Archive for the ‘Process and technique’ Category

Writing on Walls – the stick!

September 20, 2012 Leave a comment
The stick from the 'Mabon Whores' story - photo credit Chris Cafferkey

The stick from the ‘Mabon Whores’ story – photo credit Chris Cafferkey

A few years ago I went to a local science fiction society meeting – probably Starbase Leicester – to attend a talk by an SF/fantasy novelist. I’m afraid my memory is poor about who the writer actually was, though someone may be able to remind me from the details I’m about to give. The key thing I took away from the talk was the idea that in order to get inside the head of his characters, he made puppets of them. Properly carved wooden puppets, about two feet tall, the kind on strings that you can use in a puppet theatre.

My memory says he’d learned the art of woodcarving from a family member (father? grandfather? uncle? I don’t know) and got into puppetry as a hobby from an early age. So when he started writing, it was a natural strategy for him to get a sense of his characters’ physique, looks and characters by carving and constructing them as puppets.

That is, I think, dedication – because I’d imagine it takes quite a time to get a puppet looking exactly the way you think it should.

The pics in this blog represent almost the reverse process, however. Because my Writing on Walls collection has a story in it titled ‘Mabon Whores’. Mabon is the pagan (some say primarily Wiccan, but there you go) name for the autumnal equinox and the story has references to various magical items made by dirt-poor people in a small rural community. One of those items is a magical stick.

In writing the story I  tried to imagine what such an item would look like. There are of course a range of possible variations – staffs, wands, etc. but I wanted it just to be a stick, the kind of thing you could pick up from a hedgerow or as fallen wood in a copse. And I didn’t want it to be well-constructed, made with craft and finesse. Not because the makers wouldn’t have had the resources to do that, because they’d be able to whittle and make home-made varnish and suchlike, but because they understood that the point and power of such an object lies in the intent with which it’s made. It’s the kind of WI Thomas logic at work here: if I pick up a random stick or twig and tell you it has powerful magic in it, and I’m convincing and you believe me, then for all practical purposes it does have powerful magic in it. If I tell you it can send out a force like a hurricane and wave it at you, you’d probably fall over (and think it was the stick that did it, not the power of suggestion).

The stick from the 'Mabon Whores' story, moodier image. Credit: Chris Cafferkey

The stick from the ‘Mabon Whores’ story, moodier image. Credit: Chris Cafferkey

So to cut to the chase, after I wrote the story I made the stick out of curiosity. And that’s what the pics are.

It came from the back garden, was painted with old spray paints from the shed, and decorated with random things lying about the house – some ribbon and beads, a plastic dragonfly (I said it was random, it’s that kind of household), an old keyring, the printing from the inside of a cigarette packet that looks almost-but-not-quite like buttons on a TV remote control.

If you read the story, the stick probably won’t knock you over. But the eviscerator might make you cross your legs…

Oh, and the pics were taken by Chris Cafferkey, who normally shoots far more elegant and beautiful things like flowers.


Are writers ‘credible sources’?

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Here’s a slightly weird story.

Philip Roth – who’s pretty well-known as an author – wrote a novel, The Human Stain, published in 2000. No, I haven’t read it, but that’s not important.

Wikipedia has a page about the novel – not surprising, because it has pages on many novels. The page was generated in 2002 by a contributor and has been revised and added to on many occasions since. The page mentioned speculation by various critics that the principal character was based on the life of a literary critic, Anatole Broyard. Roth approached Wikipedia to offer a correction: despite the critics’ speculations, he’d drawn the events surrounding the principal character, and character elements, from the experiences of his friend Melvin Tumin.

The Wikipedia administrators refused to amend the entry on the basis that there was no second source to support this claim and he ‘was not a credible source’.

The entry has now been amended to reflect this exchange, but it raises interesting questions.

To what extent is any author a ‘credible source’ when discussing their own work? I’m not talking here about slips of memory or deliberately misleading statements – though those can happen – but the extent to which any literary work draws on material from a writer’s unconscious and perhaps touches on matters of which the writer was not consciously aware. I can give an old example from a piece I wrote and performed as a student: I was pleased with it, but the feedback I got after the event was that it was an interesting retelling of a Biblical story. One that wasn’t in my mind when I wrote it, and that I’d never consciously paid attention to since religious education classes in primary school. (I might add that I never kept a copy of the piece and couldn’t now tell you which Biblical story.)

What (or who) constitutes a ‘credible source’ anyway for a work of imagination? And with the passage of time, is it really possible for anyone – even with access to an author’s personal manuscripts and notes, etc. – to tell what was really in their mind when they wrote something? Does it even matter?  Because meaning is context-bound and if the book survives and is read years later, does the meaning even remain intelligible within the context of the time it was written?

