The Dreamweaver gets weaving

I’ve sold, written and despatched my first commercial short story as The Dreamweaver. The idea, as detailed on the page is that people fill out the order form giving details about the genre, characters etc so they can have a story written featuring themselves, friends or relatives.

It is a very stimulating challenge as it means I have to create a unique story every time around a small amount of information, in whatever setting and style people want. It’s not quite the blend of maths and art in an Oulipo constrained work, but it does get the creative juices flowing.

The inspiration was work by Harlan Ellison in the 70s and others since, where they would sit in a bookshop window with a target of so many short stories written during the day. I am in the Leaves of Dreams shop in Watton each Wednesday so I can produce stories to order for customers.

The joy of the internet, of course, is that I can always research further information via Facebook or other social media so I get a feel of the person who will feature. Even so, it means creating something that has been commissioned and which I hope will be exactly what the purchaser wants. You may have thought it was selling my soul as a writer by  producing something to order, but in fact it is as much fun as the normal process of starting from an idea and working out exactly what I want to say.

The main challenge I face is being disciplined in only writing as many words as they are paying for. I tend to let stories run to their natural length so shoehorning something into one, two or three thousand words can be difficult. This is partly because I enjoy plotting and short fiction tends to be harder to include both plot and character without sacrificing one for the other. I don’t want to produce things that have no depth.

Still, I’m looking forward to more commissions.

A Kind of Magic

I’m about to start rewriting Masonic Fire (or Chasing the Dragon depending on which title I go for) for the second time.
I did the first draft last November as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) as a straight conspiracy thriller. I then had more ideas for the main characters as occult thrillers so went back and rewote it adding supernatural elements.
While my best reader and critic – my wife Jules – liked both versions, she felt the second one hadn’t integrated the supernatural elements well enough as there was no underlying rationale for them. What I then decided to do was to think about the underlying structure of that universe so the books would explore that as well as working as stories.
Most novels featuring supernatural elements or magic just accept it as a given and use one or more occult traditions as a backdrop. The reason we don’t generally experience this in everyday life is the UFOlogist explanation – it is there but is covered up in some way by either the magicians themselves or some government agency that doesn’t want us to know what’s really going on. Or we simply suppress the memory.
There are a few ways of trying to put some kind of scientific rationale for magic:
• The Arthur C Clarke theory – magic is simply advanced technology. That is (sort of) the approach Lovecraft used – magic relies on the presence of ancient aliens whose technology is so far beyond ours that it looks miraculous and acts of magic by humans is based on tapping that power
• Magic is something that comes into our universe from somewhere else where it does work – either an extradimensional world of Faerie, or the Pratt/ de Camp approach where the underlying laws of an adjacent universe work differently so magic is possible. The Zelazny/Amber variation is that our world is shadow of a real world where magic works.
• Magic is based on undeveloped powers of the human mind which a few individuals have been able to tap into
All of them are bit of cop out in my view – that doesn’t mean that I don’t like enjoy them, as I do. Just that I don’t like them for my own work as I want to be able to write about issues in our own world that I care about which means most of the characters should be ordinary people with ordinary human strengths and weaknesses.
Most stories featuring the occult or magic have heroes who are special – they have talents the rest of us don’t. I want to write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, which I believe is the real magic in our world.
I cheat a bit in the science I use – a lot is theories that are not wholly accepted, to say the least. I then use that to develop a revamp of history which keeps the same facts, but puts a different spin on what is happening.
The core of it is the Einstein/Bell/Rodalsky paradox which points out that the behaviour of paired particles contradicts the Theory of General Relativity as they seem to indicate something travels faster than the speed of light. My explanation is that there is a fundamental substrate of information which means at a quantum level everything is connected.
At the other end is Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the Omega Point. A Jesuit Priest and scientist he speculated that the purpose of the universe was to evolve consciousness to a point where it becomes God. In my version of the universe that collective godhood then travels back in time and sets the condition for the Big Bang – thus having an ouroboros loop where it sets the conditions for its own creation.
Between these bottom and top levels are James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis where the earth is a collective organism which is itself evolving in the same way its constituent creatures are, and Jung’s Collective Unconscious which links all human beings at a fundamental level populated by common archetypes. Jung’s idea has a number of variations from the mundane that our brain structure throws up things that we interpret in a similar way, to a more mystical one. Mine is at the mystical end which uses the Gaia theory and the pairing of particles to suggest that we actually do communicate unconsciously in a real way.
The working out of this can then be used to explain magic, bringing in things like stone tapes, mystically charging objects and places, possession, supernatural creatures, ghosts, and the power of ritual.
The reason in my universe that we don’t see magic is that there are three basic worldviews that are competing to impose their version of the Omega point on the universe – the magical, the religious and the rational/scientific. There are only a few people in each of these camps that understand what is going on and are in the battle knowingly and who consciously propagate their memes in order to win. Those who see the supernatural either accept it or rationalise it according to their own world view.
There is an organisation first set up by the Royal Society – or more accurately by its predecessor the Invisible College – to maintain a balance between the three world views. Hence the re-explanation of history. When the protagonists accidentally stumble into the machinations of people who want to change the balance in their favour, they are introduced to the organisation which reveals this truth to them.
Now I’ve worked it out, I just need to rewrite the story!

