Monthly Archives: January 2016

Manipulation (a ficlet)


This is a mini-fic I wrote for entry into a competition. It didn’t get anywhere. When I read the winning entry and the runners up I realised I had perhaps gone off at a tangent. Still, I quite liked my ficlet and it’s a pity to waste it on some judges who didn’t really want it in the first place. So here you are! A kind of alternative future.

Alice checked the power levels. Despite Michael’s film download things were fine. She was glad they’d moved south when things started deteriorating but even central Portugal couldn’t guarantee sufficient solar power and mountains bristling with wind turbines could also block the sun.

The flicker must be the ISP’s. After the US lost the wars and the oil ran out there were few options. Some solar-powered servers were in the newly independent American Bible Belt, the rest mostly in Saudi or Iraq. Aborigines, working with anti-internet fanatics, closed the Northern Territories to development. Africa was out of the question. Religious leaders controlled what most people could see. Michael chose an Iraqi ISP, reasoning that Saddam, not the most religious man, would be less likely to interfere with content.

But there were still power struggles, terrorists, bombs; half a world away but they could prevent Alice seeing what she so needed to see.

The screen cleared and steadied; she gasped as the young man seemed to walk towards her.

“Michael! He’s here,” she called.

“Hi Gran! Hi Gramps!” His infectious grin made her wish she could hug him.

They worried when Jake chose to spend his gap year travelling; when he settled in New Zealand they worried more.

“It’s a smaller world nowadays,” he said.

They hadn’t even been able to meet Jennifer in person. But now Aiden could visit them once a month, Hussein and Bin Laden willing.

Alice spared a glance at the blue skies beyond her grandson and tried to remember how con trails had once traced lace paths across the world.

They frittered away the precious hour comparing fruit crops and the price of sheep. Too soon, Aiden waved and blew a kiss.

Michael switched to their homepage.

“They’re accusing people of tampering with 3D chat services,” he said, “using a kind of photoshopping technique.” Alice dredged her memory for the term.

“You mean…”

He shrugged. “They’re comparing it with postcards from concentration camps,” he said, “but surely we would know if things were that bad?”


Posted by on January 29, 2016 in ficlets



In my ivory writing tower…


Continuing my exploration of my writing courtesy of the blog writing meme I followed.

The next question was: Have you ever had a story change your opinion of a character?

Unlike some of my friends I took this to mean in my own writing since this was a writing meme, not a reading one.

I have been fascinated by the way characters behave in my stories. I suppose changes must come from somewhere in my subconscious but there’s often no advance warning. Minor characters turn into major ones, the main characters insist on interesting and unexpected reactions and relationships and on one memorable occasion I discovered part way through a story that someone I had felt a little sorry for was a cold blooded murderer. The other characters were startled, too. I think the difference is that I meet the minor characters alongside the main ones and see them through their eyes. So if they change their opinions, so do I. The minor characters might be formed already somewhere deep in my brain, but I know very little about them until my main characters tell me. I know the main characters too well, before I start writing, for my opinion of them to change. Simply knowing the ending of the story doesn’t necessarily let me know everything that will happen or what everyone will do. Throughout the story, and this is particularly true for a series, the main characters are as close to me as my family, whereas the people they meet are more like my neighbours, or even the people at the pub or in town. They might become friends but my opinion of them is exactly like that of people I meet in ‘real life’ – subject to change according to the way they behave. And that’s something I can’t consciously control.

So far as fanfic is concerned the characters all speak to me from the start, even the minor ones. They’re based on canon, of course, though most canon leaves plenty of room for exploration, explanation, and so on. So in a sense the characters are already formed and so are my opinions. There might be OC characters like victims of crime in a case fic but they wouldn’t need my opinion, just my sympathy. I might discover or realise details about canon characters, but nothing major. If I did, I suspect I’d have to start a different fic or do an extensive rewrite.

The following question was, I think, a familiar one for fanfic writers but is just as valid addressed to all authors.

When you write original characters, how do you make certain they’re not Mary Sues (or Marty Stus)?

For those unfamiliar with the term it applies to characters inserted into stories who are quite clearly the author indulging in some wishful thinking about being the best detective, greatest lover, most benevolent ruler, or whatever and taking over the story in an irritating way.

Terry Pratchett, in his semi-autobiographical A Slip Of The Keyboard, mentioned a friend of his who said: There is a little bit of autobiography in all books, isn’t there? Only friends will tell you that.

And of course he’s right. You have to have experienced emotions such as love, anger or shock in order to write about them convincingly (which is why children’s writing so often seems ‘flat’) and you have to have seen or heard scenes or music to describe those with any hope of being believed.

We are told to write what we know. This means, to me, that we have to draw on our knowledge of the world, acquired in person or through in-depth research, to develop locations, credible story lines and minor or background characters. When it comes to the main players we need to dig into our own emotions and experiences to find out what makes them ‘tick’. It’s possible to write criminals convincingly because we have all had ‘bad’ thoughts from time to time and a writer need to expand those and build on them in much the same way as an actor developing a role. The danger lies in putting too much of yourself in to any one character and investing too much in them in the story. The danger is perhaps greater with the heroes and heroines. It’s comparatively easy to distance yourself from a thief or a murderer, harder to back away from someone who is trying to do good. But to make them convincing they have to live in their own right, and that means that you have to bring them to life, talk to them, get to know them, and do that as if they were a real person with a life quite outside your own.

