My recent adventures with short stories

I have been writing a lot of short stories lately. I hadn’t written one for ages, I think the last one I wrote was the first one I sold and that was in 2007. My novel took up all of my time since then but recently I decided to take a break from it (there is still a little more to do on it but I needed to get away from it for a little while) and write some shorts. A collection of short stories by Magnus Mills, a thoughtful birthday gift from my wife, inspired me to just get on with it and have fun writing something new.

I had a lot of ideas in a short space of time, all of which got scrawled in my notebook, and I have been slowly working my way through the ideas, writing them out and seeing what happens. There have been two things that have helped me to write these stories down relatively quickly. One is when I am not sure what to type I just skip ahead in the story until I am. I have, up to now, always been a strictly chronological writer. But Kerry caught me staring at the computer screen for longer than about five minutes and demanded I just jump ahead and write a bit I was more sure of. Brilliant advice as it turns out. With that story I ended up writing the beginning, then the end, and then filling it out afterwards, stitching it together as I went.

The other is nothing new, when I wasn’t sure how to say what I was trying to say I just said it any old way and then fixed it later. It is amazing how you can struggle to phrase something one day and then the next see the solution so clearly it was a wonder it ever seemed hard. When I first started writing I had this terrible habit of wanting every sentence to be finished as I was writing it. As a consequence I wrote very little, and drove myself mad re-writing the same thing over and over again. Now I think of first drafts the way painters approach a canvas. Those early splashes of colour only look vaguely like the thing they are supposed to be, but the picture reveals itself with refinement. And in fiction terms there is something refreshing about writing that feels like it has flowed rapidly. It feels more conversational, less laboured.

I have even been writing some of them long hand in my notebook. I’m not sure why it happens but my writing almost has a different flavour when it is written that way. Plus I have the added fun of, from time to time, listening to Kerry attempt to read it. My handwriting is so dreadful that when she reads it aloud she sounds like a five years old reading from a children’s book, stumbling over the words, and occasionally getting them wrong. Admittedly, my handwriting is so bad I find the exact same thing happens to me sometimes.

Another awkward scenario

On Friday I was walking from the train station to the supermarket via the shopping center and I saw an old school friend coming the other way. When we were at school we were good friends but in the intervening years we lost touch entirely. The only time I have seen him since was once a few years ago which resulted in a very awkward, stilted conversation. Seeing him walking towards me made me worry that I was heading for another awkward, stilted conversation. I immediately began weighing up my options, and saw that I had precious few. I could not take a turn as there were no turnings between us. I could not go into a shop as they were all closed. I could not turn around and walk back the way I had come as that would be a ridiculous thing to do.

I had one final option open to me. I could, as I have done in similar situations in the past, wait until we were reasonably close and then feign receiving a text message on my phone. A text message so absorbing and urgent and interesting that my attention was now solely directed at it and the world and all the people in it had become invisible to me.

But then I decided not to do that. These awkward situations keep cropping up and I wondered if maybe it was time to start facing up to them. In the same way that I am trying to be a better public speaker by actually speaking in public rather than becoming frustratingly mute or saying something woefully ridiculous, as has been my way for too long, I decided the right thing to do would be acknowledge him. Smile, maybe say hello. Stop and talk if that seemed the right thing to do. I would say normal things that normal people say when they encounter an old friend they haven’t seen for a very long time. I would not hide behind the thin facade of a fascinating text message.

But then as we drew close to each other he pulled out his mobile phone and didn’t seem to notice me at all.

Zero: the biography

Last year one of the most enjoyable things I saw on television was a show called Campus. Given how little television I watch (Match of the Day and, shockingly (and admittedly only very occasionally) Deal or No Deal) the fact that I consider this show to be one of the best might not seem to have any weight to it, but I honestly think it ranks very highly. Not quite as highly as Match of the Day, slightly higher than Deal or No Deal. No seriously, it was really very good. I was shocked (not literally shocked, shocked in that mildly indignant manner of someone writing a letter of complaint to Points of View) to discover that it might not be getting a second series. Viewing figures dwindled to an alarmingly low half a million. This is of course indicative of the decline of intelligent comedy and the human race as a whole. First no Campus second season, then no bees, then no us.

I’m rambling. The reason I mention Campus at all is one of the characters in it, the unexpectedly sexy math’s professor Imogen Moffat, had written a book about Zero. Every time the book was mentioned I thought about how much I want to read a book about zero. But of course this was an entirely fictitious book so the best I could do would be to imagine what it would have been like and pretend to read it in my mind. That is until I discovered Zero: the biography. A book which, as far as my fervent imaginings went, was essentially Miss Moffat’s fictitious book. I bought the audiobook version because I was desperate for something long and interesting to listen to at work on those long days when I am alone in a laboratory for seven and a half hours.

Zero begins with an historical account of the concept of zero, as well as the origins of the number and its place in mathematics. It then goes on to explain all the weird things that happen to maths when zero – and it’s twin infinity – become involved. The maths branches off into physics as that is where the practical applications, and alarmingly impractical side effects, of zero are to be found. The actual maths involved in the book is fairly easy to follow. The fundamental mathematical rule at play is that any number multiplied by zero is zero. A rule I can remember learning in school and that from then on had no impact on my life at all. The implications of this are then explored with tangible real-world examples used.

The journey of zero covers mathematical history, passes through philosophy and ends at physics but covers a huge amount of ground in between. The outcome of zero appearing in otherwise innocuous equations can be a little mind-bending with seemingly illogical conclusions arriving from perfectly logical processes but it is all explained with a manageable vernacular that allowed me to understand, even if I didn’t really understand.

Football books

Popped out for a walk this afternoon and accidentally ended up in the book shop. Now my pile of books to be read has increased by two and, as so often happens, they have rudely jumped the queue and landed on top. One of the books I bought is Inverting the Pyramid. I had been looking for a book that talks intelligently about football strategy for a while. My assertion that football is as intriguing and fascinating a game as chess tends not to be taken too seriously by people perhaps more familiar with this view of football players.

Another football book I enjoyed was Why England Lose, essentially an economists guide to football. I know that sounds very dull, and to be honest some sections of the book were as dull as it might sound, but it had one absolutely brilliant chapter. A full analysis of a single penalty shoot-out that covered statistical analysis of the players penalty taking habits and an account of some incredible mind-games. A lot of football books don’t excite me, I’m not really interested in the players and all the jazz that surrounds them. I have a long standing love of the strategies and tactics that are employed in games though and so I really like books like these and have done ever since I read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War with a very nerdy card as my frame of reference. Reading is really the only way I can indulge in this particular interest as most other football fans I know are just not interested in talking about it in this way. Sadly I have a habit of taking this masculine, physical sport and making it sound really, really boring.