Inspiration Station: Books That Stick

A key part of my BA Creative Writing was wider reading. We were give course excerpt readers for class discussion and usually quite exhaustive lists of suggested texts for reading around the subject, which I was apparently the only person to actually bother to read. These were usually intended to highlight things: how episodic fiction works, the difference between the episodic and the transformative, the nature of modernist vs postmodernist writing, different approaches to poetry, and so on. The following books were largely not on the reading list, but are just books which–for reasons other than the narrative they contained–have stuck with me and influenced me in some way.

Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker. I have reread these books many times and I still can’t quite put my finger on why they work so well for me when the rest of Barker’s novels, including ones in similar settings with similar themes, don’t. But initially I think I was taken by her use of language–specifically the incredible balance she strikes between clean, clear description that never goes overboard, poetic turns of phrase at moments of intense emotion, and not allowing the action to ever take place in what’s usually called a “white room”, even when she devotes only a sentence to scene-setting.

As Meat Loves Salt, Maria McCann. I have a great and powerful weakness for strong character voice, particularly first-person narrators, and particularly unreliable ones. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who plans to read it (and I definitely urge people to read it, with the caveat that it is frequently brutal and the narrator’s voice is a lot to handle), but the timing of exposure of information, the distortion produced by the emotions of the narrator, and his acute unreliability are all things I aspire to in terms of literary courage. I think I came closest to achieving that in Heavy, but no writer is ever satisfied fully with their past work.

The Debt To Pleasure, John Lanchester. This was recommended to me (by A.K. Larkwood, author of The Unspoken Name, in fact) on the basis of my voluble and impassioned reviews of As Meat Loves Salt. She (rightly) grasped that I liked narrators who were “unreliable, full of their own bullshit, and absolute dicks”, and pointed me at this debut novella by a culinary writer. It treads the line between literary murder mystery and cookbook memoirs, and I have never read anything else like it. In terms of showing me how to use narrator preoccupations to absolutely manipulate the audience and frame the story in a manner that I’d never have considered doing myself, it was an eye-opener. In a very odd way, a little like Matt Fraction’s celebrated dog’s-eye view issue of Hawkeye, or even that one Agatha Christie novel whose title I shan’t mention lest I spoil the plot. Linguistically this is also wonderful–writing a pretentious, self-involved asshole as a protagonist/narrator frees the author to go absolutely mad with language and really unleash the purple prose and pompous opinions. Again, something I am working up to finding the courage for myself.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov. Like the Regeneration books this is one I have returned to repeatedly and like them it is one that I consider a touchstone of literary aspiration. Every man and his dog has written about Nabokov’s borderline self-indulgent description, his anatomisation of a specific time and place in history, his eloquence. What fascinated me on first reading, and which now just impresses me with the skill with which it is done, is again the use of the perspective of a reprehensible person to tell you one thing, but to show you something else. Following the emotional narrative of Humbert Humbert, he “falls in love” with a very young girl and obsessively “courts” her and she “breaks his heart”. Following the physical narrative of the behaviour he himself observes, Dolores Haze is abducted and abused by the man who emotionally tormented her mother, until she escapes. A genuinely inspiring demonstration of how to use the narrator to conduct the same grooming behaviour on the reader as he does on the characters, and one which unsettles a lot of readers to the point of anger when they realise they’re complicit somehow.

It’s not solely unreliable first-person narrators, but I admit I am going to return to that theme.

The Charioteer, Mary Renault. Another regular reread, and one that I treat like getting a particularly nice cake. I have the greatest respect for many of her works, but I think this one is probably the best. The characters are the most fully fleshed-out, the locational descriptions the most immersive and recognisible–although I can see that’s also because they’re more familiar, both due to personal experience and to ritual rereading.

One of the hallmarks of Renault’s work is implication: as a queer writer, she has the very particular talent of leaving things unsaid, but carefully hinted at. Not writing things, but writing around them, so that they appear inevitably in the white space in the centre–a bit like drawing only the shadows cast by physical objects, rather than the objects themselves. Some of this is delicacy–she got away with writing a gay romance in the 1950s by creating gaps for the sex and kissing that could be filled by the mind but were not even alluded to in ways people without the “code” would notice. Some of it is layers. Many of her sentences, dialogue in particular, are laden with multiple strata of meaning. Which ought to be a given, but is rarely the case. And because everything happens through the eyes of the point-of-view protagonist, in initial read-throughs the image of other characters is distorted. Is so-and-so really a horrible person or does the protagonist not like them because he considers them competition? Is so-and-so really a selfless paragon or is he just in love? And so on.

Another hallmark is rhythm. It’s hard to pinpoint and harder still to replicate (as a recent attempt at practicing iambic prose revealed, writing with an ear to spoken rhythm is not something I find easy at all), but there are passages of description in The Charioteer which read like poetry not only in their pastoral or romantic content but in their very stresses and alliterations and that is the lodestar by which I would very much like to steer the unforgivably ugly pedalo of my own prose.

Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, is another instance of “in it for the language”, in this case solely for the language. The social commentary bores me and the plot is tissue-thin: the real fascination comes from discovering how quickly Burgess can teach the reader to read an entirely new slang, purely through immersion and context. And, of course, it has a reprehensible, self-involved narrator with a strong voice, and we know by now that I like those.

The next three books all feature what I’d call location horror, or bad houses if you want to be really technical about it.

