A Different Path – first draft completed

Last Sunday I completed the first draft of A Different Path, which I have been calling my semi-autobiographical work in progress. The short video above is me reading an extract from the final chapter.

This is the first novel I have written in a long time, and I’m very excited about it. It’s not finished yet, as it still needs to go through the editing process, but I made it through the first draft, which is a small achievement in itself.

When I say a long time, I mean a long time. It’s been twenty two years since my last novel.

If you enjoy the extract above, you can visit my Facebook page, where you’ll find lots of other video extracts from the novel.

Book Review: Needful Things

Needful Things by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Needful Things is the story of a new shop that opens in a small town in Maine, and the subsequent events that unfold around the customers and the residents of the town as the proprietor of the shop begins to do business.

The setting is Castle Rock, a place many King fans will recognise, and feel at home in. Some of the characters from King’s earlier works make a reappearance, including Ace Merrill (from The Body, a.k.a. Stand by Me), who is one of the main antagonists.

I haven’t read a Stephen King novel for a few years and had forgotten how much I enjoy his work. While I don’t care so much for monsters and spooks, I am a big fan of King’s prose. The way he imbues his characters with amazing depth, giving them wonderful quirks that bring them to life. The short but simple descriptive passages. The suspense.

It’s hard to say what I didn’t like about the book, because it’s down to my own personal taste; as an older man, I admit I now find it more tricky to suspend my disbelief in the supernatural. However, I recognise this, and therefore haven’t let my personal feelings cloud my judgement in this review.

What I loved was the characterisation, especially the main protagonist, Alan Pangborn. The way King shapes him through the course of this novel is truly masterful. I’ll remember that character and his shadow puppets for a long time, if not the rest of my life.

View all my reviews.

What Type of Fiction I Write

Pylons in a rape field near Croston, West Lancashire.

Part two of a three part series on how, what, and why I write fiction.
(Jump to: Part One | Part Three)

Before I thought about writing, I was an avid reader. From a young age I devoured books, both fiction and non-fiction. Like many people of my generation, my childhood was spent reading stories by Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and C.S. Lewis. However, unlike many others, I also liked to read Greek mythology. In our house we had an old set of encyclopaedias which contained adaptations of Homer’s Odyssey. I read them word-for-word, fascinated with the tales of adventure.

As I grew up my tastes changed, and in my teenage years I gravitated towards horror and the supernatural, which was fashionable at the time. I used to borrow these books from my local library, much to the concern of one of the librarians, who wasn’t keen on my taste for this genre at such a tender age. I read lots of books that had accompanying films: Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist. My favourite author of the time was probably Stephen King.

The Horror Years

I started writing in earnest in 1994. I had plenty of free time, and after a run of Stephen King novels (including his epic, The Stand), I felt inspired to try writing myself, just to see if I could do it, and what it felt like to write for pleasure. To my surprise, the words came easily, although whether or not they were any good is another matter.

The first novel I wrote was Augustus O’Kane, a story about a haunted computer. It was around 41,000 words in length, landing in that grey area between full-length novel and novella. I enjoyed the experience of writing and felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment when I completed the project.

Cult was my second attempt at a novel, a tale about a religious cult that carried out human sacrifices in a forest. This was a full-length novel, and once again I found the process of writing easy and enjoyable. I wrote this in 1994, straight after I had finished Augustus O’Kane.

My third novel was Raise the Dead, a story about a trainee priest who discovers his old friend from school is trying to raise the dead from their graves. I wrote this in 1996, with much less time on my hands because I was newly married. The only way I could get through the first draft was by writing late at night or early in the morning when the house was quiet.

The Thriller

Around this time, I was broadening the scope of my taste in books, and had moved away from horror onto thrillers, reading novels by Jeffrey Archer, Wilbur Smith, Michael Crichton and others. It seemed logical at the time that I should try my hand at writing one.

