Category Archives: Musing
Wow, it’s been two years since I last wrote anything on this blog. That’s because I was writing a novel that went haywire and needed a lot of re-writes, and after that I just wanted to go supine on the couch and read. Which I did. For a long time.
A lot’s happened since then. The cliche about how awful 2016’s been just goes to show how awful 2016’s been. So, there was that. I’ll blame 2016. 2016 kept me from updating this blog.
So, anyway, I’m writing a new novel now. You know that last post I did about writing and editing? Well, I talked there about how I’m too lazy to plan novels. Yeah, about that …
I’m actually too lazy to undergo the kind of re-writing necessary to get the story right if I don’t plan novels. Because I had to completely re-write my previous novel. A lot. More than a lot. Because I kept getting the story wrong. I know now that this kind of thing happens if I don’t plan my novels at least a little bit. And all those wall-to-wall re-writes weren’t in the least bit fun.
So, after reading my last novel about three or four times (bless her), my kick-ass agent suggested it might not be a bad idea if I worked the story and pacing and beats out a little bit before I tried writing it again. Once I got over the ego-bruise of enduring the intolerable suggestion that my writing routine could use a tweak or, well, an entire re-think, I got a copy of the book she recommended I look at. It was a book for screenwriters, and there was a lot there I disagreed with (for instance, I love the film Memento), but the gist of it made sense, and I’ve always appreciated a certain cinematic immediacy to fiction, so I did what the book said. I even bought a corkboard and covered it in notecards. And what I discovered is that I kind of like the whole panning thing. Okay, so, it was easier to plan and corkboard something when you’re on your fifth draft of it and already mostly know what’s going to happen. But, I ended up with a better novel. One that was suitable to send out. Yeah, okay, it crashed and burned when it went out to publishers, but it crashed and burned to high praise, which is something, right? Most editors said it was better than my previous novel. (Yeah, I figure they say that kinda thing to a lot of authors.)
Which brings me to … my current novel. This one, unlike any other novel I’ve written, was planned in a fair amount of detail from the start. I even wrote a blurb first, the main pitch. The planning took me a couple months. It gave me headaches. But it also gave me a condensed version of all those a-ha moments I got from previous writing. In other words, it wasn’t a dry, formulaic process. It was imaginative, and satisfying, and it has made the actual writing much less exhausting, much less stressful. Because I’m not simultaneously trying to write good fictive prose and also trying to figure out what’s going to happen. Gone is that big dense white wall of nothing that used to sit right there one cursor space beyond the end of the sentence I was writing. Now, there’s story beyond that sentence. And that takes some of the pressure off. I’m not flying along, frantically flinging words onto the page, free-styling at the very edge of the storyline, hoping that sheer momentum will propel me into whatever the next story event may be, so that to miss even a day of writing might mean the pace and the story simply die because I’ve dared to slow down and I need that speed, speed, speed to show me what’s going to happen next, and next, and next, pant, pant, pant. No sir, confident in the knowledge that I have a good idea of where I’m going, the pressure to write five or six pages every single day, and the panic that ensues if I miss a day, has evaporated. Yes, I still write everyday (mostly), but if I miss a day? If I take a weekend off? Not a big deal. I do have a family and a job and a life and all that. And those things need attention, too.
So yeah, it’s a more deliberate process. But I like to do things on purpose, rather than stumble through them by accident. It makes me feel a little bit like I know what I’m doing. And there are still surprises. Characters have still popped up and said, You know, I think I can fit into your plan, so have some fun with me. And I like that.
So, for all its otherwise nauseating and downright terrifying, depressing shittiness, 2016 did see, for me, the discovery of a healthier, saner writing process. Now, just don’t get me started on Trump, or Brexit, or Bowie, or, or or ….
Genre, whether in books, or television and film, are constantly evolving. They encompass a range of stories, and as a part of the genre expands through popularity and trends in the industry, new sub-genres are created. One of the greatest examples of this is the horror genre.
