8 Dec 2017

A Festive Season

Hail readers!

It is winter at last, and the weather here in Amsterdam has been... atrocious. It started out well: we had a beautiful day of sunshine on the 1st of December. The second day of December saw fog, albeit rather beautiful fog (as my photos, to be uploaded later, will attest to). Alas these past few days have degenerated into pouring rain—intermixed with hail—howling wind and cold. Alex is indeed rather miserable.

What adds to his misery is that he has altogether too much work to do: he has already done one exam and presentation today, with two more written exams and one oral left. On top of that, he has one more essay to write, and a statistics project to finish.

For these reasons, Alex has been unable to work much on Fallen Love. He is more than halfway through, but recent progress has stalled, and will only really take off again at the end of this month.

Still: there’s no point being grumpy. ’Tis a festive season, after all. This brief update will therefore finish with an excerpt from Fallen Love:

“You wanted to kill him, didn’t you?” I ask. “Not because you should, but because you could.”

“My dad was right about this much. It’s part of me, Conall: the desire to kill. It’s in my nature, like a cat catching mice.”

“But do cats ever become friends with mice?”

“That’s the million euro question, isn’t it?”

I embrace him, suddenly, unable to contain it any longer. His hair is soft against my hands; his body is still and statuesque.

“Make me a millionaire, Mark.”

“Oh, I think you already are, Conall.”

27 Nov 2017

Why Economic Models are Bullshit (Part II)

Hello readers!

Previously, I wrote a post entitled “Why Economic Models are Bullshit (Part I)”. Therein, I covered one of the problematic areas of macroeconomics: namely, that students are badly taught the subject. But that does not tell us enough about the other side of the coin—the reason why macroeconomic models are, by themselves, problematic (aka “bullshit”). In this post, I explain just this.

Before I begin, and in case you are wondering: yes, I am progressing with Fallen Love. I am about halfway through the revision process; I will post an update later on. For the time being, I am extremely busy both with the book and with my university studies. Consider this my final update for the month.

Anyway, onto the topic of today’s post...

The Follies of Macroeconomic Models

I am not the first to criticise an economic model, and in particular, I am not the first to criticise the discipline of economics as a whole. Some critics speak from a position of ignorance; they sometimes make good points, but cannot articulate their criticisms beyond relatively vague generalities. (A few examples: economic models don’t work because you can’t put people in an equation. Or, economics is not a science. Both hold a grain of truth, but are not extended upon beyond platitudes.)

Some critics, however, are economists. Thomas Piketty and Ha-Joon Chang are good examples of the latter, though the venerable Steve Keen is my personal favourite among the rebels. If you have had read these economists, you may detect some of their criticisms among my own; though I quite fancy that I am original. Anyway, vanity is a vice, so allow me to get to the meat of the arguments...

Problem No. 1: economic models are not dynamic. To clarify, by “dynamic” I mean that the models do not explicitly refer to time—either graphically, mathematically, or even in argument. Some economists (especially those who have never done a proper science, like physics or chemistry) seem to think that economic models are dynamic because... time is in there somewhere.

Of course time is present in these models, in some way—they wouldn’t make any sense otherwise. (They make little enough sense as it is!) The problem is that this relationship is dreadfully ambiguous; there is absolutely no clarity about what happens when, and this leads to a number of conceptual errors and oversights.

IS-LM graph

The above graph is a clumsily drawn example, representing an IS–LM model of a small open economy, with e (nominal exchange rate) on the vertical axis and Y (national income) on the horizontal axis. The two sloping lines are IS-curves, while the vertical line is an LM curve. The shift of the IS curve outwards represents a ceteris paribus fall in taxes.

The moral of this story is that, in a small open economy with perfect capital mobility, fiscal policy doesn’t work: you can’t change national income with fiscal policy measures. Even if we assume this is true (there are economists who do not agree with this assessment), the problem is that the graph is extremely obtuse.

There is a whole time dynamic involved here. First, a fall in taxes leads to an increase in Y, which in turn leads to an increase in r (interest rate) as the money supply is fixed. The increase in r leads to a situation where r>r* (the domestic interest rate is higher than the international); this leads to an influx of capital, which in turn drives up the exchange rate e. The appreciation of e leads to a fall in NX, which brings Y back down to the initial Y.

None of that is shown on the graph. We only see a new equilibrium point at e2 and Y. Great explanation there!

Problem No2: economic models confuse cause and effect. If you look at the IS–LM graph aforementioned, you might be forgiven for thinking that somehow Y (national income) affects e (the nominal exchange rate). In the sciences, we put the independent variable on the x-axis, and the dependent variable on the y-axis.

To peruse one of many examples from physics:

Force-extension graph

The story here is pretty straightforward: you apply a force, and the material stretches in a particular way dependent on its material properties.

Occasionally in physics, some graphs don’t follow this convention, usually for reasons of convenience.

The problem is that nearly all economics models have it backwards: they put the independent variable (the causation, the mover) on the Y-axis, and the independent variable (the observed change) on the X-axis. This small change makes economic graphs unnecessarily confusing. In the IS–LM model, e affects Y because e affects NX and Y is dependent on NX; however, there is no clear relationship going the other way round.

In formal logic notation,

(x → y) ≠ (x ↔ y)

This says that (x implies y) is not the same as (x and y imply each other). Or to put it in more comprehensible terms: if I sleep through my alarm I will be late; but if I am late, that doesn’t necessarily mean I slept through my alarm (I could have been stuck in traffic!)

Problem No3: economic models make overly idealised assumptions. This is a big one. Economists say that the art of economic modelling is choosing good assumptions; but if so, economists must be terrible at their job.

Let’s look at the previous model I showed: the IS–LM model under conditions of a small open economy with perfect capital mobility. You may now observe that, actually, well—capital isn’t perfectly mobile. You can’t do a runner with a house. What’s more, houses take time to sell (again, dynamic systems!) and the resale value is not always high (risk element). In many parts of the world, there are restrictions on foreigners buying houses.

Because the assumption of perfect capital mobility is wrong, the aforementioned conclusion is wrong as well. Fiscal policy does have an effect on national income—just look at the UK under austerity. It is thought by many economists that Osborne’s economic policy cost the UK a lot of lost income growth. The Sterling did not depreciate and net exports remained pretty dismal (the former stayed high and the latter stayed negative).

A more useful assumption would have been: assume that some capital assets are mobile while others are not. Determine the share of mobile-assets for the economy you are looking at. This way, you get a much better grasp for what’s actually going on.

Problem No4: vagueness. This is a problem that I have rarely seen mentioned, perhaps because it is of a slightly more philosophical nature. Essentially, what I have noticed in economic models is that they can be quite unclear as to what a concept or variable is referring to.

Take the example of r*, which represents the going interest rate across the globe. Or even just r, which represents the going interest rate in a national economy. My question is: which interest rate does it represent, exactly? Investments have many rates of return. We all know that some investors make a fortune on the stock market; others make a loss. Bonds have different returns based on their maturity period.

If we just take a weighted mean of all these different interest rates, we risk missing some important constituent details.

If we look at the globe, we... observe that there are many interest rates, across both private sector and government investments. Even if we confine ourselves to only government bonds, we see that there are large discrepancies based on the countries’ riskiness (Argentina or South Africa have higher interest rates on their bonds than Germany or the US).

At this point, economists just thought: “Aha! We can model interests rates as being r* + P, where P is the risk premium.”

Except it’s not that simple; the concept of risk premium is itself vague. How do you quantify a risk premium? No one knows. Investors make investment decisions based on their perception of that risk, but the risk itself is uncertain; the interest rate we observe is just the expression of a social belief, not some neat numerical correction.

To put it in philosophical language, the ontological status of the risk premium (and numerous other macroeconomic concepts) is misunderstood. And the consequences are not just philosophical; they can lead to a number of conceptual errors with serious policymaking implications. One prominent example is in neoliberal economics, and its belief in the divine importance of the market price.

In a debate about rent prices in London, the neoliberal economists might say: “All these social housing schemes are nonsense. Why should the state interfere and distort the housing market price?” The use of the word distort is very important—it suggests that the market price is almost like a physical quantity, a reality that should not be meddled with. In reality, of course, the housing prices of London are really just a reflection of the (deluded) expectations of property owners on future prices, among other things.

Problem No5: the role of risk, uncertainty, and expectations. This is another area of economics that is under active research, and in which we are starting to see improvements. I’ve decided not to go detail here; the topic is quite technical, and anyway, I’m doing research on it right now. Perhaps I will cover it in a future post. Until then, I will (again) recommend reading the venerable Steve Keen, along with various other economists such as Frank Knight and Gunnar Myrdal.

Concluding Remarks

What I have written ultimately only scratches the surface; there are much more fundamental questions to be asked about macroeconomics and its ability to accurately model and predict real world economies. Nevertheless, I think the five key problems I have highlighted constitute a good set of methodological problems with macroeconomics—and they are problems that can be feasibly solved.

My conclusion for students, policymakers, and other economists is this: presently, economic models are pretty rubbish. They are in urgent need of improvement—or else economists will find themselves stuck in the credibility crisis they are now in. But better models will demand the work of newer, wiser, and better educated thinkers.

In other words, we need a twin revolution; a revolution in the way we teach economics, to attract stronger students from a wider variety of fields, and a revolution in the way we do economics. Will the field rise up to this challenge? Perhaps. People like Steve Keen give me hope. On the other hand: there are a lot of economists who prefer to keep their head in the sand. What can I say? I hope they die quickly.

