Monthly Archives: May 2013

Writing Discipline

I had a very interesting Twitter conversation the other day about flash fiction, and the skills needed to write it. It’s such a great thing, Twitter, not only for connecting people, but also for allowing users to engage in conversations like this one, which turn out to be so useful. I’ve been wondering all week, ever since this Twitter discussion, about the discipline of writing, and whether the skills you gain from one ‘style’ of writing are always easily applicable to other styles.

Words are words, of course, and writing is – basically – writing. But I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.

Do genres always mix easily? Discuss... Image: ebookfriendly.com

Do genres always mix easily? Discuss…
Image: ebookfriendly.com

The Twitter discussion which sparked off this idea came about because both the person to whom I was speaking and myself were, at the time of our Twitter exchange, working on pieces of flash fiction, with the intention of submitting them for publication and/or competition. We were discussing the intricacies of creating a good, workable piece of flash fiction and what the difficulties were in doing so. At one point, my correspondent asked me whether I was going to submit a short story, as well as a piece of flash fiction, to a particular competition; I told her ‘no’, mainly because I hadn’t been able to write a short story which I’d consider good enough for submission. Then, she said something along the lines of how she prefers to write flash fiction anyway, as it takes such a short time and requires such a small amount of editing.

This, I have to say, is the opposite of how I experience flash fiction, normally. I find flash fiction to be an extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming thing; sometimes, I remind myself of a glass-cutter, laboriously etching an intricate pattern out of the delicate and unyielding material he’s chosen to work with. I agonise over every word, I fret about structure, I sweat over characterisation, I pour myself into each image and metaphor, and I always struggle with the ending. My friend, however, has one distinct advantage over me when it comes to writing flash fiction.

She is a poet, as well as a prose writer.

Ever since we had this discussion, the connections between poetry and flash fiction have been on my mind, and I’ve been seeing the distinct links between the two genres. Poetry doesn’t work without delicate and judicious word choice, and the ability to arrange these perfect word-jewels into just the right structure to make a sentence hum with life and meaning; the same, of course, is true of flash fiction. Poetry can often operate within very tight structures; most competitions will limit poems to a particular length, but as well as that a poet, if they choose to, can write within a particular style, which will have its own unbreakable rules. A sonnet which has too many syllables in any one line is no longer a sonnet; a villanelle is not a villanelle if it has twenty lines. Break one rule, and you may as well break them all. Because of this, then, poets are used to working in tight spaces, and they bring extremely good word-skills to the table.

Poetry has also, since its earliest beginnings, exhibited an ability to make words work as hard as they can, and to carry as much symbolic meaning as they’re able to. Poets are able to make the most extraordinarily evocative images out of very little, and they have a way of making the everyday seem new. These skills obviously mean that poets come to flash fiction with a completely different skillset than a person who has only really written prose – and long-form prose at that – will have. All of this adds up to one inescapable fact: my friend is far better equipped than I am to write flash fiction.

However, I wondered further. I’ve had a few months’ experience with flash fiction now. I’ve written many pieces, some of which have been successful for me. I enjoy the form, and the challenges it poses, and the opportunities it offers. The burning question now is: Does being able to write reasonably successful flash fiction make you a better poet?

If the skills are transferable in one direction, do they transfer in the other direction too?

I’m not too sure about that. I don’t think my newfound flash fictioneering skills have any bearing on my ability to write poetry – I’ve never been a poet (or, at least, I’ve never been a good poet), and while I can appreciate the skills required, and even talk about them in an abstract, academic sense, I find them impossible to apply. It seems strange that I can be in possession of the skills needed (or at least be working toward them through my flash fiction), and be aware of how to write a poem in a ‘paint-by-numbers’ sense, and still have no ability to put a piece of poetry together. There’s more to it than just having the ‘mechanics’, clearly. Poetry takes something else, something besides an ability to use words – I hesitate to call it ‘sensitivity’ or ‘an aspect of the soul’, or anything arty-farty like that, but perhaps those words are as close as language can bring us to the secret of writing a good poem. You need the word-skills, you need the sensitivity to language, you need the ability to thrive within limits, and you also need something extra, something special, which only a poet can truly describe.

