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My unpublished (and, let’s face it, unpublishable) NaNoWriMo novel from 2016 has repeatedly proven to be eerily prescient in a number of ways. So here are a couple more vaguely-topical extracts.

Chapter 29

The story so far: in the face of an insurrection by political folk-hero Nigel Brittain, hapless Prime Minister April Trace has finally been driven to resignation by the sinister forces of continental superstate, the Federation of 27…

Soon to be ex-Prime Minister April Trace closed the doors of her private flat above Number Ten Downing Street, and the panicky wailing of most the cabinet outside in the vestibule was blessedly silenced. That was a relief, but it meant that for the first time she was alone with her thoughts. Had she made the right decision? It had felt like it at the time. But now, of course, it was starting to sink in. She looked around the lovely flat with its lovely curtains in front of the lovely triple-thickness armoured glass. She was giving all of this up, and for what? A point of principle. A belief in the primacy of basic human decency and kindness.

‘Maybe I was never really cut out for politics after all,’ April Trace murmured to herself.

There would be time enough for soul-searching (by which she meant searching her soul, of course, not searching to see if she actually possessed a soul, which some of her less kindly critics had occasionally suggested might not in fact be the case) later. The Buckingham Palace tech support people had indicated Her Majesty the Queen would be ready to process her resignation in about an hour, so that was her top priority.

Well, almost her top priority. From out of the kitchen came the slender, reticent figure of Mr Trace, the soon to be ex-Prime Ministerial consort. He had his apron on and had clearly been doing something domestic in the Prime Ministerial kitchenette. As ever, his face broke into a beaming smile as he saw her, and she felt something inside thaw a little.

‘Prime Minister!’ he cried with obvious delight. ‘I didn’t expect you home so soon.’

She smiled at him. ‘I’ve told you so many times,’ she said, ‘you don’t have to be so formal when we’re at home together, Mr Trace.’

‘Sorry,’ he said. Something about her mien clearly registered with him. ‘Is everything all right, my dear?’

‘Oh, Mr Trace!’ She ran into his welcoming, if slightly confused arms. ‘It’s all over. I’ve resigned as Prime Minister. The Federation forced me into it.’

‘What!’ Mr Trace clearly couldn’t believe his ears. Bafflement danced about behind his big round glasses. ‘But the Federation needs you! Who’s going to run the country now?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Some compliant ovine, I expect,’ said April Trace. ‘Bronson, maybe. Or… the Blaine creature. He’d be the perfect choice for them.’

‘But the country would be up in arms! They’d never accept Toby Blaine as Prime Minister again – he’s not even an MP -‘

‘Another emergency decree,’ she shrugged. ‘And a major uprising now – it wouldn’t make a lot of difference, would it?’

‘I suppose you’re right,’ her husband said. He forced a smile onto his dear little face. ‘So, what’s the plan?’

‘I have to go to the palace and formally resign to Her Majesty the Queen,’ said April Trace. ‘Then I suppose we have to get the removals people in.’

‘Hmmm,’ said Mr Trace, with the expression unique to a man considering the problem of how to relocate three large roomfuls of unique and extravagant footwear at very short notice.

‘We’ll manage,’ April Trace assured him. ‘There’s always your business to fall back on if times get hard.’

‘Let’s hope the market for professional Charles Hawtrey lookalikes stays buoyant,’ said Mr Trace earnestly.

‘I need to change,’ April Trace said. ‘The car will be here soon -‘

‘Mrs Trace, open the door please.’ The voice boomed from out in the corridor. The Traces looked at each other in surprise, then she went to the door and unlatched it.

A squad of large men in dark jumpsuits and blue body armour and helmets stood there, the gold stars of the Federation prominent amongst their insignia. They were carrying an alarming range of weaponry and other gear.

‘April Trace? We’re here to take you into protective custody,’ said the squad leader.

‘I – I don’t need protective custody,’ said April Trace in alarm, glancing at her husband.

‘The Acting Prime Minister has decreed otherwise.’

‘Acting Prime Minister? But I haven’t even resigned yet -‘

‘We don’t have time for this. Get her, lads!’ the squad leader barked, hefting his pump-action shotgun threateningly in Mr Trace’s direction.

‘Stay strong, my dear! Take care of my shoes!’ cried the ex-Prime Minister as she was grabbed by the Federation enforcement squad and bundled out of the flat.

‘Mrs Trace! Mrs Trace!’ shouted the former Prime Ministerial consort forlornly, running to the door. But April Trace had already been swept away. He heard the front door of Number Ten Downing Street slam heavily, then there was only silence.

