Sunday, December 30, 2007

All revisionised out

Well, seven poems revised over one frustrating weekend isn't bad going, in my book. Below are links to each of the revisions, now being workshopped on the poetry newsgroups, and also links to their pages on the superbly crafted website where the final versions of these little tykes will end up. Enjoy!

Crime of Passion - rap thread, rikweb page
Gossip - rap thread, rikweb page
In Dark Places - rap thread, rikweb page
Little Arthur - rap thread, rikweb page
Monkey Knows All - rap thread, rikweb page
Slap Stick - rap thread, rikweb page
Woman and Man in Traffic, Imagined - rap thread, rikweb page

(I'm posting the links mainly for my benefit - the usenet splorger has been busy over crimbotide, making it difficult to find relevant threads via the Google newsreader website.)

Little Arthur

This one first found the light of day (as part of the NaPo 06 debacle) as the poem then entitled "Something Maurice Learned from a Book". It's not just the title that has undergone radical change in the past hour or so:

Little Arthur

Now the spore has touched the ant
it must sprout and down its steed:

white threads needle over barding;
sharp tips lance the pauldron gaps.

Once in, it knits itself a new flesh
between the silks of muscle and fat.

A ring of barbs crowns the head
beneath the bascinet, to rule the beast.

Come dawn, an ant clambers the length
of a long stalk to view its domain;

it lifts the belly to salute the crowds
scurrying below, servicing the realm.

When the grail erupts from the armour
spores shower down: Camelot blooms.

Monkey Knows All

This one's been screaming out for revision ever since it was drafted for NaPo 06. It used to go under the snazzy title of "A Man Once Grew a Universe", but this title is much, much better:

Monkey Knows All

Somewhere light-less he shakes a page
from a periodical, licks the husks
of bookworms from penny-a-word ads.

Shelves squeak like storm-drain rats
as knowledge settles in un-indexed heaps:
he scavenges their racks for glue.

He posits an exit from the stacks -
he saw it, once, wood-framed with steps
when he was sniffing for fresh inks.

He is lost|found, scraping his beard
with knuckles, its snail-whorl strands
stitched in place by threads from spines.

Normally, I think gimmicks like 'lost|found' are a waste of time, but it seems to work here - just my opinion, of course ...

Saturday, December 29, 2007

NaPo revision: Gossip

... formerly called "John". By the way, that delivery I was waiting for? Never arrived! I was so pissed off with the delivery firm - what sort of outfit sends its drivers out without mobile phones nowadays? - that I had to take my anger out on the carpets with a vacuum cleaner!


I heard your news. A quarrel of tits
clamp claws around the sprung twigs
of the sycamore - huffs of warm air
have cracked its buds; so pale,
these new leaves, as they stretch.
The sun plays catch-me with the clouds,
a roil of damp shadows battling
across a pitch of sky. Your news,
it grows like a lump in my chest -
I can probe it like a tongue tip
in the creeping cracks of my teeth.
Why do you break us?' creak the buds
to the wind; 'why do you rip us?'
bluster the clouds. Around the twigs
claws dig in, beaks bicker, wings flap.

Kalieda Encyclopaedia - the answers

Just in case people looked at the questions I posted before Crimbotide and are wondering what the answers were, here's the answers:

1. How much of the planet surface is covered by ocean?
Around 87.5 per cent of the surface of the planet is water, with just 12.5 per cent being land - link to page.

2. What is the current total population of the continent of Cheidrah?
Approximately 11 million, from a pre-Disaster high of just under 54 million - link to page.

3. In which orbit did the ice at the north pole first fail to melt?
The website doesn't give an exact date for this, for various reasons. Currently the best answer available is provided on the 'Lands of the Ambostak Society' webpage: "The Hambosga authorities first grew worried about the impending Disaster in the early 460s, when the northern ice first failed to break up during the summer months, but chose at that time to concentrate on developing new crop strains resistant to the cooler weather. Not until the early 520s did the authorities begin to view the Disaster as a serious threat to the continued existence of all Hambosga Society." - link to page.

4. How much of the total life on the planet is classified as Type Two lifeforms?
Over 95 per cent of all Kaliedan life is Type One life, with less than 5 per cent being Type Two - link to page.

5. Where does 'boucha' come from?
"Not only can people eat the meat and drink the milk produced by the goats as they start the work of soil brewing and cultivation, but they can take the stomach microflora and produce 'boucha' - a sort of living pancake which can be introduced to a wide variety of Type One produce to turn the inedible into life-supporting foods." - link to page.

6. What makes the Zeenore Ark unique?
" ... it is the only aquatic haven discovered anywhere on the continent. Lifeforms include seemingly mythological creatures such as water-algae, reeds, snails, leeches, shrimps and fish - some of which grow to more than half a metre in length" - details given on the same page as the Q5 answer.

7. The Ramane State collapsed in which orbit?
"The collapse of the old Ramane State, in 796, was both rapid and bloodless." - details given on the same page as the Q3 answer, and also on the Land of Ramane webpage.

8. Why is Fenstrhuuwine different from other Ambostak cities?
There's a number of reasons, the main one being the continued existence of the Kumatti culture and language in the city and surrounding settlements - link to page.

9. Where do the Ba'hadim people live?
In the Land of Ba'hade - link to page.

10. On which river will you find the Exile's Rock?
On the Nuulimuu river, at latitude 23.4°N - link to page.

11. The New Bartekol Agreement was signed in which orbit?
Orbit 751. "The New Bartekol Agreement was a formal treaty between the members which reorganised Bartak Society into a series of Lands and established a new, tightly limited administration - initially based in the city of Defe." - link to page.

12. What beverage do people from the city of Krhiste drink at weddings?
"The 'national' alcoholic beverage is said to be fermented goat milk. It tends to be drunk on important occasions - birthdays, pair-bond ceremonies, deaths - though most people, given a choice, will drink imported alcohol before touching the local brew." - link to page.

13. Translate the Gevey phrase 'tuusrhe jarhizhe loifen velizhe'
'The old man's big dog' - you can work it out from the examples on the Gevey modifiers webpage.

14. If someone in the city of Gevile served you 'shnaathuu', what would you be eating?
"You would probably have been born in one of the jaarvagzuush (temple infirmaries) found across the city. Your moeme (mother) would have given birth standing or crouching, assisted by a jwe'he (midwife). Your bizhve (father) would probably not have been present at the birth. Your shnaathuu (placenta) would almost certainly have been cooked and shared between the whole family." - link to page.

15. Who invented Balanced Ákat?
"Balanced Ákat is, in essence, a reformed language which was first developed around a thousand orbits ago by spiritual, ecological and other groups (who called themselves the Nakap) living in the Telik Nations on the continent of Falah. The purpose of the reforms originated in the thinking of the Nakap philosophers, whose aim was to align human thought and action with that of the natural and spiritual (they called it "real") world in which they believed all people lived." - link to page.

16. In Ákat grammar, what are 'the guests at the feast'?
The agent and patient markers on the verb - link to page.

17. How many main calendars are found across the continent of Ewlah?
Lots, but there's four main ones - link to page.

18. Who was Joes the Explorer?
"You will have heard stories of Joes the Explorer? Joes was the captain who lost his way sailing the Northern Oceans, whose life was saved by his discovery of the Fire Isles long after his ship had run out of food and fresh water ..." (from the Istran creation myth story) - link to page.

19. Which team currently leads the Weestruu Cauvizhuu?
As of this moment of posting, following the Round 18 results, Merundeme have 31 points, with Tratintesh at 29 points and Tuusrhesh on 25 points. With four rounds of the season left, it's beginning to look like a two-horse race - link to page.

20. How do òicustiỳtac players pronounce the name of their game?
/jO.i.XUs.ti.jA.t{X/ - link to page.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Revision: Crime of Passion

I'm waiting on a delivery - the perfect time for revising old drafts:

Crime of Passion

He was a rum punter, that one.
Just ambled through the door
one afternoon, trailing hemp
from the neck. 'You need the work,'
he said, 'and I want work doing.'

So we sat chatting for an age,
detailing the case: players
and promises and stuff -
his quick, sad smile a crack
of dust between unshaved cheeks.

'He told me to do it,' he repeated,
as if the jingle of his assertion
could set his story straight.
But the shekels shackled him
to the time and place.

'You need to see the bigger story,'
he told me, standing to move
as the cock struck sundown.
'Anyone can get their hands
nailed to a plank of wood!'

I turned him over in the end,
showed him back to his page
in the book. The man was wanting
miracles - a publicist
or a poet: not me.

Slap Stick

This one showcased on the blog under the delightful title Pointless Poetry Exercise #1 - I think it needed no more than a tweak to bring it to fruition:

Slap Stick

Imagine a copse of clown-trees,
she says, with revolving bow ties
for leaves and bright red nose buds.

Do the flowers squirt brass bees
with nectar, I ask. Oh yes,
she agrees: it is a necessary prank;

how else can the shoe seeds form?
They dangle in long pairs from the boughs,
you know, and drop with the first frost

to the hard ground, slapping down
among puff balls and stinkhorns:
who painted your face so sad?

