Thursday, 11 December 2008

Not Worth the Risk (part II)

So, they think I’m too old, do they? Well I’ve got news for them, I can still bounce. I’m still at the age where I can describe my mishaps in terms of: “I fell over” rather then “I had a fall”.

I fell over this morning. It was the real thing, a full-banana-skin Beano-comic slip. It was icy. It’s been icy most mornings for a few weeks. (What is it with the weather this year? We haven’t had ice before Christmas, in The Wirral, since I was child for whom falling over was just part of life’s daily ritual, like walking, eating and attracting dirt.)
Anyway, I was fiddling with my ipod, trying to find the latest offering from Mur Lafferty (I Should Be Writing – I recommend it), when I stood on a particularly solid, low-traction puddle, and next thing I knew I was on my back admiring the stars. (7AM. Clear sky. Beautiful.) The thing is, it didn’t hurt. Nothing broken. Nothing damaged – apart from my packed lunch, which got a bit squashed, but then sandwiches taste better that way. I always say you should carry sandwiches around in the bottom of a rucksack for a few hours before eating, to help bring out the flavour.

I’ve been making a habit of pre-adolescent acrobatics lately. I was up on the roof at the week-end, stringing-up Christmas lights. There was frost on the roof and suddenly I’m doing a Torvill and Dean down the tiles. Fortunately I had hold of the string of lights and they were enough to stop me sailing out into the void. Lucky escape. I’m not sure how well I’d have bounced from that one.

I rounded the day off nicely a few hours later. We had to make room for the Christmas tree. It was quite a big tree. I always set out saying we’re getting a smaller tree this year and I always come back with something that wouldn’t look out of place in Yosemite.
So we had to make space. A bookcase had to go. Upstairs, on the landing, was the only space we had. We have a lot of bookcases. It’s like a disease, I can't bear to part with books; not even by selling them.
Anyway, Sarah said she’d unload the bookcase and I said no, I can move it as it is. Sarah said I was silly to try and I said it’s not that heavy, I can manage.
Guess who was right.
I moved it across the lounge without a problem, walking it from side to side. I got it up the first two steps, then there’s a ninety-degree turn to the foot of the main staircase.
“Don’t do it. Let me take the books out!”
“It’s okay, I’ve got it.”
First step.
“Mike, you’ll hurt yourself.”
Second step.
On the third step my strength failed me. I couldn’t make that last inch. In an effort to gain more height I leaned back.
And I kept on going back.

Now you would expect that an old man, too old to be insured, would come off quite badly, falling down stairs with a loaded bookcase in his arms. Well here I am, I’m writing this, and most of the pain has gone now. Nothing broken.

But I’ve come away from the experience having learned something new. Perhaps insurance companies’ concerns about insuring advanced middle aged persons, are derived with regard not so much to their growing frailty, but rather as to their growing stupidity.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Not Worth the Risk.

Had a letter yesterday. It was about my Life Insurance. My policy will expire in February. Thank you.

That’s all it said.
It brought back memories from years ago, hiding from the Man-from-the-Pru. The door bell would ring and Sarah or I would recognise his car in the road… and we’d hide behind the settee.
Because the Pru-man had The Power.
He was able to wheedle his way into our family, assuming a comfortable first-name relationship, and he would chat and advise and cajole and gradually the topic of insurance would creep into the friendly banter. He was good, no question. He already had us hooked into a small policy, but he never rested, he was always looking to land the big fish; the Professional policy.
I had just one weapon in my arsenal: he always called me David, my first name. Everyone else calls me Mike. And I was careful never to put him straight on this detail, because it was my lifeline. This was the thing that told me: this man is not your friend.

Then one day, two of them arrived. And by the nervous body language from our regular guy, I could tell that he’d brought no less than the very messiah of Pru-men; a big game fisherman if ever there was one.
“How are you, today… Mike?”

So, when a letter arrives to say my money is no longer required, that the relationship is over, and there’s no knocking at the door – that I am allowed to slip the net without even a suggestion of policy extension or increased premia - well I can only come to one sobering conclusion.

I’m now too old to insure!

I’m only fifty-two. If you assume I’ll get beyond a hundred – and this is certainly a key part of the game-plan – well then, I’m only middle-aged. But the insurance companies, it would seem, are no longer interested in my coin. Oh, I suppose there’s something out there for an old duffer like me, something that comes with a hefty risk adjustment and a measly pay-off. Okay, I'm that desperate, but where’s the fight? Where’s the game of cat and mouse? Where’s the guy in the sharp suit, the one who knows my name?

