The Role of Luck

I’ve been writing for a while on the impact of cognitive bias in decision making – looking at the systematically flawed judgements that human beings are hard-wired to make. And working as a commentator and strategic analyst for the Volvo Ocean Race is certainly throwing up plenty of meaty examples as seven boats try to deal with the vicissitudes imposed on their round the world odyssey by oceanic weather and currents.

My most recent Strategic Review explained how – as the fleet exited the Doldrums – the Hong Kong entry, Team Sun Hung Kai / Scallywag went from 80 miles behind to 80 miles in front. They did it by watching the leaders sail into a hole, and then swerving around it.

In contrast the overall race leader MAPFRE – skippered by Xabi Fernandez – came off worst of the lead group. Boats sailed away from them on either side leaving them with a 175 nautical mile deficit to the leader.

The moment when it all went right for Scallywag and wrong for MAPFRE ©Geovoile

The moment when it all went right for Scallywag and wrong for MAPFRE ©Geovoile

I’m not going to take anything away from the girls and boys on Scallywag: the weather presented them with an opportunity and they grabbed it with both hands. However, the inescapable truth is that they would never have got that opportunity if they hadn’t been so far behind. And they got that far behind by almost hitting a reef that they saw at the last minute, subsequently taking a fifty mile detour to get around it...

Sometimes, luck does play a role in sport (as in life) and the trick is not to get fooled into making some poor decisions because of it. Football is a great example, in their 2013 book, The Numbers Game, Chris Anderson and David Sally established convincingly that luck was at least 50% of the result of any top flight game of football. So everything else, all the sound and fury surrounding players, managers, transfers, tactics, strategy... all taken together, in summation, has barely equivalent impact on the final result of any given game than… chance.

This doesn’t mean that we should stop bothering about all those things; far from it, even if we can only impact 50% of the outcome through our actions, we can still have an impact – but the really important point is that ignoring the role of luck can lead to some serious errors.

This partly relates to our need for narrative. When a sequence of events occurs, our predisposition, or our cognitive bias is to look for a causal reason, a story to tell about them. So when a player or a team put together a string of particularly bad or good performances or results, we tend to look for an explanation, any explanation other than luck.

Any decisions based on this explanation will likely turn out badly, because luck was the source all along. And this is because of a thing called regression to the mean. Any athlete in any sport has a base or mean level of performance. It might be measurable, for instance strikers will score a number of goals each season and this will average out at a particular number per game. Actual performances on any given day will vary around this number; there will be good days and there will be bad days, and a lot of the difference will come down to luck. Whatever else happens, at some point, the performances will regress back to the mean.

So the problem arises when an athlete or team hits a particularly rich — or poor — and extended run of form. We might start to mistake this for a permanent shift in the mean; we might put it down to a change in coaching, technique, diet or attitude. And we might make a decision — like buying a footballer for £50 million — based on this perceived shift in the mean. Only to discover when the player is turning out for our team, that the luck has dried up and the performances have regressed to the mean. And our £50 million player is now only worth £20 million again.

I don’t think anyone has ever done an Anderson and Sally-style analysis on how much luck is involved in ocean racing, but I can tell you from experience that it’s a lot. And the trick is exactly the same: don’t get fooled into wrong decisions because you didn’t account for luck.

MAPFRE and Xabi Fernandez got hit the hardest by the role of the dice that propelled Scallywag into the lead. They ended up back in fifth with that massive deficit after getting trapped in the light winds of the Doldrums for an extra 14 hours. They need to keep this in perspective - it was a crap shoot, they were doing all the right things and got unlucky... so don’t change anything.

I know Fernandez a little from his time with Land Rover BAR, and he’s a remarkable individual with an extraordinary amount of experience at the very top level – and an Olympic gold and silver medal to prove it. If you’re interested, then check out the profile I did when he was with the America’s Cup team.

From what I know of him, I’d say he will keep making level-headed, rational decisions – but history will weigh heavily on his soul. In the 2011-12 Race he was aboard Telefónica when they won the first three legs, before slowly fading from contention in the second half of the race.

It must have been a painful experience, and Fernandez will not want to repeat it. Regret is a powerful motivator that can often drive unnecessary change, as people seek to avoid the mistakes of the past.

It will be interesting to see how Fernandez and the MAPFRE team react once they’re across the finish line in Hong Kong. My money is on Xabi staying cool and carrying on with the strategy that has got them the overall lead, but you can never count out cognitive bias...

Loss Aversion and Changing Lanes

In the past couple of blogs I’ve been looking at the impact of cognitive bias on decision making in the Volvo Ocean Race . But you don’t have to tackle the Atlantic or the Southern Ocean to see the impact of these biases in our thinking. I got caught out by a classic cognitive bias this morning in the inevitable traffic jam that is the M27 on the daily commute.

