Love me, love my avatar – get your (online) game face on

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Okay, then. So following on from my musings on the relevance of gender identity when writing fiction, let’s get physical.

No, not like that. Gosh, you’re predictable. Here’s some soap for your pre-frontal cortex.

Really, I’d just love to know more about you, because I’m guessing and I hate to guess. The internet is faceless, bodyless, genderless, ageless, if you choose to make it so. You choose yourself a name. There are the words you choose to use (and how you spell them). There’s a tone of voice, an opinion expressed, a manner of style and expression that gives a flavour of speech to those pixillated words. There’s the pictures you like on Tumblr. There’s the fandoms you belong to. There’s the links you love. All these things are you. In many ways, they’re more you than the colour of your hair and skin, because you have chosen them yourself. Choose your online persona, ’cause you can’t choose your DNA.

But what colour are your eyes, constant reader*? Do you have a big nose? Are you sat there typing in your daisy-print frock or your corporate shirt and tie? Do you shave your chin every day or your legs?

How old are you? Do you speak with an American accent? Was that tattoo of the starship Enterprise deliberately designed to make it look as if it’s nose-diving into your cleavage or did you lose a bet?

Do any of these things matter?

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ETG is the one on the…left side. Of the room next door.

My answer would be yes and no. No, because it really shouldn’t ever matter what the person you’re making friends with looks like physically. Yes, if the assumptions you’ve made colour your opinions to the extent that should you ever discover how wrong you’ve been you’d feel somehow betrayed – even though the assumptions are purely and absolutely your own. The rise of internet dating in particular has made finding out the physical truth about our virtual companions paramount.

So you could spend your time talking to LoveCasey, an African-American octogenarian who has retired to Norway so that her wife can enjoy the fjord cruises, while being utterly convinced for some reason that even you couldn’t put your finger on that LoveCasey is a 25 year old Caucasian Australian man. Nothing she’s ever said has given any indication of her physical truth, and yet your brain has created a mental avatar for her with no more to go on than some words and a snapshot of interests.

In my head for years, Terry Wogan was blond. I only ever heard him on the radio, and had no reason to make that assumption – you can’t hear blond hair (except in blond jokes). I was still vaguely disturbed by the reality of his dark hair when I saw it.

The things people like, they way they present themselves in written form, even the online avatars they choose (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t look even remotely like Robert Carlyle, except that I’ve also got a nose and my hair’s going a bit grey too these days) colour your assumptions about what sort of physical form they possess. And this, through no real volition of your own, colours your assumption about what sort of person they must be.

Sometimes, when the real person is revealed, like Hyde sliding out from behind the idealised Jekyll, compromising our belief in our own ability to really know a person, we can’t help that sudden, reactive shock and instinctive sensation of mistrust.

We enjoy the unreality of the internet, where the ordinary people we’re talking to are visualised as cats and rats and cartoon heroes, gods and monsters. An injection of reality can be unwelcome to us.

How important do you feel knowing the physical truth about a virtual person is? And have you ever made an assumption that shocked you with how inaccurate it turned out to be?

*My eyes are green, by the way.

Genius in the workplace: not all of us have sharks with lasers

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There’s an awful lot of effort these days goes into not discriminating against people. For all sorts of things. A lot of these things are commonplace and well-known: the big nine, for example.

And this is all very fine and beautiful and one step closer to what Jesus apparently wanted, and to that mythical Utopia we’re all hoping will be in place for our children’s future (because it sure as hell isn’t happening in our lifetime – just try to blot out the fact that our parents hoped exactly the same)

But something I started thinking about the other day is that we have a lot of protections in place for those people whose IQ is, perhaps, lower than average – but remarkably few for those whose is higher.

(I’m not talking about savants here, or those amazing folks whose massively high intelligence is coupled up with other things like Aspergers or autism – there are labels for this, y’see, and those labels come out of the drawer marked “disabilities”, one of the big nine. And while the big nine definition of disability should strictly speaking cover heightened capacity as well as impaired capacity, well…it doesn’t seem to work that way in reality.)

No, I’m just talking about random smartarses like me: people who are a bit brighter than average and sometimes have a whole suite of social and emotional difficulties that go hand-in-hand with that 130+ score (I know high intelligence doesn’t always equal social/emotional issues, but it’s a common enough pairing). People who have an IQ of 80 get special dispensation and protection, especially in terms of the workplace and how they are treated socially: what about the people with an IQ of 180? Shouldn’t there be special dispensation and protection for them, too?

