Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
Out of Tune book 2 edited by Jonathan Maberry, Lara Croft and the Blade of Gwynnever, and Crises and Conflicts edited by Ian Whates

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Britain’s Got Talent signals Brexit.

No… I’m serious.

Two and a half million people managed to cast votes for the acts on Britain’s Got Talent on Saturday night, during a sixteen minute window. If only people were that keen to cast their political votes. Had people voted in the last general election at the same rate they voted for talent show contestants, the polls could have been closed in under three hours.

The magician won Britain’s Got Talent.

I’ve got nothing against Richard Jones, personally. I’ve seen better magicians… I happen to know, personally, a better magician. I also know a little about Britain’s Got Talent and how the production team works on the acts. 

Richard Jones is in the armed forces, and he claims to love his job, but not enough to stop him pursuing his hobby and the possibility of becoming a professional showman. That’s OK, too. I don’t hold it against him. We should all be ambitious. Why not go ahead and do the thing you love, professionally. Let’s face it, my entire household income relies on precisely this phenomenon.

Richard Jones does close magic. In his original audition and his semi-final show, Jones wore a jacket. In his first audition, he didn’t even choose to wear a tie. Magicians present themselves in all kinds of ways, but practitioners of close magic generally wear a kind of uniform based around the dark suit. My magician friend sometimes wears bright accessories: a colourful tie, shoes and a hat. 

The final of Britain’s Got Talent generally gives the production team the opportunity to go a little bigger and a little better than they choose or can afford to do for other shows. Great! We all get a bit of a spectacle.

For the final, Richard Jones worked his magic while wearing his dress uniform. A man generally looks pretty impressive in uniform, and his was extremely smart, but I thought it was also unnecessarily jingoistic. Richard Jones had members of his regimental band on stage, in full regalia, and to cap it all, he wheeled out a nonagenarian serviceman/magician, who fought for his country in World War II.

The Telegraph reports on Richard Jones winning Britain's Got Talent

Mixing Richard Jones’s professional life with his hobby paid off. 

But how many members of the British public were voting for the magician and how many for the uniform and the flag? How responsible was that uniform for galvanising the masses into voting for an act that they identified with because they believed it was patriotic?

The act was sentimental, and the trick was old, but the veteran who was wheeled out to supplement the magic was ancient and affable, and he had served his country. He has a right to any amount of pride that he feels in his individual achievement; he’s earned it. Richard Jones showed us a trick, and that doesn’t earn him any national pride.

This year’s Britain’s Got Talent showcased some very impressive acts. I didn’t like all of them, and none of the three acts voted for by the public were my top picks. None of the top talents were as talented as many of the runners-up. On the other hand, I’m not the target audience for the show. I hadn’t watched Britain’s Got Talent before the dort appeared on the show two years ago, and I only watched the final this year, and only because I had a backache and the husband was doing something else.

The referendum to decide whether we will remain in the EU is lurching ever closer, and it is clearly on people’s minds. The media has covered the arguments, politicians have talked about their preferences, and patriotism has reared its head. 

If a magician can win a talent show on the strength of a sentimental story and a crisp uniform, I suspect that the Great British Public, such as it is, will vote to leave the EU.

It would appear, however, that Simon Cowell and David Walliams agree on something. They appear to agree on certain political issues, and, who knows? that might include staying in the EU.

How do I know this?

I know this, because Simon Cowell made a rather pointed remark when he was talking to the dance troupe Boogie Storm, his Golden Buzzer choice.

Boogie Storm and BGT as reported in the Telegraph

Simon Cowell said this:

We embrace people from other galaxies, and I think that we prove we have some very important decisions coming up in this country. Voting you as the winners of Britain’s Got Talent makes a very important statement.

And David Walliams added:

Wow! What an amazing point, well put.

It all looked like perfectly innocent fun… It wasn’t, and it isn’t.

We’ve been given the opportunity to vote for or against remaining in Europe. I know which way I’ll be voting. I’ve been on the losing side in almost every election I’ve voted in, but I will continue to cast my vote. I will continue to vote my conscience. 

As far as the referendum is concerned, if the results of Britain’s Got Talent are anything to go by, I’ll be on the losing side again. What troubles me more is that we’ll all be on the losing side.

And if, after all that, you fancy employing a magician to entertain you, I can recommend Adam Hoffman:

Monday, 21 March 2016

A Fair Day's Wage for a Fair Day's Work

Of course, this is a Socialist precept, and the cry of the labour movement everywhere. I'm not sure anyone could disagree with it. It has always related to 'work' in the traditional sense, though. It has never, so far as I know, been applied to intellectuals or to the arts.

