Friday 28 June 2013

I Care

Getting a little creative and a little political today. Not at all convinced about forthcoming disability benefit changes. Recently watched Angela's Story and felt compelled to join in with the Britain Cares campaign. Really easy, just take a picture of yourself telling your MP that you care, then upload. You can also help in other crafty ways by decorating soap and knitting a sock.

Thursday 27 June 2013

Reading List: Around the World

A couple of months back, my lovely Aunty Heron took a tumble and accidentally broke herself. Usually an extremely active person, she was confined to the couch and told to stay there for three months! I put together a selection of some of my favourite world novels. I reasoned that if she was physically stuck in Islington, at least her mind could travel to far off climbs.

This was my pick:

Title: The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman
Author: Bruce Robinson (that guy who wrote Withnail & I)
Set in: Kent, England

Set in the UK, but discovered in a second-hand bookshop after an epic road trip across the Nullarbor in 2004. Chosen solely for its show-stopping, titleless cover.

There's a good review which outlines the story:

Thomas's problems begin at home, among a family so eccentric that they make Nancy Mitford's Radletts seem like the Waltons. His grandfather, a First World War veteran whose life was saved by maggots, is obsessed with pornography - writing it, collecting it and, in his youth, even posing for it. His father, who permanently sports a surgical collar, is a vile man of violently right-wing tendencies who spends his evenings watching television and massaging the Doberman's testicles. His mother replaces priceless antiques by charmless reproductions. Only his grandmother and sister, shadowy presences in both house and novel, are relatively normal. Small wonder that, like the young Salvador Dali, Thomas makes his presence felt in the only way he can: by leaving parcels of excrement hidden in the furniture.

With a penchant for pooing, Morse code and Charles Dickens, this is a fantastically provocative and masterfully written coming-of-age story.  Whether you're driving across Australia or taking the tube to work, I highly recommend it.

You can find a fairly sizable extract online.

Heron's verdict? It was her favourite.

Title: Sister of my Heart
Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Set in: Calcutta, India

Divakaruni is perhaps best known for her novel Mistress of Spices, which was turned into a film in 2005. I picked that up in the Programme Office in Rwanda several years ago and mentioned how much I enjoyed it, so my family sent out Sister of my Heart as a follow-up. I fell in love with it instantly.

Born in the big old Calcutta house on the same tragic night that both their fathers were mysteriously lost, Sudha and Anju are cousins. Closer even than sisters, they share clothes, worries, dreams in the matriarchal Chatterjee household. But when Sudha discovers a terrible secret about the past, their mutual loyalty is sorely tested.

A family crisis forces their mothers to start the serious business of arranging the girls' marriages, and the pair is torn apart. Sudha moves to her new family's home in rural Bengal, while Anju joins her immigrant husband in California. Although they have both been trained to be perfect wives, nothing has prepared them for the pain, as well as the joy, that each will have to face in her new life.

Steeped in the mysticism of ancient tales, this jewel-like novel shines its light on the bonds of family, on love and loss, against the realities of traditional marriage in modern times.

One of my favourite passages, to give an example:

The storm begins in earnest after the guests have left, when Sudha and I are in my room undressing. We switch off the light and open the big window because we both love storms - the dusty electric smell, the dark, spreading wings of clouds, the ecstatic drumbeat of rain. We are too wound up to sleep, so we take a long time to fold our saris and comb out our hair, to wipe the bindis from our foreheads and clean the kajol from our eyes. Sudha slips Ashok's ring onto her index finger and turns her hand so the diamonds glint suddenly in the lightning, then disappear, then glint again before the next thunderclap.

'But how can you love someone so much when you have only spoken to him twice?' I ask. 'How can you be ready to marry him?'

'It happens,' says Sudha dreamily. Dressed only in her petticoat, her long hair spilling like black water over her bare breasts, she goes to stand at the window. A pipal branch breaks off with a load crash. Wind blows in a gust of rain, and when Sudha turns, I see the drops glittering in her hair like pearls. 'I know why peacocks dance in the rain, don't you?' says my heartbreakingly beautiful cousin. Ashok, I think, if only you could see her like this! Then I am jealously glad that he can't.

'How, Sudha?' I persist. I've got to understand this dangerous current that's sweeping her away from the safe shore where I am left desolately alone.

'I can't explain.' Sudha's forehead creases in perplexity, and I see that love is almost as much a mystery to her as it is to me. Then her face lights up. 'But I can tell you a story about it, and then maybe you'll understand.' 

