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:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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?

 

Advertisements

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?

 

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.

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…

1439538096945

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…

Writerly Recklessness #15: Beyond the Book

Life after bookDo you believe in life after book?

There’s a terrible finality to finishing a book. Especially if it’s the final book in a series. Series are the worst. You invest all your time, energy, heart and soul, in the world, the characters and their relationships – even putting in jeopardy your real, actual relationships  – all for a narrative that spans somewhere between three to thirty-three books, and then it’s suddenly (after three to thirty-three years) OVER.

After the initial satisfaction of having reached the end and survived character deaths, love triangles, hidden identity revelations, and plot twist upon plot twist, there follows a sense of loss. What now? How can you say goodbye to those friends you made? Will you never roam through Middle-earth again? The grief for the fictional world is… err… very real? life beyond book6

It’s even worse if you’re the writer. I’ve just finished the third book in The Divinity Laws series – a story I’ve been living with for more than half my life. And, whilst I’m obviously very pleased at having finally nurtured three strange creatures into a full-grown trilogy, I’m also devastated. Heartbroken. What is the purpose of my life now? Who am I? Where am I? Seriously – is this the real world I’ve been dragged back in to? It looks vaguely familiar…

I’m going through an actual period of mourning, right now. There’s incessant crying and everything.

But it’s okay – because I believe in life after book.

Not for particularly deep, philosophical reasons – I just have issues letting go (and I’m fine with that, by the way).

So, I don’t let go.

As soon as I finished the first draft of the third Divinity Laws book, I immediately began crafting, in my mind, the opening scene of book four. I have no intention of writing a fourth book for this series (though you must never say never – there’s a song about it so it must be sensible advice). The Divinity Laws #4 will likely remain only a cosy fantasy in my head. And I’m happy with that; I just want to linger a little longer in the world I created: watching over my characters, mulling over the results of the narrative threads, and seeing what happens next. Which probably isn’t much. And that’s fine. I just want to feel like it’s all still out there, existing somewhere and not completely gone.

Life beyond book 3Does a book even really end?

I don’t think it does. Hopefully, all stories continue to live on in the heads of those who read them. That’s the wonderful thing about a story. Its life isn’t limited to the pages of a book. It lives on, beyond that last, final page, in the reader. I could go all Roland Barthes here and expound on the theory that, actually, a book exists only in its reader, and not the author… but, in my current grieving state, I’m not sure I have the energy to apply literary critical theory to the aftermath of book reading/writing.

If you fancy a bit of light academic reading, have a look at Barthes’ essay La mort de l’auteur: 1967 (The Death of the Author): http://bit.ly/DeathoftheAuthor (link opens a PDF file).

Either way – there IS life after book.

Just look at fanfiction. Definitive proof that I’m not the only person who has trouble letting go…

Question: In light of Barthes’ theory, is it possible to write fanfiction of your own work?

Writerly Recklessness #14: New Year, New… Book

newyearseveSo, this is generally how the last hours of December 31st go, in my experience:

7pm: eat leftover Christmas food

8pm: watch a cheesy film

10pm: have a depressing conversation about what we hope the New Year will bring, but secretly know it won’t

11pm: put on pyjamas and wonder why it’s so hard to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve when you seem to manage it far too easily every other day – particularly when you’ve got an 8am meeting at work the next morning

11.45pm: peer through the window at the free fireworks show, provided by the neighbours, who seem to know how to do this celebration thing

11.55pm: turn on the T.V. to watch the countdown

00:00: attempt an enthusiastic ‘Happy New Year’ toast with a cup of tea

00:10am: flop into bed with relief

NewYearChickenI have to admit that I actually quite like this lame build-up to the New Year; it prevents a massive anti-climax when you wake up at 7am on January 1st and the world isn’t one bit shinier than it was before and you’re merely a day closer to going back to work. Besides, September has really always been my ‘new beginning’. My entire life, so far, has run on the academic calendar; by the time I get to January, I’m actually a third of the way through the year and desperately looking forward to Easter.

new-years-resolutionsI also don’t do the New Year’s Resolution thing. If I haven’t resolved to quit something, take it up or do it better already, then I am unlikely to do so in the darkest, coldest, most miserable month of the year. Starting anything on January 1st guarantees it will end, well… by January 31st. I prefer to make drastic lifestyle changes never in the spring – around April – when everything green and organic in the world is making a fresh start – it seems more natural and in tune with the rhythm of the world.