I was offered a gig yesterday.

It’s always nice to hear from editors looking for stories for anthologies. I like reading short stories, and I love to write them. I don’t write a lot of them, and I tend not to write on-spec and then look for somewhere to sell stories. I like to have a focus.

I like to write short stories to order. I like to have a target. Anthologies are good for that. They’re generally genre specific, and there’s usually a theme to follow. They’re the kind of targets I like. Focus is good.

Every so often, an editor will e-mail me to offer me a gig, a slot in an anthology. I generally find a way to say ‘yes’. I like writing shorts and I can generally fit them into my schedule. I also like to be stretched, so any target is a good target. I’ve written SF, Horror, Urban Fantasy… all sorts of things. I’ve always enjoyed it.

Once or twice, my stories haven’t made the cut, and I’ve sold them on elsewhere. It doesn’t happen often, but when I’ve got something I like, I’m happy to move it on, and I’ve never been left with anything in the drawer. I wish I could say the same about some of my novels.

Sadly, there’s been a shift in publishing. Sadly, the last couple of times I’ve been offered a short story gig, it’s come with a caveat.

Yesterday, I was offered a gig by an editor, and that’s great; the down side was that I wasn’t offered a paying gig. This particular editor at this particular small press decided that it was OK to ask professional writers to write for free.

I’d probably be shocked if I wasn’t so damned disappointed. I’d probably be shocked if it hadn’t happened before, and if it hadn’t also happened to the husband.

Self-publishing is very popular now. A lot of would-bes and wannabes are publishing their work for themselves on various platforms, hoping that they’ll sell, and perhaps that they’ll be picked up by traditional publishers. For most of them, it doesn’t work. For most of them it doesn’t differ very much from the old vanity publishing. Of course, vanity publishing cost money, and self-publishing can be done on a shoestring, but it’s still about circumventing the problem of having the work appraised, criticised, edited and published. It’s a way of side-stepping the gatekeepers.

When an editor at a small press expects writers to write for free, the publisher is simply extending the self-publishing model. Publishers pay writers to write. That’s the whole point. When a publisher asks a writer to write for free, he is no longer a publisher he is a third-party self-publisher.

I value what I do. It’s my job.

I don’t know anybody else who works for no money.

When I decide to give something away that I’ve written, I do it here, on the blog, and I do it for my own reasons. I do it to talk to all of you. I do it to entertain. I do it as a gift.

I have talked on this blog, often, about self-publishing. I don’t like it. I don’t think it works, and I absolutely would not do it.

Given that I wouldn’t do it for myself. I absolutely would not do it through a third party. Third party self-publishing makes money for small presses that shouldn’t be in business at all if they can’t pay the talent they are exploiting.

Publishers take a risk. They believe in a writer’s talent, so they pay for it. That’s the risk. They bring the resources, the writer brings the talent, and there’s a relationship. The publisher who isn’t taking that risk doesn’t need to believe in the talent. The publisher who isn’t taking the risk doesn’t need to be a gatekeeper any more, because the product doesn’t need to succeed. There is no investment. I don’t want to be part of that kind of arrangement.

I was offered a gig yesterday. 

I liked the target, and I would’ve enjoyed writing the story. Sadly, I can’t do it, because the small press that offered me the gig decided that it didn’t want to pay me for my work. 

Me, the writer who insist on being paid.
Creators work, too.
I’m baffled, though. I’m baffled, because the e-mail I received was enthusiastic and comprehensive. The e-mail I received offering me this gig, included a roster of writers who have committed to this project. Honest to goodness, I would have loved for my name to have appeared alongside those on that roster. The list included writers that I have read and admired, writers that are well-known and popular. It appals me that writers of this calibre are not only being invited to write for free, but that they are accepting those invitations.

I think it’s time that we all stopped accepting jobs that don’t pay, and by all of us, I don’t just mean writers, I mean creators of all kinds.

As far as publishing is concerned, it would probably mean the demise of some of the small presses, but, as it turns out, they’re not viable businesses as they stand. That won’t diminish the quality of the best writers out there. It might mean they write fewer stories, but they will, at least, be guaranteed payment for every story they write. I’m all for that.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

From Each according to his Ability, to Each according to his Need

Yes, that’s socialism, and you all know that I’m a socialist. I’m probably what a lot of Americans would refer to as a Liberal Intellectual, but I’d add Socialist Feminist to that.

