Friday, 1 December 2017

karmic gifts

At this time of year, we're reminded to be nicer to others and to help those less fortunate than us. But we're also encouraged to spend way too much money on presents and food and everything else. It's an expensive time of year, and many of us (me included) stretch ourselves too thin. Under those circumstances, it's sometimes hard to think of others as much as we should.

So, here are a bunch of things you can do that take very little time (another commodity in short supply), are free or nearly-free, and can make a tangible difference to people:

Tell people about awesome places to shop
Small local businesses thrive on word of mouth recommendations. Right now, everyone is shopping, and they like buying for somewhere that's been personally recommended. Use this to your advantage and plug your favourite things, whether it's an online store, a local business, the best place to get a gingerbread latte, or a book that'd make a perfect Christmas gift. Tell people how much you love a certain shop or website. Leave recommendations on social media.

Write a review
I know all authors bang on about this, but that's because it's an amazingly helpful thing to do. Ten minutes scribbling your opinion on Amazon or Goodreads can mean the world to an author. If you like a book, please tell the world. And if you've got time, tell the author as well. An ego-boost is the gift that keeps on giving.

Visit the library
This one's a win-win. Go borrow a bunch of books and movies from your local library for the Christmas period. You get a bunch of awesome stuff to read/watch for free, and the library gets statistics to prove how valuable a resource they are to the community. Plus, authors get a few pennies under the PLR scheme every time you borrow their books (at least in the UK, although not currently in the Isle of Man) (BOOO).

Go to the Hunger Site
Next time you're online, click through to The Hunger Site and its associated sites. They use the revenue from advertising to fund various charities, so by clicking on one link, you send money to a bunch of good causes. You can do this daily, and without having to sign up to any newsletters or email lists.

Hey, the world's in a shitty state right now. What good can one person do to make things right? Well, how about telling the people in charge how you feel? If you care passionately about something, chances are someone else feels the same, and quite possibly they've started a petition to lobby the government about it. It only takes a couple of minutes to add your name to an important cause.

Give to charity shops & food banks
Time to declutter? Make a pile of old clothes and toys and take them to the charity shop. Want to clear room in your kitchen cupboards? Take a bunch of those cans and jars that you've been hording (so long as they're still in date; if they're not, maybe it's time to reign in the hording, heh?) and schlep them along to the local food bank. Food banks are also a good place to take those posh cans of cat food that you bought in bulk, which your cat then decided he didn't like. F'ing cats.

Giving time
We're all ridiculously busy right now, I know. But that means your time is an even more valuable gift to give. Can you go to the shops for a neighbour who doesn't drive? Can you pick up a prescription for your nan so she doesn't have to go out in the cold? Can you babysit for an afternoon so your friend can do their Christmas shopping without a toddler hanging onto their ankles? Half an hour of your time can make all the difference.

Being nice
Ultimately, this is what it comes down to. Kindness doesn't have to manifest in grand sweeping gestures or huge monetary donations to charity. We can all be a little nicer, a little kinder, a little more patient in our everyday lives. Remember everyone is stressed right now. Everyone's under pressure to spend, to give, to be happy. Cut everyone some slack. Be as nice as you possibly can, and demand nothing in return.

Man, this turned into a bit of a lecture, didn't it? Sorry about that.

Hope you all have a wonderful holiday season, whatever you're doing, however you celebrate. Hugs.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

things i've learned from a decade of NaNoWriMo

This is my tenth year of doing NaNoWriMo. (I need that gif from Grosse Point Blank of John Cusack's friend shouting "TEN YEARS!")

Now, I honestly didn't realise it'd been as much as ten years. I've just had my head down, typity-typing away, and when I look up from my monitor, blinking in the daylight, apparently a decade has passed. If I complete the Nano challenge this year, that'll be ten consecutive wins, and a total of half a million words written.

Looks kinda nice when it's set down like that. Excuse me while I bask for a moment.

So anyway, I guess maybe I can describe myself as a Nano veteran now? I've put in the time and I've put in the work, and I reckon I've got a handle on the event. I've participated in the November events and also several Camp NaNoWriMos and a couple of Script Frenzies, back when those were still a thing.

