Writerly Recklessness #20: Speculate to Create

What-If

  • There was a spring which gave immortality to anyone who drank its waters?
  • There existed a fantastical world beneath the streets of London?
  • It was possible to travel in time?
  • Books were outlawed?
  • Belief in the divine was a crime?
  • World War II had ended differently?
  • The gods of mythology were real?
  • People could be arrested for crimes they will commit in the future?
  • You and your friends were clones, raised to donate your organs to ‘normal’ humans?
  • Society required everyone to be voluntarily euthanised when they turned 21?

Well, the only way to find out is to read the following books:

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Okay, adding ten more books to your TBR pile isn’t the only way to answer all those ‘What If?’ questions. The other alternative is to write ten books yourself – or, to save time, write one book that explores all ten ‘What If?’ scenarios at once.

If someone writes that book, I will read it.

All of the above What-If?’s did become stories though – and all of them belong to that broadest of literary genres: Speculative Fiction.

I love Speculative Fiction – or Spec-Fic, as I’m going to call it. Although now, I’m imagining a book wearing a pair of spectacles…

Speculative fiction is generally defined as work that depicts an alternative reality to… well, reality – usually a world that contains futuristic, supernatural or fantastical elements. Aliens, robot-human hybrids, zombies, vampires, faeries, gods and goddesses, magic, time-travel, supernatural powers, science that’s perhaps a bit ‘out there’,  and alternate histories can all be found in this genre. Basically, as its name suggests, it’s literature that speculates about how things would be IF…

… humans were overthrown by apes.

… or there existed a Faerie land the other side of the village wall.

… or vampires were real.

… or abortion was illegal, but between 13 and 18, parents could have their children ‘unwound’.

…or you woke up one morning to discover you had transformed into a large insect.

Some people HATE this genre. They can’t stand anything that strays from the concrete reality of this world. They much prefer their stories to be grounded in contemporary or historical realism. What, they ask, is the point of a story that’s about a purely theoretical or even fantastical concept? There is no fairyland, no fountain of youth, and WWII is over and done with – so what’s the point in speculating? Why bother reading, let alone writing, fiction that isn’t a realistic, relatable or identifiable representation of the world we live in? Why? – they cry – Why? Why? Why?

I am the opposite of those people: Why wouldn’t you speculate?

Firstly, Spec-Fic fulfils the number one thing I want from a book: escapism. I have to live in this world (this wondrous, dangerous, mind-twistingly infuriating and beautiful world) and sometimes I just don’t want any more of it shoved down my throat, up my nose, in my face, or anywhere else anatomical. A piece of Scif-fi or Fantasy can be a very effective teleporting device for leaving the work-worries, people-problems, and socio-political-silliness of life behind for a few hours. Instead, I can immerse myself in a world where the worry, problems and silliness aren’t mine to live with permanently. There’s no relief quite like finishing a book and thinking ‘Thank goodness I’m not living in a colony which breeds humans purely to satisfy the blood-lust of a ruling class of vampires…’ bookworld

On a completely contradictory ‘other hand’, Spec-Fic isn’t entirely about escapism. In fact, it often provides a safe place to explore important questions – questions that can’t, perhaps, be adequately explored within the confines of realism; questions about life, death, and what it means to be human.

Maybe there is no Tuck Everlasting spring, but, what if, one day, medical science advanced enough to offer us something close to eternal life? Would you want to extend your life by hundreds of years? What would be the consequences of a world population that had the potential to live for several lifetimes? Is immortality a responsible dream to pursue? Or is longevity overrated? Does a long life necessarily mean a fulfilled and happy one? Does the inevitability of death actually play an essential role in the value we place on each day that we live?

SO. MANY. QUESTIONS…

Often, the Spec-Fic world is merely a metaphor for very real issues. When it comes to Science and Technology – how far is too far? How do we treat those who are alien or other to us? What will the conclusion be if we carry on down the environmentally destructive route which we’re on as a species? questions

SO. MANY. MORE. QUESTIONS…

A good piece of Spec-Fic should probably raise as many questions as it tries to answer. One of the most important of those is ‘What would I do?’. Because that is a question which suddenly becomes more relevant than first imagined when we emerge, a little shaken up and jittery, back in our own world.

And shaken up and jittery is what we’re all here for – isn’t it?

Orrr… maybe not?

Anyway, perhaps the most appealing thing about the Spec-Fic genre, for writers, is that there is literally a ‘No Limits’ sign on the road as you walk/drive/fly/ride your unicorn in. The only restrictions are the ones you impose, and, in a world that doesn’t exist because you haven’t invented it yet, anything is possible. Of course, it requires imagination to write fiction in any genre. Even if you’re writing a novel set in the very real world of twenty-first century Britain, it requires special powers of imagination to bring locations, characters and their dilemmas to life; to make the reader care enough to invest in the protagonist and their story.

