Author: thousandmonkeys

Sharing Isolation in an Asynchronous World

Back in 2018 when I got a new day-job it was a two-year contract so I knew that, all other things being equal, I would leave in mid-April 2020. As we began this year, what with Easter and accumulated leave my last day in the office looked like it was going to be March 31st. What perfect timing, I thought, for my last-Sunday-of-the-month blog post to be an amusing look back at office life, commuting, and the people-watching I’d done over the previous two years. Light-hearted thoughts about the pronunciation of acronyms and why I was inordinately fond of a database that sounded like it was called Malcolm, even though I knew nothing about its contents or purpose. Speculations on the sudden smartening up of a familiar stranger. That kind of thing.

As we’ve all noticed by now, however, March 2020 isn’t going to anybody’s plan (unless, perhaps, you’re one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – which really makes me want to go back and finish a comic fantasy story I started writing in 2012) and my last day in the office turned out to be, rather abruptly, March 16th. Because I mainly sit at a computer all day sieving and cleaning data and occasionally taking a SQL-spanner to the workings of the odd database, I can work from home. There are technical challenges that need to be figured out before we can work completely as normal, but basically I’m easily transplantable. Every now and then over the last couple of years I’ve had a day or two working from home for one reason or another and it’s been fine being on my own, peaceful and productive. Besides, after March 31st I was planning to be writing at home anyway, with OneMonkey working in the next room three days a week, so all I’ve done is move to the next (planned) phase of my life two weeks early. Except it doesn’t work like that because for those two weeks I still have colleagues.

I tend to keep the day-job out of this, but I guess with a quick search for my name you could find out what I do so it seems tiresome to talk around it in this context: I work (for the next week and a bit) on statutory returns at a university, sending student data to HESA and the OfS. Bits of it are fiddly and arcane, and at certain times of the year incredibly high-pressure, and the four of us in the HESA corner end up having long, detailed, technical discussions over whether some particular student in unusual circumstances should take this code or that code out of the five rigidly defined possibilities in the HESA specifications, and kind of forget that anyone else in the office exists. Believe me, we’re great fun at parties. Assuming that by ‘parties’ you mean gatherings of geeks who are particularly interested in student records. And like to quote Douglas Adams at every available opportunity.

Because that’s the thing you miss when you’re suddenly all separate. The in-jokes, the familiar joshing, the leaning round the monitor and asking what’s up when you hear the snort of disbelief from the other side of the desk. In my writing life I’ve never had that, I’m not missing out on anyone’s company by sitting at home rather than being somewhere else. I was gearing up for leaving my office job and I knew I’d miss everyone but it feels so odd suddenly never hearing someone’s laugh (or Terry Jones impression) and yet still interacting with them via email or text discussion, rather than having left them behind as expected.

We’re all getting to grips with using Microsoft Teams and apart from technicalities like getting headsets to work, we’re grappling with etiquette about why and when and how to initiate a voice call, which I’m sure will settle down after a while (though maybe not before I’ve left). In the office, I can see from the set of my colleague’s shoulders that she’s concentrating and I shouldn’t disturb her, but I can also see her stand up to stretch or get a drink and before she settles back to work again I can ask her a question or tell her some piece of information she might like to know but doesn’t warrant clogging up her inbox. At a distance, the best I can do is leave it in Teams and see if/when she spots it (as yet, we haven’t all got the hang of mentions and notifications and the like either). The Dilbert cartoons, the cat pictures and the Dungeons and Dragons memes that we might lean over each others’ screens to look at are missing entirely so far, as we try and keep the Teams feed ‘professional’, whatever that means.

At the end of the week we instituted a daily afternoon chat, half an hour of hearing each others’ voices (and seeing the one person with a working webcam) and it surprised me both how much I was looking forward to it all afternoon and how refreshing it was. Over the last few years I realise I’ve gradually slipped into asynchronous communication outside of office life. I don’t have the hour-long phone conversations with friend T that were a feature of our lives (however irregular) for twenty years, we text for quick updates or email if we want to include pictures. I went from Christmas Day to mid-February without hearing the sound of any of my siblings’ voices, in fact I still haven’t spoken to Big Brother – Sister Number One and I text each other so we all know what’s going on in each others’ lives (they all live in one place, I live 20 miles or so away). Nobody seems to watch TV programmes or even listen to the radio at the same time anymore, it’s all about catch-up services and convenience, and there’s so much choice and individuality that they’re often not watching or listening to the same thing anyway so all of the ‘did you hear..?’ has gone. I wonder if this enforced separation will change that?

