A Month of London Stories

We moved to London last month.

It’s beautiful, and full of stories, and people, and amazing food, and great coffee, and joy, and the weather is so much cooler than Saigon, I can really feel my brain flowing faster than before. So we are diving into as many stories as we can. These are some of the ones I’ve loved this month.

Writeclub @ The King’s Head, W1
A laid back group of writers who meet with no particular goal other than to talk shit and have fun. Delightful! Go: any time you want to laugh and chat to new people.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth @ The British Museum
Part of the BFI Science Fiction season, screening outside at the British Museum. It’s not for the story, or particularly for the acting, nor even the script that you might want to see this movie. In fact, there is little i can point to that explains why i enjoyed it. It’s twice as long as it needs to be, drowns under the attempted significance of its imagery and in parts is a third rate B movie. But it’s also an interesting examination of a man disjointed and out of place, and it’s kind of beautiful. Watch when: you’re doing the ironing.

Super Relaxed Fantasy Club @ Holborn somewhere
Okay, I admit it. I didn’t go to this one. Tiredness got the better of me. But it’s drinks and author readings, and it looks ace, and I’m totally going to the next on on the 30th. Organised by author Den Patrick, it promises laidbackness, so I'm in. Go: yes, I will. Promise.

Book Slam @ The Grand, Clapham
I love Josie Long. She’s funny and cool in the dorkiest of ways. She did some stand up, Simon Rich and Mark Watson read from their latest books, Sophia Thakur performed some poetry. Also, go for the amazing Australian MC Felicity Ward. She held the whole thing together with a kind of casual grace that got everyone relaxed and laughing. It looks easy when she does it, but I know it’s not. Go: every time you can drag yourself south of the river.

Liars League @ The Phoenix, nr Oxford Circus
A vague acquaintance had a story being read here, so we went, and it was beautiful! Six different actors reading six different stories, all were funny and charming and at least two mentioned the Britishness of tea. Go: every time it’s on (second Tuesday of the month)

Finally, did you know that London is now the centre of anthropomorphic animals? Move over Joan Aitkin and Brian Jacques, we have no time for your pastoral scenes here. This place is full to the brim of chubby foxes and bolder than fuck squirrels. Case in point: this morning’s visitor. He came to the third floor just to say hello.

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Stretches for Writers

And other desk workers, too. Stretching in the outdoors

Nearly 15 years of sitting hunched over a laptop gave me a bunch of long term companions I wanted rid of.  Aches in the lumbar region, spasms in the shoulders and upper arms, tendonitis in my wrists. Slowly, over the period of about a year, I’ve figured out a programme of stretches that I do that seem to alleviate most of the pain. Have I missed any good ones?

Neck and shoulder tension is pretty chronic in desk workers— this video goes over some stretches you can do (sitting down, about 3 minutes). The stretches I found most useful start at the 2 minute mark. There are others here, but I haven’t tried them. Time taken: two minutes.  Do: twice a day, while waiting for your tea or coffee to brew.

You might not feel the tension in your triceps, but trust me, it’s there, and it’s probably causing referred pain further down towards your hands. This is an easy stretch you can do every hour or two during the day to make sure you stay loose. Bonus points if you can look as excited as the guy in the video :) Time taken: one minute.  Do: every time you open Twitter/FB

Lower back issues are sometimes the result of hip tightness. These stretches require a mat, but are totes awesome. You can add the pigeon if you’re feeling brave, too. Time taken: six minutes. Do: when you get up, and before you go to bed.

For wrist and forearm pain relief, try these four stretches. Time taken: four minutes. Do: every time you get up from your desk.

Do I need a disclaimer? Enjoy it, but don’t overdo it. I found the most important thing is to keep doing these regularly. A couple of months of this and you'll feel like a different person. Possibly one that can hold their head at a natural angle for the first time in a while.

Writing Cafes in Saigon

Requirements for a good writing coffee shop:1. Great coffee. 2. A cozy atmosphere. Or maybe a fresh one? The kind of relaxing vibe where I don’t feel stressed or hurried. 3. Pretty things for my wandering mind. 4. Less than five minutes from home.

These entirely subjective criteria, and an even less objective evaluation leads me to a little list: My top three (ish) writing cafes in Ho Chi Minh City (in no particular order and verified by no-one).

1. La Rotonde (77B Ham Nghi, 2nd Floor, D1) A deliciously light and bright space that overlooks a busy intersection and street market. The Vietnamese coffee is smooth and silky, there is an excellent lunch buffet every day, and a special vegan option for those with eating requirements.

