Focus On Fiction: The Renaka Device

I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available, to help anyone make a decision about what they want to read next, or just to give background if you’re already familiar with the story.

I’m starting with a short story:

THE RENAKA DEVICE

My name is Potsve Revolution Renaka.

I was born a month after the fall of the old order. In celebration, my parents named me Potsve Revolution.

Set in a dystopian, unnamed country in which a revolution hasn’t quite successfully brought about the grand liberation that everyone had hoped for, The Renaka Device of the title is a piece of technology intended to streamline the process of composition through to printing. It both is, and isn’t, the point of the story.

This is a tale I’ve tried hard to write in multiple formats for a long time. Eventually I realised that the best thing to do was simply to strip it down to its essentials – streamline it the way the device was intended to streamline telling a story.

This is also where I got the bare-bones narrative voice of the genderless protagonist; the repeating refrain, on the other hand, is what you get when someone who learnt to write by writing poems turns their hand to any kind of prose shorter than a novella. At least some of the time!

The language is broadly, or at least partly, cod-Slavic, with no real underlying structure – something I’d like to change if I work on something longer set in this world, because I’m armed to the teeth with a full version of Vulgar and eager to use it.

The Renaka Device has a kind-of partner/sequel story, The Traitor, which also examines the use of stories and truth and the effects of power vacuums, and how difficult it can be to really change a society for the better. While so far I’ve only really managed to illuminate the world in which The Renaka Device and The Traitor take place with tiny glimmerings in sparse short fiction, I feel like by implication and inference there’s a large, and oppressive structure out there waiting to be explored in more stories.

Or more simply, I want to revisit this world, and write more about it.

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[FICTION] The Terrible Forgiveness of Michael Shale

It was a sunny day at the start of April, a month little-appreciated, when Michael Shale set out to have a day of forgiveness.

It had come to him late the night before, as he was taking receipt of a boot to the head from a gentleman who held strong views on Michael’s conduct and antecedents, that the holding of grudges caused a great quantity of strife in his neighbourhood. Big Sal and Galway Jimmy had, for example, vowed to slit each other’s throats over some tit-for-tat dispute all had forgotten the roots of, and while the rumpus promised to be entertaining it would doubtless draw the attentions of the short and easily-distracted arm of the law.

Whom, Michael thought in a flash of spring inspiration as he pressed a two-cent steak to his bruised face, really held the medal as first-place professional grudge-holders.

Michael was forced to postpone his Christian act as the rigours of the previous night, and Reggie Johnson, with whom he had shared many of these rigours and who was indeed best described as rigorous in all things (especially sharing), demanded his full attention.

When at last his duties to Reggie and the demands of the flesh, both pleasant and otherwise, had been discharged, Michael set about his plan to lead by example.

He left his basement room and ascended the steps with his hat almost tipped enough to hide his swollen face, and the moment his shoes touched the sidewalk, why, there was his first opportunity!

For here was Joe Jefferson, who’d stiffed him a dime last week, all haloed in the dusty light of a fine spring morning.

God moves in mysterious ways, thought Michael, much-satisfied, and he doffed his hat to Joe Jefferson and cried, “Joe! You rascal! Last week you stiffed me a dime!”

Now Joe Jefferson startled, for Michael Shale was a fine body of a man and despite his sour luck the night before and his Saturday night rouge habit, he was known to have a right hook that could swiftly introduce a fellow to the floor.

And when Joe Jefferson startled, two gossipy young things who leaned on the stairs leading up to the second floor rooms startled too.

“Yeah I did,” said Joe Jefferson, who was noted as a man whose chief route out of any hole he found himself in was to dig further, “What of it?”

“What of it?” cried Michael, as he began his walk through Harlem, “Why, I forgive you, Joe Jefferson, that’s what of it! And by God when I find the man who put the boot to my face last night, I shall forgive him too.”

Joe Jefferson received this blessing with a scowl and said to the gossipy young things at the stoop, “That kick to the head turned that fairy’s brain all right.”

But Michael Shale went on his way, ready to forgive.

***

At the General Store at the corner, where boys like to hang around and pinch and poke and shove each other (and sometimes Michael), he came across Father Abraham.

Father Abraham had a newspaper under his arm and his usual string bag of canned ham on his arm and a big broad-brimmed hat, and he was engaged in telling young Herbie Mitchell why it was unChristian to kick cats. He was unhampered by the absence of any direct repudiation of such behaviour in the scriptures, for neither he nor his unwilling audience had read them much.

“Shale,” said Father Abraham, who did not like to call a man ‘Mister’ unless he felt the fellow deserved it, “What are you about at this hour? Have you no job to go to?”

