Hello and welcome to my blog.
I'll be voicing my thoughts and opinions on the creative process as well as other random topics that enter my mind. I can't promise to be entertaining or informative, but if you like genre fiction, movies, TV or comics then there should be something to interest you.
Any errors and foul language are my own.

Friday, 30 August 2013

A Quick & Flippant Update

It's almost the end of August! How did that happen?

Anyway, I've finally risen from the ashes of writing self-doubt to bring you this, my brief guide to the last few months.

I got married on a beautiful sunny day in June. The now Mrs D looked lovely and we were surrounded by family and friends. I wore a waistcoat and a pocketwatch, which I'd like to do all the time. Seriously, it was a great day, and Midnight's delighted her owners have made honest people of each other.

Vegas ended. I mean ended, cancelled at the end of the first series. And yet Under The Dome seems to be a success - how does that work?

I purchased an ereader. (Shhh! Not so loud!) Have to admit, I'm impressed...

There's more, of course, but it's getting late. I'll blog again soon, I'm sure, hopefully before Christmas.

Thanks for passing by!

Sunday, 26 May 2013

May's Days

May's a hectic month. There's lots going on with the day job and the wedding plans are continuing apace (less than two weeks to go and there's still a few things to sort out, but that's ok, right? I'm sure it'll all fall into place eventually.), so there's little free time.

I've managed to squeeze some time to write every day, but in some cases it's been as little as a few words, sprinkled with some punctuation here and there to form a coherent sentence. I'm ok with that, given what's happening at the moment, but there's something thats got me frustrated.

I'm starting fresh. Creating new characters and new worlds. New worlds? Should I just set it in a near-mythical England, something where it's all forest and always raining, sort of a pre-Arthurian genre? Or do I populate a planet of my own creation with strange races, create a landscape that is purely my own, throwing a dragon in for good measure? That's my trouble - I'm happy with my main character's journey, but I don't know where he lives. There are pros and cons for both ideas, too many to put down here (trust me, I wrote a list) but my usual themes of self-sacrifice, redemption and the true meaning of courage are still there; they're universal, so can be applied anywhere.

Years ago, when I was more ill-disciplined than I am now, I'd find myself influenced by everything I watched and read. It's starting to get that way again, and it's annoying. Not just to me, I'd imagine; When I get this way become a surly, grumpy creature, head down and dragging my feet, like some miserable hulk. I don't want to be the next [insert favourite author name here] or write a story thats simply a rehash of something from a different genre (although I hear "Wagon Train in space" proved popular a few years ago...) or a combination of other successful things. I want to be original, write a story that appeals to me as a reader. I'd want it to be published, or course, but I'm a firm believer that you can't write for what you think that market wants to read. Write from the heart, the passion will shine through, and it will be good enough. All so very simple.

At the moment, my favourite TV series currently showing is Vegas. No sci-fi elements at all, so it should normally be something that falls into the 'worth a watch' category. Yet, it has great characters, whose actions are driving a superb plot. The actors are brilliant too (it's good to see Dennis Quaid back, seeing him always reminds me of Willis Davidge from Enemy Mine), working with excellent writing to create something very special. There isn't a character you can't identify with - or, dare I say, even sympathise with - which is what makes Vegas appeal to me. Yet, as good as those characters are, the world they inhabit influences them, for good or for ill. That's why it's so important I get my world right. Writing's hard, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy, and I'm not going to give up.

Monday, 6 May 2013


I was going to talk about this year's Free Comic Book Day, but...

When I first moved house eleven years ago, I was given a couple of small sofas for the conservatory from a work colleague. All I had to do was pick them up and get them home. Simple; I hired a van, got them on board, and drove home. I'd had help getting them on, but trying to get them off by myself? It wasn't happening.

I heard a voice ask if I wanted a hand, which I did, so I accepted. I was surprised to see it was the old man from two doors down, and was tempted not to bother him. Turns out he was stronger than I (not hard) despite touching his 70's. Anyway, between us we got the sofas out and put where they were meant to be. We shook hands, and he told me his name was Harry. I told him I was Alister, although he'd call me Alex ever since. For some reason, that never mattered.

Over the years, Harry did much for me. He'd keep an eye on things while I was working away, take in my parcels of books when I wasn't around, gave us some of his home-grown veg, even let the cat lounge in the warmth of his greenhouse and - I suspect - put a saucer of milk down for her. When my good lady came to live here, he'd talk to her across the fences and she found out more about him in a few short months than I did in the years before. He'd been a shepherd in his younger years, used to the outdoors; this, for me, explained his resilience. Harry, I  thought, would live forever.

Sadly, he died on Thursday. His health had its ups and downs over the last couple of years - more downs, unfortunately - and in the early stages of last week he was being kept alive by drugs and machines. We knew something was wrong the weekend before, when his family were dismantling the greenhouse in his garden.

Harry's dead now, and while we'll all miss him, he will live forever in our hearts, minds and memories. Whatever beliefs you have, I hope you'll join me in hoping he's gone to a better place, reunited with his loved ones. Maybe he's even looking down, reading this as I type, wondering why I never corrected him when he called me Alex.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Z is for Zakynthos

Or, if you prefer, Zante.

Five years ago, I took my first summer holiday abroad to that particular Greek island. Why, in thirty-seven years, had I never done so before? I can only shrug, say I didn't realise what I was missing, happy to stay closer to home, go out in the car, somewhere I could travel to and from in a day, return to my own bed each night. So, early one Sunday morning, bags packed, I was taken to the airport and jetted off to sunnier shores. Since then, I always think it's when that first breath of warm air hits you as the aeroplane doors open, that's the moment you realise you're on holiday.