But this New Year feels a little different.

For a start, I actually spent New Year’s Eve with friends, so 2018 had a slightly more animated fanfare when it arrived.

Secondly, I don’t have to go back to work (I know – I hate me too).

Thirdly, I finished writing The Divinity Laws #3 just after Christmas. It still needs the living daylights edited out of it, of course, but the internal and external struggle to convert the creature into words, black and white, on paper, is over! And I feel pretty victorious: like-I’ve-wrestled-a-five-headed-dragon-into-submission victorious.

So – time to sit back, relax and focus on some gentle self-improvement then?

Umm… actually, I’d rather not.

Never mind ‘New Year, New Me’ – I’m going for ‘New Year, New Book’.

newbook

Yep. New genre, new world, new cast, new themes, new joy, new pain, new challenges  – a whole new beast to wrestle…

Huh… that all sounds rather familiar actually…

Although a blank page is perhaps the most daunting thing a writer ever has to face, I’m ‘pen at the ready’ for it! So bring it on 2018 – but not too firecely, please

Wishing you all a very happy, writerly-reckless New Year!

 

 

 

Writerly Recklessness #13: The Unfaithful Writer

existential crisis 1

I had an existential freak-out the other day. I didn’t wake up to find I had metamorphosed into a large bug, nor did I discover I am the result of an ambitious scientific experiment gone horribly wrong, nor did I take a potion that split my morally good self from my morally corrupt – nothing so dramatic or literary. Instead, I actually had a moment where I suspected, briefly, that I might have fallen out of love with writing.

And so absolute psychological, emotional and spiritual panic ensued. The desperate questions began. If I stopped being in love with writing:

  • Would I cease to exist?
  • Who would I be?
  • What would I be?

The answers were:

  • Yes.
  • No one – because you wouldn’t exist.
  • Nothing – see previous answers.

All literal, logical and Scientific objections aside – this was a genuine moment of personal, physical, mental, sociological, economical, ecological crises. Okay. Maybe not the last three – but pretty much every other ‘-al’ you can think of was tormenting me in some way or another. Why had writing become such a joyless, grinding chore? Why did I feel like I was wading through a wordy slough every time I picked up a pen and tried to write even one sentence? Why was it taking three months to write this third novel when I’d written the other two in only one? question-mark-background-vector

Why? Why? Why?

So many Whys!

And then I realised: it wasn’t the writing – it was me. I had become an unfaithful writer. My relationship with writing had hit the rocks because I was cheating on writing with frivolities and distractions – and I’d been trying to pretend that I wasn’t.

My relationship with writing had suffered what all normal relationships suffer at some point – a creeping transition from a summer honeymoon of ‘We’ll be together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong’ into a discontented winter of ‘He’s always leaving socks on the floor: I want a divorce’. And it was entirely my fault.

If my current WIP could speak, it would probably complain:

‘We used to have fun together and now all you do is slump on the sofa in your pyjamas at 8pm and stare, glassy-eyed at your twitter feed. And don’t pretend you haven’t been seeing Instagram behind my back. Or that you didn’t stay up late to listen to Craig David’s new single the moment it dropped at midnight. We could have been spending quality time together. You don’t think about me the way you used to. You don’t go to sleep dreaming about me and I’m not the first thing on your mind when you wake up. Instead you’re obsessing over getting a new cover for the first novel, and fretting over book promotion and marketing – and how few people have reviewed that bloody first book! I don’t want to be a bestseller. I don’t even want to be published. I just want to be written!’

broken heartAnd it would absolutely be justified in delivering such a ranty monologue. I have been a bad partner. I failed to properly protect my relationship with writing and allowed little writing-hating gremlins to sneak in and nibble away at my WIP Joy.

