To ponder a whispering spirit

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

I think about words a lot, and I think a lot about words. My favourite word at the moment, is kintsukuroi, which means “More beautiful for having been broken,” and I apply it to people, as well as to objects. “Whisper” is also a nice word, having many meanings in various contexts, but also suggesting a whisper, or one who whisps…

Lonely Robot
Matt Dixon

My family name is Laker: one who fishes on lakes, as opposed to a Fisher, who might fish streams or rivers. At primary school, I had one matron-like teacher who called me “Ponder”, and she was on to something. I just spent the first 42 years of my life not thinking about it, which is quite a paradox. So too is my departed aunt, to whom Cyrus Song is partly dedicated.

My mum’s sister Margaret, was spirited away in 1993, aged 51, by that bastard cancer. The even more tragic thing is, she’d have loved the modern world, for all it could do for her. She’d have doted on my children, and taken an interest in what I’m doing. And the funny thing is, I believe she’s doing all of those things right now.

My belief that the human soul survives the body is all over this blog. I believe we’re all one day free of our physical bindings, to explore the universe as ethereal beings for eternity (therein lie personal heaven and hell, covered elsewhere on this blog), that what we call ghosts are all around us, in a form we can’t always see, and that Bowie was right: Knowledge comes with death’s release.

Although I didn’t realise or appreciate it at the time, my auntie was just like I was when I took on the role of adopted uncle with all those young people at the squat (also on this blog). She was slightly radical, realising that a 14-year-old boy (me, her nephew) was likely to be bored when visiting his nan and aunt (they lived together, in a war memorial house). So she rented me what were then X-rated (horror) films on VHS. She was wicked, cool and sick, as the kids would say.

Margaret was hugely into royalty and royal history. In her day, her research and reading was through books and libraries. In later life, I’m fascinated by the subject myself, like my aunt tapped on my shoulder. What might she make of the internet? How is she, being a part of it? She has a supporting (and linking) role in my next book.

After much debate, I’ve decided how I’m going to write (to present) my brief history of a family. The intent has always been to give my parents an everlasting gift, made with the hands which they made for me, and which I eventually found out were for writing. Even that has an interesting anecdote behind it: When I began to favour my left hand over my right (in 1971), my mum’s health visitor (as we had in those days) advised tying my left arm behind my back, so that I would somehow realign as “normal” by being right-handed. This was common practice in the day, when being left-handed was considered some sort of sinister curse (thank fuck they weren’t all over gender and sexual identities back then, I’d have been drowned). In later life, I’ve been grateful of my “defects”. I feel kintsukuroi.

As a further aside, when I was at school, around 10% of the population were southpaw. When I was married and taking the kids to school, I asked the head teacher what the percentage was among pupils. It was around 40% (let’s say 42), demonstrating that there were once many potential lefties.

In a funny way, my left-handedness has been linked with my life. Where once I ran companies, voted Tory and was generally a right-wing capitalist arse (and drinking heavily), now I’m a impoverished writer, but a happy one, having found all that’s left-wing, joined the Labour Party and embraced wider communities, where I’ve identified myself (and smoked weed). I’ve written in my stories about fallen angels with broken wings, mainly misunderstood characters, learning about themselves, and it’s always the right wing which is broken.

But back to the book, written with the left hand, which has a heart tattoo on it: It’s the story of two people, who would always be little-known, because no-one had written about them. I was only a part of the story from 1970, and the book will be about the places we lived as a family, and where my parents worked (large country houses, and a couple of schools). With all of the research material conveniently within reach, I’ll just be the curator of the story, putting my fictional character skills to use in bringing the real-life characters in this book to life on the page (given my plaudits, I should be able to pull that off). It is of course of somewhat limited interest, but both mum and dad have their own interests and hobbies, so the story will be sprinkled with QI-style factual stories and anecdotes from periods of history which my two characters saw (at least one of which has a royal connection), and they’re inspiring people, as others will see. And of course, such is the democratisation of writing through digital self-publishing, it’ll be a proper book, with an ISBN and all that represents (a copy filed at The British Library etc.)

As a writer, I can create immortality, for my vain and insecure self, wanting to be heard one day, and for others. I somehow feel I’ll be getting in touch with my auntie Margaret more, like I should’ve done when I was younger. She’s a spirit guide, because she was there in the background too, along with others, some still with us and others no longer. But my belief in immortality and of gaining knowledge permits me the comfort of knowing they might all appear in the book, as characters with depth, not because there’s a part of me in them like my fictional characters (although I’m in there biologically), but because it might feel sometimes like they’re guiding me too. It’s a quiet story, a whisper of the blood.

I’m really going to enjoy this busman’s holiday into a new genre: The sci-fi, horror, and sometimes children’s writer, off to speak with the dead. To ponder and whisper, to think about fish in a pond, and to whisp.