We all know how this works. All three lanes of the motorway are slow for no visible reason, except that there are just too many people and cars for the available tarmac. Suck it up… except that the lane next to you seems to be that little bit less slow than the one you are in. So you change lanes. Oh dear. The new lane grinds to a halt, the old lane almost immediately accelerates and you lose.

So much, so familiar – despite knowing about the 1999 study by Robert Tibshirani and Donald Redelmeier that established that switching lanes rarely if ever gets you there faster, I still do it. Never mind the fact that it’s dangerous, and slows down the overall movement of traffic on the road (i.e. it screws everyone else which actually makes it a Prisoner’s Dilemma decision, but we’ll come back to that some either time – or read The Defector).

One of the reasons is loss aversion. We looked at this in my last blog – the idea established by psychologists that our dislike of losing something is about twice as strong as the love of gaining it.

This concept is often demonstrated with a simple bet — I’ll toss a coin, if it’s ‘tails’ you pay me £10. The question is, how much would I have to offer you for a ‘heads’, to get you to take the bet? When it’s tested on large groups the answer is usually around £20. People need to have a chance to win double what they could lose to take a 50/50 bet like a coin toss.

So every time you see a car go past you in a traffic jam, the sense of loss is twice as painful as the gain you feel that you have made when your lane is quicker, and you go past a car. In fact, if loss aversion is working as the psychologists predict, you could be gaining at a 2:1 rate in that queue and still feel like you’re getting hammered.

Think about it the next time you feel compelled to changes lanes – it’s not quicker, its dangerous, and it slows everyone down. It’s just making you feel bad.

The Defector - Graphic Project Small.jpg

Loss aversion and overconfidence

On Monday I wrote a strategy and weather review story for the start of the third leg of this year’s Volvo Ocean Race, called Into the Storm Track. A massive storm was forecast to develop and slam into the fleet, a forecast that’s becoming all too real as we can see in the image from the race website.

copyright Geovoile and Volvo Ocean Race

copyright Geovoile and Volvo Ocean Race

The big purple patch on the left is an area of storm force winds in excess of 60 knots, and it will overtake the fleet (represented by the little coloured boats) sometime this evening. I don’t want to get deep into the weeds of the weather and race strategy here as that’s not what this blog is about; let’s just say that all through the last couple of days there have been opportunities to get north where conditions are expected to be less intense.

The downside of going north was that it was a detour – more miles, and losses to anyone that stayed south. It was a balance of risk management – that’s a big, dangerous storm – versus speed and performance. Only two of the boats in the fleet took the opportunity to get north, you can just pick them out in the image, the light blue and orange boats. The rest have all stayed south... why? 

I introduced the idea of cognitive bias in my last blog and I think this is another example of powerful biases at work in the human mind. The first and probably the most important is a thing called Loss Aversion. People hate losses — psychologists have shown that the dislike of losing something is about twice as strong as the love of gaining it.

Loss aversion is often demonstrated with a simple bet — I’ll toss a coin, if it’s ‘tails’ you pay me £10. The question is, how much would I have to offer you for a ‘heads’, to get you to take the bet? When it’s tested on large groups the answer is usually around £20. People need to have a chance to win double what they could lose to take a 50/50 bet like a coin toss. I think we’re pretty safe in concluding that not taking the loss has been a powerful motivator for those boats that have stuck to the southerly route.

The second cognitive bias at work here is overconfidence; it’s all pervasive in human society in general and sport in particular. Despite divorce rates averaging 50% in modern western societies, no one walking up the aisle believes they have at best a two to one chance of making it ‘till death do us part’.

It’s well known that small businesses, particularly restaurants and cafes have similar failure rates, but no one who stakes their life savings and a massive loan to open a cafe seems to really believe that they are betting everything on the toss of a coin.

Overconfidence is responsible for so many foul-ups in sport it’s hard to know where to start; everything from playing the long debunked long-ball game in football, to snap-shooting from 35 yards out and even trying to score from a corner (very low probability despite what the match commentary team will tell you).

It could be that those teams that have hung on in the south to avoid making losses are also overconfident about their ability to ride out the storm and take what’s coming. Maybe they will, maybe they won't - only time will tell, but what we can be sure of is that the route choices are unlikely to have been completely rational. Kind of scary when you look at the size and violence of that monster.

The Status Quo Bias

I guess the workings of the human mind have been a theme of my writing for a while, and apart from Game Theory and the Prisoner’s Dilemma (used in my novel The Defector), I’ve been fascinated by behavioural economics  – an area of research for which Richard Thaler just won a Nobel Prize.

