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Month: August 2021

Top Reads… Summer 2021 Edition

Some books are good enough to recommend to friends, others you’re happy to forget. A handful are so good that you can’t contain yourself when someone you know would love it, confesses they haven’t read it.

“I can’t believe you haven’t read it. You must read it, tonight. I will be calling with questions,” you say.

Maybe you said it a bit too loud for the fancy wine bar you’re sitting in. Maybe you’re a bit too close to their face. Maybe you shouldn’t have grabbed them by the collar.

You’ve lost control. It physically hurts you to hear that they haven’t read it.

Here are several books that trigger that reaction in me.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

David Mitchell knows how to write with a certain fantastical edge that reminds me of Haruki Murakami — if Murakami was an endearingly self-deprecating British bloke.

(Seriously, watch this interview of Mitchell with Neil Gaiman, and tell me you don’t love the man for his lack of ego and being a fanboy over Neil.)

Cloud Atlas is my favourite of Mitchell’s books. It’s essentially a series of shorter stories nested inside one another like a russian doll.

An ill man on an 18th century sailing ship, trying to get back to his loved one. An oppressed clone-waitress who stumbles across freedom and resistance fighters in Neo-Seoul. A wildman struggling to save his tribe in the ruins of post-apocalytic jungles.

The writing is beautiful, and in this one book you get at least half a dozen unique styles from the various stories-within-stories. The deep layers of storytelling have something new every time I read it. Quite possibly the book that changed me most.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Probably as close to a perfect story as I can imagine. Not in plot or length or character, but in its totality. It is a love letter to the imaginarium of Gaiman’s own childhood.

A young boy moves to a large house in the countryside with his parents. He finds that a strange group of women live at the edge of the lane. They claim to have come from across the pond in their garden long ago, which they call “the ocean”, from a distant place called the Old Country.

A simple, elegant fairy tale that will follow you off the page.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab

I’ve only read this one recently, but it hit me like a tonne of bricks. It’s not a long book, but it paints in such bold and powerful strokes that it feels like you know everything about the world.

Addie LaRue is betrothed to marry. But she has never been one to submit. She would do anything to avoid the fate of her friends, who grow tired and older, saddled with chores and children. She wants to explore, to live!

So she makes a deal with the dark spirits that come out at night — the ones she has been told she must never pray to.

The deal is simple: she will never die. Only when she no longer wants to live can the spirit have her soul.

But all deals have a price. Hers is that nobody will remember her, ever. As soon as they lose sight of her, all memory of her existence is erased.

Addie inhabits a private hell for centuries, fighting a battle of wills with the dark spirit that wants her soul, until she meets Henry in New York. The first person who in hundreds of years who can, somehow, remember her.

Leave Unfinished Projects in the Drawer

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Almost everything I’ve ever written will never be seen.

I have hard drives and drawers full of files, each housing what I once thought was the seed of a story.

This used to depress me. The excitement and momentum of a good idea turning stale in front of me, and my dancing fingers slowing despite my efforts to keep going. Maybe one in ten ideas turn into a complete story, and maybe one in five complete stories might be worth sharing.

Piles and piles of the stuff…

But if I could go back in time and give my younger self advice, it would be this:

Stillborn stories and projects are essential to the process.

The digital publishing revolution brought many changes, most of them great for readers and writers. One that isn’t good is the perception of eternal scurrying. You hear stories about successful independent authors writing 10,000 words a day and publishing a book a month. There are books about how to smash out thousands of words her hour.

It’s important to remember that these people are the exceptions, committed and astute businesspeople who don’t have time for “high art” and naysayers. Despite the prevailing advice that “anyone can do it too”, I would wager that these people are productivity monsters who are just wired that way.

I think almost nobody can match that pace without sacrificing quality. If I wrote 10,000 words a day and published a book a month, those books would be subpar at best.

There’s some great advice on how to survive in the new digital world, such as Joanna Penn’s website or David Gaughran’s bestselling series Let’s Get Digital/Visible.

However, the visibility of these prolific creators has further entrenched the idea that if you’re not producing something visible all the time, you’re not doing it right.

I mean it’s really everywhere…

Your path is determined by your goal.

If you’re a businessperson supporting your family, your goal is income. Your priority is to research what’s selling, get words on the page, and release ASAP.

But there are lots of other valid goals when it comes to writing stories, or creating anything.

You could just be trying to get the demons out, or might be trying to connect with people who like what you make (even if only a handful of them exist). You might — god forbid — be trying to have fun without turning that fun into a side hustle. (For more on rejecting side hustles, see Jason Gurley’s newsletter or Austin Kleon’s blog.)

I’m somewhere in between, and I’ve spoken before about how I write often just to clear my head and be a functional human being. If I’m going to put something out into the world, I need to be selective.

My process consists to a large degree on filtering.

