Revolutionary Tapestry – the synopsis

I’ve just finished doing the first draft of the synopsis of the novel – The revolutionary tapestry. I’ve also been doing some character studies of the main protagonists as exercises for my Open University course in creative writing so killing two birds with one stone. Now comes the hard slog!

Not that writing the synopsis was that easy. It was a very useful exercise in blocking out the setting, plot, characters and some detail, but there is a challenge in deciding what to put in and what to leave out. As usual Jules was a great first reader as (a) she doesn’t know as much as I do about the setting so is able to say when things are not clear because I haven’t translated what’s in my head to the paper and (b) because she has great emotional intelligence so is able to say if what the characters do doesn’t feel realistic. What is happening inside the characters heads and hearts is one of the things I knew I would have to put in, but I got a bit engrossed in making sure I get down the quite complicated plot structure.

She was also perceptive enough to spot the points at which my energy levels flagged and the writing became more bullet point notes than sentences.

Although having someone read your work is always a bit frightening, the discussion afterwards meant we were able to think about the two sequels as well as the current book – I already had a broad idea for the second one but the third wasn’t even on my horizon until Jules came up with a suggestion that was perfect.

There may well be changes to the plot of the first novel but I think I’ve got the core set out – a hard task as there are several strands happening at once which all need to link together and tie up any loose ends.

Now I need to go back to the research I’ve done and look at where and how facts are woven into the story so I avoid big chunks of exposition, and do more work on all of the characters – not just the main ones – who have more than a walk on part in the book. With more than a dozen books providing core background on setting and characters, and about 50 pages of information gleaned from the internet, this next phase is another big chunk of work. However, when it’s done I will have a solid base to draw on in writing the actual novel.

Building a world that shares a lot with real history, but has some core differences which affect a lot of detail in that world is a challenge. It’s a bit like writing a historical novel, thriller, and science fiction novel all in one. What you invent has to be consistent with aspects of real history as well as internally. Oh what fun!

Time of my life

At the moment I am having the time of my life. This may seem like hyperbole, but is true as Jules and I have the space to be who we are, and do the things we have always wanted to do but didn’t because life and work get in the way.

A bit more money would be useful of course – this week must be our turn to win the lottery – but given the choice between spending money on things and spending effort on developing ourselves the latter wins hands down.

In the last few weeks I have been writing, and doing an Open University course as well as attending the Kessingland Writers Group to stretch the ways I create characters and narrative. Talking this through with Jules has also meant I have been working to put more emotional depth in what I write rather than approaching writing from plot, action and dialogue.

Jules has been doing a lot of stand up gigs and it is a total joy to see her blossom into the artist she has always been but has never had the time or encouragement to be. We talk about “getting over the mountain” which means getting to the stage where you are yourself (or a version of yourself) on stage rather than just doing an act. Her coming sessions as Justin Lee Collins co host on Fubar Radio help with that as she is able to run with the subjects that come up and be funny in the moment rather than agonising over which set of words in a set work best – as you can hear from her audition.

Phil’s band Beyond Truth have also had a recent gig with another coming up and it is also wonderful to see how he transforms on stage when he starts to play guitar. There is a video online of some of the last performance on their website.

And above all else we have been able to live more in the moment. If an opportunity comes up – as one did recently to be in the pilot of a new quiz show – we can go for it and enjoy it for the experience. We are learning that if you take opportunities that present themselves and throw yourself completely into them, you not only enjoy it more, but you perform better. Whether it is a comedy performance, music, or a piece of writing, people want to make a connection with its creator – they want to like you as well as what you do and feel you are doing it for them rather than as an abstract event. One Direction’s fans believe they are singing to them not to the world in general, which is why they love them (there has to be some reason!). And the more you are real with them, the more they give back to you. Honesty really is the best policy!