‘It’s the end of an era,’ Mr Trace murmured sadly, then went back into the flat to start packing up all the footwear.

european-union-eu-flag-missing-star-brexit

From Chapter 40:

Nigel Brittain has triumphed and England is free again. Heroic young soldier Billy Sharples roams the streets as the celebrations continue…

Everyone seemed to be relaxing, finding warmth and fellowship. Well – almost everyone – he spied two stooped, thin figures, weighted down with heavy bags, keeping well away from the bonfires and the singing as they crept out of the city. Curious, he followed after them, until he was sure his first response to seeing them had been correct.

‘Mrs Trace,’ Billy said.

The former Prime Minister and her husband both started and looked at him, clearly on the verge of panic. Both were dressed in battered, shabby old clothes, and were carrying heavy suitcases and rucksacks. What appeared to be a tiger-striped kitten heel was poking out of one of the bags.

‘I thought it was you,’ Billy said.

A nervous glance between the couple. Then – ‘Please, we just want to get out of the city. Find a quiet place to live now,’ Mr Trace said. There was pleading in his eyes, behind the big round glasses.

‘I – I don’t know,’ Billy said. Surely these two were complicit in so many of the crimes inflicted on the English people? Didn’t justice need to be done?

‘I – I just meant it all for the best,’ April Trace said, tears starting to trickle down her cheeks, voice cracking and splintering. ‘I thought there was no other way…’

‘Well, you know better now,’ Billy said. In that moment he could no longer find any hatred in his heart for this pathetic couple. If they couldn’t find it in their hearts to be merciful in victory, Billy thought, then it was no victory worth mentioning. He nodded. ‘Go on, then. On your way.’

‘Thank you. Thank you!’ The Traces scuttled on their way.

And let that last vestige of the old regime disappear, Billy thought. It was a time for new faces and new ideas – well, no, he corrected himself, old faces and old ideas. He allowed himself a thrill of excitement at the thought of the country making this unprecedented journey back to the way things had been forty or fifty years before.

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Normally I wouldn’t dream of inflicting my attempts at fiction on the internet at large, but given all the terribly interesting political developments currently going on, I couldn’t help but feel it appropriate to share a couple of brief extracts from my very-much-not forthcoming (if there’s any sanity left in the world) dystopian satire Nigel’s Kingdom, which I knocked out for NaNoWriMo at the end of 2016.

(From Chapter 12. The story so far: The oppressive European Federation, aka the Union of 27, has decreed that its vassal state the UK must abandon the pound and adopt the Federal Eurocredit. Bright young progressive BBC executive Rose has been assigned to prepare the ground for this unpopular move, and has just learned one of her first assignments is to meet the Foreign Secretary… ) 

‘Wow,’ Rose said, impressed almost despite herself. Like most people of her set, she knew she ought to instinctively dislike Alex Bronson, for he was self-evidently a smug, self-serving, lecherous, unprincipled borderline sociopath concerned only with his own advancement, but he was such a character! You couldn’t help but laugh and warm to him. That was his unique political gift, his ability to get people onside, even though his antics in service of his own career had earned him many enemies. It was not surprising Bronson had been brought in to help the Eurocredit project in some capacity.

They arrived outside impressive double doors in a corridor where virtually every square inch of wall was covered with distinguished old paintings. It had a certain musty beauty to it, Rose thought, but it was so old-fashioned and traditional, and the 18th and 19th century politicians showed such a lack of diversity it made her very uncomfortable to look at them. An aide was waiting for them and smiled. ‘The Foreign Secretary will see you now,’ he said.

Rose and Omar went into the room, which was high and airy, and had a leather-topped table surrounded by chairs at its centre. There was no sign of anyone else in the room, and there was only one other door, a small and modest looking one. Odd little clunks and thuds drifted out from behind it.

Omar looked at Rose uncertainly and went over to the door and opened it. Blinking characteristically, beneath the famous hair which resembled a freeze frame of a detonated haystack, Alex Bronson emerged from what appeared to be a stationery cupboard.

‘Ah. Hello,’ he said, peering back and forth between them. ‘No light switch in there. No light, either… well, stands to reason, I suppose. Ho ho.’

‘What were you doing in the cupboard, Foreign Secretary?’ Omar asked.

‘Trying to get out,’ Bronson said with a hopeful smirk. ‘No, actually I was looking for the bogs. Ended up in the cupboard. Oh well – errare humanum est, that’s what I always say.’