Woman and Man in Traffic, Imagined

Yep, I'm on a bit of a poem revision roll. This one previously went under the title "Pointless Poetry Exercise #5". The current title is not nearly as good, so title suggestions are very much welcome:

Woman and Man in Traffic, Imagined

Meanwhile let's talk
of mittens: their uses
are manifold,

cold oppressors knitting
their threads into nets
to catch new fingers -

Watch them reach out,
grasp at a gust, tuck it
in a mouth - stitches
easing gums.

Look past the window
to the road: a mitten,
lost in speed.

Third attempt: In Dark Places

Revise, revise. Revise again:

In Dark Places

Cold in the ice - sparkles on needles
shaken as chips skip from the trunk,
resin-scent curls moulting: a death
of seasons. That axe is treasured.
Old wood slots within the steel that lops
root from bole, warming the hands
that swirl it in arcs through air
as brittle as decorations.

Good will requires flames, a heap
of amber tongues licking goose meat
turned in lines over the stony pit.

We are in dark places, my love.
We can sit knee to hip and wait
beneath our stencilled angels -
but he won't come. He has no trust
in scratch-mark wings or cold hearths.
Still, I treasure these bricks, know:
our darkness has warmth, a comfort
of arms and dry cloth for the wrapping.

This new god of ours, he has a glitter
in his sled and a red coat to sleep on -
Will you dream in his beard tonight?

I bought you a present, wrapped
in scraps as torn as pockets. It is
- a bribe, I suppose, a new axe -
its shiny shape caught my eyes
like decorations dangled from boughs.
You can keep it by the door, if you like,
or hung on the wall where our fire burned
before I bricked it away, for safety.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Isn't he cute?

Well, I think he's cute:

He's a lilac flag handsquid, and you can read all about him on the Kalieda Encyclopaedia Living Kalieda webpages - here, in fact.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

In Dark Places (the redraft thingy)

Seeing as Ms Jane H has been busy offering comments on her victi... er, volunteers' drafts (including Julie, who lacks cowardice), I suppose it's only right that I offer up a revision of that ghastly mess of a poem I posted a few days back.

I don't know if I can offer much in the way of comments on my redrafting process. I don't so much redraft as react to the first draft, which can often produce something radically different - some would say, perhaps, that the redraft is a completely different poem, though I would argue more that what I'm doing when I redraft is trying to rescue the nut of an idea which was in my head when I sat down to write the first draft, but which hadn't had time to ripen into the knot of ideas I wanted to write about.

In this one, for instance, my starting point was the title of the exercise - Dark Places - which triggered some fairly banal stuff alluding to homelessness in the first draft. But I knew as soon as the 15 minutes was up that that was not what I wanted to write a poem about. Within a day of posting the poem, I was convincing myself that I wanted to write about a different sort of darkness, a homely, safe dark place where intrusions such as winter festivals couldn't barge in un-mediated.

So in fact, when I actually sat down to redraft (most of the work takes place in my head - I like to call it the festering stage of the madness), very little of the original poem survived. This is very different to Jane's comment on the revision process: "When revising, we usually prefer to work with what's already there rather than write new material, mainly because of natural human laziness but also because revision uses a different set of skills to those we use when creating, and it's not always easy to swop sides, as it were, half way through."

Is it the same poem, you may both ask? Well, it is to me. But I don't expect people to understand that.

Anyways, less talking and more showing:

In Dark Places

Cold in the valley, ice on needle leaves
packed in puddles. Chips of wood float
like snowflakes mourning the death
of christmas. This axe is treasured:
old wood slots within the steel that lops
root from bole, warms the hands
that wield it - arch it through air
as brittle as decorations.

Good will requires flames, a heap
of tongues licking goose meat: bones
turned in lines over the hearth.

We are in dark places, my love.
We can sit and wait a while
beneath the stencilled angels,
but he cannot come: he has
no liking for walls or chimneys.
I treasure these bricks, know;
this darkness has warmth, a comfort
of arms and dry cloth for the wrapping.

My brother choked on sixpence once.
Twisting it in silver foil didn't stop
the tarnish milling many faces.

I bought you a present, as torn
as pockets poked for loose scraps. It is
- a bribe, I suppose. A new axe -
its shiny shape caught my eyes
like decorations dangled from boughs.
You can keep it by the door, if you like,
or the wall where the fire once burned
before I bricked it away, for safety.

Well, it needs much more work still. But this version feels more right, more accurate in its purpose. This version is ready to be displayed in a critting environment - and thus to the poetry newsgroups it shall be posted. I'll supply a link to that thread in due course, so you can savour the mauling.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Kalieda Encyclopaedia

After that nasty fifteen minute encounter with 'poetry', something much more interesting and upbeat. I am very proud to announce that the Kalieda Encyclopaedia is once again up-and-running.

And to get you both in the mood to explore the Bumper Book of Kalieda Facts, here's some fun questions:

1. How much of the planet surface is covered by ocean?
2. What is the current total population of the continent of Cheidrah?
3. In which orbit did the ice at the north pole first fail to melt?
4. How much of the total life on the planet is classified as Type Two lifeforms?
5. Where does 'boucha' come from?
6. What makes the Zeenore Ark unique?
7. The Ramane State collapsed in which orbit?
8. Why is Fenstrhuuwine different from other Ambostak cities?
9. Where do the Ba'hadim people live?
10. On which river will you find the Exile's Rock?
11. The New Bartekol Agreement was signed in which orbit?
12. What beverage do people from the city of Krhiste drink at weddings?
13. Translate the Gevey phrase 'tuusrhe jarhizhe loifen velizhe'
14. If someone in the city of Gevile served you 'shnaathuu', what would you be eating?
15. Who invented Balanced Ákat?
16. In Ákat grammar, what are 'the guests at the feast'?
17. How many main calendars are found across the continent of Ewlah?
18. Who was Joes the Explorer?
19. Which team currently leads the Weestruu Cauvizhuu?
20. How do òicustiỳtac players pronounce the name of their game?

There will be extra helpings of ice cream to folks who manage to answer more than four questions correctly. Seven correct answers will get you an extra shiny Gold Star. More than ten and I'll know you've been cheating.

Most importantly, of course: have fun!

On Dark Places

That award winning poet and novelist Jane Holland is doing a sort of online poetry workshop-come-challenge thingy. It is entirely Robs's fault for tempting me to attempt this madcap exercise, which makes a change as normally it is Julie who gets me to do the stupid stuff.

I don't think I'll post what comes below to Ms Jane - it was written in less than fifteen minutes and is thus by definition vile writing - but I will try to have a go at revising it sometime in the next 7 days (house guests permitting) to see if a few words might prove to be salvageable ...

On Dark Places

Cold in the tunnel, cold
and dark like the death of christmas
blown away by the wind in a fit
of brittle chill. I can sit
and wait a while for you here
beneath the stencilled angels
but my feet are wet, as torn
as pockets poked for loose scraps.

Do rats smell of piss, or tramps
of rats? I smell of rich food
gone ripe, I smell the fumes
of their passing. I am no hedge-whore!
It is the sky that leaks, the gutter
that calls for you; I write you
my name on walls with crayon fingers,
red words: I'm still here, still here.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The ultimate accolade?

While Julie and Nic were busy considering the necessity of publishing their poems, I've received news that those very nice people over at the Shit Creek Review have rejected my submissions for their forthcoming tome on traveling.

This is a proud achievement. I can now say that even the Shit Creek Review rejected my work!

I'm certain that the forthcoming issue will be a grand affair, and I congratulate all those poor folk who have had to suffer the indignity of having their work accepted. To them, I can only say: try harder next time.

Oh yes, the work that helped me gain this ultimate accolade? Two poems called Commuting and Traveller, and my short story published on this here very blog - Ice Cream in Havana. Enjoy!

Friday, November 30, 2007

NaNo 07: the aftermath

Final NaNoWriMo word count: 51,713
Current word count for book: 100,753

So, I achieved my objective of writing 50k words in November, and my other objective of getting my WIP past the 100k mark. And now I can sit back and ponder on whether the sweat was worth it.

And on the whole, I don't think I've done too badly - I'm quite proud of how my characters have grown their own independent lives, and some (much) of the writing should glint nicely once it's had a good polish.

However, one massive problem has emerged as I bring this behemoth of a first draft of a first novel to a close: I don't actually have much of a plot. I've been concentrating so hard on getting my characters to do things in various places, and I've unleashed such terrible grief on them, that all they seem interested in doing is surviving - which is a bit of a bugger because I now find myself struggling to bring the book to a close.

Without some sort of quest to achieve, I can't think of a way to finish the book with an adrenaline rush of triumph. Most of the books I've read seem to have a quest element: kill the ring; find the murderer; thwart the baddies. I've managed to get to a stage where the pay-off is going to be the leading female having to choose between two men, one of whom will go off to the Old City to revenge his brother's death and (possibly) become the next Emperor, while the other will head off into the jungle to escape the evil clutches of the empire and start a new society.

