The Birthday Card

“Give me my pens please Daddy,” says my daughter. “You’re Not Allowed to look IT’S YOUR BIRTHDAY CARD AND it’s a SURPRISE!.”

We’re at music school in the cafe, and Morgenstern – age 6 – is making me a birthday card.

The next morning is my “official birthday” and I finally get to see the card. ”You’ll love this, Daddy,” says Morgenstern as she hands it too me. “Knights Jousting!”

Knights Jousting

Knights Jousting my “Morgenstern” aged 6

She can hardly wait for me to open it. She stabs at the right hand panel and says gleefully, “Look Daddy. Grass and blood. Because They Are Going to Fight.”

(The left panel represents "grass and blood" in the aftermath.)

<<The left panel represents “grass and blood” in the aftermath.

Then we have a lovely leisurely Sunday. Kurtzhau and I build an A7V WWI German tank. In the later afternoon we walk over to the museum and meet up with Gamer Dad’s family to see the mammoth exhibition. I take a detour with the boys to show them the Sword of Battle Abbey and point out the blade damage.


A Visit to the Abbey

I fence with a replica of this sword, used to sketch it as a kid. Once, I got to handle it…

As a finale, we all go for dinner at Chop Chop and the kids stuff themselves with dumplings, snippets of surreal conversation drifting over to the adult end of the table; Kurtzhau and Polyhedrus are talking firearms and end of level bosses, Morgenstern and Polyhedra are lost in Girl World, which seems to include killing witches and exploding dragons.

Meanwhile, both couples had had “child enhanced” Saturday nights, so we chill out over good Chinese food. There will be other times for animated conversation. This evening we just enjoy a comradely chitchat revolving around the kids and the food.

Then comes the walk back through twilight Edinburgh, the kids running ahead, but not too far, Kurtzhau complaining loudly that he had eaten so many dumplings he could not really run.  It’s the kind of evening they will remember when they are my age and I am in my 80s and a grandfather.

I bet, tucked away in a filing cabinet, I will still have that card.

Posted in Geek Parenting, Writing Life | 2 Comments

Truth (fiction is for Monday)

This weekend I took the kids to music school and, using only a Lego samurai sword, picked the lock of a friend’s briefcase.

I drove Kurtzhau over to see his friend, hung out with experimental archaeologists, admired a home-made romanesque arch, and came home with a slab of stone bearing a carved Pictish bull.

I went to Edinburgh castle with my wife and daughter, and listened to the latter explain William Wallace to me.

After tea, I started reading Howard’s Tigers of the Sea to an overtired Kurtzhau who spent the day in the open air.

Now I’m going to tinker with Dungeonographer while preparing a review for Blackgate

Tomorrow I will sit down and write fiction…

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Artistic Integrity


Some time in the Northern Dark Ages…

It’s some time in the Northern Dark Ages. A poet recites his new work to the King and his warriors:

POET: …and Grendel runs off into the night, bleeding, dying. Beowulf takes the trolls dismembered arm and nails it high on the rafters of the Hall of Heriot!


KING: Well… I don’t know. It seemed kind of short.

POET: No, no, Lord, that was just a pause of effect. Grendel, of course had a mother. That night as the revellers slumber, she comes to the hall, wet-handed, bloody-minded…


POET: And still clutching the ancient sword, Beowulf swims to the surface and surprises his mourning friends.



KING: …I don’t know… I mean, it’s a hero tale, but where is the dragon.

POET: Dragon? WTF? Oh, DRAGON. Yes, I haven’t finished yet.

Years later, when Beowulf is an old man…

And thus the poet got paid — or at least got to eat — and we got the poem Beowulf.

The king, you see, was right.

If an artist has integrity, then so must their audience. Sometimes the greatest art comes from the meeting of the two.

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Reading the Runes of Outline

Bronsplåt_pressbleck_öland_vendeltid Google Streetview takes me through a sleepy Irish village that has no idea what is about to sweep over it in my imagination… or perhaps they do. I wager that the locals love their History and know that Irish kings clashed over the walls of their famous monastery — now long gone — and that the Dark Viking chief Ivar the Boneless strode the blood soaked turf, and that his brother Olaf the White drowned King Conchobar in a font.

