Wednesday, 31 December 2008

How I Write

The short answer, I think, is scattily. I'm erratic.

Working on a book, I skip from chapter to chapter - sometimes dipping in to add just one sentence that's been bothering me, or to change the order of a couple of words. I currently have three blog posts in 'draft'. I'm really trying to write my PhD transfer report one chapter at a time, but my goodness, that's harder than I thought (I wondered about tricking myself by pretending the chapters are separate essays, but unfortunately I also want it to have a coherent overall structure).

I'm not sure whether this is actually a problem - or just a slightly unconventional way of doing things. It certainly means I never have writers' block, because there's always something else to write. Good for blogging, and it seems to work for novels - how well it works for academia remains to be seen....

Happy New Year
& all best wishes for 2009

Monday, 29 December 2008

Honeymoon highlights III: Trains!

The first train, from St Petersburg to Moscow, was only an eight-hour overnight hop - the shortest of the four train journeys which made up our holiday. We spent over a week on trains, in total. Here are some railway photos:

Our train Rossiya is the one on the right; on the left, train 4 which was apparently racing us across Siberia (always stopping about ten minutes after we did).

Every day on train 2 (Rossiya) we were given a small ration pack. The crackers, butter & coffee were lifesavers - but we still had all the packets of ketchup left at the end.

On almost every platform - however small the station - at least one trader turned up to try and sell us drinks, snacks, or soft toys. The ones with the metal carts were the more organised operations; others simply had a small carrier bag of goodies.

This was the engine which took us from Mongolia to China... I'm getting ahead of myself, but isn't it stunning!

Sunday, 28 December 2008


Overheard in the hospital waiting room on Christmas eve:

A: How many countries are in Afghanistan?
B: Um, Afghanistan is one country.
A: No, I mean, there's us, and America... who else?
B: Ohhh...

Anything that brightens a moment in Intensive Care is precious!

Wishing a belated Merry Christmas to anyone who's still reading over the holidays :)

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Honeymoon Highlights II: Moscow

The second in my little series of assorted honeymoon snaps - this time, pictures taken in Moscow:

We arrived in Moscow at 7am and (after an overly-complicated conversation with the left luggage guard at the train station and breakfast at Starlite Diner) took a walk through some quiet back-streets where we found this beautiful and understated monastery. Such a sense of peace in the middle of a bustling city!

From the sublime to the ridiculous - this was the most over-the-top building we found on our travels (and Russia certainly goes in for 'statement' architecture). Do you think, if you could go inside, the whole building would sound of the sea?

If we'd read the books more carefully, we would have known that they close Red Square in the evenings. This involves a constant police/military presence... I've never before encountered the idea of closing times for a public square...

Big and impressive - surely this building must be in the guide book? Or on the map? Well, apparently not, although we spent a good 20 minutes trying to work out what it might be. Does anyone know?? UPDATE: Thanks to AnN for identifying this as the apartment block at Kotelnicheskaya Embankment

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The Christmas Party Which Wasn't

We were going to have a Christmas party this evening.

I was going to bake mince pies, mull wine, and get a fire going. It would have been beautiful, and then I would have taken a few photos of my baking and blogged about how lovely it all was.

Unfortunately, life doesn't always work out as you plan it, and so my husband has driven across to be with his mum today, and I'm getting the train across tomorrow.

You see, there's a problem with the way we host parties. We have quite a lot of gatherings at our house, usually informal affairs, where there's just plenty of food & wine to go around and we don't bother too much about RSVPs. We invite everyone to everything, we know people will be able to get to some of our parties and not others, and it's always lovely to see whoever does turn up. It's never seemed like a problem until last night, when we suddenly realised that we needed to cancel. It's harder to do that when you're not sure who's coming.

I sent messages to everyone I could, but I knew it wasn't reliable. And we live in the middle of nowhere - didn't want friends turning up to find the house was empty! So I stayed at home, with a couple of dear friends to keep me company, just in case anyone didn't get the message in time.