We move through different trends, even within a single genre, and horror is no exception. From psychological thrillers to the popularly labelled ‘torture porn’, over the years each subset of the genre gets periods of popularity before dipping again, and each subset of the genre can be broken up into how an author or screenwriter wants to handle the subject.
I don’t know about you, but I am pretty squeamish when it comes to horror and I tend to stay away from horror movies which focus on the gory aspects. However, even though the blood and violence often makes me feel physically sick, I really enjoy the stories behind them. The Saw saga is a perfect example of this. I was fascinated by the plot, but the gore became too much, so instead I had to read the plotlines instead of watching the movies.
Books are very similar, sometimes worse for those like me, as you’re not past a gory scene in a minute or two, but you spend an hour reading graphically written scenes of violence. This is even before you take into account that we often become far more attached to characters in a novel than we do in a movie due to the time spent with them.
However, just because we might be squeamish, it doesn’t mean that we can’t write horror, or add horror into the genre we like to write.
Personally, I write Sci-Fi and Fantasy, but these stories often take a darker turn, and horror is one of those aspects that I had to learn how to write effectively. So, here are five tips to write some effective horror scenes for the squeamish.
1. The Necessary Narrative
Choose the narrative style necessary for the scene, though obviously, this must be consistent with the rest of your novel. If your entire novel is in the third person, you can’t suddenly switch to the first without a valid reason. While first will give a frightening insight into the panicked mind of your character, this can also be accomplished with a great third person limited.
Personally, I much prefer a limited person narrative, especially in instances of horror and thrilling scenes. Not knowing what your murderer/monster/etc is doing or thinking can really keep your audience on their toes. You can also limit how much your reader sees of your victims thoughts, which can also amp up the fear.
2. The Sex Scene Screen
Like horror, sex and erotica can be split into a number of different levels, from those who like to describe every movement and moment of pleasure in detail, to those who prefer to, to use a film phrase, fade to black. There is no ‘best’ way to do it, only what is best for you.
I am one of those writers who likes to keep a steady medium in this aspect, much like those scenes in movies where you see fingers grasping a thigh, hiking the leg higher around someone’s hips. You don’t need to explain every detail for readers to get a very accurate image of what is happening.
The same can be used with horror to great effect. Don’t want to describe those guts falling out of the body in great detail? You don’t need to. Audiences are smart, they will stay with you if you use the right minimalist descriptions.
3. Timing for Terror
Suspense is one of the most effective ways to keep an audience on the edge of their seat when it comes to horror. If the monster jumps right out to grab them, the jig is up, but if you keep the character guessing for a while, your audience will be guessing too. Preferably, your audience should figure out what is about to happen just before it happens. They should know who the killer is right before the moment your character figures it out. Keep the audience guessing too long and they’ll not only be confused when you make your reveal, but you run the risk of them getting bored. Timing is everything when it comes to suspense.
4. Love your Length and Language
The length of a sentence can draw a reader in. Longer sentences often give a relaxed and flowing narrative, where shorter sentences increase pace and are great for action and horror. The more panicked you become, the shorter your attention span.
This is especially great for first person narrative. As suspense and panic grows within your character, shorten the sentences, have their train of thought jumping around. You don’t need gore and violence to truly panic a person, and if you amp up your character’s reactions and questions about what is happening, your readers will follow right along.
Also, if you don’t want to describe gore in detail, a well used simile or metaphor can be extremely effective. Just always be careful not to overuse them.
5. Continually Consistent
However you use the four tips above, remember to be consistent throughout. Surprising your readers is a good thing, as long as the surprises come through the story, not by the sudden change in writing. Your audience should be comfortable so that when you scare them witless it will be much further to jump out of their seats.
I hope that these have been helpful to you, especially if you’re like me, and generally choose to shy away from horror because you feel you can’t write it. Push yourself. When you have those surprising results, you’ll be glad you did.
