The Joy of Restraint

Salutations dear readers.

Following my standard pattern of doing some blogging and then just disappearing for months on end it seems that the cycle has come around and here we in June with an update on what’s been happening.

Well, for a start I stopped going to the cafe to work, and while it is certainly important to find somewhere where one can work, I opted to make a space in a spare room where I set up a desk and my old record player. The upshot of this is no more stress trying to get to the cafe in time to claim my preferred seat before the cycle brigade make their sprawling conquest of the shop. Equally, I’ve been listening to plenty of vinyl. I’m currently in the depths of an afrobeat binge – I don’t remember how I came across Fela Kuti, but his story was fascinating.

Anyhow, more importantly I started to double up on my day to day sessions where I could, writing both in the morning and the evening and sacrificing some of the less virtuous past times. The pressure, you see, is on.

For a start the book was becoming huge. Not necessarily a problem for fantasy, but a potential problem for a first novel. Publishers see BIG and think COST! A good friend of mine asked if I could not break it up, but it didn’t seem likely. Pondering the problem I thought I would remove the first chapter of about 4k words as it was somewhat disconnected (but still vital to the story). Realising that there was a small story between it and the main bulk I decided that I would fill it in. Two months later and I’m in the final arc of what might have been a prequel, but now makes the whole thing easily split into a nice trilogy of moderate sized pieces.

And the title of this post? Well, it wasn’t to do with my accidental clicking on something called Shibari You Can Use. Consider me enlightened, but I now have bondage rope appear in my recommended items.

No, what I refer to here is that working on this previous segment, there was a sense of limitation to the story. There was no chance to go wandering down creative tangents, or to deviate into grandiose plot sequences. It didn’t mean I couldn’t be creative or inventive, but rather there was a simple joy in just filling a gap that already had a size and shape.

The aim now is to have it revised within a month or two and sent out to test readers. Then begins the work of writing the proposal for it – one element of which is the bio for yourself, something that I have played around with. I wrote a new one recently late at night for this blog by way of experimentation.

For now it’s back to the grind as I wait for the postman to bring some more vinyl, this time offerings from Fela’s son Seun.

And as the year swings into summer, I’m certainly feeling a surge of optimism. Until later then, dear readers.




The Origin Of An Idea, Part 3: Research and Serendipity

So I got over the hump. Pity I got Noro virus. Just another hurdle that was going to put me out of action for a couple of days. There’s nothing quite so wretched as that span of time when you know you’re going to hurl but you just got to wait it out. It was taunting me, keeping me dangling on the verge, hour after hour…..

Anyhow, it’s thankfully in the past. I’m moving on with a nice solid couple of days aggressively editing part 2. Nearly there. Only five more parts to go!

Meanwhile, whilst reflecting on what I was trying to say last time, I remembered a prime example of something that had slipped into my subconscious and found expression years later. When I was a child I, at some point, saw some episodes of Ulysses 31 (a sci-fi/fantasy retelling of the Odyssey for those that missed it or are too young to remember). I can say with certainty that this took root in my imagination, and unconsciously I would replicate the little floating islands of the cosmic Olympus as a dumping ground for all the spare ideas that I couldn’t work into my main projects.

Thus did the idea itself became a recepticle, the cauldron into which I could throw ingredients. What came out has so far included one Nanowrimo project that’s waiting to be turned into a series, the project I’m working on now and also a little something else that’s waiting in the wings to be fully realised.

So, in this last part lets just talk a little about where else we might come across ideas that we can throw into our cauldron. I’ll present two: one is down to your own volition, the other not so much.

Research: This can be done at any time under your own steam. Even if you’re just looking things up on Wikipedia, it’s never wasted because it will give your voice more authority. Whatever fiction we’re writing, we’re bound to find books that can help, from psychology and cultural thinking to descriptions of equipment and practices. For fantasy I’ve found that there is a wealth of information to be had delving into anthropology. It doesn’t have to be heavy going either. One of the first books I ever read in the field was The Forest People (Colin Turnbull) about the pygmies he lived with, told in a very straight forward, narrative style. Other topics I found useful (and are common to fantasy) were theories about kingship, sorcery and myths, as well as attitudes towards life, destiny, marriage, death and children.

On the other hand you might be writing a Game of Throne’s clone and all you need is a text book about medieval clothes and weapons.

Serendipity: Some of the best ideas can come to you out of nowhere. Perhaps you were chilling with friends, eating cheese and biscuits when you noticed that one of the cheeses was called Brillat Savarin. Commenting on what a great name it would be for a villain you married it up with someone who had a mysterious reputation like Keyser Soze, a great criminal underlord.

Or maybe you were flicking through the channels of someone elses tv and came across a programme about paranormal activity that had a Russian music box in it and married up the cliche with the idea that perhaps the Russian psychic warfare division had manufactured hundreds of them and sent them to the USA as part of a systematic attempt to destablise the country.