“Why Father, my work is in the evenings, over at Forty-Second Street,” said Michael, almost forgetting his original mission, “as so many of your parishioners know, coming to our theater for their Sunday instead of to your Church!”

The boys outside the General Store laughed and snickered, and none laughed harder than Herbie Mitchell, to see Father Abraham – Father Cans-of-Ham, they called him – given lip by a fairy, and a Negro, no less!

Father Abraham himself said a quite ungodly word.

“As to what I’m about,” said Michael, recalling his purpose, “On Tuesday you called me a layabout n*gger.”

“That I did, for that’s what you are,” Father Abraham said, drawing himself up like a man who is ready for a blow to the jaw, and who means to weather it with dignity. “And I see in the shade of your hat that a less kindly man than I gave you a much-deserved thrashing, you, you loitering degenerate!”

The boys outside the General Stores tittered and gasped, for Father Abraham being a man of whiter hue had turned a lobsterish red in his righteousness!

“Indeed I’ve had a rough night,” said Michael, removing his hat in belated greeting, “And indeed I am seeking the perpetrator. But I’m no layabout, Father, and first I must address these ill words you have used upon me.”

“And just what do you propose to do?” Father Abraham asked in a far littler voice than before, for Michael was near a foot taller than he and the word of the Lord has historically failed to prevent many a martyr from meeting his maker at the hands of more muscular men.

“To forgive you, of course,” said Michael, replacing his hat, and his smile was bright in the morning sun. “It is the Christian thing.”

“So it is,” said Father Abraham with not much conviction and watering eyes. “So it is.”

And Michael Shale went on his way, leaving Father Abraham to let out a large breath, and Herbie Mitchell to say, “Some slap that fairy’s had, to make him talk that way!”

***

At the Subway Station, where three Italian fairies called Miss Pell, Miss Give, and Miss Take – or Angelo, Antonio, and Giovanni Cesare Claudio Pietro to their Mammas – liked to meet men who liked to meet fairies, Michael Shale stopped to buy a newspaper.

“Why Michael Shale,” said the newspaper boy, “you got yourself a real shiner right there.”

“Indeed I do,” said Michael, for indeed he did.

“Indeed she do,” sang Miss Pell, who had missed the whole fight that night and disliked it.

“Oh don’t she just,” trilled Miss Give, who’d missed the start, and was confused.

“And what a night,” called Miss Take, who’d seen the whole thing and loved it. “Hey Miss Shale, are you all right?”

“I got my mind made up,” said Michael, who did not like to be called Miss Shale when it was not a Saturday night, “to find the boot that kicked me.”

“Oooh,” said the fairies, and “oh,” said the newspaper boy, and “Get outta the goddamn road ya degenerates!” said the meat wagon man trying to pass them on a busy street.

“What’ll you do?” asked the newspaper boy.

“Yes, what’ll you do?” asked the Misses Pell, Give, and Take.

“Will you move you black behind?” cried the meat wagon man, whose sausages were starting to spoil.

“Forgive him” said Michael, serene as the sunshine, “it’s the Christian thing.”

“I’m Jewish,” said the newspaper boy.

“Even so,” said Michael Shale.

“I heard it was Leggy Tom,” said Miss Pell, who heard a lot of rumours.

“I think it was Fat Bob,” said Miss Give, and pinched her.

“It was Greasy Ray,” screeched Miss Take, making half the street stare, “what are you, goddamn blind, Miss Give? You was there.”

“Much obliged,” said Michael, and he raised his hat. “Take care now, ladies.”

“Now who does she think she’s fooling with all this ‘forgive’,” sighed Miss Pell, but Michael Shale went on his way, and the meat wagon man took his spoiling sausages on his, too.

***

When Michael Shale got to the City College, where all the smart girls walked fast in their calf-length skirts, he saw Maimie Reed, who just last month threatened to write Michael’s Momma back home and tell her what life he was leading.

Maimie Reed tossed her head – her hair was set and carefully kept and her hat by the way almost covered it all – and said, “Hello Michael, I see you took a beating. Did it set you to rights?”

“It’ll take more than a bruise to kick the fairy out of me,” said Michael Shale, and he lifted his hat so that she could see what a fine bruise it was. “Miss Reed, you have been bearing tales.”

Miss Reed hoisted her books, which had long titles in French and in Latin and in Math, which was harder, and she said, “Not yet, but if you don’t mend your ways, Michael Shale, I’ll write to my Auntie and you’ll catch H-E-L-L.”

“Now Maimie, that isn’t nice,” said Michael, and he put on his hat again. “But I forgive you.”

Maimie gave a great snort and she said, “You’ll get worse than a bruise one day soon.”

“Well perhaps,” said Michael, “but at present I’m away to find Greasy Ray and talk to him about this one he’s given to me.”

