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Beware the Brandished Torches!

One of the hardest things in writing is telling a story about a place everyone knows, The fact is they live there…, with you…, and like you they know everything about the locale. Except they don’t. And neither do you, the writer. This is because everyone views any place they interact with and contribute to through their own experiences. This is what makes stone-walling seem like honourable defence, one person’s bigotry seem like justified anger and one person’s paradise another folk’s hell.


As a writer taking on the challenge of story telling about the area around you, even if the characters are fictional, though based on various people one knows or has had experience of, you have to be careful. Not in case they come for you in the night, pitch forks at the ready and dipped flaming branches giving the night sky an eerie glow and your feet a hot toasting. Not in case some people don’t speak to you, offend by who they believe themselves to be in your story. No, the part to be careful of is to say what the story wants to say.


Stories are generated from thoughts and deeply held observations or beliefs and therefore deserve to be written in their entirety, not altered for passable consumption. And should the writer fear having caused offense if they are actually describing what is? Surely worse happens. They could simply put the book down in boredom. Now that would be devastation. So write to your observations, your revelations, your take on this life.


And so remember me, when you see the brandished torches, or the small boat with the man, hands tied behind his back and walking a modern day plank into the sea. They will say, he wrote to his convictions, he called it as it was. Short career though!

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The Changing Face of Evil

Don’t panic, you’re not about to get a lecture on the current terrible state of the world, rather a bit of an observation on the dark characters we seem to be getting on the screen and in our books.

Nice Tie

I think it all started when we started taking what would have been traditionally evil characters and creatures, and made them a bit more friendly, more human (if indeed we are friendly). Suddenly werewolves were simply shape shifters following a social change agenda, wronged and mistreated. Vampires were just unlucky people who didn’t want a break in the summer sun. And ghosts were actually helpful, misunderstood souls who were in the wrong place due to some supernatural accident.

Noone knew his years on the dole


I remember growing up and evil was evil. Often there was no understanding of why the bad stuff was happening, why these dark things of the night wanted to do these horrible actions to us. They were simply evil. It seems with changing times and the acceptance that old ideas about different lifestyles, race and social classes are erroneous, our characters seem to reflect that. In fairness I remember it starting in “Cabal” by Clive Barker, a super novel I thoroughly enjoyed but one that invoked sympathy for the dark things, even if they were all far from perfect.

“Don’t you just love him and his lights!”


Maybe it is a good thing that art mirrors the times we are in, but forgive me if I crave that unfathomable entity that simply wants to destroy because that’s what it is. It has no understandable social make-up, no difficult back story, no sad tale of its own – it is simply evil. And it is distinctly un – human, bearing nothing of our qualities, unfathomable. I guess it’s because against such a thing we can throw the full weight of our aggression and defence, knowing there is nothing to understand, nothing to rectify in its past. Today’s depictions don’t allow us that luxury and in truth, neither does real life, and it really should not.


But this is fantasy so give me one more malevolent, undeniably evil being to pit my fragile heroes against. You know you want to.

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Need a Creative Holiday?

I’ve not long finished running a course in writing your own novel and amongst all the advice about planning, writing and editing a novel, I also spoke a bit about when things go pear shaped and then adapting. Currently I have quite a number of projects on the go, including making a zombie card game, oddly enough, and this week our plans were thrown to the wind by the unfortunate illness of a family member.

Without going into any personal details, it has caused me to take on board the words of advice I gave out during the course, namely that writing is there to support life and not the other way round. Not my original words either but a paraphrase of Stephen King. One of the difficult issues when you take on a love of your own such as writing, crafting or even zombie card games, and make it into a business, it is easy to find things becoming a slog or taking such importance that you can end up hating them for how they dominate your life.


I told my writing course that one of the most important processes to master is to separate your business self and your creative self, maintaining a tension between them. Your business head will always look for the money but it’s too easy for the writer to get forced out, become less creative, or to get stressed at producing stories they never wanted to in the first place.


From normal work we always take a holiday during the year to let ourselves recharge and wander off to new things. Sometimes I think we need to do this with our creative selves, let our imaginative processes just happen with no goals in mind for a while. While it might not produce something we can sell or market, it gives the creative a holiday when they can simply indulge in the joy of creating. For a writer, this can be the short story that’s been kicking at you over the weeks, or that character you wish to create that you don’t know if anyone will like, and frankly you don’t care!


Take a creative holiday when it all gets too much and let your art support life before it crushes it.

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Just the Time of Day

The focus was sharper in real life!

I’m looking across at a harbour, late at night after the sun has gone down, and the dimensions of the port are not as I remember them in the daylight. There’s a series of white markers that link to some low level uplighters, standing proud and indicating something of importance. To the left of this, and after a period of drab pipes and beams, are a dazzling array of white beacons, broadcasting their resilience into the night. In front of this are long tubular rays, shimmering like warning markers before the industry behind them.


What I find remarkable is the change between this view and that of the daytime where the actual structures that stand out are those that are not lit up this evening. There’s a whole building that stands as an impressive roundhouse, iconic to a degree but which at night looks like a failed bus shelter. And the water in front of the structures in this dark becomes part of them, increasing the visual depth and warmly leading us to the dazzling lights beyond.


So what, you say? The what is that depending on the time of day when stories are set, the whole ambience and the perceptions of the characters are changed, producing different levels of fright, perception, awe and awareness. Approaching this harbour during the day it looks like a Scottish ideal, whereas at night it becomes more of an unknown, a journey of discovery and has senses more on edge.


This brief tableau has made me think more about when things are happening in stories and to couple that onto the what is happening to produce a more accurate and pleasing tale. Placing myself in situ has become an even more involved task than it already was and in my mind I need to swing around more before jumping into the action.

