Writing the threads of my reality

Query me this, Batman

So yeah. Queries. The bane of my existence.

As I get to the end of the second draft of the Novel, I realise I have to start thinking about queries. At some point I'll have to get an agent interested in selling it if I'm ever going to see it in print. So it follows that I must start practicing my query-writing, and try to put together a decent one in order to pitch my book.

It's like trying to think of a title all over again. Ever wonder why I call it 'the Novel' and not by its actual name? It's because it hasn't got one at all; anything I've ever thought of has sounded daft or just plain inappropriate. May the gods help me when the time comes to get it into dead tree form, because I'll need someone else around to help me come up with a good title.

The irony of having a vast imagination, full of story ideas and scenes and characters, but being completely unable to think of one good name for a book is not lost on me.

Queries are much the same. I have to step away for a minute, and try to see the Novel from the outside. What makes it interesting? What makes it gripping? What would make an agent leap off their chair and scream for the manuscript? I spend so much time inside it, so many hours with my characters and plot, that it's a lot more difficult that you'd think. They live because I give them life, and a world to play in; my creations, my joy, my pain, my soul. Authors hold on so tightly to their own threads that letting them go, even for an instant, is almost unthinkable. It's as if we're afraid that the woven tale will unravel the moment someone else holds it, and all our work will be undone.

I suppose the greatest test of a book is whether it survives in someone else's grasp. If the story falls apart under another gaze, then it's a sign that the author hasn't really done a very good job. But riddle me this, Batman - what can the author do when their story is torn apart by an outsider, such as an editor? How do you feel when your creation lies broken before you?

I'm getting a bit too metaphorical. Blame it on my lower-than-normal tea consumption today.

People were asking me a while ago what the Novel is about. I realised that I really couldn't answer that question at the time. There was so much in it, so many things I was too close to. Nowadays I can describe it a little; it's about danger, and excitement, and daring feats of courage, and the power of desperate friendships and alliances made under fire. And other things. And maybe ninjas. And there's a scene with a pirate ship.

Not much of a query letter, no? Let me get to the end of the draft, and then we'll see if I can step away long enough to write a query that makes sense.

Fight Music

Writing fantasy usually means writing a certain amount of fight scenes, it seems. Writing fantasy action adventure means that times ten.

I love it, really. If I could write action movies for a living, I would in a heartbeat. I love epic fights, and huge odds, and danger and excitement. Every time I send my characters into the firing line, I can visualise it all - every strike and leap, every random act of badassery. I'm not sure if it works on paper, and I'm not even sure what I'm aiming for, but I do know that it is awesome inside my head.

When I write action, I need a soundtrack.

The right music sets my mind racing. Different songs for different things, different themes and scenes and feelings, but each one will light up my imagination and turn a flat fist fight into rip-roaring chaos. It's part of my creative process; I believe without a doubt that I couldn't have even come up with the initial idea for the Novel if I didn't have a particular song, even a particular riff, to listen to. Here's a few of my favourites:

Foo Fighters' The Pretender. There's something raw about it, something desperate and angry and perfect for vicious, bloody, last stand fights.

What if I say I'm not like the others
What if I say I'm not just another one of your plays
You're the pretender
What if I say that I'll never surrender

The whole song is wailing, screaming pain. I love it.

Nightwish's Ghost Love Score. One of the original theme songs for the Novel, in fact; I always envisioned making a trailer using this, and some of the best scenes - well, the ones I like, whether they're good or not is up for debate - were at least a little bit inspired by it. It's probably the most epic song Nightwish have ever done.

My fall will be for you
My love will be in you
If you be the one to cut me
I will bleed forever

It's a blend of soaring orchestra and thumping rock; blood-roaring, uplifting, head-rushing.

Ok Go's Here It Goes Again. No, really. Strange at it may seem, this song is the perfect blend of fast, trippy beats to play over my bar room brawls and chase scenes! It's got the right amount of happy, comical bouncing, like Benny Hill but less ridiculous and more chaotic.

Just when you think that you're in control
Just when you think that you've got a hold
Just when you get on a roll
Here it goes, here it goes, here it goes again

I can't help liking it a lot. It's got treadmills, remember, making it doubly awesome.

Someday, if I'm excessively bored, I think I might put together a top ten list of the soundtrack to the Novel. Then people can read the book, and listen to the songs at the same time - and get an insight into my frequently deranged way of thinking.

Prince of Persia: Assassin's Creed

Or so my better half calls it. He's not far wrong; the movie is full of the kind of crazy acrobatics that Altair got up to in the game, but in fairness, Prince of Persia did it first.

I personally like to call it Prince of Persia: Look at Jake Gyllenhaal, Isn't He Sexy.

I saw it over the weekend. It's the usual Hollywood fare. The script and dialogue is mostly predictable, and mostly brain-dead. There's this dagger, see, and if you have it and this sand stuff, you can turn back time for about a minute. You can use it to destroy the world. The bad guys want it so they can conquer everything, and the good guys want to stop them.