Light Leaves Experience

Some friends of ours are producing a facebook virtual store and community celebrating local artists at Light Leaves Experience! . In the spirit of sharing there are two stories below – one featuring the narrator from a series of stories I am writing based on three young people with disabilities in a children’s group home, and the second my fantasy take on the holocaust The Cat Factory.A Night at the Library The Cat Factory

creative writing to order

For the past year or so I have been a member of the Kessingland Library Creative Writing Group which meets every month. Like the Open University Course I did in creative it has been positive in forcing me to write outside of my comfort zone.

Some of the work I did in the Library group has been published in their anthology including an extract from The Revolutionary Tapestry : antho . If you want to read them I’m afraid you will have to buy the book – there are some excellent pieces in there from other group members as well and it is well worth the cover price. The other two pieces in the anthology were written for the OU course – one to create a character and the other to create a character that didn’t share anything with me.

Some of the other pieces we have written are on their website.  The one I found particularly challenging was “Half Rhymes” where we had to write a poem where the “rhymes” had a match in the consonants but not the vowels – the opposite of assonance. I rhyme by instinct so having to do what my perfectionist brain says are “not proper rhymes” was difficult. The Picasso story was inspired by one of his paintings our leader Rebeccah Giltrow handed out at random. I had thought of calling it “50 Shades of Blue” but as it was from his cubist period the joke wouldn’t really work.

I decided to put some more of the work here with some explanation of what the challenges were.

A A Conversation With The Other had to be a dialogue with nothing other than questions. To make it more interesting (hopefully) I did an internal dialogue with my internal parent voice.

Rumbled – the challenge was to update a fable. I had had the idea about looking again at morals of people involved in the Rumplestiltskin story many years ago – none of them are very nice and I was never sure what the moral was supposed to be. Having a Chandleresque detective walking those Grimm streets seemed a good way to do that.

I always have a tune in my head when I write lyrics, even though it may turn out to have a completely different one when I finish the song. This was our exercise at Christmas – to create something harking back to the Christmas song of the 70’s and 80’s. I may get round to doing a proper tune for it for the Christmas Eastern Edge Cabaret.

Writers write was a failure as I misread the instructions. It was supposed to be a poem about a parent inspired by a rap poet. I got the second bit but missed the theme.

Limericks were written for an open mike night organised by the library. As Rebeccah is a great fan of OULIPO I thought it would be fun to do a more modest version of Quenneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems and did a set of limericks with the same rhyme scheme. These were performed by asking people to shout out a number from one to five which would pick each successive line in the eventual random poem.

Finally –I have no mouth and I must speak. This was supposed to be a piece of writing using only single syllable words. I decided to write a piece about a computer being programmed to emulate the learning process of a human mind. One word = one bit. It is harder than you may think to stick to one syllable. My original title was Monolog until I realised that had three.

Like the members of OULIPO I found the challenge of having restrictions on what I was creating exhilarating rather than constraining.

Less is better?

Lots of authors I admire have been prolific in their output, but I have to admit that that output can be variable. If they are writing for a living, then there will be pressure to keep producing books to keep the money coming in, and not all of them will be up to the standards of their best.

On the other hand, there are authors who wrote a few novels and short stories and then vanished off the scene, leaving us wanting more.

