The Taming of the Shrewd

When OH was little they visualised a shrew being like a mouse with its nose sharpened: I like that idea as it sounds like a good Just So story.  I could even write it: ‘Once upon a time there was a mouse who stuck its nose into a pencil sharpener…’ I won’t go into the misogynistic symbolism of the shrew, but it’s interesting to reflect on the history of the human nose.  Why, when someone is inquisitive, do we call them nosy?  It surely can’t be coincidence that every inquisitive person I’ve ever known (when I’ve remembered to check) has a large or very pointy nose.  I guess it figures that if you’re curious about the world and not afraid to – well, poke your nose in – you’d have a large or pointy thing keeping your eyes apart.  (My nose, in case you’re interested, is not large or pointy but it is hard; a fact OH never fails to point out when assessing my character.)

A propos of this it occurred to me, watching last night’s Louis Theroux  investigation into sexual abuse on American campuses, that he has a very large nose – and there’s no denying that Theroux is an inquisitive person who has made a career out of poking his nose into other people’s business.  He goes to places and asks questions most of us would feel very uncomfortable asking.  In this programme he follows a couple of cases where men accused of sexual assault on campus were acquitted by the courts but found guilty by the university and suspended from study.

The programme puts us the position of a jury hearing from witnesses, Theroux acting as both defence and prosecution.  He is an expert on getting people to talk and allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions.  Of course this is not a trial and what we see is only what the programme chooses to tell us; we have to remember that.

SPOILER ALERT

The first guy, an Afghan man who came from a refugee camp to America and made it to Yale, initially appeared quiet and unassuming but later on, doubt was thrown on his story by someone who had previously been an advocate for him.  The truth of these stories is very hard to piece together for the simple reason that only the two people present in the room actually know what happened.  So you have to fall back on who you think is the more credible witness.

I ended up completely changing my mind about the Afghan guy and seeing him as smooth and manipulative; but there’s a wider point here about how you deal with situations where the law cannot satisfactorily establish innocence or guilt.  Rape and sexual assault are horrible things and you can’t help wondering whether the ponderous and long-drawn-out procedures of a courtroom are the best place to establish the truth and dispense justice.  Perhaps for more minor offences we need a different environment, something akin to family courts, perhaps – an environment that’s less hostile and adversarial.  There’s just something a little bizarre on finding a shelf full of files detailing court procedures on whether a man did or did not hold a woman’s hands above her head and stick his mitt down her pants.  It’s not that it’s out of proportion; it’s somehow alien to the original situation.  I don’t mean to trivialise such events which are horrid; I just wonder.

Kirk out

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Fifty Shades of Earl Grey

Since OH makes the tea in the morning and not only doesn’t understand tea but has difficulty with half-measures, I never quite know what I’m going to get.  Sometimes my morning cuppa is in the Goldilocks zone but more often there’s either too much water or too little, resulting in a watery mud-colour or else tea the shade of oak stained by decades of nicotine.  I can usually tell just by lifting the pot whether it’s right or not, and thereafter approach the act of pouring either with glee or with a due sense of trepidation.

OH is tempted to wonder whether the British have evolved to detect a greater spectrum of brown in order to discern whether our tea is of the correct strength.  It’s an appealing idea but as we’ve only been drinking tea for a couple of hundred years (and taking it black in the beginning) I think we wouldn’t have had time.  But who knows?  Maybe even as we speak I am part of that very process of evolution?

It’s been quite cold here in the mornings but by midday it’s warmed up to an unfeasible extent, resulting in a temperature hike of about fifteen degrees centigrade.  I’ve been taking advantage of this to dig the garden, turning soil while the sun shines (and boy does it shine!  Twenty degrees on Monday; I’m torn between enjoying it and being terrified by climate change) and so enhancing my ability to appreciate different shades of brown.  Spike Milligan certainly could, drowning in mud in Italy:

There’ll be brown birds over

the brown cliffs of Dover…

So who knows?  Maybe by a combination of gardening and tea-drinking we will have evolved to see fifty shades of brown by the end of the century.  If we survive that long…

Kirk out

I Love Rejections….

Oh to be on Facebook, now that OH is here!  This is a conversation we had just now about a new pair of glasses:

OH:  Just now I thought my glasses weren’t right, but it was only my eyes doing their thing.

Me:  What thing?

OH:  In bed at night I close one eye when I use the tablet and I think it’s messing with my Nucleus of Edinger-Westphal.

Me:  I think I went there once on holiday.

OH:  I’ve mentioned it before.  I want to know the peak sensitivity wavelength for rod cells.