I find there is usually always a passage in each book I read that remains with me. For this book, that one. Whilst looking for it, I found another I had forgotten. Sorry, I can't resist:

I am sleepy too, but force myself to stay awake. I am looking for shooting stars. I need two of them, just at midnight, because I must make two wishes... Not that Anju believes in falling stars. They are nothing more, she says, than burning meteors, and have no power to help anyone, not even themselves.

I know. But I know also that there are many realities. A ball of flaming gas hurtling to its doom can, if you believe strongly enough, give you your heart's desire. The death of a star, the birth of a new joy in your life. Isn't that how the universe balances things?

The wonder of Divakaruni is that these aren't just isolated passages. Somehow, she manages to write entire books with this level of thought-provoking loveliness.

I bought it for my mum's birthday a few years ago, and it made her cry. There's even a vegan dish named after it!

Title: A Woman of Africa
Author: Nick Roddy
Set in: Cameroon, Africa

I discovered this one by accident, whilst looking for The Other Hand on Amazon. I liked the cover, and the proverb on the front:  If you run from both the sun and the moon you must one day confront your shadow.

It's an extremely unusual book. It begins:
I am an African woman. That's not a political statement. I am not a Whoopee Goldberg or an Oprah Winfrey, a middle-class American in search of an identity or asserting a political right. I am a woman and I am African. That is all there is to it, and that is my tragedy.

Only, it was written by a white, American male, Nick Roddy.

My aunt wasn't all that sold on this and, I must admit, I wasn't expecting much once I read that part in the Prologue. Glad I gave it the benefit of the doubt, though.

It is the story of a woman he met in a bar in Douala, Cameroon. She told him the story of her life, and he wrote it down.

People are used to third-person biographies being written about people, and they are used to gender roles being reversed in fiction - after all, Chris Cleave wrote first-person as an African woman in The Other Hand and Little Bee - but I think the schism comes from writing someone else's story, their biography, first-person. Especially with such contrasting backgrounds as an African female prostitute and an American male oil worker.

Accepting that, it's extremely well told. Apparently: "while writing it [Roddy] was kidnapped by MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) and held captive in the Jungle for 3 weeks."

It's a little expensive in paperback as it's published through Matador, but that's all the more reason to support it. Or you can purchase a Kindle version.


So, that's my brief trip around the world. Hope you enjoy them.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Austen for a Tenner

Readers outside the UK might be unaware that we Brits have recently been having a bit of a hoo-ha over our bank notes. There was a huge outcry when the Bank of England proposed removing Elizabeth Fry from the £5 note. Elizabeth Fry's claim to fame is that she championed prison reform. She is also the only woman, other than the Queen, to appear on a British bank note.

The proposal to replace her with Sir Winston Churchill met with huge objection, and a petition to 'keep a woman on English bank notes.'

This has since led to a huge amount of debate over which particular woman to include. Everyone seems united that Mrs. Fry has served her time, but who should take her place? A family planning crusader, such as Marie Stopes? Pioneering aviator, Amy Johnson? How about mathematician, Ada Lovelace?

Whereas, from a literary perspective, I'm rather entertained by the fact Jane Austen seems to be winning the popular vote, I can't help thinking that perhaps we've missed the point. There are so many talented women who changed history. Why do we act as though we've been rewarded by the Bank of England when they say 'oh, okay then, we'll allow you a woman - but just the one'?

Rather than turning it into a competition, how about we have two or three women on bank notes? How about something completely revolutionary: a 50/50 gender equal split? #justsaying

Monday 24 June 2013

Colourful Mess

When my friend Martine headed for Ireland a couple of months back, she left me her art supplies. 

As I'm going through a bit of a writing flump, I decided to work on something else for a bit. See'f I can get those creative juices flowing again. It's for a piece titled Immortal Starfish, which will hopefully become clear somewhere later down the line. Had lots of fun. Haven't done this since I was at school. 

Another reason to be cheerful: it's the first day of Wimbledon today!

Sunday 23 June 2013

Nzuri Sana

My friend K is working in East Africa at the moment and took some photos. Thought I'd share as they are really beautiful. Click to enlarge.

Elephant Close Up

Lions Resting

Cheetah Mother and Babies

Shadows on the Beach

Sunrise, Mt Kenya, Waterhole

This is Africa

Waterhole, Elephants but no Mt Kenya

Thursday 20 June 2013

Bill Bailey

Awesome day last Sunday. Headed to Bristol with Dad & M for a belated birthday treat: Bill Bailey's Qualmpeddler. He taught us all about Chantelle's paradox, and how to rescue an owl from a Chinese restaurant using only a pair of nail scissors. Important lessons for life.

