What you don’t know

black-hole-cygnus-crop.jpg

Still from Disney’s 1979 film The Black Hole, which I’d never heard of until I went a-hunting for an image for this post

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know I have my strong beliefs. Not many of them, to be sure, but some I return to like a dog to its vomit. One of them is this: you must write what you know.

This is one of those pieces of writing wisdom that has entered popular parlance (can you remember where you first heard it? I can’t; a quick search suggests that Mark Twain might be its originator but this I take with a generous pinch of salt), and I have written about it before. But can we try a little thought experiment? Can we try and examine what happens when you write what you don’t know?

Let’s imagine a house. Think of somewhere you’ve lived. Now it’s not unreasonable to think that if you’re reading this you’re neither madly wealthy nor living in abject poverty so your experiences are probably fairly average.

Now: what if the walls were thinner? What if they were made of plastic panels instead of brick? What if the superstructure had been replaced so many times that none of the original remained? The windows are made from cut-down bottles that shine a kaleidoscope on the battered furniture (nothing matching; salvaged; repaired; cast-offs traded for favours or rescued from the rubbish of the wealthy).

There is no sound-proofing. You can hear everything that happens outside; not only the jet-planes that are constantly circling but the arguments in the shack next door and the fights outside – the ones that make the walls shiver and shake and make you keep a knife by your nest of old newspapers and blankets.

And yet it is still your space. You still sigh in relief when you get inside and shut the ill-fitting door behind you. It is still the place – perhaps the only one – where you can truly let your guard down and be yourself.

With me? Good. Now let’s try and take it in another direction:

You’re in your spaceship. It’s your single most important possession, your lifeblood: the thing you rely on to keep the (space) wolves from the door. It’s second-hand because a two-bit trader like you can’t afford to buy new. Every piece of kit, every wire, every relay has been replaced at least twice. Half the instruments don’t work, their components cannibalised to run more important systems. You had to take out an exorbitant loan to replace the oxygen-scrubber last time it went down on you.

Each trip earns you just enough to buy fuel for the next – maybe, if you’re lucky, with enough on top to keep up with the interest repayments. You still dream of earning enough to retire on a nice little place on Mars but each day you’re getting older and the dream’s not getting any nearer. Guess you should have listened to your Mama and taken that office job on Phobos, huh?

I suppose, in the interests of accuracy, I should make it clear that I have never lived in a shanty nor owned a spaceship working the Mars-Jupiter trading run. I know, I know – what a fraud I am. But I have lived in a house and been in a car. I can imagine what life would be like if you strip away the things you take for granted

I can also go the other way and imagine I was protected by perfection; that everything around me is new, pristine and inviolate (although if you do that it’s almost as good as saying ‘watch all this go wrong’ because them’s the rules).

Take what you know and strip it back. Or build on it. Write what you don’t know.

And, if you’re still in doubt, see what all these famous authors have to say on the subject.

A new beginning

A few months ago I put the opening scene of Oneiromancer right here on this very blog. It was a first draft. It wasn’t very good. And that’s fine: part of the reason I posted it was because it wasn’t great. It’s part of the process – a fair reflection of the sort of shit I churn out as I find my way, as I walk that road towards – hopefully – publishability.

But that’s my rational brain talking. I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable about it; vulnerable, embarrassed. It wasn’t very good. Letting the great wide world see something so raw and incomplete is terrifying. Plus it’s counter-productive: I’m trying to build a following. Anyone who read that will think I’m an amateur. It will not get me a publishing deal. It will not awe people with my hard-earned skills. It will not make anyone eager to read the rest of the work.

Now I’ve completed the first draft and I’m on the rewrite. So I’ve decided to put the second draft here on my blog and to expose myself again. This is partly to do all the things I’ve just said: I want to impress. But I also thought it’d be interesting – for anyone interested in the process – for people to be able to compare and contrast the two versions. To see what I’ve kept, what I’ve cut, the ways in which the scene has developed or changed emphasis. If that’s you, the link above will hyperspeed you to the original post.