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2. 14 Thon That Dam, D1 This place is wonderfully different. Faded old Saigon meets the exuberance of young Ho Chi Minh City. A French colonial structure opposite the imposing National Bank, you enter through a grubby alley stuffed with motorbikes and climb a stairwell straight out of an Irvine Welsh novel. Don’t be put off: each floor holds little jewels of hope and modernity.

The first cafe you come to is Banksy’s. An ode to the British graffiti artist, decorated with intricate tiling and bold typography, it’s a design-lover’s dream. The americanos are tasty, there are plenty of art and design books for you to peruse and you can often watch young couples having their wedding photos taken here.

Alternatively, you can turn left in front of Banksy’s and follow the chalkboard pointing to Things. Cross a walkway between buildings and enter through a flapping yellow shutter. Adorably covered in Charlie Chaplin portraits and wall murals. It’s so relaxed, one of the seating areas is a double bed. This is a cafe to lounge in as long as you wish. I cannot vouch for the coffee, but it’s a beautiful place for your mind to drift.

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Up one floor is Dan Tran’s vintage shop. Find unique clothes, bags and shoes in this delightful space and get the added bonus of saying, ‘Where did I get this? A little retro shop in Saigon, dahling’ every time you wear your purchase out.

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Across the landing is the Other Person Cafe. A maid cafe where staff cosplay manga characters and frilly maids with pink hair. They address you as master/mistress. Maid cafes are wildly popular in Japan, and starting to catch on here in Vietnam. If you’ve never been to one, imagine walking into a cartoon where you take coffee in a giant cat bus, or sit at a table that’s built like an enormous cake. Weird and dissociating? Yes. But something you should definitely try.

Mockingbird Cafe

Make it to the top of the building, and Mockingbird rewards you with a breezy balcony and views of the water

3. Velo de Piste Cafe (10 Pasteur, D1) You can’t miss the bicycles hanging outside and the huge moustaches gratified on the walls around. Open 24 hours for those in constant need of mountain biking magazines. Go after dark and be charmed by the fairy lights and friendly service. Try the passion fruit juice for instant refreshment.

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You can find other great recommendations for Ho Chi Minh cafes at Nomadic Notes and The Hungry Suitcase.

Novel sketches

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I've been sketching out some different looks for my novel protagonist.

#novelcharacter #sketch #pencildrawing #art #dailyart #lineart

Lessons on happiness

Image Watching Richard Linklater’s ‘Before…’ trilogy recently has been stirring up my emotional residue into a thick porridge of ideas. It is wondrous in conceit and execution. By turns a naive, funny, frightening, but ultimately hopeful view of a relationship stretched across many years.

One conversation I’m snuggling up with particularly often in the days since watching occurs in the middle film, ‘Before Sunset’. Celine and Jesse are discussing whether your disposition can change.

Jesse says, ‘I read this study that followed people who had won the lottery, and people who had become paraplegics. The study shows as soon as people got used to their new situation they were more or less the same. If they were basically optimistic jovial person, they’re now an optimistic jovial person in a wheelchair. If they’re a petty miserable asshole, they’re now a petty miserable asshole with a new Cadillac, a house and a boat.’

There are two glorious lessons in this:

- Go after whatever you want, don’t let fear of failing stop you. You’ll recover.

- And ultimately, whatever you chase won’t make you happier, so pick something where the chase fills you with joy.

Happiness is in doing.

The Joy and Pain of Pratchett

I was raised by Sir Terry Pratchett. Image

Not in the literal way of ever having met him. Just in the way that I have read him for so long, his perspective on life has shaped my own.

Somebody leant me The Colour of Magic when I was eleven years old. It was silly and funny and I fell in love with the innocence of Twoflower and the way that his passion and interest seemed to shape the world around him. Look around, the book seemed to say, there is beauty everywhere.

Twenty-three years later, I am still in love with Pratchett's Discworld and his deeply funny, deeply felt stories of the wonder and power of being human, whatever shape you come in.

At World Fantasy Con, Pratchett and his assistant Rob are talking about his new book, Raising Steam. Pratchett's PCA seems to be progressing cruelly. His vision is impaired—his hands bang into the microphone repeatedly, eliciting a grimace each time. Frustration? Embarrassment? Even from my second row position it's difficult to tell. Rob reads a section of the book for us which seems as funny and vital as ever. There are more details of the book and his struggles in this recent Telegraph interview.

