Sunday, February 28, 2010

Books finished, February 2010

Books I finished in February 2010
Less impressive stack than last month, but I have been busy. Have already blogged about Child 44 and The Road.

It's a Don's Life is the book version of Mary Beard's blog, with highlights from 2006 to the end of 2008.

I'd read most of it before, but there's something different about the book - selected, edited, bound in paper - that makes it more real. Beard herself muses on what is lost from the blog - the links, the interaction with commentators (some of them, I notice, my mates). Books and blogs mean different reading experiences - still, just. This is the sedate, slower-moving version, for putting down to posterity.

It's full of fun stuff on the world of classics. The Romans understood the word "barbarian" as we do "terrorist"; we use "paedophile" when we mean "pederast" (in the comments); 10 top facts about the Romans...

It's not just the best of the blog posts that are included - there are also plenty of the comments, and commentaries on the kind of responses received. The TLS describe Beard as a "wickedly subversive commentator", and she causes storms for being "grateful for the dispersal of antiquities around the world" or that she "honestly ... can't help feeling a bit nostalgic for that, now outlawed, erotic dimension to (adult) pedagogy".

She's often funny, with an eye for the absurd detail. There's the inevitable vicarish use of any incident to enthuse, "in many ways, that's like the story of..." - in her case a Greek or Roman text rather than Jesus - but mostly with some new insight to offer. She doesn't need to tell us that classics is still relevant today but shows it by example.

I could have done without the repeated defence of the interview, living conditions, examination and culture of Oxbridge students. As an alumnus of a trendy New University and then of a red-brick, I have a bias against sympathy for the nobs. A post listing her day's emails is also an odd choice for this best-of.

But generally it's a fun, companionable and layman-friendly read, which prickles in me need to explore the ancient world further.

(I've also read quite a lot of A Short History of Parliament, edited by Clyve Jones, as a work thing, plus there's a stack of other research books littering my desk. And I'm on p. 107, p. 124 and p. 341 respectively of other books, so next month should be a bonanza.)

Friday, February 26, 2010

I am legend

I've written the introduction to a book of clever academic papers on the Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who, out in May.

The British Science Fiction Association will be hosting a launch for the book from 7 pm on Wednesday 26 May upstairs at the Antelope Tavern, 22 Eaton Terrace, London SW1W 8EZ.

Speaking wisely will be learned types Melissa Beattie, Colin B Harvey, Matt Hills, Tony Keen and Leslie McMurtry. Speaking not so wisely will be me. Do come join us.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Domestic bliss

Have been busy this week with a damn load of work - which is something of a relief after a rather desperate January. Has meant some late nights and a wealth of research, but am feeling a lot better now that somebody wants me.

On Friday, I took a few hours off to go to London Zoo with the Dr. It was 10 years since I'd first stumbled up to her and said "You're lovely." As I said this time last year,
"The lesson is, my young padawans, that if you fancy someone, tell them."

Me, "Gallifrey and nine", 19 February 2009.

I really love your tiger, er, paws.We'd adopted each other animals at London Zoo - I got the Dr an Asian lion, she got me a lady gorilla reputed to stink of garlic. The Asian lions were best, all snuggled up in a pile, watching us visitors languorously. We also liked the baby monkeys and the owls. I took a picture of the Dr playing with the tiger-paw gloves, and realise now we should have bought them.

We were home well in time for the live EastEnders, which was all rather manic and brave. M'colleague Lisa Bowerman says that audio drama separates the men actors from the boys, and the same seems to be true of live telly. Turned over to BBC Three after, to shout at the obscenely indulgent behind-the-scenes thing. Managed about 20 minutes.

vampire catInstead we put on another True Blood - we're now five episodes into season 2. It's much stronger than season 1, with more screen-time and plot for the other characters around Sookie and Bill. The Dr loves the comedy vampires. But it is all having an effect on the cat.

Yesterday I wrote a comic strip and two (very) short stories, which I hope will be approved by the Masters. Then I went out to see Ghosts, a play by Ibsen reworked by Frank McGuinness, starring Lesley Sharp and Iain Glen. It's a brilliant play about the shadow cast over a family by a long-dead father - who remains a constant presence though never appearing in person. A very deft bit of writing, and Sharp and Harry Treadaway (playing her son) were incredible. Not entirely convinced by some of the accents, though. Glen seemed to be playing the vicar as Abraham Lincoln.

William Morris embroideryToday, I was interviewed about my Being Human book and am writing more stuff, while the Dr is finishing her William Morris embroidery by attaching it to a cushion. Later we shall eat the kilo of best beef what I bought as a treat.

