Tuesday 26 November 2019

Tales of Lost Time: 2016

It's been a while.

A long while.

October 2016 was the last time I posted. A lot has happened since then, some of which gradually caused me to let go of my blog (even more so than before).

Part of the reason I have this blog is as a record and a reminder to myself. My work in software development is filled with constant reminders, such as videos of my conference talks and tweets and retweets on Twitter. But when it comes to some of my other interests, such as creative writing and photography, it's easy for me to lose track of what happened and when.

One role this blog served (serves...) is to track what stories I've read at spoken word events — partly so I can avoid rereading the same story at a venue, or reading the same story too many times to perhaps much of the same crowd. So, this is mostly for my own reference, but perhaps you can find something of interest here.

Right, where did I leave it? Ah yes, right here:
Yesterday the Bristol Festival of Literature kicked off. Sadly I missed being able to join the rest of North Bristol Writers for their sell-out readings at Arnos Vale Cemetery, but I'll be joining them tonight at the Flash Slam. I'm reading something apocalyptic at Writers Unchained's Sunday Story. At BristolCon I'm on a panel about AI and robots and will also be running a flash fiction workshop.
All that happened, and more:
  • At the BristolCon Fringe open mic the night before the main con I read an unpublished flash fiction, "Sweet Nothings".
  • At BristolCon itself, I enjoyed being on the Uncanny Valleys of the Mind panel. Drawing from both science fiction and what's actually going on in the field of machine learning, I made the point that most people's perception of AI and robotics is that of artificial general intelligences (AGIs) in SF, that of something sentient and pseudo-human. Which is almost exactly what isn't going on. Unlike a baby, an AI system really does start out as a tabula rasa. There is no predisposition towards any particular behaviours or world views, no baseline concept of the world or morality, etc. The valley — or chasm — to cross is that anthropomorphising will not equip us to reason about what the strengths and weakness of such systems are. It was a really good panel, vouched for by co-panelist Rosie Oliver.
  • I also ran a flash fiction workshop at BristolCon, which was very well attended  — nine people... so, inevitably, I had prepared print-outs (such as this) for eight. There is a great write-up of the workshop by Rexx Deane, which outlines some of the process and the exercises I went through, and another one by Dolly Garland. We used prompts (this and this), we described character, we looked at examples of flash, we played with sentence length (write something using a single long sentence, then again using only short sentences) and we worked with index cards to help constrain the writing.
  • My last story-related event of the year was a paid gig (my first!) at Southampton's Festival of Words. It was well attended and I got read a few of my favourites: "Lost Love's Labours", "First Date, Last Date""Plans for Tonight""Ashes to Ashes, Mañana, Mañana" and "Possession".
And that was a writerly wrap for 2016.

Friday 21 October 2016

Summer Break

Right. Where were we? Ah, yes. Summer. A fading northern-hemisphere memory. Having negotiated an equal day–night settlement that has already slipped, it is preparing to concede an hour before heading into further darkness. Summer's shocks and follies have hardened to fallen leaves and windblown promises.

And this is my first blog in a while. There's a few things to recap, so I'll be brief... ish.

Let's kick off with stories and comps and things:
There was also spoken word!

  • The Talking Tales squad left the street-art comfort of Stokes Croft to stage an event at the Bath Fringe Festival under the heading of More Banksy than Bonnets (Bristol favouring insurgency over Regency). I read "Three Moments of Defeat", which received mention in a review of the event.
  • Under the theme of Midsummer Madness, I read #KrakenEvent at Writers Unchained's Story Sunday, which ended the evening on an apocalyptic note (more on that later).
  • In the spirit of doing something I've never done before, I read at a festival. After last year's Sanctum, the North Bristol Writers were invited to do a set at FarmFest. It would be fair to say that the tent, timing and competition with the main stage were not ideal, but it was a good day out and I got to read "Three Moments of Defeat" again. (I wrote the story years ago, but didn't initially see it as a spoken-word candidate... turns out it's a late bloomer.)

And almost last, but most definitely not least, National Flash Fiction Day 2016! This had a bit of everything — spoken word, publication, walking, talking, drinking...