What do you think? If you can ‘write’, does it make you equally able to write a screenplay, a piece of drama, an epic poem, a novel, a short story, a piece of flash fiction? Or are there so many differences between the genres that each one is its own separate discipline with its own rules? Do you think its possible to be an ‘expert’ in more than one field of writing? I’d be interested to know what your take on these issues is.

Oh, and happy Friday, by the way.

Image: dididado.org

Image: dididado.org

Classic Inspiration

If only I could show you the fabulous blue sky outside at the moment. If only. But I have no camera, and even if I had a camera I’ve no idea how to hook it up to this computer-thingie (I’d probably accidentally create a black hole, or something). Let’s just say, it’s a gorgeous morning here, blue from edge to edge, and my garden is sparkling in the sunlight.

I’m in love with this day.

“i thank You God for most this amazing day:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is Yes…” (E.E. Cummings)

It’s incredible how much difference a bit of sunshine can make to the nation’s mood. On the radio as I write, the DJ is asking for people to do a shout-out for the sunshine, to share their joy at the beauty of the world with everyone they see. To be fair, I can see how that might backfire, depending on the grumpiness level of the person with whom you’re sharing your joy, but I also think it’s a wonderful image – a whole country full of people yahoo-ing and high-fiving one another just because the sun decided to shine.

Get up the yard! Image: setdancingnews.net

Get up the yard!
Image: setdancingnews.net

It’s also helping my mojo, in a major way. It’s probably no secret to you, if you’re a regular reader, that I’ve been feeling a bit (read ‘a lot’) uninspired for the last while; I’ve been having the whole ‘palpitations and heartburn’ thing going on, elevated stress levels, the whole lot. Since yesterday, though, I’ve been starting to feel better. On this beautiful hazy blue day, I can appreciate that part of my anxiety may have been connected with the weather, but it was mostly due to the fact that I felt like I was looking down into a big black pit of nothing, listening to it whisper ‘your ideas are all gone! You might as well give up, right now!’

Well, take that, big black pit of nothing. Are you ready for a revelation? Take a deep breath, now…

Yesterday, I wrote a story.

Yes! I sat down, an idea in mind, and wrote a story that seemed to just appear on the page. I printed it and read it over once I’d finished it, and then I left it sitting for a while as I busied myself with other things; finally, I revisited it, pen in hand. I did make some changes, mainly with descriptions and paragraph breaks, but it remained largely the same from draft 1 to draft 3.

Image: beefymuchacho.blogspot.com

Image: beefymuchacho.blogspot.com

Yes, captain. I, too, was flabbergasted.

This is a cause for celebration because yesterday morning, as I tried to get the writing ball rolling, I ended up doing the classic ‘staring at the flashing cursor’ thing. My brain felt like a slab of ice, and I realised I was starting to get the shakes, such was my terror that I’d never find so much as a single letter to place on the white page in front of me. After a while, I couldn’t take it any more and so I got out for a walk, I did the dishes, I pootled around for a bit, all the while tossing ideas around in my head. Everything seemed pointless.

Then, my beleaguered brain remembered something. It was sort of like throwing a rope to a person hanging by their fingernails – the last straw, of sorts. The whole day was going to go to waste unless I got things under control, and so I did the only sensible thing I could – I listened to myself.

Here’s what my brain was whispering: Shirley Jackson! Read some Shirley Jackson!

I have a tiny Penguin Popular Classics edition of five Shirley Jackson short stories (entitled ‘The Tooth’ – recommended) among my books; however, I hadn’t seen it in months before yesterday morning. Within seconds of my brain’s SOS call, though, I had the book in my sweaty fist, and I did what I’d been told. I sat down. I read the book, start to finish, all five stories in a lump. As I read, my mind started to slow its whirring, and my heart thumped a bit more gently, and eventually my shakes came to a stop. Reading these stories was the best thing I could’ve done.

In case you’ve never heard of her, Shirley Jackson‘s work was amazing. Another author who died far too young, she was a master of the short story form, and one thing she did really well was suspense and gently creeping horror. She wrote stories which seem somehow weird as you read, but you don’t really know why until you get to the end, when your jaw is left hanging at the words on the page before you. Her story ‘The Lottery’ is one of my favourite pieces of short fiction, ever, and I couldn’t believe it had been so long since I’d read it.

