Grammarly: A not-bad grammar checking tool (30/8/2013)

Posted in Critical Failures

Grammarly: A grammar checking tool

So what follows here is slightly unusual fare for this blog but it’s writing related and turned out to be a bit more of an interesting experiment than I initially thought. So . . . a few months back I was invited to play with a grammar checking tool and, for some reason I still don’t understand, imagined this would come complete with an extra day tucked into the week somewhere in which to play with it. Still, it was an interesting exercise in the end.

The tool is called Grammarly and, when I used it, it operated as a web application. My personal previous experience with grammar checkers is limited to the grammar checked in MS Word which I loathe with abundant passion. As a writer of fiction, I think I come to any grammar checker with a deep sense of suspicion. You see, it’s not my job or my aim to write grammatically correct prose; it’s my aim to write prose that flows and this frequently results in deliberately breaking grammar “rules” even in descriptive passages. As for dialogue . . . Well, people don’t talk grammatically, they just don’t.

The upshot is that I have two main criteria in assessing the utility of any tool like this. The first is the criteria I expect the designers aim to fulfil: how well does the tool work in identifying and explaining grammatical errors. The second is one I don’t see how any designer could possibly address: how much of my time does the tool waste in correctly pointing out grammatical errors which were intentional in the first place and so I don’t want to change. This second criteria is one at which I expect every single grammar tool ever made, now or in the future, to fail, simply because the number of deliberate “mistakes” in a work of fiction will be so high that reviewing them all will become boundlessly annoying.

First things first – a few generic irritations to get off my chest: I can understand why there’s a limit to the size of the document that can be uploaded to a web application and I suppose that for most purposes the limit (I can’t remember exactly what it is but I think 10k words) is fairly generous, but I could see it getting quite irritating loading up and editing an entire novel in chunks. In part because it’s just another irksome chore but mostly because I suspect it undermines the potentially rather useful “ignore all” feature (of which more in a moment). It’s also a bit irritating having the application doing spell-checking when I’ve already done that and now have to go through clicking “ignore all” lots of times, presumably only to have to do the same again when I load up the next chunk with exactly the same set of character names and places.

Grammarly splits all the faults it finds into a plethora of sub-categories and has an ‘ignore all’ option for each one individually. It wasn’t clear to me exactly how this actually works – I initially took it to mean all grammar faults of a particular type would be ignored in the text (which would have been useful) but this didn’t seem to be the case. It became clear to me when I used the tool later that I’d like to switch various parts of the grammar checking in and out, tailoring the use of the tool to my personal strengths and weaknesses. I thought the ignore-all options would allow this but they didn’t seem to work that way.

Something I wasn’t able to test but which might mitigate or even completely eliminate these two irritations is the tool’s integration with MS Office. Grammarly offers the option to download the tool as a plug-in (I think). Presumably this would then allow entire novel-length documents to be examined in one go while seamlessly integrating with the Office dictionaries. Presumably. Unfortunately, as I don’t use MS Office, I wasn’t able to test this. Having to cut out chapters, work on them in a separate tool and then paste them back makes the tool a non-starter for me, and that’s a real pity because the reports the tool made on my two sample pieces I found to be impressive.

On to the detail then: For the review I used two test pieces of prose. Sample one was two chapters (3600 words) of The Crimson Shield. This was text that has been (allegedly) written and rewritten to perfection by me, then edited, rewritten again, copy-edited and proof-read, so it really ought to be quite squeaky-clean. The second sample was a single chapter of 6160 words from a work in progress that I think is about ready for submission to my editor.

For the proof-read sample, the tool split identified a good few categories of faults. In each case, I’ve noted the type of fault, the number found and the number I felt merited a change to the prose:

  • Use of Articles (a test for the presence of an unnecessary definite article) [2/0]

  • Pronoun Agreement (a test to see whether a pronoun has the correct form (i.e. singular plural and subject/object) for the noun it replaces) [6/1]

  • Use of Adjectives and Adverbs [4/1]

  • Incomplete comparisons [3/0]

  • Use of “Like” and “as” [1/0]

  • Faulty Parallelism (i.e. in a sentence with multiple clauses, the verbs either side of the co-ordinating conjunction should have the same tenses. I had a debate with an editor about this a couple of months back) [3/2]

  • Squinting modifiers (when a modifier in a sentence with multiple clauses is not unambiguously associated with a specific one of the clauses) [6/1]

  • Mistakes using qualifiers and quantifiers [0/0]

  • Split infinitives [1/1]

  • Subject and Verb Agreement [8/0]

  • Apparent missing verbs [4/0]

  • Verb Form Use (wrong form of a verb) [2/0]

  • Possible missing words [0/0]

  • Punctuation: commas – this particular MS WENT through a great comma cull and the tool and I disagree on the appropriate use of commas for run-on sentences and before a conjunction joining independent clauses. I’m far from sure I’m right on this one. The tool made 35 suggestions of which 32 were regarding commas. I would have implemented nine of them and most of the others I think my editor would have implemented We don’t see eye to eye on commas. The tool apparently doesn’t understand ellipses . . .

