what was going on.

I suppose he hadn’t realised how much he was in the author’s hands. And the way he noticed was to speak to an author for the first time and realise that authors actually don’t always know what happens next either.

So does anyone have any questions? Please ask them, even if you think they sound mad. What they might lead to could be very interesting.

What are you spending your social capital on?

In a recent podcast, Joel Spolsky made a very valid economic point about new media (you can listen to it here). He was talking about the decline of print journalism which you may or may not see as a bad thing. He suggested that the new media will find it much harder to support in-depth investigative journalism. I was reminded of this again when reading that Joe Saward is asking for donations to keep him flying to all of the races: Perhaps he can make it work, but as newspapers decline, we do lose what Joe calls authority and what Joel calls depth.

Essentially what they are talking about is that print journalists will often be assigned a beat, be it Formula 1, be it politics. They are paid to attend all the sessions of the sub-committee on water supplies in Croydon just in case one time somebody says something that is news. Knowing the subject deeply and authoritively is what makes it possible for you to be objective. It stops the worst of the ‘me too’ journalism, where an interested party posts a press release and everyone else reports it as news. News should never just be the dissemination of “what we have been told”, but rather it should be “what has happened”. Currently we are beginning to lean too much towards regurgitation.

Print is dead, or at least mortally wounded, and so we have to work out how to pay for the right kind of journalism. Micropayments, tip jars and so on have a distorting effect. People only pay on the days when the story seems worth it, or when you remind them. The previous model means that the celebrity tittle tattle 365 days of the year, paid for the one-off discovery by the Telegraph of the expenses scandal. In the interconnected world of blogs these wouldn’t fund each other because they would be two different blogs. And the expenses journalist doesn’t have a story for the rest of the year because they are doing deep research for the next piece.

The other problem that Joel raised was the economic one. People forget when they are spending money on the internet. It’s an odd concept, money, and it foxes people all of the time. Take Craigslist, the classified advertising service. People love Craigslist because it’s free. But it turns out that classified listings in the back of newspapers were essentially what was keeping the newspapers afloat.

Now, and this is where it gets complicated, we have two stories of what’s happening. Craig of Craigslist explains that what he’s doing is a social good because he has worked out a way to give this advertising away for free. But in economies things don’t really work like that. People and companies that were using his service were willing to pay for their adverts. If you are selling your house for hundreds of thousands of pounds you are willing to pay your estate agent to sell your house, and your estate agent is willing to pay for the advert in the paper which means that the paper is willing to get some readers for your advert. And so we go on.

Now the same estate agent was willing to pay $300 to place an advert can place the advert for free and so doesn’t bother. It’s estimated that Craigslist has reduced spend on classified advertising by around $1 billion per year. That money hasn’t disappeared. It’s gone to making Estate Agents and people who otherwise would have been happy to pay but find £5 in their pocket and do with it whatever they please.

In economic terms, this free product that people were willing to pay for results in that $1 billion is being spent on putting the print newspapers out of business, or more specifically, it’s being spent on putting investigative journalism out of business.

Craig doesn’t want the money, and that’s admirable. But couldn’t he collect it and set up a fund that paid for good quality journalism? Because if we lose good quality journalism, then we lose our ability to know that we are free people.

Creativity isn’t all big shirts and flouncing around Italy

Katherine has been being creative over on her blog. Please check out these two posts before you continue reading all of this: and I wrote a comment on her site that got a bit out of hand. So here it is – it’s the creative process, writ large.

I am not sure I agree about the creative process. But it is hard to know. I write in two different ways depending on the context. Sometimes I just keep writing sentence after sentence with little idea of where I am going and hope that will get sorted in the edit. And that works fine in a short thing, and you imagine that when you are going to go and write a novel you are going to do it properly – come up with a plot and fill in the details.

However… That doesn’t seem to be the real truth. Sometimes I write and I find myself coming up with the whole story. Sometimes I know I want to write, but I have no idea what is coming next. The sense of painting oneself into a corner is hugely exciting and motivates you through the slog of writing, and it is a slog. I would say that I always find writing less exciting when I know the end before I get there. But the question is – does knowing make the end result a better or worse thing?

It is hard to know whether the excitement of keeping you guessing distracts you. Does it stop you from seeing the wood for the trees? Do you end up with something hideously unbalanced? And yet the question remains – does it matter if, on the other hand, you enjoy the process so little that you can’t get to the end?

The issue with this is that the process of creation is somewhat mechanical. This is like parts of the edit for me. The sad news is that you can’t have creativity without hard work and a bit of boring mechanical processing. Other people don’t do it because of the hard work, and that’s part of what makes it worth while.

Just think, you could imagine monster, would that be as good as holding monster? I make up a story with every spare five minutes I have. But it is the ones I turn into reality that satisfy me.

Sometimes, you have to overcome your enjoyment of the process to achieve results. My novel, when it is in my head, is perfect, writing it reveals the faults. In my head, nine years ago, it was a perfect story I told myself one rainy evening. I loved it, and now as people read it, I’ll realise the faults and I’ll have to be told about them, because, at the end, the achievement is worth it. Maybe we will see more of monster around the house than your collage?

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do collage, of course, but that part of all creative work involves the horrible difficult part where you have to learn all the new things, create rubbish, fail and learn. And part of that is challenging yourself. Making a collage out of materials you’ve never used before, knitting with a new material, writing a much longer story.