Yes, yes, seen it a hundred times before. If you didn't figure out that Ben Kingsley plays the bad guy within the first ten minutes, you probably need help getting dressed in the morning. Hijinks ensue as the dagger gets stolen, repeatedly, by everyone who comes into contact with it. The hero and heroine don't trust each other to begin with, but form a bond through crazy life-threatening antics that eventually blossoms into kissing at the worst possible moment, as the bad guy is about to rip reality a new one and maybe you should get over there and kick his ass because it's not like you have anything else to do.

Did I like it? Eh, yes, I did. It was watchable, and didn't do anything to really trigger the deep and unrelenting rage I harbour for most Hollywood films. It was action-filled blandness for the most part.

Ah, but I wouldn't be writing here if it was just another action flick. Oh no, dear reader. A movie has to have something really special - or really rageworthy - for me to elevate it to must-blog-about status. And the reason I have decided to bestow such an honour on Prince of Persia is this: Jake Gyllenhaal is really, really hot.

I don't see enough really good looking Hollywood stars. Look what else is out at the moment - Robin Hood? Russell Crowe, no offense to the man, is no male model. He's an actor, and a good one, but he's not there to be eye candy. Will Smith is not attractive and never has been (no, really, and you're not fooling anyone by saying he is). Other notable top earners are Leonardo DiCaprio, Bruce Willis, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler... Orlando Bloom, maybe? Again, not really male models - Ben Stiller in Zoolander doesn't count, as I've seen enough male models to know that he doesn't look like them.

Oh, but Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia. Oh my.

He's playing a rugged, stubbly, muscled warrior. He is very attractive. He is a good actor. And, if I may say so, he has the kind of raw sex appeal in this movie that's so unbelieveably hot it could set things on fire from a great distance. I'm stunned that there weren't more women in the theatre when I saw it, but more than a little relieved as well because otherwise I'd probably have to wade through a river of drool to get out.

I don't know of many other actors who could really pull that off. It's expected for actresses, of course; how many plain female stars are there? Pitifully few, compared to the men, because a leading lady is supposed to set the screen alight in Hollywood Land. Actors seem to do it by accident more than anything else.

Hmm... Jude Law, possibly. He could pull it off in the right role. Elvis Presley, because he's the King and nothing will ever change that. James Dean. Robert Downey Jr., but I'm not sure he's all about the raw sex appeal - Sherlock Holmes notwithstanding. There are icons of the screen going back a while that do come to mind, but not in the same volume as actresses.

Could I even begin to hope that this is a turning point? That Hollywood has finally decided to intentionally add elements to its action flicks to attract female film-goers? On one hand, it's pretty unimaginative ("Hey, we should add something to get women into the cinema... let's cast a sexy man in the lead role! It works the other way around, doesn't it?"), but on the other hand, they're actually making an effort, even if it's pathetically cynical. Baby steps, don'cher'know. It isn't much, but it is progress.

So, in summary: go see this movie. If you like hot sexy men, REALLY go see this movie. If you prefer hot sexy women, Gemma Arterton has a fair chunk of screen time and (like the vast, vast majority of female Hollywood stars) she is both hot and sexy. For everyone else, it's a watchable action flick and it'll entertain you pretty well for a few hours.

Late night or early morning?

Damn, I'm tired.

Having insomnia naturally means that I have nothing better to do other than blog about it, tweet about it, and then putz around on the Internet rather than actually getting some tea or something and getting back to bed. I'm yawning, so I must be tired, but it doesn't feel like a you're-exhausted-go-to-bed yawn; more like a just-woken-up, shaking-off-sleep kind of yawn.

I know I should really be back in bed and trying to get some rest, though, because I'm starting to talk nonsense.

I got a new phone yesterday. (Today? If it's this early, does it still count as Saturday? What if I go back to bed? Does it count then?) Right. I'm babbling. Stop it and focus for a second. I got the phone on Saturday, ok? It's a HTC Desire, and my first smartphone.

It is very, very shiny. I have already used it for Twitter and email and all the other fun things you can do with a little device that's at least as powerful as my netbook.

From Photos

That's a picture of the box. I took the photo with the phone itself. This may be far too meta for civilised company, but sleep deprivation has long since washed away my manners.

Word to the wise if you're thinking of getting this phone: the very first app you need to download is the Task Manager. Any task manager, in fact, but I use this one. You want it because there are a number of apps that run in the background that eat battery life, and if you never touch those apps (or view them with deep and unrelenting suspicion), having a task manager like that one will let you shut them down automatically. This equals more battery power, which equals more time for insomnia-fuelled Twitter haikus.

The second app I got was Twidroid, obviously. I now have the power to post 140-character annoyances anywhere I have a mobile phone signal, as opposed to anywhere with a wireless network. And I can tweet photos I take from my phone, if the mobile network allows it - but it probably won't, because the Irish networks can only be charitably called '3G' and more accurately called 'a series of plastic cups connected with string and wishful thinking'.

I'm sure it can do other things. It is, after all, very very shiny.

Yawn. Tired. I must now have tea, least I fall over and sleep on the kitchen floor.

Roll for Initiative

So, my hardback copy of Into the Wild Nerd Yonder arrived and I started to read it when I got home from work today. I did my usual speed reading thing and finished it in just shy of two and a half hours.

The first thing I'm asking myself right now is whether I'm even any good at reviewing books. I read so fast that it becomes less like 'I am now reading each sentance in a logical and continuous manner' and more like 'I have plugged this text directly into my brain, and I am assimilating it Borg-style'. (The second thing I'm asking myself is who should I lend this to first?)

Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern (or ITWNY, as I will call it for the sake of brevity) is a story about the making of a nerd. It's not as rare as you'd think; nerds were not always born to parents who could teach them the ways of nerd-dom, especially way back when D&D hadn't been invented yet. The other accepted method of finding one's path to nerdhood is by falling into it, largely by accident, and that is the path that Jessie takes in ITWNY after the dreaded drama envelops her soon-to-be-ex best friends.

I suppose I could talk about good writing and all that, but let's be honest here - if it wasn't well written, I wouldn't have gotten this far without at least warning you that there was a rant incoming. So yes, it's well written. It's also funny, and quirky, and amazingly light-hearted considering some of the issues it touches on. The characterisations are rock solid. The plot skips along merrily, never leaving you sitting on a dull moment, never letting the teenage angst take hold. It's all told from Jessie's first person perspective, and the highlight of the whole story for me was watching her discover D&D.

Yes, that's pretty much what D&D games are like. And that's what you'll probably think of them the first time you play. FYI: table-top roleplaying games are that damn awesome and then some, and if you turn down a game out of fear of being labelled a freak, that's just too bad.

(If you do decide to join a game, do not touch the other players' dice unless you know it's ok. You think gamblers are paranoid about luck? Just watch the meltdown that happens when some clueless noob touches a D&D player's favourite dice.)

So yeah. ITWNY is not high literature. It is, however, simple, happy, and enjoyable. It's one girl's diary of her journey into the unfamiliar and sometimes unsettling world of nerd-dom, and her discovery that it's really not so bad on the other side.

*pauses to put on reviewer hat*

Blah blah blah coming of age, teenage self-esteem, blah blah blah high school is tough.

Right, that's that done. Here's the Amazon link. Go buy it.

My eyes, the goggles do nothing!

So, I was curious today to learn what jobs there are for graphic designers around Ireland. Now that I've had a chance to play around with CS5, I'm itching to do some design work - maybe do a little more with the blog, or just play around with illustration tutorials.

I love good design. I could be sold on something completely impractical if it has style. I've been subscribed to Yanko Design ever since I got my current job, and I have to say, I would happily throw whatever money they asked at some of their featured tea sets.

Anyway, back to the jobs. Employment in design seems to be thin on the ground all over; people balk at paying €30 an hour for a professional when one of their mates can knock something up for free. But the reality is that you get what you pay for, and amateur, inferior design is worthless to a business. The real shame is that I can work very quickly, and if I had some guidelines or ideas to work from, I can do a basic design in a matter of an hour or two. A friend paid me to design some stickers for his business, using the logo he supplied and a brief outline of what he wanted, and a mere €60 bought him exactly what he needed. Not so expensive, is it?

A bad design is forgettable, which is lethal in advertising. I see it all the time, and wonder how much they paid for it. But of course, a truly rotten design can go above and beyond that and reach agonising heights. Today, dear reader, I would like to introduce you to a terrible design that also happens to be terribly ironic.

Take a look at Prosperity.ie. It's a site that lists employment opportunities in Ireland in marketing, sales, design, and media. I happened across it by accident, and immediately regretted it. The colour was probably chosen to be striking, and might I say, it struck me so hard I got eye strain trying to read the listings.

The links at the top are not obviously links. The job headers are links, and are identical to the site links except in black instead of white, in defiance of the usual convention. The job listings are unformatted walls of text with no space between paragraphs. The search system doesn't allow basic keyword searches while browsing the listings, and the index page doesn't show categories.

Jobs.ie, by comparison, is a triumph of clean, usable design.

It's a shame, to be honest. I read a little about the company, and they seem to have a good philosophy. Their blog is up to date and interesting. The jobs are mostly for Dublin, but there's a wide range on offer and a few I'd be examining more closely if I were seeking gainful employment. But their site, good grief - all I can do is hope it's a work in progress, or something, and pray that they'll be changing the colour scheme.

I read blogs

Many, many blogs. Blogs with interesting articles. Articles that point to other interesting articles, and videos, and photos, and tweets, and comics, and all kinds of stuff. This is how I get the news.

It's actually pretty efficient.

Today I was pointed at an article that made me wonder what, in fact, the staff of dating.uk.msn.com are smoking, and how I can get some at the earliest opportunity. I frequently maintain that men and women are not from different planets (shock and indeed horror!) and therefore should not be such a mystery to each other, and really, if we all just sat down and talked a bit more, I'm sure we could work out our differences and come to a equal and satisfying compromise. But, dear reader, the article above might as well be called, "Women: The Alien Spotter's Definitive Guide", and should you venture to read it, I would postulate that you will be either baffled (if you are a male with female acquaintances) or insulted (if you are an actual real-life female with a working brain, and not a figment of someone's overactive imagination).

