March 2014

iTunes & Me

by Suw on March 26, 2014

I put off upgrading to iOS7, for fear my phone might be broken by the process. Today I thought, ‘Oh, don’t be silly, it will be fine’, but oh, no, no, no. The update failed halfway through. I managed to get the phone to finish its upgrade, but it needed to restore itself from back up, the back up that I had so very carefully taken this morning, just before I upgraded, because I am sensible.

“What’s your password?” asked iTunes.
“What password?” I replied.
“Y’know. Your password,” it said.
“Um, I didn’t set a password,” I said. “I don’t remember setting a password. But hey, does this one work?”
“This one?”
“How about this one?”
“Any of these ones?”
“Any hope of recovering my password?”
“Ha ha ha ha ha.”
“And you don’t make me enter the password each time I back-up just to make sure that I know I’ve got a password. Also: still don’t remember setting a password!”
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. Of course not.”
“So, my carefully backed-up phone is, well, knackered then?”
“Fun, isn’t it!”
“No, it is not fun.”
“Turn it on! Turn it on!”
“I think I’ll search the web first, see if there’s anything I can do about it.”
“Oh, you can try. You can, indeed, try. I wouldn’t bother though. Turn it on!!”
“How about this password?”
“Still no. But I will sync it for you! How about that?”
“Ok, a sync is better than, well, no sync.”
“Aren’t I kind!”
“How about this password?”
“A ha ha ha ha, you kill me.”
“The internet says try backing up to iCloud.”
“Ooh, try that! Try that!”
“I am getting a bad feeling about this…”
“Look what I did! The iCloud back-up of your borked phone has overwritten the older, intact-if-inaccessible, back-up on your computer. I win!”
“There can be only one back-up.”
“So this isn’t like Time Machine, then? Where I can go back as far as I have memory to back-up?”
“Ha ha ha. Oh god, you’re still killing me.”
“No need to be rude. Go on. Turn it on.”
“It looks like it’s been factory reset. You’ve lost everything.”
“Keep going. You’ve got nothing left to lose now, have you? After all, you’ve lost it all already.”
“No, you lost it.”
“You forgot the password.”
“What password!”
“Y’know. The password.”
“Now, now. Oh, look, let me sync it again for you.”
“Right, done with that. Have another go at turning it on.”
“Ooh! Wait! There are my photos! And my contacts! And my text messa… wait a minute.”
“Tee hee.”
“Wait… there’s nothing on this phone newer than December 2011. You’ve… you’ve wiped all my contacts, photos, music, and everything else that’s been added over the last two and a half years. You utter, utter bastard.”
“But I synced your apps!”
“And lost most of the settings!”
“iOS7 is really shiny though!”
“No, it’s fucking not. It’s a fucking affront to anyone with even half a design sensibility.”
“I like it.”


With apologies to Muse & Me

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Two lessons in dialogue

by Suw on March 10, 2014

Dialogue. How I yearn to be awesome at dialogue. With good dialogue you can not only move the story forward, you can also draw the characters personality, background, attitudes, prejudices, class status, relationships to others and much more. Yet it’s only too easy, and I say this from experience, to use dialogue simplistically, either as a form of exposition or as a way to just glue actions together. Using it to reveal personality and background requires a more deft touch that I certainly am still trying to develop. 

Recently, I have come across two fantastic writers whose dialogue is really worth taking the time to study. The first is Naomi Novik, whose Temeraire I recently read and loved. Novik’s dialogue is fantastic, giving us an insight into not just what is going on in that scene, but also where her characters come from, what they’re like, how they think, and what their station is in life. It really is a delight to read, and if you haven’t read Temeraire (His Majesty’s Dragon in the USA) then I cannot recommend it highly enough! 

One of my favourite scenes is this: 

They landed together, to the anxious lowing of the cattle that had been delivered for Temeraire’s dinner. ‘Temeraire, be gentle with him,’ Laurence said quietly. ‘Some dragons do not have very good understanding, like some people; you remember Bill Swallow, on the Reliant.’

‘Oh, yes,’ Temeraire said, equally low. ‘I understand now; I will be careful. Do you think he would like one of my cows?’

‘Would he care for something to eat?’ Laurence asked James, as they both dismounted and met on the ground. ‘Temeraire has already eaten this afternoon; he can spare a cow.’ 

