The Unfinished Literary Agency in fiction, and in fact…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Unfinished

The Unfinished Literary Agency is a fictional entity which I’ve used in a few of my own stories. It’s based above Hotblack Desiato’s property agency in Islington, which actually exists, by virtue of the owner being a Douglas Adams fan. I can almost forgive the guy being a property agent because of that alone. I like to imagine he gets the irony of being one of the professions loaded onto the B Ark when the Golgafrinchans rid themselves of an entire useless third of their population in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

My fictional agency exists to tell the stories of those who are unable to tell them. As Paul Auster once said, “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.” So the Unfinished Literary Agency employs writers to tell the stories of others, which is pretty much what writers do anyway.

So I wondered if such a place might exist online. Surely, there would be lots of people who have stories, and many writers grateful of ideas? Well, that’s why there are ghostwriters, of which I am one. But my motivation for writing is more than money, of which there is very little. For me, it’s the reward of having someone tell me how much they enjoyed something I wrote.

An example in the public domain, is my award-winning children’s story, A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie. It was written when I was lodging with a family while I was homeless, and the family dog died. As someone who sees animals as people, I saw Jake’s passing as that of a family member, not a pet. I remembered losing many animal people of my own and not being able to find a coping mechanism. Eventually, that came in the form of Goodbye, Dear Friend: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Pet, by Virginia Ironside. Like me, she saw the loss of an animal person, rather than a replaceable pet. But those most affected by the loss of a family member are invariably children, who might be unable to express or understand their grief. I remembered again, not being able to find anything when I was a kid. So that’s how the children’s book came about, and it’s been variously praised for how it deals with life’s losses and changes, through the eyes of a girl and her talking dog. Anyway, if your animal friend dies, there’s a book for that.

One of the stories in The Perpetuity of Memory is called String Theory: It was written for (and therefore, by) a young lady I met via her mum, again, when I was homeless. The young girl was at a transitory stage in life, where she was about to move to secondary school, with all of the internal changes which someone of that age will also have to deal with. She was a little bit lost, so I (she) wrote String Theory, which is about a puppet girl on strings, who learns to fly.

I had to conclude that there is no real or virtual online place which does what The Unfinished Literary Agency does, to tell the stories of others. If such a place were to exist, there must be so many untold stories to feed it: Children and adults alike, facing challenging situations, which fiction might help them to see and understand in a different way; the terminally ill could be given immortality, people could become known and remembered. But such an agency would need a staff of purely altruistic writers like me. And there are many who ghostwrite like me. The unfortunate truth is, something like The Unfinished Literary Agency couldn’t be monetised, so it would have to operate on charity alone.

People have asked me how things might have been different if I’d started writing earlier. If I’d gained a degree in literature, then gone straight into writing as a professional. The simple answer is, well it didn’t fucking happen like that, did it? In fact, the main catalyst for me becoming a writer, was when I was homeless, without possessions and with nothing else to do. It turned out I’m pretty good at it by all accounts. And by living a life before I came out as a writer, I gained experience. I lived the stories which I can now tell, and I met the characters which I can now inhabit, while developing my own. I’ve been complimented on the depth of some of my characters. That’s because, like most writers, my stories have a part of me in them. And I’ve put other people I know into stories too, with The Unfinished Literary Agency, and The Human Lending Library, from Reflections of yesterday.

In yet more stories of mine, there are protagonists and narrators who are writers themselves. In some of these, the fictional writer’s actions make the story more real: Writing is art, after all, and the beauty of an individual piece is often to be found in the unique marks left by the human artist. One such story is the title track from The Perpetuity of Memory. Another, The difference engine, will be published in early July.

I’m already a ghostwriter, for stories I write for other people and which are published without bearing my name. With stories like A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie, and String Theory, the arrangement was symbiotic: I told someone else’s story, by writing a story of my own. As a writer, I was given an idea and turned it into a publishable story, which the person I was writing for was then able to see in print. In a couple of cases, that person bought a copy of the book containing their story, then arranged privately with me to send it to me, to sign and return. Others have asked for this, even though they’re not in any of the stories. While I’m still on the literary fringes, this is something I have time to do and it’s something I enjoy. Because it’s another thing which is more than money: It’s a personal touch, which people appreciate.

So far, I’ve avoided politics. But in making another prediction (and I’ve been pretty much spot on previously), I’m predicting a Universal Basic Income to be part of Labour’s manifesto for a second parliamentary term. If so, something like The Unfinished Literary Agency could become real, with writers more able to work for a greater good with a reliable minimum income in place. Until then, it will remain a purely fictional place.

So for now, The Unfinished Literary Agency has but one writer in residence. But as I’m not driven by money, I will accept commissions. I’ll write the stories of others, free of charge, and both parties gain a little warm feeling, through helping someone else.

And for as long as I’m writing, I’ll always be happy to sign copies of my books.

The Perpetuity of Memory; A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie; and The Paradoxicon (my original, semi-autobiographical novel) are available now. My next sci-fi book, Cyrus Song, is due for publication around October.