Bath!But perhaps our most exciting news is that we have a bath. It's been five weeks since the shower was pulled apart. B&Q's promise to deliver our purchases "within three weeks" turned out to be not entirely true. Their promise to ring us with a date of delivery, and to let us know why things were delayed, was not entirely true either. The Dr chased and chased - and spoke to some helpful, apologetic people - and the stuff was finally delivered on Thursday. Well, all except the end panel for the bath which we hope will now come next week.

The delays have meant our helpful Man has taken on other works, but he was round late last night getting it set up so that we can at least have a wash. It stills needs plenty of work, and there's a sink to be put in, but we're both skippy with delight.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Organic photo

View from my kitchen window at 07.30 this morning:

Penge sunrise

Monday, February 15, 2010

Friday, February 12, 2010

It's your funeral

Watched the first two episodes of the new, US-version of the Prisoner yesterday, and was sadly disappointed. I loved the original (well, until it all comes apart at the end) and knew it would not be the same. I'd even been thrilled by the extended trailer, which made it look like a fresh, engaging take on the old idea, with a more legible plot and structure and none of that coming apart...

But sadly, it's also dull. The old show sets up its premise very quickly: the unnamed hero has resigned from some important job and isn't saying why. He's kidnapped and shipped out to a strange Village, which all seems quite fun on the surface. But they insist he's now called “6”, and each week try some new scheme to break him. 6 insists that he's not a number but a free man, but each week he remains stuck behind those bars.

This new version seems to be on the same lines, though after two episodes it still hasn't said so explicitly. Instead, 6 meanders about while the Village tries to convince him that there's no other world beyond the desert. Memories of New York, a shimmering ghost of the Twin Towers, even men with dogs pursuing him are all made up in his brain.

Plenty of other villagers will quietly agree that something isn't right or that, yes, the infrequent explosions at the diner are a bit unsettling. But we, the audience, already know that there's a world outside the Village; we recognise the pictures of the Statue of Liberty and the Palace of Westminster's clock tower. There's no tension to be gained from a character insisting that there's only the Village: we know that they're wrong.

Rather than, as in the old show, the Village being a sort of retirement home for agents who've sold out, this Village is full of deluded people. They seem to have had their memories changed or affected, so they're passive captives rather than participants in the regime. That again undercuts the threat.

It's also overly busy with bits of plot. There's the taxi driver, played by Lennie James, who is called for an audience with 2. There's 2's son and what he suspects 2 is doing to Mummy. There's the flashbacks in which 6 chats up Hayley Attwell and there seem to be clues on the radio. It all crowds what should be a deliciously simple idea: this guy won't sell out to the Man.

The aged 93 that 6 meets early on seems is a nod to the old show and is even wearing original 6's clothes. I assume the role was meant for Patrick McGoohan, who inconveniently died (or, if you prefer, escaped). Apart from the nod to the old show, it's an odd cameo: we don't yet know what 93 is trying to escape from, or that our hero will want to escape as well. A bit like starting the Doctor Who TV Movie with Sylvester McCoy, the nod to the past derails the story, making it overly complicated for a new audience.

The flashy, swoopy direction is entirely wrong for the Village – which is meant to be eerily serene. As with Quantum of Solace, the fast-cutting stuff suggests lack of faith in the material and means there are odd jumps in the narrative. Traditional camera set ups and a slower pace would contrast nicely with the fast-cutting frenzy of New York. But also, they would make the Village more comforting. The pervasive and persuasive serenity of the Village is what makes it such a threat. It should be all-too-easy for 6 to settle there.

A good analogy might be Stepford, which at first seems a perfect community. The same growing disquiet would work perfectly in the Prisoner, and Stepford is also laden with clues about what's going on that all come together in the revelation at the end. It might be a sci-fi idea, but Stepford feels like it's got a real-world solution and also something to say about our times. This new Prisoner seems like it's going to all be a dream or time travel or an after life or coma – and if it's not real it doesn't matter. The shimmering ghost of the Twin Towers and an ocean that hides are all “magic”. The more plausible, real and “grounded” the Village, the more effective it is.

The tone is also not quite right. I loved 2 insisting on being brought cherry cake, and hooray for keeping Rover. But Rover, and the scene where Hayley Atwell reveals she's chatted up 6 on purpose, all come far too late. And both times Rover appears there's no consequence: he's just a blobby re-set button to nix that episode's attempted escape. All-smiling, participant Villagers would make the Village more unsettling. A lighter touch would make it more sinister.

As it is, the new version lacks the wit and style of the original, and fails to grab the audience by the balls. Jim Caviezel's 6 seems little different from the gruff, stubbly heroes of Lost or the US Life on Mars – in fact, it all felt too much a riff on familiar territory than a new series in its own right. The good – and English – actors all do their best, and there's clearly been effort and money spent on the retro 50s aesthetic. But it's not as fun or exciting as the original. The 9/11 stuff is crass and dated rather than iconic.