He's a bit like Tim Minchin, in that he's an extremely talented musician who turned that to comedy. West Country legend, and a key character in one of the greatest British comedies ever made, Black Books (and, of course, Spaced).

Mind the ambulance!

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Novel Idea: Writing Average

(click to enlarge)

Well, that answers that question: how long is my attention span?

About 4.5 weeks. Which, to be fair, is a lot longer than the three days I had originally estimated.

I was hoping to save this post until the end of week five of my 1k a day regime, which would have been tomorrow. Instead, I made it to Sunday before throwing in the towel.

Above is a nice little graph that shows my productivity flux across those four weeks. It gives the total number of words written on each day of the week, and the average output. Mondays were by far the most productive day - whoda thunk?

I added an average of 7,404 words per week, with a total of 29,616 words added over those four weeks, 32,632 including Friday-Sunday this week.

That, my friends, is a satisfying number of words.

So, what happened?

Did I run out of plot? Did I get writer's block? Has my computer crashed?


None of the above.

Unfortunately, 'real life' intervened. It's been one hell of a week with the day job. I had some work that really needed shifting, and hit a bit of a flump on Monday. Just sort of lost my heart for it, really. No other way of putting it.

This is different to writer's block. I haven't lost the words, they're still there. I just need a breather. Sometimes, when work is stressful and things aren't going brilliantly, that's when I throw myself into writing as a distraction. I get some of my best stuff done then. Perhaps the problem here was that, in turning writing into a routine, when the pressure built up elsewhere, I no longer saw it as an escape but as a chore?

I feel a bit disappointed about falling short of the five weeks, but disappointment doesn't really serve any purpose, so I'm already over it. The only question remaining is: when will I start writing again?

I think the realistic answer is going to be 'when I feel like it,' which is likely to be when I'm on top of everything else. I'm giving myself permission to forget about it for now, see how I feel on Monday.

32.6k is not to be sniffed at. I'm pleased with that, and very happy with what I've written so far. I don't mind mentioning this hiccup, as the point of Novel Idea is to share the process of writing a novel, warts and all. There are always highs and lows. Nothing that beer therapy and a few days in the sunshine won't cure.

Monday 17 June 2013

Swanezine Competition

I mentioned the Intergeneration Contest the other day. 'Tis the season for writing competitions. The Swanezine Short Story Competition is currently open to submissions until 31st August. Free to enter, £30 top prize plus publication, entries up to 1,000 words.

2011 was a productive year for me. I won with Carte Blanche.

Reason for Poe? Well, even if you don't fancy entering, you might still enjoy their collection of literary quotes.

Friday 14 June 2013

Novel Idea: 40,000

All Things Wildly Considered

Little bit smug with myself yesterday. I go horse riding on Thursdays, out at Cotswold Trail Ride. It's a wonderful place, where love can be bought for the price of a packet of polo mints. But it's taken me a few weeks to learn the important fact that I need to write my 1k a day before I go, because, by the time I get back, I'm a wreck. Nothing like a canter through the forest, an overdose of fresh air, and a hot shower to put you to sleep.

I really struggled the past couple of weeks, trying to write when I got back. It's brought a lovely sense of achievement getting the words out the way, then enjoying the rest of the day. Plus, a double sense of achievement to sail past the 40k mark.

In another week-and-a-half I'll hit my next golden number. That gives me about 20,000 words to really up the octane of the plot and let my imagination run wild before I need to start reining it in and thinking about the wind-down. The story just keeps expanding out in front of me. I have a rough sense of direction, but no idea where it will end. At this point, a conclusion seems inconceivable.

I talked the other day about dark things. Right now, I'd like to share a couple of passages of blood and lust. Just short snippets that I've particularly enjoyed writing. As before, extremely rough.

The first comes after the two main characters have managed to murder one another's best friends. Always an awkward conversation...

He did not come to me until much later.

I lay on my bed, with my knees tucked up to my chin, holding myself. There had been nothing I could have done for Shahab. I knew my father, and I knew my family. We were cruel people, there is no denying. Once it was in my father’s head to torment someone, or to bankrupt them, or to take what they once owned, there was nothing could be said to change his mind. Though it was rare that he took against one so young, and rarer still that he should choose to torture me.
There was more to it than that, though.
Something deep, and dark, and desirous, which walked in the form of Vachon.

I sensed his shadow fall across my room before I heard his silk-stockinged feet tread softly towards me; agile as a cat, light as a feather. The bed depressed as he sat, and then laid, beside me. His hand rested gently on my shoulder and I turned towards him.

By the light of the moon, he could see that my cheeks were stained with tears.