Wold Newton and fictional history

I absolutely love Philip Jose Farmer’s work blending fictional characters with the real world in his Wold Newton and fictional author series. If you love books – including “pulp” as well as literature – chances are you will too. Enough people share my view to have started a whole sub genre where fans and authors seem to work together to create new adventures for their favourite characters.
Of course this isn’t new. Many authors in the past have created sequels to the works of others, and the fans of Sherlock Holmes – surely the most pastiched character in the world – have always had their game of Higher Criticism treats the baker Street Stories as if they are real and attempts to examine the inconsistencies and real world of Victorian London in attempt to reconcile them in the same way Farmer did in Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life.
What Farmer brought to the game was his attempt to place Tarzan, Doc Savage and Holmes in a world where all the fictional characters he loved were real and mostly related – linked back to the Wold Newton meteorite which supposedly brought about mutations in a coachload of passers-by. This has been expanded enormously in the Wold Newton universe site and many books by current authors including the Shadowmen series by Black Coat Press (who I must also thank for bringing lots of French Symbolist and 19th century writing into print in English).
Again, the idea of setting a series of stories in the same universe isn’t new – Balzac and Zola both wrote multi-volume series illuminating different aspects of French History using common characters – but to do so in a universe of characters from the fiction of others is.
Sometimes this can seem a bit contrived, and story can be sacrificed to simply build a link between two characters, but at its best it is exhilarating. One of the best proponents is Kim Newman who has created his own Anno Dracula universe as well as setting stories in a world that can more comfortably be annexed into the Wold Newton mythos. The fact that he is playing the game knowingly is seen from the way he uses the same characters in what he knows are two different versions of “reality”. Most importantly he never forgets to put story first, has a wonderful dark sense of humour, and co-wrote one of the best alternate history series with Back in the USSA.
So, does that mean I will be including fictional characters in my alternate history novel? Broadly no – although there will be characters who were the real life basis for fictional characters and there may well be some reference to that in what they do in the novel. At the moment there will only be one totally fictional character playing a very small part in a nod to Farmer.

counterfactual creation

At the moment I’m trying to create a world where the Paris Commune triumphed and is now the head of a largely left wing France in 1896. This is requiring a lot of research as you have to create a world that shares much with the real Paris in 1896 but is different in  some key ways because of that alternate line of history.

There are a few guide rules I have set myself to do this:

  • People who were alive at the time are still alive and people were dead are mostly dead – if they died of old age or cancer they would still have died. If they commited suicide or drank themselves to death they may have survived because their personal circumstances would be different.
  • The buildings are mostly the same – there is no Sacre Couer because that was partly a catholic and right wing reaction to the commune, but most of the rest of Paris is the same
  • Most of the rest of the world is as it was in real life unless there is an obvious reason for change – there were successful copycat revolutions in other parts of Europe where there was similar unrest,  but the US and UK are the same and the French Colonies in Africa and Asia are now French Communes because the economic expansion in those areas would still have demanded support form the French State
  • Many of the same people have achieved or seek power – republican politicians such as Clemenceau will still have wanted to be in government and free elections mean there will also be Monarchists and conservatives elected
  • Science may have advanced a few years (partly because Tesla stays in Paris rather than going to work with Edison and the government is strongly pro science) but there are few inventions that were not around within 10-15 years of the real 1896
  • Artistic movements are largely unchanged – possibly the most controversial issue as it could be argued art is a reflection of society as well as individual taste, but the trends are still there and much was influenced by world rather than domestic issues such as the growing influence of Asian and African art and the general Fin du Siecle zeitgeist.

The one new technology I have allowed myself is the Revolutionary Tapestry of the title which is a version of the internet based on radio and punch card transmitters and receivers which has developed a sort of paper based blogging culture allied with the massive growth of newspapers and journals which linotype, rotogravure and cylindrical presses fuelled in the real world.

I’m not sure how good the rules are, but they are mine and I’m sticking with them.

I watched a debate the other day on the effects of the First World War where the word counterfactual cropped up every few minutes. Many were arguing that the changes in politics and society we attribute to WWI would have happened anyway as the seeds were already there. One of the characters in the book will speculate on what would have happened if Queen Victoria had died in childbirth and Prince Albert survived – for one thing he would have inherited the German throne and is likely to have been less antagonistic to a Britain ruled by his son than the real Kaiser was to the Britain ruled by his Aunt and Cousin. There are lots of “what if’s” in history and it is a fun game to play, but to be meaningful you have to set yourself rules

Why I don’t like Lovecraft

I’ve been putting the books I’ve read on Goodreads – partially to show off, but mainly to get recommendations on other books I may want to read. One of the authors who keeps coming up in the recommendations is H.P. Lovecraft.