My holiday on Zante was with a big group, including the lovely lady who is now my better half, so I wasn't stuck for company. Admittedly, it took a few days to learn to relax and enjoy sitting in the sun, often thinking I should be doing something, anything, except what I saw as lazing around. I took two books - both by Homer - hoping the golden sands and deep blue sea would help me appreciate those epic works. There's plenty to see on the island - including a rusted old shipwreck, viewed from above on what feels like a diver's board (it's more safer than that, of course) - the locals are extremely pleasant and helpful, while the food is absolutely fantastic.

I also found inspiration there, concocting the basis for a story that would become a novel. It's changed much since then, but it's finished and ready to go out into the big wide world in search of representation and, one day, publication. I've visited the other Ionian islands too, as well as Rhodes, but Zakynthos will always have a special place in my heart for many reasons, including the time I had traditional Sunday Lunch with a pint of Guinness while it was 35 degrees centigrade outside. Well, why not?

Monday, 29 April 2013

Y is for You

Yes, YOU. Whoever you are, I'd like to thank you for reading this. If you've been reading all month, or even started following my blog, I'd like to thank you even more.

Writers would be nothing without readers; what's the point in telling a tale or voicing an opinion if there's nobody around to listen? I did that for years, writing stories (mostly unfinished, I have to admit) and just keeping them in a file on a shelf. And now I lament that I'm not a published author, that my dream is yet to come true. Well, that's probably why, eh?

The challenge is almost at an end now. I can't say it's been easy (previous posts will testify to that). but it's been the thought that someone - you - will be reading, expecting something, that's kept me going. Yet, in a way, I'm also disappointed with myself; fact is, while I've looked at many other blogs, I've rarely commented. I've been someone else's "you" and, while I've been impressed with what I've seen, I haven't often said so. Back on the positive side, it's great to know there's a big community out there, something that's often easy to forget when you're sat alone at a keyboard - the bloggerverse is out there, waiting for me to boldy go. It's a voyage I'm looking forward to, now that I've had my eyes opened to what's out there,

So, dear reader of past, present or future - thank YOU.

And finally... Fellow writers - here's one of my favourite pieces of advice, one that's been reinforced by doing this challenge: "The only thing stopping you, is YOU." Keep going, don't stop and - one day - that dream may come true.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

X is for X-Ray Specs

When I was a young boy, I was always amazed by x-ray photographs, the cameras that could see right through you and take a picture of bones surrounded by the very pale glow of flesh. I often wondered what it would be like to be able to see like that, until I watched X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes starring Ray Milland. It's an old film (early 1960's if memory serves) with a shocking conclusion that quickly made me change my mind.

My interest in possessing such a power was helped along by comic books, but not the stories themselves. Years ago, the imported US comics had regular advertisments inside them. There was one that promised an Atlas-style physique, but the one that always caught my eye was the page full of jokes and tricks - one of which was x-ray specs.

I started wearing glasses when I was nine or ten, and when I had my first pair, I would imagine putting them on and being able to see through walls and clothes. Didn't happen, of course, but it was a funny joke for a few days. Then I used to pretend I was Clark Kent.

Now, years later, I still joke about being a Kent (insert your own punchline here...) and as I sit here, I find myself wondering about those trick specs with their swirling patterned lenses and tiny hole to look out of. I've a vague idea of how the trick might work - like when you place the underside of your wrist against your nose, and if you look at it in the right way it seems to have disappeared - but there must have been more to it than that. Mustn't there? Part of me would like to know the truth (the cynic who believes they were a complete rip-off) but the facsinated child deep within doesn't want to know the answer, wants to believe in the wonder of it all...

Friday, 26 April 2013

W is for Words

"Words are meaningless, and forgettable." That's a line from my favourite Depeche Mode song, Enjoy The Silence; ironic, as I'm such a fan of words and writing. While the Mode would have you believe words are "very unnecessary" and "they can only do harm", there's obviously a lot more to them than that.

It's true that words can harm - a vindictive comment can have more lasting resonance than a physical blow - used as weapons to hurt, but that's just one side of the coin. The right words at the right time can bring comfort, joy and hope; in doing so, they can even save lives. Actions speak louder than them, but once the action is done, the word remains; written down, printed, stored on a server, it lasts longer, it resonates throughout the ages.

Writing is obviously all about words. Choosing the right ones, stringing them together to form a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter, a (gulp) novel. I was once asked why I do it. My answer? "I can't not write." It really is that simple; I get restless if I don't write, frustrated at myself for not spending the time at the screen or the sheet of paper. I love to learn a new word - my current favourite is 'crepuscular' - but it's knowing when and where to use it that really counts. There are times when it's easy, others when it's incredibly difficult. Ironically (again!), the latter can be when it's most rewarding.

W is also for weary. Which is what I am now. It's been a busy week at work, hence my writing this at almost nine in the evening rather than six in the morning. I couldn't not do it, though; only three more letters to go, and that's the challenge complete. I'm pleased (well, amazed) that I've made it this far. Well done to everyone else who's done so - not long now, my friends, not long now.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

V is for V

Almost thirty years ago, a TV series came onto our screens that was - at the time, and cenrtainly for me - like no other. It was V, the story of aliens who arrive on Earth claiming peace but secretly want to steal our water and eat us humans for breakfast.

In the UK, it was shown as five episodes, one a day over the course of a working week. It's what would now be known as event TV, shown in the summer holidays. If I recall correctly (I could check on the internet, but why let facts spoil a good reminiscence?), the Olympic Games were on at the same time, but not as avidly watched due to the then Soviet Union not attending; this, it is claimed, is why V ended up with such good ratings.

For me, V was life-changing TV. It's probably to do with my age at the time, my eyes widening to the world, but V was the first TV series that had a hidden meaning, an allegory, to it. The invaders, rounding up the locals, getting youths to join their army, their logo on walls and flags, represented the Nazi's; the humans, the resistance. Not just my age, I think - V was never subtle, its heart on its sleeve for all to see.

