Thursday, 23 June 2016

Guest Post - Author Jim Webster

I've "met" jim Webster through the Goodreads site and he is that rare virtual beast who is both erudite and chockfull of common sense, so when he puts across a point of view it is measured and demands serious consideration, as against all the other shouty voices you encounter. Jim's blog is always a good read and like me Jim has published books in double figures spanning science fiction and fantasy adventure. He has his latest book just out now-

Available from Amazon for just 98p

I asked Jim to blog about whatever he fancied and this is the question he wanted to explore:

How many voices at one time?

It's a question I have wondered about and occasionally discussed with others. When you're absorbed in writing one particular book, you tend to take on the 'voice' of the characters in that book. (Well at least I do.)

This, at least in my case, can spill out of the book a little. When I was in the middle of writing a number of stories for Tallis Steelyard (a poet who dwells secure within a fantasy world of my creation) a young lady asked me directions. She wasn't entirely sure where she was going and on gentle questioning it appeared that her boyfriend had asked her to meet him at work.

This had involved her in a long train journey followed by a bicycle ride out into the middle of nowhere looking for a particular site. I felt this showed both dedication on her part, and an element of taking her for granted on his.

Thus I directed her to where she wanted to go, and as she thanked me, I, or perhaps Tallis Steelyard, gravely informed her that had she been my girlfriend I would have arranged for her to be collected.

Now we had talked for ten minutes, and it was obvious she had a good sense of humour, so she merely smiled and equally gravely replied that she would keep this information in mind for future reference.

But you see the problem. When you write there is an element of getting into the mind of the characters you're writing about and the blighters have a habit of returning the favour.

Unfortunately this has let me down. You see, I wrote six novellas about a character of mine, one Benor. He's a cartographer, dwelling in a fantasy world with no elves, dwarves, dragons or hobbits, and indeed very little magic. The stories are detective stories, and the cunning plan is that like the Sherlock Holmes stories, you can read them in any order. It's a collection rather than a series.

I wrote them, edited them and got everything set up so they're published at four month intervals. The next one is called 'Woman in Love'

The problem is, I'm 75,000 words into a SF novel, and I didn't want to break off. But the realisation that books don't sell themselves has forced me to. So with a mental crashing of gears I've got to leave one set of characters, and re-enter the minds of another set.

The story? To quote the blurb

"Asked to look for a missing husband, Benor finds that the female of the species is indeed more deadly than the male."

Cheers Jim and best of luck with both the new book and the science fiction work in progress.

Monday, 20 June 2016

The Afterlife Of Books - Flash Fiction

Collaborations do not afford good literature. As proven by the collusion of stonemason (a serif font for god’s sakes) and your own agent who had penned the epitaph on your tombstone. “Doubtless in Heaven he will be composing some bon mots for the Lord”. What like your His speechwriter or something? Your inner editor would cavil at ‘doubtless’ since the word possesses a range of shades of meaning from probable to certainty. You might rather have opted for the blue pencil inscribing ‘unequivocally’, but there didn’t seem to be pen and paper in whatever this non-state of being you currently resided in. Consonant to being on a life support machine but with minimal brain activity you surmise. Akin to when you used to participate at literary conventions. 

Yet you are preserved here for whatever purpose. In the fleeting moments of mindfulness permitted, you calculated it was due to your books attaining the cachet of the canonical. Such exalted eminence confers true immortality it seems. For all the good that redounds on a deceased you. To be endowed stature without any physical body at all. A corpus sans corpus. See how the pun survives death. God’s cosmic joke? Just like I always wrote. Maybe your agent was right, maybe if you entertain God with a well turned phrase that cracks his stern countenance, then you get togo again down there one earth. Only problem is God hasn’t put in an appearance and you can no longer string together two words. You are entirely reliant on your past body of work. 

