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Beautiful

I love books.

I realised this today while I was looking at this, my ‘To Read’ pile.

I’m talking about the love of books here. Not stories, or novels. Books. You know, those things on that shelf there (except There Will Be Blood, that’s a DVD), that you pick up and open and there are words written inside?

I can’t be doing with reading stories on an e-reader like the Kindle, or on an iPad. I don’t really want this blog post to be a point by point argument on why I prefer actual stories in physical or digital form, because the entire argument can be boiled down to one simple sentence.

I fucking love books.

Oh, I’ve already said that? Here’s why:

Books are sold in bookstores. Now, I’m not saying I don’t buy books online, I often do – partly because they can be quite a bit cheaper. But I also buy books in their natural habitat, the bookstores. Even when I don’t buy a book from a bookstore, I absolutely love spending time in them. From Waterstones, Smiths and Borders, to odd, pokey little independent bookcaves. I love them, I can spend ages in them browsing about, picking up random books, flicking through them, feeling them in my hand, checking the first line, chatting with other people and the staff about books, buying a book and sitting in the accompanying coffee shop and starting to read it.

I really don’t like the idea reading words from a cold, shining screen, holding a hunk of metal and plastic between my hands. Okay, some of the designs of e-reading devices are quite cool and aesthetically pleasing, but they are all (even the iPad) ugly pieces of shit compared with any book you care to mention. Books are beautiful things, often fronted with incredible covers that are works of art in themselves. The paper on which the words of the story are printed feel tactile between your fingers as you turn each page, like a connection between the reader and the story, between the reader and the writer. This is a rubbish analogy, but it’s like that hair/tail syncing thing tha Na’vi do in Avatar. A bit. You know what I mean.

Plus, books are meant not only to be read but to be collected.

This isn’t all the books I have, but it’s some of them. They have become a literal part of my room, a part of me. All these different books on these shelves represent part of who I am, or who I was when I bought them. There’s softback and hardback, fiction and non-fiction, reference books, graphic novels and comics, sci-fi and fantasy, horror, some classics, some books I haven’t even read yet! And a whole load of other stuff that makes up these shelves: notebooks, my Rubik’s Cube, various figurines (including Starscream, Will Shakespeare and the Buddy Christ), and random things like the t-shirt tube from UT in Tokyo filled with Yen. These things mean the world to me, as do the books.

The photos in this post are of me, essentially.

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24 hours unplugged. No Internet, no phone, no TV. Here’s what I did, and thought, on my digital fast.

I didn’t finish work on Saturday night until after the fast had started at midnight. When I get in from work, especially after being there all day, it is normally automatic for me to walk into my room and fire up the laptop, even as I am dumping my bag and taking off my coat sometimes, especially when it’s late. I’ll jump onto the Internet, and check my various inputs of information – Twitter, Facebook, emails and feeds – to see if any interesting has been going on, and I’ll jump on Skype to talk to a certain someone and usually gripe about how work’s been shitty, and generally chit chat while I wind down from work before bed.

NOT doing that on Saturday night was admittedly very odd. Not as odd as it might have been, due to the fact that I had finished a longer shift than normal (over 13 hours, in fact). It had been ridiculously busy, and I was absolutely shattered. So, in contrast to my normal desire to chill and wind down before bed, I was ready to just crash and sleep. Which I did.

Waking up I did reach over to my phone, as I would normally, but of course it was off, and I remembered what day it was. Digital exile! Was weird, again, not to turn on my laptop as soon as I woke up. Which really emphasised to me how automatic it has become to use these toys/tools that we have at our disposal. Mobile phone and computer use, connected to the whole world through those devices, is now natural and automatic. It is part of who we are, this generation, pretty much digital natives. Our children certainly will be. This isn’t wrong or bad, of course, but not connecting, after the initial shock (‘shock’ is perhaps too dramatic…) it felt liberating.