Rob does all the heavy lifting of the appearance. He dangles morsels of information about upcoming TV and film projects, but the third member of the panel (Mike?) won't allow him to give away much. Rob shares anecdotes about the writing and media development processes, pausing frequently to leave Pratchett space to contribute. Sometimes he does. Often, he doesn't respond, or seems about to speak but decides against it. When he does land upon a small anecdote to tell, a thousand people in the audience hold their breath. We hang on his words like they are a rope dropped into the dark well of our lives, guiding the way up and out.

The joy of reading Pratchett, is that he knows the world is a slick smiling conman built from the lies we tell ourselves and each other, that pile up into a lie so heavy that no-one can move it alone. He knows we all struggle to see, let alone change our own realities. Pratchett twitches back the curtain and shows us how ridiculous it is—shows us the greasy machinery of prejudice and ignorance behind the scenes and inside our own minds. We don't feel stupid for believing the lies. We're all in it together, he says.

But we are left thinking that we'll spot it next time. Next time someone tries to trick you with your own fear, with ignorance or vanity or shame, you'll see it for the silliness it really is. You won't feel angry or afraid or any other emotion that provides fertile soil for lies to grow. You'll remember his stories and you'll laugh. The lies will shrivel. Leaving space for a breath, for a lifetime.

That is his gift to us: a brief respite. A moment's freedom for us to figure out what we want our own truths to be.

World Fantasy Con Brighton: Food & Drink

If you're coming to lovely Brighton for World Fantasy 2013, take a few moments to step outside the hotel and enjoy some of our delicious food and coffee. Nothing is very far away in Brighton, you can walk across the whole downtown area in half an hour, and if you haven't got time to walk, the cabs are easy to spot with their unique livery: white with turquoise bonnets. Avoid chains and going to most places on Preston Road or Western Road (the two main streets leading leading back from the sea front  to the right and left of the hotel respectively. Instead, stroll down to the Lanes (10 min walk from the Con hotel) or the North Laines (20 mins) and you're pretty much guaranteed wonderful experience whatever independent place you stumble into. That said, it doesn't hurt to have a place in mind if you're short of time, so below are my recommendations.

Coffee: Taylor St: a three minute walk from the station towards the seafront. Excellent coffee from obsessive Australians. The food is good if you can get a seat too. Small Batch Coffe: My favourite coffee in Brighton, they roast their own beans and also supply a lot of other coffee shops locally. Don't miss their coffee truck at the station when you arrive.

If you've only got a few minutes to grab a coffee or food, then The New Club is super close to the Con hotel. Turn right out of the venue, walk for 3 mins. It's on the corner of Preston Street. I haven't tried it yet and Trip Advisor has mixed reviews, but it's close if you're in a hurry.

Breakfast: Dumb Waiter: A crazy little cafe. Kind of disorganised but great food and a Brighton institution. 9-6, Sun 10-4. Seven Bees: Officially the best breakfast in Brighton, 9-3. Mad Hatter: Good, cheap cafe. Milkshakes, falafel, burgers and sandwiches. 9-6, Sun 11-5. For fabulous bread, pastries and cakes, try either of the Real Patisserie locations. Western Road open 7.30-6 every day, Trafalgar St. 7-5.30, closed on Sundays.

Lunch: Iydea - home-cooked vegetarian cafe. Eat in or takeaway. Tucked in the North Laines it's the best food you'll get for under a fiver. 9.30-9pm, Sun closes at 5.30. The Chilli Pickle: You'll need to get there early or book if you want dinner, but it's usually a bit quieter at lunch time. The best Indian food I've had in England. Bar none. Open 12-3 and 6-10.30. Mange Tout: Excellent french bistro for any time of day. 10-6 on Thursday, Fri & Sat 10-10 and Sun 10-5.

Dinner: If you want something fancier than the lunch places above, there are two excellent fine dining vegetarian restaurants in Brighton: Food for Friends: Everything on the menu is wonderful (12-10pm). Terre a Terre: (11-11pm) Food divine and diverse, booking is essential at peak times. There's excellent seafood at English's, 12-10pm, or sit down fish and chips at the Regency, 8am-11pm - not too pricey. Or for fast food that's open late, Grubbs Burgers is a Brighton institution, 12-12.

