When drafting potential stories for this year’s Advent Ghosts post, I came up with two which I liked for rather entirely different reasons. I’ve normally archived the runner-ups, but I thought I might post both this time. I hope you don’t mind.
As with previous years, these are 100-word stories with at least a slight nod to the tradition of telling a scary story or two on Christmas Eve.
They Don’t Keep Christmas
The Drakonid starcruiser exited hyperspace at the broadcast’s origin, weapons bristling, sensor gain up full, ready for anything. A thousand battlewhelps lay poised in swarmpods, ready to cut the foe from the skies.
A full minute later, the shipguide declared the humans already gone. Mission failure. No appeasing the Overdrake today.
“Sirs, we have something,” Commander Gor said.
The admiralty turned as one, saw the radar return pulse on the viewscreen. Scan suggested an inert panel, creased cellulose. Or a trap. A reluctant drone drew close to scan an image.
The declaration of war took only two words.
My phone buzzes. Marketing strategy by morning. More suckers clicking on ads. Easy.
Pavlov’s dog: Deterministic, rational.
I pull my scarf tight, rejoin the hustle. Cross Eighth, regretting the heels. Should have gone pumps. Don’t need style, Tim’s been gone for years now. Simplified things, that.
Playground’s empty. Should be, in the cold.
Phone buzzes. Spam.
Just business: Rational.
Nativity scene outside the church. The irony stops me. Homeless baby in New York. Needed a better marketing team.
2023 has been a year of rewriting. And it still is; after working through the more glaring issues in my novel project, the most obvious problems warranted a page one rewrite. This sort of thing would have been game breaking in the past: Given the difficulty of overcoming inertia and creating the first draft, the thought of doing it all again was always a very bitter pill to swallow. Perhaps it’s also a test of whether it’s simply a story I want to tell, or a story that needs to be told? Now, some months into the rewrite, it’s encouraging to see the project come alive in new and very satisfying ways. Most recently that’s been getting the first 40% of the story out to a first reader, while I continue writing and editing the last half of the book, something that is likely to take me most all of 2024.
It’s also been a year of avoiding software development, which depending on your perspective may not sound like much, but was a big deal for me. I was a software developer for decades, largely because programming ticked a lot of boxes for me: Solving problems elegantly required creativity, analytical problem solving lent itself to clear and unambiguous criteria for success irrespective of opinion or interpretation, and as a fan of science and engineering there was a great deal of satisfaction in the art form that is well crafted code. Being able to make a living doing something I’d taught myself was not a bad outcome too. Despite all this though, software development’s not the only occupation that, for me, ticks those same boxes. Focusing on my writing has resulted in a very strong desire not to divide my attention, and so while I’ve provided a little advice here and there this year, it’s actually been a relief to take off the coder hat for the time being.
I spent a few hours every week this year volunteering in a community ESL class. Facilitating a path to improvement for engaged students is always rewarding, and seeing people who otherwise may be disconnected from their local community come in and come alive as they connect with one another and exercise practical skills has been a gift. I’ll be taking a break from this in the first half of 2024 while I make room for another upcoming opportunity, but this was a lot of fun.
In other things we’ll be taking a break from this year, after teaching my boys to play brass instruments a few years ago, we have spent the last while as members of the Melville Airforce Association Brass Band (now being rolled into RAAFA). This has also been a lot of fun, and over the years there I’ve played cornet, soprano cornet, tenor horn, euphonium, and this year, trombone. Playing in a group that affords this sort of flexibility and performs regularly has been a great privilege. As an early riser, I’m looking forward to freeing up the weekly late night rehearsal for at least the first few months of next year, but I’ll miss the music. Maybe we’ll be back playing at community Christmas Carols events again next year.
Finally, this will be another year I’ll be posting a 100-word Christmas-themed story and linking it over on Loren Eaton’s Advent Ghosts shared story telling event. If you’d like to read a variety of ultra-short yuletide fiction, with maybe the odd riff on the Dickensian ghost story thrown in, be sure to keep an eye out on Loren’s blog for updates!
Some people are dog people, some people are cat people, and some people look at the other people and think Why would you do that to yourself? as they hop onto a plane for yet another holiday without having to worry about who’s going to look after the pets. I totally get that, I really do. Sip an extra mojito and remember me while you’re on your trip, won’t you?