So what would I do differently? I think start with something more exciting. We don't see Flashback 6 chatting up some girl. Instead, he's involved in a Secret Mission, dealing with some Bad Stuff. Perhaps he's in Iraq of Afghanistan, perhaps he's exposing government secrets at home. But he's in charge, in control, a Proper Hero. Until he walks in on -

Sudden cut to 6 waking up in the Village, everyone Very Concerned. He's suffering from post-traumatic stress and can't remember what he's seen or even his own name. The only cure is to put back the pieces and confront what he saw. 6 knows its top secret, and he doesn't know where he is. The more the Village – and his old comrades – insist they're on his side, the more he resists treatment. They can't even tell him where the Village is. They don't stop him trying to explore, but they do worry he's getting over-exciting. These aren't cowed people scared to ask awkward questions: they really love being in the Village and just think 6 should chill out.

Except for 2, who is – and in this version – the one thing everyone is scared of. But we need to see more of a genuine threat from 2. So, instead of finding 93 outside the village, perhaps 93 has never managed to escape (which, if he is McGoohan, would also dismiss Fall Out as just a dream or the old 6 giving in). New 6 asking questions inspires 93 to make one last attempt. They escape together, but 93 is too slow and gets caught. 6 watches as 2 tortures the old man – and 2 is all smiles and kindness as he cuts him up. “This is the only escape, dear boy”, he explains.

6 runs off, but is caught by Rover and brought back to the Village in time for 93's funeral – 2 insists that the old man died quietly in his sleep. 6 now knows the Village is out to get him. But he still can't remember what it was he saw before being brought here. He's trying to piece together the memories for himself, and the village is drawing him out. The more they try to get into his head, the more it comes together – the more of the flashback we see. He tries to resist the Village, but their efforts are also working...

I am curious enough to press on with New Prisoner – and will report back. It could just be a lot more effective.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Short tips

A few folk have responded to yesterday's post asking for advice on writing a Doctor Who Short trip. Well, first, obey the rules:
"Remember, this is a short story, not a play. It should be no more than 2,500 words in length ... You can make use of any of the first eight Doctors. You can also use any of the classic television companions (up to and including Ace) and any of the Big Finish companions. You cannot use either the Ninth, Tenth or Eleventh Doctors, nor their companions, nor any other of the Doctor’s past friends and enemies. No Daleks, no Cybermen, no Time Lords, no Drashigs or Slitheen etc. Your story should be wholly original."
How the Doctor Changed my LifeI also wrote some general feedback to the competition we ran in 2006-07, which was originally posted on the old Outpost Gallifrey Doctor Who forum on Tuesday, 19 June 2007, and then included at the end of How The Doctor Changed My Life.

That book is now sadly out of print, so here is what I said:
"The official BBC Doctor Who website has announced the winners of the Big Finish short story competition.

With more than 1,000 entries, totalling more than 2,500,000 words, there’s simply no way we can offer individual feedback. However, I promised to produce notes on the stories taken as a whole, so here we are. There are already mailing lists set up for entrants to discuss their stories and swap notes. I assume the organisers of these lists will post details in the comments at the bottom of this post.

Anyway, first the disclaimers:

This isn’t any kind of official statement from either Big Finish or the BBC. It’s my own thoughts, based on personal experience as a freelance writer. I’m the one solely to blame.

What follows are some common things I saw in the more than 1,000 stories we received. They’re not necessarily things that people got ‘wrong’, but pointers that (I hope) might improve your next piece of writing.

These notes will not cure baldness or verrucas. Reading them won’t automatically get your Doctor Who stories published, nor will they magically transform you into a professional writer. That takes practice and perseverance (well, not the baldness and verrucas). If you really want to write, you’ve probably got more rejections to come – I’m still collecting them, anyway.

These notes aren’t rules or laws of physics. Others might disagree with any or all of them. I probably ignore at least some of them in my own published Doctor Who stories. Remember: these are the irrational prejudices of one crabby old editor, too dim to see the shiny brilliance of your story.

You may feel having read the notes that your story did everything right. That just means we preferred other stories over yours. I said we were dim.

Please don’t send us a revised version of your story. Big Finish simply doesn’t have the time to read them. We’re a small company and we’ve only limited resources. I was employed as a freelancer to read the competition entries, and now I’m off to do other things.

I don’t know whether we’ll run another competition like this one. It’s been a huge success, but also entailed a great deal of time and effort on our part. The final decision isn’t up to me, though, and if something like this happens again, I think it is somebody else’s turn to run it. If that’s the case, there’ll be announcements – so keep an eye on www.bigfinish.com.

Lastly, some recommended reading. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is a must for anyone serious about this sort of thing. I’d also recommend William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell? and Robert McKee’s Story. They’re both about writing screenplays but a lot of the advice applies generally. (I was recommended Story in a letter rejecting an idea for a Doctor Who novel.)