Instead of mince pies and mulled wine for many, I made pasta for three.

Some variation on tonight's dish is one of my staple dishes in the category of 'really really easy'. Mushrooms & courgettes, flavoured with lemon, chilli & black pepper, then tossed with pasta and topped with parmesan & toasted almond flakes. I would usually put in garlic but I didn't have any (I was shocked by this revelation, too).

This is usually a summertime dish in our house, but as it happens, it fitted very well with what I had left in the fridge. Should you be in need of a quick & easy pasta dish, I can heartily recommend doing 'something a bit like this'. This amount served three of us quite happily.

1 courgette
~150g mushrooms
handful of frozen peas (fresh would also work)
25g butter (or olive oil)
juice of 1/2 lemon (or more if you like it really lemony)
black pepper & chilli flakes to taste (I have grinders for both, and use about a dozen twists of each)
~250g spaghetti

to garnish: grated parmesan & toasted flaked almonds

  1. Check all your friends like mushrooms (and courgettes & peas if you think it might be an issue). I forgot this critical stage which resulted in an extra pan to cook the mushrooms separately... not advisable!

  2. Boil the kettle ready for the spaghetti (and enough extra for a cup of coffee, if you're anything like me).

  3. If you need to toast your almonds, tip flaked almonds onto a baking tray and pop in the oven for about 10 minutes at 200°C. This will make your kitchen smell heavenly while you work.

  4. Boil the spaghetti according to pack instructions - mine takes 10 minutes. Pop the peas in with the pasta to heat through.
    • If you have quick-cook spaghetti (or have made fresh pasta, which would turn this into an all-day exercise rather than a ten-minute meal), do all of step 4 before cooking the pasta, because the courgettes & mushrooms can stay warm for ages.

  5. Meanwhile, thinly slice courgettes & mushrooms. Heat butter in a frying pan, and fry courgette & mushrooms until soft (about 8 minutes). Add lemon juice, black pepper & chilli flakes according to your tastes, and leave over a low heat until the spaghetti is cooked.