The basic idea is that human beings are hard-wired to make mistakes, a whole category of errors that psychologists call cognitive biases — systematically flawed judgements that are a consequence of ingrained ways of thinking.

These psychological biases are the foundations of Thaler’s work in behavioural economics, a revolutionary new way of looking at how real people function in the complex world of money, incentive and human fallibility – it’s a topic popularised by the Freakonomics books written by journalist Stephen Dubner and economist Steven Levitt.

Michael Lewis famously and unknowingly revealed a cognitive bias when he told the story of Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s, one of San Francisco’s two Major League Baseball teams. Moneyball was Lewis’s bestselling account of how Beane used Big Data to help the A’s, one of the poorest teams in the Majors, to beat bigger, richer teams relying on traditional talent scouts.

The problem that Lewis described in Moneyball is called representativeness; in that instance, it was judging athletes by appearance, by old school scouting, instead of assessing performance objectively by data analysis. Lewis was unaware when he wrote Moneyball that psychologists had already identified and named this judgement or cognitive bias.

Michael Lewis corrected this error with The Undoing Project, a book about two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They wrote the original academic paper on representativeness, and Kahneman later won a Nobel Prize for this work – but representativeness is just one in a long list of ways that humans fail to make rational judgements – identified by Kahneman, Tversky and their intellectual heirs.

I see cognitive bias everywhere; and at the moment it’s particularly evident in the strategic decisions made in the Volvo Ocean Race – and yesterday’s action was a good example. The second half of my story about it describes a window of opportunity to make a radical departure from the traditional strategy for tackling the South Atlantic. The chance was there for someone to split from the fleet, and maybe win the leg by half a day. No one took it. This afternoon, the 14th November they all remain in line astern, following each other south, with the leaders extending as they slowly sail into better breeze.

If you know anything about racing sailboats, you will know how hard it is to overtake from directly behind someone – passing requires leverage, getting out to one side, and finding an advantage in some different weather. Not one of the seven boats in the race took the opportunity to get that leverage and find that weather. Sure, it was a risk, a big risk – but some of these boats are trailing by 60-70 miles, they aren’t as quick as the leaders and the only way they are going to get on the podium is by doing something different. Or smarter. But the status quo bias is strong in humans, we exhibit a profound preference for things the way that they are. So… they all carry on into the South Atlantic in a neat and tidy line.

It may be that this wasn’t the right opportunity, that there was too much risk involved in backing the conclusions of a 12 day weather forecast… but still, there aren’t that many times when these opportunities will come about, and this might just have been a good one gone begging.

copyright Expedition

copyright Expedition

A half century for the 100 in Hamble

I can remember the moment when my wife Tina came bouncing into the room to tell me about the 100 in Hamble. It was a simple idea and immediately engaging – take a picture of 100 women, aged nought (i.e. a newborn) to 99 or from one to a hundred and all living in the village of Hamble.

We had a long discussion about whether the pictures should be done in the studio or at another location – perhaps connected to the individual – and eventually decided that consistency and simplicity would be best: black and white portraits shot in the studio to allow the individual faces to stand out against a white background.

And that was as far as we got. We had two children, and that occupied all our energy for several years. And then in 2016 Tina suffered from Encephalitis, a rare condition of brain inflammation that is fatal for one in ten sufferers. One consequence is memory loss and for a few hours when her condition was critical, she didn’t recognise me, wasn’t sure how many children she had, their ages or names.

One year old Molly Lambert got the 100 in Hamble started...

One year old Molly Lambert got the 100 in Hamble started...

Since that time, she has been fortunate to have a strong recovery, and once she returned to work a few months after getting out of hospital, the idea of the 100 in Hamble resurfaced. A project about memories seemed the perfect way to recover memory, allowing her to reconnect with the village and the people in it. The story of the 100 in Hamble is also the story of Tina’s recovery.

Since then, fifty women have come to the studio, had their picture taken by Tina and spoken to her about their lives and their time in the village. I’ve written up each of those interviews, and posted the pictures to a website that we built for the purpose.

100 in Hamble

All the women have a story to tell, some ordinary, some exceptional, their individual lives revealing the history of the village through its people.

We’re only half way but it already strikes me that we’re building an unusual record in both words and pictures. The passing of the years is most clearly visible in the images, but the words tell their own story, they lead to so many trains of thought.

Here’s one: I had no idea that medical advice for women after childbirth in the early 1940s was to stay in bed for two weeks. It wasn’t easy to comply when the city was being blitzed by the Luftwaffe and the only relatively safe haven was the bomb shelter in the garden. She had to be carried there by the landlord from the pub opposite, while her Mum carried the baby.