For the last twenty years I’ve very much been in the dog people camp, with the last few years seeing our family enhanced by a goofy White Shepherd named Hunter. Not only is a fifty-kilo Alsatian a fairly vocal deterrent to trespassers, but he brings an extra incentive to exercise and get outdoors every day to a household filled with sedentary desk-jockeys, he’s our ever present white wolf who deigns to live with humans, and he only sheds twice a year – for six months at a time, enveloping our home’s interior in a low white cloud of dog fluff.
Walks are more than the local park, and so while I might enjoy an occasional pre-dawn McDonald’s coffee to accompany some early writing, he’d occasionally accompany me and be rewarded for his troubles with a hash brown, which seems to be the dog equivalent of catnip. I suppose it’s only natural we want our pets to live The Good Life.
Unfortunately, Hunter hasn’t been on a McDonalds outing with me for the last three or four months. In December we took him to The Beach – the only other place even more exciting than McDonalds – and he promptly lost his canine mind. It had been a while, and so there was no way he was prepared to stay at heel, behave himself on his leash, or otherwise remember any part of how to behave around humans. He had to get to the water now, thank you very much, and at any cost. Holding him back while we navigated other humans in the car park resulted in me pulling something in my left shoulder, the Mrs being bruised, and an amusing if heavy and slightly intimidating spectacle for everyone else.
And then we went home, and I got back to the sedentary desk-jockey work of writing every day.
I don’t know if this event was the exact cause, but it almost certainly seems to have been. Over the next month, I found that while I felt completely normal, whenever I extended my left arm to reach for something, my shoulder complained with agonising, crippling pain. Gradually that range of movement decreased, and as muscles in the neck and upper shoulder tried to pick up the slack, occasional acute pain in the shoulder became a chronic ache there. Finishing the draft, starting on editing, a bit of anxiety over how to go about it all, and sleep became elusive for a good couple of weeks.
A visit to my local medical professional diagnosed Adhesive Capsulitis – otherwise known as a Frozen Shoulder – and a prognosis of “Wait it out for six to twenty-four months, oh and there’s a steroid injection if you want a little relief, maybe, because it’s not always effective”.
Having never heard of Frozen Shoulder before (as far as I can remember), now that I have a name for it I find talking to others about it yields a common response along the lines “Oh, Frozen Shoulder? Yeah, I had that way back when, such a pain!” I guess I shouldn’t be surprised – I do tend to live under a rock most of the time.
I can count my blessings, though: Shoulder injuries can be much worse. So, while it’s annoying to only be able to sleep a couple hours at a time before having to move and alleviate the pain, at least I can sleep, and am rested enough to get some work done during the day. I’ve found this to be the case before, too: Simply knowing the name of the problem, what’s involved in living with it, and the likely outcomes I find of huge benefit when it comes to managing anxiety: Oh, that’s what it is, and this is what I do? Okay, I’ll (try to) stop thinking about it now…
And I guess the long term outcomes for others aren’t all bad either. The dog gets more walks from other family members (they get more exercise too, but don’t tell them that), and I can eventually be one of those people who says “Oh, Frozen Shoulder? Yeah, I had that way back when, such a pain!”
It’s been a long time since I’ve written regularly.
Well, to clarify, I’ve been writing regularly for the last six months. Before that however, it had been close to ten years.
There are plenty of reasons for that, but my point today is just that I am very much Out Of Practice.
I just knocked out the first draft of a novel, and have started filling in the outline of the sequel while I let that cool off a bit before editing. However, over the last few months, I noticed a couple of things about my writing.
First, it’s been very slow. If writing is a function of typing speed, I should be able to knock out five thousand words an hour. Most days I feel lucky to average five hundred. My first thought was that this is frustrating, that I’m letting the editor get in the way of my creativity. Instead, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that this is the right pace for me, right now. Perhaps it’ll be faster later, perhaps not. I could write faster, but that wouldn’t be right – not for this story, or the style of fiction I’m aiming for.
The other thing I’ve noticed is how much it’s improved as I’ve gone on. The last chapters are still imperfect by any measure, and it will likely all need so much editing and rewriting that nothing from the first draft will survive unscathed. But page by page, I can see the structure, imagination, weight and emotion improve. Most days it’s still difficult to sit down to a blank page and breathe life into a new scene, but it’s getting easier to ignore whatever part of that is lack of confidence and just get started.
