My daughter was recently listening to the brilliant Writer’s Routine podcast and mentioned a book written by Jaroslav Kalfař called ‘Spaceman of Bohemia.’ I was so intrigued by the storyline I bought the book immediately. A Czech astronaut heads into space to explore a mysterious dust cloud and ends up going mad (or does he?) after meeting a intergalactic philosopher spider with a serious addiction to Nutella -what’s not to love?
It should have a been a brilliant book, I wanted it to be brilliant – but, alas no. There’s a merger of Czech political history with a failed personal relationship and it’s all a bit of a tangle. It would, undoubtedly, make an excellent Netflix movie however, someone give Ben Whishaw and Andy Serkis a call. Oh, and Nigel Warburton would do a decent voice-over as the furry theoretician. Oscars here we come.
A recent email from my hosting provider prompted me to consider taking this blog offline completely. After all, I’ve not written anything for a while so maybe I should chuck the whole thing in. Then I began to think about this last year with Covid, about how insanely busy it’s been both at work and at home trying to return to some sense of normality, about the book I stopped writing because I told myself it was all too self-indulgent in a time of crisis, about the ultramarathon I did because running seemed to be a whole lot easier than writing, then about the synth I bought because I needed an excuse to wear headphones in a house full of screaming kids – so I thought ‘you know, there might just be a few things I could write about here after all.’
So watch this space. Hopefully, it won’t be for another year.
If you are fans of this blog (and by fans I mean you must be staunch acolytes as I only seem to be capable of posting every six months) you’ll know that I’ve been spending most of my spare time this year trying to write a novel. Along the way I’ve completed an online creative writing course, joined an actual real-life writer’s group (with actual real-life people) and produced more than ten thousand words of absolute dribble. Now, because that’s significantly better than previous years (prose poetry anyone?) I thought I’d celebrate by sharing with you some of my top reads have kept me sane throughout this whole writing process. Whilst most end of year roundups are super informative – this one is completely self-indulgent and of no practical use whatsoever. So, make of it what you will – even if that’s only a somewhat curious and unsolicited literary review of my brain.
To all writers out there: I salute you.
Geraldine McCaughrean – Where The World Ends/Fires’ Astonishment McCaughrean is my 2018 literary ‘bae’ – as it were. I’m extremely thankful to Philip Reeve who recommended ‘Where The World Ends’ on the Tea and Jeopardy podcast a while ago. I might not know St.Kilda where the book is set, but I’ve spent enough time around the Kyles of Bute to recognise the landscape she depicts so well. Reading this, I realised that there must be thousands of fantastic stories out there marketed to kids and entirely ignored by adults. What a waste. Probably, my fav book of the year…
…until I read Fires’ Astonishment. McCaughrean does something really very interesting in this novel – you’re never entirely sure if something magical is actually happening, or if it’s people wanting to believe what’s happening is magic. It’s such a brilliant tension, our assumptions as readers are constantly challenged. If nothing else, it’s a beautiful depiction of a time when myths and magic were woven into our understanding of the world. Does a dragon really have to exist for us to believe in one? Insert thinking emoji here.
Neil Gaiman – American Gods/Neverwhere What? I haven’t read these classics before – outrageous!
I know, I know. Like I mentioned above, American Gods is a superb study in how to slip between the real and the fantastical (often in the same sentence) effortlessly. One thing you learn from Gaiman – you really don’t need to offer much by the way of explanation to your readers before making the fantastical thing happen – you just make it happen. I loved the way the main character Shadow starts off as an outsider but is really complicit in the alternative universe he ‘discovers’. Plus, all those nods to classic comic book scenes are just genius.
Neverwhere: a central character finds his world view rocked by a series of unfortunate events. This particular execution is very reminiscent of Douglas Adams and I tore through it in 4 days. A fantastic read. You’ll never look at a London Underground map in the same way again.
