Faces and fringes

I’m a bit late posting this as I wrote these last Wednesday evening during Cat Rambo’s writing games session. But I’ve spent the intervening time working on the third piece, which I shan’t be posting here, as I liked it so much I’m going to submit it for publication!

Here are the other two pieces, with the prompts that generated them:

  1. What I saw in the mirror was not what I expected.

Over the years of Switching, I’ve got used to seeing other people’s faces looking back at me. There’s always that moment of shock, of readjustment, before my brain reasserts itself under the influence of the spell and I think “Right, yeah, that’s them but it’s not me, I’m just here to do a job. And somewhere, at a far deeper level, there’s something of the other person looking back at me, seeing exactly what they’ve always seen. I don’t know how that works, so don’t ask me, but there’s always a faint sigh of relief that things are as they should be. They aren’t, of course, so whatever it is that’s feeling it must be something pretty primitive.

But I digress. When I looked in the mirror this time, what I saw was not myself inhabiting someone else’s body. It was someone else inhabiting my body. This time I was that primitive something lost under the layers of someone else’s consciousness. And they were looking back at me and grinning.

2. This image (embedded here, but follow the link to the original Twitter posting).

A telegraph pole with wires, all of which are covered by fringes of short icicles

Originally tweeted by Isabel Salvasilha (@salvasilha) on January 25, 2023.

On Elvis World everything has white fringes. No, I’m not kidding. Everything.

Look, here’s a picture I took of a telegraph pole. Or is it an electricity line? Anyway, you get the idea. Everything – and I mean everything – has white nylon fringing hanging off it. The sheep don’t look too weird, but the cars were most peculiar, and you don’t even want to know about the toilets. I mean, that can’t be hygienic, no matter how many times a day they fill in the little card to say the facilities have been cleaned. And refringed.

But at least you’re never far away from a defibrillator. There’s one in every cubicle. Not just in the loos, like next to the tampon dispenser or something, but actually in each cubicle above the cistern. I suppose it’s statistically possible for two people in adjacent toilet cubicles to have heart attacks at the same time, and for two defibrillators to be required simultaneously in close proximity, but it can’t be very likely.

Apart from that? It was OK, I suppose. I mean, you’d really, really have to like Elvis to pay to go there rather than winning tickets like I did, but I think, if you were a fan and you wanted to add to your rhinestone-covered Elvis funko pop collection, you’d be in heaven. I was extremely glad I’d remembered to take my noise-cancelling headphones, though. And I don’t ever want to see another peanut butter and banana sandwich as long as I live.

Three prompts become one

Firstly, I probably ought to wish you all a Happy New wossname, and all that jazz. Personally, I’ll settle for this year being rather less bizarre than the last few. Boredom is my goal. Lots of lovely nothing interesting happening, interspersed by large and well-paid translation projects, please.

While awaiting another 360-odd days of mundanity, I remembered to join in with Cat Rambo’s writing games this evening, and set myself the task of writing a single piece to incorporate all three prompts. The first two were relatively easy, but the last one had me stumped for a moment.

Here’s what I produced this evening (prompts in bold).

 I arrived in the city and you met me at the station, smiling in a way that made me frightened.

“What are you planning now?”

“Me? Nothing.” You grabbed my bag and hailed a taxi, innocence radiating from you like a cloud of angels’ wings. Oh shit. This was going to be really bad.

When we drew up outside the Waldorf, I knew it was going to be worse than bad. And when we arrived in our suite – the Presidential Suite, no less – my knees were so weak I could barely stand.

After the terror of the anticipation, discovering what you actually intended to steal this time, and the insanely risky method you intended to use, was almost a relief.

“Chuck’s containment breach of terrifying horrible horror.”

You grinned at me as if expecting a reward.

“You want to steal…” I had to pause for a moment and search for words. “You want to steal the mythical portal to an eldritch realm populated by immortal lizard people?”

“That’s right.”

“The mythical portal we don’t even know exists, it being mythical and all that?”

“I have proof.” Your grin faltered only slightly. “Well, kind of proof. I know someone who knows someone who has proof it exists.”

I was not going to be deflected.

“The mythical portal through which, if it does exist, immortal lizard people might emerge at any moment?”

This you were ready for.

“Nobody’s come through it for nearly five years, and none are expected. It’s perfectly safe.”

My final argument, I knew, was unbeatable, but still my voice became a little shrill by the end of the sentence.

