Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Monthly Archives: July 2012

Lizzie Armitstead took up cycling to get off maths

I have just googled “Lizzie Armitstead”.  I got 76,000 hits.  I then googled “Gauss”, and got 16,400,000.  Euler: 18,000,000.  Pythagoras: 6,210,000.  Isaac Newton: 3,970,000.  Leibniz: 10,700,000.  Fermat: 4,370,000.  Let’s try something a bit more specific.  Maclaurin series: 514,000.  Bessel function: 1,230,000.  Boolean algebra: 1,140,000.  Turing machine: 2,090,000. 

Ms Armitstead’s bicycle is made of alloys and (probably synthetic) polymers.  Leaving aside the complexities of mining engineering and commodities markets, the manufacture of the alloy components requires accurate temperature measurement and thermostasis, using three-term control, with differential and integral terms.  The manufacture of the polymers will almost certainly have been modelled in order to get the conditions right to achieve the right range of relative molecular mass and tacticity.  This would have engaged thermodynamics and statistical mechanics which are both branches of applied maths used by physicists, chemists, and materials scientists. 

You do not “get off” maths when you become an Olympic cyclist.  Rather, you get on it.  It is the choice of the individual concerned how much or how little of the underlying intellectual achievement he or she wishes to learn about.

What makes women happy

One of Jane’s friends asked me this evening if I could go for a drink with her partner, for the purpose of informing him about what makes women happy.  This is one of the greatest compliments I have ever been paid, but it prompts the practical question, “What makes women happy?”


The following guide presumes a heterosexual relationship between a man, adopting a primarily masculine role, and a woman, adopting a primarily feminine role. 

  1. Women crave attention.  Broker this.  Attention is a precious commodity.  If (like me) you are the sort of man who can’t give attention to another person for an unlimited amount of time, then work out, in an articulate manner, when and how it will happen.  This links to our recurring theme, which is communications. 
  2. Stick to your agreements.  Don’t say one thing and do another. 
  3. Women crave physical contact.  Get her to lie down, in a comfortable position.  Take her clothes off.  Stroke her limbs.  Stroke her neck.  Stroke her shoulders.  Stroke her inner thighs.  Don’t stop there.
  4. Work out a monthly budget which means that you are not going to be thrown out into the street, no matter what happens.  
  5. Within the constraints of that monthly budget, save up for some extravagances.  Book some spa days.  Buy some champagne.  Don’t be afraid of buying things that to you seem completely frivolous and useless.  If your partner likes jewelry, find out what kind of jewelry (buying gold instead of silver, for example, could easily be fatal).  Buy her some of it, preferably for no apparent reason.
  6. The same with flowers.  Find out what kind of flowers your partner likes.  Buy them for no particular reason.  Do not buy them as an apology: associate flowers with sponteneity and good times, not saying sorry.  If you need to apologise for something, just apologise.  Better still, work on whatever it was that you needed to apologise for, and stop doing it. 
  7. Share your feelings.  That sounds like a cliché, but it is true.  If you are the sort of man who finds talking about emotional subjects difficult, then it is something that you need to work at, and, the sooner you start,  the sooner you will get some benefit from doing it.  One of the easiest ways to destroy a relationship without really trying is to leave the discussion of any important issue until the point where both of you are angry or depressed about it.  Talking about things is exactly like housework in the sense that, no matter how much some of us hate doing it, the more regularly you do it, the less time and effort it takes. 
  8. Don’t use a busy and stressful job as an excuse for lack of communication and never being there.  Even if you can’t be at home, stay in communication as much as possible.  In this age of smart phones, there is no excuse for not communicating, even if you are working hundreds of miles from home.  Earning a salary only does any good if you get time to spend it. 
  9. Having said that, don’t use a mobile phone as either a tracking device, or a means of having a row.  Text messages should be confined to “We need bread and toilet paper”, “I’m going to be 20 minutes late”, or something positive, constructive, and warm.  Flirtation and lasciviousness via text message is fine, but analysis, criticism and argument are not. 

The Fiction Desk

I have had a story accepted for publication in the next anthology from The Fiction Desk.  The story is called ‘Can We Have You All Sitting Down, Please?’  and is an exercise in the style of Raymond Carver. 

I don’t have a publication date yet, nor the title of the anthology. 

I am delighted by this, because I have been specifically chasing acceptance by The Fiction Desk.  It has taken me five attempts, which I think represents a reasonable demonstration of the “business” aspect of writing (what Arnold Bennett called “fixity of purpose”) but without seeming hopeless. 

The next merchant ship in the cross-hairs of my periscope is Unthology. 




How I write 2: characterisation

As an emerging writer, I know there are certain disciplines that I have yet to master, the most important and obvious being structure.  But, as regards characterisation, I can speak as an accomplished practitioner.  This is partly because I am a self-conscious weirdo who was brought up by un-self-conscious weirdoes. 

I definitely agree with the adage that character is plot.  Once I have fully formed a character, all I have to do is to make him or her go into a coffee shop, and I have got the starting point for a story. 

You can use questions to help to draw out characters.  Which questions are the more useful will depend on what kind of character you are trying to create.  The questions you might ask of a 17th century puritan pamphleteer will be different from those relevant to a 21st century call centre worker.   Here are a selection about character X.  This list is intended as a hypothesis.  You can think of your own questions.  For the main protagonist in a novel, I would expect the writer to be able to answer 40 or 50 such questions. 

  1. If the house caught fire, what would X grab before fleeing the building?
  2. If X won a million pounds, what would he/she spend it on?
  3. If you were with X in a pub and somebody punched you, what would X do?
  4. If the phone rang in the middle of dinner, would X answer it?
  5. If I took X out for dinner and said, “tonight, money is no object,” would X feel anxious?
  6. How often does X travel abroad?
  7. What is X’s worst regret?
  8. What does X consider to be his/her greatest achievement?
  9. If you wanted to irritate the hell out of X in less than 5 minutes, what would you do?
  10. If X were to propose marriage to some-one, where and how would he/she do it?
  11. Who would be the likeliest person to officiate at X’s funeral?
  12. In the fridge or cupboard, what, if anything, does X never run out of?
  13. If you locked X in a cell for 4 weeks and told him/her that he/she could take one thing (other than a PC or mobile phone) in with him/her, what would it be?
  14. What would make X jump up and down with excitement?
  15. Does X read books?  Does X read the last few pages to find out what happens before embarking on the rest of the narrative?
  16. What is X’s favourite novel/play/film?
  17. At what age did X first have sex? 
  18. What does X think about children?
  19. Does X have any addictions?
  20. What subject does X know most about?

The best characters come almost fully-formed out of your subconscious.  However, like everything else in writing, what starts as a weak characterisation can be made stronger by working on it.  One of my favourite experiences in writing, one that only happens rarely, is when a character arrives at the door and demands to be let in.