Category Archives: Writing

To Fix Something, You Must First Break It

time-machine-1

 

Only one remained. An awkward holdout delaying the project and with it the new future they had all worked so hard for. Or rather the new past that heralded a new future.

 

Others had had doubts but they had been convinced, or at least brought onside after the proper encouragement.

 

Jane Silver wouldn’t be quite so easy to bring around. She was well known for being fearless. More awkwardly, she was richer than all of them put together and had no weaknesses anyone knew of – the best researchers and investigators had found nothing in her life, nowhere and no one where pressure could be brought to bear, no fissures, no soft spots, no cracks in her armour of any kind.

 

A tough nut to crack without a doubt. Apparently, she cared about nothing – but if that was really true, why was she so motivated? So driven?

 

Silas prided himself on his ability to understand people, to hone in on their core essence and prime movers – grasp those essentials and people could be manipulated rather easily he found in a great many cases, not all of course, but surprisingly many. That was a fact that saddened him. He valued a challenge. He looked forward to grappling with Jane Silver to an extent he hadn’t for a long long time.

 

And so to work.

 

Attention to detail was Silas’ watchword, and so first he needed to check in on his other partners, to be sure that none of them had developed a case of wavering convictions.

 

There were thirteen in all, including himself and Jane. One by one the other eleven reconfirmed their loyalty and conviction. Let the real game begin.

 

Silas called in his two most trusted operatives. Bernard Craion was no one’s idea of a quintessential goon – the man had degrees from Oxford and the Sorbonne and three books to his name – but this organization was as much about the ability to use one’s brain as wield a weapon. Rodrigo Cassus, on the other hand, looked precisely like the movie depiction of a violent heavy, and yet he too was more than he appeared, with a top-notch intellect and a surprisingly delicate sensibility he could express in five languages.

 

‘Gentlemen, you already know we have a problem. Jane Silver. Time is running out for this project to succeed, she must either be finally convinced or neutralized for all our sakes.’

 

Silas looked both men in the eyes, just before both their heads exploded.

 

Brain matter and fragments of bone splattered Silas full in the face. He stumbled backwards in shock, tripped over a chair leg, cracked his head on the side of his desk as he fell and faded into unconsciousness.

 

How long he was out he couldn’t tell. When he came around he found his hands and feet were tightly trussed up, his eyes blindfolded and his mouth gagged. From the steady vibration he could feel through the hard surface beneath his body, interspersed with a slight roll sideways every so often, Silas guessed he was in a moving vehicle of some sort. Other than that, all he was aware of was the astonishingly vicious pain in his head and a sense of utter bewilderment at the turn of events that had just unfolded.

 

Since he had nothing else to do, he tried to figure out what had gone wrong, how he had been taken so badly unawares – and most importantly, by whom. Up until some hours ago, he had been the mastermind of a scheme so audacious he was still taken aback at his own nerve and ambition. He remembered the moment when the idea had first come to him. A junior researcher in one of his labs had come fresh from a phenomenal discovery: cold fusion. Unlimited inexpensive power. He had had teams working on the holy grail of energy research for years, the only way he could see of keeping his failing nuclear plant corporation in business.

 

His real stroke of genius though had come next. Instead of sitting back and reaping the laurels of his (well his employee’s) discovery, he had seen a far far more wondrous possibility. Initially, it was merely theoretical, no more really than personal whimsy founded on a long-time fascination with books on futurology. Ever since he began reading them, one seemingly impossible but oft-mentioned invention had fascinated him – time travel. Author after author had raised the notional possibility of going back and forward in time according to the latest and best brains in physics, but then each writer had decisively dashed any realistic prospect of such an immense achievement by pointing out the vast quantities of raw energy required to power such a process.

 

Impossible to ever bring about they said. But Silas had brought it about. Very nearly anyway. Even his own vast fortune couldn’t underwrite such a project, so he had needed co-investors, other people as rich as he was. Twelve billionaires had eventually signed on after careful and discrete approaches. Each had seemed as eager and as enthusiastic as he was, so what had gone wrong? Why was he hogtied in the back of this vehicle?

 

Shortly after, the vibration underneath him stopped. He heard the crunch of tyres on gravel. The hiss of air brakes. And finally the drawing back of bolts. A loud clang and cold air enveloped him. Without warning, he was picked up bodily, hefted on a shoulder and then surprisingly gently deposited on a cold hard level surface. He felt his wrists and ankles strapped down efficiently but not brutally, which gave him hope of surviving whatever this was. Maybe it was just a garden variety kidnap? A coincidence? Nothing at all to do with his project? Ever the realist, Silas couldn’t bring himself to give that comforting flight of fancy serious consideration.

