Monday, 5 December 2011

Real-time Fiction: a Guide

S.Cornish: Time Flies 

This is frontier territory; beyond that line of jagged prose there be dragons.

Using tweets to drip feed the narrative directly to the reader is pretty novel. This is a strange and unfamiliar format, even to me.  Follow it as a reader and you catch the story, blink and you’ll have to scroll back to catch up. Twitter isn’t the medium to simply deliver an existing piece of prose fiction line by line, no-one will want to read that. As a writer it takes some planning to write a story that unfolds in real-time, but it doesn’t need to be difficult or intimidating to do.

What makes any story a good story is an interesting premise, strong believable characters and an engaging narrative. Put this across as a succession of tweets that unfold the story in a fictional real-time and you have a temporal tale.
When setting out to write a temporal story there are a few things worth thinking about.

1. Temporal fiction lends itself to the first person, present tense written as if the narrator/character is sending the tweets. 
2. Give it some structure. Like any story, a beginning establishes the characters and setting, the middle moves the story on from the driving incident/motive and the end brings it to a conclusion along with any consequences. 
3. The story will unfold over several hours or days, so try to pace the delivery of tweets to allow the story arc to work with that, making sure interest is maintained even on the days that are leading up to the major bits of drama.
4. In some respects temporal fiction will work more like a film script or radio play than a short written story. It is worth writing a treatment beforehand to help plan how the story will unfold and how long it will take to do so.
5. Making short plot notes also helps as these are already part way to being tweets in their own right.
6. Note down any extra foibles that occur to you about the characters or situation, these can often be worked into the main story arc for additional interest/drama/comedy.
7. Most likely any dialogue will need to be reported, unless it is addressed directly to the reader. But it isn't the only way, be inventive.
8. Suspension of disbelief should be maintained: if the story had been relying on the character sending tweets on their phone and they get tied up: how are they going to be able to send more tweets?
9. Twitter is a restrictive medium; there are only 140 characters for each tweet (both MS Word and Apple Pages will give a useful character count of any chunk of text you select), avoid having to break a segment of story into more than one tweet. But if it can’t be helped then try to use a device like an interruption to make this seem more plausible.
10. Short snappy delivery of the narrative as reports or recounts is easier to write and read.
11. A one day story may need as many tweets as a five day story, try ensuring there is a tweet every few hours to keep the audience interested. 

If you have any other ideas or thoughts on using twitter as a storytelling medium please comment.
These pointers aren’t rules, they are just things learnt from messing round with the format,
an experimental format. With it, anyone can be a ground-breaker and make up the rules as they go along. Go on, surprise us all.

@TemporalTales is looking for story submissions by new or established writers that can be tweeted over a period of one to fourteen days. Please email stories (.doc .txt or .pages format) to:
muse (at)
(I’ve used (at) instead of @ to defeat the bots. I’m sure you can figure out how to reassemble it). 

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Temporal Tales

Having got the bit between my teeth with this whole idea of streaming real-time stories through twitter, I've now created a new twitter channel @TemporalTales that will be dedicated to the format, but how is this new way of telling and distributing short fiction through twitter even going to work?

No, the wheel has not been reinvented, experiments in real-time storytelling, like Jeremy Bushnell's Imaginary Year, have been created before, but the demands of the twitter medium calls for a new format to put over the stories in a much more immediate way.
After the successful tweet broadcast of the Bad Hair Daze story in April 2010, I started writing a Christmas story that would be broadcast in December of that year, but workloads being what they are, the broadcast was delayed until this year and @HoBloodyHo will begin tweeting on the 15th December. I’ve been excited getting it all ready and working out the bugs to be able to schedule the tweets. Making a new twitter account for each story has worked for these first two pilot stories, but I’ve realised that to broadcast more stories on a regular basis needs a different solution. Having a tailor made twitter stream for a story looks great, but having to build up a following prior to the story launching is hard work, and most of that following will drift away once the story is over. The idea of a dedicated stream is a much more attractive option, allowing stories to be broadcast back to back (if I can get enough submissions). @TemporalTales has been created to do just that.

The channel is intended to be a platform through which new and established writers can show their ingenuity and writing talent in what is effectively a new format (in the same way that flash fiction is a new format) of real-time storytelling. It also allows links to blogs, books and websites to be placed in the credits that can directly promote the writer to a receptive audience. A supporting blog-based website with an archive will provide additional information about the stories and the writers.
The Temporal Tales twitter account is already up and ready for new followers and will start delivering tales as a channel in the new year. As a test it will be mirroring the tweets from the @HoBloodyHo story, but with a time delay so that the tweets can go at at Eastern Standard Time. The Temporal Tales website and blog are still being designed at the moment, but will up and running before @TemporalTales begins tweeting in anger.

In the meantime we are looking for submissions for new and imaginative stories to deliver when broadcasting begins. Please email stories in .doc or .pages format including a brief outline of what it is about to:

muse (at)
(I’ve used (at) instead of @ to defeat the bots. I’m sure you can figure out how to reassemble it). 

As a guide, stories should be from one day to two weeks in output duration. Please bear in mind the constraints of the medium when submitting stories, @BadHairDaze is an existing example of how a real-time story has worked. More details about @HoBloodyHo can be found here.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Ebooks: Does Size Matter?

 In the usual recondite fashion, the answer to this is: ‘It depends’. But when it comes to e-readers, if you haven’t considered this question when publishing your latest e-book you could be in for a tricky ride.

