When Human Nature Forces A Deerstalker On You, It’s Time To Find The Elusive Deer

Sidney Paget cemented this stupid hat in the popular memory when recalling yer man Holmes. It got into the groundwater of the consciousness via Rathbone and Brett and Cook and, well, it’s obligatory now. You aren’t allowed to deduce without one. TV producers won’t stand for it.

Hidden truths require detectives – or historians, who get rather less kudos, although they’re about the only people on TV more often than various iterations of the Great Mouse Detective – because magicians are out of vogue and get rather more gnomic results. Which is not to say that results are not largely interpretive regardless. They are, and therein lies the problem.

As a friend rather elegantly reiterated in their undergraduate thesis, sometimes things become invisible because people refuse to see them. It’s a common enough problem in Western History, where the achievements of women and people of colour (and quite often the role of white, well-off men in suppressing or stealing those achievements) are routinely wiped away by generations reshaping the historical record to look like the modern power structure they favour. History and propaganda are spelled in the same type. There has been a rather successful film recently, in fact, precisely celebrating the 20th Century victims of such revisionism which includes the word “Hidden” in the title.

In denying that women, people of colour, and women of colour in the West in particular, have ever done anything, and in denying any worth in “traditionally female” work, revisionist history still can’t actually wipe all evidence of these people off the record [NB: I am aware there are people who refer to actually finding evidence of the achievements and presence of these demographics who have been deliberately overlooked as “revisionist” but the original decision to ignore them was a revision of reality in the first place]. Those babies came from somewhere; a lot of documents and photos went missing all the same. Hegemony is however forced to acknowledge someone’s presence even when it’s booting them in the face, sometimes.

As I write, people who don’t exist are disappearing from the streets; and are ceasing to officially exist on the spreadsheets. And the funny thing is: I was planning to write about not existing anyway.

The Human Need to see yourself reflected. To not be alone. To know that you are possible. For much of recent history there have been aggressive attempts to tell the hideable to be hidden until they cease to be; every generation of homosexuals is told they’re some kind of modern malaise, a manifestation of failing social standards and also ouroborous-like and paradoxically their cause – a self-generating Sodom, buggering its own face. Wilde’s Uranian Love Movement (well, it belonged rather more to Carpentor and Addington Symmonds and rather interestingly links back to something later on) looked backward to Ancient Greece for validation of worth but also the existence of their sexuality (and Wilde is to later generations as Alexander was to him), and very slowly the love that dare not speak its name got tired of being muttered about in code and learned how to spell its own name: loudly, and in a full spectrum of colour.

Image result for london pride parade (C) Pride

In Catherine Arnold’s City of Sin, a young Victorian gay man describes the emotional impact of his first ever gay experience: like a curtain being drawn aside to show what he had hoped for without being able to even know what it was he was hoping for, unable to name what had felt so wrong all this time, but articulating his relief in language that resonates still: “I am not alone.”

[Sexual acts for any sexual person can have the property of confirming the actor’s reality and their value, however temporary and conditional, to another, but it’s the queer who finds themselves made possible by it; before the internet, depictions or mentions of such things were like hen’s teeth. And you had to know what it was you were looking for].

If learning of your own invisible possibility from the past as a lover of the same sex is rare in a canon determined to push any explanation barring the obvious rather than deviate from the straitjacket of compulsory heteroseuxality – from the default assumption that we must all be straight until proven, often with laughably complex criteria betraying the prejudices of the self-appointed jury, to be otherwise – then GOOD FUCKING LUCK finding hide or hair of yourself in the annuls of the past as a trans person.

We are definitively a ‘a modern malaise’. Yes, non-Western cultures have had non-cis/non-binary social roles in perpetuity but gosh darn it the West is different (I can smell your cultural imperialism from over here and it stinks). Cis historians will take therefore London’s first transgender celebrity, the magnificent, romantic, sword-fighting French Chevalier d’Eon, who in her own lifetime very publicly switched pronouns and presentation (along with a suitably brilliant cover story), and was accepted – nay, applauded! Vindicated! – as a woman – and they will look at the post-mortem showing her to have a penis and testicles, and start describing her with male pronouns. I read this with my own two wildly disappointed eyes.

They will take Dr James Miranda Barry (current Wikipedia description, just to affix it in time: “Depending on historic interpretation, Barry might be considered either the first medically qualified British woman or the first medically qualified British transgender person.” Either way: Barry practiced medicine), army surgeon and anti-corruption campaigner, performer of the first successful recorded Caesarian section on the African continent, pugnacious and irascible, beloathed of Florence Nightingale, and despite his lifelong use of male pronouns, despite a death certificate describing him as male, and the continue testimony of his friends and acquaintances post-mortem that he was indeed a man… they will look at the circumstances of his life and rumour of childbearing, and drift into using “she”. Regardless of the content of Dr Barry’s abdomen, his was a life lived under the banner of maleness; and yet even his biographers grapple with phrases like “woman disguising [herself] as a man” just as they will trot out “man in a dress” for the poor Chevalier (what does a historical trans person have to do to be allowed their correct gender in death?). Unless these historians also “disguise” themselves when they get up and put on their togs of a morning, it seems an odd way to describe getting dressed.

Finding trans men in history whose identity will satisfy the same prejudicial jury as before is further complicated by historical misogyny, as evidenced above; there are always questions to be asked as to whether someone is taking their ovaries to town in a suit and tie because they want a degree in the days before educational equality and their uterus has mysteriously denied them the right to access this learning (thanks, The Patricharhy), or whether it’s simply that Abraham’s vag doesn’t mean he is a woman. Our trans sisters, bearing the violence of misogyny on coming out, are easier to identify in this regard at least – why else would someone who has at least nominal access to The Good Life And The Privilege choose to “live as a woman” unless they were one? It takes a special level of additional obtuseness, therefore, to misgender d’Eon.

This leads clumsily into the third problem. Gender identity and sexuality are bound together in many, many cultures throughout history – for some reason one is defined by who one wants to fuck; more explicitly, one’s gender is frequently supposed to be determined by whether wants to penetrate or be penetrated. Hence a great deal of confusion around the following subjects:

  • Butch/macho cis gay men – indeed male homosexuality in many minds was exclusively the province of those being penetrated and therefore automatically obligated to be feminine if adult (or constrained to “pre-manhood”); rendering muscular, macho bottoms in gay culture stemming from Men’s Health-style magazines and Tom of Finland’s historically extremely valuable art wildly problematic for straight culture and explaining somewhat hypermasculinity fetishism which currently disgusts and annoys the generations of gay men after mine…
  • Feminine cis lesbians, particularly those who date other femme lesbians… “which of you is the man”. Neither, my dear fellow, that’s the whole point.

It becomes even more impossible for the genderandsexualityequaleachother mind, choking on biological essentialism, to grasp:

  • Trans lesbians
  • Trans gay men

[I’m leaving out bisexuals here because that, too, seems to be a hobby for historical record and heterosexual historians, and separating the tussles of historical characters with the weight and requirement of Compulsory Heterosexuality – aka “reproduce OR ELSE” from genuine bisexual interest is a job for someone more invested and patient than me].

It’s perhaps not surprising that any earlier confirmed record of trans men revolves around straight trans men (and predominantly in the 19th or 20th century) [Joseph Lobdell, Dr Alan L Hart, Reed Erickson, Billy Tipton, Robert Eads, Willmer Broadnax] or trans men whose sexuality was not known [Jack Bee Garland, Laurence Michael Dillon]; many had marriages and children.