(I set all this out because I still feel like, hey, who the hell am I to offer advice? With so many other knowledgeable people out there on the web, why should I add my shouty opinions to the void?)

For what it's worth, here is what I've learned from a decade of Nanoing.


Good Lord, is it not for everyone. Personally I love Nano. It suits me down to the ground. I love the microdeadline of writing 1,667 words a day, I love the freedom it gives me to write fast and loose, and I love the website with its updatable word count / bar graphs. I love the feeling of progress you get from watching your stats creep up. I love stats.

BUT it's not for everyone. Some people get the heebie-jeebies at the idea of writing like that. Who wants the stress of having to hit a word count every day? How can you cope without editing and fixing on the go? Who needs the peer pressure of your writing buddies judging you for your lack of progress? (They say they don't but I know the truth)

If your writing style doesn't fit the Nano model, that's fine. That's more than fine. You know who I'm jealous of? People who binge-write. Like, they sit down at the weekend and churn out five thousand words. How is that even possible? 1,667 words, arbitrary or not, seems to be my upper limit for productivity. If I try to blast through that and keep putting words down, my attention goes, my enthusiasm wanes, and my characters end up reading aloud from the dictionary just to keep the word count flowing.

My style is slow and steady. I'm happy with that. Nano fits me well. Other people have different styles, which Nano doesn't necessarily cater to. That's also fine. Don't try and force what doesn't work for you.


I am a better writer than I was ten years ago. I think that's fair to say. I'm more confident, I have a better working attitude, and I know how to use the word ameliorate.

Was this all down to Nano? Noooooo. Mostly I'd say it's thanks to ten years of more-or-less constant writing, a shedload of invaluable guidance from my various writing groups and beta readers, some professional intervention, and people hitting me with shoes to reinforce advice (I stand firm on certain points, like double-spacing after full stops, and no amount of shoes shall change my mind).

But Nano helped, for sure. It taught me I can write fast (when I need to), and I can write to a deadline (when I want to). It taught me that a paragraph of terrible writing is better than a paragraph that exists only in your head. It taught me, indirectly, the value of editing, because the nine first drafts I've churned out during past Novembers have been godawful. It taught me I am NOT a pantser, like I'd always thought... at least not a good one. And that leads me onto my next point:


One of the most difficult things to admit is that a course of action isn't working for you. It could be that, like me, you consider yourself a hardcore pantser - planning is for the weak! Structure grows organically! And again, sure, if this works for you, more power to you.

Turns out, I can't structure for peanuts.

My Nano novels (and by extension the rest of my writing, because if the model works for November why not extend it to the rest of the year, right?) are horrible blobby messy lumps. They tend to start off alright, with two or three decent chapters, before descending into OH GOD WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. Without a plan, I would grab onto the first reasonable plot point that came to mind and write towards it. Nano happens so fast that there's no time to sit back and think. You're constantly scrabbling for plot. Or at least I am.

Also turns out, structure is hella-difficult to insert after the fact. It's like building a monster out of the squishy bits first then trying to cram a skeleton into it. Difficulty, frustrating, and unpleasant. Even if you succeed, chances are you're going to end up with something that looks, ehhhh, not quite like you'd hoped.

Took me ten years to learn this.

So, my point is, it's okay to change your ways. If pantsing isn't working, stop and make a plan. If you're bogged down in planning, try pantsing for a while.

And if you're really, really not enjoying the process... stop.

No one's forcing you to Nano. No one will judge you if you don't make that 50K in a month (not even me). Like the gambling adverts say: When the fun stops, stop. Come back to it at your own pace. The last thing you want to do is ruin your work by carrying on long after you stop enjoying it.


I've said this before, but we don't give enough kudos to participation. Everyone who signs up to Nano is awesome. Everyone who puts a handful of words onto paper (or screen) during November is awesome. Everyone who plugs on to the end and makes their fifty thousand is awesome. Everyone deserves cookies and praise.