The notion of taking the time to try and write well, rather than just write anything, flies in the face of some popular writing advice, but I’m not talking about getting stuck editing our work or trying to make the first draft truly perfect. But it does feel quite close to old adage I picked up learning music in my youth, and which in turn appears to have originated from American football coach Vince Lombardi:
Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.
So for me, these last few months, it’s been okay to work a little slower. Not only is it possible there’s a little less rewriting and editing required this time around, but hopefully the next novel is better still.
And I don’t think I’ll ever be hitting 5,000 words an hour. My fingers might want to go that fast, but my brain sure can’t.
I have big ears. It’s okay, it wasn’t how you looked at me or anything you said. I’ve known it for a while now.
Thing is, it’s a lot less obvious today than it was in my childhood. I guess that as we’re growing, and parts of our bodies grow at different rates, some things really stand out. It’s why a cartoon child typically has big eyes and a big head – the rest just hasn’t caught up yet. And it’s probably why in primary school I acquired names like Big Ears, Dumbo, and the like.
Perhaps my ears caught wind of my ego and just knew I was going to end up with a big head – I use an XL sized motorcycle helmet – but this has had one amusing side effect: I simply cannot wear earphones.
AirPods? I’m sure they’re great, but I’ll never know: They fall out. I’d see people jogging with earphones in and, as well as wishing that I had the intestinal fortitude to jog, I admired their superhuman ability to jog and listen to tunes. Amazing Stuff.
This continued for a long while, and then in 2021 I discovered bone-conduction headphones.
I don’t even know where to start. Can we just say Life Changing?
Sure, they may not have perfect frequency response across the spectrum (your skull conducts lower frequencies better than high ones, so they’re not going to give you theatre audio quality), and they let in outside noise (which, living in the flight path of an airport, makes for interruptions sometimes), these aren’t always negatives: I can be listening to a talk, an audiobook, or music, and I can hear an approaching car or a question from someone nearby equally well. Indeed, this is probably a great reason to not pursue full frequency response – let the ears fill in those gaps if needed!
My wife tried them and shortly thereafter purchased her own pair. After suffering significant hearing loss following ear surgery, she can hear with these far better than other headphones, earphones, or speakers. In much the same way Beethoven was alleged to have listened to his compositions by clenching a rod between his teeth and pressing it to his piano, it’s exciting to see the potential for innovations like this to make life materially better for some people.
My pair cracked this week. The crack prevents the right earphone from clamping firmly against my head and so it’s now a left-only, somewhat muted monophonic experience. Since they’re very much a part of everyday life now, I looked up a replacement and only then noticed they come with a two-year warranty. A photo, a copy of the receipt, and an email, and the supplier is sending a replacement.
And I guess that’s where I felt this experience took a turn towards the hopeful.
See, it’s easy to see the current era of text prediction engines as the herald for a major upset to the way we do our work (or whether we have work at all). It might feel like ChatGPT writes a formal memorandum far better (and faster) than we can. But there’s a lot it’s not going to do, certainly not yet.
There’s still room for us to build innovative products that become invaluable to an appreciative clientele. There’s still room for great customer service. There’s still room for genuine human interaction, appreciation, and hope.
If automation continues to do away with the mundane, will we be freed to deliver more innovation and better service?
I’d like to think so. In the meantime, I’m off for another walk with my now left-ear-only audiobook while I wait for the mail.
Summer school holidays are nearly over. We have one week left, and while the world outside baked in the naked sun, in our little air-conditioned bubble we tried to offer the kids opportunities to catch up with family, pursue creative passions, work hard on chores (thanks, lads!), read as a group, and try to identify and pick apart biases in political and philosophical arguments on either side of whatever issue caught our attention on some given day.
One thing we haven’t done yet is write some collaborative fiction – a highly amusing endeavour we first tried out last year. It’s not something I’d ever tried before, and while I realise many have, if you’ve not yet had the pleasure then let me try and pitch the idea to you.
My two boys are not writers. One is currently an avid reader but has no interest in the effort of writing. The other currently doesn’t really get into reading unless forced to but enjoys the imaginative playground of writing – if that’s all he’s allowed, since the instant visual feedback from Lego or Unity or Scratch or various engineering games requires far less deferred gratification.