I’ve already seen global book clubs springing up on Twitter, I think Robert Macfarlane for one was suggesting everyone read a particular book and then presumably they’ll discuss it somehow. Bands are live-streaming gigs with no audience, or filming to put them online. Writers are setting up webinar groups to write together to the same prompt at the same time as though they were in the same room. Even with catch-up or podcasts, you could agree with a friend that you’ll both watch or listen to the new episode on a particular day of the week and then ring up for a chat about it. Or even better, video call. Maybe when broadband is struggling with all the extra home-working and extra streaming of TV services to bored people in self-isolation I shouldn’t be encouraging extra strain on the capacity. However, having used Skype or Google Hangouts now and then to catch up with distant friends and family, I can recommend it if you’re not used to phoning particular friends. Particularly if you’re using a screen that’s larger than a phone screen, and preferably have it propped up somewhere (for a phone or tablet – you don’t have that problem with a laptop) so you don’t have to hold it for ages, it can start to feel more like a cosy chat in the same room than a potentially stilted phonecall. You get the body language cues of someone being about to speak so you don’t keep talking over each other, and it can include anyone in the household who wanders into the room, rather than it being one on one.

This pandemic is necessarily going to change everyone’s lives, at least for a while. We’re all going to have to get used to our own company but don’t misjudge the place of casual interactions. If you’re used to pointing to a passing peregrine falcon from the office window and sparking a conversation, or chatting about hair straighteners while you queue for the kettle, you probably need to find an equivalent of that while you’re in your weird new solitary world. Now excuse me while I make a cup of tea and see if my dad’s up for sitting quietly in front of distant screens making occasional observations about what birds each of us can see from our respective windows.

Twine and interactive fiction

Readers of a certain age may recall the Choose Your Own Adventure books for children, that were popular a few decades ago.

Ahead of you, Robin Hood is captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men. As the remaining member of his band at large in the forest it’s up to you to rescue Maid Marian. Do you run back the way you came, to talk to the woodcutter (turn to page 7) or follow the Sheriff’s men as they lead Robin away (turn to page 8)?

That kind of thing. Basically it was a thrilling short novel in which the reader made the decisions, usually after reading only a page or two of text, and thus could read the same book multiple times, having slightly different experiences, and feeling like they were in the middle of the action. I came across a couple of essentially novelty versions for adults in the late nineties but on the whole I’d only heard of the format being used for children’s books.

Having also grown up on text-based computer adventure games (because graphics were a luxury thirty years ago) and sharing a love of noir, it was perhaps inevitable that OneMonkey and I would drift into entertaining ourselves by starting to write a detective story on the computer, with the intention that the plot could pan out in different ways depending on the decisions made at each turn.

Four and a half years ago during a hot, lazy summer we started fooling around with the tale of an unnamed private detective who lived above a chip shop somewhere near Middlesbrough, and what happened when he came home from a poetry recital one evening to find the body of one of his clients sprawled on his kitchen lino:

Yet here she was in the fringes of suburbia, sprawled on my beige and orange linoleum. She’d only been looking for a missing spaniel when she pitched up at my office last week, and wherever the dog was it wouldn’t be in my kitchen. My cat would never allow it.

Instead of the typical second person narrative (you go into the kitchen…) we opted for the traditional noir first person (I stepped over the threshold…) with the reader acting as the detective’s conscience, inner voice, or maybe guiding deity (Should I call the police or slip out the back door?).

Because we both have programming backgrounds and because it probably didn’t cross our minds that anyone else would be daft enough to do stuff like this, we used our markup facility of choice (txt2tags) and made a simple html version so you could read a passage of text, click on one of the links and move to the next passage. The only trouble was, the way we were keeping track of the interconnectedness was to draw decision trees on paper and magnet them to the side of the filing cabinet, and we were running out of filing cabinet. Fun as it had been, we were getting tangled in our own storylines and we shelved the poor detective a couple of years ago.

