This post is so sophisticated it should have its own Times Literary Supplement font. That’d distract you from the embarrassing fact that most of these are non-fiction. But hey – these seven books inspired me this year, each in their own way. Continue reading Dave’s Books of the Year 2017
Category: Creative Writing
I started out writing fiction back in 2008 and still have ambitions in that area, particularly in comedy. I have written a play, Foiled, with Beth Granville. Scroll down for more creative writing treats, including short stories.
|Sabrina, manageress and senior stylist at “Bleach for the Stars” hair salon, believes it would be the best salon on the outskirts of Cardiff… if it wasn’t for the clients! Foiled is a comedy play co-written with Beth Granville and will be produced by difficult|stage in 2014.
|Monday the third of September was a very ordinary day, full of ordinary things. Then I recorded it. I spent twenty-four hours wearing a lapel microphone, recording my every utterance to produce a work that reads like one side of a conversation. A soliloquy, if you like.
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How to be a sincere writer
In other news, the opening of my novel-in-progress was reliably eviscerated at Curtis Brown on Wednesday.
Fifteen different sets of educated critique of my work. Fabulous. As you’d expect, there were equal and opposite opinions on particular lines, but also a useful seam of agreement.
However, the most valuable feedback I got was completely unwitting: this is not the opening to the novel that I’ve actually written.
On the basis of my 3000 words, everyone was expecting a riotous satire of modern life as the hero wades deeper and deeper into cult worship.
It’s not that. It’s not that at all. But maybe it should be…
On Tuesday, Curtis Brown held a Q&A with two literary agents and a publisher. One of the pieces of advice the publisher gave was in equal parts useless and invaluable:
When I asked her to elaborate, she replied that readers can ‘just tell’ when an author is being truly sincere and that she wouldn’t publish anything that bore even a whiff of abdication.
But the question of sincerity cuts far deeper than the superficiality of a novel. It asks what I really believe in. What I really really really believe in. What I believe in so much that I’m willing to spend 80,000 words arguing with myself about it.
Sincerity is a fair demand to make of the author. Who wants to read anything so insipid that the creator couldn’t even muster the attention to sustain his own passions?
I caught sight of the Zac Efron A-Z in the library earlier and felt a pang of sympathy for author Alex Kincaid (That’s speczacular!).
It’s one thing sincerity being a reasonable demand for readers to make; it’s quite another to bear that weight as the congenitally doubting writer.
Is Alex sincere in his gushing (and alphabetically comprehensive) lionisation of an eminently forgettable Hollywood celebrity?
Credit if you are, Alex. You deserve every penny of your Public Lending Rights (7.82p per loan: not a route to fortune but that’s another story altogether).
But what about me? Will I discover what I believe in?
UPDATE: No. I’m abandoning novel writing, for the next few decades at least.
The Most Living: Synopsis
Loosely based on Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, The Most Living is lifehacker Tim Ferriss meets David Mitchell (both of them) in a dream-like tour of the meaning of life in modern Britain. Continue reading The Most Living: Synopsis
Foiled Episode 1: Everything’s Kings (BBC Radio)
This is mad, isn’t it? A year ago I was in the London Welsh Centre, watching rehearsals for a hair-based theatre comedy called ‘Foiled’. Being one of the writers, I loved every minute – but I never expected The Stage would call it ‘the perfect comedy’ in a 5-star review.
That was dreamy enough, but imagine being given a BBC Radio series! Insane. And it’s being broadcast TOMORROW.
YES – Saturday the 1st of July at 1pm. Continue reading Foiled Episode 1: Everything’s Kings (BBC Radio)
How to get a BBC Radio Comedy Commission
In January 2016, Beth Granville and I were commissioned to write four episodes of our sitcom Foiled for BBC Radio Wales. I still get goosebumps writing that sentence! Getting a comedy commission from the BBC really doesn’t happen very often in a writer’s life and I feel fantastically lucky.
Earlier this week, Beth and I were invited by London Comedy Writers to share our recipe for the secret sauce. This blog is more detail on how I reckon we got that BBC radio comedy commission. Continue reading How to get a BBC Radio Comedy Commission
Experiments in Publishing: Unbound Crowdfunding
In October last year, I started a very exciting experiment with crowdfunding publishers Unbound. We had a target of £10,648, and an initial funding period of 90 days. Sadly for me and the 100+ people who pledged money for my book You Are What You Don’t, earlier this week we acknowleged that, despite raising around £2,400, this experiment should be catalogued under FAILURE. Continue reading Experiments in Publishing: Unbound Crowdfunding
Elevate Creative Response/Ability
Creative Response is the theme of this year’s Elevate festival. Fittingly, this was a vast, sprawling session that spread over two hours, with six guests and more than a dozen contributions from the audience. Unfortunately, that means this blog post can only be a short introduction to a small part of the stimulating discussion.
Creative response is the brain-child of film-maker and writer Antonino D’Ambrosio. He starts the session by trying to capture some of the main ideas behind the concept.
“It’s how we’ve survived as human beings since the beginning of time,” Antonino says. “It’s a rejection of the things that hold us back and advancing systems that bring people together. And you do that through creativity, not just film, music, art, photography, but economics, science, in every way we can break down these barriers socially, politically, culturally.”
For many on the panel, Antonino’s definition of “creative response” was not one they had come across, but the ideas were, of course, already embedded in their personal creative philosophies.
DJ Ripley finds the idea “very appealing”, but makes the point that not everyone is struggling for survival – under the current system, some people are doing very well, often through exploiting others. For her, therefore, “creative response is particularly rooted in people whose survival is and has been challenged right now.” As a DJ from New York, Ripley is aware of her great privilege and must herself consciously resist the temptation to exploit the musical resources of other cultures, which she describes as a “delightful buffet” – a short step from the cruel domination of colonialism.
Cultural researcher Elisabeth Mayerhofer picks up on Antonino’s comments about creative response being a tool that brings people together. Tracing the history of the artist in the western world, she makes the point that eighteenth century emergence of The Artist was “very intertwined with the concept of capitalism”. It was only when capitalism emancipated the artist from feudalism, through the financial independence afforded by the market and intellectual property rights, that they were able to rise out of the community and into the position of cultural Genius.
Today, however, Elisabeth sees the slow erosion of the role and self-perception of the artist as genius. New forms of intellectual property, including the Creative Commons, are acknowledging that everything is created out of what has gone before. “The artist is moving back into society,” Elisabeth says. “In the end, the production and the consumption of art both have a very strong aspect of collectivity. You can’t think of arts without community.”
Mike Bonanno from activist collective The Yes Men tells a story that illustrates what’s possible when a little creativity is stirred into the pot. He was in Australia at a conference for accountants – “These are people who are not usually associated with creativity,” Mike notes – and announced the shutting down of the World Trade Organisation, to be replaced by the Trade Regulation Organisation. He wasn’t expecting what came next, however.
“They were so thrilled with the idea that the framework had changed and they’d be able to do something good with all of their expertise that, without us asking them, they formed working groups at the luncheon that followed the speech and started to rebuild the World Trade Organisation themselves – and they started by redesigning the logo.”
When the laughter falls away, Mike tells how these high-powered accountants, who’d spent their lives off-shoring money for the super rich, discussed where they could site the headquarters of this new organisation so that the least developed nations could have full representation.
“The point is that lifting that weight gave them this moment where they suddenly felt incredibly creative and spontaneously became these incredibly creative accountants.”
For Elevate moderator Daniel Erlacher, this perfectly encapsulates creative response at its most powerful: activism combined with creativity to create a new world.
Positive Constraints in Literature
Positive constraints are found everywhere in art. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is unimaginable without its frame. Bach’s Toccata would dissolve into meaningless without its reliability of time signature or key. And, from literature, Joyce’s labyrinthine Ulysses bamboozles us with words and sentences we still recognise as English, and even Tolstoy’s house brick epic War and Peace has an ending, eventually.
Obviously, these are all positive constraints: boundaries that the artists has chosen and used to contextualise their creation.
Sentence structure, picture frames and time signatures are all so common to their respective art forms that they almost fall into the category of unconscious constraints. I didn’t consciously choose to divide my thoughts up into sentences when I started writing this blog post, I just followed the customs of the art form so that you can easily understand what I’m trying to communicate. To a great degree, the constraint of good spelling and grammar is actually necessary to the art form of writing.
Introducing other totally unnecessary constraints can, however, make our writing more compelling, more interesting and, as writer Milan Kundera says, more ludic or game-like.
The writers Elmore Leonard and Stephen King are among many who advocate the positive literary constraint of No Adverbs.
In his article 10 Rules of Writing, Elmore Leonard saves his adverbial admonition primarily for dialogue, frowning upon constructions like: “Damn!” he said, angrily. Elmore says that such use “distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange” and I’d completely agree with him. Stephen King, in his excellent book On Writing, is even more critical, saying that adverbs, any adverbs, are the preserve of “timid writers”, driven to clumsy writing by fear or affectation.
Verily, this is not the mere moanings of two crusty literary snobs. No Adverbs forces you to be more precise and active with your language. Quite often the attribution of dialogue is a refuge for laziness. “Don’t you dare use adverbs,” Elmore growled viciously.
Elmore growling viciously is supposed to communicate an air of menace, but it’s far more effective to do that with action, not attribution. Elmore ran his finger along the keen edge of his pocket knife. “Don’t you dare use adverbs,” he said.
Counting words is a classic positive constraint for writing that every journalist or student will recognise, usually with something approaching dread. But a word count is such a simple device to make your writing, not only more concise, but also exist in the first place.
One simple thought experiment might help elucidate the theory. If I were to ask you right now to write something on the subject of women in literature, what would you do? Where would you begin and how would you know when to stop? Do I mean women writers, women characters or even women readers? It’s likely that, faced with such an overwhelmingly vague task, you would never even begin.
Now, on the other hand, if I were to ask you to write 100 words about women in literature, you would probably have a very precise idea of what to write. 100 words isn’t much (the same number of words as this paragraph), but you have some opinion on women in literature and you would want to get that opinion into those 100 words. There is no space for faffing around, so you’d go with your strongest idea, perhaps supported by a couple of examples. The imposition of a positive constraint somehow crystalises your thinking and helps you to write.
Similarly, if I were to ask you to write 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 words on women in literature. Each different word count suggests a different approach to the writing.
Target 1,000 words, and you can afford to introduce more supporting examples and perhaps a couple of different critical angles. With 10,000 words to play with, you must dig deeper and research your subject thoroughly. At 100,000 words, you can hunt down every last footnote and take a broad view of women in literature that encompasses the full sweep of history.
Right at the other end of the scale, Twitter is perhaps the most obvious and extreme example of modern literary concision, permitting only 140 characters. A well written tweet can nevertheless capture a thousand pictures.
And the utility of a word count goes far beyond inspiration and concision. You can use word counts to make sure your minor characters don’t take over the protagonist’s story, to beef up your B-plot, or to tune down your C-plot. I even use word frequency analyses to make sure I’m not using the same words over and over (I once used the word “just” 213 times in a book of only 50,000 words).
If you’ve ever actually listened to a conversation between two human beings, you’ll be amazed to hear how dull the language used by most people is. We default to clichés, crank out tired metaphors and serve up idioms that have long since lost their freshness. As a writer, it’s easy to let these slip into your writing and end up sounding like a sack of drunks at the end of a long night.