There were no hidden manuscripts. No abandoned novels for passing on to a designated writer to complete. Nor had you buried any work in a time capsule to be uncovered and published a hundred years later as some of your contemporaries had hit on for inexplicable reasons. Yet even with no more new works to be published, there were still reissues and new editions of your work and each sale passed through the ether and delivered you a prod in whatever non-protoplasmic state of you existed. A notch on the bedpost of your eternal rest, yet not sufficient to rouse you fully. No, that came with the critique that followed such a sale. For here in the empyreal, you got to experience what down there on earth self-published writers felt when they received notification of a new review. The only cognisance granted you in your perpetual sleep was to digest the critique offered by each and every one of your post-mortem readers. For all the good that it did you. Though perhaps you shouldn’t be quite so churlish, since the continuing royalties will see your family comfortably provided for. The philistine ingrates that they are, one son the professional sportsman and the other a lawyer. You momentarily wondered whether the lawyer had fleeced his sibling out of his share by now, but Elysium’s own censors and legal eagles quickly shut down your narrow window for thought processes. Narrow, it rated more slender than an arrow slit casement in an old stone castle. Hey that’s not a bad metap-

The evanescent periods of time allocated were only to cogitate on a review. Not that you were privileged any right of reply. That made this amorphous condition somewhat of a trial, nay a torture even. Maybe this wasn't the literary realm of the august and the sublime, perhaps it was actually purgatory. The Devil has all the best tunes, but you don’t figure Him to be much of a reader. Instead you are forced to consume a slow but never-ending drip feed of the living’s responses to your moribund output of yore. What does any of it matter now? not to you. And not to the readers either. You could see attitudes shifting slowly (not that you had any concept of time up/down here). No more did you get the sustained terms of sentience when your books were made into a film or TV dramatisation, or some literary critic obligingly reinvestigated you on some anniversary or other so that sales took a spike. You were presumably now off the school curriculums since you no longer received the feeble blip around exam time, when the students were forced to offer their own opinions on your work but found the task beyond their capabilities and trotted out the received notions of their teachers. What happened when you dropped out of people’s consciousness altogether? Membership of the literary canon revoked, presumably you ceased to exist in such renowned status here in literary heaven/hell? A fate that must have befallen Stephen King some considerable time ago? Not that you have any sense of time passing. 

Maybe there was a way of foreshortening the process. After all, what exactly was the value of this non-existence being force-fed your own work back to you by people beyond your own time? Unfortunately it seems your books had changed with context. You could absolutely accept the criticisms offered by these new, contemporary readers. Well figuratively perhaps, since you didn’t actually know what world they occupied, nor what their values were. Nonetheless, you could recant all your work now and bring all this slow torture to an end. Nothing lasts for ever. God? Satan? You’d like to compose a posthumous work. A palinode. 

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Murder App - Flash Fiction

The assassin’s paymasters had paid other masters of their trade to piggyback the software. The geosocial sex app now became the locus of a most decidedly unsocial hook-up; La petite mort supplanted by la grande mort. That final great big kiss off. A lust for life terminating in its extinction. The lovelorn, the unfaithful and the promiscuous, formed the largest pool for her to locate her designated targets. On any evening, it was only a question of time before the right matching profile loomed into her focus. The lamb for slaughter gambolling right up into her lupine claws. Of course her own (faked) love profile was out there in the ether along murder mile and occasionally people wandered up to engage her. But one glower from her murderous countenance was enough to make them scoot on past. The only protection against this Trojan Horse was chastity. But the names that got on the paymasters’ list were not there because they were exemplary citizens. 

Wednesday, 8 June 2016


Nursey Nursey bring me your boxy teat
For I crave a proxy milk treat
Of course my surrogate little one
And then off to sleep with you and all done

Oh no Nursey for I like to watch and see
The light come together in embrace over me
I am afeared of the solid shadows of some
Who would eclipse me, unless one be my mum

Your mamma is like you confined abed
Unlike yours we have a name for her dread
Beware no monsters coming in the night
For you arrived during the day full bright
Having eaten her out as full blight
When she popped you into the light
You swallowed the key to lock her caramel brown
Swiped the bung to tamp her blood back down

Is that why her soft pillows cannot give suck?
They smelled divine when I was first laid there
Not like the brack brew from your slack old sacs
How do you lactate when you lack for an heir?