Or you could just want to read an opening salvo. In which case, read this version. It’s better. If you disagree then something’s gone badly wrong somewhere.

And please, please, please let me emphasise: this isn’t finished either. It’s closer, but two drafts are nothing. Many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip etc etc. Let me show the whole thing to my beta-readers first. Let me get serious, deep feedback. Only in context will we know if it works or not.

Comments, as always, are welcome.

 

*          *          *

 

“You’re ready?” Rosenkrantz asked. He held his sword by his side, handsome in his doublet and hose.

Guildenstern shivered, though the night was warm. The estate wasn’t silent – never was, not in the middle of London – but it was the quietest it would get, mid-way between the pubs closing and the rush-hour starting back up again. “Are you –”
“We’ve been through it how many times?” Rosie cut her off. “We want to make a difference, right?”

Gilly sighed and turned away. She looked over the concrete balcony at the half-lit plaza – more concrete, the occasional stunted tree failing to bring life to the yard. In the distance there was a scream and a thump, as of someone running into a wheelie-bin. She twitched back her long dress, unsure, now they were actually out here, just how to go about being a vigilante.

Rosenkrantz touched her arm. “There,” he said.

She focused on a ground-floor gap in the buildings. A woman, colour swamped by the amber of security lights and streetlamps, burst into the square created by the arms of squat tower-blocks in which they stood. She looked terrified; even from their vantage point – twenty metres away and another fifteen up – they could see her eyes were wide, her breathing laboured. She glanced behind her – and into the amphitheatre came a man. Broad-shouldered, well built with a black beanie pulled tight over his ears, he sighted the girl and made for her.

Gilly felt Rosenkrantz tense as he raised the sword again and turned for the stairs –

“Wait,” Gilly said.

“What? This is what we’re here for. Vigilantes, remember?” Below the girl was sprinting for the far exit, the narrow gap between towers on the east side. The man was catching her, though; easy loping steps that covered the ground deceptively quickly. “She needs –”

“Something’s not right here,” Gilly said.

Rosenkrantz shifted uncomfortably. The sword remained unsheathed.

Below them the girl finally realised she wasn’t going to make the exit. She turned at bay; seeing this, the man too slowed, adopted a stance more ready for combat. Gilly watched his empty hands flex. He said something – a question, maybe. By way of an answer the girl reached into her demin jacket and pulled out a flick-knife. Street-lights reflected off the blade.

Still the girl backed off, the man cautious, now, but still coming at her. She slashed the air between them.

Rosenkrantz was fiddling with his scabbard, rocking it back and forth. “Gil –”

“No,” Gilly said. “Just… just watch.”

The girl below them slashed again, skipped forwards as she thrust towards her opponent’s chest. But this time, almost faster than the watchers could perceive, the man’s hand shot out and crashed against the girl’s wrist. The knife skittered across the paving stones.

The girl had backed up against one of the bare trees that seemed so out of place in this land of concrete. She shook her head mutely – and then, and then –

She changed.

Slowly she stood up straighter until she was taller than the man before her. The fear went from her expression, her mouth drawing tight and contemptuous. The man took a half-pace back and she laughed, hard and cruel, and there was something unhuman in it, some harmonic that rattled the fillings in the teeth. For a moment the background noise, the ever-present traffic, the nightbirds and night-dwellers were silenced.

Then the dogs started barking.

The woman held up her arm. Gilly watched as her fingers, her nails – they grew, sharpened, became talons. Her face darkened but there was no shadow on her now; as if a tattoo was only now coming to the surface.

The man stepped forwards and rammed the heel of his hand into the bridge of her nose. The snap echoed around the courtyard. She staggered back against the tree. And all the time she was changing, chin becoming pointed –

The man was on her before she could recover, grabbing a wrist in each hand and holding those horrible bladed fingers up and away –

“She’s not bleeding,” Rosenkrantz muttered. He was right. The nose seemed distorted but there was no splatter, no trail – and no sign of pain on the woman-thing’s face.

