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Let It Burn

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(http://charmander831.deviantart.com/art/let-it-burn-638659914)

Pam watched the dorm burn. She stood with the crowd of onlookers, phones and tablets held up to capture how the flames licked at the windows, vomiting black smoke, thick from the feast of plastic it had found in every room.

Theresa came over, weeping in a way which Pam found unsightly. The histrionics of someone who saw the world through a filter of utter solipsism. She reached out her thin arms and threw herself into Pam’s arms.

Pam patted Theresa between her shoulder blades, perfunctory gestures interpreted as awkwardness but were about her distaste for physical contact. Pam had built herself an ideology which avoided the messy business of sex through a seething bolus of gender variations. The likes of Theresa challenged her but tonight her drama would prove useful.

‘Who’s done this?’ Theresa said.

She devolved into a series of wet, rough brays before Pam shushed her and kept on patting her back as though it meant anything.

Pam watched the crowd. A news van had parked at the end of the row and she turned Theresa around without speaking. Theresa sniffed and wiped her face.

The Dean of Students, bleary-eyed and grimacing made his way through the crowds. His silver hair stuck up from his head in soft tufts like dandelions, which offset the melancholy raptor features of his face, furrows from a perpetual frown and thin, pale lips. He taught American Literature before accepting the Dean’s position and Pam imagined he would press lots of old white authors upon them. He had changed into a white shirt and sweater, smelled of cologne as he saw her.

‘An absolute tragedy, Pam. I’m so sorry.’

Pam collected apologies from authority figures. This one was not up to the standards of the soft drink manufacturer or the best-selling author of the young adult trilogy but it was a good start.

‘Thank you, Dean. I have prepared a statement.’ Pam said.

He frowned and looked around him.

‘The fire’s not even out, Pam. Give yourself time to process this.’ he said.

Pam’s lips drew back over her teeth before she caught herself. She pushed Theresa aside.

‘Acts like this demand an immediate response.’ she said.

She had practiced it in the mirror, perfected the lift of the chin and the slight turn of profile.

The dean sighed and gave a short, terse nod.

‘But I would argue the use of the word act. It has connotations.’ he said.

Pam pointed to the blazing dorm, fighting the urge to give into her emotions, not from fearing their impact but because it was too early.

No one was watching.

‘The only connotations I see is an old white man playing down an act of ethno-gender terrorism.’

Pam enjoyed how he shuddered.

‘Now I think you should -‘

Pam’s heart leapt in her chest, higher than the flames in the dorm room.

‘You think, Dean. What should I think?’ she said

She raised her voice. People turned, their phones already ahead of them.

The news camera pointed at her. Its lens was a shining white disc, a medal for her sacrifice.

She started into her monologue. The firemen in the background added just the right note of disaster to proceedings. Her face was lit from within, eyes aflame with self-righteousness and the joy of wounded victimhood. In the weeks afterwards, she watched it a hundred times.

Protest footage with clusters of students marching and holding placards.

Aggressive scenes in the library, earphones snatched from ears and snarling challenges into the pinched faces of other students.

An investigation. The arrest.

Her trial.

Pam in orange prison clothes, her face slack with acceptance.

When the dean collapsed with a heart attack, Pam would have celebrated but she was too busy fighting off a bull who wanted to get romantic without having to memorise Pam’s preferred pronouns during pillow talk.

Before sleep, she remembered the orange glow of the flames and the desire to stay and watch it burn away her privilege..

The memory kept her warm. Whether there was enough to see her through ten years remained unknown.

.

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Cycles of Ambition

Louise slid the envelope into the mailbox outside the town hall, surging with triumph before walking inside. Her appearance was no accident, the smart, glamorous appearance offering a great deal but promising nothing. Her makeup was war paint and she thought of herself as someone determined to advance her position by any means necessary.