The Turkey City Lexicon will help you spot and eliminate science-fiction clichés in your writing. The BBC’s writersroom is full of useful advice, too. And at Outpost Gallifrey’s Mythmakers forum [now Gallifrey Base's Land of Fiction] you can compare your stories and swap feedback with other competition entrants. Right then…

1. Classic Doctors…
There were only a few of these, but we had to disqualify stories with the Ninth or Tenth Doctors, Daleks, Cybermen, Rose, Grace Holloway, psychic paper, the Time War, etc. We don’t have a licence for these things. No matter how brilliant your story, if your story depended on any of these there was no way you could win.

(We can’t even include references to these things either – but in most cases such mentionings could have been removed easily.)

2. … Brand new adventures
Some stories depended too much on stuff from previous Doctor Who stories. Some were even direct sequels. Often, without these recycled continuity elements, there wouldn’t have been any story.

3. The plotters
Some stories didn’t have enough of a plot. Although a single conversation or moment can give insight into character, we still need a story to drive it. The Doctor and companion discuss their favourite movies: no. The Doctor and companion discuss their favourite movies while on the run from some robot monsters: yes!

Taking those last two points together, there was one plot we saw a lot of: the Doctor sees some children playing. When he then sees their mother, she’s his granddaughter Susan. The end.

That’s not so much a story as a scene. Much better if when he sees the children, they’re being attacked by a monster and he has to save them.

No, wait – even better! He charges in to save these poor children but they don’t need his help. These kids are brilliant, and the monster’s fallen into their trap. In fact, they have to save the Doctor. He’s a bit shaken by all this, so they take him home for tea. And that’s when he sees who their mum is!

Same idea, but now it’s a story. (What do you mean, “corny”?)

4. A family show
Like not using new series stuff, we’re not able to publish stories which feature swearing, sex and/or gratuitous violence. You don’t have to write specifically for children, but you shouldn’t exclude them, either.

5. Did the Doctor change my life?
We needed to see people affected by their encounters with the Doctor. In some stories, events would have turned out more or less the same if the Doctor hadn’t been involved. In other stories, the Doctor stopped a monster or brought down a dictator, but we didn’t get an insight into how life was then different – usually because these stories weren’t told from one person’s point of view.

6. A strong central idea
A simple, clever premise helped to make the 25 stories on our shortlist stand out. They were each easily memorable as “the one with…”. Some stories just felt a bit generic – the Doctor presses some buttons and so sees off a monster.

7. In the telling
With so many entries, it wasn’t enough for your prose just to be okay. Your story had to engage us immediately, then keep us hooked right up to the end. That magic spell can be broken by clumsy grammar and punctuation, by overly long sentences (especially when it’s the very first one!), by overwrought or clichéd imagery, and by using too many adverbs and adjectives. Some stories felt as if the authors were trying too hard to impress us (and so failed to do so). Much better to keep things simple.

8. Oomph from the get-go
There’s a difference between the suspense of waiting for something to happen, and getting bored waiting for anything to happen. Some stories felt like they were just setting up a single, climactic ending. One way out of this: start with your brilliant climax, and then work upwards from there.

9. Lists
Descriptions shouldn’t hold up the telling. We don’t need to know every detail of what someone’s wearing or what objects are in a room. We just need enough of a glimpse to know where we are.

10. I am the Doctor
In some stories it was difficult to tell which Doctor was involved. Sometimes a Doctor would be physically described as, for example, the Second Doctor, but would behave and sound like the Sixth. This was also sometimes true of the companions.

11. Waving not drowning
Doctor Who doesn’t have to be all sunshine and fluffy bunnies, but it is a fun and lively show and the Doctor’s a funny bloke. A sense of humour can also give depth to a scary or downbeat story. The Doctor ruining people’s lives and driving them to suicide doesn’t really match the feel of the series.

12. In the frame
Some stories used interesting and innovative framing devices which helped to hook the reader, before the “real” story was told. Often, though, these “real” stories weren’t nearly so interesting.

13. Research
Some stories got their continuity wrong, or told stories that had been done before in books or comics or audio plays. And most galling of all: one or two stories were too like forthcoming stories… Annoyingly, there’s nothing you can do about that. I’ve done it many times myself.

Sorry."

Me, "Competition Feedback" in Doctor Who: Short Trips - How the Doctor Changed my Life, pp. 189-92.

Way back in December 2006, when we announced the competition, luminaries Justin Richards and Paul Cornell also gave their advice.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Take a trip

Those splendid fellows at Big Finish are bringing back their Doctor Who Short Trips range, as talking books this time. And they're offering places to new authors, on similar grounds to the ones we did for How The Doctor Changed My Life.

This is very exciting. I said last year how much I owe to Short Trips, which gave me my first break and then let me write lots more.