“After all,” as one infuriatingly contemporary cis man proclaimed, “if you want to have sex with men, why not just stay a girl?” [Alright, Phil, if you want to have sex with all those cute straight men why don’t you ‘become’ a woman? You don’t want to? Gosh, it’s almost like your gender identity matters to you…] And anyway, it’s never that simple. Trust me.

In fact, the first person I can really find acknowledged as a gay trans man is Lou Sullivan. Sainted, wonderful Lou Sullivan, who died too young and made my existence possible: “largely responsible for the modern understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity as distinct, unrelated concepts.” He was, however, kind of recent.

There is a glimmering of hope for the close reader however. Dr Barry’s love life, or at least rumoured love life – such as it was, as his Newtonian character didn’t lend itself terribly well to romance any more than Sir Isaac’s – revolves exclusively (as hinted by biographer Rachel Holmes) around men, or Barry’s “close relationship” with Governor Somerset while in Cape Town.

[It is also worth noting that as Dr McKinnon’s discussion of his late patient with an interested party involved his assertion that he understood Barry to be a “hermaphrodite”, the possibility exists that he was an intersex man rather than a trans man, and I would be loath to deny this representation even under a rather insulting name; times past may have muddied the water by using the term on occasion to refer to those whose “brain and body didn’t match up” or even homosexuals. Without being able to consult Dr Barry himself – who I cannot imagine would take kindly to the intrusion – it’s unlikely I’ll ever get a solid answer].

Wiped from history, covered up by misplaced propriety, nudged to and off the margins, many of the world’s people are denied the opportunity to look ourselves in the eye, to have the experience of reaching back into the dark for a similar hand without first digging up and reassembling the puzzle in codes we are told do not exist. For the sake of all those coming after us, who have to deal with this bullshit, it’s actually important that we do just that: and live our own lives as loudly and honestly as we can, to give them someone to look back at, if necessary.

I know it would have done me a lot of good.


When not grumpily ferreting around history’s dustbins in search of marginal representation, I also write books, some of which are set in the past

Advertisements

Becoming Visible

Earlier this month, for International Women’s Day, a friend on Facebook was making frustrated noises about an acquaintance of his who had whipped out the tiresome “BUT WHEN IS INTERNATIONAL MEN’S DAY” apparent-gotcha (it’s November the 19th, when these men mysteriously go quiet about male suicide levels, male rape victims, male domestic abuse survivors, the role of toxic masculinity in capitalism, or junk like that. Half of them don’t even use it as an opportunity to talk about cis-centric but well-meant topics like prostate/testicular cancer, for God’s sake); I tried to cheer him up by pointing out how angry the guy will be when he discovers greedy, greedy trans people have TWO international days! TWO! One to remind cis people we exist, and one to remind cis people that THEY KEEP FUCKING MURDERING US.

[Trans Day of Remembrance is also in November. Fairly close to International Men’s Day, in fact. Last year rather cruelly gifted me with someone to add to the list for the Day of Remembrance; I owe him a lot, and one of the best things I can think of to do is to pass on his assurances to others like him and like me].

It’s not all murder and toilets and gate-keeping insurance-providers and places where your actual existence as a human being is illegal, although those things do rather play on the mind (nothing so refreshing as needing a piss and having to wonder if you’re about to die from it in the literal, rather than figurative sense). It’s not even all continual rejection from people who are Absolutely Fucking Obsessed With Genitals and sudden, self-made (and wrong) experts on chromosomes.

[at point of taking, that’s 13 months on testosterone & 5 months after surgery]

I mean, my life has 100% improved since I stopped pretending I was ever going to Female Correctly. Side-effects have included health! Fitness! Confidence! Abandoning the need to check with other people whether I was allowed to like things, think things, believe things, or walk or talk a certain way! No longer shrivelling up like a dried plum in company! Finally making eye-contact! Enjoying being alive! Not constantly fixating on death.

Years ago I used to write regular blog entries acknowledging Self-Harm Awareness Day (March 1st), because, well, I did a lot of it. Continuously, from about 11 years old, until my early thirties, I hacked up parts of my body with a variety of sharp implements. There are scars everywhere as a result, from calves to face. Some people find them disturbing; some of them are very prominent.

There are lot of people I’d like to see change their position; there’s no arguing with some of them (committed TERFs who want to shout about “mutilating your female body” or whatever their bio-essentialist nonsense is this week; the creepy few of the cis lesbian world who feel entitled to any body born with a vagina but somehow angrily rebel against lesbian trans women who’ve had vaginoplasty; extremely paranoid cis gay men who are unnecessarily fixated on dick; homophobic & transphobic straight cis women convinced they’re being “lied to” because a trans man genders himself correctly; The Daily Fucking Mail, etc), but to the salvageable…

Cis men, straight or otherwise: please, if you think your masculinity isn’t tied to your noodle and nobbles (and it shouldn’t be, or you’ll have about forty crises all at once if you get fucking testicular cancer or the like, as a mate of mine did at 16), try to consider your feelings towards trans men. If there are cis men you admire for their masculinity or their achievements & trans men have managed the same kind of shit, your feeling should be the same. And yes while transitioning is hard for us it… actually needn’t be. There should be no fear involved, no terrifying social and bodily risk; so “these dudes are really brave” shouldn’t be the basis of your admiration, either. Jumping out of a burning building into shark-infested waters isn’t brave: we do it to save our lives. Making sure we don’t land in the fucking shark-infested water, to labour the metaphor, would be the sane and upstanding thing to do. Make that courage unnecessary by making it clear you already view trans men as men and admire at least some of us for the same goddamn reasons you admire any other men.

Interconnectedness isn’t just for hippies

Species as a concept is a lie. The taxonomic division between species and the precise definition of speciesation is mutable and contended; check EO Wilson. “But that’s biology. It’s a blurry, ill-defined kind of science.”

Listen; everything we understand is couched in terms we – or at least a certain number of us – can understand, which involves inventing concepts that break down and make manageable the whole vast and ever-changing universe of space and time, breaking it into chunks that our evolved-on-a-specific-star-orbiting-rock-in-response-to-specific-geographic-and-meteorological-and-environmental-pressures-then-developed-a-culture-and-society-and-culturally-dependent-language-and-thinking-patterns water-based sodium-electricity carbon-driven teeny weeny grey lump brains can digest, with a suitable run-up. We can only perceive directly the most incredibly narrow frequency band of “light” and “sound”; we’re staring at the universe through a slit that makes a letterbox (or the windscreen of a Citroën Dyane if you’re so inclined) look like the Pacific Ocean. Our limitations begin with but are not limited to the fact that our brains evolved for something else entirely and frequently hijack our attempts at objectivity with unconscious bias generated by cultural history or even more stupid things like “the need for sustenance” or “evolutionary focus on reproduction”.

At the end of last year I went to a talk about the archaeology of the Arab Revolt at the British Museum, because I am an adult and can do whatever the hell I want with my free time. There was no free coffee, but during the talk the author of the forthcoming book about the excavations talked about the groundbreaking (I think this is a pun that archaeologists are required by law to make) interdisciplinary approach to finding the right sites for these digs, combining local histories, archive materials, ethnography, a whole lot of disciplines my uneducated Creative Writing BA self thought were the same discipline anyway, and some other stuff, in order to confirm that among other things, a man whose job had been to write detailed and precise reports back to his superiors hadn’t been lying or exaggerating in them about the locations and breadth of various raids during said Revolt.