Omar and Rose both blinked as an acrid smell wafted out of the cupboard after the Foreign Secretary, who seemed completely oblivious to it. He shambled over to the table and lugged out one of the chairs, and Rose couldn’t help smiling. What a card he was! How charmingly human!

‘Now than,’ Bronson said, as they joined him around the table. ‘You’re the wallah from BBC news, aren’t you?’ Omar looked slightly pained by his choice of words but managed to nod. ‘And you are…?’ He looked inquisitively at Rose, and she thought she could detect a glitter of interest in the Foreign Secretarial eyes.

‘I’m Rose Lewis, Foreign Secretary,’ she said. ‘Also on the Eurocredit introduction taskforce.’

‘Aha. Smashing. Smashing,’ said Bronson. ‘Looking forward to working with you. Both of you,’ he added quickly, glancing at Omar.

‘Thanks for giving us your time, sir,’ Omar said. ‘We know you must be busy.’

‘Actually, there’s a lot less to this Foreign Office lark than you might think,’ Bronson mused, leaning back and lacing his hands behind his head. ‘Mainly just sitting around the office and fairly regular foreign beanos. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into some proper work for a change – that’s what the PM’s asked me to do, anyway.’

Word around the BBC was that the Foreign Office civil servants had been sending pleading emails to April Trace for many months, begging her to find some way of keeping Bronson occupied so their staff no longer needed to constantly monitor him and could go back to doing some actual proper diplomacy, but that was just the sort of funny story that made up the Foreign Secretary’s large and amusing hinterland, like the one about him getting stuck on the end of a bungee cord, or having a series of affairs with colleagues, or conspiring with friends to have journalists beaten up. Rose let an indulgent smile play around her mouth. He really wasn’t the sort of person one should like, but she couldn’t help herself.

(Later, from Chapter 17: hapless shoe-loving Prime Minister April Trace is in her command bunker monitoring reports of the reappearance of the dreaded arch-patriot and nemesis of the Federation, Nigel Brittain, and discussing this with the Union of 27’s representatives…) 

She was interrupted by the conference room doors clanking open and the entrance of Alex Bronson and Toby Blaine. Bronson was clearly disgruntled and she guessed that Blaine had insisted on sharing the ministerial ride over from the judicial sports centre. This was no time for their petty grievances.

‘Sorry we’re a bit late, April,’ Bronson said cheerily. ‘Stuck in a jam on the Embankment. Tempus fugit, and all that.’

‘Ah,’ the Prime Minister said. She looked at Blaine. ‘I trust Alex kept you entertained, Mr Blaine? A selection of his latest limericks, no doubt?’

Blaine’s face came close to losing its perma-smile as he nodded back to the PM. ‘Still, we’re here now,’ he said with brittle pleasantness. ‘What’s the situation?’

‘A suddenly upwelling of seditious activity, sparked by the resurfacing of this man Brittain,’ one of the Office of Political Correctness agents said, before April Trace could finish opening her mouth. She clicked the luminous perspex heel of her left shoe against the floor and pursed her lips. They weren’t even attempting to maintain the illusion that she was in charge any more.

‘Excuse me, we have a connection with a police command unit in the Thames Valley,’ one of the operators piped up. ‘They’ve got the two Standards Enforcement agents who were there when this all started happening.’

Sure enough, the two hollow-eyed, traumatised looking men appeared on the screen, still in their vests.

‘Report,’ said the lead OPC agent.

‘We were on patrol in Aylesbury town centre, in accordance with standard operating procedure,’ said one of them.

‘Seek out signs of non-metrication and subdue and humiliate with maximum prejudice,’ said the other.

‘And then he was there. Shouting and insulting and… and making people listen to him,’ said the enforcer plaintively. ‘Then all them were shouting at us. He took a crowd and turned it into an angry mob.’

‘Aylesbury town centre,’ said Alex Bronson, sagely. Beside him, Toby Blaine nodded automatically.

‘We had to run or they’d have torn us apart,’ the agent concluded his report. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it! The man has some dark power, some rhetorical genius, like nothing our training prepared us for. I don’t know -‘

‘That’s enough. Keep your head,’ said the OPC man viciously. He nodded to the operator who ended the transmission. Behind them the doors opened, presaging the entry of the tea and refreshments trolley. There were standards to be maintained, after all.

‘What kind of demographic does this man Nigel Brittain appeal to?’ asked the OPC agent, seeming genuinely baffled.

‘English people,’ said the Prime Minister, coldly.

‘That’s not helpful, Mrs Trace.’

‘All right, a specific section of society, those predisposed towards this kind of extreme reaction. Many, including my predecessor, were inclined to dismiss them as -‘

‘Nuts!’ Alex Bronson’s eyes lit up and he descended on the refreshments trolley, happily grabbing for the pistachios.

