Monday, June 05, 2017

5 Things to Keep In Your Pockets If, God Forbid, You Should Have An Accident And Lose Your Memory

1. A matchbook from sleazy club. Not too sleazy though. The waitresses keep their tops on. It’s always good to have somewhere you can get a drink on your investigation trail. [1]

2. A 1937 Silver Half Crown. These go for about £10 which is not a lot, but enough to get you started. Also when the antiques guy notes that it is suspiciously unworn it will raise the question of time travel.

3. A small screwdriver. Always useful.

4. Page 3 of 5 of a letter in which the unnamed writer talks about their reasons for doing something that they don’t explain on that page. Mystery and foreshadowing and some ideas for questions to ask. [2]

5. A key ring advertising Bob’s garage, but unfortunately the phone number has rubbed off, and the key is a copy, not readily identifiable. Whatever it opens will offer at least as many questions as it answers.

[1] Do clubs and bars have matchbooks anymore? Back in the 80s my Dad worked for the Port of Dover and amongst the souvenir/swag items they would give away to visitors were Port of Dover matchbooks, which had the slogan “Matchless”, which now I think of it is not actually that good a slogan to put on a book of matches? Anyway, the actual joke was that the dockers, finding that the matchbook was of low quality and feeling slightly out of sorts with their union at the time claimed the slogan should be “We Never Strike”.

[2] Does anyone write letters anymore? I’m thinking about it and other than formal business and notes in cards I think I maybe wrote two last year?

Monday, May 29, 2017

Don't Use The Seat Of Your Pants, Use a Keyboard Like Me

This is an entry in the Thanet Creative Writers Competition; if this interests you then you can follow that previous link to their blog, or this one to go to the reddit page created for it and find other entires to vote for if you like them. There will be a short advertisment at the end of this post.

Plotting or Pantsing: What is best for me?

It's plotting.

What, you want more? Okay.

Here's a scan of an A4 sheet of paper I had as my plan for writing a novel. (Click on it to make it bigger) The first picture is the relationship and brief character descriptions for the suspects in the murder mystery that would take up the first third of the book. At the top is the question that drives the story: Who Killed Lord Allenmore And Why?

Other notable features of this page include the seating arrangements for the dinner party scene, the word count for the first few days before I decided to record them elsewhere and a few other notes ("Coronation", "Off course betting illegal", and "Canoodling") that I scribbled there because the sheet was to hand and I wanted to write them down before I forgot.

How did I use this page? Essentially, whenever a character appeared I would glance at their motive and relationship and decide what information they would give; when reviewing a scene I would ask if what they said and did was consistent with the details on this page and also check that a motive and whereabouts had explained at some point.

Now the reverse side. At the top the three acts of the novel. Then a list of the events that need to occur in the first act, in the approximate order they would occur in. It's not quite a scene-by-scene breakdown; there are more scenes in the finished work, and some events span more than one scene. However essentially everything that I've noted there occurs in about that order.

At the bottom, upside down, are a few things to remember. So you don't have to stand on your head they say:

Storm? Cutoff?
Telegrams? conflict! (between being cutoff and telegrams. I did not cut them off in the final story.)

The Murder Weapon
- Missing?
- Occult Links?
- Seance!

Servants - Class
ignored? - noticed by Schneemann?

Clothes - Edwardian Casual
Food - Kitchen disrupted
Wigs, makeup, disguise
Cigars - Diving Helmet!

Not all of these elements made it into the final writing (the marzipan and diving helmet are nowhere to be seen and although there is a threat of a seance, it did not occur until Act 3). One of the servants, not noted amongst the list of people, went on to become a major character in the story.

My plotting is not so much a blueprint as a framework to hang things on. I knew I wanted a parlour scene because it's a classic mystery denouement, and I had some good jokes for it. Exactly what would be revealed, who would be accused, what the solution was - all that was up for grabs. "The Police" appears once on the sheet, and relatively late, but they are major drivers of the plot, forcing people to declare their innocence, investigating things better left undiscovered, trampling the flowerbeds looking for the weapon.

In fact when I sat down to write (not the first scene, which I had previously written as an exercise, so I began on page three, always a nice feeling) I hadn't decided on the killer; at least two and possibly four of them were in the frame. I intended to choose whoever seemed appropriate at the time.

Or in other words I was going to improvise, create the solution by the seat of my pants, and then edit the clues to make sense in the second draft. That's the way to write, leaving it all open, a space in which to just let loose.

Might be worth noting that my ideas for Act 2 when I started writing Act 1 were - heist, seven statues, boss, apprentice, crew, villains, chase, vault, misdirection. By the time I got there I had several pieces of paper like the ones you see here.

Act 3 was - Things Get Weird. CONFRONTATION WITH THE BAD GUY.

There you go.