House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski. I don’t really know where to start with this. Narratively it deals with the uncanny, and with emotional landscapes reflected as physical landscapes, and about distortions of reality; it runs three levels of narrative simultaneously, really milking the “found manuscript” trope of late 19th/early 20th century SciFi with breathtaking chutzpah. I don’t think I quite had the spleen to pull off my attempts with that in The Circle. Danielewski’s eye-catching USP is of playing with what can be achieved with the form, something that I think as novellists we probably do the least of all the narrative media, and it’s a shame–because what he does with it absolutely works. Again, the borderline abuse of the reader in terms of using every method possible to unsettle, distract, and disorientate, from switching “level” of narrative to uncanny content to the degeneration in narration by the two narrators and their ultimate subject, is like an ad infinitum demonstration of those particular skills, and ones which I would like to cultivate. I am not sure, however, that I have the patience for the typesetting complexities of House of Leaves!

The House, Bentley Little. Another bad house book, this generally standard horror novel was my introduction to multiple ideas: unsexy sex, threatening sexuality, and the use of sexual threat/menace to confer discomfort and unease onto entirely nonsexual subjects.

Drawing Blood, Poppy Z Brite. A better example of bad house and sexual horror, the prose in this book sat at the hinterland between “atrociously purple” and “appropriately mauve”; it somehow fitted the settings, and the revoltingly lush descriptions worked well with the sense of rot both internal and external, as well as containing quite a poetic and evocative description of an orgasm.

The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall. Recommended to me on the basis of the noisy appreciation of House of Leaves, this does indeed have characteristics in common: a disoriented and, as we learn, grief-stricken protagonist; a permeable kind of reality; inventive typography which creates a sense of threat to the reader by rubbing thin the membrane between fiction and reality (perhaps an attempt at the equivalent of an actor in a Brechtian production making aggressive eye contact and saying, This may be a play, but if I hit you, it will hurt); and an underlying unfurling mystery. It’s a lot more palatable to consume and has a definite narrative somewhere in there, however. I’ll leave a link to the Wikipedia summary, which I’m not sure fully does it justice, but which uses all the correct terms. 

Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, G W Dahlquist. A compelling read with, as I’ll explain, an odd structural/pacing similarity to Annihilation, below. What I wanted to take from this, apart from the character-driven narration in multiple-PoV fiction, and the elaborate world-building (which was sketched out from three different perspectives to provide a fuller picture than one one allow for), was the sensation of constant movement. Glass Books is a long book that it is easy to race through because there is never any let-up in the action. Dahlquist appears to have taken the Chandler have a man enter with a gun edict very seriously, and claimed himself that his method was to “write characters into a hole, and force them to squirm out of it”; for someone who has a problem with extremely passive protagonists (which I only really think I began to break around Architects of the Flesh), this is a real goal. 

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Moore & Gibbons’ restriction in format and parallel narratives, with one illuminating the other are what I want to take from this, primarily. The response to restrictions is often considerable creativity (Lee Barnett’s Fast Fiction Challenge is one example, the fannish “drabble” format and the even more restrictive fifty-word micro-saga preceding the microfiction of Twitter accounts like T R Darling‘s falling into the same kind of restrictive category to intensifying degrees), or at the very least a way to break out of a rut.

The Filth, by Grant Morrison, Chris Weston and Gary Erskine. I could just have easily said The Invisibles, but The Filth demonstrates the same factor that I’m interested in without requiring an enormous and almost equally confusing companion book to make sense of it all (yes, I have read them both. No, I can’t say with any certainty that I have unpacked every aspect of the work, and no, I don’t think I even meant to).

When I talked further up this post about Danielewski being one of the few authors I’d encountered who really played with the specifics of the form, I was thinking back on comics like The Filth, like Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man, which use fourth-wall breaking as a technique–one which is especially effective in the comics medium. Other tricks from these books have been used elsewhere, in particular playing with the convention that in comics, space is time, and therefore it is possible for characters to step out of their constraints and affect their own actions and experiences by reaching into the past or future (an idea which in novels is exemplified by The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger). In common with other visual narrative media such as film, animation, and television, comics can also use visual narratives in parallel with verbal ones, something which Michael Moorcock, in conversation with Alan Moore (and referenced here) claimed influenced his own attempts to ensure multiple narratives were taking place within each sentence.

Discovering and working with the specific capacities of novels and short stories (and not episodic fiction unfortunately, despite the popularity of that form across multiple media including Twitter) is something I would also like to get back to, rather than fixating so much on plot-driven stories and standard narrative formats.

Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer. I read this because I saw the film and was highly intrigued by it. The book and the film are at best second cousins. Elements of the novella which I found especially compelling/attractive: intense sense of place, a similar compelling pace and unfurling mystery to Glass Books, married with the rising emotional intensity and uncanny nature of House of Leaves, with a highly detached and even nameless narrator; and, in terms of thematic content itself, I was pleased by how little interest the book had in explaining or taming the phenomena it describes. Although it provides humanising insight into the protagonist which breaks up and also heightens the weirdness of the current events, the events themselves are doggedly, confrontationally alien, something which I absolutely yearn for on the rare occasions I read science fiction.

Most of the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett. When I was reviewing Jojo Rabbit for a friend, I said that I didn’t think that it was so much a comedy as a story which used comedic tropes and colours to force the viewer not to  disengage and to lull them into a sense of tonal security so that they would be unable to defend their psyche against the actual message of the film. This is something I think that I first saw in the Discworld novels, as they began to go along: I always found them incredible funny as a teenager, but often that humour was a wedge to having a pertinent moral message firmly inserted. 

