Blog Soldiers - Alasdair Stuart
Alasdair Stuart was born on the Isle of Man and is adept at making his own fun. Since arriving on the mainland, he's run a comic shop, been the world's most polite bouncer, packed an office into 250 plastic crates, worked as a porter, had at least one paranormal experience and written for Sci Fi Now, Comic Heroes, Neo, How It Works, The Guardian, SFX and more. He's the host of Parsec-award winning podcast Pseudopod, edits Hub magazine and recently spent a Saturday covered in blue facepaint dancing to funk music. He also blogs, a lot which you can read here.
What made you want to start writing a blog?
Henry Rollins and Elisabeth Bear. Rollins was a huge, huge influence on me in my late teens. For those that don't know, Henry Rollins is the former lead singer of Black Flag, the lead singer of the Rollins band, a publisher, TV presenter, film and music buff, activist, actor and serial diarist. He's also large, covered in tattoos and looks like he quite wants to kill you at the same time as actually being massively clever, articulate and funny. Rollins is for want of a better word, Helo from Battlestar Galactica's cool anti-establishment dad.
The Boxed Life, one of the early collections of his spoken word stuff is one of the reasons why I got through my adolescence, which was a season in hell, intact. He writes, and talks, a lot about strength and how to deal with bad situations with a combination of humour and relentless determination and that idea, that you can be big AND clever? That idea is massively attractive to me. As is the idea of doing lots and lots of different things at once. There's a joke he tells about how he's the only person he knows who could do three shows in Germany then be asked to go pick apples in Albania the next day for no money and whose first response would be “YES!”
I can relate to that.
Anyone curious by the way? Put “Eric the pilot” through Google. It's worth it.
Elisabeth Bear is the first person I found who mentioned the idea that a writer has a million word apprenticeship to serve. Your first million words? Will start off awful and upgrade over time to simply fairly bad and then good. I like that, and I like the idea of hammering away at the mineface of words, and, even better, talking about myself doing it. Hemingwayian exhibitionism, I suppose you could call it.
Had you read many blogs prior to writing your own?
Being a geek of a particular stripe I've clung to Warren Ellis' rolling culture blog like a drowning man for about seven years prior to this point. Through that I've bounced off Coilhouse, Boing Boing and the Gawker sites all of which offer various levels and types of content. Boing Boing's great for “Wow! REALLY?!” stuff, Coilhouse tends to have heartbreakingly beautiful things and some pretty great journalism and the Gawker sites are sort of information sushi, constantly putting new stuff up. Annalee, Charlie Jane and the team at io9.com do a particularly good job, and there's a lot of really interesting stuff on there I'd otherwise have missed. I caught a complete short movie Exist, there this week which is a really interesting, spooky alien piece. Worth checking out.
I've also toyed with Kung Fu Monkey by John Rogers which is a phenomenal resource for writers and incredibly funny. I defy anyone to get through his exploration of the first couple of seasons of Lost without giggling.
I've also spent some time on Livejournal, and, well, I found that quite odd. There's a lot of hugely positive stuff on there and some of the best writing I've ever come across is on Livejournal. But at the same time, fandom is red and tooth and claw on LJ and its last couple of years haven't filled it with anything even slightly resembling glory. If you don't already know about it, google the term “racefail” or spend any time around the fandom_wank sites and you'll see a lot of really good stuff and a lot of things which, well, aren't good. I do still check in on LJ from time to time though.
What do you think makes a good blog?
I went to World Horror Con last year and there was a panel there about writer websites and how the most important thing is being consistent and regular.
[Looks at the vast gap between entries on blog, coughs, looks a bit shifty.]
Regularity is something you have to have as is, for me at least, clarity of purpose. I have tried, and failed, to do daily journal entries and they were awful. Likewise the sort of stream of consciousness or “Here's what I did today” stuff that other people do very well. As a result, I decided to cheat and from the start of the blog I've focussed on specific things. So I started out with The Prisoner remake, then folded in the theatre stuff and now I'm doing a review of every movie I see this year and the weekly Judo Diary. Incidentally, the next film reviews are Grease, Ultramarines, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Devil. All of which I really liked, although Grease definitely has the best animated opening sequence. Although in the interests of full disclosure, I liked both X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Devil.
On your blog you are chronicling you study of Judo. What made you take up the sport?
I'm not confident, at all, and my physical confidence is basically non-existent. I've spent my whole life very aware I'm two different things; a brain, which I've happily spent 34 years filling with all manner of stuff ranging from English Literature and Geology (not a lot of Geology though, I was very bad at it) and a body, which I've ignored. My job is sedentary, my lifestyle is sedentary, I like pie a little bit too much and biscuits far too much and that was making me feel worse which was making me feel even less motivated to do anything about it which meant I ate more to cope with it which meant I felt even worse and so on and so forth.