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

What to Buy a Writer for Christmas

It’s that time of year again when we like to drop hints to our nearest and dearest about the kind of Santa-delivered stuff that might prove useful in our writing endeavours.

Here’s a list of items, some of it tried and tested, others perhaps destined for the sock drawer come Boxing Day.

Stephen King: On Writing – should be on every writer’s bookshelf. Not just a gold mine of information but a cracking good read as well.

For Science Fiction writers, how about Orson Scott Card: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. It’s only thin, but it focuses on the stuff that’s genre specific and vital and every single word is worth reading. There are many Sci-Fi How-To books kicking around, but for me, this one’s the best.

Here’s one from my own wish-list. The Observation Deck by Naomi Epel. It’s supposed to be a kick-start for creativity. I heard Naomi Epel interviewed on the podcast ‘Writers on Writing’ and it sounds pretty good. It’s not just a book but a deck of cards, each with a different way of seeking inspiration. For me, anything that can fire up the creative juices has to be worth a close look.

What about a prepaid coffee-shop card like those for Costa or Starbucks? It’s supposed to be no secret that writers produce their best work while ensconced in their favourite Wi-Fi enabled coffee shop. Mind you, I only tried it once myself and I have to say, I don’t get it. I only lasted an hour. I don’t remember if it was my laptop batteries that gave out first or my back. The tables are too high or too low, you can’t get your legs under them, there’s no room for both laptop and coffee and croissant. What’s more, five minutes in and you’re earwigging on everybody else’s conversations; great for the notebook but not exactly conducive to single-minded focus on the project in hand.
By the way (I’m digressing, now, Ronnie Corbett style, but stay with me, please) don’t you just love all those magazine adverts for new laptops. It seems you have to be in bare feet to use them - sitting up in bed with arms stretched ahead of you like Galdalf; or perched on a DFS monster settee with your legs all tucked away underneath you; or you sit on the floor, on a sheepskin rug, but always in front of a blazing log fire … Is it me, or is this not a recipe for a lifetime of chronic lumbar ailments, cramp and molten computer kit. I’ve never yet seen an ad where they sit up at a desk, all sensible and boring. (This isn’t a hint, by the way. I don’t need a laptop, I’ve already got one. But if darling wife wishes to surprise me something that boots-up in better that thirty-five minutes; something way cool; a MacBook Air, for example - then who am I to argue.)

Back to reality: James Scott Bell: Plot and Structure. This is a cracking book for revealing the hitherto concealed simplicity of plotting. It’s one I swear by, and I often return to it.

Finally, how about a job lot of IRC’s, International Reply Coupons? It’s always a pain when you have your manuscript ready to go, and you need to drop an IRC into the envelope, and when you ask for one in the post office they look at you like you’ve just asked for bow-and-arrow vouchers. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a stock of these to hand. Strange denomination UK stamps wouldn’t go amiss, either. And a set of weighing scales.

Any other ideas?

Sunday, 9 November 2008

What to do on wet Sunday afternoons

It's what I've wanted for weeks - time to write. Can't cut the hedge, too skint to buy petrol, a walk would be wet and miserable. I have all afternoon to write.
So what do I do?
I mess about all afternoon on my blog; changing colours, altering the links, making lists... I suppose the little editor who sits in my brain is subtly telling me something about my current project, whispering something along the lines of: Mike, your plot sucks!
Well that's okay. As Mur Lafferty often says (you know Mur?) "You are allowed to suck." This is one of the great empowering mantras a writer can have.
It means ignore the problems, ignore the wooden characters, ignore the bad science... just get the damn thing down on paper, then you can sort it all out later. Because right up until the time you feel ready to put a stamp on the envelope and send it out there, it is fine if it sucks, because only you will ever know.
So enough of the blog. Enough procrastination. It's time for discipline; time to get back to the plot that sucks.
Oh wait there, it's 16:45. My turn to cook the tea tonight. Doh...