Imagination-Is-Intelligence-Having-Fun-e1431280083463But Spec-Fic allows for a different kind of imagining. I don’t just mean ‘out-of-the-box’ imagining, but ‘there-is-no-box; now-what-are-you-going-to-do?’ imagining. In some ways, it takes you right back to those childhood ‘let’s pretend’ games – to a time before your beliefs that a sock-eating creature lived under your bed, and white roses would turn red if you pricked a finger on the thorns, and the cat was sent by Martians to investigate intelligent life on Earth – were suffocated by adolescence.

This type of imagining is important. It’s the whole reason why imagination is essential to humanity. Most of what we create comes from our imagination and those ‘What If?’ questions. What if we could travel in space? What if we could live on the moon? What if we could communicate, instantly, with another person on the other side of the world?

Albert Einstein famously said ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’

There’s plenty of literature to prove his point. Many Spec-Fic authors have inspired or predicted scientific or technological advancements in their writing: moon 2

  • Moon Landings: From the Earth to the Moon, by Jules Verne (1865).
  • The Taser: Thomas A Swift’s Electric Rifle, by Stratemeyer Syndicate. Taser is an acronym for the book’s title.
  • The Liquid Fuelled Rocket and Multistage Rocket: The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells.
  • Earbud Headphones: Fahrenheit 454, by Ray Bradbury.
  • Coffee Machines, Flat-Screen TV, Self-Driving Cars: World’s Fair of 2014, by Isaac Asimov.

But imagination isn’t all about nifty domestic appliances and how Science might one day turn the world into a utopia. It’s also about the terrifying possibility that humans might turn the world into an apocalyptic, totalitarian dystopia. And the most alarming stories aren’t the ones where we’re teetering on the brink of extinction, fighting for survival, because the world has been overrun by malicious nifty domestic appliances. The stories that are really alarming are the ones where we’ve created a society that we think is perfect, but where no semblance of humanity – no truth, justice, integrity or morality remains – and no one even notices nor cares.

Feeling shaken up and jittery? imagination.jpeg

This is why I love Speculative Fiction – it’s a place to escape, imagine, and be terrified. But it’s also a place of hope. Because asking those questions in the first place – however ridiculous they may sometimes sound – is an open door to asking the questions that matter to the real world: this wondrous, dangerous, mind-twistingly infuriating and beautiful world that we live in.

So here’s a question for you:

What if writers stopped asking ‘What if?’ questions?

 

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Writerly Recklessness #19: Apocalypse How?

nuclear 2I think about the apocalypse quite a lot. How will the world end? What sort of disaster is going to wipe out most of humanity? What would a post-apocalyptic world look like? Do I build a concrete bunker in the garden, or steal an off-road vehicle and go marauding about the wasteland with an array of homemade weaponry designed to take out zombies/aliens/robots/other marauders?

Answers: Well, I don’t have a garden…

Of course, I’m talking about a fictional world and a fictional apocalypse. And fictional marauding. Although, right now, as I’m fighting for my life against hay-fever, I’m wondering if the real End Of The World is at hand. What is with nature at the moment? The verges and hedgerows have become wild, weedy giants, waving their pollen-laden heads a good foot above my head and releasing drifts of poisonous plant matter, like dandruff. Views of gently rolling hills have been obliterated by eight feet of grasses and brambles, and the edges of the lanes have been chewed up by tree roots. I’m genuinely worried that if I go out I’ll be eaten by a triffid.

Have you seen that film, The Happening? Well, it’s happening right now. Earth’s plant life is launching a full-on attack to take out the allergy-sensitive half of the human population.

If you haven’t seen The Happening, you’re not missing out on much.

Instead, read The Day of the Triffids: the vegetation is a little more hands-on. Or tendrils-on? I don’t know…

I don’t think I’m the only one obsessed with ‘The End is Nigh!’ scenarios. There’s a lot of fiction out there that speculates about the last days of humanity. I mean, a LOT of fiction.

And the Fictional Apocalypse seems to have four major forms:

warm-bodies-zombies

Still from ‘Warm Bodies’. Based on the book by Isaac Marion

  • Biological Apocalypse: Some sort of virus, disease or genetic mutation turns most of the population into vampires/zombies/cannibalistic creatures with a lust for human flesh. Remaining survivors have to avoid getting eaten or infected, as well as negotiate the fall of human society into chaos and violence.

Examples: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson; World War Z by Max Brooks

 

day-after-tomorrow

Still from ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. Based on the book ‘The Coming Global Superstorm’ by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber.

  • Natural Disaster Apocalypse: A world-wide earthquake is triggered, causing all the volcanos to erupt and the oceans to tsunami – at the same time as a meteorite hits Earth. Hello, new ice-age! Remaining survivors have to avoid getting Pompeii-ed, crushed, or frozen, as well as negotiate the fall of human society into chaos and violence.

Examples: Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer; The Drowned World by JG Ballard

 

War-of-the-Worlds

Still from ‘War of the Worlds’ 2005 film adaptation of H.G. Well’s 1898 novel.

