Tiny Tips for Writers: Emotional description

Rather than flatly describing sights, sounds and smells, provide contours by showing us the emotional responses of your characters as well.

From A Game for the Living by Patricia Highsmith:

The boy nodded and licked his thin lips. The sight of his tongue near the soft moustache was peculiarly disgusting to Theodore.

An entirely irrelevant detail of the boy has become a character trait for Theodore, and we can feel an unsteady current in the subtext.

Tiny Tips for Writing: Reality in Failure

[This is the first in a new mini-series of tiny tips for writers; those little insights into the things that make fiction believably real. Those forgettable details that make the fourth wall melt away, drawing the reader into the world of the book, as imagined by the author, but without feeling the author, without being clever.]

For every interaction, there is reality in failure, in minor conflict, in minor obstacles.

At a cafe advertising an all day breakfast.
‘Sorry, we’ve finished breakfast,’ the waitress says. ‘Today’s the day we change the oil.’

Not a huge problem, in the usual scheme of things, so the only possible explanation for this (otherwise redundant) piece of minor conflict is that it must be true. And if that was true, then the fiction around it must be as well.

For even greater reality, slip one tiny extraneous detail into the scene.

The cafe is called Tiffany’s.

Cute. You could have Breakfast at Tiffany’s – if not for the changing of the oil. And those two details make the fiction.

David Varela, Goldeous Kline and Me

Last week, David Varela took a vow of silence and spent one hundred hours writing stories. To prove it, he streamed all one hundred hours live on www.100hours.tv and created a live notepad so that the whole world could see his words appear on their screen as he typed them.

David was raising money for the Arvon Foundation (they run residential creative writing weeks for schools and community groups – I went on one of their paid courses in October: outstanding) and for every person who donated, he would write a story.

I found out about this spectacular project through my friend and neighbour, Naya. She recorded an interview with David Varela for Trans Limits Storytelling, and you can watch a snippet here:

You can help the other David reach his well-deserved £3,000 by donating here (although he won’t write you a story any more!).

One of the glorious features of David’s project is that all his writing is freely licensed under the Creative Commons copyright. That means I can (and you can) share the story he wrote for me! So here it is, along with a little comment by David before he started writing:

###

DAVID CHARLES: Goldeous Kline and the Borrowful Glaxons

4 hours to go…

At this point in proceedings, 95 hours in, I really do start to doubt my sanity. If I’m writing slower it’s mainly because I’m double-checking that everything is real. David Charles has made that deliberately difficult.

He’s asked me to write the story of Goldeous Kline and the Borrowful Glaxons.

Not being sure what exists and what does not, I Googled this phrase and was ‘shown results for Golden Kline and the Sorrowful Klaxons’ because clearly I’d made some kind of typo. So I know that these are not pre-existing entities. One David has come up with their names, and another David will come up with their story….

I’m excited. Are you excited?

Having destroyed the Amaloid horde and saved the galaxy once again, Goldeous Kline fired up the thrusters and headed back to base. She could expect a heroine’s welcome – indeed, she did expect it, as she had a shower of Finusian champagne at least every couple of weeks, the galaxy being as dangerous as it was.

Once out of Amalon’s orbit, she engaged hyperdrive and was back in Sector Omega-6 within milliseconds. She opened the comms channel.
“This is Goldeous Kline, requesting permission to dock. Repeat, Goldeous Kline. Yes, it really is me.”
She awaited a response.

And she awaited some more.

“Switching to secondary wavelength… This is Goldeous Kline. Acknowledge.”
More silence.
Maybe this was a prank. The boys in the comms shack did enjoy a good joke – but not normally on duty.
“This is Goldeous -“
“Hi Goldeous. Just hang on a sec. We’ve had a -“

There channel went silent again. Were they under attack? Was there a fire in Command?
“Sorry, Goldeous, we’re – no, let me – let go of that -“
“Command? Everything all right?”

The channel buzzed into life for a second and she heard what she thought was somebody being slapped across the face.
“Bzzzk… Eh oh? Eh oh.”
“Hello?”
“Greeting, pilot. All your base are belong to us.”
“Excuse me?”
“No excuse. All your base are belong to us. Also your ship.”

There was the sound of wrestling at the other end of the line again. Goldeous wondered who this invader could be. Their dialect was unusual, but the larynx must be humanoid. The Provaricons? Shepsy? Yes, she’d never trusted Shepsy.

