Thursday, 15 November 2012


Voice is mysterious. How can you develop your writing voice? What does Voice actually mean? How do you know if your writing has a distinctive voice?

I have my own thoughts on Voice and I'll try to show by way of an analogy.

I'm a reed player. I play saxophone and I play clarinet. I started learning on clarinet and my first attempts sounded terrible, as if I was being strangled while blowing through a drinking straw. The tone had no substance, the tuning was all over the place, most of the notes were drowned out by squeaks and that horrible buzzing sound that comes from a reed that  is way too soft.

I knew how a 'good' clarinet tone was meant to sound but I was nowhere near achieving it. But I practiced. I started to learn saxophone, too; same result. They are both reed instruments and the essential problems are similar. But I put in the hours. Instead of going out and playing football with friends I sat in my room and blew down a tube. There were learning milestones along the way, like when I learned about opening my throat, about diaphragm breathing, about sustaining a column of air. And slowly I developed a good, clean, pure tone. But in my mind my playing still sucked. It didn't have Voice. I had a fine, sweet tone, but it was boring. Something important was missing.

But not always. Now and again there was an extra edge. I started to realise that a clean tone wasn't everything. I was playing on a hard reed, but over time reeds start to go off, and there are moments in the life of every reed when the tone isn't perfect but it is honest. At those times I began to feel the vibration - in my lip, in my head and in my bones.

It wasn't just a matter of tone, either. There were times when my rhythm was kind of lazy and relaxed but not wayward. There were differences in the way I was attacking the notes, and sustaining them. And when all of these things came together, not quite pure, not quite tight, but with an underlying security that came from years of neglecting my footballing skills, well then my playing had Voice. I'm not a good enough sax or clarinet player to be able to turn it on like a tap. It comes now and again and when it does I am always grateful. I can recognise the moments and so can the audience, and one of the joys of music is the instant feedback that tells you that you are doing something right.

And I wonder if the writing voice is the same. It is harder to relate the feedback to the execution because there is such a long time delay between the two. But if you use your ear. If you listen to what you have written, then sometimes you know.

There is one big difference, though: Writing can be edited. This is why writing should be edited. The sterile parts can be removed and the rich parts, the parts that have voice can be allowed to sing.

There is also another, important similarity between writing and music: Both need practice.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

How many 'Swanwicks' is your writing Den?

Ive been reading an article in the October Locus magazine about photographer Kyle Cassidy and his Where I Write project, (click on the link WhereIWrite to see some of the terrific offices where SF/F writers work)

It has given me the urge to take a critical look at my own writing space. Cassidy has developed his own scoring system using Michael Swanwick's office as his benchmark. It takes into account degrees of clutter, awards, files etc. Just about everything that contributes to the feel of the office. Most writers score less than one Swanwick, which means their offices are tidier and more orderly. Others, who are a little wilder might hit 1.5 or even a 2. I'm guessing, with some degree of shame, that my score would be up around the high thirties.

Here's an inventory of some of the distracting clutter I stuff into my room.
Doesn't look too bad from this side...
First, writing related clutter:
Three-and-a-half computers, of which only the netbook is still usable. Stacks of magazines, many dating back to the last century (New Scientist, National Geographic, Locus - from when I used to buy the print copies rather than the e-versions, and various one-off magazines, many of which are unopened); biros, rollerballs, ink pens, none of which work but I can't bring myself to chuck them, because, you know, they worked once so you never know when theyll snatch another breath of life. Then, of course, there's books. Books, books and yet more books. I buy books faster than I can read them. Sometimes I buy the same book one more than once. (There's a fundamental insanity in this behaviour I suspect.)
...but turn around and there is chaos!

Secondly there's all the non-writing clutter:  Three saxophones of which only one is useable or even in tune; a broken ceiling light fitting that once worked; an electric drill charger (I think I lent the drill to someone. Surely it must need charging by now); other orphaned chargers that will never be reunited with their long lost parents; two music stands evil beasts that snip off the ends of your fingers every time they are folded. Theres a winter caravan cover. A Panama hat, God knows where that came from. Four suitcases full of... well, more stuff.

But its a homely kind of place. Im happy with it. I know where everything lives. Mostly. This has been a useful purging exercise. 