Part of the problem has arisen from the manufacturers of e-readers making out how adaptable their products can be, how any book can be scaled or made to re-flow to fit the viewing screen, either automatically or at the whim of the reader. This is all very well, but it has lead to the bamboozlement (it’s a real word I looked it up) of an entire industry concerning their products —as well as a certain amount of decapitated chicken behaviour as to how to best go about designing e-books. The simple answer to all this is size, and the guide to this already exists in the distilled wisdom that the publishing industry has managed to accrue over the last few thousand years. Over this period, though some books have been intended to be more or less portable, the common factor has been that they have all been designed to be read by a human being.
Just because Apple, Amazon and a few hundred technology companies in that last couple of years have come up with some electronic gizmos that display words and images, doesn’t mean that people’s fingers have got smaller or their eyes closer together. The reader (ie the meaty thing with a brain) is still for most purposes the same as the guy peering at clay tablets 5000 years ago, and the common issue is display size.

The thing that we call a ‘book’ covers such a variety of printed paper creations that the idea of trying to squash digital versions of every book into every kind of e-reader seems almost laughable, but this is what the manufacturers want you to believe can be done, both as a reader and a publisher.
The platform a book is read on makes a huge difference and it is as well to draw a clear line in the sand when it comes to what you create for them. The wikipedia chart provides a very helpful view of display sizes for most of the current e-reading devices, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that most fit into just two size ranges: pocket-size, and mid-size. If the industry is planning any large size, flexible screen fold out or roll-up devices they haven’t let on yet, but as things stand you should be aiming at one of those available, not both.
The ubiquitous Kindle (and it’s competitors) is not a multimedia device, or a games platform; it is best suited to being an e-novel platform. Pocket sized, eye-friendly and within the size limitations, perfectly suited for that purpose. It’s screen is 3.6 inches by 4.8, or 600 x 800 pixels. Writers of novels are fine here, text works well and it doesn’t suffer too much from being re-flowed as some formats have a habit of doing (If you’re publishing a novel you will have an easier time of it than creating anything involving pictures). But if a reader tries to view a comic, a magazine or a big picture book on one of these small sized devices, they will see something, but they are going to be missing out on a major part of the experience. If you are publishing a big bumper book of recipes with full spreads of chocolate treats, the kindle is not going to be your platform. Think in terms of size; either don’t publish for this type of device at all, or consider making a tailored, cut-down version that fits the screen and doesn’t have to be re-sized (heck it may even boost sales if people like the small version, there’s a good chance they will buy the big one as well).
Producing image heavy books for the ipad is another game entirely; the ipad and similar sized interactive tablets are all roughly 7.75 x 5.82 inches, 1024 x 768 pixels, which is larger than the e-novel readers but still designed to be portable. Size should also be considered right at the outset here as well; the reader should be able to comfortably view the page without having to change or drag the image around too much, or they may find it frustrating. Merely converting your existing picture book onto a common format and letting the reader deal with it’s viewing is unlikely to get the sales you might hope for. Taking the whole book apart and re-designing it to fit the magic 7.75 x 5.82 inches may take you some time, but it will be much more reader friendly.

We are enjoying a honeymoon period at the moment where the technology is new and the audience more receptive, people are forgiving of the quirks and foibles they encounter in the systems and publications they are buying, but they will very quickly tire of having to make too many clicks and gestures that interrupt the flow of the reading experience. Yes, the i-pad and its ilk allow for all sorts of interactive fireworks in your book, a route that leads into the realms of games and multimedia, but making the product the right size for the platform will do you favours in the long run. Think about how people are going to read your book; if you want people to read with their eyes not their fingers, then make sure it is designed so that they can do that easily. At the end of the day, size does matter and you should have that in mind when you set out to publish.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Ho Bloody Ho, a Christmas Tale

As the nights grow cold and the days grow short I find my mind turning to more seasonal matters and the creation of little Christmas treats. No, not mince pies or gingerbread stars, but a gift served in 140 character helpings, a new twitter novella for all who care to follow, entitled @HoBloodyHo —it even has flashing lights on the profile pic (when viewed on twitter itself).

This Yuletide story follows the eventful days and bitter thoughts of a man to whom life has not been kind, struggling to find kindness within himself while working as a shopping centre Santa.

Don’t worry it’s not slushy or sentimental; Dickens it isn't.

The tweets will begin being broadcast from Mid December (The exact date has yet to be finalised) and will run right up until Christmas. The story will unfold as a series of tweets by the main character Jim.
After my original experiment with this format for the @BadHairDaze story, first broadcast in April 2010, I’ve learnt that, not only does every tweet need to contribute to progressing the story or characters, but they need to be regular –at least 4 a day. To create a story arc that works over the time period along with the usual 140 character limitations of twitter is both a challenge and an accomplishment for me. Once I start broadcasting the story I cannot stop, or take time out until it is finished. With @BadHairDaze this was a major commitment and I was tweeting from laybys on car journeys even several days from my laptop at wireless hotspots during the London Book Fair. This time round I’ve learnt the benefits of scheduled tweeting via Tweetdeck and I intend to put up each day’s tweets in advance.

Currently the writing is running a little behind schedule, I’m about a third of the way through the process and more than a little nervous about getting it done and edited before it goes out. However, here is a selection of tweets from the work in progress as a twitter trailer.

Tuesday 9.00
Got in this morning, and some joker has messed with the sign overnight; rearranging the letters to say: SATAN’S GROTTO. Like it.

Tuesday 9.30
Wish we could keep it as Satan: Been bad this year, little Johnny? No presents for you then and your immortal soul’s gonna burn in hell. 

Tuesday 15.30
Keiley does all the wrong things for me. I can’t believe she's only 18 –it's the elf outfit, it shows all her bumps too effectively.