Diseasemaker’s Croup, Neil Gaiman. A short fiction piece which featured in Fragile Things, which experiments with the expectations of informative writing in a similar manner to House of Leaves’ annotations, or found manuscript format fiction in general (Documents in the Case, by Dorothy L Sayers, is a grand example of the epistolic approach to that form–wrapped of course in a murder mystery, my favourite kind of plot). In this instance, it takes the form of a recursive idea: it is a disease suffered by those who write about fictional diseases, written by someone with the fictional disease on which they are writing, and whose degeneration in the text mirrors the description as it is being written. This, I think, is one of the strengths of novels and short stories which is harder to replicate in other media.

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a trilogy in four parts, Douglas Adams (and, to an extent, the Dirk Gently books). From Douglas Adams, I learnt that you can break just about every conceivable “rule” of fiction if you do it hard enough and well enough. I learnt about zeugma, I learnt to love the present-but-detached narrator who also features in my childhood favourites, the Narnian Chronicles; and I learnt an enormous amount about comedic timing, litotes, comedic understatement and overstatement, contrasts–the real Anglo-Saxon and Greek nuts and bolts of writing. In future, I would like to bring back that playfulness, that metacommentary, and that committed, well-practiced but seemingly casual disregard and even contempt for “the rules” of writing.

Where from here?

To summarise: what I want to get back to. Unreliable narrators, always. Conflicting descriptions, always. Non-linear narrative is something I have played with very little outside of fanfic and would like to really indulge in. Meta-textuality, linguistic/rhetorical mirroring, and osmotic language teaching are things I would like to find ways of working into stories.

I am reminded by this list that Pass the Parcel, the longest and also first fully complete novel I wrote as an adult (I wrote two as a teenager and they were, as you might expect, not good), was something that I initially began as a way of working through a question I had about the way novels were structured. I didn’t answer it in that book, but what I did do was enjoy and explore creating a work of fiction without the preconceptions that had shackled me before and made it so hard to complete longer works.

There are a lot of questions to be raised about how stories work, how to tell them, and how I want to tell them.

Writing Exercise: From Art

This month I’m returning to some of the fundamentals of my writing degree and unstiffening underused writing muscles (and coincidentally repeatedly giving myself RSI) by revisiting those warm-up exercises I can remember from my classes. This is a version of one of them: in our classes we would have a painting projected onto the wall and use it as a starting point to write fiction for 10-15 minutes without stopping. As brief imaginative flights that go nowhere are not something I’m having trouble achieving, I adapted it to be about description, an area I find I’m lacking in lately.

05/01/2020 – The Wallace Collection

A Canaletto imitation by a Canaletto scholar hangs in the striped gallery, among a slew of others just like it. It is a model of perspective, painted by some pupil—“the school of Canaletto”—who seems to have recently learned the art of single-point perspective, and employed it with tedious regularity but exhaustive detail on the straight converging lines of the Piazza San Marco (kindly labelled).

Are the colours faded? I would assume so. Is the sky really so tepid over Venice? Surely on some days it is this weak dilution of blue, blotted with thin excuses for clouds, but that can hardly be the case every single day. And I know the robes of these 17th century Venetian traders and conversational pedestrians must have leeched their brilliance in the fading of madder—a more brilliant red mus surely have been intended. One can never accuse the early modern European of dowdiness unless he is a Protestant of some consideration devotion.

There are parasols like mushrooms springing up over what must be the tiny tables of market stalls. Of course no open space so carefully paved could be free of traders, but were their shades really so uniform in construction and hue? Is the replicability by a single hand here, as in Islamic art of the era, the sign of great craft at the time? Do we strive for identikit perfection rather than the contemporaneous Dutch verisimilitude?

A tower rises on the left like a rather gaudier version of the chimney stacks at what was once Battersea Power Station. I cannot take rectangular towers seriously. They aren’t defensible—my heart remains in the castle keeps I explored as a child, locked in, scarcely urban at all. Not like these eternally convivial, cosmopolitan Venetians on their square, here not sinking so swiftly into the lagoon as to require endless wellingtons but instead spaced out and sweeping, majestically but with cloaks that don’t pass the knee, across dry slabs dotted with little dogs and not one single pigeon.

That’s what does it, what really shocks me. I have just walked to this gallery past the serpentine, positively swarming with avian life—as I passed, a great crested grebe with his ruddy whiskers popped up between two mute swans and dived again. The reality of these birds, their living warm bodies and imperfect feather, fractal and exquisite, struck me like a slap of the cold water to my face. This pale, lukewarm attempted Canaletto, this Canalettese thing, has no pigeons.

I may not know Venice like I know London, but I know cities, and I know birds. There should be gulls. There must be starlings. Pupil. You are a fraud and you are indolent: give your piazza her birds. You insult her.

Writing Exercises: Taste & Travel

Returning to the fundamentals by executing writing exercises similar to the ones I was given at university nearly 20 years ago. The first was a 10 minute timed piece written while eating Christmas Cake, which was supposed to focus on the sense of taste. The second was a 15-minute timed piece written while on a train, meant to focus on the theme of travel. Neither have been edited.

