Tuesday 31 January 2012

A Rant on Reality

The Only Way is Essex (otherwise known as TOWIE). Reality television, superseded only in its utter banality by Desperate Scousewives. Has the world gone mad? Or is it just that the standards of the British tv-viewing public have slipped to an all-time low somewhere beneath the delightful "100% Scouse showbiz blogger" Jaiden's shoe. Is anybody actually called Jaiden in real life? There'll a be a whole generation of little Jaidens growing up soon, who'll go to school with Paris, Beyoncé, Romeo and Apple (there'll be a few Bellas and Edwards too, won't there? At least they won't spend their lives spelling their names out for people). I remember a plethora of Kylies in the 1980s, so I guess things don't change much.

I wonder how many people out there think it's all real? That these people are hairdressers and all Essex girls have figures and hair like that? I can say that, since I am in reality (you know - the one we all actually live in) an Essex girl by birth. Yes, indeed. Billericay - the town made famous by Ian Dury. Plus I spent a few years of my life in Liverpool and many more within shopping distance of the city, so am qualified to comment. And I'm sure all these beautiful boys and girls weren't all professional actors originally, but I suspect they'll all be signed to agents now and waiting for their chances on I'm a Celebrity or Celebrity Big Brother. Tell me - how do people like Frankie thingummy get onto Celebrity Big Brother, anyway? The only thing he was famous for was being stupid enough to throw away the chance of a lifetime on X-Factor by allegedly misbehaving and getting booted out. I suspect he got more publicity out of that stunt than he would have done by being voted out in the normal fashion, so maybe it was a well-calculated move.

So what is it with reality tv? Do people aspire to live these lives? Not me. Give me a good tv drama any day. Or a nice programme about DIY or selling houses. But then, I'm old. My teenage daughter will probably disagree with everything I've written - but thank God she's got enough of a brain to tell the difference between truth and fiction.

Edited to add: Fallen Star -  a novel that looks at what it means to be "famous" in the 21st century. And it does it so well, it's scary. Well worth a read.

Saturday 28 January 2012

Faffing Around on Facebook

A lot of us do it, don't we?  Just to see if anybody has replied to our latest post - why on earth do we think anyone is interested in what we're cooking for tea? Or we "like" somebody's random status that is utterly meaningless in the real world. All these facebook "friends" that we've never met and are never likely to meet, who perhaps share some interest but in reality are probably just as boring and time-wasting as we are, desperately sharing our sad little lives with the rest of the world.

But reasons to be cheerful (part whatever it was - if you don't get that musical reference you're not old enough). Facebook keeps you in touch with what is happening out there. Local groups about your town or village have local events, newspapers and photographs. If you have a hobby, there'll be a group (or more) of like-minded people. Even if you have an illness, there'll be people there who can empathise with you and maybe offer emotional support. And mutual support is what it's all about, I think. Sure, there are "friends" of mine that I've never met, but they are people who have bought (or might buy) my books - they are interested enough in my life to comment on my posts, and I'm always careful never to post any personal details or exactly where I live. And there are the real friends - people I meet in the real world but perhaps don't see regularly, and it's a way of keeping in touch with each others' lives, making arrangements and supporting each other.

What about the ones in the middle? The people you've only ever met online but sound like they'd be fun to meet and you might have a lot in common? Well, I'm a big girl (yes, really) and I'd still never agree to meet up in a quiet place with people I don't know. In the past, I've met up with online friends and had a great laugh - in large groups in public places mostly, but there's a degree of common-sense and general world-experience involved. And I think everyone understands that and if they don't then they are probably not the people you'd want to meet anyway. I do know that I have online friends who I will probably never meet in the flesh, but they are good friends nonetheless and their friendship, support and advice is valuable to me.

I keep track of what my daughter does on facebook too. There's a degree of trust involved and in return for my promising not to reply to anything (and hence embarrassing her), she doesn't block her posts from me - mostly. I suspect there are a few things she doesn't want her mother reading, but I trust her and that's all part of being a parent. That one is probably down to the relationship every parent has with their child and we are all different.

But maintaining online relationships is a huge time-suck. Whole afternoons go past and I've done nothing other than banter with people, maybe offer opinions on book covers or pitches, or read some recommended blogs. And before I know it, it's time to go and cook tea and I've not actually done any writing.

And now it's 5.30 pm and I've forgotten to get the baked potatoes in the oven. But first I'll just check that last post....