Tuesday 16.15
I can't bloody believe it, one of the little SOBs just peed on my lap, I don't have spare trousers issued for such eventualities.

Tuesday 16.30
A quick rinse under the tap in the gents and a towel on loan from Keiley and I'm back in business. Trousers are still wet. #HoHoNo

Tuesday 19.00 
Got to travel home with damp trousers, I'm not looking forward to it; it's perishing out.

Tuesday 20.30
Called Rita’s to speak to the kids. Robby was out again, but Jin was in –we spoke for about a minute; she wanted to watch some TV programme.

The story will be broadcast from mid-December, start following to catch the first tweets as they come out. @HoBloodyHo a Christmas gift to all of twitterdom. Now that’s got to be better than a mince pie.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Macro Approach to Fine-Tuning a Novel

Editing a book on my floor.

If anyone has been following my twitter updates, they’ll be aware I’ve worked my way through two further drafts of my novel: The Different since finishing the first in February. My second draft was intended to tackle the narrative; making sure the slight changes to the story I’d made during the writing process made sense overall. What I ended up doing was pulling the whole thing apart and writing another twenty-thousand words. This wasn’t to bulk up the word count (I’d already hit my target in the first draft), but to create a stronger narrative sense and much needed structural continuity.

Early on I’d chosen to write three distinct story threads: the main protagonist, her father, and first person recounts of her back-story. The way these three elements worked together meant that I had to pull the novel apart to be able to edit them. The third draft has been about getting the narrative to flow as a whole, and in the last two weeks I’ve undertaken a major edit of the chapter order.
With three story threads the order has been a bugbear for me throughout, and in the end I printed out summaries of each section onto paper and laid them all out on the floor. It was incredibly helpful to see the whole story laid out this way, better than a digital flat-plan. At first I used the order from the first draft, but I quickly saw how I could insert the back-story elements in a more interesting way along with one or two changes to the other sections. By the end of the process there were only a couple of trouble areas where the order of events either conflicted with others or just didn’t hit the beats in the story in quite the way I wanted.
As these were time based, I went back to one of the methods I’d used early in the planning stage; I’d found that creating a calendar based timeline (mine was taken straight from April-July 2010) had helped in organising the order of events and I was amazed that the original timelines were still mostly relevant to the updated story. Using a timeline allowed me to quickly identify which elements I could re-order and still have a story that made sense.

Employing macro editing methods has enabled me to slot my chapters together with confidence in the knowledge they will work over the whole book. I know it is worth planning a book before writing it, but doing this again after the second or third draft has been very useful. Certainly something worth doing with any books I write in the future. Taking a step back (in my case quite literally) to look at the whole book can ensure that it not only works on a logical level, but will allow it to unfold in the best way for reading.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Killing Darlings #2 The Nightmare

Here lies yet another of my writing darlings I've found necessary to cull in the latest revision of my book. 

It did serve a purpose, but the whole section no longer fits the rest of the book. Writing about a character's dreams shouldn't be completely taboo (I've read writer's advice which says otherwise, but anything goes if it works for the book you are writing as far as I'm concerned), but as things stand this little section and its surreal descriptions has to go.
I wrote this surreal nightmare scene fairly early on intending to show the main protagonist's doubt about pressure she was being put under to have some form of corrective surgery. At the time I wrote this there was to be a lot more dream imagery in the book, mostly because the story was being told from a point in the future (where the girl is dying and under the influence of drugs). As the first draft took shape, I pulled back from the idea and much of the dream experiences were transmuted into backstory, leaving this section stuck out on its own. It was also interesting to see that my style has changed a lot since writing this; I was trying a too hard to seem like a sophisticated writer, yet coming across sounding like a pretentious amateur. Over-description, alliteration and an excess of adverbs are some of the obvious issues.

The Nightmare
The unlit hospital corridors seem oddly familiar, from somewhere outside shafts of sodium street light enter through the infrequent windows casting muddy islands of illumination into the seas of darkness between. Melanie shuffles along hesitantly, one hand feeling for the guiding solidity of the wall. A further step and her uncertain fingers clutch at empty space and she stumbles forward into the hollow opening of an adjoining corridor.  Melanie's eyes strain to pierce the menacing blackness, a subtle dread clasping her insides with primitive fear. Sensing, rather than seeing them: spindly, angular and many limbed, attenuated metal insects exuding the ozone scent of stainless steel, dry joints squeaking as they reach for her with bladed claws. Melanie's fear only holds her fast for a heartbeat before giving way to flight. She runs, seeking escape through the maze of corridors, a breath behind, the skittering surgical creatures dance through the shadows on pointed feet. Ahead she sees a light. The bright outline of a doorway. Melanie throws herself through into a space of blinding illumination and in that moment of confusion she finds herself upon an operating table, her heavy limbs refusing to obey her, numbed by anaesthetic. Up above, looking down from a gallery, she can see the faces of people she knows: her Dad, Howard, Sue, Robbie, and Cynthia, their comments floating down into the echoing room.
"Yes, it's just a little procedure."
"She'll be a new person afterwards."
"Oh, she'll fit in then; she never did fit in."
"There's hardly any risk."
Around her the mechanical insects reach towards her, their pincers, blades and forceps glinting under the light.
"It's only a paper bag after all."

It is daytime now; golden sunshine shines down on beds of brightly coloured tulips outside the front of the hospital. A crowd of people stand around the front entrance clapping as Melanie is wheeled out wearing a bag, upon the bag is drawn a big smile. The specialist leans over and plucks off the bag with a flourish. The crowd cheer as the new Melanie is revealed, her face, neck, and head covered in Frankensteinian stitches, the corners of her mouth drawn downwards, like a clown, her eyes expressionless and vacant hollows.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

When Did You Last Back Up Your Writing?

