Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Bigger Picture

A paragraph of cold, hard context.

Circa 3 months ago I dropped my laptop, and mangled the hard drive. Photos of loved ones? That’s what Facebook is for. The entire record collection may, painstakingly, be re-ripped. Everything that can be replaced will be, and everything that can’t I can bear to live without. Except, that is, for 25,000 words – in a hilarious twist of fate, the 25,000 I wrote for the Clarion West Write-a-Thon this summer. So what’s the big deal? I marathoned 25K in 6 weeks; I can do it again, surely.


What may be a little harder to put my finger on, in all probability, will be the chapter outline it’s taken me well over a decade to chisel.

Naturally I know what happens in my novel, who do you take me for? Just, I know what happens in my novel in the manner of a tourist who’s been inside a museum once, under cover of night, stealing a surreptitious peek at a picture here and a statue there before being caught, red-handed and Stendhal Syndromed, and thrown down the stone steps back into the starless gutter of a city night.

Which is a flamboyant way of saying that actually, I haven’t the foggiest what happens in my novel.

For, inside what still thinks it is a single standalone book, I have discovered a microcosmos too big for my brain to contain all at the same time. We’re talking more years, unions, borders, allegiances than I can count while sober on reality, and I am thankful for that. When I have grace enough to write something that doesn’t suffer from the artificiality of the mundane, it is because the world I have tapped won’t fit into my head.

Now in a moment of fevered inspiration, I saw an actual map to this place – stark across my retinas, clear as day – and traced the path across, even as I saw it. The detail of it, the precious interlocking of plotlines, the seamlessness with which storylines that had always appeared to me in fragments joined hands and contours, becoming one before me.

I had glimpsed the bigger picture.

And now, well, someone’s gone and torn up the blueprint.

The question is not,

Is the pretty picture worth the pretty fee of an expert in a sterile white coat, in a sterile white lab?
Of course it’s worth it, just as certainly as I can’t afford it. So the question is not really a question at all; it’s much more like a statement, and it runs like this.
Mourn your brainchild, but only for a while longer. Then come the bright new year, man up. Stop thinking of what you lost, and think of that which you can still build. The blueprint was merely a draft, imperfect and incomplete. You didn’t do your story justice; not entirely, not yet. Everything you wrote in that instant of epiphanic revelation, you can write better. You type girl, and type a little faster.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Fiction Genre Divides as Fiction

Terminology fascinates me. Of course it does. Words are what I use daily to build worlds; words are what I use just as frequently to try and unpack in a professional-sounding manner the worlds created by others. So I’m hardly going to stand make that sort of recline awkwardly here, pretending the way we choose to define things is not of paramount importance.

Yet if there’s anything I believe, it is that the operative word in the above sentence is “choose.” Definitions aren’t Platonic ideals signifying x, just x, and nothing but x, because we’ve plucked them out of the sky pretty and pre-packaged. They are stupendously useful, what with all their help decoding the world and its fictional manifestations; yet were they ever-fixed as the mark in the sonnet of yore, they wouldn’t be half as functional.

That’s not to say we can make words mean anything that pleases and serves us...

Or is it?

Language is a powerful medium, so much so I find I want to swear like a sea-bound sailor to punctuate precisely how powerful it is. But its power is not of the dictatorial kind; it is not by turns tender, inflammatory, heartbreaking because it is peremptory and prescriptive. Rather, it is infinite in application because it can be deployed in an infinity of different ways. Granted, there must be islands of stability in this fluid state of affairs, else we would not be able to grasp tales written yesterday, nevermind years, forget about once upon a time. Still of fluidity we speak, for if words truly meant nothing but the appearance of themselves the enterprise of writers would be rather dull and daft.

Now, genres and their subs may well rank amongst the most stable islands in my nautical metaphor. To writers seeking to chart their place along the literary continuum, they can spell the difference between carefully crafted trope and dreadfully dry cliché. They may salvage readers, pressed for time before the imminent gate closure, from being stuck on a long-distance flight with a book that’ll bore them to the edge of doom.

Instrumentality, however, doesn’t warrant a gag and straightjacket. To dive back into my metaphor: one may build bridges across islands. Apparently, fantasy ≠ magical realism ≠ urban fantasy. My inner inquisitive explorer couldn’t disagree more, and not because the novel in progress attempts to bridge those pesky genre divides. More like, the novel attempts to bridge divides that I have always believed to be a posteriori constructs, useful yet not omnipotent, insightful yet not omniscient.