“Why?” I asked, my throat hoarse. “Why did you do it?”

“You took something of mine that was very precious,” he replied. There was no reproach in his voice, he simply stated it as though stating the answer to a mathematical problem. “It was only fair that I took something of yours.”

He wore a different mask to the hook-billed Pantalone. This was a mask of pure, polished ebony. Rubies encrusted the eyes, and the upper lips were formed of brass. Golden but cold, a reversal of my golden-eyed love with the warm lips.

I felt as though I were about to cry again.

“Hush now,” he said, reaching his hand to my ear and plucking from it a beautiful white butterfly. “Let us talk no more of things that hurt.”

I couldn’t help but smile as the delicate insect beat its wings and took flight in the dark.

“Now we are both alone,” I told him.

“Everybody on this earth is alone,” he replied. “Company is just an illusion.”

“I did not feel alone when I was with Shahab.”

“Nor I, with Ishya. We had travelled far together.”

“I am sorry for what I did.”

“I am not.” His eyes held mine and I swear I saw a flash of fire there. “From now on, you shall call me Eirik. I will not answer you otherwise.” I opened my mouth to protest, and he placed a finger across my lips to silence me. “What you did was a very stupid thing. You and I are too alike to be parted but, from this day forth, I want you to think upon your actions. I will stay with you, and I will be your friend, but with that you must always remember the loss of that animal’s life. It died for your thoughtless fancy, and your family's murderous, unthinking rage.”

It took me a moment to regain my voice. “I did not put her in that cage.”

“I did.”

“The blood-”
“Goat blood.”
“Why?” I struggled to sit upright as he laughed.

“Your tutor was right, politics is not your forte.”
This time I did cry. Confusion and shame melted down my face. I bit the back of my hand, trembling with anger at what I did not understand.
“Oh, hush, hush,” Eirik said, rising and holding me close.
I sobbed into his shoulder and he let me. When I eventually calmed, I drew back. He waved his hand across my mouth and I found there to be a lump of halvaye on my tongue. Its sweet, comforting flavour reminded me of childhood and brought fresh tears to my eyes.

“Afsar, your innocence is charming.”
I chewed quickly and then swallowed so that I could breathe more easily.
“You have outgrown your lessons,” he continued. “Will you let me teach you?”
“What could you possibly teach me?” I snapped, regaining a little courage.
“How the world works.”
Again, he held me with his eyes and I felt a steady calm descend. The death of my first love had come as a shock to me. For the second time in my life I had known what it was to be utterly powerless. My future had been dictated by others. Only, unlike before, the person who had decided my fate this time was willing to offer it back to me.
“Very well.”

“Good,” he smiled. “Here, dance with me.”
He stood from the bed and held out his hand, pulling me up to face him. I did not understand what he meant at first, as he held me close and positioned my hand around his waist, holding the other aloft. I was about to protest, when the sound of a string quartet filled the room, echoing from the marble walls and floating across the tiled floor.

We began to move, slowly at first, and then a little faster, swooning and sighing in a circle, our pale reflections moonlit in the mirror. Around and around we went, ink silhouettes in a zoetrope.


This second extract is from quite early on in the story. The female protagonist's father has many wives. They are devoted to him, but love is not always repaid with happiness...

As Heaven’s tears drummed down against the acer trees, I thought that I heard another sound. It was faint at first. I thought perhaps a peacock crying. As I listened, it came again, and then again, and I realised that it was the sound of a woman.

I wrapped a second shawl around my shoulders and set off down the hall. At a certain point, the covered section of my own rooms were separated from the main square. I had to brave the rain to dash between the overhang to the door opposite. It was only a very short distance, but the sky was bleeding heavily enough to soak my headscarf.
Passing through the corridors and rooms of the main palace, the face of every servant confirmed my suspicion. 

It was Sarvar.
It could only be her.
Sarvar was my father’s second-newest wife. She had been with our family for less than a year, and had fallen pregnant almost immediately. She was not the prettiest, that was mother Azin, and she was not the most practical, for that was Arezoo. She was not even the most ambitious, for no one other than Ezzat could fill that esteemed position. She was simply Sarvar, and none of us knew her.

As I approached her chamber on the East side of the palace, where most of the wives at Mazandaran lived, the scent of sweat and frankincense became overpowering. For a moment, I thought to turn back. Then another scream came, and I found myself drawn.