In some ways I’m pretty sure I don’t appear in my stories. That’s because my work in largely in the fantasy genre and I’m a fairly down to earth person with a family and two houses to run. I don’t even yearn to go off into the woods or on quests – I’m pretty sure I’d find it uncomfortable and irritating even though I used to like camping when I was younger and fitter. I’d want to be back for various appointments, to wash my hair, to sleep in my own bed… And my protagonists are mostly very much younger than me. They are not yet married with children or pets or a bank account. When I was their age I wanted the children, pets, etc. more than I ever wanted adventure, and I wanted academic success more than magic so I don’t think I put anything of my younger self into them, either.

So I don’t have to ‘make sure’ because appearing in my own stories is not something that appeals in the slightest. I have my own story to live and it isn’t one I have any wish to fictionalise.

But in the sense that writers write what they know, all original fiction could be said to be Mary Sues. Discuss!

For fanfic writing the answer is perhaps harder to reach. Yes, I write original characters. I wrote an entire novel based on a group of original characters interacting in the world created by Stargate SG1 – unpublishable because it is so intertwined with the existence of the Stargate itself, but available here: for anyone who’s interested. And if I’m writing a case fic for a cop buddy fandom there have to be original characters to provide the criminals, victims and witnesses at the very least.

A Mary Sue would presumably mean a female character who did all the things I would like either to do or be thought to have done. I haven’t written many female OC characters other than, as I’ve just said, criminals and victims, and as I have no desire to be either I don’t think there’s much danger of of Mary Sues there. The exception is the SG1 novel. There are female OCs in that but they’re there to create a mixed team or to provide plot points; I sincerely hope I haven’t put anything of myself into them. None of them have anything in common with me and while I love reading about sci fi adventures I have no desire to participate. They aren’t the major characters, who are men, and not in the least like me or any of my family. Nor do I have hidden longings to be male. The only point of overlap is that the ‘hero’ (and the woman who is his girlfriend at the start of the story) come from the same part of UK as me – that’s just me using locations I know to be sure of getting them right.

So I don’t ‘make certain’ they aren’t Mary Sues – I don’t have to because I never insert major female characters into a fic who aren’t from canon. My OCs (male and female) have plenty of flaws – but not my flaws. I seriously wouldn’t want to be any of them, and none of them are better than the people around them. They might (Adam in the SG novel) be the ‘hero’ but only in the sense of being the main focus of the story, not in the sense of being any kind of super-hero.

I don’t want to meet or live with or interact with canon characters – or the actors for that matter. I want them to remain stories – on paper, on screen, on my computer or on a virtual screen in my mind. I meet and interview the muses, yes, in order to hear their stories, but they don’t involve me in their adventures. The nearest I get to a Mary Sue is as the narrator who controls, to some extent, the overall plot.



I find these questions interesting – they force me to articulate my sometimes rather incoherent thoughts about my writing and that, I think, has to be a good thing! I’d love to hear other people’s ideas on the subject in general or on particular questions.

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Posted by on January 22, 2016 in writing



The One Where An Author Steals Text From My Book To Sell Pirated Software

Writers need to unite against stuff like this. All thanks to people like David Gaughran who actually take time to research and follow up scams of this kind.

David Gaughran

IWSParadonIn today’s episode we are going to out a two-bit huckster who tried to put one over on yours truly, take a quick detour through the verdant fields of copyright law (and the slightly plainer meadows of moral rights), and then end with an example of how to handle a scammer.

Sound fun? Strap yourselves in!

A helpful reader – who will remain nameless for reasons that will become obvious – emailed me yesterday morning. I was just about to start work but the subject line caught my attention: Did You Give Permission For This?

Uh oh. I started reading the message he had forwarded.

It had originated from a domain called (you can cut-and-paste that address or Google it, but I’m not linking directly and giving them an SEO boost). And it appeared to be a straight cog from my book Let’s Get Visible.

Emailexcerpt1What was going…

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Posted by on January 18, 2016 in other writers





My hands hurt.

Anxiety presses pins, needles, nails

Into my knuckles

The pads of my fingers

And my thumb.

“Don’t press so hard.

It’s bound to hurt,” they say, “gripping like that,”

but then they add

“You have half an hour to finish,” and wonder

Why I stress so.

The words are easy.

If I could type them on a keyboard,

Neat and bright

In a well presented paper, I could have ended this

An hour ago.

“You don’t complain

When it’s maths,” they say sadly, but

Maths is beautiful

And I can ignore the pain to get

Those numbers formed.

Meanwhile, they want

Three sentences that explain some words

I have understood

For ever and a day, and you must understand

My hand is numb.

(I was writing to a prompt: “If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all!” and was inspired by my autistic grandson who finds handwriting a trial.)