Oh sweet child for someone so choosy
You surely fierce sup me bluesy
You really must lay back your head
I’ll lullaby you full comforted
Sing you a song to row you safely across
Morpheus’ fosse until we recover Helios

Your rhythms cert seem soothing
But your cadence I glean to be reproving
Besides I’ll do no such thing as yield
The dying of the light and my mother unhealed
It will take more reassurance
Than the filched milk of a fireside milch
Such as a nanny goat can provide
My nostrils filled with the reek of sulphide 
Your rotten eggs and brimstone sap
I yearn only to nestle in my mother’s lap

I’ll fire you a tallow to calm your forebodings
Though a flickering wick brings qualms anew
No more nocturnal comings and goings
Goodnight my sweetpea, adieu

Ha the candle affords me still sight
A shaft of flame peeling back the night
No terrors can remain concealed
I espy Nursey yonder in our field
What could she be doing the old witch?
Some midnight herbs to treat her twitch?

Good morning Nursey what a fine dawn
Your look tired, your face all drawn
What were you up to after last vespers?
Saints preserve me with continued willpower
Forever putting me through the wringer with your pesters
So I’ll tell you my little bloomer
For just why I was out under the lunar
With pruning knife I threshed fresh flowers

Are they to adorn my mother’s grave?
Why would you say that you rave? 
Let me feel your head for a fever
Can’t permit another to fall to the reaper

Then take me to drink in their pretty colours
Affirm giddily to possess fitting lustres
To lift the spirits of my ailing mother
Belladonna and poisonous milkweed I’ll wager

The only venomous thing is your lips
Clamped on my bruised and bloodied breast
Squeezing for dear life until the squeak of pips
I don’t believe you, for all the blood and the rest
I venture you infused her with tainted tincture
Under the cloak of her childbirth strictures
Just long enough for her to linger 
Before you apply the fatal cincture

Are your mammaries laced with bane?
Also to carry me off mad with pain?
So you can have my father all alone
Blind with grief stumbling into the arms of a crone
Nursey Nursey wants to play housey housey
Her plan all sown to acquire the throne
Now I know how a never gravid makes milk
My father all trussed up in your spider's silk
Strokes and dandles your udders rancid
Fomenting just like an ant palpates the aphid

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Alzheimat - 300 word Flash Fiction

Broadcasts report that my frontal lobe has been overrun. Lesions of the damned occupy my zones. Shock troops and sapper units deplete my forces. Resistance cells, besieged on all sides. Unable to hold the line. Of my failing self. Just a few loyal partisan remnants of me carrying the fight. Former comrades strafe my grey matter. The neural runways pockmarked by bomb craters blocking take off. Interdicting my diction. I can hear Morse code broadcasts outlined inside my skull. Either that or it is a white noise of electrical waves trying to jump across the ruptures. Mudder, I am ravaged and being stripped of my memories, my experiences, my language and my childhood. I am returning to the state of nothing when I was inside you. Please receive me generously.

They expand upwards ever upwards. Seeking the light, in order to eclipse me. The slow accumulation defying gravity. Honing their aculeation, ready to receive me. To impale me on their spikes. A chalky maiden press. This calcification of my mind. Annexing my powers against me. As I squat huddled at the crown. Dripping rusted parts of my being, to further augment their Babel tower. Stalactite me seeding stalagmite them. Narrowing towards one another, the joust of two knights most unchivalric. If we flawlessly align, our whetted points will just abut, dovetailing harmlessly. Michaelangelo’s god infusing pneuma into a recumbent Adam. The handshake of the Red Army with the American 69th Infantry at the Elbe. But if the pinpoint precision is out by any fraction of a degree, at best we will scrape against one another and send up shower of malignant sparks. At worst they will pierce my mass and fatally gouge my nucleus.

The tragedy, farce, Grand Guignol, Lehrstücke, kitchen sink theatre of my mind has gone dark. 

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Why Referenda are Bad For Britain's Democracy

What could be more democratic than asking the adult population to vote on an issue rather than entrust our delegated representatives to come to a decision?