Fast forward to the Christmas holidays 2019, when I was formatting a radio script to send to the BBC Script Room. OneMonkey, convinced there must be specialist script software that would stop me swearing so much (and indeed, I’ve downloaded a demo of Fade In but I haven’t tried it yet), was trawling the web. He found a nifty thing called Twine, which wouldn’t help with the radio script but was just the thing we needed to get our detective back into his favourite thinking-chair.

Twine is open source (did I ever mention I use Linux? And LibreOffice, and Vim, and…) and is also incredibly simple to use. I find it just visual enough to be helpful without being overwhelming, and at its simplest you can use the default set-up and make simple text passages with simple links (like we were doing in html before), and be up and running straight away. Within an hour we’d downloaded Twine, learnt enough to get started, copied across our existing story and were examining the incomplete pathways.

Screenshot 2020-03-01 at 17.09.16

The layout of our story in Twine, which makes me think of international flight-paths

We set up a couple of tags to add colour-coding, so we know which ones are still only headings, with no text added, and which ones are end-points. OneMonkey got enthusiastic on the coding front and added an inventory (represented here by the disconnected set of items on the left-hand side) so at any time we know what our hero has in his pockets, but this is very much an optional extra.

Since our adoption of this new software approach, all we’ve done is untangle a couple of threads, add an inventory, work out where we’d got to, and sketch out a couple of scenes to be used later (the disconnected items on the right-hand side). It’s not often we’ve both got the time (or maybe I mean energy) to sit down and work on this together, but Twine certainly seems to be a useful way to do it. You can do a test run through the ‘game’ (I can’t figure out what terminology to use for this venture, I would naturally say interactive fiction but they get referred to as games) to see how it’s going so far, or you can sit in storyboard mode (as shown in the screenshot above) and edit the passages, add links etc.

As I understand it, you can get even more advanced by adding images, sounds (say you want to have a distinctive door-opening hum every time the character goes through a door), and we’ve used conditionals in a couple of places already. By ‘conditionals’ I mean the text shown, and/or the decisions available are conditional on what’s already happened – if the detective has visited the bathroom already then he will behave in a different way when he enters the bedroom, for instance. In our detective’s case he’s looking for clues and deciding what to do next based on them, so if he encounters things in a different order then he might jump to different conclusions. If you’re a programming beginner, you might want to stick to basic building blocks of narrative at first and only bring this sort of nuance in once you feel more confident.

As with anything of this nature, a quick search for how-to articles, or YouTube tutorials should turn up helpful pointers. If you want some inspiration there’s a community site with links to interactive fiction that people have constructed, you can even search for ones made using Twine.

We may never guide our detective through all the twists of his fishy plot but at least Twine has given us a way to progress, and if Above a Chip Shop in Teesside is ever available to the public, I’ll let you know.

Not just a year but a decade in books

As is becoming sort of traditional, I thought I’d have a quick look back at what I read during the last year. The photo below is by no means a scientific sample but it does skew towards non-fiction, which is what the year felt like it did.

wp-1580054821874.jpg

Some of the books I read in 2019

However, given that the Guardian kept on reminding me it wasn’t just a new year but a new decade, I had a look back through my reading lists 2010-2019 and as a proportion I actually read more non-fiction in both 2018 and 2013 than I did in 2019 so I’m not sure why it felt so prominent.

As ever, there were library books (only 2 that I got all the way through, it’s scandalous), e-books (8), and books I’ve subsequently given away (2) and hence aren’t represented in the picture. Plus the ones I couldn’t be bothered to pull off shelves in 3 different rooms and pile on the floor (apologies to Messrs Hobsbawm and Wodehouse, among others).

Standout novels of my reading year were probably the first two volumes of the Dark Gifts trilogy by Vic James (I still haven’t read the third) and the Joe Sixsmith series from Reginald Hill (from the nineties, by the author best known for detectives Dalziel and Pascoe).

I read such a range of non-fiction in 2019, from Bruce Dickinson’s fab autobiography What Does This Button Do? to a selection of books about the north or being working class, the brilliant Gig by Simon Armitage, and a couple of economics books. It doesn’t make sense to say which was ‘best’ but Erebus by Michael Palin, The Northumbrians by Dan Jackson, and Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane both got me thinking and got me wanting to write some kind of follow-on or response.

