Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Starting Point...

(c) 2009 Frenic
Today is my birthday and, if we are to hold true to the belief that how you spend your birthday will serve to determine how your next year will unfold then I have a rather wonderful year ahead of me. Not only have I had a wonderful day, but I also found time to do a little bit of writing on a story idea I've been working on for a while. There's more of this to come - and the full scope of the idea will be revealed then - but, for now, I hope you enjoy my first draft of the opening....

Two minutes out from New Sunan airport, the tapering spires of Pyongyang looming out of the dull grey smog ahead, and a cascade of CI routines are already blossoming neon orange in my peripheral vision against the scattering of tripwire probes that invisibly assail me. Nothing too serious; low-tech commercial grade and homebrew code that is used to dealing with far easier prey, tourists and businessmen who’d be none the wiser to the data they’d lost or the secrets they’d shared. I was packing a near-as military spec e-iris and docking system; enough to foil all but the most major of major players.

I settle back into the comfort of my seat and gaze out of the window at the passing landscape, little more than a concrete blur as the Maglev continues its relentless acceleration. I set fragments of scraped data, that my slave routines had worked up for me in-flight, drifting before me like snowflakes and allow myself to be lost in the hypnotic allure of aggregated data feeds. Ballistics data from an on-going case in Seattle, a set of invoices relating to a case in San Diego, reminders on rent for my office, an invite to a party (declined), the result of a blood test I’d taken after having been bitten (negative for pathogens) and a bevy of voicemails from people I either didn’t know or didn’t want to reply to.

The trail had not been an easy one to follow. Riddles wrapped within riddles and a rising body count that was scattered across at least three continents. Shell companies, convenient suicides, accidents, data loss; whoever was behind this had worked hard to make sure that it would be nearly impossible to untangle the web of deceit. Nearly impossible.

I could pinpoint the exact moment that this had stopped being just a case and had become something more to me, something personal. An empty New York parking lot, rain streaming down and pooling at my feet; a witness already dead and a shot that I’d felt before I’d heard; the pink scar tissue that runs across the breadth of my back a testament to the most fractional of misses. They had, I liked to believe, made a mistake that day. As I had lain face down on the black asphalt, cheek mushed up against the grit and gravel, cold rain soaking and mingling with the pulsing warmth that I knew was my own blood, I had changed. In that moment, I had gone from being merely interested to being fully invested.

A woman dressed in a black business suit threads her way down the aisle of the train, a Louis Vuitton suitcase trailing in her wake, and sits down opposite to me. Porcelain skin and obsidian eyes that look me over with practised disinterest, black hair knitted into thick dreadlocks that are coiled around her head like a serpent’s basket.  She stares absently out of the window for a few moments before turning her attention back to me, her red lips pursed as if waiting for me to ask her a question. I decide not to disappoint.

“Can I help you?”

She stares back at me in silence for a moment, her face a blank canvas that betrays nothing. Finally she smiles, a thin smile that seems almost etched into place.

“I don’t know, Mr Melville. Is there?”

Her voice is soft, almost melodic, and I feel a rumble of discontent roll through my stomach. She knows my name. Not one of the names that I have been travelling under, not the false passport upon which I arrived into this country less than two hours earlier. She knows my real name.

“You seem to have me at a disadvantage, Miss…?”

She gives me that smile again but her eyes stay utterly cold. “My name is of little importance. I come with an offer from my employer for you.”

“And who might your employer be?”

She ignores the question and instead slips the suitcase onto her knee and opens it to reveal a yellow stack of US government bonds.

“There’s $20 million here.” she says, and pushes it towards me.

“And I’m supposed to just take this and go home, I assume?”

“That’s exactly what you do, Mr Melville. You take this suitcase and you go home and you never go poking your noise into the business of my employer again.”

I nod thoughtfully.

“And if I don’t take this briefcase?” I ask, “If I tell your employer that I can’t be bought? If I carry on coming and I don’t stop?”

“Then you force our hand and leave us with no choice but to make you go away.”

I laugh.

“And what are you going to do? Kill me?”

“I came prepared for all possible contingencies today.”

“I backed up immediately before this trip,” I reply, “I’ll be reskinned in three days. Kill me and I’ll be back here in a week, tops.”

She closes the suitcase in silence and places it on the floor of the train before standing up and slipping off her jacket to reveal a suicide vest that glistens beneath the train’s fluorescent lights. A metal belt knotted with strands of blue wiring that serve to stitch together several pale white blocks of C4. I don’t know a whole lot about plastic explosives, but I’m pretty certain that she is carrying enough to take out the entire carriage. She holds a wireless detonator loosely in her right hand, her thumb hovering against the button.

“Last chance to change your mind, Mr Melville.”

These are the moments upon which you are judged, I guess. The times where pressure acts to reveal our true character, lay bare our beliefs and motives.

“Death doesn’t scare me.” I say, and I realise I truly believe it in that moment. I’ve never been reskinned before but I know it’s tried and trusted tech, as proven as the train we were riding on today. “At best, you’re just delaying me.”

“Am I?”

Her eyes glitter black, her smile a line drawn across her face that serves to eat away at any beauty it might otherwise hold.

“And what if, Mr Melville, there is no reskinning for you? What if this is all there is?”

She leans in close, the detonator now tight in hand, and I can smell the faint delicate tang of her perfume.

“I told you I came prepared for all contingencies, Mr Melville.”

Even as I try to process what she just said, her thumb closes hard on the button and I wonder whether her white face will be the last thing I ever…

Sunday, September 30, 2012

On the erosion of free speech and expression...