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Posted by on January 13, 2016 in poetry



Happy New Year!

NY 16

I remembered I’d written a pair of ‘mirror’ ficlets about New Year, some time ago so thought you might be interested to see them here. The first is dark and angsty, but the second, which starts with the same premise, holds out hope for the future and is the one you should regard as the ‘correct’ version.

New Year’s Resolution 1 (500 words)

He stroked the soft worn leather; fingered the prong on the well-known buckle – a snake swallowing its tail.

He watched her bring a bag of cast-offs, her own, her husband’s, her son’s. All for charity. The sick. The deserving. But when she looked at him there was no charity in her eyes.

He remembered skin, supple and brown as the belt encircling it. His eyes must have shouted their loss because he heard the girl on the stall say gently to him,

‘We haven’t priced this lot yet but if you really want it that badly …I’ll just ask.’ Then after muttering with another woman,

‘Is 50p OK?’

And he exchanged the 7-sided coin for a memory.

At Christmas he wore the belt close, like its owner had been. Had appeared to be. True closeness could not, surely, have been severed by the parental knife so surgically, easily, in one direction. The filaments of his own life were still entwined..

On New Year’s Eve he stayed in. Others had asked him to join them at parties, in bars, at meals in private houses and convivial restaurants. He had refused all invitations. Each thought he was with another, never imagining him alone. Their brilliant friend, star of every gathering.

He leafed through the photographs, glad he’d had them printed. The two of them, on the beach, in the woods, walking in the hills. First one, then the other, then, as familiarity with the camera brought confidence, both, smiling at the timer that allowed them to pose together. The belt showed clearly in some of the shots. He held it as he remembered, the leather warming beneath his touch.

He had never understood how they had known. Or how strong their hold was. How all that love and brightness could crumble to ash in the blaze of their fury. His invitation to leave, live with him for ever, had been spurned as if it came from the devil himself. The family had closed around their own, leaving him on the outside, not even looking in.

Did they know what they had destroyed? He sensed that they did.. That they were proud of their achievement, would be equally proud of the outcome.

He dreamed fitfully and rose at a quarter to twelve. He’d already set crossed sticks and balled paper in the grate. Now he carefully added the photographs and placed the belt on top. As the church clock started to chime the hour he lit the match and set fire to his life. Ringing bells across the town accompanied the beautiful flames.

His brain made moving pictures in the flickering orange and gold. Two young men. Teenagers still. A camping holiday that turned into something more. Turned, in the bitter end, to tears and mud. Careless of the remaining heat he smeared the debris across his forehead and lay down beside the hearth.

After that, it was easy, inevitable even, swallowing the bitter medicine. And falling gratefully, permanently, asleep.

New Year’s Resolution 2 (500 words)

He stroked the soft worn leather; fingered the prong on the well-known buckle – a snake swallowing its tail.

He watched her bring a bag of cast-offs, her own, her husband’s, her son’s. All for charity. The sick. The deserving. But when she looked at him there was no charity in her eyes.

He remembered skin, supple and brown as the belt encircling it. His eyes must have shouted their loss because he heard the girl on the stall say gently to him,

‘We haven’t priced this lot yet but if you really want it that badly …I’ll just ask.’ Then after muttering with another woman,

‘Is 50p OK?’

And he exchanged the 7-sided coin for a memory.

He wore it sometimes, savouring the closeness, his own skin tingling with the remembrance of touch. Mostly it stayed coiled on the windowsill, a memento of summer and teenage craziness, the buckle a reminder of desire and laughter. Bittersweet memories, like the nest of adders they’d disturbed on the South Downs. Tender memories like the night on the cliffs at Dover.

Then he would remember the homecoming and the look on their faces when they said he wasn’t welcome any more. The finality of the door closing in his face.

Christmas had no sparkle this year, despite the lights and the music. All he wanted was something he couldn’t have. And he imagined the scene in their house, the prodigal son restored, the fatted turkey roasted to perfection, the devil cast out. All their prayers answered. He made duty visits then returned home.

New Year approached on leaden feet but all at once he felt a stirring of courage. One final throw of the die, for the sake of his pride if nothing else. He bought wine, cheese, chocolates. Entertaining his as yet uninvited guest had to be treated as a foregone conclusion. He dressed with care and forced himself into the frosty streets.

When he let the knocker fall beneath its pine wreath and heard the echo in the hall he almost turned away. It was too like a death knell. But the door opened and a startled face blossomed with joy.

‘They said you’d gone away!’

‘They said you didn’t want to see me!’

And as easily as that the door swung shut and they were together. Running down the street hand in hand, shouting, laughing, crying. Shivering, too, in the icy east wind. His apartment, then, and a quick rummage through clothes that were all too big, too long, but were at least warm. A sweater that could be held in by the belt, restored to its rightful place. As he fastened it he knew it would have to be unfastened almost at once, but first, first …

They went out onto the balcony and stood, arms around each other’s shoulders, each holding a glass of wine. Wished the whole world a Happy New Year as the clocks chimed, then turned to the warmth, and to each other.



Posted by on January 1, 2016 in ficlets, writing