  6. Drain the spaghetti, stir in the courgette & mushroom mixture, and serve topped with parmesan & toasted almonds.

  7. Open a bottle of wine, sit back, and enjoy!

~~~ I will be on scheduled posts only for the next couple of days as I am following my husband to the Land of No Internet. I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas. ~~~

Seasonal Musings

Last night I listened to Ian Hislop's radio documentary We Three Kings, about the magi in the Christmas story, and earlier in the week I read Philip Booth's blog post which raises the question of whether there were two 'Jesus children'.

At this time of year it's always fascinating to look at the Christmas story in a historical light (and particularly this year, when thinking about this kind of thing helps me take my mind off other worries). Christianity has a distinct theological advantage over religions where the holy book is said to have been dictated directly by God - the gospel writers may be sainted, but they were human and fallible. Which means there is plenty to think about and discuss!

In Philip's blog, he refers to a Dead Sea Scroll fragment giving a prophesy of two Messiahs, "a priestly Messiah and a kingly Messiah, both coming out of the House of David to rule side by side."

Now, this has the potential to clear up long-famous discrepancies in the Christmas story, such as Quirinius' census taking place after the death of Herod the Great. But on the other hand it seems unlikely (to me) that there could have been two Messiahs around in the same era without someone noticing later on in the story.

It would surely be too big a thing to cover up. More likely that the original prophesy was fulfilled in Jesus being both kingly and priestly? At which point we can excuse the gospel writers (being human and fallible) for having different perspectives on which parts of the story are most salient, or for simply making mistakes.

Sunday, 21 December 2008


Due to a sudden, serious illness in the family I've been away this weekend (with scheduled posts to keep up something resembling momentum).

The section of family in question has no internet access, so I've spent my time mostly (a) crocheting, and (b) cooking in someone else's kitchen. Both things I enjoy doing, yet it's only 6.30 on Sunday evening and I'm completely exhausted.

Worrying is so tiring. I had hoped I'd have the time / energy to write something this evening, but really, I just need to go to bed.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Honeymoon Highlights I: St Petersburg

It's over two months since I got back from honeymoon, but I didn't have a blog then to post pictures to. Also, I've just finished properly going through all the photos again - plus I entered one of them into a National Geographic competition and it won!!

The honeymoon, for those who don't know, was a trip on the transmongolian railway - St Petersburg to Beijing by rail. I'm currently working on an article about the trip (and I've already blogged about my favourite food places), so this is a cherry-pick of only a tiny number of photos from the 4GB of memory cards that we filled, that don't really fit in anywhere else.

Starting in St Petersburg... more to follow shortly.

St Petersburg is riddled with canals - we found ourselves navigating by them more than by roads (left along the towpath, past three bridges...)

Here comes the bride! Everywhere we went in St Petersburg (and Moscow, for that matter) stretch limosines took wedding parties and photographers to have their pictures taken with every major landmark. If that was a tradition in the UK, I'd have got very good at Photoshop to save everyone's time!

The Financial Times which we picked up on the plane had an article about special flavours of crisps for the Russian market, including mushroom & sour cream. I managed to track down a packet, and they were delicious - come on, Walkers, you can release these in Britain too!

On our last day, before catching the overnight train to Moscow, we took the boat across to the Peterhof - St Petersburg's summer palace. This was by no means the most spectacular fountain there, I just like the composition of this photo.

Friday, 19 December 2008

The Authonomy Experiment: Conclusions

I've been (properly, as opposed to nominally) signed up to Authonomy for a couple of weeks now, which I think has been long enough to get the rough idea of how it works and whether I like it.

There are certainly things I do like - lots of things to read, freely available online, is the main thing I enjoy. But you don't have to be a member for that, anyone can read the stories posted.

What does Authonomy offer to a writer? The big carrot that Harper Collins are waving around is the possibility to get your work onto an editor's desk... but right now, that's not actually what I want for my novel. I'm enjoying publishing serially on my website, and I don't really want to push the book towards the publishing industry until the series is actually finished (or at least fully plotted) in case I decide I want to change something in Volume 1...

Plus, it's obvious that you have to work very hard to get one of those top spots - not just producing good writing, but marketing it to the toughest audience (other, competing writers). This means the sense of community on Authonomy is very slight - most of the communications I've been involved in have been task-focused, most people talk to you because they want you to read what they've written.