Further back, Failed Rock Star, walking hair product advert, subject of nationwide sexual fantasies and occasional particle physicist Dr Brian Cox presented a lavish BBC documentary, Wonders of Life, which observant readers blessed with a functioning memory will recall I wanked on about at length here, when I was evidently fairly high on oxytocin:

As soon as you start learning across different disciplines it becomes evident in a way it never was before that everything is in some way relevant to something else: the process of galaxy collisions millions of years ago and millions of light-years away helps to pinpoint the precise point in history in which a terrible plague was presaged by the coming of a new star in the heavens; evolution driven by chemistry and the test of the environment on gene expression helps to explain human behaviour and the propensity for war-making; understanding the chemical nature of love in the brain may one day lead to debates over whether it is ethical to induce empathy in psychopaths and a wave  of alternate history fiction about famous tyrants infected with great affection instead, for Literature students to analyse and reframe.

Divisions between chemistry and biology, geography and geology and ecology, meteorology and so on elide part of the picture in order to make it possible to focus on others; but getting down to the human nitty-gritty requires that, at some point, all of universal history is taken into account.

Why does the Apollo Belvedere look like that? Aesthetic choices, culturally-driven (evolution/biology, migration patterns of early humans driven by environmental necessicites relating to ecology and meteorology and evolved needs prior to the mass migration of mankind; cultural interactions between societies growing up due to isolation between different groups); material requirements dictated by physics (geology, crystallogy, material science…); costs (economics, history, the entire network of historical logistics which takes in geography and the limits of the human body and technological development plus information science and historical politics); religion…

Every node of explanation throws up more to be looked at, which connects with other concerns, and other concerns, and no doubt even when everything is explained to a thoroughly subatomic and pre-Big Bang level further complications will continue to arise (I know full well I am not the equal to this, it took my Long-Suffering Boyfriend and I an entire day to even get vaguely to grips with what the concept of a light cone is). There is no limit to the things that can and should be taken into consideration, no end to the distortions to every event or item (or if you want to think of it this way; consider that a leaf is also a time object, and go and have a lie-down) created by other events and items and their interactions with each other; no apparent end-point at which everything becomes simple.

Anyway if any of the staff from Foyles on Charing Cross Road are reading, this is why I was standing in the middle of the history of science section of your book shop looking hunted and chewing my fingernail.

We sink and we rise: Happy New Year to those within the M25

Here are some facts about London: it is old, and it is new. It is disgusting, and it is powerful. These truths are interlinked; foul industries, dirty water, a shambling stream of corpses and fire-halted epidemics give rich foundation to the quasi-religious veneration of our one true God, the golden god, and our old and all-conquering vice: Avarice. Bawd and ideal may be plentiful but the muddy, bloody swamp of a city sinks or swims on its venal lawlessness and nearly two millennia of proof can be dredged up for it.

London creates cultures like a loaf of damp bread. It generates saints. In Camden Town the long, sorrowful face of Amy Winehouse appears in smeared black on buildings like the Madonna on American toast; sheer will supersedes finger-wagging press to create her a modern, Jewish saint; “Don’t venerate an addict” and dire warnings of her moral character fall short and miss the point – Amy is an icon because of her flaws, not in spite of them or in their ignorance. Like Marilyn and Billie Holiday before her, the locality bears witness to struggle and pain paired with eloquence and skill, and raises a broken woman to the status of a divinity. It is a black paint backlash against the madonna/whore dichotomy; let her be both, let her be both.

We have hopes for George Michael, but it’s early days yet.

London makes saints of the ordinary, too; not far from my home there is a shrine. A man, 22, whose name I know but won’t share, died violently in the street in November. In a turbulent time these things go unremarked, but the shop across the street remembers, and his loved ones replenish flowers, candles, photographs, empty whisky bottles. Offerings to somewhere or something, to keep him from fraying in their minds. Devoured by the city, he becomes part of it.

Do the rules of urban sainthood cover the man I saw die this week, his vast white belly unthinkingly exposed as he lay surrounded by green-clad paramedics

and stony-faced on-lookers, spread-eagled by an unsuccessful defibrillator on a cold station floor? If he is canonised by the fleck-marks among the grey, how long for?

But it is a morbid time; it is Dead Winter. The time of year when I am quite grateful to find mould growing on my sandwiches because it proves that something can still grow in this hellish twilight. Past the dimple of midwinter and the instinctive bonfires, this frozen endless coda between the solstice and spring equinox is the time I give real and visceral consideration to the possibility of human sacrifice. At 3pm, already dark, on a night-shift week, I drag myself to he gym to treadmill the black despair into aches via the media of glowing orange numbers and participation in a nationwide detoxification – purificiation – fast-and-atonement ritual as we try to apologise the spring into happening. And I think, yeah, I’d kill a child to bring the sun back right now. Why not? Shit, let’s kill ten and have a nice summer this year.

London is a ritual city. It has no pomp nor splendour, no matter how much gilt we pour on the remaining high traditions or crenellated and NeoGothic excesses we defer to – the rituals are modern in age and pre-Enlightenment in character, private or primal: the weird, carved fish of Guild processions, the prescient and personal libations to a Bacchus tossed in the Fleet in the fourth Century, the roadkill funerals, the furtive wishing coins, knuckles to the window of the London Stone and prayers to the known monsters travelling in the eternal dark beneath the city. From the dank earth we came and shall return; we are filth, stains lapping at the feet of our unsecured glass skyscrapers – we are ugly, and let us remain pox-disfigured grasping mollies, roaring over newsprint…

One could weep for all the histories lost in the foundations of raw progress – the temples destroyed by railways, the birthplaces by bombs, the memories by meretricious, mercantile greed, but London does not stand still and it does not stop – a fossil city is a dead city. Better to build on top of our own sinking rooftops, lay roads over

rivers, and let future archaeologists marvel at our litter as we now paw over the plague-pits Pepys and Defoe’s peers did their best to cover.

Buddleia reaches for the sky, whole trees hanging out of brick cracks the size of a thumb; black mould marches over my bedroom ceiling; five mice quarrel in hypersonic territorial fury between the rails of the train to Cockfosters and somewhere in those miles of 19°C subterranean veins, rippling through clay like bands of a new composite mineral, we are evolving a new species of mosquito at light speed. The Tube Parasite. Our very own blood-sucker —

— London is a ritual city. We revisit our haunts. We pay our respects. We set our habits like heartbeats, not clockwork. Environment rules apply: the same man who moved me gently out of his path in a crowded, convivial nightclub in Vauxhall by placing the tips of his fingers on the angel tattooed on my neck kept to the etiquette of the Night Tube afterward, hunched up at the far end of a carriage with his eyes locked to his phone, a dozen empty, newspapered seats between us. Courtesy in both worlds: in the sweat and strobes the pressure of his cock on the waistband of my jeans is simple and unimpeachable neutral manners, too.

Condensed, London is a highly-charged space. Widely-spread souls mistake this hyperreal interaction for hostility instead of the hallucinogenic endgame of compressed human interaction. In the countryside I grew up in, friendliness is a two-hour chat with a grinning death’s head stranger; in this hive it is the quick smile to a bus driver from a passenger who has been on this route a decade. It is the small rituals with speed-ravaged 4am shopkeepers. It is catching the eye of the tired passenger who is watching the same pigeon fight that you are. In each of these seconds a week of intimacies unfolds in its own sweet time.