  • Spelling: The tool found 135 spelling mistakes all of which were names etc., The tool has its own dictionary and it only took about 30 seconds to go through and add them all.

  • Commonly Confused Words [2/0]

  • Capitalisation [0/0]

  • Vague and over-used words [0/0]

It’s worth noting that a good few of the apparent problems (perhaps 30%) occurred in dialogue where the tool was clearly correct in identifying a grammatical fault but the fault lay within the pattern of speech for a particular character and thus didn’t merit change. In two flagged sentences, although I disagreed with the change proposed by the tool, I would have made a related change.

Overall, for this “polished” piece of prose, it took me about twenty-five minutes to upload, run the tool and review the results. Ignoring spelling and punctuation, the tool flagged forty-one possible problems of which eight would have resulted in a change to the manuscript if it hadn’t already been too late. It flagged thirty-five punctuation problems of which I would have implemented nine changes. The spell-checking was superfluous. Expanded to an entire novel, this equates to about ten hours of work to catch some 200-250 sentences that could have been more clearly written, i.e. close to one per page (I’ll ignore the punctuation and spelling). This strikes me as quite a lot for a finished manuscript.

For the “submission-ready” sample, the results were slightly different. As a general note, I found that the sentences highlighted by the tool in this sample frequently merited some examination and re-wording even if the specific problem highlighted by the tool wasn’t one with which I felt required changing.

  • Use of Articles (a test for the presence of an unnecessary definite article) [5/1]

  • Pronoun Agreement (a test to see whether a pronoun has the correct form (i.e. singular plural and subject/object) for the noun it replaces) [11/3]

  • Use of Adjectives and Adverbs [7/3]

  • Incomplete comparisons [7/2]

  • Use of “Like” and “as” [1/0]

  • Faulty Parallelism (i.e. in a sentence with multiple clauses, the verbs either side of the co-ordinating conjunction should have the same tenses. I had a debate with an editor about this a couple of months back) [2/1]

  • Squinting modifiers (when a modifier in a sentence with multiple clauses is not unambiguously associated with a specific one of the clauses) [1/0]

  • Mistakes using qualifiers and quantifiers [1/0]

  • Split infinitives [0/0]

  • Subject and Verb Agreement [1/0] (the tool mistook a proper noun for a plural)

  • Apparent missing verbs [7/2]

  • Verb Form Use (wrong form of a verb) [9/2]

  • Possible missing words [2/2]

  • Punctuation: In the unpolished sample, the tool raised 125 queries. The issues were much the same as above.

  • Spelling: there were correct English spellings being flagged as incorrect and no apparent way to change the language of the dictionary.

  • Commonly Confused Words [16/0]

  • Capitalisation [4/0]

  • Vague and over-used words [10/9]

For this piece it took about fifty minutes to go through the whole process. Ignoring spelling and punctuation again, the tool flagged seventy-five possible problems of which twenty-three seemed require a change to the MS and a further nine resulted in changes in the highlighted sentence due to related problems. Expanded to an entire novel, this equates to about fourteen hours of work to catch some 500-550 sentences that could have been more clearly written (I’ll ignore the punctuation and spelling).

In both samples, I found the tool clear and easy to use and its explanatory text as to why it was proposing a change was lucid and sensible. On numerous occasions, I found sentences where the highlighted ‘fault’ wasn’t one with which I agreed but there was some clumsiness in the sentence construction that deserved to be addressed and had caused the fault to be highlighted.

Crunch question – will I use it? As things stand, no, because having to chunk up work and feed it piecemeal into a web-based tool is really irritating and prone to introduce mistakes. If I used MS Office and if the integration is truly seamless, I might think otherwise; even with the support of a professional editorial team, the number of faults I would have changed in the supposedly polished sample was, I thought, high. Although the number of faults that didn’t merit any change was high too, the tool was clear and easy to use, the explanations given were lucid and yet detailed and it was almost always quick and easy to make a choice on the proposed change and move on. I’d probably wrap the use of the tool into the copy-editing stage of manuscript production. It’s probably also a useful tool for identifying and perhaps rectifying any systematic flaws in a writer’s style. I could see a few patterns starting to emerge even from these two samples.

One last minor irritation: the tool speaks fairly well for itself when you use it in its full version, but although as a non-subscriber you can put some sample text in and have it run a report, it doesn’t sell itself very well (it tells you there are a pile of problems but doesn’t show you what they are and feels a bit like a virus checker). It’s understandable that Grammarly don’t want people freeloading off their hard work but I do wonder whether giving free access to the web-based tool with a maximum text sample size of 500 or 1000 words would show the tool off much more effectively.