After breakfast I went for a run, something I haven’t done in ages. I couldn’t run as far or as fast as I could when I was running regularly, but I didn’t really suffer either. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, enjoyable simply for the fact that I would normally be at work at that time, and the run was great. I’ll be running again tomorrow – this was the kick start I needed back into regular running.

After helping out in the garden with my family, and having lunch with them, I sat down to read some of Matter. It was one of those moments where you only plan on reading a little bit (I was planning to settle down in the evening to finish the book) but the final section of the novel was so gripping that I just gobbled it up, and before I knew it I had finished. I also (later in the day) read the first issue of the comic Turf that has just come out. It has been written by Jonathan Ross, for whom writing a comic is clearly a dream come true. It shows – the comic (concerning gangsters, vampires and aliens in the Prohibition era, no less…!) is fun, fast-paced and well-written. And the artwork, drawn by comic-book artist Tommy Lee Edwards, is gorgeous.

Late afternoon I drove to the beach, to get some fresh air and to do some writing in my Moleskine. There were quite a few people at the beach, and lots of dogs (which I always enjoy watching), and it was fun to have a bit of a walk and take it all in. When I left to go to the beach I had gone to put my phone in my bag. It was a rather nice feeling to be able to leave it at home. After skimming some stones I sat down to write, but instead of StairJumpers I ended up starting a short story inspired by the day itself – of being ‘plugged in’ and of disconnecting from that for a short time. It is science fiction, and is turning out rather personal but a little self-indulgent. I’ll see what I think when it’s finished – you may see it posted here.

Sitting on the beach, I felt the desire to tweet about it. This feeling has become natural to me, completely natural, and to have the feeling without the means to actual follow it through – to share something with my Followers – was slightly odd. Makes me realise how that before using Twitter I would never have had this thought. And my Mum will never have that thought, as won’t most of her friends. Just shows how quickly technology use can become natural and automatic, once you have been using it for a while.

Another similar thing that was odd was not being able to look things up quickly. My laptop is pretty much always on. Yesterday, of course, it wasn’t, so when something came up in conversation with my sister that I wanted to find out, I couldn’t! Normally I would be on Wikipedia in a flash, and know the answer to my query within minutes, seconds even. Very odd not to be able to do that. I also really missed not listening to music – something I hadn’t even thought about. I compensated a little bit by playing my guitar.

A highlight of my day was cooking dinner. I really, really enjoy cooking – but I never do it. Like with my running, I’m hoping that by taking the time to cook a proper meal from scratch yesterday will help to kick start me cooking a lot more, practicing and learning and finding out what I like to cook. Yesterday I made a Thai Green Curry, something I would never normally make. Only this morning did I think to take a picture of it (slightly too late) – wish I had done because it looked really nice. Although the smell was what really was wonderful. The smells of proper cooking really do stimulate the senses and bring food to life, something that you totally miss when you cook frozen or pre-prepared stuff. The curry was a success, and I really enjoyed making it, even if I did send everyone (including myself) into a serious coughing/laughing fit when I first threw the chillies, garlic and spring onions into the hot oil!

The evening was spent reading (Turf), writing (more on my short story, but also on StairJumpers – as I am trying to write some of it every single day after an appalling word count for March) and pissing about with Lego. I wrote an article on the importance of creating and indulging in play here, but I don’t do it as much as I should. Not having the distraction of the Internet, or TV, I dumped my blue Lego bin of bricks out onto my bed, sat down and starting playing. Here’s what I came up with (apologies for the crap picture) …

In case you can’t tell, that’s (clockwise from the top) a snake, some traffic lights, a cheetah (without spots…), a spaceship, and a cart selling flowers and toilet rolls. Driven by Totoro (thanks Melanie!). Oh and that’s Bart Simpson in the middle, there.

None of these things I really set out to make. By messing around, rooting through the bricks and trying different combinations, these things just kind of made themselves. Which is wonderful, really. Creating things is like that. My writing is often like that, especially when it is going well. Keep moving the pen or the fingers over the keyboard, and stuff happens. Characters do stuff, places and scenes appear from nowhere. Especially if you take the time to let them happen. Which was kind of part of what this whole day was about, taking time. I felt like I was moving at a bit of a slower pace, which was relaxing, liberating and calming.