17 Nov 2017

Why Economic Models are Bullshit (Part I)

Hello dear readers!

Previously, I wrote on a number of topics, chiefly among them: my exams, and Fallen Love, my upcoming novel. Alas the former has prevented me from working on the latter; Fallen Love will probably not be finished until January, as I stated. Still, with my exams finally over, I can get back to working on it.

You may be wondering as to the title of this post. Your guess would be correct—this post is indeed a brief argumentative essay (read: rant) about economic models, on which I have spent the last week of my life revising for. I am taking both micro and macroeconomics, but this post will mainly be about macro; I will get onto why in a moment.

A Pedagogical Disaster

The simplest reason for my particular hatred of macroeconomic models has to do with teaching. That’s the simple reason, but the more complicated reason has to do with content (though the two are, of course, tied together).

To put it simply: the teaching has been disastrous. More than half of our class failed the first exam—this is in a selective university, mind you, with many of the student body having attained excellent grades in secondary school. One reason was the teacher. We had two teachers, and the first was quite dire.

“That’s one bad apple,” you say. “There are bad teachers in the world. That doesn’t mean macroeconomics is bullshit.”

This fact alone does not prove my point—except that this is not a single, isolated phenomena. Economics students across the world routinely struggle with their courses, complaining that they do not really understand it; that indeed, “it”—macroeconomic models—don’t make any sense. One bad teacher is one thing. But can the entire pedagogical structure of economic teaching be at fault?

I would argue yes. The most common complaint I’ve heard in my university is that (and I am paraphrasing only slightly) “I draw the graphs, but I don’t know what it means or why.” There are a few reasons for this. To begin with: concepts. Macroeconomic concepts are strongly under-explained. The course introduces things like “inflation”, “GDP”, “unemployment” and (my personal favourite) “money”—but these macroeconomic concepts differ significantly from the prima facie conception that students begin the course with.

A case in point: a number of students conflated the AS–AD model with the supply-and-demand model from micro economics. They even sound similar—one is “aggregate” supply and demand, the other just vanilla supply and demand.

AS–AD graph

Microeconomic supply-and-demand graph

Although they look extremely similar, they aren’t the same. The microeconomic model has P (prices) on the vertical axis and Q (quantity) on the horizontal axis—this arrangement is problematic, but I’ll get to that. Anyway, the AS–AD model has P (price levels) and Y (real GDP, output) on the respective axes. These are different concepts. Price levels are a measure of weighted, generalised prices across a macroeconomy (usually they are calculated in the form of the CPI)—they’re not the same thing as the price in a market. Y, representing real GDP, is sometimes called output, leading students to conflate it with quantity output.

Money is the worst, however. Students have no idea what money actually is (in fact a lot of economists don’t understand what money is, but students are even worse). In a macroeconomic context, money doesn’t just mean the euros in your pocket; it represents a wide range of things, from liquid assets held in bank accounts (M1) to savings accounts (M2) to more nebulous concepts of money that are too technical to go into here.

This is also why students struggle with the IS–LM model, which rests on a complicated set of assumptions about money and what money does in an economy.

Anyway, onto the next pedagogical error: mechanistic teaching and oversimplification. Our teachers presented all of these models as a series of mechanical steps, expressed in equally mechanical equations. “What happens if taxes increase under the classical model?” (Some curves shift.) “What happens if labour supply increases under the AD-AS model in the short-run and long-run?” (A complicated mess.) “What happens in the Mundell-Flemming model if, under a fixed exchange rate condition...” (I give up.)

There was very little explanation of why all these things happened. Why would a government want to increase taxes anyway? Why does the model look at these variables? What explanatory power do these models have, and what assumptions do they make?

These are all key questions that remained unanswered. This leads me onto the third pedagogic mistake: not teaching history. These models did not fall out of the sky. They were developed by economists—in a particular time and place, in a particular intellectual climate, and in a particular historical context. It’s difficult to understand these models, much less criticise them or apply them, without this precious context.

Yet, even without all these mistakes of pedagogy, there are more fundamental reasons why macroeconomic models are difficult for the students to comprehend. To repeat the title of this post: macroeconomic models are bullshit.

Conclusion Part I

I realise that you are probably tired of reading this, dear reader, so I will save my juicy critique of macroeconomics for the next post (titled “Why Macroeconomics is Bullshit, Part II”). For the time being, I will let you ponder the parlous state of economics teaching in our schools and universities.

Until then, make sure to check out Fallen Love in case you haven’t already.

30 Oct 2017

The Long Autumn

Hail readers!

Today I shall be giving you a brief update, regarding both my progress on Fallen Love, and the state of my life at present (the two being, of course, inextricably linked).

To wit: progress on Fallen Love has been slower than I was perhaps hoping for. Nonetheless, I have made some progress. I read, edited, and rewrote over 100 pages in the book since last week. The changes were, primarily, related to tense, description, and the mechanics of writing; but I also rewrote a chapter in order to change the course of events slightly. I have not made substantial changes to plot and characterisation—the reason is simply because I haven’t got to that part yet. The beginning of the book serves more as a foundation; it is the later chapters that really advance the plot and, by extension, the character development.

Why has progress been slow, you wonder? Partly it’s because I have not received all of the feedback from my beta readers, and what feedback I did receive was mostly not that useful. I will ask you, reader, to consider helping me. If you think you can beta-read, drop me an email (work DOT alexstargazer AT gmail.com) and we’ll see. I very much appreciate help and feedback at this point.

It’s also been partly because I’ve had a lot of work to do. Last week was lecture-free, but I nevertheless had an essay to finish, a quiz to submit, and a statistics project to work on. This week I will also be busy. Tomorrow I have another quiz; after that I should do some work on two essays; and I also need to enrol for next semester’s courses (a complicated business).

The week after this, I need to focus and revise for my second round of exams. I will also have to squeeze in an annotated report and presentation.

I hope you understand why I am moving my goals for Fallen Love further in the future. Previously, I hoped to have wrapped up the revision process by November; that was naive, a hope guided by the fact that it will soon have been a year since I started writing Fallen Love (and a year since I gave up on the Ark). I am planning, instead, on having finished the revisions by January. Then I will start submitting to agents.

I am also going to Romania this Christmas—the first Christmas I am spending in my home country for a very, very long time. In the past 15 years I have been to Romania only in the summer, except once in February. What can I say? Christmas will be very busy this year.

My blogging efforts will remain sporadic over this period, as university, the book, and life will take up most of my attention. Although, I am taking breaks in the form of reading, and so I will continue posting my reviews. You can read my (very substantial!) backlog here.

Until next time!

3 Oct 2017

Writing a Book at 14

Hello readers!

Following from my previous announcement, I can confirm that I’ve sent the completed draft of Fallen Love to my beta readers, and they are presently reading it. In the meanwhile, I have decided to grant you all a treat: an essay, originally published in the student journal, that elaborates on my experience writing the Necromancer.

Perhaps you can interpret it as a reflection on the past—and a guide to the future. For me, it invokes great nostalgia. For you, it may enlighten the sometimes mysterious world of writers.

I will be back with news of Fallen Love soon, in any case. Until then!

What’s it like to write a book at 14?

When I tell people I wrote a book at 14, it would be an understatement to say that I get a lot of responses. But beyond the look on people’s faces, writing the Necromancer changed my life in many deeper (though sometimes subtle) ways.

Firstly, allow me to address the obvious factor here: commitment. Writing a 108,000 word high-fantasy book is not something you do on a whim. Indeed, it took me over six months to complete the first draft—a feat that required writing multiple hours per week—and a whole 18 months to get feedback, edit, seek agents, do more edits, and eventually hire professionals to do the artwork.

This leads me onto the second obvious question: motivation. Why, exactly, does a fourteen-year-old undertake such a quest? In my experience, laymen often draw on analogies with entrepreneurs: perhaps, they think, I wrote because I want to build something. Maybe I want to make the world a better place. Maybe I’m just in it for the money, or the pleasure of throwing down a 500 page book and saying ‘I wrote that.’

But this is only a small part of the reason I write. To understand my motivation, you need look a bit deeper, and trace the origin to my love of reading. I have always loved reading, even from an early age, and this was particularly true of the years just before I began writing. A transcript from the school library showed that I read about 400 books between the ages of 11 and 14.

The old adage is true: behind every writer there is a profligate reader.

So how did my love of reading affect me? It is safe to say that I became enraptured by the world of fantasy. Like the children in Narnia, I had opened the wardrobe and found a whole world waiting for me. Eragon and Northern Lights kept me up at night. I saw myself in their shoes: I fought urgals on the back of a dragon; I met angels; I fought dark magicians and consorted with vampires.

I was, in truth, smitten by the occult. My fascination was endless. It seems almost inevitable that I came to write about it; that my ideas grew, morphed, and took a life of their own.

One grey October afternoon, I began writing. I believe the necromancer compelled me to write that day; that the curve of his arrogant jaw, the icy power held in his ‘cold orbs of sight,’ all but forced me to put him down on paper.

Laymen often ask writers where their inspiration comes from. This, I am afraid, is the best answer I can give you.

The first few chapters I wrote were not worth the paper they would have been printed on, however, so I had to rewrite them from scratch. This is true of nearly all first time writers—you can blame it on the fact that writing fiction is… hard. It is difficult for a non-writers to understand just what kind of challenges writing presents: the elaborate art of writing itself; the magnificent difficulty of capturing whole personalities, often in few words; the intricacies of plot—all to name a few.