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Musical Interlude

The writing has suffered for the last few weeks. I’ve been busy with music: two shows under two different MDs, each running for a week, and two band gigs with two different bands; it all gets in the way of the writing. I should stop. I should put the music on a shelf and concentrate on the writing. The trouble is I like music. I like doing shows. I’m not willing to specialise and sacrifice, we’re only here once so damn it, I want to do it all. It boils down to this: I like to perform; I like to show-off.
Music and writing are so similar and so different. They are like pieces of a jigsaw. When I write I can lose myself in another world, a world of my own creation. But there is no feedback (apart from weeks later when the rejection slips arrive). Even the odd story that’s been published, I think, okay the editor liked it, and there’s sometimes the odd review on the internet. But did people enjoy it, really? When I play music the feedback, the audience reaction is immediate – they either like what they hear… or not. Either way, you know the result straight away.
But then it’s gone.
When I play a solo that I’m particularly pleased with it is fleeting and immediately lost (unless it’s being recorded, and that’s rare.) I don’t even get to hear it myself; not properly; not in a put-my-feet-up, close-my-eyes and listen kind of way.
So writing fills that gap. It has permanence. Once it’s down on paper it is captured and can be wheeled out as often as I like. I can recycle a story; I can use the ideas to build a world that may grow for years. But I rarely get to know what people think of it. Even editors don’t let you know, at least not often. A printed rejection slip tells you only one thing, that they have decided not to take the story, for whatever reason, and that reason need not be because it was a crap story. Maybe that would be better. Maybe if the rejections said things like: Mr Wood, we have decided not to take your story because it was crap and you have a singular lack of talent – maybe it would save me a few bob on stamps and stationery. (But I hope that never happens because there is much comfort to be had in delusion.)
So two things, words and music, can co-exist; each getting in the way of the other; each complimenting the other. I can moan about the situation but I’m not going to change it.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Bargain Books, Brilliant Minds and Biblical Rain – Hay Festival 2008

Each year, when I go to the Hay Festival, I feel I’m getting something that I missed in my youth; a taste of that elusive university life; hob-nobbing with clever people. Brain food. I love it. Every time I come away from Hay I feel fired-up, mentally invigorated, inspired. I’m ready to write. My brain cells have been super-charged by positive arty vibes.

Some say it’s the best book festival in world. I’m sure they’re right. And if the festival itself doesn’t do it for you, then what about the bookshops in Hay? There are dozens of them. Second-hand bookshops cram this tiny town, they are squeezed into every passage and alleyway. Each year my only regrets are for the books I didn’t buy (there’s always a limit to the cash), and for the ticking clock – so much to read; so little time.

The previous two years have seen rain, and last year it was quite cold, so our arrival in sunshine on the Thursday prior to the opening weekend was cause for soaring spirits. Hay is a little town, and if you want to stay you have to bring your accommodation with you. For many this means a tent. We take our caravan and park it in a site about two miles from the festival ground.

We had nothing planned for the Thursday so we had a pleasant evening of writing (I use an old car battery to power my laptop) and painting, (Sarah, my wife is an artist) and we savoured the promise of what was to come.

Our first event was a political debate about the US election, but it wasn’t until late afternoon. This gave us the day to buy books and eat excellent veggie food from The Granary. We did both to excess. Many of the second-hand book shops have a room – an entire room – dedicated to SF. This is bliss. All the stuff I missed when I spent my wilderness years away from the faith – it’s all there: Jack Vance, William Gibson, BobShaw, Robert Heinlein… there are anthologies, Analog, Writers of the Future from the sixties and seventies. It’s hard not to drool.

The weather moved in, mid-afternoon. We’re very eco-conscious and walk or cycle whenever we can. By the time we returned to the caravan we were paddling. But it stopped, it cleared, and it tempted us out on foot once more for the first of our pre-booked events. I enjoyed the debate, though US politics is Sarah’s choice more than mine, and it kicked off our festival to a solid start.

It rained all night and temperatures plummeted, and by morning it was February again. We started early, ten o’clock with Steve Jones, the geneticist. It was edge of the seat stuff and by the time he wrapped up his hour-long session I had half a dozen story ideas in my notebook. The festival site was crowded. They put deckchairs all around for festival-goers to chill out between sessions with a book or newspaper. (Everyone reads The Guardian. This is because they are the sponsors, and when you buy one you get a free canvas bag in which to carry it.) The deckchairs, though, were empty and sodden with rain. The floral decorations were flattened. Tents and bunting flapped and rattled and strained in a North Atlantic symphony. The water started to rise. Sheep and cows, watching from nearby fields, arranged themselves in pairs and got their embarkation passes ready.