I feel quite refreshed after my Digital Fast. I’d quite like to make this a regular thing, maybe once a month or so, to unplug, to disconnect. I urge you to try it too! Only when you do it do you realise how much we rely on our digital devices, and how much work we do keeping our “digital selves” going – communicating through social networking sites and portraying ourselves in an online persona through blogs and websites. So take 24 hours, just for you. Disconnect. And then reconnect revitalised, energised, and with the knowledge that you can unplug completely, even for just a little while.

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How many times do you check Twitter or Facebook in a day? In an hour? How many times do you check your phone, or log into your emails to see if you’ve got something more interesting than the latest offers from some website you bought something off once? How long do you spend slouched in front of the TV – watching nothing in particular? Friends repeats? Loose Women!?

On Sunday I’ll be taking part in Lifehack.org’s 24 Hour Digital Fast. I’ll be spending 24 hours completely free of the digital devices that take up our lives. That means none of the things in the paragraph above. No Internet, no laptop, no phone, no TV.

Of course these things are great, and in many instances vital to the busy lives that we live now. But we do (most of us, I’m sure) become too connected, checking our various sites and devices far too often. We need to disconnect every so often, and learn to be able to function without your social networking site of choice for a while. No more being a slave to your phone either. Sure, we need to be contacted sometimes, and mobile phones have become indispensable for contacting people quickly and easily when needs be. But, on Sunday, I’ll be letting mine ring. Actually, it won’t ring at all, because it will be switched off. All day.

So, what am I going to be doing all day? Well, for those of you who follow my novel-in-progress here will know that I hardly wrote anything last month. I’ll be using some of my time on Sunday to get some good writing done, written of course in my Moleskine with my Lami Safari fountain pen, given that I won’t be allowed to use my laptop. I’d love to write 2000 words on Sunday, which if I do achieve that goal will be more words in a day than I managed in the whole of March!

Also, I shall be going out for a run for the first time in quite a while. Rain or shine, I’m off out for a jog. In fact, if it is raining – bring it on. I love running in the rain. Once you get running, and start becoming a little out of breath, and you fall into a comfortable rhythm, running can be quite a zen experience, which is part of the appeal for me, besides the obvious health benefits. It can clear the mind, and having the rain battering down on you can numb your body and help disconnect the mind. As part of my Digital Fast, a run will do me the world of good.

I will be spending some time with my family too. If the weather is in fact reasonable then some sort of gardening work shall be undertaken, and I shall assist in this labour. Again, being outside, and spending time in the company of “real” people shall be thoroughly good for the soul.

After all this I shall be cooking dinner. Cooking something proper, not just moving something from the freezer into the oven. I make a mean chicken risotto (if I do say so myself) but I’ve rested on that laurel for quite a while now, and it is time to really get into proper cooking and learning the craft. So I’d like to try something new on Sunday, currently browsing through our various cookbooks (and the Internet) for something that grabs my fancy. Will blog on its success (or lack thereof)! next week.

Something else that I shall definitely indulging in on Sunday, perhaps into the evening with a big glass of red wine, will be reading. Currently I am reading Matter by Iain M. Banks, and it is just brilliant. Epic and glorious and has me completely immersed in the universe he has created in his series of novels concerning the interstellar society of The Culture.  I am getting towards the end (it’s a long book) and cannot wait to finish it.

Why don’t you join in too? I know this is short notice, and maybe you are doing something on Sunday that requires the use of digital devices and the need to be in contact with others through their use. That’s alright. But consider it, pick another day! Any day. 24 hours is a decent length of time to go when we are so used to using things like our phones and laptops, but not too long that our lives begin to suffer from our being disconnected. So, join me on Sunday?

Wish me luck in disappearing off the grid for a day. I shall blog next week and let you all know how it went.