And Ive just noticed I have a plastic kit of the Apollo Excursion Module, Eagle, buried behind of my magazine files on top of one of the bookcases. I'd forgotten all about it.That can be my winter project. The LEM will look cool in here, if I can find a space to display it.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Mjke Wood: Web Meister

After much fiddling and faffing about I now have a website. It has been a long haul. The initial setup was easy and I thought I'd have something up and running in less than a week. But then the old demon, procrastination, set in. For two months I've been tweaking and dithering over the finer details but at last the final product is out there for all to see. All I need now is some traffic. I'm not expecting a lot.

Anyway, you will find my new online presence at:

>>As a post script, it has taken Mjke the Web Meister five attempts over the course of several hours just to get the actual words of this post to be half way readable. I'm afraid I am not destined for a geek job in Palo Alto any time soon. Does anyone know of an opening for a quill pen sharpener or a ledger binder?

Sunday, 21 October 2012


It is kind of unusual for me to go to two genre conventions within three weeks of each other. What is more unusual is getting evacuated from both hotels in the middle of the night. I'm getting a dab hand at leaping out of bed in the early hours and legging down fire escapes while still pulling my pants up. I seem to be becoming something of a convention fire tourist. Sadly I can't really compare and contrast the sleepwear of SF con-goers to that of fantasy con-goers, because Bristolcon's version was a little earlier, at midnight, when most of those staying at the hotel were still in the bar. Still, it has to be said, it is one freaky kind of coincidence.

Anyway, the con itself: Marvellous. It is only a single day but they do seem able to pack all kinds of good stuff into it. There are a lot of art threads at Bristolcon, which keeps Sarah happy. There was a superb art show, and one of the best panels was that of Ian Whates talking to GoH Anne Sudworth, who is maybe my second-favourite artist (after Sarah, of course). There were panels on colonising the Solar System, on Steampunk, and there was a useful panel on avoiding making a twit of oneself on social media. Lets see how long it takes me to forget all the useful tips I heard at that one.

It was also good running into lots of old friends and bumping into a few new ones that I'd only previously spoken to online. Bristolcon is like that; it is small and friendly and if there's someone there you know you don't have to look too hard to find them.

Anyway, I'm here in Bristol, and I can't leave without taking a look at the Clifton suspension bridge. Never seen it before, and since I'm researching Brunel for a novel right now it seems fitting to come down and take a look, even though the bridge itself isn't in any way relevant to the WIP. And look at it! How impressive is that? 

Friday, 19 October 2012


A long drive down the length of Wales, north to south, today, because I'm here at the Ramada hotel in Bristol for Bristolcon. The festivities begin in earnest at 10 on Saturday morning, but I've already had a look at the programme and I am bursting with anticipation. Two streams of programming goodness and a wonderful art show. Can't wait!

Saturday, 29 September 2012


I'm down in Brighton right now, enjoying my first visit to Fantasycon. It's all very exciting, especiallyThursday night when those of us staying at the Queens Hotel were rousted out of bed at 3AM by the fire alarm. Its a bit nippy in late September on Brighton prom in the early hours, but the hotel staff were good, they have obviously drilled for this, and they moved us into the Foyer of the Thistle, next door, to keep us warm and out of the way. It seems there was sparking from a small convenience store next door, nothing too dangerous. Last night, though, I slept with my coat and shoes by the door, just in case.

It's a terrific view from the bedroom window, and we share it with some of the local seagulls as you can see below. We watched this one for hours, taunting it through the double glazing with biscuits. It was payback for its Cornish cousin who mugged Sarah for a pasty in the summer. There again, maybe he knows where I've parked the car. Eek!

Went to some good panels yesterday, especially one on the benefits or otherwise of blogging. It reminded me I haven't done anything here for a while hence the mindless waffle about seagulls. The consensus was that book review blogs are valuable, while author blogs tend to be read by very few. I don't do reviews because, when I'm writing I don't read much fiction. Too dangerous; too much risk of accidental plagiarism. So this is an author blog with nothing of substance. Can't even talk about this week's exiting new story sale because I haven't had the contract yet.
So there you go. 250 words about nothing - because I want to get back to the fiction. I have a whodunit (with robots) on the go right now, and I'm loving it!

