A Brit in America #2 – The Driving Test

I took my driving test in Mid-Wales, back in 2010. Since moving to the States, I’ve been able to use my UK license for driving. However, this year I finally found that I was going to need to get a US license. I had, at one point, hoped that I might be able to just show that I have a UK license, and they’d give me US one. The UK and the US are fairly close, and there’s really not that much difference in the practice of driving (I’ve only driven on the wrong side of the road a couple of times in many years). The idea is not a totally foreign concept to the Department of Driver Services: there is, indeed, a “reciprocity” program with a list of countries that it applies to. Well. They say a list. It’s a list of one country. Can you guess which one? Yes! That’s right! South Korea! Naturally…

So, it turned out I was going to have to take a theory test and a practical test (and pay for them, of course -_-). When I learned to drive, I took a semi-intensive course over a summer, it was hard work, and the test was intimidating, so the whole thing had me a little tense.

In the UK, the theory test consists of (if I remember correctly) 50 questions about all sorts of eventualities that you’ll never actually come across (I’m particularly glad that I still have the legal speed limit for towing a trailer burned into my memory). It then has a hazard perception section where you watch a series of videos, and have to click when you see the hazard. Too soon, and it’ll think you’re clicking randomly, too late and you’ve missed it and get docked points. It was a challenge, but I did pretty well. But that was seven years ago. I assumed the US would have something similar.

Spoiler alert: they don’t. What they have are two sets of 20 questions. The first set are “what does this sign mean” questions, which are hardly difficult as most of them say what they mean. The second set are more what I was used to, but felt toned down somewhat. The kicker here being that you only have to score 75% on each section. That means you can get five questions wrong, and they’ll shrug and say “eh, seems like he’s got the gist of it” and send you away with a permit. In the second set, there was actually a tricky question, but as it was question sixteen and I’d got the first fifteen correct, I could have just clicked randomly for the rest and still passed. As far as hazard perception goes? Completely absent. But, never mind. This is only the theory section, the practical test will make sure that people know what they’re doing on the road.

*Ahem*

When I took my test in the UK, we started in the middle of town, drove through it, dealing with traffic, signals, and signs. We left the town and went around the back roads and smaller villages of the area, often getting up to 60 miles an hour. I had to do several maneuvers, including three-point turns, parking, etc, and then get back. A single “major fault” (anything that means another driver has to slow down for you, or worse), or three “minor faults” in the same area (such as forgetting to signal or failing to shift gear properly) and you fail. At the end of it, you have to have shown that you can deal with a wide range of driving scenarios.

The US test on the other hand… In an empty car park: drive forward, stop, reverse, stop, park in between these cones. Great. Then we go out on the road. I’m prepared for anything. We stop at a stop sign. All good. I’m ready to get out on the busy road to our left. Then the examiner has me turn right. We go onto a small deserted back road. Speed limit: 25mph. Okay, now the test in the UK had slower back road areas, I’m sure we’ll get to more challenging stuff later. We drive along a little way, bit of a curve, couple of turns. Speed limit the same. Then we come to a busy road. Perfect! Turn onto it, actually around some other cars for the first time, and we’re on there in just the right lane for maybe 500 yards and we’re turning back into the original car park. Park. Done. Well done, you’ve passed. I’m told you can score under 75% on this test and fail as well, but how, I’ll never know.

This wouldn’t bother me if that driving was even a little representative of the area. But we were half a mile from an interstate with a 70mph speed limit. Apparently, the US DDS is happy to go “can you drive forward and backwards at low speeds? Great, off you go then, have fun on the six-lane highways!”

An additional gripe: I’ve been in cars with people in the US who drive a manual (stick-shift) and grind away at their gears as if they’ve never been taught properly. This seemed odd: in the UK, if you take your test in an automatic, you can only drive an automatic. Apparently, in the US, you can take your test in an automatic, and then legally drive down the freeway in a manual transmission, stuck in first gear, if the fancy strikes you.

So, Americans, if you find that there are terrible drivers on the road, I may have some explanations for you…

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Delain

Delain

When I’m talking about Jack White or The Lumineers, I feel pretty safe assuming that people will already be passingly familiar with the artists, or at least know what I’m talking about when I say “blues” or “folk rock.” However, when it comes to discussing the Dutch symphonic power metal band Delain, I’m inclined to think that a brief primer might be in order.