This is your chance to write up the Doctor Who idea you've had buzzing round your brain. 2,500 is easy - you can do a first draft over a weekend. And then you've got until 29 March to noodle with it til it's perfect. So get cracking. Best of luck!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Survivors

I'm not very practical. I can wire a plug, wash the dishes and reach things from high shelves, but that's where my skills come to an end. In my teens, reading John Wyndham's cosy catastrophes – where the world was taken over by Triffids, Krakens and Cuckoos, or the grass all died – I knew I'd have been one of the first victims.

The heroes were plucky, self-reliant types who understood the workings of houses, motorcars and guns, and were probably schooled at Bedales. Part of the appeal of Wyndham's heroes – and James Bond, John Hannay, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who – is that very expertise. We see through their eyes or tag along at their side, enjoying the adventure all the more for their insight.

I think that's why I've given up on the new version of Survivors, where there seems little interest in the practicalities of surviving, and it's all about big revelations and people feeling betrayed. How do these people eat, clean their clothes or still have pretty hair? It doesn't feel much of a struggle to survive, it's just that other characters are a bit annoying.

That's not true of two books read in the last 10 days, where the vivid and terrifying atmosphere of each is all about the struggle. Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 is an extraordinary debut, well deserving its myriad praises. As the blurb says,
“In Stalin's Soviet Union, crime does not exist. But still millions live in fear. The mere suspicion of disloyalty to the State, the wrong word at the wrong time, can send an innocent person to his execution.”
Officer Leo Demidov is an idealistic war hero in Stalin's Soviet Union, but starts to spot links between crimes that have already been solved. But it's treason to suggest that the State's got something wrong, and even before he starts pursuing a serial killer his wife and parents are at risk...

It's an enthralling read, the terror of everyday life under Stalin just as thrilling as the crime plot. It's packed with detail, of the presumption of guilt, the scale of numbers killed, the methods used to get confessions. Everyone, we're told, knows someone who's been arrested – and so, implicitly, killed. We see the effect of this six-degrees of separation, as a whole population waits to be incriminated.

The short chapters, constant tension and twists keep the reader entirely absorbed – we have to know if Leo can solve the case but also if he can survive.
“I wanted to write a book that was as exciting as 24, a page-turner in the way that show is compulsive.”

Tom Rob Smith, “Q&A”, in Child 44, p. 476.

The influence of 24 is very evident, and good, first-season 24 at its best, grounded in sordid reality and tricky moral dilemma. Every few pages some character is faced with some awful decision, forced to do terrible things just to get through the day. There are constant threats and revelations, and the short chapters make it hard to put down because you know you can just get a bit more. (It reminded me, oddly, of Dahl's The Magic Finger, which as a small child I could proudly read in one sitting.)

For the first 150 pages we follow Leo as he carries out his duties, oblivious to a plot that will link up the various incidents and characters. It's still some time before we understand the title, but ever page is thrilling. Some 300 pages in we're told the identity of the killer, so the book suddenly becomes about whether that person can be stopped and how many more people will die.

There's some odd stuff where we jump between the points of view of different characters while we're in the same section. I know other books do that, but understand the convention of Doctor Who books that we stay behind one pair of eyes until there's an evident break. And the book is relentless, humourless and grim. For the most part the only time anyone shows any kindness is for selfish reasons, a set-up for something awful.

Then, on page 370, with a hundred pages to go, I thought it would all come apart. There's a revelation about the killer (one I'd already suspected) that seems a terrible coincidence. It's explained later, and sort of buys back its credibility, but it's also like 24 and its worst. Likewise, the ordinary people at the end who risk their lives to help Leo feels a bit like it comes from nowhere and contradicts what we've already seen. If just one of these later characters had betrayed our hero I would have bought it more.

That said, Smith nicely suggests the ordinary people toeing the party line only to survive. The presumption of the State seems to be that life is meagre and hard, and should be in service of the nation. But this is 1953, while the US is all convenience and kitchen appliances, and the UK is just starting to see the end of post-war austerity. Smith shows his ordinary Russians struggling to provide comforts for their families and loved ones. It's not just that they'd see – and voice – flaws in the system because they saw images from the West. They can see the unfairness of State officials, who have better homes, hot water, real chocolate. No one would choose discomfort over comfort (at least, not for their loved ones). And if they can't choose it's only a question of time before they take it. That's not to say that the end of socialism was inevitable, but that when a system's not working, no amount of pressure from the State is going to hide that from the people.

Anyway, despite some minor reservations, it's a brilliant book, and I look forward to getting my mitts on the follow-up, The Secret Speech.
“Okay. This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. The don't give up.”

Cormac McCarthy, The Road, p. 145.

I nicked the title of my Being Human book from a TV thing by Nigel Kneale, and only heard about this book and film when mine had been announced. So I thought I better read it (and anyway, No Country For Old Men is made of splendid).