Andrew Crumey – The Secret Knowledge At one point in the year I was writing a time travelling story set in Paris during the Fin de Siècle era. Someone recommended this to me and I was hooked. The hook: imagine a secret power hidden in a musical composition that can only be unlocked by the right kind of musician in the right frame of mind. Interesting concept…
The 7th Function of Language – Laurent Binet …and a bit like this one. Imagine a secret power (in this case the power to influence people) hidden in the rhetorical use of language. Now, imagine only being able to unlock this power once you’ve understood the whole mind-boggling post-structuralist debate circa Paris, 1970. Jeepers. Sounds extremely dull and literary, but it’s actually a really fun whistle-stop tour through some otherwise dense philosophy. A Derridean whodunnit. Now that’s meta!
Ken Grimwood – Replay More time-travelling antics. Man becomes god (being able to predict the future ‘cos you’ve already seen it) and wishes he were a man again.
Philip Reeve – Mortal Engines/Predator’s Device/Infernal Devices/A Darkling Plain I found a copy of Mortal Engines in a local second hand bookshop and bought it for my son for about 50p. He was so impressed with it I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. Wasn’t disappointed. Imagine taking a story and throwing everything you’ve got at it, including killing off some of your key characters. Then imagine your publisher asking you if you could write a second or third book. Doh! Chapter One of Mortal Engines is like an acorn, containing within it the unfolding logic for all subsequent chapters – it’s perfect. If you’re writing your first speculative fiction book, this would be a good place to start. Hint. Hint.
James Baldwin – Another Country If you’ve listening to a podcast and a writer tells you about a brilliant scene from a novel – then go read that novel. The first hundred pages or so concerning the jazz drummer Rufus Scott are exceptional. This is all about writing what’s right in front of you and that’s actually quite a hard thing to do.
Stewart & Riddle – The Edge Chronicle: Beyond the Deepwoods We listened to this audiobook on a long drive up to Scotland and loved it. What, pirates flying tall-ships? Lots of nasty creatures trying to stop a boy who just wants to find his place in the world? What’s not to like? Ace.
Kurt Vonnegut – The Sirens of Titan When I wasn’t writing I used to think writing was easy – just look at Vonnegut, I bet he knocked them stories out in a few days, right? And then you realise it’s a relentless process, chipping away until you’ve deleted most of the page. And that’s if you’ve got a decent story to tell in the first place. Oh well, at least Vonnegut seemed to have a lot of fun along the way and that’s something I try to remember when tossing balls of paper into the wastepaper basket. Must. Have. Fun.
Michael Moorcock – The Elric novels/The War Hound at the World’s Pain When I was nine I went to this school in the middle of nowhere. Once a month we were visited by a mobile library and we had about five minutes to choose a book before it whizzed off. Before it did the aforementioned whizzing, I spotted the artwork gracing the cover of an Elric novel and was hooked. Whoever said you can’t judge a book by its cover? Nonsense! This year I re-read the whole series again and thought it was pretty bad, with a few brilliant moments. By far the best book in the series is ‘Elric of Melnibone’ which I think was the last to be written.
‘The War Hound’ was another Moorcock novel I discovered at school. It’s such a curious oddity – a mercenary captain is trying to survive Europe’s thirty years war and gets enlisted by satan to find the holy grail. Bonkers. This book blew my mind at nine and it blew my mind times ten reading it again this year.
James Blish – Vor Loved this classic B-movie fodder. An alien lands in 1950s America. America attempts to communicate with it before losing patience and tries to blow it up. Nothing too deep here, but then you realise it’s all about ‘communication’ in general and how poor we humans are at it. Boom! Mic drop. Walks away.
Yikes and holy cow. It’s been a while since I updated this blog but I wanted to let you know – I have the perfect alibi. You see, I’ve spent the last few months having a kind of mid-life crisis – only it’s been a very peculiar kind of crisis and probably a very British one at that. It doesn’t involve women, fast cars or huge quantities of fizzy-pop. No, dear reader, I stand here shamefully confessing that I have finally become addicted to… creative writing.