The novel that emerged from this planning some four and a half drafts later is an Edwardian comedy crime story called The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman and is available at for both Kindle ebook and in paperback. Before you rush off and buy it, a friend is currently giving it a solid line reading to try and make things like capitalisation and punctuation consistent so I shall be creating a new version of it, hopefully towards the end of June. The ebook will update when that happens; any paperbacks printed before that will, sadly, have both missing and unecessary commas. The book can be purchased here.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Thanet Love

This is an entry into the Thanet Creative Writers Writers Writing Competition responding to The Thing I Love Most About Thanet Creative Writers. I have, of course, approached it obliquely in the actual piece so I'll say I like that it gets me feedback, I'm not just throwing words out on the internet for them to vanish without a trace.

What do you love most about Thanet Creative Writers?

Well this is awkward. Obviously it’s possible to feel love for an organisation, a group, a gathering of people formal or informal. Even fictional things can be loved. Sometimes I think that everyone I’ve ever loved were fictional!

That came out wrong.

I mean we’ve been hanging out for a few months now so perhaps I should have expected this. It’s just, you know, it feels like we’ve skipped a step or two.

It’s like this: I know you value words and don’t use them lightly. So when you say ‘What do you love about Thanet Creative Writers?’ you’re not using the word to mean something like ‘I would really love some ice cream’. There’s more emotion there. Not that there isn’t emotion about ice cream, but it’s an ephemeral thing, more of a crush than a...

Still, we’re not talking about settling down forever are we. It’s just, you know, a thing. You knew from the start I write elsewhere.

I knew you’d understand. That’s what I... that’s one of the great things about you. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Writing Advice

Classic Writing Advice: Show, Don’t Tell

Alternate Writing Advice:

Tell us everything we need to know. Pour that information out on us. Cut out the unneeded drama and description and have a character blurt out a hundred years of family history. Boil your story down to the one key scene and explain to us how we got here and why we should care. Make sure we understand what is going on, then hit us with your best shot.

Classic Writing Advice: Write What You Know

Alternate Writing Advice:
Write what you don’t know. Write things you’ve barely glimpsed, half-imagined. Write of places you haven’t been, that don’t exist, that are impossible. Write about people who surprise you, events you can’t predict, emotions you’ve never felt. Make up stories you never thought of. Tell tales only you can tell, and only today because you didn’t know them until now. Use words you had to look up, figures of speech you hadn’t heard before, slang so fresh and raw you don’t know how rude it is.

Dive deep into a pool of ignorance and pluck pearls from the bottom. Create situations that are unfamiliar and then break them so they are unrecognisable. Turn off into an unfamiliar genre, then ignore the conventions and write it into uncharted territories. Write what you know, then delete it and write something else, new and dark and unexpected.

Classic Writing Advice: Write From The Heart

Alternate Writing Advice:

Fingers, feet, voice, or, at a pinch, some sort of eye movement detecting system are probably better choices.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Some Things That Are Not Wrong And Some Things That Clearly Are In The Video To Tragedy By Steps

Some Things That Are Not Wrong With The Steps Video of Tragedy

The Steps girls are easily convinced to not go through with their weddings
- Get married or go on wacky girl-boy-band adventures? I know which I'd choose.

They all go to the reception
- Why not? It's already paid for.

The dance H and Lisa do for about one second at 4:12

- This is the best dance.

Some Things That Are Clearly Wrong With The Steps Video Tragedy

All three Steps girls get married on the same day but in different venues
- This is extremely inefficent and prevents any of them attending each others weddings. Now perhaps they AREN'T that close or have fallen out. But in that case why leave their husbands at the altar and go off for more pop band hijinks? None of this makes sense.

H and Lee are driving in a two-seater vintage convertible
- They successfully convince the girls to abandon their wedding, but they don't have a vehicle ready to make a retreat. This is bad planning. Admittedly on the evidence of their videos the Steps boys are not good at planning AT ALL but still.

Lisa's fiance is blond, but his place is taken by Lee who is dark haired
- There's a lot to take think about when you're walking up the aisle, or so I'm told, and that's even if you aren't singing at the time. Does Lisa know who it is and fake surprise? (have a look from 1:40-ish) Either way poor planning by the Steps boys. AGAIN.

The three jilted grooms end up together in Lisa's church and fail to untie Lisa's former finace
- How did they get there? Why haven't they turned the lights on? And why is he still tied up? Are they all too polite to mention it?

H goes up the aisle on a scooter
- Unnecessary.