  • Aliens: Alien’s invade earth, intending to wipe out humanity/farm them for food/force them into eternal servitude. Remaining survivors have to avoid getting killed, fattened for eating, or brain-washed, as well as negotiate the fall of human society into chaos and violence.

Examples: The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey; The War of the Worlds by HG Wells.

 

the-book-of-eli

Still from ‘The Book of Eli’ 2010.

  • Man-made Apocalypse: Mankind ignores all warnings from God, Nature, and a couple of plucky but maligned Scientists, and inadvertently brings about its own downfall by creating a World War Three nuclear winter/aggressive AI/genetic virus/human-alien hybrid/global warming. Remaining survivors have to overcome their own innate human stupidity to survive, as well as negotiate the fall of human society into chaos and violence.

Examples: The Stand by Stephen King; Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban.

 

The Road 1

Still from ‘The Road’. 2009 film based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel.

Obviously there are stories which cross-over between these four scenarios, and some which never define exactly what the cataclysmic event is that brings about the fall of humanity (e.g. The Road by Cormac McCarthy).

Some writers like to keep their apocalypse ‘realistic’ and Scientific sounding – to create a terrifying level of plausibility to their world-destroying scenario.

Others like to be a little more… flamboyant.

day-of-the-triffids-cover.jpgTake my personal favourite: The Day of the Triffids. This novel imagines an apocalyptic event which sees most of the world waking up one morning completely blind. And in the chaos which follows, the world is taken over by a rampage of flesh-eating mobile plants. It’s never entirely clear in the novel where the triffids come from, or what causes the meteorite shower that blinds most of the human population. Bill Masen, the protagonist, speculates that the triffids are bioengineered plants, which have accidentally been released into the wild; and that the meteor shower might actually have been the triggering of satellite weapons orbiting the Earth.  But we never get a definite explanation for either of these strange events. Instead, like the characters, we’re left to stumble through the aftermath, hoping that humanity has the strength, wit and perseverance to survive.

It sounds like a ridiculous premise, but I guarantee you that, after reading it, you will never look at the dandelions growing in your front garden in the same way again.

However plausible or fantastical the concept, it’s not really the nature of the apocalypse that matters. It’s the fight to survive which draws us in; who will survive and how? I think this is the reason we’re obsessed with apocalyptic stories.

‘What will a world-as-we-know-it-ending apocalypse look like?’ isn’t the real question these stories answer.

What we really want to know is: ‘Does humanity have what it takes to survive such an event?’

Whether it’s a disaster of nature that’s out of our control, or whether it’s a disaster we’ve created ourselves – what will be required of the human race to overcome the threat of extinction? Are we resourceful, intelligent, and resilient enough to face anything? And do we have the compassion, grace and integrity to retain our humanity at the same time? When you remove the material struts that support human civilisation, what is left to define us as human? What does it even mean to be human? And how do we protect that?

In The Day of the Triffids, one of the most terrifying aspects is the deterioration of human behaviour immediately after the disaster has struck. At one point, a group of blind civilians use violent means to enslave their sighted counterparts in order to secure their own survival. And in another incident, a colony of survivors enforces a polygamous breeding programme on its members in the panic to try to secure the continuance of the human race.

Disturbingly, it’s not the faceless, alien entity that is the greatest enemy to our protagonists in the new apocalyptic world – but other humans.

helping-handOn the other hand, these scenes of human-on-human conflict are dotted with displays of kindness, bravery and – well, humanity – and this is what gives readers what they’re really looking for: hope. Ultimately we hope that humanity can and will be saved. And, perhaps more importantly, that it is worth saving.

As with much of literature, the big question of apocalyptic stories is ultimately one of identity – human identity. Not so much Apocalypse: How? – but more Apocalypse: Who?

Who are you? Who am I? Who are we?

 

MisCAKEn Identity

Balloons-1I had a birthday this year.

I like birthdays. I like to not make a big deal out of them. I like to not remind people, not ask for presents, and not make plans. This is actually quite difficult to achieve when you have a thoughtful and loving family, who always accurately remember the date of your birth, acquire (somehow) a present list in advance, and make a collective effort to mark the occasion with cards, a pleasant activity, and cake.

They always arrange something they know I will enjoy, so my birthdays basically look like most people’s Sunday afternoons: a gentle walk in the countryside, followed by afternoon tea and a double-bill of Poirot.

Actually – that’s pretty much how my Sunday afternoons go. My birthday is basically a Sunday afternoon. I know you’re judging me, right now – but think of it this way: for me, every Sunday feels like a birthday. I get a birthday every six days. Right before Monday starts. Clever, right?

Yeah, okay – so it doesn’t quite work like that. Sundays are just Sundays – not weekly birthdays. But the main reason for that is the lack of candles. Sadly, my Sunday scones do not appear with colourful lighted candles stuck in them. Candles make a birthday. No candles; no birthday.

chocolate-birthday-cake-with-candlesThat’s actually a fact (and not a crazy, writer’s theory). Hear me out…

A newly-married couple do not blow out candles on their wedding cake; retiring work colleagues don’t get ‘Happy Retirement-Day!’ sung to them over the flickering flames of lighted wax; and although the Christmas pudding may get dowsed in brandy and set alight, there are no candles involved – and no one (thankfully) breaths all over the burning alcohol to put it out.