And so, once I’d finished reading, I sat down and wrote my own story, straight through without stopping; my story is, of course, nothing like a Shirley Jackson story, but the important thing is this: it came to me after I’d filled my brain up with all the lessons her stories teach. Suspense, hinted-at horror, excellent dialogue, descriptive touches, deft flicks of colour and detail, sensations, unease rooted in the body, making the everyday seem somehow strange and different – all these things soaked into my dried-up brain yesterday, and resulted in me breaking through a block I’d had for nearly a week. Reading her stories made me realise what a short story should be, how it should work, and the power it can have. As well as that, it gave me back my conviction that writing stories is important, meaningful and worthwhile.

So. If you’re having a hard time with your words, perhaps try taking inspiration from the classics. Of course I recommend Shirley Jackson, but there’s also Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Ray Bradbury, Maeve Brennan, Emma Donoghue (not sure she qualifies as ‘classic’, since she’s still alive!), and so many others.

Go outside into the sunshine, and bring a book, and read it. And then add your voice to the chorus, and never listen to that black pit. The ideas will always be there, if you’re quiet enough to hear them calling.

Have a lovely Thursday!

Wednesday Write-In #41

Prompts: audit  ::  smother  ::  lost property  ::  plumber  ::  Disneyland

Image: thejewelstore.com

Image: thejewelstore.com

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz

If hair oil and attitude could stand up on two legs and growl, thought Josephine, then they’d look just like this guy. Six foot five with overalls like the inside of a coalmine, he clutched a wrench as long as she was tall and grimaced down at her like she was something that had bubbled up out of a sewer.

‘What the hell you think this place is, Disneyland? Don’t give me that,’ he said.

‘All I asked was…’

‘I know what you asked!’ he replied, leaning down to give her the full benefit of his meat-breath. ‘I heard ya.’ Jo stepped back a little, wishing she could close her nostrils like a camel in the desert.

‘Look,’ she said, once she’d regained her composure. ‘The guest says it fell down the drain in her bathroom. Isn’t it, I dunno, logical that it’d end up here?’

‘Listen, sweetcheeks,’ he said, pulling a rollup from behind one encrusted ear, ‘I’m a plumber, not a magician. You watched me take that pipe apart. Did you, or did you not, see a diamond ring?’ He ran his liver-coloured tongue up the length of his homemade cigarette before slipping it between his lips. ‘You did not see a diamond ring, my friend, because no diamond ring exists. Ergo.’ He pronounced it ‘ergot’, like the fungus, not like the Latin, and Jo struggled not to correct him.

‘Do not light that up, Valentine,’ she said, knowing even as she spoke that it was pointless. Her eyes began to water as the rancid stink of whatever he was smoking filled the tiny, closed space between them. He bared his teeth in what he probably thought was a grin, his tectonic shoulders shaking in a silent laugh.

‘Are you saying the guest is lying? Because, you know, that’s a serious accusation, Val.’ His only response was a shrug and an eyeroll. ‘She’ll be coming down to Lost Property at 4pm, so we need to have something to show her before then.’ He fixed her with a glare and exhaled a thin stream of poisonous smoke straight into her face. She did her best not to smother, as she wasn’t sure what Val would do with her body. Stuff it in the pipe and hope for the best, she reckoned, with a shudder.

‘So, what? You expect me to find a ring that ain’t there in case an over-pampered human poodle decides to sue, or something?’ He looked like he wanted to spit.

‘Look, nobody said anything about suing anyone,’ said Jo, coughing slightly. ‘But – you know. She may ask for an audit of the entire premises, or a hotel-wide search, or even a systemic scouring of every square inch of pipe in the place. Right? So if you don’t want to spend the next six weeks scrubbing God knows what out of God knows where…’

‘Find the ring, right, right,’ muttered Val. ‘Who is this broad, anyway?’

Josephine licked her lips as she thought about how to reply.

‘Think billionaire lawyer’s wife crossed with Hollywood royalty crossed with actual royalty,’ she said. ‘And then double it.’

Val’s eyes bugged out. ‘Am I right in thinkin’ this ring’s more than just a fancy finger-bauble, then?’