Photograph: Tristram Kenton

A new production of Jesus Christ Superstar is currently touring the arenas of the UK, featuring a Jesus Christ plucked from the obscurity of a TV talent show, the comedian Tim Minchin, Mel C (of Spice Girl fame) and former Radio 1 DJ, Chris Moyles. At the moment, the biggest concerns about it seem to revolve around whether the production (and indeed the cast) are suited to the arena format (opinions vary) but there are - you'll probably be unsurprised to hear - no concerns about the content. After all, Jesus Christ Superstar has been touring around the world for more than 40 years...

Which makes the current situation in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don all the more remarkable.

With a population of just over a million, the city of Rostov-on-Don is the tenth largest in the Russian Federation and, while it grew to be an industrial city during the Soviet-era, it has always been a city with a deep connection to culture (as witnessed by Mikhail Sholokhov's Nobel prize winning novel And Quiet Flows the Don). But what has brought Rostov-on-Don to the forefront of the news this week has been the restriction of culture, and the restriction of freedoms.

St. Petersburg's Rock Opera Theatre was due to put on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar - something they've been doing all over Russia since 1990 (and indeed something they've done five times in Rostov-on-Don since then) - at the Rostov Philharmonic Theatre on October 18th. But, currently, the theatre has had to suspend sales of tickets due to an edict from the city's authorities. The reason? A letter of complaint to the city authorities by eighteen Orthodox Christians.

Eighteen. That's less people than can be comfortably be fitted onto a bus.That's less than 3% of the capacity of the Rostov Philharmonic Theatre's largest hall. Or to put it another way, that's just over 0.001% of the total population of Rostov-on-Don.

Eighteen people drafted a letter to the authorities of Rostov-on-Don in which they point out that the "image of Christ presented in the opera is false from the point of view of Christianity" (handily ignoring the myriad interpretations of Christ that Christianity itself has presented over the millennia) and state that "as it stands, the work is a profanation".

The authorities have handed the letter of complaint over to the Rostov-on-Don prosecutors and, while they investigate, the theatre has been ordered to halt all ticket sales.

Now it would seem likely that, over the years that it has been put on in Rostov-on-Don, there have been similar letters of complaint (perhaps even from the same eighteen people) but what is very different this year is the response of the authorities; and this stems from a sea change in Russia that has seen the Orthodox Church begin to reassert itself in the political arena and attempt to secure legislation that will protect it from criticism or ridicule.

Last week, the State Duma in Russian voted in favour of a bill - seemingly inspired by the furore of the recent Pussy Riot case - that will massively increase the punishment for "offending religious beliefs and citizen's feelings". The committing of "public offences, humiliation of worship or other religious rites and associations, or violation of the religious beliefs and feelings of citizens" will now result in fines of up to 300,000 rubles (about $10,000), 200 hours of compulsory labour and/or three years in jail. I am rather curious how all this plays out; after all, I can imagine that a great number of religions could make a strong case for the very existence of other religions as being offensive to their religious beliefs...

And this is not an issue confined to Russia; the riots throughout the Middle East over the depiction of the Prophet Muhammed in a film are a testament to that. Algeria, at a meeting of the UN yesterday, demanded that the UN bring in measures to prevent blasphemy. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, in an interview on Saturday warned that the West needed to "understand the sensitivity of the Muslim world" and that to allow similar provocations would pose "a threat to international peace and security and the sanctity of life"

And all of this worries me. I'm with Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who coined the phrase (frequently misattributed to Voltaire, whose biography she wrote) "I disapprove of what you saybut I will defend to the death your right to say it". 

I am not religious but I have no problem with other people being religious. I'm not some evangelical atheist who feels that he needs to 'educate' those people who've not yet seen the light (of cold, hard, reason that is!); instead, I like to think that we all of us should have a right to hold our own beliefs and to express those beliefs. You believe in God? Good for you! You believe in Allah? Great! You believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? You go, with your pastafarianism! 

But what worries me is the way that the beliefs of others are growing to restrict the freedoms of what we can say, even the freedoms we have in the way that we live our lives. Now, you may think - if you are reading this in the 'civilised' West - that this is not an issue that affects you; but this is not an issue on which the West can sit smugly on its high moral horse; after all, the US Republican party this year endorsed a ban on abortion even in cases such as rape and incest; based upon religious conviction. This is, after all, the same party whose Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, has repeatedly reiterated his opinion that marriage is an enduring institute between man and woman (although, being a Mormon I'm not sure he was precise on the exact numbers) and that he would ban same-sex marriage at a federal level. Now, Romney swears that this isn't a religious decision but instead "based upon what I believe is right for the nation and the building of strong generations for our future" but he's fooling no one. The religious beliefs of Mitt Romney, that homosexuality is a sin, would (if, God forbid, he were to be elected) directly impact upon the freedoms of millions of people to live their lives.

You see, as the capabilities we have to communicate with each other have increased; through first mass media and now 'new' media; the beliefs of countless billions have crashed headlong with each other in a way that would have been unimaginable less than a century ago. And - surprise, surprise - this has led to a world in which it has become ever easier to offend the beliefs of others, ever easier to incite violence through rhetoric. But, reactionary steps to try to limit freedoms of speech and expression such as those proposed by Algeria are not a solution to this - in fact, if we follow a logical path of that particular mindset then we end up in an Orwellian future of non-expression where only the most neutral and neutered viewpoints can be voiced.

The way to solve this is acceptance. To accept the possibility that others don't share your beliefs or customs. To accept the possibility that others will have a different viewpoint on how to live their lives. To accept that what you hold most holy and sacred may have no value to somebody else. It may be a futile wish but, in the words of President James Dale, "why can't we all just get along?"