‘Foreign Secretary, please. As I said, the knee-jerk reaction is simply to say they are -‘

‘Oooh, fruitcakes!’ Toby Blaine joined Bronson at the refreshments, and started carving himself a generous slice.

April Trace sighed. ‘I mean, you might think they’re just -‘

‘One slice short of a full Swiss Roll, I see,’ Bronson sighed, looking at the woman manning the trolley, who mumbled her apologies.

‘Gentlemen, we are dealing with a crisis,’ said the OPC man, even more frostily than before.

‘Yes, I suppose so,’ muttered the Foreign Secretary, wiping crumbs from his waistcoat absently. April Trace noticed that Toby Blaine was surreptitiously eyeing up a cream horn, even so.

‘So what’s to be done?’ one of the OPC men said, slightly unexpectedly.

‘We need to know what Nigel Brittain is planning to do,’ Blaine said.

‘We need to stop him from doing it,’ Bronson nodded.

‘Oh, really!’ April Trace rolled her eyes. ‘We know what he’s planning – he’s going to come here and try to wreck everything, just like last time – when he nearly succeeded, if you hadn’t forgotten!’

‘That cannot be allowed to happen again,’ one of the OPC men hissed. They really were the Federation incarnate, April Trace thought.

(As I say, it was 2016. The rest of it will most likely never see the light of day. No need to thank me.)

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In one sense, writing 50,000 words is quite easy. You write a word. Then you write another word. And then you do the same again and again, another forty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety eight times. Nothing could be simpler.

So why, then, did I so signally fail to complete NaNoWriMo in 2012 and 2013? For the underinitiated: this is the challenge where one undertakes to write 50,000 words of sequential fiction in a thirty-day period (technical it’s supposed to be a novel, but I think this is veering dangerously close to delusions of grandeur). I’m not sure, but I think clues may be found in the manner in which I managed to actually finish the damn thing this year, for the first time since 2010.

Winner-2014-Web-Banner

Perhaps the nature of that 2010 win was also significant. As I was (ahem) resting from paid employment at the time, I was able to devote all my time to the project and ended up with a 115,000 word manuscript, which – when run past a professional author for comment – transpired to be irredeemable tripe with no discernable structure. This was a blow to my confidence as a writer of long fiction which it took me a long time to get over.

I blame Stephen King, and especially his book On Writing. This is an inspirational tome and no mistake, but it also promotes Mr King’s potentially lethal strategy for novel-writing, which is basically ‘have an idea, start writing about it, do 3,000 words a day until you reach the end and then stop’. In other words, don’t bother planning what you’re doing. Just trust to the creative winds.

It took me a long while to figure out that what may work for an intuitively gifted storyteller like Mr King is not necessarily going to work for the average garret-dwelling spod. I have come to the conclusion that this sort of behaviour is not going to end well for most of us. It’s like going on a 300 mile drive without bothering to check the atlas, and no real sense of where you’re actually heading to in the first place. You may cover some ground, but you’re unlikely to end up anywhere it’s worth being.

Reluctantly parting company with the King Doctrine was probably the first step towards having a chance of concluding a NaNo with a story that actually has some kind of narrative merit. Realising the importance of structure, I invested in a number of other pieces of advice which I must confess I found to be of varying usefulness.

Near the bottom of the heap, although this may be a user-friendliness issue, is the near-mythical Plotto, by William Wallace Cook. This is not so much a writer’s guide as a plot generation tool, but not one I actually found any use. Perhaps it’s just that the Kindle edition is somewhat clunky to navigate through.

More interesting than genuinely useful was 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald Tobias, which is strong on general information but weak on actual mechanics and detail. A step up from this, despite being somewhat disingenuously titled, was Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters, which has some useful stuff on many archetypal characters and the two main types of character arc. It’s one of the few writing handbooks I’ve read which comes close to being actually generative (i.e. giving you proper ideas).

Lani Diane Rich (aka Lucy March), professional author and writing tutor, weighs in with what she considers to be the seven crucial anchor points of essential narrative. I was rather dubious about this when I first heard about it – it seemed rather too formulaic at the time, and also that many great stories didn’t seem to stick to the scheme – but am prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt.