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Scary Morris

We’re staying in Buxton for a few days. It isn’t intentional, and to see how it happened there is a fuller account in my Travelling in a Box blog. So today (or yesterday by the time I find some internet) we walked down into the town and you can’t move for Morris dancers. It seems there’s a festival going on. Now, I’m a bit ambivalent when it comes to Morris dancers. I really don’t know what to think. Grown men, often with grizzly beards, dancing and skipping about with bells on their ankles and hats with flowers. It’s all very English, but... why?

I’m fine with the music, I enjoy a bit of folk music. And when they beat each other with sticks I’m thinking, okay, this is more like it. But it’s the bells and the skipping that I can’t get my head round.

So it was refreshing to find the Morris dancers from hell (actually they were from Sheffield) giving it loads in Buxton today.  These guys (and a few scary girls) were dressed all in black apart from their faces, which were blue. Some had silk undertaker’s top hats, and there was a real Goth look about them all. And when they started beating each other with sticks they did it with attitude. And they were big sticks. It was fascinating to see, because there was no doubt this was real Morris, but it was Morris that might have young children waking in the night screaming for their mums. Hell, it might be me screaming tonight. So well, done to Black Crow (I think that’s what they’re called) of Sheffield. Very entertaining. Very Gothic. Very scary.

And there’s got to be a story in this. Got to be.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Building Teams with Nails

I went on a team-building course with the day job. I won’t reveal, publicly, all my thoughts.
But there was one exercise that taught me a lot about myself.
In teams of five or six we were given a block of wood with a hole in it, a six-inch nail stood in the hole. We were also given ten other six-inch nails and told to balance them all on the head of the one nail in the wooden block.
What we were told at the end of the exercise was that the task was designed to develop and highlight certain aspects of our personalities that would eventually result in our solving the problem. At first we would organise ourselves and pool knowledge to see if anyone in the team knew how to do this. Next we would try to work through the problem, together, logically. After a certain amount of time the moderator would feed us clues from which we would be able to build on the knowledge and complete the challenge.

A colleague who had chosen to recuse himself from the exercise told me that when he first did this task his team completed it in three minutes.

Here’s what happened inside my head:

My first thought was – we do this in two minutes or we fail.

I knew the solution had something to do with cantilevers and getting the centre of gravity down below the nail head. I offered this and nobody in the team seemed interested. They were working on the assumption that they could magnetise the nails by rubbing them on their sweaters. So I realised I was working with idiots and decided that if I was going to solve this thing I was going to have to go it alone. So much for team-work.
While the others wore holes in their sweaters I tried to figure it out in my head. And no way would I be sharing.
Two minutes came and went. The first deadline. I had failed! I sulked.

But there was still a chance of beating the other teams, so I grabbed the nails and tried to figure out an arrangement that would have them hanging off each other. Couldn’t do it. Got really annoyed at myself. I mean, fuming. This was my thing. I should be able to figure this out.

Then the moderator came and offered the first clue. At this point we were supposed to build on her advice. I threw the nails down onto the carpet in disgust. I didn’t want help. I didn’t want clues. I wanted to figure out the bloody problem myself. I withdrew. No point trying now, was there. If I/we figured it out now it would only be because we’d been told half the answer and how could that be satisfying in any way.

One of the other teams completed and now there was absolutely no point in continuing. Even though the rest of my team redoubled their efforts, I just watched them. What was the point now? We’d lost anyway.

So I learned that I am not a team player. I learned that I am not a collaborator. And I learned that when good advice is given I don’t want to know, I’d much rather figure it all out myself. What I didn’t learn was that when I fail at something I sulk. Because I knew this already.

Even now, a week later, I am still furious at myself for not figuring out the solution to the problem. I’m angry at being shown the solution, because now I can never figure it out myself.
This is not a healthy state of mind. These are not useful character traits. They reveal a great deal about why I am where I am.
I will try to change.

And in the interest of sharing (and as a spoiler for anyone else who might want to try and run this course) here’s a video of how to do it.

I wonder how many of you will reach for a bag of nails before watching it.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Ideas that get away

"Where do you get your ideas?" This must be the single most asked question that any writer has to answer. It's also one of the hardest.
For me I have a ready answer. Ideas are supplied by United Utilities, my local water authority, and a constantly flowing supply is plumbed straight into the house. Access is via the shower-head, and paid for as part of my water rate bill.

How is this?