She tried to kick out but the man was ready for her, twisting his knees to deflect her legs away. She tried to angle her blades to scalp him but his grip was too strong, too rigid.

With a flexibility that Gilly knew she’d never have, the man calmly extended a foot and planted it in the woman’s neck. He pulled on her arms, stretching her, throttling with the dark sole of his boot. She let out a little gurgling sound, drool spilling down her sharp chin, head forced back against the tree-trunk at her back. She spasmed and shook, the gurgling turning into a keening wail. Still the man kept the pressure on.

“We should go down,” Gilly said. But before she could move there was a crunch of cartilage and the girl-thing went limp.

The watchers made their way towards the staircase as the man kept his boot on the throat. It was only as they reached the harsh grey steps that he stepped back, let go of the girl-thing’s arms and let her slip motionless to the ground.

“Follow him,” Gilly said. “We need to know who he is.”

The man was looking round now, face calm and controlled. As if he did this sort of thing every night. Rosenkrantz drew Gilly deeper into shadows. She didn’t think they’d been seen.

“Follow him,” she said again and he turned and started to stride back the way he’d come.

“So this is vigilanteism, is it?” Rosenkrantz muttered. “Not exactly as I’d imagined. What about you?”

“I’m going to dispose of that… thing.”

“What? Why?” he asked as they hurried, as quiet as they could, down to the courtyard.

“It’s not dead yet. Not dead enough.”

 

Act One Scene One (Draft One)

Gilly leant on the concrete balcony and stared at the half-lit plaza – more concrete, the occasional stunted tree failing to bring life to the yard. In the distance there was a scream and a thump, as of someone running into a wheelie-bin. Rosenkrantz was by her side. He touched her arm.

“There,” he said.

She focused on a ground-floor gap in the buildings. A woman, colour swamped by the amber of security lights and street lamps, burst into the bowl created by the squat circle of tower-blocks in which they stood. She looked terrified; even from their vantage point – twenty metres away and another fifteen up – they could see her eyes wide, her breathing laboured. She glanced behind her – and into the amphitheatre came a man. Big – not especially tall, but broad-shouldered, well built – he sighted the girl and made for her.

Rosenkrantz, at Gilly’s side, hissed and drew his sword. His muscles tensed as he turned for the stairs –

“Wait,” Gilly said.

“What?” The word carried urgency, impatience. Below the girl was running as fast as she could for the far exit, where the towers failed to slam shut and the main exit to the complex was to be found. The man was catching her, though; easy loping steps that covered the ground deceptively quickly.

“Something’s not right here,” Gilly said.

Rosenkrantz shifted uncomfortably but the sword remaining unsheathed.

Another glance back and the girl realised she wasn’t going to make the exit. She turned at bay; seeing this, the man too slowed, adopted a stance more ready for combat. Gilly watched his empty hands flex. He said something – a question, maybe. By way of an answer the girl reached into her demin jacket and pulled out an object. As the man approached she held it between them – a flick-knife, Gilly realised, as the blade sprang forwards, street-lights reflecting off the deadly metal.

Still the girl backed off, the man cautious, now, but still coming at her. She slashed the air between them but he barely hesitated, now only a step out of range of her trembling arm.

“Gil –” Rosenkrantz began, fiddling with his sword-hilt, rocking the scabbard back and forth.

“No,” Gilly said. “Just… just watch.”

The girl below them slashed again, skipped forwards as she thrust towards her opponent’s chest. But this time – almost faster than the watchers could perceive, the man’s hand shot out and crashed against the girl’s wrist. Numbed fingers jolted open and the blade skittered across the paving stones to rest against a wall.

The man spoke again and this time, to judge from the slight tilt of the head, it was definitely a question.

The girl had backed up against one of the stunted, bare trees that seemed so out of place. She shook her head mutely – and then, and then –

She changed.