 

His blindfold was whipped off. His eyes were dazzled, taking time to readjust to light again. The gag was removed and he felt the rim of a glass brought to his lips. The cool water was welcome. Little by little his eyes began to make out blurred shapes. Then more distinct images began to emerge. And finally, unbelievably, but he supposed logically, Jane Silver’s face moved into view inches from his own. He wasn’t sure whether to be worried or not. After all, she knew nothing of what he had been planning for her, or did she? Time would tell he supposed.

 

‘Silas, you’re looking almost revived already. Excellent. I do hope we won’t have to play any games here. We have a lot to do in a short time.’

 

Silas glanced around him. He was in what looked like a large aircraft hangar. In each corner stood an armed guard, shouldering a type of weapon he had never seen before. The guards’ faces looked odd, like they were coated in plastic. So were their hands he suddenly realized. Slowly it dawned on him that what was seeing were machines not men. He wondered if he might be concussed.

 

‘I won’t cooperate Jane. I wouldn’t be a part of your schemes, and you need me, I’m the core of this organization – there’s nothing you can do to me. Except try to intimidate me, and that won’t work. You should have known that.’

 

‘I do know that Silas, I really do. You see it just doesn’t matter at this stage. I can see from your eyes that you’re confused and uncertain. How often have you been told you don’t matter Silas, rarely I’d say, maybe even never? Is that right, never? You’ve always thought yourself integral to everything around you, eh? This must be hard to come to terms with? Being strapped to a table, powerless and utterly irrelevant?’

 

‘Tell me what’s going on Jane. Tell me what you want – you must want something, or want me to do something?’

 

‘Only one thing Silas. Say cheese’.

 

‘Wha…………………….’

 

Before Silas could finish the word, a particle beam generator above the table angled into position. An instant later it fired. Silas’ face bloomed momentarily, glowed and bubbled, and then reconfigured itself into a plasticized mask, devoid of life and expression. The beam moved over the rest of his body. A few short minutes later, what had been Silas and whatever he was now rose and stood to attention beside the stainless steel table. He saluted Jane, who gave a curt nod, and then he, or maybe it, marched toward a corner of the building and took up station, for all the world indistinguishable from the other sentinels.

 

Jane activated a device on her arm. ‘Problem fixed your Lordship’.

 

And several millennia in the far distant future, Silas smiled.

A Man Called Ove

image

I heard a lot about this book and have to confess I was a bit skeptical.

How wrong is it possible to be be?

If you’ve read The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out A Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson you’ll love this too – it has a very similar style.

Not a word is wasted. There’s very little flowery exposition, just lean spare evocative writing that shows much much more than it tells – the author respects his readers and relies on their intelligence to pick up the nuances and commonalties of human experience and feeling.

Without being in the least saccharin or mawkish, it’s both funny and positive – and surprisingly affecting.

You’ll be sorry to reach the end but exceedingly glad you read it!

Book Challenges – Yay or Nay?

Last year I read 103 books.

I know because Goodreads tells me so. Or at least Goodreads tells me that I told it that was the number.

Actually it was the number, I didn’t game the system though of course it is possible. It was the first time I had ever consciously kept track of how many books I read over a year.

Thoughts on the experience?

It definitely made me much more aware of how many books I had read, and was reading. How often do you realise that days have gone by and very few or maybe no pages have been read? It’s easy as we all discover to lose time, to get lost in other things, to be the fly in molasses. The Goodreads counter knocked lassitude on the head – ‘You’re on track!’ or ‘You’re 2 books behind’. It never went beyond two, the kick in the pants worked wonders ever time.

Added to the impetus was the % read tracker on my Kindle. Between the two, there was a steady drumbeat of recognition of progress made, or not, and encouragement to stay on track, or catch up.

Over time this did though grow to be a little disconcerting. Only 15% through a book? 1 book behind? Time to up the pace…..maybe speed up? Skip a little even? There were targets to be met after all!!

This was the downside of what was mostly a positive experience. A ticking clock measuring anything inevitably pushes towards a greater tempo, and then greater still, as it counts down, ever closer to the moment on 31 December and the final reckoning. The odd psychological effect was that even though the figure I set was entirely of my own choosing, and no one cared or was watching, and the unseen outcome counted for absolutely nothing, it did assume a significance just by being there. I not sure I liked that feeling, and especially not to have it bound up and instilled with reading – a pleasure and a realm intended to be as enjoyable as it is because it was separate from deadlines and pressures, walled off in its own sanctuary beyond normal space and time, and the everyday world. Though of course really it’s not – but it’s nice to think that way.