Now, I’m currently reading The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, a writer described on the cover as “Ireland’s funniest genius”. But what has captivated me is not so much the humour, but the freshness of the language.
Three samples of his language from one paragraph taken at random from the chapter I finished last night will serve to demonstrate my point:
- “When I awoke again two thoughts came into my head so closely together that they seemed to be stuck to one another; I could not be sure which came first and it was hard to separate them and examine them singly.”
- “The sun was in the neighbourhood also, distributing his enchantment unobtrusively, colouring the sides of things that were unalive and livening the hearts of living things.”
- “A bird sang a solo from nearby, a cunning blackbird in a dark hedge giving thanks in his native language. I listened and agreed with him completely.”
Some of you might have skipped over my little introduction, so I’ll repeat: those are from just one paragraph. The richness, the depth, the clarity! A lesser writer could have covered all three images in one sentence: “I woke up to bright sunshine and birdsong.” Dull, dull, dull.
And if you’re ever doubtful about how far No Cliché writing can take you, think on Shakespeare. In the course of his writing career, Shakespeare contributed 1,700 new words to the English language. He also coined dozens of new phrases that became so popular as to turn into clichés themselves: all that glitters isn’t gold, be all and end all, break the ice, green eyed monster, heart of gold, neither a borrower nor a lender be and to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve.
Right. So far, we’ve looked at three positive constraints that can make our writing objectively better: more captivating, more concise and more interesting for the reader. I’ll end by looking at the more gameful ways we can use positive constraints.
Eunoia is a book by Christian Bok with only five chapters. The ludic twist is that each chapter contains only one vowel: A, E, I, O or U. Christian believes that each vowel has its own personality and his positive constraint allows that personality to flourish. Chapter A, for example, begins: “Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram – a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla.”
Gadsby, a 1939 novel by Ernest Vincent Wright, dispenses with the letter “e” for its entire 50,000 word plot. These kind of omissions in literature are called lipograms and have been used to rewrite Mary Had a Little Lamb (“Polly owned one little sheep”, without the letter “a”), Hamlet without the “i” (“To be or not to be, that’s the query”) and to imitate the song of a nightingale in Russian.
Right after writing The Cat in the Hat using only 236 words, Dr Seuss took on a bet with his publisher that he couldn’t write a book using a smaller vocabulary. Green Eggs and Ham clocked in with a vocabulary of only 50 different words. Dr Seuss won the bet and Green Eggs and Ham became the fourth best-selling children’s book of all time. Not bad for a stupid positive constraint.
Easily the most quixotic of ludic positive constraints in literature that I’ve come across is Pilish, in which the number of characters in each word matches exactly, and in order, the digits found in the mathematical constant Pi. Wikipedia tells me the following sentence is Pilish for the first fifteen digits of pi, 3.14159265358979: “How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics!”
And so we come to my all-time favourite example of literary positive constraints, from an article concerning Bob Dylan and plagiarism. I thought the article (which I can tragically no longer find online) was very well-written and made its point with artistry and intelligence: that plagiarism must be distinguished from the patina of collage that all artists must create when they create. The punchline was that the “writer” of this piece had “written” not a single word: every last phrase was “plagarised”. I was gob-smacked and re-read the article again and again, with utter delight.
The punchline to this blog post is that it is acrostic, the first letter of each paragraph spells out… Answers on a postcard to the usual address and thanks to C for the idea.
The Betrayal of All Humanity
I saw a woman walking down a footpath towards the sea. One woman of a group of three pedestrians, not yet elderly, certainly no longer young.
They carried between them the paunch of middle age, tucked neatly under a belt or a waistband. The woman wore sensible leggings stretched out underneath a summer shift, a pursebag between the stripe of a strap across her back, sandals slapping on the footpath.
“I’ll let you know the next time we get one and I’ll send it over,” her friend was saying, as they swung past me on the final zig of the sea-bound zig zag.
“That’d be great,” the woman replied, leaning to her partner by her side. “Last time we paid, what was it? Sixty? You can go by train, but…”
As she said these words, she veered to her left, reached out a hand, grasped a stray branch and, with the deft clench of an expert, stripped the branch of leaves. She walked on, without breaking her stride.
“Oh no, you’ll want to fly,” her friend said.
But it was too late. In that moment, the woman had betrayed all of humanity for the apes we are.
Deanna Rodger: Read My Lips
Over the next few weeks, I am going to be publishing a series of articles taken from my latest book, Elevate #10. This is the first such post, from the Elevate Festival’s opening ceremony, Deanna Rodger’s poem Read My Lips. Enjoy.
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Deanna Rodger’s steel-capped poem, Read My Lips, kicks down the door to the tenth edition of the Elevate Festival. The poem embodies the elemental forces of Elevate, its gravity and its magnetism; the creative-response to not being heard.
Sometimes – by which I mean often times – it can feel like we are not just being overlooked or ignored, we aren’t even being heard over the sound of seven billion people upgrading phones, paying treadmill rent or pawning for a payday loan. Not being heard is about the most frustrating emotion a human can feel. It’s the emotion that spawns violence, anger and hate.
“As a teenager, I was really pent up,” Deanna Rodger tells us. “I had a lot of anger living inside of me and I didn’t have the means to let it through.” But we don’t have to respond to not being heard with unfocussed anger; we can use that anger to respond creatively.
Luckily, teenage Deanna Rodger ended up at a creative writing workshop, a reluctant tag-along for her best mate. “I didn’t really want to do it,” she says, “but then they said, Write about fire, and I thought, Ooh, I can definitely write about fire! I know what it feels like in my belly, I know what it feels like in my heart, I know what it feels like in my brain.” She has been writing and performing, burning anger into poetic fire, ever since.
The solitude, space and silence of, not school, not work, but creative writing is what gave Deanna Rodger her voice. “Not having to worry about my spelling or my punctuation or even it rhyming,” she says, gave her “that freedom to write whatever was in my head and then mould it into exactly what I wanted to say.” Writing allowed Deanna Rodger to respond creatively to the anger she was feeling, reclaiming it as something useful and empowering. And we hear her in a way that we wouldn’t if she’d stayed stuck at the angry stage, with empathy, love and solidarity.
The Elevate Festival gives voice to people, projects and ideas that are not being heard, or not being heard loudly enough. For four days in October, people from all over the world come together in Graz to hear each other and to relay, amplify and broadcast each other.
Elevate is, like Deanna Rodger’s writing, a creative-response to not being heard. But it is also a demand that we shall be heard.
The Literary Consultancy Manuscript Assessment Review
I know some of you are writers or would like to become writers, whatever that means. One of the problems with writing is that it’s almost entirely subjective. I say almost because there comes a point when the mass of subjectivity is so overwhelming as to become objective. Subjectively, I wasn’t entertained by the first dozen pages of the Harry Potter fiasco. 450 million book sales tells me I’m wrong. Objectively, Harry Potter and his minions are the very definition of excellent writing, writing that captures and holds an audience.
The only problem with this form of objectivity is that it requires a mass, a horde, of subjects. And this horde is precisely what the becoming writer does not, by definition, have. So we have to seek out other subjectivities, expert subjectivities, in the hope that they add up to something like a stab at objectivity.
(I should note that publishers have this exact same problem. Their decision on the worth of a new submission is taken on the basis of a dozen subjective opinions. That’s nowhere near good enough to match the objective opinion of the mass audience out there. Hence why many, many books fail, despite getting the seal of approval from an expert publisher.)
But to get back to the becoming writer. After friends and family, one of the places we can turn for a stab at objectivity is a manuscript assessment service, like The Literary Consultancy. In the spirit of scientific enquiry, I handed over my 257 page manuscript, along with a cheque for £449.75. And I held my breath.
Now, bearing in mind that I’ve scarcely earned £449.75 from my writing ever, that’s an awful lot of money to spend. Why did I do it? Because I had to know. The testimonials from writers who had used the service were glowing. I had to know if The Literary Consultancy could sprinkle the same gold dust on my manuscript as they had on Bruno Cassidy’s. “I can honestly say,” Bruce gushes, “that I received more engaged and positive criticism from him on this story than at any time during a two year part time Creative Writing MA.” I suppose £449.75 is a small price to pay in comparison to funding a two year part time Creative Writing MA.
I waited six weeks for the report. It arrived precisely on time, straight into my email inbox.
It was a touch over ten pages long, as promised – but some of those pages were not filled. It was double spaced. The whole thing totalled 3643 words, each one costing twelve pence. My first thought, on reading, was Have I wasted half a grand on this? I felt blood rush to my cheeks. I closed the email and forgot about it for a week.
After I got back from Calais, I printed the whole thing out and re-read it, with a pen in my hand. There must be some treasure to be found between these pricey pages. It was written by a man who had published books. He had won Wales Book of the Year. The Independent on Sunday had even called his most recent travel book “thorough”. So I dug deep down into his report, determined to uncover the treasure.
NB: From this point onwards, non-serious writers may get bored. Sorry. This isn’t really written for you. For the serious writer, wondering if it’s time to shell out for professional objectivity, I hope you find this report summary useful.
Approach (0.25 pages)
This was a short précis of my story, useful to ensure that he got the gist of what I was trying to do. He did. Phew.
Where am I coming from as a critic? (0.25 pages)
A short biography of the critic, establishing his bone fides as both a writer and a traveller. This made me feel more comfortable that he was a suitable critic for my book. I should say that The Literary Consultancy had given me a choice of two critics, so I had already done some research on the man. This put me at ease.
Opening Remarks (1 page)
This section addressed my cover letter and synopsis, as well as the title and the fact that I look young in my photograph. On the plus side, the manuscript was well laid out and “very professional”. Neither of us liked the title and he suggested a couple of alternatives.
Concept (0.5 pages)
This section placed the manuscript within the wider world of publishing. This is where the central problem with the manuscript was first addressed: “you have to offer something distinctive in delivering the story, to make it a commercially marketable book”. Storm clouds gathering on the horizon.
Technique (1 page)
General comments on style and structure. I have a “breezy no-nonsense prose style”, combined with a very good ear for speech. I’m particularly proud that he says: “There were no significant passages where my interest flagged.” Now there’s a review for the front cover! However, he is right when he says that there is precious little description of landscape and culture in the book. That is a weakness.
The Narrative (3 pages)
This is the meat of the report. Here he gets into more detail about the manuscript, its achievements and its failings. He addresses story-telling style, dialogue, characterisation, use of detail and description. He gives advice on how I could increase the reader’s emotional involvement and interest, through use of more encounters and personal reflection. He even raised the possibility of importing characters from elsewhere, à la Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin… By my honour!
Details (0.5 pages)
This addressed half a dozen typos, factual inaccuracies and general puzzlements. He missed several that I’ve later caught, but this wasn’t supposed to be a proof-reading.
Conclusions (2.5 pages)
Here he tackles the root problem of the manuscript and offers ideas for its development. The question is: “Will your book force its way to the front of the queue?” His answer is no, despite enjoying the story and seeing that I have the skills to write a publishable book. The manuscript as it stands is “a little short of rounded interest”. He urges me to “be more ambitious”, believing that I have “the potential to write at a higher level”. He finishes with a reading list of published books that could hand me the key to this higher plane.
Overall, I would say that the Literary Consultancy report told me nothing of the manuscript that I hadn’t already suspected myself. But I think that is a good sign: it would have been terrible if he’d hated all the parts that I thought were brilliant and vice versa. It shows, at least, that I have an honest eye for my own work.