This week I was invited to speak at the annual Next Radio event in London – one of the UK’s biggest broadcast industry events. The conference was held at The Royal Institute which was a great choice of venue (especially as I’ve always been a Faraday fanboy) and a real honour to share our recent work in video.
This week I was invited to talk at the London Agile Content Meetup group, as part of a team collaboration and stakeholder management session. As part of the deal, I had to attend several presentation workshops beforehand which were hosted by Jonathan Kahn (who I’d throughly recommend). The whole process took about 3 weeks and I wanted to share what I’d learnt along the way.
I chose to participate in this programme because I felt I could make some improvements to my presentation skills. I’d recently presented at a whole series of events and wondered if I’d really landed my key points with the audience. How could I make what I wanted to say as enticing and as relevant as possible to a specific audience? Well, I was about to find out.
I should note that during this period I was also reading the Ted Talks book which I also recommend.
Tip 1: Don’t overcook it
One thing I’ve realised is that, if given the option to ‘wing it’ or over-prepare for a presentation, I’m always going to do the latter. I’ll probably detail everything I want to say until I have several pages of text, even for a ten minute presentation. I’ll then try to edit this down but the whole process is a constant process of elimination, and it’s very text-orientated. At its worst, this can result in copying said notes onto presentation slides. Result: ONE EXTREMELY BORING PRESENTATION.
It also means I’m trapping myself into a very regimented presentation style with the slides dictating the outcome. With very little room for adjustment, there’s often no interaction with the audience. Again, another opportunity to engage, missed.
So it was a relief to try something complete different in our workshop group, which started by riffing loosely around your chosen topic with no slides at all. That forced you to really think about your core story and what you could actually fit in the allocated time (five minutes). It made me focus on making sure my meaning was landing with my audience and not using the slides as a ‘crutch’.
Tip 2: Invite criticism If you’re planning a presentation, make sure you get to rehearse the format in front of colleagues/friends, ideally with people that don’t know your subject matter. Being part of a small group preparing presentations for the same event really helped because you were all trying to achieve the same goal. That meant trust was forged fast and suggested improvements offered without fear of offending anyone. We all need constructive feedback in everything we do and I felt this set-up worked brilliantly.
Tip 3: A question of time Preparing for a short presentation (in this case ten minutes) can often take longer as you realise you can’t say it all, and need to make every word count. Even if you have a thirty minute presentation to plan, starting initially with ten minutes is a good place to start as it’ll give you a good sense of how to pace yourself and how ‘deep’ you want to go into your topic area.
Tip 4: Narrative There’s many different ways of doing a presentation and lots of information out there about how you can combine all your points into one neat story arc or narrative flow. I’ll sign off with one final tip – think really hard about how you can make your presentation relevant to your audience. I don’t mean: ‘oh, my presentation will be relevant because everyone will want to know how this project was successfully delivered’. I mean providing real learns that the audience can take away and apply that day. If you can’t then don’t expect your audience to be engaged with what you have to say.
A list of my most interesting content strategy-related reads this week…
Hmm. A different kind of post this week as there were three particular articles that really caught my attention. The first was a remarkable piece by Matt Lees which I missed when it was first published. In What Gamergate should have taught us about the ‘alt-right’ he writes that everything we’re seeing now in the discussion around fake news had its precedent two years ago with Gamergate…
“The strangest aspect of Gamergate is that it consistently didn’t make any sense: people chose to align with it, and yet refused responsibility. It was constantly demanded that we debate the issues, but explanations and facts were treated with scorn. Attempts to find common ground saw the specifics of the demands being shifted: we want you to listen to us; we want you to change your ways; we want you to close your publication down. This movement that ostensibly wanted to protect free speech from cry bully SJWs simultaneously did what it could to endanger sites it disagreed with, encouraging advertisers to abandon support for media outlets that published stories critical of the hashtag. The petulance of that movement is disturbingly echoed in Trump’s own Twitter feed.