03/01/2020

Sweet. It is above all things overpowering in its sweetness. That is in part the icing, white and soft, a paste of sugar set firm, with a dusting of edible gold pigment to hide the imperfections accrued by the process of rolling out on a less than perfectly clean chopping board with a less than perfectly clean pin. Then there is the almond taste of the marzipan—still very sweet, and somehow more fragrant, more condensed than real almonds—the essence of almonds. It is hard to describe marzipan’s taste without solely enumerating its components or slipping into flights of personal memory: the enormous moulded marzipan pig and received as a child which was almost but not quite enough to put me off the experience of the substance forever, being as it was a vast, unadulterated block of this overwhelmingly sweet, fragrant, off-yellow beige, shaped into a pig, soft and crumbling, a texture a little like cheese and a little like playdough. And yet I can still swallow it up. The other component is far more layered. It is the dark mustiness of the fruit lovingly soaked in alcohol for over a month, slowly fed until it is quite drunk, an inebriated matrice of rejuvenated grapes, orange peel, candied cherries, walnuts which have become sheer and juicy with sugar and booze, almost pickled in it, held together with the barest framework of spiced, crumbling cake, the excuse for the fruit. A drier concoction which separates the sweet-heavy pudding from the respectable confection—as if there was any difference. A Christmas cake is not so much a cake as a gestation, kept in the dark and pandered to, a kind of macerated fungus of indulgence—saved for weeks and then broken out to ungrateful, pre-sated mouths.

04/01/2020

Travel, they said. Travel and your mind will open. The implication here is that the wealty, whose planes scar the sky in patterns of white on blue, whose thirsty engines scour the lands below for their fuel, must be the broadest-minded of our race, and the village-locked poor, travelling between home and work in a steady succession of shuttered images, are the narrow minds of rats in drainpipes. We forget, of course, that minds travel while we sleep.

Trains take routes pre-determined by our planners. By definition they take the road most-travelled. The same is true of their aerial counterparts, whipping through clouds that range far more freely than they ever will. Only on foot are we released. Only when I walk, one foot in front of the other, am I at liberty, in theory, to go where I please—providing I can escape the eyeballs of the state, providing the communities don’t bar their gates. I’m reminded when I take off, with music of the exact right beat in my ears, timing my footsteps to isochronicity, of the family myths: on one side the ever-walking footsteps of Romanchal came to circulate one island. On the other, travellers from Ireland stepped across the sea to settle in the South of England and stave off starvation. They settled into ruts and so have I. In theory I can lift up my boots and stalk anywhere desire takes me. I am as free as my healthy body and confident heart can let me be—and yet in practice my routes are as practiced as dance steps and ploughed deeper than the fields of my unwild nation. I have the English disease of habitual timidity; it is rare that habits change, rare that my feet range further than the same old streets. I try to challenge myself with new short-cuts but it’s not until I drag my slothful carcass to the outskirts of my beautiful city that the real freedom of having functional feet takes hold—across Epping Heath & into the seemingly boundless woods I plunge in every direction, my only objective to avoid other people, to escape all signs of humanity—replicating my dawn walks in the planation by my teenage home, when insomnia drove me out to startle the deer and slither down arsenic-strewn slag heaps in an attempt to walk my mind free of thoughts.

There is no impediment on my time one week in two. There is no chain keeping me from taking to the hills, to the valleys, to the downs, and the wood and the coast of this little island. For a fat lad I’m not short of stamina. What is keeping me so strictly controlled by these leylines of mundanity? The year ahead beckons: you may not be wealthy, but travel broadens your mind. Start walking and do your ancestors proud.

 

10 Minute Writing Exercise: Blind Writing

Premise: set a timer for 10 minutes and write continuously, without pause, on whatever pops into your head when you first put pen to paper.

02/01/2020

One morning in June, the sun failed to rise over the infamously picturesque rooftops of Paris. Instead of a low pale grey dawn, in which the sky, as always, took on lighter and lighter dove plumage, until it became instead a sliced orange flushed with pomegranate juice, it remained as violently black as the shattered remains of a bottle of typographer’s ink. Even the stars had vanished. Without the sunrise to guide them, the lazy pigeons remained asleep–but the Parisians and their tourist guests, who lived not by the clocks of the heavens but by the digital, atom-set numbers of their mobile phones, awoke to darkness, and were at first bewildered. Surely they must have mis-set their alarms, or failed to set a phone to the right time? Perhaps there was a lie-in to be had? They had clearly not gone blind, for the red LED glow of alarm clocks and the soft pale blue glow of mobile phones illuminated the bedrooms of Paris–followed, with increasing distress and irritation, by the overhead lights.

Slowly, Parisians poured onto the streets, their faces turned to the blackened skies, as one-by-one curiosity drove them beyond the mere act of peering out of their bedroom windows–perhaps, after all, it was a hoax?

And yet the skies remained as black as unmilked coffee, and the faces of Paris turned up in confusion. Texts were sent. Emails flew back and forth. Men in pyjamas on pavements frowned up at nothing. And soon the replies flooded in–it was not just Paris.

It was dark in Lyon. It was night in Nice. It was black in Marseille., in Calais, in Roscoff. The black lay upon Alsace. And still the replies came: sunrise shunned Geneva, Brussels, London. It was absent entirely no matter where in their appropriate time zone one inquired.

And, just as the concern reached a fever pitch, a pale green glow illuminated the black. Closer, and closer came these letters: in French, in German, in English–each set to its appropriate linguistic region, each alone in the sky.

They said: PLEASE HOLD. 

 

Fallow Periods

It’s now been ten years since I both started and completed my very short-lived comedy “career”, beginning with a workshop hosted by comedian & writer Natalie Haynes, and ending with me gently slithering out of the five minute slots under or above pubs with a general sense of disinterest in the whole business.