Whilst there has been several referenda on devolution and sovereignty issues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and those asking metropolitan areas whether they wanted an elected mayor of not, the upcoming EU referendum on June 23rd will only be the third UK-wide vote. The first concerned Britain's membership of the European Economic Community as it was called back then in 1975, but I was only 11 so not entitled to vote. Then we didn't have one until 2011 on the issue of a version of proportional representation called AV (Alternative Vote) replacing our first past the post system. Now I consider myself a political animal, yet such was the level of disengagement with the way AV was presented, that I can't even remember if I bothered to cast my vote. I wasn't the only one, turnout was a poor 42% (compared with 60-65% on average for a general election). This was generally felt to have been the result of AV being an inadequate voting system compared with all the proportional representation systems on offer and that even then no one really understood how it worked because the campaign to promote it was so lacklustre.

And now we come to the major referendum currently on the table, continued membership of the EU or to withdraw. I credit that whatever the outcome, the whole thing has been a disaster and weakened the credibility of british democracy. here's why:

1) The campaign isn't about the issue of EU membership at all:
Whatever the merits of In or Out has been partly sideswiped and colonised by the internal politics of the two major political parties. For the Tories, with David Cameron announcing he would not run for another term as Prime Minister after this one, there has been a power struggle to see who is in the best position to replace him when he goes. It's worth noting that if the vote is to leave, Cameron might have to go sooner than expected as he has nailed his colours so firmly to the Stay mast. That would only bring the whole succession battle forward and probably overshadow the mechanics of negotiating our way out of the EU as the country is paralysed without a leader and the bloody struggle to appoint one. So senior Tories have been positioning themselves in the referendum campaign with their eye firmly on the main prize beyond. The will he/won't he bated breath of which side Boris Johnson would side with went on for an age as Johnson made his calculations of support. Tory cabinet ministers in favour of Brexit screamed and shouted for their right to break cabinet unanimity and campaign for what they believed in, and having been granted that right have helped ratchet up the hysteria with attacks on their colleagues in the Remain camp and vice versa. If David Cameron imagined this vote to once and for all heal Tory divisions over the principle of Europe that first holed John Major's government back in the 1990s, he has been seriously mistaken. It's widened those enmities further and at a cost of degrading the quality of the debate. It's all got very personal and very stupid with appeals to an imagined Tory lineage stretching back to Winston Churchill. In other words, the debate has not really been about the EU at all.

Labour have performed no more credibly. The last referendum saw solid Labour support in Scotland wiped out by the simple fact Labour had joined with the Tories to oppose independence. Whatever the Scots thought of the merits or demerits of going it alone, they could not abide the sight of Labour and the hated Tories sharing platforms and singing off the same hymn sheet. "Red Tories" they called the Labour Party and duly annihilated them at the general election by returning just 1 Labour MP in Scotland. So Labour have been very careful not to make the same mistake again and alienate their support in England and Wales by being seen to be in close cahoots with the Tory government. Entirely understandable for a tactical point of view, but doing a huge disservice to the issue under debate, to go or stay in the EU. Labour as a party are contributing virtually nothing to the debate or the issue, beyond the efforts locally of individual MPs. A shameful dereliction of the democratic process by simply distancing themselves from the referendum.

2) Both sides of the debate are based on lies:
I am an avid 'Remain' voter, yet even I, along with every other pro-EU supporter I suspect, knows that the current EU is massively flawed. Just consider the EU's lamentable failure over the migration crisis, its impotency over Ukraine, its mutterings of admitting Turkey into the community despite it failing any standard of liberties and rights of free press and expression, etc etc. So we are voting to keep us in an imagined entity that doesn't in fact exist as it is currently constituted. We are voting for an ideal. On the other hand, since no country ever has left the EU, let alone an economically significant one as the UK is, nobody can have the first inkling as to what that means and how it will play out. For both the UK and the EU itself (it is not impossible that it could signal the break up of the whole Union). We just don't know, so every argument that avers that X will be a benefit of leaving and we will be better off regarding Y by going our own way has no basis in evidence. They are predictions and forecasts at best and entirely coloured by the ends they are seeking to secure.