Genres are cosy, in that soothing milk and whiskey when ill kind of way, yet comfort zones are also meant to be stepped out of. I cannot fail to namedrop Jasper Fforde, whose mind-melting combination of literary satire, dystopian science fiction and detective story defies all common sense to run like a clockwork dream. Jasper, I know, collected 76 rejection slips before being snapped up; myself, I write for publishers of the 77th persuasion.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Dream is Over (Again)

I was -15 years old when The Beatles broke up, so I couldn’t very well shed tears of artistic bereavement for their sakes. I have liked bands since; some I have even loved, particularly in recent times – the present one seems to have turned into the year of gigging dangerously, and I like that. But there’s only been one other band whose music has seeped into my soul with the same hectic, boundless energy as that of the most renowned Scousers who ever breathed. A band without which the year of gigging dangerously, to be perfectly frank with you, would probably not be happening. That band was The Ark, and by “was” I mean to say that as of precisely a month ago, they are no longer.

The break-up, against all odds in such cases as these, was a thing of sheer beauty, hardly deserving such a jaggedly hyphenated accolade. No pointed fingers, no bitter accusations or back-stabbing press releases, just enough maturity to realise that the dream had run its course. To the fans, the gift of an epic farewell tour I can only egoistically wish had included my neck of the woods, and the desire that the end of an era may mark the beginning of another, full of wondrous new possibilities for all of us. Triumphant in their unadulterated joie de vivre to the last, they went and upheld everything they meant to me and others.

I would feel shock at their not being bigger than they were, except bigness is not measured in the pervasiveness of brand names, but rather in the staying power within ears and hearts open to being wooed and won. I would say their songs changed me forever, except what they really did was help me to find a self which I thought I had lost – which is everything. Their happy beat in my step and awakening words in my lungs, I have shouted out my identity to the world loud enough to be heard inside my own head, where it was needed most. Hand in hand with their gleeful take on the life worth living, I rose from the ashes whereto I had burned myself, a beaming little phoenix. I would say I worshipped them, except what they really did was pat me on the back as we jointly revelled in one another’s awesomeness.

I’ve got nothing to say to them, then, except this.

Thank you, boys. Thank you for the laughter of recognition and the refusal to give in to sadness; thank you for the pride and the dancing, the tenderness and the bold choices, the ideals but never the anger. Thank you for saying things that needed saying in a tone that begged to be sung along to, never giving in to pity, always fighting shame with love. Thank you for dreaming in such spectacular Technicolor, and most importantly, thank you for letting us dream by your side.

I would say R.I.P., except you’ve gone and made yourselves immortal.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Write-a-Thon Week #5 Catch-up

Day #35 Progress: in, well, progress
Objective: 20,115/30,000

It’s been an interesting week, one of amazing productivity and despair, of hope and numbness. At one end of the spectrum my quest for a perfect writing spot seems to have come to an end, on the other I’ve been assailed by the kind of disillusionment that makes you quake in your artistoid boots, shrug and wonder: what’s the point? It’s not like you need me to offer a multitude of platitudes on recent events, partly because everybody and their cat have preceded me, and partly because when I say that there are no words, I mean exactly what I inscribe on the tin.

The only thing I shall say is, I have remembered what the point is, what since my earliest memory it has always been. Asimov once said, ‘If the doctor told me I had six months to live, I’d type a little faster’; and at times when the ugliness of the world seems to concentrate and offer mankind a similar prognosis, it is only sensible to adopt a parallel approach. I could sit here, hands in my lap, still, silent, defeated. I could choose to shun the sanctuary of creativity that has been served me on a silver plate, mute the sound on the ghosts in the walls, retreat in my own head never to come out.

But I won’t. I won’t turn away from my trade, pocket my pen, kennel my keys. I am reminded of something I wrote all the way back in Chapter 5 – a passage I won’t quote out of context (lest it be misunderstood for the call to arms that it is not) but which, long story short, harped on about the power of words to reflect and inspire change. A tricky topic; there are those who will argue that imaginative fiction, being escapist, renounces its ability to say anything important about reality, issues, people. Yet Le Guin and Tolkien helped shape this idealist. My personal brand of ethics owes as much to the sparse paragraphs of Fredric Brown’s Sentry as it does to all 1,500+ pages of Les Misérables.

I may well not be one of those masters. It really is not my place to judge. But it is my place to write, like a fevered mad person, like every sentence might be the last I ever commit to paper, like I believe that words conjured out of thin air can make a difference. And believe it I do, with a strength of conviction which may be shaken, but never broken. As long as I have eyes and ears to perceive the beauty and kindness I know humanity is capable of, I will be awed by the world, and moved to describe it through the lens of my work, distortive but not so as you’d notice. Burn out mine eyes and lop off my ears, I’ll only type faster, with blood streaming down my neck and the smile of one with a purpose.