The unnamed father and his unnamed son trudge across terrain we slowly realise is in nuclear winter, a cold world strewn with ash and the horrific burnt remnants of firestorms, the sun ever-hidden by the grey. Whatever happened happened many years ago – around the time that the son was born. They scavenge meagre remains, huddle to keep warm and hope not to be caught by the cannibals...

It's an exhausting, wearying book, simply and vividly told. The simplicity just adds to the atmosphere of gloom – there's little else to be said. The trials of lighting a fire or getting caught in the rain are just as moving as the occasional scary moments on the road when they come across other survivors. Like Child 44, the short sections (and no chapters) mean it's difficult to give up the trudge; we can always plod another step further.

It reminds me a little of In The Country of Last Things and also On The Beach, but it's also probably not a wise book to read if you're plodding through heavy life stuff of your own. The man's ever more desperate effort to keep moving down the road are ultimately less heroic as futile. Harrowing, vivid and ouch.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Thank you

The Dr and I have been a bit overwhelmed by the response to that last post. The comments on the blog, on Facebook and privately are really appreciated, and make me wish I'd said something months back. Thanks everyone. A few people even asked if they could pass on what I wrote. Yes of course, if you think it's helpful - the direct link is:

http://0tralala.blogspot.com/2010/02/ivf.html

What with that response, it's been a good week all told. On Wednesday night I made my radio and broadcast debut* with a thing on topical sketch show Newsjack (episode 2.5). For those listening on iPlayer for the next few days, my sketch is about 25 minutes in and involves Mrs Thatcher.

(* I was a talking head on a documentary about Flash Gordon, but this is the first thing I've written that someone else has wanted to buy.)

I've been sending Newsjack sketches every week since the series began last month, and I'm delighted the one that got through is a fart joke set in 1979. You might also like to watch the original footage it is based on, which - with the mix of cheers and jeering - is remarkable in itself.

Having been pitching and pitching for weeks, another couple of things look like they're happening, and a third is suddenly moving. Can't speak of them now, but after a very tough January life is feeling a bit better.

My Being Human novel "The Road" is beginning to appear - including in the WH Smiths at Victoria, whence this picture was taken. I am thrilled to be jostling beside the works of Douglas Adams, though I don't quite understand understand why I'm there.

Reviews are also starting to appear. I'm delighted by this one, which spots that I nicked the title from Kneale and not Cormac McCarthy:
"Guerrier piles on the atmosphere, reminding me very much of Sapphire And Steel or the great Nigel Kneale in the way he describes our connections to places and landscapes and where times past are having a direct effect on contemporary events such as the building of a new road, and he creates quite a morally complex character with Gemma, carefully building up our sympathies for her only to twist them darkly out of shape towards the end of the book. An engrossing mystery written in a brittle prose that conjures up the swirling emotions of loss and revenge eating away at broken human lives that test the enduring spirits of our three 'heroes."

Frank, "BEING HUMAN: Novels - The Road, Chasers and Bad Blood / Review", Cathode Ray Tube, 1 February 2010

Hooray! Paul Simpson, meanwhile, gives me and James Goss 7/10 each, and Mark Michalowski 8/10:
"All three authors get the voices of the main characters right ... maintaining the show's combination of pathos, drama and black comedy ... They don't shy away from the horror element intrinsic to the show, although it's notable that we don't see George on a vulpine rampage – probably because the second season has been at pains to show George and Nina going through their monthly cycle as part of the ongoing Professor Jaggat plotline. (There is a brief reference to Jaggat, although there's no sign of either the professor or the bible-spouting Kemp, in line with the BBC policy that nothing important can happen in tie-in books.)"

Paul Simpson, "Being Human: The Road; Chasers; Bad Blood", Total Sci-fi Online, 3 February 2010.

That last bit is a little unfair. I'd feel a bit cheated if important parts of a TV show were only to be found in some tie-in books. Mark, James and I created our own characters and situations which I hope are engaging in themselves and add something to the experience of the series as a whole. You might as well get at us for not having written the books in 3D.

You can also win copies of the Being Human books in the latest, Being Human-tastic issue of Gay Times.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

IVF

Something different for my 900th post. I don't normally blog personal stuff, but the Dr and I want it out in the open that we're doing IVF. There's a weird taboo around the subject, and even people who know that we're doing it don't always know what it entails or quite how to respond. We're just starting our second attempt, and a lot of people seemed surprised that the first go didn't work. IVF is not some miracle pill that lets “career women” have babies later. It's a last resort, with the odds stacked up against it.

This goes on a bit, is probably a bit mawkish and we know that everyone has their own shit to deal with. But anyway, here goes...