Disclosure: This review was presented to the suppliers of Grammarly for comment in case I’ve mis-represented their tool. They didn’t ask for any changes or clarifications.

A Lazy Life of Sex and Mojitos (26/7/2013)

Posted in Critical Failures

I signed a new contract a couple of weeks back. I’ve got another one to sign right in front of me. I’ve got an offer on the table for some more. The last few weeks have been one big sigh of a long-held breath of thank-fuck-for-that. Because things have, for a while, been a little tense.

Now and then, when people ask what I do for a living and I tell them I write books, they act as though this is some amazing thing that makes me somehow immensely special. I’ve taken to simply rolling with that. I’m not sure I buy it. I think what I used to do was actually more challenging and took more training and more skill. For some reason it doesn’t strike me as all that clever that I write books. In part, I think, that stems from the sense of having pulled some great con trick on life so I get to do this thing that I largely greatly enjoy and somehow scrape a living out of it.

Now and then I also meet people who assume that being a writer equates with being rich. I’d laugh except it still hurts too much (stupid infection)

So far this year, then, work has consisted of the following:

  • Copy-editing and proof-reading various manuscripts coming out this year. Totally about 550k words.

  • Two proposals (unpaid) written for series of novellas / short stories. One has turned into a contract, one hasn’t and probably won’t.

  • Editorial revision of a ghost-written piece of about 100k words

  • Manuscript delivered for editing (The Splintered Gods, 210k words)

  • Speculative manuscript delivered (title TBA historical fiction, 80k words – kinda hopeful this one will sell)

  • Speculative manuscript delivered (SF, 100k words – no idea if this will sell)

  • Half a manuscript delivered for editing (BigSekkrit SF, 40k words)

So that’s 430k words delivered so far this year. For reference that’s about equivalent to A Storm of Swords.

The rest of the year is going to consist of:

  • Another manuscript delivery (Empires: Extraction 80k words)

  • Two novellas delivered (announcement soon, 30k words each)

  • Editing The Splintered Gods and BigSekkrit

  • One more speculative manuscript bashed into shape for delivery of about 120k

  • Starting work The Silver Kings or something else.

Which will bring the word count up to about 700k for the year, consisting effectively of three contracted novels and three speculative ones. In order to make ends meet this year, one of those speculative ones needs to sell for something more than a bottom-of-the-range advance. That’s to keep a family of four going who have fairly low overheads but with a penchant for an occasional extravagance.I guess if I was single without dependents I could get by on half that. And then it’s a different game again, I suppose, if you have a second income from somewhere.

In order to do this, I’m sat in front of a laptop working for 5-6 hours of almost every day of the year.

Don’t take this as a gripe in any way – I work as fairly average number of hours every week, I get to do it wherever I can take a laptop at whatever time of day I feel like and I’m largely beholden to no one doing a job that I largely enjoy. My point – my only point – is that for most of us, it’s not the lazy life of sex and mojitos that some people seem to think, dammit.

Isms (27/6/2013)

Posted in Critical Failures

I should be writing a book right now. My writing partner is going to cry because I’m not. But it’s turned into one of those days where I mostly just want to kill myself[1] and I haven’t got the Bock[2] for wrangling with the personal problems of two women from the thirty-fourth century right now. So here’s a story about lions and zebras instead.

One upon a time on the Serengeti there lived herds and herds of zebras and pride after pride of lions. There also lived all sorts of other animals but for the purposes of this story their relevance is precisely as an excuse for the numbers of zebras and lions to be about the same. Yeah, take that ecology and damn did those lions eat a lot of wildebeest. And for a long time there was a sort of steady situation in which lions ate zebras any time they felt like it and zebras basically felt pretty shit about life but on the whole they didn’t make a fuss and kept quiet about it because it generally wasn’t a good idea to stand out from the herd when there were always a hungry lion about the place. But as time went by, they slowly got more antsy about it. Some baboons took surveys of the zebras, asking them how they felt about the general state of affairs. Significant disenchantment was noted. The zebras started talking about making some changes.

The lions responded to the first few surveys by eating the baboons. When that didn’t change anything they had a go at eating a lot more zebras than normal on the off-chance that the zebras might shut up their moaning and also because, being lions, they rather liked eating zebras. If anything this seemed to make the general level of zebra dissatisfaction worse. Some lions were bemused by this. A lot of the lions wondered why the hell any of the other lions gave a shit what zebras thought. A few lions noticed that by actually talking to the zebras and pretending to give a shit about their feelings, they were able to lure a zebra away from the herd now and then which made it much easier to eat them. A few lions got really good at that, which pissed off a lot of the other lions, most of whom did frankly fancy an easy ride when it came to eating a zebra.