Well, it took a little while to figure out but when you analyse it, it's obvious. I carry a notebook everywhere. I take it on the bus; I take it if I go out for a meal; I take it to work; I even take it to the toilet. I get ideas for stories in odd places, but it is a slow trickle. But the one place I cannot take a notebook is in the shower. It gets kind of soggy and the pencil cuts up the pages. And this the place where the ideas really flow. I mean, in the show there is a positive tsunami of brilliance. All my plot problems are solved in simple and intelligent ways.
And then they trickle down the plug hole.
I have a white board in my study and often in the morning I can been found there, naked and dripping on the carpet (not an image I would advise anyone to spend too long over) jotting down the few gems that survive the trip from the bathroom. On a good day I catch about 10% of them.
So imagine my delight, this evening, when my wife presented me with a surprise gift - a waterproof notebook. It can be written in using pen or pencil and it will survive any soaking. Brilliant!
So from now on, any time I'm short of ideas I can fling off all my clothes, dive into the shower, and plug in to the ideas reservoir. Woo hoo!

Sunday, 18 March 2012

A Doll's House

Brilliant performances all round at Theatre Clwyd last night. Went to see A Doll's House (Ibsen). I haven't seen this play before even though it's something of a classic. Sometimes it's good to see these things with untinted vision. What a fabulous play. It must have sent massive shock waves through the theatre world of the 1870's when it was first staged. It's pretty powerful stuff even now.
Not much writing this week, I've been helping my wife set up a web site for her art. It's amazing how this cyber stuff can suck you in and hit you with time dilation effects. You start on a bit of html and before you know it you've skipped meals and you're late for bed. All done now, though, at least until we start changing things. I'll almost be glad to get back to the day-job for a rest. If there are any art fans interested, the web site can be found at

Here's a sample of what can be found there.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Dead Man's Shoes

My short story, Dead Man’s Shoes, is now up on There are no robots in this one. No spaceships, no aliens. But hey, there are saxophones. Saxophones and cool cool jazz... Oh, and did I mention the shoes? No, not ordinary shoes. Not your every day common suede Hush Puppies. These shoes are, well... not very nice.
So why not pop over to and see how it might be to step into the shoes of one of the giants of jazz.
But be sure they’re the right shoes. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Writer's Retreat

It sounds perfect – a country hotel in the Lake District, snow on the ground, log fire, leather sofa, no distractions. Sarah had a good book to read so it was just me and a laptop. Ideas would flow.

Well, first of all, it was the Lake District and there was no way either of us were staying cooped up inside all day with all that wonderful snow-covered countryside to explore. And there was a pool. Had to go for a swim. But I’m not used to swimming so after half an hour I clambered out and my legs felt as though I’d done a six month tour in orbit on the ISS.
     Then there was the food. The deal included a three-course meal. A superb meal. I haven’t eaten three courses in years. So, full stomach, a swim, a day of walking in the fells, proximity to the bar. And of course the log fire and the leather sofa. Not sure whether it was me or the laptop that went into hibernation first.

Day two – went down with man-flu. Felt like crap. Went for a hike. Felt even more like crap. Did some writing in the evening hoping for the ideas to flow, but the only flowing came from my chapped red nose.

Day three – a good breakfast, a visit to Hawkshead then back home. It was 24-hour man-flu. Should be 100% by the time I return to the day job tomorrow.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

A Taste of Freedom

Finally free from the shackles of the day job, so I've been walking and writing and catching up on my reading.
Here's one I came across in the current edition of Abyss and Apex. It's called A Demon of Almansol by Alter S. Reiss and is worth a look. It's a solid piece of fantasy about a sorceress who is drawn into a life and death battle against a powerful demon. Good stuff.
The day job is a real bummer at this time time of the year. Fourteen or fifteen hour days, seven days a week. No time to read or write or even think. Each year I go through the same thought processes along the lines of, I have to get out of this. And each year we pull off a miracle and I decide I might stay after all.
But it's nice to get out of the office and into the sunshine at last. Sarah and I celebrated by tackling one of our favourite walks, from Conway to Llandudno. It's about eight miles. It has a terrific little coffee shop along the way, and we talk all day about writing and art and the places we want to see in the coming year. We always wrap it up in the coffee shop above Waterstones in Llandudno, and inevitably end up buying a pile more books.
Then today we ended up at a lecture about the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. Why? Because it was free. And because it was warm after a chilly few hours in Ness Gardens. And because I get story ideas from lectures. And also because one day, who knows, we might go to Boston, and it's always good to know where the parks are.