Me:  Sure; who doesn’t?

That’s the sort of dialogue I usually put on Facebook but now I’m off Facebook for good, or at least until it improves beyond recognition.  In theory I could log in and put up my dialogue and log out again – but would that really be the end of it?  Wouldn’t I go back an a couple of hours to see who’s ‘liked’ or commented?  Wouldn’t I respond to some of those comments?  Wouldn’t those commenters respond to my responses?  Wouldn’t I do a bit of scrolling in between?  And then boom! before you know it, you’re back on Facebook.

Nope: amusing and geeky dialogues will have to remain on this blog.  Anyway, back to today’s topic of rejections.  I had one just this morning as it happens; a poetry collection I’d entered for a competition which wasn’t shortlisted.  The first reaction is like a thump in the chest; the feeling that, as Pooh bear puts it: ‘A Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it’ – or, to translate that into author-speak, you sweat and polish and rub and grind to make your work the best it can be, send it out into the world to seek its fortune and back it comes, rubber-stamped with the words NO THANKS in large unfriendly letters.

Actually today’s rejection was terribly nice and appreciative but it doesn’t matter how much they sugar-coat it, a rejection is a rejection.

So what do you make of it?  I go through a process each time which is not unlike the stages of grief.  First, there’s pain.  There’s no avoiding this and sometimes it hurts a lot, especially if you had a lot invested in the work; but it does get easier with time.  The second stage can be anger, though I’ve managed to bypass this as the urge to write to the publishers telling them where to get off is not one that should be indulged.  So we blow past anger and land on wondering.  Why?  Why didn’t they want to publish my work?  Are they blind?  You rarely get a clue as to why your work has been rejected and being so much in the dark can lead to stage three: paranoia.  Am I really as good as I think?  Should I give this up?  Am I ever going to get anywhere?  Will anyone ever appreciate me?  This stage is not very productive and, like anger, should not be indulged for long: I got a few words of encouragement from OH once he got back from visiting the Islets of Langerhans or wherever he went – and in time the feelings fade.  So those are the stages of rejection-grief, after which you’re ready to pick up your mouse and carry on.

The good news is that the cycle shortens each time: having seen the rejection email twenty minutes ago I’m already into phase four, a process which used to take weeks.  Phase four is What Now? where you’re able to consider more dispassionately what your next move should be.  For me there’s only one answer to this question and that is to carry on working and make it better.  Don’t go back to the rejected work just yet; put it on one side, and focus on something else to send off.

So, in conclusion (and here’s where I get all upbeat and American) I love rejections because without them I’d never have tried harder.  I’d never have rewritten things and made them better.  It’s probably not an overstatement to say that without rejections I’d never have fulfilled my potential (not that I have, yet; I’m still in the process.)  So in the end that’s what I take from it: those poems will be honed and improved until they are the best they can be and then they will be published.  So there.

Kirk out

Portrait of the Autist as a Young Woman

Sometimes – my memory being short and this blog being long – I have to do a quick search when I’m planning a post to see if I’ve done it before.  But a quick entry into the box brought zero results so we’re on for today’s title, which is of course a parody of James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.’  Before I’d read either I used to confuse it with the Henry James novel ‘Portrait of a Lady’, which could hardly be more different.  But I digress.  Today’s post is linked to my upcoming short story ‘Alien’ (working title) about an alien coming to earth in human shape and trying to fit in.  This is not so much sci-fi as psychological narrative: the experience of being slightly autistic, or feeling that you might be, is analogous to being an alien among humans.

I’d better say at once that I’ve never had a diagnosis of autism, and I’m far from certain that I am actually ‘on the spectrum’; however I did a fairly lengthy test online which indicated that I might have some autistic features.  Be that as it may, if I were to have autistic traits it would certainly explain such things as my total failure in many situations to know what the hell is going on.  It explains the prevalence of so-called ‘tumbleweed moments’ where I say what is on my mind and there’s a prolonged awkward silence. 

In such situations I am reliant on people telling me what I’ve said wrong, otherwise I don’t have a clue – but people mostly don’t want to do that because it’s the social equivalent of breaking the fourth wall; in other words, of shattering the social veneer and admitting what is going on underneath.

At other times it isn’t so much my words as my manner.  Like many a ‘Professor Branestawm’ type I get carried away by subjects sometimes: I get a passionate gleam in my eye; I lean forward and converse animatedly, I go on and on.  It’s much easier for people to get this if you are obviously a geek (which nine times out of ten means being male) but alas, if you’re a woman talking like this to a bloke they’re likely to think it’s a come-on, and this really drives me crazy.  I’ve even had women on occasion think I was coming on to them: and in one case I didn’t find out why I’d lost a friend for ages afterwards.