Let’s hold up a second (before the righteous indignation and screaming begins), and let’s remember what my username is, and also why I chose it. I make no secret of the fact that I’m smarter than average, and I know it. I’ve been tested and everything.

So hold on now: easy there, genius. What makes you so special? Are you better than everyone else? Do you think you’re superior? Do you think you should be sitting on a throne while the ordinary people swan about below, just waiting to be crushed under your supersmart heel? (Yes, even your heels are smart when you’re a genius.) Are you just waiting for the opportunity to tell the world how dense they are when compared to your magnificent brain?

Absolutely and emphatically not. And this is actually part of my point. I chose my username because it indicates the way smarter people often feel they have to function. Easy there, genius. Don’t let on. Keep yourself in check. Don’t admit how smart, how different you are, because this is precisely the reaction you’ll get. Play it down, baby, or risk being villified. Being smart and liking your own company is not cool.

(Yes, okay: sometimes, really really bright people are also a little bit evil. They buy an inactive volcano and convert it into a bijou mansion, complete with sharks (and lasers) while crowing loudly on pirate TV channels about how they’re going to run the world because they’re so much smarter than everyone else.)

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What? Stereotypes are there for a reason.

Then there’s the other sort of smart people, (this is me, by the way. Hello) who are often socially gauche, isolated, and introverted to the degree where they find functioning as part of normal society (and at the microcosm level, as part of a normal workplace team) a terrible burden. Because (and here’s the tiny violin moment, everyone) – being introverted is a shitty, awkward thing sometimes, especially in a culture which only really values extroverted, socially comfortable team players in a work environment.

OKay, so hypothetically speaking: there’s a guy in your workplace who has a low IQ. One day you are talking to him and you notice he is having trouble getting his point across. You tut loudly, and then say “What’s wrong with you? Are you stupid or something? Get to the point, idiot!”

You’d be an utter bastard, right? That’s just how that guy is. It’s how he lives. It’s not going to change. Treating him like that is not only completely socially unacceptable, it’s actually potentially illegal from a work point of view. You’ve employed a person, you haven’t employed an IQ score.

So now try this: there’s a guy in your workplace who is a genius introvert with social anxiety. One day you’re organising team socials, and you notice he seems uncomfortable and withdrawn when you tell him you’re all going to go down the pub every night after work and get drunk. He says he doesn’t want to go. You tut loudly and then say “What’s wrong with you? Are you some kind of loser or something? Man up and start to party!”

You’re still a bastard, right? That’s just how that guy is. It’s how he lives. It’s not going to change. Right?

Wrong. It starts in school and we see it everywhere in adult life: geek, nerd, poindexter, brainiac. Loser. Social moron. Nonconformist. Homebody. And it’s socially acceptable to make fun of someone who’d rather sit on his own and read after work so that his carefully constructed “normal” personality mask doesn’t implode. We can’t hold up a certificate from Mensa or our Myers-Briggs score and say “Defend me, legal services, for I am brighter than average and yet crumble in the face of social convention!”

Genius and introversion in the modern first world workplace: causing more health issues than the discovery of lard.

We’re hard workers: we’re often perfectionists and creative lateral thinkers. But we’re also nonconformists and mavericks. And that should be ok, but it’s not. The value of the focused, intelligent antisocial maverick is often overlooked in favour of people who like to use slogans like “there is no I in team.”

No, we may not play well with others. But lord, do we play well, in our own way.

The deadliest sin: when introverts attack!

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Now it’s no real secret that I am an angry person by nature. For some reason that not even trained and perplexed therapists have managed to uncover, I have an inner store of fury to rival Begbie’s (but fortunately far fewer of his sociopathic traits and a far more highly-developed sense of guilt/conscience. Also, I have yet to grow a terrifying 70’s-catalogue-model moustache.)

I also have several trigger buttons that can be pressed. If one could see these buttons, and believe me sometimes I wish people could, they would most likely be bright red, couched on a screaming neon green background with a handily placed label written in six-inch purple caps KINDLY DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON AGAIN, MOTHERFUCKER.