I'm going to compare this with my (almost equally brief) experiences with blogging so far. I love blogging, and the main reason I love blogging is all the other lovely, insightful and clever people who are out there writing blogs at the same time. People who talk to you because they're naturally friendly. People both interesting and interested. Yep, loving the blogosphere (first time I've used that word...). I have a limited amount of spare time, and I'd much prefer to spend it engaging with people 'here' than trying to keep up with the Authonomy-sphere...

Conclusion: for now, I'm going to take the book down from Authonomy, because as a writer I don't actually want what Authonomy is offering at the moment. As a reader, I will keep reading, but I probably won't be signing in except if I have helpful comments to make on a piece. As a blogger - yay, go blogging! :)

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Working From Home: A Survival Guide

Working from home sounds like bliss, but comes with a whole raft of problems that you just wouldn't face in an office or other workplace. I think I'm gradually getting the hang of this - which, since I've been doing it for over a year now, is probably just as well. This is an accumulation of tips that seem to be constants for me whether I'm writing or working on my PhD.
  1. Get up, get dressed, brush your hair. I've had odd days when I've not even bothered to get out of bed (hey, I have a laptop!) but in all honesty it's very hard to feel professional anything when you're wearing pyjamas and a dressing gown. The only exception I'll make to this now is if I'm feeling ill, in which case doing a little work from bed is better than doing no work from bed.

  2. Prepare snacks & drinks. Inspired by, but not needing a delivery service since I'm already at home & surrounded by food, I've started preparing myself a plate of moderately-healthy snacks at the beginning of the day so that I'm not constantly tempted to go and see what's in the fridge or the pantry (as if it's likely to have changed since last time!). I also make sure I have a bottle of water within reach, and I'm toying with the idea of making up a big flask of coffee to save repeated trips to the kettle.

  3. Ignore the housework. This is particularly hard if you're expecting guests to arrive as soon as you've finished work (although, see also point 6), but it's essential to nail this one, otherwise you will have an immaculate house and no job. It's amazing how attractive the washing up or the hoovering becomes when you've spent all day staring at your computer screen...

  4. On which note - take plenty of breaks, it's easier to get completely absorbed in your work when there's no-one around to distract you or invite you for lunch, and screen-staring/keyboard-tapping without interruption is bad for your health and probably your sanity.

  5. Ignore the distractions of the internet (but not totally). Sometimes I switch off the wifi entirely, but usually I need the internet for research. The temptation to wander off and check blogs/facebook/email is huge; I find it gets worse if you try to totally suppress these urges so I let myself have a quick look in my lunch break (and I keep my email client open most of the time so I'll know if anything urgent comes in - but I don't let myself act on anything which isn't genuinely urgent).

  6. Be flexible. This obviously depends on the nature of your work - if someone's expecting you to be available by phone or online 9-5 then it doesn't work, but I'm lucky to have huge flexibility. If I have (for example) people coming round on Tuesday evening, I'll let myself take part of Tuesday afternoon off to clean and/or cook so long as I know I can catch up on the hours, for instance by working Wednesday evening instead.
There's some seemingly obvious stuff that I don't do at the moment, like having a specific work-space at home - I prefer to curl up on the sofa most of the time - and I need to find a way to not get disturbed by my husband when he's at home. So I certainly don't have it perfect yet. I'd love to know what works for other people.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

A Traveler's Tale...

I have my first travel article published!! It's small but - I like to think - perfectly formed.

I find it mildly entertaining that I get RC for writing the article but a full name credit for my photos. Also, the site likes to have links to a variety of "relevant" things, for some value of relevant that I don't quite understand and will have to get the hang of for next time.

The photos and general story are from a six-week cycling holiday I took in Iceland a couple of years ago.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Doing Something Scary

Someone wiser (and much braver!) than I am once said that you should do one thing every day which scares you. And with that in mind, it happened that yesterday evening I managed to 'volunteer' to do the third reading at my College's alumni carol concert.

Now, I can talk easily with any number of people at a party or conference (or just about anywhere) but if you put me in front of a room of people and ask me to speak 'to' rather than 'with', I suddenly lose my tongue.

I was tempted to say 'no'; it would have been easy to summon excuses. My eyesight is not great (I had to ask them to print the reading in a larger font). We were driving for an hour and a half to get there, with the consequent risk of being late. A simple 'no, thanks' would have sufficed for everybody.

But although I could have justified myriad reasons not to, I felt honoured to have been asked - I wanted to do it, I just would have preferred to do it without the stage fright! In the end I decided it would almost undoubtedly be good for me - something less scary than giving a presentation (after all, I only had to read the words, Luke had already written them) but still practising similar skills and feeling the same sick nervousness. Besides, I do like a challenge.