I’m assuming that of the words I’ve used above, most people are going to be comfortable with what I mean by “metal” and “Dutch” (at least, I really hope so…). Power metal is a subgenre of metal that sprung up in Europe in the mid-80s with bands such as Blind Guardian, Stratovarius, and Helloween. They use more complex guitar work at higher speeds, creating a less heavy tone that sounds more driven and energized, and often features a call-to-arms/we’re-in-this-together sort of a feel. A lot of power metal deals with fantasy themes; most notably, Blind Guardian have penned songs focused around the fantasy writings of authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan.

Symphonic metal is another sub-genre, one which is often paired with power metal. It started in the 90s with bands like Nightwish and Within Temptation. As a general rule, the music uses orchestral backing, heavy on the strings, to provide a thicker, more deeply-layered tone that delivers an epic feel. The vocals will often be clean (though death growls crop up from time to time…unfortunately), and sometimes they’ll tend towards the operatic. The genre also lends itself well to tales of fantasy, mythology, etc. On the whole, symphonic power metal will be much more melodically focused than other metal sub-genres and tends towards longer tracks with more room to develop.

Delain’s history is (to me, at least) fascinating. The genre is somewhat incestuous, and artists from one band will often crop up in another for a guest appearance or in a form of super group (most notably, the group Northern Kings, made up of some backing musicians and four of the foremost male vocalists in the genre, who have released two albums of covers of 80s pop songs, such as Take On Me and We Don’t Need Another Hero [it’s as gloriously ridiculous as it sounds]). In that vein, Delain was originally formed by Martijn Westerholt, who is the brother of the lead guitarist for Within Temptation and their one-time keyboardist (he was forced to leave the band owing to illness), along with then-teenage vocalist Charlotte Wessels. They began as a project band (one that doesn’t tour), and their first album, Lucidity, is a beautiful experiment. Presumably through contacts from his Within Temptation days, Westerholt was able to pull in some of the best musicians and vocalists in the business to record the album with him, most note-worthy being: Ad Sluijter of Epica, Marco Hietala of Nightwish and founding member of Tarot, and Sharon den Adel of Within Temptation (who is also Westerholt’s sister-in-law).

That first album in 2007 explores a lot of the traditional possibilities of the genre, heavy on the epic fantasy influences. Since then, they’ve released four more albums and found their voice. They settled on a more permanent line up, but still occasionally have Hietala appear on albums or at live shows for some guest vocals. Their 2012 album, We Are the Others contains the notable title track that functions as an anthem for many of their fans and deals with the death of Sophie Lancaster, the reasons for it, and the importance of solidarity and being true to yourself. The sound has departed from some of the more traditional elements of the genre without losing the flavor, while embracing some more elements of rock, and their style does well at showcasing Wessels’ dual training in both classical and jazz vocals.

Moonbathers, their latest album, opens with Hands of Gold, which leans on the epic feel to the point where it feels like its opening bars could have been composed by Hans Zimmer. The album is strong as a whole, with particular strength in the songs Danse Macabre, which does some interesting things with the vocal line, and Chrysalis – The Last Breath, which is a beautiful slow song that manages to maintain an air of tension throughout its full five and a half minutes. True to the genre, I’m told the song Turn The Lights Out draws its influence from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which reminds me I really need to get down my reading list to that one… I enjoyed the song Scandal, but at first listening I couldn’t work out why this very 80s sounding song was in the middle of the album. Then I realized it was a cover of a Queen song, and it made a little more sense. It’s fun, but it does feel a little jarring placed in the middle of the album as it is.

Delain definitely remains one of my favorite bands, I’ve seen them live twice (once opening Download in 2012, and once supporting Kamelot), and I’m sure I’ll see them again. I’d thoroughly recommend checking them out. If you listen to metal in some form, I’d start with Lucidity; if you’re less familiar with the genre, then We Are the Others is a good introduction to their newer tone.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

I’m back! I’ve known enough online projects that have gone on hiatus and never returned that I was a little uncomfortable about putting up a hiatus notice at all, however; as promised, it’s March and I’m back. In my last post I hinted at some upcoming changes, so here’s a little info on what those were.