It’s a mouthful, isn’t it?

It makes me sound like an idealist, too, and I suppose that I am, but not necessarily in the way that you think.

More than I believe in anything else, I believe in being responsible. And, like charity, responsibility begins at home. I believe that the first person we need to be responsible for is ourself. I believe strongly that the first thing we must do is admit to our failures and our mistakes. I believe strongly in honesty.

Because who could resist a portrait of
Karl Marx
You’ll all remember from each according to his ability, to each according to his need from studying Karl Marx, or from not studying him, but simply from knowing the little we all know about Communism, but the fact is that few of us know very much, and we all know just enough to be ignorant.

This idea is older than memory. It is borrowed from the New Testament. The idea of community, of shared responsibility, of this kind of socialism can be found in Acts of the Apostles 4, 32-35:

32 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.
33 And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.
34 Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
35 And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

The French utopian Étienne-Gabriel Morelly took up the idea in 1775 when he outlined his ideas for his Code of Nature, which included:

Every citizen will make his particular contribution to the activities of the community according to his capacity, his talent and his age; it is on this basis that his duties will be determined, in conformity with the distributive laws.

In 1851, the socialist, Louis Blanc also adopted the idea, and was among the first to use the word ‘capitalism’, in this particular context:

...what i call 'capitalism' that is to say the appropriation of capital by some to the exclusion of others.

Redistribution of wealth is something that we all live with, even in the Capitalist society that we all live in and subscribe to, and it has to be a good thing. It surely behoves us to look after the least of us, to ensure that our children are cared for and educated, that our sick are hospitalised and that our old are comfortable.

You know that I’m going somewhere with this, don’t you?

This is my first blog of the week, so you know that I’m going to refer to a news article that I read in the weekend papers.

The article I read was about social housing. I’m in favour of social housing. I never lived in a council house, but I know people who have. As a child, I did live in tied housing. My father was allocated housing as part remuneration for his job. While he was in that job our housing was secure at a stipulated rent. The houses weren’t furnished, but they were maintained. My parents were also allowed to buy their home under a similar scheme to the council house sales scheme in the late eighties.

As an adult, I haven’t lived in council housing, but I have rented privately. Again, I know people who have been in the unfortunate position of having to rely on social housing.

Capitalism, by its very nature, creates an economic system that is cyclical. There are boom times and there are depressions. During those times of depression, there are large increases in unemployment, and where there is unemployment there is poverty. Of course there is never a time of full employment. The latest figures, June to August 2015, show unemployment at about 1.8 million and falling in the UK. 

But unemployment isn’t the only thing responsible for poverty. According to the Poverty and Social Exclusion Research team 45% of people in the UK live in households that could not pay an unexpected expense, and 35% struggle to make ends meet. There’s plenty of poverty out there. The minimum wage keeps a lot of families on the poverty line, the cost of living is high with housing a big part of that, and the standard of living is dropping.

Some would argue that social housing is as important as it has ever been. Families need homes, and the poorest families need the most help. It’s tough to argue any of that.

The minimum wage is currently about £12,000 per year. Assuming that a young couple are living together and that both are working full-time at the minimum wage, that’s £24,000 between them. The average cost of a two bed flat in the town where I live is £950 per month. So one entire income must be reserved for rent. The average cost of full-time childcare for a toddler in the UK is £450 per month. So, this couple could not afford to have a child and continue to maintain two full-time incomes and their home. If they happened to live in Southwark, their rent would be £1700 per month, and they wouldn’t stand a chance.

What, then, of the 58 year old single woman, earning £55,000 a year, who is only paying £650 per month for her flat in Bloomsbury, Central London? She’s been renting her flat from social housing for six years. She doesn’t save. Private rents in her area are £2,000 per month. She could afford to pay it. She would be a single person, responsible only for herself with earnings after rent of over £30,000 per year.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

The point is that there are plans afoot to cap the amount that council tenants can earn before their rents go up in line with the private rental market.

I am a socialist, but part of the point of being a socialist is that we believe in personal responsibility. Part of the point is that we contribute when we are able.

Social housing must be available for those who need it, and there should probably be more of it. Of course, more social housing would be available if those who no longer needed it gave it up when their circumstances improved.