The rest of the book was a journey. I followed Linaera—apprentice mage and unwitting protagonist—through her journey into the Northern Mountains. I watched on as Nateldorth, Great Mage, uncovered dark conspiracies in the capital, Dresh. Most of all I followed the necromancer. I was witness to him: to his betrayal, his descent into madness, and his ultimate redemption.

Books are journeys. The journey of my book was in a way my journey: where my characters struggled, I struggled with them. For them it was question of facing up to existential challenges. For me it was knowing their motivation, and building all the twists and turns of plot that made up their lives.

Writing the Necromancer was often a pleasure. I liked the dark, unexpected turns of the plot; the characters’ inner lives; and most of all, I enjoyed writing in the world of Arachadia. I loved the towering mountains, the vast, sprawling forests; the great stonework of the mage buildings and the fine craftsmanship of the wooden cathedrals; the world of dormant dragons and powerful magics.

Of course, writing the Necromancer was often a challenge. I was young, and devoid of experience. I often struggled to write fluently—it took much work to correct the early mistakes. It was as if a vast realm had been entrusted to a young king; a king with many ideas but few ways to actually conquer.

But conquer it I did. Perhaps I did not quite succeed. Perhaps there are other worlds yet unconquered—other vast and distant places full of promise. But writing the Necromancer was not the finishing line; it was only the first milestone of a long journey. I do not know what dragons still slumber in the path I am taking.

Nor does it matter. My advice to my younger self—as well as to other would-be writers—is perseverance. Many monsters lie in wait (some of them are called publishers, critics, and yourself) but the treasures they guard are beautiful.

24 Sept 2017

It is done

Hail readers!

Previously, I mentioned that I was close to completing Fallen Love, my upcoming new novel. Well: there’s no more ‘upcoming’ about it anymore. Fallen Love is finished!

Of course, I also mentioned, in my previous update, that writing the ending does not serve to complete this quest of mine; there is still much work to do, in the form of getting more feedback, making revisions (a sizable number remain to be done) and of course querying agents.

But still: this is a huge milestone. I have turned an idea—an inkling of the character’s desires, the world they inhabit, the circumstances of the plot—into reality. Indeed, I thought it would never happen.

You see, when I began Fallen Love, I had written over 50,000 words on the Ark. It seemed insane to start a new novel, and abandon the old one, even though—deep down—I knew it was the right thing to do. Luckily, I persevered; and now here I stand, my hands holding a much more valuable object than the Ark could ever have been.

It is often said by writers that the second novel is easier than the first one. For me, this was not true. Oh sure: writing the Necromancer was insanely hard, and took two years to get published. Yet I completed the first draft in barely six months, two weeks; whereas Fallen Love took me 10 months, and it’s shorter too. The Necromancer stands at 108,000 words, while Fallen Love is 79,000.

If you consider the Ark to be more than just a false start—since I spent over a year working on it, and created three of the main characters that would later find themselves in Fallen Love—then you really start to comprehend the Goliath endeavour this was.

I only hope that publishing it will be easier. I daresay I am a much better writer now.

In any case, that’s enough for today. I have sent the completed draft to my beta readers; it is time for me to rest, letting my readers digest, and allowing me to charge my batteries for what comes next. University has also not let me off too easily, and I will have work to do in the coming weeks.

But since I know you must be excited, I have made good on a promise: you can now read the first chapter on this page.

Good bye for now, or as the Dutch say: tot ziens!

1 Sept 2017

A New Year (Of Work)

Good day readers, and hallo from Amsterdam!

This summer, I have been away both in Romania, where I visited Vatra Dornei, and Scotland (where I saw many places): if you are interested, you can check out my photos here and here.

Now, I am back in Amsterdam to begin my second year of university. It has, as I have said before, been a long year; yet I have done much, not least quitting the Ark, and beginning Fallen Love. Speaking of which: that is the topic of today’s little update.

I am now on 71,000 words—a significant feat on top of all my visiting, and of course all my university work. I daresay I am quite pleased, especially since I am close to finishing! A couple of thousand words is all that separates me from completion.

And what will I do once I finish it, you ask? Well, at first, not much. I intend to let it sit for a few weeks. Then I will go back; I will read through the novel in its entirety, resolving unfinished business, perhaps adding or subtracting some scenes, and generally getting a feel for my new creation.

In the meanwhile, I will be doing a few other things. Of course there is my university work; that will take up a significant amount of my time, but not all of it by any means. No: I will also be spending some time on Tapas, a fantasy- and comic-book themed platform that can help me gain new readers. I’m not entirely sure what I will put up (it may be new content; it may be some existing unpublished material) but I hope it will be interesting.

Now, onto writing and the new academic year. Wish me luck!

4 Aug 2017

A Wee Poem

Hail readers!

Today I have chosen to share with you a new poem—one which I wrote while away in the Romanian countryside, as I have already mentioned previously. It is entitled ‘the Castle’, and you can read it below.

The Castle

Now, as for what it represents, that ought not be difficult to deduce. The first few stanzas are ‘scenic,’ as one might say; they set the scene with imagery, and make an excellent stepping stone into the main theme of the poem:

There comes a time
A very special, once upon a time
When a castle need be built.
To guard against invaders; to fight dragons
And be home to the ghosts of battle.

The second part of the poem goes onto none other Linaera and Neshvetal themselves. These two, for those of you who don’t know, are the main characters from the Necromancer, my first novel. In that sense, the poem has a certain amount of nostalgia (though ‘be home to the ghosts of battle’ should give that away!)

The girl is tall, and pale
Her eyes bright, blue
Alive with newborn power.
The ghost is beside her:
Formed of shadows and memories.

So different
The living and the dead;
The evil and the righteous.
But so alike, too—
Father and daughter, wielders of magic.

The final part of the poem talks of ‘a time of new enemies’; in that sense, one would be correct in thinking that the poem alludes to a new sequel for the book. That, of course, is still a good long way in the future: I intend to complete Fallen Love, its sequel, and a whole other set of books before I do that. Nonetheless, it gives you a taste of things to be.

I will leave you with the poem’s ending, and a reference to destiny, as is traditional here on the Magical Realm.

The girl turns away;
The necromancer seems sad
Though hopeful too.
“Time to meet your destiny,”
He says, eyes atwinkle.

“Now,” says the girl
“Where have I heard that before?”

1 Aug 2017

A Writer’s Work

Hello readers!

I have been away in my Romanian country home, and have, alas, been bereft of Internet. Please do excuse my lackluster efforts here on the Magical Realm. Nonetheless, this has presented a different opportunity: writing Fallen Love.

I am very pleased to announce that I have written more than 60,000 words on the book; I am not very far from finishing. Another 15,000 words or so will do it, and then I will begin the process of seeking agents, and trying to acquire a publishing contract.

In the meanwhile, I have decided to release some excerpts from the book. They will appear in the ‘Upcoming Books’ page of the blog. If all of my announcements have made you at all excited, do check it out—there is plenty to entertain you!

The blurb, which I have perfected, may do some of the convincing:

When Upperclassman Conall falls in love with Mark—a Fallen boy—two things become clear. First, he’s immediately and irrevocably in love with him. And secondly, he’s biting off more than he can chew...

Ireland, 2620: a world haunted by mutants at night, and by the terror that is the Party at day. A brutal class regime is maintained through secrecy and precisely targeted violence, ensuring the rule of the Party and the economic dominance of the European Superstate.

But one woman is planning on turning it all to rubble. Kaylin, a clairvoyant and spell-caster, is building an army of Familiars—others like her, gifted with strange powers.

Her plans are led astray, however, when two boys mysteriously enter her visions. Why do they matter, she wonders? And what of the dark beings her visions foretell; what of the Fallen Ones? A storm is coming, and it is bigger than any of them...

Still, the rest of this post will not be concerned with Fallen Love directly, but rather with an intriguing and related discussion: what promotes good quality, productive writing?

Inspiration: The Age Old Question

Inspiration is much talked about, both in writing circles and by well-intentioned laymen. The latter usually assume that natural beauty has some contribution to good writing: perhaps, they think, the desolate beauty of the Scottish Highlands has some bearing on the Scottish poets. A few even naively assume that said natural beauty will turn them into great poets and writers.

In writing circles, the discussion tends to be a bit more nuanced: we writers, after all, experience the power of art in a more intimate and direct fashion. We all know that great writing is something far from trivial; that simply gazing upon a desolate peak, or a beautiful indigo sunset, is not nearly enough to turn someone into a brilliant artist.

My personal take on this is that external beauty, while awe-inspiring and wonderful, isn’t really relevant to the internal beauty an artist creates. JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a train. And some of my strongest writing, both on Fallen Love and the Necromancer, was not created on the top of a mountain—it was written in much more banal circumstances.

One might argue that seeing natural beauty is enough to instil the seeds of inspiration; that the experience continues even after we’ve left the site. There may be some merit to this idea, but I would nevertheless point out that writing—especially my kind of writing, fantasy—often stretches reality in ways that non-artists cannot see. I believe Sartre had it right when he used the analogy of light. We can shine light on a painting, but this does not illuminate its inner mysteries; and indeed, art itself seems able to shine a light on the world, and one that cannot be emulated by even the sun.

Still, something did allow me to write nearly 10,000 words in the space of a week. Maybe it was the lack of anything better to do (although many people in that situation never become great artists). Or perhaps the star-lit landscape, yet free from the vagaries of modern cities, brought some inspiration from the heavens. Who knows?