So, if you're enjoying Nano, high five. If you're struggling bravely onwards through Nano, KEEP GOING, YOU GOT THIS BRAH. If you're seriously not enjoying it in the slightest and you think it might put you off writing forever... quit.

Whatever you're doing, however you're doing it, good luck to you all. Keep writing... at the pace that works for you.

Friday, 13 October 2017

what the heck, lego star wars: the force awakens?

Our youngest is five years old and his favourite things are Lego, Star Wars, and video games. So obviously the first thing we introduced him to was the Lego Star Wars games, which we used to have on the PS2 but have recently repurchased for the PS3. And, I have to tell you, those games have held up well. They're still funny and clever and simple enough for an uncoordinated five-year-old (and his thirty-seven-year-old uncoordinated mother) to get the hang of relatively quickly.

They've also toned down the difficulty since the PS2 version, although opinion is currently divided on whether that's a good thing or not. Personally, I like a game I can play. Others like a game that challenges them. Everyone in this house likes a game our youngest can play without constantly asking us to assist him through the tricky bits.

(As a side note, I once again stand by our decision to let our kids play video games from a young age, but that's perhaps an argument for another day.)

So we bought LEGO STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS for our shiny PS4, expecting great things. Or at least more of the same things.

And immediately we found problems. For starters, they've complicated the crap out of the controls. It used to be jump-hit-interact-force. Now we've got jump, hit, interact, force, climb, blow up, throw sabre, shoot, and a bunch of other stuff. Some of them, for example the throw-sabre move, gets used once during the training level then never explicitly used again (that I've seen). You've got grappling hooks to drag stuff around. You've got specific objects that can only be shot by certain characters. You have special binoculars that can highlight special areas.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing. Variety is good. But the Lego games thrived on simplicity. There were only rare moments when you got stuck because (for example) you were trying to force an item that could only be shot. The puzzles were clear enough to be solved but still involved enough to give you a sense of achievement when you completed them.

And then FORCE AWAKENS throws in some cover based shooting.

Seriously now, what's the point of this? If I wanted to crouch behind a chest high wall and pop out to shoot baddies, there are literally a hundred other titles I could play. Why bung it in here? Is it just that the designers wanted "variety" and cover based shooting was the first thing that appeared when they googled "stuff that goes in video games"?

Ditto the quick-time events. QTE always feels like lazy button pushing to me. It's not vastly challenging and it breaks the flow of the gameplay. And, going back to our uncoordinated five year old, it's tricky enough that I inevitably get the controller shoved into my hands to get past these sections.

Oh yeah, and one other change that FORCE AWAKENS has introduced - they've added voices.

This won't sound like a big deal to anyone who hasn't played the originals. But the originals were hilarious, and so much of that humour came from the lego dudes being silent and conveying everything with exasperated expressions and visual gags. So now we've got a bunch of dialogue from the movie, which makes everything more dramatic and less funny. Even the amusing lines aren't so amusing when being fed through little plastic people.

In fairness, this only really hampers the main missions of the game. For the first week I played it, the voices grated horribly, and all I could think was how much more fun it'd be without them. Now that I've got into the side-missions and bonus sections, where they've either recorded new dialogue snips or just ditched dialogue entirely, it's noticeably more enjoyable, and I've laughed out loud at a good few bits.

So my capsule review is: man, it's difficult to make a new game in a beloved franchise. If you leave it exactly the same, people will be all like, but we've paid for this game already wtf?, and if you make alterations they're like, why have you dicked about with a winning formula ffs?

Although, bonus points for having JJ Abrams as an unlockable character.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

this was all foretold

My current to-read list has steadily increased to the point where it's not so much a list as a teetering pile, threatening to topple and crush me at any moment. But having a physical, obvious pile is important (even if I trip over it at least once a day) because it lets me work my way steadily through it, from top to bottom. New stuff gets added at the top, natch, and if something's been in it for more than, say, a year, it's clear it's less of a must-read and more a vital piece of structure holding up the rest of the load.

Occasionally things get shuffled to the top and I remember why I put them in the pile to begin with.