Rise of the toasters

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Toaster Red2ToasterToaster Blue
They have a plan

The headline refers to Cylons (“Toasters”), for anyone unfamiliar with Battlestar Galactica, and the opening title cards:
The Cylons were created by man. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan.”
Like many sci-fi fans, I speak as though science fiction is actual history: It’s a geek humour thing, and it can make us seem exclusive to some, usually gathered in a corner somewhere. Excluded might be a better term.

My main distraction lately has been my next book, Cyrus Song: I’ve written much about it recently but now that I’m at a certain stage, it’s become a lot more. Essentially, it’s a tribute to Douglas Adams: Taking a couple of his ideas, expanding on them and adding complimentary ones. One of the ideas in my book is that The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a factual historical record, adopted by some races as religious scripture. It’s a book which I’m getting very good feedback on from people who matter, with one even telling me, “Douglas would be proud.” But it’s not the exclusive preserve of those of us who gather in corners: Anyone who knows nothing about Douglas Adams or The Hitch Hiker’s Guide, will still understand Cyrus Song. It’s a book about life, the universe, and everything. There is an answer besides 42. It’s a book for all ages and above all, it’s funny.

As is usually my practice, I wrote the ending of the book long ago. I’m now at a stage with the main narrative that it’s coming up to meet the ending. When that’s done, I’ll have a completed first draft manuscript. I still have competing tentative publishing offers, which I may yet explore, while I go through editing and redrafting. If I do end up self-publishing for any reason, I have the tools. I’m confident that the book will get picked up at some point, but it’ll be word of mouth that really sells it. I’ve been told that it’s the kind of book a reader will definitely recommend. I’m so confident of that that if I do self-publish, I might offer a money back guarantee. And if I self-publish, I’m in the company of around 80% of top contemporary writers, all of whom started out by doing it themselves.

And there is a great deal of pleasure to be derived from the editing and publishing process. I never could have done half of it a year ago: It was the gift of my typewriter (a Windows 10 laptop) from the mother ship, because she “…thought it might help with your writing.” That, my dad telling me he’s proud of me, and my kids thinking it’s “awesome” to have a writer as a dad, is what makes me personally proud.

It was my birthday recently, so I received the mandatory social media greetings and niceties. I was touched to pause upon a few personal messages: It’s nice when people give a small gift of some thoughtful time. It’s a practice I’ve observed myself for a while now: For those who I know well, or to whom I’m close, I’ll always take the time to post something more than “Happy birthday mate” on someone’s Facebook timeline. Instead, I’ll write briefly of a memory I’ll have with that person, or even a brief eulogy. I don’t do traditional cards, but it doesn’t take much to give someone some time and make them pause among the many other standard greetings.

It’s been nice to be encouraged so much lately, and by so many, in what I do and what I’ve become. So now I’m 47: a prime number. If I only make it as far as Douglas did (49), then at least I’ll have written the book which I was somehow meant to write. And as I’m approaching the end of the first draft of the novel, some numbers are appearing: As it stands, Cyrus Song will be 320-340 pages and it’s split into 24 chapters (24 is of course 42 transposed). If I can get the book to be complete in 336 pages, that’s a multiple of 42. And at roughly 300 words per page, that’s 100,800 words: 2400 x 42. I should be able to pull those Easter eggs off, proving that the number 42 does mean something, although I know not what.

There’s so much more I’d like to write in this “Dear Diary” entry: Everything else that’s been going on while I’ve been concentrating on Cyrus Song. But then I might as well just duplicate my Facebook timeline, which is public anyway. It’s mainly political, satirical and scientific posts, too numerous to clog a blog with.

Once the first draft of Cyrus Song is complete, I’ll take a month off: From the book, not from writing. During that time, I’ll entertain the free-to-read markets with some short stories. I have many planned for a next anthology. But the next book out with my name on the cover will be Cyrus Song, by the end of this year.

In giving the real answer to the big question, my book proposes ways towards a better world, both internally and the world around us. By the time it’s out, I’m hoping to see radical changes in UK politics, for the better: It’s no secret that I’m a Labour / Lib Dem supporter (I read The Guardian) and all of my thinking around the subject is on that Facebook timeline above. What I’ve come to realise is that I was looking at our politicians as I’ve been conditioned to. In Jeremy Corbyn, I see a different kind of politician: a person in touch with the country and a person of the people.

I see an uprising. I see a gradual lifting of a veil.

The citizens were created by politicians. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan.”

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Who’s afraid of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings?

THE WRITER’S LIFE | POETRY

Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings

Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings was a poet who wrote the worst poetry in the universe. In fact, her poetry is still considered to be the worst in the Galaxy, closely followed by that of the Azgoths of Kria and the Vogons, in that order. Well, we’ll see about that…

I’m between chapters and at a transitional stage with writing my next book, where Mr Fry is currently awaiting the arrival of a package from Norway. I’m aware that I need to write more to find out what happens next, but sometimes I take a break between chapters to review things. On this particular sojourn, I took a wander around the part of my brain labelled Douglas Adams / John Hegley, writing “poetry”, like this:

The difference between cats and cars
Not many cats have windows
and not many cars have fur
When you stroke a car it’s not very likely
that it’ll purr

If it’s got wheels it’s probably not a cat
and if it’s got claws it’s probably not a car
It’s not a very good idea to fill a cat
with four star

The difference between cats and dogs
Cats meow
Dogs don’t
Dogs do as they’re told
Cats won’t

A cat is not a dog
And a dog is not a cat
They’re like people
It’s as simple as that

The difference between dogs and cars
You can’t sit in a dog
and drive it
If a dog runs you over
You’ll probably survive it

And finally, my epic: Road Trip…

Road Trip
I like a satnav
If I’m going on a trip, I plan it
So if I want to go to Whitstable
I don’t end up in Thanet

You’re welcome.