But a story is not  a chronicle.


The battle scene comes slowly, methodically, tactical necessity teasing out personal objectives, planting the roots of each character’s story. As I wrestle with my outline, a berserk and a shield maiden take on human flesh, feel the rain, hear the roar of blood in their ears and I am rewarded for my persistence.

And tomorrow I get to write the text.

Don’t let anybody tell you outlining is dry, mechanistic.

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Back on LJ…

I’m back on livejournal, or more accurately will be cross posting from my wordpress blog and writing the odd more personal entry on LJ from time to time.

I’ve missed the lively LJ comments threads! I hope some of you remember me.

(If you see this and have a moment; would you mind nipping over to the blog and checking you can log in using your LJ identity?)


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LiveJournal Crossposter test

Or perhaps this plug in will work!

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Test cross post

Trying out the Live+Press plug in.

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Decluttering the trash

I have a decluttering hangover.

No, not rhyming slang – cleaning out our Cupboard of Lost Years allowed the Dust of Decades to burrow into my brain and set off an almighty headache. Also there’s a spiritual aftershock from spending a day being buffeted by images of a youthful yesterday and battered by unfinished stories.

I threw out my juvenilia except for random samples. There is nothing special about the footprint of the imagination, except to show it was alive an well in my youth. Had I known as a teenager about how stories worked, then perhaps there might have been something to show. (Though I always suspect that focus and personal growth together form the biggest barrier to entry for fiction.)

I did not need to throw out my children’s SF&F books because I really had none except for the cache of Old Favorites I rescued from the boxes years ago: Narnia, The Hobbit, an YA-focused Arthur C Clark collection, Of Time and Stars.

We middle aged geeks get dewy-eyed about our cosy Old Favorites we read and reread until the covers fell off.  However that’s like feeling nostalgic about the fireside on a winter’s day. We 70s kids were imaginatively housebound by a blizzard of dullness.

Sure, there were good middle grade and YA Science Fiction books being written somewhere, and Heinlein and Asimov juvenile yarns were still floating around. But in pre-Internet days, we had no way of knowing more good stuff existed beyond the whiteout.

Unless we had genre-friendly parents, we were at the mercy of  ”right-on” librarians and booksellers who catered for the kind of parents who would hang out with those librarians. Even if you tapped into a good series, it was hit and miss whether you’d see the next one ever.

No wonder CS Lewis’s Narnia is a classic. That and The Hobbit were almost it for Fantasy stories to include proper action. Beyond that were the endless children’s portal/pro-urban fantasy fairy tales, some vivid, but all with their roots in Peter Pan or the Box of Delights; a home grown ersatz genre flourishing in a walled garden barred to Robert E Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Actual SF for children seemed to have been scraped out by writers who did not really identify with the genre and who had perhaps once watched Dr Who. The exception were the Doctor Who novels themselves which often betray Pulp-era influences. You cannot read the Tomb of the Cybermen without thinking of Lovecraft and Leigh Brackett. Otherwise, for the most part, the focus was firmly on The Children and you got the feeling that the author would rather be writing a kitchen sink drama–evoking childhood rather than writing a story that would take children to new horizons.

I would have devoured the books Kurtzhau (now 10) cheerfully trundles through. Amazon strips away the well-meaning or just lazy layers between the young reader and the books they are called to read.

I doubt Kurtzhau will have any Old Favorites. But then nor will he spend hours rereading the same clutch of battered paperbacks as if they had some greater significance. Thank God(s) for the Internet and ebooks.

Posted in Geek Parenting, Genre | Tagged | Leave a comment

Algorithm which can predict with 84 per cent accuracy whether a book will be a commercial success

In other news, a study of battles shows that most winning sides used swords. 

My mate Harry Connolly posted a link to “an article on an algorithm which can predict with 84 per cent accuracy whether a book will be a commercial success” and wondered jokingly whether it was a troll. Go read the article and come back. You can also read the original paper (good luck with that!).