Conversely, being an introvert and an INFJ at that, I loathe conflict. Making other people unhappy (or even the belief that I have done so, whether it’s true in reality or not) causes me vast amounts of misery and stress. So generally speaking, if I’m in a visibly towering rage (note: this is similar to The Towering Inferno, but with more stories and fewer storeys) someone’s made me so cross that my natural desire to avoid other people being upset has been overruled by pure, instinctive, animal Hulk Smash. My introversion, to a certain extent, controls my anger.

It's not big and it's not clever. Well, one out of two's not bad.

We told you not to press that button, Simeon.

I am honestly rambling on about myself for a reason more worthy than self-aggrandisement, or perhaps in this case, self-deprecation. The thing is, I have recently had my ears chewed for displaying my anger, giving voice to it, allowing it elbow room in my life. Because I vent, you see. Example:

“So I was talking to her and she said [INSERT SUITABLE IRRITANT PHRASE]. I was ready to tear off her arm and beat her to death with the wet end.”

Yes, I use violent words, but I’m not violent. There’s a difference. (See previous comments about Begbie). I use language to express my anger, which I feel is far safer than using, say, a machete. Or a lawnmower. Or a large bottle of lye. Using violent language to vent anger safely quite likely prevents actual violence. (Or a descent into gibbering lunacy. Whichever comes first.) Words are my therapy, and by extension, my stories are my therapy.

And I don’t use my angry language to destroy the person who’s been the cause of it (this of course could constitute emotional abuse and is not something I’d condone). I use it to bitch about them behind their backs, which I think you’ll agree is far more socially acceptable**. Look at any reality TV show for examples of this.

Socially, I’m discovering, expressing anger is an absolute no-no. Wrath is truly becoming the deadliest sin of them all in this modern world. Lust is already perfectly acceptable socially – you only have to look at the scandal rags and women’s magazines to see examples of this. Envy and Greed are practically encouraged, especially in the world of commercial marketing. Ditto Pride. Gluttony – well, if you can find a modern high street that doesn’t have an advert for some kind of bargain-priced and over-sized fast food on it you win a prize. And as for Sloth, I give you 250+ channels of television. Here’s your sofa. If you’re patient and work really hard, you can craft the exact pattern of your buttocks into the seat cushions in under two months.

But anger – being angry? Oh, dear me, no. It’s not allowed to be angry. Nice boys and girls don’t shout and scream and rail against the unfairness of the world. It’s just not the done thing. If something is unjust or just plain morally wrong, you’re expected to smile politely and eat your nice plate of cowpat with a spoon. If someone else does something wrong and gets upset when you correct them, you’re supposed to be diplomatic and bend the rules so that they don’t get upset again. Never mind that they’ll carry on being wrong. That they’ve got away with it.

Smile, children – don’t gnash your teeth – anger is unbecoming. Anger is pointless. Expressing anger doubly so. Here, in a roomful of people I will be the only one who displays honest anger when things are going unfairly wrong, and I thus have the occasional reputation of being fearsome, dangerous. I show anger in a world where it has become taboo to do more than tut, shake one’s head and say things like “Dear me. You seem to have accidentally cut off my leg, shaved my pet dog and introduced an unspeakable bodily fluid into my goldfish tank. Whoops. What a palaver” etc.etc.

Of course, the reality is that I could no more hurt someone than I could eat my own skull. I love fluffy kittens and sunny mornings, sending my friends presents and playing in the snow.Had I the time or inclination I’d probably knit my own socks, press flowers, install solar panels on the rooves of orphanages and bash about cheerfully freeing dolphins from tuna nets. I worry more about the people who never seem to get angry. Where does it all go? Do they go home at night and torture their cheeseplant? Do they have one room in their house that’s always padlocked and inside looks as if it’s been transplanted from the Overlook Hotel?

Anger has a purpose. Anger is valid; anger is necessary. There are some great changes in the world that would not have come about had people been angry enough to challenge the Way Things Were. Anger shouldn’t be demonised in the way that it is.