Nevertheless, last holidays I set them a simple collaborative fiction task. While there may be many alternative approaches, here’s what we did:
Decide on tense and pov as a group. We chose past tense, limited third person – ie, tell the story from the point of view of a single character. Each writer is going to create their own character and write from that character’s point of view.
Decide on what constitutes an acceptable contribution. For us, the guideline was ‘more than one page and less than two’ to try and stave off the slacker who just wanted to write a sentence and then go back to consuming media, and by the same token it needed to be a justifiably good effort.
Decide who’s first, and give the writer free reign to choose setting, genre, etc.
Each successive writer takes what’s already been written and writes a subsequent scene that progresses the story.
We set ourselves five days for this, so with three contributors the total story would be 15 scenes. A basic plot structure on the whiteboard directed each day/scene to some overall dramatic task.
With two thirds of the participants having little to no experience in writing fiction, this may sound like herding cats. Indeed, it often was – each wanted his own character to be the superhero of the story, and without a D&D-style rulebook to limit abilities and consequences, anything could and often did happen, and any care for overall plot wasn’t even an afterthought.
As the third writer in the group, in most cases it fell to me to try (from an independent character arc), to try and tie together the wildly different plots and points of view of these other characters. Having never done this before, it sounded difficult, but turned out to be highly amusing and creative. It changed for the kids, too: While their first contributions were reluctant and disjointed, they became increasingly interested in reading the new instalments when their turn came up, and by the end were very invested in their story being part of a larger, unified plot, and a world beyond the one they’d individually imagined.
The resulting story is certainly no short fiction award winner, but it’s something in our family library I’ll be able to come back and enjoy again in the future. Not only does it have contributions from my kids at a specific point in their development, but thanks to the mechanism of its development there’s enough unexpected turns in the plot that it should remain entertaining for a long while yet.
As I mentioned earlier, this was a new experience for me. I’ve never written collaborative fiction like this before, and it also helped me realise a few things about my own work:
The best surprises are unplanned. My ingrained desire to plan everything out ahead of time (which partly comes from experience in engineering, I’m sure) is playing it too safe: It costs us the opportunity to encounter those surprising, unexpected moments in the creative process.
I fear winging it, but I don’t have to. I prefer a comprehensive outline also out of the fear that I don’t have what it takes to make it up as I go along and still deliver a unified story. Yielding control of 2/3rds of this story to others (who have no such fears!) forced me to discover not only that I can tie it back together, but that that’s fun.
So, if you’ve never engaged in collaborative fiction, I hope this paints a picture of the sort of fun that can be had. As for me, with a week left of summer holidays, I’m looking forward to starting another of these projects in the time we have remaining; whatever surprises my young coauthors have in store for me, we’ll have a few laughs and a lot of fun.
Since OpenAI’s ChatGPT was released five weeks ago, it’s caused a bit of a stir, not least among education faculties. It’s hard to see how having the ability to generate a moderately convincing and unique essay in under two seconds won’t disrupt education as we know it. Sure, it’s got its limitations, but those limitations are disappearing with each generation of this type of software. For the many blogs, news and information services which are simply platforms for advertising and generating search engine results and click-throughs, this stands to effectively eliminate the cost of generating the content in the first place.
My colleague Mike Hartley last year pointed me at Roald Dahl’s The Great Automatic Grammatizator, in which the industrious engineer Adolph Knipe builds a story writing engine and, given this is the 1950s and there’s no internet, proceeds to corner the market on fiction writing – much to the further detriment of writers still penning their content the old fashioned way. So much so that the story ends with the line:
Give us strength, Oh Lord, to let our children starve.
