Saturday 13 February 2010

Valentine's Day

So, friends, it would appear that yet again, Valentine's Day has crept among us, ready to suffocate both the single and attached alike under a deluge of tacky presents, cuddly toys and sickly chocolates. I may sound cynical or thoroughly unimpressed by the entire debacle, but for once, it is not because the day simply reminds me of the desolation of being single. This year, I am not single. No, I am cynical and unimpressed because of the mass consumerism engendered by a day which should be about romance, spontaneity and love.

I celebrated Valentine's Day with my boyfriend on 2 February. This was partly to do with scheduling conflicts, but also because we don't really like to do what is expected. We're awkward that way. Hence the reason why I made him a card. That's right, I made it. I combined my knitting skills with my love of making things and ended up with a pretty spiffy item. It's unique, and the time and effort I put into it is a much better indicator of my affections than how much I might spend on something. I could have bought the most beautiful card in the world, but where is the imagination and thought in that?

So, if you're lucky enough to have a partner for Valentine's Day, here's my top three ways to celebrate.
  1. Make each other cards. They don't have to be soppy or sentimental - in fact, the funnier the better. Laughter should be a key part of every relationship, and the effort involved in making cards demonstrates how much you care. Anyone can spend money, but not everyone is willing to spend time.
  2. Buy presents, but don't go for the usual crap. Really put thought into it. Ignore what the shops tell you to buy, and get them something that you actually think they'll like. For example, how about a book by their favourite author, or those shoes/that video game they've been putting off buying due to the cost? Treat them.
  3. Go out for dinner, but go somewhere fun. Ignore all the romantic schmaltzy toss that is available around this time of year. Choose somewhere unusual, or different. Again, put thought into it, and concentrate on enjoying each other's company as opposed to putting on a front of romance just because that's what you're expected to do.
But what if you don't have a partner? You can still celebrate the sentiment behind the day. Remember that the Nuremberg Chronicles of 1493 describe St Valentine as being a Roman priest who was caught marrying Christian couples (and generally aiding Christians) at a time when Christians were being massively persecuted by Rome. He was beaten and stoned, but eventually beheaded. Really romantic, huh? So here's my top three ways to celebrate this altruistic saint.
  1. Donate time or money to a cause you strongly believe in. St Valentine risked death by sticking to his principles - the least you can do is go shopping in Oxfam.
  2. Organise a night out with your very best friends. Love comes in many forms, and simply being around people you care about is often the best reminder of that age-old adage, love is all around.
  3. Buy a pet. Make sure you'll be able to care for it, and tend its needs - a dog/cat/rabbit/hamster etc. is for life! Though if you do get one and look after it properly, it'll love you unconditionally! A dog certainly won't care if you forgot to brush your teeth, or haven't had time to get your roots done. It'll love you regardless.
Let me know how you all get on....

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Why Spinning Is Like Writing

Some of you may know that I'm a keen knitter. Many a story problem has been resolved after I've mulled it over during a knitting session, letting my unconscious tackle the issue while my conscious mind focuses on lace or cables. I've been knitting for over a year now, and I thoroughly recommend it as a useful pasttime. It's relaxing (until you realise you've misread the pattern and purled where you should have knitted), it's portable, and it produces an end-product. Much like writing, really. Both require minimal materials (two sticks and string allows you to knit, and you just need something to write both with and on to write) and both require a combination of your left and right brain.

Anyway. I had a go at spinning last night. No, not the exercise, but the rather ancient craft of turning raw wool into something approaching yarn. A friend of mine is a member of the Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Hand Dyers and she kindly agreed to do a spinning class for the knitting group I go to. We had a go with hand spindles, as well as a spinning wheel, and the only conclusions I can really draw are that; a) spinning is a lot harder than it looks, and b) it requires the sort of hand-eye co-ordination you'd normally expect from a ninja.

Still, it was fun to try something new, and while I was trying to remember to let the twist in AFTER I'd stretched the roving, I thought about how spinning is actually very akin to writing. (See? This is the blog of a writer. I knew I'd get writing in here somehow) Your initial process of spinning is like writing a first draft. You take raw words/roving, and spin them out into a continual story/yarn. You tease and twist, stretch and spin, trying to craft something you can use. Though even when your roving has run out and your spindle is full, you're not done. Just as spun wool must be plied, washed and snapped before it can be knitted, a story needs to be honed and polished before it's ready for the light of day.

It's this last part that I struggle so much with. Once I've written something, I want people to read it. I want it to be acknowledged, digested and understood. I still can't grasp the notion that a story needs to be put away and allowed to 'mature' before I can re-read it and spot the glaring errors. I think I'm too impatient for my own good...but there's always that little voice in the back of my head going "Well it has to go public sometime!"

How about you? Are there any crafts you do to help with writing? And how long do you leave stories to mature?

(NB: The image I used for this post is actually one of my own - it's a spinning wheel I found on a staircase at Chillingham Castle, Northumberland)

Sunday 7 February 2010


On 5 February, I wrote an entry about the power of books, inspired by The Book of Eli. Today I want to write about something else, inspired by the same film - the post-apocalyptic trend in fiction.

Back on 21 January, I wrote an entry about The Road. Films often reflect the world or society that produces them, which is what makes film studies such a natural companion to social history. Horror in particular often gives greater clues to the state of a nation's mindset than any other genre, casting that society's villains as the celluloid boogeymen. Therefore it's hardly surprising, in this rapidly disintegrating world, that we'd have two films within days of each other set in post-apocalyptic versions of America.

In both cases, our protagonists have the goals of travelling from one point to another, and the journey itself because almost as important as the destination. Indeed, in both films, a far greater portion of the running time is devoted to the journey than it is to backstory, or the destination itself. Think of it as a sort of 'It's not where you're going, it's how you get there that counts' kind of idea. Both visions of this future have their similarities and differences, but they got me thinking about the different kinds of post-apocalyptic worlds.

  • Apocalyptic plague - Zombieland, and other films of a similar ilk, showed us a world overrun by the living dead. The apocalypse has been a bloody one, as zombies feast on humans, and humans have to use their few remaining wits to stay alive. Even I Am Legend dips a toe into this territory.
  • Man's basest nature takes over - Mad Max went for the lawless future where whoever owns the fuel holds the upper hand. The Book of Eli strays close to this territory, although water becomes the rare commodity, and the owner of the water gets the power. All pretence to civilisation falls away in a race for the survival of the fittest. Darwin is apparently proved right.
  • It's the end of the world as we know it - The Road or The Quiet Earth show us an empty, desolate world, with protagonists struggling to maintain their humanity as the things that humans take for granted wither away. Cue sweeping shots of barren landscapes, or empty cities. The Book of Eli would also fall into this category.

There is some truly remarkable post-apocalyptic fiction being produced at the moment, both on screen and on paper. Stephen King's The Stand is one of the best epics, dealing with the world reeling from the aftermath of a viral epidemic, while Max Brooks' World War Z gives us multiple accounts of a zombie apocalypse, told by the survivors. Even the young adult category is getting its own apocalypse survival story, if you consider Twenty Years Later, the forthcoming work by promising new writer, Emma Newman.

Thing is, I have to admit, I'm less interested in what happens after the apocalypse - I want to know about the apocalypse itself. How did it happen? Was it man-made, or divine retribution? Or simply an accident, a quirk of nature? It's not often you get to write Armageddon, but I certainly enjoyed doing so when I wrote Checkmate!

What do you prefer? The apocalypse, or what comes after?