Throw off your paper chains…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Don’t crack up, Howard Jones once counselled. He went on to advise bending your brain, seeing both sides, and throwing off your metal chains. This is an old and new song…

Paper Chains

Just lately, I’ve felt myself starting to feel at home as a writer. I’m into my fifth year of being one, and I’ve lived at the studio for almost two years. But it’s lonely and I’m socially anxious, so I’ve started getting out more in a virtual way. It’s still a bit like standing on the edge of the playground in the first week of school though. Welcome to my world. Or put another way, this is my world and you’re welcome to it.

I wrote previously of how everything seemed to conspire in a solitary Christmas and New Year, when I used the time to re-evaluate a few things. I’ve met new people, who don’t have time to read the last five years’ posts, so long life story short, I got drunk, upset a lot of people, had a moral responsibility to put things right, did. This was almost five years ago and those who’ve been here for some time (who met me online) will know some or all of it (like most of those I know in the real world, including some new ones). There are those from my old (offline) life who seem to begrudge my recovery, and most are simply too ignorant to learn, preferring to remain in their made-up state of mind than actually talk to me.

All they know is what’s in their heads, put there by themselves and their fellow conspirators: I got drunk, lost everything and it was all my own fault. Let’s take that as a given. So now I’m an alcoholic, and that’s pretty much all they want to see. They don’t understand alcohol dependence syndrome, PTSD, or any of the other diagnoses on my medical record. But the people who don’t understand a functioning alcoholic are the same as those who can’t tell the difference between a paediatrician and a paedophile. They want to see me fail. Well I’d never do that to anyone, least of all myself, and most of all because it would be for someone else’s vindication.

Despite being anxious and paranoid (conditions hardly helped by those people), I had to conclude – after all other avenues were exhausted – that it’s their loss, if nothing else then for the sake of my health. I can unify science and religion, yet I can’t reconcile myself with those kinds of people. I’ve asked myself more than once since I sobered up, saw things differently and opened my mind (weed helped), did the whole world change while I was gone, or is it just me?

On the sideline of life, like the edge of the playground at school. Watching the kids I wish I could teach: the blinkered, the conditioned, the bullies who don’t listen. Now I see all these new kids, some are like me, and I want to introduce myself.

I’ve been hanging around the edges of various social media groups, with other writers and sci-fi types. I don’t have to know them personally, as they’re already kindred spirits, like the other bloggers who follow me and I follow back. Ours is very much a sharing community, with exchanges of links, advice and help, and other writers wondering why even their closest friends don’t seem all that interested in what they do. It’s something I’ve considered before, because it’s quite depressing. But like so many things, I’ve not taken it personally. More on that, as I consider a question posed to that collective: Why do you all write? It’s a good question, especially when us ‘Indies’ get so little attention. It suits a socially anxious person, but when that’s a writer, it can make them paranoid.

For my part, it’s therapy, and a coping mechanism for all that goes on in my head with depression. But why I write, breaks down into many other reasons, including empathy with others. So when I consider the question of why so few of our friends buy our books, I swap roles.

If I was asked what most of my friends do, I wouldn’t know. But few of them are writers. Unless they have an interesting vocation, I’m not interested. Many people simply aren’t interested in writers. They think it’s cool that you are one, but friends or not, unfortunately few people buy books. My frustration as a writer is a reflection of life: I have much to say, but no-one has the time to listen. As writers, we’re lucky we have a means to bang on in vain hope. When you’re a good writer, you long for other people to tell you that you are. It’s not vanity, it’s frustration. Why do I write then?

I can rewrite the past, or imagine futures. I can take myself back to situations and place myself, not only in my own position but those of others. I can create people and worlds, situations too, both good and bad (I can play the atheist god). Sometimes I visit the places and characters I’ve created, because in my mind at least, they really do exist. I’ve been known to have an entire conversation with one of my characters and publish it as a story.

I have many trademarks, which are what get me some of the little recognition I do enjoy. Talking to myself is one I use rarely, but I do inhabit all of my stories. Whether it’s a mannerism in a character, or a place from the depths of memory, there’ll be a part of the writer in each story. I’m said to have a deep understanding of the human condition, which isn’t surprising given my mental health and the life I’ve lived. My ability to “…hold a black mirror to the soul,” is born mainly of the time I lived on the streets. Whether they’re science fiction, horror, or some other genre, my stories tend to have a psychological element (I strive to make them affecting).