Where the report hides its genius is in how it has inspired me to go back to the manuscript and improve it. That is what I have paid for, not the words of the report, but the encouragement. That encouragement, from an independent, experienced writer is invaluable.
I have since read and re-read the critic’s words many times and they have been an invaluable guide in my most recent edit of the book. I feel now that I have the thematic structure of a richer dish. The light shone by the report has improved my writing.
Was The Literary Consultancy worth £449.75?
In short: Yes.
Of course, I couldn’t afford to pay this every time I write a book, but perhaps I won’t have to. The report confirmed my suspicions of my literary weaknesses and affirmed the skills I do have as a writer, so perhaps all I will need next time is more confidence in myself.
The Complete History of the Moon in Sixteen and a Half Verses
Last night, I made my second ever spoken word appearance at Utter! Space in King’s Cross, reading The Complete History of the Moon in Sixteen and a Half Verses. Considering my first appearance was half naked at a FemDom club, I think I’m making progress.
You can hear the poem in all its educational glory by pressing play on the player below.
Please note: this may be less THE history of the moon and more A history of the moon… But at least I didn’t go for any cheap Michael Jackson gags.
BONUS MATERIAL YOU NEITHER ASKED FOR, NOR WANTED!
The process of writing a poem involves much scribblings and almost as much crossings out. Here are some of the verses that didn’t make the final 16.5, mainly because they weren’t about the history of the moon:
The moon goes round the earth,
Which goes round the sun, in ellipse.
When all three are in a line,
That’s a total eclipse.
There is a word for this celestial alignment,
But it’s testing my poetical wizardry,
Because there isn’t any rhyme in my dictionary
I don’t know if you’ve heard
of The Man in the Moon.
It’s another crap pub,
from JD Wetherspoon.
It looks nothing like a man,
It’s more like a foetus.
Or maybe a panda,
If you’ve drunk a few litres.
But of course we all know
that is total bullshit.
The Moon is really an
abandoned alien spaceship.
You might have heard of mooning,
Where you pull down my pants.
And then I’ll pull down yours,
Just like they do in France (pron: “Frants”).
The author, David Charles, is available galaxy-wide for lunar lectures and astronomical addresses.
Photo Credit: Beth Granville
Pedestal (a poem)
Tonight: I will cancel my evening plans,
And dress you in your favourite clothes.
I will rub some lotion on your hands,
And in between your toes.
I will iron the creases from your dress,
And cook for you your evening meal.
I will make you sigh with one caress,
If you think that would appeal.
I will run the water in your bath,
Thirty-seven point four degrees.
I will pull a face to make you laugh,
And wear your silk chemise.
I will rub the sores from your shoulders,
And paint your nails and blow them dry.
I will fight a hundred thousand soldiers,
And, if I have to, I will die.
I will scent you with your perfume.
And tuck your hair behind your ears,
I will walk from here to Khartoum,
And survive like Ray Mears.
I will stroke your hair and read you poetry,
And not fall asleep before you do.
I will truss myself like shop-bought poultry,
And cook myself for you.
I will enter my heart in your Grand Prix,
And put my foot down on the throttle.
I will turn the heating up one degree,
And fill your hot water bottle.
I will oil and massage your forehead,
And whisper naughty words in your ear.
I will swallow a nuclear warhead,
And make George Bush disappear.
I will bake my heart for you, in a bagel,
and serve it fresh with salmon and cheese.
I will out-think Thomas Nagel,
And out-joke John Cleese.
I will kiss your Achilles heel,
And all your downy leg hairs.
I will stand before you and kneel,
And address to you my prayers.
I will place you where you belong:
On your pedestal.
Written on 31st January 2014 for a literary soirée at Club Pedestal.
I should credit John Fuller’s Valentine for at least some of the inspiration. The rest of the inspiration will go uncredited – I’m sure she knows who she is!
The Death of Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules of Writing
DC: In honour of the passing of US crime writer Elmore Leonard, here is a reprint of his 10 rules for writing, first published in the New York Times. There is no better or more concise schedule of advice for writers, young and old. Over to Elmore:
WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle
By ELMORE LEONARD
Published: July 16, 2001 in The New York Times.
These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.
1. Never open a book with weather.
If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
2. Avoid prologues.
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s ”Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ”I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”
3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”
This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)
If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.
What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”
”Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.
Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.
The start of the Not Just Watching Football Season
|The Never Ending Story: Monotonous or Life-affirming?|
It’s that time of year again.
At this very second, men in ill-fitting polyester advert shirts are gathering around faux oak tables in dingy back rooms to accumulate another season’s worth of adipose tissue. And all for the pleasure of watching socially dysfunctional teenage athletes earn more cold hard cash in ninety minutes than their admirers could dream of earning in a month.
Yes, the football season is with us again, heralded by England’s defeat of Scotland on Wednesday night, thanks to a well-timed headed goal by 31-year-old debutant Rickie Lambert. Mr Lambert, exercising his imagination like never before, described the crowning achievement of his career as a ‘dream come true’.
I have a deeply humbling confession to make: I don’t play professional football. I never have. Rickie Lambert’s dream come true is about as relevant to my life as Emmental meteorites.
My relationship to football is exactly the same as a reader’s relationship to a book. I am not a player inside the world of football; I look on from the sidelines. I read about the world of football in exactly the same way that I read about the world of Miss Marple (but with less murder and significantly worse dialogue).
Millions of other people enjoy these same soccer stories and I could talk football with them until the Cowdenbeaths come home. But I will never myself take part or affect the world in which I am cognitively immersed. And I will probably never even meet someone who does. Just like I’ll never one day take the 4.50 from Paddington to St Mary Mead, nor meet Mrs Elspeth McGillicuddy.
|Not the 4.50 from Paddington. No trains leave Paddington at that time. Do your research next time, Christie.|
I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that football might as well be a fiction, a story, or combination and complex interaction of stories, told every day, all over the world. The football fan’s longing for the start of the new football season is no different to the crystal meth fan’s rabid anticipation of Season 5 of Breaking Bad. Football is the ultimate box set: a never-ending reel of intertwining plot lines, with a cast of thousands and story twists that no writer has even written.
The question we have to ask ourselves is:
Is this story interesting enough to justify a few hours of my life every week?
The answer, I suspect, is increasingly no. But I’m going to try to find out. Instead of just watching football this season, I’m going to start thinking more deeply about what it does for me, does to me – and does to and for us all.
So I hereby declare the official opening of the Not Just Watching Football Season (catchy, I know). Stay tuned for my football-based examinations of such topics as Tribalism, Slum Clearances, Sexual Assault and Consumer Capitalism. To be fair, it’ll almost certainly be a game of two halves, at the end of the day.
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.”
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.”
“Greeting, pilot. All your base are belong to us.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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:
- as a paperback book (£5.99);
- as an e-book on Amazon and the istore (£1.99);
- 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seen Seine Scene
This is a better story than the one you are reading. I know it is because I am looking over your shoulder. You are the Japanese man sitting up straight on a marble bench, at the head of the Île Saint-Louis, where it prows into the Seine. The winter sun is propped up on the draughty apartment blocks of the Île de la Cité. You squint over at the river whenever the sun squeezes through the clouds; otherwise your head is bent to the paperback pocket book in your hands. But it’s not as good a story as this one and it never will be.
Beside you is your trusty leather briefcase with its brass buckles and also your thin rain jacket and your hat, discarded in an unexpected light of February. Your bare hair is graveled with grey. You must be about fifty years old.
You lean back to watch one of the tourist navettes as it rumbles on towards the Tour Eiffel. Your interest is gone for a moment from your book. I do not wonder, for it is not as interesting as you thought, is it? In fact, you yawn, teeth straining against lips. Then you rub your hand over your chin, feeling the stubble that wasn’t there this morning. It seems to grow faster as you get older. It seems to grey faster as you get older too. We’re not alone on the bank. A man and a woman twist into each other’s limbs. Three girls sit, legs dangling over water. Two dogs walk a man. Your attention drifts like the current.
Reluctantly, you pull your eyes from the girls on the bank and back into your book. But you’ve lost your place. These things happen more as you get older. You try to start again from a page you remember, but it’s too much. Who is this character? You flick back a couple of pages, forward a couple of pages. Where are they? You frown. This dialogue doesn’t seem right. This description isn’t familiar.
You flick right back to the start of the story, but even the first line looks foreign now: ‘In 1962, a child was born…’ That would make him fifty today, you think to yourself – but who is he? He hadn’t been there before. The book had been about a nineteenth-century poet before you’d got distracted. You put a hand on your trusty leather briefcase for reassurance, but the brass buckles are cold. You shiver as the sun struggles. The words of the book are confusing, making your grey head hurt. It had been about a romantic poet with a flair for society, but now it talks about photocopiers and divorce?
You snap the book shut and sigh. It’s too much. You look out at the water. The sun pushes hard one last time. The girls on the bank laugh. You bend your back and stand up straight. A dog barks at nothing. The navette rounds a corner in the river, beneath a span of the Pont Neuf. Without quite meaning to, you draw back your hand and, with all your force, launch the book out into the Seine. I quite understand, because this will always be a better story than the one you are reading.
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:
- The Holy Bible
- US Census
- Mother Goose
- Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
- Odyssey by Homer
- Iliad by Homer
- Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Now, for comparison, here’s the top ten most loaned books from US libraries in 2009.
- Run for Your Life by James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge
- Cross Country by James Patterson
- Finger Lickin’ Fifteen by Janet Evanovich
- The 8th Confession by James Patterson & Maxine Paetro
- Plum Spooky by Janet Evanovich
- Swimsuit by James Patterson & Maxine Paetro
- The Shack by William P. Young
- The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
- First Family by David Baldacci
- 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.
- Most common books in US libraries (2005) This is actually a top 1001. It makes for fascinating reading.
- Most loaned books from US libraries (2009) If you need a dose of mundanity, pick up one of these.
How to Write a Real Novel in 30 days: Part 3
I have finished!
I have created, from scratch, a fully edited novel of 80,000 words, in 114.75 hours, over the course of 31 (44) days.
Some of you might be thinking: he’s been going longer than 30 days! And you would be right. I started writing this novel on the 27th of May. Today is the 9th of July, so that makes 44 days.
However: I only worked on the novel for 31 out of those 44 days.
[The reasons for this are varied. I took a few days off to hitch-hike up to the Lake District, raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. I took a few more days off to be ill. Another couple of days here and there for various reasons that I won’t bother mentioning. Suffice to say, excuses should never be a part of a writer’s conversation.]
So, by my reckoning, I’m only 1 day over budget. Not bad for a first attempt.
Anyway, in 31 or 44 days, it all happened in two phases.
Phase One: Write like crazy
I wrote in a straight line, from 0 to 65,000 words in 71.75 hours of writing time, over the course of 21 (25) days.
At the end of each day’s writing, I transferred everything from my electronic typewriter to my computer. Sometimes I broke these chunks into scenes, sometimes I didn’t bother. But, thanks to the concentrated writing each day, I spent even my hours of leisure thinking about the problems of the novel. Quite often I’d think of some way out that I’d write the next day. Occasionally, and increasingly towards the end of the novel, I’d think of something that I wanted to have in the final chapter, some loose end that would need tying up, and I’d note this down for later.