This is largely because of the single biggest factor in getting me across the NaNo finishing line with something I’m reasonably pleased with: to wit, Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, a meticulous guide to the core competencies of storytelling in general, and structure in particular. Brooks breaks the story down into four chunks, assigns key plot moments and responsibilities to all of them, and then goes through what the essential plot beats are, where they need to fall and how they inter-relate. His book is perhaps a bit too strongly aimed at the aspiring professional – I have no real ambitions in that direction, as I already have a job I love and which I suspect is better for me than full-time writing would be, even if I had the talent and perseverance to think about taking it more seriously – but sitting down on November 1st with the first 37 scenes of a 50-scene novel already planned out was an enormous advantage, and without Brooks I would not have had this map to start with.

What I wrote is, in all likelihood, not very good. Ray Bradbury said that the first 500,000 words you write are inevitably going to be rubbish, and as far as long-form fiction goes I suspect I still have several hundred thousand to go before I hit the good stuff. But, whatever the problems with the characterisation, exposition, theme, description, and – yes – the structure, it does at least hang together on one level.

And, more importantly, I feel like I have fiction writing back. After the great disaster of 2010, apart from the abortive NaNos of 2012 and 2013, I’ve barely written a word of fiction. Plenty of reviews and other nonsense, as you can see, but nothing else. And I always missed it. I couldn’t figure out what my blind spot was in terms of long-form fiction, but now perhaps I have. It feels good to have this option back – the process of writing the NaNo 14 project has been a very satisfying one and I suspect it will be well before November 2015 that I have a go at something else. But not yet. Now is the time all-consuming and wholly unjustified smugness, which is something else I’ve always had a talent for.

 

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A brief glance at the stats for this blog tells me that, as of this writing, there are somewhere in the region of 650 film reviews hereabouts. I have been writing these on and off since 2001, and fairly solidly since 2010 (sometimes at the rate of three or four a week). At a conservative estimate, I must have written about 600,000 words about films, all told (the last two novel-length stories I managed to finish, in comparison, amounted to only 230,000 words between them). I have never really thought very deeply about the nature of film writing in all this time: or at least I hadn’t until I read Hatchet Job, the latest movie-related tome by Mark Kermode.

Kermode’s first book was the story of his life in film; his last one was an extended series of moans about the things he finds particularly irksome about modern films and the contemporary movie-going experience. I liked it, even if I found it a bit on the negative side. Hatchet Job, despite the title, is a bit more balanced.

kermodeHJ

Kermode opens by celebrating the most memorable result of the film critics’ art: the devastating negative review, kicking off with ‘Forest Gump on a tractor’ (The Straight Story) and taking in ‘Miss’ (Battleship), ‘an explosion in a stupidity factory’ (A Good Day to Die Hard) and some of Kermode’s own most vitriolic utterances, such as ‘An orgy of dripping wealth which made me want to vomit’ (Sex and the City 2), before going on to question, if not the value of film criticism in the modern world, then certainly the need for professional film critics as a species.

This is the core theme of Hatchet Job, which Kermode comes at from a number of angles: the decline in the respect in which critics are held, the sometimes strained relationship between critics and film-makers, the current crisis in the lot of old-school print critics in an increasingly digital age, and so on. Along the way Kermode gets to indulge himself on many topics which will be familiar to long-term followers, such as the plight of the skilled projectionist, the careers of Ken Russell (Dr K like) and John Boorman (Dr K very no like), and how lovely Silent Running is, as well as some which may be new, such as the unreliability of the automatically-moderated reviewing system on Amazon.com and the pernicious influence of test screenings on film storytelling.

He is, as you’d expect, very good company throughout, even when dealing with unpromising material without a great deal of interest to anyone not specifically interested in the lot of film critics (he is touchingly eloquent when paying tribute to two deceased giants of the field, Alexander Walker and Roger Ebert, even though it is clear he is rather more simpatico with one than the other). If you know much about films, you are unlikely to learn a lot, but at least you will hear things for the second or third time in a highly entertaining way.

You might expect Kermode to be precious and possessive about his status as someone who’s paid to watch and talk about new films for a living, and perhaps he does come across as slightly self-mythologising when he expresses his belief that ‘[f]or a critic’s opinion to have value beyond the mere joy of the savage put-down or the well-constructed defence, I believe they must have something personal at stake, something about which they care, and which they are in danger of forfeiting.’ (He’s talking about the bubble reputation, by the way, not an actual job.) Yet his argument does sort of hang together. I rarely make much use of critics myself, especially since I stopped listening to Kermode’s own radio show (sorry Doc), but this is largely because I just found myself writing my own reviews as a response to theirs rather than to the film itself, but on an instinctive level I know that I’d rather read a review from someone with a track-record and a real name than by some anonymous username on the internet.