She lay there, on a damp mattress in the centre of the room. Arezoo was beside her, and Bousseh, the best midwife in the North of Iran. She had delivered me, Mahmoud and Fakhr. My father had enough wives to fill his courtyard thrice over. Whenever one went into labour, it was Bousseh they cried out for. Her face looked like leather left out over winter and dried in the sun: coffee brown and thickly wrinkled. Yet her hands were as soft as Chinese silk, and she sewed stitches finer than the coats of the richest princes.

Şelale knelt by her side, a bowl of water and strips of clean rag to hand. There were perhaps as many women in the room as caged birds in my father’s private garden. In the far corner, I was surprised to see Ezzat. She was resting against the wall, crouched on her heels, her black maghnaeh causing her round face to float like a moon in the shadows.

There was a strange weight to the air. Usually the women of my father’s harem spent hours before their mirrors, each one trying to outdo the other, vying for his attention. Their cheeks shone red with rouge as though they had run all the way from Sari to be by his side; their eyebrows drawn thick with kohl, resembling fat caterpillars crawling across their foreheads, dipped in the middle where my brother, Mahmoud, likely stamped upon them.
That night, none of his wives wore paint on their faces. Not because my father was away in Tehran, they would not have set aside their rivalry for that, but because this was a place only for women. More than that, it was a place where things were happening that only women could understand. However much my many mothers pecked amongst themselves, however many feathers they plucked or wings they clipped to get the cock’s attention, each of them knew that one day they would end up in a room just like this. Legs spread wide on a soaking mattress.
They would end up here because of him.
Even Ezzat understood that. Somewhere in the slow-moving waters of her mind, she still held to a sense of how different things might have been. She had triumphed, born him a son. Her only failure had been timing, six years and nine sons too late to be the heir apparent. My father’s loins spurted children like fish leap from a stream. Like his wives, the later children were left to jostle amongst themselves. It’s a good thing their mothers remembered their names, for no one else ever would.
Sarvar’s scream brought me back to myself.
“Mop her brow,” Bousseh instructed, changing places with Şelale so that she could push her fingers up between Sarvar’s legs, feeling for the crown of the child.
“Afsar, what are you doing here?” Mother Arezoo came towards me, arm outspread to block my view.
“Let her watch,” Bousseh called over her shoulder. “It is best she knows what to expect.”
Arezoo hesitated for a moment. I could see that she wasn’t sure, so I gave a smile to show that I was alright and that I wanted to stay.
She nodded and returned her attention to Sarvar. The woman’s head was bare. Hair plastered itself to her face in wavy lines, like newly hatched snakes escaping over her skin.
She screamed again and Bousseh waved her free hand, motioning Arezoo to hold a bowl of water to the woman’s lips. She tried to sip, then doubled forward with gritted teeth, sending the bowl clattering to the floor.
Without a word, Arezoo collected it up and left the room to refill it.
Time passed.
Eventually we heard the call to Fajr, the first prayer of the day. The sound of the muezzin’s voice rose and fell as he greeted the dawn. Although it was still dark outside, we knew that it would soon be light.
At first, none of us moved, the thought rising within us as one. We had been absorbed in our task, none of us thought to bring food. It was too late now to prepare, and we could not bring ourselves to eat in front of Sarvar. She grew paler by the hour, her groans weaker as she tried so hard to push.

I waited to see what the mothers would decide. Would Bousseh remove her fingers from Sarvar’s legs, wash them clean and prostrate herself, or would we silently agree to hold our morning prayer for later in the day?
The decision was made for us. With a blood-chilling cry, Sarvar pushed and the baby’s head appeared. I was frozen to the spot, hardly believing my eyes, that something so large could suddenly appear where once only folds of flesh had been.
It happened far quicker than any of us expected. One moment there was a white ball rimmed with red, the next an entire face: eyes, lips, chin. Then a thick rope, like a string of animal intestine. She screamed again, and something extraordinary happened. She began to convulse. Head thrown back, teeth tight as a wall of ivory. I saw Bousseh falter, unable in that split second to decide which end of the woman to attend to. She chose the head, slopping a sodden cloth across Sarvar’s brow and speaking quickly.
Even I could see that it was the wrong decision. Me, with no knowledge of how these things should progress. As she mopped away at Sarvar’s waxen face, the child between her legs began to turn an unusual shade of blue.
I looked around to see whether the other women had noticed, and caught the gaze of Mother Ezzat. She was still sat, pressed against the far corner. From that place, it was impossible that she could have seen the things I saw, yet, as though watching the reflection in my eyes, she stood, came quietly forward, removed her maghnaeh, and draped it over the half-born infant.