Friday 27 January 2012

Guest Post: Christine Cunningham - Please Respect my Intelligence

I love books. Let me rephrase that I love good books. Though the course of reading throughout my life, I gorged myself on the informative, bizarre, fantastic, and hysterical. More recently I have chosen to function as a reviewer to the independent author community. I have a few requests before you decide to put pen to paper.
  1. Unless you’re writing a book, specifically for children don’t treat me like one. I can handle three syllable and above words.
  2. Attempting to infuse your character with depth by associating them with a culture outside your own is sketchy at best and purely racist at worst.
  3. Please mention classical and modern literature in your text properly. “Title dropping” in a book is just as annoying as “name dropping” in a conversation.
  4. Let your women breathe! The archetypal virginal, beautiful (but charmingly unaware of it), and flawless do-gooder is the bane of my existence. Please give your women characters a true voice.
  5. Let your men be men. Reading a male character that sounds like he’s just a man’s skin covering a woman’s body is very frustrating. There is a difference between the sexes for a reason. It builds tension, and that, my friend is exciting to read.
  6. There’s a difference between paying homage to an author/book and lifting a storyline from a book that has already been written. You have a unique voice and perspective. Please don’t shy away from using it.
  7. Edit your work! This means more than grammar and punctuation. Ask a few people to read your story prior to publishing who will give you an honest appraisal. Consider the poor fools on American Idol, who had no one who would be honest with them. Save yourself much pain and heartache by asking always how you can improve.
I want to read your story, and I want to be the one that tells everyone in my social circle about you. I found you first, and all of my friends are drooling with envy. You are the only one that can make that happen.
Christine Cunningham writes fictional stories to uplift and inspire. She is a life-long student of happiness and how to attract it. She compiles what she learns and weaves it into an understandable, enjoyable story. She is the author of Eternal Beginning Amazon bestseller, First Snow Amazon bestseller and 30 Day Guide to apply Eternal Beginning.

Connect with Christine through: Amazon, Facebook, Twitter or via her blog.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Are you Homophonic?

Diagram from wikipedia by Will Heltsley

Here is an interesting diagram I found today on wikipedia while researching what the correct term was for two words which are spelled differently but sound the same and have completely different meanings. The word I wanted was homophone.

Why? Well I found an interesting thumbnail image of a self-pubbed ebook cover in one of the many facebook forums I frequent. And yes, if I was being my usual pedantic self, I would probably have written fora, but forums seems to be the accepted norm these days and God forbid, I rock the boat often enough as it is.

This thumbnail looked interesting so I read the post and clicked on the link to amazon. The blurb didn't blow me away but I thought I'd look further so clicked on the "look inside" feature. And what did I find? The second line of the first chapter had a mistake that clearly indicated the author didn't understand the difference between a common word and its homophone. Now I'm not naming names or even the word, because that wouldn't be fair, but wake up, self-published and indie authors! This isn't a game. You're putting your book out there as "published"; you are asking people to pay money for it. Amazon is not a critique site and you can't expect readers to edit your work for you. If you can't afford to pay an editor, then trade beta-reads with a friend or writing colleague - sometimes just a fresh pair of eyes can be enough.

In my opinion, even typos are a no-no, but they are at least forgivable. Punctuation can be tricky and we don't always get it right, but we owe it to ourselves and our readers to do our best. But not understanding words - the tools of a writer's trade - is unforgivable.

Saturday 21 January 2012

Virtual London

In my current work-in-progress, I wanted to engineer a prison visit. Not so that I could describe the inside of HMP Wandsworth - my first-hand knowledge of the inside of a prison is about 20 years out of date, and I don't entirely trust tv documentaries - but simply so I could have my main character in a set place at a set time that would fit the context of the plot.

So I googled HMP Wandsworth. I didn't expect to find much, but there's a wealth of information as to how the prison visiting system works, right down to times it is "open". I suppose there are real people who want to go and visit their loved one and friends and find this sort of information useful. Then of course, there's Google Maps and the satellite view that shows you the buildings and roads, so you can place a person and estimate distance and travel time.

And London Undergound has convenient tube maps online. It's over 15 years since I worked in the capital, so  while I used to be able to count stops in my sleep (and frequently did in the mornings), I can't quite remember the order of the stations anymore. So I can have my character taking a tube journey with some degree of realism, even though I live 200 miles away in rural Cheshire. If you are interested in the many and varied alternatives to the standard tube map, have a look here at the alternative guide to the London Undergound. Bizarre, but fascinating.

But meanwhile... Michael took the District Line into town and got off at Embankment. He dithered around the interchange for a good ten minutes, reading the local street maps, the tube maps – anything really to take his mind off what he was or wasn’t about to do. Then he went down to the Northern Line platform and got the first train southbound before he changed his mind. By Stockwell, his hands were shaking again and he desperately wanted to light up. By Clapham North, his knee was bouncing up and down so hard people were looking at him strangely, and at Clapham Common he had to get off the tube before he threw up. He stood on the platform, watching the train speed away and kept his lunch down by sheer willpower. Out on the street, he lit up a cigarette and stood on the edge of the common, realising that by getting off the tube too early, he now had a long walk.