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Phone writing...

Wow...have to admit this is tough! Maybe it's psychological, but I am currently struggling to connect in the same way I do when I have a keyboard beneath my fingers. Maybe it's the fact that I can't translate my thoughts to words with such fluidity but I find it difficult to keep focus. But, I like a, watch this space!

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Phone Story project...

So, fuelled by tea (pictured), I have decided to embark upon a new writing project for the blog...

The idea is simple - write a story on the phone and post it piecemeal to the blog as it emerges. Executing on the idea may prove to be slightly more difficult - time is at a premium and there is a good chance that writing in such a fragmented style may result in something of a horrific mess rather than a readable story.

But, I guess, only time will tell if I can pull it off...

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Oliver joins the smartphone age...

After having resisted for some time, I've finally got myself a smartphone and downloaded the blogger app so that I can blog on the move. So, here I am.

I must admit, I am curious to see how I can combine this with my writing. After all, there is a certain masochistic appeal to writing an entire novel on a phone...

We''ll have to see, once I've got to grips with the vagaries of typing on a touchscreen keypad...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Awake's Last Episode - The Ending Explained (Spoilers!)

I will begin this with a warning. If you've not yet seen the last episode of Awake then stop reading RIGHT now as I'm about to spoil all sorts of things for you. I mean it, stop. Go watch it, then come back.

Ok, still with me?

Warning number two. This is my explanation for what the ending meant. It is not one I've got from the writers or from Awake's creator, Kyle Killen. This is just an opinion on what it all means. I've seen a lot of theories floating around (the red universe was a dream and green was real; he went insane in prison and everything after that was a hallucination, etc.) but this one makes the most sense to me (based upon what we seen).

I decided to colour code the character's names so we know which Universe (red/green) we are talking about when we discuss them. So, let's go...

Michael is in prison - having just found out that Harper is also involved in the conspiracy - and finds out that he's got a visitor that turns out to be Michael himself. In a conversation between the two, Michael tells Michael that "he has to be sure" if he wants to catch Harper and Michael replies that "he'll do anything."

Things take a turn for the even stranger as Michael wanders down a corridor, accompanied by his psychiatrists from both Universes, and steps through a locked door that that seems to contain blinding light. He finds himself in the motel room, along with Vega (dressed in a penguin suit) and watching as Harper murders Kessel (and leaves behind an incriminating piece of evidence - her shoe heel). He then visits Hannah in an empty restaurant and seemingly says goodbye to her before going to sleep and waking in the green universe.

Armed with the new information, Michael brings Harper down and then visits Dr. Evans to discuss what happened. She tries to persuade him that the red universe - the world with Hannah - was just a dream and that these events prove it. However, Dr. Evans then pauses in mid-speech and Michael steps through a door into a world where both Hannah and Rex are alive...

My theory is that the red universe was indeed a dream - but it was a dream inside the dream of the green universe.

Michael visiting Michael in prison forced him to accept that the red universe was a dream - and that the only way to catch Harper was to accept that the red universe was a dream (which meant saying goodbye to Hannah). The fact that the red universe was less real was hinted at throughout the season (it was in the red universe that he imagined Dr. Lee was with him during the siege at the mental institute; it was in the red universe that he was trapped and accompanied by an imaginary Detective Hawkins).

However, the green universe was not itself reality - the penguin hallucinations were a clue, but the real giveaway was in the final episode itself when Michael watched Harper kill Kessel. Michael had not witnessed this event - could not possibly have witnessed this event - so the only way that Michael could possibly have watched the replay of it was if this event had been created by himself in his green dream.

Michael has to abandon the red universe in order to catch Harper in the green universe; but he ends the season with the realisation that he is in a dream within a dream and - with the red universe gone - that allows him to step into a third dream, one in which both Hannah and Rex are still alive.

What exists outside the dream worlds? We don't know. Maybe Michael is in a coma after the accident and this is all part of his attempt to wake up. Unless Kyle Killen decides to explain, I guess we'll never know. But this makes sense to me - green was a dream, red was a dream inside that dream. And the season (and indeed series) ends with Michael being able to step into a third dream in which he had both the people that he loved most.

Awake was an awesome series and it is a terrible shame that NBC pulled the plug. It was intelligent, it made you work to keep up with it and it was immensely enjoyable. All involved should look back on this as a great piece of TV...

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Following

While a lot of attention has been given to the new Eric Kripke and JJ Abrams show, Revolution, I have to admit to being quite interested to see what is delivered by this new offering by Fox: The Following, which has managed to snare Kevin Bacon for its lead role. The premise is essentially this:

The FBI estimates there are currently over 300 active serial killers in the United States. What would happen if these killers had a way of communicating and connecting with each other? What if they were able to work together and form alliances across the country? What if one brilliant psychotic serial killer was able to bring them all together and activate a following? (Fox press release)

The Following is scheduled to be part of Fox's 2012-2013 season and, if they do it right, it might just have the ingredients to become something I want to watch...

The show is created by Kevin Williamson (Scream, The Vampire Diaries) and tells the story of a former FBI agent, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) who is dragged out of retirement after nine years to attempt to recapture a serial killer, Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) who has escaped Death Row and begun a new killing spree.  Hardy knows Carroll better than anyone, is the one person who can get inside his mind and match his brilliance, but the capture of Carroll nine years ago took a lot out of Hardy - both mentally and physically. And, while Carroll begins to gather a band of serial killers to him, Hardy finds himself not even in a position to truly call the shots in the hunt for him...