The article is a list of 53 things that women apparently don't want men to know. The whole list... good grief, I'm trying to find just one thing that I can get behind, and really, I'm failing. I mean, some of the things I'm reading there would make me seriously question the sanity of anyone who agreed with them! Here are some of the highlights:

  • "We’d happily sleep with your best mate to make you jealous."
  • "If you don’t text or call within 24 hours we’ll feel so unhappy that no amount of chocolate and wine can cheer us up. Though we’ll give it a try."
  • "Here’s how to make us fall for you. One day, come on to us so strong that we’re a bit weirded out by it. Then totally fail to ring us. We’ll wonder what we did wrong, and we won’t be able to stop thinking about you."
  • "We want you to text us from your journey home to say how you can’t stop smiling."

Let's recap: the person or persons speaking here will prostitute themselves to get attention, will drink themselves into oblivion when they don't get that attention, can be casually manipulated because they crave attention, and are also control freaks about how that attention can be paid to them.

This does not describe your average everyday woman. This describes someone with enough mental health problems to keep a therapist in business for years! And the article seems to be somewhat semi-serious, if the opening paragraphs are anything to go by, which means that the possibility exists that some gullible menfolk will wander by and actually think that this is what women are really like.

The mind, it boggles.

I have a suggestion for men who are interested in meeting, dating, falling in love and living happily ever after with a woman. Now, I realise this is a bit radical, so brace yourselves: talk to her. Treat her like another human being, with her own preferences and opinions and habits. Respect her, and get the hell out if she doesn't respect you in return.

But most of all, and I say this for the sake of normal women everywhere, ignore dumbass lists like the one above.

Writing for a living

I've been looking around recently for a second, writing related job. It may surprise you to know, dear reader, that my daily grind does not include anything writing-related; I work for a very boring distribution company, and the kind of work I do involves anything from graphic design to database administration.

Writing has always been my first love, and I made a big mistake when I chose to do something other than writing in college. I did science, and then computer programming, and it got me nowhere. These days I think about returning to study journalism, but what can those courses teach me that I haven't already learned? The art of writing well is 10% talent and 90% practice and hard work, and little enough of either can be taught.

I like the idea of journalism as a career. There's skill in writing an interesting yet balanced article on current events, or conducting an interview and asking the questions you think your readers want answered. Unfortunately, I can't seem to turn up any information on writing for the local papers - for example, a quick google search for "writing for the Irish Times" lists a link to their contact page where people can send in letters to the paper as the first result. I can't find a single mention of careers for either the physical paper or the website.

I've been questioning the quality of Irish news media for a while now. Case in point: a friend of mine was interviewed by the Times over the phone, and his story (a day in the life style of thing) was written up and put on the site. If I remember right, it'll also go into the lifestyle section of the paper itself. But the article, good grief... I expect a journalist to be able to write without making obvious grammatical errors. It's clunky in places, the phrasing and word usage is in dire need of an editor, and it reads badly all over.

It reads like something that was thrown together without editorial oversight, in fact. I have read the Times on occasion, and its usual standard of writing is better than what I see there. I hope that the author will rewrite it for clarity and flow before the paper itself goes to print.

Anyway... I do know the interviewee in question here. Aidan had much to say about the story, and very little of it was flattering. There was a suggestion that some of the things in it were stretching the truth a lot, or - shall we say - there were certain liberties taken with the facts at hand. I have to wonder why, though. He works at a wildlife park filled with exotic animals; surely that's interesting enough without embellishment?

If anyone from the Irish Times is reading this: email me. Talk to me about journalism. I'll happily be a writer for hire, and I can guarantee I'll do a better job.

Tensions running high

So... a large number of Irish citizens march on Dáil Eireann, with the purpose of expressing their opposition to the way in which the Irish government has collectively thrown the country into a spiral of debt and economic decay. The video above is a sample of what happened as a result. It was a planned protest gone horribly wrong.

I've found some information from the Irish Times and the RTÉ website.

I can't embed it, but there's a video here where you can see the gardaí shoving people back, and hear the crowds shouting "No Fianna Fáil Crooks!"

Information about it seems very sketchy right now. I can't get a clear idea of what happened. Were there any arrests made? (added by edit: apparently not) The gardaí can claim what they like about numbers, but the videos show more than five hundred protesters.

Here's another Irish Times article that lists eight hundred people attended the protests.

My big fear is that this will be the start of more protesting, more violence. It ended peacefully this time, but will that last when the full effects of NAMA and the bank bailout start to hit home?

Even bad publicity is good?

The Hunky Dory ad campaign running lately has been getting a lot of attention in the news. The Rape Crisis Network of Ireland and the Advertising Authority of Ireland, for example, have voiced their disapproval, and a storm of criticism has drifted around the Irish spheres of social networking and blogs.

Quoth the IRFU marketing director, Pádraig Power: “tasteless and base, and quite simply unacceptable”.

The ads, for those of you interested, were of scantily-clad, well-endowed young women holding rugby balls. And there was a "witty" tagline added, such as, "Are you staring at my crisps?"

Ho hum, I say. I recall seeing these ads around my area, and my immediate reaction was not to level a charge of sexism against them, but to yawn, loudly and at length. The mantra that 'sex sells' is already so old in advertising that it might as well be prehistoric; using sex to sell potato crisps is hardly the worst of what people can see in this modern age. From a marketing perspective, I call this lazy, at best. It's a cynical and rather unimaginative grab for people's attention - or should I say men's attention - with the presumption that the audience will be enticed into buying crisps because they have seen an image of an attractive woman next to said crisps.