Saturday, April 22, 2017


- Look both ways before crossing the road.
- Be prepared[1]
- Be yourself
- To be yourself you have to know yourself[2]
- To be yourself you have to know your place in the world which means you have to know enough of the the world to find your place which may not be obvious
- To be yourself you will have to have been other people
- If you love someone you should probably tell them
- If you love someone you should probably tell them soon
- If you love someone you should probably... look I'm not the person to tell you when is the right time, my qualifications are more on the wrong time, and waiting too long, and maybe one day finding yourself with one hand full of regrets and the other holding a beer, sitting dry eyed while someone tells you about someone you loved once and how that story is pretty much over
- A hat can keep your head cool in summer
- A hat can keep your head warm in winter
- A hat can keep your head dry, even when there's a lot of wind that would turn your umbrella inside out, though a hat with a brim, which keeps the rain off you, can also catch the wind and go flying down the street where you'd lose it except a friendly passing motorist runs over it so you can catch up
- The right advice at the wrong time can be as bad as the wrong advice at the right time, though it's never the right time to give wrong advice
- The timing of advice can be as important as the quality and often people don't want advice they want someone to listen or just sympathise with them
- Maybe think a bit before offering advice as even good advice at the right time might not be welcome or the best response to the situation
- Maybe measure twice, cut once is what I'm saying[3]
- If someone says they have one piece of advice they probably have more
- If someone says they have one piece of advice and they actually only have one then it's worth listening to if only because it's what they think is important
- If someone says they have one piece of advice and they write a rambling essay on their blog they've probably got something on their mind and even if the advice is terrible or irrelevant or impossible to tease out from the tangents it may still be worth reading because they think it's something they want to say
- Try to get some sleep and eat a couple of meals every day, and keep hydrated.

This is an entry for the Thanet Creative Writer's Writers Writing Competition responding to the prompt  The one piece of advice I feel qualified to give. In real life I have many qualifications, both official and otherwise, and as this piece no doubt shows if I am shy about giving advice based on them it is because often advice is not as welcome or useful as we might hope. If you have a comment or, indeed, advice on this piece then you can do so either below or at this subreddit.

[1] This is of course the Scout motto. "Run a team like a Scout patrol, run a meeting like a game of D&D" is advice I'm qualified to give but may be over-specific.

[2] "Know Yourself" was carved on the Oracle at Delphi, as was "Everything in Moderation." Presumably when they say everything, that includes doing things to excess, so long as you're moderate about it; after all even moderation should only be taken in moderation.

[3] An old woodworking proverb I first came across in Neuromancer.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

I Read Books: Nailbiters

Full Disclosure: This copy of Nailbiters was provided by Steve Shaw of Black Shuck Books who I have known for not quite thirty years and may have once hidden a bottle of Bishop's Finger in the cistern of my parent's toilet.

This is a collection of Paul Kane's short fiction, ranging from mundane crime to outright fantastic horror, but mostly lurking somewhere in between as psychological thrillers. As is the case with these genres, and with short stories, most of them depend for their effect on a twist, a subversion of expectations, a sudden revelation. As such I should try and avoid spoilers. In addition a simple list of stories with a brief description is not usually the best way to review an anthology. So obviously, let's get on with it.

Stalking The Stalker - A poem that uses the form to reveal an amusing and slightly over-clever story.

Grief Stricken - Revenge gone wrong. Lots of twists and turns for such a short piece - perhaps too many although as I saw some coming in fact the right amount?

Check-Out - Janet works in a supermarket and also lives inside her own head. It may end badly if someone buys beans.

The Opportunity - More stalking. Another twist.

Cold Call - Strange things happen in a call centre, which is odd as when I worked in one it was extremely dull.

The Torturer - Kidnapped, tortured, Andy Brooks can't answer his interrogator's questions. The answers may be in his dreams.[1]

Remote - Remote viewing leads to emotional distance.

Gemini Rising - A strange story about twins, murder and growing up.

The Anniversary - A story of a couple's thirty year marriage.

1,2,3... 1,2,3 - Obsessive compulsive counting and fairytales.

The Greatest Mystery - Dr Watson commits a murder and Sherlock Holmes grapples with death.

Baggage - The metaphor of carrying around baggage from previous relationships is literalised.

Graffitiland - A small time criminal finds himself in a deadly game. This story, although one of the longer ones, feels as though it could do more; characters have more to say and because of the structure the epilogue doesn't fit. I think this is an interesting failure.

Protégé - Pride in a child.

Nine Tenths - A story of thefts.

At The Heart Of The Maze - A man has an horrific fantasy.

Blackout - Kelly is afraid of the dark. One night it comes for her.

Cyclops - Possession and violence.

R.S.V.P. - A job applicant asks for a second chance.

Nightmare on 34th Street - Christmas is New York can be trouble if you're a cop.

Sin - A fairytale turned upside down, inside out, and quite as nasty as the original. My favourite of the collection.

Suit of Lies - Lies, or perhaps fabrications, take on a literal life of their own.

A Suspicious Mind - Riffing off the Elvis classic.
As noted this gets quite grim at times though the cover should give you a hint on that so don't say you haven't been warned. I found quite so many twists and shocks in one go exhausting, so I would recommend dipping in and out rather than sitting down and consuming them all at once. That said the reveals were never less than competently executed and occasionally truly disturbing. The minutiae of sad and gritty lives is always well observed. I did like the fairytale inspired ones a lot, though that's me and fairytales.

Read This: For twists, turns, shocks, scares and most especially if Steve hands you a copy.
Don't Read This: If murder, rape, mutilation and the tension in the expectation of something horrible doesn't float your boat.
Also: Check out other books Steve has published. See if there's something you like!

[1] This one was pretty grim in a book full of unpleasant things happening. Still a title like The Torturer, you can't say you haven't been warned.