Ideas aren’t the problem, because ideas are cheap. Creators can’t look at a carton of eggs without having a dozen ideas ricochet around their heads.

The hard part is spending time working on an idea, knowing ahead of time that you’ll be going against the grain of good business sense, and putting that idea away forever.

I can say without doubt that, for me, it’s best that way. If everything I wrote ended up out there for people to see, I’d be mortified. I am capable of writing supreme dreck, and I do it regularly.

But I need it to be that way.

Writing rubbish is part of my process.

The piles of paper and bottomless digital folders are not a testament to my laziness, but to my pursuit of the handful of things really worth buffing up for the world to see.

The Power of Tinkering

Warning: if you don’t like nerdy things and/or keyboards, better skip this one.

I’m not good with anything fiddly. Lego, IKEA furniture, arts and crafts. I last about two minutes before I throw it across the room. God help any future children of mine who ask me to put the stickers on their Christmas presents.

I usually describe myself as a big-picture thinker. Pedantic details don’t interest me. That’s good for being creative, but not for finding pleasure in the simplicity of small things.

For me, finding a hobby often sounds more like a should-do than a want-to — which we are trying to abolish, remember.

Keychron K6 Keyboard
The Keychron K6 Wireless Mechanical Keyboard, one of the best keyboards from under £100 on the market right now.

Turns out the answer is keyboards

Right now there’s a craze of DIY mechanical keyboard modifying. I love a good keyboard, so I decided to try it despite my general dislike of anything requiring physical dexterity and patience.

You need a few things:

  • anti-static tweezers,
  • lubricant and a little paintbrush to apply it,
  • a key-puller (for pulling off the keycaps),
  • a screwdriver.

The basic idea is to take the keyboard apart, including dismantling the mechanical switches, lubricate and dampen them, then reassemble it. This (hopefully) improved the typing experience. I also got some foam padding to reduce the vibration inside the casing, and some thick plasters (band-aids) to soften the impact of the stabilisers (pins in the big keys such as the spacebar and enter key).

It’s a whole thing. I definitely don’t know what I’m talking about. If you’re interested you can read all about it here. I used this Youtube guide by Tech Hyped as my primary reference, which uses the same Keychron K6 keyboard I was modifying.

This keyboard has what are called “hot-swappable” switches, meaning you can simply lever out the switches from the board and take everything apart completely (*nervous groan*).

The Process

There’s no way of getting started other than diving in, so that’s what I did. At first I really thought I would give up, especially when I took the first switch apart and a bunch of tiny pieces flew across the room.

But once I settled down into the labour of it, I realised that there was no rush. Nothing was riding on my success of failure besides my enjoyment of the tinkering. I put on my headphones and listened to The Hobbit audiobook as narrated by Andy Serkis (excellent, you should try it), and I just got lost in it. I worked my way through all sixty-something keys over about a week, probably spending about 6 hours in total on it.

I’m just coming to the end now. I don’t know the outcome of it yet, but I’ve realised that it doesn’t matter. I thoroughly enjoyed just sitting there and… fiddling, with fiddly things – the thing I usually hate so much.

The inside of a switch. Imagine painting every piece of over 60 switches with lubricant, then reassembling the pieces without getting lube everywhere. Yeah.

So many pieces! Aaaah.

Verdict: Pass the lube

So often we bang our heads against a wall, trying to find our way through and blaming ourselves, only to realise that we just had to find the path that’s right for us. I’ve always been jealous of how other people focused and relaxed when they do something simple repetitive. But I had been focusing on what other people spent their time on, rather than finding what relaxed me.

Depending on the outcome when I put everything back together, I’ll either be looking for some new things to try, or I’m going to need more keyboards.

Mid-Year (ish) 2021 Review

Mid-year has been and gone, but I’ve been busy with completing my thesis and defending it. Having finished feels like a good enough milestone for a mid-year (ish) review of 2021.

Sunset at St Agnes, Cornwall
Post-PhD decompression: Sunset at St Agnes, Cornwall.

If I had to describe the year in a single word, that word would be precipice. The edge before big changes. For the first time in a long time, I don’t know what comes next. Thankfully, after being stuck inside for most of 2020, even being able to walk outside is a revelatory experience. So there’s not much of a bar to beat.

The year to August has been full of small changes, and some big ones:

  • Completing my doctorate. After 4 year of research, I passed the final oral exam separating me from PhD status. Needless to say, this is the big milestone. A major lifegoal achieved.

  • Ran my first 6k. I’m almost as pleased about this as the PhD. Just under two years ago, I was told I had a fissured meniscus in my knee from an injury around 4 years before. My knee had grown progressively worse, so that I couldn’t squat my own bodyweight or run at all. Even walking was getting hard. Doctors were telling me I would soon get arthritis and surgery might help, but probably not. However, some great physiotherapy and a simple piece of equipment banished it in under three months. Last week I ran 6k, which would have seemed totally unfeasible before. My aim is 10k by the end of the year.