It's got human interest. She's pregnant by one of the men, but doesn't know which - and it will be noticeable when the baby is born as one of the men has horns. But that happens after this story ends.

Like it or not, I'm missing a quest.

Is my poor book doomed to commercial failure before it is even finished?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Rik in shock NaNo Triumph!

You heard it here first!

Spontaneous celebrations break out in small areas of Hackney.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

NaNo 07: Week 4 update

Watch Rik's scramble towards the finish line

Daily words:
2.0k words on 22 Nov
0.0k words on 23 Nov (big oops)
2.0k words on 24 Nov
3.0k words on 25 Nov
2.5k words on 26 Nov
0.8k words on 27 Nov (little oops)
2.4k words on 28 Nov

NaNo word total: 47,436
- leaving me to do around 2,600 words over the next 2 days
Book word total: 96,476
- and an extra thousand words to break the magical 100k barrier.

So, what have my characters been up to this week? Well, they've split up into two groups: the first group is sitting around recovering from the plague and discussing what new dangers the city faces and how to combat it. The second group are being far more active and have finally (yay! finally!) left the city and headed into the jungle following the bidding of the mad fanatic religious woman.

And that is really all that's happened action-wise. I've also been doing loads of infodumping and backstorying - well, it's about time I explained how come the golden dye has made the city rich (and how it's harvested), and why the various religious beliefs are so important to the story, and how exactly does a person walk with alien beasties and not get attacked.

Talking of attacking, my cat Mr Dolly made an appearance in the novel, though I wrote him as a dangerous beastie ten times bigger than a normal pussy, and 50 times more active.

2 more days to go. I'm feeling a little light headed with wonder that I might just succeed in this mad ambition to finish writing a book ...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

More Special-ness

Can you see a theme emerging here? Can you sense a touch of word-avoidance in the air?

There's other versions of this song I prefer, but the Specials video is one I remember from my kiddie years, so the Specials version is what you get:

Rudy? Who Rudy, huh?

Desmond helps Rik avoid NaNo

... with a bit of you can get it if you really want ...

More anti-NaNo goodness ...

... courtesy of the Ramones

NaNo relief: Specials ska!

'Nuff said:

NaNo 07: Week 3 update

Rik's contemptible week 3 NaNo efforts:

3.1k words on day 15
1.8k words on day 16
1.7k words on day 17
0.9k words on day 18
0.0k words on day 19
2.8k words on day 20
0.1k words on day 21

Total for NaNoWriMo: 34.6k
Total for the draft: 83.6k

So not only have I managed my two best daily word totals, I've also managed to log 3 of my 4 worst daily word totals. For instance, yesterday's excuse for not writing was confusion about moons - I'd mentioned them in earlier chapters and wanted to mention them again, but suddenly felt the need to work out their current phases (for consistency, of course). Two hours of fun ensued, after which I couldn't be bothered to actually write more than a couple of paragraphs.

Then again, the storyline has entered a bit of a depressing arc. Plague rages through the city and characters are keeling over at an astonishing rate. I think some of this writing is of good quality - comparing it to the stuff I was writing before NaNo, I can see stylistic improvements in the dialogue. Bit there's no getting over the fact that describing death for three chapters can drain the spirit and will.

On the plus side, I've finally managed to force half of my surviving characters out of the city and into the jungle, and thus heading towards the series of climaxes I have planned out for them. I've also managed to weave some worldbuilding descriptions - the layout of the city, production of the dye on which the city's fortunes are based, the critical importance of goats - into the narrative. Oh, and one of my characters has finally had an encounter of the homosexual kind: huzzah for Shapeis!

NaNo 07: Week 2 update

(with apologies for the lateness of this report)

My report from NaNoHell (week 2)

Words written:
2.2k words on day 8
2.3k words on day 9
1.6k words on day 10
2.6k words on day 11
1.7k words on day 12
0.1k words on day 13 (oops!)
1.1k words on day 14

More importantly, I've: killed off a minor character and given him a very nice funeral; added a semi-detached myth-type story which explains the origins of some natural disasters; had lunch, and a very interesting conversation, with the Emperor's mistress; detailed various comings and goings at one of the city's classier bordellos; and introduced plague into the city, which is destined to kill off at least half of my characters, including one of the main ones.

And I'm still on course (just) to write 50k words in a month!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What doesn't surprise me ...

What doesn't surprise me about yesterday's data loss cock-up is the timeline of events:

18 October - Junior official from HMRC in Washington, Tyne and Wear, sends two CDs containing password-protected records to audit office in London through courier TNT, neither recorded nor registered
24 October - When package fails to arrive, second one is sent by registered post and arrives safely
3 November - Senior managers are told first package has been lost
10 November - Prime minister and other ministers are informed
12 November - HMRC tell ministers CDs will probably be found
14 November - When HMRC searches fail, Metropolitan Police are called in
20 November - HMRC Chairman Paul Gray resigns; Chancellor Alistair Darling makes announcement to House of Commons

Now, you're going to have tons of politicians running around like headless chickens (or turkeys, maybe, given the current bird culls) saying things like security must be tightened! But the truth is that all you need to know about such protestations is the information in that timeline.

For a start, why was the entire database sent through the post rather than just the information actually requested by the NAO? Probably the NAO sent a letter to the senior managers, who then delegated through the line until it ended up on the desk of the poor sod who is going to be blamed for this entire fiasco. I bet the instructions for security didn't travel with the order, and the work wasn't checked as it was carried out. Delegation is not a Civil Service forte: yes, all the managers have been on the training courses, but putting the theory into practice? Excuse me while I giggle inanely at my monitor for a few moments.

Now, as far as the junior officials are concerned, either it took them a couple of weeks to work out that disks going missing in the post might be a bit of a concern; or they were too scared to tell their line managers. Because what the Civil Service mostly runs on is not competence, or skills, or diplomacy: it's fear. At every level of the Civil Service, the first priority of the official is to cover their own arse, and those of their mates, before worrying about what the effects of their actions will be on others.

This isn't just a junior failing (and who can blame them for feeling that way?) Check out that whole week it took the senior managers to tell Ministers that there might be a bit of a cock up on the horizon. And even after telling them, they were still trying to "manage their Ministers" by telling them the discs would probably be found.

Talking of which, notice how TNT seem to be missing the flack. Years back, all interdepartmental correspondence was sent via a system called IDS. You put the documents in a "grid" (reusable envelope) and put it in the communal out tray and it was all sorted. The service got privatised (naturally) but essentially remained the same until now. IDS is cheap: couriers are expensive. Excessive spend can reflect badly on line managers.

The one thing that does surprise me is that the Chairman of HMRC has bitten the bullet and resigned. This is almost unheard of in the Civil Service, where incompetence - particularly at the Team Leader level and above - is more often than not rewarded either by level transfer to a team that hasn't heard of the idiot before or (and I've witnessed this) promoting the problem away.

Don't get me wrong. I worked for the Civil Service for 18 years, and I have enormous respect for many of the people I worked with (whether the feeling is reciprocated is moot). But when it comes to the more senior people, my respect rapidly declines. There's some sound people in the service, and there's some shits. It's a pity that shit tends to float to the top ...

Friday, November 09, 2007

NaNo Goodies

or even

The red blobs are the days I didn't manage to post my wordcount in time, not the days I didn't write any words.

This post was inspired by Scavella, who's managing to write too many damn words when she should be prevaricating and displacement activity-ing like the rest of us mortals.

With thanks to Ron

Ron Silliman talks about visual poetry in his blog today, and as a by-blow introduces me to the work of Peter Ciccariello, who combines typography and painting into a visual feast.

Typically, Ron doesn't want me to just gawp at the pretty piccies; he wants me to think about what's happening here. Unfortunately I don't have the knowledge nor even the lexicon to comment on the ideas Ron puts forth in his post. But he has made me think, which is a bugger as I'm supposed to be doing my OU coursework and writing more NaNo stuff.

Okay: visual poetry - what's it good for?

Taking refuge in my (badly out of date) knowledge of biology, I know that visual arts involves a visual input into the brain. Spoken poetry is entirely aural, and the parts of the brain where aural input gets processed are different to the parts where the visual voodoo happens. Language processing is again different; sounds that sound like words get routed to specific areas of the brain which handle language input, interpretation and output. I think it's also worth noting that language is a learned thing, and the aural learning phase usually comes before the visual (except for signed languages of course).

There's no denying that there are connections between these systems. Written language is a visual input into the brain, yet when I read something I hear the words within my skull. Listening to a story, rather than reading it, will often trigger visual images - a mental holograph in which I follow the story visually even though I'm only hearing it aurally. Bliss, for me, is when I'm reading a text and not only do I get the voice, I also get the visuals to go with it - a paperback novel is destined to disappoint me if it can't trigger this magic, and I'm happy to admit to a severe preference for written poems that can manage the same trick.