I know how precious my work is to me and I know other writers feel the same. What I don’t understand is how they can go day after day challenging the odds of losing it all.

So here’s the scenario: your masterpiece has taken months, years even. You’ve collated volumes of research, made your fingers ache from typing, poured your soul into those passages; but just as the end is in sight, or the deadline looming, you sit down one morning, switch on your trusty computer, and it makes an odd noise. The screen remains blank – or worse, it displays some terrifying error message. Concerned, you try turning it off and on again. This time it makes the sort of mechanical grinding noise that you’d expect if you stuck a pencil into a hairdryer and the true realisation hits; whatever unfortunate mechanical failure your (no longer so trusty) computer has just suffered, it is of almost insignificant concern compared to what you’ve potentially lost on its hard drive – months of work excised from existence at the whim of whatever hairy ape passes for a god of all things digital. 
Exactly this scenario happened to a friend recently; she lost all the work for her master’s project and goodness knows what else. Hopefully a data recovery service may be able to retrieve the data, but it all costs money and takes time. While I commiserate with her (I really do feel for you Kelly), it’s time and money that shouldn’t have been lost. But any writer could just as easily lose the whole lot by leaving a laptop on a train or having it stolen from a car.

Ask yourself: just how precious is my work, how much of it can I afford to lose? A few sentences, a page, ten thousand words? Now be honest here: when did I last back everything up?  If you do back up regularly, well done – have a high five and a warm, slightly smug moment. If not, it’s a habit that I guarantee will save your digital bacon at some stage.
It comes down to this. If you are writing, or aspire to write professionally, you need to think of your equipment, and the files you create with it, in a professional way. It’s okay, you can still arrange fluffy toys along the top of your monitor, or cover your laptop in Zombie Boy™ stickers; but you need to get into the habit of backing up your work and making archives periodically. 

The road to hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions; most people have them about making backups, but remembering, or figuring out what they should back up and how, can often mean that when disaster strikes they haven’t actually got round to it. However, some simple options are available that can be set up to provide automatic backups, as well as some very handy online solutions which should ensure that when the inevitable crunch happens, you’ll be breathing a sigh of relief, rather than a whimper of despair.
If you are intending to preserve your whole computer system, including all those family snapshots, video tutorials (or in my case huge chunks of uncompressed digital film), you will need to buy an external hard drive that has the same memory capacity as the one inside your computer. Yes, it will cost actual money, but think about what you are protecting here, and these days big USB external drives are fairly cheap – less than 50 quid, or 75 bucks down at the local supermarket.
If you own a Mac, this external drive can be set to be the Time Machine drive via the Time Machine settings in the System Preferences. This will not only make an hourly backup of any changes on your computer, but can also be used to hunt back in time and restore previous versions of files you may have saved days, or even weeks, before – so no more worries about accidentally overwriting a file.
On a PC running Windows, a similar automatic system can be set up by opening the Control Panel, and then clicking the Backup and Restore option. This allows you to schedule the external drive to back up daily, or whenever you click Backup Now. It may also be set to schedule a backup for a single folder or file, which can come in handy if you are working from a laptop away from your desk, as a small USB pen drive can be used instead of an external hard drive.
Other interesting methods of ensuring your precious work (and arse) is protected from disaster utilise some of the new cloud computing solutions that are available. Many ISPs already offer a storage service as part of their broadband package, but there are numerous free online backup services available such as those from or
However, the best solutions for writers are those that offer synchronisation, like Sugarsync or Dropbox. Both of these services work with most operating systems and devices including tablets and phones. Each works in a similar way, allowing you to set folders on your computer to be automatically backed up online. If you make any updates to the files in those folders, it will be backed up as soon as you do so. Even better, you can set other machines like your laptop, or ipad to synchronise with the same folders, so your work is not only updated on all your devices, it is backed up at the same time. The free offering from Dropbox gives 2GB of space and Sugarsync 5GB, but if you use their pay service you could easily backup your entire drive. It is even possible to share selected folders with family or clients.
Provided you can access the internet, this ability to rove and get at your files from anywhere makes it very easy to ensure your current project is always backed up – hopefully before you manage to douse your keyboard in skinny frappelatto.

I’ve mentioned just a few ways to protect your work, although there are numerous other easy to use solutions out there, so there isn’t any excuse not to be covered (I’m always interested to hear about more, so please let me know). Whether you are a novelist, journalist, non-fiction writer, poet, scriptwriter, editor or just enjoy getting your thoughts down on digital paper, if it means something to you, for goodness sake, make sure you look after it! Back it up and make an archive of your work. Do it today, and thank me tomorrow.

Backup Trivia: the accepted forms are backup as a single compound word for the noun, and two separate words back up when used as a verb.

Further Useful Links:

Illustration©Simon Cornish 2010

Friday, 15 July 2011

Killing Darlings

The 'Kill Your Darlings' advice attributed to both William Faulkner and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch is generally interpreted as telling writers to be objective about their editing. It recognises that writers need to be particularly brutal with those passages that they have fallen in love with in the first draft; chances are those will be the passages they will indulge far beyond their usefulness to the story.

I've been doing this a lot recently. Heck, I may even be turning into a serial killer. The fact that, whilst I'm slicing bits of text off salami fashion from one end of this draft, I'm sneakily scribbling new scenes  elsewhere, is neither here nor there. I'll wait for the third draft before I start hacking those down to size.

But in the meantime, I thought it might be good to share some of these lost souls of novelistic fancy. Summon them up from digital purgatory and allow them a few brief moments of freedom before they fade from existence.