Other things guilt me into reading them simply because they've been sitting there so damn long.

One book that's found itself nearing the top has reminded me of a trope I've seen once too often (and which, in fact, I'm guilty of using myself, more than once, because it's really convenient). Essentially, everything that happens - everything, from running a red light to being menaced by Bigfoot - happens because it's part of some huge, overarching purpose which the characters can only begin to fathom. Greater powers are controlling their fates. They are being guided for a reason.

I've a few problems with this. For starters, it allows all sorts of randomness and coincidence to be hand-waved through. The main character stumbles across a perfect weapon? She was meant to find it. The person she's just met knows the one path through the deadly, deadly swamp ahead? That person was destined to be at this place at this time, specifically to help our hero.

Not that I'm adverse to blatant coincidence, of course. Like I say, I've used it myself more times than I can conveniently count, as a way to dig myself out of a big stupid plot-hole. Or when I wanted aliens to suddenly appear. But:

It also allows the characters to make really bloody stupid decisions, and again it's hand-waved past because they're not responsible for their own choices. Ms Main Character has the option of either walking into the obvious spikey-death trap or carrying on blithely on her way, and decides on the spikey-death route because she senses there's something important hidden in there. And, turns out, there is indeed some unique artefact within, which she'll definitely need later on in her quest (although of course she doesn't know how or why it'll be useful) so it's a good thing she listened to that internal guiding voice of fate.

This is so, so handy as a writer, because it lets us excuse our characters when they're doing anything stupid or irrational. We need them to get hold of that artefact but there's no obvious or compelling reason why they would walk into almost certain doom to retrieve it. To be honest, there's no good reason why our character would be on this quest at all. She's got better things to do; things that don't involve doom and decapitation and so much angst. But if she stays at home and drinks wine, we've got no story, so we wheel out the hand of fate, the forces beyond our ken, and hope our character doesn't suddenly get wise and dig her heels in.

And then there's the question of motivations. Someone who wants to scale Mount Dreadful and defeat the Evil Lord Bumscratch will always be more interesting that someone who is led inescapably for some nebulous reason to do the same. There are always exceptions, of course, of course. Bilbo Baggins wasn't exactly a willing participant. But in general, people like a hero who does things for definite tangible reasons - it doesn't have to be a particularly noble reason (money, honour, revenge, boredom etc. are all understandable excuses) so long as it's more substantial than "there was a reason why I was doing these things, in this order, to this end, while these random occurrences randomly occurred, but I couldn't yet decipher the hidden meaning that fate blah blah blah."

It is, of course, an acceptable way of looking at life, since life is a horrid confusing tangle of events and interactions, and it's no wonder we try to impose some meaning over the top of it. But if it's in a story, the hand of fate better have a flipping good reason for acting like this, or we'll all find a reason to stop reading.

Friday, 21 July 2017

friday doodle - impractical hat

This week I picked up Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells by Helen Scales, because... well, mainly because it caught my eye at the library, and because I don't know anything about molluscs (turns out, they're way more interesting than you probably thought).

Also the illustrations are gorgeous. This is my attempt at copying one:

Friday doodle: A mollusc in an impractical hat (part one of a series of impractical hats)

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

say bye-bye hair, not bye-bye library

Libraries are great; I think we can all agree on that (I hope we can, otherwise you and me may need to rethink our friendship).

The Family Library in Douglas is particularly great. It's got a wonderful selection of children's and YA books, it's super-friendly, the people there are delightful, and they're always running events for kids (and kid-like adults). For example, during half-term, they brought in visitors from the local wildlife park, and my mum-in-law met a snake:

They also run the mobile library, which provides books to people all across the Island who might otherwise not have easy access to library facilities.

(As a side-note, when I grow up I want to drive a mobile library. It's a truck full of books. I can't imagine anything better.)

Unfortunately, like so many libraries across the country in this bleak and unenlightened time, the Family Library is currently at risk of closure due to funding cuts.