So, with purely visual art - sans type - I'm using just the visual parts of my brain and reacting emotionally to the art purely on the associations that the images and colours drag up from my memory (for surely visual representation has to be learned, too; I can't believe that my reaction to a photo of a snowy mountain is genetic). Adding typography to the picture - road signage, advertising hoardings, etc - should trigger the voice in my head, and possibly modify my interpretation of the visuals? I think that when I see a photo I tend to see it first and then read it's lexical content ...

A thought experiment. I'm viewing a picture of a pile of decomposing human bodies on a rooftop: my emotions are not strong (these are not bodies of people I know) but there's an edge of disgust? sadness? horror? in my feelings to the photo. Now within the photo is some signage, an embedded caption perhaps. Reading the words, I learn that this is a Parsi tower of silence - the place where the Parsis place the bodies of their loved ones to be eaten by vultures. It's their preferred way of disposing of human remains. Now I have a deeper understanding and my emotions alter - wonderment? I'm certainly thinking about how I would feel if a friend told me that this is what they wanted for their funeral.

Thus for me, the visuals seem to come before the text, and the text can change the emotional impact of the visuals.

Back to visual poetry. Let's assume there is a work of visual poetry where two images are superimposed on each other. One is entirely imagistic, the other is purely words. Through the magic of computing, I can adjust the merging of the two using a sliding scale from text-free:image-full to text-part:image-part to text-full:image-free. At what point on that scale does my brain start processing the words before the image?

Ron also talks about the work of Robert Grenier. Viewing his work, its clear to me that what I'm doing is looking for words in each poem - the colours are incidental, nothing more than an aid to the word-search. (I'm also struggling to see any poetry in the work: shoot me!). With the Ciccariello paintings, the opposite is true: the images are very definitely the main show; spotting symbols within the painting offers me a bonus of recognition - but again I'm seeing this as a painting, not as a poem.


One thing I learned at school was that for Chinese and Japanese poets, the typography is as important as the words - poems in these languages were often hand-painted on big strips of paper. A poet was judged as much on their calligraphic skills as they were on their poetic abilities. I think; I could be wrong about that. Chinese writing is a logographic script. It is, I feel, as much painting as writing. I have no idea how a logographic script is processed by the brain, whether it is different to my response to the latin alphabet.

I've got a bonus thought: English, written in the latin alphabet, is an essentially linear thing (does this have anything to do with Ron's discussions about the importance of the line in poetry?). I like to think of it as one-dimensional. Poets have been playing with lines and white space for centuries - the Beowulf poem is often reproduced with the second half-line dropped and indented. Yet the poem's existence within me is essentially non-dimensional, or at least the after-effects of a good poem are. There's the fourth dimension, of course, but even time can dissipate once my brain assimilates the poem as a whole, single unit within my head.

What happens when the typography breaks into two dimensions? I'm not thinking of poems where each line is offered to the reader at different angles and intersections - reading a poem like that is, for me, an exercise in reading discrete, one-dimensional lines and attempting to organise them into something that makes coherent sense to me. No, I'm thinking of a script which is two dimensional within itself. How can I describe this? Um, words branch from each other in various directions; one word can have more than one branch; the result is an entire clause or sentence which sits as a whole on the page - and maybe even branches out its own subsequent clause or sentence - and the direction of the branch is intrinsic to the relationships of the words. It's something that's been discussed a few times on the zbb, but not something I've actively engaged with before. How would such a script be read, processed? Would the eye want to follow the individual paths that the script would make, or could it be read in a single (rather long) glance without too much eye movement? Could such a representation look engaging? Beautiful even?

Would poetry written in such a script still be poetry?

Ack! Ack! Ack! Damn that Ron Silliman for making me think!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Stormy weather

There's a flood warning in force for a storm surge traveling down the east coast of England. My birth-land - at the very south eastern tip of England - is coloured blue, not surprising as most of the Romney Marshes are below sea level (between 4 and 10 feet below), protected only by shingle banks and the massive, and old, Dymchurch Wall.

I'm not too worried, as this is a well-known threat; very high tides together with a storm surge have been factored into the sea defence planning for decades, and work has been ongoing since the 1980s to heighten the Wall (prescient, given the more recent news of climate effects and rising sea levels). But what does nag at me is the fact that whenever you worry, Mothers always manage to not answer the phone ...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

NaNo 07: Week 1 update

I'm proud of my progress. I'm not racing away, but neither am I lagging behind. As of the end of today's writing, I am about 900 words ahead of schedule - if I continue at this pace I should have written 50,000 words by the 28th or 29th of November.

For the statisticians, I wrote:
1,777 words on day 1
1,714 words on day 2
1,966 words on day 3
1,378 words on day 4
1,693 words on day 5
1,569 words on day 6, and
2,441 today.

I have also managed to write through a betrothal ceremony, introduced some alien creatures, got the betrothed couple to have sex on a hillside, described the city where the story takes place, killed a man, have the captain of the guards and the commander of the Imperial army discuss how to dispose of the body using the alien creatures, and written a myth story detailing the death of the archetypal man and how plagues came to be. Oh, and there was a scene in a brothel that - miraculously - did not involve sex in any way shape or form!

Now I get to eat pizza. Yay me!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Monkey rats in NaNo shock

I think one of the most important lessons I've learned about bookwriting in my (extremely) short career to date is that good stories are about people. It doesn't matter how weird the setting - how disfigured the laws of physics, geography and biology have become in your story's world - the book only becomes interesting when you put "real" people into the scenery and let them deal with "real" problems such as gathering food, searching for sex and keeping their loved ones safe.

Now this is a bit of a bugger for me because one of my great pleasures in life (apart from food, sex, etc) has been the development of my constructed world within which I've always planned for my stories to take place. I have maps. I have alien biology. I have sweeping histories of nation building and the destruction of empires. But when it actually comes to writing the book, it all becomes background material - something mostly hidden from the reader as the characters get on with their everyday, ordinary lives in this alien, extraordinary world I have created for them.

It's a real bugger, I can tell you!

So when I do manage to work out a way of introducing an alien creation into the novel, you can imagine my joy. For instance, I blogged about monkey rats a couple of years ago - an alien creature which appears to have three separate sexes, and yesterday I finally worked out a way to slip the wee beastie into the NaNo novel.

The big trick (of course) is to get the characters to react to the alien creature as if it is something they've known about, and lived with, all their lives: it's not alien to them at all. Yet at the same time I have to introduce a completely alien "monster" to my readers, show them this beast, explain to them what makes it a proper, alien creation rather than some sort of chimaeraic creation - beak of a bird, pelt of a fox, tongue of a snake, etc. And I have to convince the reader that it could exist outside of the bounds of the story.

Why? Because for me the alien biology of my constructed world is real. If I can't write about this world as an alien place in which humans live, then I'm failing myself as a writer.

So then, how does my writing match up to the targets I set for it? That, dear reader, you'll have to judge for yourself. Say hello to the Giant monkey rats of Burramesh:

The track was well worn: in some places it cut into the surrounding earth and in the steeper parts steps had been roughly cut into the bare rock. In several places it doubled back on itself in its climb to the top. Loken took the lead, eager to reach the brow of the hill, not taking much notice of the vegetation as he strode by. Only when the path levelled out did he stop; he could see Delesse below him, holding the shrunken woman's hand as they negotiated the trickier parts of the climb.

"God's teeth! You've got monkey rats up here!"

"Don't go too far," Delesse shouted back. "They're dangerous!"

Turning around, he could see that the hill formed a massive Y shape, with the city below nestled between its outstretched arms. Northwards, the slope of the hill was much gentler. The ground was a flattened swirl of rusts and greys, littered with rocks and boulders but little in the way of vegetation. Nearby to his right a stone hut had been built – he could see two guards sitting in the shade of its over-large roof while a third sat on top. All three were watching him; he waved a greeting to them and felt a touch of relief when they raised their hands to acknowledge him. None of them seemed to be carrying weapons.

The only vegetation of note was the monkey rat trees. They were huge – the largest reaching almost five metres from the ground. He'd seen such trees before: monkey rats were quite common, even in Stal, but few grew above man-height.

"Magnificent, aren't they." Delesse had reached the top of the hill and was walking towards him. "The Governor before my Father had a monkey rat tree growing in the Reception Courtyard, but it was cut down when we moved in."


She gave him a quizzical look.

"No, I mean why did he have it cut down?"

"These aren't normal monkey rats. They're venomous – even the trees carry the venom."

"Can we get closer?"

She pointed over to a smaller tree growing near to the stone hut. "We can have a look at that one, if you like. I think the guards have developed an understanding with its queen. Are you coming, Maeduul?"

The shrunken woman had sat down on a small rock as soon as she had reached the top. On hearing the question she turned round to look at them, shielding her eyes from the sun's glare with a flat hand.

"No, no, little kitten; I've seen the barby rats before. Do you think the guards will have some water?"

"You ought to sit with them in the shade, Maeduul."

"Gyano-ten made me put some cream on – it makes me sticky, but I'll not burn."

Delesse shrugged her shoulders, then grabbed at his hand to lead him towards the hut.

"Who's gyano-ten?" he asked her.

"It's Maeduul's name for my mother."

"Do you allow all your Servants to talk to you like that?"