One example is James Stoddard, whose High House and False House owed an obvious debt to William Hope Hodgson (including character names) and were great fantasy novels. The only other work he seems to have produced since those books at the end of the 90s is a retelling of Hodgson’s wonderful but challenging The Night Land for those who find the deliberately archaic prose of the original hard going.

Another great fantasy series is Robert Stalman’s Beast trilogy which looked at the human side of lycanthropy long before the current crop of Twilight clones. The author’s early death robbed us of a great talent.

Another talent robbed by an early death as Tom Reamy who left one novel and one short story collection. The stories in San Diego Lightfoot Sue are variable as Reamy was still learning his craft, but some are wonderful, as was Blind Voices. The circus setting with talented youngsters has been done before and since and for me the pre eminent example is Charles Finney’s Circus of Dr Lao. Finney produced two other short novels and a short story collection – all brilliantly bizarre and eccentric and worth a look if you can find copies.

My final suggestion is Jody Scott who wrote the great Passing for Human and the pretty good I Vampire which are scathing feminist satires including shape changing aliens.

The next 100,000 words

I’m back writing the rest of The Revolutionary Tapestry having had some interest from agents. For someone who is new to writing this is enormously encouraging as it shows I have good ideas and some ability even if I need to work hard to get it to the next level.

Sending stuff out is scary. Even letting friends see it is an anxious experience. Everybody has that little voice in their head that says they are an imposter and someone will find them out. Writing is always an expression and extension of your personality to a greater or lesser extent and sharing it is an invitation to judge not only your words, but you. I should be used to it, having been both a journalist and a music performer, but in both those cases the feedback is quick and can be quickly forgotten. It’s only if you consistently get criticism or bad crowds that you start to take it really to heart. A novel or even a short story takes more sustained effort and is more personal than a quick bit of factual copy or a three minute song.

My first reader is, of course, my wife Jules. When she first started reading and commenting on my stuff it was hard to take. Overall she has always been positive and her critique is always valid and I have learned a lot from it. There is still the stray thought however that this is someone who loves you so should only say nice things. What I quickly realised is that (a) she was right in questioning the things she did and changing them would make the story stronger and (b) as a parent you should never shrink from being honest with your children so as a writer you should expect the same from your readers. It’s like the people who go on X Factor and react to criticism from Simon Cowell by saying he isn’t a singer. He is something more relevant – a consumer.

My other readers have been similar enthusiastic and positively critical – the story is good, there is good writing there, but there are also things that could be improved. As they are either writers or experts in aspects of the story, this is very heartening and only a fool would ignore their points. I know what I wanted to say and what the characters are thinking and doing, but if that doesn’t come across to the reader it is useless. And I have occasionally also suffered from making the characters say or do things that are out of character because I needed it to happen, so finding that out is invaluable.

The key lesson, I suppose, is that if people say something is not right, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a good writer. Just that you have made a mistake, and pointing out a mistake is not an attack on your personality or talents.

So, onto the next 100,000 words and some more good readers.

Life is a cabaret

Jules and I have been busy over the last month getting our cabaret nights at Lowestoft off the ground – first one this evening and then every fortnight at the Seagull Theatre.

The idea behind them was the pain of travelling three hours each way to London to do a five minute comedy spot. If Jules found it a challenge to get a gig in this area, then there should be lots of other talented people with the same problem. The only way to improve your performance is to perform, but if there are no venues around how do you do that? And if lack of experience means the first few gigs are not a great success, that long drive back seems even longer.

With  lot of publicity online and in local media we have eight acts tonight and some lined up already for future shows. They range from performance poets to comedians (including none who has braved the Lowestoft/London journey the other way) to a drag act and a character comedian/singer. Plus me singing a couple of my own songs and Jules compering. variety seems to be making a bit of a comeback on TV with Britain’s Got Talent and the Palladium so fingers crossed.

The intention is to provide a showcase where the atmosphere is friendly and supportive and people are not scared to make mistakes as well as get positive support. The best will get progression to a longer spot on nights we will put on in the main auditorium rather than the bar area where the normal nights take place.

I’m looking forward to performing as well as being general factotum – I used to sing in folk clubs,  but most of them have disappeared, and playing again may encourage me to perform in more general open mike nights. Writing does not provide much in the way of immediate feedback so putting myself in front of an audience will be frightening but fun.