On the whole it was quite hard for lions and zebras to be friends but that didn’t stop a few of them from trying. The plains would be a better place, they thought, if lions and zebras could learn to get along and the lions could stop eating zebras and just eat more wildebeest instead. A lot of zebras agreed with this for obvious reasons. A lot of lions thought this was a crock of shit and laughed but a few of them tried anyway. They tried really hard. The wildebeest, by the way, weren’t best pleased but nobody had bothered to ask them and they’re not supposed to figure in this story anyway.

“You don’t know what it’s like to be a zebra,” said the first zebra.

“You don’t know what it’s like to be a lion,” said the first lion. “But we could both try.” So the first lion and the first zebra both tried. They tried very hard but they were new at this and unable to break past expressing basic carnivore/herbivore stereotypes and ended up both pretty offended. The zebra expressed its offence through snorts and foot-stamping. The lions expressed its offence by eating the zebra.

The second lion and the second zebra managed a little better. “Zebras are cowardly and always run away,” said the second lion.

“Not so,” said the second zebra. “Some zebras are like that, others aren’t.”

The second lion gaped in wonder, having learned something new. “Well I never,” it said. “I didn’t think zebras could be so different. Tell me more.” So the second zebra told the second lion some more and the second lion listened in amazement. “I never knew zebras were so diverse and complex,” it said when the second zebra was done.

“Lions are stupid and always angry,” said the second zebra, allowing for a joyful moment the elusive  ideal of some true inter-species understanding to get in the way of common sense.

“Not all of us,” said the second lion angrily.

“But a lot of you.”

“I suppose you have a point there,” said the second lion and ate the second zebra.

“See!” shouted a third zebra from a good safe distance. “That’s why in the quest for inter-species harmony and understanding it’s always incumbent on the species in the position of power to understand that the generalisations it makes of the dis-enfranchised species are far more damaging and re-enforcing of existing sub-texts of of dis-empowerment! Your generalisations demean and lessen us and take away our individuality when we are powerless to denounce them yet our generalisations can never hurt you for as long as you can turn around and eat us by way of rebuttal!”

Exactly one lion across the Serengeti was actually capable of understanding this but unfortunately it was somewhere else and didn’t hear. Most of the lions who gave a shit at all, which wasn’t very many, laughed and pointed out how obviously wrong it was and that it was the zebras who ought to be careful about their generalisations if they didn’t want to be eaten. To be honest, not a lot of the zebras understood it either.

The baboons[4] meanwhile, fed up of being eaten for doing surveys the lions didn’t like, had all gone away for a long time to study kung-fu and now came back (all except the one who stayed with a red panda and a turtle). They were still pretty pissed at the lions and decided they would teach the zebras kung-fu too. Thus began no end of trouble.

Eventually, when the dust settled and the sounds of roars and spinning back-hoof-kicks died away, there was only one lion and one zebra left (surrounded by a horde of cheering wildebeest who were none too keen on lions nor on the zebras either after the previous attempted betrayal of their herbivore comrades).

“You kept eating us,” said the zebra, shifting to a preying-mantis stance.

“You kept making all these generalisations,” complained the lion.

I never made any generalisations,” said the zebra.

“And I never ate a zebra,” said the lion.

“But lots of other lions did,” said the zebra.

“So you just treat us all the same then?” asked the lion.

The zebra rolled its eyes. “Oh for pity’s sake! You can hardly go through life without making any generalisations and assumptions about the people you meet, can you? You’d be having week-long conversations with every animal you ever met! You’d never get anything done! It would be ridiculous. Sorry mate, but you have to take some responsibility for the actions of your species as a whole.”

“I suppose,” said the lion. “But then so do you. And I don’t know about zebras, but lions can change as the situation changes around them. Sometimes I want to eat a zebra, sometimes I don’t. We’re all individuals aren’t we?”

“But you’re still a lion.”

“See, there you go with the generalisations again. You can’t possibly know who I am better than I know myself.”

“Really?” countered the zebra. And when neither the lion nor the surrounding wildebeest were prepared to have any of that crap, the zebra went on at great length about something the baboons had brought back called the Johari window and proved to the lion that yes, sometimes a zebra could know what a lion was thinking better than the lion could, and sometimes a lion could understand a zebra better than the zebra understood itself. Which, frankly, made both the lion and the zebra a touch uneasy.

“But that still doesn’t mean you know me better than I know myself,” said the lion.

Eventually they agreed that the only way to really get along was for both lions and zebras to treat each other with respect, as individuals, to make allowances for the occasionally wrong and hurtful assumptions that both parties would make as a necessary part of getting on with life and to accept challenges to those assumptions with good grace. When they were done, the lion and the zebra gave each other a big hug. It was a pity, they agreed, that every other zebra and lion had to die to reach such an understanding.

And then the lion ate the zebra because, well, it was still a lion and it was really, really hungry. And then, since it was the only lion left, the wildebeest kicked it to death and lived happily ever after.

The End.