“The mythical portal with the immortal lizard people that’s owned by King Charles, guarded by 84 Beefeaters and kept in the Tower of London, one of the most secure places in the world?”

At last, your face fell a little.

“I do have a plan,” you muttered. “It’s a really good one.”

Iksie is a violet planet with a humidified atmosphere. It has 3 moon(s) and is metallic. It is a textile planet.”

You read from the Wikipedia page in a tone that implied every word was a lucid explanation of how to pilfer an interdimensional portal owned by one of the richest men (or possibly lizard people) on the planet, instead of a description that read like something from an 8-year-old author’s first SF story.

When you had finished reading out the brief introduction to the entry on Iksie, you looked at me expectantly.

I sighed. I’d long since grown used to the weirdness of your ‘planning stage’, and had developed a little more confidence that the disparate threads would finally pull together into something that became a heist worthy of the name. But this was obscure even for you.

“No?” you said with disbelief.

“Maybe just a little more detail?” I said, trying not to sound apologetic. Dammit. I was beginning to be drawn in, interested to see how you’d pull this one off. And what the result would be. I knew the portal would be a steal-to-order job – they always were – so it would go off into some other rich person’s vault and never be seen again (at least, I hoped it would). But at least I’d know. I’d know whether the British royal family really were lizard people from the planet Zorg or wherever.

You smiled beatifically, and this was probably your most scary expression yet. This was the one that said “I’ve got you and we both know it”.

And as I felt the fear turn to curiosity-fuelled excitement, you zoomed in on one image in the Wiki article, and displayed it to me with a flourish.

“Tapestry!” you declared. “We get ourselves made into a tapestry and presented to the king!”

Breathing into your writing

I’m just out of another Cat Rambo writing games session (this time ably hosted by Jennifer Brozek), and once again I’m astonished by the creativity you can stimulate from your writing brain with a few simple prompts.

Today’s exercise was simultaneously very simple and very complicated, but it goes like this:

  1. Take a sentence. Jenn suggested three: one about making coffee, one about taking your pet for a walk, and one that apparently came from one of Cat’s ‘story seeds’, which immediately spoke to me. “The ghost of a nurse walks the streets of Glasgow.”
  2. Spend 15 minutes writing a paragraph that expands on that sentence.
  3. Spend another 15 minutes writing a number of paragraphs that expand on that paragraph.
  4. Use each expansion to tell the reader about the character, the environment, emotions, motivation etc.

I’d add a sub-instruction here, which is “5. Do this exercise using a keyboard because otherwise you have to write the text out twice so you can fit things in between the original lines.”

Anyway, this was a lot of fun, and immediately brought to mind a ghost mediator I’d conjured up from somewhere when I did the Iowa writing course waaaay back in the mists of time. He’s one of the watchers in the expanded version. Maybe one day I’ll string these various fragments together and give him a longer story.

Original sentence:

The ghost of a nurse walks the streets of Glasgow.

First expansion:

The ghost of a nurse walks the streets of Glasgow. The hem of her dress brushes the cobbles as she walks. Her clothes are well cared-for, but far from new, and her only outer garment a thin shawl, scant protection against the raw chill of a Glaswegian October night. The woman is of medium height, medium build, with medium brown hair and medium grey eyes. Her boots are neither holed nor squeakily new. She holds herself with confidence, but not arrogance. No easy target, this, but equally not a fighter. Her name is Mary, baptised like hundreds of others in the city for the Holy Mother. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about this nurse from Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Save that she is dead.

Second expansion:

The ghost of a nurse walks the streets of Glasgow. And two people watch her progress. The hem of her dress brushes the cobbles as she walks. Her clothes are well cared-for, but far from new, and her only outer garment a thin shawl, scant protection against the raw chill of a Glaswegian October night.

Her watchers do not feel the cold; their breath does not cloud the scene before them. The woman is of medium height, medium build, with medium brown hair and medium grey eyes. One of the watchers stirs as her face is yellowly illuminated by her passage beneath a gas lamp.

“She looks like me. Don’t you reckon? I think she does. Why does she look like me?”

The woman’s boots are neither holed nor squeakily new.

“How did they manage to even walk wearing those long dresses? I’d have gone arse over tip within five minutes.”

They follow her course with their eyes. She holds herself with confidence, but not arrogance. No easy target, this, but equally not a fighter.