Really, this is the best they can do? I honestly hope Largo Foods (makers of Hunky Dorys) didn't pay much for the campaign. If it wasn't for the outrage, this would be largely forgettable.

All other arguments aside, though, yes, this is a sexist ad campaign. (Forget for a moment that the images are objectifying women - some women feel empowered by such a thing, and so demonising it is a slap in the face to them. For that reason, the effects or lack thereof of objectification are not up for consideration here.) What makes it sexist is that there are only attractive women on display; are we to assume that Largo Foods are not interested in getting the female half of the population to buy their products? Where are the attractive men pandering to the female gaze, enticing them to part with their hard earned cash? If sex sells... why are they not using it to sell to women?

Raymond Coyle, the chief executive of Largo Foods, has already responded to the criticism with the usual non-apology: “I don’t think the ads are at all sexist but if people do think that then I apologise to them." If people do... There is no if, Mr. Coyle. People are complaining very loudly, and displaying what sounds like wilful ignorance of that may not be the best strategy.

The biggest problem that I can see here is that the criticism leveled at the campaign makes much of how it's sexist and objectifying and tasteless... but those images are quite tame in comparison to the American TV shows that are routinely piped into every home with a Skybox in Ireland. Has anyone called Sky to demand that they stop showing Desperate Housewifes, for example? How about America's Next Top Model, or Big Brother? How about the ads for Special K, where a woman is seen choosing what to wear and, gasp, the viewer sees her without any pants on? Hunky Dorys hardly have a monopoly on sexist images, and, for all the moral outrage that this is bad for the kiddies, I'm sure the vast majority of children and teenagers with Internet access have already seen this and more. So where are the howls and cries that Google Image Search needs to be banned?

This leads me to consider that the criticism isn't so much about sexism as it is about prudishness. The effects of Catholicism in Ireland die very hard, and the view that sex is taboo dies even harder. Sex sells, but sex is also forbidden; stepping over the constantly shifting line between merely risqué and outright tasteless is easier than you'd think. I believe people are complaining because Hunky Dorys are an easy target, and because they find any hint of sex to be verboten. It strikes me as being hypocritical - and the reinforcement of the idea that men and women should be ashamed of their natural desires is despicable.

Apparently, they've pulled the campaign entirely now. Largo Foods really didn't have a choice there. The campaign has had an impact, and by canceling it, they can play the role of the penitent and gain back some goodwill from the various bodies that have been complaining. It's a great shame, though. I would bet that they would never have gotten the same level of criticism if they had used both male and female models, and they might have generated a whole new debate on the disproportionate use of women vs. men as objects in advertising.

I've said before that ads need to be a lot more sophisticated nowadays - more than another tired iteration of 'sex sells', at least. But much as I didn't especially like this campaign, the fact that it has been pulled bothers me a lot more. It's a clear indication that we still have a ways to go to evolve as a healthy society.

"I have a dream"

I was thinking recently on the books that really influenced me when I was younger. I generally don't count the books I enjoyed among them; we may all have liked the Famous Five, for example, but those kinds of books were throwaway for me, to be read and liked and then forgotten. The books that get into your head and under you skin generally have a little more depth.

First, some background: I was fifteen before I saw a black person in real life, as opposed to on television or on a movie screen. I was in Boston, on holiday with my family. We had just gotten out of the airport, and I saw a man walking down the street. If I recall right, I pointed it out to my mother - but she only told me off for being silly.

One of the books that I read when I was about thirteen was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. It's a very complicated book. It's about... lots of things, but what I absorbed from it was this is what racism looks like. There's a difference between knowing something exists, and seeing it come alive on the page; it became so much more important because I could never see it for myself. Irish culture was so homogenous that I never learned that someone could be treated differently because of the colour of their skin.

The charm of the book was that it was just people, to me. People in a tough situation, but still loving, taking comfort in each other, finding ways to laugh and survive. Its voice felt honest and real.

The second book I read about racism was To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. If Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry taught me what racism looked like, To Kill a Mockingbird showed me that you could could take a stand against it; that the world was unjust, but it didn't have to stay that way. The only thing I regretted about it was that I could never really hear the voices of the black characters, as it's told entirely from the viewpoint of a young white girl. It's also been slammed for its use of racial slurs, and even threatened with censorship as a result.

(Another thing that I wonder about - being white, apparently I shouldn't use the most well known racial slur at all. Does that mean I can't even mention it in context? Is it always considered derogatory, even when the writer has no cultural background that would define it as so, and thus never use it in conversation - or in reference to an actual person of colour?)

Discussions of race are a minefield in the States. Even the most well-meaning white person can inadvertantly cause offense or say something racist, only to howl that "I didn't mean it that way!" when an African-American calls them on it. I've seen it a few times, and every time I question the offender, why deny it? It's part of your cultural heritage. It will happen, despite your best efforts. Don't deepen the insult with a non-apology ("I'm sorry if I caused offense..."). Accept what you've done. Take responsibility for it. And do better next time.

I know I've probably already done it, but there has been no one here to call me on it. It's only a matter of time, though.

Roll of Thunder and Mockingbird compelled me to look further. I read the full text of Dr. King's famous speech, for example, and I was inspired by it. These days I subscribe to blogs written by black people. I keep up with the news. I want to read their stories and hear their voices, and be influenced by them and find the threads that I can weave into my own.