(brought to you by the wildebeest)

[1] Not really. Well, mostly not really.

[2] A German word that should be in general circulation. “I haven’t got the Bock for this” = “I seem to be unable to raise even the first jot of the necessary enthusiasm to engage with the proposed activity.”

[3] OK, I lied about the relevance of other animals.

[4] Survey monkeys. Ba-boom tish.

Let me Crush Your Dreams For You (7/3/2013)

Posted in Critical Failures

“If you can’t find any time to write, you don’t want to be a writer.”

Someone said that on Twitter this morning and it kicked off a little bit of a shit-storm among the dragons here. In fact, it kicked up enough of a shit-storm that I couldn’t find any time to write today, even when I should, because I was too busy debating the rights and wrongs of a statement like this. So now I’m late on a deadline and pissed off.

So anyway, on a superficial level it’s obviously bullshit. I can’t find any time to learn to play the guitar but I still want to be a rock-star. I can’t find any time to get onto the ice rink but I still want to be an Olympic ice-hockey player. I can’t find the time to get out into the garden and have at it with a spade and shears but I still want a garden that’s slightly more penetrable than a mangrove swamp. It’s perfectly possible to want something and not invest a single second of your life in achieving it. I’ll hazard a guess that almost everyone wants something that they don’t even try to get (author of the above statement included). It’s not necessarily a bad thing and it’s not even delusional provided there’s no expectation of actually getting it. [And can we pass quickly by any pedantry over the use of any in the above – if you can't find any time in your entire life to spend a second of it typing a word on a page then you're not a writer? Well duh. Can we just agree that that interpretation is so patently both obvious and useless as a statement that it's not worth the silicon atoms it takes to record for posterity? Please can we? Because arguing over that would make me want to scratch out my own tongue].

I suppose it’s clear enough that a superficial interpretation isn’t what was intended. It’s an old sentiment expressed in many subtly different ways (“writers write” being most succinct). I guess (note guessing) the intended meaning is something along the lines of “Hey, if you can’t find the time to sit down and write reasonably often – even if not for very long – and reasonably regularly, you don’t really want to be a writer enough to. . .” Enough to what I’m not sure. Deserve it? Make it? Finish a novel that no one will ever see? What? What does “a writer” actually mean? Different things to different people.

There’s a truth in the statement nevertheless, for all I’m about to rip it apart. I consider myself to be a writer by pretty much any reasonable definition. It’s my full-time job. I depend on it to pay all the bills for my family. We have no other income source. I have several novels being published each year. I take on ghost-writing work when that doesn’t pay the bills. At the moment I work 40+ hours a week as a writer. I don’t have writer’s block because it’s a luxury I can’t afford. I have to be able to sit down and write whenever and whenever. I write on trains, tubes, in coffee-shops, sitting next to my kids while they watch TV. There are a lot of things I don’t do because it’s more important to write and often there are times when I’d rather do those other things, but I can’t afford to allow myself the hours they ask for [1]. I have deadlines, lots of them. People expect me to meet them. There are consequences if I don’t, largely to do with not getting paid. Stories have to be written in a certain time whether they want to be written or not. Sometimes they come easy, sometimes they come kicking and screaming but they have to come, whatever mood I’m in, whether I or anyone around me is sick or well. Through births, deaths, divorces, marriages, house-moves, you name it, they have to come. So if your dream is to be a full-time professional writer, and you struggle to find a way to sit in front of a keyboard and write, maybe that’s not the career for you. I guess that’s a part of the underlying meaning of that statement (note still “I guess”).

But.

It wasn’t always like that. I’ve been writing on and off for twenty-five years. In that time there were fallow times, years long, were I didn’t work on my stories at all. Was I a writer then? Not sure. Did I want to be? Yes. Should I have given up? Apparently not. And anyway, is that the only way it has to be? Of course not; and who’s to say what happens after you get your first story published. If confidence is an issue, maybe being published blows that issue away and you suddenly can’t stop. Maybe the opposite happens. Maybe you clam up. Who knows? More to the point, who am I or anyone else who doesn’t know you to tell you how its going to be?

“If you can’t find any time to write, you don’t want to be a writer.”

Writers write. As a statement that’s hard to argue against. Anyone who does want to be a writer, yes, obviously you do have to actually write to actually become one. Trying to find the time might be hard but doesn’t happen by itself. It’s good advice, I think, to try and make time almost every day, even if it’s only half an hour, to write if you want that dream to come true, but if you don’t, I’d still say you should slap me for telling you what you should or shouldn’t want. You have a right to want to be anything. I might not take you very seriously, but they’re your dreams, not mine and who am I or anyone else to come along and tell you they’re not valid. For some people maybe time really is a crushing issue. For a lot of aspiring writers, I’d suggest perhaps confidence is more the problem than time. Well maybe now it is. Maybe things will be different in six months or maybe not. Maybe never. A dream is still a dream and we’re all poorer without them. I can think of several people who wanted to be rock stars long ago. Now they live ordinary lives and play in little bands that do pubs and weddings for pocket change and that’s still for them a wonderful thing. I will never be an Olympic Ice-hockey player. I might, in a couple of years, play in a small team of incompetent amateurs and have a huge amount of fun. Many aspiring authors will never publish best-sellers but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. It doesn’t mean that a not-yet-expressed idea should be killed dead here and now. Maybe that novel never happens, but maybe out of the dream of it something unexpected grows instead.