As you may have seen in previous blog posts, I recently self-published a short collection of horror stories. And I’d hate to think what kinds of stuff people would find in there that I wasn’t aware I was writing, because a lot of my stories start from a single mental image, a fragment of life, or as much of a dream as I can remember when I wake up, and I try to re-imagine their contexts and consequences.

If you want to read the whole BBC story, here’s a link.

The end is nigh!

May 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Last night, after something like four months of a group of us juggling diaries, we finally did the video shoot for a project I’ve had in mind since late last year. There’s more to do: some still photography, design work, and fitting the whole thing together. It’s been a steep learning curve because I’ve had to work out how to do video editing and various ancillary things, but the end is now in sight. Another couple of weeks and I should be able to show and tell…

Thinking about spending money!

April 6, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that I’m going to have to spend some cash. Probably. My wallet is famed for the number of padlocks on it, and I’m renowned for trying to find cheap solutions to problems. You know the kind of thing: the wall of your house is falling down? No problem, a bit of duck tape will solve that… But this time, I suspect I may actually have to pull some actual currency out. Maybe.

The problem is this. I want to create a PDF file with a movie embedded in it. And the various programmes I have available to me for creating PDFs won’t do it. When I export to PDF, what they do is give me a nice picture of the first frame of the movie. Some of the problem appears to be with inserting the movie in such a way that it’s not an inline file, but that’s proved beyond the apparent capabilities of the programmes I’m using. There are workarounds on some of the Mac forums but they appear to require me to know a great deal more about programming than I actually do. Having spend an entire day playing with half a dozen programmes I’m bored now, so probably paying money to solve the problem is the way to go.

Allegedly Acrobat will do what I want. And so will iWork (I hate that over-stylised lower case ‘i’; nO wOnder kIds don’t uNderstand wHere uPper-cAse lEtters aRe sUpposed to go but i rAnted aBout that a wHile back).

The one saving grace is that fortunately both have a ‘try before you buy’ policy so I should be able to assemble the stuff I’m working on and see if I can make it work. If I ever do, it’ll be here before it’s anywhere else.

Meanwhile if anyone has any ideas that would work on a Mac, are free, and don’t involve Word, OpenOffice or Scribus (which I’d thought originally would be the ones most likely to work), I’d be interested to know.

How writing a story is similar to building a garden summer house

March 16, 2011 8 comments

I’ve been away for a few days, visiting friends. This is something I don’t do often enough, really. Even though I took work and my laptop and internet dongle, I never got round to doing much more than checking email and reading a bit of a novel because other stuff was going on, so while I’m notionally behind on where I wanted to be with my writing, I feel recharged and I’ll catch up.

The ‘other stuff’ that was going on largely involved erecting a summer house in my friends’ garden. It went up without much trouble and with people more expert than me doing most of the detailed work.

I helped out, though I’m far better at making joints between ideas than I am at getting bits of wood to butt up together neatly. If the summer house had been made out of concepts laid over a philosophical framework I would have done a really neat job. But that thought stayed with me, and of course making anything – from a garden summer house to a story and indeed almost anything else – will have many similarities.

On this view, writing a story involves:

  • taking delivery of a bunch of pre-made bits and pieces. With a summer house, these are largely factory-made sections and should be all you need (though we added some refinements). With a story, these will be things you’ve gathered from the grab-bag of your own imagination and research. They will include plot elements, character qualities, odd facts (real or invented), situations and locations (real or imaginary), and so on.
  • checking the plans and diagrams to see what you’re supposed to be doing. You do have plans and diagrams for your story, don’t you? Actually I often don’t; or at least, my plans may not bear too much of a relationship to the pieces I have to play with, or describe them with the same level of incoherence that I used to find in the manuals for electronic appliances in the 1970s.
  • making sure you have all the right tools. Drills, bits and screwdrivers for stories. The right character ‘voices’ for dialogue when building a summer house. Or is it the other way round? A lot of the summer house building was carried out with character voices anyway. I often do drill down, conceptually anyway, into locations and plot details to focus on small details. A good supply of coffee and tobacco in either case (I know, they’re bad habits… treat these as optional).
  • actually erecting the structure. Colourful vocabulary, occasional use of swearwords essential for both stories and summer houses. Holding odd bits of wood at awkward angles while your fingers freeze is not mandatory for stories, unless that’s your particular thing.
  • making ‘improvements’ as you go along and then finding these cause more problems you need to solve. Done that. Fortunately in the case of the summer house, there were some extra blocks of wood to ensure the thing was packed correctly, and we could use those. That may not be the case with a story.
  • sitting back, enjoying the result and deciding on decoration and finishing. Stories may not need a coat of paint on them but there are always bits you want to tinker with at a later date. This process can go on until someone wants to publish, and then you have to let go. That won’t be the case with a summer house, which will always be a work in progress.