You may say I’m a dreamer.

Please do.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Write-a-Thon Days #28 & #29

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Day #28 Progress: 1,043
Day #29 Progress: 1,015
Objective: 14,850/30,000

If I was too spent for interaction last night I had a goshdarned good reason, or so I like to think; likewise fool-proof was the rationale behind this communiqué being billed as a double-bill, despite its length in fact being nothing to really write home about. You see, I actually finished Part 1 last night. Well, ok –ish. Alright, alright: truth be told, there’s the odd scene that needs developing here and the occasional chapter requiring a severe bout of editing there. Still. I got to the end of 9.3., and felt a wave of finality filling my every fibre with exhausting pride. Never mind it’s not actually, really, truly finished as such. The fine-tuning will happen when it’s good and ready, i.e. when I’m finished doing stuff that’s more interesting, such as jumping ahead some more.

The aforementioned middle section of 9.3. was a tricky one, requiring as it did a flashback of so unreliable a narration as could be then turned onto its head , six chapters down the line. Eventually, I opted to forego the rather more traditional fade to prior events in favour of a sustained piece of reporting, unreliability fostered by the rather ridiculous quantities of alcohol which would have featured in the scene regardless. It wasn’t an easy dialogue to write; most of the time I had the distinctly Joycean feeling of toying with the right words while at a loss as to the hierarchy they should follow on the page. Yet as I feverishly laboured to get my facts right (or rather, wrong in exactly the right way), the sheer despair with which Joyce reportedly remarked of the seven words he’d written that day, ‘… but I don’t know what order they go in,’ failed to plague me. What could’ve been a pernickety cut-and-paste process was, in fact, closer to dancing through a kaleidoscopic landscape, trying to pick up the sights and sounds comprising it with the soles of my feet. I hope that made sense; failing that, I hope it at least sounded pretty.

Seeing as Part 1, Chapter 1.1. is one of the most coherent pieces of writing I’ve ever had the misfortune of penning – misfortune, as it must be now carefully disassembled to fit into a narrative that’s grown up without it – I saw today as a sterling opportunity to dive into 1.2. This would be where the crossover of which I spoke of a couple of days ago brings dichotomist realities in such close proximity to each other as, hopefully, will send the reader cross-eyed. It was an emotional sequel to an emotional sequence, prepping up for yet further emotion, and reminded me just how angst-ridden my work can get. I don’t think I learned any specific transferable pearl of subjective wisdom in the process; not besides, that is, the one about the moments when a bigger picture as fragmented as Guernica put through a shredder comes together, and finally works.

They make ever sweat-drop worthwhile.

End of lesson.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Write-a-Thon Day #27

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Day #27 Progress: 1,092
Objective: +12,792/+30,000

Quote of the day:
Drunken lads down the pub: ‘You’re not writing your novel, are you?!’
Yours truly: ‘Actually… yes, I am.’

Remember the towering halfway mark I spoke of in such poetic terms last night? I glimpsed it today. If the moment had been possessed of physical shape, I would have hugged it tight, particularly as it happened to coincide with me flattening the 90,000-word mark at last. Having reached the quite respectable 80,000s, I had stuck and stagnated there for longer than I’d admit to an audience larger than my bedroom mirror. And now look at me, mere weeks after rolling up my inner sleeves and getting on with it! I never thought numbers could make me this happy.

Yesterday’s work stilted by not knowing how to tackle the middle section of 9.3, I slept on it, only to find I was none the wiser. So I did what any other writer with a deadline would have done, dotted a few meaningful asterisks, and skipped to the end. I am stoked over the falling into place of the much needed conceptual bridge between Parts 1 and 2 – although as it turned out, my previously recorded epiphany might have been short-lived. Not sure. On one hand, the character involved is too dead to appear in 9.3; on the other hand, narrative will find a way. We shall see. In the meantime, some might say your cast is definitely too big if you can’t keep straight the list of the ones who are actually alive; in my defence, I shall say it’s as small as I can make it, read: half what it used to be. For someone who can’t count, I do have an unhealthy love for epic numbers, it seems. How delightfully suicidal of me.