After the first three episodes, the short series became V - The Final Battle. Something changed, there was more action and - with the birth of a human/alien child - a bit of religion and, somewhat unnecessarily, mysticism thrown in. It's a deux ex machina ending that lacks subtely, but despite this, V is a series I'll always remember fondly. I saw that last episode a while back when it was repeated and, while it's certainly dated and time has turned much of it into cliche, it's still very enjoyable. Scarily, I could remember almost every line, havng watched it on video several times after its initial broadcast.

A longer series followed, then a reboot a couple of years ago. While I've never watched the latter, the former - from what I can recall - was nowhere near as impressive as that original mini-series. All these years later, and the tag-line is still in my head: V no longer stands for Visitor - V is for Victory!

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

U is for Undecided

Stuck again.

There are several U's I thought I'd write about but  - as with I - I only managed a line on each. Take Ukelele, for instance; did you know it was Hawaiian for 'jumping flea'? It's an instrument I considered learning to play a couple of years back, but I bought a harmonica instead. I've used it twice - another failed hobby.

I also considered talking about the 1990's TV series Ultraviolet, a character-driven drama based on the idea that vampires exist, without ever mentioning the V-word (it's been re-released on DVD in the UK this week, well worth a watch). Or Unique, which each of us are, with our own ideas and views; sometimes shared, sometimes not, I was going to try and get deep and meaningful, but it's difficult at this time of the morning. I could even have used "Un", which is a prefix to a word used to decribe its opposite. I suppose I have, in a way, done that; far from being decided, I'm "un"decided.

For a writer, there's nothing worse that not knowing what to write, whether it's the next line in a story or even not having a story to write. With five more letters to go, though, I can't give up. So close to the end now and, while it's started to get difficult, I'm still enjoying it. I guess it wouldn't be called a challenge if it was going to be easy, now would it?

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

T is for Tea

I love a cup of tea. Nice and strong, bag left in the cup for a good couple of minutes, just a dash of milk. That's if I'm not having an Earl Grey - the method's much the same, but no milk required. A slice of lemon if I'm feeling particularly aristocratic, but I've only ever done that a couple of times - why spoil a good thing?

There are, of course, those who would disagree with me. Coffee drinkers, possibly. Now, I like coffee too, but if I had to decide, tea would win hands down. Apart from the standard fare - usually an Assam blend of some sort - and an Earl Grey, I've tried various others. The only one I couldn't get away with was Lapsang Souchong, which was like drinking smoke. I offered a cup to a friend a few years ago, and he put milk in it. The result was like something from a mad scientist's lab, Mr Hyde's drink of choice.

If I get stuck when writing, the simple act of making a brew helps. Tea's a drink I associate with creating stories, as if it's a potent elixir that cures writer's block. I've read that doing simple chores can help relax the mind, so maybe boiling the kettle  and preparing the cup does the same, allowing ideas to take fruition.

Much has been discussed over a cup of tea. If there were troubles when I was younger, it would be a trip to the pub for a couple of pints; now it's having a cuppa while the world is put to rights. Probably with a ginger biscuit or two (or three!) to be dunked.

This post was written on an entirely random subject, but it goes to show the prupose of the A to Z Challenge. You can write a couple of hundred words about anything that comes to mind, even something as vague as this. I'm off to finish my cup of tea now - let's hope it gives me some inspiration for U...

Monday, 22 April 2013

S is for Sacrifice

In life, we all make sacrifices to varying degrees. It may as simple as giving up something because we cannot afford to do it any more, or as life-changing as relocating far from home for work or to be with a loved one. In films, a sacrifice is often one character jumping in front of a bullet to save another's life, or diving onto a grenade to save the team. They're extreme examples from action movies, but they're the most visual, the former often in slow motion with a slurred "nooooooo!" to emphasise the fact.

Truth, though, is often more amazing than fiction. Take this story I read about recently...

In July 1941, a prisoner escaped from an Auschwitz work party. This man was never found, so ten other prisoners were selected to starve to death in reprisal. One of these men was Francis Gajowniczek, a family man. A priest, Father Maximillian Kolbe, stepped forward and offered to take his place. Father Kolbe was the last of the ten to die, as if he had survived to help the others through to their deaths.

One of my favourite expressions can be paraphrased as "evil only prevails when good men do nothing". I suppose it could also be said that light shines brigher in the deeper darkness. In the wake of terrible scenes over the last week, it's easy to wonder about our humanity. Yet we also need to remember the good things, the sacrifices - large or small - that people make every day. It's the villians and extremists that make the headlines, meaning the heroes are all too often sadly forgotten about.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

R is for Rejection

Rejection, the writer's least-favourite word. It means a letter in the post, or an email, saying the agent or publisher doesn't consider your story or novel worthy of publication. Reading between the lines, that correspondence is telling you that you're writing isn't good, your characters are weak, your plot is paper thin; it asks why you've even bothered.

That's not true, of course. It can feel that way; it certainly did when I sent my first short story to a magazine over twenty years ago. Looking at that letter now, it's kindly written and offers solutions to what the reader thought were the problems. Back then, it made me give up and - two decades on - that story's still in the same plastic folder gathering dust. A couple of years after sending it away that first time, my mum asked why I hadn't done what the reader had suggested. I had no answer, no logical one at least, and all I could do was shrug my shoulders.

My latest short story - an urban fantasy set in 1960's Paris - has been rejected twice. Rather than give up on it, I've actually been encouraged by the comments. The first suggested it could be expanded into novella length or beyond, while the second felt sure that, although the story was not for them, I shouldn't have trouble finding a home for it in the future. Kindly written, just like that one twenty years ago, only now I'm mature enough to see that.

I've written before saying that courage is about facing fears rather than not having them in the first place, and fear of rejection can stop a person doing many things. We've got to take chances in life, have that courage to do what we believe, have the strength to carry on no matter what people think. Don't give up; keep going, and eventually there will be success.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Q is for Q

Two fictional universes have a character known as Q.