My fourth novel was Deadly Obsession, a tale about a rich man who would stop at nothing to collect archaeological treasures. I wrote this in 1997 and tried a different approach. Instead of just letting the story develop as I wrote, I plotted out each scene in advance, until I had the full plot. This resulted in me having to go back and complete the daunting task of filling out each scene in detail, a plodding and mechanical process that I didn’t enjoy.

Short Stories

I didn’t write for a long time, mainly because I was focused on setting up a consulting business, commuting up and down the country, trying to find new work, etc.

Eventually, the urge to write returned, and I began penning short stories. My wife also enjoys writing, and the two of us would come up with an idea for a story, which we then wrote over the course of a week. When they were finished, we would do a swap and read each other’s work.

Due to my busy lifestyle and also the advent of the Internet, I didn’t spend as much time reading novels, although I had started to read more classics by authors such as Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, Evelyn Waugh, and Leo Tolstoy. (Anna Karenina nearly killed me, but I finished it.)

The stories I wrote during this time seemed more authentic than anything I’d written before, probably because I wasn’t inspired by a particular author or genre. They are contemporary, full of nostalgia with a strong sense of place.

Fifth Novel

I am currently writing my fifth novel, provisionally titled A Different Path. It’s the story of a man in his twenties, single, lacking in confidence and stuck in a rut, who finds his life changes when he meets a well-dressed stranger.

Once again, it’s contemporary, with elements of nostalgia, love, and that same strong sense of place that I enjoy getting across in my writing. I’m reading more novels now, but I haven’t allowed myself to be influenced by other writers or genres.

What works for me

Over the years I have been writing, I have found I produce my best work when I try to be myself and just let the words happen instead of trying to emulate other authors or write for specific genres because they seem to be going through a boom.

Some authors have found great success in following the market and anticipating its trends, and there’s nothing wrong with that approach if it makes the individual writer happy.

How I Write Fiction

Photo by Sneha on Unsplash.

Part one of a three part series on how, what, and why I write fiction.
(Jump to: Part Two | Part Three)

Before diving into the details of how I write, I thought it would be a good idea to share a bit about my writing background and what I have done to-date.

Writing ‘CV’

My first published story was called The Lion Tamer, hence the photo above. I wrote it when I was at primary school, aged ten or eleven, and it ended up being printed in one of the local newspapers. That was a proud moment for me. I wish I still had a copy.

The next piece of fiction I remember writing was the answer paper for my ‘O’ level exam in Modern World History. I was sixteen. I got a ‘U’ for my efforts, which I thought was unfair. It wasn’t historically accurate, but I do think it showed great imagination.

I then took a break of eight years, and read a lot. Nineteen-ninety-four must have been a good year for me creatively. I started writing again and penned a short novel/novella in the first half of that year, then went on to write a full-length novel in the second half.

Over the following four years I wrote two more full length novels, and lots of book reviews for computer industry magazines. Then I took a long break of about ten years where I concentrated on other things.

After that hiatus, I came back and went through a phase of writing short stories for a couple of years, and produced a few that I am still really pleased with. I will occasionally open them and think about that time in my life.

For the next six years, I wrote academically, and focused on completing an Open University degree course, which was something I had always wanted to do. I had no headspace for reading or writing fiction at all during this period.

Three years later, I am writing my fifth novel, and feel more productive and creative than ever. I won’t try to predict the future and prophesy what happens next. That would be foolish. Besides, one of my characters is already doing plenty of that.

My approach

There seem to be two camps of writers: those who research and plot everything out in minute detail before they begin writing, and those who have an idea summed up in one or two sentences which they then drop onto one or more characters.

I’ve tried both approaches over the years, but now sit in the latter camp. If I plot out the whole story, I have little motivation to write it because I know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end. On the other hand, if I have an idea and throw a couple of characters together, I can watch them and the plot develop. I want to carry on writing because I want to know what happens next.

The mechanics

When I’m working through a first draft, I write every day unless there is an unshakeable excuse not to. I set myself a target of seven hundred words, which usually equates to one scene, and try to write it as well as possible.