Looking back it seems like an aberration, but also like the culmination of a particular segment of my life. Now, at the end of another decade, the first year in over ten in which I don’t have a recently-completed first draft of a novel to look back on, I find I’m looking back on what may be another culmination, and I am wondering about the slow shaving off of self-expression, of language, of connection to other people that has been under way.

Comedy seemed like an aberration because I’d previously avoided the stage for about seven years in absolute totality, after spending my childhood and adolescence obsessed with it. Not to the extent of learning a single damn thing or putting in any effort, of course–that’s never been my approach to anything where I’m not immediately applauded or validated with grades–but from the age of 3 through to 18 or so I was firmly entrenched in whatever amateur dramatics I could get myself accepted into in the face of my total absence of acting skills.

I loved–and this is what came back with comedy–the tension between how badly I wanted to be the absolute centre of attention, and the complete horror of being seen. Theatre offered the perfect solution: everyone has to look at you, but none of them see you. A whole room full of people staring at a complete fiction who just happens to have your face. And it only worked if you could form connections within a group of people who would be your closest, your nearest, your dearest–intense friendships that could be instantly discarded once the show was over.

The problem for me was the transition between the emotional highs of performance and the complete nothingness that followed. The adrenaline–my entire body shaking all the way through probably didn’t help my performance–wearing off into the flat emptiness of being too young to have cast parties and too weird to have friends. It’s hard to have a polite meal with your parents after you’ve spent two weeks keying yourself up for an hour and a half of prowling around on a stage the size of a postage stamp and pretending to slap people you’ll never see again.

With comedy the situation was simultaneously better and worse. Better, because comedy excused and justified–elevated, even–all the bad conversational habits that I have. Talk too much, steamrolling over everyone else’s interjections, in pursuit of some point you feel you need to provide endless context for? Appalling for conversations but perfect for the stage. Endlessly spewing out things which are mean, ill-judged, outright lies, in sole pursuit of making people laugh? Again, this is an obnoxious way to conduct a conversation but the root of at least the most basic kind of pub basement comedy.

For those reasons it was also somewhat worse than theatre: it indulged my worst habits, encouraged me to disappear into my own self-mythology. I am not, after all, a particularly funny person, but I can make whatever gibberish meanness I’ve thought up sound like comedy because–learning from poetry, at the very earliest stage of my writing life–I know what rhythm a joke should have. It only works on stage, if people aren’t thinking. Pub basement stuff.

And the high and the low were both higher and lower. The reward is immediate: people laugh. Lots of them. And they’re all watching, waiting to be made to laugh, so the pressure is higher, and the adrenaline more powerful, so your body shakes even more, and your stage persona overrides the natural desire to run away. The problem with this is that comedy, even moreso than acting, creates a false connection to an audience, who want to talk to you afterward and are somewhat disappointed when it turns out that the reason you enjoy being in the magic circle of the spotlight is that you don’t want to have a conversation with anyone. And comedy, morseo than acting, creates these tiny bubbles of camerarderie backstage, where it is a requirement to be Mates with people you have never met before and never will again–but might, so you have to make a good impression. Switch personalities in seconds.

Given that I need a good run-up to have any kind of personality at all, it was inevitable that wasn’t going to work.

That was 2009. This is the end of 2019. The me of 2009 failed to finish a novel; the me of 2019 failed to finish a novel. The me of the intervening years (and at least three of the previous ones) has successfully written several. In the intervening time I have taught myself about structure in the most mechanical fashion I could, about character arcs, about pacing, and above all about perseverance: the one thing I have always been told that I lack.

The end of the year is traditionally the period for self-reflection, and the end of a decade moreso. I’m disinclined to put too much weight on the bland mathematics of things like decades, but there’s no time like the present for contemplating what remains to be achieved.

In listening to interviews with much more accomplished writers–people who I admire, rather than people who are perhaps wildly popular–I am beginning to uncover the root of some dissatisfaction.

In pursuing making books which work structurally, along the lines of the most basic, functional fiction–to show that I can write “properly”, write entertaining fiction, and not, hopefully, fall into the traps of unthinking bigotry that are the water we swim in while writing (mixed metaphors are one of the problems I need to iron out!)–I’ve effectively abandoned all interest in the things that brought me to fiction in the first place. Namely, an interest in getting up close and personal with compelling characters and moments from their lives, and the joy of using language to creatively build situations a reader could feel properly immersed in–doing interesting or intelligent things with narratives.

Instead, I’ve fallen into the same trap I fell into with comedy and theatre, of becoming so attached to pursuing a favourable response by following the rules, that I sucked all the fun out of the act itself. There should be more to what I’m doing than just chasing after instant validation; I should care about more than just finishing and avoiding anger or criticism.

Partly inspired by a Tumblr post exploring the rhetorical unity and construction of character voice in Shakespeare’s work (which is incredibly intimidating), partly inspired by the unabashed self-indulgence in Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, which I’ve just started reading and will now probably be reading until the heat death of the universe, because it is very long and I like to read several books at once where possible… and partly inspired by another Stewart Lee Q&A [VIDEO, be warned] where he talks, towards the end, about rejecting three-act structure and letting a good story find its own level…

I think it might be worthwhile to return to the creative influx of university, to get back to reading and acting on texts that encourage technical thought about the construction of sentences, about euphony and rhythm, rather than than solely getting into factual and structural research for novels; that it might be worth my while exploring exercises designed to bolster particular elements of writing, rather than viewing every instance of putting words down as something that has to be finishedpolished, and hopefully sold.

I’ll let you know how well that works out, and whether or not the allure of cheap applause beats the desire to be genuinely better at what I do.