See? Similar processes. Next time: how writing a story is similar to drug dealing (or something).


Blogging and not blogging

March 11, 2011 6 comments

When I first got into the blogging thing, I found some places that gave advice on the whole business of ‘successful’ blogging. The tips included:

  • write several pillar articles – tutorials that offer useful advice or reference material.
  • write a blog post every day (and keyword/tag them well).
  • comment on other people’s posts.
  • link/trackback to other posts/websites when you refer to them.
  • encourage comments.

There was more, about getting onto blog carnivals, getting listed on blog listings, sending posts out to be used as ezine articles and such, but that was the top and bottom of it.

And, of course, I follow all this advice fitfully – there are probably four of five ‘pillar’ articles on here, mostly concerned with e-learning, written over a period of close to a year. And I certainly don’t post every day.

Mostly I post when: I have something to brag about; one of my friends has done something I want to publicise (which reminds me, Psy-tek has just composed and recorded two tracks if anyone wants to license their use); something interesting or humorous happened; or something has caught my eye, often an obscure or offbeat thing on a news report.

Mostly, though, I don’t post when nothing much has happened, or when I’m busy. I have a life. It may not be much of a life, but at any one point I probably have some distance learning material to write or update, some student work to assess, half a dozen stories in various states of completion that I may or may not want to submit anywhere straightaway because I have some longer-range plans, and ‘just normal everyday stuff’ that always seems to take a lot longer to accomplish than I think it’s going to. Plus, of course, there are occasional points when I’m actually away for a few days.

So basically, if there’s nothing new on my blog it probably means (a) I have a deadline to finish distance learning materials or mark student work, or (b) I’m on a roll with the writing and managing 1500+ words a day. That may not be a lot by some people’s lights – quite a few of the writers I know on here easily do double that, but it seems to be about my limit. All I can say is spending a couple of hours hung up on how to phrase a particular sentence does seem to mean I don’t need to spend ages rewriting and editing at a later stage!

For the last week or so the answer has been (b). In addition to the stuff I’ve been writing, late last night I came across a wonderfully surreal passage in a Thomas Pynchon novel that set me on a line of thought and by this morning it had become the solution to a plot problem in a piece I started writing in late 2009 but that hung fire for about a year because I didn’t have a way to develop the story. And now I do.

However, it will have to wait because right now the answer is (a): after a long lull, my email has suddenly filled up with student papers for assessment. So I’ll stop now…

Apparently you’re supposed to end with a question to encourage comments. Here’s two for the price of one. What, if anything, stops you from blogging? What do you see as a mark of ‘success’ in a blog?

Sweating the small stuff

March 4, 2011 4 comments

Sometimes it’s the small stuff that causes the most problems.

I’m doing 1000-1500 words/day on a big project and other stuff as well. What I’m hung up on, though, is an invitation to write a piece of flash fiction, 300-500 words. It’s taking me longer to get that together than I’d normally take to write a short story – in fact I’ve written one short story and part of another on the fly, 3000-plus words, in addition to other stuff, since I started to think about the flash piece.

Why am I having this difficulty? Well, part of it is that I’m writing on a theme suggested by someone else. Sometimes I can do it, sometimes not. This particular theme is a politically hot one at the moment which seems to be pushing my imagination in a direction I think isn’t all that helpful. And part of it is that I’m starting from a point at which I have half a dozen ideas, but incomplete ones – words, phrases, ideas or images that have come to me from various sources (TV, conversations, things I came across while looking up references, dreams). Often when that happens, such things suddenly link together because my unconscious works on them and integrates them. On this occasion, not.

So I’ve been falling back on Plan B, which is the one Douglas Adams once described as ‘looking at a blank screen until your eyes bleed’.

I have one trait that is sometimes a disadvantage, but in this case may be helpful – what my parents, when I was a kid, described as a ‘grasshopper mind’. I’m usually writing three or four things at once, often skipping between them as an idea in one context suddenly seems more applicable in another. So for the moment I’ll just let the ideas sit and sweat. If I keep pushing on the other projects something useful will spark off in the back of my brain, I suspect.

It may come too late for the thing I’ve been invited to submit for, which would be a shame – but what the hell, once it’s done, it’s done, and I can use it elsewhere.

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