The first appears in James Bond, the Quartermaster originally known as Major Boothroyd. He supplies 007 with gadgets, weapons and vehicles of varying plausibility, often irritated by Mr Bond's flippant attitude. Q was played in most of the films by Desmond Llewelyn, who will be synonomous with the character for almost all long-time Bond fans.

The second is from Star Trek, appearing in the first episode of The Next Generation. Played by John DeLancie (who, incidentally, my good lady believes is a dead ringer for the man who lives across the street: I can't see it myself...), this Q is an all-powerful being who can manipluate time and space. Being all-powerful, he uses his abilities to wreak havok and generally annoy people. So annoying, in fact, that a character who ran off with him in TNG appeared in Deep Space Nine (I know, I talk about it a lot because it's on TV every weekday at the moment) attempting to get away from him. Hilarity (sometimes) ensues.

I used to joke about what would happen if the two Q's swapped places. Bond films would be considerably shorter - "007, we have discovered there is a double agent in our midst, we need you to... oh, don't bother. Q's already sorted it." - while Star Trek would be blessed with a kindly, sometimes frustrated, old man - "Pay attention, Captain Picard."

Finally, back on the subject of DS9, Q is also for Quark. He's my second favourite character in the Star Trek universe, after Doctor McCoy. I was going to post extolling his virtues, but I'll save that for another time, as I'm sure I'll go on a bit...

Thursday, 18 April 2013

P is for Posts

I didn't expect to get this far, to be honest. Yet, here it is, my sixteenth post in the A To Z Challenge. Statistically, that's twice as many this month so far than in the almost two years preceding it since this blog was created. Sounds good, but it really means I've been poor at posting in the past.

I was going to stop blogging before I'd heard about the challenge (ha! I practically already had!). It wasn't that I didn't have anything to say, just didn't feel I had the time to say it. I do, of course, as this month is proving; it's just a case of getting my backside in the chair and fingers to the keys. Posts don't have to be a work of art (at five thirty in the morning, this one certainly isn't!) - they're not getting sent to a critic for review - but they're a great way for people to express themselves, comment on what they like.

Looking back over my A to Z posts so far, there doesn't seem to be one common theme. I write about TV shows old and new, writing and reading, my cat - I even attempt poetry, something which I've never done before. I'm not breaking new ground, but I am sharing my thoughts and opinions, which was the purpose of creating my blog. "Musings on writing, reading and life" it says; I guess that's about right.

It's funny, as there have been times when I've set out to write about one thing and ended up going on about another. This one was originally going to be about Person Of Interest, currently one of my favourite TV shows at the moment, but I'm sure I'll go into that in greater detail in the future. While I won't blog every day, I plan to post once a week after the challenge - no more Procrastinating (another P I considered), as it's doing so that has meant only eight posts in twenty or so months.

What began with such good intentions has withered and almost died, but now it's back. I'm glad I've Persevered (again...), possibly I thought I had to be witty or profound, deep and meaningful with each post, but I'm finding that I'm enjoying writing words that come from the heart. I doubt I'll change the world, but if I can raise a smile or cause a nod of agreement, I'll be happy.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

O is for Origin

Every superhero has an origin story. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider that turned him into Spiderman; Kal-El was sent to Earth from a dying planet and became Superman; Bruce Wayne vowed vengeance when his parents were killed, and years later the Batman was born.

Back in my teens, the heyday of my comic-book reading, one of my favourite superheroes was Wolverine. He was one of the Uncanny X-Men, a team of mutants who, under the wing of Professor Charles Xavier, fought the bad guys on a regular basis. Wolverine remains a popular character, judging by the relaive success of the films and many comics that bear his name, but back then he was a bit of a mystery.

Was Logan his real name? Who had laced his bones with Adamantium? He was known as Weapon X, but what did that mean? All these questions have no doubt been answered by now, the character given a definitive origin story, but in his case is it really necessary to reveal all? I liked that he was this man of mystery, the secrets of his past merely hinted at, drip fed for the discerning reader to piece together.

That said, there's great benefit to telling the origin story. Not only does it give us an insight into the motivations of heroes - "Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot," says Bruce Wayne, "I shall become a bat!" - but also villains. Take Magneto for instance, who as a small boy suffered under the atrocities of Nazi Germany. Knowing this, we can understand the reasons for his actions; it gives the character depth, almost making him into an anti-hero rather than straightforward villain, and helps to ask the question "what would I do if I was him?". Magneto goes about things the wrong way - he is a villain, after all - but his goals are understandable given his past.

Done well, an origin story can be superb. Take Doctor Who and Genesis of the Daleks, in which we're shown how the Daleks were created; it's one of the finest stories in the show's entire 50 year run, producing many fine moments of drama, depth and emotion. On the other hand, there's the second series of Heroes; what started so brilliantly now becomes a convoluted mess as bad guys are revealed to be the brothers of good guys (or were they? Do you know, in all the chaos I really can't remember) and a conspiracy unfolds to epic proportions.

I'm worried about Doctor Who. Showrunner Steven Moffat has promised that, in this the fiftieth year of the show, the Doctor's biggest secret will be revealed. Given that he asks "Doctor Who?" a lot these days, I suspect we'll get to know the Doctor's real name. Question is, do we really need to? Isn't it enough that he's a renegade Time Lord who shunned his society to go on the run? I'm concerned we'll get to know too much of why the Doctor left Gallifrey (I have a horrible suspicion he'll turn out to be Rassilon) and - like the creation of Darth Vader - it's something that's best left to our own fertile imaginations. Then again, we were never shown a regeneration as the start of the 'new' who, so could there be another Doctor between McGann and Eccleston, so could there be someone else in between that we don't know about? All pure speculation, of course, but that's the beauty of not knowing - we can theorise to our hearts content; it gives us something to talk about, other than having a like/dislike opinion.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

N is for Noon

Twenty years ago, a book came onto the sci-fi scene, a novel by a new writer called Jeff Noon. That book was Vurt, a hallucinogenic trip into a surreal near future in the North of England. The location alone was enough to catch my eye, and Vurt looked like the kind of bizarre sci-fi I like, so I took a chance and bought it. Vurt's a brilliant book - great story, great characters - one of my few re-reads over the years, but most of all it's superbly written. It may not be to everyone's taste, as it can be disturbing in places, but I'd recommend it to everyone who likes a daring, intelligent read.