Do not be so quick to hate the ‘bubbles’ in which we dwell. They are beautiful and we have chosen them for a good reason.

Writing Advice: Pulling Answers From My Bum Part 2.

Another ask from the Website Where Askboxes Live:

what’s your advice on creating interesting, likable and realistic characters? And creating strong, emotional bonds between two or more characters?

And one long, windy, incoherent reply:

Realistic characters are super easy, you just have to know, y’know, people. Stalk people! — there is possibly a less creepy way of putting that but I still have the Weird Plague so I’m not searching for it right now. Listen to people. If you’re already the therapist/confidante for your group of friends this helps, because you will get to hear how people talk about themselves. Read people’s personal blogs. Read published diaries. Read email transcripts. Read published collections of letters, the more mundane the better. Eavesdrop on people in cafes, bars, on public transport. Sit silent in chat rooms. Wander onto forums as a guest. And talk to people, if you can stomach it and if you feel safe. Listen to how people talk about each other in their absence, too.

This fills you up with other people’s language and other people’s fears, desires, griefs, triumphs, and their facades (always worth remembering that everything people communicate consciously is something they choose, to a degree, to demonstrate, and sometimes/often it’s intended to give a specific effect).

Personally I also read a lot of (popular, since I’m not especially smart) books from the holy trinity of People Understanding Sciences: sociology, neurology, psychology. “Why the fuck do people do that” / “how do people work” (child development books are good for this too, imo). I like this because it’s easier to tweak things about a character if you have an idea of what life event is likely to result in what kind of variety of flaws or fears or so on & hopefully reduces the likelihood of getting repetitive. Also: blogs on How To Understand Neurotypicals written for people who are Neurodivervgent/ASD/etc are remarkably useful for Neurotypical writers because they will explain the why of things.

A strong, original character is one who lives as a person, basically. Either they are the centre of their own universe or the transference of a universal centre to an item, individual, or quest makes them fanatical, weird, comment-worthy by other characters. Secondary characters should always always always always have lives, concerns, and priorities outside of the protagonist. Antagonists need, again IMO, to have inner life. Assuming your antagonist is a character and not, say, “the concept of death”.

Uh… oh, right, bonds. Interactions create those. You can short-cut people to understanding that two people are very close by the way they interact; you can show the growth of a bond by the changes of interaction between characters (lazy: by using less and less formal language; by reducing the physical space between them; by increasing the humour and such in their conversations). A fun game to play in public is detective over what kind of relationship two strangers have to each other (I mean, strangers to you). Analyse what makes you reach your conclusions; transfer this to depictions in writing. Remember that cultural and subcultural mores play a role in this – teenage boys express affection by shoving and hitting each other, etc.

Try to avoid the temptation to demonstrate closeness by overshare of personal backstory – if your character is the kind who overshares personal backstory almost immediately it won’t be a show of affection but of disorder, if they turn it into a joke — ref. Deadpool and Vanessa flirting — it tells you about the character (less the backstory and more how they talk about it, how they use it as currency/recognition), but the intimacy isn’t formed then.

Short-cuts to bonds which are very popular in certain works (and uh, also in real life by people who are grooming someone) include “going through a traumatic event together”, which is often the basis of bringing together a disparate group of people – but it’s worth considering that the type of bond may not be intimate, long-lasting, positive, or even an attractor – some people who go through trauma with other people want nothing more than to be away from anyone or anything that reminds them of it.

Likeable is difficult, because obviously what appeals to one person will not appeal to another; I love Patty Tolan the best out of the recent Ghostbusters movie but many other people prefer Holtzmann or Abby etc… attempts to appeal to everyone all at once lead to Stubbly McQuiptits, Joss Whedon Syndrome, or everything Stephen King has ever done. I think in that respect the only real gauge you can rely on is yourself/test readers. Read their dialogue and interactions back to yourself or have it read back to you (to divorce it from your own voice), and try to think about whether this is someone you want to read about – not the same thing, obviously, as someone you want to hang out with! (I adore Miss Temple in Glass Books but I’m pretty sure I’d want to hit her with a tea tray if we had to socialise).

With likeability too I think realism is important; someone with a gamut of emotions and experiences and who has enough stacked against them that people can sympathise (as the majority of readers aren’t going to be bajillionaire superhots who effortlessly got their PhDs aged 7; part of the appeal for most of, say, Matt Fraction’s Clint Barton is that while he may have incredible skills in one area and be overall a good and heroic dude, he’s a dysfunctional shitmess in pretty much every other area).


I am, in theory, working towards a slightly less bombastic version of How Not To Write at the moment.

The Gamification of Dining.

Currently I’m a widower to Pokemon Go, as are many. My Delightful Boyfriend, who is a nerd who likes shooting things on the TV while swearing, and has been known to RPG (unlike me: I am the very cool kind of nerd who has lots of emotions about dead people and Knows Facts About Bees), has been sucked into the vortex of “walking around places with his head down” game, which doesn’t much differ from his “I can’t use Facebook and walk at the same time but never say never” approach to life in many particulars.

I’ve never been tremendously into games*, for the following reasons: I dislike losing a lot more than I enjoy winning; I am hopelessly allergic to anything involving teamwork; sudden loud noises stress me the fuck out; I have spent most of my life with abjectly poor hand-eye and foot-eye coordination; team-bonding’s neurological effect actively scares me; I don’t have the attention span; I want to control absolutely everything or absolutely nothing but find the middle ground frustrating; I am terminally averse to getting things wrong the first time.

*Disclaimer: I have had crippling addictions to: Tetris, a card game called Montana,  Soltaire, Hoppit, a match-three game for the Acorn called Reaction, Bejeweled, Bookworm, and still routinely spend hours mindlessly thumbing through 2048. 

However, I’m also a sucker for: prizes; food; new stuff.

And recently I went to Shuang Shuang in Piccadilly. It’s a hotpot conveyor belt restaurant, combining the simple delight I experienced for the first time 14 years ago when I went to Yo! Sushi in Paddington Station and got FOOD ZOOMED PAST MY EYES with the equally great satisfaction of HAVING FOOD COOKED IN FRONT OF ME ESPECIALLY FOR ME at Abeno Too some eight or so years later, and the no lesser delight of “pick your own ingredients and we’ll make the thing for you” buffet-style restaurants like Tiger Lil’s and the Mongolian Barbecue (now I think both sadly defunct) that were popular in the 2003-5 period. In that you get your own temperature-controlled hot pot of the broth of your choice, a conveyor belt of fresh ingredients, and a guide to roughly how long you should let things cook for.

As I said to my date, fellow flaneur, London history nerd, enjoyer-of-gadgets, and the person who introduced me to Sci Fi Nutrigruel (and to the glories of H G Wells), I fall squarely into the opposite camp to We Want Plates. My requirements for eating out being:

  1. Is it good food
  2. Is it good food I probably couldn’t make myself
  3. Have you done something weird with it

Why yes, I do slavishly watch Heston Blumenthal while chuckling quietly about him being mental. Thank you. I do find the words “good honest grub” tedious in the extreme. I can make that at home. I came out to your cavern of hellish socialisation so I could be treated to Exciting Shit. Make some dinner theatre happen!

This, for example, looks fun.

lego breadbasket

Image from WeWantPlates.com

Admittedly I’m bored now with what I think of as Nerd Fun With Food; “caffeinate everything”, “what can we make taste of artificial bacon next”; “look it’s a really massive version of some highly overproduced snack food you barely like anyway”, but I feel in terms of presentation and excitement, stuff like Supersizers Go… knows a thing or two about how to make eating out interesting.