Anything might trigger you off, and as always, my advise would to always, always make a note of it, even if you can’t use it straight away. Pop them all in a box and when you’re running dry or you want to start something new you could pull out three, four, maybe five ideas and see how you can connect them up. Do a bit of research off the back of it, see what else might come up. Roll it all together and keep turning that kaleidoscope.

And sometimes you come across little research projects randomly that can do great things for the imagination. The video below was just in the Youtube recommendations and the sheer scale of what it shows made my brain hurt, a little like doing mental weights.

The only limit, after all, is how much we can conceive, and that’s a boundary that we should always be trying to push.

The Origin Of An Idea, Part 2: Inspiration, Execution And A New Synthesis

Another week rolls around and this time I’ve been getting over that hump a little more every day, reliving some of those early moments in my own work that make me smile or give me a tiny ego boost. As I move through it I am also well aware of just what has inspired many of the ideas, characters and situations, and by a strange coincidence I came across one that was in an old comic book I found stashed away. Somehow the busty thief had been the inspiration for one of my own characters.

Yet where does one draw the line of plagiarism? Is it alright to use an idea that you found elsewhere? This is a thorny issue for sure, and it perhaps applies to many of the arts. Certainly in the realms of music there is a great debate about who copies who, who is inspired by who, about whether you can claim something as your own if you sample etc.

And just as a musician will be an avid listener of music, so too are writers avid readers. I can claim to have read a huge amount of sci-fi and fantasy, as well as a lot of non-fiction – politics, anthropology, science etc. Out of all of that I reaped many, many ideas that stuck with me, that I liked and thought about, situations in novels that touched me or thrilled me, characters and settings that could be explored in so many different ways there isn’t enough time in one life.

I would argue that at some point we all reach a form of critical mass, where everything that we’ve absorbed goes into the melting pot of our imaginations. There’s so much in there it all becomes indistinguishable from its original source, and as you write it comes out via the filter of you as a person, thus rendering it in your own voice. You are the lens that casts what came before into a new light: you create a synthesis which transcends any one thing of itself. This is what I refer to in the title as execution. How you execute the story, how you take all that was familiar, used up and done before and make it special. Take as an example Pulp Fiction, a movie that contains plenty of familiar characters from the pulp world of crime stories. I found this little snippet on Wikipedia:

Tarantino explains that the idea “was basically to take like the oldest chestnuts that you’ve ever seen when it comes to crime stories—the oldest stories in the book…. You know, ‘Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife’—the oldest story about…the guy’s gotta go out with the big man’s wife and don’t touch her. You know, you’ve seen the story a zillion times.”[8] “I’m using old forms of storytelling and then purposely having them run awry”, he says. “Part of the trick is to take these movie characters, these genre characters and these genre situations and actually apply them to some of real life’s rules and see how they unravel.”[55] In at least one case, boxer Butch Coolidge, Tarantino had in mind a specific character from a classic Hollywood crime story: “I wanted him to be basically like Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer in Aldrich‘s Kiss Me Deadly [1955]. I wanted him to be a bully and a jerk”.[25]

What makes this movie so great was its execution – the unforgettable dialogue and the manner in which the movie was put together, the way the threads intertwine with each other. It takes what’s been done before (hitmen, crime bosses, a boxer reneging on thrown fight etc) and creates a new synthesis that transcends the original ideas into something special. Hopefully this is what we can achieve as writers, taking ideas that appeal to us, that inspire us or stick in our minds and forge them into something new and special.


The Origin Of An Idea, Part 1: Dreams

Do you ever lie down to sleep and suddenly you find your brain turning something over and over, and you get that idea that you either say you’ll write down in the morning or else drag yourself up by lamplight and scribble a note out. Chances are that if you wait until morning you’ll forget, so another hackneyed writers tip – always keep a pad of paper and pencil by the bed.

Of course it isn’t just the approach of sleep that can have this effect because an idea can strike at any moment. So for the next couple of weeks I’ll probably just ramble about this phenomenon in a variety of forms, starting with some strange brain activity when we do finally fall asleep: dreams.

Many years ago now I dreamt that I was holding a book with a picture and a yellow banner much in the style of the original fantasy masterworks layout. The cover depicted an anthropomorphic figure with a bird’s head, grasping a spear and riding upon the back of a giant. And the best thing? The book was written by me. This prompted the writing of a very short piece about two of these bird people who are fishing for a special kind of fish that changes colour when the blow an underwater whistle.

Not long after I started a new job working in a postroom. With flurries of activity and then stretches of time waiting for the next load of work I used my spare time to turn this original idea in a whole book that then became the beginning of a trilogy, and now resides in literally dozens and dozens of notes and computer files. It is an absolutely enormous body of work, containing a unique world and with at least three different cultures, a fantastical history and origin myth, and its own philosophy that draws upon multiple influences. At some point I hope I can finish this (although my current rate of work perhaps taunts me otherwise).