It’s easy (and in the grand scheme of thing right) to say that the best response was to just chill, since the grand total was freighted with no meaning – nothing was lost at 98 or gained by 103 books read.

And yet. It mattered. Oddly, and perhaps inexplicably so. I’m not sure why. I wasn’t competing with anyone. As I said no one was keeping an eye on me. I didn’t mention any total or the challenge to anyone, let along invest any importance in reaching the figure.

So why care? A good and puzzling question. A challenge is a challenge perhaps? Losing to oneself is the worst defeat of all? Keeping track highlighted how much time is actually ‘wasted’, as it might be termed, not reading? Maybe 100 books doesn’t seem a very large number? Especially in a  year? With over 1,200 on my Kindle alone? And more to add? And that leaves aside all the paper mounds and pyramids accumulated and waiting to be explored?

In a way I suppose keeping track revealed a tangible mortality of time, a limit that is real and insurmountable. Our thread of life is finite and what we do with the length available, in so far as we can ever know or guess what that is, is a series of choices.

And all of the time a clock is ticking.

Like it or not.

I set the 100 books goal again this year, with a bit more trepidation and hesitation than last.

Let’s see how it goes……tick……tock……tick…….

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden book cover design by Jonas Jonasson

“…in protest against her parents…For instance she wrote her short English essay in German and claimed in a History exam that the Bronze Age began on the 14 February 1972”

If you’ve read The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson’s first book, the style in his follow-up novel will be familiar. For those who haven’t read his breakout work, the fact that he has retained this same approach is a very good thing.

The Swedish author has a way with words, with ideas and plot turns and twists, that are all his own. Something akin to Terry Pratchett, Jonasson can convey deep thoughts about serious topics with a light touch, one that’s often also laugh out loud funny.

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden is not quite as funny as the original book, but very good fun none the less. Jonasson relishes unexpected developments and story direction, constantly surprising his reader with his inventiveness.

Not to give away too much of the story but if you can think of another book that could conjure up a situation where the slightly drunk Prime Minister of Sweden is rooting out potatoes in full evening dress in a remote field while nearby the equally merry Swedish King takes an axe to the necks of three chickens you have one over on me.

Central to the story is a nuclear bomb that links the lives of all the characters, starting with the main protagonist Nombeko – a gifted young girl living on her wits in apartheid South Africa when we meet her first. A series of extraordinary events as well as some extremely ordinary ones involve South African government officialdom, Israeli intelligence, a family of Chinese counterfeiters, two Swedish twins with a secret and an angry young girl and her (possible) Countess Grandmother in rollicking waves of adventure, unexpected complication and frequent mayhem. Not forgetting the Swedish King and PM’s nocturnal culinary efforts.

In common with Pratchett, Jonasson has a gift for depicting reality as the most absurd perspective of all. Everything else he creates and conjures up seems remarkably reasonable in comparison, and this contrast tells us a great deal about our own world and how odd really are the things we take for granted as ‘normal’.

A charming, warm, and sweet tale of what life can throw at a person – and what they can throw back.

 

Reblog from Quartz: The reason every book about Africa has the same cover

I’d never really noticed this pattern before but like many things once it was pointed out it seemed obvious:  the almost ever present acacia tree and a savannah sunset on the cover of books about Africa. Why?

http://qz.com/207527/the-reason-every-book-about-africa-has-the-same-cover-and-its-not-pretty/

Acacia tree on an African savannah
The tree that launched a thousand books (Reuters/Ed Harris)
 

In short,” the post said, “the covers of most novels ‘about Africa’ seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.”

 

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Image by Simon Stevens

 

What makes the persistence of these tired and inaccurate images even worse is that we’re living in an era of brilliant book design (including this lovely, type-only cover for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah; her novel Half of a Yellow Sun begins the collage above). So why is it so hard for publishers of African authors to rise beyond cliché?

 

I asked Peter Mendelsund—who is an associate art director of Knopf, a gifted cover designer, and the author of a forthcoming book on the complex alliances between image and text—to help me understand how the publishing industry got to a place where these crude visual stereotypes are recycled ad nauseam. (Again and again, that acacia tree!)

 

He points first to “laziness, both individual or institutionalized.” Like most Americans, book designers tend not to know all that much about the rest of the world, and since they don’t always have the time to respond to a book on its own terms, they resort to visual clichés. Meanwhile, editors sometimes forget what made a manuscript unique to begin with. In the case of non-Western novels, they often fall back on framing it with “a vague, Orientalist sense of place,” Mendelsund says, and they’re enabled by risk-averse marketing departments.