The usual method of making a baby is via the ancient combination of alcohol, fumbling and interlocking body parts. There are all sorts of reasons why this might not work – apparently some one in seven couples have fertility problems. All sorts of tests and treatments can help spot the problem and, with luck, sort it out.

This all takes time. You might hear helpful comments about IVF being for women in their mid-thirties who have “left it too late”. The Dr and I have been “trying” (i.e. with alcohol and interlocking parts) since before we got married in 2004, when we were both in our late twenties. The doctors won't consider you've got a problem until you've been trying for about two years, so we started tests in late 2005.

Matching puncturesThere are a lot of tests: taking supplements, giving samples, prodding around in the plumbing. We collect matching punctures from the blood tests. None of it is particularly fun, and we made regular trips to the GP and two separate hospitals. I'll write about the joyous practicalities of sperm tests – and the instruction sheets they give you – another time. Medical stuff works on the basis of “Have a go and see what happens.” We tried a lot of different things.

For most of 2008, the Dr was on nasty stuff called clomid which made her paranoid, weepy and claustrophobic. About 11 pm every night she'd want to be home in bed, and away from other people. We didn't know this at first, of course, but worked it out by degrees. By the last month of the treatment I'd realised that when the Dr said “I want to go now”, whatever the time, wherever we were, we had to get up and go – usually without saying goodbye to anyone.

Gradually, I also worked out that I should let people know at the start of a night out or meal or wedding that this was what we might do. “Don't,” I'd say, “worry, or hold us up as we go. We'll just disappear.” And it helped to have enough money on me for taxis so as to avoid crowded trains. Generally, it made even the most simple tasks much more complicated. And after all those months, the clomid didn't have any positive effect.

If none of these tests and experiments work you get put on to in vitro fertilisation (IVF), where instead of using alcohol and interlocking parts the sperm and egg are mixed up in a petri dish. We were recommended for our first go at IVF in late 2008, and went through it last summer – more than five years after we began “trying”, and in our mid-thirties.

There are all sorts of percentages for how successful it will be depending on the exact problem. For example, you seem to have a better chance if the chap's sperm is okay and the issue is with the lady. The statistics are also less good for women after they turn 35 – we're luckily just inside that bracket before we try this second go. One doctor said this was because we had “got through the tests relatively quickly”, so some poor women must find this all especially cruel.

Once you're doing IVF, the process takes about two months. The wheeze is to jump-start your system to get it going, then extract the bits, put them together manually and re-insert them into the womb. There are distinct stages, and – a bit like end-of-level baddies in a computer game – you can only progress to the next stage when you've passed the last one.

First you go on what's basically the pill. Then, on the 21st day of your cycle you start injecting yourself with drugs that effectively put you through the menopause, shutting down your system. Symptoms of that can include hot flushes, night sweats, hormones all over the place (so lots of crying for no reason) and hair growth (sadly, the Dr didn't grow a beard). You have to inject the drugs at the same time every day, you can't drink and you're not scintillating company anyway. So it kills your social life.

After two weeks you go for a scan to see that your insides are shut down. If they have you're on to the next stage, injecting the menopause drugs and the drugs that put you through puberty. That's why you feel like you're being pulled in two directions. The Dr felt giddy, found it difficult to concentrate and kept forgetting things (she lost her mobile phone three times last year while on the various drugs). She only wanted to eat sweets and her body changed shape completely.

All the stuff with the clomid the previous year had prepared us a bit for these side effects. Knowing to leave early and to apologise in advance made things a little easier, but you're constantly on edge, madly hoping that you'll get to the next stage. It's also not easy to see someone you love going through something like this – and being completely unable to help.

Then there's another scan to see that your ovaries are producing follicles – the things that house the eggs. You'll have some idea already if it's working because you're swollen and sore, and even walking a step is painful. If it is working, they call you in for what's called a "harvesting", where they remove the follicles. This process hurts, so they put you on opiates and you still feel pretty wiped out and bruised. You're not allowed to leave on your own; you need someone else there to ensure you get home. The Dr was bruised for weeks afterwards.

They're hoping for about 10-12 good eggs from this harvesting, so there's some to fertilise and some to freeze so you can skip to this stage if you need to go through the process again. If you're with a chap, he donates his sperm at this stage and the boffins put it all together.

If that putting together works, two days later you're in again for the implantation, which is pretty straight-forward and easy. Then you wait two weeks to see if it's worked. “Try not to worry,” they say, as one might advise, “Try to walk to the Moon”. You get used to the matter-of-fact language as you go through the process. “If you've not bled after a fortnight,” they tell you, “do a pregnancy test”. Depending what statistics you read, at implantation your chances of pregnancy are about 40%.

Once there, you face all the normal risks of pregnancy, though IVF increases your chances of having twins which can mean a whole number more complications. Most people I've talked to who've done this thing see twins as just catching up on all the time spent getting this far.