By the end of Phase One, I had broken down the massive chunks of writing (about 3,000 words a day) into scenes. I had also decided that I wanted the novel to fall into five parts, plus an epilogue. Some of these parts arrived better formed than others. For example: most of the parts had about 13 scenes in them. Part II, however, had 27. This was ridiculous, especially as it was the shortest part in terms of words!
It would need a lot of editing in Phase Two.
Phase Two: Edit like crazy
I went back to the beginning and re-wrote, edited and generally tidied up the rough stuff of Phase One. This took me 43 hours, over the course of 10 (19) days.
There were quite a lot of things that didn’t quite make sense. So I had to write new scenes and completely redevelop some existing scenes. This made the novel grow quite substantially.
As an indication, by the end of Phase One, my novel looked like this:
- Part I: 14,000 words
- Part II: 10,000 words
- Part III: 14,000 words
- Part IV: 10,000 words
- Part V: 17,000 words
By the end of Phase Two, it was looking like this:
- Part I: 14,000 words
- Part II: 17,000 words
- Part III: 14,500 words
- Part IV: 16,500 words
- Part V: 19,000 words
As you can see, Parts II and IV expanded by two thirds between the first draft and the first edit. The other sections also increased in size, but more modestly.
The reason why Part I didn’t grow was because I actually started editing this Part during Phase One. The first draft of Part I was only 10,000 words in length, so it too grew significantly during the editing process.
Reflections on the 30-day process
The process, I believe, is devastatingly effective, but only if you can dedicate the hours to it. I spent between 3 and 5 hours every day that I worked.
Essentially, I worked for 21 days straight on Phase One, then took a week-long break, then spent 10 days straight on Phase Two. I would not necessarily recommend this week-long break, but it didn’t seem to hold me back too much. Perhaps it helped, perhaps it didn’t. I won’t know until I try and do this again.
One thing I probably would not recommend is starting to edit before you’ve finished the first draft. I did this with Part I. Although I felt at the time that it was helping me, in retrospect, I’m not sure it did. But again: who knows?
I do know for certain that some parts of the novel came very easily and some parts were difficult. Parts II and IV, notably, took longer to edit and required more smoothing out of the plot. Parts I, III and V were much more coherent from the first draft.
I think this is no coincidence. These parts contained much more of the action of the novel, rather than reaction and set-up. Action is no doubt easier to write: with action, you can write with the flow, whereas reaction is more circumspect and much harder to keep interesting.
So why bother with reaction at all? Because the reader needs a break! Also because I like to write novels that are a little more thoughtful than most smash-bang thrillers. So, while this novel is a thriller, it is perhaps a little more considered than Dan Brown.
Personally, I think this is a good thing; financially, it’s a disaster!
I’m still not entirely happy with the novel, after only one full edit. So I am going to spend the next 5 days doing a second edit to the whole novel, making sure that the plot is logically consistent. Then I am going to hand the whole thing over to my editors and first readers. So I fully expect to have finished this project after just 36 (or, if you like, 49) days.
Then I’m going to cycle around Britain…
And now? Over to you! I’d love to hear from anyone who’d like to have a thrash at this crazy, wild, magical 30-day real-novel-writing technique!
How to Write a Real Novel in 30 Days: Part 2
I’m 22 days into my ambitious plan to write a real novel, fully drafted and edited, in 30 days. Part 1 is here.
So how am I doing?
Well, this was always going to be a method-in-progress so here are some updates to how I’ve been doing it, and then I’ll come onto how I’m doing, if you see what I mean.
The method: a novel in crisis
1. Don’t get ill.
I managed to contract a cold at the beginning of last week, which knocked me out for four days or so. I only managed to squeeze out about 5,000 words over that time, about 5,000 words down on where I should have been.
More importantly for the project, however, was the ensuing loss of focus. Without focus or the feeling that I knew what I was doing and where I was going, the novel would be dead. This was a serious problem.
2. The mid-novel collapse.
It could have been a coincidence that I felt this death of the novel at the same time as I had a cold. The feeling came on at around 45,000 words, which should have been at a pivotal point in the story. It should have been just as the middle is developing and boiling up nicely for the denouement. But I just didn’t know which way to turn. I didn’t know what my fifth chapter needed to set up the ending.
3. How to resurrect a novel in crisis.
So on Thursday last week I changed focus. I did two things. Firstly, I decided that I would skip chapter five. It wasn’t going anywhere, so I’d write something that was going somewhere and then go back to chapter five later, when I’d discovered what it needed to set up. In other words: I’d write the ending.
The second thing I did was to set a new deadline and a new target and focus on that. I decided that I’d finish the sixth and final chapter in 10,000 words, on Sunday. This re-energised my writing and my focus. Suddenly I knew what I was doing again. The novel was back.
So what happened?
Well, two things happened. Firstly, I finished the sixth chapter today, on Monday. That’s one day after my deadline, but instead of writing 10,000 words, I have written nearly 17,000. So I think one day slippage is allowed. The total word count now stands at 65,000.
Secondly, by writing the last chapter (there will be a short epilogue, but this is the end of the story proper), I did find out what needed to be in chapter five.
This highlights one of the problems with the NaNoWriMo style of plotting. How can your setup work smoothly if you haven’t written the ending yet? That might sound perverse, but, by reversing the writing order, my ending will be far more believable because I know exactly what my ending (i.e. chapter six) requires in its setup (i.e. chapter five). This should save me a lot of time in the editing process.
So what now?
Tomorrow I am going to write the epilogue and then I am going to spend the last week of my 30 days editing the beast down. This will include the writing of chapter five. Again, I am going to edit the ending before the setup, so that the passage of the novel is seamless.
The final word count is going to be about 80,000 words. I am finding, as I edit the earlier chapters, that the pre-edit word count grows about 20%. This is because I have to write in extra scenes to keep the novel flowing logically. Plus there’s chapter five to be written, almost in its entirety.
Stay tuned for Part 3. Will I really have a fully drafted and edited novel after only 30 days?
David Charles: Vanity Project
I was sucked into doing this after accidentally searching for my own name, without quotation marks, on Google. I was astonished to see that I am on the first page.
I can think of no good reason for this, other than the fact that I’ve run a blog for a number of years and that it is hosted with Google themselves. I’ve done a few things here and there, but nothing to really imprint my (absurdly common) name on the collective consciousness of the world.
search: david charles
Fascinated, I looked on the other big search engines to see if this was indeed a case of Google favouritism. Here are the results:
Google (84% share of the search market):
10th result. Bottom of the 1st page.
91st result. Top of the 10th page. That’s more like the mediocrity I was expecting!
Baidu (Chinese language search engine. 4%):
Nowhere to be found in the first 25 pages, or 250 results. Why not? Have I been censored?
42nd result. 5th page. Solid mediocrity.
9th result. 1st page. Suspiciously similar to the Google results. No complaints.
10th result. 1st page. Have you been copying at the back there?
O Vanity, you spoil me!
Where it really gets interesting (for me) is when you start throwing in random words. Because I’ve written quite a lot over the years, on quite a number of diverse subjects, random words send me catapulting up the league table.
david charles travel
- #1 and #2 on Google.
- #6 on Yahoo!
david charles supermarket
- #1 – #3 on Google.
- #3 and #4 on Yahoo!
david charles cycling
- #1 – #4 on Google.
- #3, #5 and #7 on Yahoo!
david charles palestine
- #1 – #6 on Google.
- #1 on Yahoo!
david charles hitch hiking
- 7 of the top 8 on Google. Only Larry David at #6 keeps me from a Beatles-esque domination of the charts.
- #1, #2 and #9 on Yahoo!
Now those are not really that random. I have written quite extensively about those topics. You would expect me to score pretty highly on them. But what about these?
david charles lights
- #3 – #5 on Google.
david charles massive
- #2 on Google.
david charles teenager
- #5 on Google.
Yahoo!, however, dismisses my name from it’s pages. It does seem to be better at picking up relevance, dare I say it.
And yes, that last one there was a random word from: http://watchout4snakes.com/creativitytools/RandomWord/RandomWordPlus.aspx
How to Write a Real Novel in 30 Days: Part 1
This isn’t just a pie in the sky blog post. This is something that is actually happening, right now. I’ve been holding off writing this first part for a couple of weeks, just to make sure that writing a real novel in thirty days is possible.
What do I mean by a ‘real novel’?
What I’m not talking about is a NaNoWriMo novel, where you blast out 1,667 words a day to end up, at the end of the month, with 50,000 words of complete and utter nonsense. That’s not, in my opinion, a real novel. NaNoWriMo is good for people who find it hard to get words out onto paper. For people who aspire to create something ready for publication, it’s not a path I’d recommend.
NaNoWriMo digression, or: why my novel will be different
I have done NaNoWriMo. I did it last year and, sure enough, I ended up with 50,000 words of garbage. There were some good ideas in there, but it was all over the place and would have taken me months to figure out what was good and what was not. Then I would have had to have re-written it all and added another 30,000 words before it was in a position to be anywhere near getting published.
How do I know that it would have taken me months to sort that jumble out? Well, in 2009, I started writing a novel in a NaNoWriMo-ish way. I decided to write 1,000 words a day for 50 days. This was how I started my first novel and it was a very good way to get me writing. However, the end product was a bit of a mess and it took me almost a year and a half to batter it into some kind of shape.
This is too long for me. I have a life. I can’t afford to spend a year and a half slaving over one novel. I am young and impulsive. I want to write my books in a month.
- A manuscript of at least 70,000 words.
- Of internally consistent and complete plot.
- Thoroughly edited.
- Ready for external editors, if not quite publication.
Won’t this just produce internally consistent garbage?
Not necessarily. I think there are actually some good reasons for writing a novel in a month. Here are some of them:
- It keeps an energy and a unity to the piece. Compressing the work into just one month means that I live every minute of every day with my characters. The ideas keep coming, even when I’m away from my bed (which is where I write, if you must know). If I only wrote ten minutes a day on the bus, then I’d be likely to lose the feel of my book. I believe that 30 days of intense work will actually create a better book.
- Spending any longer on a novel (I know) and I start to fantasise about executing all my characters in a variety of masochistic ways, before turning the electric cattle prod on myself. I believe that a 30-day novel will retain my enthusiasm and enrich my writing.
- 30 days is a deadline. When things have deadlines, they get done.
I’m sure you can think of more.
How am I doing it?
This is the really interesting part. This is the first time I’ve attempted something like this (NaNoWriMo not withstanding), so I’m finding out as I go along. But here’s how it’s gone so far.
1. Get things moving.
The first thing that needs to happen is inspiration, something to get the book rolling. This always comes to me in the form of a particularly strong, tension-filled scene. I give that particular metaphorical stone a good push and then chase it down to the bottom of the hill. Hopefully, by the time it’s got there, I’ve found another cliff-edge and it just keeps on rolling. [See #3, below, for the cliff-edges.]
2. Set targets.
I’m aiming to write about 80,000 words for my novel, so I write 3,000 words a day – without fail. I’ve divided my book up into 7 chapters and each chapter I am finishing in 3 days (I know the maths doesn’t add up, see #4, below).
This gives the work a unity and a natural rhythm. Using the rhetorical rule of three, I’m able to construct my chapters very tightly, writing a great beginning on day one, a tense middle on day two and a cliff-hanger ending on day three, which propels me into the next chapter.
3. Make stuff happen.
This is both the easiest and the hardest thing to do, I find.