The whole "end of the beginning" proceedings were given further spark by conscious interaction with the idea of foreshadowing / irony as discussed by my dear colleague, Eric Satchwill. It dawned on me while reading his words the other day that my foreshadowing doesn’t tend to be very shadowy – I have always approached fictional relations by being dreadfully upfront with the reader and as murky as a cup of English coffee with my characters. This tendency has just got more marked since I have started being steeped in Renaissance drama day in, day out. You know that moment in the theatre when you want to jump up and shout to Othello/Romeo “she is innocent/alive you fool, no one needs to die tonight,” yet you get some sort of twisted pleasure in witnessing a bloodshed you knew to have been entirely preventable? It is that moment I strive for, and today I knew my own emotive agenda better. The only writing tool sharper than self-awareness, I will always say provided I say it after today, is further self-awareness.

So thank you, Eric, for making me reflect on my craft enough to realise how (sometimes) spoilers can be in everybody’s interest – dramatically speaking, that is.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Write-a-Thon Day #26

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Day #26 Progress: ... enough. Figures, tomorrow.
Objective: +11,700/+30,000

From a purist point of view, not exactly a marathoning post. As a post inextricable from my writerly interiority, however, it couldn’t be less off-topic.

As if having heard the invocation of his 'Writer’s Prayer' from these pages, Neil Gaiman announced today he would be doing another talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival. It was not until this moment that, with creeping horror, I realised quite how far Scotland is from the West Midlands. Though with great clamour of offended keys I protested that the injustices of geography would not see me defeated, I could not help but feel that defeat had already come to pass. Even as I made a spectacle of declared disappointment, it was not like I had for one moment seriously considered I might actually be able to make it. Too far, too expensive, too crazy even for me, and (as is probably clear by now) I am a fair share of that last one.

Yet as I write this with lids barely open against the night, I am clutching against my heart metaphorical a very real ticket. As it turned out, a friend possessed of more faith and sense than yours truly weaved her way around the web enough times to figure out how I might get to Edinburgh without pawning my limbs for the privilege... that's the rationalisation. In real time, I turned into a squeeing, jumping, clapping, tearful mess. Yes, tearful. I don’t think I truly grasped how any of this related to me until I was hit square between the eyes with that blessed confirmation screen. To say that the meeting had morphed in my mind from a fanciful crysalys into a butterfly of flesh and wings might sound preposterous, yet pontificated platitudes are what my mind speaks in when it feels at home.

Desperately Romantic, I know. Whatever. In just over a month, I will be propelling terrified but whole limbs forward, toward one of my few living literary heroes. Talking to rockstars is easy – much as I appreciate their art and respect their talent, I don’t want to be like them. Neil Hannon, although a genius, is to me human, one that I could hug and exchange witty erudite banter with, like a good mate down the pub. But this Neil… breathe, and chant point 7) of 'Do’s and Don’t for Signings' like a mantra:
‘Don't worry. You won't say anything stupid. It'll be fine. My heart tends to go out to people who've stood in line for hours trying to think of the single brilliant witty erudite thing that they can say when they get to the front of the line, and when it finally happens they put their books in front of me and go blank, or make a complete mess of whatever they were trying to say.’
Wonder if I’ll keep cool enough to say how I snapped Neverwhere shut, stared down the wall and muttered, “Damn you, Neil. That’s the book I was trying to write.”

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Write-a-Thon Day #25

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Day #25 Progress: 955
Objective: +12,415/+30,000

The upshot of the kind of evil 7.10am errand which shouldn’t happen to one’s worst enemy is that by 8.30 you can be sipping cappuccino, munching on millionaire shortbread and desperately trying to rekindle the bright shiny world inside your head. If you’re me, this is a painstaking process. And all because of this gosh-darned lack of a visual imagination. Hell, I have trouble remembering what I look like, let alone my characters, and left & right are but empty placeholders where units of meaning should be. Sure, I’m a modern writer, armed to the teeth with the OCD tools of my trade; but I’m not about to start rifling through personality profiles and building plans before each storytelling session. Do I look like I’m made of time?

Besides which, I shouldn’t have to. I have encountered those for whom my way of thinking is so alien as made them declare outright, ‘That’s impossible, no one thinks in type.’ Except yes, yes they do. Murder She Wrote-like. As far as my brain is concerned, convoluted concepts, ingenious ideas, tall theories are such stuff as synapses are made on. But faces? If only. This means that – no matter how bursting with ideas I may have been upon folding the previous day, irrespective of how positively sizzling with inspiration I know myself to be, in the face of the fact that I know these people like the back of my hand – I will always take way more time than is sensible or practical just seeking to recapture even a vague sense of setting. Such time I could usefully be employing getting words down on paper, hence the 3am angst-ridden rant.