After that first cut of a scene, I will read it back straight away and fine tune the prose, simplifying and rephrasing things that feel clumsy or unwieldy. Depending on how much writing time I have left in my day, I might do this again, and will usually end each day with a clean piece of writing.

The next day, I repeat the process, writing then polishing another scene. This daily practice continues until I reach the end of the story.

Feedback

At some point, I will ask trusted people to give me feedback. My wife is usually the first person to read what I’ve written. I might do this when I’ve finished the very first chapter, or the first three chapters, or the first part. While I wait for feedback I press on with the writing so I still make my daily number of words.

Depending on the feedback itself and who it’s from, I will then make a decision to either continue, or take a step back and make big changes before proceeding.

My experience in the technology business has conditioned me into getting a ‘Minimum Viable Product’ in front of the end-user as soon as possible. Seeking feedback early allows me to either validate I am going in the right direction, or correct my course before I waste a lot of time and effort.

Do what works

There is no right or wrong approach that can be applied to everyone, but I do believe there is a right approach for a given individual, at a given time.

I do what’s right for me, and as long as it seems to work, I’ll keep doing it.

Feelings of Nostalgia During Lockdown

Searching this phrase turns up some interesting results on Google. I’m not the only one feeling nostalgic at the moment. Lockdown is having a big effect on people, creating mental space for reflection, and for many, nostalgia is proving to be an effective coping mechanism as we try to process the daily death tolls.

Hay-on-Wye, 2019.

I’ve always enjoyed the experience of nostalgia. That bittersweet feeling of happy memories mixed with a sense of time lost forever. When the UK went into lockdown at the end of March, it didn’t take me long to start losing myself in daydreams about the past.

It all started when I had to write a few simple Java programs to help me understand a technical issue I was having at work. I haven’t been a programmer for many years, and writing code again felt very therapeutic. It reminded me of my younger self, my first computer, my first job, the old Apricot Xen I used at the office back then, and of course the freedom I enjoyed from earning my own money.

Lots of memories from that time started coming back to me, probably because my mind had room to wander instead of worrying whether the Central Line was running, or whether my train would leave Euston on time come Thursday afternoon.

Lockdown has been easing for a few weeks now in the UK, but my feelings of nostalgia haven’t.

Some of my memories have been so powerful I wanted to record them, so I started writing a semi-autobiographical story. A scene I wrote recently was a simple recollection of my weekly trips out to a local branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the friends I went with. I was surprised at how much detail I could recall when I thought about it. I could remember snippets of conversation, songs on the car stereo, my friends singing along to evocative tunes from my youth.

A day after writing the scene I was driving to my first riding lesson in nearly ten weeks when my iPhone decided to shuffle play The Boy With The Thorn in His Side by The Smiths. So many emotions hit me at once. I burst into tears.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It can make us happy, but at the same time make us sad. That’s what makes it so special. It’s not just the act of reminiscing, it’s a feeling, an experience in itself. Definitely something worth bottling.

Morning Pages

A couple of years ago I read a book called Gravitas, by Caroline Goyder. I read mostly on the Virgin train travelling from Wigan to Glasgow on a Monday morning. I was always happy when I could get a seat to myself and spread out, relax without worrying the person next to me would want to squeeze past to visit the loo. (I always book aisle seats.)

Early morning, Kensington High Street, London.

One concept that really stood out in the book was something called Morning Pages. As soon as I read about it, I closed the Kindle App, launched Notes and started writing my very first Morning Page.

It’s very simple. You write for five minutes, anything that comes into your head. Then stop.

Julia Cameron first came up with the idea of Morning Pages. Lots of other people have written about it since. Tim Ferriss has written about it, and calls it Journalling. About the practice, he says “What I needed was a daily and meditative practice of production, like the tea ceremony.”