It is the easiest because, once things start happening, the writing flows out and I can easily do my 3,000 words in about 90 minutes. It is the hardest because, as a fairly timid soul, I’m scared of things happening.
To make sure I stay on track, I try to make something happen every 500-1,500 words. This isn’t a hard and fast rule because every novel has its own rhythm and moments of calm are essential to heighten tension in other parts of the plot. But things do need to keep moving.
I have a habit of having my characters sit around and chat, so, when I see that happening, I introduce a man with a knife, or a police siren, or a lie.
4. Edit, edit, edit.
The writing, though, is not the thing. If the writing was the thing, then this would be nothing more than NaNoWriMo on steroids. No, the difference with this 30-day novel is that, after having written my 3,000 daily words, I knuckle down with editing.
This is what really takes the time. As I edit, I write all the missing scenes that are needed to transform the text from a NaNoWriMo-esque hodge-podge into a well-balanced novel.
It is my intention to have edited each of my chapters twice before the end of the month. This will get the text into a readable state for my friendly editors.
So far, on day ten, I have written just over 30,000 words, comprising the first three chapters.
I have edited by hand, in red pen, the first two chapters and I have started the painful process of tapping these edits onto the computer.
I have a good, solid idea of where the plot is going and I’m still excited about it. Thank god.
For the next few weeks I’m going to have to spend even more time on editing. The writing is going really well at the moment, but, as I mentioned above: the editing is the thing.
Wish me luck!
The Remarkable Productivity of Georges Simenon
Georges Simenon was the Belgian writer who created the detective Maigret. He was ridiculously successful: 550 million of his books have been printed. That’s just stupid numbers. It’s more than JK Rowling and Harry Potter. 150 million more. That’s one extra book for the entire population of Russia*.
What is interesting is that, while JK Rowling has written a decent 10 books in 11 years, Georges Simenon wrote 197 novels in his 59 year career. That’s an average of over 3 per year for over half a century.
Even more interestingly, he published another 15 in the 15 years after his death. That’s still a better strike rate than JK Rowling. Not bad for a dead man.
What’s plain ridiculous is that 148 of these books came in the 29 years from the age of 49 to 77. That’s an average of over 5 books a year.
Here’s a fancy little graph (or ‘worm’ as they’d call it in cricket), showing you Simenon’s strike rate from the publication of his first novel aged 28, to his last aged 86. Click on the thumbnail below for a bigger version (unless you have microscope eyes).
Admittedly, Simenon’s Maigret novels were quite short, but they make up less than half his output – and it is still a remarkable achievement. To be honest, I’m not sure I can match it – but it does inspire me to try.
Apparently, Simenon used to write a chapter a day for eleven days and then spend three days editing. A novel in a fortnight – forget NaNoWriMo, Simenon was hard-core!
*In fact, you could give the entire population of the USA, Brazil and the UK a copy of one of Simenon’s books. If you wanted to.
A Disturbing Night
He awoke with a restless sense of unease.
What was wrong?
He felt for his hands, pushed his legs against the mattress, brushed his tongue over his teeth. All present and correct.
Something was missing.
His sheets were there, in some disarray, but there. His blanket and pillow were there. But the feeling remained.
What had gone?
He looked around the hotel room, sunlight sliding through. Maybe something had happened. Maybe his friend had gone. He looked over – but there she was, sleeping in the other bed, the sheets rising and falling, slow and steady.
Then it struck him: his boxer shorts.
He felt for them under the bedsheets. Gone. He bent to look around on the floor, keeping the sheets tight around his body – but they had disappeared.
How can a pair of boxer shorts simply disappear?
He had worn them to bed, he was sure. He knew he had worn them to bed last night. His friend would have screamed if she’d seen him naked. She wasn’t that kind of friend.
So where were they now? Was this some kind of practical joke? Was he the victim of alien interference? Had he, in the Freudian depths of his unconsciousness, somehow removed them? And if he’d been able to remove them – what else had he done?
The mystery of the boxer shorts would linger through the day, teasing his mind as his friend showed him around the ruins of Ġgantija.
Death of a Snail – RIP 22nd July 2006
I went to refill the watering can. As I lifted the grille on the water butt I noticed a snail shell stuck to the top; no sign of the snail mind you, but, damn, I’d be hiding out in this heat too. As I dunked the can into the murky water of the butt, filled overnight by heavy storms, something floating on the surface caught my eye. There it was, bobbing serenely into my half-submerged watering can: one gruesomely bloated carcass of an ex-snail.
I gasped and brought the can sharply out of the water, leaving the slug behind, drunkenly pirouetting in the disturbed water. I examined the carcass more closely; the slug had swollen to gargantuan proportions. It was half a foot long and its tentacles burst from its head like an over-inflated novelty balloon.
A long hot humid spell inevitably wrought thunderstorms; the rain was straight out of The Old Testament and brought a harsh mercy to garden life, but marked one snail in particular for spectacular extinction.
This is a reconstruction of his final hours.
In the ne’er do good pre-dawn of Saturday, with his foolish progress punctuated by Frankenstein thunder and lightening, one snail attempted the daredevil crossing of the water butt. In the dark, the depths echoed danger, but the treacherous grille cover proved temptation too much.
Snails love water, but you don’t see them swimming in puddles, except face up.
This snail had not accounted for the rising water from the depths of the parched butt.
The vengeful rains brought down inches in moments and it was not long before our snail started to feel the waves lapping at his underbelly. Another ten minutes of deluge and the water butt starts to overflow, washing mercilessly over the body of the snail. The grille prevented the shell from slipping into the wash, but as the rains eased, the slug drowned from the bottom up.
The Mowing of the Lawns: A Study in Green, Gordon Square
The mowing dance plays with a steady whorr, with punctuating snap and crack of sticky twig or cruk of stone. Once around the round herbaceous border, once again, concentric circles of sliced and diced lawn rippling out in tidy daisy death.
This is municipal gardening, large scale, industrial mowing, without distinction. One lawn cuts the same way as the next. Sunbathers roll out of the way of the slicing machine trundling their way, sneezers get a lungful of grassy effluent and a guitar man is swamped in steady whorr.
Uniformly green shirt, blue trouser, red glove, three municipal gardeners assault the expanse of lawn, the side borders, trimming edges with mask for strimming protection.
His hair has had the same treatment by a municipal dresser, course grey lines, the borders neatly trimmed, stark against bare skin, skirting round ear curlicue, sweeping down the nape of the neck, defined: hair / not hair.
G-Verbs to Watch Girls Go By
In increasing order of intensity:
Best done over a newspaper. Detection unlikely.
Still casual. Check she’s not actually a fella, then move on.
Eye-contact territory, be careful. You can always pretend you thought she was someone else.
Seduce her with your penetrating stare!
Five seconds til she slaps you.
How to Impress the Future
Things worth doing are remembered. Ergo, to do something worth doing, we’ve got to impress the future. We were the Age of Enlightenment’s future – and we’re impressed. Grudgingly.
Hate the Enlightenment #1
The most annoying thing about the ‘marvellous achievements’ of the Enlightenment is that everything they did was so obvious!
Wait – what are you saying? Apples fall from trees? Well, no shit, Sherlock! Call it what you like, Sir Isaac – I say gravity-schmavity.
Freedom, democracy, reason, capitalism, scientific method, religious tolerance – yawn! It’s all a bit, well, obvious, isn’t it? I could have come up with trigonometry. It doesn’t take a genius, does it?
But, I suppose, if you look at it from the point of view of an English peasant living on a bog, the Age of Enlightenment must have looked like one spell-bindingly incredible feat after another.
Hate the Enlightenment #2
The other reason to hate the Enlightenment is that they’ve done everything already!
- Shakespeare has already written all the plays worth watching (particularly annoying for me).
- Mozart has already come up with all the decent tunes.
- Gallileo has done astronomy and Newton’s got physics sewn up.
It’s not that I’m jealous, but they had it so easy! (see Hate the Enlightenment #1)
The only things left for us to do are bloody impossible – like describing a complete theory of the universe or coming up with a rhyme for orange*.
Impress the Future
But that’s the way it works – remember?
If I keep thinking like an English peasant living on a bog, everything new is always going to feel impossible.
Why is it that, if we look back in time, the achievements of the Enlightenment look inevitable; but when we peer into the future, everything new suddenly looks impossible?
If only we could look into our future from the perspective of a still more distant future, so that it looks easy, obvious – and amazing.
What of our generation’s achievements will our ancestors look back at in two hundred years and be jealous of?
We can never know for sure, but we’ll never impress them if we stay stuck in our own mental bogs.
Love Letter Litter
The rubbish truck crawled down the road. Two men in orange suits trailed behind, feeding the truck with the green recycling boxes from the kerbside. One man did the odd houses, one did even and the lorry drove between them, its lights whirling.
One of the men in orange suits hoisted the recycling box from number 73 up to the truck and was about to toss it, when he stopped: something caught his eye. He rested the box on the side of the lorry and took out a single sheet of A5 paper.
“Here, look at this,” he called to his even-house mate.
“What’s that?” The other bin man walked over. “Anything good?”
“It’s a love letter.”
“Aw, how sweet! – you soft or something? Drooling over mush!”
“Shut up! What’s it doing in a recycle bin, that’s what I want to know.”
“It’s paper, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t mean that. I meant: why is a love letter being recycled? You’re supposed to keep them forever, aren’t you?”
“Love don’t live here any more,” the second bin man sang.
“Maybe it was the wrong address, you mean?”
“No idea, Sherlock.”
“Maybe it wasn’t sent to 73, but was meant to be from 73.”
“The mystery of the love letter litter!”
The first bin man looked at the letter. “It’s addressed to 73. But I guess that could be the sender’s address, couldn’t it?”
The second bin man leaned over the first’s shoulder. “Where’s the envelope?”
“It’s not here.”
Just then, the driver leaned out the window and banged on the side of the lorry.
“What’s keeping you?” he yelled over the churning engine.
The first bin man looked up from the box and shouted back, “come and have a look at this, Bill.”
“What is it?”
“Just come and have a look.”
Bill face huffed and disappeared back through the window. The engine shuddered to a silence. The door opened and Bill jumped down from the cabin.
“What is it?” he asked the first bin man when he’d got to the back of the truck.
“A love letter.”
“A what? You got me down here for a bleeding love letter?”
“What’s it doing in a recycle bin, Bill?”
“I couldn’t give a rat’s ass what it’s doing in a recycle bin! Come on, let’s get back to work,” and he turned away.
“Ah, come on Bill, play the game. Why’s it in the bin?”
Bill turned back to the first bin man and shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe she doesn’t love him any more.”
“Is it from a man?” the second bin man asked the first.
“I can’t tell. I’ve only got the first page here. It’s addressed to someone called Anne.”
“Maybe it’s not even from a man. Maybe it was a letter from her mum,” said the second bin man.
“Has it got a date?”
“Come on guys, let’s get back to work,” Bill said.
“No, wait, let’s see,” the first bin man looked closely at the letter. “Yes, there’s the date: the 14th of February.”
“Mystery solved: Valentine’s,” Bill said.
“Could be…doesn’t explain why it’s in the bin, though.”
“What year is it?” the second bin man asked.
“It looks old to me,” said Bill, leaning back over the letter.
“There’s no year, just the 14th of February.”
“Blows your theory of the mother out the water,” said Bill.