I've lost the weight before. I dropped three stone in 2002-3 on Weight Watchers and I wanted to do that and something which would raise my fitness level. I've always been interested in the martial arts but I've also always quite liked my face, so I wasn't entirely up for something which involved me getting hit in it. That, combined with several friends telling me it would be a good fit for my size, combined and, terrified, I went along to the Railway Institute Judo club and...
Couldn't train because I didn't have any kit. But I'd shown up and it sounds pathetic I know but that was a huge deal. I'd gone outside my comfort zone, I'd turned up to something which because of both my weight and my hilariously bad eyesight, was a challenge. So I stayed and watched and the next week? I went back.
And couldn't train again because it was a seminar that started earlier than normal.
But the week after that, I turned up, along with my training partner and I'm starting to not look back. When I started I hated sparring because, well, I've never been in a fight. Ever. When you're 5'11” by the time you're 13 people don't tend to try and mess with you physically, and the idea of doing that, and of having to trust myself to not hurt my opponent, terrified me, actually made me physically nauseous.
Now? I love it. I love sparring, I love testing myself and I love the exercise. Judo's a deceptive style because it doesn't have the flashy strikes of a lot of other martial arts but it's brutal in two ways; both in terms of some of the techniques and the sheer effort you put in. You're hauling yourself, and someone your size, around the mat at pretty high speed, trying attacks, resisting their attacks, changing tactics. It's exhausting and once a lesson or so I'll bounce off the mat wrong and hurt myself. I'm four weeks out from being thrown at competition speed onto my left shoulder and I can only just sleep on it, my knees are killing me and every time my head bounces off the mat I get a headache. I wear each and every one of those with absolute joy because I'm showing up, I'm trying and it doesn't matter if I'm the least fit person in the class or the least advanced. There's a culture of mutual learning and respect that I find massively attractive about it, and that, along with how the sport adapts to different body sizes is what's keeping me going back. Plus my Uchi Mata's apparently pretty good already.
As an aside, Judo is also the first stage of something I've called Operation Batman because, well, I'm an enormous nerd. Operation Batman is all the things I want to do before I'm 40, things which will enrich my life, get me fitter and get me healthier on a permanent basis. After another four to six weeks I'm planning on taking up kickboxing as well and have plans across the next couple of years to drop rock climbing, swing dancing, tap dancing, kayaking, a marathon and hopefully sky diving into that. As well as going back to stage magic and learning German. Then all I need is a cave and a sardonic cockney butler and I'm away.
You were one of the scenario writers on the Doctor Who role playing game. What was that like to do?
The single funnest thing in the history of fun things! I LOVED doing that, loved it to tiny tiny tiny pieces and I hope desperately to do more. I mean, it's Doctor Who for God's sake, it's a job I've been training for since I was twelve. There is nothing more quintessentially English than Who other than perhaps Quatermass and if I remember correctly there's been a bunch of hints they happen in the same universe anyway.
It also appealed, absolutely, to my magpie sensibilities. I love knowing stuff, and if the stuff I know is odd or inconsequential then so much the better and that's a hugely valuable resource as a roleplaying writer. The main setting in Arrowdown, the big adventure, is very loosely based on a cafe I go to a lot and the town itself is, shall we say...Scarborough-esque? Likewise, Judoom, the other scenario was drawn entirely from the deeply weird realisation that the Earth is at the centre of a disc of signal constantly spreading out into space and how that could be a habitat for something very unsettling...
Incidentally, that one was originally a little bit odder, as the first time the players meet one Judoon he's sitting in a prison cell singing 'I'm a Gnu' to himself. I was, shall we say, convinced to turn the volume down a bit on that one.
I love it most of all because it's just the best set of toys in the world and you've got a refreshing amount of freedom to do what you want with them. My favorite supporting character from the entire run of New Who is probably Zach from The Impossible Planet and I relished the opportunity to bring him back. I have half an idea for something with the Copper Foundation too, which would be sort of a polite, English National Treasure with added alien tech.
Oh, total aside, the National Treasure movies are two of the most subversive action movies of the last ten years. Don't believe me? Name any other film that involves the hero solving problems by being clever and, pretty resolutely non-violent. The amount of running away and clever workarounds in those movies is awe inspiring. Also, Riley? Greatest slightly rubbish sidekick ever.
But I'm babbling. Moving on...
As well as writing your blog you also edit Hub magazine. How did that come about?
Because Lee Harris is an evil genius and a good friend of mine. Mr H founded Hub because he wanted to read that sort of magazine and couldn't find it anywhere and I jumped aboard because firstly, allergic to the word no where work is concerned and secondly because I'm secretly an angry young man who wants to revolutionise the SF establishment and change it for the better. So it was a match made in Heaven, really.
Lee is now the deputy Angry Robot, co-editing that line of stunningly good SF, fantasy and horror books with Marc Gascoigne, and the job's a bit full on so, as I was already the non-fiction editor, he asked if I wanted the job. I said yes, I got the doomflu and the magazine went away for a few months, we came back and the rest is the future.