‘Why, that is very kind of you,’ James said, thawing visibly, ‘I am sure he would like it very much, wouldn’t you, you bottomless pit,’ he said affectionally, patting Volatilus’s neck.’

‘Cows!’ Volatilus said, staring at them with wide eyes.

‘Come and  have some with me, we can eat over here,’ Temeraire said to the little grey, and sat up to snatch a pair of the cows over the wall of the pen. He laid them out in a clean grassy part of the field, and Volatilus eagerly trotted over to share when Temeraire beckoned. 

‘It is uncommonly generous of you, and of him,’ James said, as Laurence led him to the cottage. ‘I have never seen one of the big ones share like that; what breed is he?’

‘I am not myself an expert, and he came to us without provenance; but Sir Edward Howe has just today identified him as an Imperial,’ Laurence said, feeling a little embarrassed; it seemed like showing off, but of course it was just plain face, and he could not avoid telling people. 

James stumbled over the threshold on the news and nearly fell into Fernao. ‘Are you— oh, Lord, you are not joking,’ he said, recovering and handing his leather coat off. ‘But how did you find him, and how did you come to put him into harness?’

Laurence himself would never have dreamed of interrogating a host in such a way, but he concealed his opinion of James’s manners; the circumstances surely warranted some leeway. ‘I will be happy to tell you,’ he said, showing the other man into the sitting room. ‘I should like your advice, in fact, on how I am to proceed. Will you have some tea?’

‘Yes, although coffee if you have it,’ James said, pulling a chair closer to the fire; he sprawled into it with his leg slung over the arm. ‘Damn, it’s good to sit for a minute; we have been in the air for seven hours.’

What I love about this is how the dialogue and the description work so well together. Temeraire, we have already learnt by this point in the book, is a smart dragon and although he speaks in short sentences with relatively simple constructions, he clearly has a level of understanding and intelligence that poor Volatilus wouldn’t even know how to dream of. He shows kindness, compassion, imagination and empathy; his actions and speech both reflect these personality traits. 

Poor old Volly, on the other hand, is a much simpler beast and can manage only one astonished word. But even with such restricted dialogue, we get a clear impression of Volly’s intellectual limitations, warmth of heart, and enthusiasm for cattle. 

When it comes to the humans in the scene, we can see Laurence’s stiff formality, sharply contrasted by James’ lack of the same. Again, dialogue and action reinforce one another, but you are also provided with a bit of extra information. Like his dragon, Laurence is solicitous of others’ wellbeing, but is also very aware of status and propriety. 

Throughout the book, Novik uses dialogue to flesh out her characters, using speech patterns appropriate not just to the period — the book is set in the Napoleonic wars — but also fitting to station, career path, and even family position. Laurence is a Navy man from an aristocratic family, but he’s not the first born son so he’s highly aware of interpersonal relationships and status differentials, and thus how people should modify their behaviours according to whom they are speaking.

When surrounded by and talking to his subordinates on ship, for example in the scene shortly after his ship has captured a French vessel and, along with it, Temeraire’s egg, he’s very formal: 

No one spoke, and in silence Laurence stared at the shining curve of eggshell rising out of the heaped straw; it was scarcely possible to believe. ‘Pass the word for Mr. Pollitt,’ he said at last; his voice sounded only a little strained. ‘Mr. Riley, pray be sure those lashings are quite secure.’

But when talking privately to the people on board that he trusts the most, and with whom he has the closest relationships, his formality drops a little: 

He [Pollitt] bustled away, and Laurence exchanged a glance with Gibbs and Riley, moving closer so they might speak without being overheard by the lingering gawkers. ‘At least three weeks from Madeira with a fair wind, would you say?’ Laurence said quietly. 

‘At best, sir,’ Gibbs said, nodding. 

‘I cannot imagine how they came to be here with it,’ Riley said. ‘What do you mean to do, sir?’

His initial satisfaction turning gradually into dismay as he realised the very difficult situation, Laurence stared at the egg blankly. Even in the dim lantern light, it shone with the warm lustre of marble. ‘Oh, I am damned if I know, Tom. But I suppose I will go and return the French captain his sword; it is no wonder he fought so furiously after all.’

Notice that we not only get signals regarding Laurence and Riley’s relationship, but we also get action in the dialogue, as Laurence talks about returning the French captain’s sword.