The way I see it, I’d be a bad person if I acted on my anger. I’m not a bad person for acknowledging, expressing and seeing the value in it. There are no completely bad emotions. There are only bad actions and bad choices, for which an emotion is used as a convenient scapegoat.*

*and if you disagree with me on this, I may have to kill you. By beating you to death with the wet end of your own arm.**

**Irony.***

***Look, you’re going to have to reassure me you don’t hate and fear me now, OK? Fluffy kittens, remember. Love ’em.

Don’t knock my sausages: the humiliation of the professional communicator

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In the spirit of not starting the new year focusing on the negative:

  • We’re all still alive. The wettest we’ve been in a hundred years,perhaps, but not dead.
  • There are months and months of new time stretching ahead of us in which we may win the lottery/complete an Airfix/get married/buy a puppy/sell a novel.
  • I drew more things in December than I drew in the entire rest of 2012.

That out of the way, it’s time for my first therapeutic rant of 2013. Because I’m a communicator by trade – if I’ve got something, I communicate it (you lucky people), and here in fact is a nice lead-in to the basis of my topic.

Imagine you’re a butcher. And you’re a good one. Your entire life revolves around your skill with a wickedly sharp cleaver and a set of personalised gralloching knives. You have fancy gold-edged certificates on the wall in your shop and people mention your sausages on the telly. That kind of butcher. The kind of guy who can sell ham by the single slice and still cover the rent of his shop before he runs out of hock. You may even have a little thingy above the door next to the dingly bell and the fly-curtain that says “By Royal appointment”. Get the idea? Right.

So one day a guy walks into your shop and prowls up and down in front of the innards and the beef skirt cuts, looking pensive. An ordinary guy: and this is important, he’s not a Michelin-starred chef or a fellow meat-slinger. Just another customer. He’s a train driver, actually. Got a peaked cap, railway badges on his jacket and a high-vis in his pocket. In movies he’d have coal-stains on his face, his sleeves rolled up, and probably sound like Dick Van Dyke. You hustle over to serve him, and damnit, if he doesn’t say, in superior tones:

“Hmm, well, I suppose the steak isn’t cut badly, but I could do it better.”

You’re flabbergasted. This guy looks like he just walked out of a Thomas the Tank Engine reinactment and suddenly he’s an expert on butchery. You give him another chance, perhaps ask him a few questions. Get to know him. Maybe he’s just a misguided enthusiast with limited social skills and no sense of self-preservation, given that he’s basically insulting a man who gets paid to swing a blade that can cut through bone. You’re prepared to be magnanimous.

“I tell you what,” he says, producing half a dead cow (he was keeping this in the same place video-game characters keep all their different guns/swords/magical items when they’re running around. Don’t ask stupid questions) “I’ll show you.”

So he whacks Betty Bovine on the counter and proceeds to cut her up using a blunt penknife. “Here you go. Sell that.” He passes you what looks like an unused prop from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “It’s brilliant. Much better than what you do.”

At this point I would like to give you your freedom as a reader to imagine any number of potential outcomes, and they may involve as much blood (human or animal) or swearing as you like.

But the truth (and the reason for the colourful shaggy dog story above) is that this happens to me every day in my line of work (only with less tripe. Or maybe not), and I simply cannot understand the rationale that drives otherwise perfectly normal, intelligent people to suddenly believe they can write for a living just because they can type or use a pen. As I may have mentioned on Twitter earlier this week, just because I have a calculator it doesn’t automatically mean I’m suddenly a mathematical genius. But there seems to be a remarkable blind spot in recognising good communication as a profession that deserves the same respect as any other.

When I strand us in deep space, I do it PROFESSIONALLY.

We didn’t say “ethically” or “sensibly”.

As part of my job, I am paid to be an expert in my field of copywriting and editing content (for which I am grateful). Butchers are paid to be experts in theirs. But no butcher expects his customers to bring their own homemade sausages into his shop and demand that he sells them instead of what he’s made. Yet it seems to be status quo that anyone can walk into my office, hand me something they’ve written and tell me I can’t possibly even entertain the idea of changing a single word of the hallowed text. Even if, in my opinion as a paid expert, it is absolute ballcocks and should be kept from its intended audience for their own protection.

(Just to be clear, here, I’m in no way knocking anyone’s right to write whenever, wherever and however much they wish. Everyone should have the freedom to write. It’s brilliant, it’s free, and it can bring much happiness. What I’m saying is, if you wanted to submit your first novel to a professional publishing house, would your approach be to march up to the editor-in-chief and say “I don’t care what you think. My novel is brilliant and I won’t change a single syllable, no matter what you and your twenty years of publishing experience have to say.”? Maybe it would. In which case, good luck with that.)