“Kline, are you there?”
“Yes! Status.”
“This is Commander Sheppard…”
“Commander – good to hear your voice.”
“Yeah… bit of an issue back here. Admin cock-up really. Problem with the bank.”
“Who are the ‘Bank’? A new enemy alliance?”
“Could say that, yes. Thing is, they rather have the Galactic Council on their side on this one.”
“A conspiracy!”
“I’m not really making myself clear, am I? Goldeous, fact is, we’ve got ourselves up to our ears in hock. Acquisitions went wild with the credit card last year and now the lenders are foreclosing on us. Seems we were borrowing against our bases, but what with all the conflict recently, property prices have gone through the lunar crust.”
“I… don’t understand.”
“They’re repossessing everything. The bases, the ships… even Deckard. Apparently galactic law still regards him as a thing not a person.”
“But this is absurd! Sir – permission to launch a counter-offensive!”
“No, Goldeous… do you have any idea how much those photon torpedos are worth? Save your ammo and bring your ship back here. That’s a direct order from your Commander.”

She wrestled with the concept in her mind. Surrender? It felt… so wrong.
“Sir. Yes, sir. Requesting permission to dock.”
“Granted. Bay Three.”
“But Sir… I don’t understand how we could have spent so much money so fast.”
“Finusian champagne isn’t cheap, Goldeous. Glaxon Command out.”

—-

I’m going to end it there – because I’d have to stop at that point or follow through and finish a whole sci-fi parody novel, and I’ve only got three-and-a-bit hours left. Thank you, David, for the inspiration!

###

And thank you, other David, for the story! It was perfect, especially given my current reading of Debt by David Graeber (The Davids are taking over!).

“My name is David Charles and I’m Britain’s funniest qualified Egyptologist.”

It’s not a great opening line, but it is accurate. At least, I’ve not met a funnier qualified Egyptologist. Tony Robinson doesn’t count; he’s an actor. Did he get a First in Ancient History and Egyptology from UCL? No. So screw him.

This is an auto-review of my stand up show at The Camden Head on the 4th of November 2012. You can listen to the whole show by clicking on the play button below. Let’s do this!

This is only my third gig on the London stand-up scene and there is an audience of about fifty people waiting to be entertained. Only three of them are my friends, so that leaves forty-seven people to win over. Forty-seven people. That’s two football matches’ worth (including a referee and two linesmen). Two football matches playing out in front of me and only three supporters. Sounds like Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning. But it’s not; it’s the Camden Head on a Sunday night and these football teams are missing Downton Abbey and Homelands to be here. Sacrifices have been made. I’d better be funny.

I stay sober and don’t eat for hours beforehand. This, combined with the fact that backstage is a exterior fire escape, means that I’m shaking like a leaf, when that leaf has drunk too much caffeine. But I am also on stage and that means I am under threat. To my caveman mind, the audience are lions in the Serengeti. Instead of fight or flight, though, my only defence is having faster neurons than them. This is why I don’t drink beforehand, whereas they are drunk. Hopefully. I also have the advantage that I have written six hundred and fifty-six words of funny material and if I can only remember those six hundred and fifty-six words, then I will have made them laugh and the lions won’t eat me.

But stand-up is more than just paper writing; stand-up is the scent of blood. Stand-up happens live, in the Colosseum, a gladiatorial battle of wits between the comedian myrmidon and the lion audience. I’m lucky, these particular lions want to roll over and have me tickle their tummy. But, as in all human-feline flirtations, the cat holds at least as much power as I do. And there are forty-seven of them. Merely repeating written words into the arena might get a laugh, but it is the liveness of stand-up that has the lions rolling around on the floor like you’ve just sprayed the room with catnip. Every reaction from the lions, every laugh, every cough, every ooo, urhh, eww and whahey, is registered in my brain and my neurons must react with funny. That’s liveness.

I can feel a punch-line coming up and the lions aren’t ready, I back off and set them up again, this time they roll over and I tickle their tummies, before dancing back to go again. They howl and mewl at one joke, so I rub it harder; they roar again, I rub still harder; they roar a third time. These are the moments, off script, where the lions have forgotten they’re lions and the myrmidon is in complete mastery of the Colosseum. These are the moments where feline and human fall in love.

Five minutes later, I’m off stage and the game resumes with another gladiator*.

*This is a classical metaphor, rather than an Egyptological one, because the Ancient Egyptians weren’t barbarous animal torturers, unlike Boris Johnson.

Experiments in Publishing: Success?

A month ago, I published a book. But I didn’t publish it the usual way. Oh no. ‘Usual’ doesn’t work any more. I published it in three different ways:

  1. as a paperback book (£5.99);
  2. as an e-book on Amazon and the istore (£1.99);
  3. in 152 episodes on hitchhikingbritain.com (Now discontinued).

I called this experiment Slow Publishing, for obvious reasons (it should take about a year for the whole book to trickle onto the blog). I had very low expectations, especially as I had no time for promotion – but how is it going?

The Website

Well, I’ve been publishing three episodes a week since the 23rd of July, so we’re up to Episode 16 now (about halfway through Chapter One). I’ve had over 600 visitors in total since the start and I can count on 15-20 people reading each instalment, plus 9 people have signed up to the ‘Soles’ RSS webfeed.

