Monthly writing round-up

Rather than spam the blog with stuff I’ve written elsewhere, I thought at the end of the month I’d post a little round-up of some of the highlights (and trust me, I use the term with all due hesitation).

In truth, I feel like right now is something of a reboot of my writing career. Though New Atlas have been good enough to allow me to chip away at contributions over my months and years in the corporate wilderness world, writing for them again in earnest has been lovely.

I’m a different writer now, and I have some figuring out to do. I was never that interested in gadgets, if I’m honest, but a more world-weary me now has to try harder to find subjects that I want to write about. I used to pride myself in being interested in everything, and though I think that’s true in terms of subject matter, I need a hook into any particular story. That’s probably a good thing.

I’ve heard some good news with a pitch beyond New Atlas. I’ve always been lazy at pitching, but starting more or less from square one I can’t afford to be at the moment. I need to build up my clips again. It’s great that I’ve written for Ars or Smithsonian Magazine, but that was a long time ago now. Time to knuckle down while not burning myself out to the point of not wanting to write creatively – if I don’t get into that habit now, I never will.

Anyway, rambling. Here’s some of the stuff I wrote for New Atlas in November:

  • On a point of pedantry, yesterday I wrote a thing about why Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent the internet. Spoiler: the internet had already been invented. He invented the web. Lurches into the history of technology which it now occurs to me I have a degree in and should probably write more about.
  • I also got a bit annoyed with some of the coverage on a story on the potential of whales to fight climate change. The IMF reckon a great whale is worth about a thousand trees in terms of carbon storage, so obviously a number of outlets took that to mean that we should give up on trees and forests. So I wrote a thing calling that out a little a bit.
  • I was quite pleased with a piece I wrote on old Aztec farming tradition that one researcher thinks could help feed highly populated cities – provided there’s a nearby lake, that is. Now that I think of it, technology history-meets-futurism sounds more interesting than just technology history as a furrow to plough. Thinking face.
  • Finally, I shall say nothing about the curious case of the house with no knocker, because that’s the sort of piece it is. It did ****-all business, but I don’t care. More of this sort of thing – as much as I can get away with, anyway.

If you made it this far, thank you. Have a joke on me. Don’t be too hopeful. I’m making this up on the spot. Like, now. Why did the Jedi call the police? Because he liked to use the force. Goodo!

On criticism

Digitiser just posted a piece on the pointlessness of criticism. As usual, I agree with basically everything Paul says, but in this case disagree with the overall thrust. And, as it’s a subject close to my spleen, I got involved in the comments. Let me put it here for posterity.

The Guardian ran a 1-star review of Jack Whitehall‘s standup gig at the O2. I happened to see a tweet from Henning Wehn, which said “If an act manages to hold the attention of such a large crowd it simply can’t be a one star show. You might not enjoy it but it simply can’t be a one-star show.” I disagree.

I’d go so far as to say that if reviews are pointless, then so are the books, films and video games being reviewed. I say this because I think criticism is, first and foremost, entertainment. Yes yes, hats off to the actual creators – let us revere them etc, but it is right that their works are discussed, and if that’s sometimes in a negative light, that’s a sign that our society, or at least one aspect of it, is healthy.

Consider the alternatives: a world in which films and TV programmes come out and nobody talks about them, or one in which people only have good things to say about them. I’d rather, quite literally, be dead then live in either of those utopian intellectual wastelands.

Like everyone else I’ve learned the hard way my tastes don’t coincide with any one critic or the critical consensus, or even the consumer consensus. There are too many top-rated games I find boring and many middling ones I’ve greatly enjoyed. But that doesn’t render criticism pointless. It merely puts it in perspective.

Surely I’m not alone in starting out reading a review hoping that the critic really really hates the thing in question? Genuinely, that is. It would be a step too far to pretend to hate it to generate some entertaining copy – but it’s that entertaining copy I’m hoping for.

C.f. some of Peter Bradshaw’s 1-star film reviews for the Guardian.