This one is simply called The Duck Dream, I'll give it no further qualification that that.

Is this part of it? No, I think it's now; I'm sitting on a bench in a trim English park with ornamental trees, the sun is warm and I can smell the grass. In front of me is a path that circles a big ornamental pond. On the pond are ducks, lots of ducks. At the other end of the bench sits an old lady, feeding the ducks bread from a big brown paper bag. One of the ducks, a large ugly looking black and white brute, with wrinkles of puffy red flesh about its eyes and beak, peers up at me with that hopeful look that animals have when they think someone might feed them. I look back at it.
'Sorry,' I say, 'I don't have any bread, go to the lady at the end, she'll feed you.'
The duck carries on looking at me for a bit, then opens its beak
  'you have a bag, is there nothing in there?' it says.
'No that's to cover me, I'm different.'
'Seems like a waste of a good bag to me. Why are you trying to do what everyone expects you to, why don't you accept what you are?'
'What do you mean?'
'Look, you wear a bag because everyone else expects you to, they have assigned a place to you in society, you conform to that because you want to fit in and be accepted.'
'Well, yes, I guess so.'
'So, you are effectively letting your own kind down by trying to fit in to the society of the normals, trying to behave like one of them.'
'What? You hardly seem qualified, you've got to be the ugliest duck on this pond and you are behaving just like the others. Apart from the talking bit.'
A passing pug being walked on a long extendible leash trots up some meters ahead of its owner scattering the ducks in all directions.
'Ignore the duck, he's got it all wrong,' the pug says, looking at me with divergent eyes; 'if you want to get anywhere in this world you've got to integrate, be like them, fit into their expectations, if you can't be normal, behave the way they expect you to as a diff. Show them gratitude if they offer help even if you don't need it, laugh at their ignorant jokes, respond to their awkward questions, and pretend you're stupid, there's no point in fighting it.'

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Second Draft

Now I’ve begun the second draft stage of writing my book, I’m finding it as much of a challenge as the freeform creativity of the initial draft. I’m much more aware of the pitfalls in the writing, the structure of my scenes, what they are contributing to the narrative, and how they flow within themselves. I’ve also had to write tailor made scenes, to fit the specific needs of the overall plot –something I’ve found quite difficult to do whilst still trying to maintain a natural flow to the writing.

In this draft I’m also aware of some of the format constraints I’ve created for myself. The book, as I have written it, has a form of framing set up by the opening chapter, with the character speaking in first person –this has now lead to me writing all the flashback scenes in first person. The trouble with this currently, is the tense, I keep flipping between wanting to write all the flashbacks in present tense –which sounds better– or wanting to write them in past tense –which makes more sense in terms of reported experience. Present or past, flip-flip? I’m aware of the need for consistency, but at some point I will need to draw a line under it and stop re-writing.

This is a tiny flashback scene that appears very early in the book, which I have just updated to past tense, but as I write the subsequent flashbacks – concerning Melanie’s experiences at school– I’m beginning to wonder if it would be better as present tense after all.

Sugary Treatments
“Outside the big sash windows the wind shook red and yellow leaves from the trees, toying with its prizes as they fell, inside within the white painted room, with it's lofty ceiling and chipped edged desk, everything had a clean look to it, not sparkling-clean like the kitchens in adverts, but the worn-clean of things that get scrubbed almost daily. A hint of antiseptic tantalised my nostrils. I’d been here, or somewhere like it before, but those recollections were less clear. It probably wasn’t long after my third birthday.
Other than the desk and the wooden chairs the only other items in the room were a wheeled stainless steel cabinet against one wall and a high examination table-bed. The sort I’d often been lifted onto as the different doctors made clicking noises with their tongues or breathed loudly through their noses, checking me over –just a little test, it might feel a tiny touch cold, this won’t hurt a bit.
Maman would tell me ‘I’m a very patient patient’, which always made me giggle. Sometimes, if I’d been extra good, one of the doctors gave me a sweet in a wrapper or a lollypop, sometimes.
The room was on the second floor of a grand old Edwardian building that must, at some point in it’s long history, have been turned over from luxury mansion to austere health service clinic; with its high ceilings and wide halls that made ghosts of every footstep on our way up via a once grand staircase, lost beneath stratified gloss paint and linoleum.
I dandled my legs beneath the adult sized chair, attempting to pay attention. My parents either side, a comforting mass of texture and warmth. Daddy holding my hand, giving it an absentminded squeeze now and then. Maman elegant and straight backed. They were talking about me; grown-ups did that a lot. They listened with serious expressions, nodding occasionally at the specialist's turgid medical parlance. In my imagination each word became a long hairy caterpillar crawling about the neat desktop. He talked about some sugary treatments from America, I wondered where he kept them, perhaps the desk drawer, or in the metal cabinet.
Maman leant forward, her mascara painted eyelashes looking dramatically long from my low viewpoint, and interrupted him. Her tone suggesting she'd had enough of his caterpillar words. She wants me to be happy, she says. Then asks if it can’t wait until I’m older, old enough to understand what could happen, old enough to make my own choices.
The doctor tells them, that the choice is theirs, I’m bright and otherwise healthy, my quality of life shouldn’t decline. He stood and walked over to the shiny metal cabinet. I craned my neck to see as he opened the doors and pulled a folded paper object from a stack on one of the shelves, shaking it open with a flick as he brought it over to me. I glimpsed a pair of holes cut into the front as he lifted it and, not ungently, slid it over my head, using a word unfamiliar to my three year old hearing, a word I understood as something like ‘prophecy’, though the actual word was most likely prosthetic, or even prophylactic; neither of which is technically correct, but ‘prophecy’ was what I remember hearing as my head was enveloped by that first bag.”