The richness of Novik’s dialogue is a delight, and the way she uses it to progress the plot and develop characters and relationships makes the book zip along at a very satisfying pace. It is my aim over the next month or two to really study Temeraire and Novik’s use of dialogue in order to improve my own, as her’s is some of the best I’ve read in a long time. 

My second example of awesome dialogue is a bit of a cheat, really, as it’s a radio comedy. Cabin Pressure is written by John Finnemore and concerns the slightly hapless crew of a charter airline, MJN Air. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Captain Martin Crieff, Roger Allam as First Officer Douglas Richardson, Stephanie Cole as airline owner Carolyn Knapp-Shappey, and John Finnemore as her rather gormless son who also works as the airline’s only steward, Arthur Shappey. 

Cabin Pressure is one of those radio gems where every word is exactly where it should be. There is no flab in the script, and no gun gets put on the table in the first scene without going off before the last. Jokes are set up with meticulous attention to detail and timing, and the voice acting is just superb, as you’d expect from such an awesome cast.

Of course, radio comedies are all dialogue, with only a few sound effects to add any necessary extra information, so they have to be sharp and well observed. But they also have to tell you everything you need to know about the characters without exposition. Here’s a snippet of Cabin Pressure, Series 1, Episode 1, from the Cabin Pressure Fans website

MARTIN: Blessed.

DOUGLAS: Ah, yes, of course. May.

MARTIN: Mm-hm, yep. Cant.

(Flight deck door opens.)

ARTHUR: Here we are, gents. Coffee with nothing in it; tea with everything in it. Great cabin address, Douglas. I love cargo flights.

DOUGLAS: Thank you, Arthur.

MARTIN: Ooh, Eno!

DOUGLAS: Ooh, eeno?

MARTIN (more slowly): Ooh: Eno.

DOUGLAS: Ah, yes! Sewell.

ARTHUR: Ooh, what are we playing?

MARTIN: Brians of Britain.

ARTHUR: There-there must be loads of them. Umm … uh …

DOUGLAS: Well, not to worry. As they come to you.

ARTHUR: Ooh, who was that guy? Umm, oh, grey-haired, did that game show, “Can I have a P please, Bob?” Umm, oh, what was his name?

DOUGLAS: Your hope being that it was Brian?

ARTHUR: Yeah, Brian … uh … Brian …

MARTIN: Bob Holness. It was Bob Holness.

ARTHUR: That’s it! Oh. Well, does he count anyway?

DOUGLAS: Does Bob Holness count in our list of people called Brian? What the hell, yes, he does. Well done!

FITTON AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL (over radio): Golf Tango India, expect twenty min delay due runway inspection. Enter the hold at Arden; maintain seven thousand feet.

MARTIN (into radio): Golf Tango India, roger hold at Arden. Maintain seven thousand feet. Can you confirm delay only twenty minutes?

FITTON AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL (blowing out a breath): Probably. All depends, really.

MARTIN (exasperated): Thank you, Tower. Hugely informative as ever. Out.

(Radio off.)

MARTIN: Sorry, chaps. Looks like we’d better divert to Bristol.

ARTHUR: Bristol? Why?

MARTIN: Fitton’s got a runway closure. We’d have to hold for twenty minutes.

ARTHUR: But Bristol? That’s miles away.

MARTIN: Yes. Luckily enough, though, we’re in an aeroplane, especially designed to be good at going miles away quite quickly.

ARTHUR: Yeah, but my car’s at Fitton.

MARTIN: Oh, well, then, let us by all means circle round it until we drop out of the sky.

DOUGLAS: D’you know, Martin, all these years and I’ve never been to Bristol.

MARTIN: Well, get ready for a treat.

DOUGLAS: I dunno. I was rather hoping not to break my duck.

ARTHUR: Skipper, are you sure there’s not enough fuel to wait? ’Cause there’s always a little bit left when the gauge shows red.

MARTIN: Yes, oddly enough, Arthur, a jet aircraft isn’t as precisely similar to a Vauxhall Corsa as a stupid person might imagine. We’re going to Bristol.

ARTHUR: What do you reckon, Douglas?

DOUGLAS: We could go to Bristol. I believe people do. However, we’ve easily enough fuel spare to hold for twenty minutes, maybe even thirty.

MARTIN: No, I’m sorry but we’re diverting.

ARTHUR: Yeah, hang on a tick, though. If Douglas reckons twenty minutes …

MARTIN: No, let’s not ‘hang on a tick’. Let’s listen to the captain, shall we?