By mid-afternoon Sunday, the fire brigade had arrived to pump-out some of the marquees. It was wonderful. The Glastonbury spirit had set it. There were no miserable faces. This is what it’s all about.

I heard AL Kennedy in the evening, a writer of whom I am in awe, and this was my personal festival highlight. I was able to chat to her for a while afterwards, while she signed a book of her short stories for me. I’ve just finished reading “Day” and find myself languishing in a pit of inadequacy and self-pity. Oh, to write like that!

And that was Hay 2008. Over far too soon – the restrictions of the day job don’t allow me to stay for longer than the Bank Holiday Weekend. Sarah and I returned home cold, wet but happy. Can’t wait for next year.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Why Mike with a J?

Mjke or Mike? Why the dilemma? Well, you have to prepare for fame don’t you. Although I don’t have a web site, I figured that once I became a multi-millionaire writer, whose name sat comfortably on every tongue, I’d probably need one. But having a common and boring name might be a handicap. There are lots of Mike Woods. There’s a welsh politician who always comes out on top of all the Google searches. If I use the longer, posher version of my name… well, there’s already a Michael Wood. He not only has history and travel books in every shop but also has a considerable TV presence. So I needed something more distinctive.
The answer came when I first set up my email address. I didn’t want to be Mikewood25649. Who would ever remember that one? Certainly not me. So I tried a range of alternate spellings and hit upon the idea of using Mjke. Looks kind of funky; kind of Scandinavian.
So I started using Mjke Wood as the by-line on all my submissions. It must have been good, because they used it on all the rejections too.
But then I hit upon a problem. People started asking me for my email; people with sales copy and prizes to share. Looks good in print but how do you say Mjke? Mu-jike? Ma-yike? I tried “Mike with a J” most of the time but you get a lot of blank looks when people are challenged into slotting a “j” into a word like Mike. So in the end I would spell it, and that’s not cool.
“How’s that again, sir? M J I K…”
“No, no I. Just J.”
“So, J Wood – for John is that?”
“No. M J K E, pronounced Mike!”
And I thought of all of these people lining up in Borders or Waterstones in a few years, and arguing with the sales staff. Or going onto Amazon and getting deliveries of books about Welsh politics or history instead of Sci-Fi.
No No No!
So I thought it was time to re-think the strategy. How about David? My first name is David but I’ve never used it. It’s confusing having a silent first name, but it’s something else I can blame my parents for – like my unconventional facial features and sticky-up hair.
So using David, even in ghost form, gives me options:
David M Wood
D Michael Wood
D Mike Wood
I was starting to warm to that last one. If you didn’t look too hard you might think the D was short for Doctor, and this might lend a degree of bogus credibility to my scientific bone fides.
And then I won the Jim Baen contest. I’d sent the story out as Mike Wood, and before I knew it there were Google hits all over the place for dull and conventional Mike Wood.
So that was the end of my Scandinavian period.
Mjke, Norse god of SciFi, will have to make do, for ever more, with an invisible bit-part on Blogger, and we must leave it to the pipe and slippers persona to do the boldly going.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Dipping a Toe into the Methane

So – I write SF. I have no need for Web Sites and Blogs, for Facebooks or Twitters - I write for fun. I’ll never be published. I’ll never need a web presence…
...or so my thinking went prior to May 2007.
Sure, I’d had the odd humorous travel piece appear in magazines – even had a short piece of angst-ridden prose that went out over the air waves courtesy of the BBC in the eighties.
But I was always a dabbler.
But then I started listening to podcasts – anything I could get on my ipod that was free.
I found Escape Pod: Science Fiction. Fantasy. The stuff I used to read in my teens. The good stuff.
And the stuff’s still good.
SF is back! It’s struggling up from its knees and hobbling, I’ll grant you that, but it’s back and it’s way cool, and Steve Ely is the guy who, for me, was standing at the end of the dark tunnel waving the torch.
I went back to my first love. I began to write SF. I began to collect rejection slips.
Then, in May 2007, I won the Jim Baen Writing Contest!
This blog is about me and my writing. It's an internal dialogue about the changes that were started by Escape Pod, honed by Baen's Universe, and have since pushed me on to write the stuff I want to write. It's scary stuff. Dreams really can happen.
You are most welcome to join me for the ride.