It was ruminating on this and quipping about it that led to the following concept, described by friend Chris Siddall as “Iron Chef Go” and by Delightful Boyfriend as “hrm”; I would like to thank them both for asking me enough questions to help iron out some original kinks in the idea.

IT’S TIME FOR ENRICHMENT, BITCHES:

So the wheeze is this. You and your group – hen party, stag do, business retreat, family reunion, football team, LARP favourites, etc – book ahead to this thing. A country house, an adventure park, or a hotel. You tell them how many there are of you, what dietary requirements and preferences you have, and that’s it. You put the app in your phone.

When you turn up you’re sent off into the grounds. You have to check your app. How many ingredients do you need to find? Where are they? What clues are you following? What riddles to you answer correctly?

You find a thing. It’s a fake bowl of chopped onions, under a hedge, rather like shokuhin sampuru in restaurants. It’s got a Tile or an i-tag or similar on it. You tap the ingredient’s tag on your phone to let your team know you’ve got it, and to tell the chef that ingredient’s unlocked on the list, meaning your potential meal just got tastier: you only eat meals with what you’ve managed to find.

At the end of the pre-meal game you drop all your “ingredients” into a pot, and make your way back to the restaurant. You’ve had fun, you’ve worked up an appetite, you don’t know exactly what you’re getting, but you know it’s going to be more satisfying to eat now than it would have been just picking something off a piece of card.

Naturally the dinner theatre’s been meticulously arranged in advance. The ingredients you hunt can be combined to different levels and in different ways, and that menu has already been decided: if you find none of the ingredients you get a very nice burger and chips and a drink with a sad face on it and a card saying “I don’t think you tried at all”. If you find, say, three, you get the “three-ingredient” meal. If you find all the ingredients you get a free cocktail and unlock the dessert roulette.

Would it catch on? I don’t know. I could see it being a hit in Dalston, the same way that Fire Hazard Games – immersive gaming around real-life – has taken off, and possibly with the same people. It would combine healthy exercise and food, and thinking exercises with reward, much as Pokemon Go has got people moving and getting out of the house.

Heston, man. Hit me up. You know you want to.

The Alchemy of Reading.

An anti-abstract: I’m not going to use this post to talk about people who deliberately misinterpret Barthes in order to give a psychological assessment to long-dead authors and put words into the mouths of living ones, Tumblr. That would be pointless, and it wouldn’t be fun.

An abstract: I’m going to talk about what I think reading, or indeed watching, or any form of apparently one-sided, supposedly non-interactive communicative art is.

What is reading?

What a bizarre question. What happens when you read something?

Well, your brain makes an attempt to decode the verbal and visual encoding of non-verbal ideas and emotions encoded by someone else’s brain into that medium in an attempt to communicate those ideas to another person, like so:

(Image originates here)

That little overlap in the middle is to do with shared cultural references, experiences in common (whether culturally expected, like Western children being expected to have some experience of “Christmas”, or universal human experiences, like having a poo), common observations, and of course shared language, whether that language is verbal (I am talking to you in English because my attempts to learn any other languages so far have led to hysterically funny failure; I am a bear of very little brain), or non-verbal (semiotics, sociomusicology, have at you).

When you read, you are trying to extract meaning from a meaning-carrying device primed by someone else.

Reading is a creative act.

In order to read, you create a new universe.

The foundations of that universe are laid in the head or heads of the creator/s of the meaning-carrying device. A code is laid down to be read, a set of instructions to the brain which are both direct and descriptive (“I have hit my foot”, said Peter.) and figurative and evocative (The red fog enveloped Peter’s heart as he swore at the throbbing mass his foot had become.); direct and descriptive code relies a little on shared experience (we assume you have hit your foot, know what a foot is, and what hitting it entails), filling in gaps (it is most likely Peter did not deliberately strike his foot with his own hand, and that he has bumped it against something unnamed, probably while in motion), and so on. Figurative and evocative code requires more faith in the shared experience with the reader, and shared cultural references (red is equal to anger, fog is absence of clarity in thought due to emotional upheaval, we know that Peter’s foot is still a foot but the sensation of pain has transfigured it on an experiential level).

When code is laid down it is inert. A film that is not watched and a book that is not read have no meaning. They have potential meaning, in the way that a rock balanced on top of a gantry has potential energy. This is authorial intent. Without anyone to read it, the intent has no function.

When a reader comes to a text they decode it, but this term implies a simple undoing of the coding process.

What actually takes place is creative interpretation of the code, and in the process of this, a story, or version, is created. Sometimes these deviate drastically from the intended content of the code.

No two stories/versions of the same code are the same.

Every person’s reading of a text, every reading by the same person of the same text, is unique, regardless of what shared opinion of the text they come in with.

How?

Because no two people are the same, and what causes a particular interpretation and emotional reaction – alchemical reaction – is the amalgamation of every single experience, thought, belief, and resonance that one person has had throughout their life, which will inevitably pick out different emphases among the text and trigger different emotional experiences, memories, prejudices, and fears.

In literary criticism, in order to present an interpretation of the text as valid it must be supported with evidence from the text and an argument which convinces and which typically draws on an accredited theoretical framework, or builds it own. In reading, all interpretations are valid, and equally valid, and no one reader’s interpretation may supersede another’s by virtue of authority alone. In fact, the attempt to communicate the experience of reading creates another story/version, that of the experience-telling, which exists between the various readers of the work, and at second-hand, as a catalyst, the creator of the work.

In other words, the story created in the interaction between the creator/s of a work and each individual reader is a private and unique story as it is experienced by the reader. This act of creation is not duplicated, not possible to share in its entirety with anyone, and is not owned by the work’s creator (they only made the code to be read), and not owned by the reader (they brought their self and attendant experiences to the code to read it, but the code is not theirs). It exists independently of both.

Each reading is a temporary and private work of art.

Conversations On How To Write

(Further self-important essays on the writing process and advise and exercises can be found in How Not To Write By Someone Who Doesn’t)


 

In the depths of the hellish night shift the brain has time to mull over problems not typically considered in a busier, more sunlit atmosphere. In my case I’m lucky enough that there’s someone in the opposite time-zone to me who is also frequently bored in charge of a computer, and has her head screwed on when it comes to the business of writing.

You’ll have to excuse the regular descent into internet vernacular with attendant poor grammar (on my part), spelling, and punctuation. There’s been a tiny amount of censorship and explanation but on the whole I wanted to maintain the authenticity of the original discussion, mostly conducted between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 in the morning in between hating the national press.

Your host, I (YHI): it’s much easier to think when answering questions too

Extraordinary Comic Maker (ECM): yeah, like.. breaking it down into it’s parts to assemble sentences, from nebulous thought into structure, even as it’s growing, helps with untangling and identifying gaps and obvious problems.

This is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of “oh, I won’t answer that question until I’ve done some research/thinking”; I find that in answering a question on the fly it’s a lot easier to bring together elements that are bubbling away beneath the surface and get to a more concrete solution than by toiling away alone in the dark.

YHI: Yes! And in explaining it to someone else, one has to have an idea of what one means. It can be very helpful for filling in the gaps, as you say.

ECM: Yeah, always special to try to explain something and then go …????  I have no idea what I’m trying to describe???