“Not necessarily – Mums often do stuff like that.”
“You get Valentine’s cards from your mum?” Bill sneered.
“Shut up – I didn’t say that!”
“Never mind. Maybe it’s from her mum, maybe it’s not. But why’s it in the bin?” the first bin man asked them again.
“Oh – maybe it was sent to the wrong address,” Bill said.
“I thought that,” said the first bin man.
“Or maybe not the wrong address, but maybe it just arrived too late.”
“Too late for what?”
“Well, Valentine’s day was on Monday, wasn’t it? What if it arrived on Tuesday? What if she already had a Valentine for Monday?”
“Or that she didn’t want this one,” the first bin man said.
“You’re not suppose to know who your Valentine is – I bet the letter was anonymous,” the second bin man said.
“How come you’re such an expert?” said Bill.
“Shut up – some of us can get with the ladies, you know.”
“It might have been anonymous, but no one just sends a Valentine’s out of nowhere. You can always guess,” said the first bin man.
“All right, so here’s my theory,” Bill said, “maybe this fella was an ex. Maybe he was a arsehole. Maybe he used to beat her and that, so she threw the letter away.”
“Oh, dark, mate. What are you saying that for?” the second bin man said.
“Well, it explains why the letter’s in the bin, doesn’t it?”
The three men fell silent and looked at the letter, two reading over one’s shoulder.
After a while, the first bin man spoke up: “maybe it got sent and it arrived and Anne said yes and they lived happily ever after.”
“Why’s it in the bin then?” asked the second bin man.
The first bin man shrugged.
Carriage 96515 on the Jubilee line between London Bridge and Southwark at about 1340 on Valentine’s Day 2011. Every seat (in my section) was taken: 14 people.
- There were 7 women and 7 men.
- Of which 8 were white Caucasians.
- 4 people were reading.
- 2 were eating.
- 1 was playing with their phone.
- 1 was listening to music (audible).
- 6 people were talking (3 separate pairs) – the rest were silent.
- 2 of the men were clean-shaven; 5 had facial hair.
- 1 person wore a hat; 1 person wore a headscarf.
- 8 people were wearing glasses (including 5 in a row opposite me).
- 2 people were wearing ties – all men.
- 6 people were wearing scarves – all women.
- There were 7 adverts on the overheads, including 3 for the same telephone company.
The woman next to me was reading “Pink iced heart cake recipe,” her eyes transfixed, her apple, half-eaten, paused in her hand.
Have Fiction Publishers Got It Wrong?
The publishing world is after one thing: selling shed-loads of books.
Writing for Now
Here’s a list of the best-selling books of 2010 (according to buzzle):
- Alex Cross’s Trial by James Patterson and Richard DiLallo
- Cross Fire by James Patterson
- Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
- Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy with Grant Blackwood
- House Rules by Jodi Picoult
- Port Mortuary by Patricia Cornwell
- The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
- The Confession by John Grisham
- The Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
- The Girl who played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
- The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
- U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton
And you have to say that the publishers have got it absolutely right, haven’t they? These books do sell shed-loads. But, I think it’s fair to say that none of these books will still be selling in a hundred years.
Does that matter? Not if your publisher is owned by a French arms company*, it doesn’t, no (or an Australian media magnate for that matter*). They couldn’t give a monkey’s pyjamas for English literature.
Writing for the Future
But let’s have a look at the ten best-selling books EVER. The books that don’t just sell millions, but tens, hundreds of millions.
- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (>200 million)
- The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
- The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
- 红楼梦 (Dream of the Red Chamber) by Cao Xueqin
- And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
- She by H. Rider Haggard
- Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
- The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
- The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (65 million)
This is where it becomes more interesting. Yeah, sure, there’s still a huge heap of garbage here. The Da Vinci Code is never, ever, ever (please God) going to win award for literary merit. But A Tale of Two Cities? The Catcher in the Rye? Hey – some of these are actually good books!
Some of these are actually worth studying, worth holding up as genuine achievements of human creativity and beauty, rather than simply excellent business models and marketing talent.
Further down the list, in amongst Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Angels and Demons and The Happy Hooker: Her Own Story, you’ve got genuine classics of world literature like To Kill a Mockingbird, Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Divine Comedy.
So my point is this: if publishing were an industry built around long-term strategies, then literary merit would be a legitimate marker of profitability. Unfortunately, in this time of take-overs, no one really cares if your book is going to be a hit in a hundred years or not – and the loss is ours, the loss is to humanity.
I’m not complaining; I’m just saying.
So is there a solution for writers who want to write – not just good pulp – but great fiction? Maybe.
Maybe the answer is to do it yourself, to win your audience through hard work, rather than swapping greatness for money.
Maybe the answer is to team up with a publisher who has more modest financial ambitions and more courageous literary spirit, publishers like Zer0. I went to a talk given by the founder, Tariq Goddard, last week and was impressed and heartened by his passion for literature and by his confidence in the power of the long-tail of our great, ignored literary fiction.
Maybe, when we’re all history; history will remember the greats as well as the pulp.
*Hodder and Stoughton, owned by Lagardère, who co-control the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company; HarperCollins, owned by News Corporation.
How to Write a Play
Disclosure: I’m no expert. I’ve never written a play. But, boy, have I just analysed the ass out of one.
This analysis covers the 1954 play by Reginald Rose, Twelve Angry Men.
The story is about a jury who are deliberating over the case of a young black man charged with the murder of his father. The verdict must be unanimous – and it almost is at the start of the play: eleven to one vote guilty. But that single dissenting voice gradually uncovers flaws in the prosecution evidence and, in turn, each of the other jurors overcomes their own prejudices to return a unanimous vote of “not guilty”.
Observations on How to Write a Play
Keep the action focussed
There is only one (and a half) locations in the play: the jury-room and the wash-room just off to the side. This keeps the action very tight and focussed. It makes the play claustrophobic, an atmosphere that is accentuated by the humidity of the weather – broken by a thunderstorm.
Define the characters
Twelve Angry Men has quite a lot of characters for a play, really: twelve jurors, a guard and a judge. There’s not much Reginald could have done about that: a jury has twelve people. But he does two things to deal with this potentially difficult large cast:
- He doesn’t add any extraneous characters. The guard is largely silent (39 words), simply providing the jurors with props. The judge is a voice off-stage and is used to set the scene at the beginning of the play, saving Reginald the trouble of a lot of clunky exposition.
- He divides the jurors into “primary“, “secondary” and “tertiary” characters. Four of the jurors take up 61% of the words in the play. The next four take up 25%. The final four jurors have just 13% of the words of the play. Just for a bit of crazy fun – here’s a chart showing the speech patterns of the twelve jurors, as the play progresses. Click on the picture to see a full-size version.
Keep the tension high
Reginald does this superbly by having the jurors take regular votes. At the beginning only one man votes “not guilty” – this is the single vote that sets the play off. There are five general votes in total, spaced throughout the play, and the audience is on tenterhooks every time, as the votes are called out.
You can see exactly how Reginald has paced the play by looking at the way the jurors voted in my little list below. “Vote” means there was a general ballot of some sort, where every juror voted. “Change to” means that only one or more of the jurors announced their change, without calling a general vote.
- Page 06: Vote 11-1 (“Guilty” – “Not Guilty”)
- Page 18: Vote 10-2
- Page 24: Change to 9-3
- Page 26: Vote 8-4
- Page 31: Interval
- Page 33: Vote 6-6
- Page 41: Change to 5-7
- Page 42: Vote 3-9
- Page 45: Change to 4-8
- Page 47: Change to 1-11
- Page 49: Change to 0-12
Note here that, although the interval comes over halfway through the play – 63% of the way through, to be precise – at that point, the vote is 8-4 in favour of finding the young man guilty. The scene that the interval curtain falls on is a turning point, highly dramatic. Immediately after the interval, the vote swings to 6-6 – even stevens.
Note also that Reginald adds a little twist towards the end, making one of the jurors change their mind from “not guilty” to “guilty”. At this point, the audience might fear there is the chance of a hung jury.
I hope you’ve learnt something interesting from this. I might do it again.
Anatomy of a Novel: The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Graham Greene is one of my favourite novelists. His talent is in his concision. He is able to say in 200 pages what it would take many other writers 400. The Quiet American manages to be a thriller, a detective story, a romance and a historical fiction in just 167 pages, about 60,000 words.
How does he do it? I decided to find out.
For those of you who haven’t read The Quiet American, I’d seriously recommend doing so immediately. But the gist of the story is this:
Vietnam in the 1950s, during the French war.
- The viewpoint character is Thomas Fowler, a cynical British journalist who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for some time.
- Alden Pyle, the quiet American of the title, has been murdered.
- Vigot, a French detective, is trying to find out who did it. He suspects that Fowler may know something about the murder, but Fowler denies everything.
Fowler and Pyle have been competing over the last few months for the affections of a Vietnamese girl, Phuong, Fowler’s lover of two years.
Fowler is unable to offer Phuong anything concrete: he is already married and his wife refuses him a divorce.
Pyle, on the other hand, is young and has good prospects. In the course of his courtship of Phuong, Pyle saves Fowler’s life.
But when bombs start going off in Saigon, Fowler discovers that Pyle has something to do with it. He tells a communist contact that Pyle has “got to be stopped”. Pyle is murdered.
Phuong returns to Fowler, whose wife has now granted him a divorce. Vigot can’t prove a thing.
Scene Structure and Pacing
I divided the book up into its parts, then into its chapters, then into its sections within those chapters, then down into its scenes within those sections in order to build up an anatomy of the novel.
The Quiet American is split into four parts. The first two parts take up two-thirds of the novel.
- Part 1: 55.5 pages in 5 chapters and 16 scenes. 1300 words per scene.
- Part 2: 64 pages in 3 chapters and 14 scenes. 1700 words per scene.
- Part 3: 26.5 pages in 2 chapters and 9 scenes. 1100 words per scene.
- Part 4: 21 pages in 3 chapters and 7 scenes. 1100 words per scene.
Already we can see that, as the novel progresses, the pacing of the scenes increases.
After the climactic scene in Part 2, in which Pyle saves Fowler’s life, there are no more sections longer than 8.5 pages. In Parts 3 and 4, the longest section is just 6 pages. You can see this clearly in the graph below (click on it for a bigger size):
Flashbacks and Narration
One of the fascinating aspects of the novel is Greene’s use of narration and flashback. The novel is mostly told in flashback, with Fowler recounting the events leading up to Pyle’s death.
In fact, there are only 8 scenes in the whole novel which are told in the present (17%). The rest is flashback (83%). The whole of the longest part of the book (Part 2) is told in flashback. This is the most dramatic part of the book.
And yet it is the present narration that adds the suspense to the book: did Fowler have a hand in Pyle’s death? Will Vigot find out? Why did Fowler do it?
The fact that Greene is able to keep these questions in the reader’s mind without detracting from the sense of immediacy during the flashbacks shows great skill.
The placing of these scenes may give us a clue.
- 5 of the first 6 scenes take place in the present. In these, Greene establishes Pyle’s death, the relationship between Fowler and Phuong and the investigation into Pyle’s murder by the French detective Vigot.
- Then there are 24 consecutive flashback scenes, taking us through the rest of Part 1 and the whole of Part 2.
- There is not another “present” scene until scene 30 of 46, at the very beginning of Part 3 (1 out of 9 scenes in that part).