“Now don’t you go starting fights,” Maimie sighed, for she knew her cousin was a lost cause. “If you get yourself arrested again you’ll break your Momma’s heart.”

“Who said anything about fights?” cried Michael, already on the move, “I only mean to forgive him.”

“And if I believe that, I’ll believe anything,” said Maimie Reed to herself, and she hitched up her books, which were sliding.

But Michael Shale went on his way with a song in his heart and a sunbeam on his hat, ready to forgive.

***

He found Greasy Ray where Greasy Ray was always to be found; hanging around the Childs on Forty-Second Street like a bad stink, his feet on a seat and so much Brillantine in his hair that he looked like a motor oil spill.

Word travels faster than a man on foot, Michael Shale saw, for a waiter he knew in ways of which Father Abraham did not approve raised up his thin eyebrows and said, “I hear you’re in the forgiveness business now, Miss Shale.”

“That I am,” said Michael, for that he was. And he took off his hat. “And I’ve a man in mind.”

“I’ll tell him,” said the waiter, with a smile that meant no good, for he loved a cat-fight as much as his manager hated them, though he was never in them himself. “He’s been waiting on you while I’ve been waiting on him, if you know what I mean.”

Greasy Ray was awash with sweat and his fingers drilled out a syncopation on the table top like the finest beat-man in the Cotton Club, for he’d heard Michael Shale “forgave” Joe Jefferson and he did not believe it; and he’d heard Michael Shale “forgave” Father Abraham, and he did not believe it; and he hadn’t heard that Michael Shale also forgave his cousin Maimie Reed – for she was not the kind of girl who knew the likes of Greasy Ray – but had he heard he’d have hardly believed it either.

It is fair to say that hasty-hoofed heavily-pomaded young man with the harsh opinions on Michael Shale’s conduct was now sorely rattled.

“Shale!” he cried, leaping to his feet as Michael came to his table. “What’s all this – what brings you – that is, I say – what do you want?”

Holding his hat in his hands, Michael said, “Oh, since you ask, Ray, I’d like an apology for some things you said last night.”

All the faces in the Childs on Forty-Second Street this fine spring afternoon were turned on Greasy Ray like a handful of scrubbed spotlights on a Broadway soloist, and Greasy Ray’s courage – never of much size – gave out, and Greasy Ray’s pride – somewhat larger, but manageable – got swallowed under their gaze.

“It’s yours!” cried Ray, too fast, and hot about the cheeks.

“And for messing up my hair,” said Michael, severely.

“Sure! I’m sorry,” said Ray, clearly. He’d lost track of his hands, and so wrapped them around each other like a pastor, to keep them safe from getting lost again.

“And bruising my eye,” said Michael, pointing to it.

“Right! I shouldna!” sang Ray, in a real fever of contrition.

“Very good,” said Michael, content. “Then I forgive you.”

Greasy Ray squinted, which did little to improve him. The waiter with the thin eyebrows squinted, but he didn’t need improving. The horde at Childs on Forty-Second Street squinted, and held their breath, for they were past improvement.

“Eh?” said Ray, ready to flinch. “That’s all?”

“That’s all?” complained the waiter, who’d been hoping for a fight.

“That’s all?” sighed the disappointed customers, who’d heard stories about this Childs. Most of them were true – but they happened at night.

“Sure,” said Michael, with a great big smile. “For now.”

“Listen, pal, if you’re going to slug me one, get it over with, all right,” trembled Ray in testy tremolo, braced for a swing.

Michael leaned close and raised his hand, until he cast a deep shadow over the greasy little white man, and he tapped Greasy Ray tenderly on the cheek with no more than the breath of a feather.

“No,” he said, as sunny as the day, “I shall not.”

And Michael Shale left the Childs on Forty-Second Street well-satisfied, ready to take all the rest of April in his real long stride (as only a fairy can).

THE END


The author has, as may be apparent, been combining period research on 1920s Manhattan (prices, some slang, and locations may be assumed to be therefore at least vaguely accurate) with idly reading  Vile Bodies as part of his recuperation from surgery. 

Tips may be left here if you enjoyed the story.

A Snippet: As Yet Untitled

In Pig’s experience you could learn a lot from names.

Doubtless Foley had read too much into his own choices – assumptions of guilt and servitude came with Pig, with Foley instead of Dick. He had his own assumptions – Dick, not Richard, or Cyril. Retaining his youth, his veneer of friendliness.

It was, he though, like his brothers – half-brothers – who had begun life as William and Michael, and gone away to become Billy and Mike, then Lance-Corporal William John Ridel, deceased, and Ridel,  Michael John. Then Dear Michael, I Hope You Are Well. Then Dear Sir, I have been empowered by a solicitor to act on behalf of Michael John Ridel, and finally, with no small amount of relief, Michael John Ridel, May He Rest With The Angels.