The room fell silent, as though the veil of death itself had fallen. Sarvar made no more sound. On a table set back from the bed stood a silver bowl filled with sacred clay, ready for the baby to suck from its mother’s finger. Next to that, a safety pin, endowed with all the blessings of the ayatollah.
It had not managed to ward off this evil.
“Take Afsar to her room,” Arezoo said, turning to Şelale.
We walked back without a word. Neither of us ran between buildings to avoid the rain. I arrived in my room soaked to the skin.
As Şelale began to undress me, replacing my sodden fabric with soft, dry cotton, I could not help but ask her:
“What will they do with the baby?”
“Hush now çocukcağız. Don’t think of that.”
“I want to know.”
With a sigh, she sat me down on my bed and began to comb out my hair.
“They will push it back inside her. So they can be buried together.”
“Why didn’t Bousseh save it?”
She paused for a moment, brush held in midair.
“She couldn’t.”
“She didn’t try.”
“She has delivered enough children to know what is possible and what is not. Please, do not upset yourself.”
“I’m not upset.”
Şelale was quiet for a moment, listening to the sound of the sky beating against the roof. “They will light candles now, and stay with her until the sun is up. They will sing the Prayer of Fear so that she will not be afraid. Then they will take her to the mosque.”
“What shall you do?”
“I will stay here as long as you need me.”
“I do not need you.”
She placed the brush in her lap.
“Then I shall return to help wash the body.”
I waited until she had gone before admitting my lie. It did upset me. Each time I closed my eyes, all I could see was that grotesque skull, white as bone against her brown thighs. The smell of salt and blood and excrement blurred together like paint in a cup of water.
It made my skin prickle.
That weight to the air that I had felt on entering the room. I knew what that was now. It spoke of the presence of Death. Allah had abandoned her bedside long ago, leaving the way clear for shayatin, those devils which feast upon vulnerable spirits. He had forsaken her, for what reason?
The rain eased beyond my window; Sarvar’s screams replaced by the sharp ululation of my grieving mothers. Even as a very small girl I had understood that sound. It is so loud and so keen as to cause all heads to hurt, all eyes to note that you are crying out for the loss of your sister, or your brother, or your child. You are marking the passing of one of Allah’s creation with the flicker of your tongue and the air in your lungs.

You are seen to be good in your grief.

Meanwhile, in their heart of hearts, I am sure that it was not only Ezzat who was smiling peacefully at the loss of another rival. If only, I could hear her think, more births would end this way. Perhaps then my father would count his losses and content himself with those wives he already had, those who had proven their ability to take his seed and bear his children without the expense of a funeral.

And what of the child? Stuffed back into its mother’s belly, wrapped in white and plunged into the earth.
That fragile skull, red with blood, brown skin rent apart. Had it felt anything? When weighed in proportion, had that brief moment of panic and pain been worse than a lifetime of such? We shall never know.
I did not pity the creature.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Collective Nouns

[UPDATE: Apparently it's only a murder of crows if they have probable caws.]

I was walking down the street the other day with a friend, when we saw three window cleaners, each with a ladder over one shoulder and a bucket in their hand, walking in perfect formation.

"What's the collective noun for window cleaners?" my friend asked.

"A shammy?"

Some other wonderful collective nouns - all true:

  • Ambush of Tigers
  • Charm of Finches
  • Congregation of Alligators
  • Crash of Rhinoceroses
  • Glaring of Cats
  • Smack of Jellyfish
  • Tower of Giraffes

You can find more collective animal nouns on Wiki.

Meanwhile, these lists of Fave Collective Nouns and Collective Nouns also offer some insight:

  • Amble of Walkers
  • Array of Luminaries
  • Bestiary of Mythological Creatures
  • Exaggeration of Fishermen
  • Field of Theoretical Physicists
  • Formation of Geologists
  • Gaggle of Gays
  • Gatling of Woodpeckers
  • Number of Mathematicians
  • Ponder of Philosophers
  • Shower of Applied Meteorologists
  • Sprig of Vegetarians
  • Stack of Librarians
  • Unease of Compromises

Just for equality purposes, I would also like to add: A Straight of Heterosexuals.

And, really, there ought to be a Blush of Brides.

Don't even mention Collective Nouns for Lawyers.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Intergeneration Contest 

I have been cordially reminded by Cydney Campbell, Executive Director of the Intergeneration Foundation, that it is indeed short story time again.

They run a free-to-enter cash prize competition for short stories up to 500 words. Anyone can enter across the globe, and the theme focuses on bridging the generation gap. Check out the competition regulations.

You have plenty of time to enter, as it doesn't close until 31st December.

If you need inspiration, you can check out my 2011 winning entry, Hush Hush.