There are crossovers in my writing: Characters from stories already told, popping up in others, sometimes with significance but often just walk-on parts. In real life, I’ve dealt with many young people, and I was one myself in the 1980s, so I take myself back there sometimes. I have recurring themes and places, often time-shifted (the most obvious would be The Unfinished Literary Agency). I can see utopian and dystopian near-future and far-away scenarios. I can evoke the sentience in animals and AI. These are not my words, but what others have said (and all documented).

I’ve written five books so far, by my own admission, each better than the last. I’m an honest writer, and I wouldn’t want anyone to feel in any way unfulfilled. That’s why, on my Typewriter page, I aim to make every purchase of my books an informed one. I realise that a book is a financial outlay and I make mine available in libraries (on request), because I realise not everyone can afford books, but I want as many people as possible to read mine, as there’s so much in them that might help others (the answer to life, the universe and everything is in Cyrus Song). I spent many of my homeless days in libraries, so it’s my way of giving something back.

When I found myself on the streets with nothing to show for my life, then life gave me a second chance, I felt obliged to return the favour. As I’d sit writing in various venues, I resolved to be the best that I could be at that which I enjoyed the most. That way, I could give the most back.

I’ve been lucky enough to receive my fair share of plaudits, in person and through reviews. Those are rare and well-earned, but we have to realise that even fewer people than read us will take the trouble. It’s a lonely world, but we have each other. If only more people were listening.

One day, someone will notice us fringe writers, independents, self-publishers, and many other undiscovered talents. Like all the arts, writing is huge and democratised, so there will always be many trying to be heard. Writers are at a disadvantage because what they do shouts the quietest and takes longer to hear. If we wrote songs, we’d need a few minutes of someone’s time; if we made films, a couple of hours; but a book requires days, if not weeks, and it’s usually a financial outlay in a world flooded with free stuff and always in a hurry. And with so many books out there, why choose ours, especially as we’re outside the mainstream and not on a lot of shelves? Some of us might not even be discovered while we’re alive, but we’ve immortalised ourselves already. Even if we are plucked from obscurity, we may only be fashionable for a while, and it’s a very rare artist who becomes a household name.

So we seek recognition at least with our peers. But we can’t all be expected to read each others’ books, any more than any one person is likely to buy all of ours, or lots of people just one or two. The best way is as part of a collective, so that we at least have company in our lonely quest.

What can I do for other writers, and what can I give them to better help me? I figured this blog post might be a good start. People deal with people and it takes one to know one. I’m already liked and followed, on Facebook, Twitter and this blog, and I reciprocate. I always want more, and I want to be shared, so that I have a better chance of being heard. And I want to tell all my followers about other writers I myself read, whose voices I recommend they listen to. The best tips are qualified.

I figured I’ll pick a book a month, either at random, or on the basis of something which piques my interest. We can’t all be market analysts, and many book purchases are on impulse anyway. But if I want anyone to do anything for me, I have to give something back. So I’ll buy someone’s book, read it in a considered manner, then post reviews wherever appropriate: On the book’s Amazon or other retailer page, in the peer group where that person lives, and on this blog.

I’m not one for posting links on every thread, so I hope this might be enough to persuade others to look further at what I do (and what I’ve done already). If one of them buys a book and takes the time to review it, it’s a favour returned and a qualified recommendation.

The reason those people from my past can’t find me, is I’m simply not there. I moved on and moved out. If they’d care to look me up now, all they’d have to do is Google my name. By doing no search engine optimisation at all, by paying nothing for ads, and just by being what I am, I get a Google ‘Answer box’: When people search for my name, Google assumes most are looking for the author now.

That’s what I am now: a writer. It says so on the internet. Pleased to meet you. That’s my world and you’re welcome to it.

I’m socially anxious and I don’t get out much, but I crave attention. As a writer, I’m good at blurring the lines between real and virtual worlds, when the latter is the one where I feel most comfortable. I’ll always try to make time spent here at my place time well spent.

To those new to me, I’d recommend two of my own books to get to know me more: My critically-acclaimed “sci-fi RomCom”, Cyrus Song; and my latest collection of short stories, The Unfinished Literary Agency. Those are the books I hang my novelist’s hat and writer’s scarf respectively on. Signed copies can be arranged with me in private, and I’m almost confident enough to offer a money-back guarantee on my books. The only thing preventing me, is the anxiety I need help in overcoming, by people reading my books, realising I really can write and telling other people.

This is a song to all of my friends
They take the challenge to their hearts
Challenging preconceived ideas
Saying goodbye to long standing fears

(‘New Song’, Howard Jones, 1983).