Directed by Marcos Siega (The Vampire Diaries, Dexter), the show has a strong supporting cast including Maggie Grace (Twilight Saga, Lost), Natalie Zea (Justified, Californication), Shawn Ashmore (X-Men), Jeanne Goossen (Alcatraz) and Billy Brown (Dexter).

Check out the trailer below and see what you think:

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Musing on Believability and Fiction

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1817, coined the term suspension of disbelief - although in truth the concept behind the term is as old as fiction itself. After all, every time we sit down to watch a movie, or read a book, or tune in to our favourite television show, we suspend our disbelief and allow ourselves to temporarily forget, while we're engaged as a viewer or reader (or even player), that this is a work of fiction...

However, on occasion it feels that authors - in all mediums - try and take advantage of our kindness in this respect. "I want to believe" says the media consumer and so the author takes this as an excuse to stack up all manner of inconsistencies, plot holes, unrealistic behaviour and the like - all to the carrion cry of  "you've got to suspend your disbelief!"

I am a big believer in believability. Which isn't to say that I eschew anything that is not grounded in reality; not at all. But I do think Stephen King had it spot on when he said "Fiction is the truth inside the lie."

The best imaginative fiction realises this, it realises that in order to give the reader or viewer a reason to suspend their disbelief it needs to deliver them a world that is truthful, no matter how fantastical it might be. And by truthful, I mean that the world is internally consistent because - through that - it is possible to deliver something that is believable. When it comes to fantasy, for example, I am quite happy to accept all manner of magical goings-on; but I also want a world that is bound within its own set of rules. I don't need to know how magic works but I do need to see that the use of magic is consistent and that, even if I don't yet fully grasp the internal logic of the world, I know there is one.

The types of believability involved in the story world will vary depending upon the theme or genre. In fantasy, internal consistency is the key to developing a living, breathing world. In science fiction, there is - especially in hard SF - an expectation that the fantastical will be (or least, can be) rationalised.

At one end of the spectrum, there are books such as the Harry Potter series or the space operas of Iain M Banks - books with vastly colourful story worlds (or indeed Universes) that spend very little time explaining the mechanics but which deliver cohesive and consistent experiences. At the other end of the spectrum, there are the fantasy novels of Brandon Sanderson (who goes to great lengths to develop mechanics to explain how magic works and its limitations) or the hard SF of Stephen Baxter (chock full of more astrophysics than you can throw a stick at). But all of them succeed because their worlds are incredibly well thought out and their internal consistency is maintained to a high standard throughout.

It is perhaps most important to remember that the suspension of disbelief is a favour afforded to the author by the consumer of fiction; it is not a shield that can be levelled against any and all criticism. The consumer of fiction wants to believe. As writers, we just need to make sure that we reward that belief with worlds that are consistent and fully realised,  with characters whose motivations and behaviour make sense, with plots that are internally logical and which are not overly dependent upon coincidence and contrivance.

After all, the best fantastical fiction may create worlds that are far removed from our own but, in their own way, they can feel just as consistent and just as believable...

Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Avengers - A Rebuttal

I am a firm believer that everyone is entitled to their opinion but, when I read Allen St. John's recent and rather scathing review of The Avengers at Forbes I just couldn't resist from offering the following rebuttal:

Sometimes it feels like reviewers, knowing that there are going to be fifteen gazillion glowing reviews of a particular film or book or album appearing online, come to the conclusion that the only way to ensure their particular review stands out is to swim steadfastly against the tide of opinion.

If one were feeling particularly pedantic then one could, perhaps, criticise The Avengers for a lack of character growth – although, to do so, would be to ignore the medium from which the film is drawn. After all, the episodic, long-term, nature of comics tends to require characters stay relatively static in this respect.

But to criticise The Avengers for not being fun? To accuse The Avengers of failing to excite? It gives the impression that Mr. St. John is being something of a curmudgeon. The Avengers I saw was crammed full of both excitement and fun and, from the reaction of the audience around me, I don’t think I was in the minority…

The Avengers scales heights that all previous superhero team movies (including those mentioned in his review such as X-Men and Fantastic Four) have not even aspired to. It is comic book mayhem and fun poured into the cinematic medium and given life. It is a movie that, like The Hulk himself, is a thundering juggernaut that resists any and all attempts to be slowed down. For newcomers, it is a film that makes comic book heroes cool again; for true comic book fans, it is veritable manna from heaven.

Whether it was merely an opinion put forth to gain attention, or whether Allen St. John genuinely found himself unmoved by the spectacle, I think it is an opinion that will very much be in the minority…

And, yes, I know I probably sound like a total fan boy :-) But I loved The Avengers... 

NBC - Please save Awake

This year on TV has been a little disappointing for me. I lost patience with The Mentalist due to the fact that the character rarely seems to genuinely grow and the Red John storyline has been eked out at a rate of one or two episodes a season. I tried watching Touch but found it too saccharine. Even Game of Thrones began in a somewhat fragmented fashion as it desperately tried to stitch together the many and varied threads it has spun out...

So, Awake came as something of a surprise. The premise was interesting - a cop (played by Jason Isaacs) is involved in a car accident but finds himself existing in two parallel realities that follow on from that accident. In one reality, his wife died in the crash and his son survived; in the other his wife survived but his son died. And against the backdrop of his confusion, he has to try and solve cases in both of these realities - with clues and coincidences criss-crossing and foreshadowing between both. Throw in a conspiracy that's being slowly revealed and you have a really intriguing show...