Anyhow, the point of all this is not to blow my own trumpet (although it may sound like that) but to highlight that one small idea, one small thought or dream could be the starting point for something so much vaster. It only takes a little seed, after all, to grow a whole tree.

So, with pencil and paper by the bed, you’ll alwats be ready for the morning 😉

Editing and One Bad Line (Glimpsing Glimpses)

So it’s been a bit of a stalled week in working terms. Not a huge amount of editing done on the book at the moment as I’m trying to crack the the back of this particular hump. They come and go, and I’m thinking that the beginning parts of the story are perhaps a little more underdeveloped because they’re closer to the original draft, whereas the later parts became more developed as the ideas unfolded. Fingers crossed.

Perhaps the most mind numbing element of having to do all this editing and rewriting is that you end up reading your own work repeatedly, to the point that you just feel so tired you shut down and go and do something else. That’s what ousted me from the cafe and I went home where it was hard to get anything more done.

One piece of advice that I heard on editing your own work is to read it to yourself out loud. Apparently (I haven’t tried it just yet) it helps you to discern whether or not the sentence works, especially if you’ve been going over and over it until it feels like your brain is melting. I’ll certainly be giving it a try when I’ve finished the chapter I’ve been working on as its had a lot of edits and needs to be checked for how well it flows.

And as I said, it was a bit of a slack week work wise, but I did catch up some books that I wanted to read. Working my way through some fantasy series I came across an example of editing gone wrong, and this is not meant as disrespect to the author as I enjoyed his work. No, it was just this line jarred me hard:

“He could scarce blink without glimpsing some shredded glimpse of their ordeal.”

Given how huge this guys work was, there’s going to be a bum line somewhere, and as a writer you can’t be too careful about editing. Hell, I’ll probably be reading my own work for the tenth time and still find lines like this that aren’t right. It’s also probably a reflection on the fact that writers are expected to do their own editing more and more as the publishing industry looks to cut costs. It seems that these days, no matter what you do for a living, you have to make more effort than ever. So, edit edit edit.

(Briefly About) Dynamics, Clarity and Tension

Recently I came across some Youtube videos about action films which prompted me to think about certain scenes that appeared in my own work, such as the is the dynamics between characters, their interactions and the meanings that are generated. A key scene I had written was really quite flat until I introduced another character and highlighted the urgency of the task set for my protagonist, and as I proceed through the redrafting, I come across pieces of narrative that need attention. For example, the reluctant kidnapper scene near the beginning of Part 2 was really nothing special, but with a little adjustment and some exploration of how he lost his job, the scene becomes  tense (I hope).

I don’t want to spend too much time talking about this, but I think that the videos are in themselves quite interesting. I was particularly struck by how even the simplest cinematography can work so well to make the story clearer, more dynamic and give it more feeling.

By a strange co-incidence I had just been asked about the links between myth and cinema and having watched the video about the Terminator I was struck by what a great example it was of the principles that make up so many of the narrative structures of modern action movies. Having dug out the scraps of work about this that have accumulated I think that it might be possible for me to put a little book together about it. Terminator will certainly be a case study. To summarise it I would say that the core idea is that the central ideas revolve around Time, Marriage, Heroes (as saviours of fertile marriage and thus society) and something that seeks to destroy fertility and society (be it a robot, a shark or an alien). There is a lot more, but that’s for later.

Anyhew, these videos are worth checking out:

So there you have it. There’s plenty to think about in terms of narratives and especially the way that we convey tension, dynamics and meaning. To do it successfully, to do it with clarity, that’s one of the real arts of writing.

July 2015 Update

Progress as of June 15th (and my first Youtube vid)

Away With The Fairies as of June 21st

So, yes, the week before the Solstice I had actually finished the first draft of my book – the vid was made just before that to show what can be achieved even by just spending a few hours here and there writing. I was going to write the epilogue parts about how things turned out for everyone after the events in the finale had been done, but I figured that these would be subject to change anyway and it would be better to begin actually typing it up.

Good Intentions

With the limited time that’s been on offer this blog hasn’t really been going anywhere, and so despite best intentions it’s not living up to previous standards. It’s also perhaps a reflection of the mixed advice you get about being an author. On the one hand you get advised to get involved in social media and on the other there’s the limited good it does you if you are unable to provide worthwhile content.

Of course being able to type anything requires a laptop and it was with sadness that I found my old Macbook has decided that it’s 8+ years of service would come to an end. On a tight budget I opted for the smallest, lightest word processor I could and got an HP Stream for £180, and because of the restrictions on Microsoft Office I went for the open source version Open Office. We’ll see how that all pans out.

So that’s all for now. I’ll be working on the new draft for the next month or two and then I’ll be heading for the End Of The Road festival for a break. Stoked that I’ll be able to see Jane Weaver live. This damn song has become a serious earworm.

Anyhew, until later, all the best.