I enjoyed the process, and eventually tried again, but this time I did it in the evening – making it an Evening Page, as it were. Then my enthusiasm waned and a month went by before I did another. I continued in this similar sporadic fashion until I had five in total, spanning about eighteen months. After that I didn’t do any for another year.

Recently, I started again, but this time wanted to do it in a more planned way as part of my morning routine, which is already pretty ingrained. Every morning, one of the first things I now do is spend five minutes writing a Morning Page.

What to write about

It doesn’t matter what you write about, as long as you write something, continuously for five minutes. I just start writing about whatever is on my mind the instant I open my note-taking app. Some days it will be a frustration hanging around from the previous day, other days it will be a hope for the day to come.

For example, my first Morning Page after the long break was about an impending meeting that appeared in my work calendar. It looked vague and sinister and my mind immediately began conjuring up negative thoughts that had to be exorcised. Of course, the meeting was nothing to worry about in the end.

Has it helped me?

I haven’t been practicing with Morning Pages for long, but already I can see some benefits. My mind feels lighter, and my focus clearer. It’s a sort of purging experience, getting your thoughts out first thing in the morning. A kind of morning ablution.

Since I started I have felt much more productive, and more able to concentrate on what I want/need to get done that day. I procrastinate less, achieve more, and actually feel more content and satisfied.

Morning Pages are so easy to do, and take up so little time, so just get started and try it. It’s worth getting up five minutes earlier so you can fit it into your day.

How it Really Feels to Shave Your Head

Spoiler: it’s amazing!

Back in March, just before the UK announced it was going into lockdown, I buzzed all the hair off my head. Two months later, I’m still sporting the buzzed/shaved/bald look, and loving it. Here, I’m going to address some of the doubts other guys may have when they are thinking of embarking on the same journey.

Since March 2020, I’ve looked something like this. In this picture my hair is just under 1mm.

First of all, let me set out where I was before I decided to buzz. My hair was definitely receding. I had a great barber who was doing a brave job of concealing it, but looking back it was pretty obvious that I was losing my hair. It wasn’t horrendous, but it was receding at the temples, and I had that vast expanse of forehead that was barely being hidden under a French crop.

It’s very distressing to go through the hair loss process. It knocks your confidence in so many ways. Trying different things to conceal or reverse it just compounds the problem.

The Big Buzz – An Immediate Improvement

When I first buzzed my hair I could immediately see an improvement in the way I looked. My wife took a few days to get used to ‘the new me’, but I felt better almost straight away. Words that kept coming to mind were ‘neat’, ‘tidy’, and ‘smart’.

I like to keep myself fit, and I was delighted to notice that somehow having no hair on my head also seemed to make me look more toned and muscular. I have no idea how that can be, other than perhaps making my head seem smaller.

Out of interest I started doing some Google searches so I could read about the experiences others guys have had. There are some great articles around with descriptions that mirror my own first-hand experience. I felt the same tremendous sense of relief that the worry was over for me. I had found a look I was happy with. My hair loss no longer mattered.

Mirror, Mirror …

For a few days, every time I walked past a mirror I would get a bit of a shock if I forgot about my hair, but after a proper look I always preferred the new me.

I started spending more time in front of the mirror, moisturising and taking a bit more care of my skin. I’m not sure whether it was the enhanced beauty regime or the simple fact that a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, but I started visibly looking younger.

Instead of frowning into the mirror and seeing nothing but a receding, thinning hairline, I was now seeing a good-looking man. My eyes were wider and less tired, my jaw was strong, and my cheekbones were chiselled. My thin, wispy hair had been preventing me from seeing all these positives for years.

Venturing Out

My first trip out was to my local supermarket to buy essentials during the COVID-19 crisis. It was early days and we weren’t yet in full lockdown, but everyone was starting to get nervous so the shop was pretty quiet which suited me while I took my first tentative steps.

One of the first people I saw was a woman who worked at the supermarket. What I’m about to describe probably happened because I was studying her closely to try to read what she made of my new look, but while stacking baskets in the shop she actually struck up a short conversation with me, and I got the distinct impression she approved of what she saw. The reality of course is that she had never seen me before, and this was just her response to a guy who seemed to be checking her out!

