Emotionally Perfect

Sometimes, high altitude, excitement for holidays and friends, and the perfect story, all combine in one cataclysmic moment that completely undoes me.

On the flight from London to Nashville I caught up with a film I’d been meaning to see -- Pitch Perfect.

In a moment early on, the main character, Becca auditions for an acapella group. We’ve just had a giant, lung-opening supercut of all the other candidates belting out the same overblown tune, and then we drop to silence. Becca skulks into the end of the audition, hasn’t prepared the same all the other candidates have prepared. We’re nervous for her, want her to succeed.

She sits on the edge of the stage, grabs a cup from the judges table and table and gives a haunting, beautiful, echoing performance of ‘You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone’.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=weqDCGg0GYs&w=560&h=315]

It’s good on it’s own, but in context, it’s joyful. The contrasting energy is so perfectly judged that it gave me skin crunching shivers.

I sobbed my heart out for pretty much most of the film. Possibly something to do with the high altitude? But also because it’s such a masterclass in managing peaks and troughs in emotion.

Then I followed it up with The Futureheads Rant acapella album, so haunting.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYHfF_4aMyc&w=560&h=315]

TV Writing for Novelists

Work on the novel has been slow recently, so I’ve been stealing from the structure and clarity of TV writing to help move it forward. I picked up *tons* of useful energy from this approach. Below are some of the great links that helped me figure out the process.

Often TV shows are structured with A, B, and C storylines. They intertwine and influence each other to varying degrees. Each story line premise is broken into beats (called ‘breaking the episode’) and is plotted out step by step, to create a beat sheet. These are then blended together and fleshed out in an outline document. This is a simple prose version of the script.

From low to high levels of detail, the outputs on the writing journey are: Premise > A,B,C storylines > beat sheet > outline > script.

This great blogpost breaks down an episode of Community into its storylines and creates a beat sheet, to show you what it looks like. The most important thing i took from this, is that:

A point on the beat sheet isn’t just an action happening. It’s action + the character’s response.

Once I started outlining my story in this way, it moved so fast! No more dawdling around with characters not going anywhere.

Mike DiMartino also has a great series of posts that go through the process of writing a Korra episode:

Even Giant Space Dogs Need Toys

Dog Toys from EGCOSH.com

Or: Creating a grainy shadow in Adobe Illustrator.

I’ve been playing around with a new (to me) shading technique in Illustrator, using a transparent bitmap of contrasting colour to add depth. It’s explained pretty well by Don Clarke of Invisible Creature here.

Took me a few goes to get exactly right, as I’m less familiar with Photoshop, and he doesn’t go into much detail about that bit. I ended up creating a black > white gradient on a blank canvas, with a pretty sharp gradient (16% transition). Then going to Filter > Pixelate > Color Halftone.

Getting the output format right is critical. Go to Image > Mode > Greyscale to remove all the colour. And then go to Image > Mode > Bitmap, before saving it out as a TIFF file (not saving it as a copy).

The shading brought the dog to life so much, that i then couldn’t resist giffing it. It’s now its own little piece of flash fiction. Strange, lonely games while lost in space, and only the people in your head for company.

Get a website, quick!

First things first, you need a domain name. That is, you want to find a website address that is available, and meaningful to you and your audience. Generally shorter is better, and if you're an author or artist, grabbing your name is the best. Registering and paying for this is totally separate to whatever you put on the website itself. You can find out what names are available at www.hover.com —type the name you want into the search field, and it will come back and tell you what extensions are available for that name. i.e. .com, .org etc. Generally, .coms are a bit more expensive than other extensions, but they do have a professional ring about them. Registration with hover costs around $13/year, and you will need to pay that every year you want to keep the website.

Separately you can try wordpress.com for easy hosting and website set up. This will hold all the content on your site.

Hit the register website button and fill in the form. In the blog address field, enter the name you registered at hover, but leave the .wordpress.com extension for now. You can point Wordpress to your new domain when it has finished registering. This is called domain mapping, and instructions on how do that are here. It involves going back to your domain registrar (Hover) and telling them you want that domain to look at wordpress for the content. It currently costs $13/year at Wordpress.

If that sounds too challenging, you *can* just register a domain with wordpress, but it makes it harder to move around when down the line you decide you want to move away from their hosting, or manage multiple sites.

Once you’ve set it up, you can select a theme from the hundreds available, and start customizing the look. Some are free, others cost money. I recommend starting with a free one to figure things out like, uploading pictures, and how to add pages to list your publications, or ‘about’ details.

There’s a quick start guide here: https://learn.wordpress.com/

Good luck!

Speaking at 300 Seconds

I decided a couple of weeks ago, that I would start talking publicly about the work I do in data visualisation. It's cool right now, it's fun and engaging. It's also a chance to give back to a community that is very open and supportive of those coming up and developing new skills such as D3. The very next day, I saw the following in my Twitter feed:


I did, so I got in touch, and last night I spoke at the Open Data Institute. You can see my slides here. The video will be up shortly.

Credit: Chris Kammerud

The people at 300 Seconds are doing an awesome job at my favourite thing ever: see something broken--do something to fix it. They saw there weren't enough women speaking at tech events, so they started an event to get people started in their speaking careers. There were a raft of fascinating and lively talks which I'll link to when the info goes up. I had a ball. Congratulations Lily, and Mils, and Ann and the others. You are doing amazing work.

Learning New Tricks

The last couple weeks I've been playing around with some new software, Adobe After Effects. Generally used for post production special effects and motion graphics, I used it to make a trailer for our SF Anthology, the red volume. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=If4ZI3oNZmM&w=854&h=510]

If you want to learn After Effects, I went from no experience, to making this trailer using the tutorials at edfilms. Great work, guys, thanks!

A Month of London Stories

We moved to London last month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stretches for Writers

And other desk workers, too. Stretching in the outdoors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novel sketches

6d213d9a993411e38aa612d662e502aa_8.jpg view full image

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

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

Lessons on happiness

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

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

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

There are two glorious lessons in this:

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

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

Happiness is in doing.

The Joy and Pain of Pratchett

I was raised by Sir Terry Pratchett. Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetic discoveries

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

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

You can use this link to do the same: RandomPoem

Baking and the magic formula

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image 20-07-2013 at 17.45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Things I Learned At Clarion

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

1. Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Characterisation through setting description

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

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

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

Level-Up Your Characterisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. I can make people feel things with my words

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

A little piece of my heart was living inside them.

It made me giddy with joy.

4. Theme 

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

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

The theme is the central question posed by a text.

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

Nope, these questions just never came up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then one day, I got in

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

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

It seemed... unobtainable... other.

In a pipe dream moment, I applied.

And then one day, I got in.


Roll on June 24th.