So far, two Hamble women have told us about being bombed out of their homes. It’s easy to forget that this is the lived experience of people still amongst us. We don’t just watch it on the news, happening to other people. It happened here, and it could happen again.

It's the story of one village, but it could be the story of any small community in England, tracing through imagery and words the changes wrought by age, by industrialisation, two world wars and the coming of the information age. A story told through the lives and faces of ordinary women – sisters, mothers, friends, aunts and great-great grandmothers.

It’s been a remarkable journey, particularly because I’ve taken it with my amazing wife, watching her slowly get stronger, recovering memory, concentration, skills and stamina, and coming to terms with what’s happened. These are remarkable photos by a remarkable lady. I can’t wait to get started on the second half.

Three years and counting... down

 

I've now been with Land Rover BAR for over three years, telling the story of the quest to #bringthecuphome. It's been a long journey from the early days in a light industrial unit in Whiteley to the current waterfront perch in Portsmouth -- and of course for most of the team, the Cup village in Bermuda.

There is now a week and loose change before the first race of the 35th America's Cup Qualifiers, and the level of activity has been at this same frenzied pitch for most if not all of those three years. In just a few days we will learn whether or not we closed the gap to the established teams - Oracle Team USA, ETNZ and Artemis - who all came into this with, at the very least a team structure and in some cases a full-blown team and guaranteed funding.

Land Rover BAR came into this world with none of those things, and has built them all from the ground up. It's been a hell of chase to catch up, and we know we're close. The question is whether or not we're close enough to make it a yacht race. The boys can win this thing, if we're racing them. We'll know in a week.

Meanwhile, my job is to keep telling the story, which feels strange, after so many years of being on the front lines with Cup teams. But if there's anything I learned in all those years of navigating, when all hell breaks loose stay focused on your own job, and let other people worry about theirs. So I'm really pleased that in these final weeks, we're putting out some of my favourite stories from these past few years - Insight Profiles of both Giles Scott, and Xabi Fernandez - with more and better to come next week.

And after that I'll be back on the live blog - yup, after ten years, I'll be dusting off the tack-by-tack speed typing skills and returning to my first, post-sailing team Cup job... hope you'll join me this time next week, you can find it on the Land Rover BAR home page.

 

 

Fake news and the erosion of social capital

Fake new has been a popular topic for a while, and with a General Election now looming in the UK, I’m sure it’s going to become an even more pressing issue. There’s now a failure of consensus on what’s fact; never mind what’s right or wrong.

Don’t expect Facebook and Google to do anything truly useful about it. While it’s good for business, it will go unchecked. In Hitler’s Germany, big business largely went with the flow. Hitler was good for business, so business was good to Hitler. The market will never sort this out -- but just as technology can erode social capital and social trust, it can also build it.

eBay and even Amazon use technology to build trust, Facebook is using technology to destroy it. So let’s support the places that are building trust.

Hidden Figures and Seeing Infinity

A cracking review on Slate's Culture Gabfest and a theme of female and racial empowerment was enough for my wife and I to chose Hidden Figures; our first trip to the cinema since our eldest was born three and a half years ago. It was an excellent choice, this is a startlingly good movie, beautifully played by all the leads with a terrific script and couple of moments that would move any right-thinking person to tears.

If there was ever a time and a place when a meritocracy needed no boundaries, it was NASA in the 1960s as the Americans battled to catch up with a Russian lead in the space race. This tale of the slow and difficult rise through NASA’s hierarchy of Dorothy, and her fellow African-American mathematicians and engineers, was testimony to just how deep the racism went, and testimony to how far we have now come.

All of which makes me want to punch Donald Trump and his cronies for the threat he poses to that progress. This is a timely film, so it’s perhaps no surprise – given the propensity of movies to arrive in pairs like Tornado films, Meteorite films... that there’s another celluloid tale of racial empowerment out there. Hidden Figures was so good, that I was downloading The Man Who Knew Infinity andracking it up for Saturday night at the movies almost as soon as I heard about it.

This is a the tale of an Indian mathematician with remarkable intuitive insight to some of the most intractable problems of his day. Set in the early part of the 19th century, there really no shortage of racism or resistance to his arrival at Trinity College and application for a Fellowship there.

Unfortunately, it suffered in comparison to Hidden Figures. Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons do a good job with the material, but the lack of an urgent challenge – like the Russian’s putting an astronaut into space – left the film feeling soggy.