Someone close to me once needed and secured social housing. He worked hard, saved, did better, and, when he was able, he bought his own home. It was a struggle, and his mortgage payments were significantly more than his council rent, but he saw social housing as a stepping stone not a lifestyle choice. That’s how the system is supposed to work.

There will always be people who need continued help and support, and I want to support those people on a longterm basis. 

A couple was cited in the article. They earn £56,000 between them, and pay only £550 per month rent. To rent privately in their area would cost around £1700 per month, and they could afford it, but they have chosen to stay in their council flat. Of course they would be less well off if they rented privately or bought, but how many of their neighbours, friends and co-workers earn less than they do, but find a way to pay those rents? They say they want to remain in their community and they say they value their friends and neighbours, and yet they set themselves apart from them by doing what they are doing. They only want to stay in their community if they can maintain their lifestyle at a cost to the rest of us, and some of that cost falls on the poorest. All the time they remain in their social housing flat they are depriving someone who has a greater need. They are not taking responsibility for themselves and they are not contributing. They are appalled that their rent could rise. If it did, that money might be used for more social housing. They got the help they needed when they needed it; why should they deprive others of that help now that they are in a secure financial position?

The problem with socialism is that it makes these kinds of people feel entitled. If they were ever taught humility, they have long since forgotten what it is to be humble.

Being given the use of something doesn’t mean it belongs to you.

Social housing is about the loan of a home, and, like anything else that is on loan, when you no longer need it, you hand it back in the condition that it was loaned to you. Just because it was loaned by the council and not an individual doesn’t change the rules. Where is the humility and the gratitude? We are lucky to live in a society in which there is the opportunity for us to care for each other and to be cared for by each other. This can only happen when people understand responsibility.

There should be no need to cap the amount that council tenants earn and then raise their rents to match the private rental market. If we all learnt a bit of responsibility, council tenants would take it upon themselves to find alternative accommodation when their finances allowed it and simply hand back the keys to their social housing properties with smiles on their faces and songs in their hearts.

These might not be my favourite people to hate. In the end, the financial gains from raising council rents will be small, and there are very much bigger fish to fry when it comes to social injustice. Let’s go after the corporations for massive tax evasion, shall we? That would be a decent step in the right direction, and would more than fulfil the main tenet of Socialism that I outlined so painstakingly at the start of this blog.

I can’t help feeling a certain amount of contempt for these people, though. They can’t have their cake and eat it. Either they’re socialists, in which case they should contribute to the system when they can, since they’ve been so content to reap its benefits; or, they’re capitalist, in which case they had no business applying for social housing in the first place, since doing so clearly flies in the face of everything they believe.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Six Degrees of Separation… by Accident

OK, in this particular case, not quite six degrees.

Once in a while, I’m reminded of someone from my distant past, someone from school or university, and I wonder whatever might have happened to him or her. It’s often difficult to find those people now, especially the women. Time moves on; it’s three decades since I left university for goodness sake.

Nevertheless, we have the internet, so I always do a quick google search, just, you know, out of curiosity.

Last evening, sitting around, watching television and catching up with each other, the husband, the dort and I were talking about names. There is some confusion about our names; it’s something I’ve talked about before.

You all know that I’ve never felt very comfortable with my given name, and that I generally go by Nik. This confuses people. It confuses them because it’s not a standard feminine abbreviation, and there are still people who insist on calling me Nicky (or is it Nikki?). Some of those people get away with it, others I gently correct. Formally, I occasionally use Nicola, and overseas, too, but otherwise, only members of my very immediate family ever refer to me by that name.

I should probably have changed my name a very long time ago; I have thought of it often.

I deed-polled my surname, and both of my children chose to deed-poll theirs. They don’t have the names that they were born with. It was a family thing, and it didn’t change anything or cause stress or anxiety when it happened.

The dort also goes by a first name that isn’t her given name, although it is a recognised first name. This isn’t as odd as it sounds, and it’s very common in my family. Neither of my parents called each other by their given names, and none of my mother’s siblings used their given names. Several of my father’s relatives were also known by names that didn’t appear on their birth certificates. I have a brother who doesn’t use his given name, either… It rather makes me wonder how I got stuck with mine.

I mentioned that the dort might change her given name, by deed poll to the name that she goes by, but she’s perfectly content to leave things as they are. Questions are raised from time to time, but she says that it’s easier than having to produce additional proofs of identity every time she fills in a form, and, of course, she’s right.