So, last week, I got rid of my (rather substantial) mop of hair and we raised £125 for the library:

If you like libraries (and again, I hope you do, really I'd hate for us to fall out over this) and have a few extra pennies in your pocket, please consider flinging them at this very worthy cause, either here or via my Just Giving page.

Also, until the end of July, I'll be sending all profits on my ebooks to the Family Library, so if you fancy owning a copy of TERROR ISLAND or HOME GROUND and also contributing to a good cause, please click on through.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

being bold for change

A few weeks ago I was kindly invited by Stacy Astill to speak at Henry Bloom Noble Library for International Women's Day, along with a fabulous collection of local authors, poets, and musicians that highlighted the huge variety of talent we've got on this island.

This year's International Women's Day was about being bold for change. So I said a few things on the subject of change, and I talked about it in terms of writing, because really I don't know much about anything else. But when I say 'writing', feel free to substitute any activity you care passionately about.

So, in terms of writing, a lot of stuff has changed over the years. The way we write, the physical process of it, has changed from pen and ink to keyboards, to mobile phones and writing software. It's never been easier, technologically speaking, for us to physically put words onto the screen.

How we're published has changed. There are more ways than ever before to get your work out there. Publishing is no longer a closed industry reliant on paper copies of books - now everyone has the option to publish their work in hardcopy, or print on demand, or ebook. You can post serialised novels on blogs. You can write interactive stories via Twitter polls. You can send your work around the world in an instant. You can ask for and receive immediate feedback from people throughout the globe. Never before have we had the chance to be read so widely.

What we write has changed. With the ability of everyone to self-publish, many old barriers have been taken down. You can write whatever you want and put it out there in the world. If you want to write a period romance with added dinosaurs - no one can tell you not to.

Who we write about is changing. Old stereotypes are being ditched (and some new ones are being created). With the upsurge in self-publishing, we've never had a better chance to create diverse characters - in terms of race, background, goals, motivations, lives, ability, everything. The world is changing and I want to believe literature is changing to reflect that.

How we read is changing. The electronic age has given us quick, immediate access to almost every book under the sun. You can buy and read the latest novels without having to leave your bed.

How we share our love of books has changed. Online sites like Amazon and Goodreads let us review our favourite books with a few simple clicks. Social media lets us connect with people who love the same novels as us - and gives us access to communicate directly with the authors we love.

But none of these are entirely positive things. There is greater diversity in books, yes, but we still have a long way to go. Look at your bookshelf and make a mental note how many main characters are non-white, or female, or differently able. Even if you believe you read diversely, you're likely to be surprised.

We may have immediate access to books via internet, but this is causing problems with piracy and the decline of the high-street bookshop. We are able to voice our opinions, but so can the vocal minority who will shout us down and tell us we're wrong to love the books we love, to defend the authors we care about, to want to see greater diversity and equality and change in what we read.

And while it might be easier to put words onto screen, the process of writing is as difficult as it's ever been. We are, and always will be, plagued with self-doubt and negativity. We question why we write, what we should write, whether we're any good, whether what we're doing will change anything. The obstacles are still the same - we all have other commitments, jobs and kids and families, and we never have enough time for the things we love doing. Some attitudes have changed, but some sadly have not, and there will always be those who'll ask, why are you writing? What's the point?

Here's what I think:

We write because we have a passion. Because we must. Because we persist.

We write to change things.

Maybe not to change the world, or opinions, or attitudes, or to make grand sweeping gestures that will benefit mankind, but because the smallest change is still a change. We can read and share diverse books. We can post reviews online. We can support our libraries and independent bookshops. Every time you buy a book, you're voting. You're telling the industry, this is what we want to read and how we want to buy. This is what we want more of. Every time you use your library card, you're telling the government, we need this resource.

Best and most of all, we can change ourselves through the positive act of creating something, or sharing something we love, or telling people about the things we care about. We can change our own opinions - the internal critic that says, how can I write when the world's such a mess? How can I write when no one will care what I say? How will this make a difference?

Change is difficult, we all know that. We're only one person. But everyone is just one person. Everyone can be bold and change something.

That's it, lecture over, please buy my books. :)