DOUGLAS: Of course, Martin, if you say we divert, then divert we shall.

MARTIN: Thank you.

DOUGLAS: Unless of course we were to smell smoke in the flight deck.


DOUGLAS: I’m just saying: if by any remote chance we smelled smoke in the flight deck, we would of course be duty bound to land at the nearest available airfield with immediate priority – in this case, by a happy coincidence, Fitton.

MARTIN: Yes, maybe; but I don’t smell smoke in the flight deck.

(Sound of a match being struck.)

DOUGLAS: How about now?

MARTIN: What are you suggesting, Douglas?

DOUGLAS: We tell the Tower we smell smoke, which we do. We get to land straightaway. They check the aircraft, don’t find anything; “One of life’s little mysteries, but jolly good boys for taking no chances.” Everybody’s happy and there’s jam for tea.

ARTHUR: Right! That’s – you know, that’s really clever!

MARTIN: No, I’m sorry, but absolutely not.

DOUGLAS: I used to do it all the time at Air England.

MARTIN: Well, you’re not at Air England now. Where you are now is in the co-pilot’s seat and on the way to Bristol. You’ll like it. They have a lovely suspension bridge.

DOUGLAS: Well, shall I just sat comm Carolyn before we make our final decision? It’s rather an expensive diversion …

MARTIN: No, we have made our final decision. I have decided, and as Carolyn knows, whilst in flight, I am supreme commander of this vessel.

DOUGLAS: Golly. Captain Bligh flies again.

MARTIN: Douglas, I’m not impressed by your Air England mates. When you’re on Captain Bligh’s aircraft, you can do it his way, but when you’re on mine, you do it mine. Is that understood?


MARTIN: Yes what?

DOUGLAS: Yes it is.

MARTIN: Yes it is what?

DOUGLAS: Yes it is understood.

MARTIN: Yes it is understood what?

DOUGLAS: Yes it is understood … please?

MARTIN: I’m waiting.

DOUGLAS: Martin, you’re not seriously asking me to call you ‘sir’.

MARTIN: Yes I am. Why’s that so hard to believe?

DOUGLAS: Well, to select just one reason from the fifteen or sixteen that present themselves, I’m old enough to be your father.

MARTIN: Not unless you started very young.


MARTIN: Right, well, I think your age and your previous role is giving you a rather skewed view of the chain of authority on this aircraft, and maybe a little observation of the formalities will help remind you which one of us is still the captain. So: is that understood?


(Long pause.)

DOUGLAS (grimly): … sir.

MARTIN: Thank you. (Into radio) Fitton Approach, Golf Tango India. In view of your delay, request diversion Bristol.

Even without hearing the dialogue spoken, we get a very clear idea of who these people are: Martin, the captain, is impatient with other people, overly cautious, insecure (particularly with respect to his position as captain), officious, and not as intelligent as he likes to think he is.

Douglas, on the other hand, is possibly too clever, and looks down on people who think they’re smart but aren’t. That said, he’s got more empathy than Martin and doesn’t take his frustration with Martin out on Arthur, who really is rather lacking in the intellectual capacity area. Douglas is frustrated by the fact that he’s a first officer and not the captain, and his causal disregard for authority turns into something more deliberate when it’s Martin’s authority that he’s disregarding.

Now, Arthur. What Arthur lacks in intelligence he makes up for in enthusiasm, being easily impressed and even more easily pleased. He’s the sort of person you’d find hard to actively dislike, but his similarity to a Labrador puppy might get a bit tedious after a while. 

Listen to the whole episode, or indeed, the series (plural), and you’ll rapidly see how well rounded the Cabin Pressure characters are. Again, the dialogue does more than just tie scenes together or set up the next chunk of description or action, it actually tells us almost everything we can ever know about these characters.

My aim for future stories is to produce dialogue that is as fat with information as Temeraire and Cabin Pressure. It’s not just about what people are saying, it’s how they say it. It’s the the words they choose and the cadence of their speech. And it’s also what they don’t say, the words they don’t use, the meaning they leave between the lines, even without knowing it. 

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Create more than you consume

by Suw on March 3, 2014

Hi. My name is Suw and I’m addicted to reading meaningless crap on the internet. 

