The Crimson Edition of The Graveyard Book

The pale blue of the The Graveyard Book gleamed like polished opal in the light of the full moon. The night air was humid and expectant; the lull in the breeze the breath of anticipation. I watched small dark shapes flit and twitter against the charcoal trees then gazed upwards at the pale disk in the sky; at familiar shadows I’d known all my life, friends really, across nights largely defined by insomnia. Would this work? Neil walks that shadowy line between the superficial patina of our reality and what really lies beneath but this was something else entirely.

I spoke the lines of the cantrip in a practiced and polished tongue; perfectly rehearsed. The moon stained suddenly – red and rich as though dipped in a bowl of velvet Shiraz – and I knew I had recited perfectly. It worked, it actually worked! How had Neil pulled this off?

Looking down at the beautiful first edition in my hand I saw the blue of the cover melt away to a deep crimson. I fumbled opened the pages and saw the illustrations form in lines of shimmering quicksilver. There was Bod and Silas standing together at the door of the crypt discussing Jack no doubt and all the awful implications of that fateful night. Each thick line spread across the page into finer and finer traceries, filling in the details of expression and intent. There was a kindness and a deep weariness for Silas – those eyes told the story of centuries of un-life – contrasting with the impatience and energy of youth for Bod. I turned page after page watching the illustrations leak onto each directly from my mind.

I had acquired the Crimson Edition of The Graveyard Book; perhaps the only one of its kind in the world.

I have written before about how I hate dreams that are pedestrian; pale reflections of our worries and the drollery of the day to day. Last night was different and coloured no doubt by reading the amazing graphic novel version of The Graveyard Book, one of my favourites, directly before bed.

How did the dream turn out? Well, in truth, not so well. I tried to transform another copy of The Graveyard Book the following night but misspoke the cantrip. This, it turns out, does not have a great outcome. The curse stole and swapped out sections of the book in my hand with all the wonderful first editions in my library. I was left holding a book that was an eclectic collection of verse, story and illustrations and the story of Bod was distributed throughout my collection. All of my precious books with pages and paragraphs replaced with the story of a little boy who grew up in a graveyard.

Therein lies the price of greed. Neil was not very sympathetic when I told him of my woes the next day. He looked at me impatiently from beneath his curly mop of hair and said that we were each only meant to have one copy of the Crimson Edition.

I still count myself lucky.

Where the Wild Things are.

(null)

Here are fairy stories as they were meant to be told before they pandered to pleasant untroubled dreams. Behold, the complete tales of the brothers Grimm. In a mad push to prevent a cultural dilution by the French during the Napoleonic wars, Wilhelm and his brother Jacob scoured the countryside for local stories and fairy tales. These were stories as told true and untainted by the human heart. Dark tales, scary tales. Tales where really bad things could happen if you wondered too far into the woods. Tales where people did unspeakable things and witches were made to dance to their deaths in burning iron shoes. These are not safe tales. Beware if you enter unprepared.

Story Generator update

The first of my planned updates to my story generator is complete. I have made the output simpler to understand, have improved the content that feeds into the generator and have done a fair bit or re-coding to allow me to re-use elements on other projects. The output from the generator is just what I’d always wanted from such a tool which is probably why I decided to write my own in the first place.

I moved away from clunky text lists into much more elegant JSON containers and have started adding more sophisticated elements for me to maintain and update the back-end. I’ve also added in 5 wildcards from a lists file I maintain and add to regularly. The list file is predominantly a list of nouns, of things that came to mind that I may – at some point – like to include in a story or make into a story. The wildcards are elements which could be included in your story just to mix things up a bit.

I realise the page looks a bit bland. I’m exploring ways to add a visual component to the experience but that’s for later. For now I hope you like the changes!

Ursula K. Le Guin and the labels that define us.

I came across an article on Ursula K. Le Guin on BrainPickings, quite possibly my favourite website on the Internet. The site had a selection of her beautiful thoughts and mental ruminations on the topic of growing old and of fitting into preconceived societal stereotypes; gender and age being the ones in focus. I love language in much the same way Stephen Fry loves language – the sounds words make, the feel they evoke, the memories they stir – and I think Ursula has an unusual mastery of the words she chooses and the way she puts them together. I won’t steal all Brainpicking’s thunder – they work hard to generate the amazing content they put up day after day – but just listen to what is being said, and what is not being said:

And another thing. Ernst Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren’t. The go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old. And that brings up the real proof of what a mess I have made of being a man: I am not even young. Just about the time they finally started inventing women, I started getting old. And I went right on doing it. Shamelessly. I have allowed myself to get old and haven’t done one single thing about it, with a gun or anything.