In any case, I hope you enjoyed my little philosophical digression. Now, I must leave you, dear reader, to continue my writerly work. I will return—both with excerpts from the book, and even with a new poem I also wrote while away.

Until then!

16 Jul 2017

Fantasy versus Science Fiction

Hello readers!

I have taken a break from my writing on Fallen Love in order to update to you on my latest comings and goings, including my now published essay, Fantasy versus Science Fiction: A Curious Divergence.

You may be aware that I wrote this essay a while back; I did so in order to submit it to a competition run by Issues in Earth Science. I subsequently won that competition—but some edits were requested, and it took a wee while until the essay was finally published (along with me receiving the money!)

Anyway, it’s here now: Fantasy versus Science Fiction

If you have any questions, comments, arguments, whatever—just put them in the comments section below. I always appreciate a bit of healthy intellectual debate.

In other news, I have read and reviewed two books—as usual, you can find them on the Reviews page, though for your convenience, here is the link to the book I enjoyed and the one I hated.

Now, I must return to my work. I will update you with my progress on Fallen Love, along with some photos of my time here in Vatra Dornei, in a few days. Until then!

6 Jul 2017

A Long Year

Hello readers!

It has alas been some time since I have last written to you. But rest assured that a great deal has been going on; in fact, the purpose of this post is to recount on this year’s events. There are many, and I will split it into three broad sections: academics, writing, and a few tidbits about my personal life. In my usual style, these reflections will be paired with a few wayward analyses.

Until then, a quick update regarding my present situation: I am now in Romania, after a long day in airports. I will be visiting Vatra Dornei, a mountain town; there I will take photos (which of course I shall release) along with inspiration. Or, well, that’s the plan.


The Wonders of Academia

Having completed my first year at Amsterdam University College, I have a number of observations to make regarding both the university and academic life in general.

To begin with, the former. The AUC, as it’s handily abbreviated, is uncommon in its teaching model: it has a student body of only 900, and they are rather diverse, ranging from all four corners of Europe—be it Sweden or Italy, Albania or Portugal—and beyond, from the Americas, New Zealand and Russia. Indeed, the AUC’s motto is “excellence and diversity in a global city” (which the students lightly mock by calling themselves “the excellent and diverse people of AUC”).

Despite this, the student body is also remarkably uniform. Partly this is as a direct consequence of its size: with only 900 kids, it’s much harder to capture the smorgasbord of life experiences that a university of 30,000 can. Partly it’s as a result of socio-economics, with few Muslims or people from African descent to be seen (at least relative to other places). And partly it’s as a result of its politics—the AUC is Liberal with a capital L.

Anyway, the more personal question I should be asking is “Have I enjoyed my time here?” And for the most part, I have. I have made very good progress, obtaining a number of As and A–. The workload has been... managable, really. I have after all managed to do a hell of a lot of writing (of which you will learn soon).

It hasn’t been entirely rosy, of course. One reason, as I irrelevantly put it, is the wonder of academia. The prevailing academic culture is dry, formalistic, and devoid of common sense. I should precede that statement with the qualifier “mostly”—there are wonderful exceptions, full of clarity and wit—but they are exceptions.

A good example of this are citations. We learned three types of citations in our academic writing class—APA, CSE and MLA—and all three are a pain in the arse. There’s also Harvard, Chicago, and numerous others; each is more tedious than the last.

To explain, these citation styles all require that the author follow very strict, unhelpful, and inflexible formats for how they cite sources. APA asks for (variable-1 variable-2) where variable-1 is author name—last name, mind you—and variable-2 is the year of publication. MLA asks for (author-name page-number) in the same format. If you need to cite a source written by unknown authors (which are actually fairly common) you have to resort to other complicated rules. If your source is an ebook, MLA is a pain; if your source is historical, APA also looks weird.

An example:

APA: Stupid sociologist A believes that weird concept x is useful in explaining whatever; but stupid sociologist B argues that weird concept y should be used to explain it. (Woodward 1990; Back 1990). However, yet another stupid sociologist C thinks both concepts are needed. (unspellable name 2000).

APA cont.: Marx (1857) in his Das Kapital argued that...

Mises (no page number because it’s a fucking ebook) argued that...

And this is before we even get to the bibliography/works cited/references/whatever synonym your style demands. The rules there are so complicated that it’s impossible for a normal, sane human being to try and remember them; we’re left to using software to do it for us.

Does a solution exist for this? Is it possible to cite academic sources in a pain-free manner? Of course; it’s only a question of imagination, and maybe some good quality software design. In-text citations could be done with a number, like [1], perhaps followed with an optional field for additional clarity. The optional field could be an author name, the name of the work being cited, or really anything that is appropriate in context. So the above could read:

Sociologist A [1][Woodward] believes that... Sociologist B argues [2][Back]

Marx [1][Das Kapital]

Mises [1]...

Bibliographies could be structured logically rather than arbitrarily, so instead of:

Ayer, A. (1936). Propositions about the past and other minds. Language, truth and logic (1952nd ed., pp. 19). New York: Dover Publications.

Berkeley, B. (1710). Treatise concerning human knowledge (Dover Edition ed.). New York: Dover Publications.

Brink, D. (2014). Aristotelian naturalism in the history of ethics. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 52(1), 814.

You could have:

1. Title: Propositions about the Past and Other Minds.
Author: AJ Ayer (Alfred Jules Ayer)
Publication year: 1952
Publisher: Dover
2. Title: Treatise Concerning Human Knowledge...

This would make it far easier to both produce and read citations. But still, academia continues with this arcane, time-consuming and moronic practice.

I haven’t yet touched on the other absurdities that prevail in academic circles; indeed doing so would require more breadth than I have in a blog post. I’ll just leave you with this little bundle of joy.

This Article, a third in a series of related works, explores the representation of sexual identity within Critical Race Theory and other forms of anti-racist discourse. I argue, after examining representative texts, that anti-racist discourse is often "heteronormative" -- or centered around heterosexual experiences. Most commonly, anti-racist heteronormativity occurs when scholars and activists in the field fail to analyze the homophobic dimensions of acts or conditions of racial inequality and when they dismiss, either implicitly or explicitly, the "morality" of gay and lesbian equality claims. This Article recommends that scholars in Critical Race Theory and related fields adopt a more multidimensional lens for studying oppression and identity -- one that treats forms of subordination and identity as interrelated, rather than as mutually exclusive and unconnected.

—By some stupid academic. Sorry, no fancy citations here.

The Joys of Writing

Moving on, in another perhaps sarcastically titled section, I come to my writing.

Back in November, I made a huge decision: I abandoned my novel in progress, the Ark, and began writing Fallen Love instead. It was not a decision I made lightly—I had after all been working on the Ark for more than a year. But I feel that in the end it was the right one. Put simply, the Ark was not the book I was meant to be writing; the premise was incoherent, the conflict was lacking, and it just didn’t turn out the way I wanted it.

Fallen Love is also a challenging project, but it is one I am enjoying. I still have much work to do, but I am getting there. Partly, this has been result of perfectionism on my part: I am not easily satisfied. But a more detailed explanation will require another blog post.

In other areas, I have been with Red Pers—an online newspaper run by an AUC student—for more than six months now. I have written a large number of articles, many of which I have linked here. To make it easy for you, they can all be found here: http://www.redpers.nl/author/alex/

I am hoping to expand into paid journalism soon, details of which I will be releasing once I have something concrete.

Finally, I have also been busy writing essays. My first, entitled Fantasy versus Science Fiction: A Curious Divergence, will be published by Issues in Earth Science—for which they are giving me a modest prize. I have also written another essay, on university education, which I hope will get picked up.

The Vicissitudes of Life

Living in Amsterdam has thrown some challenges at me. Some of it has been largely predictable; it was Benjamin Franklin who remarked, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I have indeed paid taxes, as well as asked for benefits, and generally wrangled with the bureaucracy.

Another truism that has been proven is “there’s no such thing as free lunch”—because it costs money, and time to cook, both of which have been important aspects I have had to contend with. The financial side has been manageable, due to a combination of my parents, my grandparents, and the state. As for the cooking side, I have devised a number of dishes that meet my requirements: relatively low cooking time, health, animal welfare and impact on the environment. The exact details I may share later, but it has involved lots of wholegrain pasta, rice, lentils, and copious amounts of soy products.

Finally, there has been love, which I feel demands another catchy cliché. Perhaps: “When you’re in love, it’s like the universe revolves around you and the person you love. Actually nobody really gives a shit.” I am exaggerating, of course, but you get the point.


It has been a long year, as the title alludes. I have written countless essays, and taken countless exams; I wrote till my fingers bled; and I lived, experiencing the three permanent features of life: lunch, taxes, and unrequited love. Now, it is time for me to wrap up. I will write again, so keep following!

18 Jun 2017

A Brief Update

Hello readers!

I do apologise for my dreadful lack of blogging these last two weeks. I have, alas, been busy—both with university, and with other areas of writing. To begin: you may find my analysis on the aftermath of the General Election interesting.

The question that is on everyone’s mind — be it political commentators, several reputable pollsters, and of course, May herself — is surely: how did it come to this? Barely two months ago, it seemed inevitable that she would win, and win big. By embracing Brexit, and indeed presenting herself as the Queen of Brexit, May believed she would win millions of votes from people who voted UKIP (an anti-immigration party) two years ago. On top of that, Labour was in chaos: Corbyn (Labour’s controversial leader) had faced a motion of no-confidence, a walkout by his Shadow Cabinet, and was the most unpopular leader in opposition history.