Basically: Candles = Birthday.

A birthday is not a birthday without a lighted wick somewhere in the celebrations.

A cake is not a Birthday Cake if it doesn’t have candles in it.

And if you’re presented with a candle-less cake on the annual remembrance of the day you were born into this world – is it even really your birthday?

Does the cake even matter? If candles are burning on top of an old hat, and people sing Happy Birthday, surely that counts?

What even is cake?

Why is cake?

Stepping back from the cake-istential crisis for a moment… my point is that a birthday is only truly marked as a natal celebration by a cake (probably not a hat) crowned with candles. And this year, I had a Birthday Cake to remember.

I’ve had pretty memorable cakes in the past. I was lucky enough to be born to the Queen of Birthday Cakes. The family photo albums are full of mouth-gaping, sugar-soaked, icing-laden creations: Frog Fishing on a Log, Teddy Bears’ Picnic, Day at the Beach, Ankylosaurus, and Number Cakes – with lace, silver baubles, and sugar mice draped over them.

IMG-20160417-01117 (2)

This is a one-headed WiggleWaggle – apparently it’s pretty hard to put three heads on a cake-body.

One year, LJ even had a local bakery make a WiggleWaggle cake for me (the WiggleWaggle is a three-headed creature I invented when I was nine-years-old, and the subject of the first book I ever wrote).

But this year’s cake….

This was a cake that has never, nor will ever be eaten again in the history of Birthday Confectionary.

We decided that I was should be ‘too mature’ now for an Avengers/Star Wars/Lord of the Rings/Nerd cake, and that since I’d already had a homemade cake from my friends, a shop-bought one would do for after the Family Birthday Dinner. My mum was pretty excited about the cake she’d found in the frozen pudding section of the supermarket. It was the last one left and very exotic – she said.

We had dinner, the plates were cleared, and I was left sitting at the table whilst secretive sounds wafted from the kitchen. It’s a tradition, in my family, to pretend that the Birthday Cake is a completely unexpected follow-up to the Birthday Meal.

Happy birthdayEvery birthday, the celebrant pretends that they don’t know why everyone has suddenly left the room and decamped to the kitchen. And then, when the lights go out and everyone reappears, they act surprised at the presence of an iced sponge on a pretty plate, shimmering with candlelight. ‘Oh! A cake! With candles? For me?’

Usually, there’s lots of complimenting the cake too as it’s sliced up for consumption. ‘Ooh! This looks delicious! How big a piece do you want? I think I’m going to want seconds!’

This year, as I sat in front of my birthday cake, with the ghosts of extinguished flames still hovering in the air, I couldn’t quite keep the hesitation from my voice.

“Erm… this looks different. Very… exotic?”

“There’s a hole in it,” Dad said.

“It’s called a Pumpkin and Festive Fruits Wreath,” Mum reassured us. “I think it’s probably more of a Christmas pudding – I’ve heated it up. It’s got dates and a bit of brandy in it.”

“What’s that on the top? Icing sugar?” Dad asked.

I shrugged dubiously, but cut up the… err, wreath… and dished it out to the family members around the table. It – the cake – had an interesting texture – quite stodgy and certainly not your traditional buttery, fluffy sponge. Everyone looked a little uncertain as they picked up their spoons.

I tried a mouthful. It was a little rough on the tongue and reminded me of something I’d eaten before. Not cake, but something else. It wasn’t particularly sweet either.

“Is it like a savoury cake?” I asked.

“It’s weird,” LJ said.

“It’s just different,” Mum protested. “It’s not supposed to be like your usual sponge cake. It’s got pumpkin in it.”

“Mine’s not got the white stuff on it,” Dad said.

“Icing sugar.”

“I don’t think it’s icing sugar.”

I chewed a few more mouthfuls. I was finding it hard to pin-point a satisfactory comparison. Eating it felt like an acute case of déjà vu. The combination of ingredients clearly worked together – just not in this context. There were bits of them stuck in my teeth and to the roof of my mouth, and I was finding it a hard to swallow each spoonful. It wasn’t that the taste was unpleasant – just not cake-like.

“I’m not sure I can eat this,” LJ said eventually, getting up from the table and heading to the kitchen. “What did it say on the packet?”

“It’s a Festive Wreath!” Mum called after her.

I was half-way through mine by now and wondering if it was the sort of cake that would be better with cream, or custard.

“It’s quite… dense,” I said. “Might be nicer with cream – just to sweeten it up a bit?”

LJ came back from the kitchen with the packet in one hand. She gave me a look. It was a look that a friend might give you if they were deciding whether or not they should tell you that your partner’s cheating on you with your cousin; or that the company you just invested in has gone bankrupt; or that you were actually found as a baby in a crashed Martian spaceship. It was the sort of look that makes you feel that maybe you’d be better off not asking ‘What’s wrong?’; a maybe-ignorance-is-bliss look. It was definitely an ‘it’s your birthday, so maybe this can wait ‘til tomorrow’ look.Cake

“Umm,” LJ said.

