This is both guidance to readers and a personal note on what prompted me to write it. Guidance for readers is published elsewhere on this blog in a more formal reminder of the basic etiquette. I place trust in my test readers and I don’t even ask them if they’ve read my guidelines because they’re simply common sense and I credit all readers – and especially beta readers – with the intelligence to at least have that. I do write at a certain level and sometimes I’m too generous in my assumptions of others. As with everything, lessons were learned.
To place this into context and to explain my prolonged absence from blogging, I was unwell. I’m sick in the head, signed off and on pills anyway but even within a life of depression made bearable by medication, there can still be dips. Having recently emerged from a two week “Depressive episode”, I felt well enough to venture to the neighbouring town of Tunbridge Wells and to the Assembly Hall to see Nina Conti. Our party numbered four and we planned to have a leisurely light dinner beforehand in a restaurant nearby.
It is a cliche but it is also true to some that you can’t take me anywhere. The majority find my company entertaining but there are those who just can’t handle a conflict of troubled minds. The issues were many with the establishment we chose to dine in and being a failed entrepreneur, I take an interest in things if they look like they could go tits up. I’ve still got access to a very useful contacts book and although I’m done with business, I don’t mind making introductions and referrals. I’ll run through the issues in little more time than it took us to be processed through the restaurant:
Having a small appetite and this being pre-theatre, I’d mentally selected a dish from the menu displayed outside. This was a small steak and chips. I contemplated how I might have it cooked as we waited to be shown to a table. My steak would either be rare or blue. Blue steak being raw is a myth: it has to be cooked precisely and is served warm. Either could have been prepared and plated by a production line chef well within the time we waited to even be greeted. When one particularly patronising manager eventually acknowledged us, it was with an air of condescension. I do acknowledge that the practice of asking the blindingly fucking obvious is a requisite of front-of-house staff but it was as much as I could manage to keep quiet when we were asked if we required a table for four. Luckily an ambulance passed and I was able to entertain the manager with my observation that they wouldn’t sell many ice creams going at that speed.
Immediately prior to being seated, we were told that we would need to vacate less than an hour hence. In London, this is a fairly reasonable turnaround of covers pre-theatre and a well-run establishment can do well if they observe certain things, least of all a simple menu of good food which can be prepared quickly. A simple rare or blue steak, with fries pre-boiled and fried once, fried again; lightly seasoned and served in the steak juices can be cooked, plated and served in seven minutes. This is a niche, fast turnaround, higher-priced product. The niche is very narrow and therefore the service and food have to make the hurried nature worthwhile. Although this place was in a hurry to usher us through, there was no urgency placed upon the service. This in itself would have been welcomed, were it not for the fact that we were now in a rush because we’d been told we’d have to vacate.
It was ten minutes after we’d been seated that we were offered water; a further ten minutes then passed before we were asked for our drinks orders. Fifteen minutes after that, our drinks arrived and we were asked if we were ready to order. We had been ready for more than half an hour. I hadn’t been able to find the steak among the small plates dishes on the menu we’d been given, so I asked her aloofness the the manager for clarification. My delivery was not confrontational, although I was growing a little impatient by now and was quite taken aback by the reply: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I knew perfectly fucking well what I was talking about but I could sense that one of my fellow diners was becoming uncomfortable, so I didn’t pursue the issue. Instead, I spotted something on the menu which would determine how our visit would end. If they got it not quite right – and not quite right is what happens most of the time – then it would confirm that this is a place in need of attention. Everything else so far had been inadequate but if they got this right, then at least the business might redeem itself. If they couldn’t cook, then the venture was set to fail. If they could, that’s one area they can capitalise on while they address the rest. My companions had all ordered burgers of various kinds: not difficult for a production line chef. My smaller appetite and curious nature drew me to salt and pepper squid. It’s not a difficult dish for a competent chef: batter, seasoning and most importantly, frying time need to be spot on to get this simple thing just right. It does require a degree of thought and care to get just right. So the alternative to me kicking off was that they somehow got the squid just right. The squid was excellent and one redeeming feature for this otherwise mediocre restaurant.
My business brain had identified that front of house would require attention if anyone were to consider acquiring the business; the kitchen staff, less so. Were they somehow motivated differently? Perhaps the chefs were paid a salary, commensurate with the job title; they could be agency staff. There was a disparity between front and back of house. I don’t have time to have accountants and lawyers go through due diligence, like I once did; I don’t have the money nor inclination to raise funds for a business venture. This place had got as much right as it had wrong, so I wondered about who the owners and managers might be and whether I could put them in touch with someone. I wanted to put things right. Then I realised I’m out of all that now.