Almost two years ago to the day, on the 18th of August, 2011, I walked five minutes down the road from where I live in Tottenham and took this picture of Banksy’s No Ball Games. I proudly posted it on Facebook to an artist friend of mine in the US who couldn’t believe I lived so close to a real Banksy. About a week earlier than that, Tottenham had been in flames, set alight in local riots. Venturing out to once more view No Ball Games, our very own Banksy, helped me begin to heal.
A corporation called the Sincura Group, who describe themselves as “the market leaders in VIP concierge, lifestyle, tickets and events …” and as the “the best connected network in London”, now claim to be “representing” the piece. By “representing”, I think they mean removing No Ball Games from the wall and selling it at private auction. My guess is, the VIP whose lifestyle Sincura is catering to in this instance doesn’t live in Tottenham.
In fact, I think Tottenham is the last place on the Sincura Group’s mind. If you read their website, where they actually have a special section set aside to advertise their “representation” of Banksy, the Sincura Group make the positively Orwellian claim to have “salvaged” No Ball Games for “renovation”. They say a number of attempts have been made to deface the work, and that it will now “be sensitively restored to its former glory”. As you can see from my post-riot photos, the piece had lost none of its glory. In fact, by surviving the riots, No Ball Games had gained glory. Of course, what Sincura conveniently leave out is that No Ball Games had a clear plastic protective sheet over it. It could not be defaced.
Peeling back the oily layers of justification smothering the motives of Sincura’s action both here and in Wood Green, a short bus ride away where Sincura also oversaw the removal of Banksy’s Slave Labour, one thought emerges: Fuck ‘em. They live in Tottenham. Sure, the profits from the sale will go, so they say, to charity. But someone, some wealthy and powerful VIP, likely whispered to Sincura, who are after all “the best connected network in London”, that it sure would be nice to own a Banksy. That person doesn’t have charity on his brain, or art appreciation. That person has money on his brain. No Ball Games, when it goes on auction at Sincura’s 2014 Art Exhibition, once sold, will then be re-sold for profit. It’s now a commodity. (How much “glory” is there in that?) The people of Tottenham, whom Banksy deemed worthy of hosting his iconic art, the people who felt special to have it in their neighbourhood (and who have little enough to feel special about in this deprived area), will never see No Ball Games again. Because, when there’s money to made, well, fuck ‘em. They live in Tottenham.
Year after year like an angry god, through the alders, the plane trees and the yew.
Backward eventually craned their branches to allow the blast
to more easily pass
their bent-back frames.
Such adaptation suggests this calculation:
Trees, like all living beings, can feel.
So when they fall, it need only be themselves and their companions in the forest
Who render that collapse real.
Another from The Planetary Collective, this one a trailer for a feature length documentary called Continuum. I hope its effects ripple out over the species. Enjoy.
I came across this video yesterday. I have little to add, and will let the profound words of the astronauts themselves carry the weight of this post. Thanks to Planetary Collective for the original film. I’m interested in their continuing work in raising a more cosmic consciousness among this planet’s intelligent life.
After my recent foray into the seedy underworld of pornographic audio recordings, I thought I should write about what I really seek from oral storytelling. Because even though I’m a book mutt, a promiscuous glutton of the written word who at any given time has something like ten to twelve books on the go (at varying levels of commitment), some of which I’ll finish and some I won’t, I’m extremely finicky about what audiobooks I’ll listen to. Here, I’m after something specific: the dreaming mind. Now, all art worth a damn ought in some way to produce a version of this—in that, if you ain’t losing yourself in it, if it ain’t casting a spell on you that whisks you out of whatever mundane world you were inhabiting before, then it ain’t working. Even if it endures for a few seconds only (while, say, you crane your neck looking at that Chagall painting over the shoulder of the other attendees on the final day of the exhibition), worthwhile art of all media ought to produce a kind of trance.
But that’s not the kind of dreaming mind I’m talking about. Not as far as audiobooks are concerned.