There are two changes, really. The smaller of these is that at Christmas a bunch of my close friends and family got together to give me a sizable chunk of money to put towards my writing career. This went towards a tablet and the various accessories to go along with it. This means that I can use my sometimes-limited time more efficiently: it’s easy to carry with me at all times and pull out to work on whenever I have a few minutes (right now I’m writing on the tablet in the café at work using the time before my shift starts).

This obviously makes one of my Patreon goals redundant, so I’ll be changing the one that said I would be using the money to save up for such a piece of technology. Instead, I’ll be using the Patreon money at that level to save up to be able to go to conferences and conventions around the country. Here’s the text for the new goal:

“A huge part of getting your work out there is networking. At this level, I’ll be putting money aside to save for trips to writers’ conferences and conventions around the country. These are places where I’ll be able to get advice from people in the industry and also have a chance to meet prospective agents, publishers, and industry contacts. In general, it will help to get my name out in the publishing world.”

 

The larger change pertains to my employment. Working two part-time jobs (often totaling around 60 hours a week and working 10+ days without a day off), working on a novel, and completing a monthly short story all at the same time became untenable. It resulted in both my writing and my personal life suffering: the burnout from working so much so consistently was the primary reason for the aforementioned hiatus. Consequently, I have left one of my part time jobs. The remaining job is enough for me to scrape by on for the time being and the extra time will allow me to focus that much more on my writing.

This leads to another goal change. The ambitious top goal will now read thusly:

“Full-time writer! If I reach this lofty goal, I will be able to quit my job. That will mean that my one and only professional focus will be my writing, and should speed up the whole novel-producing process!”

 

With all the changes to my Patreon goals, I’ll also be making an edit to the $5 reward tier, and adding in a $50 tier:

$5 Tier: As well as the rewards for the $1 tier, when I have a question you’ll get access to my polls to help answer it. Sometimes this will be about my writing, but I also post a monthly poll for you to have input on what album I get with the monthly music money, which I then talk about on my blog that month. Finally, you’ll be listed as a supporter in the acknowledgements on my monthly short stories!

$50 Tier: All of the previous rewards, and when I get my next novel published, I’ll thank you in the acknowledgement section! See your name in print!

 

I’m setting myself an ambitious goal (as usual) of getting to 10 patrons on my Patreon by April 1st. To help me in this endeavor, please share my PatreonFacebook, and blog with as many people as possible. Even a $1 pledge is thoroughly appreciated!

My usual posting schedule should now resume, and I look forward to providing more updates on my writing soon!

A Brief Hiatus

I’ve been aiming to post on here every Friday, and right now it feels like Friday comes round pretty quickly.

There’s a lot going on just now, and with focusing on the writing, I haven’t had time to think about blog posts as well. The should be some changes coming at the end of the month that will free up some more time, so I’ll play the next couple of weeks by ear, but definitely be back in March.

See you then!

The Lumineers – Cleopatra

The Lumineers – Cleopatra

For those who aren’t aware, Cleopatra is the 2nd album from the American folk rock band The Lumineers. Today I’m going to make my case for why this is the album we all need right now.

A bold statement, I realize, especially as not everyone is a fan of folk rock. However, even if it isn’t your sort of thing normally, I might recommend giving it a listen at the moment.

The majority of the songs deal with depressing topics via melancholic lyrics. The title track tells the story of a woman who feels she’s missed her chance at love and believes she’ll die alone, Sleep on the Floor deals with two people having to get out of town while they can as they’re decried as sinners, and Long Way from Home narrates the slow death of a man into his final moments.

These topics are covered, and emotionally rendered. The ideas are not dismissed, and the album has a melancholic air.

And, yet, while these issues are treated for the tragedies, etc. that they should be, the songs do not wallow in them. The album on the whole manages to leave the audience with an optimistic feeling. Some songs suggest that while this time is a bad one, it has a impermanence to it. The message is not “this is terrible and the end of everything” so much as “this is a transient situation, we must keep moving and push against that darkness, and in time this will pass.”