It was an excellent service; it always is. The New College Choir gave an outstanding performance as always. I admit I wasn't fully listening to the first few carols, although the beautiful music did something to soothe my nerves. I hope no-one could see the way my heart was pounding in my chest as I stepped up to read - but even if they could, I did it. I might even be tempted to do it again in future.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Writing: A Theory

This started out as a theory about travel writing, but it's evolved into a theory about successful writing in general, which is that the ability to put words one after another into a beautiful sequence is secondary (except, probably, in poetry). The primary requirement is to have something to say: a story to tell.

A prime example of this in recent times is J K Rowling, whose books don't have perfect grammar even after going through the editorial process. And a perennial favourite of mine is Frank Herbert, who breaks every rule about point-of-view that you'd find in any modern book of 'how to write'. But they have a story to tell - the kind of story that grabs you and won't let go until you finish reading, keeping you turning the pages in spite of some clumsy dialogue, or plot holes, or editorial slips.

That's why I write novels - not because I love the feeling of putting one word after another (which is technically simple, but can be unbelievably hard work to find the motivation to sit down and do it) but because I have an epic amount of story in my head and would like to store it somewhere else instead!

This also goes some way towards explaining why I'm happy to read first drafts on sites like Authonomy - if the story grips me, I can overlook little niggles that I'd take a red pen to if I were editing. (I find that I don't have the same patience with first-draft poetry - one line that doesn't scan is enough to put me off!) Not everyone can write a first draft with no spelling or grammatical errors (and even editing can go wrong) but I really don't believe it matters on the grand scheme of things.

So, coming back to travel writing. It's not about the words - most literate people could put enough words down. No, I think that writing a good travelogue starts long before you put pen to paper, with the trip itself and the personality of the author: if you go to sufficiently interesting places, or if you're the sort of person who can get out there, talk to loads of strangers, and go out of your way to ensure that interesting things will happen to you, then you have the basics.

For fiction, you have to imagine a good story; to write travel well, you have to make a good story happen to you. Then you can write it down.

P.S. Schafner sligtly beat me to this concept while this post was sitting in my 'draft' folder... but I'm posting it anyway because I think we have slightly different points!

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Photography Competition - Shameless Plug

<shameless plug>

I've entered a small handful of photos into the National Geographic's travel/food photography contest. I love food, I love travel (and I love chocolate, which is the prize!) so I thought it was worth a shot, especially as many of my favourite travel pics are food-related.

My personal favourite is a photo of a bicycle market in Cuba, which is also substantially different from the other photos in the competition. I would love a chance to win this, so if you want to support me, please consider logging in to Flickr and adding this photo to your favourites!!

</shameless plug>

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Following Blogs

Initially I was a little confused about why I should 'follow' a blog within Blogger. I have a perfectly good RSS reader, right? Which I'm already using for a host of other RSS feeds.

The obvious reason to 'follow' (as well or instead) is because - at least for blogs hosted on Blogger - the author gets to see that you're reading them, and maybe gets a warm fuzzy glow inside. But I think I may have thought of a better reason.

After all, infrequently updated blogs are a bit irritating. I've been googling for interesting blogs and some of the top-10 search results haven't been updated since 2004... Come on, Google, you're good at search algorithms - you can surely account for 'recent is important' with blog search just as much as with news!!

Ergo, keeping blogging is good.

Ergo, something that keeps me coming back to Blogger (i.e. to read all my favourite blogs) is good. Yep, just another one of those little psychological tricks I use to make myself behave the way I want to......

Other meta-blog thoughts of recent days:
  1. This would never be my favourite blog to read, because all the best blogs I've found have been pretty focused on one subject. Hey ho, I'm just scatty! At least I'm tagging like a maniac...
  2. I worked out how to insert photos :)

Tuesday, 9 December 2008


While I was skiing last year, I thought it might be nice to try and adapt a bike with spikes on the back wheel and a ski instead of the front wheel. Now someone's actually done it!

I'm sort of thrilled, because now I can prove to my friends that the idea was valid without having to actually build one - but on the other hand, I was looking forward to the challenge of adapting an old bike myself to try it out.

If you want to buy a kit to convert your bike, it's $449:

Restaurants of the World

National Geographic's travel/food photography contest has got me thinking. Almost everywhere I visit, I end up with one or two new favourite restaurants. It can be tricky to find good veggie food in places you don't know, so maybe these will be useful to someone (arranged in alphabetical order by country).