All, of course, thanks to Mr Noon. His writing grabs us from the first line, plunging us deep into his creation. Not only does his prose make us see, it makes us taste and smell too, a treat for all the reader's senses and we're submerged into a rich and vibrant world. We're allowed to come up for air, but only when we need it; the world isn't revealed to us in page-length infodumps, but slowly through the eyes of the narrator, making the reader think and wonder, continue through the pages in the quest to know more.

Vurt's an astonishing debut, the perfect introduction to Noon's talent and imagination. His love of langauge is obvious - he plays with it constantly, massaging rather than manipulating - and this continues throught his other works. His tribute to Lewis Carroll, Automated Alice, is sublime, while Cobralingus may be too experimental for some but remains a deft treatise on the formation of both prose and poetry. He's a notable presence on Twitter, too - a format that feels designed especially for his talents in mind - using his tweets to tell tales. I once replied to a tweet of his, to get a quick response in turn that had me in awe.

Vurt's been re-released this year as a 20th Anniversary Edition. Noon's a novelist that deserves to be recognised alongside the likes of Philip K Dick and William Gibson, so let's hope it gets a whole new generation interested in his work. I've always felt he hasn't been given the recognition he deserves, that his debut is a forgotten classic of the genre. Noon's never been away, but it's good to have him back.

Monday, 15 April 2013

M is for Midnight (And Me)

Two and a half years ago, my better half persuaded me that getting a cat would be a good thing. I shrugged and said ok; it made sense, as I was away during the week with work, and it would be company for her if nothing else.

Thus Midnight came into our lives, a little black cat that reminded us of the chat noir posters from Paris, where we'd spent my previous birthday. On her second day in our home, while I was away, Midnight vanished. She was found hiding behind the fire - somehow she'd clambered into its innards and got stuck in the chimney - the gas man had to be called out to dismantle the fire so she could be rescued. Not the most auspicious of beginnings...

When I came home that week, there was a timid little ball of fur hiding in the corner. She came out eventually, but it was clear that Tracey was Midnight's favourite; understandable, considering I wasn't around most of the week. I cared about her, but wondered if I meant anything to this cat at all - aren't they just sly, devious creatures out for themselves?

Six months or so later, I went into work after a week's holiday, only to be told I was being made reudndant. A package was offered, accepted, and off I went. I was understandably upset when I got home. I plonked myself onto the sofa and tried to tell myself that everything was going to be all right, although - that early into the shock - it certainly didn't feel that way.

While I was there, Midnight jumped onto the sofa. I expected her to sit next to me and curl up to sleep, but instead she decided to sit on my chest and look me in the eye, as if to tell me not to worry. She purred, a paw brushing gently against my cheek, like she was trying to soothe me. From that moment, I felt better, able to take whatever the world decided to throw at us; from that moment, I realised how much I adored Midnight.

She was company, all right, but mostly for me in the three months I spent looking for work. I could talk to her, even if she couldn't understand a word I was saying. I could laugh at her antics in the garden as she tried to chase anything that moved. I still do. Midnight's a source of laugher in our home, but for all the right reasons. Buried in all that feline nature is a little soul that we love and care for. She's our little ninja, someone who can sit on my knee and watch me while I type, as if she knows exactly what I'm writing about...

One last thing. I've never been a cat person, but I'm a Midnight person, up to the point where I named this blog after her. I was struggling for a title when she jumped on the table, turned around a presented her rear end to me. 'The Pencil Sharpener' was already taken, and so 'A Flash of Midnight' was born.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

L Is for Legend

Legend, by David Gemmell is one of my all-time favourite books, one of a select few that I've re-read over the years, yet I can tell you exactly where I was when I read it for the first time (on loan from the library, I took it with me on a sixth-form trip to Guisborough, along with a copy of Mad magazine that spoofed Aliens). Paradoxically, it's far from being the best book I've ever read; the writing can be clumsy in places (allowable for a first -time author, I'd say) and his characterisation of women is suspect, but at its heart Legend is a tale about defeating the odds, how bravery and courage can triumph in the face of adversity.

Like most of Gemmell's books, his heroes are reluctant and sometimes afraid, often unwilling to do what is right simply because it is less daunting to do nothing. Courage isn't about being fearless, it's about overcoming that fear, doing what you have to despite being scared. This is a theme that echoes through most of Gemmell's works, one that struck a chord with my younger self. There's a history behind the writing of it, that Gemmell first put pen to paper when he was being tested for cancer, the ending undecided until his results came through. If positive, the city under seige would fall. If not...

Legend isn't a thick, weighty tome - it can be read in a day, if you have the spare time - but its few words speak much about the nature of humanity. Gemmell would go on to write better and bigger stories (his Troy trilogy is superb), but Legend is the book where is all began. As I say, it's not perfect, but it will stay in my mind always. David Gemmell died in 2006, but remains with us through the stories he shared, still providing inspiration for years after his passing.

Friday, 12 April 2013

K is for Klingon

The Klingons have come a long way in the Star Trek universe, starting off in the early days of Captain Kirk as sweaty-looking men with fake tan and stuck on goatee beards. The greater budgets and improvement in special effects made them more alien, with lump bumpy foreheads, pointed teeth and lots of hair, beard optional. This carried forward into the later TV series, and the Klingons have looked that way ever since.

But it's not their appearance that shows the best improvement. Klingons have moved from being sly traders to bloodthirsty warriors to beings with deep honour and loyalty. Next Generation brought this to the fore by having a Klingon officer - Worf - on board, allowing for stories where the race took centre stage, revealing their society and moral code, as well as using them  for great plot devices.