YHI: I find the act of trying solidifies things, possibly due to my DESPERATE NEED to sound like I know what I’m talking about at all times, and suddenly all of the vague “I hadn’t really thought about it’s” turn into “QUICK PULL SOMETHING OUT OF YOUR ASS SO PEOPLE DON’T REALISE HOW DUMB YOU ARE”. Amazing what a panicked ego can achieve.

Personally I’m a big fan of hacking the worst aspects of my personality in order to make things which are usually grotesquely self-destructive work in my favour. I may not be able to change the fact that I’m defeatist, ego-centric, and pathetically keen to sound intelligent at all times, but I can at least work on bending those personality traits into helping me to persist and achieve at least small goals!

Fortunately, ECM knows what I’m talking about:

ECM: Necessity, panic, something, invention? Ohhhhhhhh I know that one. A bit like the “I like how you did x, and how it parallels y” “YES, YES THAT WAS INTENTIONAL, YEAH. (???!!!!!)”

For what it’s worth, I think a lot of the instances of “yes, yes, that was intentional” are at least subconsciously so:

YHI: ah, my old friend “i think that was wholly subconscious but i’m going to pretend i’m totes that clever”

The discussion moved onto the specifics of world-building for a while:

YHI: so useful to have intercultural conflict even between characters which get on – it’s just not a realistic representation of sentience otherwise

At which point ECM gloriously and brilliantly climbed onto a soapbox which I can’t articulate half as well, and I’m going to give you her response in full to mull over for your own writing projects, because she nails so accurately the real core of creating a believable, meaty, weight world:

ECM:

And yeah, it’s the thing of not wanting to make people too reasonable or emotionally competent. And there should always be more stories about people of different backgrounds and cultures mixing in positive or at least non hostile ways and still being people – that is, a bit dickish and self involved, getting on best when there is a shared goal, running into each other when stress is high, more forgiving and able to handle offence and upset when well rested and secure, more willing to admit guilt when they trust each other, able to compromise but not all the time.
I dunno. I understand all the reasons why fiction matters, that nothing is without ideology in some way, but… arg. People are dickheads and it’s not the end of days. People hurt through well meaning and indifference and spite and and sometimes it doesn’t matter in the slightest and other times it does. Aaaand for the most part people just do not give a shit.
I don’t want tedious ‘if onlys and should be-s’ and I don’t want nightmare ‘if you’re not carefuls’. Not exactly reality but something that breaths, that is recognizable as real, if out of focus, perhaps more interior. Like dreams – moments of sharp focus and lots of dim movement and shapes and knowings.
I want this world to have big difficult powers that wear lots of hats, and the rage felt by not being able to see your enemy, of being under attack and going out of you mind to find the source of the sharp pains that come for invisible sources. And I want these big powers to be mortal and fallible. Always on the brink of finally becoming too arrogant and blind to survive, but mean and determined enough to get where they are. For this universe to heave and shift and everyone just try to hang on and make dinner and a life.
And I want it to over exposed and desperate and cold and quiet. Very very big. Deep, wide, shifting. Big structures that change the shape but not the texture. Things decaying even as they’re built. And new life, always life, thriving and struggling and fucking and getting in it’s own way. No great answer no great conclusion just more of the same until it all ends. Horror and beauty and fart jokes. No right answers and nothing beyond hope and it’s all indifference and bitter unfairness. No special ones. Absolutely no special ones. Not and ideal universe but a universe that has – and fails to live up to it’s – ideals. And for it all to have some fucking bite.
“Horror and beauty and fart jokes”, possibly the greatest manifesto heading you can ask for.
YHI: it makes sense and your ambitions are narratively speaking deeply worthy… i mean, imo, what you’ve set out to do is encompass the entire realistic human experience as painted on a broader canvas, hugely ambitious and right. you can’t just detach any part of existence from all others and have it make sense, the whole machine of environment and prejudice and interaction and history has come together to make every single moment and quirk, right? so the engine of story you’re building is functional and accurate, unlike the “i’d like it to be this colour and the details can just go spit” approach people take most of the time.
Back to specifics:
ECMI think this story will live and die on how emotionally believable the story is
YHI: All stories worth reading live and die on that. Emotionally unbelievable stories may have technical perfection but no one ever loves them.
And then, my dear audience, she asked me a whole bunch of questions.

How do you manage the emotional integrity of a story?
you keep drawing on the depth of your characters until they feel like real people, you get a template of them in your head and then you drag them out of their depth and bang them into each other; as long as none of their responses feel inauthentic you know it’s working out. sometimes the plot has to change as you go along because the characters have their own life and just won’t do the thing you’ve said they should… it’s usually best to listen at this point. it’s a pretty organic way of working admittedly but you can’t force things. if a character refuses reconciliation and goes for a big sacrifice that’s just what it’s in them to do…

When do you know a story is done?
there’s a shape stories have. it’s usually sometime after the lowest point. there’s about three “lowests”, and the absolute lowest is followed by an up-tick, where there’s a kind of cool moment of calm or stasis, usually with the promise that something will happen, but not just yet… that’s where the plot ends. That’s the end of that story. [the “something” that’s about to happen can be of another order of magnitude, dr who is quite a good reference point for this – old dr who anyway. sarah waters is with me on that one]. in terms of “ready to be written” done-ness it’s usually when the fucking thing starts writing itself; the characters start talking and won’t shut up, you’ve assembled something so lively that the narration is burping its way into quiet moments of your life, and the wretched infection has to be written or you will not get a moment’s peace. as soon as i can “hear” it clearly i know it’s approaching readiness.

Dialogue? How?

let characters talk to each other in your head, write down what they say, remove approximately 90% of it so that it doesn’t take up four thousand pages. if they won’t talk to each other write about the way they’re not talking to each other and what they interpret from the silences. throw in raymond chandler’s man with a gun to make them interact if necessary. the way i approach it, at least, they should be a) out of water enough to behave beyond the limits of normality as a result of plot events, and b) so well-fleshed that their responses to events can be relied upon to be natural; dialogue follows as a result of that. to take what you’re working on as an example: someone bursts in and demands to see the navigator, clearly not knowing who that is, while [REDACTED, a character specific to ECM’s project] is standing right there. what does he say? what do they say? what information are they trying to convey and how is their ability to convey that impeded by [REDACTED, a character specific to ECM’s project] being a moody bitch at them? eavesdropping conversations was something i was taught to do both in theatre school and on various writing courses, and i did some audio typing work for a friend who needed her phd interviews transcribing; if you spend a little time writing down verbatim what people say to each other (then remove all the fucking repetition and 99% of the hesitations and at least some of the circumlocution) it helps to internalise what natural speech patterns sound like and what kind of character they’re attached to. the aim is to be able to determine who is talking without any attribution [and once you’ve got it settled you can play with it, having people speak in a way that is not natural, and which therefore makes readers feel unsettled].

Single thing you wrote/created that you’re most proud of?

usually this is just “the most recent thing i’ve written and didn’t hate”, and currently really is the case, i have genuine confidence that [it] is probably the most well-constructed and emotionally broad thing, the least over-indulgent thing i’ve written to date. but it’s not ready.

Work that you most admire? 

for clarity of vision and character stability, pat barker’s regeneration books. for character voice lolita and the book i’m reading at the moment [this was The Debt To Pleasure, which i wholly recommend]; for break-neck pacing and sheer excitement, glass books; for abject poetry and management of delicate clue-laying and emotional sadism on an incredible scale mary renault – her touch is so light you sometimes have to read and reread to get all of the layers, and the rhythm of her sentences occasionally makes me angry because they’re so WELL BALANCED AND JUST. TOO GOOD. – there are a lot of works where the concept is just mind-blowing but i have no idea if it’s a technical thing or if it’s simply ideas that resonate with me.