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Nowadays, children are taught two key areas of development in primary school – Literacy and Numeracy. The latter of these, Maths, essentially, I can take or leave. Literacy though, I love. When I was at school, we learned The Three Rs. Despite only on of the three beginning with the letter R, this stood for Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. (I’m not going to explain with this is the three Rs. If you can’t work that out, well…)

Arithmetic has obviously changed into Numeracy, while Reading and Writing now come lumped together as Literacy.

Read – verb

1.to look at carefully so as to understand the meaning of (something written, printed, etc.): to read a book; to read music.

Write – verb

1.to trace or form (characters, letters, words, etc.) on the surface of some material, as with a pen, pencil, or other instrument or means; inscribe: Write your name on the board.

Simple definitions, for two of the most basic skills that we learn. Basic in their essence, but that through increased learning and knowledge and use become so much more than their dictionary definitions. We learn them at school as practical things that we need to know in order to be able to communicate and survive. But within their practicalities lie infinite magic and possibility. Without wanting to sound like a hopeless romantic (fuck it, I am a hopeless romantic…) the possibilities that reading and writing afford us, both as humankind and as individuals, are endless and mindblowing. They are perhaps as close as we will ever get to real magic.

Escape

At the moment I am reading ‘Matter’, the latest sci-fi novel by Iain M. Banks in the so-called Culture series. This is serious, hardcore, proper sci-fi stuff – and is the first of its kind I’ve read in a long time, possibly ever. I’m talking a whole new universe in scope: multiple galaxies, multi-level planets, alien species, different races, aeon’s of history, new cultures, all living and breathing within its 565 pages. Space opera. EPIC stuff. Banks is a master with his words, and manages to zoom out from the action to describe entire galaxies’ worth of history, culture and intergalactic relations, before swiftly and seemlessly focusing in again on the intimate feelings of his characters, and their actions in that moment.

I am completely lost in this world, and the feeling is wonderful. The history, culture(s), characters and multitude of places of this world are real. Just because it is fictional, doesn’t mean that it is fake. First, it is real in the mind of the author. Then, in the words he puts down on paper. Then, in the mind of anyone who reads it. Stephen King, in ‘On Writing’, describes writing as telepathy. This is what I’m talking about, in part, when I call it magic.

Create

From learning how to put together a few letters, then words, forming simple sentences, then paragraphs and longer passages and beyond, you (yes, you… any of you) can create anything. Most of you know that I’m writing a novel this year (for those of you who didn’t know that, where have you been?! Check it out here at the Duel blog). I am loving creating the world(s!) in which my story takes place, and enjoying getting my teeth into something bigger than what I normally write (though nowhere near as big as the likes of ‘Matter‘ and the sci-fi/fantasy epics of its type). Not to say writing short stories isn’t incredible fun, creating a well-crafted short story is a really satisfying experience, bringing characters and a story to life in a few thousand (or few hundred!) words is a pure joy.

Think

What goes on in our minds is anybody’s guess. Even we don’t know what is going on up there a lot of the time! Writing can magically transform our intantigble, transitory thoughts into concrete things; feelings and emotions pinned down onto the page with just a few words. Journalling and recording our thoughts and feelings is often a profound and liberating experience.

So, grab a book or grab a pen, and indulge in two of the three Rs. Perform some magic. Some real magic.

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… or Twitter Fiction, to be a little more accurate.

Twitter is a brilliant site, based around a ingenious concept. I know a lot of people just don’t “get it”, usually saying something along the lines of “It’s just like Facebook, only just the status updates bit.” Well, in essence yes, but thanks to its simplicity it is so much more than just status updates. So much more than the sum of its parts. On top of the microblogging and social networking applications of Twitter, not to mention the advertising and marketing capabilities, Twitter is a fantastic tool for a new kind of fiction.

Writing a “novel” in tight snippets of 140 characters at a time may not be the way to go about creating fiction through Twitter, however. I have tried it, at the short-lived @onefourzero, and my friend Alice began a similarly brief Twitter story. Perhaps the idea of creating a story in the traditional sense in a non-traditional format is what stopped these stories from continuing for very long.