- Finally, the first and last scenes of Part 4 are also present (2 out of 7 scenes in that part).
In this way, Greene is able to give the story a good push at the beginning and then only has to give us a little nudge in the middle, to remind us of the ongoing investigation, before wrapping things up at the end.
To look more closely at the section structure, word counts, present narration and flashbacks and for a brief synopsis of each section, see the image below (click on it for a larger size – and no apologies for the crazy colours!):
Through close examination of the way that great novelists have solved the problems of plot and narration, we can improve our own writing and understand how great novels work. I hope this article helps you as much as it has me!
The Ministry of Stories
Dave Eggers and 826 Valencia
In 2002, Dave Eggers (the writer) set up a pirate supply store. And that’s why, on Monday, I spent an evening writing a story about a fish called Bob, who was distressed by the colour of his tail.
826 Valencia was Eggers’ stab at creating a literacy program for kids. As you can imagine, from the mind of the man who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, this was never going to be a normal after-school homework club.
The idea (once you’ve got past the pirate supply store frontage) is that kids come to 826 for story-writing workshops, mentoring, cartooning, ‘zine creation, homeworking, poeming – anything really. And the idea has been wildly successful. As a result, six other chapters opened up in the States. But, now, most excitingly, London has its very own: The Ministry of Stories.
The Ministry of Stories
As soon as I heard about it, I cancelled any plans I had for emigrating to the US to join Dave, and instead I emailed the Chief Minister at The Ministry of Stories. To my delight, he invited me for a training session, which is where I found myself on Monday night, pretending to be an eight year-old, writing a story about Bob the fish with the blue stripe on his tail.
My kind of (volunteer) job!
The Ministry of Stories was set up in November 2010. They take about three field-trips a week from local (and not so local) schools and also have two one-to-one mentoring sessions a week to help young writers (8-18) work on their stories.
Plus you can buy the finest human snot at the monster supply store, while you’re there.
Minister in Training
So, hot-tail, hip-top excited, along I went, down Hoxton way, to meet Ben and Anne, two of the Chief Minister’s aides, for an evening’s hard training.
To start off, we pretended to be eight year-olds and wrote a story together.
- First we made a list of things that go into a story. Things like villains and danger and feelings, but also words and punctuation.
- Then we had to decide who we wanted our main character to be. We shouted a few things and then had an anonymous (and blind) vote. By democratic decision, it would be Bob the fish with the blue stripe on his tail.
- Then we did the same thing for a second character: Archimedes, Bob’s hairdresser.
- Then we chose Bob’s dream in the same way: to wear jumpers; and Bob’s greatest fear: that he would turn completely blue.
- Finally, we chose a location for the story: a pub.
Then, together, we wrote the first page and a bit, trying to build up to a cliff-hanger. The gist of the story was that Bob really wanted a jumper to cover up his embarrassing blue tail. Archimedes offered to make him one (out of Bob’s hair) – but it would cost him. The problem was that Bob didn’t have any money. So Archimedes suggested that Bob go and ask the elephant in the room for a job. And that’s where we had our cliff-hanger: “But isn’t he…?”
At this point we all split up into mentors and writers and we finished the story on our own, with the help of the mentors. Frighteningly good fun.
The Fish’s Arms
Here, for your edification, is my (unedited) story. See if you can spot the logical inconsistencies; editing is a wonderful thing…
“But isn’t he…?”
Archimedes stopped cutting Bob’s hair and touched him on the shoulder. “Listen. Finish your pint and just go over to him. I’m sure he’s not as mean as the stories say.”
Bob gulped and looked over at the elephant from the corner of his goggles. The stories were horrible.
Archimedes reached over and took the pint from Bob’s fin. “Go on.”
Bob vomited a little bit in his mouth. “But they say his trunk can strangle a shark!” Bob said in a small voice.
“That’s true,” Archimedes said. “I’ve seen him do it.”
Then he saw Bob retch again. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Bob shivered and watched the muscles in the elephant’s back as he sucked up an entire gallon of brine. “I can’t do it!”
Archimedes shook his head at his old friend, picked up his scissors and said, nonchalantly, “Your tail’s looking very blue today…”
Suddenly, Bob shot out of his chair, spilling the rest of his whelk juice all over the elephant’s foot.
There was a rumble and the whole pub started to shake. Bob quivered and whimpered as the big fat elephant turned slowly around and bellowed in Bob’s face. “You! Blue-buttocks! Are you looking for a snorting?”
Bob could hardly move for his quivering and shook his head scarcely. There was a tinkle as the scissors fell from Archimedes’ hand and Bob felt his friend creep away…
Chapter Two to follow!
And so I signed the Ministry contract:
Huzzah! Can’t wait to get my first ministry appointment.
You can watch Dave talk about 826 Valencia – and the network of similar ventures it has spawned – here:
The Superlative Death of Gerund Clause
Gerund Clause (1938-2010) was the world’s finest grammatician. Even at primary school, he would terrify playground bullies with his diachronic inflections and became known as a powerful allusionist at the end-of-term school performances.
At university, he studied chemistry with metallurgy and wrote his thesis on the extraction of iron from irony. He was a popular young man, full of complements, but also an incorrigible show-off, frequently disrobing the female students with a well placed copula.
After university, he astonished military advisors to the government by splitting an infinitive from forty paces and was immediately employed as grammatician-general to the army.
Gerund enjoyed a successful career with the army. It was said that, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he dismantled an atomic bomb with just a question mark. He became famous in the United States for his reported speech to the UN Security Council, describing members of USSR politburo as “oxymorons”.
Continuing his work with the army, Gerund was considered for the Nobel Peace Prize after his vigorous campaign to replace explosives with expletives in NATO combat operations. Unfortunately for global security, his diacritics defeated the policy and Gerund quit the military in 1978.
After leaving the army, Gerund moved into domestic policy. He became known as “The Postmodifier” after a number of measures to streamline the US mail service. In the 1980s, he proposed the legalisation of prostitution in urban areas and suggested that government levy a new syntax on the vice industries. While working in vice control, Gerund uncovered a multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise that was extracting heroin from the female protagonists of nineteenth-century English literature.
Although unconventional and not always succesful, thanks to his considerable achievements, Gerund rose to a high preposition in the US government. He retired from public service in 1999 at the age of 60.
In his retirement, Gerund spent more and more time on his scientific interests. He deepened his understanding of astronomy by studying the phrases of the moon and, in 2001, he successfully demonstrated that spacetime was not infinite, but infinitive. In his spare time, he bred race pidgins.
In his 70s, Gerund returned to the political themes of his youth and, in 2009, he wrote a blistering attack on the selfishness of modern society, diagnosing the entirety of Western civilisation with a self-obsessed malaise he called “Meiosis”.
Sadly, last year, Gerund died of a parasitic gap to the brain. He will be remembered as a great man, whose motifs were always pure and who always had a simile for everyone he encountered. He leaves behind his loving wife, Polysyllabic (68) and daughter, Anaphora (41).
The world mourns the loss of a great figure of speech.
There’s a repose to your room.
Six vases stand on the table in the centre. In each one is a withered flower. Withered of one, withered of another. The petals lie curled up on the table, dropped on the floor, all shades of decay, from crackly burgundy to dusty velvet. I can’t make out the original, but it looks like it might have been budded roses.
The fireplace stands, but the fire is out: deaded coal dust. The lamp is no more lit, hiding the corner where I know the bed does sit. The whole room could be a mausoleam, or a museum piece. Nothing on the walls is unfamiliar, but it’s all cast with a silty pallor.
That picture over there, I took that: a sunny day in Brighton. You’re laughing, I remember, behind me, laughing at the cameraman and his so serious sunsets. But apparently it was worth it, there on your wall, after all.
The carpet is fudgey. My feet seem stuck and I can’t budge inwards. I can’t creep to look at books on your shelf, or the papers you hide in their covers, to twist and turn over the oddments that scatter the room. On the mantelpiece, what is the meaning of that elephant? I’ll never know now. A simple shiny lacquer elephant, still standing where you placed him, faithful, trunk swung. But I can’t move.
I know it is there, there in the corner, by the lurk of the lamp, the lamp you never let me touch. I never switched it off at night, I never switched it on in the dark mornings. The lamp was always the gatekeeper, daring me: when you have the lamp, you have the girl. I couldn’t touch the lamp now, not now. That would violate some unwritten rule of repose.
But I know it’s there, there in the corner. Lurked by the lunky lamp, the bed humps, angle poisoned. The bed I know, with its sheets and shivers, the smells when you clump the duvet down, the secrets of underneath pillow. All that soft sheer thread-count-a-million cotton to smooth out and repose. In your repose.
Fancy a Butcher’s?
His mother was the village butcher. She always dressed elegantly, often in full-length evening dress with a string of pearls around her neck. Then, over her beautiful dress, she would throw her butcher’s apron – the purest white, all the better for showing up blood.
He hadn’t known any different; she’d always been his mother, the village butcher. Every day she’d open the shop very early to take the carcass deliveries, Then she’d prepare the cuts of meat, lovingly, handling the sharp knives with a dexterity that her father would have been proud of. Then she’d serve the village regulars, slicing, dicing, mincing to order and her day would end in time for her to walk down to the school to pick her only son up at the gate.
No, her little boy had never known different, but he’d been told by the neighbours that his mother had been quite something in her day, before she’d taken on the family business, quite something.
When she was young, in the blossom of adolescence, she’d had, they said, the boys of the village wrapped around her little finger. But, they said, there was no one for her but Andrew Hammond. No one remembered Andrew half as well as they thought they did, but everyone said that he had been the pride of the village: the golden boy.
They remembered his clean sweep at the school sports day: 100 metres, 400 metres and long jump. They remembered his single-handed demolition of The King’s Head ‘A’ in the darts. They remembered his hat-trick in the final of the West Harkshire Under 19s. And they remembered, perhaps best of all, his shining smile, as featured, almost every week, on the front and back pages of the Croxford Herald.
And it had never shone more than on the day he was murdered.
It was the night of the school dinner-dance. His mother had gone with Andrew, of course. They were the prince and princess of the village, the luminous couple, the day-dream dancers. They said she wore a dress of pure gold that night, with a simple pearl necklace that lit her face just so. But her face had been dark that night, they said. They said that his mother and Andrew had had an argument, about what no one ever found out.
But it made no difference: still they danced and danced around the village hall, her shoes tapping on the wooden boards and his smile reflecting off the mirror ball brought down for the evening. Nothing could take away from their luminescence, from her beauty and his athleticism. Everything was well, it seemed. But that was the last smile anyone ever saw on Andrew’s golden face.
They never found out who did it, who stole the knife from PG White the butchers and who had made the precise cut above the Adam’s Apple to remove the head, found in ditch on the road leading out of the village.
They told him that his mother had never taken another boy after Andrew – out of grief, they said. She had taken over the family business when PG White himself died not long after. They said it was God’s justice that Andrew Hammond had begotten a golden child before his horrific end. They said that his mother was an angel in her virtue, living her quiet life since, slicing, dicing and mincing.
But every time he watches his mother, in her long dress and her white apron, making another incision to the neck of a pig, he can’t help but wonder what really became of his father.
Do you know what an arithmetic progression is? Of course you do. Our lives are a finite arithmetic progression with a common difference of one: we live one year at a time. One follows one follows one – and so on towards infinity, until, one quiet news day, a bus brings a bloody end to your smug-faced progression. Or maybe it’ll be Gog, Magog and the Lake of Fire, Sarah Palin or a CBRN incident. Oh come on: Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear.