"Yes. Why? Shouldn't I?"

"It doesn't seem, well, right."

"Do you have Servants?"

"Well I suppose we do, but I rarely see them. You don't even put collars on your Servants!"

They were coming close to the tree, now. One of the guards had stirred himself onto his feet and was walking towards them.

"We do things differently in Burramesh. I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable if I had to give orders to a Servant forced to wear a collar. I think we'd better stand here."

They stopped about 10 metres from the branches of the tree. Looking, he could see the four roots at the base, and just above their join what looked like a large, half-lidded eye set within the bark-skin. The main bole stretched up, the backbone clearly visible on either side as it helixed around the trunk from which emerged the great, black, pinnate leaves stemmed in their pairs to fan across the sky in search of the sun.

"So where's the – queen?"

She shaded her eyes with her hand, scanning the tree. "There!" she pointed. "She's sitting right on top of the growing arch."

He copied her actions, but could see no sign of the creature. Then it moved.

It was much, much bigger than a normal monkey rat. Rather than the sparse rust-coloured fur he was expecting, this queen had a luxurious pelt: alternate stripes of black and dark charcoal running slantwise across its flank. Two eyes, forward on its head, above a shortened snout and beak gave it a curious, human quality. He could see no ears; a row of stubby spines running the length of its back, coloured red, were visible, as were the claws terminating each of its paws. It was sitting as if relaxed on its throne, yet its black eyes were trained on the two humans as if to dare them to move closer.

"It's beautiful!" His voice was a whisper.

"She's beautiful," Delesse corrected him.

"How do you know its a female?"

"The queens are the big ones – each tree has its own queen. The princes are much smaller – no bigger than a common monkey rat."

He continued to stare at the creature. "One of my tutors once compared the Empire to the monkey rat: the tree was the land; the leader was the emperor; I was a guardian in this story. He said that when the leader died, one of the guardians would have to become the new leader, for without a leader the tree would die."

"And you believed him?"

"Oh yes, for a while. I was only seven at the time."

"I remember the tree that grew in the Reception Courtyard had no queen nor princes. I also remember it screamed horribly when it was cut down."

"These trees have voices?"

"Oh, yes. And eyes and blood. Can you see the eyes?"

He nodded.

"Velledue – he was my tutor – told me that these monkey rats were created specially by God to test us. He called them prison trees because they have eyes to watch our every blasphemy. I used to have nightmares that the trees would see my every sin and send their queens to hunt me down and poison me."

"He wasn't a very nice person, this Velledue."

She caught his hand in hers: "Oh, he has his little peculiarities."

Loken gave her a swift look; she had shifted her gaze away from the tree towards the northern horizon. He could see that some strands of her hair was beginning to work their way loose from the knot of plats pinned to the base of her head. He squeezed her hand.

"So why do you tolerate these creatures so close to the city, if they are as dangerous as you say?"

"They're very, very good guards. They'll attack any large creature that enters the grove. And the queens attack in packs, you know. I think they're quite intelligent."

"Ah," he said, looking around him. "That explains why the wall doesn't completely circle the city."

She smiled at him, returned his squeeze.

"But surely fire would destroy them?"

"They're very resilient – at the first sign of danger the trees furl their leaves up tight and the base sinks into a hole in the ground. The queens can run away of course, carrying their favourite princes. But they seem to make an effort to keep the grove clear of burning material. Anyway, they only cause us problems when they spawn; there's not much room up here for new trees so the obvious place to go is downhill ..."

"Straight into the mansions and compounds we walked past earlier?"

"That's right! Every second equinox we have a festival where everybody comes up here to clear our side of the hill. The little ones aren't as poisonous as the big ones. The person who bags the most monkey rats becomes First Citizen for the next year."

"My, you are a strange race of people! Where shall we go next?"

"Let's fetch some water for Maeduul, then I'll let you choose the next destination."

Friday, November 02, 2007

Somewhere down the crazy river

Another video to get me in the mood for writing. This Robbie Robertson classic is much more "in the mood" for my book, given that the story is set in a city in the jungles of an alien world, where the only passage in or out is by boat along the great, muddy, windingy, Taete River.

Plague's a-comin' ...


Edit: I've had to snip this because the version I linked to has been removed from YouTube. Which means if you want to watch it you have to visit the YouTube website for the "official" Universal Music Group video - the bastards. Yes, I know, performance rights and copyright violations and all that stuff, but then if I ever finish writing my book, get it sold and stuff, I'm only going to earn money from selling new copies of the books - I'll be getting fuck all royalties from the second hand book trade, savvy?

John Wayne is big leggy

For those embarking on the perils of NaNoWriMo, a little inspiration from Hayzee Fantayzee:

Thursday, November 01, 2007

NaNoWriNo 2007

Forgive me father, it has been two years since my last NaNo failure ...

Yes, folks, it's that time of the year again. I have signed up to write 50,000 words during the course of November. If you dig through the entrails of this blog, you might come across the train wreck of a story I attempted in 2005. This time it will be better. I know this.

Actually, when I started on my mad endeavour to become a published author earlier this year, I decided that it would be a good idea to work on a book which didn't have great prospects - a sort of learning-to-write book where I could make all my mistakes and learn from them. The plan was that my second book would be the one I'd send out to agents and the like. So I chose to resurrect my NaNo 05 plot for the first book.

After working on that book, on-and-off (though more off than on), over the last 9 months it turns out that my original plan was stupid in the extreme. So far I have written (and re-written: I like to edit as I write) 49,000 rather good words and I reckon I only need another 50,000 to finish the book. So instead of writing an entirely new NaNo this year, I've decided to finish the first draft of my first book by 30 November.

I've learned a lot about writing this year (and I still have plenty more to learn). Possibly the most important thing I've learned is not to over-plan the story before I write it: it only leads to authorial depression when the characters decide to ignore the plotlines and story arcs in favour of doing their own thing. I know how I want this book to end, and I know which characters I want to survive to the last page; I am utterly clueless about how they (and I) get from the wedding ceremony I've just finished writing to a point where the survivors of the deadly plague and the city fires and the slave revolt and the crashing of empires reach a place of safety.

As they say on the NaNo website: No plot? No worries!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


... has found a home at the Shit Creek Review. Not only am I royally chuffed to have the poem published, I can also retire in the knowledge that my publishing resumé is complete!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Tag challengs thingy

Blame Julie for this. I'm only playing along to make her feel even guiltier for never completing my (much more interesting) tag challenge.

What is your favourite guilty pleasure?
I don't have "guilty" pleasures. I have no shame.

How do you take your coffee?
Instant (Alta Rica), strong (a good heaped teaspoon and a bit extra), milky (say 20% milk) and sweetened (no more than a teaspoon).

Who were you in a previous life?
I was a diver in a previous life - I drowned. This is my explanation of my otherwise irrational fear of water, particularly on my face.

What is the worst film you ever paid to see?
The last film I walked out of was "Spiderman III". The previous film I walked out of was "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones"

What is the best thing you can 'buy for/do with' a dollar/euro?
Buy a newspaper - though I don't often buy newspapers now I'm not commuting to work.

What is the worst present you’ve ever received?
My, what a lot of presents to choose from! I've lost count of the number of magnetic 'make a poem' sets I've received over the years.

What is your favourite word?
This is a bit of a silly question to ask a man who invents his own language. Today's choice word is átosfôsnisatexankiásiqninakapan, an Ákat word that translates as "Peter's friend is called Alexandra".

I'm not going to tag anyone else. I am a killer of tags.

The monkeys who learned to sing

Those madcap geniuses over at The Chimaera agreed to post an essay of mine in the first issue of their graceful tome. My essay is called The monkeys who learned to sing - in which I attempt to refute the tedious "poetry is dead" grumbles so commonly met in the Field of Muse with a different type of argument, one which I hope others might find intriguing. The title kinda gives away the central thrust of my working hypothesis, and builds on some "what is poetry" thoughts I posted to this very blog a year or so ago.

I haven't read much of the rest of the magazine - I get the impression that other contributors are probably better essayists than me. But everyone has to start somewhere, yes?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Lammas sun etc (revised)

This one's beginning to head in the right direction, thanks to the feedback I'm getting from the poetry newsgroups.

The Lammas Sun has gone

Beyond the glassed face, fish
swim through mulm like ghosts
who haunt cellar barrels
sifting the last of the lees;

I'll net you a beer, neck
your sheen of skin stretched
from nape to blade, sift hairs
weaving your back in whorls -

and after? There is no after.
My face is glassed, your glass
is froth; ghost-clear worms
sift mulm, feed fish.

Ever wondered how to workshop a poem on the poetry newsgroups? Here's how. For contrast, see how the same poem gets workshopped at a more "traditional" web-based venue.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Ice cream in Havana

"If you're pregnant, then I'll be pregnant too!"

"Don't be silly," she says. "You're a bloke."

Around them, the market swirls. It's a flea market, of sorts, though every market in Havana seems like a flea market to her. This one is by the old cathedral, not far from La Bodeguita del Medio where Hemingway used to drink, where she had told him of her new status over an over-priced, over-weak mojito.