Josephine nodded, slowly. ‘It’s probably worth more than the entire hotel,’ she said. ‘I’m not joking.’

‘All right, all right,’ grumbled Val, adjusting his grip on the wrench. He bent to the pipe once more, sizing up which bolt to loosen next. ‘Get outta there, a’right? A man needs room to work.’ He leaned in to the job before Jo had a proper chance to get herself out of the way, and a rusty, foul spray of something she didn’t want to think about fizzed out, all over her regulation navy pencil skirt.

‘Valentine!’ she shrieked. ‘Watch what you’re doing!’

‘Sorry! Jeez! It’s only water, okay? Quit the yellin’!’

‘Jesus!’ She scrubbed at the front of her skirt, but it was soaked through. A dark stain was already spreading itself over her lap. ‘I can’t work the rest of my shift in this.’ She glared at Val, but softened when she saw the contrition written all over his face.

‘I’ll pay for your cleaning bill, you know, if…’

She cut him off with a wave of her hand. ‘Please, Val. You earn less than I do. Look, just carry on with the job, okay? I’ll go and change, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.’ She risked a grin, and he gave her a grimy thumbs-up as she got to her feet.

‘Okay, then. Well. Let me know if you find anything, won’t you?’

‘You know it,’ said Val, already shifting his focus back to the pipe.

‘And – Val?’ she said. He shot his eyes back toward her again, something like nervousness in his eyes. ‘Put that cigarette out, okay? It’s completely against regulations in here.’ He huffed out a sudden chuckle before pinching the cigarette out and slipping it back behind his ear in one practised motion. She smiled her thanks before turning away and hurrying, click-clack, down the hall and back up toward the hotel proper. Val watched until she’d reached the utility stairs and climbed them, and he listened for the bang as the fire-door slammed closed.

Only then did he reach into his breast pocket and retrieve the tiny, shimmering ring which had been nestling there all along. He allowed himself a minute to imagine it adorning his Millie’s wedding finger before dropping it back into the murky sludge inside the pipe that lay, in pieces, on the floor.

‘She wouldn’t wear it anyway, and if it’s that fancy I couldn’t sell it, neither,’ he muttered. ‘Ain’t no good to nobody.’

He sighed, and settled back against the wall to enjoy his cigarette in peace. He’d have to leave it at least twenty minutes, maybe more, before going to break the good news to Jo. Plenty of time to enjoy a smoke, and daydream about asking for a raise.

The Sun Always Shines on TV

I’ve written a lot of blog posts at this stage – over 200, incredibly – and I’ve neglected to discuss, until today, something rather important – television. It’s one of the most significant cultural influences in the world, I think – certainly, it is for me. The shows you watch, and those you spent your youth watching, can have a hand in shaping the way you think about stories, about life, other people, about everything. Of course, my small-screen favourites didn’t influence me as much as the books I loved, but I’ve wittered on about books quite enough around here, as I’m sure you’ll all agree.* So, I thought perhaps I’d talk about some of my favourite TV shows, old and new.

But first – I have to throw this in here:

*sigh* Morten Harket, how I used to love thee... Image: beatsandrhymesfc.com

*sigh* Morten Harket, how I used to love thee…
Image: beatsandrhymesfc.com

I am, of course, a child of the eighties. I wasn’t born during that decade, but most of my memories are from that time. So, my favourite shows from my early days include such gems as Grizzly Adams, The Littlest Hobo, The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, Highway to Heaven, Knight Rider, Alf, Harry and the HendersonsThe Cosby ShowMagnum P.I., Jake and the Fat Man, The Wonder Years, The A-Team, and of course McGyver. I don’t think these shows really had anything in common besides they were all American, with rockin’ theme tunes; some of them also featured cheesily happy families, which was something I appreciated in a TV show. I loved ‘Grizzly Adams’ so much that it, quite possibly, gave me the passion I still have today for men who wear beards – though I’m not as keen on keeping bears as pets, these days – and I wanted to go and live with the Ingalls family so badly as a little girl. Actually, watching the TV adaptation of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ led me to read the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, probably the first and only time in my life that I watched a story before I read it. It also gave me an inexplicable love of flat, open expanses of farmland and endless blue skies, and I still have an unsatisfied urge to vist Kansas and walk through a cornfield, all because of that TV show.