Sleep on the Floor might watch two people running from persecution, but it does so with the idea in mind that you can lie down and take it, or move on to something better:

If the sun don’t shine on me today

And if the subways flood and bridges break

Will you lay yourself down and dig your grave

Or will you rail against your dying day

The protagonist in Cleopatra might believe that she missed her chance, but she continues to press on with grim determination:

So I drive a taxi, and the traffic distracts me

From the strangers in my backseat, they remind me of you

But I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life

And when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time

This “pressing on” is underscored by the music, which is driven with a slight bounce to it that emphasizes the more positive notes that are hidden in the song.

And while Long Way from Home deals with death, it finds a silver-lining in that the death comes as a relief:

More morphine, the last words you moaned

At last I was sure

That you weren’t far away from home

Hardly joyous stuff, but it looks at finding in the darkness whatever light you can, and pushing against that darkness regardless of the struggle, which I think a lot of people might need right now. And I really enjoy the music.

I also want to put in a special mention for the beautiful videos for Cleopatra, which does a great job of depicting the song and doesn’t take time out of that for the band (which can work sometimes but sometimes is jarring), and Ophelia which has a delightful simplicity to it, and that I love for a reason I can’t quite explain.

Note: A lot of what I’m going to say in these monthly music posts is going to be my subjective opinion. If you disagree with me, I’m always happy to discuss music, either in the comments on WordPress, or on the Facebook post I put a link to this in.

A Brit in America #1 – Beer

Living Stateside, I’ve discovered that for many people I am the sole representative for all of Britain, and thus the target of any random questions they might have. Most often that is: “what’s the biggest cultural difference you’ve seen here?” I’ve never felt I had a single good answer to this question, so I thought I’d start chronicling some of the differences I’ve noticed here.

Perhaps owing to who I am as a person, the most obvious place to start seemed to be beer. This isn’t going to be a traditional rant against, or jokes at the expense of, American beer. There are plenty of beers made in America that I like, from Blue Moon, to craft beers, etc., etc. There are beers I wouldn’t touch, like Budweiser, but we have equivalents in the UK, like Carlsberg.

But American beer and British beer are fundamentally different creatures. Notably, American beer is always drunk cold, and the flavours, consistency, etc. are designed towards that. I once queried a friend about drinking cold mead, as I was used to it being a drink that was served warm, and their response was “it’s the south, we drink everything cold here.” Which, sitting in 95F (35C) heat, made a lot of sense.

The real problem in America is when they try to provide British beer. From what I can tell, they just fundamentally don’t understand the difference. There are a few different problems:

The first is one that can’t really be blamed on America: some beers don’t travel well. I had some Hobgoblin that I picked up as an import, and it just tasted off for some reason. (That being said, I actually had some good luck with a Samuel Smith sampler I had at Christmas).

Next is the serving method. English themed pubs are common here. Some do it better than others. I went to one establishment called Winston’s which had procured a Union Jack and a telephone booth, but the similarities to an English pub stopped there: the main beer on draft was Miller, and all the food was standard deep fried southern fare. Olde English Pub, in Albany, NY was a little more successful: the atmosphere was spot on, the music was good, they served one of the best attempts I’ve seen  at fish and chips, and they had a picture of Margret Thatcher over the urinal (not sure that’s relevant, but seemed worth mentioning for some reason). They had Old Speckled Hen on tap, a beer I’m a fan of, so I was pleasantly surprised. But they served it icy cold. Hen is an ale, and drinking it cold was just weird and wrong to me, no matter what the temperature outside: it affects the flavour a surprisingly large amount.

The worst problem I’ve encountered is when America tries to produce a British beer itself. The first time I drank Guinness Stateside was in Tennessee. I used to swear by it when I was in university, so I was excited to have it once more. The best way I’ve found to describe what I was served was that it must have been the product of someone who had only seen a pint of Guinness describing what Guinness was to someone who wasn’t much of a fan of beer. It looked the part, but that’s the extent of the similarities. The taste was entirely different. The issue I really take with it, is that it isn’t a bad beer (particularly as an American beer), but it’s a really bad Guinness. If you slapped a different label on it, I’d probably drink it quite happily. But as it is, I steer clear.