The paperwork was the last feint in the duel. A hasty gathering of signatures to support her candidacy and even that was not without its difficulties. David had taken his time in deciding, putting up a litany of excuses but Louise had circumvented that by studying the gestalt of his signature and signing his name. She trusted in the ambition that had taken her from intern to candidate and used that velocity to power her upwards.

It was better to ask forgiveness than permission.

She caught her reflection, pleased with her appearance. Pretty but not soft, which meant that the right people wanted her but were afraid to cross that boundary by virtue of a single hard stare. She could take or leave sex, but power or the chance to grasp it, made her shudder with a deep and profound want.

She walked up the stairs to the town hall, hoping to catch Nigel or Paul around to share her good news. The clip of her heels on the stairs was pleasing to her, a warning that real power was entering the premises. The future held the warmth of sunlight on bare skin, and she was pleased to accept its burdens.

‘You’ve done it already, haven’t you?’

The voice was a broken, mechanical wheeze, too many cigarettes and screams for too long. Louise blinked in shock as the woman came towards her. Her hair was a fallen angel’s halo of white roots and poorly applied dye. Her face was disfigured with a thick, gelid scar along her jawline and a left eyelid that drooped like it had fallen asleep on duty. She carried the thick, condensed odour of unwashed flesh and sour milk. She wore a faded grey t-shirt and jeans that hung too low, revealing a fringe of wrinkled, off white stomach.

Louise grimaced and looked around for assistance.

‘Please Lou, have you sent it in?’

Louise looked at the other woman and realised she was not another at all.

Older yes, but beaten with the club of hard years and missed opportunities until what stood in front of her was an insult made tangible.

‘Oh fuck off, you can’t be me.’ Louise said.

Louise held no truck with weakness and here, was its avatar wearing some of her features like hunter’s trophies.

The elder version cackled with bitterness and put her hands in front of her. Louise noted the yellowed nails, packed with dirt.

‘No, it’s me. I mean you. Just tell me you’ve not sent the paperwork in. Or at least that you didn’t forge the signatures. Please?’

Louise’s skin rose in gooseflesh, she darted her expression around to make sure no one was in earshot. Voices travelled in the town hall, and someone was always listening. She sneered and swallowed the knob of nausea that was stuck at the back of her throat.

This could not possibly be her. She would never have let herself look that bad.

The older woman smiled and revealed an abandoned graveyard of teeth.

‘You stupid bitch. You have, haven’t you?.’

Louise started to back away, holding onto the polished oak banister for support as her world collapsed in on itself.

‘David had no idea. They won’t check.’ she said.

Louise heard the pleading in her voice and hated herself for it. She wanted to ask who this version of her was, where she had come from, what she could pass back to her.

‘They will when David and the others tell them you faked their signatures, you stupid cunt.’

The girl from the Barracks was never that far from the surface and she pushed forward, steeling herself against the barrage of foul, bacteria-strewn breath that peeled a layer of skin from her face.

‘No, this is bollocks. I don’t know you are but -‘

The woman’s arms shot up, clamped onto Louise’s shoulders and she smiled in a way that suggested pity and beneath that, a terrible and complete madness.

‘No, and unless I fix it, you will know me. Every time you look in the mirror.’

She shoved Louise hard and she toppled backwards. The back of her head hit the lip of the stairs with a wet crack that was loud in the solemn air of the town hall. A final riot of her broken brain revealed the woman standing over her, already beginning to fade into translucence.

‘It’s better this way, love. We can always try again.’

The world went away and Louise, thwarted and confused, went along with it.

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Writing Update

I finished the second draft of Lawful Evil yesterday. 435 pages. 79,904 words. It is not finished in the respect that it will need another draft or two before I am happy with it, if I ever am. The more that I learn, the more nuanced my appreciation is and so I drive myself a little harder each time out. The process allows me to gain courage and reach further for each new piece. It is a mixture of relief and regret to finish a project, and from there, where to go next.

I cannot control whether a publisher will pick up a submission but what I can control is the quality and depth of the work I do. If I study, practice, commit to the work then I know that I am doing all that I can and taking pleasure in it. I love what I do, and have written with that in mind. I do not wait for inspiration but keep working until she shows up, and enjoy the look of surprise that I have things to show her.