For me, the Klingons truly came into their own on Deep Space Nine. Early series portray them as violent and unpredictable, to be approached with caution - on occassion merely for comedy effect. Then Worf arrives to join the crew, and everything changes. Worf was brought in to gain viewer ratings, but it was a masterstroke. The series became darker, grittier, more real (as much as show dealing with a space-station next to a wormhole can be) as war with the Dominion loomed.

More Klingons arrived, becoming regular guest stars as the conflict began, allying themselves with the Federation. Our fearsome warriors were back, but noticeably improved. How? Well, great acting aside, the Klingons were now about who they were, not what they were. Next Generation planted wonderful seeds for this, but it all came to fruition in Deep Space Nine, with sublime results. Stereotypes became characters for the viewer to care about and Worf's shout of "I am a Klingon!" now meant something more than "watch out, I'm big and tough".

Obvious limitations mean that Star Trek's aliens all tend to be bipedal and humanoid in essence - great writing and acting shapes them into people we care about. We'll not only enjoy their company, but mourn their passing when they're gone.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

J is for Justice League

Back in the autumn/winter of 1988/89, I'd narrowly failed my A-levels, which meant I couldn't walk my chosen path to further education. Re-sits didn't seem like an option, so I joined the ranks of the unemployed for those few cold months.Don't get me wrong, life was good - my parents were still together, I had great friends who I saw almost every day, it was just that life wasn't going how I'd expected.

I devoured comics in my late teens. They were 45p each and regularly filled shelf space at the local supermarket, but if you went into town, a shop called Timeslip sold them for 55p; a worthy increase, considering they were the latest issues, fresh from the States. I started with Marvel (The New Mutants), but moved onto DC after enjoying the role-playing game immensely. It was a good time for comics, what with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns bringing them into the public eye. They were - at least the ones I bought - well-written and beautifully drawn; in a couple of years time, it would all be about the art, pushing story to one side, but that's a discussion for another day.

Anyway, one of the comics I started reading was Justice League International. It was a strange one, almost as if it was telling us what superheroes did on their days off, when they weren't doing what the others were doing in their own comics. Sure, the day was saved plenty of times and in true comic-book style, but what really worked for me was the interaction between the characters and their humour. It's slapstick in places, yet there are times when it can be deeply moving too, all thanks to top-notch writing from Giffen and DeMatteis.

What I really admired about it was the characterisation. This wan't just Batman and a few other heroes, this was a team where each individual mattered - they were more than their powers, they drove the stories, making the comic so much more than bog-standard 'who is the bad guy this issue' fare. Sadly, all good things come to an end. The Justice League have had several incarnations since, but I've never tried them; perhaps I'm missing out, but I just can't imagine it having the same effect on me as it did back then.

Inevitably, there's a movie on the cards, following the success of Marvel's Avengers Assemble. That was a great film, although it was disappointing that - at the climax - Black Widow and Hawkeye were reduced to getting people out of a bus while all the other god-like characters were involved in a huge battle. The Justice League movie can work, providing the emphasis is - like most of the Avengers - on character rather than spectacle. I've a suspicion it'll be more latter than former, but you never know, they may do it err... justice.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

I is for Impasse

Today's been a struggle, for the first time since starting the A To Z Challenge. I've started on several topics, ranging from Ithaca to Indiana (Jones, that is) to Imagination (which will, according to 80's singer Belouis Some, make a man of you) - but only got as far as a sentence on each before stalling. There. I'm ahead already.

The dictionary defines an impasse as 'a situation with no possible progress or escape'. Well, it certainly felt that way this morning: I powered on the laptop as usual, sat in front of it, ready to regale everyone with my shining wit, then... nothing. Just a few words, barely strung together, the start with a capital letter and the end with a full stop (English) or period (American) were all that made it a coherent sentence. I washed breakfast dishes, hoping that a routine chore like that would cure this block, but nothing. The glasses and cups were nice and shiny though.

Normally when this happens, I make myself sit at the desk until I write something - anything! - but I didn't have that luxury today as I had to go to work. Ten or so hours later, I was still no further forward - I'd reached my impasse.

So I've decided to write about it, and in doing so, I've got through it. So, I suppose the moral is to keep going, to keep writing; even when you think you can't, you actually can, but it sometimes takes time and defintely needs effort. And, in my case, several cups of tea.

As for Indiana Jones... well, that Map Room scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark sends chills up my spine every time.

Ithaca is a lovely island just off the coast of Kefalona. I visited there on a misty morning a few years ago, the land shrouded by fog making me think of Odysseus returning home - my Imagination at work.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

H is for Haiku

Haiku poems date from 9th century Japan, containing three lines with a 5-7-5 syllable structure. They often comment on the deeper contradictions of life, but I doubt mine will be so meaningful, as it's about Doctor Who.

TARDIS console halts
Time Lord beckons Companion
Adventure waits here

I doubt I'm setting the poetry world on fire with that one, or this next.

Church bells ring their call
Faithful meet on this Sunday
Love in hearts shines forth

Lord Byron's got nothing to worry about, I'm sure, but I quite enjoyed doing those. I wrote in a previous post about omitting needless words, but with this form of poetry, it's all about choosing the right words in the first place. Reading those over, the words 'church' and 'forth' sound right, but part of me wants to think they could be broken down into two syllables, which defies the Haiku form. Nah, I'll stick with it - that's the first big decision of today made!

Monday, 8 April 2013

G is for Ghost Story

I'm no M.R. James, but what follows is a true story. Make of it what you will...

Twelve or thirteen years ago, I was sat at my computer desk in the spare bedroom, when the world exploded. Well, not quite; truth is it was a plastic bottle of lemonade that blew up, a bottle on top of the fridge that ended up running down the back of  that particular appliance and shorting out the entire electric system of the flat I lived in, plunging me into darkness less than a second after the noise. Quite a shock, I can tell you. But more was to come...