A good TV show, a good story, does just what these shows did for me – they get into your head, shape how you see the world, and remain with you through your life. Having said that, I haven’t watched these shows for over twenty years, so I’m not sure how they’ve held up, but I’m glad, in many ways, that my memories of them are unsullied by adulthood. They remain unspoilt, golden and perfect in my mind. I think what they mean to me now, besides nostalgia and warmth, is excitement and adventure and newness – they opened my mind to everything the world could hold when I watched them as a child, as well as showing me that a story could be sustained from week to week, leaving me breathless with anticipation, and looking forward to the next episode almost before the current one had finished.

In the nineties, despite the plethora of brilliant TV shows to be had, one show stood head and shoulders above all the others for me. I regret still that it only lasted for one season. It was My So-Called Life, a programme that told the stories of kids who were (at least on the small screen) the same age as I was at the time, and it was accurate and true to my life and experience despite the fact that it was, again, set in America. And, I’m sure I’ve felt anticipation since ‘My So-Called Life’ was on TV; I’m sure I’ve had things I looked forward to so much that I found it hard to wait for them to roll around. However, the levels of impatience I used to go through as I waited for Friday night to come again so that I could watch the exploits of Angela, Rayanne and their friends were in a league of their own. You were nobody in my school if you didn’t come in on Monday morning full of gossip about what had happened in MSCL and if you weren’t completely up to speed with the very latest on who was dating whom, how dreamy Jordan Catalano was, and whether he would ever make an honest woman of Angela.

I remember like it was yesterday how betrayed and heartbroken I felt when I learned the series had been cancelled, and when I had a chance to buy the DVD boxset of the show a few years ago, I jumped at it. I’ve watched the episodes again over the last few years, and they’re still as good, and as gripping, as they were when I was young. I think the thing ‘My So-Called Life’ has in spades is authenticity – as much as a TV show can be said to be authentic – and a sense of believability which makes it hard for me to admit that Angela’s parents weren’t really Angela’s parents, and that she didn’t really live in a beautiful house in an American suburb beside Brian Krakow, the class nerd who loved her; the show absorbed me, totally. It had everything a good YA story needed – a nerdy boy, a cool but awkward girl who totally, always stuck to her principles (that’s what I loved most about Angela), a messed-up best friend, a closeted gay character, an unbelievably handsome love interest, music references, pop-culture references – the whole gamut. It’s brilliant, and shaped me more than I can say. It let me know that it was cool to be yourself and not to do what everyone else in your life was doing (ironically enough, since watching this show was the most conformist thing I could’ve done, at the time); it let me know that there were all sorts of different people in the world, and all of them deserved to be treated fairly and with respect. It let me know that just because someone looked good on the outside, that didn’t mean they were okay inside, and that what really mattered, at the end of the day, was friendship and loyalty and love.

The kids from My So-Called Life Image: en.wikipedia.org

The kids from My So-Called Life
Image: en.wikipedia.org

I’m almost over the fact that the show was cancelled after season one. Almost.

I think there’s some great TV these days, too, even though I’m not sure I love today’s shows as dearly as ones I watched in years gone by. I follow several series (again, I’m showing my age; the youngsters these days are all about YouTube and other things I don’t really understand, which I think is a shame), and there are modern shows, like ‘The Wire’, which are masterpieces of storytelling and fire my imagination like only the very best stories can. There is, to be fair, a lot of dross on the television, too, but occasionally a gem will emerge, a visual story which will last through the years. A good show is a good show for life.

Care to share your favourite TV memories?

 

*Not really. One can never witter on too much about books, right?

Heavy Soul

It’s Monday.

Outside, it looks like this:

Image: myprettypinkpearl.blogspot.com

Image: myprettypinkpearl.blogspot.com

And I’m feeling a bit blech.

You know the feeling – sort of like everything is too much, that your limbs have suddenly decided to tie themselves to the earth, and your brain has become a rock, clashing about inside your skull? That. I’m just not feeling capable today.