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The thin veils of symbiosis

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There’s a story I’m writing, about a girl who’s never sought attention but now has everyone’s. Pretty much me in reverse, sort of a not-me. The girl in the story has things on her own mind, which she can’t tell others, while all those others enquire of her mind to help them. Thank whatever, I’m not that girl then. And yet, it’s true that I’m in every single one of my stories in parts.

symbiosisSymbiosis in nature

Fictional me has been as busy as my factual side, making my actual self an engaged writer (always a nice thing to be), splitting myself over two projects and with the two different genres (sci-fi and family history) becoming a symbiotic feeding mechanism. And I’ve nailed what it is, how one style of writing can help with another.

With factual writing, there’s much more to write, because it’s already there. Research reveals the facts, which the writer then tells as a real-life story. I’m a writer who likes to link things up and tie them off, so writing historical pieces about my family’s places of work and home means the links to the central characters are already there. It’s the sheer volume of recorded factual history which gives the writer so much to think and write about.

In fiction of course, we start with a blank page. These are stories which haven’t been written, of people and places who’ve been created. With no recorded history, the writer has to fill it in, at least between the lines, to make the fictional narratives strong.

So with so much to write factually, there are many unused thoughts and ideas, as it’s edited down. There are new things, never personally encountered before, which provide fresh ideas, and those can drive fiction. It’s actually quite easy to turn things in, when you look at a picture of a figure standing by a Scottish loch, and notice a ripple in the water behind. I’ve been a serious writer now for five years and I’ve only just worked that out. If others have been similarly wondering, you’re welcome.

Fictional me has stories lined up for publication over the next four weekends now. Next up, is ‘A Girl, Sheldon Cooper and Peter Cook’. Mindful that I’d never written another story which could somehow be linked to a specific different one (but still stand on its own), this one was a mix of two things: A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie (my – award-winning – children’s story), and Cyrus Song. It’s a story set in 2042, about a girl, a cat and a dog. In 2042, AI home assistants are ubiquitous and have universal translation algorithms (possibly thanks to the Babel fish, and a stoned ethics committee somewhere), which of course allows the three to talk.

Elsewhere and after that, there’ll be ‘Quantum Entanglement in Hamsters’, which examines a part of the human condition (apparently I’m good at that) in the context of a pair of Roborovski hamsters, called Hannibal and Lecter.

Next there’s a restaurant review of ‘August Underground’s Diner’, then ‘Another Nativity (For the Stage)’ at Christmas, the latter being a re-write of one of my old stories, originally a story about a nativity play, now made into a play of that story for the stage (pretentious, me?)

In the factual world, I’m still snooping around houses, gardens and people, in 1970s and 80s Kent, and in the Second World War (in France and Germany). I have a good feeling about the book (always completely unreliable and not reflective of future sales), it being one where I’ve really been able to free my inner, real self in the stories of others.

Just as the modest sales of Cyrus Song generate blips of The Perpetuity of Memory, it seems my theory is vindicated: That each book I write, is better than the last (in a different genre), improving my depth in the former, and that each subsequent book fuels sales of the previous ones. Silent Gardens (A Quiet History), a factual story, will attract curiosity in what else I’ve done, just as my sci-fi in Cyrus Song has led people to look at my old horror in The Perpetuity of Memory. The Paradoxicon (including ‘The Director’s Cut’) gets the odd look, and A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie stands on its own.

All of which leads me to predict with no confidence at all, that my next anthology, ‘The Unfinished Literary Agency’ will be well-received and garner further interest in my preceding titles. Meanwhile, I’ll move onto the next (Cyrus Song II, Infana Kolonia, and Forgive me No-one).

In my life-within-a-life, I’ve added some furniture to this blog. There’s a filing cabinet, where all posts are filed by month (going all the way back to the start), and a drop-down category list, intentionally made to be more Vogon, in its grasp of English (“I write blog”, “I write film” etc. but it’s true that “I write satire”).

Meanwhile, the girl continues to deal with a slightly lost son, trying to help him and his parents, and his sister. She’s recently taken one her own parents’ liberties away, having phoned the police when her dad went missing, warning that surrendering his license might be the price, but valuing his life more. She has an auntie who’s cut off because her dad can’t drive, and therefore with nowhere to go at Christmas. She has a sister with whom she’s estranged, despite her efforts over five years. This year, she’s asked that any remaining differences can be put to one side, as she’s made amends for past damage she’s done. She’s suggested that a reconciliation would be nice for their parents at Christmas, and that come the time, they can share driving duties to get everyone together. The girl is keen to get her kids and have them stay for New Year. She hates going out, but she’ll do all this. She’s right in the middle of everything and everyone, yet no-one seems to know.

