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Archive for March, 2010

Things that irritate, no.403

March 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Some months back, on a whim, I bought a small battery powered personal grooming device when it was on special offer in the supermarket. It’s intended to trim nose hairs – something we men do occasionally have to pay attention to. Especially when we get past the age of [cough]. And yes, I change the battery in it regularly.
So it’s irritating when the blade sticks and jams on a nose hair. Disassembling it to free the blade while it’s in that position is worthy of a humorous story in its own right…

The local bookshop is closing

March 27, 2010 2 comments

So it says in the local paper. At the end of this month, after having been there for 40 years, apparently. It’s because they simply aren’t doing enough trade – online sales seem to be the main culprit, along with high business rates and the credit crunch.
A couple of other businesses have also announced closures and several have already closed, so pretty soon we’re going to lose the individuality of the town centre and its selection of small, specialist shops like this bookshop.
I have mixed feelings abut this. I never bought much from them because most of the things I actually want to buy are relatively specialist nonfiction or niche literature of one kind or another. I could go there, place an order and wait, then go back and pick up the book. Or I could order online and it would turn up a couple of days later, usually at a cheaper price from an Amazon reseller. So yes, bookshops do have a tough time these days.
However, as a community we will miss out, because they were specialist sellers of local history and did a fair bit of trade with hobbyists, mainly in areas such as vintage vehicle enthusiasts and model railways. I was always interested in the books they displayed on how to model a particular segment of railway line, circa 1948 and reconstructed from original plans and photos, or the history of mobile library vans – not that I actually bought these things, but was somehow (obscurely?) reassured that such stuff actually existed.
No doubt they could find another way to sell this stuff – from a market staff on Thursdays and Saturdays, or online or whatever. But I think the bit where we’ll suffer is that much of this material, including the local history, is published in pamphlet form, or self-published, often without ISBNs, and wouldn’t easily be available other than through the shop. Indeed it may not even be easy to track down online (and yes, I did just do some test searches!).
So what saddens me is that some of the more recondite local history is likely to become effectively unavailable.
As to the model railway stuff – there’s still a model railway shop that may stock this kind of material. The rest of it, I don’t know.
I don’t personally want to spend huge amounts of time getting involved in ‘saving’ local history and vintage mobile library history. But it does seem to me that there’s a case for someone, or some people, to start collecting a lot of this material and doing a print-on-demand service that could be run off a website… there has to be some publishing model that would work for niches like these that are not simply small, but tiny – though nonetheless seem to be important in terms of maintaining local identity and culture.

Don’t make assumptions…

March 26, 2010 2 comments

In between showers, went out to the local shops and to post a letter – a 5 minute walk. On the road ahead of me is a chav – typical trackie bottoms, scuffed hoodie, pulling a scabby dog on a bit of string. And he has his mobile phone out, holding it at arm’s length, muttering, squinting at the screen.
I figure he can’t be peering at a text, he must be using the camera function. Turn round. Behind me is a huge, strong, shimmering rainbow that’s come out after the last shower. That’s what he’s taking a pic of.

Success of the zombies

March 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Just heard Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction will run a story of mine in the upcoming TQF 34, due out in June – though the website warns that Stephen is doing a lot of stuff for the British Fantasy Society so timing could slip a bit! Zombie fiction with a bit of a twist.
In other news: I’m not at the World Horror Convention, which is where I wanted to be – too much to do in the past few weeks, both writing and playing a minor supporting role in relation to a couple of family illnesses. I hadn’t been able to organise either booking a place at the con, or making the time to get there.
Instead I’m sitting here writing ‘proper’ stuff about the training of solicitors, barristers and paralegals, which is all surprisingly subtle and complex.

What did famous writers earn?

March 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Here’s a random thing I found via a group on Linkedin. It points out how many well-known writers had day jobs, what they did and what they earned.
Some were reasonably well paid – Henry Fielding and Trollope, for example – while others were on tiny salaries. Charlotte Bronte was paid a pittance as a governess, though used those experiences to write Jayne Eyre. Kafka did okay (though not brilliantly given his doctorate in law).
I guess the point is that even people we now regard as famous writers (your view of whether they were great writers may vary) still needed a day job and the security of its salary for most of their lives.
Links:

http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/visual/charts-graphs/day-jobs.php

http://papercuts.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/18/writing-stiffs/

The latter has some links in it to very nice essays about the experience of being a writer. You can go there to read them, there’s no point in repeating that stuff here!