I admit, at times, it is not an easy watch - you need to concentrate to make sure that you keep track of which reality he's in at any particular moment - but it's a show that's worth concentrating on because, up until as far as I've watched (episode seven), it actually delivers.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that I find it one of the most interesting shows currently on TV, it seems that its ratings are dropping week-by-week and it is looking more and more likely that NBC will pull the plug on it after season 1. Now, I really hope that is not the case and that the viewing figures pick up because when tripe such as Jersey Shore manages to pick up five or six million viewers a week it is a crying shame that intelligent drama such as Awake is on a downward ratings slide into oblivion.

All I can hope is that more people start tuning in and that the figures creep up a little, just enough that NBC can justify giving it a chance in a second season, hopefully in a better time slot (it doesn't help that it started mid-season and was pitched against The Mentalist). Because Awake is far too good a show to fall to wayside this early...

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Writing Update...

Well, after a particularly trying three days - in which I've been laboriously engaged in some rather tedious work - I finally have had a little time to myself to think creatively and to evaluate things.

I really enjoyed the 30 Day Writing Challenge and found that it provided me with real motivation to put all my other responsibilities to one side, at least on occasion, and just write - and, therefore, I don't really want to stop having that motivation, don't want to fall back into the way I was previously where I allowed my work and my responsibilities to subsume my creativity.

Therefore, after mulling the idea for quite some time, I've decided that I am going to use this blog as a means of sharing the work I'm doing on my novel. I don't think I'll publish it all here - would probably be a dreadful format for people to read it in - but I'll try and put the first draft of the first four of five chapters up here as they roll in. And then I'll provide updates on where things are at...and, if enough people enjoy reading it, maybe I'll think about the possibility of publication in some format or other beyond that...

The idea behind the novel is big and sprawling and (hopefully) epic. Sometimes the sheer scale and scope of what I imagine leaves me wondering how I can hope to do it justice but that effort has to start somewhere. And so it starts, properly, here.

If you want to read early snippets of material I've been working on, then you can find them here and here in two of my recent writing challenges.

Ok, I have an appointment with MS Word...

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Oliver's Eurovision 2012 Drinking Game

After having finished my 30 Day Writing Challenge I have decided it was about time I got around to this...

Following up on the, frankly scary, success of the 2009 and 2010 Eurovision song contest drinking games – and after having taken a year off to allow my liver to vaguely recover – I am back with Oliver’s Eurovision 2012 Drinking Game.

As with previous years, some of the rules are slightly UK-centric so, if you intend to play this in another country, just ignore rules 1 and 22 and knock back two shots before you get started.

Now, a word of warning; this game is based upon the consumption of strong alcohol. I cannot, therefore, be held responsible for your health (or lack of) if you stringently follow the rules of my game and drink yourself into oblivion. Play this game at your own risk…

1. A shot glass for every person playing (probably best to have a couple of spares in case people get overexcited).

2. The national drink of Azerbaijan is, apparently, black tea – which is not generally a beverage associated with drinking games – so I would instead recommend that you switch to your favourite spirit of choice. I recommend you go with a decent vodka and am of the opinion that, if in any doubt, go with Stolichnaya...

The rules are very simple. You take a sip of your chosen spirit if:

1) Engelbert Humperdinck is mentioned. Drink an entire shot if he is referred to as The Hump.

2) Either of the hosts attempts to sing.

3) Either host pretends to be surprised at something said or done by the other host in what is clearly a well-rehearsed piece of improvisation.

4) Either of the hosts loses track of their autocue or messes up their timing.

5) The video shown before an act contains shots of people in traditional Azerbaijani costume. Drink a shot if anyone is seen doing one of the many traditional Azerbaijani dances. Frankly, there are far too many of them to list here so, if people are gyrating around in a semi-controlled fashion while music plays, take the shot.

6) You see Azerbaijan’s national animal, the Karabakh horse. Drink two shots if it’s a person dressed in a horse costume.

7) The song has the word ‘love’ in the title.

8) You are not entirely sure whether the singer is man who looks like a woman, or a woman who looks like a man.

9) A country is represented by a singer from somewhere else in the world. Drink an entire shot if a country is represented by what seems to be a random person (or persons) scooped up off the streets and then pushed out on stage.

10) The act involves people on stage banging large drums or industrial objects acting as large drums.

11) An item of clothing is removed on stage. Drink an entire shot if it is removed by someone else.

12) The act is bald. Drink an entire shot if they are also female.

13) The act possesses a large moustache.

14) The act is dressed in leather. Drink an entire shot if they are dressed in leather and have a large moustache.

15) If you hear a language used other than that of the nation who is singing (for example, French words in a song by Malta). One sip per language. If in doubt, take a sip.

16) You recognise the song immediately as being a blatant rip off of a previous winner of Eurovision.

17) The song is an ode to world peace. Drink three shots immediately if there are any children on stage at any time during the song.

18) There are dancers on stage who, by their movements, appear never to have heard the song before tonight.

19) People are pretending to play instruments on stage.

20) Every time there is an awkward silence and/or miscommunication between the hosts and the people reading out the votes. Drink an entire shot if the votes get mixed up.

21) Every time one of the people reading out the results of a country’s voting attempts to secure their 15 seconds of fame by babbling on incoherently and generally delaying things and winding a few hundred million people up.

22) Every time it’s "Royaume-Uni? Nil point!". Drink a shot each time, at the end of a voting round, the UK is in last place.

23) Every time a country gives top marks to someone for geographic, political or ethnic reasons.

24) If there is any alcohol left once the show is finished and you’re physically capable of coordinating the movement of alcohol from the bottle to your mouth.

And, if you'd like a printable version of these rules then you can find one HERE (don't say I never do anything nice for you!).

Thursday, April 19, 2012

30 Day Writing Challenge - 30 Days of Writing. Done!

Thirty days of writing. Thirty challenges. 31,118 words. And now it's over and I get a chance to go back and reread some of what I wrote at last...