But if it doesn't work – and last time ours didn't on the 14th day – you can try again.

It's all a numbers game, with the waiting “room” (a corridor) at the Assisted Conception Unit filled with the same despair and desperation, the plaintive longing for miracles, as in any Ladbrokes. According to the British Medical Journal,
“One cycle of IVF offers a 25% chance of pregnancy; three cycles offer a 50% chance”.
On that basis, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence in 2004 published guidelines,
“aimed at raising infertility service provision in England and Wales to the standards enjoyed elsewhere in Europe”,
which included the key recommendation of,
“up to three free cycles of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) for couples who have been unable to conceive for three years because of an identifiable reason—provided that the woman is under 40 years old.”

Caroline White, "Infertile couples to be given three shots at IVF", BMJ. 2004 February 28; 328(7438): 482

That recommendation is still not happening: it all depends where you live and which health authority you're under. We're caught between two health authorities, so went with the one that said it would pay for two goes. Until, that is, we actually needed to have a second attempt, when it admitted it would only pay for one.

It's about £4,000 to go through the whole thing (roughly what I get paid for a novel), and about £1,000 if you've got eggs already frozen, plus the £400 per year for freezing them. There's a brilliant bit of internal market cleverness when it comes to buying the drugs – the hospital gives you a list of the drugs you need and numbers for three suppliers. You take a morning off and ring round these people, getting the best price. There was about £70 difference between them, depending on postage arrangements. We couldn't, though, then order the drugs ourselves. We had to schlep back to the hospital who did it for us. Any savings made had been lost in the time faffing about. But this is apparently a key part of “Patient Choice” and is somehow empowering for us.

We've also had delays because of ongoing building works at the hospital, and our second go looks like it will be split between two different sites, so there'll be added excitements about where we're meant to be for any given part of the cycle. Ordinarily, stuff like that would just be annoying, but on something so complex, emotional and intrusive, it leaves you howling at the sky.

It also doesn't help that we already know what to expect – the side effects and pain, the desperate hope and even more desperate disappointment. It took several months for the Dr to get the drugs out of her system last time; she still felt clutzy and forgetful, and kept finding herself lost or double-booked.

There are difficult decisions to be made about how long you try for: how much the drugs affect the lady, how much you can afford, how close you get at each stage, how much you're wasting your time. It is, all told, weird and knackering. It's like we've both been carrying this weight around with us for years.

You start noticing how much female identity is built up on having kids – especially when women get to their late twenties. It's still surprising how often strangers will ask if you have children and then ask why not – are we “focusing” on our careers? You notice how many people see their kids as an achievement, not the result of alcohol, fumbling and interlocking parts and being lucky in the draw. We've been envious, yes, and sometimes upset, as our friends and relations get pregnant with such relative ease. It's not quite the same as watching my colleagues get thrilling writing gigs – where I'm torn between thinking both, “Good for them,” and also “Bastardsbastardsbastards!”

Sometimes we've hidden away from celebrations rather than be spectres at the feast. Not that that's how other people treat us, it's how we feel ourselves. I struggled for a long time to explain how this feels, but a good friend, K., described what we're going through as a kind of grief. That's exactly what it feels like – as if part of our future has died.

And yet through all of this the Dr and I are closer than we've ever been. Oh, we've had some spectacular rows, but mostly its being howling at the sky rather than each other. I don't think we'd have made it this far otherwise. And we've learned who our friends really are. The weirdest thing about all of this is what it does to other people as they try to help. There's the cheery teasing about us not turning up to things, or about leaving early. Or the ones who interrogate us about how we're feeling and want details of all the worst bits. Or – a favourite – those who tell us how difficult being pregnant and having kids is, as if in many ways we're blessed.

I know it's all well meant but these things don't really help. All that happens is that we want to withdraw, to hide away and lick our wounds. One kind person even told us – for our benefit, I'm sure – that we were being over-sensitive. But it's difficult to feel anything but broken, and constantly pelted with stones. There's news of abuse or neglect of children, or you see people shouting at their kids in the street, or yet another “authority” speaks out about IVF or even that marriage is all about having kids, or that some medical condition is a moral judgement on the person who has it, and it's like twisting the knife.

We're not expecting the second go at IVF to work. We're already prepared for the result of that: the blunt statement that we can't have children. We just have to grit our teeth and get on with it; whatever happens, then we can move on.

So the best thing is not to crowd us, or worry if we disappear. But it is good to know that our friends are thinking of us. The best thing to ask is, “How are things going?” and after that, “Would you like a drink?”

Monday, February 01, 2010

God is love

Spotted by the in-laws in Fleetwood:

St Valentine found true love...
I now imagine Jesus and Valentine out on an awkward date, trying to make conversation over dinner at Pizza Express, amid other, just-as-uncomfortable couples.