It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with any of Those Other Things I had been indulging in – they’re all important and necessary aspects of being a self-published writer (including listening to Craig David’s new song the second it became available – see previous blog post here: http://bit.ly/WriterlyR9IfMusicBe). But my dalliances with Those Other Things had crossed the line from purely professional to an unhealthy ‘if-I don’t-suck-up-to-these-people-I’ll-never-get-a-promotion’ flirting. As with gremlins, you should never feed Those Other Things too much– especially after midnight – as you’ll only end up creating monsters, which will wreak havoc with your muse and gnaw at your inspiration until you end up resenting the One True Love of your life.

The existential questioning was much needed. I can’t bear the thought of not being in love with writing. We’ve been together so long that even contemplating the loss of our relationship feels like staring into an identity-obliterating void. The truth is – I am a writer because I write. Not because I sell (or don’t) novels, or even because other people have read (or not) my books – but because I sit down with a pen and paper and, somehow, transfer what is in my head into black and white (largely illegible) prose. And I love doing it. I love writing. I always will – provided I don’t let Those Other Things interfere.

falling in loveSo, after buying some flowers and writing a poetically heartfelt apology, I made a vow to writing:

I shall write stories for their own sake and not for any other reason. I shall write because just having stories to write is the best gift I’ve ever been given. I will protect you from my own ambition, from the dismissive sneers of others and from all gremlins. I will be faithful and I will love, honour and cherish you for as long as I shall live.

Existential freak-out over.

You may now pick up a pen and write…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writerly Recklessness #12: Shhh! It’s a Secret…

secrets 1I’ve recently realised that, as a writer, I’m probably the Best Secret Keeper in the World. Not to brag or anything, but I manage to keep the secrets of entire worlds to myself for years on end. I never name names, gossip graphic details, or tease twists. My lips remain sealed despite all the relationship developments, rash decisions, fateful consequences, danger, drama and ‘what the heck just happened here?’ moments. And it’s tough. It’s really, really hard not to tell just one little detail to an eager listener (Ha-Ha. Okay. Captive relative.).

secrets 3Of course, the secrets I’m referring to are ones about purely fictional worlds that I’ve made up. Hardly on the scale of telling everyone you’re an accountant when really your boss is Judi Dench, everyone at work calls you Double-O-Spy and you have a Licence to Kill. By the way – complete side-track here – but does anyone else think that James Bond is pretty terrible at keeping the fact he works for MI6 a secret? I don’t recall a film where anyone is ever like ‘Oh my word! All this time I thought you were a financial analyst, but you’re actually a spy??’

Anyway – it wouldn’t be end-of-the-world devastating if I gave away a character motive or key event to a trusted friend (Ha-ha. Again, I mean dutiful relative). I know some writers like to share and discuss their Works In Progress as they go – sharing drafts of each chapter, taking feedback, and using this process to improve their manuscript.

Not me.

This is partly because I’m a control freak – phew! there we go, the first step is admitting it…

Mostly though, it’s for another, quite practical and utterly writerly, reason. I don’t like to talk to anyone about a story I’m writing because I want the story to speak for itself. When I hand over the final book for its first test flight, I want it to flap wildly, launch itself out of the nest, and then fly or get eaten by an awaiting sparrow-hawk – completely on its own. I want there to be no preconceived ideas or expectations in my readers before they read the first page. Only that way will I know if any of it has worked as I anticipated. Only that way will I know if my writing has worked as I hoped.

You see, it’s not just about the plot, and the characters, and the ‘what the heck just happened here?’ moments – it’s actually, mostly, about the words and how well they’ve been crafted to evoke the intended response in the reader.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

secrets 6My mum loves telling me about the Channel 5, straight-to-television films she’s watched. We have a conversation that goes something like this:

Mum: I watched this lovely film the other day – you’d really love it – it made me cry.