And yet, here we are, in an election where Labour gained seats (and a rare 40 percent of the vote share) while May has lost her majority. What gives? What led May from being the uncrowned queen to the empress with no clothes?

Full article on Red Pers.

I have, on top of this, finalised my essay to be published in Issues in Earth Science—I will be receiving the prize money soon. On top of that, there has, of course, been the matter of Fallen Love. My upcoming new book is filled with delights, but writing it has proven to be a substantial amount of work. As I have written previously there are various reasons for this, not least the fact that I am writing in a new genre.

I have also been doing more miscellaneous things, such as visiting Amsterdam in the summer—photos can be seen here—and attempting to make the best of the unexpectedly pleasant summer weather.

In any case, you’ll forgive me when I say this post is short. I must soldier on, with an exam on Thursday and a book that refuses to write itself. Until then, may the stars be with you.

4 Jun 2017

The General Election 2017: It’s as Simple as ABC

Hello readers!

Today—as you may be able to guess—the subject is the UK General Election. This will not be an analysis piece. The question I wish to answer is simple: how should you vote? The answer is likewise simple: anything but conservative. Of course, this is not a propaganda piece, either; I wish to persuade you, the reader, with sound, factual argument. So buckle up—it’s going to be an interesting ride.

Theresa May: Weak, Dishonest, Out of her Depth

The Prime Minister’s mantra this election has been “strong and stable”. She repeats it at every opportunity (except for debates, of course, because she doesn’t attend those). Indeed, the new mantra has even superseded the old clichés—such as the much-loved magic money tree.

It is said, however, that weak leaders describe themselves by what they hope to represent, rather than what they actually represent. Think of it as being a bit like “the People’s Republic of China”—neither a republic nor of the people. More a statement of ideals, if you will.

Theresa May is, in many ways, politically inept. The commentariat used to believe she was some sort of political genius; how else, they reasoned, could she have toppled Cameron and become PM? (The answer: opportunism and lack of serious opposition.)

The most damning proof of her ineptness is likely the “dementia tax”, so baptised for targeting people in need of social care—aka dementia sufferers—with a tax on the value of their home. The details are problematic enough; the tax is rife with the possibility of abuse. But perhaps more worryingly still, May announced this unpopular policy before the election, U-turned, and then pretended she hadn’t. Hardly the mark of a great statesman or master negotiator.

Speaking of master negotiators, her Brexit approach is... utter shambles. This may surprise some of my readers. After all: they say May is trusted on Brexit. She certainly wants you to believe it. But I shall recourse back to the analogy I gave previously; the People’s Republic of China is as much a republic as Theresa May is a “safe pair of hands”.

Partly this is because of her team. Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, has described the Germans as Nazis—an act of such mind-numbing stupidity, it almost defies comprehension. Then there is David Davies, the Brexit Secretary, who admitted he had made no economic assessment of Brexit—nine months after the referendum! And don’t even get me started on the Secretary for International Trade (or is that Dr?) Liam Fox, who was forced to resign as defence secretary on allegations of corruption.

Then there is May herself. “No deal is better than a bad deal” she proclaimed to thunderous applause, as if the EU negotiations were like buying a carpet at a bazaar, perhaps. And not, you know, a massive constitutional challenge with millions of people’s citizenship rights—on both sides of the Channel—at stake.

So-called “No Deal” Brexit would also be an economic disaster, the likes of which the much-maligned Corbyn would struggle to accomplish. Banks are already making plans to leave, with calamitous consequences for UK tax revenues. Tearing Britain out of the Customs Union will result in huge delays and expenses, destroying pan-European supply chains for British exporters, and forcing business leaders to defer investments or move production elsewhere. The country’s triple-A rating has also been slashed.

Or, in less technical terms: No Deal Brexit will be a shit storm. And the fact that Theresa May is seriously contemplating it should tell you a lot about how competent she really is.

The A-Word

The Tories wanted this to be the Brexit election. Alas, this is not so. The fact of the matter is, this country has not forgotten about austerity; it remains a problem, festering deep beneath a complacent Conservative party. People do care about the NHS, which the Red Cross has deemed to be in “humanitarian crisis”. They do care about schools, which are facing real cuts in funding per pupil. They do care about high energy prices, social care, pensions, and the chronic shortfall in housing.

And if you care about those issues, then don’t vote Conservative. Judge them on their record, as they say. I won’t go into technical details; the effects of their policies are plain for all to see.

It’s as easy as... ABC

It’s easy for me to say “anything but Conservative”, you think. Isn’t Corbyn some swivel-eyed IRA supporter? Doesn’t Tim Farron think gay sex is a sin?

Only, it isn’t as hard as you think. Corbyn has his sore spots, true. But what he may, or may not, have said about the IRA was thirty years ago; this is, after all, 2017 and not 1983. The agonising over whether or not he’ll press the red button is just that—agonising. It’s about as likely as Godzilla jumping from the sea and rampaging through London. (Okay, maybe I exaggerate. But only a little.)

And Corbyn does have the answer to the problems this country faces now. His manifesto recognises the real issues we face, puts forward serious proposals to fix them, and is costed too. (Remember the Tory manifesto? Which party seems more competent, really?)

But why, you ask, should you not just vote for Labour; in other words, why is my motto “anything but conservative” rather than “vote Labour”? The answer is our good old First Past the Post voting system. It is better to vote for a Liberal Democrat, or a Green, if voting Labour means getting Tory. Or in other words: better half a loaf of bread than none at all.

You have every right to doubt the Lib Dems, though.

Tim Farron is the embodiment of hypocrisy. But as I say: sometimes one has to choose the least worst option.

Parting Words

We do not know exactly what will happen on the 8th June. Perhaps we will have a hung parliament; perhaps the Tories will win comfortably. It is even possible that Corbyn will do it, and become Prime Minister.

But let us leave that for later. For now, the message I want to give you is this: we live in on the edge of a very dark time in politics. Hubris, short-sightedness and ignorance could isolate us from Europe, with devastating consequences for the economy and for the people caught in between. The Tories have run down our public services to breaking point; it is only a matter of time before something cracks. Our Prime Minister has shown her weakness to the world.

This is no time for entertaining hypothetical scenarios about Armageddon. This is no time for mud-slinging and personality politics. On the 8th of June, I urge you to vote with a clear head. The future is in your hands... even if it’s cliché.

28 May 2017

A Summer of Words

Good day, readers!

Today, Alex has finally taken the time to write a proper update—although Alex hopes you did enjoy the second guest post by Molly. Quite a number of things have happened since Alex last wrote; therefore, this post will be a longer one. We will have four topics as the subject matter: to begin with, Alex’s university life, followed by all elements of his writing—poems, essays, and of course, Fallen Love.

Without further ado...

A University Experience

The academic year is scheduled as follows: there are two 16-week periods, and two 6-week periods, with breaks in between, and a nearly two month long summer holiday. Alex has completed the first 16- and 6-week period; the second sixteen week period, which he is in now, is almost at an end. Thus, there are six more weeks until the summer holiday.

The next 6 weeks will have Alex study for a course known as “Global Identity”, which—according to former students—is quite a bore. Therefore, Alex has hopes to make significant headway in his writing.

University life has brought many challenges for me (yes, we’re not in third person anymore). Friendship, romance, loneliness—to name a few emotions. On top of that, there have been practical difficulties. Accommodation, bank accounts and bureaucracy were just some of them.

Academically, I have found university to my liking. I have obtained excellent grades so far. Although, of course, it has meant significant work: ten exams, ten substantial essays, and countless smaller assignments. What can I say? I need a proper break.

Two Lovestruck Poems

I have alluded to romantic feelings, and indeed, there has been a special someone whom I have fallen for. They will be known only as “The One Who Shall Not Be Named”.

The poems are called Eromenos (transliterated from the Greek, meaning “beloved”) and the Dove. You may read them below.


The Dove

Essays, and Money

I have won my first paid essay competition! The science publisher, Issues in Earth and Space Science, has accepted my essay for a €50 prize. The title of the work is “Fantasy and Science Fiction: A Curious Divergence”. I won’t release it just yet—but it will be published in short order.

I have not yet decided on what I want to use the money for, although I hope to make a modest donation to charity.

In addition, I have also submitted to another academic publisher—the ERIS Journal for Humanities, run by the VU university—which will release the results this summer. First prize is €350, so wish me luck!

Fallen Love: A Difficult Tale

In addition to all these efforts, there has, of course, been what is perhaps the most important: Fallen Love, my upcoming novel.

Its tale is a long and fraught one. Initially—nearly two years ago, in fact—I began writing the Ark, which was the story I first planned to tell. Alas, that did not work out as expected; I wrote on my experience here. Instead, following a moment of dark inspiration, I chose to write the tale I am now creating.

Efforts so far have not gotten me nearly as far as I would have wished. I wrote 48,000 words; after a fair amount of revision, I am now on 46,000. I expect Part One will come in at under 45,000. After that, I will began writing Part Two—for a grand total somewhere between 80K and 90K words.

Since I have been rather taciturn with regards to the story (I have only posted a blurb on the “Upcoming Books” page) perhaps it is time I let slip a few more details.

Fallen Love is a story set in Dublin, in the year 2620. It is a strange place: Ireland is run by an authoritarian regime known, simply, as the Party. Europe is united in the form of the European Superstate, against the Chinese menace. Dark things walk the Earth—mutants that prey on humans, driven by a passion known only to them.