Drinks: Some quirky and distinctly English pubs worth checking out are The Quadrant: surprisingly chilled for it's central position, real ale and whiskeys. The Lion & Lobster: multiple cozy rooms and decent pub food from 5pm til 2am, and The Robin Hood: a not-for-profit pub with great beer and handmade pizza. Also, The Cricketers - An old school English pub, with all the horse brass and flock wallpaper you could possibly need.

If you head across to Kemptown (east of the Lanes) there are more great restaurants and pubs, and a plethora of gay bars to choose from. A couple to mention are the Camelford Arms and Marine Tavern. Both gay pubs with nice atmosphere and good beer, rather than pounding music.

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The WFC site also has some recommendations and covers afternoon tea particularly well (scroll down to the end of the page).

Poetic discoveries

Two wonderful discoveries. First, I'm reading Carol Ann Duffy's collection, Rapture. It is gorgeous, lyrical and rich as butter. Read reviews at the Guardian and The Rumpus, or just go ahead and buy it now. You won't regret it.

Second, the poemhunter website, a repository of thousands of wonderful poems has a 'random poem' function. I have set this link to be my browser homepage. Every time I open my browser, I have the wonderful gift of a new poem to read.

You can use this link to do the same: RandomPoem

Baking and the magic formula

There *is* a magic formula! I knew it. I just knew it.For years I've thought bakers have secret knowledge to which the culinary proles (i.e. me) have not been granted access. I am vindicated. Michael Ruhlman says so.

My success with baked goods has been middling at best, due to a tendency to forget ingredients or make inappropriate substitutions leading to a spectacular collapse equalled only by Australia's batting performance in the Ashes yesterday. My gluten-free muffins If you've ever wondered what made a brownie so gooeylicious and a cupcake so undefinably distinct from a muffin, I am come to the rescue, armed with references and of course, a graph.

These three goods belong to the 'batter' category of baking - a pourable mixture with more liquid than solid. The key factors determining the nature of a batter end product are 1) the mixing method and 2) the ratio of the key ingredients (some or all of: flour, fat, eggs, sugar, liquid).

Mixing: Cupcakes (usually based on a sponge cake recipe) are light-footed airy little pixies. They require the sugar and eggs to be beaten first (called foaming), then the butter and flour added afterward. Sidenote: if you use the exact same ratios but start by creaming the butter and sugar, adding eggs and flour after, you get a much denser pound cake as a result.

Muffins and brownies* are both quick breads, where the wet and dry ingredients are mixed separately and then stirred together, just enough to combine them. Quick breads are leavened by baking powder, whereas cakes don't necessarily need it if you are skilled enough to get exactly the right amount of air into the mixture when beating it. But why not take advantage of modern (early Victorian) science and make life easy for yourself?

Ratios: Below are the relative ratios for cupcakes, muffins and brownies. The cupcake is the base case, using equal proportions of flour, fat, eggs and sugar for a light but firm bite. The muffin and brownie both contain additional liquid (milk and chocolate respectively) adding moisture to the final result. Meanwhile, in the brownie sugar has replaced about 1/4 of the flour (vs. cupcake) leading to a weaker structure and slightly gelatinous consistency.

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Voila! Secret staircase revealed. You can use these ratios in any quantity to make the kind of tasty treat you love best. But for those interested in *why* these ratios make such a difference, I will turn to my other favourite cook book: McGee on Food and Cooking which discusses the properties of each ingredient.

Flour: When wheat flour is mixed with water, the glutenin protein molecules link up end to end to form long, composite gluten molecules, giving the dough both elasticity (resists pressure and moves back towards original shape) and plasticity (changes shape under pressure). 'Working' dough allows more of these long chains to link up, strengthening the structure -- necessary in yeasted breads, but giving undesirable toughness to cakes and shortbread. This is why cake recipes often warn against over mixing, and flour is usually put in last.

Starch makes up about 70% of wheat flour. Starch granules interpenetrate the gluten network, breaking it up and so tenderising it. In cakes, starch is the major structural material as gluten is too dispersed in the large amount of water and sugar to contribute to solidity. During baking, starch granules absorb water, swell and set to form the rigid walls around the carbon dioxide bubbles, containing them and maintaining the structure.

Fat: Fats and oils 'shorten' a dough or weaken the structure thus making the final product more tender and flaky (e.g. pastry). in rich breads and cakes, fat bonds to parts of the gluten protein coils and prevent the proteins from forming strong gluten.