The same girl is helping several friends with personal matters of counselling. One is a vulnerable girl expecting a baby (not hers, as she’s a girl) and until recently, the child was due to be taken from the mum. So the girl wrote letters, she transcended the situation and saw a way that everything might be saved. She saw something in her friend which others didn’t. While everyone else was cooing over a baby they might not see, and saying fuck to the system on social media, this one girl stayed silent. She was the only one who’d been honest with the mum about the chances of losing the baby, and as the only one right, the one to get the blame when it happened. So she risked her friendship, yet no-one knows because nobody speaks of her. She’s lonely and only craves recognition, not help. She writes it all down.

The factual and the fictional, writing as many people, about many others. Symbiosis in the real and the imagined, a thinly-veiled heart.

Of hamsters and pink robots

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The best laid plans of mice (men had nothing to do with it, of course) sometimes work out in unexpected ways. Those of a religious persuasion might attribute these strange happenings to guidance from God. Other, broader thinking individuals, would say it’s simply a matter of being connected.

Pink Robot

It’s the weird coincidences which writers are sometimes accused of using for convenience (“Suddenly, a trap door he’d not noticed before, provided a potential escape…” might be something you’d read in a Dan Brown novel), but which do happen in real life. There are few pure coincidences in my fiction, and I make it all at least plausible through background research.

My last published story (‘So Long and Thanks for all the Animals’) was inspired by Douglas, and a song. My next one (‘The Long Now Clock’, out this weekend) came about because of something I heard on Ancient Aliens. A future story, about two hamsters called Hannibal and Lecter, was for a young friend, test reader and occasional literary muse, who has a pair of Roborovski hamsters named after her favourite film character. Given they sound like Russian cyborgs, I couldn’t resist.

It was my latest completed story which relied most heavily on real-life coincidences, not to make the story work Dan Brown style, but a series of things which shaped the way I told the plausible story.

I wanted to further explore sexual alignment and identity (in an asexual story), and the interface between humans and technology, as we become more merged, and the (rather worn) concept of sentient IA, as the lines between human and technological species blur, so I wanted to be original. I wanted to convey feeling and thoughts, from different perspectives, and I wanted to do this with flash fiction. The latter wish, was to make what turned into a bit of an experiment, effective through speed of delivery (a bit like a cartoon).

So I was looking for a lot of meaning in not many words. Having been encouraged by my writing peers to not be embarrassed to be proud, I’m rather fond of what I’ve come up with. It started when I heard something about ‘The Zeigarnik Effect’, so I researched it.

In psychology, the Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In Gestalt psychology, the Zeigarnik effect has been used to demonstrate the general presence of Gestalt phenomena: not just appearing as perceptual effects, but also present in cognition.” (Wikipedia). That became:

People are better when remembering the actions they didn’t complete. Every action has potential energy, which can torture its creator when stored. Release is the metaphorical pressure cooker letting off steam, a camel’s broken back, or a reject pink robot with Tourette’s…

My protagonist is a small pink robot, whose AI has a defect. She’s from the Pink Ladies range of assistant droids and she’s called Frenchie. She came about when I watched a documentary on Grease, with a greater emphasis on the play which preceded the film (my stories are littered with references, tributes and nods, to films, people…), and someone texted me. A conversation of some length followed, after which she was able to look at something in a different way, and a problem became a solution.

Most of all, I wanted to write a story about the way the mind works, in all its sometimes cracked ways; about how understanding can change attitudes; and of how that can be achieved simply by looking at things differently. And all I have is words on the page, just text.

The result, is a flash fiction story (about 750 words), of Frenchie and her depressed friend (Sandy, another robot), serving tables at Zeigarnik’s Kitchen. The facial expressions of the androids are conveyed with pre-emoji ASCCI emoticons, and thoughts in something similar to hashtags. An editor thinks it works too (“An interesting experiment. I don’t think we’ve ever had a robot with Tourette Syndrome”), so it’s out in a couple of weeks.

It is true that many stories use the well-trodden path of throwing up gradually more challenging obstacles, then for these to be overcome in a denouement (“Then he woke up”, not being one a fiction writer would get away with), and the story of my life is one such example.

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.