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Time to Draw

Is being self-employed ruining my creative potential?

I just drew the image above. It took me about ninety minutes. No reason, no mulling it over, I just picked up the stylus and let my hand put down what it wanted. It's been a while.

Sometimes I need to remind myself it's all still there, ready to be used. The reason why I don't do this kind of thing very often is simply that I don't allow myself to. Somewhere along the line I was programmed to see anything that was ultimately not going to pay the gas bill, or the shopping, or the astronomical cost of running the car, as bad, a waste of time that could be better spent on promoting myself or writing 'the book'. My self employed dream has become a bit of a nightmare. If I can't take the time and the pleasure to draw nice little concept doodles, how can I afford the time to do the same with my writing. This is something I need to address before it's too late.

I hate to admit it, but I think, that whilst self employment has offered a great many freedoms and benefits over the years I think the security of a salary in this current climate would be a good idea, though it would need to be a job that allows me enough spare time to sit down and appreciate the simple pleasure of being creative. Is that too much to ask for?

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Today The Unforgiving Muse is playing host to the Immortal Blog Tour

I’m a big fan of novel approaches to any genre. Any author who looks at the accepted conventions and promptly marches sideways will catch my interest if they do it well. Gene Doucette has managed this with the fantasy genre in his novel Immortal.
The premise itself is interesting enough; Adam, the main protagonist happens to be something in the region of sixty-thousand years old, his memories stretch so far back through human history that even he has trouble recalling his origins, but in the twenty-first century, with its obsessive need to keep track of everyone, his immortality can prove more tricky to conceal. The casual sarcasm and grounded pragmatism make for an accessible character, even when he’s recounting events from centuries before, but as the story progresses we begin to learn a lot more about human history and the strange creatures from which our myths originated.
Gene has been promoting the novel largely through social networking, both as himself, @genedoucette and as the main character Adam, @adamtheimmortal on twitter and through his website. This is increasingly becoming an attractive method for indie authors to promote their work, but it takes a lot of hard work, especially if you choose to write as your main character as well as yourself. This blog slot has allowed me to put a few questions to Gene about Immortal and his writing.

A great deal of the story is a first-hand account of the past.  Did you have to do a lot of research?

Not terribly much.  I’ve read my share of history books, so for details I just had to go to my own bookshelf and flip through a book or two to get the information I needed.  For example, Barbara Tuchman is almost entirely responsible for the plague-era France story.  And when I needed an extra bit of information, there was always Google.  It’s also useful having the story told in first-person; I only need to provide the details Adam feels like imparting.  

How similar are you and Adam?  Is he “you”?

You mean is he a “Mary Sue” for me?  I don’t think he is.  On the one hand I have coworkers who insist Adam is me, but they only get my sarcasm, dark humor, and the occasional bitter email, and that’s pretty much the same place Adam comes from.  On the other hand my wife doesn’t like Adam, so if he’s me we have a problem.

Adam is fully capable of murder if he thinks it’s necessary; he’s mildly chauvinistic; and he’s an alcoholic.  I hardly drink, I don’t think I’m a chauvinist (but who does?) and according to the first appellate court, it wasn’t murder.  (Joke!  Laugh now!)  We share a sense of humor because while it’s possible to create a character that is smarter than you are, it’s not possible to create one that’s funnier than you are.  And we’re both INTJ personalities.  So I’d say we’re similar, but not the same person; we keep separate Twitter feeds, and you can tell us apart.

Is novel writing all you do?

It’s just what I’m doing currently.  I have at one time or another been a playwright, a humor columnist, an op-ed writer, a satirist, a blogger, and a screenwriter.  And for a short period of time, a standup comic.  I mostly concentrate on screenwriting, blogging and novel writing nowadays.  And I don’t even think of blogging as writing; it’s more like what I do when I’m not writing a screenplay or a novel.

When did screenwriting come into the picture?

Immortal had a long dark journey to publication, and there was a point—my agent had just dropped me after not being able to find a place for it, and had passed on my next novel Fixer—when I decided I needed to try something different.  A friend of mine who had known me first as a humor writer but was aware of my playwriting background dragged me to a meeting of the Rhode Island Film Collaborative.  I left that meeting thinking screenwriting might be fun.  A few months later I had turned an old novel of mine (Charlatan, which came before Immortal) into a feature script.  I’ve since gotten involved in a number of short film projects and Charlatan has won a few awards.  It hasn’t been optioned, but that might be because I don’t live in Los Angeles, frankly.

Immortal offers a flavour of a new form of urbanised fantasy that eschews any direct references to magic while toying with the standard perceptions of the genre. If you aren’t normally a big fantasy follower, but want something written with imagination, or you do like the genre but just fancy a refreshing change from the usual fare, then Immortal is worth checking out.
It’s available from a number of online distributors in ebook format, but paper copies can only be obtained from the US Amazon site.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Ebook Virus Warning

A new virus-form has been detected, infecting ebooks available for download onto the Kindle or reader-apps on Android based devices. The virus, dubbed the Hemmingway Virus after the Nobel prizewinning author Ernest Hemmingway, has already found its way undetected onto numerous devices after being unwittingly downloaded from Amazon and other sites distributing ebooks.

   A spokesman for Amazon stated ‘Last night we were made aware that a number of ebooks had become infected with the Hemmingway strand. We are currently taking steps to identify which have been affected and deal with them as we find them.’
   No reports of any Hemmingway affected books have been made yet for Apple’s ipad, but it is believed to be only a matter of time. In a statement Apple have said that they ‘are monitoring the situation’. Waterstones have also said that they are concerned that the Hemmingway strand may have already found its way into printed material, though so far they are playing down any rumours that Hemmingway books may have made it onto the shelves.