Sugar: As well as adding sweetness, sugar retains moisture, and limits the development of gluten. Hence the more moisture you like your brownies to have, the more sugar they will need.

Eggs: Are the magical all rounder ingredient, doing a great deal of work for your baked goods. The proteins provide some of the structure that holds the cake together. The yolk contains emulsifiers that help the other ingredients blend together, fats that make it richer and better-tasting as well as softening the texture of the cake, keeping it from becoming chewy.

A note on gluten free baking: Gluten free flours such as rice and sorghum are often supplemented by separate starches e.g. tapioca and xanthum gum. The gum, which is secreted by a bacterium and purified in industrial scale fermenters, provides a gluten like elasticity.

Some time ago the on-line gluten free community started a project called the gluten-free ratio rally to better understand how to transpose recipes into their GF equivalents. You can find more on it and recipes here, here and here:

*At least, the recipe that i've used from my Usborne First Book of Cookery is. Brownie recipes vary wildly.

Novel Writing & A Sense Of Achievement

The sense of achievement I gain from completing projects is huge. When I worked as an analyst, this was fairly easy to come by. My internal id monologue on a typical day in the office: Plan the thing, do the thing, (yay!) do the thing again, do it better! (double yay!) Didn't work? Don't worry, do the next thing. (Woohoo, new thing!)

But in writing a novel, there's not really the same sense of discrete tasks. There was a planning phase, for sure. But now I'm into the writing phase it's just a long, lonely race with myself until the end.

Mix that with the boredom threshold of a grasshopper with ADHD and it makes long projects somewhat challenging.

So I create way markers. Things that give me a sense of achievement even though they are purely arbitrary. Every day, a thousand words. Bing! Achievement unlocked.

But today was special.

Today my manuscript hit ten thousand words in total.

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Only ten more of those to go for this draft. And then only *mumblecough* drafts to go until submission. These things are the things that keep me focused.

(Yes, I do update a spreadsheet with my daily word count every day, that in turn updates this pie chart. I like spreadsheets. They're pretty and orderly, and they never want to give you an update on the gestational progress of the British royal lineage.)

On Brighton Pride

St. James's street. Darkness pocked with electric yellow. A narrow road, crowded in by three storey brick buildings.Every other shop front blasts music and sells drinks. From the hair salon to the ice cream parlour. The street is filled with tattoos and tight white t-shirts, boys in sailor suits with their arms in the air, and girls in loose vests, short hair curling in the nape of their neck. I am crushed by sweaty, friendly flesh, pressing into me.

Bodies and rainbows everywhere. Rainbows in garlands and face paint and striped hair, and enormous billowing flags worn as capes and dresses and tucked into handbags. All of the faces smiling, bodies thrusting and a thousand voices shouting along to the music. It bounces off the windows and the walls and wraps you up in a safe place. Everywhere you look, mouths make the same shape, speaking with one voice. Whatever the words they sing, what I hear is, 'I belong'.

Five Things I Learned At Clarion

Some of these things were discussed explicitly in class, or personal conferences, or in the full throttle banter that still couldn't quite disguise the bleak cafeteria food. Others simply became apparent through being exposed to so many different and wonderful viewpoints and experiences of writing and reading fiction. Thank you to all the students and tutors who helped me learn these things in one way or another.

1. Voice

The idea of authorial voice used to vex me. What is it really? Why does it matter?

The impact of voice is clear. When I read just a paragraph of text, I know without looking at the cover whether I'm reading Stephen King or Stephen Fry. It's voice that tells me that. Through some combination of word choice, cadence, tone, perspective, sentence length and a dozen other sub-conscious processes, Voice is created.

It's also what isn't said. Where the white space is on the page and what happens there.

The best way I can describe it is 'attitude'.

It's the way an author stands in the story. Do they slouch against the wall, chewing on the end of a rolled up cigarette, pointing out a dead body with just a flick of the eyes? Or do they stride toward  the body head on, showing you every blood smeared cobble and torn piece of clothing?

I used to worry. How do I know what I want my voice to be? How do I achieve that voice? Why is it that I can't sound like author X when I'd really, truly, love to be like them?

In our first class at Clarion, we critiqued 1000 word stories we'd prepared the week before. Jeff Ford had us read them aloud.

By the time the fourth person had read, I'd got it. Every single one sounded so different and unique to each of us, that no-one else in that room could have written it. We could have all described the same scene from the same character's perspective and they still would have sounded entirely distinct.