We started to talk about what I might change my name to. It’s a tricky business, choosing a name, and many were mooted, but nothing stuck. The name I would choose for myself is, apparently, the name of the dullest woman on Earth. I rather like that. I rather hope that it might mean, in person, I’d confound expectations.

The dort came up with a string of options, and I only halted when she landed on Vivien.

I have no special fondness for the name Vivien, and it’s probably not one I would have come up with on my own, except that when the dort mentioned it I remembered something.

I remembered a girl that I was at school with. She was extraordinarily beautiful, and, although I didn’t know her well, I remember her telling me once that her name, in full, meant lovely lily, little bay. It sounded rather romantic to me then, and I can’t help thinking that it still does.

There wasn’t a huge amount of ethnic diversity in the grammar school that I attended in Kent, except that, in a way, there was. De Cala, Vivien’s name, isn’t terribly Anglo-Saxon, is it? I imagine she must have been Spanish or Portuguese, but if I ever knew I’ve since forgotten. I do know that I went to school with one girl who was Polish and another who was Armenian. The girl who sat next to me in Chemistry was Iranian and the tall, striking blonde in my form was Icelandic. There were Smiths and Browns, but there was also a DuQuesne and an Adjentetti.

Anyway, I’m wandering horribly off the point.

I was reminded of Vivien De Cala, and of what she told me about her name, because the lily is meaningful to me.

I talked about the name and it’s meaning, and I talked about the beautiful girl I was at school with. The dort suggested I google her, and so I did; who knows, I might have anyway. I didn’t hold out much hope of finding her, because women of my generation married, and when we married we took our husbands’ names.

Douglas Booth and his Wiki page
Google search did, however, come up with a hit for a woman called Vivien de Cala. There wasn't a photograph, and even if there were I haven’t seen the girl I was at school with for thirty-five years, so I don’t know whether I’d recognise her.

Vivien de Cala’s name popped up on a Wikipedia page… it popped up on somebody else’s Wikipedia page, because if this is the girl I was at school with then she’s a mother now, and she’s the mother of somebody who has made a name for himself. Given how beautiful this young man is, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if the girl I was at school with did happen to be his mother, but what a very strange person to be separated from by a single degree of Kevin Bacon.

I might, just might have been at school with Douglas Booth’s mum… If her name had been Jane Smith or even Alison Tate, I’d be a little less confident, but how many women do you suppose there are out there with a name that translates as lovely lily, little bay.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Little Things that Mean a Lot

I don’t think of myself as a terribly materialistic person, or an acquisitive one, either.

I do like shoes, but I also have a pair of boots that I bought more than three decades ago, and I still wear them. I don’t change my clothes on a seasonal basis, either. I’ve got favourites that I’ve been wearing for decades, and a smaller wardrobe than the husband. I like jewellery and art, too, but that’s not spending, that’s simply a transfer of wealth. 

We all have little things, though, don’t we?

I have little things.

I have pens, for example. I don’t like cheap pens. Cheap pens are horrible to use and they’re disposable, so we lend them and lose them and treat them with little or no regard. Over the years I have bought a number of good pens. I keep one in my handbag, another on my desk and one on my bedside table. I have five in total and I know where all of them are at any given time. I look after them. I look after them because I like them as tools, but also because I know what they cost and I value them.

As a consequence of buying and using good pens, I haven’t bought a cheap pen for a number of years, and so my over all outlay on pens is now virtually zero. Of course, I do have to buy refills for my good pens from time to time, but a refill still lasts significantly longer than a cheap pen, not least because I won’t lose it, break it or give it away. The upside is that I always have a beautiful, reliable writing tool… always! I have five of them and one of them lives in my handbag, so I’m covered.

I generally don’t become very attached to objects. Twice, I have left everything behind; I have shut the door on a home and left, more-or-less, in the clothes on my back. It is hugely liberating. I might not recommend it, because I guess it takes a particular type of person to have the nerve to walk away from the trappings of a life, but I’m certainly glad that I was able to do it when push came to shove. I didn’t look back on either occasion, and both experiences taught me valuable lessons, about myself and about life.

There’s always something, though… There are always one or two objects that matter. Some things matter because they are familiar, some because of associations, some because they have been around for a long time… Some for reasons that are simply beyond explanation. But, there’s always something that matters.

Once in a while, in one of those quick-fire interviews, a celebrity might be asked what possession he would rescue from a burning building. I don’t have many things that would fit into that category, and in the end, I guess there isn’t anything that I honestly couldn’t live without if the need arose.