Books can do that, you see. They get into your head and under your skin, and they can change the world.

Where you do your thinking

Right, this blog is supposed to be primarily about writing, not about my love of fast cars.


One of the reasons I really like driving is because I can think while I drive. That is to say, I like to drive and think alone; having another person in the car with me puts me under pressure to be interesting, and thus it's a little distracting.

You take the part of the brain that handles awareness and hands and feet, and leave it to do the actual driving on autopilot while the rest of the brain, metaphorically, takes a break and does the serious business of churning through ideas. It's not so hard when you've been driving for a while.

I've thought of some of my best scenes while on the road. I put on some music and drift, and work through whatever story is occupying my time. At some point I should really get a smartphone with a voice recorder so I can keep track of ideas, but that would probably require a car that wasn't made when I was still in school.

Yes, my Toyota is that old.

Everyone has a place where they do their writing. I do mine on my netbook, wherever I happen to be - and as long as I can listen to music, I can write anywhere and around anyone. But I do my thinking in my car.

Driving the Space Shuttle, and other fun things

That up there is a concept car called a Mazda Furai. It has a 450HP Renesis engine, and... oh never mind. You probably don't care. Just look at it. Look at the beauty of it.

I would give anything to drive this car.

I've talked before about how I love cars and I love to drive. The Furai is the car I want to own, if the stars align and reality is bent and somehow Mazda spontaneously decide to let twenty-something Irish women drive it around the Nürburgring. It's just so exotic, so otherwordly. But in this particular reality, I'm not likely to ever see one in the flesh - and that's especially because I live in Ireland.

One of my major gripes about this country is to do with the cars. Vehicles with more powerful engines are taxed to the hilt. Vehicle Registration Tax is a crippling chunk of the price of a new car. Insurance for anything even remotely interesting is prohibitively high. This all adds up to what I see on the roads today - a parade of automobiles that are small, fuel-efficient but weak, and utterly, utterly boring.

No Ferraris do I see, much as I'd want to. Few Porsches. BMWs for the businessmen, which are always black saloons with white leather inside - and they might have two liter engines and resemble large boats on the road, but their ubiquity makes them uninteresting. And they were never made for the cult of speed; their purpose is simply to be part of a professional image. Women drive around in little hatchbacks, or people carriers for the kids. The boy racers have their sporty Toyotas and Hondas with spoilers on the back, but who are they kidding? They're mostly working with cars that were never designed with them in mind.

I was over in the States a while back, and I had the pleasure of renting and driving a Chevrolet Corvette ZHZ for about five days. Take a look at it there.

Imagine, if you will, the sensation of driving a $60,000 American muscle car when you have only ever experienced vehicles like the safe, family friendly Toyota Corollas that are so common in Ireland. Imagine driving something with an engine that sounded like a tiger roaring under the hood, and compare it to the quiet, sanitised hum of your average four-door hatchback. Believe me when I say that driving the Corvette on an American highway was a little slice of automotive bliss, and handing back the keys was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

It was like driving the Space Shuttle. You'll never see one in Ireland, because it's so expensive in every way that it might as well be in orbit.

I've still got my crappy Toyota. I throw it around the place a lot, and drive it too fast, and generally act irresponsibly every once in a while. But why can't I have Corvettes, and Mustangs, and Dodge Vipers, and all the gloriously powerful American cars? Why must the government make it so hard to own a truly awesome automobile, one that doesn't need a spoiler or a flash paint job or blue LEDs or, by all the gods, any of the other ridiculous modifications that young gentlemen like to make to their rides?

Maybe it's the market. Maybe there isn't enough interest here to warrant shipping over a few Corvettes modified for right-hand drive, although with the apparent number of boy racers around with money to spare, I find that a little hard to believe. Chevrolet do sell their saloons in Ireland, so the infrastructure is there.

Or maybe it's government regulations? I really can't say. Whatever they are, the barriers to awesome car ownership here are vast, and it hurts a little more when you've had that taste of heaven, and seen all the amazing cars that are the norm on the other side of the Atlantic.

Someday, mark my words. Someday I'll drive my own Corvette. And it will be awesome.

Breaking through Writer's Block

I had stalled on the Novel there for a while. I get writer's block the same way I get insomnia - suddenly, viciously, and fleetingly - and while it's annoying, it's nothing I can't get over given a little time.

I'd say I get off lightly. The Wikipedia article on writer's block suggests that people can suffer from it for years at a time, something that I can barely imagine even in my wildest dreams. It's usually a function of me getting a little fuzzy on the most important detail: What happens next?

I have my characters. I have a scene. I have imagined the bones of a storyline, so I know with reasonable certainty where they need to be and what they need to do. But something isn't quite working out right; I can't make the bridge that takes them from here to there, and thus the whole narrative screeches to a halt. The actors pause, the threads are frozen, and everything just stands around waiting until I can figure out what happens next.

I'm getting to the end of the second draft, so you'd expect that I shouldn't have these problems. But rewriting, changing, adding new elements, and other random literary effects have changed the story from the first draft, and a plot device that might have worked before is out of place now. Such is the way of writing, I suppose. It's always a process of refinement from the blobby story shapes you begin with.