In doing so, I realised that it might be a tad tedious to have to cycle through the various days without knowing what they are all about and so decided to create this page, which provides a brief summary of each day (and a link) enabling anyone who reads this to have a little more information to hand in picking and choosing which of the writing challenges they want to look at.

Ernest Hemingway said the first draft of everything is shit, so the fact that the vast majority of the challenges in here represent the first draft of whatever I wrote means you may have to forgive a certain lack of refinement in what follows. My usual process throughout was to have a general idea for what I was going to write on a particular theme and then sit with my laptop, bashing aggressively against the keyboard, until I'd concluded and then fight to resist my natural urge to reread and edit and rewrite. I did this because I can sometimes find it difficult, when working on my novel, not to want to go back and revise the chapter I've finished the previous day - and I think it's likely far healthier to get into the mindset of ploughing on and writing the full story before you go back and revise it.

So, without further ado, here are all thirty of the challenges.

Day 1 - A Place that you love
For this challenge, I chose to write a short piece about a childhood haunt of mine 'The Hill'... [read more]

Day 2 - Facing The Fear
I decided, for Day 2, to head straight off into SF territory and write a short piece detailing a mysterious assignment for Alana Dshae, as she is whisked off to the furthest reaches of the galaxy to meet with an ancient alien race. [read more]

Day 3 - A genre you've never written in before
I've always held a fondness for Westerns but had never attempted to write anything even remotely close to one; so for this challenge I wrote the story of a group of killers, led by a man called Six Finger Bob, heading into the town of Desolation on the hunt for a man called Danny Ringo... [read more]

Day 4 - Dialogue only, please
I decided to use the challenge of today to flesh out some of the characters from Day 3's short story and provide a slightly ironic, and hopefully comedic, insight into the minds of the Little Jake and Slim Decker... [read more]

Day 5 - Inspired by your favourite song
After considering writing a piece of fantasy, I decided to make Day 5 an honest evaluation of how Stevie Ray Vaughan's version of Little Wing makes me feel. [read more]

Day 6 - Second person coffee
Writing in the second person is always fun and, once you're writing in this perspective, it's very hard to resist the lure of noir. Of course, there had to be some comedy in there as well as your morning coffee is somewhat spoiled by the arrival of The Mob... [read more]

Day 7 - A day in the life of your favourite comic book character
I decided to use this challenges as an opportunity to take a slightly alternative look at a much beloved comic book character... [read more]

Day 8 - A place that exists only in your mind
For today's challenge I visited a place that exists only in my mind; the hugely mechanised city of Trinity that crawls slowly city-wise on its path around the globe. This is a small excerpt from the first draft of my current novel. [read more]

Day 9 - El Diablo
This one kind of got away from me - or, rather, I ran out of time to finish it - and so there is only a tiny snippet of a very strange story that I intended to feature a Mexican drug lord and a Lovecraftian sub-text... [read more]

Day 10 - The Interview
After a few days of being (relatively) serious, I abandoned myself to the comic and wrote a short fantasy piece about the interview of a potential minion by a Dark Lord. [read more]

Day 11 - A Point in History
A short SF piece detailing the machinations of Alfred J Pollock, a scientist of dubious repute, who hoped to use his newly fashioned time machine to return to the past and enslave civilization... [read more]

Day 12 - Your passion
My passion is writing. So, I write about writing. Very meta. [read more]

Day 13 - The place I grew up
A slightly rose tinted view of the town of Halesowen, where I spent my formative years. [read more]

Day 14 - In the style of a favourite writer
A couple of possibilities suggested themselves but I decided to embark upon a short homage to the SF of Iain M Banks... [read more]

Day 15 - The road goes ever on
For some reason, I found this one of the hardest challenges to actually get an idea for but when I did I fashioned a short story that features a car trip, a powerful sense of deja vu and a realisation that all might not quite what it seems. [read more]

Day 16 - How an event from yesterday could have gone
This is, quite possibly, the silliest day out of all 30. I'll say nothing else. [read more]

Day 17 - The Ocean
A different tone entirely to the previous day, this challenge details the diary of a mariner stranded in the middle of the Atlantic... [read more]

Day 18 - The taste of your favourite meal
I don't want to give anything away about this; but it begins with a serial killer following a young woman as she exists a bar...[read more]

Day 19 - The day of randomness
Today's challenge involved heading to wikipedia and using their random page link to find the subject of your day's challenge. I got Pedro Aznar, a musician and so fashioned this short story about an encounter on a Rio beach. [read more]

Day 20 - A place you want to visit
An opportunity to reveal my desire to follow in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong! [read more]

Day 21 - Night
This offered me an opportunity to slip briefly into horror fiction as a man is assailed in his house by deadly visitors... [read more]

Day 22 - Standing at the precipice
A man stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon and has to decide whether he believes enough to jump. [read more]

Day 23 - First person blind date
This turned out to be almost as silly as Day 16 as it considers the perils of extra-terrestrial blind dating... [read more]

Day 24 - The City
A short piece that is derived from a fantasy world that I've had knocking around my imagination for many years. [read more]

Day 25 - A Poem
Today I created a SF sonnet... [read more]

Day 26 - Something you witnessed today
A short story that touches upon the more invasively dystopian possibilities afforded by the advances in augmented reality technology... [read more]

Day 27 - A snippet from a novel you want to write
This is a snippet from a novel I am writing - part of the same novel as seen in Day 8 - as we are introduced to Militza Tio; warrior,  member of the Shield Guard and soon-to-be renegade. [read more]

Day 28 - Second person bank robbery
From the perspective of you, an undercover FBI agent, waiting for a notorious gang to rob a bank... [read more]

Day 29 - Blue Powder
A chance encounter in a Parisian bistro allows the tale of the legendary Count of Saint Germain to be told. [read more]

Day 30 - The End
Best read after having read Day 29's story, this takes us to the very end of the Universe... [read more]

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

30 Day Writing Challenge - Day 30

Today's challenge is, rather appropriately, simply called The End.