On the other hand, though, doesn’t this just make me a massive hypocrite? My own name isn’t on this book review, after all: why should you give a damn what I think? Why should my opinion have any special value? Well, you might well say, in the case of a cruddy little blog like this one, which on average is read by no-one at all, what does it matter? Speak or stay silent, it doesn’t make any difference.

And yet, and yet. All other things being equal, I wouldn’t write at all if I didn’t think there was at least some chance of getting read (to do otherwise would be, to quote Stephen King, ‘quacking into the void’). And yet Kermode himself argues that ‘writing for free in an arena where someone else is getting paid eventually undermines the possibility of anyone being properly remunerated’. This sounds a little protectionist, I suppose, but there is a grain of truth here, surely – if the reviews on the blog are any good, then I may be taking bread from the mouths of film critics’ children – if they’re not, what’s the bloody point in them anyway?

I don’t know. I suppose the brutally honest response would be to say that if a professional critic with the resources of a national paper behind them can’t come up with something more useful and entertaining than an amateur nobody sitting behind a laptop in a garret, they don’t deserve to be in the profession anyway. And perhaps this is true. It has still made me question exactly why I am so rigorous about writing up every new film I watch, even the really boring ones.

As I’ve said in the past, I have a pronounced OCD tendency, and I think doing the reviews helps control this – also, feeding the OCD helps fend off the depressive tendency I also possess. So perhaps there is a therapeutic aspect to all this. Thinking about this has also made me realise that starting writing this blog regular coincided fairly closely with my stopping writing ‘substantial’ fiction suspiciously closely. I said in an ‘interview’ (it was a webzine feature where completely obscure individuals took it in turns to ask each other silly questions every week) a few years ago that writing is just about the only thing in the world, other than watching the 1970s Doctor Who title sequence, guaranteed to make me happy, and so perhaps obsessively writing endless film reviews has taken the place of producing fiction.

In which case it looks like that the main purpose of this blog is not to actually share opinions and judgements on films, but to shore up my mental equilibrium. If I actually ever say something worthwhile and useful about a film it is a fortuitous fringe benefit and nothing else. I’m not really sure how to process this little nugget of increased self-knowledge, but then that has largely been the story of 2014 so far for me. If you are the starving child of a professional film critic, I apologise, but I fear it may be pathological on my part. And if you are not, but you are at all interested in films and serious film writing, you will probably find Hatchet Job to be an entertaining and thought-provoking read.

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It seems to me that now, before we get too bogged down in 2014, would be a good time to carry out the threatened review of my list of resolutions from this time last year. Anyone expecting a similar list this time round is probably going to be in for a disappointment, by the way. Why should this be? Well…

navelgazer

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, 2013 proved to be a bit of a big year for me in some respects, and I’ve no expectation that this year can match it, certainly not in terms of major events. Anyone anticipating a brave declaration that this year I’m going to buy my own place, start my own business, learn to drive, or become emotionally intimate with someone new is going to be disappointed. Sorry.

I think consolidation is the word I’m looking for; consolidation and balance (in terms of the different elements of my life). The only thing that did occur to me happened back in April, or whenever it was that Margaret Thatcher finally departed this world. It seemed to me that it’s all very well to make big noises about the state of society and poisonous political legacies, but unless you actually pull up your boots and wade into actual political activism all you’re doing is just mouthing off and indulging yourself. God knows there are enough things wrong in the world today, and enough ways of getting involved should you so wish. But can I actually see myself making that kind of serious, probably thankless commitment? In all honesty, no.

Anyway, moving on to last year’s resolutions and how they worked out:

1. Move Career On. This actually happened, which was probably inevitable, but what’s slightly surprising is that it’s happened in a very positive way. At one point this year I was seriously considering going off to Chile or Argentina and the life of a peripatetic TEFL grunt, but I found I could generate very little enthusiasm for this. That I eventually wound up – more by luck than anything else – working at the very place I would have chosen to, given the option, is obviously a real bonus.

The downside is that, one way or another, I am going to have knock my association with summer schools on the head. This is a cause of some sadness, as I always enjoyed the challenge of the work and it realistically means losing a few good friends who I never see at any other time. But I need to start thinking longer term.

2. Play Some WFB. Er, well. I don’t think half a demo game really qualifies. Partly this is because I went through a real period of engagement with my Blood Angel army near the beginning of the year, and partly because I took six months out of the hobby after having my Eldar army effortlessly tabled by some Space Marines in June. My misgivings with the current 40K metagame are considerable, but on the other hand no-one seems to be playing WFB at the venue I go to. Then again, we are surely due a new edition this year, which may stir things up a bit. Anyway – I would like to play some proper WFB, but a competitive 40K army I am happy with would also be satisfactory.