Because anyone who has ever tried to get a novel or even a short story published professionally knows that writing well and writing for an audience are apparently remarkably difficult things to do. Think about it for a moment. The percentage of people who actually write creatively for a living and have their books on the shelves in Waterstone’s is remarkably small compared to the number of aspiring authors who try to fit in their creative writing around a day job or three. The amount of turn-downs the average author will get in the course of their life? Astronomical.

Now, I don’t pretend in the least to be the living end on the subject of writing: hell, I’m only a minor writing practitioner and part-time internet whinger. All I’m asking for is not to be treated as if my profession is redundant simply because word processing is freely available. That’s frankly insane. It’s like giving everyone an electron microscope and then saying “Look, now scientists are unnecessary! We’re all scientists! Pass me that cure for cancer, I’ll be done in a jiffy…”

Be the best train driver you can be. Be the world’s best butcher. Be the greatest scientist and maybe even cure cancer. Be the name everyone inserts at the end of the phrase: “Ooh, you know, if you want advice on such-and-such, you really should talk to…”

Just, please. Don’t be the guy who thinks he knows everything there is to know about writing just because he can use Microsoft Word* without breaking his own thumbs.

*other word processing softwares are available: thumbs are not provided.

There are no fairies at the bottom of the Booker.

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Ahhh. Now I promised myself I wouldn’t do this. I’ve been so restrained. I’ve been good, honest guv, terribly good all these years (and not just out of fear of being accused of having a whole vineyard full of sour grapes) but it gets my goat, truly it does. Oh, go on then. I’ll probably feel better afterwards for a whole five minutes.

And over HERE is the precise point where I'm right and you're wrong.

Some people should be allowed to rant. It’s safer.

The Booker Prize. Like the Best Film Oscar, the Booker Prize – the Turner of the literary world. Supposedly, the best of the best. The classiest of the class. The – well, I would go on, but you get the point. You write, you’re supposed to aspire to it. It’s the big sticky label that gets slapped on your dust jacket that says I AM SOMEONE in big letters (or might as well).

I wanted to be a Booker Prize winner, when I was younger and still impressed more readily by the lies stickers on dust jackets tell.

(Except those ones that say “Richard and Judy Book Club”. Those ones are pretty self-explanatory and absolutely true. In other words, you have been warned.)

But now I don’t. Ever. And the reason is two-fold. Settle in and I’ll bore you with it.

Firstly, there are no fairies at the bottom of the Booker. In other words, the Booker Prize and the Best Film Oscar have something in common: they don’t really go to science fiction or fantasy creations. I remember hearing belatedly that The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King had scooped a few gongs at Oscar time that year and amused myself a great deal by imagining the judging panel having a minor crisis in their hallowed halls:

“What? Oh shit, the thing’s really popular. If we don’t give it something, our secret hatred of all things phantasmagorical will be out. Quick, pile a heap of awards on the last film in the trilogy before someone catches on,  despite the fact that the other two films were brilliant too and we ignored them completely because they had elves in.”

Secondly, in order to be nominated for or indeed win the Booker Prize, you apparently have to spend at least a year locked in a room with a coven of manic-depressives from a number of different cultures, listening to them tell you all the real or imagined horrors that have occurred in their lives while you also watch Eastenders and the History Channel on constant loop.

Then you write down whatever words make it out of the gibbering, rapidly liquifying remains of your brain, arrange them into a plot which incorporates at least six of the things you’ve heard during your time in that room, and give it either an obtusely bland or a totally unrelated title.

No, really, it’ll work. Don’t believe me? Then please do enjoy here the summaries of three of the Booker shortlist this year:

  • Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil. Charting the changes within society in Bombay through the effect they have on the city’s opium addicts.
  • The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng. Set during the Japanese Occupation, the story of a garden created by a survivor of a prison camp in memory of a victim.
  • The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore. A middle-aged man goes on a walking holiday in Germany after the death of his wife.

