Oh, I remember those

 

How exciting cassette recorders were back in the 70s. I recall receiving one for, I think, my ninth birthday. It was oblong and black with chrome (plastic) bush-button keys at one end: stop, start, fast forward, etc, and I loved it, mainly for inventing and recording, with a group of friends, The Muck-spreaders, a  piss-takes of The Archers. The days before Youtube . . .

My current book is set in 1985, the main character being somewhat techno-phobic, like me. After being told by his ex-wife who can never get hold of him that he must purchase an answer machine, he ventures into an alien environment to do so . . .

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An hour later, I’m walking up the Tottenham Court Road in a post-beer dreamy state, mind still buzzing from Mr Narche’s extraordinary words. In passing I glance in the window of one of the many electrical shops and notice amongst the avalanche of sleek and grey, a display of answer machines. Time to join 1985, Hamish – within reason.

    I step into the burrow of technology and stand gawping uncomprehendingly at the mass of bleeping, flashing . . . stuff.

    “What you after today, sir?”

    I jump at the voice coming from behind the counter. A youth clad in a satin purple and turquoise outfit is grinning at me. He pushes a hinged lid down on a small rectangle of orange plastic in front of him. I can just make out the upside-down words: Donkey Kong.

    “What is Donkey Kong,” I hear myself ask.

    He looks at me as if I have travelled in time from 1837.

    “Game and watch – hand-held games. There’s tons ‘appening – the future innit . . .” He gives up realising his adolescent enthusiasm is wasted on me. “VCR? SLR? Pack of VHS?”

    “Actually . . . I just want an answer machine – a simple one.”

    He nods: “Right-o,” lifts various chunks of plastic off a shelf, places them reverently before me and instructs me in their various attributes. I glaze over after forty seconds and point at one with a rather fetching band of real wood veneer.

    “That’s nice.”

    He says something that sounds like: ‘sgdtfsj’, ‘tvjjjdsds,’ and ‘sdchduhd’, plus it can, ‘dcsdumaadd’.”

    I smile and say I’ll take it. A boxed version is found, slid into a slippery, yellow logoed bag after which I hand over the required sum, walk out into real air and wonder what just happened.

Oh, hello

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I’m feeling a lot happier after posing the question ‘authors who write without a plan’to uncle Google. Seems as if it’s an accepted way of working and even if it wasn’t I don’t think I can work any other way. I’ve tried making chapter plans , thinking ahead – who’ll do what, where, when, but a mind-block always seems to appear suggesting I need to plan other things like car repairs, vet trips, earning a living . . .

It’s an odd way to work; a little scary, like walking a bit too close to a windy cliff edge just to see what’s down there. Often the path meanders into good terrain, fertile and exciting and equally often comes to a halt in front of a huge pile of literary manure from which I have to hastily back-track to find a different lane.

Characters I find equally difficult to pin down. Like the lady above, they often appear, semi-formed and reveal their true identities as I write. I have heard people say that you should work ever last thing out about a character before you introduce them into the story. A great idea except characters change and morph as I write, sometimes slightly, sometimes to almost take over the story, causing me to re-write and re-think – maybe a useful process in itself.

So, my planning: an early morning scramble to get words down, reflecting throughout the day, occasionally with a Eureka moment at some point and some hasty note-making followed by a re-cap early the following morning before the story moves on, slowly, speedily, sideways, backwards and (happily)mostly forwards.

 

Writing tools

I seem to have sadly (and hopefully temporarily) mislaid the magnificent fountain pen that Mark gave me for my birthday. Wishing to find something to use in the meantime and not spend a load I went into a junk shop in our nearby bigger town and asked if they had any ‘stylo à plume’ he proceeded to root about in a grubby box and produced three specimens: one grey and bent, another that must have been through a 90 degree wash and this one. “It’s Russian,” he said as if this was a good thing – I’ve no idea, are Russian pens extra marvellous?

 

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Actually it is marvellous and for the price of a couple of coffees on the square I have a lean, clean soviet writing implement. Now. Where would it have been made, used, and by who, in what bureau, to sign what. A short story in the making perhaps.