Me: Oh, really? What was it about?

Mum: Well, it was about…

*half an hour later*

 Mum: … and in the end, instead of taking the flight to Paris, she returns home with her new fiancée and they spend Christmas together, and kiss under the mistletoe. You should try to watch it at some point… you’d really love it.

Me: *adds film to list of ‘things I can watch whilst doing the ironing because I already know the entire plot’*

It’s got to the point now that whenever my mum starts to say ‘Did you see Blue Planet II…?’ I shout ‘Don’t tell me! I’m going to catch it on iPlayer…’ and then jump straight in the car and drive home to watch it right away.

Anyway. My point is that when my mum tells me the minute detail of a film, I either think ‘Yeah, sounds cheesy and kinda predictable’ or ‘Ugh – stupid, irrational characters and they only put that bit in for the shock factor.’ But, when I sit down and watch the spoilered film, I find myself laughing, crying, rooting for the protagonist, hating the bad guy and hoping for a happy ending – even though I already know what it’s going to be. That’s because, beyond the basics of the plot, what really makes an audience engage with a film is the acting, script, pacing, score, visual effects etc.  I’m pretty sure that diehard Lord of the Rings fans went to see the films to experience their favourite world through a new medium – and not to find out whether Frodo would make it to Mount Doom or not.

movie-spoilers-home-editionYes, a film is probably more engaging if you don’t know the entire plot already – especially if you’re watching something like Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, Momento, Inception – or any Christopher Nolan movie really – it’s best not to have had the twist ruined for you beforehand. These are films that you experience once and then the second time round you only watch them for Cillian Murphy… err… or the other many, excellent actors… ahem.

It’s the same with a book. When my book is read by the first readerly guinea-pigs, I’m hoping that:

‘I have no idea what’s going to happen’ +mind-blowingly good writing’ = unadulterated, genuine, mind-blown response.

Basically – if you’ve already told someone that Character A is going to betray Character B, then how will you know if you’ve built up to that scene successfully enough to make it a ‘No! They didn’t! How could they!’ moment? How will you know if the scene itself is written with sufficient ‘I’m going to cry for ten years’ emotional impact, if the reader already knew it was coming?

Anyway – this isn’t Rocket Science, so what’s my point?

Well, honestly, my point is that writers have to be really, really good at keeping secrets.

And it’s hard.

And I think we should get some sort of recognition for the fact that it’s not easy to sit on an explosive plot detail for an extended period of time without creating some cracks in your sanity.

secrets 2Personally, I deal with the pressure and excitement of keeping my writerly secrets by sharing them – with imaginary people. I could tell the cat, but he wanders off halfway through and I don’t trust him anyway. Cats can’t keep secrets – just look at all the bags they manage to get out of.

I could talk to myself, but I’m trying to maintain the illusion that I’m not ‘one of those people’… yet. And there are some things I even keep from my own conciousness: in one of my WIP plans I have written ‘part where I cry for a month’ under one chapter heading. I guess I’ll just have to see what happens when I get to writing that part of the novel…

So, I talk to fictional people – or real people who I have never met and am 99% sure I never will (you should always leave a 1% chance – because, you know, life loves to smack you in the face with irony every now and then). When I was younger, I would hold imaginary interviews with Richard and Judy – if you’re not British and never watched daytime British television, about a hundred years ago, you won’t know who I’m talking about – so here’s a link: http://www.richardandjudy.co.uk/home

That was my ultimate dream – never mind winning the Nobel Prize for Literature – I just wanted to sit on a comfy sofa and chat to Richard and Judy about my books. Considering R&J have interviewed the likes of Madonna it wasn’t that unambitious of me.

Nowadays, my fictional interviews are conducted with an anonymous, faceless journalist from a literary publication, local newspaper, school newspaper or a complete stranger who foolishly asks ‘So, what do you do…?’ This interview technique is also my way of examining my own writing for flaws, character stereotypes, improbable details or massive plot holes. It can result in a fairly heated debate, followed by sulky re-writes, and not talking to myself for days on end – which is a good thing? Right?