However, there are several examples of fictional Twitter accounts, that provide an entertaining slant on the microblogging format. What these profiles have in common is a running theme, much like a novel or short story, and at least one recurring character (that of the character who is tweeting, in other words narrating the story) that ties the tweets together.

The idea here is tight writing, but loose narrative.

Partly what makes Twitter so great (for its more general uses as well as a platform for perpetual, on-going fiction) is the restriction of 140 characters to each tweet. This makes the writer focus on what needs to be said, the message that must be portrayed to the readers. In the world of fiction, while many others love to fill their prose with interesting adjectives and long, intricate descriptions) there is a major school of thought that suggests simplicity to be the way to write well. I, personally, write my stories in this way – focuses on short, simple sentences and clear, bold writing. Twitter forces you to write like this, which makes it brilliant for fiction writing.

Next, by tying these tight snippets of prose with a loose narrative (sticking to one or two themes, maybe using recurring characters, referring back to things that have happened, working towards a possible ending) it is possible to create a rather compelling story. Not one in the traditional sense, but one that exists in a kind of real time, where the reader can follow along with events as they unfold, and where they are never very far behind the author in knowing what is happening.

Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about.

@timelostbatman

Batman… lost in time. Pretty self-explanatory, but it allows for a brilliant story. This is an example of just how loose the narrative of Twitter fiction can be. There is no real plot here, simply the events that happen to the character of Batman (already an established, recognisable character) as he travels through time. The narrative theme of time-travel allows the author of this Twitter feed to play around with what Batman would do or say if he was involved with famous people and events from history, allowing the story of a superhero lost in time to develop as it goes. Yes, there is no Beginning, Middle and End, but this is still entertaining and is still fiction.

@manvszombies

I LOVE this Twitter feed. The on-going story of the last remaining man on Earth, the sole survivor of a zombie apocalypse, who tweets his accounts of the zombie-filled wasteland which constitutes the end of the world. Each tweet contains a new insight into the world as we know it, if we were all turned to brain-craving zombies, and allows its protagonist to riff on zombie movie conventions as well as producing a compelling and very funny “journal” of a man trying to survive in a zombie-filled world.

@tophattedcad

What would the Victorians make of Twitter? That is the question that someone (couldn’t possibly be this guy…) has asked, and in a rather Steampunk take on our modern technology, written up in a hilarious take on the Victorian gentleman, sharing his nefarious deeds across the Internet. The result is a very funny and entertaining story following the life of a wicked cad, who brags of his bodice-ripping conquests and moustache-twirling villainary. What’s not to love?

@Agent_Tweets


If you need help, and if you can find him (he looks just like every other pigeon out there), than maybe you can hire Detective Agent Tweets. *cue music*. He’s the pigeon PI who isn’t afraid to wade through the bird shit to find justice.

For those of you not already following @agent_tweets, this is me. A crime-fighting bird who shares his daily grind on Twitter is exactly the kind of thing that me and Rob come up with while we ramble on about bullshit. But hopefully, those of you on Twitter (and if you’re not, please give it a try…) will follow along, enjoy Agent Tweets’ hard-boiled, cynical detective work, and groan at the sure-to-be-terrible bird puns that I come up with. And please feel free to offer your help, and let him know if you have a crime to be solved. (That’s another awesome thing about fiction on Twitter, it can be interactive, with readers actually shaping the story as it progresses…)

Hope you enjoy these, but especially Agent Tweets! He has been known to shit from a great height on those who criticise his policing, so be nice.

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Nothing Much

These are two words that I say faaaaaaarrrrr too often. But I’m giving them up.

Every time, it seems, that someone asks me what I’ve been up to that day, that week, the past month, my answer is “nothing much.”

