Monthly Archives: July 2012

Push-Button Art

I’ve discovered a new special effect option on my digital camera that converts whatever photo I’m taking into a piece of art. Although I enjoy photography and have taken some pleasing photos, I’ve never been much good at drawing and sketching. Yet now, at the push of a button, my camera can create the art-like images you see here, which I could print on canvas to hang on the wall. Clever, isn’t it.

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I wonder if it will only be a matter of time before one can dictate some rudimentary plot points and character outlines into a computer and leave it to write a passably entertaining science fiction, thriller, or romance novel without further input. You can bet someone, somewhere is already working on a program…

…in fact, I think a prototype may have already been developed judging by some of the rather disappointing and formulaic novels out there!

Interesting times we writers are living in with lots of fresh challenges – but don’t let the gloom merchants drag you down. I believe there are plenty of new opportunities for those who have the talent and a willingness to embrace all the changes happening in the world of books.

One thing I know for certain; people have an insatiable hunger for great new stories and, for as long as we keep teaching our children to read, this appetite will always need to be satisfied.

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Why writers should always carry a smartphone

Almost every creative writing book I have ever read has advised wannabe writers to carry, at all times, a notebook so they can capture ideas as they occur and before they are forgotten. But times have moved on and now we’re in the digital age let me update that advice: Always carry a smart phone.

You can still use it as a notebook – there are even apps for some models that let you make handwritten notes if you truly feel the need to cling to the old ways. Plus, if you wake up inspired in the middle of the night you can make notes on a smartphone without having to switch on the light and maybe disturbing your partner.

You can also dictate notes and even record evocative sounds, or take photographs of scenes that inspire. Some events are better captured in this way: take the dog in this photo for example – I just happened to walk past a parked car where his owner had temporarily left him in the driver’s seat. He looked so chuffed with himself that I just had to capture the moment. I know there’s a story there somewhere!

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And I defy anyone with imagination not to conjure up a story of some kind from this sign on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path.

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I know it’s a cliché but you could start by asking yourself: Did he jump/fall? Or was he pushed?

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Dinner with an Ex-Lover = Food for Writers

Apparently, research by scientists from Cornell University, New York (published in PLoS ONE, the Public Library of Science’s online journal) found that dinner with an ex will make your lover most jealous.

Jealousy is one of the most fundamental and destructive of human emotions and so it provides an excellent foundation upon which fiction writers can build a story. It takes so many forms, ranging from envy of others’ success to dealing with a loved one’s betrayal. Toddlers often display signs of it even before they can talk properly and it can turn otherwise peace-loving folk into monsters that perform the most despicable and spiteful things ranging from deliberate sabotage to murder. It can crop up between lovers, siblings, friends, work colleagues, families, neighbours and even whole nations and can lead to feuds and wars that span generations.

In one of my stories, I describe a wife’s lover emerging from the shower room ‘clutching the towel to stop it riding down over his paunch, his bald patch clearly visible through his wet hair’. “UCH!” said one of my friends, before asking: “Why don’t you describe the lover in more flattering terms to make the husband even more jealous?”

But let’s think about this from the husband’s viewpoint: which would make him feel worse? His partner going off with someone fit, attractive and half his age? Or with someone older and uglier? I know that if the person I love ran off with Michael Bublé, I’d be hurting badly, but I could ultimately (and sadly for me!) make a list of all the things he’s got that I haven’t (looks, money, talent) and console myself with the belief that I never really stood a chance. (Come on girls, be honest, which of us would you pick out of a line?) On the other hand, if she left me for some toad up the road, you could add to my hurt feelings: anger, incredulity and a need to know what the toad has that I don’t! I’m going to stop now because it’s damaging my self-esteem but I hope you get my drift. Remember, the more you make your characters suffer the more they will reveal about their true selves.

You can read more about the scientists’ research by following the link below. Better still, why not sit down and start writing a story about jealousy?

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0040445

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Characters – Love ‘Em or Hate ‘Em

In my last blog I had a small rant about grunting tennis players one of whom irritated me so much I had to turn off the TV. Have you ever given up on a fiction story because you simply didn’t warm to the lead character, or give a damn what happened to them? I know I have! That’s why it’s so important for writers to ensure that their readers can identify with the characters and sufficiently engage with them to want to know more. They don’t necessarily have to like them but must at least feel some empathy.