Things I should have done, but didn’t

March 21, 2010 Leave a comment

1. Gone to Radio Cake at Fabrika.
2. Gone to the last Shortfuse.
3. Gone to the Indie Book Fair at De Montford Uni – couple of sessions I wanted to see.
4. Gone out pretty much anywhere – the countryside for example

I do feel bad about not getting out more. I plan to go places, but get overtaken by stuff that happens around the home, and/or in my head. Instead I’ve been writing stuff, doing a fairly poor job of looking after a poorly V, spray-painting an old rococo-ish wrought-iron garden shelf that will become a bedroom bookshelf (eventually and after a few more coats) and allowing myself to get annoyed at the fact some magazines haven’t even bothered to send rejections for stuff sent 8-9 months ago. On the plus side of writing I had a sudden burst of ideas for stories so I’m now writing four simultaneously along with the thing I’m supposed to be doing, a training module on career choices. A couple are coming along quite well and the other couple will have to go on the back-burner for bit… and hopefully by the end of this evening I’ll have hung the rococo mirror on the bedroom wall rather than have it sat in packaging in the middle of the living room.
I’m kind of envious of a friend who posts on LiveJournal – one day Liverpool, next day Torquay. I think I should be that footloose. I’m going to try to make that happen in the coming weeks!

CVs, sense and sensibility

March 20, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve spent the last few days writing the section of of a training course that deals with writing CVs and resumes. It’s been unexpectedly interesting, perversely enough because most of the material I’ve been dealing with tries to be so damn serious and sensible, and I’ve been buried under a ton or it – advice from jobsearch websites, templates for CVs, example CVs and the like.
Most of the rules for writing CVs and resumes are straightforward and obvious – which is not to say we don’t all need reminding of them from time to time.
Keep it simple (content, language, structure, formatting) because whoever reads it is going to get bored within seconds if the print is too small, layout too fussy, or inappropriate technical language is used. Okay, if you’re a research chemist, automotive engineer, IT specialist or the like you may need to use technical and scientific terms to explain what you’ve been doing for the last few years but most of us aren’t and don’t.
Keep it as short as you reasonably can (1-2 pages for a resume, 3-4 if possible for a CV). No one reading these things wants to scroll through 13 pages of stuff, and the worth of a CV isn’t measured by the weight of the paper pr length of the file.
If there’s an ‘industry standard’ for your industry, use that structure. IT in particular expects a format that doesn’t follow the generic guidelines.
The last couple of decades seems to have seen a move towards opening CVs and resumes with a short personal profile or personal statement. This needs to be specific – ‘good sense of humour’ (or even ‘twisted sense of humour’) may be a de facto requirement of many jobs but no one who reads a CV is going to want to read that. And what makes your particular sense of humour ‘good’ anyway?
For the rest, there seem to be two general patterns to choose from. The first is a short list of skills and experiences, with education and employment shown afterwards as essentially the ‘evidence’ for the key points you want to present about yourself. The second is a more traditional format with qualifications and employment history first, and the skills and experiences section following as an indication of what a reader should be able to interpret from the ‘raw data’.
I have to say, though, that one of the things that strikes me about CVs is how far the quest for seriousness seems to drive out creativity. I doubt that CVs have ever been regarded as appropriate documents for the exercise of creative imagination (ok, people tweak CVs to fit particular job and person specifications and there can be some re-interpretation of one’s life history involved…).
In part this will be down to matters such as legal requirements and processes. If the job of putting bells and whistles on things can legally only be done by someone with appropriate professional qualifications and certification to practise, your CV will need to state that you have been a fully accredited member of the Institute of Bell and Whistle Design and Fitting Professionals since 1973 (or whatever). Recruiters would need to know that. Some of it will also be down to the business culture, because people want to recruit dedicated people who are serious about making a contribution to the corporate enterprise.
However it’s at this point that I thank my lucky stars I’m freelance. And I’ll share a secret with you. I haven’t updated my CV or resume for well over a year. This is because most of my work is self-generated and stands or falls on its own merits, not on a list of previous experience and skills.
As and when I do update them, they should probably start with a profile along the lines of ‘Jon Vagg is an experienced writer, editor, proofreader and researcher. He has a PhD in sociology and writes distance learning courses and training materials in the areas of social science and management. He has also authored several academic and nonfiction books, along with numerous articles and some short stories.’
Finally (for this post) if you’re a creative type, you’re in trouble. Many sources say CVs for ‘creatives’ are often difficult to construct and frequently don’t read in a standard format because they can’t. Frequently they will just boil down to a list of published pieces, or discography, or paintings completed/exhibited/sold, along with a rough indication of current projects. They might include stuff like media appearances, voluntary work and the like, but it’s debatable how much of who a creative ‘is’ can be captured in any traditional CV format.
For me personally, the ‘creative’ side of what I do means that the short author tags that go on jacket blurbs, lists of contributors, etc. are more significant than CVs (not least because they’re probably read by at least three or four more people!). And the idea is usually to intrigue and amuse. I can offer two versions.
The semi-formal statement, used at a recent local literary event: ‘Jon Vagg is primarily an author of educational and training materials. He has been writing speculative/science fiction for around 10 years but only recently started to get published. In 2009 his short stories appeared in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Sinister Tales, Ballista and Ignavia. He is a recent member (though infrequent attender) of the Speculators writing group.’
The off-the-wall statement, currently tagged to stories sent out to SF/horror mags: ‘Jon Vagg drinks too much coffee and gets bored easily. Much of his writing is done late at night. The nature of his imagination means he has no social life to speak of. He is based in the UK and has previously published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Ballista, Ignavia, and online in Dark Fire.’
It would be interesting to speculate about what ‘creative’ things some professional/business people might say about themselves if given the chance, and whether these comments might reveal more intriguing sides of them than their CV.