I tried to think of something epically final and hope, despite the few small liberties I've taken in places with regard to the science, that I managed it. It works better if you read yesterday's story as well (and that's not just me trying to get you to read more of my writing, honest!).

The End

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
                    T.S. Eliot (1925)

This is the way the Universe ends
This is the final stanza of a work that stretches back trillions of years but there is to be no soaring crescendo, no dramatic conclusion; the Universe ends in silence, it ends in frigid, midnight blackness in which all light and life is slowly squeezed from it and then finally extinguished.

The end was, paradoxically, signalled by one of the most colossal periods of rebirth; as galaxies collided, celestial masses drawn irreparably together and ripped irreparably apart by unforgiving gravity; shock waves of interstellar gases colliding and giving birth to a swathe of new stars. But the seeds of the end were being sown even as new suns were born; gravity coaxing galaxies into vast ellipses that are gradually eroded of their ability to form new stars. After rebirth, the Universe becomes barren.

Then there is only the waiting as the stars slowly begin to die. The smaller stars, like the Sun, puff up their chests and expand into red giants as their end time approaches but it is little more than dying throes as they slowly collapse back in upon themselves to become white dwarves and then, as they cool, black dwarves. For slightly larger stars, the end sees them collapse in upon themselves, their matter compressed so tightly that they become neutron stars. And for the largest stars, the end is even more violent; collapsing upon themselves with such brutal force that they rip a black hole in space-time and begin to devour everything that draws close enough to them.

And finally, the black holes and the dead stars are all that remain. Darkness reigns absolute, the temperature hovering precariously above absolute zero, as the Universe is starkly reduced to little more than a scattering of cosmological objects.

But the black holes are still alive. They roam and coalesce, forming ever larger tears in the fabric of reality. Perhaps there is somewhere in the Universe safe from their appetite but I find it difficult to imagine as they approach my final resting place.

I have waited so very long for this moment, to hear the Universe play out its last notes in the hope that they might finally be an end to my own work.

I have had many names, too many to remember. But, as, I feel the tangible tug of gravity that presages my joining with the singularity that lies beyond the event horizon, there is only one name that I can hold on to.

And so, I wonder if this will finally be the release I’ve craved. If the Count of Saint Germain can finally have his end.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

30 Day Writing Challenge - Day 29

Despite a heavy workload, I found time this evening to work on Day 29's challenge - Blue Powder. The very open ended nature of the title led me off in a rather curious direction...

Blue Powder

I sat in the window of the bistro and watched the early morning mist rising off the Seine.

I left my Ipad on the blue and white checked tablecloth in front of me and admired the view as a flotilla of tiny boats pottered up the river, their bows pushing against the fog as if it were a tangible thing. Ever since I had found this place, I had spent my mornings here soaking up the Parisian atmosphere. The coffee they served was thick and black and possessed a slightly acrid taste that I found perfectly balanced their delightful pastries.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said a voice to my right.

I looked up to see a middle-aged man with dark hair and a cream blazer taking his seat on the table adjacent to me.

“Paris in the morning,” he said, with a somewhat wistful smile, “There is just something magical about it, don’t you agree?”

“I love it,” I admitted.

“Ah, you’re English,” he said, “Based upon your accent, I would guess from somewhere near Wolverhampton?“

“Spot on, actually,” I said, feeling slightly nonplussed. I liked to believe that all traces of my childhood accent had long since been cleansed from my voice by my many years of moving around the UK. “And you?”

“Me? Oh, I’m from all over,” he said, beckoning the waitress over and ordering ‘his usual’ before turning back to face me. “Truth is, I’ve moved around so much that I don’t really feel like anywhere is my home these days.”

“I guess I know how that is.”

“So what brings you to Paris?”

“I’m here working.”

“Ah, such a shame to have to spend one’s time working in such a beautiful city…”

“Well I’m doing some freelance work; installing a network for a company. It’s going to take a couple of weeks so I get to hang out and enjoy Paris quite a bit.”

“Wonderful,” he said with a beaming smile, “Personally, I never can resist coming back to Paris.”

“You don’t live here, then?”

“Once, long ago, I did” he said, again smiling “But now, I am just a tourist.”


“Oh yes. I admire the wonderful history that the whole place is steeped in. Everywhere in Paris has history; why, even this humble bistro has its own little footnote.”

“Oh?” I replied, feeling genuinely curious. I always found old cities amazing in that respect; to be able to walk streets that had been walked for centuries before me, to see places that had been unchanged for centuries.

“Have you ever heard,” said the man, leaning in towards me almost conspiratorially, “of the Count of St. Germain?”

The name rang a vague bell but it tinkled away so quietly in the recesses of my brain that I couldn’t dredge up any details.

“Rings a bell, but I can’t quite place it.”

“Do you have time for me to tell you his story?”

Technically, I knew I didn’t have time; I had a meeting in a couple of hours and I’d need to get back to my hotel and pick up a few things before then. But, for some reason, I found myself saying “Sure, I’ve got time.”

The man smiled broadly.

“That’s marvellous. I was beginning to worry that the art of listening had rather gone the way of the dodo.”

“So who was this Count of St. Germain?”