 

“By the time the manuscript is ready to be produced, there’s a really strong temptation to follow a path that’s already been trod,” he says. “If someone goes out on a limb and tries something different, and the book doesn’t sell, you know who to blame: the guy who didn’t put the acacia tree on the cover.”

 

He adds that the underlying issue can be more pernicious: “Of course, there are the deeply ingrained problems of post-colonialist and Orientalist attitudes. We’re comfortable with this visual image of Africa because it’s safe. It presents ‘otherness’ in a way that’s easy to understand. That’s ironic, because what is fiction if not a way for you to stretch your empathetic muscles?”

 

That’s a reasonable diagnosis. But how to solve the underlying problem? Certain books are allowed to stand on their own; others—too often those by African, Muslim, or female authors—are assigned genre stereotypes. Mendelsund suggests that designers should start by initiating conversations with editors about what makes a book unique, so that they have something to respond to visually. And if that fails, and designers are pressured to use an offensive stereotype, Mendelsund says, “We can tell them that it’s racist, xenophobic, whatever.”

 

But change comes slowly. One day, Mendelsund predicts, there will be a best-selling novel by an African writer that happens to use a different visual aesthetic, and its success will introduce a new set of arbitrary images to represent Africa in Western eyes. “But right now, we’re in the age of the tree,” he says. “For that vast continent, in all its diversity, you get that one fucking tree.”’

‘Good Books Cheap’ – the Pelicans Return

Image of the first three new Pelican books
The first of the new Pelican books

 

Great to hear that Penguin Books are bringing back their Pelican imprint – pale blue covered non-fiction books at relatively cheap prices.

They’re also originally commissioned from authors, so good news for aspiring non-fiction writers as well as readers!

The Guardian has more as well as a short history of what was, and might be again, a cultural icon…

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/25/pelican-books-take-flight-relaunch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some excellent advice from Chuck Wendig

We all know we’re going to die. It’s definite. Inescapable. Unavoidable. But it’s someday. Over the horizon. In the distance. Until it’s not.

Best not to wait too long to do all of the things we want to do. Chuck Wendig has a great blog post today on terribleminds.com that really strikes home, reminding us time is always short:

http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/05/07/you-are-totally-going-to-die/

“Over there? That’s your gravestone.

It’s there, on the hill. Or in the valley. Maybe under a cherry blossom tree or by a babbling creek. Or maybe you’re a sack of kitty-litter-looking ashes on a mantle somewhere. It doesn’t much matter because, drum roll please, you’re dead.

Or, rather, you’re going to be dead. One day.

No, I’m not threatening you. I don’t have to. Life paired with time have together earned that pleasure. Unless you’re some kind of vampire, you were born with a ticking clock whose watchface was turned inward so that none can see it.

You are totally going to die.

I’m not Miriam Black. I don’t know when. Might be 50 years from now. Or ten. Or ten weeks, days, minutes. I certainly don’t know how. Cancer might juice your bowels. A hunk of frozen shit might fall off a 747 turbine and crush you in your recliner. Bear attack. Meth overdose. Choke on a hot wing. Stroke. Heart attack. Robot uprising. No fucking clue. And I don’t want to know the specifics. I don’t need to know the specifics because we are all given over to the universality of a limited mortality. The one aspect of our lives that is utterly and irrevocably shared is death.

That’s grim shit, I know.

I’ve spent a goodly portion of my life worrying about death. Or, more to the point, about how it’ll get me. I picture death less as a comical specter and more as the black dog of myth, always hounding my steps, ducking out of sight as I look for it, but always regaining my scent and waiting for the opportune moment to strike. Sometimes this manifested as a kind of hypochondria, a condition no doubt exacerbated by a Reader’s Digest Medical Guidebook I found in my house when I was around 10 years old, a book whose graphic flowcharts aimed to help you discern the truth of your symptoms — though of course they usually ended up convincing me I had some kind of rare tropical doom parasite. (For a while I seriously thought I had worms in my face. For no reason other than my teeth had left marks on the inside of my cheeks and became convinced that these divots were WORM TUNNELS. So, y’know, thanks Reader’s Digest.)

If it wasn’t hypochondria plaguing me, it was sheer existential terror. The realization that one day everything I know and everything that I am would one day hit an invisible wall and drop off into a deep, black sea trench, never to be reclaimed. And maybe never remembered — after all, all those who care about me would one day be dead, too.