There was plenty of drama in Srinivasa Ramanujan’s life, but the way the film was structured left me wondering just what was at stake in his ideas. The pacing also front-loaded the sadness and tragedy, delivering little respite until the very end. And the motives of several characters – particularly the evil mother – were left unexplained. It’s a great story, but so much more could have been done with it.

Solo Faces

I read about James Salter through other reviews of Bill Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, the subject of my last blog. Salter was a highly regarded stylist of his era, but seems to have never achieved quite the same general recognition of some his peers – John Updike, Richard Ford, Jack Kerouac or Norman Mailer.

What interested me is that Salter wrote books about action. He started out as a fighter pilot, flying more than a hundred combat missions over Korea in the early 1950s. His first novel was about these experiences and was subsequently made into a film, The Hunters starring Robert Michum and Robert Wagner.

He resigned from the Air Force to pursue a career as a writer, and much of his subsequent work deals with sport, adventure and physical endeavour. These are themes of much of my own work, and I’m always interested to see such action portrayed.

Salter would appear to have been influenced by the grand old man of literary action, Ernest Hemingway, with short sentences and very little dialogue attribution (sometimes too little to read clearly and easily). It’s not my thing, but it’s very effective when done well.

Solo Faces follows the fate of an American climber, Verne Rand as he departs hippy LA in the sixties for the much less forgiving snow and ice of the Alps. There he drifts, finally attempting a succession of notable climbs in pursuit of…. In pursuit of what?

This seems to be the question that Salter wants to answer – why do men do these things, take these risks? And – while I had issues with the arbitrary and spell-breaking shifts in viewpoint, the occasional racism and the role of women in this tale – Salter does get close to an answer worth reading.

Possibly the best surfing book ever?

I didn’t expect to find a surfing memoir via a podcast about American politics, but amongst all the gloom of the Slate Political Gabfest’s coverage of the last Presidential election cycle there was a recommendation to read Barbarian Days by Bill Finnegan. Soon afterwards, I heard that the book had won the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in the UK, having already picked up a Pulitzer for Biography. A surfing book? A Pulitzer? Really? The rebel alliance has clearly been sucked into the mainstream - this one obviously had to be read.

51k4hM4BvEL.jpg

 

Bill Finnegan is a New Yorker staffer with a background in political and conflict reportage, so he knows his writing chops and has the contacts and reputation for this to come to the attention of the literary establishment in a way that most surfing books probably don’t. Having said that, this is the best book on the topic that I’ve read since Andy Martin’s Walking on Water, another minor masterpiece.

He never says as much, but Finnegan is a minor hellman, a big-wave surfer. Not the truly giant stuff taken on by household names like Laird Hamilton (ok, showing my age now) but still, this is a guy who has taken on most of the world’s best waves, including some of the heaviest. A man who has consistently surfed sessions in 10-15ft, often at breaks where reefs and rocks require complete commitment.

Very few of the people that can do this can also write as well as Finnegan, and the descriptions he brings back from the wave face and ‘out the back’ in big swells ring with a sonorous truth.

Bill Finnegan also captures the moment and the people beautifully, growing up in the 60s in LA and Hawaii, travelling cheap and light looking for waves in the 70s and 80s. I found myself constantly drawn back to this book, and to the water. The recent arrival of two children mean that it’s been a long while since I bothered to check the surf at the local breaks. I’m thinking that needs to change.

Pointless rants

Every now and again we all need to let off a bit of steam, and the only real question when you're in the mood for a modern-life-sucks rant is... who gets to be the target?

Could be the idiot motorcyclist who gave me the finger this morning for no other reason than my lane choice may have slowed up his arrival at his destination by about 15s.

But no, I get the fundamental stress of driving in south coast traffic.

So today it's all about kettles with useless spouts. Actually, not just useless spouts, but downright dangerous ones. Spouts and kettles that splash boiling hot water all over anything that happens to be within a foot of them. 

What is it about kettle design? I mean, really, how hard is it to design a kettle with a spout that doesn't flood water all over the counter top every time you try to make a cup of tea?

There are only two components to good spout design, and it didn't take a three day consultancy with the computational fluid dynamics guys here at work to figure it out either:

1. A sharp edge at the point where the water breaks off from the spout and heads for the cup.

2. A concave shape to the exit ramp that the water flows down before it hits the aforementioned sharp edge.

That's it - and given modern plastic and metal moulding and pressing techniques you would think it would be just as easy to make a kettle with a good spout as a bad one... but apparently not. 

So to all you kettle spout designers out there, and for that matter, teapot, milk and measuring jug designers too -- do the basics first, just make it pour well before you worry about what it looks like.

Ok, that's it. Nothing more to see here, move along quietly please.

 

Like being in the movie...