This life, version 2.0

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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There are a lot of amazing feelings which come from publishing a book, just as there are in writing one. Obviously the writer has complete freedom if they are like me: Working mainly for myself and only in my own styles when I’m hired for freelance work. But I’ve written plenty about the writing part. What’s occupying me the most now is the post-publishing stage of a book.

The publication date was coincidentally poignant for more than the reason I’d already realised. It was three years to the day since part one of my life had ended. It was the day of Trump’s inauguration, and there’s a fairly barbed Trump reference in one of the stories. And it was the day my friend from Catford was laid to rest. It was a fitting date and it all happened by accident.

I like to play with numbers, to keep my mind always busy. It struck me that my last post was on what would have been day 1126 of me writing this blog. If you add all of the digits of that number, you get 10. If you add the 11 to the 26, you get 37: A prime number. Reversed, it’s 73: Another prime, and Doctor Sheldon Cooper’s favourite number for that reason and more: 7 and 3 are also both prime numbers. If you add those together, you again get 10. 10 is 2 in binary (well, 10 is 10 in binary, but you get my drift) and 2 is a prime number. It’s a lot of overthinking things on my part, but it demonstrates a point: Strange coincidences are there in real life. Some just take more effort to find. 42 is, of course, the answer to life, the universe and everything. When mankind couldn’t understand that answer, the point was made that in order to understand the answer to something, one must first understand the question. The question in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was extracted from Arthur Dent’s brain was, what do you get if you multiply six by nine? And it is 42. If you use mathematical base 13. We’re just not thinking radically enough.

Weird coincidences do happen in real life, as they do in fiction. Often, life’s happenstances are stranger than those told of in fiction. The fiction writer has to be wary of accusations of stretching chance too much. Such an accusation might be made of some writers (not mentioning names, but one which rhymes with “ban drown”) but most will make things believable without too much stretching of the imagination. But it is true that stranger things happen in real life. Paul Auster commented on this in a recent interview with The Guardian:

“People who don’t like my work say that the connections seem too arbitrary. But that’s how life is.”

As if to prove it, between 1999 and 2001 he took part in the National Story Project on American public radio, in which he read out yarns submitted by “ordinary people” across the country – “true stories that sounded like fiction”. His original call was for tales “that defied our expectations about the world, anecdotes that revealed the mysterious and unknowable forces at work in our lives”. It was a success; thousands of stories were submitted and a selection published as True Tales of American Life. Auster found confirmation that “reality is truly as strange and incomprehensible as I thought it was”, and that others too felt the pull of improbability: “I’m happy to report that I’m not alone,” he told the Paris Review. “It’s a madhouse out there.”

“I borrowed some things from my own life, but what novelist doesn’t?”

None of the stories in The Perpetuity of Memory rely on unbelievable devices. Even the more fanciful and fantastical ones have a grounding in science and some of my background research is explained within the contexts of the individual stories. There are elements of me in most of them but probably only recognisable to those closest to me. As fiction, they are good stories.

The truth is, so much has happened in my life that there are many stories to adapt and tell as fiction. “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them”, after all. This entire blog is the story of most of my life – non-fiction – or at least what I’m now calling part two of my life.

At the end of part two, I’ve published two books: The Paradoxicon and The Perpetuity of Memory. The Paradoxicon is a partly semi-autobiographical story, written in a hurry, in an effort to commit things to history. As a flash fiction novella, it’s a good little book (I’m told). The Perpetuity of Memory though, is the book I’d like to be judged on as a writer. It represents the three years during which my life was first in transit, then settled and contemplating. It’s a story in itself: 25 collected tales, one book, wrapped up in another story: that of my life, version 2.0. I’m contemplating and writing many more stories, for the webzine, magazine and anthology markets, then there’ll be a second volume, probably in about a year, and with the working title of Recollections of the Future (not final). I’ll also be re-writing The Paradoxicon as an expanded, full-length novel, incorporating a fictional account of the real autobiography I’ve found too difficult to write.

My book is out there. I’m earning royalties in various currencies as it’s bought around the world. The royalties are almost irrelevant to me. I have a modest, comfortable (if not luxurious) life and I have all that I need around me. So as not to complicate my benefit payments (writing is recognised by tribunal judges as being therapeutic for my depression and anxiety), most payments from my books will go to my usual charity benefactors. That, and just the knowledge that my books are out there, is why I do it. People are buying The Perpetuity of Memory and reading it. Friends are sending me photos of my book in situ in their houses.

It’s a good feeling; This life, part three, or version 2.0.