I only read 39 books in 2019, the joint lowest total of the decade (alongside 2011). I’d like to say it’s because I’ve been writing so much instead, but it’s really not. Just over half the fiction was sci-fi or fantasy, which is about average for the decade, and just over a third was crime, which is on the high end. Though come to think of it, both novels so far in 2020 have been crime so maybe I’m going through a phase (riding a crime wave?). I should dust off the half-written detective novel this year.

Over the decade I’ve read 479 books, though I’m quite sure a few of them will have been the same book again (there’s a book on writing crime fiction that I remember getting out of the library twice, for a start). It might be a lot if you stick them in one bookcase but less than 500 in 10 years is not that many. When I think about how many new books come out in a year, even just in the genres I’m interested in, it gets a little overwhelming. It also makes me feel less bad about abandoning a long fantasy series partway through if it’s no longer absolutely compelling me to read on. I never felt guilty about not reading the must-reads and award-winners just because someone told me to, so no change there.

Oppressive regimes in recent SFF

In Vox by Christina Dalcher, America has been taken over by fundamentalist right-wing Christians: a woman’s place is once more in the home. Only this time, she’s only allowed to speak 100 words a day. The Dark Gifts trilogy by Vic James is set in contemporary Britain with an alternative history, where only people with magic in their blood are full citizens with acknowledged human rights. Quite different styles and settings, but both give well-crafted and thought-provoking portrayals of oppressive regimes and how people react to them.

Vox has been on prominent display in three for two offers and the like at WHSmith and Waterstones on and off for months. It’s been in bestseller lists, and praised as a new Handmaid’s Tale left, right and centre. Which is why I’d delayed reading it, even though Christina is one of the flash fiction crowd I chat to on Twitter and I’d been so excited when she first announced her novel was going to be A Real Thing. Sci-fi that appeals to people who don’t read sci-fi is rarely satisfactory to those that do, in my experience (see my review of The Bees). I’m so glad that Vox turned out to be chilling, thrilling, near-future sociological SF with a healthy dose of science in it, and I can honestly say I really enjoyed it.

It’s hard to say much about Vox without giving away plot-twists. I thought the idea of the slippery slope was handled brilliantly, the glimpses of the path they’d gone down to get to the current state. At what point does behaviour cross a line between being the preserve of a weird minority it’s safe to ignore, and prominent enough that right-minded liberals (as the phrase would probably go, in the USA) should react against it? Can a person look back and pinpoint the moment they should have stood up for their (or someone else’s) rights, their last chance to change the course of society? What about if someone you love edges step by step along a path you abhor, following one seemingly reasonable (in isolation) argument after another? Then there’s the science element, laced with ambition and ethics. It’s all biology/medicine so I have no idea how real or plausible any of it is, but it did make me think about the way lots of scientific research can be used for good or ill, and all we can do is trust that it won’t be weaponised.

My one reservation is the epilogue; I personally would have preferred the book to end after the climax and do away with the hindsight summarising. However, I have similar views on the Jeff Vandermeer novel Borne, but that didn’t stop me loving the novel and recommending it. I’m happy to recommend Vox too.

I’ve only read the first two of the Dark Gifts trilogy so far (Gilded Cage and Tarnished City), though the third is lurking on my Kobo ready for me to dive into when I’ve finished the book I’m reading just now (Christmas-themed, therefore timebound). The main characters are the children of two very different families, ranging in age from ten to mid-twenties, with much of the action revolving around two boys in their late teens who end up bonded by circumstance in a fascinating (and not at all friendly) way.

Britain is powered by slaves; every non-magical person must do a ten-year stretch. Meanwhile the magical aristocracy (the ‘Equals’) live on their country estates in luxury, and the country is ruled by the heads of these powerful families. A mixture of propaganda and the silence of the traumatised ensures that the wider public never hear about, or simply don’t believe, the treatment of slaves in some parts of the country. When the Hadleys opt to do their slave-days as a family, on an aristocratic estate, their belief in the basic fairness of the system and the inevitability of slavery begins to wobble. Of course, even within the Equal society, some are more equal than others, and the tensions between and within families play out on a large scale.