I held out my hand for the packet and read the front of it: Pumpkin & Festive Fruit Wreath. Then I flipped it over and read the back.

I put down my spoon, looked up at LJ and tried not to choke as I read out the description.

Breadcrumb stuffing with pumpkin, brandy, raisins, dates and goat’s cheese.”

“No!” Mum exclaimed.

“It’s stuffing,” I confirmed. I showed her the packet.

“So the white stuff’s not icing sugar?” Dad asked.

“It’s goat’s cheese.”

“I didn’t have any on mine.” He looked at his empty bowl and then at my half-eaten pudding. “Are you going to finish that?”

“It’s not cake! It’s supposed to be eaten with roast turkey and gravy!” Turkey

“I’ll just finish it off then…”

Which he did. In fact, my father finished off everyone’s not-actually-cake dessert. That’s a post-war, boarding-school upbringing for you.

“I thought it was a pudding!” Mum apologised unhappily. “It says Festive Fruit Wreath on the front… It was in the frozen puddings section!”

Fortunately, she had another pudding ready – a real one this time: a cherry and amaretto semi-freddo.

As Mum bought it out on a plate (without candles) I gave her a doubtful look.

“Pudding take-two!” she smiled.

“I dunno, Mum,” I said gravely, “I’m not sure I can eat this – I’m pretty stuffed…”

 

 

Writerly Recklessness #18: Neologising (or Making It Up)

You don’t generally expect your computer to talk back – especially not when you’re happily absorbed in typing up your third literary masterpiece.  But that’s what happened to me as I was nearing the end of The Divinity Laws #3. Out of the blue, mid-sentence, and without any warning – this message popped up:

 

Word (3)

There are too many spelling or grammatical errors in “THE DIVINITY LAWS #3. THE ASSEMBLY” to continue displaying them.

My thoughts immediately turned to warning tales of aggressive AIs, cyborg apocalypses, and Will Smith films concerning the inevitable fall of Assimov’s three laws of robotics. After a panicked thirty seconds, where I stared mutely at the screen whilst my survival instinct screamed ‘Pull the plug! Quick! Pull the plug!’ – I managed to quieten my inner paranoid nerd and come to the calm, rational conclusion that the software was not a threat to my life. No. It was, however, making a very personal, erroneous criticism.AI

WORD had basically decided to quit doing its job because it thought my manuscript had ‘too many’ errors. Firstly, I’d like to know the exact numerical value of ‘too many’ and then I’d like the option to reply to the stupid notification and tell it how it’s WRONG and where it can stick its Review tab…

As you can see, I handle criticism – both direct and implied – rather well.

The problem WORD was trying to highlight was not actually ‘spelling and grammatical errors’, but the fact that I was writing speculative fiction. Speculative fiction, by its nature, often does things with language that other genres don’t – it plays around with word classes, uses phonetic spellings, creates new dialects and makes up vocabulary. Basically, it mutters ‘Screw the rules!’ and proceeds to mess with the laws of linguistics. I mean – that’s basically fiction, right? That’s writing.

The problem WORD has is not with poor literary skills on my part (let me wave my QTS certificates at you to qualify that statement), but with creativity. It doesn’t like it when I use adjectives as nouns, or verbs as proper nouns; or when I coin new phrases or slang – or use neologisms at all. WORD would have hated sixteenth century English. In fact, I don’t think it would have liked much of human linguistic history. Can you imagine the tempestuous relationship the computer and I would have if I was writing a novel purely in a regional dialect? Can you imagine the strop it would have over Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Joyce’s Finnigans Wake, Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, or that middle narrative in Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas?

tom-gauld-cartoon-for-the-guardian-on-neologisms-and-forgotten-words.jpgI guess I just thought modern technology would be a little more open-minded. It is, after all, responsible for a lot neologising. It’s the reason why we google, tweet, download, hashtag, troll and spam – err… hopefully not so much those last two – and why we have apps, take selfies and watch webisodes.  And WORD, by the way, has no problem with any of those words… just with the creative freedom of literary geniuses, apparently. Which it expresses in passive-aggressive dialogue boxes, flung up on the screen when you’re right in the middle of keyboarding.

It took me about ten minutes and a strong brew of tea to resist abusing the ‘Was this information helpful?’ option and click the OK button instead. Stuff you WORD! – (I did not shout aloud) – I can finish this manuscript without your Spelling and Grammar checks!

Yeah. No. Turns out I can’t.

Now I was faced with the issue of getting WORD back on board with automatically displaying real spelling or grammatical errors, without having another tantrum over the abundance of neologisms.

Finally – reluctantly – I did choose Spelling and Grammar from the Review tab, and initiated a manual check. And then I added every single WORD-rejected neologism to the dictionary. Take that, unfairly-critical robot! Now who’s going to takespec fic wordle.png over the world?