“She’s got street smarts, aint she? Don’t meet anyone’s eyes, get where you’re going as fast as you can, but don’t draw attention to yourself. Yeah, she’s not bad. What’s her name again?”

Her name is Mary, baptised like hundreds of others in the city for the Holy Mother. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about this nurse from Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

“Bit boring, though, isn’t she? All that public service bit and slogging your way home in the rain. If she’s half as special as you make out, I’d expected something a bit more glitzy.”

There is nothing remarkable about this woman. Save that she is dead, a ghost from 130 years ago and yet alive and standing beside him, intensely curious and endlessly fidgeting, clad in skinny jeans and a puffer jacket, huge earrings swinging as she noisily chews her gum.

I’m an IM! Or the difference between real proofreading and translation proofreading

I had a bit of a stressful week last week, but one thing that did cheer me up was receiving confirmation that I’d been accepted as an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). Rather confusingly, these are known as IMs, a term that I always want to stick an apostrophe in the middle of every time I see it.

The logo I’m now authorised to use!

Of course I’ve been proofreading and editing for years alongside my translation work, but I felt it was about time I got some professional training, so this year I’ve completed CIEP’s Proofreading 1 and 2 courses.

Interestingly, it wasn’t learning the traditional BSI proofreading marks that gave me the biggest headache, but understanding the difference between proofreading for publication (where you’re working in the final stage before publishing and need to change as little as possible) and translation proofreading, where you tend to make bigger changes, especially if – as I tend to – you’re working for a client who actually wants copyediting and doesn’t intend to pay for proofreading separately.

In case you’re wondering “but what’s copyediting?”, this is how the editing process is supposed to work (image source):

The process runs from left to right. In theory.

But in my experience of the translation world, it’s common for the “proofreader” to be presented with a text that’s far from publication-ready. And at this point you have three choices:

  • Go back to the client and tell them that the text needs two different levels of edit (and risk losing the job to someone who’ll just do what they ask)
  • Do what they ask
  • Proofread and be damned!

If you’re a translator who offers proofreading, what do you do in this situation? Do you agree that in the translation world a “proofreading” job tends to be more than just checking for typos?

The memory of cats

This one is from Cat Rambo’s writing games, as promised. The prompt is this image.

It began with Muffin. Muffin’s owner buried him in the far corner of the old churchyard. That was where the poor people used to be buried, said Mrs Green in the Post Office, but cats don’t mind whether you have money, so that was OK.

Then it was Thistle’s turn to go. Her owner had seen Muffin’s lovely cat-shaped wooden headstone, and she ordered one from Jack, who sometimes helped out behind the bar and sometimes sat at their bivvy in the woods, carving.

And then Jack’s semi-feral tabby, Kitty, went, and she had to have a marker…

And before long there was a whole cat graveyard there in the shady corner by the church.

Even when the church was sold off and turned into a glamorous new home by a local writer, the headstones continued to appear.

Archie and Pippin, Sasha and Milly, Friday and Einstein.

And in the late afternoon, when the sun slanted in under the yew trees, the live cats came there too, lazing or washing, chatting to the ghosts of cats long gone and cats yet to come, or those from as far away as the other end of the village.

A big ocean

Life got in the way and I haven’t posted the writings I’d intended, but fortunately there’s some continuity in my existence, other than the fact that I’m still breathing, and that continuity is provided by music.

Those of you who’ve been here a while will remember my quasi-religious experience when I saw Godspeed You! Black Emperor live a few years back (in fact I realise now it was seven years ago – even deducting the Two Lost Years, that’s still about twice as long as I thought).

Tonight I saw them again. Everything was as before, with the exception that, because I was seeing them in France instead of Sweden, the bearded men were each slightly less bearded and about a foot shorter.

They began with the Hope Drone, and I now have a Hope Hammer to go with it.

Hope Hammer pin badge
A Hope hammer

They played a number of things over a certain period of time (my watch says it was an hour and forty minutes. My brain tells me that several eons have elapsed).

I’m not even certain exactly what they played. I only know it was wonderful, scary, heartbreaking and exhilarating.

It occurred to me toward the end of the show, as my body dissolved into the crashing noise all around it, that the difference between listening to Godspeed’s albums and Godspeed’s live performance is like the difference between swimming laps in a nice clean heated pool under a clear blue sky and being dropped from a height into the middle of the North Sea in a Force 8 gale. In the winter. At night. You can tell it’s water, but everything beyond that is chaos.