Looking back, Gamergate really only made sense in one way: as an exemplar of what Umberto Eco called “eternal fascism”, a form of extremism he believed could flourish at any point in, in any place – a fascism that would extol traditional values, rally against diversity and cultural critics, believe in the value of action above thought and encourage a distrust of intellectuals or experts – a fascism built on frustration and machismo. The requirement of this formless fascism would – above all else – be to remain in an endless state of conflict, a fight against a foe who must always be portrayed as impossibly strong and laughably weak. This was the methodology of Gamergate, and it now forms the basis of the contemporary far-right movement.”
“Fake news is not new. The spreading false rumors for political advantage, for pure malice, or just for entertainment, is as old as the hills. Supermarket checkout magazines have been assuring us for decades that Elvis never died at all and is alive and well and eating unhealthy snacks inside a replica of the Sphinx on the surface of Mars.
And yet what’s happening now feels different. Whatever its other cultural and social merits, our digital eco-system seems to have evolved into a near-perfect environment for fake news to thrive. In addition to enthusiastic domestic myth-makers, it’s easy for hostile foreign governments and their proxies not just to initiate a fake news cycle – it is now widely accepted that it was Russian hackers who broke into John Podesta’s emails and gave them to Wikileaks, beginning the chain of events that led to Pizzagate – but to intensify it, and on occasion even to manage it with armies of human “trolls” and cyber botnets. This is a form of what the military calls “black psy-ops”, in other words covert psychological operations.”
And lastly, before we all point the finger at Facebook to sort this all out, Frederic Filloux had some great thoughts on why fake news isn’t going to be resolved by Facebook because news itself is not FB’s core business model.
“We must face the fact that Facebook doesn’t care about news in the journalism sense. News represents about 10% of the average user newsfeed and news can be cut overnight if circumstances dictate with no significant impact for the platform. (Actually, someone with good inside knowledge of the social network told me that news will be removed from users’ feed should the European Union move against Facebook in the same way it attacks Google on editorial issues).
In that broad context, the fake news situation is just a part of Facebook’s system, a bad apple in a large basket. It is impossible to believe that one of the best engineering companies in the world has not seen it coming; fake news was simply considered an unpleasant parasite, the wine lees at the bottom of the barrel… until Trump’s campaign made such a large use of fake news that it blew up.”
Since the US Elections we’ve read a lot about the topic of fake news and how journalism must adapt to ‘regain’ credibility and trust. I’m sure the debate will go on for some time, but in the meantime I thought it might be useful to gather all the different opinions I’ve read over recent weeks in one place. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Fake News Piñata!
From what I can see, this very special piñata is basically spit into three segments – publishers, platforms and people. I apologies in advance for the crude nature of what follows, this list is by no means exhaustive and I’m pretty certain to have over-simplified in places. But for now…
We need to fight fake news with facts.
We need to fight fake news with facts that are shareable.
We need to fight fake news with facts, opinion and razor-sharp attention to the language we use.
Facts don’t matter because audiences don’t ‘care’ – because they’ve been told journalists are experts and experts are not to be trusted. Journalists need to work harder to communicate the benefits of what they do.
Facts don’t matter because audiences have been told journalists are biased (whereas politicians are not). Journalists need to work harder to communicate the benefits of what they do.
“Facts get shared, opinions get shrugs.” Alt-right institutions get more attention online now because their stories appear to be more fact-based than rant-based. They have the semblance of truth. Journalism needs to address this development through fact-checking services/teams to understand why fake news stories have become so shareable beyond outrageous headlines.
99% of all journalism is commercially funded. Go figure, we are all doomed.
Are non-profit journalist organisations more truthful?
Has the ‘pandering’ to Facebook (shareability over ‘substance’) backed us into a corner? Do we need to focus on new metrics of engagement which recognises quality journalism and can be monetised easily. Is this just a pipe dream or the start of a long journey of collaboration across the entire media sector?
As an industry we should stop theorising, navel-gazing and soul-searching and get down to proper journalism i.e holding those in power to account and getting out there into the local communities.
Hmm. We might need to invest more in local journalism…