3. Write More and with More Variety. This didn’t really happen. I blew NaNo again this year, but then again i suppose this is like someone who never goes jogging entering a marathon and complaining they couldn’t finish it.

In the year to come I think I will revise this to ‘Be More Creatively Productive’, whether this means through writing, painting, or practising musically (someone gave me a guitar in November, rather to my surprise).

4. Waste Less Time Playing Computer Games. An indubitably spectacular fail here, given the epic sessions of Civilisation, Total War, and The Sims I have been clocking up of late. But are games as intricate and engrossing as these honestly a waste of time, any more than going to the cinema or reading a book, passive activities I indulge in without feeling the slightest regret? Perhaps the key is to make my sessions a bit less epic – balance, like I say.

5. More Radio and Less TV in the Background: Well, this was never really a big deal, though things have got to the point where I can join in with the voice-over on certain repeats of Top Gear.

6. Sleep More: Marginal. The new job means I don’t have to go to bed quite so ridiculously early, but the effort of will involved in stopping whatever I’m doing and going to bed is sometimes demanding. I am, as ever, reminded of Somerset Maugham’s declaration that he did two things against his will every day: getting up in the morning and going to bed at night.

7. Write About Different Old Films: Does gorging on Toho monster movies qualify? I suspect not. I find it hard to feel too guilty about this one, as all the films I write about are ones I enjoy (on some level). I think one can be too aspirational when setting resolutions.

8. Write Proper Doctor Who Reviews: Well, this one definitely happened, and will continue to happen, I think. I predict a touch of seventh Doctor bias in the early part of the year, as McCoy was the guy who I hardly saw anything of this year.

This would be an opportune moment to mention again that 2013 was the year I got my name on the back of a book, Outside In (a collection of Doctor Who reviews, inevitably) – my own contribution being one of least accomplished pieces in it. 2014 promises Outside In 2, featuring a piece written specifically for publication (not to mention, I understand, the second pressing of Who’s 50 with my acknowledgement added). A third similar volume is also on the cards but I am reluctant to say more ahead of the official announcement.

Not too bad a year, then, as I look back on it – certainly not too many regrets. Hopefully 2014 will be more or less the same, but we will inevitably see.

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Once again November has come and gone and I find myself not having written a novel in any real sense of the expression. So what, you may say, this is no different to the previous ten months of 2013 in which novel-writing did not really feature on the list of things I did. This is a fair point, and yet…

navelgazer

As you may or may not know, November is the time of NaNoWriMo, the popular – if, it must be said, very badly named – international creative writing event. National Novel Writing Month is an annual event where people from all over the world sit down and undertake to produce 50,000 words of continuous fiction over a thirty day period. This is the fourth year in which I have set my sights on the NaNo prize, and the second in a row in which I haven’t actually come anywhere close to achieving it.

I say ‘fourth’, but the first year I sort of did NaNo without even being aware of it, sitting down to write a novel in the space of about a month and only later becoming aware of the fact that thousands of other people were doing the same thing at the same time. Nevertheless I knocked out 116,000 words of a story which had been kicking about my head for over sixteen years.

Finding myself at a loose end I did NaNo properly in 2010, this time turning up 115,000 words (needless to say I had no other real commitments). It seems rather incredible to me now, but I had genuine hopes that one or other of these productions had enough merit to potentially be publishable in some form, given a bit of rewriting and polishing. My experience of a ‘re-edit your MS’ course from a pro author showed me otherwise, mainly because the first one would have been unmarketable and didn’t have a proper ending, while the second was essentially the beginning and end of two different genre novels (both favourites of mine) inelegantly welded together: the structure was irretrievably busted in both cases.

I was doing a Diploma course in 2011 and so skipped doing NaNo, but decided to have another crack last year: getting the structure right was my main concern. After getting 5,000 words into a post-apocalyptic quest story which I never felt completely happy writing, I made the elementary NaNo aspirant’s mistake and switched to new story: a fantastical sex-comedy-satire with a contemporary setting – I got 12,000 words into that, but then illness and a real-life emotional situation got in the way of my finishing it (or so I told myself, anyway).

17,000 words is only about a third of the way there. At least, I’m telling myself, this year I got to 23,000, which is a slightly better showing: and given I dropped out after less than three weeks it’s fairly respectable. Why, you may be wondering, did I stop so early? Well, to be honest, once again I wasn’t exactly feeling the story, and it had also become apparent than even if by some miracle I hit 50,000 before the month’s end I still wouldn’t be anywhere close to the end of the story – at 23,000 I was still some way from the point I had pegged as the end of the first act of the story. (See? Thinking about the structure.) Without the pressure of the NaNo deadline I knew the thing was never going to get properly finished.