To summarise: I often find social norms baffling.  Everyone else seems to share a series of assumptions to which I have no access.  When I say something out of line the usual reaction is a tumbleweed moment, and I rarely get anyone to explain to me what I’ve said, though sometimes I figure it out afterwards.  I find all this very difficult.

Should be a good story I think: sometimes I wish I looked more like a geek so people would know what to expect.  But then I wouldn’t be so pretty.  Ho ho.

Perhaps I should get this lovely t-shirt:

Image result for Professor Branestawm

Lazy Carrot t-shirts: image removed on request

Kirk out

My Seven Tips for Better Blogging

One of my recent followers is The Art of Blogging:

https://artofblogging.net

where you can find tips on how to make your blog better; all of which set me thinking, what are my tips on blogging?  Do I even have any?  Is the way I blog personal to me and not relevant to anyone else?  Well, let’s find out.

I began blogging because as a writer I wanted readers – and blogging is an instant way to get them.  In theory.  In theory, you just hit ‘publish’ and your words are out there in the world for all to read.  But blogging is like a miniature version of self-publishing; the publishing’s the easy part: in order to get readers you have to do the marketing.  Which presents me with a problem: I’ve always eschewed self-publishing because frankly the thought of doing all that self-promotion makes me feel a bit faint and then I have to go and have a lie-down.  Nowadays we’re all supposed to be self-promoting, self-starting, self-aggrandising little market forces, and that’s just not me.  And what’s the point of writing if you have to be someone else in order to succeed?  So I guess my first tip is this:

Tip No. 1 – Be Yourself. 

If you don’t know what that is, you’ll find out in the process of doing this stuff, but don’t assume you have to be like others in order to succeed.  You are unique and you have unique and individual things to say.  So whilst you can learn from others, don’t try to be them.  Be you.

Tip No. 2 – Communicate. 

It sounds obvious, but make sure others can understand what you’re saying.  If you’re blogging on a specialist topic don’t use words a lay person wouldn’t know: people have very limited tolerance for looking up words.  As I’m continually telling OH whose main blog can be found at:

https://zerothly.wordpress.com

try to look at it from the reader’s point of view.  Are you being too technical?  Too abstruse?  Too long-winded?  This brings us on to:

Tip No. 3 – Don’t Go On And On.

OH maintains that a post of 2000 words is ‘not too long’: I disagree and aim for around 500.  There’s no set limit but I tend to think that more than 1500 words puts a strain on the reader’s time and attention span.  Remember, you’re competing with 1001 other things on the internet, all demanding time and attention.  Which brings me to:

Tip No. 4 – Make It Worth Their While.

Just because you’re interested in something, doesn’t mean your readers will be.  If you’re describing an experience, make them feel it; if you’re giving instructions make them clear and doable, so they’ve really learnt something.  Nothing is more frustrating than a ‘how-to’ blog which skips important sections or assumes knowledge you don’t have: nothing is more dull than a description of someone else’s holiday which doesn’t take you there.

Tip No. 5  How Often?

When I started blogging I made it a rule to blog every day.  My posts were a lot shorter then; but the every day rule was a daily discipline for me, so that I’d get into the habit.  Nowadays I’m more relaxed and several days can go by without a post.  There’s no hard and fast rule but I think that too much content can weary the reader: you don’t want your followers to be getting too many emails.  On the other hand, if I’ve been absent for more than a week, I tend to find my readers drifting away, so I post something to let them know I’m still here.  There’s no point in posting just for the sake of it, but you don’t want people to forget you – so find a balance which works for you.

Tip No. 6 – Don’t Be Ordinary.

Avoid cliches and everyday phrases; without being contrived, try to think of different ways to describe things.  Depending on the topic, use humour; and if you’re writing about something serious like death or depression or suicide, be helpful.  Don’t leave your reader on a total downer – nobody likes that.

Tip No. 7 – Edit.  Then Edit.  Then Edit.

Don’t just write, finish and hit ‘publish’.  Your readers deserve better; hit the ‘preview’ button and check it through.  Then click on ‘edit’ (I usually bring this up in a new tab so I can check back and forth) and look for errors: it’s amazing how many typos slip past even in a few hundred words.  Then look at how you’ve expressed yourself.  Is it clear?  Does it flow?  Could you substitute a colon or semi-colon for that full-stop?  Are your sentences too long, too short, just right?  Could the vocab be sharpened up?  Does the title hook you in?  What about the first sentence?  Think of it like a newspaper article – you need an attention-grabbing headline and then a really good first paragraph (though as with tags, make it relevant to the article).  None of this means the rest of it doesn’t matter, but hooking people in is half the battle.