If you want to be a writer, try and find a little time most days to write. Or make some notes or something to inch forward. At least do something about it. Good advice? Yes.

“If you can’t find any time to write, you don’t want to be a writer.” An insidious dream-killing cage of a statement. An authoritarian devourer of possibilities. Probably not meant as it comes across. Definitely ill-conceived. Don’t piss on my dreams, people and I won’t piss on yours.

[1] If that makes it sound like, gee, any other salary-slave job then yes, there are a lot of similarities. Do I wish I was doing something else? Hell no.

The Medusa Myth – Evan Style (25/1/2013)

Posted in Critical Failures

Yes, this is a proud-parent post. You have been warned…

A couple of years ago, number one sithling wrote his first story and I put it up because it had knights and dragons in it and also hog-roast, and you can’t say no to hog-roast. Number two sithling has a story too that he’d like to share. So here it is:

The Medusa Myth – Evan Style

by Evan

Age 7

Long ago, there lived a boy called Evan how was living with his mother. During a visit to Rome the Emperor falls in love with Evan’s mother  and kidnaps her. Evan is furious and sends a message to the Emperor demanding for his mother back. The Emperor said: NO! Only if you bring me the head of the fiercest lion in all of Rome. Evan goes to an island in a chariot and meets the goddess Diana who gives him a shield and a magic sword and flying sandals. Evan travels to another island to meet the three sisters who tell him where to find the great beast. The lion lives in a tunnel underneath an old amphitheatre in Rome. Evan uses his flying sandals again to get to Rome quickly and finds the lion in one of the tunnels. During a big long fight,Evan chops off the lion’s head and kills him. He puts the lion’s head in a bag and takes it to the Emperor. The Emperor is very surprised and agrees to let Evan’s mother go.

I believe I may have a synopsis for a short story…

I Have Nothing To Say So Here’s A Cat Picture (10/1/13)

Posted in Critical Failures

The Ferg

The Meaning of Life (4/1/2013)

Posted in Critical Failures

So this is a bit of a counterpoint to last week’s gloom about dementia and the inevitability of people you love coming to an end. This is about wonder.

Number two sithling is a bit of a charmer and a bit of a fireball. He’s seven and lives entirely in the moment. Not all children are like this. Certainly number one was more measured even at that age, but for number two the world is either one vast apocalyptic calamity as far as the eye can see or else it’s a single massive candy-park entirely made of awesome. I rather envy him how everything is all right here, right now. He’s also disgustingly cute, with big brown eyes and the sort of lashes that women kill for and dimples when he smiles that annihilate all cynical thought within fifty paces.

It is entirely possible that some degree of parental bias crept into that last sentence.

Anyway, the sithlings and I went and found one of these leisure centre swimming pools with windy-bendy waterslides. Number one sithling has much love for waterslides and so do I, but number two was scared of them, and since he’s too young to leave on his own that’s always been the end of that. This time we showed up to find the place half empty. We could see right away that the queues were going to be really short. It took a while but eventually we persuaded number two to at least climb the tower so number one could slide. He wasn’t much impressed, but it was obvious what was going to happen next, because when you’re a younger sibling, there’s no way in hell your big brother can be allowed to be better at anything. So we watch number one sithling vanish into a tunnel and number two sithling asks if maybe he and I can slide together, and I say OK, and do we get up to give it a go, only as we’re about to slide, he lets go without me and he’s off, and I hesitate and then I know that if I follow now, he’s going to be floundering in the water right there at the exit and I’m going to hit him like an express train and it’ll be all kinds of bad. So I wait, ears pricked for the terrified wails coming out of the tunnel. Nothing. As soon as it’s safe, I dive in. At the bottom I find him waiting by the splash-pool with a bemused look on his face. No sad-clown face at least (he can still do the sad-clown face when he’s really upset) but I’m fully expecting to take both barrels of parental guilt as he demands to know why I didn’t do what I said and slide with him and keep him safe.

Instead I get the big wide eyes and the baffled what-the-hell-just-happened look, and everything hangs in the balance.

“You OK?” I ask. He nods, so bite the bullet. “How was it.”

And that’s the moment. The moment when his face lights up and a huge grin rips across his face with all three dimples turned up to ten. “It was awesome.”