Two days later, the same thing happened a couple more times with women in a different supermarket. All of this gave me an extra confidence boost on top of what I’d already enjoyed after the big buzz.

Now, before you write me off as an egotistical w***er, know this: I’m useless at flirting, have never been a player, and most of the time wouldn’t have a clue if a woman was attracted to me unless she wrote it on a Post-It and stuck it to my chest.

With Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain

As a guy with thinning, receding hair I hated the weather. After spending time carefully arranging my hair, I would step out of the door and a puff of wind would destroy my efforts in a second.

So far we’ve had an amazing spring in the UK and I’ve yet to feel rain on my bald head, but the first time I encountered wind without hair was a wonderful experience. Instead of that horrible whipping, flapping sensation, I had the lovely feeling of the air whooshing over my scalp, and didn’t have to worry about my hair being messed up.

This sounds like such a trivial thing but believe me the sense of relief was amazing.

Phantom Bangs

I’ve heard about people who have lost limbs experiencing phantom pains or itches, but I never knew people could also feel phantom hair falling out of place.

Prior to buzzing, because my hair was receding and thinning at the front I would often run my fingers through it to make sure it was in place on my forehead, and providing some even coverage. For a couple of weeks after buzzing, I kept doing this move even though there was no longer any hair to fiddle with.

Every time I did it I would catch myself and smile. No need to do that any more. My ‘hair’ was now perfectly in place. All the time. Forever.

Shaving – The Final Frontier

After initially letting it grow out to a ‘number two’ (6mm), I bought myself some new Remington hair clippers and trimmed my hair gradually shorter. First I went back down to ‘number one’ (3mm), then I dropped to 2mm, then 1.5mm, then 1mm, which was the limit of the clippers, but also my favourite length. After a few weeks, I decided to go all the way and shave skin-close with a safety razor just to see how it looked.

I liked the result, but wasn’t convinced the extra effort and discomfort was worth it. I nicked myself with the razor while shaving and the whole thing took way too much time. I swore to stick with 1mm from then on.

About three weeks later, I found my old beard trimmer/shaver and decided to try shaving my head using the foil on that. The experience was much more comfortable and I got a really good finish, but it still took a lot of time. Two weeks later, when I tried again it was perhaps a bit quicker, but I suffered some mild irritation afterwards.

To Shave or Buzz, That is the Question

Getting a super-smooth finish isn’t really high on my list of priorities, and I actually prefer the feel of my head the day after shaving skin-close. It feels great for another three or four days until it grows back to about 2mm, at which point I want to buzz it off again.

Looking at it from that perspective, shaving is beneficial because I don’t need to do it as often. However, the extra time it takes and the discomfort involved means it’s not a clear hands-down win for shaving.

One thing is for sure: I will never go back to the old self-conscious me that was trying to hide his hair loss, terrified to go out in the wind. There is absolutely no question of that.

I’ll end by saying I wish I’d buzzed seven years ago when I first started noticing my thinning hair. Battling on for so long was a losing game and I wasn’t fooling anyone but myself.

This is the first time I’ve written such a personal post, and I feel a bit exposed putting it out there. However, if this helps just one other guy make a tough decision, I’ll be a happy man.

Computers used in the Classic Dallas TV Series

Ewing Oil Computerised in 1982

JRsFirstComputer

Earlier this year I began watching the classic TV series, Dallas, which ran from 1978 to 1991. I don’t recall what made me look, but I discovered all 357 episodes on Apple TV, and committed myself to a new daily routine of watching one over breakfast each day.

During the first five seasons, the appearance of a computer on the show was very rare. Season five saw a Tandy TRS 80 Model III appear briefly on top of a hospital filing cabinet, but I don’t remember spotting any others. (Maybe this is a great excuse for me to watch them all again sometime?)