Losing your memory used to be something that happened in movies. Then it became something that happened to my mother, slowly, painfully slowly over two decades. Six weeks ago it became something that happened to my wife. 

Six weeks ago I'd never heard of encephalitis. Six weeks ago I didn't know that flu-like symptoms followed by confusion were a dial 999 emergency. Six weeks ago my wife could remember who had given our children every single item of gifted toys and clothes. And then suddenly, after a few days of sickness, headaches and a horrifyingly frightening 48 hours of desperate confusion, she woke up and didn't even know or remember who I was. 

I don't know if I will ever be able to bring myself to write about those six weeks. We talked about a book when she first started to pull out of it. What had happened and was happening to her seemed so far fetched and improbable it was surely a story that had to be told.

"This is like a first date," I said, as I explained that I was a writer. "No," she replied, "this is the flirting before the first date." 

But now she's really getting better all that I want to do is to put it behind us and get back to normal.

An entry from the notebook - Point of View

These thoughts started out as notes to clarify my own thinking on the fundamentals of writing fiction. They developed a bit more of a structure when I taught a creative writing class at the local art gallery - it was a fun thing to do, but when the gallery closed the class did too and so I thought it was about time these notes found another outlet....

The Point of View (PoV) is the eye (or eyes) that the reader sees the story through - deciding on the viewpoint is one of the fundamental choices that you will make about your story.


The Different Points of View

Omniscient Narration - the writer tells the story, and can tell the reader whatever they want about the thoughts, actions and feelings of any character at any time.
•    Advantages: flexibility, you will never get stuck unable to explain something, and you can show the reader how characters misunderstand each other - this can be really useful for comedy. It also allows the story to be told much more quickly - so if it's a saga or epic story, this is a good choice.
•    Disadvantages: it can distance the reader and make it difficult to engage with any particular character. It's much more obvious to the reader that they are being told a story, and harder for them to feel within the story, that they are right there, experiencing it with the character.

A Single PoV - this is the opposite of Omniscient Narration. The story is told from the point of view of a single character. The reader only has access to the thoughts and feelings of one person.
•    Advantages: it's very easy to engage with and feel empathy for the viewpoint character. If you want to provoke emotion in the reader (and you should) this is the best way to do it. The reader really experiences the story through this character.
•    Disadvantage: the whole story must be visible through their eyes, and this can make plotting much more difficult.

Multiple PoV - the middle route between Omniscient Narration and Single PoV, where the story is told from the viewpoint of two or more characters. 
•    Advantages: plotting problems can always be solved by switching viewpoint, and it's still easy to engage with and feel empathy for the viewpoint characters, so long as you don't use too many.
•    Disadvantages: it's harder to find a distinctive interior voice for several characters, and to control the writing so that they remain distinctive. It's also possible to confuse the reader, if they have to follow the experiences of too many characters. If you solve a plotting problem with a new viewpoint, then you will have to use that viewpoint elsewhere, it can't be there just for one scene.

A Rule
Use the absolute minimum number of viewpoints that you need to tell the story. There was a scene that I loved in Powder Burn that I had to cut, because it was the only scene from that characters point of view (another rule, kill your darlings). Funnily enough, it ended up in this blog too...

 

Moving house...

So here we are in these wonderful new premises at Squarespace. I realised that the old website design was looking pretty dated a while back, but initially the options for moving to something better, brighter and definitely more modern looked expensive and - worse - time consuming. I'd rather be writing than spending time with web designers... 

I'd heard Squarespace advertise in countless podcasts - Culture Gabfest, Freakonomics, Radio Lab all rescue me from the commute to Portsmouth - and finally thought I should give them a look. About three hours later I pretty much had a new website. All right, I already had the text and images to slot in from the old design, but still, it's a pretty cool service.

I have to confess I wasn't at all sure about adding the blog again though, even with the impressive facility for importing everything from the old blogger blog, my recent lack of activity did make me wonder if I should just drop it - no blog, no more guilt! But then, when you have got something to say, where do you say it? For all the immediacy of a facebook post or tweet, sometimes a movie, book or political event just demands a bit more. 

So here I am, back on the blog - albeit briefly - and hoping to have something to say and the time to say it again soon...

 

Chinese Burn - the Return of Sam Blackett

I can't promise that this will still be the opening to Chinese Burn when I finish the book, but in the meantime, it's something to be going on with...