This begs a question about all referenda; if the choice is between changing to something that has never been done before, (or to leave something as an exit which has never been tried before), is it even possible to posit and empirically back up arguments at all? In which case, how can you properly have a referendum on the issue?

3) Our politicians are not sophisticated enough to do justice to the arguments involved in the issue:
The inherent contradiction at the heart of any referendum question that threatens to tread new ground, makes it really tough for the public to grasp the issue. However, we are not being well served by our politicians and key society movers and shakers in helping us understand the issue any better. The level of debate has been risible. We've had spurious anachronistic reference to Hitler's likely sympathies with a European super-state. We have statements that the EU prohibit more than 3 bananas being bound together to constitute a bunch. We've had the appeal to UK house prices dropping significantly with an Out vote, or the price of your summer holiday increasing if we leave. Like that's the most important thing under consideration here. Politicians demean us the voters when they imagine they can appeal to us through such base and simplistic impulses. We're too ignorant to appreciate what will happen the Balance of payments, VAT revenue and the City of London's golden egg, so let's restrict it to the level of summer holidays since the public can understand that. We've had different sections of the military and security forces opine that our security will either be improved or degraded by the result of the vote. Each side of the campaign wheels out these expert witnesses that support their case and they just end up cancelling one another out and leaving us the voters contemptuous of them all.  If you've ever watched a US real crime programme and the court case where the two sides bring out their pet forensics expert and of course the two radically disagree on what the evidence tells them, so the jury are thrown back on their own instincts as to how to weight the two expert testimonies against one another. Well then you might as well not bother with specialist insight if we end up falling back on what our gut tells us. It's pretty much the same in this debate. I can't help feeling that while these talking heads have a right to hold a personal opinion informed by their professional experience, it probably shouldn't be offered as chapter and verse to us the public. That they do so is not their fault, they are called upon to do so by the politicians.

The upshot of all this? I am predicting a low turnout of similar magnitude to that of the AV vote. And that will be a terrible indictment not on public apathy, but on the performance of our politicians selling us the importance of this vote and the usefulness of referenda themselves, given their innate contradictions.

An undoubted fan of the European superstate 
 A non-compliant bunch of EU bananas
Quids in for car number plate manufacturers if we vote 'Leave'

Sunday, 22 May 2016

I thought I'd try and share an insight into some of the creative decisions that form part of the writing process. So I've reproduced a paragraph from my latest work in progress as it nears its completion and I'm just doing some editing, which in my case, more often that not means consideration of certain word choices. It may be for the sound of the word or the rhythm it brings to the sentence. Or, more often than not, for the echo to other words around it that its various shades of meaning might bring.

This section is from a story which considers all the ways parents try to get their reluctant young children to open their mouths to take in food. The story examines some of the lasting effects of those tactics on the psychology of the grown up child (one of which is an eating disorder).

Here's the text in full:

“Broom broom. The car wants to come into the garage Cassie. Open wide. Beep beep! Let the car in… Broom broom broom”. 
Our garage was overrun by rats. There’s no way on earth I would readily be so accommodating as to open either the back door to gain ingress, or the electronic open sesame for cars to coast in. Even though once I turned seventeen, passed my driving test first time of asking, and had gone and bought my own runaround, still I never parked it inside. That garage is a place of nightmares. In the small hours I could hear them scurrying on its flat roof which lay adjacent to my bedroom wall. Even in my lowest teenage moments, that period of revved up consideration of putting an end to this miserable existence of mine, the garage though it supported the sturdiest ceiling beam of the residence, could never play host to suspending a noose. I could neither bring myself even to enter the demesne of the rodents, let alone offer lifeless carrion me up for a murine meal. And since my oral anxieties closed off any option of overdosing on medicine cabinet mucilaginous tablets, my nascent suicide drive quickly ran out of viable solutions. My parents called in pest control to liberate and restore the garage into human hands, but the rats were back by the next spring. The exterminator shrugged his shoulders and proclaimed we possessed the perfect conditions that rats favoured. He indicated the path of their rat run, which consequently closed off the garden to me as well". 