"Do you want to keep it?" he'd asked.

"Of course I do," she'd responded, her finger in her mouth, dragging her nail across the back of her teeth in an attempt to dislodge a flake of crushed mint. The room had become crowded at that moment as yet another group of tourists was herded into the small space. Having arrived just before the hordes, they'd managed to find themselves stools in the corner of the bar, giving her a good view of how the staff prepared 20 mojitos in one big splash. Around them, the new people gawped around the room, checking the signatures that inched their way across every patch of whitewashed wall. He was gawping, too, but not at the walls.

She'd watched emotions and scenarios rush through his mind, each signalled by his brows and the accordion creases sprouting from the sides of his eyes. She was impressed by how quickly his brows had collapsed from an arch of surprise into uneven, questioning horizontals; how the white traces of untanned skin had flooded the curve to his temples, then ebbed back into their folded obscurity. When the muscles in his jaw began to haul on the corners of his lips, threatening a smile, she pulled her finger free of her own mouth, gently knuckled his chin to push his mouth shut.

"Let's celebrate," she said, pulling a note free from her purse without looking at it, waving it in the direction of the fat man behind the bar.

"You shouldn't be drinking." He reached for the note – ten convertible pesos, she noticed.

"You shouldn't be telling me what to do," she said, cocking her head to one side.

"Someone needs to look after you." He slipped his hand from her thigh to her waist, running his fingers across her belly along the way. "It's not just you, now."

"That's true enough. Dos mojitos por favor, señor!"

Now he is rubbing his fingers against the back of his head, dislodging sweat and oil from the short, salt-and-pepper strands. Around them the market crowd is in full, diffident cry – the hustling for business quiet yet insistent in the mid-afternoon heat. She strolls between the stalls holding onto his arm, tugging him to a halt every few paces to look at the wares on offer: papier mache vintage cars painted in bright reds, yellows and pinks; 'ethnic' wood-carved masks for hanging on walls; oil paintings not yet imprisoned in frames, their canvases left free to sway in the wake of browsing tourists. Many of them seem to be variations on a scene, a nineteen fifties classic American car parked in front of the Bodeguita they'd so recently left, the old cathedral in the background weighed down by its grey brickwork against an intense, blue sky.

"We should buy something," she says, "to celebrate today."

"Yes," he says, though his face displays his distraction. His eyes are darting between bodies and products, seemingly unable to rest on one thing or one thought. She halts him in front of table piled high with tin aeroplanes, their recycled bodies and wings still showing the marks of their previous, disparate existences. She smiles at the stall holder, admires the white of her layered cotton dress stark against blue-black skin. The second-hand smoke of the woman's foot-long cigar leaves a spicy tang at the edge of her throat.

He picks up one of the models. "How long?" he asks.

"How long what?" She, too, lifts one of the planes into her palm, admires the way the whole thing has been shaped from a single can.

"How long before it's due?" She glances at him sidelong, but his attention is entirely on the toy in his hands.

"I did the test before we flew here."

"Oh," he says. He places the trinket back on the table, offers a weak smile to the woman as he turns away. Still attached to his arm, she barely has time to return her ornament to its place in the display.

"Are you hungry yet?"

She nods her head. "Not yet," she says. "I'm bored of the noise. Let's walk somewhere else for a while."


They cross into the strip of parkland between the lines of the market and the lanes of the main highway separating the city from its sea wall. The soil is damp in places from earlier rain, though she manages to match his even stride across the uneven grass. Beyond the grass, the road, the wall, the strip of blue water, reclines El Morro fort – old in its bricks, veiled by its trees. Turning, she looks instead along the length of the road. Beyond the market, the seafront buildings are dilapidated, needing more than a coat of paint to restore them to their thirties-gangster glory. He, too, chooses to look at the city rather than the fort.

"What I'll remember most about this city," he starts.

"The people?" she guesses. "The hustlers and loiterers and beggars?"

"The smells," he says. "Everywhere you go, the smells of dampness, decay, rot."

"It doesn't smell in the hotel," she says, drawing his waist into the crook of her elbow.

"No," he agrees. "The hotel smells of grafters scrubbed up to look handsome and pretty while they extract every peso from your pocket."

"It's not their fault. What is it that boy told us? Four and a half million people live here, but only one and a half million of them are policemen."

"He wanted ten pesos to take us to a salsa festival on the other side of town."

"At least he didn't want to sell us cigars."

"True. What do you want?"

She looks up into his face; he keeps his gaze on the cars and taxis jostling for position on the road, racing who knows where.

"I want ice cream," she answers, if only to end the brief silence. "I want veal and beef in rich sauces. I want proper vegetables. If someone offers me rice and peas, I want to say 'no, thank you.' Pizza would be nice," she adds, "or a big Chinese meal with plenty of chemical additives. In fact" – her hand reaches up to his chin, guides his eyes towards hers by his jaw-line – "I would happily kill the chambermaid for a decent cup of tea."

"They don't have tea in Cuba. They don't have kettles." He's smiling now: not his usual, social smile, but rather something smaller, more personal and reserved.

"But that's the problem," she says. "The idea of people surviving without tea and kettles is just too weird for me to handle. People need kettles; it's a basic human right."

"Families need kettles, too?"

"Yes," she says. "Families need kettles, too."

He stops, turns her to face him. "So what's the problem, then?"

"There's a world of kettles out there. So many to choose from. What if I choose the wrong kettle?"

"Can there ever be a perfect kettle?"

She's smiling now; she can feel the muscles in her cheeks bunching the skin beneath her eyes. "New kettles come on the market every year."

"Maybe kettles should be treasured. Ask the hotel staff – the chambermaid would kill for an honest, reliable, working kettle."

"Maybe you're right," she agrees. "But can a woman settle down with a kettle that was manufactured twenty years before her birth?"

He surprises her with a wink. "Maybe the woman like antiques?"

"Maybe she does," she says, returning his wink. "There's a kind of pride in owning an old kettle that still works, and polishes up nicely too."

He mocks up a look of horror for her, his eyes' tan-lined wrinkles snapping open like fans, his mouth purse-tight to lock away retorts. Then he laughs, and so does she, and they come together in a hug.

"I know of a shop that sells ice cream," he says. "You have to ask the right person, of course, and pay the tip in advance."

"Does it come with mojitos?"

"I expect so. Shall we go and find out?"

"Yes," she says, returning her arm to the back of his waist. "Let's go and find out."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Lammas sun has gone

The Lammas sun has gone

Beyond the glassed face, fish
swim through mulm like ghosts
who haunt cellar barrels
sifting gassed yeast broth;

I'll net you a drink, neck
the skin that sheens from nape
to blade, sift the hairs
weaving your back in whorls -

and after? There is no after.
This face is glassed, the glass
is froth; ghost-white worms
sift mulm, feed fish, swim on.

Monday, September 17, 2007

On the radio

It was hearing the song on the radio that made her do it. It was an old song, a doo-wah song from the sixties – some female trio, she couldn't remember their name now.

They used to sing it together, the three of them behind the prefab classrooms during the breaks between classes. Shelly had had a good voice and knew the words; Trish had memorised the dance from watching the singers on Top of the Pops – hands go here, fingers point just like that. How they'd giggled. She'd tagged along to make up the numbers. After a few days, and a few arguments along the way, they'd worked it all out. Three new women ready to take the world in a synchronised strut, pitch almost-perfect.

What had happened to them?

She had been in the kitchen when the song had come on. She hadn't even realised it was playing until she noticed her hand scrubbing the big oven, with its six cooking rings, in time to the music. Then she'd stopped working and started listening, a small smile across her small, triangular face. Good memories.

Now she was sitting at Mrs Smith's table. Mrs Smith had a large house which needed cleaning twice a week, forty pounds cash-in-hand, no questions asked. One time, Trish had asked her: what do you want to do when you leave this dump? Well, she'd got what she wanted. The job had been routine, stacking shelves and playing checkout girl, but it gave her the pay packet at the end of the week – her passport to some good times. The husband had been more of a disappointment: he still was, she thought, but they'd worked well together, got their names on the waiting list, got into their own flat before the kids started arriving.

Trish had wanted riches; Shelly had wanted fame. A woman with a tight waist and a good voice could dream of record contracts. She'd not fitted in with those plans – she was more of a Babs Windsor than a Twiggy in those days, she mused as she got the mop out and made a start on the kitchen flagstones.

She hadn't thought of them for ages. Years. Most of the time she lost herself in worries about her boys as she hoovered, or shopped, or cooked, or the never-ending saga of her mother's illness. Suddenly there was an emptiness in her. She needed to know if her school mates – friends forever – had achieved their dreams.

Mrs Smith had a telephone in her kitchen. She picked it up as if to polish it. Maybe she could phone the radio station, tell them about how the three of them had performed that song. She'd heard others phone up and reminisce; it was one of those phone-in shows, in any case.

Mrs Smith wouldn't mind one phone call, surely.

It was strange, the way her fingers already knew the number to dial.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Jack's final contemplation

The first time Jack left his body, he had a revelation.