Sales

In terms of conversion, I’ve sold 10 copies of the e-book on Amazon, 1 copy on the istore and 1 copy of the paperback. I’ve made about £16.43 in royalties from these sales.

Promotion

The only promotion I’ve done has been one email to my good friends at the start of the project, plus notifications of new episodes sent to my twitter and Facebook accounts.

I’m hoping that some promotion will start to trickle in from my readers. I’ve already had my first 5-star review on Amazon, from which I quote here:

The Soles of My Shoes is an erudite, eloquent and warm book. A deceptively simple tale of a long weekend spent hitchhiking with an unrequited love-of-his-life, the protagonist reveals insights into love, life, class, wealth and what it is to travel… I left this book wanting (a) to climb Ben Nevis and (b) to go hitchhiking. Possibly to visit Scarp as well… Highly recommended.

Interim Conclusions

Well I don’t think £16.43 is too bad for a month’s work. True, all my friends who are likely to buy the book, probably have. But that just means that any sales from now on will have been earned. I’ll post another update here in a month or two and we’ll see.

But, for now, I like the idea that the internet is never closed for business and people are stumbling upon my book while I sleep. ‘The Soles of My Shoes’ will never be out of print and, who knows, perhaps in fifty years I’ll be drawing my pension from between its e-pages.

What a to do! Suggestions for list-makers

I have a problem with TO DO lists. They are impossible. Not only that, but – being optimists – we don’t even realise it. It’s almost tragic, our list-making.

Bob Dylan’s TO DO list.

What I mean to say is: if you managed to survive the public education system with a shred of your imagination intact, then of course your life is going to be overflowing with things TO BE DONE.

Put another way: there will always be more on your TO DO list than CAN BE DONE in an average human life-span.

You still don’t get what I’m saying, do you?

Here it is: if you were to write out your TO DO list in full, you must understand that you will DIE long before every item is ticked off.

There.

That might sound a little morbid, but it does give a certain poignancy to all such lists, which could be useful. Perhaps if we considered these lists in their true light, we would spend less time on TIDY ROOM and more time on READ HAMLET.

Suppose you have a TO DO list of ten items. What six items would you immediately strike off if you knew you were going to DIE after only doing four of that list? That should be a pretty reasonable guide as to what you should be doing and what is probably not worthwhile.

I also wonder what items would miraculously appear on our TO DO lists if we are honest with the truth that our time on this earth is finite. Perhaps CREOSOTE FENCE would be replaced by APOLOGISE TO JANET.

Think about it the next time you are looking down your TO DO list…

###

Even if you don’t follow my rather morbid objection, I have a further problem with TO DO lists. The name.

I believe that the first step in doing anything is to think of doing it. So merely by adding a task to your TO DO list, you have (by definition) already started it. Therefore, it shouldn’t be called a TO DO list, but rather a DOING list.

This has the advantage of being far more optimistic and gives you the impression that the task is pretty much over and done with. Which (I would argue) it is. If you think about it, you can easily write a novel without ever being able to spell properly, but it is an impossible task if you never even think of writing a novel. The thinking of it is always our biggest hurdle to accomplishing a task.

So I challenge you to change the name of your list and see what a difference it makes to your productivity and contentment.

The Mundane and the Sublime: What library data says about the human condition

Today, I stumbled upon a list of the most common books stored in public libraries.

It strikes me, looking at the list, that these are our most precious books (in the Western tradition). These are the ones that have been chosen to be protected for eternity by our libraries.

As the list-makers say, these are “the intellectual works that have been judged to be worth owning by the ‘purchase vote’ of libraries around the globe.”

The data is from 2005, but I don’t think it will have changed much. Here’s the top ten:

  1. The Holy Bible [various]
  2. US Census [various]
  3. Mother Goose
  4. Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
  5. Odyssey by Homer
  6. Iliad by Homer
  7. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  8. Lord of the Rings [trilogy] by J. R. R. Tolkien
  9. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  10. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
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Now, for comparison, here’s the top ten most loaned books from US libraries in 2009. 

  1. Run for Your Life by James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge
  2. Cross Country by James Patterson
  3. Finger Lickin’ Fifteen by Janet Evanovich
  4. The 8th Confession by James Patterson & Maxine Paetro
  5. Plum Spooky by Janet Evanovich
  6. Swimsuit by James Patterson & Maxine Paetro
  7. The Shack by William P. Young
  8. The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
  9. First Family by David Baldacci
  10. The Associate by John Grisham
####



Now you might feel a certain depression looking down this list.

But I like it: the two lists represent the beautiful dichotomy of our humanity. 

They represent the two worlds we have to manage every day, the two worlds of the mundane and the sublime. Only monks can spend all their time contemplating sublimity, the rest of us have spreadsheets and nappies and traffic jams to worry about.

But it’s nice to know that, when we need them, our libraries guarantee the wonders of literature.

Like Mother Goose.