I realise this is controversial, but I don’t like Lovecraft. I find (a) I can’t really sympathise with his lead characters who all seem self absorbed and over intellectual and (b) his way of creating atmosphere is to describe lots of things as unknowable. His basic message is that the universe is at best uncaring and at worst malign – and there is nothing much we can do about it.

Contrast Lovecraft with my favourite writer of horror stories – Fritz Leiber. Leiber’s main characters are flawed – often mirroring his own problems with alcoholism. Like Lovecraft’s characters they often endure the horrors of the universe rather than defeat them, but they normally manage to pull some lesser and more human triumphs out of their encounters with evil. The basic outlook is therefore optimistic rather than pessimistic.

Leiber is often credited (with some truth) with pioneering urban horrors. His malign beings are creations of the modern world – the smog ghost, the black gondolier of the oil fields, the succubus of advertising. They are not dark demons from hell or destroying aliens from other dimensions. they are the personifications of our own failings. Often they will relate to the devils in side out own heads from our Jungian Ids or all too human frailties. They are here and now and inside all of us, which is why his characters suffer but ultimately overcome in some way, and why we can sympathise with them.

In Lovecraft’s world, shit happens. In Leiber’s we have to get our shit together.

Leiber was very influenced by Lovecraft in his early days as a writer and did write some Mythos stories, but as he became his own man he drew on his own experiences to be a much more human and humane writer than Lovecraft. Perhaps that is why it is easier to pastiche Lovecraft than Leiber. It’s easier to write scenery than psychodrama.

Creative Writing course

I’ve just completed the first week of my Open University creative writing course – Start Writing Fiction from Future Learn.

It has been interesting and useful and this week has concentrated on Character creation. Some of it has been analysis of other writers work and some has been the use of the writer’s notebook to make notes on people and use that to generate character studies. What do we need to say to help people both visualise and understand a character when they walk into the room.

This has been useful for me because I have to work on having fully rounded characters with a proper back story. Although others have said my characters are good and they wanted to spend more time with them, I’m not so sure myself. I think I have a tendency to have generic characters which is why I’ve started doing mini biographies that I don’t necessarily use in the text but create a clearer picture in my own mind when I’m describing their actions or dialogue. I tend to use aspects of real people I’ve known in creating characters but aside from the ones who are more or less me, they will be amalgams rather than copies. This means I can forget to give them mannerisms or ways of speaking that are distinct and can make it obvious who is saying what without having to write “said Fred” all the time.

I don’t necessarily want to go as far as David Nobbs, who tended to give everyone a catchphrase (bit of a cock up on the catering front) but many people do have things they pepper their sentences with, or ways of expressing themselves. Dickens was the master of this, as of so many other things. How many of us had teachers whp overused individual words allowing the fun game of doing a five bar gate mark up of every time they ended a sentence with “right?”?

I’m looking forward to the rest of course to see if it can help me develop more good habits.

Starting the Novel

I’ve already written (or at least done the first draft of) one novel. However like all first novels it was autobiographical and probably quite libellous, as well as far too short. That’s in the Scrivener filing cabinet for when I feel is a good time to go back to it.

I’m about to start on novel number two – this time for real.

The title is the Revolutionary Tapestry as it is an alternative world novel where a series of changes mean a proto internet is around based on a combination of radio and punch card style computing which sends text across the globe to be printed as newsheets across the globe.

The technology started in a France where the Communards pressed home their advantage against government forces and got them to surrender, rather than resting on their laurels and partying. France is also exploiting the oil which is just off its coastline rather than further up the North Sea basin.

The third fundamental change is that this is a world where conspiracies work rather than being as ineffectual as they are in our world. That kind of “join the dots” history is great fun but I don’t really buy the idea that some secret cults are running the world, or that the moon landings never happened and the mass membership of the NRA killed Kennedy.

The hero is a journalist working for several of the hundreds of free newspapers circulating the globe with the Revolutionary Tapestry of the title, sparking uprisings and revolts in lots of other countries. His best friend is Alfred Jarry whose Ubu Roi is about to be premiered. After a terrorist bomb explodes his life does to as he is pursued by a set of different conspiracy groups all thinking he has the key to their plots, while he tracks down the mysterious Fantom behind the terrorism.

This gives me a chance to write about the city, period and artists I love without having to stick too closely to historic facts – although I have done a lot of research about the period as the people and architecture would not be too changed – only the politics and the technology.

Watch this space for progress….