He could see himself sprawled across the bathroom floor. One of his arms was still clutching his chest, though there was no pain now. "So it wasn't indigestion after all," he mused. His other hand was grasped around the end of the toilet paper; the attack had been so sudden that half the roll seemed to have unreeled across his body as he fell, as if trying to hide him in a ribbon of blushing pink.

"May's going to have a fit when she sees this!"

He could hear his wife in the kitchen, knocking plates together in the sink in an effort to remove supper scraps from china-white surfaces. She never tidied the bathroom until after he'd completed his morning routine.

"I should be scared," thought Jack, "I'm dead!"

He looked around the bathroom from his vantage point near the ceiling – which was not as well dusted as May claimed it was. Fine cracks crazy-paved the powdery emulsion, with tapering columns of gossamer stalactites – old spider threads, he supposed – slowly swaying in the slight summer breeze from the window. Watching the motion was calming, mesmerising even. Jack remembered watching TV shows about divers drifting through kelp forests. He'd always wanted to go diving, but his fear of water had kept him anchored to land all his life.

Looking back down, Jack could survey the shipwreck that had been his body. He remembered being proud of his physique when he was breathing: 'a fine figure of a man', as May would tell him every so often. Now he could see it for what it was – a collection of mounds strung together by bones, held in place by too-tight skin. The fat had collected mainly around his waist and belly, but there was also a broad necklace of it supporting his chin. The skin itself was pale, greying, with a mosaic of hairs and fine, purple veins across its expanse.

"May was right. That hair looks stupid," he thought. Every morning he'd carefully arranged his thinning strands across the top of his head, fluffed it a little to 'make me look just a little younger'. He'd never noticed the baldness at the back of his head – he'd never seen it before. Now he could enjoy the ridiculousness of it all. He could appreciate the way hair tufted from his ears.

"Jack? What are you doing in there?"

"I'm fine, dear. I'm having a contemplation!" It was their little in-joke, the ten minute break from each other's company to attend to bodily functions.

"Jack! Talk to me. Are you okay?"

"Oh, May," he thought. "You're going to be so sad soon." But not even the idea of his wife's anguish could break this peacefulness.

Outside, a bird throated a a 'come-hither' call. Jack went to look at the world.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

John's new game

"John, love. Look, I'm sorry ..."

He could see her reflected in the window shop, a still body among the hurrying shapes in the street, merged into an array of violent, sophisticated computer game display boxes. He was there, too, a pint-size parka jacket, hood up, fat sleeves shoved into pockets.

"John, come on, now! There's no need to behave like this. Let's go home, now ..."

The rush of words took him by surprise: "Whose home? Your home? His?"

"Our home, John. Yours and mine."

"Until it's his turn to have me!" How could his Mum and Dad have stood there in the street arguing about him like that? They didn't even ask him what he, John, wanted to do.

"That's not my choice, John. You know that. The court said you have to visit him twice a month."

"And you let them tell you what to do? I hate him! I don't ever want to see him again!"

"John ..."

"No, Mum. You let him shout at you in the street. You let him order you around: 'do this, do that. Drop him off tomorrow at eleven. Don't be late!' It's like he owns us!"

"He loves you, John. You know that. He's taking you to see the game tomorrow ..."

"I don't want to go and watch football with him!"

"Now stop it, John!" In the window he could see his mother reach out her hand to his shoulder. When he felt the touch he scrunched his head down, turned to face her as he moved away. But he couldn't look at her. Beyond them the crowds had turned into a surge of adults heading towards the station. Some of them were staring at him and his mum, slowing a little as they passed them – like a car crash.

"Look, love. I know it's been hard on you. But this isn't the time or place to talk about it, okay? Lets go and buy this game of yours and then we'll go home. We can pick up a McDonalds on the way home, if you like."

John said nothing. He didn't know what to say. He didn't know what to call the tight knot of rage and embarrassment just below his heart. Instead, he punched the window.

"It must have been faulty, flawed," his mother had tried to explain to the shop manager later. "It shouldn't have just shattered." But John didn't notice – all he could remember was the way the shards and sparking edges had danced around his fist, a kaleidoscope of rush-hour crowds and startled cars.

Tears pinched their way from his eyes; something hot was dribbling across his wrist. Yet just like the window, the strange pain in his belly had shattered, flown away. Beyond the glass remnants, boxes called for his attention: 'Play Me!' they cried.

'Why should I?' he thought, not noticing his mother's hugs and screams.

'This game's much more fun!'

Friday, September 14, 2007

Ofishull: i am an writter

Or so claims the piece of paper I got from the Open University today telling me that I have passed the OU novel writing short course I completed over the summer.

Although I think the word "pass" is a bit meagre. I got well over 80% on both my marked submissions and you only need 40% to pass the course. Maybe if the piece of paper had said "double pass" or "pass plus quite a bit extra" I'd be happier. Though I am happy, of course!

The good news is that I'm going to be posting some more stories over the next few days. The bad news? How can there be bad news? I'm going to be posting some more stories to the blog over the next few days. This is a "no bad news" scenario. You will both enjoy reading my blog over the next few days.

The even better news is that I've passed the 40,000 word mark on my novel. I'm aiming for around 100k - it's science fiction, where the current trend seems to be to consider anything less than 120k as a bit, well, anorexic. But it's got sex and intrigue and burning women and did I mention the sex yet so I'm hoping I'll be forgiven the missing words when it comes round to submitting the novel to agents etc - which should be sometime in the new year if I can keep the pace up.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Yes, it's a bit of a controversial website - people posting other people's work without permission and stuff - but it's not that different to youtube and everybody finds youtube really useful (especially now youtube seem to be doing something about the flagrant copyright abuse stuff). So I signed up and posted a couple of my pdf chapbooks. After all, it's much better for me to post my own copyrighted work to the site rather than have someone else do it for me (without me knowing sort of thing).

Oh yes: here's my page. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Scary jobs

I can't believe I forgot to add a link on the blog to my latest fabulous pdf collection of poems Poems to Quote to your Lover (before and after you fuck) - now corrected, if you look over to the right.

Anyways, on with this post. I haven't written any new poems or short stories; I haven't produced any more oilified photos of my baby kittens; and I haven't had any mad ideas lately. So I suppose I'll have to make up one of those blog game thingies.

Here's the question: Tell us all about three jobs you ran away from.

And to start the ball rolling, here's my answers:

1. I was in the army for 7 weeks. I actually enjoyed being in the army, but unfortunately my repressed sexuality couldn't cope with the all-male environment. If only I'd learned to relax more ...

2. How many people in England remember John Major's Cones Hotline? For those not lucky enough to remember our former Prime Minister's second greatest idea (the greatest idea being the Citizen's Charter, of course), the Cones Hotline was a telephone number which angry drivers could phone up to report gangs of rogue traffic cones roaming across our great nation's motorways (I kid you not!) The job of setting up the Cones Hotline fell to the Highways Agency, or more specifically my line management at the Highways Agency. When I heard of this brave new initiative I knew immediately on whose desk the hotline phone was going to fall. Dear reader, I ran away from the Highways Agency as quick as my stubby legs could carry me!

3. I actually ran to the Department of the Environment (as it was known at the time), landing comfortably in the Waste Directorate, where I was employed in the team responsible for producing the Waste Strategy for England (eventually published in 2000). That job was fun, but all things come to an end. As the date for publishing the strategy grew close, decisions were taken in the Directorate about what we'd be doing after publication. I drew the charred straw, and for three whole, glorious weeks I was the lead policy advisor on waste incinerators and incineration policy. The doors of that building flapped so hard at my departure that they came off their hinges!

So there you go: three jobs I ran away from. Now I want to hear from Scavella, Rob and Julie - tell everyone which jobs you ran away from. Your prize for revealing all on your blogs will be to nominate three other lucky people to play this fun game.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Rikweb back up again

You may (or may not) have noticed that my website has been missing in action for over a week now. Long story. More grey hairs. Enough said.

Except to say that the website is once more (fingers crossed) operational, though only for the poetry side of things. The conlanging and conworld parts of the web will have to remain offline for the time being.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Question: introducing characters

One of my writing weaknesses is introducing characters - especially the bit-part, walk-on characters who are only with the reader for two or three pages. For instance, can you visualise this person from the text I use to introduce him? Should I be using more details? Less? What sort of information are you hoping to get upfront when a story introduces a chorus-line actor?

Levruekkas the Springman was older than many, making him easy to identify in the gang of workers who were busy hauling one of the larger generators out of the water. A semi-circle of loose, roughly platted, unfashionably long hair edged around his dark, bald crown, giving him the appearance of a outlaw out of legend. The Guardsman knew that the Springman went to some length to cultivate this image, probably because it was good for business. The other men were shorter and stockier – almost certainly Servants – four of them hauling on pulley ropes with another two, no three, still in the water. All the Servants were naked, and given the age and wear of the Springman's short tunic he might as well have been naked too.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Conlangs make the news

... or rather, the LA Times, courtesy of reporter Amber Dance. An interesting and well-written piece, I think.