Monday 10 June 2013

Novel Idea: Dark Side

ghosts of a chance

Heads-up: this post contains links and topics some may find disturbing. It's a discussion on the darker side of writing. 

Nice little coincidence happened yesterday: passed the 35,000 mark and the 100 page mark together. Now the middle of the fourth week of my 1k a day regime.

In an attempt not to bore you senseless with a breakdown of wordcount stats (plenty of time for that), I thought I'd tackle another question.

My dear mumsy once asked me, after reading Butterfly's Predator, 'where does all the darkness come from?'

Well, partly it's innate. My mode of expression growing up was often a little on the macabre side. I recall one English teacher struggling to deliver both praise and concern at a short story in which my lead character, a young mother, returned home to find that her own mother, who she had taken in from a mental asylum to aid her recovery, had seen fit to repay her kindness by murdering her child and leaving its entrails across the bed. Entrails she only discoverers when she fell on the bed in the dark, because - as has to happen in the plot of all good horror stories - the electricity had been cut.

There are countless articles on writing, creativity and depression. Having been no stranger to the latter in adolescence, it's tempting to say 'perhaps that's it?' Authors like Stephen King often cite their emotional state as the driving force behind some of their most fearsome works. Then again, there are plenty of authors who talk about being able to tap exactly the same level of darkness whilst classing themselves as perfectly cheerful. Recently departed Iain Banks is one example in his five minute interview with the BBC:

Q: When you're writing about dark material, is it in any way strange writing in the first person?

A: Not really, no. It's a technique you get used to as a writer, you know? You don't really think about it, you just get on with it. It's an answer to a technical problem, if you like, and so it's something you adopt quite naturally and easily. It has no real bearing on your own psyche. 

Q: I know when you ask an actor 'are you a baddie in real life?', of course they're not baddies in real life, but, as I say, there's some dark stuff. Where does that come from? What do you draw on?

A: I don't know, I've just got an overactive imagination gland or something... It's just something I seem to be able to tap. I'm actually quite a nice, bright and breezy person.

Regarding my own early efforts, I think one of our great mistakes as a society, after the infantilisation of women, is probably our self-delusional propensity towards this image of childhood as something innocent and 'good'. Elements of it certainly are, and should be. But in expecting all of childhood to be that way, we miss the vital turning points in psychological development. Childhood, as well as being magical, is also a confusing, cruel and uncertain time. Stories about princes and happy-ever-afters are fine, but do you notice how many kids also scramble to get their hands on Horrible Histories and Point Horror? How many of the good old fairy tales revolved around a bogeyman or a wicked witch?

I certainly grew up with some wonderfully dark fairy tales on the bookshelf, alongside Mr. Bump and Puddle Lane.

So, that's me. I like dark things, I think dark things help to make sense of other things, and, as many actors and artists will attest, playing the villain can be so much more fun than playing the princess.

As far as where ideas come from - usually observation.

Stuck for horrific imagery? Turn on the news, open a paper, or even pay on demand.

I think where people get a little edgy about it with authors is that, often, they are not just describing an event happening to someone else, but explicitly writing about it in first person - as though they are the perpetrator or the victim.

There's a couple of examples that spring to mind. For me, Stephen King absolutely nailed the discomfort factor in his short story Apt Pupil. One of the most disturbing stories I've ever read, and one in which I found myself marvelling at the braver and willingness of the author to 'go there', when many who might be capable of such would be too afraid to write it. Another is probably Ian McEwan's short story Butterflies. I'm sure you know the kind of thing I'm on about?

It is sometimes difficult to separate authors from the characters they have written. I found this when watching Lionel Shriver speak. I could practically sense Kevin sitting behind her. Those characters come from somewhere, as I'm sure people close to me sometimes look and wonder about Adrian Roy.

I can't speak for other writers, but for me I feel very in control of Adrian. I can evoke him, but I own him. He is my creation, and I know exactly what he is and what makes him tick. Crime writer Andrea Maria Schenkel said something similar about her baddie when asked how she managed to sleep at night. You know them and you are in complete control of them, so you can turn off the light and rest easy. I think the ones that keep you awake at night are the ones you read and you can believe they're out there somewhere, coming for you.

So, why am I bringing this up?

Well, because I'm now entering the middle part of my story. I face a bit of a schism in that I'm now technically halfway towards 70k, but there's another way of dividing the count: not words, but pages.

For me:
  • <100 = Beginning
  • 100-200 = Middle
  • 200-300 = End

That's extremely rough. It's just another way of measuring how things are progressing. The end is usually a bit shorter, because the pace is quicker. Things crescendo towards the finale.