If you like GY!BE and you haven’t seen them live yet, do so. Just make sure you take a lifejacket.

A tiny ocean

As I explained in my previous post, I’m going to be posting some writings produced from prompts from Cat Rambo’s weekly writing games.

Why not try the prompt yourself before reading further? Or you can join Cat’s Patreon from just $2 a month to write live with the group!

Prompt: A tiny ocean is in a Turkish garden. A woman writes a notebook about it.

Writing time: 10 minutes

Wooden bowl with resin ocean decoration

It makes me wonder how many of these things there are, around the world. If it hadn’t been for the owner’s unusually observant nature, this would too could have just slipped by, unnoticed.

You often hear of sinkholes, and they’re always measured in units of largeness. Cubic metres, or the width of the White House or the length of an American football pitch.

But this… this tiny ocean contains, as far as my instruments can determine, all the things you’d expect to find in a normal-sized ocean – fish, islands, coral reefs, whales, icebergs, even… but all microscopically tiny.

“It leads to some interesting questions, does it not?” says Professor Yavuz, shoving his hands deep into his pockets as he paces back and forth across the lawn.

I lean back in the flimsy folding chair and rubbing my aching neck.

“It does indeed. I’ve just discovered a shipwreck.”

[In case you’re wondering, that gorgeous bowl is by Ilka Abbé, price 75€.]

More writing prompt pieces to follow!

Anyone who knows anything about modern SF will have heard of Cat Rambo, the author and former President of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. What most people don’t know – indeed I didn’t until I signed up as a Patreon – is that Cat has an incredibly lively, supportive, inspiring Patreon community. There are discussions of all things writing and beyond, plus some amazing interactive sessions every week.

One of these – and you get access to this even if you’re only a Tier 1 Patreon like me, which I think is phenomenal – is a weekly writing games session. This takes the form of a Zoom session at which Cat sets three prompts, two with a 10-minute writing time and one with a 15-minute limit. Then anyone who wants to can read out what they’ve written.

As always with these things, it’s absolutely fascinating to hear what everyone produces from a single prompt. It’s also a really good way to realise that it’s not at all easy to bring your story to a satisfactory end in such a short time.

I won’t be able to make the session every week, but with three prompts a time I’ve already come up with the seeds of a couple of stories that please me and I’m keen to continue the habit of weaving something from (apparently) nothing. So watch this space!

I did it! My book of Manx fairy tales is now available to read

As those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while may remember, some time back I wrote a series of short pieces in response to writing prompts based on a box of Christmas tea sachets. Those stories turned out to be set on the Isle of Man, where I was born and grew up.

Together with other short stories, flash fiction and fragments, they are now available as A Manx Daisy Chain and other stories. You can buy the title as an e-book or paperback, currently on Amazon (here), and I’ll be adding it to other platforms according to demand.

So if you like fairy tales, or fancy the idea of stories about robot dinosaurs, Bake Off in space or why translators need to be really careful about the assignments they accept… you might enjoy reading it!

Look at the pretty cover design!

Review: Copywriting Course, College of Media and Publishing

Or how to put yourself off copywriting (for life?) in 14 extremely tedious and not very relevant lessons

As those of you who’ve been here for a while will know, I quite enjoy writing. I’m fairly good at it. And, as a sensible freelancer, I’m always trying to think of ways that I can offer more value to my clients while also broadening my skills base, just in case they ever do manage to perfect machine translation.

So a while back I signed up for the College of Media and Publishing’s Copwriting course. And when I say “a while back”, I really do mean a long time ago. Like, years.

In fact, so many years that when I got together in 2020 with a handful of fellow translators to set up an accountability group so we could finally finish the course (all right, I hadn’t even done one assignment, but I would)… it turned out that I had to pay a supplement of £50 to restart the course again.

And everything went downhill from there, really. What follows is, I admit, a fairly harsh review. YMMV. Maybe it’s just me. You might love it. I ended up with a Distinction, so I do feel a tad ungrateful – which is one of the reasons it’s taken me almost a year to decide to write this – but on the other hand as a copywriting course retailing at anything up to £500* I just feel that it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.