I didn’t want to write about this topic, you know. I’ve been sitting here for an hour trying to dredge my brain for anything else – anything a bit more positive – to write about, but eventually I had to conclude that there wasn’t anything else in my head.

Well, that’s not strictly true. I have lots of stuff in my head. A bit of worry; a sprinkling of stress; quite a lot of happiness (it’s just having a quiet day today); a little bit of excitement about an upcoming book festival at the end of June; nervousness that I don’t have any upcoming publications at the moment; curiosity about whether the pieces of flash fiction I wrote at the end of last week are any good and/or suitable for submission to a prestigious competition; resignation that whether they’re any good or not they’ll have to be submitted to said competition because I don’t have anything else I can submit; fear of opening my notebook to see my list of upcoming competition and submission deadlines; and the vertiginous sense of dread caused by the fact that I don’t really have anything to say.

I’ve just read Amanda Palmer’s most recent blog, where – funnily enough – she describes feeling somewhat similar to how I’m feeling now. She takes an extremely sensible approach to dealing with this sort of thing: describe what’s up, and then describe what’s down, and see which one outweighs the other.

Clever lady, Ms. Palmer.

So, here we go.

The Up and Down Game:

Down: My life feels a bit uninspired at the moment;

Up: I’m alive, and healthy, and well.

Down: I haven’t written anything I’m really proud of for a few days;

Up: I’m alive, and healthy, and well.

Down: I don’t think I’m going to make all my (self-imposed) deadlines;

Up: I’m alive, and healthy, and well.

Down: I’m a little bit scared;

Up: I’m alive, and healthy, and well – and not only that, but loved.

There. I feel better already.

Image: conroedentist.blogspot.com

Image: conroedentist.blogspot.com

Book Review Post – ‘Robopocalypse’

It’s that time of the week again. Monocles and glasses of sherry at the ready, dears – we’re about to turn into critics once again.

This week, it’s the turn of Daniel H. Wilson’s ‘Robopocalypse.’ For your viewing pleasure, I have provided a cover image. Voila:

Image: scifiward.com

Image: scifiward.com

This is a book which screamed out to me from the shelf. It practically sat up and begged me to bring it home. Everything about it, from the slick, SF cover image to the back cover blurb to the opening few paragraphs yelled ‘I am the one! The book you’ve been searching for!’ So, of course, I bought it.

Well.

This is the kind of book you read with a fevered pulse hopping in your throat, one in which you genuinely don’t have a clue what’s going to happen next. The beginning of the novel sets up the end, so you do have an overall idea of the story arc, but from chapter to chapter (or section to section, maybe), the story could literally go anywhere. And it does. The book is written like a report compiled after a major disaster, with every section bookended with a short explanatory note from a character called Cormac Wallace, whose story we follow throughout. Each chapter, then, is written in a different voice – some of them are written like interviews, others as interrogations, some as reconstructions built from CCTV footage or tapped phone lines. The most moving, I thought, was a chapter written as a series of increasingly desperate letters from a husband to his wife, letters he knew she’d never receive, and in which he describes how he and his men have been tricked into a situation that will lead to their destruction. Each voice has a vital role to play in the story the novel builds – that of the creation of a super-powerful artificial intelligence named Archos, and Archos’ efforts to destroy humanity.

Now, anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a bit of a robo-sceptic. I worry, a lot, about humanity’s reliance on technology and machines, and (perhaps it’s because I watched ‘Terminator’ at an impressionable age) I fear the increasing involvement of computers in the everyday life of humans. Others hail the invention of things like the ‘robotic car’, which is programmed to drive itself, as a major scientific breakthrough; I, however, am a doomsayer. All I can think is ‘well, that’s all fine, I guess, until the computer decides to throw a wobbler and drive you straight into a wall, or over a bridge, or whatever.’ I once heard it said that George Orwell imagined the Big Brother society of his ‘1984’ as a totalitarian, oppressive regime forced upon humanity, and he’d spit on the lot of us if he knew we’d actually handed over our lives to the all-seeing, all-knowing eye of technology for the sake of a quiet, convenient life. Every time we make a purchase with a credit card, or use a ‘value card’ to collect points on our shopping, or log into Facebook, or write a blog post (ironic, moi?), or whatever the case may be, we’re feeding the machine.