Mark, a young man belonging to the Fallen—a Class of people with few rights—doesn’t understand why his father abandoned him, nor why he’s fallen for Conall, an arrogant Upperclassman with a love of beautiful things.

Neither of them suspect what lies in store for them. There are barriers that guard their world from the forces of the Dark One; but they grow thinner, and the menace looms larger. Mark will soon discover that his father had every reason to leave...

Finishing Thoughts

I am a busy man, as you can see. My work takes on many forms—be it academic essays, romantic poems, or evocative novels. My only command is that you stay and listen. There is more yet to come... though not this week. There is one more exam yet to go!

22 May 2017

Guest Post: A Book Review by Molly

Hello readers! Alex has been mighty busy these past days (weeks?) for the reasons he has already mentioned: university, journalism, essay writing, and of course, Fallen Love. He will update you on the latest events soon. Until then, why not read this guest post by Molly Fennig—the second guest post ever published here on the Magical Realm—and also my own review on her website. Happy reading!

Guest post by Molly Fennig, teen author of the YA thriller INSOMNUS and blogger for mollyfennig.com.


I picked up Tess Wakefield’s debut novel Purple Hearts in a bookstore in Wisconsin, in part because she was a Minnesota author, just like I am, and in part because I loved the cover with the converse shoes and work boots underneath a teal background with a white title (as much as it is frowned upon to judge books by covers as a metaphor, I firmly believe there’s a reason the metaphor exists, especially when there’s not much else that can be considered when choosing a book).

The other reason I bought Purple Hearts was because I was intrigued by the blurb. I spend a long time picking up book after book, carefully setting it back because the backs promised a Girl who meets A Boy who is Not Like Any Other Boy or stories that seemed similarly cliché. Purple Hearts, on the other hand, is about a girl, Cassie, who marries a soldier for his health insurance and they must “set aside their differences to make it look like a real marriage… unless, somewhere along the way, it becomes one…”

Although it’s easy to see where the story might go, the way in which the story unfolds and the choices the characters make are not cut-and-dry, creating a book that is hard to put down. The dilemmas are realistic, as are the solutions, and the plot is character-driven, as it should be.

One of the first things that pulled me into this book was the writing style. Part of me kept reading because the plot was compelling for sure, but an equally large part of me kept reading because I wanted to keep experiencing the wonder that is Tess Wakefield’s writing. The dialogue is realistic. The characters are complex. The figurative language is beautiful. If her writing contained nutritional value, I would happily eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of the week.

This was also a book with one of the most successful uses of multiple points of view, where the narrator switches each chapter. Part of this is due to Wakefield having created strong characters that are not too much alike and both have similar, although maybe not exactly equal, narrating power. The chapters are short, keeping the pace of the book fast, and the switch between the points of view is amazingly effortless for the reader.

(Spoilers): In terms of what I would have changed in the book, I had a little trouble believing Luke wouldn’t have any more problems with his drug dealer just having beaten him up, especially since I’m sure Johnno has other people he could recruit to help get back at Luke. I’m okay with it, especially since I can’t think of a better solution except maybe calling the cops, but it made me have less faith in his decision-making abilities.

Also, I loved the ending, but I also think it could’ve been longer, at least so I (selfishly) could’ve experienced just a little more of Wakefield’s writing. It did feel make the story feel complete and cohesive, which I loved. Also, the ending was realistic and fitting without being too predictable, a feat for which I thoroughly commend Wakefield.

All in all, I think adults and young adults alike would love this book, especially those who like romance that isn’t too cliché or cheesy and who like rounded characters, great writing, and a unique premise. I can’t wait to read what Wakefield writes next.

If you liked this post, check out my blog for writing tips, book reviews and more, mollyfennig.com, and check out my book, INSOMNUS, on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

10 May 2017

The Battle is Won, but the War Continues

As part of my journalism endeavours, I have written another article on the French elections, this time regarding Macron’s challenges as he enters the Élysée. An excerpt is quoted below; the full link can be found at the bottom.

It would be no understatement to say that Macron’s victory in the second round of the French presidential elections has made EU politicians sigh with relief. His opponent — the Front National candidate — ran on a platform that included taking France out of the euro, calling a referendum on ‘Frexit’, and turning France into a facsimile of the Vichy Régime. Regardless of standard political considerations, Macron’s success was a victory for all decent people throughout Europe; it demonstrated a rebuttal to neofascism and a vote for liberalism, no matter how flawed.

But although the election is over, the war is not. Le Pen will be back again; the populists and their ilk will continue fighting elsewhere in Europe, whether in Austria, Denmark or indeed the UK. It is not enough to merely make the arguments for tolerance and European co-operation. Rather, it is also about convincing the voting public that the answer to our ills — be it employment, security in work, the role of supranational institutions, or tensions with immigrant communities — does not lie in embracing the easy promises of populists or the seductive certainty of hatred.


2 May 2017

May Day (Or was that yesterday?)

Hello readers!

Alas, I have not been able to keep the Magical Realm up-to-date with the latest developments; you can blame it on my university work (papers, and exams!), as well as my work on Fallen Love and Red Pers. Still: no time for excuses. Today my update will be brief, but hopefully informative.

Progress on Fallen Love

Alas things have been going slowly. I have a large number of ideas for revision, and not nearly enough time, it would seem, to get down to writing them. To recapitulate: part one is complete, and I am currently halfway through revising it. I am changing the tense to present-tense; I am making changes to various scenes; I am adding things; I am subtracting things; and generally I am obsessing over things.

Red Pers

My journalism has been more productive. I have edited two articles: Shambhavi’s on the Turkish referendum and Saga’s article which will be published on the website Wednesday. I shall be writing an article of my own soon, though this week I have had an exam with another coming on Thursday; time is in short supply.


Finally, I have a confession to make: I have been very busy writing essays for paid competitions. I have submitted to ERIS, a humanities journal; and to IES, a website dedicated to space science. I cannot release my essays just yet... but I am confident they will win. Do keep an eye out for the announcement.

Life in General

I will finish this blog post with a few general notes on my life in other areas. I have visited my parents in Glasgow, and will soon release the photos I took therein. I have also been reading—writers are, after all, profligate readers—and once more I will remind you that my reviews can be found in the “Reviews” tab up top.

Very well. Time waits for no one; I shall be back with more updates, but until then, keep following!

16 Apr 2017

Easter Musings

Hail readers!

Alex shall today use his Easter break to discuss another intriguing aspect of writing: first-person versus third-person narration. This is a topic that is quite bog-standard in creative writing circles, but one which Alex has not really thought about too much—until now. The reason, of course, is Fallen Love; it employs first-person present-tense narration, and this inevitably poses some challenges when compared to the Necromancer, which is third-person past tense.

So without further ado, allow me to present my thoughts on the advantages—and challenges—of the different narration styles. Hopefully you will find the discussion interesting (and well suited to a quiet Easter break, unlike my usual fiery polemics).

First or Third Person Narration? (Read: Intimacy or Flexibility?)

What, then, is the difference between these two common narration styles? The obvious answer is that first-person narration reveals the events through the eyes of the character (using “I”) whereas third person narration makes of a detached narrator (using “he”, “she” etc.) Nonetheless, there are some additional variations to consider: the third person style, for example, can be limited or omniscient. The first person style can be reliable or unreliable, and also has various degrees of closeness to the character.

To address the confusion, here is a list expounding the differences:

  • First person. In general, this is used for intimacy, especially when the story revolves around one important main character.
  • Unreliable: this is when the character’s account of the story is not always reliable—the character may lie, or fail to mention important things, and so on. This style is useful for certain narrative purposes.
  • Reliable: this should be obvious enough. Still, although the character doesn’t lie, their account of the story is limited by their own perception. This style isn’t equivalent to third-person-omniscient, by any means.
  • Third person. This is useful for telling the story through the eyes of multiple characters, and tends to de-emphasise the importance of one character in the grander narrative.
  • Limited: this is when the narrator doesn’t know the future or have perfect knowledge of the past. You can imagine the narrator as being someone close to the characters—knowledgeable, but human.
  • Omniscient/God narrator: this is when the narrator has a bird’s eye view of the events in both time and space.

So when and why do we use these different styles? There is actually no single answer; there are various recommendations, and some writers and editors swear by them, but as far as I’m concerned choosing between the styles is very much down to artistic choice.

You may have noticed that, earlier on in this post, I used the third person; right now I am using the first. This reflects a change in what my writing is doing. In the first instance, third person narration acted as a form of self-deprecation, and gave the reader a humorous introduction both to the topic and to me as a personality. In the second instance, the first person style serves to give me my own distinct voice, and thus carry a sense of authority.

Writing fiction works in a similar way. First person narration usually works to give the reader a sense of intimacy and connection with the main character—and a lot of readers enjoy this. Third person narration can be very impersonal, and usually works well to carry across a complex multidimensional plot. The dehumanising effect is another element of it: Game of Thrones is a good example of this.

But note the words usually and can. The reality—as with many things in writing—is that these different narration styles can blur together, or even act contrary to standard doctrine. Some first person narration is very intimate indeed, whereas other first-person narration is more detached; this depends on the main character’s personality. Third person narration can be intimate: it can tell the reader a character’s darkest secrets and brightest hopes. Some authors have a very warm, intimate, or humorous third-person voice.

Mark Lawrence, an author I regularly read and admire, has written a lot of dark fantasy in first-person narration. In his case, the question is not so much about making the reader like the main character (in the traditionally understood sense); rather, it’s about getting the reader to understand just how dark and depraved the main character can be (but making them love the character just the same).