I know. WHEE, right?

There comes a point when all this either was going to keep pinning me to the ground like a heavy boot or it was going to be the thing that I could push past or even use as a springboard to fling my dopey ass forward. One day it occurred to me that this revelation about death could be viewed as something representative of freedom. A grim, unruly freedom, one with a somewhat grisly underpinning, but freedom just the same. Because we all share this thing. We all share the reality of an impending death. We are all dying. Right now. All part of a cycle of birth, life, decay, death, all part of the washing machine tumble of chaos and order, structure and entropy, light and dark.

None of us — not a single one — are promised tomorrow.

We share that because we share the possibility of death.

But we share something else, too.

We share This Fucking Moment Right Fucking Here.

This one. The one with the masking tape across it and the permanent marker signifying:

NOW.

We all get now.

We all get the moment in which we exist.

A lot of you are writers. (Or “aspiring” writers, a term I hate so bad it causes a sudden chafing of my testicular region as if some surly ghost were rubbing a spectral bootbrush against my nads even as I sit here and type.)  And whenever I talk to writers and we get down to the nitty gritty of what they’re doing or hope to one day accomplish, they’re often mired in a sense of fear. Paralyzed sometimes by the what if’s and the big blinky question marks that look as much like a swooping scythe as they do a piece of punctuation. And a lot of writers are forward-thinking or future-leaning, expecting that the day will come that everything will work itself out and life’s magic highway will present them with an endless series of green lights…

…and they’ll finally get to do what they want to do.

My father lived his life in preparation for his retirement. Set everything up so that he could retire a bit early, move out West, and live his remaining years with the pleasurable, simple life for which he had waited. Of course, he died a few years into that retirement — so, while he had the privilege of living some of his dream, it sure wasn’t much when seen in the shadow of an entire life prepared for it. Too little time in the sun, too long in the anticipation of it.

Writers, artists, anybody: you are not promised that time.

You are promised right now.

I’ve said this before and I like to give a lot of these go forth and do it, please excuse my Doc Marten firmly ensconced in your spongy squat-grotto talks, and this one probably isn’t all that different from things you may have heard me say before. But it’s a thing I sometimes like to remind myself, and since this blog is primarily me-yelling-at-me, it’s a thing I’m going to remind you about, too.

You’re going to die, writer-types.

But you have now, right now, so use it.

And you may think that this advice for the aspiring-types only, for those novitiates on the Sacred Penmonkey Order, but it’s not. It’s for you story-seasoned word-brined motherfuckers, too. Because writers with careers short and long, we sometimes get a little lost in the weeds. Lost in things outside of us. Trends and markets, industries and Amazon rankings. We find ourselves jealous of other writers or fearful of the uncomfortable arranged marriage between the forces of art and commerce. Sometimes we forget that we have things we want to do, stories we want to tell, and we lose that in that the briar-tangle of uncertainty and anxiety and existential unease. Because just as we can as humans worry about the very nature of our existence, we can worry about our existence as writers, too. We worry about how long we’ll be allowed to do what we do. We wonder when someone will figure out that we’re stowaways on this ship, imposters at this party, strangers in our own chosen lives.

None of that really matters. I mean, it matters in little ways — in intellectual, commercial ways. But it doesn’t always help you to tell the tales you want to tell. It doesn’t always force that quantum entanglement between your ass molecules and the chair protons so that you can create some motherfucking art quarks, does it?

You can’t control a lot of the things you’re worried about.

You can maybe adjust them, or nudge them.

But you can’t control publishing. Or the audience. Or bookstores.

You can’t control whether a fridge-sized shit-glacier will drop off a plane and kill you.

What you can control is the height of your chair. You can control a little of your comfort as you sit at the desk — or stand, if you prefer. You can control which word processor you use, or which notebook you prefer. You can control what words you put down, in what order, and what story grows up from those words. You can control the work. That’s yours. Everything else is open to your occasional influence, but the one thing you can control is that you are writing this book.

And you have that control right now.

In this moment.

Not tomorrow.

Not in ten years.

Because you don’t know what happens then.

You do know that one day, it’ll all be over. And I can’t speak to what comes after — Heaven, Hell, Hades, Happy Hunting Grounds, Toledo — but that’s not the point. You don’t live for the end. You live for the moment. You live for this thing you want to do.

So, do it.

Right now.

You’re temporary.

Use that to create something permanent — or, at least, closer to permanent than you.

Let death motivate you. Let your inevitable demise impel you forward.

Go. Create something. Be the best version of yourself. Now. Here. This very second.

While you’re still alive.”