  • As well as the workshop and readings, we had a new event this year: the Flash Walk. The concept, format and everything about it just worked out. Jo Butler and Tom Parker read — indeed, performed! — stories that were related to or inspired by areas area around the Bristol's harbourside. Sidz Photography took some great photos.
  • Judy Darley blogged about the day, particularly the Flash Walk, which she also gets the credit for pulling together.
  • The afternoon workshop with Alison Powell and K M Elkes at the Central Library was well attended and inspiring.
  • I've always aimed to have twelve readers at the evening event. I've always ended up adding one or two more speakers late in the day. This year I thought I'd managed the dozen. Until someone dropped out at the last minute. Fortunately, Grace Palmer and Jane Roberts were able to step in at the last minute to read, joining me, Calum Kerr, Diane Simmons, Freya Morris, Jude Higgins, Judy Darley, K M Elkes, Pete Sutton, Tim Stevenson, Tino Prinzi and Tom Parker to make a baker's — if not dirty — dozen of readers.
  • I read out "First Date, Last Date" and — once more with feeling — "Three Moments of Defeat" (and three mentions in this blog).
  • My drabble, "Lost Love's Labours", was republished in the day's FlashFlood.
  • My story, "The Door Closes", was published in A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed, the NFFD 2016 anthology.
  • In the build-up to NFFD, I was one of the competition judges, a competition that gave some great little stories to the world.
  • See the BristolFlash page to see more photos of the walk and the readings.
So is that everything? Almost. Yesterday the Bristol Festival of Literature kicked off. Sadly I missed being able to join the rest of North Bristol Writers for their sell-out readings at Arnos Vale Cemetery, but I'll be joining them tonight at the Flash Slam. I'm reading something apocalyptic at Writers Unchained's Sunday Story. At BristolCon I'm on a panel about AI and robots and will also be running a flash fiction workshop. During the week I plan to pop in on a couple of other things.

I'll try to report back before the hour springs forward again...

Sunday 12 June 2016

May the Fourth BristolFlash Be with You

Saturday 25th June is almost upon us! The fourth year of BristolFlash's National Flash Fiction Day events, and the fifth year of National Flash Fiction Day.

I was on Ujima earlier this week with Freya Morris on Cheryl Morgan's show promoting the day. Freya and I both read out a couple of flashes — mine was a drabble, "First Date, Last Date" — talked about flash fiction and plugged the Bristol events.

We've got a great line-up of events, kicking off with a flash walk in the morning. If you fancy a leisurely stroll with some stories, this will be walk around the centre of Bristol accompanied by a couple of actors who will be reading a number of flash tales inspired by the sites and sounds of Bristol.

In the afternoon we've got a workshop at Bristol Central Library led by Alison Powell and Ken Elkes:

And then in the evening we've got the launch of the NFFD anthology, A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed, and readings at At the Well on Cheltenham Road:

All events are free. All events are fun! Hope to see you there. And if Bristol is not convenient for you, there are a few other events that may be of interest, depending where you are.

Tuesday 31 May 2016

The Sound of Deadlines

People have a complex (and frequent) enough relationship with deadlines that it's not hard to find (mostly correctly attributed) quotes about them. When it comes to writing, Douglas Adams is possibly one of the most quoted authors:
I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

Sometimes I'm with the late great Douglas Adams on this, but sometimes I'll cross the aisle to the late great Duke Ellington's side:
I don't need time, I need a deadline.
I recently confessed to a couple of people that I seemed to enjoy competition writing. And not just submitting a story to a competition — which naturally enough has a deadline — but actually a competition where the time for writing is itself bounded. It kicks off when you are given some kind of brief (a prompt, a genre, a title, etc.) and there is a deadline of days or hours to write to a word count and submit.

One such competition is NYC Midnight, which I have entered in both flash and short form in previous years. This year I made some progress, making it through the first round (8 days, 2500 words, 2100+ entrants), coming top of my heat in the second round (3 days, 2000 words) and then placing in the top 20 in the final round (1 day, 1500 words, 40 finalists).

(If this appeals to you, by the way, the next NYC Midnight flash fiction challenge is coming up soon.)

But it's not just a one-off for one comp. I did this again recently for the Sci-Fi-London 48-Hour Flash Fiction Challenge. Except I didn't have 48 hours: we were going to Istanbul for a (very) long weekend, so I certainly wasn't going to sit in the hotel room cranking out words. I received the brief just before we were told to turn off our mobiles on the outbound flight. That gave me around three hours of writing time. It was enough.

Looking back, I seem to have repeated this deadline-hugging behaviour again and again. And I love workshops where you have to write to a deadline of only a few minutes. And sites like Visual Verse, where you set yourself the time constraint.