Around this time his sister had progressed from Little Mabel to Dear Mabel to Hasn’t Mabel Blossomed to Stay Away From My Bloody Sister, later amended to Mrs Mabel Simpkins. Pig himself had acquired the name Your Bloody Layabout Brother and the accompanying epithet Well If You’d Just Help Him Find A Job.

At which time he’d learned the name Golding Holdings and come, like a rock falling to earth, back to the name Captain Dick Foley, to Pig, to the mediation on names, and to Maureen Phillips staring at the same spot on the side of his head while she brightly informed someone on the other end of the phone line that they absolutely had received his information and he merely needed to repeat it to her before she would happily provide him with a letter on the state of his insurance accountants.

Maureen made a face at him and continued her bright, breezy, Home Counties lying.

[Fiction] Charming

Ping had never been to a roof-top bar before. She’d been meaning to, in the same way she’d been meaning to book a holiday somewhere and not just spend all her holiday time either sleeping or doing everything she had hadn’t time to while she was at work, but hadn’t got past the intention.

Then the money-off deal came up in her inbox like a sign from the universe, just as she’d started the four-day weekend, and when she emailed Mu he hadn’t immediately responded with sorry, but and instead said I think I can do it this time.

So she stood on a rooftop in Hoxton and wondered why she’d thought being two floors up would make the oppressive heat and chemical mugginess disappear, and thought, a little sadly, about how you get the picture of “roof-top bar” confused with “images of James Bond suaveness and elegance everywhere” and forget that all your friends are hipsters and the Queen of Hoxton is in Hoxton, and that hipsters like industrial earnestness and not beautiful glass sculptures.

Ping cradled an icy glass of Rekoderlig in her hands and tried to pretend to herself that it was a very cosmopolitan and sophisticated cocktail favoured by the fabulously wealthy, and that she was in Dubai, and that the Queen of Hoxton had installed an air-conditioning unit on the roof.

A woman with blonde hair in generous waves and plastic glasses frames with no glass in them approached Ping directly. With a sudden stab of panic Ping worried if she’d somehow stolen her spot, or her drink, or was about to be mistaken for someone else. She cast about vaguely for some sort of life-line, but no one met her eye.

“Are you Ping?” the woman asked, from about six feet away. She gestured at Ping with the neck of her own drink – a Corona – and accompanied the question with an irritated puff of air apparently intended to get her hair off her forehead.

As there were maybe three other people on the roof who weren’t white, and one of them was a man, and all of them were black, Ping thought this question was slightly unnecessary, but she nodded cautiously. Maybe she’d left something downstairs.

“Oh, your brother said could I tell you, he’s run into some friends downstairs,” the woman said, with a cartoonish, letterbox grimace, “and he’ll be up soon. Between you and me,” she said, shielding her mouth with the back of her hand as if she was imparting state secrets, “I don’t think it’s going to be ‘soon’.” She raised her eyebrows for a moment, and when Ping didn’t react, she added, “Also I don’t know why they’d want to stay down there anyhow, it’s dark and warm.”

The blonde woman held the top of her loose dress away from her skin to illustrate, pinching it between finger and thumb. She put her head on one side, and huffed out another puff of hair-dislodging air.

“Thanks,” Ping said, belatedly.

For a moment they both stood in silence. The blonde didn’t appear to be in a hurry to go anywhere – she just stared abstractedly past Ping’s head at the buildings to the West, into the beginnings of the setting sun, and Ping took the opportunity to examine her shoes, which were metallic orange sandals with little leather wing shapes cut out over the ankle bones. They looked dumb.

The blonde woman turned her attention back to Ping with an exaggerated little dancer’s jerk, the kind people did when they wanted to make it clear they were now giving you their full attention. Ping experimented in her head with the idea of telling this woman that she didn’t want her full attention, or even a sliver of it, but as usual what came out of her mouth was blindingly awkward small-talk as her fingers tightened on the condensation of the Rekoderlig glass, and the ice began to melt.

“So how do you know Mu?”

The blonde lifted a hank of her hair away from her nape and fanned underneath it, the Corona dangling against her back, gripped in the curl of two fingers. “I don’t. I know Leah –“ she rolled her eyes at something absent, “—who isn’t even here like she was meant to be, and Leah knows Stella and Gavin and I guess Stella and Gavin know your brother – Mu, was it? – God, excuse me, I’m not normally this gross, I just can’t deal with close heat at all.” She let go of her hair, spread one hand and the bottle in a gesture of exasperation, raised her face to heavens, and said, “Why didn’t I get ice?”