Autopsy of a Failure: How Not To Write

Every year since 2006 I’ve participated in and completed NaNoWriMo. Using the month of concerted, frenzied activity to push myself into focusing and finishing, I’ve always used the challenge to get a solid first draft done for later editing.

This year, I didn’t, for the first time.

I started, but I didn’t finish.

(Alright, in 2006 and 2009 I didn’t finish my draft but did hit the word count; in 2006 I came back to the story and finished it, and the result is The Other Daughter, whereas in 2009 my attempted sequel to Pass The Parcel, tentatively titled Musical Chairs, stalled at 80,000 words and only the bare beginnings of a plot, and I gave it up as a bad job–but that doesn’t sound as dramatic).

In fact, I wasn’t even two weeks into the challenge when I threw up my hands and declared that I was, in the words of a familiar meme, straight up not having a good time, bro.

That, incidentally, was the deciding factor. Not time constraints (for the first time in several years I was trying to balance concerted full-time work with writing, as I couldn’t take any time off this year), but loss of enthusiasm. I can–and indeed have, when writing the first and second halves of Pass the Parcel–work around a full-time job to get a draft written in the time allotted to me. It’s tricky, but when the will is there, the way can be found. The challenge becomes a joy.

In this case, I was getting absolutely no joy out of the experience. I couldn’t get words out. Every single sentence was a walking nightmare: the motto of NaNoWriMo is usually given as just Get The Words Out, which is very liberating for a lot of people–not to have to struggle with concepts of quality, to uncork and unclench and just assure themselves that they’re capable of writing that much, that consistently,. on one project.

The problem is that if I see what’s coming out of me and know that it is complete sludge, no amount of “giving myself permission to suck” will erase the fact that future me is going to have to edit that. “Fix it in post” applies to factual research, names I can’t remember, individual words I can’t find at the moment I need to find them in–bits that can be blocked out in the original draft as I zoom past them in the joy of pursuing the plot and hanging out with the characters.

When, however, the language feels like lead pellets and the characters are pretty much lifeless and flat in my palms, there’s not likely to be a remedy short of throwing the whole book away.

I’m trying to work out how it came to this point. The portion of the year spent on world-building and exploration was fun and interesting. I just appear to have forgotten how to convey information about a world in a narrative. The portion of the year spent on writing things about characters was interesting; but I completely missed any attempt at writing with them.

Part of the reason I had dead characters with dead voices is that I never trialled them, and part of the reason that I didn’t trial them was lack of authorial acoustics. I’ve never subscribed to the Ivory Tower model; of bookwriting, and like to take lots of people along with me even for the first draft ride, to get plentiful feedback as I’m writing, to help me see where I might be missing things, or which characters aren’t developing in the way that I want them to. Even before the first draft, being able to talk out plot holes, advertise and expand characters to an audience, and wrestle with what themes are actually contained in my story at the planning stage with someone who is genuinely interested is a great help!

It’s also a great confidence-booster, and the sad fact is that since last year where–through no one’s fault so much as through bad timing and communication mishaps–I couldn’t find anyone to step into either the first draft readership or planning stages for my draft, I began to feel discontent with writing, and convinced nothing I was doing was any good.

The year that followed saw me writing even less, and planning less, and losing confidence hand-over-fist in what I was producing. Which is bizarre, because I was also being paid to write content for an app and a blog. The authorial ego is a very fragile thing!

How to undo this?

Well, there is a question! So far, having had a good response to the publication of Architects of the Flesh, and working on a private commission for a friend’s Christmas present, in which I’m genuinely freed from all judgment but hers (including my own!) has given me a little confidence back.

So has being straight-up hassled by a different friend about a project I’ve been putting off writing, and talking over that same project with a different friend and getting exactly the intelligent, critical questions I needed to work out one of the things I’d been getting wrong with it.

So I’m cautiously optimistic that next year will bring me a slightly better and more committed run at it.

For some people, “just let yourself be bad at it, but finish it” is what’s liberating. For me, haunted by the spectre of god knows how many “you give up too easily” complaints in my youth and therefore punishing myself into finishing things neither I nor anyone else enjoys me doing, it’s accepting that I’m allowed to quit when something’s not fun any more. Writing should be fun, at least most of the time, even if there are the odd off days when you’re not inspired and have to go sweat instead, or feel like a complete imposter and you’re sure that nothing that comes out can be at all good–if those days are all the time, it might just be that the project is not right.

COMING SOON: ARCHITECTS OF THE FLESH

Coming soon from House of D Publications! A chunky and compelling novel full of strife, fantastical features, surgery, and really horrible phone calls! The birth and probably death of the genre Lamarckian Horror, by the author who brought you Saxonpunk.

the book cover for Architect of the Flesh shows the title, author attribution, and an image of a sketched medusa head on one piece of paper being menaced by a diagram of a surgeon's knife on another piece of paper: the background is Charles Booth's London Poverty Map

What?

That’s right! Before the close of the year, available in print and approximately a million (small exaggeration) e-reader formats including Kindle .mobi, .epub, .pdf etc, and available on iBooks, Kobi, Amazon, etc: ARCHITECTS OF THE FLESH is London as you’ve never seen it and hopefully will never see it, in a world where Lamarckian inheritance works, and just about every other science lags behind xenotransplant surgery.

Wait, back up. Lamarckian?

You may remember Darwin. At least, I hope you do. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection turned out to be right: the idea that organisms develop physical (and indeed behavioural) traits over time as those individuals who display them fare better in whichever environment they’re in than those who don’t, and so have more babies.