Sam Blackett looked up from the People's Pilsner that sat in front of her, beads of perspiration now rolling down the glass. Not a drop had passed her lips. It was a shame that she couldn't claim as much for the four or five that had come and gone before it. And she had started the evening with the very best of intentions... a cheap meal, then back to the hotel for an early night.
So what the hell was she now doing in the lush, white, art deco interior of the top floor restaurant of Shanghai's Peninsula Hotel? She had needed cheering up. And that would explain the first drink. The rest she could blame on Roger -- at least, she thought that his name was Roger. He'd approached her at the bar with a straight-forward, 'hello, can I buy you a drink?' After spending the last few days wandering around the city with only her own company, she had said yes without even thinking. And here they were, an eighty dollar steak and several bottles of People's Pilsner later.
He was staring out across the Huangpu River at the glowing swelter of light from the Bund. The temperature on the restaurant's terrace had dropped to no more than a couple of degrees below the sweat-sodden heat of the day. He turned back to her suddenly. "So, do you wanna go up to my room?" he said, his Midwest accent slightly burred with drink.
"Not particularly," she replied, and smiled.
Roger's shoulders twitched in a snort of laughter that died before it got to his throat.
"Well, I guess that's straight-forward," he said, and rose unsteadily to his feet. A moment later a flicker of alarm crossed his face and he lurched towards the railing.
"Whoa, steady," said Sam as she moved to grab him. They both peered down from the fourteenth floor. "Don't want to fall from here," she added, watching his face as she did so.
Roger harrumphed in a dangerously non-committal way, something dark momentarily crossing his face.
"Let me give you a hand, I think that last Mai-tai might have been too much," she said, a little crease between her eyebrows.
"Not sure it was that one in particular..." said Roger, his words starting to openly slur.
Typical, thought Sam; as soon as sex was off-the-table he let the alcohol steamroller him. The usual disappointment. He'd been such a good listener while she had explained how she came to be alone in a five star restaurant in Shanghai. An explanation that had somehow involved a fairly detailed description of the relationship-crash she had suffered in India with the man she had -- briefly, admittedly -- thought that she might spend the rest of her life with. And then the Esquire article's advice on which questions to ask had run out; or a natural need to talk had resurfaced. Either way, she had then listened to him slurp his way through half a dozen very expensive cocktails while moaning about the money problems his business was suffering back in Detroit.
Roger stumbled the first couple of steps towards the terrace doors, and then lurched to a halt by the next table. She stepped beside him and took a firm grip of his forearm. It looked like she was going to his room after all.
"Which floor are you on?" she asked.
"Four, oh, three. Rooooom four oh, threeee..." he replied. "Shhorryesh..." he added. "It hit when... stood up..." he blinked, very slowly, swaying slightly.
I bet it did, she thought, as she guided him unsteadily around the tables. He bumped into several of them, but there was only one other couple left in the terrace bar, and they were very self-absorbed, away in the far corner. She got Roger into the restaurant, more careful to steer him away from contact now, as all the tables had been cleared and freshly laid. She checked her watch. It was almost three am.
They made it to the elevators. Roger sank against the wall as she pressed the call button.  A moment later, the elevator doors slid silently open and with a huge sigh, he pushed himself back off the wall. They stepped inside, Sam pressed the button for the fourth floor, and again in silence, they began the short descent.
Sam just had time to wonder how easy it would be to find a cab to get back to her hotel at this time of night, when they stopped and the doors slid open. The notice on the wall opposite told her which way they needed to go, and she levered Roger out into the corridor. He was now struggling to stand, and she had to get his arm over her shoulders to help support him the fifty yards to his room.
She propped him back against the wall beside the door, and helped him find his keycard, tucked conveniently into the top pocket of his suit jacket. She opened the door and got him up off the wall. He lurched around the corner into the room. Sam felt that she had done her duty and, anxious not to give him the wrong message, she let him go and stayed on the threshold. He stopped a few paces into the room when he realised that she was no longer with him, and turned.  He was standing there looking at her, very drunk and faintly disappointed, when the man came at him from behind the still open door. There was no time for any reaction to reach Roger's face before the assailant was on him.

Sorry, I’ve Got a Book to Write...


The monthly diary reminder just popped up to tell me that the next time I get a few spare minutes, I really should write a blog. The trouble is that I’ve just about reached a stage in the new novel (Chinese Burn) where it’s got some momentum and a life of its own. I can see the end. So, much as I’d like to give you my thoughts on the first ever Jack Reacher novel (which I'm about half way through)… it’ll have to wait till I’ve finished my own.

Homeland – Season Four Finale

It’s been a couple of weeks since Season Four of Homeland finished, and I posted on Facebook at the time that I thought this Guardian review was generous.

I posted that the final episode was botched together after they learned that they had got the money for Season 5… and perhaps I should explain that a little more with some wild and completely unsubstantiated speculation...