And then we are back on Google Maps again for a walk across Wandsworth Common and up to the prison.

Of course nothing is ever straightforward, is it?  Michael actually ends up in a naff cafĂ© up near Euston station, not entirely by choice, but that sparks off a whole new storyline.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Psst... Wanna Be a Spy?

Today's Daily Mail reckons that women have been watching too many episodes of Spooks on television. So much so, that they've been put off applying to join MI5.

I remember watching the very first episode of Spooks. As I recall, a major character was murdered rather graphically by having his head stuffed into a chip pan of boiling oil - it set the boundaries for the rest of the programme in that no character was ever "safe" and MI5 went through officers with alarming rapidity. There were some glaring errors in the storylines in my opinion. How Fiona ever got recruited is a mystery - given that she was once married to some Middle-Eastern terrorist, yet somehow managed to keep it so secret that her second husband and the British Government never knew about it. And the ability of their techies to find and follow a suspect on the streets of London by security cameras alone remains more than improbable in my book. But it was a good series.

And women got their fair share of deaths and dirty jobs. No sex discrimination or chivalry in the BBC's MI5. Maybe that's what puts women off applying. Jo went from journalist to fully-functional operative in a few episodes, only to be deliberately shot by one of her own team (it made sense in the story context, trust me). We've had hangings, poisonings, kidnaps, shootings - I'm amazed anybody in MI5 is still sane. Of course, it's fiction, but it still conveys the idea that you can't be a spy and have a normal life and family. How can you have kids when you are putting your life on the line every day?

I have to admit, I never realised you could actually apply to be a spy. I thought it was one of those jobs you got the nod for, the tap on the arm in a lift somewhere, the passing of a business card, followed by a swift resignation from current job and a disappearance off the face of the known world, where you can't even tell your wife/husband what you do for a living. Now I've worked as an investigator; I've done jobs where you go to work on Monday morning and don't get home until a week later. I've spent several nights in one hotel room with six blokes and gone to breakfast with a different one each morning (and that got some interesting looks off the hotel staff, I can tell you). But there comes a time when you look forward to knowing you will be at home every night, when you can eat at more-or-less the same time and actually see your partner rather than just meet in the bathroom occasionally. The warm fuzzy feeling you get from knowing your small efforts might help to keep the country safer is replaced by the warm fuzzy feeling you get from tucking your kids into bed at night. So I have no desire to join MI5.

But now you can apply online! Like ordering your groceries or buying a book off amazon. You can take MI5's recruitment test and presumably if you score highly, you may be invited to proceed further. Here's the job description. Interesting stuff - if you're young, free and single. Good luck!

Monday 16 January 2012

Trading In Teddies

There was a news headline a few years back about  a British woman living and working abroad in a muslim country who inappropriately named a teddy bear in the classroom where she was a teacher. This infringed the blasphemy laws of that country and I believe she was jailed. Leaving aside opinion as to the nature of the crime, the fact is that she broke the law of the country in which she was resident and paid the price.

But what if she hadn't been in that country? What if she'd been in Britain and committed the same act? It might be distasteful, maybe even disrespectful, but it doesn't infringe UK laws so you'd think she'd be OK. What if she'd set up a website, selling teddies with inappropriate names? Would that be illegal?

So why is the USA hounding student Richard O'Dwyer who built a website that had links to sites allowing illegal downloads of films? As far as I am aware, his site only contained links, not actual films nor the direct ability to download them. Yes, pirating films - pirating anything - is wrong and I'm sure he knew that and was making money off the back of it, but last time I looked, stupidity wasn't a crime the UK. There may even be a case of fraud or theft in this country but I don't see what that's got to do with the USA.

Now the internet is a grey area and the laws of supply of goods and services often don't bear much relation to the real world or common sense. For instance if you're a UK business and you supply goods via the internet, UK VAT law says that VAT is applicable according to the country of dispatch - if you sell a hardback book to America, you don't declare VAT on that sale as it's an export. However if you supply services via the internet, UK VAT law says that VAT is applicable according to the country of origin. So if you sell an e-book on amazon.co.uk (e-book sales are classed as supplies of services, bizarrely), the VAT applicable is that which is currently in force in Luxembourg (where amazon.co.uk is based). Which is why all the e-books appeared to reduce in price on 1st Jan 2012, when Luxembourg's VAT rate went down to 3%.

How does this relate to Mr O'Dwyer, website supremo? Well, I don't really know. Apparently he hasn't broken UK law, but where was his website hosted? I find it worrying that our government can even contemplate extraditing somebody who hasn't broken our laws and hasn't been to the country in question. Hacking the Pentagon's computers (or whatever Gary McKinnon, the other UK national currently facing extradition for computer-based offences did) is one thing - he directly accessed computers in a foreign country - but simply showing foreign website links is another altogether and a dangerous legal precedent to set.