Is this a general recommendation for writing? Absolutely not. It depends in part on personality and in part on the nature of what you are writing. Writing this way is not particularly sustainable, which is fine for one-off flashes and shorts, but terrible for, well, the need for sustained writing, such as a novel. For that, even flow is likely to give you an easier ride, e.g., applying the Pomodoro technique, which I know from the world of agile software development, but recently learnt Lucy Robinson uses in writing novels.

It is a question of motive. On the one hand, there is a buzz to it, and rush when you've done it. On the other, what now exists is a story that would not otherwise have existed. It may not yet be the best story it could be, but it is now in the world and not simply in your head, unrealised. If you ever find yourself stuck, blocked, procrastinating or perendinating, something like this may help you unblock.

As Chris Baty observes:
A deadline is, simply put, optimism in its most kick-ass form. It's a potent force that, when wielded with respect, will level any obstacle in its path. This is especially true when it comes to creative pursuits.
It seems the trick is to learn to wield it with enough respect.

Now, if you'll just excuse me, the Bridport Prize is closing in a few hours...

Thursday 5 May 2016

Readings and Republications

In the last few months I've had a couple of my stories republished and snuck in a couple of readings.

Apparently "The Kylling" has one of the highest page hits of any story on the Cafe Aphra site. They got in touch asking if I had any more flash fiction I'd like to share. As "The Kylling" is one of three (unrelated) drabble-and-a-halfs of Scandicrime, I suggested the other two parts of the 'trilogy': "A Bridge Too Far", which was my 2014 Flashbang winning entry, and "Plans for Tonight", which helped me win the 2012 Oxford flash slam.

Alas, the Sorcerous Signals site, one place where my story "Milk Teeth and Chocolate Eggs" has appeared, is no more. The good news is that "Milk Teeth and Chocolate Eggs" has reappeared at The Spec Fiction Hub, and did so just in time for Easter.

It has become an annual tradition to have an open mic night at the BristolCon Fringe, with readings timeboxed to five minutes. This year the open mic night fell in the same week that I was timeslicing between a conference in Bristol and one in London, while also sneaking in a (non-novel) reading at Novel Nights. At BristolCon Fringe I read "Immune" and "AutoKnowMe"; at Novel Nights, following the theme of love and romance, I read "Starsigns". And on Saturday that week I did remarkably little.

Wednesday 2 March 2016

A Conventional Recollection

At the end of last summer, Ian Milsted contacted me to ask if I'd be interested in contributing to an issue of an old-style fanzine, Griff, that he was putting together in time for BristolCon. We were both at Loncon 3, the 2014 Worldcon in London; he remembered me comparing it to a previous Worldcon in the UK. That sounded like the perfect ingredients for a fanzine article. And it was out just in time for BristolCon.

It's late and dark when we arrive in Brighton, so no seaside sunshine or early start on the beach. Tom and I have driven down from London in a car that's seen a lot of time but is no DeLorean. Even so, this is time travel. It's summer 1987 and we're here for Conspiracy, the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton.

I was here three years earlier for SeaCon, the 1984 Eastercon and Eurocon. In 1984 I only went to Brighton for the day, but some of the highlights of that day are chiselled into memory — Harry Harrison, Bob Shaw, Joe Haldeman, Brian Aldiss, writers whose names graced the fronts of books I'd lost myself in, but who had more depths than even those pages could reveal. I was there because of a pen friend — yup, back when you actually had to use pens and post to communicate — was over from the US. Josh was into SF and had figured out he'd be visiting London around the time of Eastercon, so he'd done his research (without Google...) and had made the suggestion.

Two years later, again with Josh, I visited Worldcon '86 in Atlanta. For a teenager from North London, even cocooned within the convention hotels, this visit to the American South was an eye-opener. I wrapped up my gap year with a couple of months travelling around the US, but my travels had been in Yankee territory. Me and a friend of Josh's headed south by van from New Jersey. When I wasn't lying in the back of the van listening to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy — "What do you mean you've never listened to it? But you're British!" "I've met Douglas Adams." "But how have you never listened to Hitchhiker's?!" — in van-wall to van-wall stereo, the view from the front seat revealed a shifting cultural landscape you didn't see on TV. Sidewalks were invisibly colour coded, black one side, white the other. Worldcon's name that year, ConFederation, also shows how far we've come — you'd have to be a sad puppy to think that name was appropriate now.