Suddenly, it was clear to me. Your voice--it's just the way you sound. And at that moment, I stopped worrying.

2. Characterisation through setting description

The elements of a setting that you describe (or your character notices) gives a reader insight into what a character wants, who they are, and what they're scared of. Don't waste it. This is the opportunity you have to show rather than tell.

This is one of those pieces of understanding that evolved gradually during Clarion. I knew it on an intellectual level beforehand. But reading so many stories so quickly brought my understanding to a deeper level.

To help me remember this lesson and be more successful in not just using what i would see in every scene, I came up with the following exercise*:

Level-Up Your Characterisation

(i) Imagine you're in a place that you know well. Write a paragraph of description about it. What do the things that you notice say about you or your mood?

(ii) Imagine you're in a place you've never been (or made up). What elements would you describe in order to evoke the characteristics and mood you identified in (i)

(iii) Put one of your characters in the same place as (i) and describe the scene again. What's different, why? What does this say about the character? What personality traits do you know about the character that aren't evoked by this description? How can you make them felt?

(iv) Put the character from (iii) in the setting from (ii). How can the description evoke the mood you built in (iii)?

You get the idea. Repeat until your character's perspective is so deeply absorbed by the text, that it is impossible any other person would see that place in the same way.

One day, I imagine I'll be proficient enough at this not to have to go through such a drawn out process with each new character.

*I think I came up with this, but I may have unwittingly stolen it from somewhere. If you think that is the case, please let me know who I should credit.

3. I can make people feel things with my words

To hear a room full of people respond with passion to something I wrote was astounding. Listening to them say, 'I loved it when…', 'this broke my heart', or 'Jeez, that woman's a stone cold bitch…'

A little piece of my heart was living inside them.

It made me giddy with joy.

4. Theme 

My realisation concerning theme came through reading so many first drafts that were good, but hadn't got it quite right. Most of us tried to bundle two or three stories in to one piece of text. It made me think of 3-D pictures. The ones that were the next-hot-thing for forty-five seconds somewhere in the depths of the 90s. A jumble of fuzzy dots until your eyes crossed over to a certain point, then bang, it was a unicorn eating a burger...or something.

The components of theme only became visible to me through listening to Delia and the rest of the class unpick these from each other. Gradually, I felt like I'd internalised all the elements that worked together to create a successful theme.

The theme is the central question posed by a text.

That's it. Doesn't look much, does it? But for someone who has never taken a literature class, it was a big revelation. This was not an idea that was ever discussed in my epidemiology lectures. What is is the theme of a flu epidemic? Can human beings transcend their natural selfishness to help even those they don't love in a crisis? Is it possible for species with conflicting needs to occupy the same world?

Nope, these questions just never came up.

The power of a theme is in understanding what resolution makes sense for a story. To be really satisfying, an ending must not only resolve the surface problems set up by your plot, but also provide an answer to your thematic question. If it can do both in a surprising but inevitable way, then that's a *great* ending.

5. Writing doesn't have to be a lonely pursuit

My image of writing as a career--and of writers as people--was one of lonely endeavour, quiet contemplation and possibly, if energy allowed, bouts of fevered pacing. My discovery at Clarion was that although this is true in part, putting words on a page is just the culmination of a whole lot of mental processes, many of which can happen in concert with others.

The first personal conference I had at Clarion was with Jeff Ford. He asked us to bring some story ideas to discuss. I could barely squeeze the words out of my throat to tell him about my malformed little creatures. Ideas with no head or no heart, or possibly with their hearts on their head like a curiously fleshy hat. I was scared because I didn't have all the answers. I didn't know what they were or how to make them into the beautiful things they could be.

Jeff, with his unique brand of directness, said, 'Where's the story in that? Why's it interesting, What's she looking for?' He didn't care if I didn't have the 'right' answer. He asked enough questions to help me figure out which ideas were interesting and which were corpses before they'd even drawn breath. During the rest of Clarion I plucked up the courage to go through the same process with friends. I figured out that a five minute discussion could get me as far with an idea as hours or days of contemplation had previously.

An idea that Holly and Cassie introduced us to was micro plotting. Thrashing out the detailed blow-by-blow of a novel's story line with a group of friends (at least, they're friends at the beginning of the process) in a room for 2-3 days. It sounds painful, and apparently you have to turn off the internet and lock the doors, because the questions are hard, and under pressure we'll do anything to try and elide the details of a story.