~~~ Please add your own recommendations in the comments! ~~~


The slogan of Zak's Diner, "Don't Starve!", struck me as a little bit negative to start with - but endearing enough that I bought myself a mug to remind me of many happy breakfasts (with endless mugs of coffee). Enough variety to keep me occupied for a week and still not try all the breakfast options.

The Green Door, a little way out of town, is an outstanding veggie restaurant where food is sold by weight - so you can help yourself to a little of whatever you fancy from their hot & cold selections.

The sign at Museo del Chocolate, HavanaCuba

Museo del Chocolate in Havana is not so much a museum as a cafe & chocolate shop - not somewhere to go for food, but you can't beat their hot chocolate which really is just like drinking melted chocolate. Mmmmmm.....


Maoz falafel has got branches elsewhere, but their Paris branch - where I discovered them - will always have a special place in my heart.

It's a few years since I was in Paris so I haven't been to Krishna Bhavan (website in French) since they updated their menu - it used to be a question of picking your favourite Indian bread, and they would serve it with a selection of whatever sauces they'd made that night. You can probably get the same sort of effect by trying the thali on the new menu; it still looks like excellent value.

Soup at Luna Blanca, UlanbatarMongolia

Luna Blanca is an incredible vegetarian restaurant in the centre of Ulanbatar - they have an annoyingly flashy website but if you can be bothered to wade through the animation you can get to the menu, which is delicious and inexpensive. Their house special soup, with loads of tiny dumplings, was particularly tasty - as were the noodles.


Jagannath (website in Russian) is fully vegetarian, and one of the easiest places to eat if you don't speak Russian because all the food is laid out buffet-style in the cafe at the back - just point at what you fancy. There's also a health-food shop, useful if you're self-catering, and a couple of computers with cheap internet access.

Starlite Diner seems to be opening new branches across Moscow; striving for an all-American feel with comfy booths and CNN, free English-language newspapers, and short-skirted waitresses. The menu is in English. There's not a huge choice for veggies but the Mediterranean Omlette from the all-day breakfast menu is so good I had it twice - and the coffee is bottomless if you go at breakfast time.

Lasagna & potatos at Troitskiy Most, St PetersburgSt. Petersburg

The vegetarian chain Troitskiy Most (website in Russian) has a board of ever-changing specials in each branch, and if you're lucky you'll find one or two of the staff speak English. Portions are small but cheap - order two for a decent-sized meal, or save space for cake!

Gauranga is St Petersburg's Hare Krishna restaurant - a sligtly strange place, which only opened its door after we hammered on it for a couple of minutes despite having been supposedly open for an hour. Tiny bowls, and not cheap - but the food really was exceptionally tasty.

Monday, 8 December 2008

NaNo Experiences

One of this year's NaNo winners has started conducting a series of interviews with other participants, one of whom happens to be me, so go and read about my NaNo experience if you're interested because I won't be blogging about it separately.

I found it really fascinating to read all the different responses - from the things we all agreed on (e.g. that it was a worthwhile experience) to areas that proved more contraversial such as planning, word-padding, and wanting to give up (or not).

This is part one in a series of interviews so I'm looking forward to the next installment!

In other writing news, I've had some lovely feedback on my novel and my new short story (which I'll be editing shortly).

Common Sense vs. The Status Quo

Every now and then someone says something which is blindingly obvious, but still well worth saying. Twice in the last couple of months I've read articles which have made me sit up and say, "hang on, that's common sense - so why isn't the world like that?"

One was a recent post by Hal Daumé on his natural language processing blog, the other was Ted Pedersen's 'Last Words' piece in September's Computational Linguistics (Vol 34, Issue 3, pp465-470).

To summarise very, very briefly for anyone who doesn't want to read both articles (or who doesn't have access to the CL back-catalogue):
  • Hal talks about competitiveness in research - making the observation that researchers tend to be quite competitive and protective of their work, despite the fact that we're all nominally working towards the same goal, and all progress is good progress.
  • Ted talks about the failings of computational linguistics as a science, namely that we don't share enough of our code - or detail of corpora used - to make our experiments truly repeatable and results verifiable.
So they are making different points, but there's a lot of common ground. I'm sure that part of the reason researchers (and departments) don't give away all their code to download is because they're afraid someone will use it to do the same thing but better.