How pathetic, really. Besides my paid job (which rarely fills over 35 hours of my week), I am interested in so much stuff, but you wouldn’t think it because I never seem to do any of it! I love to write, of course, but even that doesn’t happen that often. Even this month, the first month of my Writing Duel with Rob, I haven’t written nearly as much as I should have done (something I’ll talk more about over at the Duel blog in a couple of days, when the end of the month rolls around and I will be posting my first monthly update on how it’s going – including a less-than-impressive word count). I should be writing every day, but I haven’t. Not even close.

On top of that, even the so-called “less-important” stuff, I haven’t really been engaging in. I’ve hardly read anything of late (except two amazing graphic novels, Parker and The New Frontier, loaned from Rob, in what I now expect to be a  sabotage attempt on my novel-writing). My running has completely fallen by the wayside, I haven’t been out yet this year, despite getting running gear from my Dad for Christmas.

Also, I haven’t been very productive with all the little “life admin” stuff that always seems to get in the way of everything else. In fact, it DOES get in the way of everything else, when you let it build up and build up. Maybe that has been part of the problem. Since 2010 started I have felt slightly apathetic about a lot of things, including the Duel, which is such a big thing for me this year. And this really started to get me down until last week or so, especially as I had been SO excited about writing my novel since we announced the project back in December.

Anyway, enough is enough. You won’t be hearing me say “nothing much” from now on. This week and the last I have been slowly getting back into the writing, still not writing anywhere near as much as I would like to be doing, but at least words are getting onto the page, and I am thinking and engaging with my novel a lot more. I have written a new article for Fuel Your Writing, which should hopefully be up soon, and I am already planning my next one. I am re-reading David Allen’s fantastic Getting Things Done, and generally being a lot more productive. Every day I know exactly what I am going to be doing, and in the main I have been completing everything that I have wanted to do each day.

Apologies for my confessional and rather self-pitying post, but just needed to get those things off my chest. I am really feeling a lot more positive than I was a few weeks ago, so time to kick 2010’s arse, yeah?

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Stones into Statues

A couple of weeks ago, my brother James and my Dad went to Marsden Beach, and for a fleeting hour, James became an artist.

A statue of stones.

In less than an hour, James built this statue out of a selection of stones that he found lying about on the beach, inspired by the work of Andy Goldsworthy, for his final project for his Art class at school.

I love this. The statue looks fantastic, with the stones of all different shapes and sizes, and I especially like the big round rock in the middle. But, not only do I love the statue, but even more I love what it represents.

This is what creativity is all about.

It also shows just how easy it is for anyone to create something. I am not saying that James didn’t use any skill to build this – obviously it required a keen eye to pick out suitable stones to use, and a steady hand to balance them one by one on top of the other. But, all James really did was to go down to the beach with his Dad, wander about and gather some stones together, and then take a deep gulp of sea air, and start playing.

Experimentation and play are the key components to being creative. They are both fueled by, and produce, inspiration, and also lead to increased motivation as the thing – whatever glorious thing it is: a story, a song, a pile of stones – grows and changes and becomes something. Something real. Less than an hour before the pictures here were taken, that statue, that piece of art, was just a thought and an idea floating around inside my brother’s head.

Just for fun. Made while Dad was taking the pictures of the first.

Creativity is so accessible. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has the capacity to create. I’m not saying there is no such thing as talent, of course not, but just look at how easy a piece of art can be made.

I don’t have the resources to be creative.

These rocks are already on the beach. You could make a statue using twigs and sticks if you were walking in the woods somewhere. And if building isn’t your game, pick up a piece of paper and a pen. That’s all you need. So much can be created with pen and paper. People, monsters, epics, opuses, worlds, dreams and nightmares.

I don’t have the time to be creative.

This took an hour. An hour. You can’t spare that? One hour every week, just to get out there and have fun and get some fresh air and to play. Take your family. Take your friends. Take your dogs. And if you don’t like the beach, grab a cheap notebook, go to the local park and write something. An hour. That’s all you need.

I don’t have the talent to be creative.

Creativity is not reliant on talent. Creativity is reliant on play. On experimentation. On dreaming. And, ultimately, on action.

And everyone can do those things.

Well done James!

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