Trudi Canavan, another author I admire, writes very compellingly in third person. Her romances make me swoon—at least figuratively, since swooning would be terribly unlike me.

So, to conclude: generally speaking, writing in first person is about intimacy, and writing in third person is about perspective, flexibility, and emphasis on plot. But writing is complicated. There are many things that go into character development and plot; the narrative style is more of a tool, and one that can be used according to preference.

What About Fallen Love?

This leads me onto the complicated subject that is my new novel. I have written the book in first-person, but I have broken a traditional rule: the narration is not in the eyes of one character, but three, and possibly more. Namely, we read it in Conall, Mark, and Kaylin’s perspectives.

The first reason is simple—there are many important plot elements which go on behind the scenes, and which Kaylin is somewhat aware of, but not the two boys. The second reason is also obvious: I like reading romance from both sides.

Still, this choice brings some challenges. For one, readers can sometimes struggle with multiple first-person Points-of-View (although my beta readers have not complained, so perhaps the number of POV changes and how they are accomplished matters). For two, it’s quite demanding in a technical sense.

Take language. Conall, an Upperclassman and poet, tends to use more elaborate language in place of the simple. Mark, on the other hand, usually uses more direct expression. Still, neither of them are stupid—getting the balance right is tricky.

Of course one might ask why I didn’t use third-person. The answer is that I wanted to focus on character development in this book, more so than in the Necromancer. In the latter book, world-building and fast-paced plot kept the story flowing; in the former, I think the reader needs to be closer to the characters in order to really understand them.

A Brief Note About Tenses

Since this post is proving fairly lengthy, I shall keep my digressions into the role of tense relatively short. Two kinds of tenses are used in fiction writing: past and present. The former uses ‘are/is’ and the latter ‘were/was’. (Of course, there are 12 tenses in the English language, so this is a gross simplification.)

What do they do? Is there any difference between them? Frankly, I have found them to be problematic. I wrote the Necromancer mainly in the past tense, and Fallen Love was a mishmash until I settled on present. The difference seems to be one of grammatical pedantry, as opposed to a real literary technique; whether the prose is written in present or past tense, it makes little difference.

Rather, I have found that the usual truisms about tense—present is for immediate action; past for complex, multi-layered narrative-building—to be, well, truisms. The myriad action scenes in the Necromancer were very fast paced, despite the use of past-tense. Conversely, I have worked on the action scenes in Fallen Love so that they flow better. Other elements of writing—punctuation, the characters’ interest and motivation, the reader’s knowledge of the plot—have far more of an impact.

Finishing Thoughts

I hope you have enjoyed my rather long and technical musings on this matter. To surmise it all in a few sentences: first person is for intimacy, third for scaled up narrative building; past is for multidimensional plot, present for immediate; and all of these are just generalisations.

So there you have it. I will be doing more blogging soon, although—aside from my work on Fallen Love and my commitments to Red Pers—I am also busy with academic work. Still, I will be visiting my parents again on Friday, and will have the week largely free.

Until then!

12 Apr 2017

The Year of the New Europe

Hello readers!

Alex previously promised you two things. Firstly, that he is busy working on the new book, Fallen Love; this is a promise that Alex has kept. He has written 48,000 words, and is well on the way to finishing beta-reader suggested revisions. If you are interested in learning more about the new book, check out the “Upcoming Books” page.

But what of the second promise? Alex intended to write more about European politics. His piece on the Dutch elections was part of that—but of course Alex knows that is insufficient for you hungry readers. Thus, allow him to present his new piece on the French and German elections. Since Alex is a Red Pers editor—for those of you who don’t know, Red Pers is a Dutch newspaper startup run by local students—this piece has been published on their website.

So, without further ado: the link. Enjoy!

4 Apr 2017

Twilight: A Review

Hello readers!

Although, as I have already warned you, I am immensely busy both with university life and with my continued efforts on Fallen Love, I have managed to find a window of opportunity for something else: a book review. As you may be able to guess, it concerns Twilight, that most hated—and loved—of vampire novels. Here are my thoughts...

The world’s most loved vampire novel; the world’s most hated vampire novel. Revered with religious zealotry by its fans—and hated with equal zeal by its detractors. It’s Twilight, and... well, I love it. But you already knew that. The question I want to answer is: why?

This question is not as simple as it may first appear. Many have been mystified by the enormous success of these books (according to the publisher, over 100 million copies have been sold) and while many explanations have been put forward, they are—to my mind—highly superficial. So: allow me to provide my own theory.

As you can guess, this review will not be written in the usual style. Normally, I would address the book from the perspective of plot and pacing; characterisation; setting; and of course, writing prowess. By this formulaic account, Twilight is a perfectly good book. The plot is strong and for the most part well paced (albeit a little slow at times). The setting—Forks: a grey, rainy, and strangely phantasmagoric place—is excellent. Characterisation is fine, with character roles being clearly defined and compelling. The writing is clear and occasionally poetic.

Since the critics are probably frothing at the mouth by this point, I will delay the onset of my main argument to counter the points they raise. First off: no, the writing is not bad. It is clear, well-punctuated, and successfully paints both the pallid landscape of Forks and the beautifully seductive Edward. To peruse some examples:

Phoenix—the palm trees, the scrubby creosote, the haphazard lines of the intersecting freeways, the green swaths of golf courses and turquoise splotches of swimming pools, all submerged in a thin smog and embraced by the short, rocky ridges that weren’t really big enough to be called mountains.
The shadows of the palm trees slanted across the freeway—defined, sharper than I remembered, paler than they should be. Nothing could hide in these shadows. The bright, open freeway seemed benign enough.

Regarding Edward:

His liquid topaz eyes were penetrating
He laughed a soft, enchanting laugh.

(You get the picture.)

As for the claim that Bella is an idiotic teenage girl dangerously obsessed with a killer: sure, that’s true in a very superficial sense. But I don’t think the critics are giving them enough credit. Bella is hardly a fool, for one; she’s intelligent, an avid reader of the classics, taking AP classes and planning on going to university. Edward is a vampire, yes, and a monster; but he is also selfless, urbane, capable of kindness, and willing to go against his nature in order to save human lives.

And this leads me nicely onto my main argument. The reason why Twilight has millions of adoring fans, and the reason why it draws such a storm of criticism, is the same for both groups. In Twilight, vampires are not cuddly. They may sparkle, they may be beautiful and charming—but they are monsters. Impossibly strong, indestructible to bullets, venomous; these abilities fuse together with something altogether more frightening.

Bloodlust. Vampires kill in Twilight, and they kill a lot.

So where does this put Bella and Edward? Meyer has a pithy set of lines:

“And so the lion fell in love with the lamb . . .” he murmured. I looked away, hiding my eyes as I thrilled to the word.
“What a stupid lamb,” I sighed.
“What a sick, masochistic lion.”

The beauty of this book—and what draws its readers in—is this conflict. Love and death; human and vampire. Edward isn’t seductive just because he’s beautiful (as every other vampire is). In the forest grove scene, quoted above, the answer is clear: it’s because he does, despite being a monster, try to hold onto his humanity. It’s why Bella—and the millions of girls and women in her feet—fall so hard for him.

Critics, of course, provide the superficial explanation that Edward is a girl’s perfect fantasy (in much the same way teenage boys fantasise about hot, available women). After all, Edward doesn’t pressure for sex; he’s charming, protective, and good looking.

All of this is true, but a problem remains for the critics’ account. Why haven’t other books that replicate the same—be it with vampires or any other male protagonist—failed to gain the same success?

Nor does it quite capture the nuances of this book. For one, the duo don’t have sex for the simple reason that Edward would kill her if they tried; but Meyer makes it clear that the attraction is sexual as with any other couple. Maybe Edward, rather than being Bella’s perfect fantasy, is simply a responsible, mature adult, much like she is.

And yes: Bella is an adult, not just a whiny teenage girl. She cooks dinner and drives her own car. She takes responsibility for her schoolwork, and shows a high degree of social awareness. Her poor co-ordination and obsessive interest in Edward is one that many girls of her age (and older) are familiar with.

This brings me, at last, to my conclusion. Twilight is a fine book from a formulaic perspective—it’s competently written (albeit not a work of poetry), the plot keeps the reader tightly engaged, and the characterisation is spot-on. But this book has a magic ingredient that goes beyond all that: vampirism, and more broadly, the line between monster and human.

Critics may scoff at it and dismiss it. They may provide convenient explanations for its success, and wrinkle their nose at its prosaic writing (even though it’s not really that prosaic, and is written better than many ‘literary’ novels that abuse the English language with their logorrhea). Ultimately, though, Twilight stands on its own legs: 100 million copies, four blockbuster films, and an entire social phenomenon.

14 Mar 2017

Politics and Agenda 2017

Hello readers!

I hope you enjoyed the guest contribution by Molly Fennig, and also my own guest post on her website. Today I am back to the usual Magical Realm fare: politics, and writing. But before we go onto the former, allow me to speak about the latter.

Fallen Love

I can now officially declare that part one of two is complete; the book is more than halfway to being finished.

This, as you can imagine, is excellent news—and it has come at no small cost to myself, as I have been most busy writing (as well as dealing with the general rough and tumble of academic life). Thankfully, my writing goals and deadlines have proven useful in motivating me.

For the time being, I am not working on Fallen Love; instead I am focusing either on academic life or on fulfilling my duties here at the Magical Realm. This is actually because I am leaving the book to rest in the drawer for a bit before I go back to revising it (and I will revise it) and to writing the second part. I have reached a milestone—but more is left to go.