I was trying to remember earlier what exactly inspired me to write the Novel. What was the first idea? The first concept or theme? Truth be told, I really don't know for sure. I play around with my ideas before ever committing them to text, and during that time they're in a constant state of flux - like Play-Doh, or something. You have your basic form, and you shape it and squash it and then mash it all up together again before starting over, and it takes many iterations before you're finally happy with it and ready to get to the serious business of making it presentable.

One thing I've noticed about the refinement business is when I'm having trouble with the Novel, the connection that finally breaks through my writer's block can literally come from anywhere. It's come from things I read online, things I see or do, and very frequently, my friends. Shanks (other talented writer friend) has always offered a lot of ridiculous suggestions, but he has his moments, and some of those have been worked into the Novel.

I'm sure someone will ask me at some stage, "Where do you get your ideas from?" So, while I'm on the subject, here's a list of some things that have given me story material or helped to break a block:

A certain well-known MMORPG that you will have heard of, unless you've been living under a rock for the last five years
"You should never start a story with what the weather is like."
A very, very old Batman novel
Shanks and Duri's weird comments on my work
Feminist blogs
My father
An autobiography of a forensic scientist living in Rhodesia way back when
Single words or phrases, up to and including single words only three letters long

Imagination is a wonderful thing, and it can draw the threads of taleweaving from anywhere.

Licensing restrictions for ebooks

It's safe to say that I read a ridiculous amount of material every day. I'm a speed reader by nature, so the 300-500 items I get daily through my RSS feeds don't seem like much. I read so fast that I'd probably be bored otherwise.

It has its drawbacks, of course. It's very nearly pointless for me to buy books casually anymore; they'll last me a few hours, if that, and then I have to either keep them and reread them, or take them to a second hand store or a willing friend. I do enjoy them, but it gets to be a little bit wasteful.

Ebooks were the perfect answer. I could download books to my little iPod touch, and read them when I have an hour or two to spare. I have classics like Sherlock Holmes that I never get tired of, and a few other free titles from Harlequin and whatnot. I didn't feel the need to buy any ebooks, because I hadn't seen any that really caught my interest - or that would justify the cost.

They're very much something to fill the time when I'm bored and out somewhere that has no books or other diversions around. I have said that I'm not all that enthusiastic about ebooks, but again, that's mostly to do with the price vs. functionality; I always have my iPod with me, and although I prefer real books, it doesn't cost me anything to download an app and grab a few out of copyright titles to keep me amused.

All that might have changed today.

I was reading through my feeds, and I happened to come across a post by Natalie Whipple which mentions a book called Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern. Well, suffice to say, she had me at the title - I wanted to read it, and I immediately dropped everything to look at it a little more. Then I decided I really, really wanted to read it - but it looked like the kind of book that would only last me a few hours. No problem, I thought, I can get it on the iPod if it's not too expensive. I won't have another book clogging up the house, and I'll have another happy little diversion for the next time I'm out and about.

After a further investigation, this is what I found:

In case you can't read it, that's Amazon telling me that I can't have the ebook. It's not available in Europe. I could buy the hardback version from Amazon.co.uk for a mere £9.61, but I don't want the hardback. I want the damn ebook, and I want it downloaded to my iPod so I can read it tonight, if I choose - not in two days time when it ships to me.

Hello, Julie Halpern? And her publisher? I want to give you money. I want to buy your ebook. More than that, I want your ebook to be the first one I actually spend money on. Right now, you're stopping me from giving you money, and I have to question what exactly is going on if you're happy with that.

I mean, I do understand that there are licensing restrictions for physical books. You want to be able to sell the rights to publishers in different countries and different languages, even if the distinction between the US and the English-speaking parts of Europe is largely irrelevant. But really, ebooks? From Amazon? The product is exactly the same. The company you're dealing with is exactly the same. The company sells your book outside the US. Why on earth would you only allow them the ebook rights for within the US?

If this were a movie that had just been released in the US and wasn't expected in other markets for a while, people would already be going to their preferred method of piracy to find it. This is because people will get what they want, when they want, in the form that they want, and trying to sell them what you want them to buy is a waste of time if it doesn't match up.

As for me, I'll have to settle for Sherlock Holmes, and accept that I will not be giving my money to Julie Halpern and her publisher for the time being.

[added by edit]

Alright, after reading Natalie's comment below, and commenting myself, I want to set the record straight here. My post above implies that I'm blaming Julie for the lack of her ebook over here.

That's not what I intended.

I apologise for being a bit of a jerk. No excuses; I take this stuff seriously, and getting frustrated is no reason to get pissy as well with someone for a situation out of their control. So - sorry, Julie. Really. I don't blame you at all.

When I asked, "why on earth would you only allow them the ebook rights for within the US?" I thought I was addressing the publisher. It doesn't look like that though, and for that I apologise. I'll be more clear in future.

As penance, I shall order the hardback from Amazon immediately.

A question of disbelief

So, I met with a few other writer friends today, and we got talking about characters in situations with which we, personally, might not be familiar. For example, I know nothing about New York. Hence, I know nothing about what life is like there, nor what trains run in the subway, what slang people use, what neighbourhoods are there. I might want to set a story in New York, but I doubt I could do so and make it believeable to New Yorkers.