   The Hemmingway virus exploits a feature in ebooks using the Iceberg theory as well as the economy of style loophole. Though no antivirus software is made for the Kindle, Amazon are working on a patch for the system that will provide additional verbosity in any infected titles. In the meantime it is believed that they have a large number of writers working round the clock to address the problem. If you are concerned that you may have inadvertently downloaded an ebook affected by Hemmingway, literary experts have advised that it may be identified by the following method:

1. Open the ebook and read the first page, then jump to page 100 (or a page near the middle of the book), and read that page also.
2. Check the meaning of the text, is there any evidence of understatement?
3. Now check the way the sentences are constructed on each, do the sentences show signs of succinct editing, the removal of redundant clauses, overused phrases or adverbs?
4. Is the style compelling, does it make you want to read on?

If the answers are all yes, then you most likely have an ebook that has been affected by Hemmingway. So far, the only method proven to deal with a book that has been affected by Hemingway, is to read it through from beginning to end and then put up a post advising friends and colleagues to do the same.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Boost Your Blog -Start an Argument.

How can being wrong drive more people to your blog?

I read lots of blogs and articles that tell me how to drive up my blog hits and followers. Most talk about regular blogging, insightful and well structured posts, and slowly building a following that trusts your opinion. Needless to say, writing blogs about how to get more hits on your blog seems like a good way to achieve this –though I don’t expect a huge groundswell as a result of this little offering.

But something happened earlier this week that made me realise that there can be another way of rapidly upping blog hits. I posted on a relatively new blog I’d established at the end of last year, I'd written a short entry that was to be the first of several about the subject of the website it was linked to. It was simply intended to be a quick introduction, with more meaty and informative posts to follow. I was surprised then, at how quickly I got a number of comments, and how quickly the number of hits shot up. I assumed this was partly due to the fact that the first person to comment was well known and respected in the subject about which I was blogging. Another thing I noticed was that his comment strongly refuted the subject of my blog, and so did all the others. I knew I’d written something a little provocative, but I didn’t think I was so wrong that absolutely no-one was prepared to agree with me. Believing the argument was too one-sided I spent a couple of hours writing a good argument to defend my position. As a check I re-read my original blog and it was only then that I noticed I had made a mistake.
I had intended the piece to be a little provocative, to pique people’s interest, but when I re-read it, I realised that what I had actually written was an order of magnitude more provocative than what I had intended. This explained the comments. I felt a terrible embarrassment; how could I have published something so stupid in front of the very readers I was attempting to impress? Then it dawned on me; far from putting people off, it had drawn people in, and the hit count had risen far beyond my expectations.

So from an embarrassing mistake, my blog provoked discussion and interest. No news is bad news, as Hollywood agents are wont to say. It won’t work for everyone, and it shouldn’t be overused, but posting a blog entry that people disagree with can be a quick way to boost your exposure. So go on, start an argument; you might make new friends.

Monday, 7 March 2011

A UK Comic-book Revival

Cover from the first DFC issue

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to a select gathering marking the office-opening party of what could be the start of an exciting ground-shift in British children's literature. The gathering represented a rarified set of artists and writers with an unusual skill set (for the UK at least).

Technically it could be regarded as a resurrection of what was formerly the DFC comic, but the new publication will be a more robust indie, not beholden to the vagaries, whims, and interference of a large publishing house. The DFC was first published in May 2008, available only through subscription. It was pulled less than a year later after Random House withdrew funding in a round of belt tightening measures. For those that were lucky enough to have read the DFC, my daughter included, the decision seemed almost incomprehensible; not to have given the publication the full two and a half years to work it’s way into the marketplace seemed a huge waste on every level. The 8-12 age range that the comic was aimed at is pretty much uncontended in the UK, and there was little or no competition with a format of producing well written, beautifully illustrated, often serial based story-lines from luminaries such as Philip Pullman. What I find so appealing about this new revived publication is that the ethic behind it is, refreshingly, not about money, or markets, but about telling good stories.

So why does the UK have this missing market sector? Other countries, France, Spain, the US and Japan have a strong tradition of comic literature, where every possible niche is filled: from pre-school bedside stories to romance for pensioners. Certainly, the UK once had a tradition of story led comic-books that have come and gone over the years: with the likes of EagleWizard, Valiant, and Tiger to name a few. 2000AD is now one of the last surviving weekly episodic comic books, though its story-lines, and sci-fi orientation are aimed at slightly older boys. So why has this gap happened, why have two generations of girls and boys grown up in this country with nothing more sustaining than a bunch of brand-led promotional publications, like the Simpsons Comic and gag-led material like the Beano and Dandy? The answer is probably more complex than anyone really knows, certainly the  market for graphic novels, aimed at a more mature audience, is healthy enough. I’d like to put the answer down to a form of British snobbery, but I’m no expert. In other countries, comic books are seen as a legitimate literary form, even for eight-year-olds. In the UK, such books are dismissed by many adults as ‘cartoon comics’ lumped in with the likes of Beano (sorry guys, but it just isn’t literary).
What is even more interesting is that, since the demise of the story-comic, there has been a concurrent decline of literacy standards amongst British children. I’m no academic, but simple logic says that if a kid is struggling with reading, give them a story with pictures and words; something that, rather than putting them off stories and leaving them behind as they get older, makes them want to read more, to engage with the characters, to figure out what is being said in those speech bubbles, to want to know what happens as the story develops in the next issue. Even if a kid only reads one comic book a week, that is an hour or two of reading each week, not an hour of TV or playstation, and it’s reading they genuinely want to continue doing.