Thanks. (If you can already see the flaws in the results, then skip to the Big However at the end of this post.)

The first thing to note is that the researchers drew on out-of-print-books from the Project Gutenberg archive.

They set up their study to include 100 books per genre, and 50 “failures” and 50 “successes” and they measured this based on Gutenberg downloads.

They’re measuring which old books modern readers like to download!

That’s like going to a Renaissance Faire to learn about modern – or historical – fashion.  It only tells you what people like when they are slumming it in the past. They may not even like this stuff. A lot of these old tomes are on the reading list for school and college literature courses.

The researchers went on to apply their metrics to “extremely successful” books:

on a few extremely successful novels (Pulitzer prize, National Award recipients, etc).

“a few extremely successful novels (Pulitzer prize, National Award recipients, etc)….”

However, the Gutenberg statistics applied to neither Hemingway nor Truman Capote. The other successful modern books listed are mostly literary, which is a different game entirely from mainstream fiction.

So the results of the Gutenberg statistics can only reliably predict which old fashioned and literary books modern readers will read.

No wonder they have…

findings that are somewhat contrary to the conventional wisdom with respect to the connection between successful writing styles and readability

Writing styles have changed dramatically over the last century! Our current prose style doesn’t try to compete with the screen, big or small, and favors terse, transparent prose and optimized description.

This study simply does not tell us what readers like in  a modern book.


These folks have  reliably predicted which old fashioned and literary books modern readers will read. What might they manage with a different dataset?

The results of this particular study aren’t useful, but the tool they’ve produced isn’t going away. I bet they are in talks with Amazon right now…

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Can’t believe I just wrote that…

Actually I can. I’ve done this before, three times last year, though not in so few hours.

In a nutshell I sat down this morning at 0930 and started staring at my History notes, checking odd bits of biography online and in my reference books.

I zeroed in on a moment in History as the climax. I used a spreadsheet to create a timeline specific to that. Characters leaped out at me. I used a mind mapping package to create a web of connections, checked facts, tweaked.

Then I jotted down the story for each–Hell! Being able to type makes a hell of a difference!– and adjusted my web as ideas came to me.

Round about 1500 I did the school run, handed over 3 x My Little Ponies for Morgenstern’s playdate. I had a cup of tea with Kurtzhau and went back to work.

Now finally I started outlining–damn, spilled beer on my keyboard!–and typed until it was 1710 and time to grab Morgenstern’s scooter and to head out in the rain to get her.

Kurtzhau, on his own scooter, and his sister rocketed back through the dark damp streets of Victorian Edinburgh. I cooked dinner in time for my wife’s homecoming. Ate with my family, then left supportive spouse to do stories and bed.

By 1900 I was typing again, giggling and swearing with glee, the old The Vikings soundtrack pumping out of Spotify.

Finally, at 0100 it was done.

My outline.

1,200 words of mayhem and  bodice ripping. The time just vanished But the editor has his outline as promised.

And I have my beer.

Now the thing is, when I sat down this morning, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to write. None. I had some History in my head, and one or two events and places I wanted to focus on – to tie in with the game I’m writing for – but that was it. Moreover,  I had no idea last week while I was completing a non-fiction project, or the week before, or months ago when I signed to do this.

I’ve been living off my writing for a year now and it’s the same every time:

“What’s the next novel going to be about Martin?”

“Uh. Swords. Resolving complex human problems through violence. Historical Stuff as well. Did I mention swords?”

The thing about novels–stories–outlines–is they are constructed.Not from the ground up, but kind of sideways; it’s like somebody gives you a pile of rocks and you have to build a wall over uneven ground. Since the components all imply each other, you can’t know what you are going to write until you start laying them out.

And then there it is on the screen in front of you and you go, “Jesus Christ I did that” and gulp your beer, which you damn well deserve.

Writing gets easier with experience. I’m even getting used to signing a document in which I’m more or less promising to write something creative at some time in the future around a particular theme but god knows what. I’m starting to trust myself to fill the void when I finally reach it.

Even so, Jesus Christ! I did that!

Posted in Outlining, Writing, Writing Fiction Faster | Tagged | 1 Comment