Tiny, tiny things make up the cultural narrative in any distinct area, and what may sound fine to a outsider would be jarring to a native. One of my friends - let's call her Duri - is writing a story set in Ireland. She's English, however, and although we speak the same language, it's not quite equivalent. We use different phrases or wordings; she says, 'I feel ill', but I say, 'I feel sick'. I notice immediately when the things her characters say don't sound properly 'Irish'. If I ever set a story in England, I've no doubt she could point out exactly where my characters say things that are not properly 'English' - and that's before I delve into the regional dialects that are far more pronounced than the various Irish accents.

I've no doubt that people can indeed write stories that are set outside the settings familiar with them, but it certainly adds an extra level of difficulty to the job. The ideal situation is, of course, having a native of the culture present who can proof read and point out corrections; the next best thing is actual experience of the culture, then after that, extensive research and analysis.

I've noticed some writers have a real talent for it. Another friend - let's call him Shanks - wrote a suberb WWII-alternate-history short story a while back, and both Duri and I had a chance to read it. I'm reasonably sure Shanks has very little first-hand experience of modern England, but his particular forte is characterisation and dialogue, and the story (set in the wartime English countryside) felt very, very authentic to me. Duri agreed that it felt authentic to her as well.

Part of the reason I prefer fantasy or sci-fi settings is because there is generally no question of disbelief. I am in complete control of the cultural narrative, and the reader must accept what my characters say. The only question is maintaining consistency, so that characters from the same cultural background speak and act in similar ways.

Developing a new culture is probably one of the more enjoyable aspects of writing fantasy or sci-fi. While there is still a question of believeability, you are more free to chop and change elements from the modern world and other settings - for example, the Klingon culture from Star Trek uses elements from the Spartans of ancient Greece, but the writers were certainly not limited to that and made changes to adapt those elements to a sci-fi setting.

Anyway, where am I going with this... Cultural settings are very important to a story. Writing in a compelling setting is a huge part of fantasy and sci-fi. It's just a matter of being authentic; making the setting believeable, either in reference to the real world, or through internal consistency.

I've found that reading roleplaying books with information on world-building is very useful when I'm developing a setting. It gets you into the mindset of thinking about how and why the culture works like it does.

This cannot end well

In the aftermath of the High Court decision regarding the three strikes malarky with Eircom, it seems that the licensing authorities in Ireland have decided to start cracking down on all kinds of content both online and offline.

Two stories in particular have crossed my path. The Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) have sent out notices to a number of large, non-profit Irish music blogs that they must buy a license in order to offer MP3s to their readers - files, by the way, that have been sent to them gratis by labels and bands for promotional purposes. The reasoning is thus - these bands and labels have signed up with the IMRO and granted them the exclusive rights to collect songwriting royalties on their behalf. If I understand this corrently, even if they want to give away their music, they can't. The agreement they signed does not allow it.

Dare I say that this is all kinds of stupid? The blogs are doing free promotion, and getting people talking about music. The vast majority do it for the love of music, not because they want to get paid. They make no money. If this does occur, it can only put a serious dent in the promotion and discussion of Irish artists online. Less promotion = less people hearing about music = less sales.

The second story is about the licensing of cinemas in Ireland. The IMRO is in talks to increase the rates that they charge cinemas across the country - 1% of their gross box-office takings, regardless of the size of the cinema. At the moment, the rates vary depending on the size. That's not a cut of the profits; it's a cut of all money they take in, and 1% is a lot when you're already on slim margins. This is apparently because “we have an obligation to treat all cinema operators in a fair and consistent manner.”

I'm not sure what to make of it. The whole Irish economy is being slammed right now, and all this seems to be doing is squeezing businesses even further. According to the article, they want to backdate payments for the last five years - that can easily put the cinemas who are just holding on right now out of business entirely.

This just cannot end well. I can't imagine many artists who are signed up to the IMRO would be all that happy about these greedy, strong-arm tactics. With the ability of the Internet to provide a promotional platform for bands, the question may indeed become whether an artist would want to be signed up to the IMRO anyway. Make no mistake about this; there's a market there for bands who choose to retain all rights and completely avoid the IMRO, IRMA, PPI and others. Take a song, for which you own the written copyright because you wrote it. Record it yourself, and you have the recording copyright. Sell the song to a business under your own commercial license, granting them the right to play it in their shop for however long you both agree on - forever, maybe? - for a small, set payment. You get a little bit of money, and free promotion of your song in that shop. They get a license to play music that doesn't bankrupt them.

Can you imagine if a label decided to do this? I could easily envision one going into a shop and setting up their sound system as a direct stream from the label's servers which contains all their bands' songs, and the music is delivered as a service which costs a small monthly fee. The shop would get affordable music, and the label would be able to control their marketing and promotion. And that's to say nothing of the feedback you could get; statistics on the most popular songs, sales figure comparisons, etc. What if there was a public computer in the store where customers could register their interest in the music being played, or show their interest in a particular song? The possibilities are endless!

This does assume, though, that the label hasn't already signed up with any of the licensing authorities.

I can't be the only person who can come up with a workable business plan that bypasses the IMRO. So... I wonder are they really working in the interests of the musicians, or are they only interested in their own revenue streams?