In bed that same night, fast asleep, only to be woken by a crashing sound within the bedroom. Intruder, was my first thought, and as I opened my eyes a shadowy figure passed across the foot of the bed, a shape wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a long coat, pausing to turn and regard me. Seeing this sight, I did what any red-blooded male would have done - I screamed. Not a high-pitched, shrill scream from a horror film, more a deep and primal cry of terror from the dawn of time. Whatever that scream did - woke me up? - the figure disappeared. I laughed, feeling like a fool, but it was the laughter of relief; so relieved, in fact, that I was crying. Dawn arrived the next morning, revealing that the long mirror had fallen from the wall, yet was unbroken...

The bottle went back to the shop, who in turn sent it back to the manufacturer. Turns out the bottle had burst at the centre of its bottom, supposedly the strongest part. A trip to Edinburgh and a chat with a white warlock the day after Beltane (yes, really), revealed that mirrors are thought of as potential gateways to the spirit world. Did something come through, or was I simply dreaming, my subconscious dwelling on the shock of that exploding bottle? All I know is, real or dream, I saw it and it scared the living daylights out of me... (cue A-Ha)

Saturday, 6 April 2013

F is for Fantasy

Don't get too excited, I'm talking about the fantasy that contains wizards and dragons and elves rather than silk and stockings and suchlike. Still here? Good.

Fantasy is my reading genre of choice, but that hasn't always been the case. I read much of it in my teenage years, then suddenly became bored with it. It may have been a case of overdosing, but all the stories began to feel the same: a youngster with a hidden past is really the son of a god/wizard/mighty warrior; his powers are nurtured through the course of the trilogy (for three is the magic number) by a wise old mentor in preparation for a final conflict with the utterly vile villian; the stakes are the world as we know it, nothing will be the same if the dark lord wins, etc etc etc.

Now that's a crass interpretation of fantasy, the bones its detractors often pick through, but that's genuinely the way I thought. I've always enjoyed fanatsy role-playing games, but that was due to being part of a great set of players, having adventures told by gifted games-masters. The books, though; all filled with cliche, right?

Not quite. I read little fantasy between 1993 and 2006, dipping into the odd David Gemmell now and again just for old times' sake, but nothing really gripped me. Then, two writers came along that changed my view of Fantasy - Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch. I recommended the former to a friend, based on reviews I'd seen in a magazine, and he loved it. Borrowing his copy, I loved it too; here was something fresh, exciting, vibrant, all those kind of adjectives. Characters were shades of grey, rather than black and white, there was no magic 'get out of jail free' items or spells.

While my friend went for Abercrombie, I tried Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora and was equally impressed. the titular character is a scoundrel and a rogue, but sympathetic and amusing. His is a tale well told - even more so, I think, in the sequel Red Seas Under Red Skies - in a well-realised world.

Other writers have since came along, expanding the genre with fresh ideas as well as interesting twists on the usual tropes. The same could have been happening in my wilderness years, I'm sure, but it's only in the last few where the ante feels to have been upped. We're seeing fantasy novels on the best of best-seller lists, with fresh talent emerging, all inspired by those who have gone before them. It's a good time for the genre (in part due to the success of certain movies and TV shows), and therefore a good time for the reader. If you haven't read any or, like me, gave up on it for a while, why not pick one up and let yourself be transported to a new world?

Friday, 5 April 2013

E is for Empathy

The dictionary defines empathy as "the ability to share and understand another person's feelings". For me, successful fiction in any medium depends on the viewer/reader/listener to be able to have empathy with the main character. That doesn't mean we have to agree with what that character does or believes, but we must understand why he does it.

Take Dexter, for example; he's a serial killer, yet somehow he's the hero of the series - it's about him, his motivations, his need to control what he calls his dark passenger - and while we can't condone his actions, we can at least understand why he does them. We empathise with him so much, that when he's being chased by the police we don't want him to be caught. It's a clever switch, cheering for 'villain' rather than 'hero' (shouldn't we always want the police to catch the killer?), one of the reasons the character, and therefore the series, works so well.

Villains need to be the same, too. All too often, evil megalomaniacs want to take over the world simply because it's there and they are, err... evil megalomaniacs. Examples of this can be seen in bad Fantasy novels, where a sinister unseen dark lord presides over death and destruction simply because that seems to be his job, or he was born to do it. Good Fantasy (I'm looking at you, George RR Martin) gives the villain motivation for the lust for power, a full background that help the reader understand the character's choice of actions. In some cases (I'm looking at you, George RR Martin) the reader can even feel sympathy for the character and maybe, just maybe, have their opinion of that character turned around.

E was going to be about Early, the time I've been getting out of bed to write this blog, but I can summarise this in just a sentence. It helps to write first thing in the morning, when the mind is less clouded by the events of the day, or wearied by a busy day at work. Once it's done, it's done. (ok, that was two sentences - does this make it three? - but I'm sure you get my meaning).

Thursday, 4 April 2013

D is for Doctor

Not Doctor Who - I'm sure there'll be plenty of entries to come about my favourite TV show - but rather Doctor Leonard 'Bones' McCoy from Star Trek.

I have fond memories of the original series, shown many times on BBC2, back in the day when there were only the three TV channels that later became four. Most of them come from my early teens, when it was shown as six o-clock on a Thursday night. I'd watch it with my dad (my mum, a part-time nurse, worked evenings on a Thursday), then change the channel for Top of the Pops and Tomorrow's World.

Anyway, of the three main characters in Star Trek, Doctor McCoy was, and remains, my favourite. Captain Kirk is the hero, of course, leading his crew boldly where no man has gone before. He's great, but there's something a bit too larger-than-life about him. Of course, heroes have to be this way to drive a story with their actions, so that's never been a problem. And, as we're talking about interstellar exploration here, it's fitting that Kirk is as such.