Having saved the world from an AI take-over bid, I went back to typing up my Nobel-Prize-winning novel – feeling smug at the red lines which appeared when I made a deliberate spelling mistake.

Thank goodness for the genius who invented the ‘Add to Dictionary’ button – they must be a writer.

Making reading addicts…

Wow! My plan to make addicts out of TDL readers is working! Honoured to receive another 5 star review for The Divinity Laws #1!

Thank you!

Review 6 Amazon (3)

If you want to have a read for yourself, check it out here:

http://bit.ly/TheDivinityLawseBook

Already hooked? Sate your cravings and read the first three chapters of Deviants: The Divinity Laws #2 here:

http://bit.ly/DeviantsPage

 

 

 

Writerly Recklessness #17: On the Editing Couch

GAULD_2012_Night_in_the_consulting_room.jpgEvery time I work on a final edit, I feel like I need to see a therapist. Some sort of writer-specific therapist, who understands the inner workings of a novelist’s mind. Does such a therapist exist? I always dread edits. Facing a manuscript scrawled over with coloured pen and stuck with post-it notes is a bit like facing the results of a writerly psych-assessment:

Congratulations! You’ve remembered the names of your characters and how to put a full stop at the end of a sentence. You’re a writer!

But here’s the list of writing tics that suggest you might have some sort of literary disorder…

And the list for TDL#2 has got a whole lot of new stuff on it that didn’t appear on the TDL#1 manuscript. Seriously – you think you’ve exorcised one writing demon, and then ten more jump in to fill the void.

For example, the edit of TDL#1 revealed the existence of a Yoda-like personality, who liked to meddle with grammatical structures in quite a reckless manner. I also discovered that I’d infected my characters with an obsessive compulsive shrugging disorder, I’m irrationally prejudice against exclamation marks, and I can’t help paving the road to hell with dialogue tags ending in ‘–ly’.

I’ve mostly silenced the inner-Yoda (Sorry, Yoda. Fun, you were; miss you, I do). And I’ve torn up a considerable number of those adverbial paving slabs.

But I still hate exclamation marks.

I don’t think it helps that my editor seems to love them. Why A.M.? Why?

exclamation-markI will literally rewrite dialogue to avoid having to use the little blighters. Not entirely sure where this aversion for such a basic, easy-to-use punctuation mark comes from… Perhaps it’s because I feel compelled to continually employ them in emails; I’m paranoid by the lack of non-verbal data in online communication. I have enough trouble conveying a detectable level of emotion in face to face interactions – let alone through the sterile black-and-white of typed text on a screen. How else is anyone going to know that I’m being good-natured and friendly (not rude and sarcastic) if I don’t put !!! at the end of every sentence?

Or maybe it’s just that the exclamation mark is so in your face!

See what I mean? It just feels over-excited and over-the-top – like a full-stop with a Mohawk. Or an untrained puppy dog that’s always jumping up and licking your face. Ugh. As far as I’m concerned, the only appropriate use of an exclamation mark is when an urgent order is being given in direct speech.

“Stop! Run! Jump! Don’t use exclamation marks!”

Besides, the ellipsis is sooo much nicer…

Umm. See what I mean by needing a therapist? No one should be that offended by a piece of punctuation.

But aside from the repeat of that (!) issue, the final edit of TDL#2 has thrown up plenty of new neuroses to explore. And since I can’t afford a therapist, I’m just going to gabble on about these issues here.

1.  Why do I hate the word ‘so’ so much?so-quote-1

I should clarify that I specifically dislike the word ‘so’ as a conjunction. I’m not sure why. I’m starting to think I must have suffered some sort of grammatical trauma at school.

The word ‘so’ is just… so… definite.  It’s accusatory. Finger-pointing. It’s playing a continuous blame game.

The maths lesson was boring, so I fell asleep.

But is the lesson really at fault here? How definite do we want to be about this? What if maths lessons are always boring, but this is the first time I’ve fallen asleep in one? Perhaps I only got 3 hours sleep the night before? Maybe the lesson isn’t boring, but I just hate maths? Or it could be a combination of the two?

Sometimes I don’t want a cause-and-effect interpretation of a sentence. I just want to state two facts and loosely connect them.

It wasn’t helpful that the lesson was boring, and its inability to engage my attention, combined with a lack of both sleep and interest, may have been partly responsible for my little nap in the middle of it.

Not exactly pithy, is it?

Can’t I just say: ‘The lesson was boring and I fell asleep in the middle of it.’???

2.  I have an acute case of phrasal fixation.

Sometimes you use a phrase, because it’s needed/appropriate/genius. But then it somehow finds its way into every other paragraph. I did this with the phrase ‘the other girl/boy’. I used it once to avoid repeating a name too much in just a few sentences. And then I used it again. And again. And again. And again – and then numerous times when it just wasn’t necessary.

A.M.’s comments on it developed pretty swiftly from mild bemusement to palpable rage: “Why are you using this phrase? It’s not necessary. Just use the character’s name! I don’t understand why you’re using it? What’s wrong with you?”