I’m all about the people I love… Trust me when I tell you that losing a person is the only time for grief. That’s when hearts are broken.

A big occasion, but the dress was a decade old and in my
bag was a good pen and that object
There are a couple of objects that I carry everywhere with me. One of those objects was bought for me by the husband a decade or more ago. We were in Paris and it was a small but extravagant and useful gift. I loved it then and I love it now.

Several days ago, I lost that object. We were at home, and it was one of those strange occasions when one moment I had the object and the next it was gone. In the first minutes I took no notice, because I knew it had to be in the vicinity of where I was sitting in the drawing room. It couldn’t simply have disappeared. An hour passed and I felt the need to look around for it. I couldn’t see it.

Before I went to bed that night, I looked for it for several minutes, but couldn’t find it. It was late and the drawing room isn’t terribly well-lit, so I decided to look again in the morning. The object is small, but not perishable, so I decided that it would turn up.

The husband was first up the next morning and he looked for it without success. I looked for it too.

That little object became our main topic of conversation over the following days. I dragged out all the furniture, lifted the rug, checked all of my clothes and began to retrace my steps and check the rest of the house. 

The husband and I went over and over what I had been doing that evening when I had lost it. We talked about where we had been and what we had been doing. We talked about where our pets had been… We talked endlessly.

I began to fret.

I had been carrying my useful little souvenir of Paris for a long time. I used it every day. It went into every pocket and every handbag and was my constant companion. It was strange not to have it, not to use it. I didn’t like that it was missing, even though I knew that it had to be in the house, in the drawing room, somewhere close to where I always sit when I’m in that room.

At this time of the year, it is my custom to build a fire in the stove before we settle in for the evening… At least on the evenings when we spend some time together in the drawing room. I don’t know why the stove is my job, but since we put it in, I have always tended to it, except when the dort’s boyff is with us, in which case, he builds the fire.

This evening, I poured myself a glass of wine and prepped the fire. I made faggots out of newspaper and I reached a hand into the bag of kindling that sits to one side of the hearth. I had to dig deep for the last handful of wood chips because the bag was almost empty. I put the kindling on top of the faggots and reached in again, thinking there was one last piece of wood in the bottom of the bag, even though it seemed too small, too hard and too heavy. It was elusive, too, sliding around the bottom of the bag as I tried to scoop it up.

Then I got my hand around it, and I smiled. 

I had found it.

I knew before I pulled my hand out of the kindling bag to take a look that I had finally found what had been missing for almost a week. I cannot tell you how pleased I was.

I don’t know how it got there, except that the bag of kindling stands on the floor behind and to the left of the table that stands at my elbow as I sit in my usual place on the sofa in the drawing room. I can only assume that I fumbled as I placed the object on the table and that, somehow, it bounced or fell into the bag of kindling. Being small and heavy, it fell between the wood chips to the bottom of the bag, and I only found it when the kindling was used up.

It’s a small thing, but it was bought with love and I use it every day. I missed it when it wasn’t to hand, I moved everything within several feet of its last known location to find it, and I spent valuable time thinking about it.

Sometimes, objects have meaning far beyond their value or usefulness, sometimes they have associations to time and place and to people, and that’s OK.

I wouldn’t want to be bogged down by a lot of stuff. I hate getting to the point at which I feel that stuff is owning me rather than the other way around (remind me to tell you about the condiment shelf one of these days), but souvenirs, mementos, reminders… they’re rather lovely things, and I was very happy to be reunited with one of mine.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Writing Software

Bibbling through my Twitter feed yesterday, I came across something extraordinary, so I thought I’d write about it.

Someone had retweeted something that I didn’t quite understand, so I went to the original conversation and ended up reading through lots of comments from lots of writers about tools, and in particular apps that they use when they're working.

I’ve talked about my writing process before. It involves sitting in front of a black screen with a white page on it, and writing. I happen to use Pages, because that’s what my Mac comes with. I choose fonts and layouts according to the genre I’m writing in, but I like the page to look the way it will look in its final incarnation, more-or-less. 

There are exceptions to this. If I’m writing in the first person, for example, I might choose a font to suit a character; that font is often Courier. If I’m writing fantasy, I often use a font with a serif, and for SF, sans serif. I never use line breaks for paragraphing, but always indent, and I always use page breaks for chapters. You get the idea.