I was there for the full five days. There were five of us saving money and shift-sleeping in a room for two, but I used that room for little more than storage and showering. I did the first three days on three hours sleep, giving myself the luxury of seven hours over the final two — a sleeping pattern I could get away with only as an adolescent (or, a few years later, as a new parent). Worldcon was big even back then. It was non-stop sessions, parties, caffeine, bumping into American gods like Frederick Pohl, faux phaser fights in hallways between Klingons and Starfleet (pick a side, go on pick a side...), talking to people you didn't know, making friends that you did actually keep in touch with for a couple of years, even without cyberspace assistance of email and social media.

And some of whom I would meet again at Conspiracy in Brighton at the same Metropole hotel I'd visited in 1984. Tom and I were there for the weekend. My sleepless theme from the year before continued, but this time we actually had no room, which meant improvising. The first night ended up back in Tom's car, discovering in the morning that we'd parked on a main street, shoppers going about their Saturday passing by two long-haired con-goers crashed out in the front seats of an old car. The second night I crashed in the all-night movie room.

This Worldcon was smaller and less grand than the one in Atlanta, with a 1980s British seaside-town twist. But it still dwarfed 1984 Eastercon. There were writers I'd seen at SeaCon and in Atlanta, there were guests of honour (including Jim Burns), there were up-and-coming writers (a certain Iain Banks, with and without the M, comes to mind), there was Hawkwind (Tom's kind of thing, but thanks I'll pass), there were parties (in the hotel and on the beach) and more.

And then I took a break from cons and fandom. Quite a long break. A fairy-tale sleep whose spell was broken in part by Josh (yup, same one, after all these years) and BristolCon. And in good time for Loncon, Worldcon 2014.

I went to Loncon for the weekend, but this time sleeping arrangements and the need for sleep and creature comforts had moved on — and accumulated hotel loyalty points helped out. This time my companion was my tweenage son, so I had to do some serious roleplaying — instead of pursuing parties and teenage kicks, I got to play the part of responsible parent.

Loncon was in the ExCeL, which we'd last visited for the 2012 Olympics. Although not quite Olympian, the convention was large. We are living in some of the future that people imagined back in the 1980s, with location transparency applying almost as equally to our events as our communications. Panels were packed to the gills, with fire-and-safety regulations trimming back the standing overflow in each room, which meant that I missed a few sessions I wanted to attend, but enjoyed some I might otherwise not have attended. My agenda took in art, politics, conlangs and worldbuilding, as well as doing an open mic reading and some life drawing.

I bumped into people I knew both from Bristol and from software development conferences, and struck up the usual random conversations with people I didn't know, including a really great conversation in the queue for Chris Foss's autograph. Chris Foss's imagery is all over my school memories of reading — it would be fair to say that he was the reason I tried an airbrush in art class — so it was great to finally meet him.

2014 and 1987 in many ways could not be more different, balanced on either side of the millennium boundary, one with a foot in adolescence and the other in middle age, one when I had no cares and the other with a clear and personal duty of care. This makes it difficult to compare the two British Worldcons I've attended with any reasonable objectivity. But why bother? In this case there's nothing wrong with unreasonable subjectivity. I enjoyed them both and for quite different reasons. Perhaps the real question is... where might the conventional time machine go next?

Thursday 25 February 2016

Talking and Choosing Tales

The last few weeks have seen a gentle easing into the events of the (now-not-so) new year. There's one or two technical writing projects in the pipeline — or at least waiting at its entrance — plus a couple of fiction projects (and there's at least one fictional project — it looks like it's going to remain in the imagination and not make into the real world).

My story, "Ragdolls", made the quarter-final of the ScreenCraft Short Story Contest, although sadly it didn't make it to the next stage.

Speaking of making the stage, my first spoken word of the year was Talking Tales, which had a killer line-up and a new slot on a Saturday night. With Easter just beyond the calendar fold, I chose to read "Milk Teeth and Chocolate Eggs". From what I can tell and from what I felt (quite pink, with shades of blue and black, from the looks of it), I think I may have finally cracked how best to read that story.

One thing I forgot to blog from last year was making a second selection of four stories for 101 Words Flash Fiction Sunday Edition. This time I chose "Our Shrinking Giants" by Freya Morris (who also read this particular tale at Talking Tales), "Down to the Sunless Sea" by Neil Gaiman, "The Factory Explosion" by Adam Marek and "A Song, Against the Metronome" by D T Friedman. If you're interested in the reasons behind these choices, read here. If you're interested in my previous selection of four, read here.