Ping thought, I’m not offering you mine just so you can turn it down.

“Anyway,” said the blonde, “I don’t really know anyone I’m here with and I was starting to get bored, literally all they were talking about was this stupid Flickr-scraping app—“

“Futographr,” Ping blurted.

“That’s the one,” she said, pointing her lower two fingers and her Corona at Ping, before taking a swig.

A man in a lumberjack shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows and a colouring-book of tattoos on his forearms passed between them as if they weren’t having a conversation at all – which Ping felt they weren’t, not exactly – and by the time he’d squeezed on by to the bucket of ice and cans that was standing in for another bar, she could see Mu’s hair poking around the door to the roof.

Ping waved.

The blonde wandered away.

Mu said, “Oh thank God you’re here, I’ve just been trapped downstairs listening to Iain’s blow-by-blow account of how spiritually enriching it is to go and stare at poor people in Laos.” He held his hand over his eyes and peered into the sun. “Hey,” he added, “this is nice, this was a good idea.”

Ping looked at the last fragments of melted ice in her drink and said, “Yeah. Feels like you’re not in London at all,” without a single molecule of sincerity.

 

“How was last night?” John asked, stepping back from the hot water-tap but leaving his mug beside it as if to guard the queue from interlopers.

Ping puffed upwards into her fringe to unstick it from her forehead, both hands on her coffee cup. “Warm,” she said. “Who thinks it’s a good idea to have a roof terrace with no shade?”

“Aw, c’mon,” John laughed, pushing his cup under the hot-water tap. “The whole point of a roof-terrace is to enjoy the three minutes of sun we get a year.”

Ping pinched her t-shirt away from her breast-bone as if she was airing out curtains, and said, “Sun, yes, sweat, no.”

John said, “I have this idea for a cold-tub on the roof of one of those pubs. You just climb in a bucket of ice cubs and sit in it for as long as you can take.”

“Now that,” Ping said, whispering past the back of her hand, “sounds like a recipe for all kinds of problems with your – you know.”

 

At work drinks she found herself standing by John, who elaborated on his ice tank idea and even threatened to demonstrate with a glass of ice-cubes. “At least a cold drink,” he amended, when Ping made a face. “Strawberry cider, right?”

Ping shook her head, surprised. “Corona.”

“You normally have strawberry cider,” John said, with a level of certainty Ping found somewhat irritating.

She lifted the hair off the nape of her neck and fanned impatiently at the skin below, trying to speed up the process of recovering from a day in a sweaty office with only one working desk fan.

“No I don’t,” she said. “That’s a children’s drink.”

Ping grimaced, her mouth wide like a letterbox, and John shrugged and collected up a few more orders on the way to the bar. The pub was air-conditioned, and dark, and almost everyone else from the department had stepped outside to enjoy the evening sun.

“Ping,” John called, from the bar, and she turned with a jerky little dancer’s turn to give him her attention. “Are you sure it was Corona you wanted?”

She rolled her eyes to the dusty ceiling, and mouthed a silent prayer for strength. “Yes.”

 

“Nice shoes,” said a fat woman on the escalator, as Ping flopped on the handrail. There was a whole crocodile of neon tourists blocking both sides of the moving stairs, and ignoring, loudly and Frenchly, the repeated passive-aggressive coughing, tutting, and tannoy announcements regarding standing on the right that were aimed at them.

“Thanks,” said Ping, looking down at the sandals with their cut-out wing silhouette in the orange metallic leather. “I got them on the internet.”

 

John went home to his flatmates, two of whom were cats, and slumped into the groove on the sofa specifically worn for him, a one-cushion gap away from the groove in the sofa specifically worn for Peter, who was half-asleep in front of Total Wipeout in the evening heat.

“It’s like Satan’s arsehole out there,” Peter mumbled, unsticking his arm from the faux-leather cushions to reach for the remote. His eyes widened. “Why am I watching this?”

“Why are you watching this?” John asked, holding his shirt away from his chest to stop it sticking.

“Girl in the pink leotard thing is quite fit,” Peter suggested, changing the channel.

John rolled his eyes, and sank back into the sofa. “You saw two seconds of red hair.”

“Sometimes that’s all you need,” Peter countered, putting his feet on top of John’s discarded bag. “You look weird.”

“Thanks,” John muttered, blowing hair off his forehead. “You look like you’re being slow-roasted in your own sweat.”

Peter levered himself slowly off the sofa, with accompanying winces and twitches as his skin let go the fabric. “Drink?”

“Corona,” John said, vaguely watching the ident on the TV screen. It was new, and featured a group of women with prosthetic legs engaged in some sort of dance with huge fluttering banners. Peter stopped in the doorway to the kitchen.