Well, in the heady days of the 19th century, when everyone was still trying to figure out what the absolute hell was going on with a world they’d previously assumed was static and unchanging after the Oh Shit discovery of fossils, he was far from the only thinker trying to work out how we’d got from dinosaurs to chickens and whether those things had happened at the same time.

Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck (or just Lamarck)’s idea of how environment enacted biological change was that changes to individual organisms during the course of their lifetime were then demonstrated in their offspring: so if you cut the tail off a mouse, it would have tail-less offspring. If a giraffe stretched and stretched for leaves, it would have offspring with younger necks.

Now… that does seem pretty easy to test via empirical if somewhat cruel methods. Mice are not hard to get hold of and were pretty abundant in the 19th century too. And it certainly hasn’t withstood such a simple test as obviously your surgically mutilated mouse does not beget mice without tails (mice with human ears and mice with green fur are the result of genetic tampering, and are outside the scope of this novel).

Yes but: “xenotransplant”?

In the 1790s, eminent surgeon and co-author of Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, William Hunter grafted human teeth onto a rooster’s head and said rooster grew a coxcomb of tooth enamel. You can see the results at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London (or you can in 2021, when the museum re-opens).

See that? More of that.

So much more of that. Animal husbandry meets 18th century attitudes where theology of predestination props up chattel slavery. Human rights? Never heard of her. Animal rights? Don’t make me laugh. Technology without overriding morality? Wealth without conscience? People with fashion transplants? You got it.

Grab yourself a copy and see how bad things can get–but also just how hard it is to prevent people from trying to make things better.

FOCUS ON FICTION: Heavy

I’ve been doing one of these a day (ish) 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.

A novel again today, because I’m out of individual shorts, and with this I’m also out of self-published material altogether! Everything else is either in anthologies or still being edited or is poetry etc. What a ride it’s been!

If you’ve read and enjoyed my (or anyone else’s) work, here’s an article on why it’s important for you to say so in public: beware of monsters: why you should review books you love.

HEAVY

What if not only everything you knew about yourself was wrong, but everything everyone else knew about you was wrong too?

Pig is in hell.

He’s been in hell for the twenty years since half a continent was atomised; since his own ignominious and contentious escape from a fate that never came; when a face from his past comes offering alleviation, he inadvertently drags behind him a young revolutionary, an extracted spy, and an admin assistant way out of her depth on an unexplained mission that will take them across the world, and which may well solve nothing at all…

“I’m always pleased to see Derek Des Anges writing, with his acute understanding of the horror we do to each other and the tactics we take to survive it.” – Kieron Gillen (Wicked + Divine, Darth Vader)

Within the last couple of days, a friend informed me that “I think I really am going to have to by a copy of this for [their 90-year-old Godmother], she was very taken with the idea when I described it to her,” which I think goes to show that you’re never going to predict quite who will go for what book, no matter how certain you are of something’s niche appeal.

Its genesis was longer ago that I realised. In fact, when I say “I usually take a year to plan and write a book and then another year to edit it, because I hate editing”, I’m being disingenuous. Books overlap. Ideas for one come up, get toyed with, doodled over, put back down, a book about something previous comes out; the new idea ferments disgracefully in the back of my mind and resurfaces later, gets played with again, reshaped, and eventually dragged to the front of the conceptual queue God knows how many years down the line, often radically changed.

So it was with Heavy. I wrote what was to become a version of the first few stories as a short exploration of what might happen to the boys of Lord of the Flies (a book I have loved with fascinated horror since my adolescence) sometime between 2007 and 2008, when I was working on Pass the Parcel.

I think I thought that was the end of it. But the opening line: Pig is in hell, kept echoing around my head. I knew enough about PTSD, and began to learn enough about gaslighting – a central theme in this book – to understand that I hadn’t finished what I’d wanted to say when I wrote that short. Also, the world that had grown up in 5,000 words of speculation nearly a decade before I wrote Heavy had the potential for scope and range beyond the small glimpses I’d given of it.

I’ve been writing multiple-PoV fiction in earnest since Pass the Parcel. Prior to that there might be the odd glimpse into one character’s thinking but overall I was wedded to a specific genre convention (for example, detective fiction may or may not do this as much as others) that “one character’s perspective is all you need”. It works for Lolita, after all. This is the first time I think that the wider potential of a multiple-PoV story saw realisation in my work, where structure and major themes echoed each other.

It’s also the first time I’ve written about faith, and loss of faith, and the importance of faith to characters. I’m an atheist: always have been, always will be, unless something dramatic happens. But I have friends of faith, and friends for whom the abrupt divorce from faith under less than favourable circumstances didn’t create a happy or happily antagonistic atheist as it does in some cases, but rather someone with a profound sense of loss and sorrow – grief, really – at being closed off from something so inherent to themselves and so important to them. And, well. I like a challenge. Part of me wants to write about things I am very familiar with – and that part has had lots to work with in Heavy – but part of me thinks that’s lazy. And so that part got to write some very unfamiliar experiences indeed.

What else? There’s a cat, who doesn’t die (I am informed that every time I include a named animal in these books I have to clarify that they don’t die, because otherwise Nasty Shocks Happen); there’s an honest-to-gods car chase although perhaps not in a very cinematic fashion; there’s spycraft, adventure, derring-do, giant mecha suits, a stealth plane, an undercover mission–

–And it is nothing like what that list makes it sound like. At least, not to all of the characters involved. That’s the thing about stories; everyone in one is living a different one.