As some point in 1982, Ewing Oil was obviously computerised, as computers begin making a regular appearance on the show. JR, Bobby and their secretaries all started using shiny new NEC PC-8001As, as seen in the photograph above, which is a screen grab from Season 6, Episode 9, “Fringe Benefits”, where JR can be seen flicking through a manual and using one finger to randomly press keys just before he receives a visit from his rival Cliff Barnes who has just purchased a refinery that JR himself wanted to buy.

Ewing Oil used Home Computers for Business!

It took me a long time and lots of Google searches to discover what these computers were, because I didn’t have much to go on other than a few seconds of footage. I tried searching for early 80s PC clones, dumb terminals, minicomputer terminals, you name it. Eventually I stumbled across the image I was looking for.

NECPC8001

There was no mistaking the unique combination of dark key surround, separate numeric keypad, the row of five function keys, and those two sets of vents at the back.

The PC-8001 was actually marketed as a home computer, so it’s interesting how someone at Ewing Oil decided to deploy them for business use. I’m not sure whether old Jock Ewing would have approved of that. They had just 16KB of RAM, could display 8 colours, and ran N-BASIC which was a variant of Microsoft Disk-BASIC. Optionally, the CP/M operating system was also available. Back in 1981 this machine cost $1,295, which in today’s money is around $3,857. You could buy a pretty amazing PC for that amount in 2020.

Business Applications

Unless Ewing Oil hired a consultant to develop some bespoke business software in N-BASIC, they were probably using a packaged application available for CP/M, which means they paid extra for the optional CP/M operating system. They could afford it!

There were several off-the-shelf CP/M applications such as WordStar, word-processing software which cost $445 (including the manual) in 1979. Although it was more likely JR was getting to grips with the sister product CalcStar,  spreadsheet software he could use to quickly calculate how much money he was making on a deal. Then again, maybe he was using InfoStar/DataStar to computerise his rolodex so he could call the Cattleman’s Club himself instead of getting Sly to do it every time.

Evolution of IT in Ewing Oil

As the show rolls on through the 80s I’m expecting to see a change in the computers being used. I suspect PC clones will start to make regular appearances. Maybe the Apple IIe will feature too, or the Lisa or the Macintosh. Who knows, maybe JR and Bobby will be super innovative and invest in some NeXT Computer workstations?

My next task is to figure out what computer Cliff Barnes has in the corner of his new office at Barnes Wentworth…

This is all making me feel very nostalgic for the early days of my IT career.

Thoughts on Hair

I realised I needed a haircut.

APC_1466

A few days ago just before the UK went into a lockdown, I realised I needed a haircut. My barber had closed to limit spread of the Coronavirus, so I decided to take responsibility, and actioned a DIY buzzcut. This was something I had always wanted to try but I never had the guts due to the client-facing nature of my work. Facing weeks of working from home, I decided it was now or never. This was my opportunity.

As hair fell to the ground on Sunday morning, 22nd March, I was worried. The only clippers I had to hand were actually a combined beard trimmer and shaver. Would it be up to the job of cutting head hair? Did I know enough about hair cutting to actually get through the amount of hair on my head? Would I look awful when the deed was done? These were my main concerns as the clippers buzzed and worked in my hand. However, as the finished look began to emerge I started to feel pretty good.

I have enjoyed a genuine boost in confidence.

For a few days I had a shock every time I walked past a mirror, but I now really like my new look. My hair was past its best anyway, and no longer having to worry about styling it is incredibly liberating. Unexpectedly, I have enjoyed a genuine boost in confidence.

I have yet to go “out” out, and be seen in public places like pubs, bars and restaurants. They are obviously all closed at the moment. My work colleagues have also yet to experience The Big Reveal, whereupon I expect to enjoy some friendly teasing.

Will I have decided to grow it back by the the time normal life resumes? Or will I still be embracing this bald bold new look?

As with everything in life at the moment, I’ll take each day as it comes. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, and it’s hard to look beyond a horizon of a few days.