I did have a couple of other concerns but this being a small and relatively new chain of restaurants, I wasn’t armed with the facts. I do place importance on responsible sourcing and staff welfare, among other things. Most of what I need to know, I glean from The Guardian and have been following their campaign to do away with a practice employed by some chains of restaurants: that of retaining a percentage of staff tips. I can see the business argument for the practice but I see the people. So I posed two simple questions to a random waiter: are the serving staff paid a living wage, or a minimum wage, with their tips topping things up? If a gratuity is included in a card payment, does the establishment recoup the processing charge applied by the card company by skimming it off of the tips? This has been the practice at some well-known high street chains until most have gradually dropped them, largely because of a campaign run by The Guardian. Do all tips go to the staff and are they divided between front and back of house? Surely these are questions which any responsible diner ought to ask, either by research or in person? In any case, it’s all relevant to the enveloping subject of this post.
I had made educated enquiries, as I believe everyone should of anything which they seek further knowledge of. For fuck sake, we were in a restaurant and I was curious about the place around me and the wellbeing of those within. I had even kept my natural tendency to pry beyond borders at bay, in order to placate the fellow unhinged person in our group. I’d wound him up and if I’m honest, it had become intentional as soon as I felt the first heat of resentment rising. I knew that this person was looking for an excuse and I’m often the perfect self-made foil. Sure enough, the evening had gone wrong and it was my fault. I can see inside the mind of a psychological bully, just as I can a drunk, because I used to be both. Both are cowards, looking for the easiest means to an end of their own design. I served a purpose, as all those involved will eventually realise. It’s about considering the bigger picture. Four became three.
For around five minutes, I was in a red zone: it’s a place I now recognize as one I occupied when I was drunk. I didn’t run after my verbal assailant and assault him physically though. I argued for a while with my two remaining dining companions but eventually elected to stay. I had done what I needed to do, with precision. Once through the red with the friends who were there then as they always have been, I was convinced that I would have an enjoyable evening out. With time to kill between having to leave the restaurant and the start of the show, we decamped for drinks. Recently out of a depressive episode and fresh from a knock back, I became contemplative in the company of an old friend: gin and tonic. I know when to ease off now though and didn’t finish the drink: two kick-offs averted, which may not have been as recently as a year ago.
The show itself was mediocre overall. Nina Conti is a very talented comedian and she’s taken ventriloquism to a greater level. Her skill is in deconstructing the and using that to powerful comic effect. Monkey was present as ever but I was disappointed in the granny character not being given an outing. The big part of Conti’s act, as it’s matured still further, is audience participation: this made up half of the first half of the show and most of the second. By placing masks on strangers’ faces and controlling their words, Conti is a genius in improvisation and second-guessing. The first half of the show was immensely enjoyable. If it has ended there, it would have been no bad thing. The second half was marred by a group of people pulled from the audience to take part in the act. They simply played along too much. A piece of genius which Conti introduced to her act a few years ago was to place props on stage for the audience participation segments. Most recently, these have been a guitar and a piano. The excruciatingly painful comedy is in watching the fear in the eyes of the volunteers while Conti proclaims their keenness to play the instrument. In all the times I’ve watched her, the audience members have been good sports who went along with it. These three started acting though: they were trying to be clever by furthering the act, making it part theirs and claiming credit come the applause. I know for a fact that the act is improvised and that there are no plants in the front rows but these people acted as though they were stooges. They clearly thought they were being clever and lacked respect for the person performing by not respecting that she is the key to the act.
I’m not a theatre critic but I can pull things apart and analyse them. This is what I need from my own critics. Some of my stories are based on personal experience and I need the test readers who are my friends to reel me in when I sometimes go a little too far. I don’t expect something which could be potentially damaging to be shared around. It’s not a finished piece of fiction work and this one isn’t actually based on any personal experience. It is subject to copyright though and not just my own intellectual copyright but that of others: of the publications, agents and editors who I write for. It’s no coincidence that I wasn’t published in Schlock webzine last week. The particular piece in question had already been submitted in the same draft form that it went to the test reader. At that point, rights to the story are signed over to the publisher of the webzine. Between them and my test readers, I finalise a draft and the pulp fiction which appears in webzines is of course final draft, amended from the first but it’s the first, incomplete draft which has been compromised. So work which I didn’t yet consider polished enough for publication has now been shared, potentially denting my reputation. Worse though, through the actions of a third party, a contract has been broken with one of my customers / employers. I write the pulp stuff to keep my name out there in the webzine: self-promotion. Even webzines don’t accept any old shit: it’s a competitive market. But Schlock also publish a bi-monthly print edition and improved versions of stories which have appeared in the webzine are published in print. Both A message and COGS have been published in there most recently. Alas, I fear my tenure with Rogue Planet Press may be over.