That’s an arithmetic progression. Fucking boring.
Now think of a geometric progression. Are you an optimist? I’m not, I say things get worse. I say we live in a nightmarish geometric progression with a common ratio of a half. We live one life, bad enough, but then we’re back again with a life half as long. After that: another life, half as long again. Then another, again half as long – and so on into infinity until we’re dead before we have a chance to be born.
Think of it like reincarnation. I’m going to live this life as a human, a squalid lump of rotting flesh with a heart that beats for a million ticks and then stops. One human life and then I’m dead and gone, cremated because I’m not worth the grave-space. Call it a hundred years before I’ve checked out – maybe I am an optimist; maybe I just want to make the maths easier for you. A hundred human years.
But then I’m reincarnated. I’m not so lucky, though: I’m on a geometric progression with a common ratio of a half, remember. So this time, maybe I come back as a chimpanzee and only get fifty years before getting smeared.
Then, before you can say “the transmigration of souls,” I’m back as a snake and only get twenty-five before kicking the calendar.
Next, I might return as a camel for twelve and a half years before popping my clogs. I quite fancy being a chipmunk for six and a quarter years and a mouse for three and an eighth, before eating another dirt sandwich.
I could add another eighteen months as an opossum, before rejoining our great majority. As a particularly resilient worker ant, I could manage nine months before being remaindered. I’d follow that up with a life as a worker bee, before turning up my toes to that too.
Then I’ll race through lives as a housefly and a fruit fly until I’m back for just five minutes as a female mayfly of the species dolania americana – and thence to meet my godless maker.
But even if I took all these reincarnated lives, from my fifty years as a chimpanzee to my five minutes as a mayfly of the species dolania americana, and added them together, I still wouldn’t get another hundred years in total.
That’s the nature of this hellish geometric progression. Even if you kept coming back after the mayfly: for two minutes, one minute, thirty seconds, ten seconds, five seconds, two seconds, one second – you’d still never match your hundred hypothetical years as a human.
Don’t waste it.
Review: Infernos Nightclub, Clapham
The club was called Infernos. Because it wasn’t just hot, it was hotter. The name brings up some interesting theological ideas: not just one hell, but hells, each lovingly designed to its individual occupant’s worst nightmare. One man’s torture is another man’s pleasure, after all.
But I wasn’t there to be tortured and there were only two hells to choose from: House Party downstairs and Discotheque upstairs. I choose upstairs. Stairway fake curtains are plastered to the wall in chipped red paint, draped over a stair-length looking glass, screwed to the wall like in your cheap bathroom.
Hellish Thought #1: am I destined, forever more, to dance to the music from Grease?
Revellers don’t so much dance as simply coexist in the space. A girl, heavily made up, walks past me on the dancefloor, yawning. Two lads, one short, one tall, try to talk. Some laugh, some cry, some sing, some shout. But vacant looks dominate.
I find an open space on the busy dancefloor in which to jerk my arms and flail my feet as best I can. Then I realise: vomit is swilling around my ankles. The dance swells out from the caustic pool.
A girl sits alone, arms crossed, on a leather-effect sofa that shows signs of wear. She’s dressed up fine and her legs are bare. But she doesn’t look like she wants to be there. A security man perches on a low wall above the dancefloor, blankly watching the action below. One leg dangles. Menboys swing their shirts around their heads as the DJ hollers though the smoke puffing from his smoke machine, ‘Gonna switch the style after this one!’
Hellish Thought #2: are they having fun or are they comatose?
Impossibly, two aquariums shatter disco light in their water. Bemused fish, deaf, hoover up gravel with their bulbous lips, ignoring a girl and her boy who play hide and seek through the glass. In a mirror-image of excess and delight, a disco light revolves drunkenly above the convulsing crowd, its bulb gone.
The place to get your drink (of water) is called The Cocktail Bar and the girls’ toilet is called the Ladies Powder Room. No sign of a possessive apostrophe though. Singers sing in sound-proofed silence in the Popstars Karaoke Lounge. There’s a pool table in one corner, but no one is interested in playing games.
Empty beer bottles hit the dancefloor, where they are kicked and kicked again until ejected to the periphery, where a man carrying a red fire bucket picks them up. Boys hit the dancefloor, where they are kicked and kicked again until ejected the periphery, where a girl carrying a handbag picks them up.
Hellish Thought #3: I enjoy this.
Good ideas without action are just bad excuses
‘Good ideas without action are just bad excuses.’
I’m not sure if this saying from 2009 needs to be explained, but I will anyway, with an example.
A lot of people say:
‘I’m gonna write a novel!’
but then don’t start writing, they don’t act on their words. So it turns into:
‘I’m gonnna write a novel – when I’ve got a bit more time, after the kids have moved out, after I’ve bought a new computer, after I’ve finished painting the Sistine chapel…’
etc., etc., etc..
Hence: good ideas without action are just bad excuses.
Death on a Sofa
It could happen right now. The ceiling could collapse on me, squashing my skull under the concrete. The radio could burst into flames and I could suffocate in the fumes. A thief could break in through my window and stab me to death. I could have already ingested a deadly bacteria from a tomato that I didn’t wash earlier. I could have a heart attack. The incense I am breathing in could be poison.
The whole point of death is its suddenness. That’s the game, that’s the framework. I need death to live and life to die. I need you to be me and you need me to be you.
The fluorescent light bulb on in my room could explode and kill me with noxious fumes. The floor might collapse underneath me, crushing me in the rubble. My computer could explode, sending shards of plastic flying across the room to sever my carotid artery and I could bleed to death on this very sofa, right here, as I write these very words.
Better do something else.
The Age of Plastic
What’s left when the entire human race is dead?
Good question. Well, now we know: what’s left when the entire human race is dead? Fire alarms, that’s what.
There’s no one here to service them, there’s no one here to fix them after they go off. And, because they weren’t connected to the grid, they didn’t just shut up when the power went down. I know that sooner or later the batteries will run out, but I’ll probably be gone by then too.
It gets you to thinking though. Those fire alarms will last longer than I will. What does it say about the human race, when our warning systems outlive the ears they were meant to warn? It’s like the man who set his alarm clock for the morning, but never woke up. When the neighbours called the police, they found him there, the alarm clock still ringing, but his ticker gone.
When we’re all dead and rotting – and it won’t be long – the vultures (or whatever’s left) will get ear-ache picking over our bones.
Makes you wonder what else we’re leaving behind. What else seemed so important that we had to give it a life-expectancy ten times longer than our own?
Did you know that the first piece of synthetic polymer plastic wasn’t created until 1907? The plastic we used to make, before we started dying, had a life-expectancy of a thousand years. You’d have to go back to the Norman invasion of England to get an idea of how long a thousand years is. Just imagine if the Normans had made everything out of plastic instead of wood or metal or stone. Archaeology wouldn’t be so hard: it’d all still be here.
Except there wouldn’t have been any archaeologists around to find it. If the Normans had invented plastics, like we did, they’d have got themselves into this fine mess, like we did – and we wouldn’t have existed at all.
So should we be grateful that the Normans didn’t invent plastic? Grateful that we got the chance to live on earth, grateful that we were the ones who invented plastic? Grateful that – no matter that we wiped out fifty percent of the species on earth, including ourselves – at least we had the opportunity to live?
Maybe we should be. What difference does it make? The earth was bound to reject us sooner or later. No species lives forever. We’re not the first species to mine ourselves out of existence in an orgy of over-consumption either.
Maybe we are the first species to talk about it at dinner parties, though. Maybe we are the first species to know what we’re doing to ourselves as we’re doing it to ourselves – and then to pass around the port.
We’re like the villain in a Bond film, who, with masochistic relish, informs 007 of the precise mechanism of his death and then walks away. Of course, that was always just a plot device to give James Bond enough time to escape from the villain’s snare. It’s not going to work that way for us. We’re doing it to ourselves, pressing the gas mask to our faces as we talk. We can’t walk away.
Strangely enough, though, I don’t care. And I’m not alone. Well, I am alone, but I wasn’t alone, clearly. No one cared, before they started dying, because it wasn’t real. No one could get a grip on the scale of the problem. I can’t blame any one else either. No one understood what we were doing in the age of plastic. And then, when we did understand, no one could control themselves.
We choose this, we wanted it.
Funny that, as the earth burns up, the only sound I can still hear is the sound of fire alarms.
An Alcoholic in a Country Village
We see him, now and then, shuffling along the road leading out of the village. Sometimes we see him in the local shop, his head unsteady, tilting at the sweet stand. But most often we see him in the pub, The King’s Head, on the left as you come from the green.
His name is Steve and he drinks lager. Sometimes he plays on the fruit machines, but most often he drinks lager.
The King’s Head is split into two parts, separated by a wall. The larger part of the bar is on your right as you come in and there’s always half a dozen locals here, whiling away the country hours. The left hand part of the pub has only a few seats and is where you can find the pool table, a couple of dartboards and, lately, me and George.
We go there to relieve the tension of unemployment. At the pub we can relax, shoot some pool and talk about jobs and how they’re for mugs and how we could make a whole stack of money in some scheme or other.
But we don’t drink. Oh no, we don’t drink, not like Steve.
I wonder about Steve a lot. He’s not employed either. I don’t see how he can be. He’s there, already drunk, when we pop in for a quick game of pool at lunch time and he’s still there when we leave. He drinks slowly, but steadily. Lager.
But then he does seem to go home for the evening. I wonder what he meets there. A wife? His mother? A housekeeper? Or the lonely click of his key in the lock, the tired creek of his old front door and the empty tick-tock of the hall clock…?
The men with masks tied us up. They tied us up, back-to-back on the floor of the bank vault, and then they left. For two days we breathed each other’s breath, felt each other’s hearts, beating through our rib-cages. For two days we starved and suffocated together.
On the morning of the third day, the men with helmets came and cut the cord. The vault opened to the agoraphobic world and I lost you in the crowd. You were relieved, but I? I am still in that vault, bound alone to my memories.
It was my birthday today. My girlfriend – of six years, mind you – gave me a lamp. A lamp. I don’t like lamps. Why did she buy me a lamp? Does she know me so little? Six years! Has she not noticed my aversion to mood lighting?
It’s not even a lamp with a purpose, like a bedside lamp or a desk lamp – it’s one of those funny little ornamental lamps, shaped like a stone. And the light – such as it is – is a feeble puddle of sick yellow. Useless. It just sits in the corner, like a disease.
I haven’t the heart to tell her I hate it though. I wonder if it was meant as a message, that she wants to shed some light on our relationship or something. I’ve never been so disturbed by a gift in my whole life. I mean, I’ve received plenty of crappy presents before, but this is supposed to be from the love of my life. A sodding lamp.
I think I’m going to have to break up with her.
But what can I say? I can’t tell her the truth. I can’t say that we’re splitting up because she gave me a lamp for my birthday. That would look superficial – but it’s not superficial, is it? How can she have gone out to buy me a nice present and come back with a lamp? What does that say about us?
But still, I can’t blame the lamp. She’d tell all her friends that I broke up with her over a lamp and then I’d never get with Suze, would I?
Nah – there’s no option but to blame our break-up on something else. I guess I could use Jon. They’ve been shagging for months.
Then I can dump the lamp.