In some ways, if the impending sense of doom and failure are absent, the process isn’t going to be exciting. That’s why to me, here, the collage is more interesting because you had to do something, and publish it, and that’s scary for you. Maybe the next thing is constructing a knitting pattern for yourself, or maybe it’s just pushing the boundaries of the scary and knowing that whatever you did, four things are true:

1) You did it
2) Not many people do
3) You started, which is hard enough
4) You finished

Proud isn’t enough of a word, for what I feel about you. Now keep starting and finishing.

P.S. If you would like to suggest a topic for Katherine to be creative about then send in your ideas here.

Who edits the editors?

Christine asked two important questions in the comments on the Draft Dodgers post:

I’m curious who you select to read your work along with you – friends, family, perfect strangers?

Is it hard for them to be brutally honest?

I know how I chose the set of people I am using but I’m not sure how to advise anyone anyone else to find people like this in their set of friends. So maybe I’ll describe them and that might help.

Reviewer 1 – Nick Ollivere

I’ve known Nick since we were 12. We were also flatmates for around 4 years. So we have a secure friendship. Nick is also a writer. During most of the time we’ve known each other we’ve worked on projects together. Writing with somebody else means, to a certain extent, having to try and get your bit in ahead of what the other one wrote. And part of doing that involves being able to criticise the other. So we have a long and secure relationship, and because he’s a writer he tends to read it in a slightly different way. Brutal honesty is guaranteed. We’re used to it, because I guess when writing together we are making something together and so he’s used to changing my writing to make our project better.

Reviewer 2 – Katherine Hall

Well most people in a relationship know where their best critic is – their partner. Fair, balanced, truthful and unwilling to let you get away with cheating yourself. The only problem is that while you imagine you don’t write with your own voice, of course it’s all in there – and Katherine has to hear my voice a lot! This is going to make reading something this long a bit tricky. I mean Katherine is editing this
article before it is published too. But on the other hand that familiarity means she is used to giving me the feedback I need. So brutal honesty – check, secure relationship – check.

Reviewer 3 – Adrian Lightly (fourstar)

I spend a lot of time with Adrian as we are friends and we work together for about 11 hours a day, and we have been doing so for about 5 years. We don’t write together but we do create software together. This means that a large part of what we spend our days doing is a kind of critical creativity. We are finding problems and solutions together. When you hear the word criticsise you imagine it as a horrible slight to the receiver of it. Constructive criticism is such an abused phrase by people who want to dress up their mean criticism. But constructive criticism is our
trade I guess. “This button should be blue and be over here because when people press it they are thinking of the kind of actions that go with these other blue buttons, rather than these orange ones over there”. There is no malice in there, it’s making the whole thing better, and how was I supposed to remember the users were that crazy? So brutal, practiced honesty and long-term secure friendship.

Side note

The group so far are the reviewers who helped with the Book with the Missing First Page. We got the band back together. But because of the length of the novel I have decided to bring in some new eyes.

Reviewer 4 – Dei

Another friend and colleague, Dei is an actual editor for a living. Even though I have known her for less time than the others, it is her job to tell people the truth for a living. So this should be pretty easy for her.

And two others who haven’t reviewed for me before, are both good friends, but I haven’t asked – so I can’t really announce. It will be interesting to see if they will be able to tell me the truth as well as the others, but they will give me a fresh perspective.

My muse is like Sharon Stone

I totally subscribe to the Elizabeth Gilbert theory that it is much healthier to act as the Roman and Greeks did and imagine that genius and inspiration are seperate to yourself. Obviously we know that this isn’t true in reality. We know that when we sit down to a piece of work we sit down on our own. But it’s hard to deal with what happens when things don’t really flow. Who’s fault is it? Well it’s obviously some internal thing. This is the same mind that was able to produce ten pages yesterday. But is it helpful to go down that avenue? You may have had a glass too many of wine last night, you may have just got some bad news on e-mail this morning. You are out of the zone.

I’ve always felt that it’s better to just pretend that it’s nothing to do with you. I’m not saying that it’s okay to have that extra glass of wine. No there are some things that are in your control. Try and have the same breakfast, the same order of things before you start writing. You create little rituals which can get you in the zone. But be careful with these. You want to be able to write standing on your head if the inspiration hits. Remember these things are to help the inspiration hit. Once it has hit you are supposed to drop everything and go for it. Don’t get these things mixed up. If you start saying that you can’t write without your 2B pencil you’re going to miss things – and have very hard to read writing.

I’ve always felt that my muse was like Sharon Stone in the pretty poor Albert Brooks film – The Muse. She goes off and runs around the world picking up inspirational things. She’s that part of your mind that daydreams the fantastical. That part of your mind that hates the practicalities, the harsh realities of drudgery.

You have to entertain your muse. You have to take it out and experience things you don’t normally experience. You have to allow it its flights of fancy. But there are two reasons your muse will leave you, if you’re too serious, or if you’re not serious enough. Remember your muse is here for you to do your creative thing. You can’t just daydream you have to start.

I am a rational person and the muse is of course a part of your own mind. But just like Feng Shui works in some regards because imagining how a dragon would flow through your living room will stop you making the design mistake of parking something in the middle of your living room. This is the same, imagining your muse like a person who needs entertaining but wants results will give you what you need without feeling like the formal drag of a system. It might feel a but silly, but a willingness to embrace a feeling of silliness is a big part of being creative.

Last thing – for reasons I don’t fully understand my actual muse might be like Sharon Stone in the Muse but she looks like Jenna Elfman.