In their own words -- literally, Amber Dance, LA Times, 24 August 2007.

Time for some more ...

Oilified photos (from my Flickr stream):

Oilified contented cats

Oilified iris

Oilified Rik

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Burramesh city map

Displacement activity is when you do something else instead of what you're supposed to be doing. I'm supposed to be writing my book, but I've smithied not a single word today. Instead I decided I was getting myself confused about what the characters were up to, and where, so in a classic displacement move I spent a couple of hours map-making:

Unfortunately, the only displacement activities left involve housework: either I add a thousand more words to the story tonight, or the house gets hoovered.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Ning me!

'Kay, so you both know that I have issues with social networking sites. MySpace? Depressing. Facebook? Confusing.

Something is telling me that I ought to be active and joyous on these social networking sites. I should be promoting my perfectly formed arse off, handing out poems to the masses, cozying up to fellow poets and editors and publishers, getting me an audience that has no other purpose in life apart from worshipping my genius, yadda, yadda, yadda. I mean, the social networking internet is the place to be, yes?

Toooo scary!

There's a new beast on the scene. It's called Ning, and it's scaring the little babby jesus out of me! Ning is a website that allows you to create your own social network. I have no idea how it works, or why anyone would want to create their own network (though some appear to be by invitation only, which appeals to the cabbalist in me).

I did a search for poetry-related ning-based social networks: it looks like a crowded space already ...

Edit: Now here's an interesting one - somebody called Erin Geegan has created a social network devoted to the long poem. Unfortunately she's the only member of it (the fate of many Ning groups, I expect), but I could see the purpose of having a site devoted to the writing and appreciation of long poems. I might just join this group, if it's not moribund already, but I feel kinda strange about the thought of being member #2. Does anyone else want to join it with me? C'mon! Hold my hand here, folks!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Story: Dear Sammie

She sat in the bedroom and read his letter. Or rather, she stared at it: stroking the vellum with her forefinger as she tried to focus on the words. She knew what it said, but she wanted the words and sentences to confirm the message, to set out the terms of his departure, the conditions to be met over the next few weeks and months – but each time she started to read her eyes tripped on the first line of his over-round, carefully drawn out handwriting. Sorry. Must. Go.

I don't know what to do. Scream? Is that what you want me to do, Bill? Shall I scream until my lungs are empty of life? What are these words you're screaming at me? Why didn't I see you screaming?

Shame, shame, shame. What to do? I need to do – something. Clean this room up; it's a fucking mess. Our mess, Bill. Your smells and my clutter. Yes, clean house. Clean you out. You want me to make a new start; well you tell me where to start. Where's the fucking instructions, Bill? They're not in your letter. You forgot to include the instructions, you stupid, stupid man.

She breathed out heavily, lifted her eyes from the paper and focussed on window. The muscles clenched around her shoulders bound her to the chair; she wanted to throw things, clear the dresser of its mess in one straight sweep of madness. She wanted to scream, but her lungs weren't responding to commands. She needed a mad rage like she craved for caffeine, but her body denied her such pleasures.

You always leave instructions. This isn't your letter, is it, Bill. Someone told you what to write, what words to put in, what words to keep out. You like instructions. Who helped you write this letter? Who gave you the paper – nice paper, too. Who gave you the idea that buggering off like this would sort things out?

Shit, shit, shit. Sun's glaring on Mary's window across the street straight into here. Shrivel me up like an ant, like that poor ant you burned for Barney with the magnifying glass – come here, son: this is what we do to ants who don't follow instructions. Burn them. Burn them with light and letters. Shall I scream as you burn me, Bill? Is that what you want me to do?

Beyond the closed door, Charlotte watched her mother through the keyhole, like a spy. She knew something was wrong from the moment she had handed over the letter, but what? Dad had said that Mum might not be happy for a few days, and to take special care of her – clearing up toys without being asked, making sure her brother was quieter than normal. He told her not to worry, that Mum would cope – she was a 'coper', was Sammie. Apparently, Charlotte thought, being a coper meant shutting yourself in bedrooms for five hours in the middle of the day.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Are people reading the stories?

Are you enjoying them?

Are there improvements to be made to them?

Am I wasting my time posting them?

Talk to me, folks. Leave a comment if you've got a pulse.

Story: A Little Bit of Culture

John looked through the open door to see another room of cabinets. "It's boring here," he said. "Do we have to stay?" But Jane was already heading towards the first display.

"It's interesting," she murmered.

"It's a pile of old pot shards, that's what it is." He stared accusingly at a neat display of battered clay fragments, each with a tiny number pinned to the wood next to it. Around him, the room was hushed, only the slightest hint of noise venturing through the great shuttered windows high in the whitewashed walls. Ceiling fans spun slowly, whispering the lazy air through the room. Even the air was bored, thought John.

"We could be down on the beach," he said.

Jane looked up at him. "We've spent two days on the beach with Sue and the boys. We've spent another two by the pool – or at least I have. You spent two days perched on a stool by the pool bar. We wasted a day on that island tour with that awful Rep whose only interest was pointing out where all the nightclubs were. Oh, yes, and where to buy the best handbags and jewellery. You agreed we'd look around the town today!"

"I thought it would just be an hour or so. I didn't expect to be dragged round every poxy museum we came across!"

Jane screwed her eyes into That Look: "You're here now. Why don't you soak up some culture to go alongside the rum and cokes you've been throwing down your throat all week."

"How can I soak up culture? They don't even tell you what your looking at?"

"You're looking at pots, John. Pots made three thousand years ago and buried in graves. It makes me wonder about how people did funerals differently in those days. You don't need labels, John. You need a bit of wonder and imagination."

"But you can't even touch things here! Why can't you do this back home, visit a museum or something?"

"John Stewey, if you continue to make a fuss, then I promise you you'll be wearing that cabinet up your arse for the rest of the week! Every day on this holiday I've done what you've wanted to do; now it's my turn. Pretend you're enjoying yourself now, and in a couple of hours you can be back on your bar stool and we'll both be happy, okay?"

John sighed as Jane turned back to look at some arrow heads. He glanced again at the crockery lined up in their shattered ranks, as broken and bored as he felt. At least he could walk out of the door; these bits of clay were here for the duration. Perhaps the ghosts of their owners turned up at night to look at them – now there was a thought.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Kalieda time

People over at the ZBB have been talking about time. It's not just about tenses; what if you design a universe where you can go back and kill your Grandparent - and live. Given that the Kalieda universe is the same as our universe, the grandma issue remains a puzzle. But here's a contribution from me on how my confolks think of time ...

Kaliedan science does not view time as a sequence of events - that's just cause and effect. Rather, they view time as an accumulation of information that passes from one moment to the next moment (as perceived by humans, who they believe tend to operate by taking 'digital' snapshots of their 'analogue' surroundings). In this view, information is continually gathered, but is also lost as it is forgotten or destroyed.

Kaliedan science sees people mostly as a bundle of reactions to stimuli. Large-scale future actions of people can be predicted on knowledge of their past reactions - leopards don't change their spots. Consciousness (sp?) is an artifact of brain activity - a predictive mechanism for guessing the short- and long-term possibilities based on history. Free will exists within the constraints of habits and physical possibilities.

For Kaliedan science, time travel is not an issue. If you want to change the past, you change the information. The idea of travelling back in time to kill your grandfather is nonsensical, as your grandfather is manifest in your genetic information - which is impossible to supress. It makes a lot more sense just to claim your grandfather was in fact someone else - killing your grandfather by denying the existence of his information in you; if enough people believe you, you have killed your grandfather.

Many Kaliedan scientists are also religious people. Religion is seen as a human construct - a social contract between people which is part of humanity's genetic inheritance - a survival trait, if you like. It's also a big comfort to believe in something. God (or gods, spirits, demons etc) exists because people have constructed an information base in which god can exist, and their reactions and decisions are based on this information base - thus god is made manifest in the world without having to go to the bother of actually existing.

The cognitive metaphors associated with the passage of time vary between languages. Ramajal, the main Ambostak Society language, has a view of time a a road to be travelled upon (information is gathered as you journey along the road, you have limited information of what is in front of you, but a more extensive collection of information about the past, stored as memories, notes, photos, friends, offspring, etc). Thus the past, present and future are viewed as an integral part of space-and-motion within the language.

Gevey, the main Balhe Society language, prefers to view time as a series of interlocking circles and springs - for Gevey speakers time is a separate entity from space-and-motion; it has its own oblique case. Gevey also has two past tenses, one for acts with unavoidable consequences and the other for acts whose consequences can be ameliorated by applying some free will.

A third example are the Telik languages, spoken by the Telik peoples. Their languages' view of time is similar to the Ambostak view of time, except here the direction of travel is different - the direction of time is upwards, from the future beneath one's feet to the past above one's head. For the Telik, the future is not something that is encountered as one travels, but rather something that can be prepared, tended, planned for. The past is in the skies (some believe you can see history in the formation of clouds or the position of the stars - information that can be used to cultivate a preferred future).