Not that it’s all knotted up annoyance at my psyche, don’t you worry. Quite the opposite: I have, as promised last night, dived headfirst into Chapter 9.3, also known as “The Apparently Schizophrenic World-building Finally Starts Adding Up.” When I casually glance at the fact that the tome is at once high and urban fantasy, people tend to raise an eyebrow. Sometimes they'll raise both, perplexedly trying to imagine the monstrous chimera I must be working on, before I even have a chance to tell them of the extra Cerberian head called horror. Truth is, an incoherent world was the only one that would contain the story as I feel it needs to be told. It is a tricky one to hold in the mind’s short-sighted eye all in the same ago, and conversely none of it would make any shred of sense if not in the light of everything else. I know it sounds bonkers, and it is, yet I promise it all slots neatly into place.

IN FACT. [Insert sailor-like, office-unsafe swearing here]ING EPIPHANY. Of, like, right now this very second – I report live from my brain. Turns out, it does all slot into place, and even more neatly than I could have ever schemed. Not only (1).9.3 foreshadows (2).1.1 – it also retrospectively illuminates (1).1.1.

I go to bed happy.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Write-a-Thon Week #3 Catch-up

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Day #24 Progress: 1,350
Objective: +11,461/+30,000

Alright, touché, my bad.

One’s been horrifically remiss, blogging-wise. One may also be a tiny bit behind as regards the dreaded wordcount of doom. One, however, is getting back on track like a Pendolino on speed. I would stop to wonder why, except I don’t really have the time. Besides, I have my suspicions. The fear of failing the challenge acts as a bet within the bet. “Aha, see?” side A of my brain whispers in my left ear, devilishly attired in Prada, “You’re rubbish. You’ve let yourself go, there’s no way you’re catching up now. Particularly as there’s six, not five, weeks in total, innumerate cretin.” Side B, for her part, looks a different kind of business, and speaks in the other ear the no-nonsense tough love I need to hear. “30,000 – not 25,000 – words, she says? Splendid. Six impossible things before breakfast and all that. Nothing to it. I’ve got every confidence in your commitment, and even more in your fear. Now get back to work.”

And back to work I get, within establishments of caffeine in comfort-sized cups and apple crumble in tall sleek glasses, on picturesque riverbanks and quivering motorways alike. Sitting or lying, I crack on with the craft of lying with the truth in mind. Now, the bespoke mug supposed to remind me of Neil Gaiman’s wise words regarding the truth of the mind is – sadly – delighting someone other than myself, at some unspecified point between rural Warwickshire and Stansted Airport (not specifically an appeal, although one can always hope against hope). Yet if I close my eyes, the wisdom scrolls still against closed lids. 'Oh Lord,' the reel reads, on a roll by now, 'let me not be one who writes too little, a decade man between tales,' and as always, I need to brace myself against a reproach that feels like a kick in an especially grown pair. Ouch. Nothing like injured pride to get one galvanised for the messy business of creating worlds out of thin air, particularly when in fact the air’s half as old as you are, and thicker than the legendary fog of the Po Valley.

So what have I achieved in the past two and a bit weeks of being productive, if a tad on the uncommunicative side? Well, since you break the fourth wall to ask.

I’ve done & dusted Chapter 8.3, affectionately known as “Oh dear, all hell begins to break loose.” Therein I’ve made some rather enthralling discoveries. For one, what I have come to define as Ockham's Razor for Characters. Which, translated into Un-pretentious, means: never posit more characters than are strictly needed to make sense of a narrative. In all fairness, this was originally meant to be but a practical safeguard against a sprawling cast too large for me to even envision in a group picture. Actual application of the principle, though, has yielded intriguing results. Such as, Character Snapshot Too Vivid To Remain Half a Paragraph in Someone’s Backstory + Required Sentient Plot Device = A Living, Breathing, Believable Human Being. Granted, “human being” is here or in fact anywhere in my disquisitions to be taken in its loosest possible sense; doubly granted, it is but my humble opinion that this new (but not really) character is believable in any way, shape or form. This being said, if I don’t hold any such opinion to begin with, why should anyone else bother? More on this fine point later.

Another thing 8.3 reminded me of was that characters know best, always. William Faulkner’s writing process reportedly began 'with a character… and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.' It’s an easy example to forget, when your inner (who am I kidding? Outer) perfectionist turns into an unhappy workaholic, causing – cue reprisal of Gaiman’s rather magnificent voiceover – 'dread to replace joy upon the page.' Possibly the most magical thing about this marathon is that the pernickety OCD planner doesn’t get a word in edgewise, as there’s simply no time to invent psychologies as clear-cut as diamonds. What you are left with are interior lives about as clear-cut as twice caked-over boots, squelching in the mud. Given a blank page and a timer, the one who (for want of a less black/white term) I shall call my main baddie has evolved yet again, right past all my rosiest expectations. Writing about him is currently a dizzying mixture of tenderness, annoyance, respect and plain revulsion; what else’s to say? If he can inspire half that depth of contradictory emotion in readers, I will pat myself on the back and take my Muse down the pub for a pint or three.