Marvelous! There is so much subtext and irony sitting behind that simple paragraph it’s close to bursting with meaning. I’d recommend you head over to the Brainpickings for the original article; her views on sex and horse-riding are hilarious and nothing like what you may be thinking.

But it got me thinking, I mean really thinking about stereotyping and what, beyond a loose accumulation of labels, makes us who we are. My mind pulled up old facts from days at med school about foetal development and the developmental stages where boys become boys, because for a long time you can’t tell the difference, and there’s an argument to be made we all start off as women anyway before the ‘ol Y chromosome starts doing it’s thing. I’ve been reflecting for a while now on how the cruel irony of ageing is the way your physical age starts to rapidly outpace your mental age and society expects you to display age-appropriate behaviour – and worse treats you differently. Like Ursula, to be young of mind, vivacious in your ideas, brimming with enthusiasm and creativity and be stuck in a old body. Well, therein lies the rub.

It wasn’t a huge leap from what was rattling around in my head to, in one burst of creative energy, pen a story about a man who goes to sleep and wakes up a woman. I’m not talking magic – physically he/she was still male. I’m talking about all the little neurons firing off in the brain and waking up knowing you’re a she. What would that be like? What would it be like if your world view got turned upside down and something you thought you knew was suddenly completely different? How would you/society deal with it? What would the disconnect be like between what you were physically and a completely new mental framework? Reading some of Ursula’s thoughts got me wanting to play with the psychology/stereotypes/ideas behind the labels man and woman rather than a speculative fiction piece about a magic sex change – those have been done to death in their often superficially juvenile way.

If nothing else, as a writing exercise, it was fun. It was (continues to be?) quite challenging – I can’t put the thoughts down which means there’s still more in my head and I will need to keep at it until my brain lets it go. I recall an interview with Stephen King about how badly he got Carrie wrong in his first drafts until his wife called him up on it and said, very nicely, something along the lines of “Dear, that’s really not how girls work.”

Anyway, first draft is here but much work remains to test if I’m anywhere close to getting it right. To my female friends, you may soon be getting a call for help.

4 February, 2015 11:21

One of the greatest boons to travelling for work is the quiet. The blissful lack of noise in the evenings. A rejuvenating time filled with books, reading, good wine, and writing. This is in direct contrast to the norm of arguing children, the infernal television, dirty dishes, and school lunches. Not to in any way discount the exhausting latter, but I do so enjoy the former from time to time.

Not to Write is To Die

Not to write, for many of us is to die. We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of the day, a sort of victory. Remember that pianist who said that if he did not practice every day he would know, if he did not practice for two days, the critics would know, after three days, his audience would know.

A variation of this is true for writers. Not that your style, whatever that is, would melt out of shape in those few days.

But what would happen is that the world would catch up with and try to sicken you. If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both.

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.

~ Ray Bradbury (Introduction to Zen in the Art of Writing)

Online Story Generator now available

I like using story generators for my writing practice because you just never know what you’re going to end up with. This is a great thing because it forces you to adapt, to try writing about something that’s not in your zone of comfort, that’s different enough to make you feel incomfortable and when I’m uncomfortable is usually when I’m growing. I couldn’t find an online story generator I liked (no disrespect to the vast number of far more comprehensive ones out there) so I threw one together in php to suit my needs.

It’s fairly rudimentary but I’m continually updating the topic lists as I go and, to date, it’s served me pretty well. Feel free to try it and let me know how you go. Suggestions for future iterations are welcome.

You will find the link in the right panel now or follow the following link: Story Gen

S.

Airport Games

airlinequeue

The novelty of air travel, like many things in life, quickly wears thin once you get to do it on an ongoing basis. The same is true for the joy of sleeping in an endless succession of hotel rooms and the stodgy joy of conference food. Last night’s overnight home from Singapore was no exception to this rule; hot face towels and friendly staff aside.
Broken down, air travel is little more than a montage of discomfort, cramping muscles, unwanted proximity to the bodily functions of one’s fellow travellers and revolting food able to happily crouch under tin-foil for hours before doing the culinary equivalent of cage fighting with your taste buds.

The flight itself was an overnight red-eye. My favourite. After having pushed my food around my tray, and having gotten up five times for Ms. Poor Bladder Control in the window seat I settled down to my sarcophagus of discomfort for a little attempted shut-eye. Sleep does not happen for me on overnight flights and I have been sorely tempted, if not for some vestige of self-pride, to try the drooling catatonia of sleeping tablets. On this flight I was lucky enough to have an aisle seat; beside me was a six year old and his mum. The poor little tyke was terribly uncomfortable in so cramped a space so he proceeded to kick me the whole night. I thought it very kind that his mother took the angelic sleepy-head end while I got Satan’s Hooves of Death.