I thought I had understanding in someone who after all is supposed to be a full-time carer for someone who is mentally ill. I have no such luxury and that’s why I’m still waiting for my severe disability payments. I submit that the mental illness itself is something which no-one can be asked to understand but I assume that my friends know me. The girls get me. This is why I bang on about them so much. They know somehow instinctively when to contact me and when to leave me alone. It really is quite spooky at times. The closest ones have Access All Areas passes to the pub as they’re friends of the family now, through having spent so much time here. Sometimes, one of them just turns up when I could do with the company. I trust those girls as they do me and have trusted them to go to the cash point for me to draw out cash when I’ve not felt up to it. The revelation of the password is just the same as me giving my PIN to one of the girls, only for them to give my card and PIN to someone else because they themselves didn’t know what they were supposed to do. None of them would be that stupid. Yet that’s effectively what happened: a reader didn’t understand what was after all a first draft, so decided to share it. I have counselled many people on the value of thinking before speaking or acting and I’m despairing of someone who not only does something as inappropriate and irresponsible as to share copyrighted work but who adds insult to injury but not heeding my words. It’s common sense: think. All it takes is a bit of thought. One small saving grace is that this wasn’t a story based on personal experience where I’d revealed too much at draft stage. The version of Solum oculos claude which has been shared though is not the final version: sharing it is potentially damaging to my reputation. Because someone just didn’t think.
Then the insult went further. In a public display of self shame and pity – which I would not entertain for fear of exposing the individual – the reader then went on to dismiss herself as a “Dumb blonde”. My youngest adopted daughter is a troublesome blonde and has been branded “challenged” in the past. I know that she’s just frustrated and like the others, way beyond her years in personal maturity. Yet here we have someone my own age discriminating – something which I abhor and speak against – and perpetuating a stereotype, while offending me deeply by applying that generic label to one of my closest friends.
Even today, I had the pleasure of the company of one of the girls for the whole afternoon. She read the story in question and understood it almost immediately. She needed clarification on a couple of points and a second reading of Solum oculos claude cemented them into place and the whole thing made sense. She realised without prompting that there was a pretty obvious underlying moral and meaning to the tale. She understands the concept of less is more in writing and that a good writer can suggest so much more than they actually write, by their words alone. She didn’t get the obvious musical reference which I’d buried in there but it was before her time and not integral to the plot anyway. Anyone of my age ought to get the tribute.
I’m sure I don’t need to point out to my remaining test readers that this is the kind of feedback I need. There were a couple of points which my young test reader didn’t quite get at first but she took the time to think and ask the question. She noted that a second read would have confirmed what she thought and as such, the story didn’t need to change that much: I didn’t need to make it any more obvious; it didn’t need dumbing down. Perhaps it was a bit strong but I’m a horror writer and as such, my young reader agrees that the story is effective and that the horror has context. She’s also intelligent enough to know that the psychopath is confined to just the writing.
Another one of the girls – a blonde one – said of COGS: “COGS is utterly repulsive and morally wrong, yet it’s written beautifully and compellingly. It’s sick but brilliant…” That was from a “Dumb blonde”.
Yet another one said of When you wish upon a binary star: “Brilliant: it’s dream-like. I can just so see it. Love it.”
Not from one of the girls but a writing peer of similar age to me by email: “I read COGS and was repulsed, yet it was written beautifully and it drew me in. The Elephant in the Play Room was brutal and forceful in its stripped-down narrative. Girls Who Give Napalm Head is a deliberately grindhouse title for a dark fairytale. There are parallels and many other stories written suggestively in these three. Solum oculos claude is in a similar vein: graphic, shocking, disturbing but with a satisfying ending. It’s in turns both incredibly dark, yet hopeful.”