Retro key and opened bookAs dumb and sad as it sounds (and is), at least this way I can share my secrets without actually spoiling my book for anyone who exists and might want/be forced to read it.

It’s what makes me probably the Best Secret Keeper in the World.

I’m pretty sure 007 could learn a thing or two from me…

Writerly Recklessness #11: Imaginative Procrastination

i-got-so-much-procrastinating-done-today-t-shirts-men-s-premium-t-shirtSince I’ve started writing this third novel, my writerly brain has turned into a rebellious teenager and insists on doing anything other than focus on the project in hand. I’m pretty sure that the Procrastination Fairy has teamed up with the Distraction Beast on this one, because it’s a problem I’ve never encountered before.

Obviously, I am easily distracted from things I’m supposed to do – as easily as a cat is diverted by a laser pointer or the sound of a Dreamies packet rattling. But, generally, these are the usual distractions faced by all normal humans with a task to complete: food, tea, social media, the cuteness of the cat, the universal daftness of cats on the internet, watching the way the wind waves a leaf on a tree branch outside the window. Normal stuff.

But this issue is different, because the road to finishing this novel seems to be paved by short stories.

I’ve never written short stories before. Not since I was in primary school and we had ‘Writing Hour’ – otherwise known as ‘Friday Afternoons’ or ‘The Hour the Teacher Needs to Mark a Stack of Books Before the Weekend’. I write novels, and I write them because within about a minute and a half of a story idea hatching, it’s become a creature that has three subplots, an oak-sized character-connection-tree, two sequel-siblings and needs at least 65,000 words to bring it into adulthood.

Until recently. Just a couple of months ago, some strange new egg appeared, hatched and popped out a fully formed story idea that only required 4000 words. It even came with a title.

short storyAfter my initial ‘Ugh! What is this thing? Let’s get it fledged as quickly as possible’ reaction, I started to feel a bit more optimistic. Great! I thought. That’s a first. Now I know that I can, in fact, write a short story. Fantastic.

Back to writing the novel.

But about three chapters later – CRACK! Another egg hatched and it’s also a short story. Again, about 4000 words and with a title already attached. Wow! Two in such a short space of time. That’s great… I think? I’m supposed to be writing the third book in a trilogy of novels, but at this rate, I’ll have an anthology of short stories to go with the finished first draft.

And I’m not complaining – as such. It’s like getting two for the price of one. It’s just that I feel bad every time I press pause on the novel to scribble down the short story – because I should be writing The Divinity Laws #3. And when I stop to write something else, I have to jump out of one world and in to another, before trying to jump back in to the first world again and pick up the plot, characters, tone, pace etc. where I left off. And that’s not easy.

And I wonder if my sudden imaginative surge into the short story form is just a new form of procrastination.

I console myself that at least my procrastinating is imaginative and writerly. But I have a sneaky suspicion that if I ever sit down to deliberately write a short story anthology, my brain will decide it’s a poet and start pouring forth verse. And if I was writing a poetry collection? I’d probably find myself obsessed with writing flash fiction. And if I focused on flash fiction…? Who knows? Greeting card messages? Puns? Some sort of twist on a shopping list?

Bart_the_Mother_69

Umm… proud parent?

I suppose as long as it’s writing…? And as long as it doesn’t push the novel completely out of the nest, in a cuckoo-ish takeover bid, I think I’m okay…

Anyway – with the second short story done, I am now back on the novel. It’s going quite well – but I get nervous twitchings. I keep looking over my shoulder or glancing at the shadows out of the corner of my eye because I’m waiting for the next CRACK! of another strange litte egg as it hatches the third, 4000 word tale.

Also – what does one do, once one’s written a short story (apart from stop using the gender-neutral, indefinite pronoun as if it’s still the 20th Century)? Submit to competitions? Magazines? Force them on unsuspecting relatives? Wait until you have enough for a ‘collection’?

I’ll have to look in to it – once the novel is finished...