What do you find to be the most useful thing to know about a character?

It kind of varies on the character, which is bewilderingly unhelpful, I know. Currently I’ve found things like: the book I’m planning has a major character for whom singing was an important part of his life until various events took place, and now he has lost both that and his very strong religious faith. What has proven to be the key in unlocking him in my head is not this, nor his relationship with his family, but what his voice sounds like now. It changed his look in my head and made him an individual character with his own life. Learning which swear words another character favoured as given me her voice. In [the most recent project] it was getting to grips with how [a major character] felt about his position as a golden boy and what effect that had had on his confidence and also recklessness; sometimes I have to keep prodding a character because they feel flat and weird and wrong and something has to be changed about them and I’m never sure what it’s going to be. But there needs to be a handle onto which I can hang in order to make them solid.

Favourite part of the writing process?

I realise I’m in the minority here but THE ACTUAL WRITING. I hate having a wrestling match with my brain trying to plot things. Once all that is in place the scenes usually just write themselves. It’s like running down hill fast or, at some points, like hitting the crest of a rollercoaster. Fantastic feeling, highly worth it just to submerge myself in a totally different reality that I’m also getting to shape without feeling like it’s me doing it? I think part of the reason it is usually not so hard to write the actual content is that by the time I get started I’ve spent so long with the characters/world that there’s no concern about voice or reality. But easily that “god this stuff is just pouring out of me” sensation.
What writing skill/part of your writing are you most pleased with?

I can guarantee that as soon as I focus on something here I will become dissatisfied with it. Previously I’d have said character voice diversity, but I’ve been on an editing read recently and I’m convinced all my characters sound like me. I guess the ability to provide a sense of place without going overboard on details? Not sure if that’s something I actually manage or if I just leave people floundering in white space though. Oh, emotional impact. I’m okay with that.
What do you find the hardest/want to most improve?
Nuts and bolts: I cannot pace for shit. I have real trouble with cause and effect, my endings are ropy, there is little to get plot resolution happening as a result of character actions rather than as something that happens to them – I suffer from chronic Passive Protagonist Disorder and I don’t think it’s going to clear up until I start writing a different sort of protagonist and that’s not happening until I sort out some mental issues. WHICH IS EMBARRASSING, FRANKLY.

In your opinion, what do you think makes a good protagonist? Or at least a compelling/effective one?
My friend [REDACTED], with whom I disagree about a lot of things, said something very good on this: he said if he has made it through a book for 100 pages and he doesn’t care whether the protagonist gets his heart’s desire or has an anvil dropped on him, the book is lousy and the protagonist is lousy. I am inclined to agree. They need to provoke some kind of strong emotion, even if it is just curiosity, and no matter how repellent they are as a person you need to want them to be in your field of “vision” – you have to want to know what they’re up to, what will happen to them. In effect a species of charm, even if it’s achieved by them being horrifyingly charmless.

More annoyingly the consensus of writing books, which I am less inclined to agree with, is that a protagonist has to be active. Things have to happen because of something they’ve done. I’m kind of a fan of the “giant events far beyond the protagonist’s control” approach as well, if only because a) the universe works that way, and b) I think the individualist, non-fatalistic hero is probably a modern/western invention to a degree. So Budgie’s edict, yes.
 
what is a protagonist that you would like to write?

a total fucking shit. I want to be able to write someone with whom I have almost nothing in common and with whom i disagree massively, and still care what happens to them. i want to be able to make myself sympathise with them and care what happens to them, the way that better authors have made me done with complete shit protagonists. in a slightly pseudo-religious sense i think it’s actively important to humanise The Other so that we learn to accept a diversity of viewpoints as being human even as we try to change their views, to approach them as mutable rather than alien and only worthy of destruction and hatred. which means i at some point need to overcome my cowardice relating to being misinterpreted as sharing the views of characters i write, i suppose.
What the most useful thing to keep in mind when going for emotional impact?

  1. small and personal trumps massive and wide-reaching – even if you’re writing about wide-reaching things bring the focus down onto as small a group of people as possible. choose individuals and write about them, pick individual moments rather than a stream – panels/snapshots, not trying to capture the whole event. the glory of the human imagination is that we will fill in the gaps with whatever’s most affecting to us, and the work being done by the reader will surpass anything a writer can do on their own.definitely worth remembering that the consumption of Story is a collaborative act.
  2. i know people go on and on and on about “show, don’t tell”, but it is really important in this area; you only need to devote a sentence or two to the description of an emotion and the rest should be the physical or whatever effects on the character, how they appear, the sensation of that. also with describing an emotion metaphor’s usually helpful? like “mike was sad” blows chunks unless you’re going to contrast it to him either a) being demonstrably not sad (irony) or b) being demonstrably totally fucking devastated (understatement). meanwhile, “mike was hit by a breaking wave of sadness” (or whatever works with your own idiom) is something which makes the experience relatable. “sad” is nebulous. “agony” is relative. “hot needles of shame breaking out in his cheeks” is something most of us are familiar with on a visceral level.
  3. pacing really fucking matters. you can’t pull an immediate emotional impact out of the bag without some build-up – it will just fall flat. you can have tension ticking along in the background of other scenes as you move onto different topics with this “what will happen” hanging over people’s heads, you can twist and bend the narrative however you want, but if you don’t give the moment of emotional impact the space it needs to grow it will just fall flat. also, be wary of either a) getting it over with too quickly – people need to be able to process it and it will feel flat if you just rush past it, or b) dragging it out like you’re milking the damn thing. mawkishness will make readers resent the shit out of it and stop caring both about the event and about the characters.
  4. something that i’ve been writing on my angry post-its to my former self as i go through the first editing pass on my last MS has been “seed this”. it means making sure there are sufficient roots for an event or character leading up to a situation that they feel anchored in the narrative and the world, rather than airlifted in to provide conflict or whatever at an appropriate moment. and  be careful of this, readers get fucking irate if they think you’re just playing them for emotional release for no reason, to no end, without any indication of the point of what you’re doing. it has to have a function in the plot, ideally, or in the character’s development. but also yeah, don’t fridge characters either.

 

We then had a brief interlude for relishing the mere memory of the moments when creation is easy.
ECM:  I get that glorious creative-iron-filings-aligned thing with painting sometimes – like for bloody once one’s brain is doing what it should, all the things that don’t work in every other fucking circumstance pulling together and functioning in an almost unconscious effortlessness.  feels like being a dancer or a sea gull or something, but mentally. never lasts but worth going through the agony and self doubt to do it again. and again. and again.
This seems like as good a point as any to end a very long post full of rambling about the Process, because what she says about the sensation of writing or creating anything, when it works, is all that really needs to be said about that. We are drawn to this annoying, gruelling, frequently otherwise unrewarding path of activity littered with mistakes and disappointments for that addictive experience of the whoosh of creation – when everything goes right and there’s no casting about for words or overstepping lines or wondering what happens next, only the unstumbling rush forward through scenes or colours or compositions, which is worth a thousand of any other kind of experience you could ask for.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the praise and the money when the finished product briefly catches people’s eye, but that’s not why I do it, and I don’t think that’s why anyone else does it, either.