So how do you approach this? Think about the genre in which you’re writing. Is it romance, crime, science fiction, fantasy? Then consider what type of characters you most admire in those genres. What is it about them that arouses your interest? Now look at your own characters. What qualities and endearing traits do they have that make them appeal to your readers? They don’t have to be perfect – by all means give them flaws as well. But make those flaws something that the reader can identify with and even forgive: maybe they open their big mouths sometimes without thinking and then regret it (haven’t we all done that?). As well as giving your good guys some flaws, remember to give the bad guys some redeeming features too; otherwise they might come across as shallow, pantomime villains – remember even Al Capone loved his mother!

In my novel, White Van Man, Martin Blake has led a sheltered and protected life; until he’s made redundant from the bank and is plunged into a very different environment. He isn’t particularly worldly-wise and, in his innocence, may even seem a bit naïve and hapless. Even so, he’s a loyal, caring and loving father, unafraid to make a decision and stubbornly stick with it, even when he sometimes realises he’s made a mistake. He’s very real to me and I’ve come to know him pretty well during the writing of the book: I know I’d like him as a friend and I just hope I’ve portrayed him in a way that makes the reader feel the same.

And as for those grunting tennis players – well maybe if I knew a little more about them – say they’d pulled a muscle just before the game and it actually hurt them to hit each ball – knowing that might just have prepared me to give a little more leeway…

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Grunting to Improve Performance

Last week, I had to stop watching a ladies Wimbledon match because I couldn’t stand the noisy grunts made by one of the players. Why do some players feel the need to grunt every time they hit a ball? Ping-pong players don’t do it and neither do squash, nor badminton players as far as I recall. Snooker players certainly don’t grunt and can you imagine marathon runners grunting their way through 26 miles!

Do the coaches or sports psychologists put them up to it? Does grunting release all their inner tension into the ball? Does it maximise their performance? Do grunters win more games than non-grunters? Are there stats for grunting?

If it does prove to enhance performance can we expect it to spread to other sports? Perhaps the government should commission a study – maybe we could grunt our way out of this recession.

Will it be only a matter of time before management gurus introduce grunting into the workplace?

Office workers could start each day with a grunt meeting, bricklayers would surely build walls faster by grunting every time they lay a brick. Will it spread to supermarket checkouts – a grunt to speed every item scanned through the till. Should staff in call centres grunt each time they answer the call? (Wait a minute, that may already be happening!)

Oh well, I’m going to stop grumbling and start grunting – watch this space and please tell me if it improves my blogging. Ugh!

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Sex Sells

I’m thinking of renaming my novel ’50 shades of White Van Man’ and adding some sex-in-the-back-of-the-van scenes.

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The Art of Mystery

My love of mysteries goes right back to childhood when I first discovered Enid Blyton books about The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and, my personal favourite: The Barney & Miranda Mysteries – what could be more exotic than a boy with a pet monkey! Soon, I progressed to more grown-up mystery stories such as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and R. L. Stephenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped.

Nowadays, I admire the writing of authors like Harlan Coben, Lynwood Barclay, Robert Goddard and Kate Atkinson, all of whom are masters of taking apparently unrelated strands and strange coincidences and weaving them together into an imaginative and wholly satisfying conclusion. It’s the care and attention to detail that I most respect.

I was reminded of this while walking around Cardiff Bay Barrage on a rare sunny day last week. There’s a gloriously mysterious piece of anamorphic art by the Swiss artist Felice Varini called ‘3 Ellipses for 3 Locks’ – his first work in the UK.

Visitors to the barrage might first notice baffling splotches of apparently random yellow paint daubed on the floor, railings, side walls and working parts of the locks. There’s even a great swathe of yellow on the harbour wall. Varini used photographic and projection techniques to measure precisely where each area of paint had to be placed and employed a team of mountaineers to reach the more difficult areas (note all that attention to detail – one small misplacement would have ruined the project). The work was completed between 11th and 25th March 2007. There’s only one vantage point on the barrage where the mystery can be solved and the lucky viewer that discovers it will be rewarded with the glorious sight of the 3 golden ellipses adorning the locks – just one step away in any direction and you can watch the mystery unravel before your eyes like a giant puzzle.

Oh to have the vision and ingenuity to create such masterpieces!

This art can only truly be appreciated by a visit but for those who can’t get to Cardiff here’s a photo montage.

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To see more of Varini’s work visit http://www.varini.org/02indc/indgen.html

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