Robert Ekirch at Virginia Tech conducted extensive research into the history of night (what wonderful lines of inquiry academics can pursue, eh?) and discovered medieval written references to what were called first and second sleeps. Apparently, one of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims mentions them. According to Ekirch, people used to go to bed a few hours after sundown—they had no artificial light, after all—and sleep about four hours, wake for an hour or so, then have a second sleep for about four more hours. The midnight hour of waking, sometimes called The Watch, was reserved for contemplative practices like praying, reading or writing (or other more sensual activities if you shared your blanket). Some people also used this time to interpret dreams, because at this time of night, dreams stayed with you. This was the visionary hour, the time of prophecy.
For me, though, it just used to be the time of stress. I’d have to get out of bed so my tossing and turning didn’t wake up my partner and cause a needless fight. It was a time for me to sit in the living-room and wonder why my life produced the kind of anxiety that meant I suffered regular insomnia. Would it lead to a heart-attack? A nervous breakdown? Premature baldness?
Then came the MP3 player, and with it, audiobooks.
You see, I could never read once my partner went to bed. Because me keeping the light on kept her awake, and I never got on with those fiddly reading lights you clip to the top of a book. Turning the page always rubbed against it, making an annoying scrape—so I could never manage to read quietly. And don’t get me started on the retinal pain a backlit screen in a dark room inflicts.
I first used audiobooks for long car journeys. I’m in field sales, so my job sometimes means three-hour commutes. (And sometimes half hour tube rides, which I prefer.) So, on these long rides, I got a little tired of listening to Led Zeppelin or Radiohead over and over, so started listening to books instead. I sailed through a couple of Joe Abercrombie’s works. He’s landed a great narrator in Stephen Pacey, possibly one of the best voice actors in Britain. So I got along with audiobooks just fine in the car. I did Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and more. I started listening while doing the ironing, or when doing the shopping (although I soon found it impossible to concentrate on the narrative whilst simultaneously holding the shopping list in my mind and maneuvering the trolley around stressed mums with screaming kids in a crowded Tesco). But, basically, I stuck with listening to books alone in the car on long motorway drives.
Then I came across Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter.
Paver is best known for The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, a series of children’s books set in Ice Age Europe that follow the adventures of a boy named Torak. The books were wildly successful and deservedly so. Her evocation of the ancient European forests is utterly captivating. Dark Matter, her first novel since, is written for adults. It is something far more sinister and unsettling. Written in sparse first-person, it tells the story of Jack and his part in a 1930s scientific expedition to the arctic circle. Summer here is brief, and quickly fades to a darkening autumn that sees each of Jack’s companions in turn have to depart, mostly due to injuries of one sort or another, leaving Jack to man the scientific instruments in the cabin alone. Well, not quite alone. He has a loyal group of Huskies outside, whose daily needs supply Jack with a much needed routine. But there’s something else in the general vicinity of the cabin, too. Outside, in the blowing, snowy wastes. Something that’s not supposed to be there. Something that’s not supposed to exist at all. It walks around in the dark winter night outside Jack’s windows.
Get the picture?
The plot is straightforward as all hell, with a minimum of characters. Which leaves Paver all kinds of room for atmospherics. And at these, she proves herself a master. The audiobook is narrated by Jeremy Northam. He has a tender and gravelled voice, like John Hurt. He knows how to communicate the kind of quiet unease that settles into this narrative once Jack is on his own. He spends the winter there, in total darkness, always fearing to look at the windows. Afraid the howling wind is a voice. Afraid he’s losing his mind.