'Why didn't she just call her mother and tell her what's going on?'

'Because then there wouldn't be a story?'

'Nope, sorry not good enough, think of something else…'

The benefit is that you can write the story much more quickly after this. You know what has to happen in every chapter, and your friends have already helped you iron out the gaping holes and saggy wrinkles. Thanks friends.

You need at least three writers to help in this endeavour. They (and you) have to be humble and give generously, and trust that you will do the same in return. It's a huge investment, and finding people who fit the bill isn't easy.

Luckily, Clarion hooked me up with more than enough qualified individuals. Amazing writers who I'm supremely grateful to call my friends.

Blogger's Last Adieu

You're the only one,that visits every day. My series on the top ten things to see in Margate Bay remains unfinished. But you don't care that I gave up at number two. It's all the same to you.

I tagged each post in exactly the right way Still your index of my dreams and of all I try to say remains unfound. But I don't care that no-one else will see. It's all the same to me.

I've tried to talk tried to share, make connections through the air, Me and this girl from South Korea once swapped likes! But next day, hers was gone. My stats went back to one.

So, now that we're friends you should know There's no-one else for me to talk to even though you're just a bot. Just don't be shocked if next time you come around It says 404 not found.

----- Inspired by Neil Gaiman's 'I Google You'

And then one day, I got in

I'd heard about Clarion, about the boot camp for writers that takes place each Summer in San Diego. I'd read about some of my favourite authors like Neil Gaiman and John Scalzi teaching there.

I had literally dreamed about getting in. (That particular dream was a gruelling interview, followed by Wipeout assault course which  I totally killed by the way.) For a few moments after I woke up I believed I had been accepted. I was crushed when I came to.

It seemed... unobtainable... other.

In a pipe dream moment, I applied.

And then one day, I got in.

 

Roll on June 24th.

A Life Free From 'Funny' Forwards

Tired of explaining why you don't respond to/forward chain emails? No need to panic, I've created one universal response to link to whenever necessary! Feel free to make use of this link if needs be. I'm not selfish. This is a public service blog after all.

Delete between {} as appropriate.

Dear {Mum* / Dad / School friend I haven't seen for years},

Thanks so much for forwarding me a note saying how we're going to {die in the apocalypse / be saved by the rapture / get free PCs from Bill Gates / lose weight with this one weird old tip}. I'm afraid I couldn't respond as I had my sense of {humour / taste / ability to give a shit} removed when I hit puberty. Life's just so much less complicated that way. It frees me up to weave decorative rugs from the remains of chain-mail authors' self esteem.**

Do I ever worry about missing out on something hilarious? Absolutely, but I simply console myself by chowing down a couple of dry Ryvita and the world soon seems rosy again.

I carved fifteen minutes out of my hectic schedule of seeing what my tweeps had eaten for breakfast and dedicated it to analysing your most recent communication. How fortunate that I did! It took that entire time to decode the flashing {rainbow fonts / hamsters / ascii art} that danced around the screen in such an uproarious manner. After digesting it (including all the spelling mistakes that mark it out as the genuine 1990s original!) I can see why you thought that I would be the perfect recipient.

There's no gentle way to say this, so I'm just going to go ahead and rip the plaster right off:

Please stop.

That didn't hurt a bit, did it? I even said please—I've been taking lessons on manners. Go me!***

However sad I shall be to lose this emotionally rich vein of communication with you, I haven't let it bring me down. I found the time to gather a couple of feral IQ points from down the back of the sofa, and put them to work brainstorming ways to fill the anticipated void in my life. At the moment it's a toss up between cataloguing my Fraggle Rock sticker collection, and writing a spec for the TV pilot I've been developing: Top Gear—The Ballet.

Rest assured that whatever I go with, the world will be richer for it.

Oh, but I'm so selfish, only thinking of me. What about you? How will you get by without this release valve for your second-hand hilarity? Will you inflate like a humour powered zeppelin, drifting along in search of your very own gale of laughter?

Don't worry, I can help. I know a nice man from Nigeria who's always eager to talk. I'll hook you up.

Your loving {ex-child/ex-friend/next voodoo doll victim} E.G. x

*I'm going to get roasted if my mum reads this. Srsly. **If you're feeling offended, I don't mean you. Your e-mails are hilarious. Unless you don't mean them to be, in which case they're extremely {informative / insightful / emotive} thanks for sharing. ***In fact, if you know me, you should probably stop reading right now.