So next up is either starting the second draft of Stranger Lights or an entirely new piece that I have percolating called YOU KNOW WHO WE ARE. I believe in remaining productive and present with my craft, and sometimes it is not about finding an idea for a book or story but which one to choose from. It is the same with the short fiction and poetry, all sourced from within me, reflecting thoughts and feelings at any given time and not always presented here. Chris Rock characterised the difference between a job and a career as there never being enough time for the latter, which is true for me.

I have a process and an approach that works for me, which is why I seldom give writing advice. There are no shortcuts for you as an individual artist, even if you take on every single piece of wisdom offered to you. Life throws up external and internal obstacles to us all, and it is how we negotiate them that defines us. I am not pretentious about what I do, proud and dedicated to it, yes but the same approach applies to a lot of things in my life. Discipline, focus and passion underlying the principle of it being about the work and what it offers rather than me. I call it my purpose because it is, and the more that I have aligned my life around it, the happier I have become.

Thank you for reading this, your likes and comments are important to me as they let me know that someone is reading my work and relating to it. I work towards the point where there are tangible pieces of my work in the world for you to buy and share, and when that point comes, you will be the first to know.

 

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Two Pages (05/11/16)

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I shifted to a lower gear this morning, five pages against the previous sessions of ten, although I might get back into it this evening.  I’m now into the second act, which is where I really start to put my protagonist through the wringer. We test our characters because in adversity, we find out who they are.

You can get away with any number of sins, if you avoid boring the reader. I read a great deal, and if I find myself starting to drift into the dance of my words, I take a step back and look at the grid, see if there’s something missing that can drive it forward. When I used to write from a single idea, then I would, if stuck, look back and see if there was something unresolved that can generate tension in the work.

So, I’m 54 pages into Strange Lights now, and it’s a challenge, a balancing act between trying to capture what I like about the culture and aesthetics without it feeling too blunt and curated. It’s fiction, not based in anything other than an idea about the culture, allied to a strong story. I hope. We can never tell whether anything we’ve written is any good.

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s short fiction books, which is always an education and a revelation. There’s fantastic imagery and ideas, but they’re always welded to a knowing, melancholy awareness of people. I’ve said before that in terms of fiction, monster can be metaphor, and Gaiman does that better than a lot of other writers in the genre.

I’ve got another collection of Joyce Carol Oates to enjoy, and a bunch of fiction to plough through. After Pynchon, everything feels faster than normal, but I will ramp up my interest. I read so often because it feeds the writing, grants a courage and eloquence that can easily get lost in the focus on task. I haven’t heard back from the agent about Until She Sings but as soon as I do, I will let people know. I’m ahead of the curve in terms of my workload but that’s part of my whole approach, to have work to show people who are interested in it. I work at my own pace, but it’s constant and consistent.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

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Two Pages (28/09/16)

Four pages written since this last entry and have started editing from my agent’s notes for chapters 22 -33 of Until She Sings. I have done 22 so far, and it feels like a different book already. Which is a good thing.

I believe in working on the story first, sometimes to the expense of the more obvious emotional flourishes but that focus means I have been fortunate to avoid any major reconstruction of the book. I have moved beyond the brute, blunt tools into the subtle distinctions, from macro to micro and I am excited to continue on with it.

Lawful Evil is now ramping up into the darkest section of the book, where my aim is to exist with the tension, as well as continue to advance the internal plot without dismissing it. You need both for a good story, the intangible growth of spirit and experience next to the external banging of the drum. An explosion or a gun being fired has more power if there is meaning behind it. It took the previous books and the gathering of experience and confidence to get to a point where I could tackle a crime thriller without being paralysed by self doubt.