Corona?” he repeated.

“Yeah?”

“Why would we have—“ Peter cut himself off, shrugged, and returned a moment later with a bottle of Heineken.

 

“You’re being unusually camp,” Bevis said, half-way through the next morning, when John was telling him about the latest deployment on the system and when it was due. “What’s that – that thing where you’re pretending to whisper to someone. Have you been watching Drag Race?”

John was momentarily bewildered by this; he searched the ceiling for some kind of cue as to what the hell Bevis was objecting to, and decided to ignore it altogether.

It wasn’t, after all, as if he’d done anything out of the ordinary.

 

Peter leaned over the bar and blew upwards into his own fringe. “Have you considered getting air-conditioning in here?”

The barmaid shrugged. “Chris has ‘considered’ it an unnecessary expense,” she said, bitterly, “because he doesn’t come in here unless he’s shitfaced himself. I’ll tell him the clientele are complaining, maybe that’ll do something.” She watched Peter hold his t-shirt away from his chest as if trying to keep it from contaminating his nipples, and said, “the usual?”

“Yeah.” Peter sighed. He wondered if there was somewhere online that did men’s sandals with wing cut-outs. He’d never had a pair of sandals before, but the weather was grim, and the idea of wearing flip-flops somehow didn’t appeal.

“Guinness, then,” the barmaid said.

“Corona,” Peter corrected, lifting his ponytail off the nap of his neck and fanning underneath.

“I thought you said the usual?”

“That is the usual,” Peter said.


For other short stories and novels look for me on Amazon.

Art Dump: Book characters.

As I mentioned in the last post, I’m doing research for the next novel at the moment, and also trying to think about the characters and the plot as I go. I have a clear idea of what the two main characters look like, but of course with my terribly impressive drawing skills what I actually needed was some kind of photo reference based on people who looked roughly similar.

What happened was not the fantastic showstopper of headshots perfect for luring in a new audience to my writing which I was hoping for, and rather more a kind of sad collection of quick scribbles.

NarratorBen Martin

ben martin

I swear he is not actually a gremlin, or suffering from irreparable facial muscle damage, or the result of a horrible accident involving shark DNA and a human embryo.  He is in fact a mature student (having dropped out of his first degree in Media Studies in order to be a researcher on TV) doing his HND in Journalism.

Lead Science Person: Dr Daniel Khoo

Daniel was moderately more of a success.

daniel khoo

Dr Khoo is a post-doctoral researcher into bornavirus, which is not the virus at the centre of this story, but he is also the person least tolerant of idiot journalists, and this is why his colleagues thought it might be funny to point a confused looking journalism student at him.

MORE TO COME WHEN I’VE FIGURED OUT HOW TO DRAW.*

* This may take a while.

Book Planning: Ominous Parallels

Tentatively, this autumn’s writing project (which I am beginning research on now because I dislike being caught on the hop) revolves around an extremely unpleasant fictional virus known as KBV (short for Konebogetvirus, following the tradition of viruses being named after where they are found or thought to have first broken out).

Designing a virus from scratch has involved a certain amount of probing to find out just what level of viral design is actually feasible, and whether or not anyone would really go about making something more dangerous than it already was.

“No” was the general conclusion.

Then Dr Kawaoka’s team at Wisconsin-Madison built an Avian flu strain out of other avian flus and mutated it deliberately to make it airborne, in a move that was apparently designed to make my novel more plausible, as well as make most of the public health and virology communities close ranks to unanimously shout “why the fuck would you do that are you nuts?”.

This is the H5N1 avian influenza virus particles, coloured transmission electron micrograph (TEM). Each virus particle consists of ribonucleic acid (RNA), surrounded by a nucleocapsid and a lipid envelope (green). Click on image for source of both image and information.

Having confirmed that it is both possible and apparently that there are people in the world mental enough to both do this thing and fund other people doing this incredibly dangerous and stupid thing, I shrugged and moved on to reading some science faction, or non-fiction sensation, or whatever you want to call The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. It’s a very famous book, and in addition to getting my bearings with regards to what Ebola is really like, I thought it might be a good idea to see what other books in the genre of “epidemic thriller” are like*.

It’s a fascinating and speedy read, with about the right level of dumbed-down for my poor arts grad brain to handle, and the right amount of extraneous character detail to make you even more tense that whoever is about to die at any minute. Ebola: gross and terrifying. An unusual and unpleasant family of viruses, but a distant worry given that there haven’t really been any serious outbreaks that I can remember in a whi–

And then I came home and had this Tweet shown to me.
And then I came home and had this Tweet shown to me.