Copywriting diploma with distinction grade
I’d almost rather have failed, given how much I hated it

Firstly, it’s not really a course aimed at people like me. As a freelance translator, I’m already pretty au fait with a lot of the general stuff the course covers. Grammar, online glossaries, terminology, proofreading your work? Tick. Formatting? Yup. Writing effective headings? Well, maybe not from scratch, but I often have to turn headings in French or Swedish into snappy equivalents in English. Writing press releases? Ditto.

Secondly, it’s not really a course that teaches you copywriting. Yes, I know. You’d think that, in a copywriting course, that would be pretty basic. Instead – and I can kind of see why, but there must be a better way to do it than this – it teaches you to come up with fictional briefs and then write copy to fit them.

For example, an exercise might ask you to come up with a magazine for which you’d write an article about a company’s product. All/some of which could be fictional. And to my mind, that’s just so vast an assignment that I don’t even know where to start. So each time we had to do something like this, I ended up making up the entire thing. Which just made it an exercise in creative writing, rather than copywriting.

Thirdly, it’s incredibly dull. Each lesson consists, as you’d expect, of study notes concluding with an assignment. But there are up to 44 pages of study notes (yes, FORTY-FOUR). That was for the social media assignment, which took absolutely ages because you had to do umpteen different tasks (including creating a blog if you didn’t already have one, and writing at least two posts – which seems like an inefficient way to teach someone about blogging).

Fourthly, it’s not very well written. I began to expect the recurring use of “But”, followed by a comma, at the start of sentences, but I never stopped gritting my teeth about it. Surely if you’re teaching any kind of writing, you need to get the basic grammar right?

Fifthly, some of the marking is a bit dubious. I had one assignment marked as a B because I’d failed to include notes to the fictional newspaper editor. When I pointed out that I had, in fact, included these notes, but the tutor simply hadn’t scrolled to the bottom of the assignment, my mark remained a B.

And finally, it’s not up-to-date. As I mentioned above, one of the assignments involved creating a blog. Now, you can argue that blogging is still relevant for companies in 2022. But you can’t deny that Twitter no longer has a 140 character limit. In fact it hasn’t since 2017! I did point this out in my submission, but I stuck to 140 characters anyway because I guessed that if I’d gone with the current 280 character limit I’d probably have been marked down. In any case, I’d have had to write another 140 characters of this depressing stuff, and by that point I was just desperate to get the damned thing finished.

In fact, if it hadn’t been for that accountability group I mentioned at the start of this post, I’d never have done it. (Thank you all – you know who you are!) Other members deprived themselves of chocolate when they didn’t submit assignments on time. One member notably strode through the entire course, finishing it in what felt to me like seconds but was probably a much more reasonable few months. Meanwhile, I found the entire thing so soul-grindingly awful that I needed to bring in the nuclear option on repeated occasions: I threatened myself with having to make a 50€ donation to Nigel Farage’s latest party. It never failed. Nigel, you’re a mean-minded, self-serving arsehole and you’ve single-handedly made racism acceptable in the UK again and condemned ordinary young people to suffering under the British government for their entire lives, instead of escaping as I was fortunate enough to do… but at least you helped me get through this dreary desert of a course.

I should perhaps point out here that I’m not incapable of appreciating online courses. In May I finished “Proofreading 1” from the CIEP, the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, and I’m on target to finish “Proofreading 2” in the next week. And they’re wonderful. Challenging, instructive, high-level, well-written and constructed… In other words, a lot of fun, and absolutely worth the price. In fact, I have to stop myself thinking “Oh, I could just do a little bit more of the next assignment” so I can actually get some work done. I’m really looking forward to being able to announce my qualification as a full Member of the CIEP.

But the College of Media and Publishing’s copywriting course has had exactly the opposite effect. I’ve done copywriting for clients in the past. I’ll continue to do it for existing clients who ask for it. But I won’t be looking for new outlets for my copywriting skills. I’ve even left ProCopywriters, a network I joined a few years ago, and whose conference I attended and found to be extremely enjoyable. I’m not sure why the course had such an extreme negative effect on me – maybe it was having to admit over and over for a whole year, in yet another Friday accountability thread, that I still hadn’t done the next assignment?

In any case, as I’ve said above you may feel different about it. It may teach you all you ever wanted to know about copywriting and fill you with enthusiasm for the profession. Personally, I wasn’t lovin’ it.

*If you do decide to do this course, make sure you sign up during one of the CMP’s frequent special offers. You can usually get it for less than half the RRP.