So, this book was written to appeal to people like me, on some levels.

Archos’ tactics are simple – to hack into every possible machine, to make human life impossible in a million tiny (and some rather large) ways, and to eventually drive the species to extinction. The reasons the machine gives for wanting to do this centre on the idea of biodiversity – Archos believes humanity is killing the rest of the planet, and it wants to take the simplest route possible to fix the problem, which is destroying Homo Sapiens. A drastic tactic, but if you look at it from the point of view of a machine, perhaps an understandable one. As well as this, Archos sees itself as the pinnacle of evolution – humanity developed in order to build it, and once it came into the fullness of its power, there was no more need for humanity. Logical, but cold. As an antagonist, you pretty much can’t beat a computer hellbent on the destruction of humanity. Archos is a great antagonist.

There’s a lot to like about this book besides its central concept – its structure and narrative voice(s) were so refreshing to read, and kept me constantly primed for newness, eager to keep reading; it had some fabulous characters, not least of which was Cormac Wallace himself. My favourite character, however, was Mr. Nomura, an elderly Japanese man who is in love with a robot named Mikiko. She (as a result of Archos) turns on him and almost kills him, but he disables her power supply and leaves her inert until he can find a way to power her back up again without Archos being able to control her. Their story is wonderful, and the actions Mr. Nomura and Mikiko take in the overall story are admirable and courageous. I also really liked the character of Lurker, who starts off as a small-time hacker with big ideas, and who ends up being central to the human resistance, almost against his own will. The technology, and the development of robots designed solely to kill humans in the most horrendously efficient of ways, was amazing. I found myself believing every word, seeing the scenes playing out in my head as I read – the writing is strong, and real, and the dialogue sparkling. It’s an easy book to get drawn into.

There were a few things that I wasn’t as keen on, however. One of these is the fact that a lot of the main human characters are related to one another – a heroic army officer turns out to be the son of a heroic police officer, and both are central to the war; a brave Congresswoman turns out to be the mother of a young girl whose ability to sense the machines is vital to the human war effort – and this got a bit grating after a while. I was also a bit put off by the gung-hoism that went on, including the retreat to a Native American community in the hope that the machines wouldn’t be able to encroach into the wilderness, to make humanity’s valiant last stand. I thought that was a bit clichéd, despite making good tactical sense. I just wish the author had done something slightly less predictable.

However, those are tiny gripes. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Robopocalypse’, and it’s one I’d recommend if you have any interest in SF, or robotics (the author has a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, fact fans), or indeed how to construct a book and create malice that oozes off the page.

Still though. You have to think of Orwell.

I'm WATCHING you.... Image: forward.com

I’m WATCHING you….
Image: forward.com

Writing Stories: Some Helpful Hints!

In honour of it being Friday, and because I’ve been focusing on short stories and flash fiction this week, and because stories are taking over my tiny mind, I thought today I’d blog about some things I’ve learned about story-writing. I wouldn’t go so far as to call what follows a list of rules – far be it from me to lay down the law – but they’re a list of observations, based on empirical evidence. They may be useful; they may not. Either way, writing this post will get them out of my head, which will make my life a bit more peaceful.

That'll be me, there, on the end, with the big smiley head. Image: mindco-consulting.com

That’ll be me, there, on the end, with the big smiley head.
Image: mindco-consulting.com

Ahoy! Off we go.

One of the first things I’ve learned about writing stories is this:

Discard the obvious

Perhaps this isn’t news to anyone, but it was a bit of a revelation to me. You know when you see a writing prompt, or you read something inspiring, and a story starts to suggest itself in your mind? Chances are you’re having a wonderful idea which will turn out to be a fantastic story, but it’s also possible that the first idea – indeed, the first few ideas – which will occur to you are going to be ‘obvious’, predictable, and based, unconsciously, in things you’ve read or seen already.

I don’t mean this to sound discouraging. Write, and write, and write, by all means. But it’s good to be aware that the first idea which will strike you isn’t always the best one to go with. A really good tactic to get around this problem is to write as much as you can, and read widely; but then, I think reading and writing as much as possible is, pretty much, the cure for everything.

Next!