The Booker Prize, you see, (and it admits this openly) doesn’t exist to award the popular fiction, nor the fun fiction, nor the ground-breaking fiction. It seeks out those books that are a “real challenge”, that are self-confessedly hard to read and perhaps not even particularly enjoyable to read, but are apparently terribly rewarding in the long-term. How amazingly patronizing. “Gosh, look. We know it’s not a great book at first glance – awfully depressing, too – and 99% of the population would probably rather scoop out their own eyeballs with a melon-baller than try and get all the way through it, but we’re confident that the remaining 1%, who presumably only ever read anything in the hopes that someone else will see them reading it and be terribly impressed, will love it for YEARS.”

And personally, as both a writer and a reader, my books are my escape. If I wanted to read about ghastly things that have happened or are happening to human beings in the world I live in, I would read BBC News Online. If I wanted to write about them, I’d write soap opera scripts.

And if I ever get nominated for the Booker Prize (for which I’d actually have to write a novel, of course – there’s an insurmountable problem at the outset) I will personally go and fetch the melon-baller for you. Because I’m good like that.

Ante up, baby: liking a challenge, but not being THAT guy

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It comes to something when you find yourself asking: do I really want to be the guy who turns up in most badly-scripted costume/fantasy dramas – the one who, after uttering the immortal line “I like a girl with spirit” will inevitably end up being kicked in the, er, spirit, or given a lengthy and painful ego-ectomy throughout the rest of the plot?

I don’t think anybody actually wants to be That Guy. That Guy never gets the girl. That Guy, in common with all villains (whether they be of the super or petty variety) wears white boxer shorts emblazoned with bright red cartoon hearts which will be exposed to the world for his ritual humiliation at some point in the story (potentially, for maximum comic effect, in front of the vicar/his peers/his mum/the hero and heroine. I have a whole other Villainous Underwear Theory that I’ll have to go into another time.)

The thing is, you see, that despite the fact you wouldn’t want to be him, you kind of have to appreciate where That Guy is coming from. He’s actually saying that he likes a challenge. He doesn’t just want any girl. He wants the one who’ll cause him pain, put up a fight, be a thorn in his side and ultimately be the worst possible romantic match since Albert Einstein drew a member of the cast of America’s Next Top Model on match.com. (No offense, Albie: but girls, he’s totally out of your league. With a tongue like that, attached to a brain like that? Urrgh, I just disgusted myself)

In my usual rambling way I’m telling you that this week I started reading a popular quantum physics book. It’s the sort of book that likely makes proper physicists cringe, but then (now, don’t be shocked) I’m not a scientist. I’m actually about as far from being a scientist as it’s possible to get without becoming Mystic Meg. In fact, if you look up “scentists” in the dictionary, it’ll say “noun, plural: those people who were making microprocessors and taking photos on Mars while ETG was still beggaring about with flints trying to discover fire. (see also: point and laugh (slang)”

"Your brain's so small, ETG," said Rush, "it makes Planck's Constant look like Big Ben."

Physics: Making ETG its bitch since 1992

But enough of my inadequacies. Put simply, quantum physics (and indeed its antecedents classical physics and modern physics) and my brain just don’t get along. There’s some kind of incompatibility there at a basic cellular level, a bit like trying to gene-splice a bat and a piece of potato. I’m a thing of the arts (that’s arts, children, pronounce it carefully), an odd, ungrounded sort of creature who lives on the intangible and the unreal and the potential of words and images. Physics is a thing of mathematics: it seeks to define reality using numbers.

(though actually, quantum physics is a bit of an odd bird: mathematics to define the intangible, mathematics to encapsulate the uncertain and unpredictable. How ‘ bout that?)

So for a few days now, quantum physics and I have been doing this little dance, with myself playing the role of That Guy while Physics, resplendant in a lovely corset and bustle, kicks me in the metaphorical balls.

And like That Guy, I keep coming back. Because I like my learning with spirit. I know my limitations. I know I don’t have a physics brain, and with all the effort and pop science books in the world, I never, ever will. I have to read six pages of this undoubtedly simplistic quantum physics book sixteen times to grasp a concept that most first-year science majors eat for breakfast. But the challenge that I both love and hate is the challenge of the unknown and the unattainable. The pull on the heart and mind that is the pull of the alien, the unfamiliar, even the things that are a little frightening.

Opposites attract, after all.

Addendum: I think I’d like to pull the challenge into my comfort zone. My comfort zone is where I write, and where I draw. Would you like to challenge me to something? A quick read or view will show you what my areas of specialism are. Find something else and offer it up to me on a plate, just like physics. It can be something within my existing interests and/or fandoms, just a different angle or theme: or something quite new.