I've always felt that Spock and McCoy acted as two sides of Kirk's conscience. In the Vulcan, Kirk has rationality and logic, in McCoy there is compassion - one represents science, the other humanity. There was always an 'everyman' aura about DeForest Kelley's performance; despite being in space, McCoy held on to his down-to-earth values, never losing sight of what he and his profession represented. He was fallible - Spock would blame his emotions for this - but every hero should be.

In the new films, Karl Urban plays Bones with a voice and mannerisms that are a tribute to Kelley's earlier performances, rather than a crass imitation of them. He's still the same McCoy though; a bit gruff and grouchy, but with a heart of gold. McCoy's the hero we all could be, the man who'd rather not be there, but will stand by his friends no matter what..

Star Trek has often been derided, but it's easy to pick apart something that's been going for nigh on 50 years, to laugh at primitive effects and dialogue that can be clunky, but watching it again years later, I can help but have a respect for it. The series worked because it had great characters involved in great stories, the triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy who were the best of friends.

My favourite quote about Doctor McCoy comes from the Deep Space Nine episode Trials and Tribble-ations. The crew have travelled back to the time of the original series, and Dax recognises him as 'Leonard', recalling with a knowing smile that he 'had the hands of a surgeon'. (Or something along those lines - look it up, watch it if you can.)

And remember. He's a Doctor, not a {insert occupation here}.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

C is for Concise

C may also be for controversial, as I put forward the following theory.

I'm not being sexist, or making sweeping assumptions, I don't intend to offend anyone (ok, enough disclaimers, get on with it!) but it's been my experience that men are more concise than women. A gent may say "I went shopping for brown shoes yesterday, couldn't get any so I bought black instead", while a lady may go into detail about which shops she visited, which shoes she tried on, etc. Not a bad thing (the woman's version is obviously painting a fuller picture, telling a more detailed story), just one of the differences I've noticed between lads and lasses. I'm sure it can be the other way round, too.

So, where's this going? Well, one of my favourite books on writing is Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, recommended by Stephen King in his brilliant On Writing, which is my other favourite book. Not only does it tell you where an apostrophe should slip in and how to un-split infinitives (that's the crew of the Enterprise going boldy, then...), but it also has the best advice I've ever been given when it comes to writing and editing, all about being concise (which I originally intended to be with this post). That advice?

Omit needless words.

Nuff said.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

B is for Book

Books. Where would I be without them?

Ever since I can recall, I've been a voracious reader. One of my earliest memories is getting a Noggin The Nog book from my local children's library, and my mum is always proud of the fact that I used to read the newspaper to my grandad when he'd left his glasses at home. I can always seem to find solace in a library or bookshop, away from the madness of crowded streets and in-your-face consumerism.

I keep a list of books I've read each year, and when I look back, I can recall certain moments, where I was when I read it, even feelings. Those read abroad are few and far between, but always memorable. Yet, for some reason, I can't bring myself to purchase an e-reader. I know the benefits - there can't be a person who uses the internet that isn't aware of how light they are, how small and portable, even how much better they are for the environment, but I can't take myself away from a book.

Why? Well, for starters it's the whole tactile naure of a book. You hold it, feel it's weight in your hands, turn the page. Bend the spine if you want, by all means, but I like to keep mine as neat as possible; whatever I'm reading may find its way onto my 'keeper' shelves, become a book that I may return to in years to come. Those shelves aren't as big as they used to be, for I would hold onto everything I read, but now the local charity shop or friends or family benefit instead. On the other side of that, there's something wonderful about browsing a second-hand bookshop to find the exact book you're looking for, or one you'd read years ago, re-appearing like an old friend.

Covers, too. Bright and vivid - gaudy, even - yet they serve their purpose and attract potential readers like moths to a flame. Just as you shouldn't judge a person by how they look, you shouldn't judge a book by the cover, but both inevitably happen; there's something incredibly eyecatching about a table full of books waiting to be picked up, the pages flicked through, the author's writing analysed and judgement made based on that first page. I'm old-fashioned, I know, a veritable Luddite, but books don't have to be plugged in to charge, they don't crash, their batteries won't run out on you when you're just about to find that the killer is...

Yet, here I am, blogging, moving with the times. I'll get an e-reader one day, it's inevitable, but I'll still purchase a physical book now and again. Even ordering on-line, there's still that great feeling when it drops through the letterbox, that anticipation during the three-day-or-so wait for it to arrive. Strangely, I'd miss that, although the thought of something arriving instantly is very appealing.

So, I'll end up walking the line between both one day, a happy medium. As long as I'm reading, that's the main thing. I guess a book is still a book regardless of format, it's still someone telling a story, painting pictures with letters and words. In the end, isn't that all that matters?

Monday, 1 April 2013

A is for Absence...

Namely, mine.

It's been a while since I last wrote anything on here, far too long. Some time ago I likened a gap between posts as dusting off an old book from a shelf - now, it's more like hiring an intrepid archaeologist to find a lost relic. I have no excuses, there's plenty I could be ranting about, but the longer the gap, the more reluctant I seem to have become.

I haven't been sitting on my hands all these months, though. I've been writing every day, and I've completed the first draft of my second novel (hand-written, I call it Draft Zero) as well as a short story, with another short soon to following. But the blog's been neglected, which galls me somewhat. Why create something, only to put it to one side? I did enough of that with the stories I wrote in my twenties.

So, in true Alister (also beginning with A) fashion of not doing things by halves, I've signed up for the A to Z Blog Challenge. This basically means I have to write a blog EVERY DAY throughout April (except Sundays), working my way through the alphabet as I go. Simple, eh?

Knowing me, I might only make it to J or K, but it's better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all, right? This is not an April (that A again) Fool, this is me setting myself a real challenge. The blog will be written on the day, possibly mere minutes after I've got out of bed (as this seems to have become my ideal writing time), so may prove to be utter nonsense rather than intellectual gold.

So, absent no longer. A is also for active. See you tomorrow.