Try writing your idea from the other side

Now, obviously, I don’t mean slipping into the Happy Hunting Ground and writing all your stories from beyond the grave. What I mean is taking your idea and flipping it around. You could try writing the story from another person’s point of view, or taking your main characters and swapping their opinions on something important, or changing the gender/age/race/whatever of your main players. This may not do anything besides reinforce your conviction that you had the story right first time, but at least it’ll be fun. Also, you never know what new ideas might spring from it.

Onward!

Try writing your story all in dialogue

Sometimes, stories written all in dialogue work quite well. Sometimes, they don’t. A key to a successful all-dialogue story is making each voice distinctive, so there’s no confusion on the reader’s part as to who is speaking at any particular moment. In fact, this is an important thing to bear in mind for written dialogue of any sort. However, the reason I think writing a draft of a short story all in dialogue can be a useful writing tool is this: it can help you to really get under the skin of a character. Their dialogue can betray verbal tics, sayings, dialect, accent, education, bias or prejudice – all of which, of course, makes them a richer and more rounded character. You can take these insights with you as you rewrite the story – or, of course, you could choose to keep your all-dialogue style. Either way, you’ve got a cool story.

Forward!

Work on your images

So, you have a story. It’s working well. It’s about a woman having a terrible fight with her husband, we’ll say. The woman feels irritated at her husband’s habit of leaving piles of used tissues all over the house, perhaps, or maybe he leaves little towers of nail clippings in tiny sculptural arrangements on every flat surface, or something of that ilk. (Please note: this is not based on any observations of my own husband. Just in case.)

Anyway. So far, so good, so expected. The story is fine, and well-written, but it’s not grabbing the reader’s attention. Millions of stories exist about a husband and wife having a row over the silly minutiae of life. A way to elevate your story onto another plane of interest is to use descriptive images that are startling, eye-catching, perhaps even a little disturbing – the more ‘everyday’ your story is (i.e. set in the ‘real’ world, featuring ordinary folk doing ordinary things), the more ‘out-there’ your images can be. The contrast can sometimes be intriguing.

It’s very important to note, however, that this approach doesn’t work for everyone. It can, sometimes, lend a sci-fi or ‘magical realism’ air to a piece which won’t work for every story, so use this tip sparingly.

Interlude

It's hard work, this. Phew. Nice cup of tea will sort me out. Image: daisyandzelda.com

It’s hard work, this. Phew. Nice cup of tea will sort me out.
Image: daisyandzelda.com

Right. Refreshed! Back to it.

You don’t necessarily have to have a ‘twist’ – but try to make the end of your story unpredictable

So. It seems to me that sometimes twists at the end of stories can irritate readers. They can sometimes seem contrived, and not in keeping with the rest of the story, if they’re only included for the sake of having them. Also, here’s the scary bit: a reader can always tell if the twisty ending is ‘set up’, and not an organic part of the story. So, it’s important to plan and plot your writing, especially if the piece you’re writing is as short as flash. In 200 words, or 150 words, or 300 words, or whatever, plotting and planning is absolutely vital – not one word can go to waste, so it’s important to make them all work as hard as they can. If you want a twisty, dark, unpredictable ending, then make sure it’s planned from the outset and organically, naturally hinted at and prepared for the whole way through the story. Anything else can seem like a ‘deus ex machina’, which is irritating.

Just my 2 cents, now. Don’t take any of this too seriously.

Remember all the senses

Sometimes in writing it’s easy to get distracted by the sense of sight, particularly in short fiction. You ‘see’ the world of your story through the eyes of your character; you see the other characters, you look at their reactions. But sometimes a smell, or a sound, will tell a reader far more than anything a character can see. Making full use of the senses also helps to create a believable character (this is, of course, if your characters are in possession of all the senses – of course, a lot of very interesting writing can centre on characters who have senses which are different to the ‘norm’); people naturally use all the senses at their disposal without even realising it, so characters should be the same.

Anyway. There’s lots I’ve learned about writing over the past while, but I hope these little pointers will be of use to others. If you agree, or particularly if you violently disagree, with anything in this post, let me have it in the comments. Healthy exchange of ideas is what it’s all about, right?

Happy Friday, everyone. Hang in there. It’s nearly the weekend.