Honestly, I don’t know, A.M. – I don’t know! I’m as confused as you are.

3.  I’m mostly, pretty, quite, generally sure that I possibly – probably – have an obsession with using intensifiers and adverbs of degree far too much. Though I think this is actually a matter of style and voice, rather than a technical writing issue. Yeah… I’m still in denial over this one.

4.  I have a stubborn streak in me. And it’s the size of the Great Wall of China. 1 U_zYPfYXBgijX9tTKjN53A

A.M. admits to being ‘quite tough’ in his editing. And by ‘quite tough’, he means in the same way a zombie apocalypse would be ‘quite tough’ on humans who don’t want their brains slurped out of their skulls by hoards of the undead.

I trust A.M. 100% when it comes to the technical aspects of writing. He knows what he’s talking about. And you can never overestimate the value of a second opinion on plot, structure and character. But, at the end of the day, all opinions are subjective, and there are times when (after careful consideration) a writer has to trust their own creative instinct and dig their heels in.

So A.M. and I have an understanding. He can be tough and I’ll be stubborn. And, naturally, the tougher he is, the stubborner I am. To the extent that I’ll start using words like ‘stubborner’ and feel absolutely no remorse at all. It’s at that point that I save my work, close the laptop, and go for a very long tea break. After establishing a certain amount of distance from all editorial scribbles (about 2 days – or 13,170 miles), I’m ready to come back, with normal levels of stubbornness, and resume the final edit.

Of course, about ten pages later, I’m off to take another tea break and research the affordability of a psychotherapist…

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So, yes – I dread final edits. They are exhausting. In some ways, they are harder work than a first draft – and more personal. They might reveal that you’re capable of producing flashes of award-winning genius. But mostly they’re going to show you that you’re a stubborn, reckless creature – subject to irrational literary and grammatical prejudices. You can’t help it – and no therapist is ever going to cure you from your literary disorders.

So embrace the psych-assessment. The conclusion is inevitable: you’re a writer.

 

 

Writerly Recklessness #16: My Mind Palace is a Library

I have the worst memory – in the world. It’s embarrassingly bad.memory 1

Things I frequently forget:

  • The names of people I’ve been introduced to ten minutes ago
  • The faces of people I met yesterday
  • Why I’ve walked from one room in to another
  • Anything of numerical value (dates, statistics, telephone numbers, postcodes, PIN numbers). I’ve actually NOT gone to the petrol station after work because I can’t remember the four digit PIN number for my debit card – that’s the same four digit PIN number I’ve been using for about five years.

I’ve also forgotten everything I learnt at school – the names of tectonic plates, the chemical formula for sodium chloride, what refraction is, and how to say anything in French or Spanish except ‘Sorry, I don’t speak French/Spanish’.

When I’m not in a state of mortification because I’ve spent three days trying to remember if my neighbour’s name is Karl, Kyle or Kai, only to discover it’s Ben, – I console myself that Sherlock Holmes had a similar problem.

Okay – bear with me here.

I know you’re thinking ‘That’s rubbish. Sherlock Holmes has an encyclopaedic brain – he remembers everything. He’s a genius.’

Well, you’re wrong. Sort of.

Here’s why:

In A Study in Scarlet, Dr Watson is shocked to discover that Holmes knows nothing about how the solar system works and doesn’t particularly care about it either.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he [Holmes] interrupted impatiently, “You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

As the consulting detective goes on to explain:

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out… Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order.”

The BBC series ‘Sherlock’ takes this idea further and gives Holmes a Mind Palace, where he stores ‘useful’ information:

Hence Sherlock’s Mind Palace is full of handy, crime-solving information and data – this is partly what makes him such a good detective.

I, on the other hand, would be useless at solving anything. ‘Where’s that piece of paper I had in my hand five minutes ago?’ is a typical conundrum I often fail to solve. I would also be utterly useless as an eye witness. My answer to ‘What colour was the getaway car?’ would be ‘There was a car? There was a robbery? Hang on – I thought this was a job interview…

But then I’m not a detective.

I’m a writer.

So, instead of a Mind Palace of factual information, I have a Mind Library of stories.

Stories I’ve read, stories I’ve watched, stories I’ve heard, ones that I’ve written, ones that I’ve yet to write, ones that I’ve dreamt, and ones that just turn up uninvited and hang around in the space between sleeping and waking.

The doors of my Mind Library open only to stories; if it looks like a narrative, sounds like a narrative, or moves like a narrative, it’s going to get sucked in and tucked away somewhere.

messy booksI’d like to say my Mind Library is organised by some sort of system – genre, theme, alphabetically by author, or Dewey Decimal classification. But it’s not. In fact it looks a lot like my flat does at the moment, which can be accurately described as ‘excessive-number-of-books’ divided by ‘not-nearly-enough-bookcases’.