Once I do begin working on it again, however, I will sadly be unable to make more than token efforts at blogging. You can blame it on the significant academic work I have to deal with—it falls on top of everything. Still, you can still follow me on Twitter (@AlexStargazerWE) as well as on Google Plus (+AlexBujorianu).

‘But Alex!’ you cry: ‘Won’t you give us any juicy details?’

Well, since you insist…

I wanted it to be a fairytale. I would love him; he would love me. We would sing happily ever after and set off into the sunshine.

But dark forces are at work. It’s not just the Party—the monstrous authoritarian regime that bans our relationship. It’s not just our Class, or our failings out, or family, or school. The boy I fell in love with might not be entirely human…

Onto Politics

I could talk about Brexit on the eve of Article 50 being declared—and with the culmination of countless ammendments, both in the Commons and the Lords, that were designed to offer a sensible Brexit but were defeated by gutless Tory MPs and a useless Opposition.

I could talk about Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon has declared that the new Independence referendum will be in Autumn 2018. I could talk about how me and my parents will vote…

But I won’t. In all honesty, I’ve written enough about that already (see: The Brexit Bus or just search ‘Brexit’ in the bar to the right). There is nothing to add, at this point, beyond more speculation: it’s time to wait and see now. Let Theresa May declare Article 50 and see if she gets her wishlist from the EU. Let the campaign for the new Independence referendum begin.

Instead I will be writing a little bit about an election closer to home: the 2017 Dutch elections. Polling day is tomorrow; and while the stakes are not that high, this election will nevertheless be important both for me and for setting the mood in 2017.

Some background is in order. The Dutch have a political system that not only includes proportional representation, but also has very few barriers to entering politics in general—there’s no lower limit to enter parliament and even the finances of standing for election are unusually liberal. This results in a political system that is extremely fragmented. No: I mean it. There are 11 (eleven) major parties. Even I, a politics aficionado, am torn—with D66, Groen Links, and even PvdA having plus points and minus points that put them on an equal footing.

I am not going to give you all a rundown of the 11 parties and their main ideologies and political positions. That would take too long; and besides, it is superfluous for our purposes. Instead, I will say this: all of the eleven parties bar two are respectable. This is not to say that I agree with them—but it is to say that they practise serious (non-populist) politics, and that they respect the fundamental tenets of modern liberal society. By this, I mean two things: secularism, and human rights. The latter involves touchy subjects like the rights of gay people and minorities.

The Christian Union is a fringe theocratic party. But the elephant in the room is the PVV (the so-called Party for Freedom and Democracy). Essentially, it is the Dutch equivalent of UKIP. Oh sure—it has some peculiarly Dutch liberal window dressing. Geert Wilders, the charismatic, comedian-like lunatic in charge of it, is happy to defend gay people and liberal democracy—from Muslim immigrants. According to him, the public enemy no.1 in the Netherlands is Islamofascism. (Public enemy no.2 is the EU.)

The trouble with the PVV is that they’re not all wrong. Islam is not the religion of peace—it hasn’t been since Muhammad and the Shia-Sunni split. It certainly isn’t good for the Middle East; indeed I and others have argued that it’s the real root of the conflicts there, more so than Western intervention—and on par with Ba’athism. And Muslim immigrants in Holland do hold some disturbing views: while 91% of the Dutch population supports same-sex marriage (Eurobarometer 2015) this is less true of the Muslim population. In the UK one study found that half of Muslims thought homosexuality should be illegal (The Guardian).

Unfortunately, one does not fight fascism by electing fascists. And Geert Wilders has uncanny similarities with fascists: he wants to ban all Mosques, for example. Even Donald Trump hasn’t suggested that yet. (And it’s an even more extreme position than he had a few years ago, when he merely suggested height limits for mosques, and then banning the construction of new mosques). That’s not all; the rhetoric he employs is reminiscient of Hitler. Dutch mainstream politicians have betrayed ordinary Dutch people. They are all in a conspiracy with the evil Muslims. Refugees (or ‘migrants’) are an army waiting at the gates. The EU is an international plot to undermine the will of the Dutch people.

Compare this with Hitler. He also said that mainstream politicians colluded with a disparaged minority (Jews) to undermine the will of the true German people. He also believed that an international conspiracy acted to undermine the glory of the Third Reich.

Anyway, that’s enough about Wilders. Let’s ask a different question: what kind of political power will he get in this election?

Current polls put his party between 13% and 20% of the vote. This is disturbing—in the latter case the PVV would be the largest party in parliament—but par for the course for the European far right. The thing is, even if the PVV is the largest party, this isn’t saying much in the fragmented political landscape. Even 20% is a long way off 50%. And virtually no one is willing to go into coalition with him.

So the Dutch elections are really about waging a wider moral battle. The forces of liberalism and pro-Europeanism on one side (embodied especially by D66, CDA and GroenLinks)—and the force of dark nationalism on the other. While I won’t go as far as to say that the Dutch elections will influence other elections in Europe, I think it is fair to say they make for an interesting case study.

12 Mar 2017

Guest Post: Advantages of Being a Teen Author

Hallo allemaal! I know I have been dreadful in keeping the Magical Realm updated, so today I am bringing you something new: a guest contribution. I will be writing a post of my own in the near future, though, don’t you worry.

Guest post by Molly Fennig, teen author of the YA thriller INSOMNUS and blogger for mollyfennig.com.

Writing a book is something many people dream of, and few actually accomplish. Some have already achieved that goal as teenagers, though, including Alex and I. When most people hear that I wrote a book during my junior year of high school, they usually respond with, “Wow, how did you have time for that?”

The answer is, with volleyball and homework and clubs, I didn’t just happen to have hours of time I could use to write. I did, however, find ways to work writing into my schedule.

I wrote on the bus on the way to school, or at least thought about what was going to happen next in the story. Also, I set aside at least thirty minutes a day after homework, and before anything else, to write. This meant while I didn’t totally give up TV, I definitely wasn’t watching regularly, just as I wasn’t spending as much time reading for fun or watching movies.

When I did read for fun or watch television, though, I was sure to capitalize on the experience: taking character and actor names for my own stories, looking for what made realistic dialogue, and getting new plot ideas that made me excited to continue my story.

Similarly, I was sure to capitalize on the resources I had as a high schooler to strengthen my writing. I used the same techniques for peer reviewing in English as I did for editing my novel. Annotations and close reading, while usually used for literary analysis, helped me determine plot holes and awkward wording in my manuscript. Analyzing other authors helped me hone in on my writing style and discover what I liked in the books, and, conversely, determined what I incorporated into my writing.

Other classes helped me grow as a writer besides English class. Spanish taught me almost as much about the English language (such as parts of speech and faulty predication) as it did about Spanish. Psychology gave me the idea for my novel, INSOMNUS, and the scientific explanations for the supernatural abilities my characters had. Of course, some classes, like math, had limited effect on me as a writer, although I suppose without it, I wouldn’t have been able to number my chapters. (Although I could’ve just made them chapter names, so really, who needs math?)

So, if you’re a writer in high school or college, what can you do to take advantage of the resources you have?

  1. Take writing classes. This may seem obvious, but do it!
  2. Take compelling classes that have nothing to do with writing, such as engineering or cooking, to give you ideas for characters, plot, and worldbuilding.
  3. While walking to class or sitting in the library, listen to how people talk so you can write more realistic dialogue. Listen for things like how often they day what they really mean and what kinds of words they use.
  4. Maximize downtime. Whether it’s on the bus, like me, in the few minutes before class starts, or as a study break, take the time when you can to come up with new characters, outline your plot, or just to write.
  5. Join a writing/reading club or schedule in time. Especially in college, it can be easy to go weeks without reading fiction or having writing time. By scheduling it in, either weekly or daily, you’re more likely to end up doing it. Plus, joining a club or reading with friends can be a fun way to make a solitary activity more social.
  6. Review other people’s work. Even if it’s just looking over a friend’s essay, it can help you refine your editing skills. Plus, it’s always easier to edit other people’s work, so it’s a great place to start.
  7. Find people to review your work. Whether it’s the same friend whose paper you edit or someone else, there are likely plenty of avid readers who would be willing to look over a chapter or two, at least, of your book, and see errors you missed after having read the manuscript four hundred times.
  8. Reach out to teachers in the industry. I wouldn’t have published my book without help from my creative writing teacher, who is a part of the writing and speaking industry, so reach out for advice or to be connected to other people who can help.
  9. Even if it’s only for a few minutes, journaling can be a great way to collect information (events, feelings, ideas, names) for future stories as well to help you write stream-of-consciousness. It’s also a good tool for writer’s block.
  10. Use social media/screen time for writing instead. The same goes for any time-wasting activity you normally do. While you don’t have to give it up completely, limiting your time on such activities can free up a fair amount of your day. That being said, when you do go on social media or watch television…
  11. Use social media/screen time for inspiration. Use pictures people post for characters and settings or use social media to connect to other authors and grow your platform.
  12. Make school assignments lessons in writing. Take what you learn about writing essays and expressing your thoughts coherently and apply them to your writing. Use research skills for research papers to get background on your story. If you find you work better with deadlines for school projects, give yourself writing deadlines. Use ideas from psychology, sociology, and economics to give your characters realistic motivations.

If you liked this post, check out my blog for writing tips, book reviews and more, mollyfennig.com, and check out my book, INSOMNUS, on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.