The Great Automatic Grammatizator – Roald Dahl
While I don’t blog to generate advertising revenue, instead being more interested in the practice of kicking out a short essay on occasion without too much planning or editing, I was certainly interested to see how this tech is to play with. So I duly headed over to ChatGPT, set up an account, and hit it up with some questions. Disappointingly (though maybe not) it wasn’t too interested in generating outright controversies:
It was however more than ready to prove the existence of Santa Claus:
It was also more than ready to assert the opposite when asked as well, showing that for at least some topics you can have it prove up is down and down is up. For topics that are less cultural however it seems disinclined to go this direction. It didn’t stop me trying to push the point, however:
After a bit of a wait while it seemed to have cardiac arrest, it got a bit further…
…and then went out to lunch for a while before cracking on towards its exciting conclusion…
So after its dire warnings about keeping things based on reliable scientific evidence, I thought I’d finish off with asking it to get a little creative. I thought the result was actually very impressive, given that it needed to know what Fermi’s Paradox was in order to get started, and that it structured this to present two perspectives and then draw a conclusion using them:
I always find the new year an opportune time to reflect. A lot happens year in and year out, and it’s easy to miss just how much our situation may have changed over the year, or how much we’re changing ourselves. This last year was a reflective one for me, and there were a few highlights that seemed worth sharing…
I started journaling in January for the first time (yeah, it took me that long). I can’t recommend it enough; among other benefits there’s an extra sense of accountability to how I use my time…
We normally never travel, so given travel uncertainty during school holidays, we drove coast-to-coast across Australia. In the middle of winter. And had a great time.
We avoided catching COVID during our travels or from the office
We caught COVID while working from home. Thanks, kids? And yet, four vaccinations and a few virus mutations later, it does seem increasingly manageable.
I shifted away from software development to devote more time to writing, family, and personal development.
I no longer have a motorcycle, for the first time in nearly 20 years.
I picked up my first ever iPhone, thereby changing camps and having to relearn where all the keys are on my phone keyboard again.
I started teaching my 17 year old how to drive. Which also means that the little kid who was about 4 when I started blogging (back in the old blogspot site) has come a long way!
If you’d asked me to predict any of this on the first of January last year, I don’t think I’d have picked even one of them. All I dare assume about 2023 is it’ll be as much of a surprise, and a challenge, and a delight, as 2022 was. We’ll try to grow in the process, and God willing we’ll be back here again in twelve months sharing the adventure that is the year that was.
In the meantime, allow me to wish you a Happy New Year for 2023.
Electricity would be nice. Irina hangs a bauble and tries to ignore the thunder rolling across the hills. The mortars are closer. A drone flew over last night, lazy motor puttering. She willed it to stop, but it kept going. The windows rattled a minute later. It’s too late to run. She places the gifts beneath the tree. Only empty boxes, but they won’t mind. The light’s fading but she remains outside, breath silver in the bitter cold. The angel atop the tree is silent. Three mounds to her right. The shovel, discarded. She sits beside her children. She’ll wait.
Way back in 2009, fellow blogger Loren Eaton started a little Christmas tradition: As we close in towards Christmas Eve, he began inviting fellow writers to post a 100 word story in the tradition of telling spooky stories on Christmas Eve. You can read more about it via his blog.
In the lead up to the stories going live on the 17th, I realise that what I’d like to share will be a little different this year. If you live in a part of the world where the Christmas machine is pushing you to shop ’til you drop or invent yet another highly flammable egg nog recipe, it’s altogether too easy to overlook those stuck in the cracks, victims of loss, abuse, or abandonment. From Afghanistan to the DRC to Eastern Europe, for millions of displaced people December 25 in 2022 will likely be far removed from what they’d hoped for a year earlier.
Christmas falls at the height of summer in Australia, so the tradition of gathering around a warm fire to tell dark and scary stories as per ancient British tradition is a hard sell. All the same, I’ve recently come to see this Christmas Eve tradition as perhaps more connected to the very heart of Christmas than I’d previously given it credit for.
Snug in my twenty-first century creature comforts, I can’t imagine a better time to be reminded of the dark and scary. For even though I may not be experiencing it personally, I think we have to acknowledge that we share this holiday with victims of circumstance for whom uncertainty and anxiety, oppression and fear are a daily occurrence, the dark and scary that colours every day.
The commercial juggernaut is all too happy to string out the festive lights, set up nativity scenes and drag in the carolers and other distractions to empty our wallets and ignore that other part of Christmas Day, the inconvenient one from which it derives its name, the celebration of the birth of light and hope into exactly this darkness.
So if a scary story or three provides a metaphorical shadow or dark background before your otherwise upbeat family day, then like darkness before the dawn, I hope the contrast makes the day all the sweeter, inspires us be a little more generous, and frees our hearts to a little more charity.