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Writing with many shadows

FLASH FICTION | THE WRITER’S LIFE

One recurring theme in my short fiction is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a fictional place, which exists to tell the stories of others who are unable to tell their own.

The agency is also an analogy of the writing world, where writers crave an audience, in a place were people don’t have time to read. It has parallels, to how inner frustration made my own mind up to write down everything in it (stories only happen to those who are able to tell them). So this is kind of how it all started, many times…

the-writers-desk-debra-and-dave-vanderlaanThe Writers Desk by Debra and Dave Vanderlaan

THE OFFICE OF LOST THINGS

They are afraid of the sun, shrinking away as it climbs in the sky, and they are liveliest at night. They follow us, and we can’t outrun them. They are The Shadows.

I first became aware that I’d picked one up, when my own shadow started carrying a guitar. No matter where I walked, indoors or outside, my shadow followed me. And regardless of what I myself was carrying (a bag, my jacket, thrown over my shoulder…), my shadow still travelled with its guitar.

This being Bethnal Green, I found an Italian greasy spoon, where the proprietor, a doctor, explained my condition. His Cockney dialogue was easy for the Babel fish in my ear to translate, and when he told me I was Hank Marvin, he offered me a cure, pointing to an item on the menu: “GSEG”, which was scrambled eggs, and my hunger was gone.

I was on my way to Islington, delivering a manuscript, to a place I’d heard about from other writers.

Above Hotblack Desiato’s office near Islington Green, is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s where all the storytellers send their stories, and sometimes meet to share them, like a secret society, but open to all.

I climbed the stairs to the agency office, a windowless room in the loft. The lights were out and no-one was in. I tried the light switch but it didn’t work. Fumbling around, I found a desk, which I discovered had drawers, and the fourth one yielded a box of candles. I lit a cigarette, then a candle, and looked around the small office, which a broom might call luxurious.

On the desk was a typewriter, and next to it, a stack of papers: hand-written manuscripts. Besides the desk and a chair, there was just a large book cabinet occupying one wall. It held possibly hundreds of unwritten books, all from writers seeking attention, and all in a place where the sun never shines.

I sat at the desk and looked at my flickering shadow, cast by the candle. There was no guitar, just my cigarette dangling from my mouth, like a smoking tulip.

With no-one else around, I decided to stay for a while and started typing.

© Steve Laker, 1984, 1999, 2012, and 2017.

In commune with the universe, not immune to internal conflict

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

Alcoholics and depressives or not, it’s still a brave person who calls themselves a writer, confident that they have the right to do so. It takes courage to share one’s own stories, yet many writers who do just that, because they’re writers, have the same sense of self-doubt.

Arthur DentConcept art: Arthur Dent with Vogon ship above (Touchstone Pictures)

A recent conversation with a writer peer whom I admire, and someone I consider a friend (same person), inspired me to do a few things. The most valuable piece of advice, was to stop being embarrassed about being proud of myself. But for me, that’s one of the eternal scars of chronic depression, anxiety and paranoia, hastened to the fore by an alcoholic breakdown: not something to be proud of, when it affected so many. Everything is reconciled, and not only am I better, but I’m a better person, as are those around me. It still takes some getting used to all that’s gone on though.

Like so much of my fiction writing into reality, my organic and digital lives often cross over, blurring the lines between reality and magic. Now, some of the old short stories I wrote, about writers writing about writers, are coming true, just as science quickly catches up with well-researched near-future science fiction.

Getting acclaim for Cyrus Song from a book critic (and appropriately for that book, a translator and interpreter), means that if I were so inclined, I could rightfully call myself a critically acclaimed science fiction novelist. Already I was an award-winning children’s author, and I’ve been compared to some of the most respected writers of horror, sci-fi, fantasy and surrealism, while being original at the same time. So why do I find it all so hard to accept, when I’m otherwise in touch with the universe and the universe apparently speaks back to me?

This is more an internal conflict, where the mind can be a universe to explore in itself. My mental conditions seem to be fuelled by paradoxes and irrational fears. When I’m someone who can address most issues from an outside perspective, internal understanding becomes frustrating. My IQ is what it is, but I can’t help wishing I had more processing power.

I crave attention, only because I want people to read my writing (especially the latest novel), so that they can see that what others are saying is true, and hopefully hear everything I’m trying to say. It’s a paradox when you crave that which you find hard to face in yourself.

As is often the way, I’ve expressed this far better in a short story I’ve just finished, which is due out this weekend. Fiction does allow me to get so much more over, apparently in an engaging way. The story is called Are ‘Friends’ Emojis? The title is a play on the Gary Numan song, Are ‘Friends’ Electric? Given the most recent review of my anthology, I suppose it’s not so much of a ‘Black Mirror for the page, flitting between dark sci-fi and psychological horror, but underlined by a salient sense (and deep understanding of) the human condition,’ so much as a look at one possibility for a life after this, and how that might be a craving for some, with the consequences of choice. It’s about how we see people and connect with them, in a world made small by technology, and of real and digital lives combining. It’s more a two-sided mirror.