I can always only and ever be precisely what I am.

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On Twitter today the hashtag #WordsThatDescribeMehas been trending. I wanted to post something in response, but was having trouble choosing the right words.

Fools. Idiots. Vacillators. Oh wait. That's everyone ELSE.

How about “little Scottish ball of angry”?

Then I decided I wanted to put “writer” and that in itself caused a minor existential crisis which I, because I am Generous (a good word) wanted to share with you, Constant, Inconstant and On-The-Offchance Readers alike.

A couple of people have been kind (or indeed perspicacious) enough to point out that although I constantly bang on about writing fiction I haven’t really provided any evidence of activity here to back it up, save for a rather unfortunate parody poem.

Yes, I do really truly genuinely write actual stories. Honest. It’s rather unfortunate really: once the tap’s on, the drivel just keeps flowing out, mostly unchecked and certainly almost always unedited. I even enter contests, though I’m rarely successful: I got a runner-up mention a few years ago. (It was without doubt the best thing that had happened to me for ages.)

I also freely admit to being a fanfiction author and generator of more ridiculous fanart than any sane person would want to shake a stick at –

(what do you mean, a sane person wouldn’t go around randomly shaking sticks? Shame on you. Shame.)

– but that’s equally not an admission as such, because anyone can find my fan stuff easily enough using Google (other search engines are available) should they so desire.

But the original stuff, what one laughably refers to as “the real stuff”, well, now, that’s different. I’m as prissy as an old maiden aunt about it. (or possibly the Queen. “One” refers to? Get it together, ETG) I rarely share it with anyone. In fact I can currently think of only four living people who have suffered through having my original works inflicted upon them. Four people. And yet I gladly give up the fanstuffs to the untold anonymous millions on the internet.

(In case you’re wondering, I haven’t knowingly inflicted my original works on dead people, either. Unless some of you have become zombies when I wasn’t looking, in which case, I’m heading for the Isle of Wight and I’m carrying a baseball bat, so no designs on my brain)

Why is that, I wonder?

It’s not because I’m ashamed of my original work. Nor is it because I’m harbouring a truly genuine belief that anything I write will ever be worth selling – hope, yes, but not belief. It’s more because, as I was rambling on about in my previous entry, they feel more personal. It’s like the difference between having your scarf fall off in public and having your trousers fall down in public. And you see, people are likely to pick up your scarf and hand it back to you.

(If they try and pick up your trousers, they’re probably either a very weird, specialist thief or a fetishist. Each to their own.)

This is why I’d think I’d be pretty damn bad at trying to market anything original I write. Basically, in my head, I’d be standing there holding my trousers up with one hand while trying to convince someone to buy them. It’s just not a scenario a sane person would wish to contemplate.

But this doesn’t change the basic fact that when I want to describe myself I want to say “writer”, because when I write I am more centred than I ever am in any other area of my life, save perhaps when I draw.

And sometimes that definition is a little bit personal, and sometimes it’s not.

Fashion Faux Pas Syndrome: re-reading old stories

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I think I’m going to have to stop re-reading my old stories. It’s a compulsion of mine, but it’s doing me no good at all at present.

It’s the reason I have hundreds of pictures drawn by other people on the walls of my house, but very few of my own.

It’s also a bit like not wanting to look at old photographs of myself, I suppose. (To be honest, I don’t like looking at new photographs of myself either: there’s just only so much lanky, gauche awkwardness one person can take, especially when you know that’s the packaging people are judging your soul upon. And if you were subject to Fashion at any point during your childhood, that’s the kind of judging that can scar you for life, I tell you.)

As many of you may have probably guessed, I’m not a teenager anymore, so photos of my past have both that nostalgic quality and that vague horror of “I look so young. Dear god, if that’s true, how old do I look now?”

But with my old stories, it’s even worse than that, and here’s why.

Like a lot of children, I tried keeping diaries, once. They were very boring and most of them had pictures of cats on (If you get given a diary or calendar for Christmas when you’re a child, it will either have pictures of cats or planes on. Trust me on this.) And in common with most diaries, it had the smallest possible amount of space available for writing down important stuff. So I gave up keeping diaries at the age of around twelve, and started keeping stories instead.

"Dear Diary," wrote Rush...