  • Restarted this blog. I’ve written in blogs on and off for about 16 years (nothing remains of them except backups on old hard drives). My last one dried up about six years ago, when my degree started to take over my life. Now that I’ve graduated, one of the best things about life is writing this blog — mostly for my future self.
  • Ran a beta-reading club for a book. It’s a truly lucky thing to know people whom you trust to take the time to read a book you’ve written, and give some tough love in their feedback. Scary but rewarding. It’s totally different to a beta-reading group composed of strangers, because people who know you can infer more subtle things about what you’re trying to do.

  • Developed a journaling habit. I spoke about this in an earlier post. I’m still finessing a system that works for me, but I’ve made good progress so far. I can’t overstate the value of having a habit that gets thoughts out of my head and into some physical format. I would have said it was a hobbyist’s thing before I tried it; now, I couldn’t go without it.

  • Consistent meditation and yoga/stretching. I injured my back twice during lockdown, and even months later my muscles were like taut wires. I always thought, in an absent sort of way, that yoga was something that felt nice and technically counted as moving, but didn’t do much for your body. Obviously, I was hopelessly wrong. Twenty minutes of stretching or yoga every morning has totally changed my relationship with exercise — and it’s a similar story with meditation and mental flexibility/strength. Turns out the solution to almost everything is sitting quietly, breathing, stretching and recording thoughts.

Storytelling on the Martian Frontier

I’ve been working on a book for years. It tells the story of the first generations of people to settle Mars (see more here). As I near the end, I want to start writing here about what drew me to the topic.

Lots of books and films depict Mars. It’s in the golden valley of otherness: alien, yet familiar. It’s a place where our machines have landed, but also a place that feels impossibly distant. We might as well be sending probes to another plane of existence.

Image of the Martian surface, courtesy of NASA.
The eerily familiar surface of Mars. Image courtesy of NASA.

We also recognise Mars as a place vaguely similar to our home. Space is cold and dark and infinite. But photographs of the surface of Mars look like they were taken at dusk in Arizona or Chile – and the geology is indeed very similar. Earth and Mars are almost twins (actually Earth and Venus are more twin-like, with Mars being the runt, but Venus is as close to Hell as you can find in real life). The opinions of pundits vary wildly, but there is a very real chance that we will see human beings walk on Mars this century.

The Wild West of the Space Age

Mars is one of the last true frontiers. The Wild West of the Space Age. And if we know anything from Hollywood and Western sagas, it’s that storytellers love a good frontier. Our natural exploratory instinct is biting at the bit on an Earth, where only the deepest ocean floors aren’t exhausted for mystery and intrigue. We want to be titillated by the unknown: a bit of dark mystery like the Congo in Heart of Darkness, or a bit of adventure like Nemo’s voyages in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Cover of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

But there’s also a problem with storytelling on Mars: actually telling a human story. Most books and films set on the Red Planet aren’t about people living their lives. They’re about the dangers of running out of air (Stowaway) or Robinson Crusoe-type survival thrillers (The Martian), or far-future visions of techno-punk, three-boobed, unicorn-obsessed glory (Total Recall, Blade Runner).

You can also do a bit too much research and turn the book into a pageant for near-future technology (personally, I think Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars falls into this trap, even though it’s also the closest thing to a Martian family saga out there). The presiding widsom is that you need a gimmick to hook people in and engage them. If you don’t have a gimmick, there’s a fear that you’ll lose people. Instead, you have to have laser-wielding aliens or AI run a-mock.

The cover of The Fated Sky

The Real Story Waiting to Be Told

There’s a real story waiting to be told on Mars, one that only a few have achieved (e.g. Mary Robinette Kowall’s The Fated Sky or Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles). If people ever go there with any intention of staying, their lives will be fascinating. I’ll expand on this in future posts, but for now here’s a list of questions that I hope will highlight how fertile this ground is for stories:

  • If you had the chance to be part of a real exploratory mission into the unknown, would you take it – if there was a chance you wouldn’t come home?
  • There’s something in the idea of travelling to a new planet that is intimiately bound up in the immigrant experience, something most people from Western counties know very little about. What would it mean for the people you left behind?
  • In making a harsh and unforgiving place your new home, what would you realise you had taken for granted?
  • If going all that way was the price you paid for eternal infamy, would you pay it?
  • Does the cost of countless billions for a mission to Mars provide returns on investment? Why aim for the stars when there are so many problems on Earth?
  • How would you navigate the terrain of equity of all nations and peoples? We still talk about colonizing space, in a world that is supposedly post-colonial. Who gets to plant flags and found cities, gets to name anything? Who owns the means of transportation between worlds?
  • How would you deal with the prospect of having children if you knew they could never return to Earth? Could you cope with knowing you were condemning them to a difficult life, either underground or surrounded by an endless desert?