“Well, two hundred and fifty years or so ago, he was very much the celebrity in European high society. An accomplished musician and courtier, an alchemist and an adventurer; this was his very favourite bistro in all of Paris.”

I looked around at the plain furnishings and found it hard to believe that, two hundred and fifty years ago, this was a place favoured by the elite.


“Right here,” said the man, his eyes twinkling. “And it was here in this very bistro that he told a tale that would eventually give rise to a legend. It was right in this very part of the room that he revealed to two of his closest companions that he was immortal.”

I laughed. “And did they believe him?”

“Well, of course, not at first. At first they thought, like you do now, that he was a charlatan or perhaps mad. But he told them a story of how, as a boy, he had been an assistant to a great alchemist in the times of Ancient Egypt and that this alchemist had, after communing with the Egyptian god Thoth, developed an elixir capable of extending the life of a man indefinitely.”

The waitress brought over his coffee and a croque-monsieur and he stopped to thank her in what was, to my ears at least, flawless French before turning back to me. Despite myself, I found myself drawn into his story as his voice and manner were incredibly charismatic.

“The alchemist intended to present the elixir to the Pharaoh but the Count, or whatever his name was then, stole the elixir in the dead of night. One pinch of this blue powder was said to be enough to preserve a man’s life for fifty years but the boy knew nothing of this and he ate mouthfuls of the powder, despite the way it tasted foul and burnt his lips and tongue. Delirious and in pain, he wandered way into the desert for weeks but the elixir had changed him irreparably; even without water or food he lived on. And as the weeks became years, and the years became decades, he realised that he was aging so slowly that it was as if the rest of the world were turning a hundred times faster for everyone else.”

He sipped at his coffee.

“And as the decades turned to centuries he began to appreciate the folly of his actions. He could not stay in one place or he would be burned as a witch; he could not love, for anything he loved would eventually die before his eyes. What he had originally thought would be a blessing turned out to be a curse, and so he wandered the world and sought refuge in learning. He became a virtuoso musician, he became a playwright, he became a lothario and a magician and, eventually, he became himself an alchemist so that he could unravel the mysteries of that which had given him this endless life.”

The man sighed.

“But it was no use. While he could create a substance that appeared similar, the blue powder that the Count created was far less potent. It could keep a man young for twenty years but its power was finite, it was nothing more than a poor facsimile. And so, as the centuries became millennia he sought death. But death would not come to him. He threw himself from a ship into the sea but found that he could not drown. And, while he could feel pain, he would eventually heal from even the most grievous of wounds.  One time he even allowed himself to be burnt at the stake, only to awaken the next morning as if nothing had happened to him. There was no escape. And so he accepted his fate and found amusement in moving constantly, in finding new people even if the places themselves seemed old to him.”

“That is a cool story,” I said, “but I still don’t understand how he convinced them he was immortal?”

“Oh, he allowed them to sample the elixir he had himself created. While twenty years to him was as a drop to the ocean, to them it was a tremendous bounty.”

“But surely it can’t have worked?”

"Do you know what the average lifespan of a man in the 18th century was?”

I shrugged. “Fifty?”

“The average man in the 18th century died at thirty five.”


“And yet, one of his companions in the bistro that night, Prince Charles of Hesse Kassel would go on to live to the ripe old age of ninety one.”

“A coincidence, surely?”

“Perhaps,” nodded the man, “but it was Prince Charles who also supposedly buried the Count when he died in 1784. There are those who believe that Prince Charles enabled the Count to move onso that his youthfulness would not be detected. And there, it would seem that the story of the Count ends.”

“It is a great story,” I said with a smile. “And you tell it well.”

He held his hands up in mock protest “It is far too early in the morning to tell the story well; but I hope that it was at least something interesting to know about this place.”

I looked again at the bistro, wondering how much of the story was true and whether the mysterious Count had indeed sat close to where I was now having my breakfast all those centuries ago. I was interrupted from my thoughts by my phone ringing and fished it from my pocket to see that my boss was calling.

“Sorry,” I said to the man, “duty calls.”

“Of course,” he said, “In fact, I must shortly be off. But, it was a pleasure.”

I smiled and stood up so that I could walk to the other side of the room and take the call in private. Then spent a few minutes half listening as my boss prattled on about how he wanted to make sure that people couldn’t use the internet on the work network and I studied the engravings that hung on the wall. They were mainly French figures that I’d never heard of but I stopped at the fifth one and found myself staring.

“Are you listening to me?” said my boss.

“Got to call you back.” I said and thumbed the red button to end the call.

The engraving showed a dark haired man dressed in decorative coat and waistcoat; a tiny plaque at the bottom was inscribed with Count Saint Germain. There was, however, no mistaking the fact that the man in the engraving was the very same as the one I had just sat next to.

I spun round but the table where the man had been sitting was empty.

A flash of thoughts ran through my head. This had to be some kind of practical joke, was my first thought. Whatever was the French equivalent of Candid Camera and as soon as I reacted, a host was going to come in and poke fun at me. But that didn’t seem possible; no one could have foreseen that I would choose to go to the other side of the room.

“The man that was sitting here,” I asked the waitress, “do you know him?”

“He comes here on and off for many years,” shrugged the waitress.

I felt suddenly dizzy and sat back down at my seat. Clearly just a coincidence, I told myself, just a silly coincidence. But, as I picked up my Ipad I noticed that two things were tucked beneath it.

The first was a short note. It read: Thank you for sparing the time to listen to my story. Sharing it is one of the few pleasures that I have left so please accept this as a token of my esteem. C.S.G.

The second was a small glass vial containing blue powder.

No more than a pinch.