I don’t use word processing packages, except for Final Draft, which I use when scripting in collaboration with the husband. I also don’t use software designed to help me to write. I don’t need help to write. I have a process that I’ve developed over time. When I write, I write. I use displacement activities, as I’m sure we all do, and sometimes I just sit and think. I also meet my deadlines. I just do.

I know that other writers do use software packages and apps to help them in various ways, and I know there are some good ones on the market. They use things that help them with practicalities like formatting. There are bits of software that calculate numbers of words and paragraphs, reading ages of the material a writer is producing, and even whether a writer might overuse a word or phrase. Some of this stuff is useful or reassuring to writers. That’s fine. I have no problem with any of it. I don’t use this kind of software, but I do understand why writers like to have it.

There are also apps that keep writers motivated.

I don’t suffer from writer’s block, or at least I never have yet. When it’s time to write, I sit down and I write. If something needs to be done then I do it. Sometimes, it’s tough. Sometimes, I struggle. I believe that’s true of anyone doing anything. Sometimes, it’s a struggle just to get out of bed in the morning.

I’m lucky. I have a job that I love. I’m extraordinarily lucky to share my life with someone who understands what I do. Sometimes, I think that’s the biggest difference between the husband and me, and other writers. We have each other; most writers are doing this alone.

Anyway, my point was that there is software and there are apps that are designed to keep a writer in his seat, writing. Of course, none of them guarantee the quality of the words.
The LA Times reviews Write or Die

Write or Die has been around for a while. The idea is that the writer sets a timeframe and word count. Then she chooses how severe the program will be. If she proceeds gently, the program will simply remind her to keep typing. In regular mode, the program will sound an alarm when the writer stops typing, until the keyboard is active again. In severe mode, however, the program will begin to delete what has already been typed if the writer doesn’t add more words.

Of course, any writer worth his salt will find cheats for the system, typing in nonsense, or adding buffer material to the end of a piece of work so that when deletion begins none of the good stuff is wasted. But who needs that kind of pressure? Well... It turns out that some people like the pressure.

Flowstate is the latest app of this kind, and it too offers timed writing sessions. Text is deleted automatically if a writer’s hands are still for more than seven seconds. SEVEN SECONDS!

It sounds like torture to me.

A lot of people think they can write, and a lot of people think they can be writers, and for some people it’s true. Some of us are writers. I wonder what it is about a person that prevents him from doing what he wants to do and what he is fit for. I wonder what it is about a person that makes him feel the need for this kind of punishment.

Writing was never meant to be easy. No creative pursuit is meant to be easy, but I simply don’t understand the addition of this kind of masochism. It seems miserable to me, and it seems wasteful. What of the words that are lost in this process? What if for half an hour of a forty minute session the words flow and are beautiful and then are lost because the writing ends there, and the final ten minutes are redundant?

Of course, I speak only for myself

I have often had conversations with the husband about carrots and sticks. Most of us need a little of each in our lives to work well and to thrive. Some people need more carrots and some more sticks. When it comes to nurturing and encouraging and getting the best out of people, some of us are better at it than others, and some of us are natural wielders of sticks and some better at offering carrots.

As a writer, I've been on the receiving end of my share of rejection, and perhaps that's why I tend to be a carrot person. I offer encouragement when it’s needed and I praise when a job is well-done. Others shout, believing that to be motivation, and then they nitpick when a job is finished.

If you’re a writer who needs a stick then by all means try Write or Die or Flowstate, because they might just help you to succeed. Who knows, this kind of punishment might even prepare you for the inevitable rejection to come.

I think I’ll stick to my black screen and my white page, and I’ll keep thinking pleasant thoughts and losing myself in the words.

We all have a process, and it might take a little time to work out what that process is, but whatever it is there’s always another weapon in the armoury, and if one of these apps becomes your weapon of choice, I'm not going to be the person that argues with that.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

It’s Not What You Know It’s Who You Know - Brooklyn Beckham Shoots for Burberry

Personally, I've never suffered from nepotism.

There are times when I wish that I had.

The husband always considered it to be a very dirty word, so he decided very early in my career that he was never going to talk about me to editors or publishers, or very much at all. He kept his word.

Ironically, he was instrumental in furthering the careers of many writers and artists, and of other people too. He got kids work experience and he forwarded the names of various people who approached him, putting a word in for those he met along the way, liked and believed to be talented.