If any of these focus on fiction posts have left you curious about the works mentioned, be aware that the title of each book links to the original launch post, where links to the Lulu and Amazon pages for each can be found. Alternately, append “/books.html” to my main blog URL for a brief outline of all my publications so far and links to their Amazon pages. 

If you’ve read and enjoyed any of them, please tell your friends! Tell the internet! Tell your mum and your boss! If you didn’t enjoy them tell people too, and say why, because I guarantee that what you didn’t enjoy, someone else will love, and it’s cool to give people a chance to find that out for themselves.

The author is currently laboriously researching for this year’s draft, and editing another draft novel, which I promise I will talk about very soon. There is also an exciting, writing-based, art-based long-term project slowly taking shape, and I promise when there’s more on that I will return to this blog and shower everyone with details.

FOCUS ON FICTION: The Next Big One

[I paused these for a while because I didn’t want to drive traffic towards Amazon during a worker strike].

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.

A novel again today, because I’m out of individual shorts.

THE NEXT BIG ONE

With the number of UK cases hitting a hundred, it’s clear that KBV is a problem which isn’t going away. Downing Street have released the following statement: “The total number of KBV cases in the UK is still comparatively small, and we are confident that the disease can be contained. NHS leaflets advising on lifestyle and behaviour changes which can help protect against infection will be available soon. We ask the public to remain calm and to continue to behave responsibly about their health in all areas.

Vocational journalism student Ben Martin is the last person who ought to be investigating a major viral outbreak. He doesn’t know a single damn thing about biology; he pays his rent by DJing for hipsters. He’s nervous, easily-discouraged, and not over his ex.

But it’s him who ends up with the assignment, and it’s him who ends up facing down the truth: there is more to this than meets the eye.

The Next Big One is definitely a watershed novel for me. It was the first book I wrote where I actively looked at what I was writing in the planning stage and said, “Does this character really need to be [white/cisgender/male/able-bodied] in order for the plot to work”, and when they didn’t need to be, I changed something about them. It was such a simple alteration, and yet somehow it brought so much more depth and affection for the characters, so much more realism to my experience of writing them.

Drawing on life helped, too. Many of the locations are subs for places that I’d been to, or vague nods to people that I’d met, rather than just being a kind of Londish place which disappears into vagueness. It helped, too, that I’d been getting out more, in the intervening years, as my mental health continued on its slow upwards trend (unlike the protagonist of the book, the poor sod); the more you see of life, the more qualified you are to write about it.

Research, too, helped. While I set out to look into what was possible and plausible with disease design in mind, I picked up a lot of peripheral knowledge as I tried to get to grips with virology and epidemiology from a starting point of being so scientifically illiterate that I’m still not sure I understand what mitochondria are, never mind things like apoptosis.

It grew from frustration with how public health issues are reported; it grew from my general distrust of the ethics of large corporations; it grew from my overall fascination with the brutality of sickness and the fragility of the human body balanced against the surprising strength and resilience of human bonds. But the characters, once the groundwork was done, more-or-less wrote themselves.

What I set out was to write an epidemic thriller, but it’s not pacy enough. It’s not suspenseful enough. And it’s far, far too much about the people, and very little about the disease. That’s the thing about the way I write, I’ve come to understand: I am interested in how people work and how they stop working, and I am interested in the effect of squeezing one part of their life on all the other parts of their life. Larger mechanisms of society and the universe, while operating in their own casual frameworks, do kind of narratively exist for the purpose of making the protagonist’s life harder. Sorry about that, protagonists.

While it’s not exactly a dramatic story of the world battling a deadly evil together, I still hope it’s exciting. The smaller dramas within it kept me entertained while I was writing them, at least.

FOCUS ON FICTION: As Simple As Hunger

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.

A novel again today, because I’m out of individual shorts.

AS SIMPLE AS HUNGER

FOCUS ON FICTION
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. If anyone’s read any of them and wants to add their impressions or things they think people...

Non-occult engineer Hajar Al-Fihri is about to find herself dragged into a world of intrigue, mystery, exploding ornithopters, intelligent parasites, and some Very Large Arthropods. Right now her only problem is that her colleague and friend Benjon is, in all probability, about to swear on the wireless again, but that happy state of affairs cannot last. This is, quite simply, the fantasy fiction saxonpunk universe with giant bugs and zeppelin cities to end all fantasy fiction saxonpunk universes with giant bugs and zeppelin cities.

Somewhat undermining my insistence that I was definitely not ever going to write fantasy because (list of reasons including horses), this is solidly in that category. It’s got: oil rigs, universities, trains, zeppelins, and a radio system but it’s still fantasy. Or Saxonpunk. Or we’re not really sure what the logic is here but there’s a massive quantity of enormous bugs and some unresolved mysteries, some political wrangling, some bad mother/daughter relationships, some highly protective friends, some unconventional romance, and a lot of world-building.

There’s even horses.

I need everyone to know that I read a huge quantity of entries for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle while doing preliminary research for this, and then just manfully flung all my research out of the window while bellowing “well what if helicopters”.

I think you can, if you squint, see elements in this novel which got further development in Heavy; I’m not going to tell you what they are, only that there’s a degree to which old fixations cycle through works in different forms even with the best of us.

I think this is the only story I’ve written that has a character who is unequivocally, incontestably A Hero, meaning someone who does what is right and what is brave and all the rest. That the character happens to perhaps not be the one anyone might expect is part of the fun.