Roll with it

While I figure out how to add a linkroll to a sidebar in the newer, simpler back end, I was very pleased to see Flip Flop Flyin’s colourful, minimal, often-pixelly art happenings are still, er, happening. Much inspiration there. What would a FFF for words look like, I wonder?

Crawl space

Here’s the Phantom Menace’s opening crawl. If you’re not familiar with that term, it’s the words that scroll up the screen at the beginning of the film to tee up the plot:

Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.

Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.

While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict….

It’s not easy to un-Trade Federation that, but I’ll give it a go. It also needs a re-jig for visual balance. You want three roughly equal-length paragraphs, I’d have thought.

Here’s a rough first stab at a Shadows of the Force rewrite (complete with deliberately-incorrect four-point ellipsis), hastily tapped out before I need to pick up LT from school:

These are dangerous times for the Republic. Sinister forces, wielding the power of the dark side, conspire to end centuries of peace and prosperity.

In the outer rim, deadly battleships have entered orbit around the beautiful planet of Naboo. Their official mission is diplomacy; their true purpose is war.

Working in secret, the Jedi Council and leaders of the Senate have dispatched Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi to maintain peace and justice in the galaxy….

There. It’s far from perfect and I’m sure I’ll tinker with it some more as and when I dive into the script. It deliberately foreshadows opening crawls of “later” episodes, which I think is fine.

It punts out some plot specifics (which will need to change anyway) in favour of just generally setting the mood, which I think should be “erk, here comes the dark side”. I think it partly. achieves that. Oh, and it namechecks Obi-Wan (with a promotion to Jedi Knight) so you know a beloved character will be in the thick of the action from the get-go. I may bin off Qui-Gon entirely – we’ll see.

And that’s it for now, really. Er. Goodbye!

Star Wars Episode I – Shadows of the Force

I want this blog to be fun, more than anything. Fun to write, and perhaps even fun to read. I don’t know why I ever thought of that before. So I’ve come up with this incredibly self-indulgent idea to redraft the script of Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace. I know.

I’ve always thought that being a script doctor sounded about the most fun job in the world, so why not have a whirl at it for a bit of a giggle? And do something Star Wars-y to boot.

Anyway, I’m not going to tackle all that in one go. I’m just going to poke at it here and there when I fancy it: in a series of blog posts! I’ve already started, with the title, which I reckon should be Shadows of the Force instead of The Phantom Menace. Yes, I know Shadows of the Empire was a revered piece of universe expansion with a similar name, but I’m not going to worry about that. This is just for fun.

Similarly, I don’t want to get into what’s right and wrong with The Phantom Menace. I’m just going to trust my writerly instincts and change what they say to change.

Off the top of my head, here are things I think I’m probably going to change:

  1. The title (done! ✅)
  2. The Trade Federation – get all the trade stuff out and make this a straightforward tale of good and evil, because it’s Star Wars.
  3. Character names – this is tricky and subjective, but I think since the original trilogy most character names are pretty bad in the way Isaac Asimov character names tend to be pretty bad.
  4. Midichlorians be gone.
  5. Last but not least, cheesy dialogue, which for me, is in no short supply.

I don’t mean to dump on the Phantom Menace – enough of that’s gone on and it’s become beyond ugly. And I’m not saying anything I can poke at will be any better. Once again, this is just a self-indulgent exercise for my own amusement (which I’m definitely going to finish because James the tinkerer is dead.)

So there we are. You can track progress with the #shadowsoftheforce tag over in the projects section of the sidebar →


I’m gonna use this place for creative stuff, which is a bit of a first for me, and a bit on the scary side, I’ll be honest.

So I’m starting out gently resurrecting an old idea I never got off the ground: Land’s End to John O’Groats in 100 limericks. But, now I think of it, the limericks should probably say something about modern Britain. So I’ll have to tinker with the first one. Have to have an angle, and all that.

Should be doable, shouldn’t it? Here’s the tag for these efforts: 100limericks. If I stick with it, I’ll stick em all in one place at some point. Probably when they feel like they’re swamping the blog.

And I am going to stick with it. That’s the new me. The tinkerer is dead.