I also write nice stories, like Echo Beach (okay, so it’s dark, but it’s still escapist), and I wrote that award-winning children’s book, used in family learning sessions, for parents with learning disabilities.

I’m one of those common phenomena: a writer who’s embraced technology for the democracy it has given many like me. It’s a determined writer who remains hidden, but it’s still an intrepid agent who finds the talent.

Until I’m discovered, I’ll carry on self-publishing and self-publicising, and see if I don’t.

How to get published and make a lot of money*

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The joy of writing is in the act of writing itself. To have words appear before you, working together to gradually tell a story, is indeed a pleasure. To be the author of those words, more so. None of us get into it for the money.

o-steampunk-writer-facebook

When I got into writing – like others – I bought a load of books (some would call them ‘self-help’), with titles like that of this blog post. Truth is, it’s a rare person indeed who manages to sell enough books to make anything like a lot of money. One book I’ve treasured is I’d Rather be Writing, by Marcia Golub: It’s a humorous ‘in-joke’, about all those things writers find to do to avoid writing. What we seek is a world free of distractions, for as long as possible, so that we may write. But the world is full of distractions, keeping you away from the thing you long to do, including a very entertaining book about exactly that.

As with the rest of the arts, there will be very few who become wealthy from writing. It’s galling when that’s someone who writes little better than an early-learning student (not mentioning any names, but rhymes with ‘Ban Drown’) and they grow rich from work which is mediocre at best, when there are so many superior writers who hardly get a look in to a crowded market, where luck seems to play a big part.

Of course, the big change has been self-publishing. There was a time when it was considered purely a demonstration of vanity (it was ‘vanity publishing’). Although it was true that many authors did – and still do – self-publish for their own vanity (and it’s a label which some people still apply indiscriminately to self-publishing writers), that’s no longer the case. Quite simply, digital printing has democratised the publishing world, and mainstream agents and publishers now increasingly look to the ranks of self-published authors for their next big name. Unfortunately, there are very many of those. Unfortunate for the writers, as it places them in a crowded market. Fortunate for readers though, as there is a lot of talent in literature which wouldn’t have found its way to them before the digital revolution. Those writers don’t fit the mainstream publishing model, which still works on a populist model for the greatest short-term financial return. The problem for the reader, is finding those authors, and for the writers, being found.

I myself have been compared to some truly great writers, for my writing in different genres. Most recently, I was compared with King, Lovecraft, Kafka and Poe (not some sort of twisted Teletubbies) in an Amazon review of my anthology. A national magazine critic compared my writing with that of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton and the Brontës: writers, “…with a heart in their writing, that captivated the reader.” That was for A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie: My children’s book, dealing with life’s changes. For some of my more thoughtful long short stories, I’ve been compared to Paul Auster; for my twisted tales, with Roald Dahl; and most recently, I’ve been complimented by Douglas Adams fans on Cyrus Song. I have documented proof of this.

So, I’ve written the books, and I’m writing more. But how do I sell them? That’s where not having a mainstream agent or publisher can be the problem. But again – and it’s confirmed by the professional press – those people are scouting the self-publishing shelves, and those are crammed full of good books. So in a rather wonderfully natural way, it all comes down to organics: For one person to buy a book, to like it and talk about it. From there, the growth is natural. And that relies on the power of the people, a little anarchy. Buy my books and vive la révolution, or something.

I’m not alone of course, and it’s not just writers. There are famously unheard-of struggling bands, thrashing away in bedrooms and garages. There are artists, desperate and deserving of fame, wondering how to get noticed. I don’t find it difficult to imagine, being a horror writer, some twisted scenario where an artist has tried all that they know to achieve fame, before resorting to the ultimate sacrifice and taking their own life as a martyr to their cause.

With so many voices competing to be heard, shouting the loudest isn’t the best way: Being interesting and original only goes so far. It gets frustrating. I almost wish I could brainwash people, or inject my words into them. Actually, as a horror writer, I’ve done that at least once in a short story. For now, I need people to take a £10 leap of faith. I’m confident enough of my books that I’d offer a money back guarantee.

Whatever happens, my published writing will be here long after me. So even if I’m wrong with my whole quantum belief system, it’ll be true in a way: My soul will live on. It’s writing which keeps it alive in this life.

Unless I suddenly find myself in the right place at the right time, or start writing for a lower common denominator, it’s not going to change. And that’s fine. I’ve done what I can and I’ll keep doing it. If this were an advice post, that would be my advice, but based only on my personal experience.

*You probably won’t. But never give up.