So, work-wise, I have two main projects as well as short pieces that I am revising and none of it feels exactly like work to me. There is never enough time to do it all, but I don’t resent my day job at all. It allows me to come away from the writing, to have the pleasure of knowing that I have attended to my purpose and will return to it. My ambitions are sourced in my purpose, and my purpose is sourced in my ambitions. I’m not entering reality tv competitions, I am altering my reality and waiting for the world to catch up. It’s tough going sometimes, there are moments of melancholy contemplation but the cure for that is to get on with it and get it done.

Tonight, I will be looking at chapter 23 and working on a short piece for submission to an anthology in November as well as a piece for here. Another Ogden episode is being mulled over as well, so I am always working, in one way or another. It’s the best game in the world and I keep playing and finding new ways to tell stories with the tools I have to hand.

 

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Two Pages (18/09/16)

This morning was a big scene, answering a question which is what the resolution of narrative tension is, in essence. I finished The Night Eternal by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan yesterday, the last part of the trilogy (it is the books that the tv show The Strain is based on, and no I don’t watch it, tried the pilot and couldn’t get into it) and the last part of a trilogy tends to be where all the questions get answered.

The intensity of the tension comes from both the question and the delay in your answer. It is a balancing act that if you fall off, can take the reader out of the atmosphere entirely. Today was a good session and it read well, smooth when spoken aloud and I finished it with a sense of achievement beyond the simple fact of finishing.

My routine most days is the following:

  • 0400 – 30 minutes meditation, then coffee.
  • Writing two pages.
  • Writing this journal.

I do that because no matter what else the day throws at me, I know that I have written. It’s not about finding the time to write, it’s about never having enough time to do all the things that I want to do. I have not made any money from writing but I treat my practice like I am. I am professional about remaining consistent and focused, about improving myself artistically and technically, whilst also not taking myself especially seriously. I am not looking to fill a void in myself with success, I love telling stories and getting better at telling them. The process is it’s own reward, and after a bit of contemplation on some experiences, I’ve sought to adapt my expectations to love the work more than the outcome and to see rejection in context. I work hard at it but it seldom feels like work to me.

It’s the most glorious form of play, and the more that I have aligned my life around it, the happier I have become. It’s a good way to inure yourself against the fear of missing out, to turn down the volume on the crap that doesn’t matter and when you are focusing on other important issues and obligations, you can do so from a place of calm where you can give things your full attention.

Whatever works is my mantra. I work on my own thing, help others if they ask and keep moving forward with my goals. I sometimes doubt, but the cure to that is to keep writing, find a friendly shoulder to talk about what you are going through. I joined a writing group in February and that’s been a delightful experience, a constant source of motivation and a group of peers who get the nuances and frustrations of the writing experience. Writing is my purpose, I seek publication and success because my aim to write full time and I need money to do that, or some biological hack so I don’t have to sleep anymore. I know what the odds are, but I could not stop myself from writing. That’s why I seek to do more of it.

Thank you for reading, please leave comments and ask questions, if you’ve a mind to.

 

 

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Two Pages (14/09/16)

I’m into a scene that brings back the external plot which was a relief. When you’re threading these things together, I often struggle with where to end something and start something else but not to do so in a way that cheats the reader out of closure. I like to end a scene as soon as possible, starting as late into it as I can and making sure there’s a change of value inherent within that. It can be artificial, but oftentimes I work on faith and instinct that there’s a point where you risk exhaustion but can slip evocatively into the next scene.

If not, editing fixes most things.

The writing is stronger, not simply due to working to a grid, because I often delve into moments between characters, have to review it and give myself the problem of moving things back into line but it’s also a lot of reading, contemplation and experience. You get better by doing it consciously. If you do the same thing over and over, if you put up work that’s not edited or ready simply for the hit of recognition and validation then you’re storing up problems in private. News flash, snowflake, not everything I do is gold and it’s the same for all of you too. What you can do is make sure that you’re present with your work, not faux agonies or pretension, but looking to improve without it being a fool’s errand. My latest manuscript is better than my first one, it took thousands of pages to get there but I can see the difference and so can others.