Tip No. 8 – Categories, Tags and Sharing

These are the kinds of things you usually get tips on and I’m not an expert on these so I’ll just say this: categories are a means for you and others to understand the areas the blog covers and search it accordingly so think about how to divide up your content in the best way.  As for tags, don’t misrepresent the post.  If there’s nothing about Johnny Depp, don’t put him in a tag just to get more readers: if people want Johnny Depp they can go to other blogs.  Make your tags short, punchy and above all relevant.  For example, when I’ve finished this post I’ll probably put tags like ‘top tips for blogging’ or ‘how to perfect your blog’.  Tags are picked up by search engines and are a really good way of getting accidental readers, so make them count.  As for sharing, social media is a great way to reach more people; I connected my blog to Facebook years ago and got a sharp spike in views.  I’m not on Twitter but if you are, use it: I recommend connecting to any social media platforms you’re on.  You may find readers comment on those sites rather than on the blog itself, which some find annoying; but I tend to think all comments are worthwhile and a basis for engagement.  Which brings us to:

Tip No. 9 – Respond!

When readers take the time and trouble to comment, respond.  If you’re in the fortunate position of having too many comments to reply to, make some general response.  Always thank people for commenting: not every time as that becomes a bit wearisome, but make sure commenters feel listened to and appreciated.  One of the most enjoyable aspects for me is engaging in conversation with readers.

So, turns out I do have some tips for blogging – so please comment below and let me know what you think.  If you like the blog, please click the ‘follow’ button on the bottom right, so you’ll get an email whenever I post.  I cherish my followers – and I will ALWAYS look at your blog when you follow me.

Kirk out

 

 

 

 

There Must Be Dialogue

Sunday viewing in our house is always catching up on ‘Casualty’ (unless we watched it the night before) plus the unmissable ‘Handmaid’s Tale’.  I shall hold off on a review until the end of the series; all I’ll say right now is that its reputation for tense, unpredictable and thrilling drama is by no means exaggerated.  It’s a tribute to the makers that they’ve managed not only to maintain the level of drama of the original story but to build on it and ramp up the tension to an almost unbearable degree.

Meanwhile, since it’s impossible in our house to watch programmes without talking, here’s a smattering of recent conversations.  Incidentally, in my view there’s an optimal level of talking while watching TV: not so much as to interrupt the drama but enough so as not to feel silenced (this level of course varies with the programme: the bar is set quite high with ‘Casualty’ but low with ‘Handmaid’s Tale.’)

So it was that during an outbreak of cystic fibrosis in Holby ED, OH happened to mention, ‘I always think of cystic fibrosis whenever I use our yeast extract.’

Pausing only to grab my phone and record the utterance on Facebook, I continued with the drama, but later saw this ‘explanation’:

‘It’s low-salt and not as spready as Marmite. Reminds me of the higher viscosity of mucus caused by the poor transport of chloride ions across membranes in cystic fibrosis because salt includes chloride ions too.’

Yeah, we’ve all had that thought… he followed it up with this little gem:

‘Why do you think they replaced voiced consonants with the glottal stop? I mean, how did that happen?’

Seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up – unlike ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’; or so we hope, since a defining feature of the drama is that no-one is free to voice their thoughts.  Offred/June has to show her reactions rather than telling them (Elisabeth Moss does this brilliantly) and the wives can no more voice their feelings than the handmaids, being just as much victims in this gruesome drama.  Even the Commander is playing a role and has to indulge any deviant desires in secret: the architects of this hell are in it just as much as its victims.  And unlike ‘Casualty’ where as soon as you see a car you know it’s going to crash, you have absolutely no idea what will happen next.

Three more episodes.  Sunday nights will never be the same…

Oh, and since I haven’t mentioned this before I’ll mention now that I was mentioned in dispatches (ie the Loughborough Echo) along with Baroness Chakrabarti:

No automatic alt text available.

Kirk out

That Wash The Week That Wash

We’ve had some very good drying days of late, so I have got to grips with a backlog of horrendousness which was found lurking in the son’s room.  Normally I take a strict view of washing, having introduced both children to the washing machine at the age of fourteen and then backed off forever: I simply cannot understand parents who allow their grown-up offspring (usually their sons) to return from uni with a pile of washing.  They’d get short shrift from me.  But in this case Son had not only cleared out his room but made strenuous efforts to keep it clear, so I thought I’d pitch in and finish the job.  There’s something quite satisfying about doing several loads of washing if by the time the second lot’s finished, the first lot has flapped about in a strong breeze and fierce sun and is now ready for folding (not that I do fold, not in any real sense of the word.)