Slowly she stood up straighter until, Gil realised, she was actually taller than the man before her. The fear went from her expression, her mouth drawing tight and contemptuous. The man took a half-pace back and she laughed, hard and cruel, and there was something unhuman in it, some harmonic that rattled the fillings in the teeth. For a moment the background noise, the ever-present traffic, the nightbirds and night-dwellers were silenced.

Then the dogs started barking.

The woman held up her arm. Gilly watched as her fingers, her nails – they grew, sharpened, became talons. Her face darkened but there was no shadow on her now; as if a tattoo had been hiding beneath the skin and was now coming out to play –

The man stepping forwards and rammed the heel of his hand into the bridge of her nose. The snap echoed around the courtyard. She staggered back against one of the stunted trees but didn’t seem to feel pain. And all the time she was changing, chin becoming pointed –

The man was on her before she could recover, grabbing a wrist in each hand and holding those horrible bladed fingers up and away –

“She’s not bleeding,” Rosenkrantz muttered. He was right. The nose seemed distorted but there was no splatter, no trail – and no sign of pain on the woman-thing’s face.

She tried to kick out but the man was ready for her, twisting his knees to deflect her legs away. She tried to angle her blades down to scalp him but his grip was too strong, too rigid…

With a flexibility that Gilly knew she’d never have the man calmly extended a boot and planted it in the woman’s neck. And he pulled on her arms, stretching her, throttling with the dark sole of his boots. She let out a little gurgling sound, drool spilling down her sharp chin, head forced back against the tree-trunk at her back. She spasmed and shook, the gurgling turning into a keening wail. Still the man kept the pressure on.

“We should go down,” Gilly said. But before she or Rosenkratz could move there was another crunch of cartilage giving – and the girl-thing went limp.

The watchers made their way towards the staircase, still watching as the man kept his boot on the throat for another minute – making sure, Gilly thought, that she was dead. Then, as they reached the harsh grey steps, he stepped back, let go of her arms and let her slip motionless to the ground.

“Follow him,” Gilly said. “We need to know who he is.”

He was looking round now, face calm and controlled. As if he did this sort of thing every night. Rosenkrantz drew Gilly deeper into shadows. She didn’t think they’d been seen.

“Follow him,” she said again and he turned and started to stride back the way he’d come.

“What about you?” Rosenkrantz asked.

“I’m going to dispose of that… thing.”

“What? Why?” he asked as they hurried, as quiet as they could, down to the courtyard.

“It’s not dead yet. Not dead enough.”

 *          *          *

This is the opening scene from my current work in progress, Oneiromancer. There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, and there’s a good chance this will be either heavily rewritten or cut completely as the inexorable tide of Editing swamps the novel. But, for now, all I can say is that I hope you enjoyed it. Or at least that it didn’t make you vomit coffee at the screen in disgust.

Welcome Home

The room was blank and cold.

“Choose.”

“What do you mean?” the man said.

“Choose. Add something.” The voice was impersonal, distracted. Neither male nor female, it sounded as if it had been doing this all its life.

“Warmth. Books. A chair.”

The room heated instantly – a comfortable temperature. A rack of shelves appeared on the wall, fading into existence as if they’d always been there. They were covered with brown, dog-eared titles; paperbacks and leather-bound hardbacks. They brought with them the smell of comfort. The man exhaled and fell into the armchair that had just appeared.

“Anything else?”

He realised then that he wasn’t actually hearing the voice. The words were simply appearing in his memory. “But – what do you want?”

“Me? This isn’t about me.” As if it had never considered the possibility. “Choose.”

The man looked around the chamber. “A window. A desk.”

They appeared as if straight from the subconscious; archetype objects. The man got up to tap at the surface of the desk, littered as it was with papers, pens, notes. Not just the object itself, but everything a desk was.

Through the window he saw landscape. It was nowhere and it was everywhere; frictionless, impossible. Even the colours had melted.