We spend the rest of the of the afternoon running up the tower and sliding down. And it was, indeed, awesome, but what I still carry with me is the moment he lit up. The moment of discovery when what was forbidden or barred or too frightening to approach suddenly snap-changes into a whole new world of possibility. When I was younger, I used to think the meaning of life lay in those moments, in crossing the boundaries of my own fears, but now I think I only had it half right. It lies, truly, in watching someone else take to the wing and knowing you had a part in showing them their possibilities.

We should give each other wings, not cages. And water-slides too. Because water-slides are indeed awesome.

Depression, Dementia and Death (27/12/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

My dad is, was and always has been, for me, the definition of how to live a good life. My opinion is probably biased. Fact is, I didn’t know him at all for the first half of his life and now I have children of my own, I can be damn sure that the father they know isn’t the same person I was before they were born. That person apparently skied off a cliff and floated down a mountainside with a parachute. This person barely remembers. I’m told it happened. I dimly, if pushed, remember that it probably did and can dredge up a hazy recollection of some floundering in the snow beforehand. That’s not dementia, that’s just a life stuffed full of, well, stuff and leaking badly at the edges. Pretty much like anyone in their middle years, I suppose, although I don’t know. Anyway, point being that my kids will never know I did this because they weren’t there and I barely remember myself. I was a different person then and frankly their existence had a lot to do with the change. I don’t claim either me was better than the other, only that the person my children remember when they grow up won’t be the person I was before they were born. There are whole tranches of me that they’ll never see or know and so I have to suppose that the same is true of my own parents. Sometimes I wonder who they were before I came along and then my brother and we quietly pinned them to the wheel of raising a family.

With my dad, I’ll never know. He doesn’t remember any more and it was always shrouded in mystery even when I was little. He was a chemist and it was often something to do with explosives. For three years before I was born, he was assigned to the British embassy in Washington as a scientific adviser of some sort. It was all a bit Official Secrets Act and not something to be talked about. It all sounds desperately interesting and if a younger me had known about all this then younger me would have hounded him mercilessly to find out all about it. But younger me didn’t. What I do know, because I remember, is that he was sharper, smarter and kinder than I’ll ever be. He taught me chess and quantum physics, and there was always a quiet gleeful joy to growing up in a house filled with books on how to make things explode. He had a quiet strength and willingly gave himself up for the rest of us, as I suppose many parents do. It was one of those solid lives that no one ever remarks upon and has no apparent significance in the greater scheme of things and yet form, in the sum of them, the foundation on which civilisation stands. I can guess and I can imagine who he was before I was old enough to see and measure it for myself, but I can never know. Rather like skiing off a mountainside, perhaps the true story is rather less glorious than the imagined one, but that’s OK. I’ll stick with the imagined one on both counts.

I noticed, years ago, that he was losing that sharpness. Chess wasn’t any fun any more, and then pointless to even try. But he was still there, still my dad. It seemed as though he was simply happy to sit back and rest on his mental laurels, content with what he’d done with his life and pretty happy with the way most of it had turned out and pleased not to have anyone make him think too hard any more because thanks but he was done with that. I kind of quietly said goodbye to him then, told him what I thought of him, how great he’d been, how I’d always looked up to him, how he was the quiet role model and hero of my life. Here and now I’m glad I did that back when I had the chance to see him appreciate it. One of the few unequivocally smart and good things I ever did, for both of us.

Last year he started losing his memory. Badly. Not Altzheimers but some other form of dementia that might as well be. In hindsight I wonder whether the first symptoms of this was what I was seeing, years and years ago, but it doesn’t really make a difference one way or the other. It could be worse. He doesn’t really understand what’s happening to him and seems largely happy enough. I know there are people with Altzheimers who are exquisitely aware of their own fading and live in near-constant terror at their own deconstruction. I can only try to imagine what that must be like. Blissful ignorance seems so much better.

A couple of days ago we picked some vastly overripe tomatoes together. Managing that much was an achievement and I felt a little proud that we’d actually done something, and done it together. Sorting the moldy ones from the rest was a challenge too far, but that didn’t really matter. At the rate things are going, he probably won’t remember my name six months from now.

Losing those we love is inevitable. I’ve had death and I’ve had depression come sit very close by. But fuck you, dementia. In many ways I like you least of all.

COMING SOON (20/12/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

I’ve noted in previous posts that I’ve spent some of the last few months working on a new and ultra-secret project; now, finally, with the ink dried and all three manuscripts off on their way to the copy-edit, I can finally reveal my next foray into into fantasy literature and the pseudonym under which I’ll be working:

Skone

A new adventure in Heroic Fantasy by Jack D’Awe

Calling upon the ghosts of heroes past such as Conan, Druss and The Grey Mouser, mixed with the raisins of  contemporary grit, Skone will satisfy the appetite of all fantasy lovers longing for a return to the simple bread-and-jam values of heroic fantasy.