Since all that, I am now shocked to discover that it’s been nearly a week since my last post (I can’t help writing that like a confession.)  A week in which I didn’t get the writer-in-residence post in Scotland but did get the loveliest rejection email I’ve ever had; a week in which a story of mine was returned at lightning speed (never a good sign), a week in which early spuds have been dug up, tennis at Queen’s watched (Murray is not in great form though considering he’s had 50 weeks off it’s not surprising) and the local contender to oust Nicky Morgan launched.

I’ll give Nicky Morgan this: she’s ubiquitous.  Any local event you go to, she’s right there – and not just for the photo-op either.  She’s thought of as a good constituency MP, which makes her a hard person to oust – but if we want a change of government (and god knows we do) we have to get rid of her.  So let’s put aside the pleasant manner and the local events and consider Nicky Morgan’s voting record.

Here are just a few of the things she’s voted for (or against):

AGAINST equal rights for gays and lesbians

AGAINST investigations into the Iraq war

AGAINST a right to remain in the UK for EU citizens post-Brexit

AGAINST higher taxes for those earning over £150 K pa

AGAINST a bankers’ bonus tax

FOR more restrictions on Trades Union activity

FOR replacing the Trident nuclear missile system

FOR the Bedroom Tax

FOR a reduction in spending on welfare and benefits

FOR reducing capital gains tax.

I think it’s quite clear where her priorities lie.

In other news, I am now acquiring more material for my next sitcom; a follow-up or possibly a rewrite of ‘Waiting for Theo.’  This morning’s material went like this:

OH: You know about fully-automated luxury gay space communism, right?
Me: What?
OH: (shows me the phrase written down) It’s a thing
Me: But what thing?
OH: It’s basically Iain Banks
Me: Well that tells me nothing. What’s the gay bit about?
OH: It doesn’t mean anything really. It’s just put there because it’s a three-letter word
Me: Oh, for god’s sake! This is getting less clear by the minute!

OH:  All right.  Consider a lesbian automated checkout.

(pause)

OH:  Have you considered it?

Me:  No, but I’m writing THAT down.

And so on – in fact OH could legitimately say like Alan Bennett’s mother (The Lady in the Van), ‘by ‘eck, I’ve given you some script!’  OH really has given me some script too; stuff you couldn’t make up if you sat at your desk for a thousand years – which by coincidence is about how long ago I invented two characters called Ladimir and Oestrogen (a rather clever pun on Vladimir and Estragon, or so I thought).  Here are a couple of examples:

Ladimir:  God!  Three degrees in Edinburgh!

Oestrogen:  What?

L:  Three degrees!

O:  What – temperature?

L:  Of course, temperature!  What else?

O:  Oh, nothing

L:  It’s so foggy

O:  Really?

L:  You can’t see your hand in front of your face!

O:  Wow!  So I guess they’ll be singing when will I see you again?

L:  (groan)

 

Ladimir:  Here you are!  I’ve been looking for you

Oestrogen:  Here I am

L:  what’s this then?

O:  It’s my putting shed

L:  Your putting shed?

O:  Yep.

L:  Not a potting shed?

O:  Do you see any pots?

L:  OK then.  Is it for golf clubs?

O:  No.

L:  Well, what is it for then?

O:  It’s for putting things in.

L:  Oh, I see.  How foolish of me not to realise we were in a written conversation.

 

L:  In Fortran it was ‘right’ and in Basic it was ‘print’

O:  Okaaay…

L:  Fortran was hard.  Everyone learnt Basic

O:  Even I learnt a bit of Basic

L:  Oh?

O:  On my computer programming for morons course

L:  Was it really called that?

O:  No!

L:  Well, they have ‘Computer Programming for Idiots’ and ‘Internet for Dummies’

O:  Well it wasn’t.

L:  You’ll know all about the ‘go to’ problem then?

O:  Go to?  There’s a problem with ‘go to’?  It was the only bloody thing I understood!

L:  It didn’t have an equivalent ‘come from’ function.

O:  Oh, I see.  So it wasn’t quite finished.

L:  No.

O:  You might say it was antiquated

L:  I guess

O:  Even Shakespearian?

L:  Unh?

O:  “Go to, my Lord”.  You know, that sort of thing.

 

And so on… I think our real conversations are better.

Kirk out