What sort of thing can readers expect to find in Hub?
In the immortal words of Peter Gabriel, the new stuff. We're pushing very hard to put writers you've not seen in front of you and as a result you're going to hear some new voices as well as some established names. I have had very little luck in my own fiction career and I realised a little while ago that my job is at least as much to be the first guy through the door and hold it open for others as it is to write fiction myself. I'm fine with that too and as a result we've been able to showcase some cracking writers like Danie Ware, Scott Roche, Steven Ellis, Emma Jane Davies, Jenni Hill, Adam Christopher, RJ Smith and lots of others. It's a policy we're aiming to continue to as we move into 2011 and if all goes well we'll be adding some more new voices to that roster as well as some stuff from more established top flight authors too.
You're also going to see podcasts! Not on the level that GPO achieves with terrifying regularity, but we ran our first serial Marco and the Red Granny by the mighty Mur Lafferty last year and we'll be doing more. I'm something of a podcast evangelist when it comes to fiction and the idea of being able to tell a complete story in audio form is massively appealing to me so there's some more stuff on the way on that strand, including Pantheon, a serial by me which is probably best described as “Quatermass' Friends in the North”. It's fun, there's secret things, horror, helicopters and Leeds. Coming soon.
As Hub is an eZine do you have to approach the editing differently to if it were a printed magazine?
With one exception, not at all. It's weird, because in the past I've been up to my elbows in other people's text and in the last year I've realised all that's done is made them sound more like me and less like them. Now, whilst an army of minions does appeal to me, I don't think that's healthy for anyone so now my editing turns to be typographical, stylistic stuff, asking for expansions to things, making points clearer that kind of thing. The one area where we differ is that inevitably, we have a memory ceiling. We can do chunky issues but we go above that ceiling and we get charged for it and as we're powered by a combination of sponsorship and Mr H's good will, that's not sustainable.
Has the advent of eReaders changed how you approach things at Hub?
Yes and no. Ereaders have meant that the same paradigm that pdf was based around, a universal format, can be applied to a couple of others now so we make ourselves available in that too. There are also other things we're looking at, inevitably, like a nicer front end and an app but ereaders are less revolutionary for us and more another string to the bow.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of starting a blog?
Set a timer on your watch or phone for thirty minutes. Unplug the landline, unplug the internet and the TV, open a text document and write everything you can think of about what you want to blog about. Then save the document, plug everything back in and don't look at it for two days.
Come back to it and something in there will pop out at you. Do the same thing, expand that idea, play with it and when you're happy with it, either do what I did and jump straight into the first post or write yourself a plan and write, at minimum, three entries ahead of time. That way you've always got something in the tank and you're never running to catch up.
Most importantly though? Be you. Don't get tricked into thinking the internet's a stage, it's not. It's your living room, your home and if you try and play a role that's only going to get in the way of the work. Be you, be honest, be open, be prepared to be upset and be prepared to be surprised. And do it, make sure you do it, it's great.
What blogs do you read yourself?
I'm actually really into tumblr at the moment because I'm fascinated by how pop culture can short circuit the brain and just punch an emotional response out of you. Some examples, for me:
Ben Urich walking out of the office after deleting the most important story he'll never publish. Daredevil stands on a roof on the other side of the street. Ben looks up, whispers “Go get 'em, Matt”, Daredevil nods and vanishes. God did I blub.
Finding out Garibaldi loves Warner Brothers cartoons on Babylon 5.
The “Just this once, everyone LIVES!” speech at the end of The Doctor Dances. Sweet Jesus that's magnificent, it's a perfect summation of 9 in under three minutes, it's Christopher Eccleston leaving everything on the field and just once, just once it's a hundred percent win. God did I blub.
“They're here aren't they?” “Mr Mulder they've been here for a long, long time.” Possibly the best two line mission statement for a TV show ever.
The performance of Don't Stop Believin' that closes the Glee pilot. Just look at that, look at how everyone's positioned, how that sets out the stall for the rest of the series in three minutes of slightly desperate '80s hair band triumphalism. I can't stand the second series so far but that? That's magnificent.
I love those moments, those little snaps of pop culture and tumblr's a perfect distillation of them. Try any of the DC tumblrs for some magnificent stuff, especially Fuck Yeah Lois Lane. Lois by the way? The most underappreciated female character of all time.
Think about it; you could spin a superb West Wing/30 Rock-esque series around Lois and the Daily Planet newsroom. Put Edward James Olmos in as Perry White (he was great in basically that role in The Green Hornet), keep Erica Durance as Lois, keep Tom Welling as Clark and just do a show about the rolling chaos of a newsroom in a city where the future always looks just a little like 1941. I'd watch that. Okay, maybe no one else would but I'd watch the hell out of that.