Ted's article really struck a chord with me because I was slightly floored the first time I did peer-reviewing of papers - it felt weird to be assessing someone's write-up of the results from their shiny new programme, but without being able to run or even read their code. I could go on for hours about scientific method (or lack thereof) in areas of linguistics such as pragmatics - maybe that's a post for another day - but I'd assumed that in computational linguistics (part of computer science, after all) there would be no such issues.

Competition and co-operation don't go very well together, of course, and maybe some of these problems would melt away if there was enough funding to go round. I went to Slimbridge wetlands centre at the weekend and was discussing with friends how such a huge number of birds were living there, in fairly cramped conditions, and yet we saw no fighting - we wondered whether that was because there was essentially unlimited food provided by the centre. No competition for resources, no need to fight?

I'm generally a pretty co-operative person by nature - any number of personality profiles will tell you that I'm all about people and teams and working together - but even I get a little defensive when it comes to the topic of my PhD. Why? Because I'm studying part-time, and six years is a long time in politics, and if someone else scooped up my topic and did it full-time they could finish before me... at which point I'd no longer be doing original research and I don't fancy starting the whole thing over again. But on the other hand I will certainly be putting my code on my website - once I have code, rather than just a lengthy literature review and a few ideas. I'd prefer my work to feed into others' research rather than just disappear into the ether.

I've found it hugely frustrating to read about techniques and programmes in the journals, think to myself "yes, that would be useful," but then discover that nowhere is the code available to download and build on. Reinventing the wheel seems to be a job requirement... and it hurts. Mathematicians must have the same competitive drivers (i.e. funding), but they publish their proofs for others to verify and build upon, and that must speed up progress over all.

So, why is there such an ingrained cultural problem in computational linguistics? Is it just us, or is the rest of computer science just as bad? And what can we do to 'fix' it? Answers on a postcard...

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Experiments in Brevity

'Short' is not my style. Really, really not.

Until yesterday, I'd written one (voluntary) short story in my life - even when we were told to write a 'short story' at school I tended to go on for pages and pages, creating a whole world or scenario which deserved far more words than I could hand-write in the week or so we were given.

My ideas for fiction tend to err on the side of epic. I struggle to fit most of my ideas into a single novel or playscript, let alone a short story.

But - and it's a sizeable 'but' - I'm part of a writing group which has monthly tasks which always take the form of a short piece on a given theme, word, or idea. Until yesterday, I've always quietly opted out, though I half-heartedly intend to write something right up until the deadline sails past ("I was busy writing a novel, you see...", I excuse myself).

I tell myself it's a question of priorities - I enjoy writing on an epic scale, and isn't it more important to practise what I care about than to force myself into a medium which doesn't suit me? I still think that's a valid argument: I don't need to be good at every possible form to feel content with my achievements as a writer, and if I'm never very good at short stories it isn't going to give me sleepless nights. But at the same time, I realise I've been doing something completely out of character for me: avoiding a challenge.

So yesterday, I wrote short.

Okay, I cheated a little by using a the world I've already created in Charanthe, setting the story in a corner of the backstory I wouldn't otherwise have written about. Finding a suitable corner was easy; I have plenty more 'world' than I know what to do with. But finding a whole story that I could tell in 1500 words - now that was hard. I spent ages worrying about it, sensing a distinct lack of plot even as I reached the 500-word mark - it wasn't until I was lying in bed, having given up for the day, that it suddenly all clicked into place.

I wrote for two more hours and in the end, I had a piece I was just about satisfied with. Not perfectly happy (the ending is wonky - I ran out of words), but content that I'd written something which stands alone, but which also contributes to the overall story I'm building within the Charanthe series. It'll go up on the website once I've had chance to edit it and fix the ending.

I've also discovered One Minute Writer, a blog which challenges everyone to write for a minute on a given theme. Daily. Now, I don't claim I'm going to follow this every day - not least because there will be days when I'm not online. But it's another opportunity to experiment with getting a concept across in very few words.

Bring on those challenges!

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Banned Books

I found this on Amimone's blog; very interesting, though it's a shame it doesn't come with information on who banned each one & when. That may be a project for later.