Critiques are welcome if they are constructive: that’s why all writers have test readers and editors. The majority of mine think I’m pretty affecting. Comments can be in person, emailed or posted on the blog. If choosing the latter option, I would request that readers do not break the cardinal rule of any kind of reviewing by posting spoilers. Explanations of how you “got” something, asking questions about specific scenes and describing scenes: these are all spoilers. The stories are password protected for a reason, while they’re in draft form and / or the rights have been transferred. Common sense ought to dictate the appropriate medium of contact.
To explain things to a lower common denominator is to write below my standard and ability and to insult the intelligence of my readers. I’ve not considered having to write down to such a low level before because I assumed I’d never have to. But I’m an inclusive person and not one to discriminate, so sometimes I have to remember that. It’s really frustrating though when all that people need to do is think.
Like a character in Solum oculos claude, I’m an inclusive person: I don’t discriminate on grounds of age, size, hair colour, race, religion, sexuality… Just like that same character though, there is one thing I find hardest to deal with and that’s blind ignorance in my case. People who read and understood the story, got it and the just-well-enough-hidden meaning.
Obviously this latest episode has been quite a knock. I have other problems, like everyone else but I’m sometimes less well-equipped to deal with things. Despite a continued battle, I have yet to receive the remainder of the money to which I am due. As soon as Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service communicates with the Department for Work and Pensions, I will receive a lump sum in back-pay and an extra allowance per week. This is only what I’m entitled to and is expected, rather than hoped for. It was partly because I knew this award was guaranteed that I was so generous with the last one and lent several hundred pounds to various friends. Unfortunately some of the payments aren’t coming back as quickly as I might have hoped. Having run businesses, I keep a book of my finances and incoming payments from debtors are part of my cash flow. Without them, I’m financially challenged.
This may be the third year in succession where I’ve been unable to buy my kids Christmas presents. No doubt my ex-wife will do as she has done for the last couple of years and given the children gifts as joint ones from her and me. Hopefully that will be avoided if DWP or debtors cough up. The children is all that Christmas is about and if there is a further delay in receiving my money, they’ll get an extra large present each as soon as things are sorted out.
No-one’s asked me what I’m doing for Christmas this year and I’m glad. I don’t want to be asked, any more than I wish to impose myself. My ex-wife and I are getting on in a very civil manner. The cost of the divorce application came out of my last small windfall: it was the least I could do to help that long-suffering woman move on. I dare say that if things continue as they are, in a few years’ time I might be able to ask if I may spend Christmas with the kids. Until then, I’m really not bothered about Christmas. It ought to be a religious celebration and I respect religion, even though I’m an atheist. As an atheist, I have no reason to celebrate Christmas on religious grounds, like the majority of people. The majority celebrate mainly consumerism but it is a time for family. I have none whom I wish to be with, other than my kids and even then, just because it’s them. I suspect that if they’re honest, the rest of my immediately family have as much desire to spend the day with me as I do with them.
Christmas Day is not a “Big, fun day” in my eyes: it’s a day where there is pressure on everyone to have a good time, or to feign pleasure. There is pressure on the host to make it a memorable day. There’s unspoken sentiment about how it might be the last spent like this. At my family’s last two Christmas gatherings, I was represented by an empty seat and that is how it will be this year. It’s simply too much additional pressure on everyone, given all that we’ve been through as a family. Mum and dad are coming round to the fact that I’m better, even though I’m still drinking and I’m smoking more but I know that for them and the rest, it will be like walking on eggshells. I wouldn’t get drunk, kick off and ruin everyone’s day but at the back of their minds, they see a ticking bomb. They need more time to see more proof and accept me as something other than the elephant in the room.
Things would quite likely be brought up because enquiring people have questions. A family gathering might well be the appropriate gathering for such a discussion but not with the Christmas backdrop which we will all enjoy for our different reasons if we are apart. The conversations are ongoing, I’m writing about the whole breakdown in my new book and I’m done with apologising.
I may do this year as I did last and volunteer to help with a Christmas lunch for the homeless and lonely. An atheist can still work with churches for the good of fellow humans. Otherwise, I’ll spend Christmas on my own. Because that’s what I want to do: no pressure to perform or act. I don’t want to spend Christmas with anyone else’s family: they can keep that to themselves. Despite protestations that it’ll be a really nice day and that I’ll have fun, it won’t and I won’t.
Welcome to my world. Or to put it another way, this is my world and you’re welcome to it if you understand it.