Gilded Cage is very good on how ordinary people either turn a blind eye or simply miss the hints that all is not well – with busy lives and faith in basic decency they don’t want to rock the boat and assume the nastiest rumours are trouble-causing nonsense. It also portrays complexity and grey areas well, and the way that individuals don’t necessarily align with the group you expect them to. There are some fabulous characters in the trilogy, Silyen Jardine in particular keeps wrong-footing me and revealing yet another facet. Tarnished City kept the pace and tension and developed some of the characters in interesting ways, I’m looking forward to reading Bright Ruin, the final instalment.

Writing with an outward gaze

There’s an image of writers as self-absorbed navel-gazers. Alone in the attic with a typewriter, capturing important words that the cruel and/or philistine public doesn’t want to read or hear. These days, of course, it’s been taken to a whole new level by bloggers and self-publishers (yes, like me). It’s so easy to sit here and tell as much of the world as cares to take notice how your novel’s doing; how many submissions, rejections, invitations and events are filling your world; how many books you’ve read; how many words you’ve written…

Sometimes I’m reminded that it doesn’t have to be like that, or not all of it at any rate (I kind of like reading the personal side from other writers so I hope some of you enjoy similar from me). Applying to be a writer in residence focusing on climate change last month made me properly consider the possibilities for writing as a force for good (or for change, anyway – ‘good’ is often a judgement made in hindsight).

Anyone who’s ever written sci-fi has probably consciously chosen to use fiction to highlight the bad things about the present or to show the better things that could be, whether it’s to do with discrimination, the state of politics, or the environment. Personally, I think it’s harder to do outside of genre fiction (you can do it in crime or historical fiction to a certain extent as well as in SF) but not impossible. As readers, you know how a powerful story can stay with you and maybe change your views or attitudes, it can certainly make you have a long, hard think about the views you already hold. So, remember you can use your fiction to make people think.

Non-fiction is more obvious but is further from my comfort zone and if you’re predominantly a writer of fiction that probably goes for you, too. Creative non-fiction (real events relayed in a style more usual in fiction) or a personal essay can be more effective for persuasion than haranguing the reader in an article, but a concise, factual article can raise awareness of a situation or issue that’s not widely known.

Plays, films and podcasts can be anywhere on the spectrum between the two: from documentary via dramatisation of real events to full-on fiction. Events featuring readings (which again can be a blend of fact and fiction such as Alice Courvoisier and I have done in the past) can also be used. Even the (ahem) self-absorbed blog can be used in this way.

If this is getting your writing gears turning, the Royal Society of Literature have the Literature Matters awards (this year’s deadline is December 5th) to fund work which:

(a) will help connect with audiences or topics outside the usual reach of literature, and/or (b) will help generate public discussion about why literature matters.

Of course, writing an original work isn’t the only thing a writer can do to create change. You can help other people’s voices be heard, and depending on the type of change you’re after, just giving those workshops or providing that platform can be a change in itself.  You might be able to join (or create) a local group, festival, initiative, or community arts project. I say this knowing full well that it’s not always that easy (you may remember the cancellation of our Bradford libraries writing festival project a couple of years ago).

I’ll end with a mention for Chapel FM in Seacroft. I’ve loved being involved with Chapel FM, I’m continually amazed at the breadth of their output and the work they do as a community arts project. For the first time in a few years it looks like I won’t be taking part in their Writing on Air festival in March 2020 (I don’t drive, it’s a pain to get to by public transport from where I live, and previously I’ve been lucky enough to be collaborating with kind friends who gave me a lift) but I thought I’d give a small signal boost to their call for board members, and a couple of new staff members – they’re expanding again and I wish them the best of luck.

 

Why aren’t there more illustrations in fiction?

Ten years ago this week I made up International Illustrator Appreciation Day, so naturally enough I’ve been thinking about illustrations.

IMG_20191027_141019~2.jpg

Three very different illustrated novels

I’m halfway through The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, and though I didn’t realise they were there when I bought the book, I’ve been enjoying the illustrations that mark each new chapter:

IMG_20191027_140855~2.jpg

Illustration by Yoco Nagamiya

They set the scene in some way for the chapter to come, and unlike the cover art they depict the cat, Nana, as he’s described in the text. The wash style fits beautifully with the whimsy of this Japanese novel.