So let’s imagine it’s early in the first US transmission, and the writing team are meeting to agree the trajectory of the final episodes of Season Four which still have to be shot. The ratings aren’t going particularly well, and it looks like they won’t get the money for Season Five. So they say to hell with it, let’s finish it with a bang…

Let’s kill Saul off before he can get out of Pakistan. Then Quinn kills Haqqani with a pipe bomb attack, and goes down in a hail of bullets. Carrie watches him die helplessly, goes home to mourn him and her father both, but takes on the role of mother to her child after leaving the CIA.

Brilliant! Action packed to the finale, all tied up in a tragic-but-happy ending that makes complete sense with what’s gone before, with Carrie finally out of the self-destructive job. The End.

Then they start showing the episodes with the attack on the embassy, and suddenly there’s a huge surge in ratings. The cash tills ring and the studio execs demand more… suddenly the money is on the table for Season Five. Uh-oh, but everybody dies, or retires! Quick! Rewrite! Reshoot!

So they fudge the last episode and the final couple of minutes of the penultimate one with completely new material. Saul doesn’t die. Quinn is persuaded by Carrie not to blow up Haqqani (really?), and lo and behold – deux ex machina grinding audibly in the background – it’s all ok, the CIA have it covered after all! Dar Adal is in the car with Haqqani!

Implausible. Unlikely. Improbable… and lots of other synonyms.

Then they have to shoot a new final episode, back in the US with none of the locations they have used for the rest of the season. So they come up with the ridiculous mechanic of the mother turning up.

“Good drama tends to let characterisation guide the plot, so to have such a significant figure turn up merely to help Carrie learn a couple of life lessons was very weak indeed,” said the Guardian. No s##t.

I rest my case. And on to the Game of Thrones, which I got for Christmas…



Never Go Back

One of those questions that you get asked pretty regularly as a writer is... what do you read? The short answer is not as much as I’d like these days, while the slightly longer answer is the same stuff that I write. I’ve always been a big thriller reader, ever since I discovered that there were James Bond books as well as movies...

I’ve just finished Never Go Back, the latest but one of the Jack Reacher series from Lee Child, one of the top thriller writers of this generation. There are now 19 of these books, one a year from when he started. While Child maintains a very even level of quality in the books that I have read, I have to say that this wasn’t the strongest ending I’ve ever seen.

In fact, it was pretty feeble – I’m not going to spoil it for you, but it led me to start thinking… what is it about writers that people keep going back to them even when they have just delivered a bad book? Not that Never Go Back is a bad book, it’s just a poor ending – but I’m already cue-ing up the new one, regardless of my disappointment. Never Go Back is prophetic, I will, even if I shouldn't...

It’s simply not true to say that you are only as good as your last book.

I think the willingness to stay with an author has something to do with the amount of time we invest in a book. If a movie’s rubbish, it’s a couple of hours you aren’t going to get back. If a book’s rubbish, or has a disappointing ending, it’s the best part of a day that we’ve wasted.

Now – if we take into account that the vast majority of readers only read a couple of books a year – we start to see why they are so conservative. If you were only going to have two cups of coffee in 2015, you’d make damn sure that they were good ones.


It’s not surprising that breaking down this conservativeness in book selection is nigh on impossible. The only chink is to appeal to the much smaller proportion of people who read a lot – they are the only ones who will take a risk on the new. And to do that, I’m starting to think that you really have to write for a niche. And then market hard to that niche. Everyone else just wants to read the same stuff as everyone else. Bad endings or not.

Back on the Blog

I just checked the date of the last post on this blog and it’s the 28th March 2014. It’s just over six months ago, and it happens to be the day when my wife and I moved with our eight month old son to our new house.

It wasn’t far. The new house is in the same village as the old house. It’s probably no more than a hundred metres as the crow flies. That didn’t make it any less stressful. It was pouring with rain. The sellers were late moving out. The boy was tired and grumpy.

Then we got the keys, walked inside, and had one of those oh my god moments. We  had a lot of work to do. In comparison to replacing the leaking conservatory and the ancient boiler, fixing dodgy taps and dripping cisterns, changing carpets, painting outside and inside… In comparison to this, blogging didn’t seem that important. Nor did writing books. Or even reading them. Even my beloved twitter account lay dormant for a long, long while…


Sometimes life just gets in the way, but I’m pleased to say that this particular slice of life is now over. The house is cosy and functional and ready for the winter storms that already seem to be whistling around my new office in the attic. I got the new novel out again today, dusted it off, and started writing. I’m half-way through reading a cracking Jack Reacher and I might even have restarted twittering... and next month, I’m going to blog about writing again.