On arrival at Melbourne airport I was presented with the usual number of games travellers get to enjoy. Those used to travel can easily slice off an hour of their journey by understanding the rules of engagement so I thought I’d outline a few for the benefit of my fellow traveller:

Ejector Seats
First up is an event that happens on the plane and whose sole aim is to see how quickly you can go from seated to standing. This limbers you up nicely for the games ahead so once the plane comes to a stop, and at the precise instant the loud-speaker pings, you have to launch yourself from the aisle seat and claim your space in the aisle itself. Extra points are awarded if you manage to lash the person sitting next to you with the seatbelt buckle or are able to bring the overhead luggage rack down on their head thus slowing them down. Strategic placement of yourself and your luggage in the aisle at this juncture will get you off to a good start in the games by keeping the competition confined to their seats while you get a rolling start.

Corridor Runner
Corridor Runner is up next and is the D.V.T. hobble-sprint from the aeroplane itself. As your muscles unknot this becomes a mad-dash all the way to customs. Participants in this game should try and use their hand-luggage or wheeled bags to trip or bash other players out of their way. Reflecting on the latest Hunger Games book or movie will help assist you to use the tools readily at hand to take down the competition. There will also be obstacles to overcome like wizened travelator conversation hogs, children riding out of control animal luggage, and the ever-pervasive group of formation flyers who fill the corridors from wall to wall oblivious to the sea of irate humanity building behind them.


Duty-Free Obstacle
The corridor empties itself into a free-form obstacle course consisting of towering stacks of duty-free alcohol and perfume. As travellers screech to a halt to assess their sleep-deprived need for a drink or all-night-in-a-tiny-space B.O. you will need to dodge and weave like Super Mario in order to avoid bringing down a showing cascade of expensive glassware. Changes to the rules of the game in the last decade have thankfully put a end to the chance of being randomly spritzed by some over-zealous sales person at this point.

Passport-Gate Elitism
The customs gate presents special challenges to those not wired into the digital economies of the world. Those who have successfully navigated the Twenty-First Century are able to beam triumphantly at the pens of grumpy travellers who are either visitors from abroad or do not possess an updated passport with a smart-chip. The smart-gates are strategically placed in front of these snaking queues so you are able to flash a triumphant smile as you hurtle through without a care in the world. It is only fair you show these back-markers the contempt they deserve.

Baggage Claim Wrestling
Next up is the baggage collection area. If you have navigated the earlier games like Katniss Everdeen then chances are this event starts off rather quietly and orderly. People will arrive and politely stand behind the yellow line and comment on the weather, or sports, or the bumpy landing. It doesn’t take long for all the strategic space to be filled with trolleys and bags and soon late-comers begin to elbow their sweaty selves into the walkway in front of the yellow no-standing line leaving everyone else around them unable to get to their bags. Placement of yourself in an area of limited access – near a corner, or in front of a column – will ensure you will have an advantage in what soon degenerates into an all out tussle of elbows and deathly hex-eyes as people climb over one another to retrieve their bulky luggage.

The Nothing-to-Declare Wastelands
They wait until you collect your baggage and feel like you’re about to be on your way home to crush your spirit. This is a game of will and tenacity after all so toughen up! A successful saving throw against flagging hope may help as baggage claimants are now forced into further snaking lines in order to hand in a little card you were given when you got on the plane but have most likely forgotten to fill out. Dexterity factors highly in this event as you attempt to write in small boxes, wrangle small children and/or heavy bags, and navigate endless roped off switch-backs. Fed-up travellers often attempt to push into this queue – arriving suddenly to one side of the queue looking vacantly about them for signs of what they should be doing. This is a ruse and etiquette dictates that collective thumb poking towards the back of the line and group heckling will quickly sort out these queue sociopaths from the rest of the morally upstanding citizens.
When you do get to the customs officer, be sure to have your forms in the correct order so he/she can take them, briefly glance at your name without checking your passport and drop them in a little glass box. I am tempted to fill out Lord Voldemort on my next card to see if anyone is really paying attention.
Something new in this game is a wildcard in the form of an Ebola screening questionnaire which makes it pretty clear that should you tick certain boxes – like Sierra Leone for example – you’re going to be experiencing extended airport hospitality; most likely from cheerful beefy types with rubber gloves, an oversized thermometer, and a gleam in their eyes.