 

 

Genies and/or sub-conscious

Unknown.jpeg  Last night, in the bath, I was listening to a Ted talk by the author of Eat, Pray, Love – a book I have still to read but was hugely put off by the glacially-long and tedious film of the same name.

Anyway, Ms Gilbert gave an engaging lecture with some great ideas and illumination to anyone facing the odd day/week/month/lifetime of artistic struggle. The part that particularly intrigued  me was the suggestion that ‘outside forces’ might be assisting with the creative process; in fact in Roman times they apparently  believed that ‘genies’ lived within the walls of an artist’s/writer/creative person’s work space and would appear, insinuating themselves into the tortured virtuoso, to help steer the work in the right direction.

Certainly when I am at my most involved it’s true that words and phrases do shuffle forth and present themselves, seemingly with me having nothing to with it, and those are often the most flowing and free sections. So, is there a genie sitting on my shoulder having materialised from behind the plaster-board  or is it just the brain shutting off all exterior influence and ‘going for it’?

At the moment one of my projects in re-writing a short story as a novel. This morning I was ambling around a paragraph of said work, stopping and starting, changing, not quite sure what I was doing. As I added in a couple of lines which were possibly more decoration than moving anything concretely forward, the genie suddenly poked me and we were off on a completely different plot line, me running behind: ‘wait . . .I’m not sure if this a good idea.’ But having looked at it a few times, it works, and I’m looking forward to continuing with this whole new tangent that I don’t think would have occurred to me if I had sat down with notebook and tried to plan ahead.

I run to the main road, catch a bus and claim the upstairs front seat. Poems are still shuffling about in my mind: stanzas, couplets, brave paragraphs and solitary dangling words. I stare out on pubs, hardware shops, hairdressers, couples arguing and couples entwined.

Miniature universes surround me, even on the seat across the aisle; that young man engrossed in reading a letter . . . his expression when he opened drew the sheet of paper from the envelope then folded it, put it away to then retrieve it again. Something he couldn’t take in the first time: love, death, revenge, hatred . . . loss?

Above, the section I was fiddling with when seized with the idea of making the young man and his letter part of the plot rather than more of an embellishment to the main storyline – a whole new direction in the book which I hadn’t planned at all . . . confusing; quite a bit of re-juggling but a new turn that I’m happily reflecting on as I go about the rest of the day’s jobs.

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And finally . . .

I have my style sorted for ‘Smithi’s drawings. – Following on from previous posts. I have finished (until an editor peruses it in detail) the second in my series of novels set in 2070 (amended from 2090). Each chapter will have a heading either in the form of a letter written on the main character’s travels, or a sketch depicting his surroundings or thoughts.

Below, a sketch of the ‘horse-letter-man’ who visits the pub where ‘Smithi’ temporarily resides  – the Cat and Fiddle in the Peak district – (second highest pub in the UK; the highest being in Swaledale, Yorkshire).

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And Smithi’s inky-splashed sketch of the soaked Peaks during an unproductive mushroom-gathering forage; after which he returns to the pub to encounter the sinister Reverend Christie.

 

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Visual information through other eyes

In my book Hoxton the sketches are ‘made’ by one of the characters, Jarvis. In the follow on book, Smithi, I am again using sketches, this time in the form of the main character’s diary /notebook as he travels from the Peak district to Londonia, after escaping from the Domes of Manchestershire (both stories are set in 2070).

The tricky part is making the handwriting and drawing sufficiently different from that of Jarvis. Of course I could ask someone else to do it, but in order to keep costs down and enjoy a further challenge, well . . . I’ll see how it goes.

Some try-outs of style, pen, pencil etc.

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An extract from the book when the main character, Smithi (a teacher of botany) escapes from the Domes into Out-side and encounters real and non-genetically-aided plants for the first time.