I believe in allowing things to simmer, to develop and retain before throwing it all out there for people. As cheerful amateurs, some of us take it too far, and I speak from experience but as much as it stung, it was a valuable tool by which to gauge my future work. On the other side of that, there’s the paralysis/procrastination element but you find a balance between the two that suits your level.

Keep going is a refrain that sounds like a verbal tic, but I say it because it works and I spent a long time procrastinating about writing before I learned to finish anything. Sometimes I wonder if that was for the best, in having lived and been hurt, and able to write about things that I have experienced or know those who have, that gave me a body of material to draw from. If I had been writing at eighteen? Who knows, we only have the moment that we are in and those moments for me are opportunities to write and live and love.

As it should be.

I’m also, spurred by rejection, writing short stories. There are some on here but these ones are being worked on with a view to collecting rejections, I am aiming for 100.

 

Please leave questions, comments and insults below.

 

Don’t leave insults, the world is awash with that and I don’t really want to contribute.

 

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Two Pages (11/09/16)

So, the pen sketch yesterday was useful, and it reads well so I may keep it but I’ve moved things on in order to get to the next set of beats/scenes in order to start bringing together the A and B plots.

When I use these terms, it’s borrowed wholly from Story and The Story Grid, in which you have the following:

The External or A plot is where you have your external conflict and action go on. Explosions, bullets, external events and forces that challenge and complicate your characters. The object of desire for this plot can be the recovery of a magic item, the defeat of a monster or the uncovering of truth.

The internal or B plot runs counter to the external plot. An example McKee gives is ‘Out of Africa’ where Karen Blixen rejects the notion of ‘owning things’ in order to save her soul and identity. It’s what lies beneath the surface of the character, notable by it’s absence in the likes of James Bond, although the Craig-era brought with it, the existence of it in terms of his ageing, the usefulness of his methods in an age of drones and open source terrorism etc.

Now, they don’t necessarily have to intersect but I think that they should because it adds emotional weight to the piece, especially if the successful resolution of the internal plot offers up an insight, an ally or a realisation that allows them to demonstrate the traits necessary to see through the resolution of the A plot.  From even thinking about these, you’re thinking from a point of how to sell, or even pitch your work to people who don’t care about the thousands of hours you’ve put into it, your cogent argument for the inclusion of adverbs. It might take away some of the delight and whimsy you find in writing, but that’s a good thing. I thrive on being a productive adult, not someone who expects a standing ovation because I’ve written something. My concern is with my work, it’s quality and potential because that’s the only thing I have control over. I don’t write for the marketplace and trends because they change. That 50 Shades meets Harry Potter you’ve been working on, posting sentences out of context because the need to be seen to do it is more important than the actual achievement? It’s going to look flat and lifeless if it doesn’t burn like a UTI with your passion and investment in it. It’s not the sloppy, uninformed passion though, it’s the application of it. A sniper round rather than a shotgun. You can, and will write mess but you don’t have to share it. Show us the trick itself, not the endless hours you spent learning how to perform it without flaw.

There will be passion and magic invested in it. I’m open about the points where I write and it’s wonderful, but amongst that are the days you get it down on paper with the same passion that you brush your teeth or shave. Do you brush your teeth passionately? Should you? No, you do what is necessary then get on with your day, you work on improving your technique so your gums don’t bleed and you do it without thinking about it.

The results are there in your smile.

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Two Pages (10/09/16)

I worked with a bit of observation today. It’s something that I have found essential to writing, thinking about how you can convey, and interpret things to drive the story forward. It’s not driving the story forward, and I may cut it in a later draft as I want the book to breathe, but not sleep.

It’s strange sometimes, to talk about cruelty. It’s something we have all been subject to, in some form. Sometimes a victim, others an aggressor. Writing about it, and it’s the small, lower case form of it, which tends to be rooted in desire, thwarted or otherwise. It denotes a lack of compassion, but lends itself really well to showing, in how you describe the scene. Here, I show how someone is cruel to someone else.