Sometimes diaries just don’t capture the full monty.*

Apart from a blip where I burnt a lever arch file full of longhand sheets at the age of eighteen, I have kept every single story, poem, script, scribble, drabble and unwarranted splurge I have ever written. My stories are my diaries. They’re my life, in longhand and typeface and annotated revision notes. Everything. You can track my emotional state of mind, my friendships, my obsessions, by following the fortunes of the characters and the ways they fall when they fall.

(And believe me, they fall: I am incapable of being nice to my characters for more than five minutes at a time)

I love my writing. It’s my in-depth, long-term memory. But it’s also my curse. Especially with the internet now making it more possible than ever for me (and others) to revisit my old stories where they’re published. But are they hideously embarrassing shellsuits, or are they classic vintage gems?

Well, of course, they’re both. But it’s actually the good ones, the diamonds amongst the paste, the real silk against the nylon, that are causing me the most problems. You’d think the truly awful ones would be worse, really.

See, they’re good. And I actually believe that. (no mean achievement: see previous entries regarding severe self-esteem issues. It takes me years to believe something that difficult. Alice and her Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast has nothing on me.)

The problem is, I don’t know if I’ll ever write anything that good again. Suppose that’s it, for me? That story there, the one I wrote six years ago – that was my candle in the dark, the one spark from the flint. That’s your lot, bucko, put down the fountain pen and step away from the keyboard. And it makes me crazy with self-doubt, which is really not the optimum state of mind for any writer attempting to get on with the Next Big Thing.

But I carry on reading them anyway, because I both love them and hate them. They are self-affirming and self-destroying, all in one. Do you do the same?

*yes, you saw what I did there.

The worst word in the English language

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Now I just bet there’s a lot of competition for this one. Go on, before I get into my rant proper, have a think. What do you think it is? What’s that one word that makes you cringe when you read it in an otherwise perfectly laudable paragraph, or the one that makes you want to use mouthwash after you say it? What’s the word that makes your stomach lurch?

…No, not that word. Honestly. Filthy, filthy minds you all have. Get your head out of the Bumper Book Of Anglo-Saxon Invective and back on the game.

Here’s a few of the usual suspects for you to consider:

  • Nice (a pappy word. It’s the one you use when all other adjectives seem far too luxurious. Calling those biscuits “Nice” biscuits can’t have been an accident. They are nice. But that’s it. Nice. They’re not fantastic, like chocolate HobNobs.)
  • Squidgey (onomatopoeic, but urrgh and just looks wrong written down)
  • Throbbing (yes, I’m looking at you, readers of Fifty Shades of Grey – a series, incidentally, I can neither condemn nor comment upon, as I have not read it and do not intend to. Somehow I don’t think I’m the target audience.)

But this isn’t entirely what I’m on about here – Words, as I’ve mentioned previously, are in themselves neither intrinsically good or intrinsically bad. They’re just words. It’s the emotional spin we as writers, readers or speakers of the language put on them that counts. We have expectations, preconceptions of words, and by association, the people who use them. Do you, for example, find certain accents give you a preconception of what that person is like?

For myself, I will admit that I have an excrutiatingly RP English accent. The Royal Family could hire me to answer their phones. This rather tends to give people the impression that I can only actually swear in parentheses, if at all, and that I might break out in a rash if exposed to Poundland. It makes for some fantastic facial expressions when these people actually spend real time in my company, particularly if I’m in the company of a bottle of rum.

I'm sorry. Am I not being Scottish enough for you?

Would it help if I said “Stitch you, Jimmy?”

But back to that worst word. Have you thought of yours? It’ll be personal, trust me. I knew someone once (who probably, with my more grown-up knowledge, bordered on synesthetic) who couldn’t abide the word “chalk” because to her just saying it made her feel as if she was biting into a fist-sized lump of the stuff. Tell me about your worst word, because I’m very interested to hear it. And indeed its polar opposite, your favourite word.

Now, the title of this post promised you the worst word in the English language and I wouldn’t want to let you down, so here’s mine to be going on with: “helpless”. You may draw your own conclusions, based on the rest of this rant, as to why it’s my choice.

Addendum: Incidentally, my protracted lack of sharing anything creative lately has been due to Job. (Not the one in the Bible. He had a hard enough time of it as it was, without my blaming him for anything several hundred years later).