There will be more information filtering out over the coming months about this new project. The comic book itself will not hit the shelves until early next year, but this time it will hit shelves; people will be able to buy it in shops, they will also be able to buy it purely in a digital form. The stories will all be new, built on the already great experience of the original DFC team. And the name, appropriately, will be The Phoenix.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Writing Professional or Writing Junkie?

I’m either a clever person who’s being idiotic, or a idiot who’s learnt to show a veneer of cleverness.

Let me qualify that. Here I am, having just finished a Master’s degree in professional writing, I have several irons in the fire: a draft novel, a graphic novel in production, and a whole series of non-fiction role-play books being edited. It all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? That’s the clever bit, here’s the stupid element: somewhere in my psyche I’ve managed to delude myself that it’s a worthwhile thing to pursue a career as a writer –laughable isn’t it?

An objective individual, with any knowledge of the publishing industry, will immediately understand why it is stupid; statistically I don’t have the proverbial snowball-in-hell’s chance of making anything at all from my writing, let alone turning it into a career. But that is just it, the only way any writer can get anywhere is to delude themselves that it is possible, that the thankless hours spent writing, editing, blogging, promoting, sending out work, and being rejected, are all to some purpose. While it would be wrong to directly compare writing to the appalling, life-wrecking effects of drug and alcohol addiction, the parallels are a little disturbing.
It starts out, often as a teenager, as a recreational thing; it is fun and rewarding, something to fit in with, and be congratulated for doing, by those that appreciate it, and something to be kept a secret from those that do not. Later, it becomes a subtly more obsessive thing; you may be holding down a normal job to earn an income, but you can’t wait to get home and indulge your passion. Soon you find yourself doing it in the morning as well, then you begin to find ways to organise your life around your addiction: flexible hours, self employment, the writing becomes justified as a potential money-spinner to work on between paid projects. Then you move onto more hard-core avenues to pursue the writing dragon: courses and retreats all cost money, and not forgetting the endless supply of books. It all starts to eat into the budget. Eventually the recreational hobby takes over and your income and savings are consumed to write that first novel, the second or third. Relationships become strained as those around you turn from being proudly indulgent to cynically disgusted. You don’t eat properly, your health begins to suffer and your sleep is plagued by flashes of insight; all to serve this writing monster.
And here’s the rub: you convince yourself it is toward some end, that sooner or later it will be worth all the effort, it will take-off and people other than those around you (in drug terminology, they are called enablers) will want to read your work, paying to do so. Surely a form denial every bit is blind as any addict.

Now, where this is all leading I can’t actually say. For habitual substance abusers, the future either leads to spiralling decline, physically, morally and socially, until their wasted shell expires in some ignominious fashion, or through self-will and the intervention of others they get detoxified and undergo a recovery, with the implicit lifetime of abstinence. This perhaps, is where writing differs; it could never be said that it is as toxic or chemically addictive. A writer could walk away from their pen and paper at any time, but my point is that most choose not to; the self-delusion is sufficient to keep them coming back for the next hit. And for the writer, the only self-help groups are there to enable their addiction, not recover from it. It is easy enough to dabble in the gateways of writing: tweeting, blogging, and wall posting, but for some the hardcore craft will beguile them, enslaving them to a passion that convinces fools that they are scholars and turns scholars into fools. Perhaps such things should bear a warning.

Monday, 31 January 2011

I'm a Writer, but is that Enough?

Now I’ve finished my MA, I’ve spent a few calm days reflecting on all I’ve learnt and all I’ve achieved in the last two years. Somewhere on that journey, I became a writer. I can’t put my finger on the exact day, but it was around the same time I stopped being self-conscious about my abilities and just got on with it.

To put this in context, I was an indifferent student of both English language and literature at school; which were taught in such a way that I was left with no desire to read more classics and I perceived grammar as a form of slow torture. That my early creative instincts in writing were not encouraged, was entirely down to the tired and listless attitude of my secondary school teachers. Even after escaping from a career path of science for one in animation, it wasn’t until I began to write scripts, (both animation and live-action) that I wrote anything creative. These scripts were not to sell, but to satisfy my own urges to write narratives. At the same time I had also been steadily collating my chaotic notes for the fantasy role-playing system I had created, which, by the time I began my MA, had been distilled into two good sized, non-fiction books. And even then I didn’t think of myself as a writer.
The very reason I applied to do the Professional Writing MA at Falmouth was to earn that badge, to gain the confidence, skills, and understanding, of the written medium.Now I’m here at the point of completion, there is a temptation to think of it as some sort of big deal; certainly it’s a personal achievement, having got this far, but though I can now say I am a writer, there is more to aspire to. That I can string some words together to good effect is all very well, but the internet is full of writers: posters, bloggers, commentators, reviewers, critics, and tweeters who claim to do that. 
Even saying that I’m a writer, brings some negative baggage –’Is he actually earning a living at it, or is he just being pretentious?’ ‘It’s not really a proper job.’ ‘Anyone can be a writer these days with the aid of technology.’– Perhaps my aim should be something that implies a much greater mastery of the craft than merely being able tweet; I want to become an author. By definition the title of ‘author’ implies the creator of a piece work, it implies an omnipotence over the project that is more than simple technical fluency of the words that make it up, it cuts away all the baggage, it says I am established, successful, and published; it says I have ‘authority’ in my field.

When someone asks me what I do, and I am able to reply with simple conviction that ‘I’m an author’, is when I know I have achieved my objective.