Also on the dusted checklist is 9.2, which to begin with was a sheer, unadulterated joy. Quick-fire dialogue that writes itself 100 words a minute as characters bounce off each other like the bezzies they’re meant to be makes this a very happy bunny indeed. To end with, which brings us up to speed with today’s progress, 9.2 nearly made me weep into my coffee. It was all I could do to hiccup silently, teeth sunk into my hand in a strangled attempt at public composure. A good sign, surely, for – to take back the fine point I gave you to hold, and end prettily by borrowing a touch of (Robert) Frost – 'No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.'

Programmatically, tomorrow will see me delving into 9.3, excitingly enough also known as the last subchapter of Part 1. Once that and a couple of odd & end-y snippets here and there have been dealt with, I will officially find myself on Peak Halfway Through the Blasted Thing, looking down through the aerial perspective at the finishing line. I cannot begin to tell you how fantastic that feels.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Write-a-Thon Days #3 & #4

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Day #3 Progress: 1,071
Day #4 Progress: 1,059
Objective: +3,386/+30,000

One thing is enough to chide me into never missing a blog date again. Namely, so much has changed in terms of experience, emotion and perception in the past forty-eight that I find myself recollecting yesterday morning in tranquillity, rather than jotting it down raw and visceral from the depth of my productive experience. Take this double-bill post as you may; I will not suffer it to happen again.

The feeling I am struggling to re-capture, not because it is something I would wish to ever relive – though I will – but because it marked a turning point later turned upon its own head, is the following: why bother? Let it suffice that I was directed, through this worldwide net of things wondrous and strange, to something so horrific as actually made me despair for the human race. With a sudden shock, I felt alienated and alone, a voice eager for communication shouting for attention amongst the deaf. Then just as suddenly, the depressing epiphany performed a U-turn. I think it was the infant innocence that did it.

In the gloom, from the other side of a café which wasn’t in Liverpool in my day, a baby caught sight of the fire upon my head, and giggled. I giggled back. And just like that, my newfound misanthropy left through the door whence it came. I remembered that while there is a fundamental darkness to people, there is also an almost unlimited potential for light. That while we are capable of terrible, terrifying things we are also beings of beauty. That it is against that darkness and towards that light that I write.

So continue writing I did – extreme sports style. Undeterred by the cluttered despondence of a Midlands train at rush hour, I perched my laptop precariously atop one knee amongst a sea of bags, and typed in the last 200 words necessary to break even. Only one eyelid open and barely at that, tottering in my arrangement and quite possibly making a fool of myself, I kept the promise made to my work… the most sacred kind of vow there is, as a story for another time will tell you I have learnt the hard way.

Today was rather magnificent. My writing schedule had to be shifted forward to allow for my academic life to get a word in edgewise, yet if anything the challenge of juggling the two existences set my synapses well aflame! While I warmed up, perfectly poised between coffee shops 1 and 2, I had a rather lovely encounter with a Moleskine-toting colleague, with whom I enjoyed a good-natured rant about double living, and having to fend off accusations of writing as a hobby. There was something immensely grounding, comforting even about matter-of-factly agreeing over something which, while completely obvious to me, I more often than not find myself justifying.

It dawned on me that one of the very, very few things I miss about the dreaded capital is the fact that for the first and only time in my life, I had not just a few friends who were writers, but a whole community of writers as friends. Though I didn’t spend nearly as much time with them as I should in hindsight have done, I treasured the chance to talk craft with people whose imagination I respect.

On that note, watch this space for 1) possible news I won’t jinx, but which if true might furnish me with a collection of locals to chat shop with and 2) details relative to the imminent publication of the King’s College London Creative Writing Society 2009 / 2010 collaborative novel Fostering Guilt, to which I have contributed the chapter ‘Smoking Laurels’ – a foray into the traditional ghost story genre which once again flagged up why at heart, irrespective of current project, I am a horror writer.

Getting off the tangent and back on the marathon track, I had the kind of writing day whereby characters shove you off your chair and fashion themselves. It got to the point of fist being slammed into palm, marking victoriously the glorious moment of the penny dropping. Two people I’ve been writing about for years and was convinced I knew inside out really surprised me, one by proving a lot stronger than I’d given him credit for and the other by revealing a vulnerability I would never have thought would suit him.