I don’t know what prompted me to reach for the iPod and headphones when I awoke during The Watch one night, but I did, and instead of stalking off to the couch in the front room to be stressed about insomnia, I laid back and listened to Dark Matter. Boy did it fit. Northam’s quietly disturbed narration of Paver’s prose summoning the lonely and haunted arctic darkness not only matched the particular rhythm of my brainwaves during that bleak hour of night; they enhanced it. The Watch, the time of meditation and dream-reading, became a vivid experience. Each night that I awoke (about three times a week on average) I would lay there and let Dark Matter blend itself with my dreaming mind and soon I’d find myself in that half-sleep state where words take on new meanings and visions encroach. (Later, I’d wake up enough to pause the iPod and drop the headphones to the floor.)
Once Dark Matter ended, I searched out another audiobook I thought might prove similarly suited to The Watch. I chose well: Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child. This one’s set in Alaska in the 1920s. Similarly lonely, and similarly cold. (I wasn’t taking any chances.) But this story has a gentler feel. Like a fairy story. In fact, it’s loosely based on a Russian fairy tale about a young girl made of snow who comes to a husband and wife who are unable to have children of their own. Transpose this to 1920s Alaska, and you get the gist. Debra Monk’s the narrator here. She has a Midwestern American drawl that, being an Illinois-boy myself, I found comforting in the quiet hours of night. Again, the book has a handful of characters and a straightforward narrative. The snow child appears. The couple keep her secret. She goes away every summer. Each winter, she comes back. Of course, there are complications that I won’t detail here and spoil it all for you. Suffice it to say, the girl grows older, and the couple wonder what they should do. Is she real? Are they crazy? Should they tell someone?
After The Snow Child, I stuck with the fairy tale theme and chose Graham Joyce’s Some Kind Of Fairy Tale. How fortunate for me. Graham Joyce is one of those English fantasists I suspect I’ll return to again and again. Some Kind Of Fairy Tale tells of Tara, who at fifteen accepts a ride in the woods by a strange man named Hiero who rides a white horse and takes her to a magical place that features, among other things, a lake that lives and regularly offers the ultimate sensual pleasure to whomsoever happens to be swimming in it at the time. Joyce depicts fairies as tall, strikingly beautiful, and horny as a beer-fuelled frat-boy. Tara stays with Hiero for six months. She returns to her family one Christmas, only to discover that, fairy-time being what it is, twenty years has passed in this world. What we get with this novel is the unfolding of the consequences of both her absence and her unexpected return, still looking fifteen, to those who have long since given her up for a runaway or for dead. It’s a gentle story, best heard quietly in the headphones at 2 a.m. It’s read by John Lee, who I found rather inexpressive and clinical. The best I can say about him is that he does not get in the way of this touching story. I look forward to more of Joyce’s work.
I’m currently listening to Alison More’s The Lighthouse. This is a tender tale of loss that follows Futh, a middle-aged man who takes a ferry-ride to Germany for a walking holiday to help him cope with separating from his wife. Along the way, small events trigger memories of his married life, and his childhood. I’m not yet finished, but Eve Karpf’s narration, clipped and rough-voiced like a precise middle aged headmistress who smokes, lends a toughness and exactitude to Futh’s wandering thoughts, and to the poetry of More’s narrative.
My search goes on. The Lighthouse is a short book, only four hours’ worth of listening, so I will need to find the next story to comfort me on those lonely nights when I’m faced with yet another Watch, another meditative interval ‘twixt first and second sleep. Any suggestions are welcome. I’ve noticed that Ian McKellan narrates Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, so it may be time to revisit those in spoken form. I reckon my dreaming mind would welcome Gandalf telling me magical stories set in Ice Age Europe.
Rest well. Dream vivid.
I know there’s not any hard scientific evidence to back this, but I sure do like the idea of the earth possessing arcane knowledge that it passes on to us, its most conscious beings, via its plant life. In fact, the title of this here blogspace is a riff on ethno-botanist Terrence McKenna’s psilocybin- and DMT-induced visions, wherein he claims to have beheld geometric elvish figures who could create objects by singing. Their message to him was not to be overcome by wonder, but to observe what they were doing, because he could do it, too.
The title of the lecture below, delivered to the Carl Jung society, is Sacred Plants as Guides.