He liked me, too, and he thought I was talented, but I was his lover and then his wife, and for him nepotism was and is a dirty word. If I’d been an acquaintance, a colleague or a friend, I would have benefited from knowing the husband. In the end, not only did I not benefit, I regularly gave my resources, time, skills and abilities for free in the furtherance of his career and to improve product that he was associated with, so companies got my services for free, too.

No, this is not me being bitter. If nothing else, I had a long and valuable apprenticeship, but I also got to enjoy working without many of the pressures that other writers have.

A couple of years ago, it crossed my mind that if anything happened to the husband, I would not be able to work, and it seemed ludicrous. The husband and I had a conversation… or three. I stood up for myself, and, now, the husband does talk about me, and he does acknowledge my skills and some of the work that I’ve done over the years. 

I did also get a toe-hold in the industry on my own, eventually. I submitted a novel for the Mslexia prize and took a runner-up spot. And it was I, and not the husband, who first secured the services of an agent. I didn’t think nepotism was a dirty word when I subsequently introduced her to the husband and he was also signed up with the agency.

The thing is, I always took his point, and I was always content being a backroom person. I didn’t want the glory or the pressure of being out front, particularly when I was still raising our family. I wanted to work, but mostly on my own terms. I also lacked confidence, and, to some degree, having one writer in the family, especially one as hardworking as the husband, was more than enough.

Nepotism is uncomfortable, because it so often puts people in positions that they neither deserve nor are prepared or qualified for. There are exceptions to this rule, though.

Isn’t it natural, for example, that the husband should be drawn to a woman who shares some of his creativity? Isn’t it also natural that a brother should grow up with intimate knowledge of his family’s business? Or that a child might inherit his parent’s talent? We’ve all seen extraordinary dynasties over the centuries, of industrialists, inventors, artists, writers, actors and scientists: The Redgraves, the Fondas, The Amises, The McCarthys and Wainwrights; Iris Murdoch was married to John Bailey, and Ted Hughes to Sylvia Plath.

Brooklyn Beckham behind his camera from an article inThe Guardian
Last week, it was announced that Burberry had hired Brooklyn Beckham to shoot their latest fragrance campaign. Brooklyn Beckham is, of course, the son of the footballer David Beckham and the dress designer Victoria Beckham. He is also a sixteen year old schoolboy.

Brooklyn Beckham might have a talent for photography; I couldn’t comment. I know that he doesn’t have a fully developed skill set in the craft, because he’s a sixteen year old boy. I also know that he isn’t experienced, because he’s a sixteen year old boy. Most photographers go to art schools and universities to learn their craft and then into studios as assistants and technicians to hone their skills. Brooklyn Beckham hasn’t had the opportunity or the time to do those things, not yet.

What Brooklyn Beckham does have is six million followers on instagram, because… well… he’s Brooklyn Beckham in a World where celebrity counts. 

What Brooklyn Beckham no doubt has when he is shooting for Burberry is a highly trained and experienced team of photographers and photographic assistants advising and working with him to take the pictures that Burberry needs for the campaign.

There has been an outcry in the media about Brooklyn Beckham being hired by Burberry to shoot their latest campaign, and if I was a photographer I think I’d probably be up in arms too. The fact is, though, this happens all the time in all the creative industries. Katie Price is invited to write books, Gemma Collins designs clothes, and every pop diva is responsible for a perfume… Except that Ms Price isn’t a writer, Ms Collins doesn’t, as far as I know, have a degree in fashion design, and your average celebrity chanteuse doesn’t have a highly developed nose.

Burberry made a business decision based not on Brooklyn Beckham’s talent, but on his popularity with young people. 

I’m not sure this is really nepotism at all. This is a celebrity endorsement.

Celebrity has a down side, and the down side to celebrity can be so extraordinarily damaging that I wouldn’t wish the kind of celebrity that the young Beckhams are stuck with on anyone, certainly not on a sixteen year old school boy.

If Brooklyn Beckham loses his following, if he trips and falls from the precipice that is modern celebrity by whatever means, and some of the falls we've seen have been utterly tragic, this foray into fashion photography won't save him. It will be business as usual at Burberry, who will go back to employing professional photographers for their shoots, and act as if nothing ever happened.

Most really talented photographers will work, and they’ll work steadily and make a living at the job they love to do. Some of them will be highly acclaimed and still be able to walk down the street unnoticed and certainly unaccosted. I’m confident that in most situations David Bailey, Mario Testino and Annie Leibowitz can still buy a coffee and read a paper without having to worry about being approached by the public. I wonder if Brooklyn Beckham will ever have that luxury.