A third rounded the awed displacement by adding a further layer to his motivations, making him possibly the trickiest character I’ve ever had the pleasure of chronicle. As I was explaining yesterday to a new friend down the post-theatre pub, he’s not the villain you love to hate; if you hate him at all, it means I’ve not done my job properly. Everyone is in the right, I hear Friedrich Hebbel chant in my head. In a good story, everyone is in the right. The other thing ringing at the back of my consciousness is Frank Turner’s England Keep My Bones album, which undeniably echoes in my recent writings – indulge your soundtrack I say, for chances are that when it tunes you into a particular track, line, word, the universe knows what it’s doing.

Add to that metaphysical faff the concrete wisdom of a teacher who just this morning mentioned the importance of toggling with prioritisation in the service of the grander narrative of my research, thus unknowingly green-lighting an afternoon of information remixing, paragraph jigs, sentiment shifts, and inconsistency loss. Which just goes onto prove that as I always say to anyone who will listen, writing is writing is writing, and what makes sense for academia is likely to make a certain degree of common sense for fiction … and vice versa.

On one last fuzzy note before I recharge my batteries for tomorrow’s 1K: at the intersection of a dependable brew, staff who are actually interested in my artistic journey and an atmosphere to speak of, I at last have found a coffee shop to call home.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Write-a-Thon: Day #2

About Clarion West
My Write-a-Thon profile

Day #2 Progress: 1,256
Objective: +1,256/+30,000

As I closed the lid on my thesis introduction draft at chirruping four o’clock this morning, my proposed 8am Write-a-Thon wake-up call struck me as suicidal. I had made a catastrophic mistake, and would pay for it with general ridicule. I'm not cut out for this, I cursed myself. The a.m. was something that happened to other people. I was going to make myself ridiculous.

Only, I didn’t.

So far from it, in fact, that I wrote 1,256 words in the allotted three hours. I also learned the following life and craft lessons while at it.

1. Follow your instincts – to an extent

Today was the day I finally stopped fawning over a couple of anciently written pages which I had hoped against all hope to salvage, rolled up the sleeves of my inner metaphor, and tackled the treacherous Chapter 8.2. An entire self-contained scene and all of two paragraphs later, I called it a day… more than halfway through a troublesome subchapter which has eluded me for more years than I care to count. Exception made for a single line of dialogue so obviously crucial I carried it over across drafts completely subconsciously, I reimagined the original scene from scratch.

Yes, it was hard, yes it was painful, yes it felt like a waste. Only for a moment, however. The harsh stab of regret was soon out-jolted by the joyful realisation that what I was writing felt indescribably – though I am trying to describe it to you now, because you never know – better in style, greater in scope, deeper in its depiction of character. Which just goes to show that the guttural voice rumbling “I know I could write this better” deep there in my gut had its good reasons. Now, if I could only choose to turn it off when it tries to tell me the whole novel needs rewriting… again.

2. Always remember to have fun

Others may see deadlines as a chore. At their core, however, they are challenges; therefore they are games; which means that they can be played with. As I got ready and set to go, I think my brain shifted into a larger-scale version of the kind of gear it employs to play Scrabble. Borderless board, infinite letter-grams and a darn big hourglass equal a pretty epic game, and as such I played it. One glance at the time and I was off, writing against time and loving every minute of it, the part of me scared of being rusty, spent and out of practice just egging on my competitive side with its constructive disbelief.

A sizeable portion of the grand old time I was having I ascribe to the fact that I didn’t have the time to be my usual nit-picky, retentive, perfectionist self. There will be a time for editing, also known as the weekend. This, however, was the time for the sheer, unadulterated thrill of writing as one should dance – like nobody is watching.

Bring on tomorrow, I say.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Frank Turner, England Keep My Bones

If questions of musical taste were relationships, and how could they be otherwise, my relationship with Frank Turner’s work would be a whirlwind romance: three months ago, I wouldn’t have known him from Adam. Having stumbled across tickets to his 1,000th gig at Strummerville, I earned bruises on my shins and a thirst for knowledge of the man’s discography. The bar was set high – Sleep is for the Week, Love Ire & Song and Poetry of the Deed had been (respectively) haunting and incessant, joyfully anarchic and punctuated with anthemic gems. In my best of all possible worlds, I expected England Keep My Bones to keep up the good work. Honeymoon periods can only last so long, surely.

Or can they?