Not long ago I read Wyntertide, the second book in Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird trilogy. That, being a fantasy novel which also has a map, is the sort of territory you might expect illustrations, and indeed there are full-page pictures dotted through the book:

IMG_20191027_141445.jpg

Illustration by Sasha Laika

To me, these ones are reminiscent of the illustrations you might find in an old-fashioned children’s book, complete with a quote beneath, to show which part of the text they go with.

The ones that were delightfully unexpected and seemed a bit odd at first are these:

IMG_20191027_141054~2.jpg

Mid-text illustration by..?

This is from the Reginald Hill novel The Roar of the Butterflies, the final book in his Joe Sixsmith private detective series. Sadly it’s the only one of the series that I’ve got in this style (I bought them all second-hand), but OneMonkey particularly loved it. They’re not quite comedies but they’re light touch, and Joe is an easy-going central character so once you accept these drawings they work really well. I’m not altogether sure who drew them as I can’t find a direct reference, only that the cover art was by Christopher Burke.

Three different styles of novel, three genres, three different ways of arranging the illustrations (in among the text, full page within a chapter, chapter headings only). The only commonality being that these are all aimed at adults. In children’s books we often encounter illustrations like this but (maps in fantasy novels aside) rarely once we’re adults. Perhaps there’s an idea that they’re only for kids, and of course it adds an extra collaborator in to complicate deadlines and share the takings with, but I think they add something to the novel. Not everyone likes graphic novels, not all books lend themselves to that treatment, but surely there are lots of readers who’d appreciate a sprinkling of art in their books. We’re not demanding it because unless we’re reminded by books like these how nice it was to read text with illustrations when we were younger, we’ve forgotten what it is we’re missing out on.

A literature festival, a twinned town, and a workhouse

Autumn is always busy, it wouldn’t feel right if it wasn’t. As is often the case, I’ll be taking part in the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe and I’m part of a festival on Chapel FM (have we stopped calling it East Leeds FM again?) though not the usual Writing on Air. I’ve also been busy behind the scenes doing historical research.

This year instead of showing off what we can do, Ilkley Writers are giving four bite-sized workshops called Invite To Write at the Fringe, two on Saturday 5th October and two on Sunday 6th. Each one will feature one writing exercise that’s intended to be fun, not at all intimidating, and suitable for those wanting to dip a toe in the creative waters as well as experienced writers in a rut. We like a challenge…

The night before the first workshop I’ll be on Chapel FM at 8.30pm (though as usual you’ll be able to listen again via the website) reading flash fiction that I wrote for the 50th anniversary of the twinning of Leeds and Dortmund. It has nothing to do with either Leeds or Dortmund, or anything high-minded like bridging the continental divide. The theme was neighbours, so mine is wry humour about living in a flat. Other people involved in the festival have been more serious about it (though not all of them, naturally). You can read all the pieces on the Leeds Dortmund website.

While preparations for all this have been going on, I signed up as a volunteer researcher on a project called More Than Oliver Twist, which aims to individualise and humanise the nineteenth century workhouse. The idea is to research inmates who were in particular workhouses on the 1881 census, and tell their life stories in an exhibition next year. For me this is a natural follow-on from writing about the Bradford Female Educational Institute a couple of years ago for the Dangerous Women Project, highlighting a forgotten, overlooked bit of working class history and trying to make people (including me, perhaps – it’s easy to think in broad terms when you’re reading about the past) think about classes and categories of historical figures as individuals. I’ve researched a few workhouse inmates before while looking into mine and OneMonkey’s families, but not in Leeds so I’m straying into new territory here.

Incidentally, the Dangerous Women Project is crowd-funding a book. I’m not entirely sure why they’re doing a book when they’ve already got a website (and my piece is not going to be in the book) but if you’re interested, head on over there and support them.

Also, as an aside, some or all of this arose from me working through The Writer’s Plan that Carmen Marcus kindly shared. I wanted to give more back, with teaching or mentoring. I wanted to dare to try (like, getting involved in a Chapel FM festival by myself. Though it turns out Roz is on earlier in the evening so we’re going there together, which is a nice coincidental compromise). And I wanted to write about more forgotten history. Thanks Carmen, for giving me a shove.