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A Spielberg Masterclass

This week I have been hit by the cold and was forced to actually take Sunday as a proper day of rest. Therefore I was found on Sunday morning at about 9am watching “Bridge of Spies” , huddled on my sofa, fighting to breathe properly through my nose (yes, those are violins you are hearing).

Bridge of Spies DVD cover


Now I have to say I am a fan of the spy genre, Len Deighton and John le Carre being authors I love but this was a rather unknown story to me. However it was more than a spy movie, rather it was a masterclass in telling a story.


What struck me about this film was not Tom Hanks’ acting (although as the main character he was superb) or that of anyone else in the film (Alan Alda was sublime). It wasn’t the terrific locations, especially Berlin in its coldness, snow on the ground and lawlessness breaking out. Rather it was the way Stephen Spielberg can hit your emotions from the blindside.


At one point Hanks character is crossing from East berlin to West Berlin after successful negotiations and looks out of the train to see the recently built wall. So far all has been fairly pleasant in the film but at this point you see the hopeful escapees brutally shot down off the wall and it hits you hard. The shot is brought back to mind as Hanks is back in the USA having completed the mission successfully and is somewhat warmed by the response he receives on a train. But looking out the window he sees a backyard wall with kids jumping over it and you are immediately taken back to that sucker punch.


A story would not be true to itself if it didn’t show that uneasiness we all have with finished results, knowing that despite success there is more evil or unfairness left in the world. Unless it’s a child’s movie the platitude does not really sit well with us.


Having watched the film, I found myself thinking about how Spielberg sets his audience up, rolling them through those confusing sides of life, of every person, so we end up with a rounded picture of what is happening whether we like it or not. And seeing it on film only makes me want to do it on paper. In a world where characters are often one dimensional or simply purporting one side, depth of writing that can enhance our world view with all its complications can only be a good thing.


Watching this film made me remember why I love films to be begin and why I love reading. The challenge made to ourselves as viewer and reader is surely what makes it all worthwhile.

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Has Electronic Life wiped out Books?


I recently read an article about Jacqueline Wilson (link) and amongst the views attributed to her was that she believed that “Electronic life has wiped out books.” This seems like a strong statement but what is the truth behind it? According to the Washington Post (link) there has been over a 16% decline in adults who read at least one literary work per year from 1982 to 2015 from just under 57% to 43.1%. I find that quite shocking as the percentage in 1982 already seems low. 
Apparently there are more things to amuse us nowadays. With our smartphones we can surf the web or read our emails, play games or watch more television programs. I am a fan of television series and do watch a number of films and programs a week but one important thing I find with the cinematic art form is that while it may exercise your brain with issues brought to the fore, it doesn’t drive your imagination.

Surely imagination is the well spring for creativity. Without imagination our whole society would struggle to function. How would we develop, how would we grow without that capacity to think what would be and then working out how to get there? And surely books are the playground for that creativity.


I’m not saying that books are the only playground for any of the creative arts will do that. Sculpture, basket weaving, drama, embroidery, painting, etc.. are all pastimes that will drive the imagination. But when we simply hover over what I would call static detail, that which is fixed and cannot be changed, then our imagination will die.

I don’t think Jacqueline Wilson is totally right, well, not yet. But she certainly has hit the nail on the head with how things are heading.

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Fear of Failure

fear of failure

There’s nothing like a job interview to bring out the fear of failure. fear of failure

Fear of failure in a job interview

Have you been to a job interview recently? Have you sat across a table from your prospective employers to face the barrage of questions which seek to determine your suitability for that particular job? Usually they ask you to demonstrate times in your career when you can show that you demonstrated the attributes for the role in question. You relate your successes, explaining how you achieved those wondrous things that your previous employer was so enamoured with.

But how many would-be employers ask you about your failures? How many ask you what you managed to salvage from the wreckage? Or seek to see the building blocks that made you successful in the areas the work demands? How many seek to know what you have learned?

Facing your fears (and even using them)

Successful entrepreneurs are not people who have never failed, but rather people who have learnt from their failures. And most importantly they are prepared to give it a go.

Ken Robinson, the education guru, once told the story of a little girl in a drawing lesson (TED talks) . Normally this little girl was very quiet and somewhat withdrawn but in this lesson she was really going at the drawing she was making. So the teacher asked, “What are you drawing?” and the little girl responded, “a picture of God.” “But noone knows what God looks like?” answered the teacher. And the little girl replied, “They will in a minute.” Mr Robinson’s point was that children will give it a go even when they don’t know how to proceed. They are not afraid of failure.

So often we do not take the chances in life because the result is unknown. Or we are unsure if what we will create will be a success. And so we stifle our creative spirit because we are afraid to risk, we become risk-averse. Hence we settle for what is, not because it is wonderful but because we are afraid to pursue what is better, in case we don’t make it. In case we flunk. But isn’t life for embracing?

Taking risks

Christian commentator Tony Campolo, once surmised that risks need to be taken. He reported comments from a group of senior citizens who stated that the consequences of our failures are never as bad as we imagine. I contend that if we do not risk then we destroy ourselves, simmering away in our cauldron of mediocrity.

So the next time you wonder why you are sat in a life of boredom, or tedium then ask yourself are you risking anything to change it? Extend the hand to a stranger or an enemy, go for that job, take yourself out of the house, join that club, become a DJ at the local radio. Whatever it is, don’t fear the consequences. Weigh it up and make that jump. You might find your life takes off and you’re capable of more than you ever imagined.

What fear if failure did for me

There’s no doubt that the fear of failure meant I was over 40 before I self-published my first novel, Crescendo. It was a big risk but one worth taking. Whether or not it becomes a ‘best-seller’ is as yet undecided but the self-fulfillment and achievement of writing has made facing my fears totally justifiable.