Beauty and the beast?

March 15, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s been an interesting weekend. Not a lot of sleep, but interesting. In the early hours of Sunday morning someone I know was assaulted outside a nightclub and ended up as an emergency admission in hospital. Actually he’s ok and now discharged, and this post isn’t about him. I drove his mum, V, over to the hospital, and we found him in an assessment unit, under observation.
In the same ward was a woman waiting for psychiatric assessment. And we got to talking. Her story was essentially this. She’s a single mother, professional job, and she’s bought into the whole commercial/advertising beauty thing of how unless you’re perfect in every physical way, you’re worthless as a person. Bought into it really heavily, because once you start noticing it, it’s in every women’s mag and a huge proportion of TV adverts, along with every other advertising media you can think of.
Now at this point we’re into ‘as if’ speculations. Because I’m male, I have grey hair and my teeth will start falling out soon unless I can be bothered to fix the overdue dentist’s appointment. And basically I don’t really care. For 99% of the time, anyway, all anybody ever sees of me is the words I write.
But if I were female, late 30s/early 40s, and there’s that much media telling me how I need to be perfect physically, and I’m also trying to work and bring up a kid and feel insecure and don’t have a partner to support me, how would I react to that kind of pressure? Would I feel completely insecure if I had lifeless hair and a couple of crow’s feet beginning to show around the eyes?
OK, so I have no idea if there’s a longer back story to her illness. And there probably is. But it seemed at face value as if she’d touched on something important to her and possibly to many other women as well; the way advertising, and other media content, exploit women’s insecurities in search of a fast buck and the ‘collateral damage’ of this exploitation.
So the three of us – me, V and the woman – went and had a cigarette (another of my failings though socially useful in this case), for which we had to walk about a mile to some specially designated zone. And in the course of the smoke, both V and I told her that beauty isn’t about physical appearance, it’s about how you feel inside. Everyone has a kind of inner beauty that comes with confidence and feeling secure in yourself. If you can connect with that, you look beautiful to others irrespective of your physical looks and makeup. Equally, we all have dark periods when we lose the plot. That’s life. And we know that in those dark periods you think you’ll never come out the other side, but somehow we do. And if you can find a way to get just a little bit of confidence back, it can all come back really quickly.
So as a tribute to an unknown woman waiting for psychiatric admission, I’d say this is a story about beauty and the beast. Except in this version, she’s the beauty but she just doesn’t know it. The beast, unfortunately, can’t be slain. But it can be made irrelevant and powerless if she just realises she’s beautiful anyway.
And while I’m on a rant I’d just like to nod to Karen Ranney on writing romance, which is a powerful post and one that was waiting on my PC when we got back from the hospital. It was that post, really, that made me think I should write this one. OK, she writes romance and I write SF and horror, but there’s something fundamental about human experience that she touches on and it transcends our respective genres…

Saturday afternoon, bored!