(Just to put this in perspective: an acquaintance who was also doing NaNo suffered a close family bereavement, gave birth, and still managed to hit the 50,000 words mark. Given my own main distractions were conquering ancient France in lengthy games of Rome: Total War and enjoying the golden anniversary celebrations of my favourite TV show, I really have no excuse.)

A fairly sad chronicle of failure, I think you’ll agree (I haven’t even mentioned this year’s Camp NaNo fiasco, or ScriptFrenzy in 2011). Why am I going on about it? Why not just forget about the idea and spare everyone the stress and the breast-beating?

A fair question. While I have one (very, very minor) published credit to my name, with a couple more hopefully on the way, I have no serious ambitions to become a professional writer. I have a career which I find very fulfilling – and which, truth be told, is probably healthier when it comes to my mental state than just beating my head against a blank page for hours every day. Yet the compulsion remains, at NaNo time, during similar events, whenever: unless I’m much mistaken ‘write more fiction’ was on my New Year list last January. Has it happened? Nope.

Given I clearly feel some desire to write more fiction, and I’m not lumbered with any of those things which eat the time of most people – full-time jobs, dependent family members, especially active social lives – why this litany of failure? I’m horribly afraid I may just be lazy. Writing fiction is hard work if you want to do it properly – I believe Ray Bradbury said the first half-million words he wrote were all rubbish, but a necessary apprenticeship in the craft. Beating up the Gauls or reflecting on the positive social impact of Doctor Who are both much easier.

Writing a film review is a piece of cake compared to producing a piece of fiction of comparable length – your topic is pre-selected for you, and the structure is usually fairly standardised. You know what you’re going to say, too. Fiction is tough – I was going to say everything comes from within, but of course that’s not true. Let’s just say a much higher proportion of it does.

Okay, so it’s difficult, you may be saying. Nobody’s forcing you. Either do it or don’t, but don’t waste our time going on about how hard it is, and how useless you are. Don’t you realise that what you’re doing is displacement activity? You could actually be doing some writing now instead of bleating about how you’re not doing any writing.

You know, that hadn’t actually occurred to me until I sat down and typed it. Perhaps you have a point. Perhaps I am just attempting to name and shame myself in the hope that this may motivate me to actually produce something. I don’t know. The itch remains, but it seems that I’m not sure whether I genuinely want to scratch it. It’s a little confusing.

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A Question of Attribution

[Am keeping a revised version of this post up for the sake of coherency and out of respect for the people who commented on it. Apologies if it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but then it doesn’t really have to any more. The issue in question has been amicably resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned!

Okay, going to keep this brief. (It’s ironic that this should happen only a couple of days after I was taking a few minor pops at Stef Coburn for issuing nuisance writs over copyright issues, but that’s life.)

Hey ho. Look, basically I’m going to present for your reading illumination two reviews of the 1970 Doctor Who story Spearhead from Space. One of them was written in 2001, the other much more recently. I am certain the writer of the more recent piece was aware of the existence of the earlier one and read it at least twice prior to writing their own review.

Basically, the question is: is it a no-brainer that the second piece clearly owes a debt to the first in terms of approach to the subject matter?

Without further ado, from 2001:

[My review of Spearhead from Space, hosted on the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, woz ‘ere. Check out the DWRG if you want to read it, it’s terribly good. The DWRG, I mean – well, I think the review’s very good, too…]

Auton-solo

Okay, and now from much more recently:

[Robert Smith?’s review of Spearhead from Space, from Who’s 50 (Burk and Smith?, ECW), woz ‘ere. Buy the book if you want to see it (although it was inspired by mine, as all concerned would happily acknowledge). The book itself is an interesting read – although what Nonsense of the Daleks is doing in there, I’ve no idea…]

I am going to remain vague as to the origins of these two pieces and my own particular stake in this matter, but if you’ve taken the time to read this far I would really appreciate your thoughts in the matter, whoever you are and whatever they are. I promise to elucidate more at a future point when I have decided what, if anything, to do.

Update: basically, I was going to be credited in the acknowledgements section of the book, but due to the exigencies of the production process this bit accidentally got left out. From what I know of publishing I can readily believe it. Nothing dubious was intended, this was simply a cock-up. Robert has apologised and I’m happy to get back to enjoying the anniversary celebrations…

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