So summary: English beer—good, American beer—good, but let’s just stay in our lanes.

From the Archive #1 – Writing Process

Today sees my first Patreon short story distributed to the $10+/month backers! Between getting the story ready, working on the novel, picking up extra hours at one of my jobs, and being ill, I’ve not had much time this week to work on the a blog post. Consequently, I thought I’d look in the archive for this one.

Back in 2014, I wrote a couple of blog posts for a virtual tour organized by my then-publisher. Since parting ways with said publisher, I’ve lost track of where the posts were uploaded. However, I kept my own copies, and I thought I’d post them here. Below is the first of these posts, and below that is a note providing a couple of updates. 

Writing Process: The Physical and the Mental (November 2014)

Whenever people ask me about my writing process, I’m always intrigued as to whether they mean the physical process of sitting down to write, or the mental process of deciding which words to write. So I guess I’ll try and talk about both.

I’m one of those nocturnal authors. I’ve always found that my most productive hours are between about 11pm and 4am. Not sure why, they just are. Maybe it’s the silence and the lack of external distractions. Maybe it’s that I get appalled when people suggest waking up earlier than 9:30am. When I do sit down to write, it’s in a dark room, usually just one lamp, and with my laptop (my handwriting is awful, left hander’s curse, and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to write an entire novel by hand and then type it up). I’ll settle down with a cup of coffee, a can of coke, and a glass of water (yes, all three at once, something nice about the temperature and flavor combination….and the caffeine high) and can sit there and just get involved in the writing.

People have often asked me whether I listen to music when I write. The answer is yes, music is an important part of my life, but when I’m writing I ban (give or take) anything with lyrics, and will sometimes have it so it’s barely audible. Any other time I love good quality vocals in my music, but they can be too distracting to the “writing process.” Its purpose becomes to provide a beat for the work, something to listen to in those moments when I need a short breather, and to block out some of the other, more disruptive noises—I used to live in the countryside surrounded by all manner of noisy night time creatures and farm animals, now I live three feet from the sidewalk in upstate New York and it’s a whole other type of night time creature. Some of my favourites to listen to are movie soundtracks (Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams tend to provide well there), Apocalyptica, the instrumental/orchestral versions of Kamelot and Nightwish, and a small instrumental rock group from Albany called Yoma.

As for the mental side of things, you’ll see articles about how meticulously J.K. Rowling planned her series (with accompanied photo of scrawled blue biro), or hear advice of how you have to have a clear plan written down. That’s not how I work. I plan massively. In fact I have plots already in place that aren’t likely to appear for another seven books or so. But I don’t write it all down in notebooks. It’s truly a mental process—if it’s good enough to put in a book, then I’ll remember it.

Most of what I write in any one session I’ll have outlined mentally beforehand, and maybe thought of a few key phrases while driving, walking, standing in the shower, anytime I’m doing something that requires only a small amount of thought. And from there, I let the narrative and the characters take it away and flow freely.

In all honesty, I do occasionally take a few brief notes to keep track of my various plot strands, but nowhere near what I’m aware that some people do. I find it too restrictive—one of the first novels I wrote I planned out scene-by-scene and the result held little feeling because it was just following a preordained plan. I have also looked back at the brief notes I’ve made after I’ve finished a section and seen something about where a plot is going, or what a character will do and thought “wow, I was really wrong, [that character] wouldn’t have done that…”

For me, the writing process is a source of great joy. It holds elements of quiet contemplation, or having a laugh with a group of your friends (even if these ones are imaginary). I can get very excited about what I’m doing, even if it’s 3 in the morning, dark, and everyone else is in bed.

 

2017 Updates:

It’s no longer true to say that I do most of my writing at night. While it remains my preferred time to write, work schedules have required that I be a little more flexible on the matter. I wonder what 2014 me would have said about me getting up at 7am for a work shift. My desk is always the home of my writing, but I’ve actually started getting some of my writing done now in the café at work before my shift (employee discount!)—sometimes I even write while it’s daylight outside!

I no longer live in New York, having moved to just a little way outside Atlanta back in August. It tends to be pretty quiet where I live, but I still listen to my music. The biggest concern I have when it comes to night time creatures is hitting a herd of deer on my way home.