I'm transitioning from the book's early years to the thick of it. In this story, the thick of it is a a realm of torture, power and abuse, wrapped up in court intrigue, lust, and some fairly funky costumes.

One of the protagonists is taken from another work, which is now in the public domain. It's a bit of a spin-off, with a fresh angle. This particular character, Vachon, suffers a severe deformity. Imagination, whilst being the key tool of a writer's trade, is not enough in this instance. With historical fiction, you really have to do your research.

My debut, Angorichina, was also historical. I knew that I needed a soldier with a debilitating physical or psychological condition. I stumbled across both of these things in shell shock.

I'd heard about the condition, but never really read much about it. The Black Adder sketch faded to images of a person sat at a table, oblivious to all sights and sounds, simply shocked to a level of introversy that no one is able to penetrate. That was what I thought it meant, and I could have written Chip Redfern that way. Instead, I did my research. 

Watching footage from Verdun was fairly atrocious (don't follow that link unless you really want to). It shocked me so much that I immediately launched into writing a descriptive, so that the immediacy of it was not lost:

Have you ever seen someone with shell shock? It's a sight you never forget. They walk like jelly, their legs and arms wobbling like there aren't any bones in there holding them up. Each muscle in their body spasms independently, with no co-ordination or cohesion. Their eyes are wide and wild, staring around in all directions, looking for the next bomb falling out of the sky, suspecting a man with a bayonet behind every curtain, every door, under every bed.

That last bit directly influenced by the poor man at point 0:42 in the video. I could never have written chapter seventeen without it. As uncomfortable as it was to research, it's a fundamental principle that if art wishes to imitate life, it must first look upon life.

The major difference between films and books is that films, be they documentaries or Hollywood blockbusters, can make you see things in graphic detail that you might not ordinarily have been able to imagine. Film hijacks your imagination. As I mentioned in my rant on age certificates for books, the written word only works to the extent your own imagination is capable of engaging with it. I couldn't realistically have written Chip as a victim of shell shock, because I couldn't imagine shell shock. I needed to observe it first.

Over the past week, I have been steeling myself once again for some fairly difficult images. This time, it's been investigative. I mentioned that one of my characters suffers a deformity. It's a fairly well known character, and there has been much theorising in forums over the years as to what the specific condition might have been. Thus far, porphyria, amniotic band syndrome, facial dysplasia and hemangioma are all in the running.

The problem with incorporating a character that already exists into something you're writing, is that you have a duty to readers to get it right. Being a work of historical fiction, I don't need to name the issue in medical terms, because doctors wouldn't have known what it was. However, it is very important that I am able to see the character clearly enough in my own mind to describe him in a way that fits within the constraints of what is already known about him.

It's a fairly forensic process, which begins with scouring the original text in which the character first appears; piecing together every detail that is mentioned of his appearance; sifting through online forums debating the issue, looking for strong theories and judging reader expectation; then digging through Wiki and Google Image for something that fits, in order to fill in the missing details.

At first, I felt my stomach twist as I set out to decide what Vachon's issue might be. There is quite a natural physical response to seeing things like porphyria. It is a primal reaction, rather than an empathic one; meaning that it is an instantaneous physical response, rather than a reasoned and sympathetic one.

As time went by, I found that I was less and less affected. This happened parallel to the amounts of frustration I started to feel at not being able to find a condition that completely matched what I knew the character should look like. By the time I started to mix and match diseases in order to get the right combination of features, I think I had drifted close to that clinical mindset surgeons must enter, where they see the problem and not the person.

A fascinating and slightly random addition to this was a recent documentary I was watching on the legend that is David Bowie. They played a clip of him starring as Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, in a stage production. The way that they did it was stunningly clever. He played Merrick with absolutely no makeup or clever costuming at all. It was unmistakable who he was portraying, yet the lack of makeup lumbered the audience with the inescapable fact that, first and foremost, Joseph Merrick was a human being.

The beauty of writing is that you can deliver the full descriptive of what someone looks like, but then you can also go beyond that, to what someone feels and thinks.

Thankfully, this sort of research is not something I do a lot of. I devoted one full day to it on both books. So far, I've never had a nightmare about anything I've looked at. I think remembering that these things are born of genetics and accident, and that they happen to perfectly normal people, goes a long way to dispelling the bogeyman.

The difficulty in writing something authentic is that you do have to allow your mind to cross a boundary. One that we're usually taught not to approach, and one that society does a great deal to distract us from with shiny new car ads and primetime cuddly meerkats.

Then, when you do go there, you have to believe that others will wish to follow you.

Funnily enough, they generally do.