Juxtaposing funereal and assertive classic rock sonorities, opening track Eulogy reprises the involuntarily optimistic preoccupation with mortality that had characterised The Ballad of Me and My Friends and Richard Devine. The proactive anger of those earlier songs has matured into a matter-of-fact statement of the point of being alive; the uncompromising vein of Devine, in particular, gives way in EKMB to a more emphatic approach encapsulated by Nights Become Days and Redemption, a two-part reflection on the possibility of outliving one’s mistakes.

I Still Believe, a love song to musical ideals off Turner’s Rock & Roll EP, raises the spirits in preparation for the tranquil sense of belonging permeating Rivers. Through this geo-historical exploration of collective consciousness, Turner contextualises within a strong identity the travelling troubadour’s instinct expressed in I Am Disappeared. The names of Dylan and Hemingway are not merely dropped but integral to Turner’s constant process of understanding where he comes from and is therefore going to, just as Baudelaire and Kerouac hadn’t been invoked in vain in POTD’s title track. The itinerant-versus-homecoming dichotomy meet in the playful intestine war of If I Should Stray, only to be problematized again by the pride of Wessex Boy and the restlessness of Wanderlust.

English Curse, whose a cappella arrangement showcases Turner´s pleasantly modulated rasp, single-handedly dispels all claims to low culture previously advanced in To Take You Home. Delightfully exemplary of the off-handedness with which Turner tackles high themes, One Foot Before the Other is a frenzied defence of everlasting life, secular-style, a humanistic perspective which seamlessly feeds into Glory Hallelujah. Song for Eva Mae, dedicated to Turner’s goddaughter, perfectly complements Peggy Sang the Blues, a tribute to his grandmother – together, the tracks reinforce the Turnerian tradition of celebrations of the life worth living. Balthazar, Impresario, is an ingenious little oddity of a song about breathing the theatre, and a fitting close to an album named after a line in Shakespeare’s undeservedly underperformed King John.

EKMB synthesises its author’s rock solid foundations into an offering at once as epic as the highlights from POTD and as impeccably consistent in quality as LI&S. Turner has steamrolled over the bar of his own standards with alarming ease. No “must for fans of” and “sounds like”: Frank Turner sounds like Frank Turner.

Write-a-Thon: Day #1

About Clarion West
My Write-a-Thon Profile

Objective: +30,000

A great man once said, ‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’ Good one, Douglas. I, on the other hand, love that I can’t avoid meeting them. The bigger, the bolder, the frankly sillier the deadline, in fact, the more and better I work. Come rain, shine and actual canine & feline downpours, I will re-write the Great Library of Alexandria if I have so promised. So you can imagine my heart’s double-take when I heard about the Clarion West Write-a-Thon. I have never been athletic enough to dedicate my running/climbing/[insert physical exertion here] to a good cause. But a six-week writing marathon, in aid of an organisation dedicated to supporting speculative fiction writers on the cusp of their career – where do I sign up? Oh right, I already have.

As per my profile, my slightly deranged personal goal is to get the novel (wordcount: 80,636) past the 100,000 mark by July 29th – 12,000 word dissertation or no 12,000 word dissertation. My finger-flexing regime for the next 41 days will look something like this::

Mon-Fri (a.m.) - write for 3 hours (1,000+)
Sat-Sun (a.m.) - edit for 3 hours (2,000+)
Mon-Sun (p.m.) - blog on my progress (500)

To make things more interesting (to say nothing of fact that I simply cannot resist a bet), I have set myself the further challenge of raising a minimum of $100 dollars in aid of Clarion West’s valuable work. In the name of a beautiful yet sadly stigmatised genre, for the sake of my colleagues and my own, I hereby pledge: if I reach my fundraising aim, I will reward each sponsor with a 4,000 word tailored short story, written to specification e.g. around an idea, scene, character, line, etc. I haven’t written stories on commission for over a decade – they take time and all time is time away from own imagination – so get yours while adrenaline fills me gleeful madness.

You may ask why you should sponsor mine of all tales; I shall let my idea speak for itself.

Of Men and Misfits follows a cast of monsters and other outcasts as they flee from human and divine persecution. A parable of racial and religious intolerance, it documents the escalation of hate crime culminating in an inevitable holy war. Monsters, humans and gods all get their say, demonstrating how no one is above prejudice and conflict – and no one, for that matter, is below love and friendship.

I must confess that I’ve been writing, re-writing, editing and fine-tuning versions of this story across different mediums and languages for the past thirteen years, i.e. half as long as I’ve been alive. I have always felt that the subject matter was too important to leave a single word to chance. While that still stands, it has dawned on me that an unfinished novel will never communicate much to anyone. Therefore, I am in need of a good hard kick up the backside.

Won’t you kick with me?