Okay, I’ll just… hope that these parallels don’t continue, then, given that I’m currently reading The Demon In The Freezer (also by Richard Preston), which is in the process of making me as shit-scared of Variola (smallpox) as I am now of Ebola. If anyone hears about some instances of that getting out, don’t tell me, or I’m going to start feeling guilty…


* Which probably means I’m going to have to read The Andromedia Strain and I really don’t want to. I had my Michael Crichton phase for a few years after I saw Jurassic Park at the right age for it, and the thought of returning to it does not appeal.

Gone, but not forgotten: test writing.

Well, I’ve been absent, but not idle. In the one arena I’ve been enjoying this thing called “paid employment”, where people give me money in exchange for me coming and doing untaxing things for a few hours a day and taking the occasional break to write. In the other, I’ve been using those occasional breaks to generate some tests for a book I’m hoping to write (pending a large amount of frightening research, and me turning the plot from a series of vague handwaves and “key scenes” into “outlines for each day of writing”).

Test writing has always proven useful in the past, as a way of taking the characters for a spin in the world without being committed to the plot yet; it frees up the brain from the panicky sense that this absolutely must go somewhere and that all dialogue must further the plot or characterisation, leaving it free to explore character voices, imagery and idiom in the world, and the starting or finishing relationships between characters.

Writing about one to two thousand words a day for a week (it must be nearer two a day because after five days I have ten thousand words in disconnected set pieces), I’ve acquired a few locations in my head, settled some descriptions, picked up some additional cast members, and gained a better understanding of the character who is probably going to be my PoV for the book.

At first glance, through the lens of a camera, Buddy Peace was nerve-wrackingly attractive: he had a strong brow, a strong chin, huge brown eyes, black hair plastered into place with industrial quantities of hair cream, and the ability to turn a very affecting look of wounded innocence on at will. Deprived of the spotlight, he was a slender man in his middle twenties with slightly bandy legs and a little less height than leading men were expected to pull, extending his adolescence with the usual powders and grease to conceal some deepening eye circles and an apparently trenchant inability to shave thoroughly.

All the same, he was magnetic when he chose to be, and his teeth, though discoloured by heavy smoking, shone out like tiny stars in an arresting smile.

Joe said, “Miss Byrne told me you have free cigarettes.” He disliked asking for things on a profound level, preferring to make a statement and wait for his interlocutor to make the necessary connection. He thought that perhaps he had not always been so oblique, but the neediness of addiction shamed him into circumspection just now.

Buddy Peace cast a dark look at his supposed sweetheart. “Does she think I’m a fucking vending machine?” he asked without bitterness. He pointed a carton of Lucky Strike – the favoured brand of the GIs, Joe noticed without much interest – and jiggled it. “Take as many as you like.”

Joe took one.

Buddy brandished a box of matches, and made a show of lighting Joe’s smoke for him: badly. He shook the match out and shoved it back into the box, and said with a heavy sigh, “I gotta keep the matchsticks or Set get up in fucking arms. ‘Continuity’. Assholes. Who looks at the floor in movies unless someone’s lying on it?”

There’s many a slip between the test writing and the finished, edited, proof-read novel, but at this stage it’s usually possible to see some of the final form visible in areas like characterisation or scenery, and it definitely feels like a worthwhile point in the process. Happily, it’s also a stage that most people seem to gravitate to instinctively, which is probably why it doesn’t turn up much in “How to Write A Book” books (including mine).

NaNoWriMo 2013: The Circle is complete.

I promise I didn’t just call this book The Circle so I could make that horrible joke. It’s only a pleasant side-effect.

Today, a day after I scheduled it (for which we shall have to blame the dentist) but 20,000 words over predicted length (for which we shall have to blame my accursed verbosity), I finished the first draft of The Circle, and am now free to devote myself to other things, like embroidery, drawing, sewing, making jewellery, reading London Falling by Paul Cornell, etc.

Except I got another T E Lawrence biography in the post yesterday so what I am most likely to spend December doing is “cry-wanking over T E Lawrence” again. At this point, it’s almost a tradition.

Speaking of tradition, there’s something else I have to add to this sparse little post:

Gosh, isn’t that ugly?

All done for another year!

NaNoWriMo 2013: The Circle.

The Circle is a novel set in Edwardian England, following the disintegration of the friendship between four stage magicians … one of whom has just summoned the Devil.

That’s the elevator pitch, more or less, and that’s all you need to know for now, but since I’m feeling nice you can also have the profiles of five of the major players:

Henry Doyle

A proto-modernist writer, bespectacled and a little soft in the middle, whose short stories and one novel have been far better received in the United States than in his native England. He is of a wealthy enough family with a good pedigree, and like man men in his position is fascinated by poverty and the working classes in the same way that scientists are interested in insects. He enjoys talking to “the poor” mainly so that he can score points in conversation with his fashionable friends.