1) "Broom broom broom"This was a very late edit as I added the third 'broom', partly as a rhythmic thing after 2 "Broom, broom" and 2 "Beep, beeps". But also I decided it offered the sense of a car revving its engine while outside the garage and this idea of revving became important in parts of the paragraph that followed. I think it conveys a sense of impatience.

2) "or the electronic open sesame for cars to coast in" Originally this was clumsily expressed as 'or the electronic doors that open sesamed for the cars to drive in'. The perverting of open sesame into a verb wasn't a problem for me, I do this quite a lot. It was more that the whole sentence just felt a bit clunky, so I streamlined it. I replaced 'drive' with coast, because 'drive' is repeated later and I try and avoid repetition of words as much as possible (except for sound purposes). It was tricky coming on the right word to replace it, I settled on 'coast' because it is the opposite of the impatience elsewhere in the piece (such as with the 3 'brooms' as above). 'Coast' suggests a relief, a cutting of the engine's freneticism, an exhalation of breath as finally the car enters the garage and the food enters the child's mouth.

3)  "That garage is a place of nightmares". In the end I left this unchanged. I thought about other words for 'nightmares', but horrors and dreads just seemed a bit too tinged with the supernatural and I very much wanted this to feel in the real world. I was thinking of changing it, since the next sentence started 'At night' and I didn't like the jangle of 'nightmares./ At night', but in the end I opted to change the 'at night' to 'in the small hours' which sort of echoes the small scurrying sounds of rats. All of this only came about because one of my editing drafts is to read aloud the work, and that's when I noticed the jar of 'nightmare/ At night. Without reading it aloud, I don't think it would have come to light. Rats of course eat anything and everything.

4) "Even in my lowest teenage moments, that period of revved up consideration of putting an end to this miserable existence of mine" The addition here was the word 'revved'. I knew the word had to come into this paragraph, but wasn't quite sure where. The sentence when she describes passing her driving test, getting her own car... was consciously breathless in structure, as the reader has to navigate a long sentence with plenty of commas to get to its end. It was in itself quite revved up in its rhythm, but to use the word 'revved' in there somewhere would have duplicated what the rhythm itself was achieving. So I felt the best place for it was to suggest an acceleration of her thoughts towards suicide, since such thought processes involve a certain tipping point to really become a solution in the mind of a suicide.

5) "though it supported the sturdiest ceiling beam of the residence" a minor change this from 'of the house' to 'residence', since technically the garage as a separate building could be viewed as not being part of the house. You might feel the same could be said that a garage is not strictly part of the living quarters either.

6)"overdosing on medicine cabinet mucilaginous tablets" an example of alliteration for the sound of the sentence, lots of fricative 'c's', plosive 't's', with bilabial 'm's' and the assonance and rhyme of cabinet and tablet.

7) "my nascent suicide drive quickly ran out of viable solutions". Originally I had the word 'practical' solutions. I felt this was a dull word and the beauty of 'viable' is that it has an associative meaning of viability of life, used of early stage foetuses, or just fitness to survive and grow in general, which is the very opposite of the snuffing out of life she is talking about through suicide. I liked the contrast. I did also consider alternatives for 'solutions', but didn't really find anything better. 'Remedy' I rejected because I want to present the character as quite reasonable and normal, not ill or mentally unbalanced in need of a 'remedy'.

8) "My parents called in pest control" quite a simple decision this one, as originally it was 'exterminators' but then I go on to use the word in the next sentence and again wanted to avoid repetition. The word 'control' also sums up what this paragraph and the whole piece itself is about, who controlled the spoon with the food being put into her mouth.

I hope that's been of some interest in some of the things writers think about when they drill down into the detail within sentences and particularly those to do with word choices. So many words have slight differences within the shades of their meaning and I love to try and set up resonances of two or more of those meanings, in this case how 'viable' is sued to cut against its own grain by being used in the context of suicide.