Today's Daily Mail says that O'Dwyer's extradition will now go ahead, pending approval by Home Secretary Theresa May. And a British student might well spend 10 years in a US jail for what? Being greedy and foolish. Maybe I don't have all the facts. Maybe there's another layer in this that I am missing. But I find it really quite scary.

And where does that leave anybody else trading online in any way? Treading very carefully, I would say. Make sure you know who is hosting your websites, where they are based and what national or international law applies. And have the phone number of a good lawyer.

Saturday 14 January 2012

What's the Story?

I just sent off an entry for a short story competition. It was a crime story and had to have the theme of "Ten" and the prize is a weekend at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in July, which I'd love to go to but can't afford. Much as I love my husband, he's not remotely interested in writing or reading and therefore it wouldn't be a weekend break for both of us but would just be me spending money on me - something I'm usually pretty good at!

I don't find writing short stories at all easy: getting a whole story across in a few thousand words is a true art form and not something I think I've yet mastered. I'm a bit of a traditionalist and think that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, and I'm not much of a fan of the stories that just show you a slice of life with no real point to it. Having said that, I've edited a good number of anthologies for the British Fantasy Society over the years, and quite a few of the stories went on to win awards and be included in further "Best of" anthologies. I've also been a first round judge in the BFS short story competition on several occasions and am still involved in an online anthology.

My first short story sale was a crime story, which won a competition in the women's magazine Bella and was published way back in the mid 1990s. From then on I've written mostly fantasy, with the occasional nod towards sf and horror. I even had the opportunity to adapt a television script into a story for an anthology which was an education in itself - I pitched for a chance to be included, got it and then realised I had to deliver the goods! At 12,500 words, it was practically a novella but at least the bones of the story were actually there for me to work with.

Having the bones of the idea is always the problem for me. For this recent crime competition, I had the theme "Ten" and a vague idea of how I wanted to interpret the theme but that was it. For me a potential story is a hard shiny ball and I have to find the way in, mull it over for days, weeks - sometimes even months - until suddenly I'll find a chink in the armoured casing. A few paragraphs, deleted, rewritten and coated in a bit of literary semtex and if I'm lucky I can blow the chink wider and suddenly I'm inside the story and I'm off. From that point it's an easy run and I can have it written in a few days. Another couple of days for editing, then leave it to mature for a week or so, maybe pass it around a few friends for comment, edit again and it's done. In this case, I found a short scene I'd written a few months ago for no particular purpose - it was just a mum in a car on a school run and went nowhere. Suddenly I could fit the competition theme around it and see the direction it was going in. And I had it written within 24 hours (it was over the Christmas break).

You can see a list of my  short stories and where you can find them  on my Short Fiction page. It'd be nice to win the competition and actually get to Harrogate, but I won't be holding my breath!

Sunday 8 January 2012

Magic Mushrooms

Do you believe in magic? I've always liked to think there is something else out there - other worlds, other dimensions. Things that if we knew about them, they'd explain all the odd happening, inexplicable events, strange co-incidences. The stuff we read about in Fortean Times. I mean there's got to be more, hasn't there? I remember reading books like Alan Garner's Elidor as a child and wondering if it was true. Anything other-wordly, that hinted there might be another layer to this world - and I'm hooked.

But real magic? The illusionists on tv look so convincing until you see the how-do-they-do-it shows, which make it all look so obvious and you wonder how you ever fell for it. And yet we want to believe it all, don't we? It's that sense of wonder you have as a child when the tooth fairy leaves a coin under your pillow, that acceptance of everything without trying to pigeonhole it into adult reality and common-sense. Are we trying to recapture our childhoods or is a genuine belief that there are other worlds, if only we could get to them.

I was reading a post on another blog earlier and it made me recall an incident from nearly 17 years ago. Andy & I had moved up to Cheshire from Surrey with his job. We'd been married 5 years and had wanted children but after 4 miscarriages and a lot of tests, we'd more-or-less decided not to waste our lives and money on something that clearly wasn't meant to be. So we bought a cottage that needed some serious renovation work and got stuck in.

The house was a mess - ceilings down, no plumbing and we were living in two rooms. Then I sat in the front garden in late August looking at the spectacular view across Cheshire towards Peckforton Hills (one of the reasons we bought the house) and saw a complete fairy ring in the grass. So I stood in it and wished. Just because.

I was pregnant within a month.

Maybe it was co-incidence. Maybe it was because we'd stopped trying and worrying and were concentrating on other things. Maybe it would have happened anyway. Or maybe there was a little bit of magic around that night.

But the fairy ring never came back.

You can just see the curve of the fairy ring on the right.