Taxing Taxiing
The last game is an easy one. It’s just another queue but by now you are an adept. This game, though apparently simple, may have a climate factor that needs to be accounted for. Coming from the heat and humidity of Singapore to somewhere like Melbourne you likely find yourself standing in shorts and a light shirt in cold and rainy air. As you stamp your feet and shuffle towards your allotted car the chilly damp air has a little party with certain visitors you picked up on the plane and Strep A and B are going to keep the party going for some days to come. Regular travellers have a car waiting for them at this point for a few measly dollars more than the cleanliness lottery of the local taxi. This saves you both the queue and the climate challenge and sees you whisked away in comfort to your final destination.

If you have managed to successfully navigate all the above then you will have likely shaved at least an hour from your travel time … well done! If not, bear them in mind for the next time you disembark after a long haul flight. People are funny, and predictable. No doubt the contents of this public service announcement will stand you in good stead somewhere in the future.

:-)

Magenta stains and midlife musings

“Whenever I do things because I want to do it and because it seems fun or interesting and so on and so forth, it almost always works and it almost always winds up paying for itself.  Whenever I do things for the money, not only does it prove to be a pain in the neck and comes with all sorts of awful things attached, but I normally don’t end up getting the money either.  So after a while, you do start to learn to avoid the things where people dangle huge wads of cash in front of you.  Go for the one that seems interesting, because even if it all falls apart you’ve got something interesting out of it.  Whereas the other way, you normally wind up getting absolutely nothing out of it.
~Neil Gaiman.

I am sitting in my study downstairs in a small pool of light cast by my desk lamp.  The house is blessedly quiet and all I can hear is the trickle of water from the fish tank in the kitchen.  Before me is The Art of Neil Gaiman, part biography, part history lesson, all inspiration.  To my right is my open notebook with today’s hasty scribbles – a story has all but been falling out of my head the last couple of days and I have been laying it out as fast as I can write in a new, and wonderful, Japanese magenta ink the colour of a deep Shiraz.  I feel like I’m at the crossroads of some midlife crisis where two paths lay before me.  One leads to more money, more responsibility, and so much less time for all the things I love.  The other leads to balance but less money and security … and more guilt because I am good at that.  Though the decision is all but made it still needs time to  percolate for it feels selfish somehow.  I’ve never been very good at having nice things for myself but the older I get the more I realise that the measure of my life and happiness is to be found in the beautiful people I know, in the ink stains on my fingers, and the worlds in my head.  Title and salary will never be the measure of my worth when the sand runs out.

Ink reviews and a New World of Colour

Private Reserve Colours

Who would have guessed ink reviews are a thing? I have used a fountain pen for going on 30 years now; even back in school, in the days of the disposable Bics with their masticated tips, I could never get my head around ballpoint pens. My cursive writing with its long looping letters just wouldn’t play nicely with fine-nibbed and scratchy roller ball pens and I never, ever, saw them as superior in any way.

Currently my go-to pens are by Lamy and Montblanc and though I love the pens of the latter, I don’t care much for the Montblanc ink (packaging aside – the bottles are amazing!). I currently have a rather plain Montblanc black in my Lamy and find that it is slow to dry, somewhat watery, tends to smudge, and is prone to bleeding through the paper of my journal. It was quite by chance that I stumbled into a colourful and vibrant world that had somehow, up till now, eluded my notice.

I was reading one of Neil Gaiman’s blog posts where a fan was asking him about his favourite fountain pens and the conversation went naturally to the inks he likes best. Neil mentioned he wasn’t a fan of the Montblanc inks either preferring others like Private Reserve. One quick Google search later and I was hooked. I had no idea that reviewing inks was a thing … how bad is that? I’ve always just bought brand inks without realising there is this whole other world of colourful possibility. The reviewers assess characteristics of inks, breaking them down into their component characteristics like a connoisseur of fine wines. They talk about shading, shimmer, feathering, bleed, and reactivity to water and other solvents. The penmanship and artistic sketches highlight the vibrant hues in all their macro-lens enhanced glory. Websites like Inkophile and Inkdependence gave me an insight into a world of possibility hitherto unknown. Websites like Notemaker, LarryPost, and Massdrop thereafter did a fine job of divesting me of my hard-earned cash.

Perhaps gone are the days of washed out blacks and faded blues. My notebooks will now sport more Machiavellian options like American Blue, Copper Burst, Sherwood Green, and Rouge Hematite. Bold vibrant strokes filling page after page. After a few bottles of ink and three new pens I think it’s time to quit. The hour is exceedingly late, the single malt is drunk, and there is work in the morning (well today to be precise).

Dear Santa, if you’re reading this, please leave a Lamy 2000 in my stocking. Like potato chips, and cats apparently, you can never have too many fountain pens.