But the lack of a system (both cognitively and lifestyle-wise) is because I’m one of those people who can’t remember whether they filed their passport under Travel, Identification, or Important Documents (or, as it turns out, ‘Things I’ll Need if I Have to Leave the Country in a Hurry’) – but can remember that they last saw it poking out from the middle of a Shakespeare’s Tragedies tome two weeks ago, whilst contemplating the practicalities of feigning madness and enjoying a cup of afternoon tea and a chocolate digestive biscuit.

According to Sherlock Holme’s theory though, I don’t actually have the worse memory in the world. I am in fact a ‘skilful workman’ who has ‘nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work’ in my brain-attic.

It’s perfectly rational to take the words of a fictional character as justification for my poor retention of information, right?

Because it clearly makes sense that a writer would only bother remembering something that has a catchy exposition, gripping rising action, dramatic climax, suspenseful falling action, and satisfying denouement. Yep. Freytag’s Pyramid of dramatic structure is tucked away in a dusty Mind Library corner too…

So it’s not that I can’t remember other things – it’s just that I’m too preoccupied with plot twists and character backstories to properly absorb other bits of information.

Afirstpage_photond any non-narrative information I do remember is always innately associated with stories I have read, watched, heard, or created. I knew the key aspects of the English Civil War before I studied it at A Level because I’d read The Children of the New Forest as a child. I understand the sailing terms ‘tacking’ and ‘jibing’ because I’ve read Swallows and Amazons. Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World taught me, at age eight, what poaching was – whilst, as an adult, I learnt about wreckers from Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. I’ve even learnt snippets of French (fleur-de-lis anyone?) from The Three Musketeers. And if anyone has the know-how to handle a vampire/triffid/robot apocalypse, it’s me…

Without my brain even noticing, a fair amount of useful information manages to creep in to the Mind Library, along with the action, adventure, mystery, romance, fantasy, and other fun stuff that comes along with a good book.

Stories are sneaky like that.

And of course, because there’s no restraining my inner nerd, each story I absorb inspires a foray into the knowledge-bank of the internet to follow up on context, historical accuracy, and technical details. And that stuff (like the reign of Louis XIII and the history of marine salvaging) is the stuff that sticks – simply because it’s become enriching background detail to a great story.

method of lociNone of this is that surprising – not according to SCIENCE. Research shows that it is possible to memorise almost anything using the Method of Loci – a technique that employs the spatial memory to store and then recall information. It’s a concept that dates back to Ancient Greece (a little before Sherlock’s time) and which memory contest champions still use today. The process requires the ability to visualise a familiar place and then commit items of information to specific parts of that location.

If you want to be really impressed by what the Method of Loci can do for your powers of retention, I recommend you watch this TED video by Joshua Foer. It also explains what on earth a memory contest is.

 

A story is, when you think about it, a type of familiar place. And when we engage with one, we use our imaginations to visualize it. Like we might a building, street, or town, we journey through a story, identifying key landmarks on the way. If I want to remember a narrative, I don’t just conjure up a list of events and characters that occurred in it. Instead, I find myself beside the protagonist, walking step-by-step through their journey, recalling what they did and said and felt – and how I felt through it all. So it makes sense that stories are easier to remember than most other things. And that we can use them to store and recall otherwise mundane and forgettable data  – like your neighbour’s name – just kidding Kai! Kyle? Chris? Er…

Such is the power of a good story.

Such is the power of imagination.

Such is the power of the mind.

And combined in the right way, those three things can give you SUPER POWERS. Sort of.

So, there is a solution to my memory problem –  I just need to come up with a story about four digits that get together and form a secret society called the Personal Identification Number Club…

Goodreads Book Review #1: ‘you could imagine it almost like a film…’

Thank you to Liberty for this very generous, 5 star review of The Divinity Laws on Goodreads! (http://bit.ly/GdRdTDL1)

The Divinty Laws Kindle‘I’m not usually into dystopia books and thought that this book might not be my cup of tea. HOWEVER I loved it! There is a huge amount of detailed description given to the characters and setting that you could imagine it almost like a film. The story line was easy to follow and hooked me in as I was determined to find out what was going to happen to Clara and who I could really trust in the story.
For a modern day writer to write in such depth is very rare (in my opinion) and I could easily compare the detailed style to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I highly recommend this book to all ages! It seems like it would suit a teen however being in my 30’s did not deter me.
I loved this book and really want to know what happens next. I shall be waiting at the front of the queue to read the second!’  – Liberty

Now where did I put that screenwriting book…?

Book Review: Crossing the Generation Gap!

Ego pin at the ready…

The Divinty Laws Kindle… though it is pretty special when you discover your novel is a hit with adults as well as young adults.

Received this message today:

‘Intelligently written, refreshingly unambiguous, I feel I’ve stumbled on a future classic! I’m hard pressed not to reveal any of the storyline as it would be like giving away a part of me. All I can say is when can I get my hands on book 2 and 3! And does it have to end there?
Congratulations PJ King! – From an OAP not a YA’

So if you’re an angsty teenager or an angsty adult, and you’re looking for your next read, give this a go (or not  *shrugs*… whatever…): http://bit.ly/TheDivinityLawseBook