“What is this place?”

The voice hesitated. “Is there anything else?”

“I can’t think…”

“It is done, then.”

“Wait!” How he knew the voice was leaving he couldn’t say. Like it was turning away. “Wait – what is this place? What am I doing here?”

“Why, this is Hell, of course.”

“W-what do you mean?”

“This is your existence – I won’t say life, you’re done with that now – until the end of time.”

“But – but wait… Hell? This is –”

“Or Heaven. There’s really no difference.”

He had no words. His mouth flapped open, head shaking.

“It’s sad, really.” The voice – it was distant now, pausing by some invisible exit.

“W-what do you mean?”

“Eternity alone? What –”

“Company! Give me friends, give me my wife –”

“Too late now.”

“Who – who are you?”

“Just a soul who’s far more damned than you.”

The man felt a sigh like a whisper on the wind – except there was no breeze. Nothing moved. The window, he saw now, was closed. Sealed. He knew he’d never be able to get it open, never smash the glass.

He knew he’d still try, though.

He’d spend a long time trying.

*          *          *

 The entity drifted silently through a million blank walls, waiting for its next assignment. It shook its incorporeal head.

“‘What do you want?’” the voice chuckled. “As if, as if…”

The man’s fate wasn’t so bad, not really. At least he had books and paper, could do something to pass the centuries. No, not nearly as bad as the things the entity had seen. But it had hoped… A clever man like that…

“One day,” it sighed. “One day one of them will ask for a door.”

Par for the course

I’ve never had training. Never had any sort of writing teaching since GCSE (I got a B). Now I look at all the adverts for MAs, MSTs and whatever in Creative Writing and I wonder what they could do for me.

Would I learn how to deepen my characters and sharpen my dialogue? I suppose I would. Would I examine classic literature to analyse the techniques used? And of course there’s the one-to-one time with mentors and experts that would always be the most exciting part of any course for me. And finally I might learn what a damn gerund is.

But Hanif Kureshi – himself a professor of creative writing at Kingston University – has said that writing courses are ‘a waste of time’. He doesn’t think it’s possible to teach storytelling. I once applied for a writing fellowship and, whilst with hindsight I’m not surprised at my failure, I do wonder if the fact that I write genre and not literature was part of the problem.

It appears as is there’s a lot of snobbery endemic in university writing departments, as evidenced from the quote on Kent University’s 2013 prospectus. Its teachers ‘love great literature and don’t see any reason why our students should not aspire to produce it… We love writing that is full of ideas, but that’s also playful, funny and affecting. You won’t write mass-market thrillers or children’s fiction on our programmes.’

The backlash to this got it quickly removed from KU’s website. But how common is this attitude? That ‘literature’ is the only form of writing that matters? That crime writing, romance and all genre fiction is somehow what those with less ability and less imaginative write because they’re not good enough for ‘proper’ writing?

By way of contrast, City University London offers a specialist MA in crime writing. And University of Central Lancashire offers one in self-publishing (although this has been criticised for going too far the other way, with minimal advice on the actual writing – I quote: ‘the country’s 1st MA in self-publishing to help writers gain the skills they need to “become the next EL James”’. Because that’s really something to aspire to).

Every time I pick up a writing magazine or go to a festival website I’m bombarded by adverts pointing me at creative writing courses. But these can cost up to £9,000 a year. And whilst they may teach excellently, they still don’t result in a guaranteed career as a writer. They omit to teach skills writers need in the modern world; things like self-promotion, networking (although it strikes me that if you can get a recommendation from someone like Hanif Kureshi you’ve got a pretty good start there) or the simple facts of the publishing business.

So should I go on a creative writing course? I’m always tempted. At the very, very least it’d be stimulating, right? To have to write, to be surrounded by other writers, to feed off their enthusiasms, to bounce off their ideas…

There’s no way I could do this, not in my situation and with my complete lack of money. But I’d be interested if anyone out there has any experiences to share.