Homosexual and largely unperturbed about his orientation, having fallen into a significant number of his fellows at university; unusually for a man of his era he believes in the validity of relations between men of the same class, even if he is occasionally a bit squeamish in the practice.

Henry is moderately good-looking and an entirely pleasant dinner guest, if prone to occasional stints of verbal flatulence on the topic of his latest writerly project.

The profiles are taken directly from my notes, so somewhat sparse. More shall, I hope, be revealed later.

“You have a lot of projects”, my friend said the other night.

Obviously I am hard at work on the research and plot-twiddling side of the next novel (which friend Kieron has helpfully suggested should be titled The Circle, which I shall adopt because my ability to come up with good titles is around my ability to play a devastating round of international-level lawn tennis), and definitely not rearranging my make-up drawer, compulsively buying socks, and panicking in a genteel and repressed fashion that I can’t write about an era I never saw as well as E M Forster, who lived in it. Definitely not. Those would be the actions of a mad lady.

The status quo with all those many, many projects referred to in the title:

Tame. Chick lit novella vaguely based on Little Red Riding Hood, in the loosest possible sense, features lycanthropy and lesbianism because I was into the letter L in 2007 or something: finally finished, being proof-read by the capable Marika Kailaya, expected to be available to buy before the end of October unless something goes horribly wrong.

Brown Bread, Boys. A Guy-Ritchie-themed gangland reinterpretation of Julius Caesar, asspulled at the last minute when realised that there was more work left to do on The Ideal London than there was time to do it in before November last year, and turned out to be one of the better things I’ve written. Is now at the yay/nay pass stage of editing, being read by a confederate whose job it is to either yay or nay things I’ve highlighted for deletion, and potentially flag anything else she thinks is appalling. May even be out by Christmas, if we’re lucky.

Hooked to the Silver Screen. Astronomically ill-advised gay romance with BDSM themes set in 1950s Hollywood against a backdrop of the Blacklist and the protagonist’s unwitting mob involvement. Currently waiting for me to read a lot more about the era, work out the supporting cast, and turn the plot from “I vaguely know what’s happening” to “I have this in hand and can write a day-by-day plan of what to churn out”, which I’m going to get to in about January.

The Circle. Edwardian England’s Faustian tragedy with Forsterian values, as told by a night-club singer in a version of Weimar Berlin that exists outside of space and time; four stage magicians ruin each other’s lives and the lives of those around them competing pointlessly, and one of them sells his soul to the devil. I’m currently filling up my knowledge gaps about the era, trying to make sure I have voice and colour down, and panicking slightly. Due to start writing November 1st.

KBV. Originally quite a pretentious idea for an epistolary fiction about an epidemic, focussing mostly on how epidemics are reported; I’ve scrapped the meandering media studies-ness of it all and am intending to try for an epistolary conspiracy thriller because I’ve never written one and sticking to one genre is for losers. This requires a more involved plot – I’ve come some way but it needs a lot more – and a lot of research. Not sure when I’ll get around to it, possibly next November if nothing else becomes urgent.

The Book of Mapp. A short story (or intended to be short) set in a post-revolutionary republic, the first of its kind, in a fantasy world. Theoretically a police procedural told by a propaganda agent, it is actually about the flexible nature of the truth and the power of the word, etc, etc. All it really needs is for me to just sit down and write it, which may happen in December if I am not Dead of NaNo.

The Ideal London. A kind of parallel universe story about the concept of imagination, which I think should probably be written by Neil Gaiman rather than me, but he seems to be busy so I’m doing it. Requires a lot more research and world-building than I’d managed when the deadline loomed over me, a better grasp on the characters, and hopefully a less patchy plot than I’d come up with before.

The remaining three I have stewing don’t yet have titles, even working ones, so they’re just referred to by their key element:

Robots. A ship’s medical officer fails to read the fine print of his contract and is thus resurrected as a cloud of nanobots after being atomised by an accident on a very dull botanical space mission. The main problem with this is that I have no idea what happens after the end of the first act.

Werewolves. Two-part story held together by the antagonist, a former thief-taker who becomes a werewolf by accident and turns out to be very good at it. Requires a plot beyond a selection of terrible events slammed jarringly against a selection of humorous interludes, which is what I rather inexplicably have at the moment.

Space. Requires substantial world-building (which is the fun part) and subsequent plotting, although at least the characters are fun to write and to write about.

So there, that’s… a reasonable number of projects. Even if I never have another original plot idea again I still have enough for a selection of books, and I have a notepad file full of plot summaries for short stories which would probably flesh out an entire collection.