If you want to play, copy this list and use:
  • bold for books you've read in full.
  • italics for books you've read part of.
  • *** for books you own but haven't read yet (I don't have any of these).

1. The Bible
2. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
3. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
4. The Koran
5. Arabian Nights
6. Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
7. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
8. Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
9. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
10. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
11. The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
12. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
13. Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
14. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
15. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
16. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
17. Dracula by Bram Stoker
18. Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin
19. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
20. Essays by Michel de Montaigne
21. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
22. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
23. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
24. Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
25. Ulysses by James Joyce
26. Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
27. Animal Farm by George Orwell
28. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
29. Candide by Voltaire
30. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
31. Analects by Confucius
32. Dubliners by James Joyce
33. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
34. Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
35. Red and the Black by Stendhal
36. Das Capital by Karl Marx
37. Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire
38. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
39. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
40. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
41. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
42. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
43. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
44. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
45. Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels
46. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
47. Diary by Samuel Pepys
48. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
49. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
50. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
51. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
52. Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
53. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
54. Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus
55. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
56. Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
57. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
58. Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
59. Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke
60. Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
61. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
62. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
63. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
64. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
65. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
66. Confessions by Jean Jacques Rousseau
67. Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais
68. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
69. The Talmud
70. Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau
71. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
72. Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence
73. American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
74. Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
75. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
76. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
77. Red Pony by John Steinbeck
78. Popol Vuh
79. Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith
80. Satyricon by Petronius
81. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
82. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
83. Black Boy by Richard Wright
84. Spirit of the Laws by Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu
85. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
86. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
87. Metaphysics by Aristotle
88. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
89. Institutes of the Christian Religion by Jean Calvin
90. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
91. Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
92. Sanctuary by William Faulkner
93. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
94. Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
95. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
96. Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
97. General Introduction to Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud
98. Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
99. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Alexander Brown
100. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
101. Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines
102. Émile Jean by Jacques Rousseau
103. Nana by Émile Zola
104. Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
105. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
106. Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
107. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
108. Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Peck
109. Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
110. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
111. Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
112. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
113. The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
114. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
115. The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatly Snyder

Friday, 5 December 2008


Feels like most of my time at the moment is spent in 'research' of one form or another.

In PhD terms, this means reading. Lots. Eventually there will be a practical side but for the time being I'm wading through online journals, scrolling through PDFs, and making notes like there's no tomorrow. Hopefully enough notes that I can find things again later - something I never had to worry about when I was an undergraduate because I read papers and added paragraphs to the related essay at the same time. That style just isn't going to work on something as long as a PhD thesis, so I'm gradually learning to be a different kind of student.

Research for fiction is much easier - and much broader. If you're someone like me who likes nothing better than trying out new things and learning about a variety of obscure subjects, being a writer gives you a great excuse. Who knows when you'll want to write how it feels to make a parachute jump, or when you'll need to know the antidote for belladonna poisoning - and reading about things that have nothing to do with your current projects can give you more inspiration than you know what to do with. Once you start writing fiction, even being ill or injured becomes good 'research'.

Of course, there are plenty of times when you need to find out a specific fact - and now! I always find the 'Character & Plot Realism' board on the NaNoWriMo forums a really good read - it's fascinating to see what other people want to know to inform their writing. And I often wish there was a novelists' version of delicious so writers could share their favourite research sites.

A few of my perennial favourites, aside from Wikipedia, are listed (in no particular order) below. I wonder what these say about my writing?

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Meddling with MySpace

So, following my earlier post I was persuaded by a friend that MySpace has changed in the last few years, and is now a lot easier to use and to customise, and that maybe I should have another look.

I'm trying. I'm not going to post a link to my fledgling MySpace page here, because it simply isn't up to much at the moment. It is however a lot easier to use than it was last time - for starters, you can at least edit the page appearance using CSS. Yay! I definitely count that as an improvement.

But right now I'm sleepy, and I want to write a bit more before I go to bed, so I'm going to leave it as it is for the time being. Further thoughts likely in future.

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