 

My shoulders tense, brain scrambling for rational thoughts: there are none. I have no idea what will happen. No idea . . . Crunch. The truck hits the photoscene material, pushing it aside. The speed has slowed with the impact. Careless now, I swipe a finger over the screen – reverse. Finger pushing up – maximum speed.

    The sudden sound of footsteps makes my stomach flip.

    “Hey. You in the C25. Stop!”

     I squint back to see one of the guys from the glass room. He’s gaining. The Camionette is perhaps a yard from the wall.

    I yell: “Go back — the gas will get you!”

    The footsteps stop. He’s shouting for security. Too late. The C25 hits the wall and the existing small crack zig-zags into a jagged gap. The motor cuts with a final-sounding grunt. God’s own shit. I look around wildly.  People are approaching, dark blue uniforms, guns out of holders. I have seconds. Leaping out from the cab, I drag the bag and stumble towards the gap. A bullet zings past my head and lodges into a loudspeaker; another rasps the white cloth of my disguise. Grabbing a metal tube, I smash at the wall. Pieces fall, the gap just big enough. I pull myself and the bag through, cloth ripping, skin burning. Bullets rebound, shouts fill my ears.

    “Get him.”

    “No crapping way – the gas!”

    “Do it!”

    “Call the engineers – get this covered – leave him – he’s a dead man. Crazy bleeder.”

    The voices diminish to a drone as I run and run, eyes to the ground, not thinking, just fearful of a bullet streaking into my flesh. Then I trip, something catching my foot. I collapse into soft greenery and lie for a long time, face down, breathing in raw plant smells, unable to turn and look at what I have escaped to.

    My lungs calm; the racing pulse slows. I am alive. I laugh crazily at my improvised words – ‘The Gas will get you.’  A sound nearby stops silences me. No gas . . . but what other dangers. Raising myself slightly I turn my head to see an ambling spiky creature; its small black eyes regard me for a moment then it carries on snuffling amongst the leaves.

    I twist round and sit still staring at the animal. The word ‘hedgehog’ appears in my mind: Grandada describing them: ‘Good f’garden they were, Smithi – ate slugs un’t like.’

    My gaze wanders from the animal. I sit in a street, or what was a street; the road surface just visible between bushes, grass and brambles. A tree grows in a wrecked house opposite, its branches sprouting absurdly from the roof. The building next door had been a shop, the glass frontage smashed, bare bones of empty shelves pale lines in the dark interior.

    Looking up above the rows of buildings, my mind anticipates opaque curves but my eyes tell of something else: the sky. In the domes it had been the month of Seventem; just a word that meant a division of time. Out here it is colour, smells, sounds and temperature. How incredibly strange to feel a breeze on my face. The air is warm but with a tinge of freshness that hints of cold when the sun leaves the sky. I think of the bag: jumpers, scarves and the matches that the girl gave me. Why had I not asked her how she had known of my thoughts? An odd child, always apart from the others.

    I lie back into the grass and let my mind wander away from the classroom, from crowds, from the domes. Clouds are extraordinary; they grow and shrink, the edges boiling and swirling. Directly above two dragons approach each other mutating slowly, one to a dog shape the other a long-billed bird. The sky is an intense blue at the top, gradually fading to opal above the lower rooftops and golden-leaved trees.

    I feel so overwhelmingly happy. I want to shout manically but fearing what might hear me, I content myself with digging out a notebook and pen from my bag. I will write down every emotion, record everything.

    A shaky sketch of the street completed I add a note of the flora surrounding me:

    Silver Birch, Plane – vast, English Oak and Deciduous Oak; lauristinous in profusion, ivy, welsh poppy, honesty, about twenty different grasses . . . the list is endless. Stashing the book, I stand up and look around, elation ebbing a little as I consider practical issues – food. My small supply won’t last more than a couple of meals and little, or actually, no thought was given to after that.

    As I search for an apple in the bag my hand clasps around a small metal disc – my grandfather’s compass. So, amongst all the madness I had remembered something ultra-practical . . . I decide on southwards thinking of approaching winter; heave the bag onto my shoulder and set off down a once noble street.