There. I’ve said it. I have a procrastination problem. It’s a very specific problem, though, because it doesn’t affect my paid work. When a client is paying me to write a report, do some research, or write, I generally have no problem getting my head down and cracking on. If I do have a moment of procrastination, it probably means that I am hungry as a lack of calories often results in my brain switching off, but that’s easily fixed by getting lunch or a snack. 

No, my procrastination problem is most acute when it comes to my creative writing. I try to treat writing as work, so that it gets equal billing in my priorities as client projects do, but it’s not always that easy to convince my hindbrain that what I’m doing — indeed, what I’m doing right now — is making a valuable contribution to my career and quality of life. It doesn’t make me any money, so I find it difficult to put it on an equal footing as the work that pays my rent. But when I am not writing, I’m really quite miserable, so the calculation should be easy: A Suw that is writing is a happy Suw, so Suw should write. Somehow, though, that calculation doesn’t convince my hindbrain one little bit.

The trouble is that writing is infinitely put-off-able, and the internet is full of mildly interesting things to read and, occasionally, useful information that I need to know. It’s also full of people and, as someone who works from home, social media gives me a comforting level of social contact that I wouldn’t otherwise get. Unfortunately, much of that social contact is via random chitchat on Twitter, and Twitter is phenomenally good at piquing curiosity. What was that tweet in response to? Why is this person angry about this link? What funny cat picture lies behind that link? 

It becomes incredibly easy to while away the hours when one is not working by reading vast quantities of stuff that has very little utility, but which sates one’s innate craving for novelty. In fact, as I’m writing this, sitting in an apartment in Sheboygan, WI, without internet access except for via my husband’s iPad, the urge to put my laptop down and pick up his iPad just to see if anything interesting has been posted on Twitter feels almost physical.

The internet has wormed its way into my brain and is eating it. 

Add to this the fact that it’s also incredibly easy to lose one’s writing mojo to insecurity and soon enough you’ll find that months have gone by and you’ve not written a thing. You may even find that you’ve picked up a new hobby to fill the time that you once would have used to write, and are using the fact of that as another stick to beat yourself with. Soon enough, your urge to write might appear to have evaporated completely, and you start to believe that you’re not a writer at all anymore. 

Havi Brooks deals with this latter point most effectively:

There are many ways to know you are a writer, and doubting it is something writers go through, so let’s drop this pain-heavy rule that you must be writing now in order to claim that lost part of you.

That isn’t how it works, it isn’t helpful, and it isn’t the loving spark of truth. Sometimes writing lives in the spaces in between the words. Sometimes the process of not-writing is how you get quiet enough to return to it. Blame about the not-writing make this harder.

Let’s not perpetuate that. Let’s not tell these stories anymore. Let’s not pretend that ASS IN CHAIR is the only answer.

Let’s end it here and now. With love.

It’s a powerful read, and full of truth. But, even if I can forgive myself for my long periods of not writing, that still leaves me procrastinating actual writing far too often and for too long, and my delaying tactic of choice is always to read shit on the internet. No number of hopefully conceived but ultimately doomed New Year’s Resolutions will solve that problem. 

But, just recently, I read the blog post How to be useful, despite your smartphone addiction by Mark Schaefer, and whilst most of the post I can take or leave, one subheading leapt out at me: 

Create more than you consume. 

This. So very this. My resolution to publish a new piece of work per month was, in retrospect, a hard ask because it put artificial pressure on me to complete stories without giving me a sense of where the time to do that might come from. But this edict, to create more than I consume, gives me a clear choice to make. I can read shit on the internet, or I can stop and use that time instead to write. I can binge-listen to multiple episodes of my latest love, Cabin Pressure, or I can eek them out a bit by only listening to one if I have spent half an hour writing first instead. 

Creating more than you consume is not about finding extra time, it is about choosing carefully how you use your time. It’s not forcing me to make a choice between, say, going to the gym first thing in the morning or writing, it’s giving me a choice between doing something that is having an increasingly negative impact on my state of mind and is thus something I should stop, ie reading crap on the internet, and doing something that makes me happy, ie writing. This is an easy choice. Framing it in this way makes it not just easy, but compelling, a choice that will decrease the crappiness and increase my happiness. 

I have no doubt that my implementation of this edict will be prone to stumbles and falls. I checked Twitter four times whilst writing this post, though to my credit I didn’t click on a single link. Making any kind of major change to habitual behaviours is hard, but bad days can be followed by good days, and all you need to do is keep on trying to increase the number of good days. 

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