(Further self-important essays on the writing process and advise and exercises can be found in How Not To Write By Someone Who Doesn’t)

Persistence: Only Available At 5am When I Have No Choice

Sometimes the flow of work at my workplace doesn’t keep pace with how quickly I process it and by “sometimes” I mean “often”. Unfortunately by 5am I’ve also lost the ability to form sentences and can’t productively use the time to work on book projects, and I can’t look at hardcore pornography because I’m at work.

Recently I decided that I’d try copying a painting by one of my (current) favourite painters, Newlyn School artist and Notorious Heterosexual Henry Scott Tuke, whose primary fodder of sun-kissed naked boys viewed from behind is mysteriously not banned by my workplace, on the grounds that if it’s rendered in paint it’s not pornography.

Now there’s a good reason my tag for attempts at freehand lineart on my less official blog is “derek can’t draw”, and it’s also fairly self-evident. I hear that practice makes perfect, but I also hear my dear chum Jamie McKelvie’s complaints about sciatica brought on by endless drawing and think that art is entirely Too Dangerous for a fragile flower like me, and stick to lifting heavy things in the bathroom instead.

Being for all intents and purposes nailed to my bastard desk for at least another hour with nothing else to do I thought I’d take my life and back muscles into my own hands and give it a try anyway:

brush pen

My brush pen had run out. Under normal circumstances I would take this as a Sign From God that it is not to be, but alas God is going to have to signal a bit harder (say, for instance, by letting me go home) under conditions like these–

what

Merciful fucking Christ, have I always been this bad at art?

(Yes)

no

I made an attempt to block it out with a wee figure in the corner but as you can see this did not help in the slightest.

getting worse

Trying to go for something more stylised and less naturalistic is not helping. It’s getting worse. It’s getting worse the more I do it.

Look at that leg what is happening to his leg?

am i on acid

The point at which sleep deprivation and hallucinogenic drugs become a very similar experience: the arms are improving (for a given value of improving) but the legs are making me concerned that I’ve experienced neurological damage and just haven’t noticed yet (Will Graham, I am coming for your crown). Do I have encephalitis or am I just incredibly stupid?

Don’t answer that.

style

Experimenting with an edict from friend Kev about letting “mistakes” become part of your style, as well as with a slightly better block-out. Not worried about club foot, jug ears, crab hand, or banana fingers, but that leg. It’s broken. There’s a gravitational issue going on – his arm’s supposed to be resting on his knee and there’s this smashed noodle happening there instead.

frustration

Frustration takes hold. None of these poses are right. There’s a distinct, leggy problem occurring and re-occurring, like someone has lost his grip on anatomy and probably shouldn’t be trying to draw at 5am after about 260mg of caffeine anyway.

anatomy

This calls for drastic measures. Fling open a new tab. Find some anatomy guides. This one was of the musculature of the leg (and leg bones), in case this is not clear from the gargoyle scratchings I committed to paper.

Commentary written on my drawing is fairly standard practice: earlier in the night I tried to redesign a character and every sketch was accompanied by criticism from the drawings themselves and protests that they wanted to be left in peace.

femur

The thigh bone’s connect to the shin bones and the shin bones are connected to the heel bone and the heel bone rests on the ground, Derek, because you’re not a horse.

see through

Making the body see-through to get an idea of where all the limbs sit helps, as does temporarily changing to a different pen.

I mean look, his elbow’s bulbous but at least his leg’s not broken any more.

combine

Combining with the character redesign. The leg is still fucked but eh. How much more can I do?

gravity

After all, until I can get the hang of the line of gravity in a figure anatomy is going to be a dead duck anyway.

Origami Clothing

The main themes of my stupid unintended design week are of course convenience, portability, and “why are you so obsessed with travel gear, you never go anywhere”, the latter of which is a question revolving to a certain degree around a permanent fear of homelessness. [Solutions which aren’t, alas “more social housing”]

Back in my more venturesome days, when I had the flexibility, Young Person’s Railcard, and high number of friends at different universities that made it less imprudent to abandon things at a moment’s notice and get on a train to wherever for the privilege of getting drunk and sleeping on someone’s floor, I packed absurdly light. My major concessions to hygiene were to stuff into the pockets of a very large pair of Cyberdog trousers a pair of clean pants, a toothbrush, and some deodorant. Admittedly during the same time period my major food group was “vodka” and the major export of the State of Del was “bad decisions”, somewhat linked to that particular foodgroup.

On the occasions that I’ve needed to take a change of clothes anywhere more recently I’ve been wildly indignant about how much space the wretched things take up, requiring me to do things like “bring a suitcase” on planes or “have a bag with me” when I don’t feel like it. The Cyberdog trousers, with their crisp-packet texture and eight enormous pockets, are long dead.

Exploration into the world of garment bags and packing assists along those lines has been fruitful but insufficient: while I like being able to mash an outfit into a small case and chuck a series of small cases into a bigger bag, I feel more can be done, and the existence of the cases themselves seems cumbersome. After five years at boarding school and various wildlife camp weekends (I am a cool kid, a very cool kid) I’d say I’m relatively adept at wrangling clothing into the most efficient configurations, but sometimes you really do not WANT to spend time turning each t-shirt into a spiral with a balled-up pair of undergrunts in the middle.

T-shirts are also the least of my worries. They condense down small. They compress logically. They’re made of jersey, which is cooperative in the “taking any shape without being a nuisance” stakes.

Recently I bought a Matador, because I live my life on gift and gadget websites and have been misguidedly given control over my own finances under the shaky idea that I am in some way a responsible adult rather than a poorly-contained bundle of impulses who, by the way, bought 7 books on T E Lawrence in under 3 minutes last week. Who allows me to have a debit card and why?

The relevance is this: the Matador is a very thin water-resistant nylon blanket with fold lines and an attached pouch. Condensing down to the approximate size of a wallet, it spreads out to cover enough ground that two adults can comfortably lie down on it. This is, of course, magical. And also enticing. Thin, light, water-resistant fabric which is already shown to take up less than no space and to weigh nothing – I’ve been carrying it in my pocket for a couple of weeks and it’s a damn sight lighter than the wallet full of USB drives, spare change, and soy sauce bottles I insist on keeping in the hip pocket.

Also, attached pouch.

I’m hoping that, if I can get my hands on some of this fabric, I’ll be able to replicate this level of compression and convenience as a pair of trousers, or at least shorts. In the meantime, I intend to test the idea with jersey, since I’ve got some knocking around and, unlike everything else that’s come up in Oops It’s Design Week I Guess, I CAN sew and design clothing. CAD and 3D printing may be beyond me. Dehydrating and powdering food definitely are. I can’t fund a housing project. But I can probably make a pair of shorts with one pocket that is an inverted storage pouch, perfect for flipping the whole garment into, yanking on some drawstrings, and transforming “fuck, my clothes are everywhere” to “I have a couple of small bundles that will fit in my jacket pocket” in seconds.

But why stop with these shorts? I mean, shorts are wonderful, and I want these to exist in lightweight fabric for reasons besides convenient folding (why are all the shorts I want to buy made out of fabric that is apparently intended to make me sweat to death when every summer it gets above 30C now? I’m English! I can’t handle hot weather! Or cold weather! Or weather!). BUT.

I think there’s scope for a wider range of products. A whole line of origami travel clothing, designed to be shoved into itself and carried with immediate ease, or with a secondary function, and these people clearly already agree with me. See?