March 13, 2010 2 comments

By 4pm I’d worked my way through three stories I’ve written in the last few months, rewritten sections, repurposed one with extensive editing and by including extra material, and put them back out to magazines. Whether I’ve made the wisest choice of magazines is a whole other question, of course.
I’d also written up four different bits that have occurred to me, usually by waking in the middle of the night in recent nights (on my time schedule that means about 6-7am) and decided that one idea is really a ‘chapter 2′ of one of the stories I ‘d sent out – so if they don’t want it, it’s suddenly become chapter 1 of a novella and if they do, I’ll have to write something else to get to the point at which my idea picks up a plot and runs with it.
I go through periods when not much happens, in the sense that I’m not getting replies (acceptance or rejection) from things I’ve sent out, and my response is to have a sudden burst of creativity like I did today – but now I have all this new stuff in my head and can’t decide what to work on first.
Beyond that, I still have the nagging feeling that I probably shouldn’t be working on any of it, because most shorts end up going for cheap (if all three of the stories are accepted, the total payment for first serial rights would be in the region of $35). What I should really be doing is focusing on novellas/novels where there’s both a print and electronic market that pays not a lot per download or per copy, but hopefully does actually make a bit more income over a longer term.
I realise this may all be a bit incoherent; but the bottom line is that sometimes I respond to boredom by having a bout of hyperactivity – though often not in quite the way that really has an eye to the most important issues!

Stench VI

March 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Early in the evening Star Trek: Yoyager was on TV. B’elanna says to Seven something along the lines of ‘You have to watch the warp coil like a hawk, it can be unpredictable’. Seven says it’s only a propulsion device. B’elanna says ‘But it has a mind and personality of its own.’
Cut to later in the evening at The Art Organisation, Leicester. The stage has a couple of laptops and a pile of repurposed circuit boards stripped out from discarded electronic kit. It’s impossible to tell which sounds are sampled, which are generated from scrapped and modified circuitry. It looks like this is indeed a pile of junk that has a mind and personality of its own, and the performers are interacting with that mind and personality as much as controlling it. The overall effect varies from ethereal birdsong to heavy driving industrial beats.
From an audience perspective it looks like chaos theory at work. A performer gently tweaks a knob and whatever input that adds to the mix (which might be a signal controlling another sound) has the effect of a butterfly that beats its wings and whips up a hurricane.
It’s an acquired taste, but if you’ve ever gone to sleep with the radio on and woken up sometime in the middle of the night to find the signal has drifted, there’s a beat created by phasing between two stations and loops of static and interference – and found that it’s weird in an interesting way – you’ll have the idea. It’s almost trancelike, and the music of dreams. My dreams anyway, and presumably those of the respectably large audience.
At the end of the evening, Kanta Horio did some intimate, amusing and fascinating stuff on a very small scale with old computer fans, electromagnets making ball bearings jump about in little boxes, springs used as reverb units and suchlike. This is a style of performance that seems quirky, distinctive, unique.
There seems to be an increasing interest in this kind of music. Perhaps some people have come to it from the contemporary industrial music scene, some from looking back at the origins of it in the more or less experimental work of groups such as Einsturzende Neubauten, and some from the (now rather dated) avant-garde of Stockhausen. Perhaps some have just latched on to the aesthetic of recycling old stuff to make new and interesting stuff, the way that people like Survival Research Labs have done for redundant military equipment that gets re-made into performing robots. But whatever the sources and influences, the effects are remarkable.
Stench appears to be a collective of 30-plus people (though only a handful were involved in last night’s performance). It describes itself as an ‘artist-led forum for innovative performance, experimental music and digital arts … open to anyone who is interested in being involved in creative projects that go beyond the mainstream’. They will be performing again in April and August, and apparently are running workshops over the summer.
Read more at Stench’s pineapster page.

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