I finished Brood by Chase Novak last night. It’s a lovely bit of writing, has it’s own mythology and it touches, much like the last book, on some primal fears around parenting and adolescence, but tied into body horror and hubris as well. There are a few great literary horror books, some I’ve read and others that I am seeking out all the time. Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon, Justin Cronin’s The Passage and I would include these two books. They probably inspired the mood piece I wrote this morning. I reserve the right to cut it, but sometimes it’s okay to let the piece breathe in the exploratory stage. Sometimes a page yields a line that stays, which is perfectly fine.

Not everything you write will be gold. Sometimes it’s clumsy, like rolling a penny uphill with your nose but you get it done. You keep going because you can find the good in what you did that day when you edit later. You have days where you write the really good stuff, where it feels like, as Rust Cohle said in True Detective, ‘that you’re mainlining the universe.’

Which is kind of an inspiration for the book. I could not get into season 2, but I may get hold of it and see if it works for me this time. However, the first season allowed me to consider how I could follow it. I did not believe I was capable of doing the genre justice. However, I found The Story Grid, and it worked out in a way that gave me the ambition to try. Knowing where the obligatory scenes and conventions need to go gives you a map through the forest. So here I am, putting it together each day until such time as it goes to the agent, and then a publisher. It makes me happy to try, and with each book, I find a fresh burst of courage to go for something different.

So, it’s supposed to rain here but I may venture into town to pick up some library books that serve as research for later on. I don’t like to work with big chunks of exposition, but I try to show some of the flavour. To tell something painful that has happened honestly, even though the story itself is entirely fiction.

Thank you for reading. If you have any questions or comments, please post them below.

 

 

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Two Pages (08/09/16)

Things are progressing well with Lawful Evil. The change in focus and impetus serves as something of a life raft at difficult points, working from a story grid gives me a sense of direction but also room to breathe, and to be surprised by what emerges from the id.

My process, if you’re interested, is based on the simple baseline of two pages a day on a new project, longhand in an exploratory draft or on the laptop when in a subsequent draft, which is where I am also editing. Actual straightforward editing, I’ll give myself five pages a day at a clip. I write every day, because it creates momentum and allows me to keep honing my craft. I don’t feel entirely comfortable when I am not writing, and working a full time job, means that I like to get the work done before I head out for the day. I like to write early, so I get up around 0400, meditate, suck down some coffee and then get into it. In my leisure time, I like to write later at night, but mostly between job, obligation and such, the writing gets done so that I know, no matter how my day goes, I’ve attended to my heart’s purpose.

I read as my main form of leisure, on two levels, writer and reader. Reading as a reader is taking pleasure in the words and the images, the swoop and heft of a spell being cast. As a writer, I am a cannibal, a scavenger savant who looks at the how and why, tries and discards, borrows and stitches parts of other effects into my own toolbox. I don’t plagiarise, it’s laziness incarnate and futile in this current era, but I do look at the underpinnings and think about how it might apply to my own work. I don’t chase trends or look at what’s popular outside my reading interests. I work on my own writing, and work at being better at it, finding that what once was a struggle moves to the subconscious and new nuances and problems arise. It’s a matter of failing better, harder each time out and each book has been it’s own challenges, defeats and triumphs.

I have an agent, which I am grateful for, they’re supportive but the majority of the work is done under my own steam with support from friends at various levels and times. Otherwise, I do like to be around people, not as subjects or sources but to relax in the direction of their attention. I don’t think you can write to any degree, in any style, unless you have an interest in people. Even the 41st century cyborg deserves consideration in terms of their inner life, and you can borrow that from the conversations you overhear and engage in.

I sometimes worry that I sound brusque and dismissive, but I come from a place where my approach works for me and perhaps only me. I happily contribute to a writing group at my library, but I am no expert, simply someone who’s found their path and wants to walk it for as long and as successfully as I can manage, learning with each step.

Again, please leave comments and questions below. Thank you for reading.