Summer 2013: THE CHRONICLES OF SKONE VOLUME ONE: THE GIRDLE OF DARKNESS

For years, Skone fought in the armies of King Dubius the Great [1]. When the war was done, the great axe-wielding warrior settled in the lands he conquered for his king, starting a family and plying his trade as a baker. BUT NOW a new enemy has arisen! The hordes of the Waffeln are marching behind the unstoppable standard of the unholy Sword of Kake. Reluctant to return to his old ways, Skone stays at home and bakes, but destiny is not prepared to leave him alone. An old friend seeks shelter and is pursued by hunters. When Skone skewers a Waffeln soldier through the eye with a stale baguette, he knows he cannot refuse his calling.

The king’s army is broken, but under the banner of the king’s son, Prince Cniva [2], Skone leads an expedition to a far-off land, seeking the fable Girdle of Darkness, the only power that can stand against the relentless force of Kake.

In the final confrontation, Skone will face his greatest challenge. Can Skone defeat the Waffeln? Can the Girdle of Darkness really contain so much Kake? And coming in later in 2013. . .

Autumn 2013: THE CHRONICLES OF SKONE VOLUME TWO: THE SCALES OF WRATH
Winter 2013: THE CHRONICLES OF SKONE VOLUME THREE: THE LAST CUPCAKE

[1] That’s a good visigoth name, I’ll have you know.
[2] Another good visigoth name :-p

What’s It Got In Its Cinemases? (14/12/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

The Hobbit. So this isn’t so much a review as a series of observations which I’ll try to make as non-spoilery as possible but quietly assume you’ve read the book. Purists beware: your source material has been messed with quite considerably although this isn’t necessarily all a bad thing.

The Dwarves: The dwarves come across as something between a gang of Klingons and a bunch of children. Despite all coming from one place originally, they have accents that cover a wide chunk of Europe. They have a similarly absurd range of beards and prosthetics and some of their horses have been to the same rug-manufacturer that George Lucas used for Chewbacca. Despite all this, they worked perfectly well for me. They fit my memory of the book well enough and so does the humour. What I don’t remember is the apparent fact that the dwarves are all 20th level fighters under AD&D rules (20d6 maximum damage irrespective of distance fallen) and also made of rubber and Jell-O and can thus can be dropped from pretty much any damn height you like over and over again without ever picking up any kind of injury. There’s a bit where they find themselves trapped at the edge of a cliff and by then I was thinking: just jump, for pity’s sake. It’s only a mile straight down. You’ll be OK…

Length: I’ve heard it said the movie is too long and they take too long to get out of the Shire. It did feel too long but not for that reason. There’s too much pointless fighting in the second half. Which leads on to…

The White Orc: I get, I think, why this was added. It gives Thorin back-story some of which I think is true to the book and I’m guessing the white orc will become the focal bad-guy for when we eventually get to the Battle of the Five Armies. Doubtless there will be a climactic fight with Thorin that tips the battle and wins the day (I am quietly rolling my eyes). I understand the need to give that enemy a face and thus bring him in in the first movie, but he could have been a) much better, and b) much less present. One encounter with orcs and a back-at-orc-HQ scene would have been enough. Also, since when did orcs live for bloody ages too? And isn’t he a bit Voldemort?

Radegast and Saruman: The other extra material worked for me, even Radegast and his absurd transport system. Incredibly twee, yes, but it felt a part of the world (which is incredibly twee in place), though I haven’t read the relevant source material to see how its accuracy stands up. Radegast and the changes to what happens in Rivendell seemed to me to be about making the six movies into a coherent whole. Not terribly necessary, perhaps, given the first three movies are done and everyone in the world and space has seen them, but the OCD-driven story-teller in me would have done the same.

The Hobbit himself: Grumble. There are a couple of significant scenes (escaping the trolls and escaping the goblin king) where the the events from the book as I remember them are changed in a way that lessens Bilbo’s contribution. Yes, it’s more cinematic for Gandalf to show up and do his GAAANDAAALFFF!!! thing but it takes away from the Hobbit himself. Most of all, these changes felt unnecessary. I found the movie to be largely exquisitely gorgeous and I don’t think it  needs nearly as many ‘big moments’ as it thinks it does. As a consequence, in order to big-up his part in the company, Bilbo does something at the end which seems a unlikely, especially given that none of the battle-hardened dwarves do it first. Shame about that.

There’s a lot more humour than in The Lord of the Rings and it verges on slapstick. Mostly it worked for me. Mostly. Gollum is in the movie for ten minutes maybe and totally steals it. A good half hour of material was, I suspect, sneakily inserted by the New Zealand Tourist Board. I’d have been very happy to have had more of that and fewer CGI wargs. The whole thing was lovely to watch (in 2D at 24 frames/second anyway) – shame about the unnecessary added fighting and GAAANDAAALFF!!! moments.

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