Step right up! Step right up! Come see the blog of wordslinger extraordinaire, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!! (sic) Gasp as the geek bites the heads off chickenshits and snake-oilers! Shudder at the click-clack of his snickety-sharp teeth! And if you enjoy the show, ladies and gents, remember, all gratuities are much appreciated.
So, you may have seen this before when I posted a link to the interview outtakes on Craig Gidney's blog that I'm cribbing from. But I thought I'd bring it over here to stand as an intro to a sort of Writing 101 series of entries. Once this is posted I'll be wiring it into the menu above, and if you look under the Analysis menu option you should see a Writing 101... option, with a submenu for entries in that series. I'll be looking to click into that series, as they're written, any posts that deal with the basic nitty-gritty pragmatics of writing narrative. I'm not making any promises about timely developments, but as you'll see from the entries already written and collated, we're up to Rule Five in the Ten Rules of Writing outlined below -- which are mostly not really rules at all, to be honest, not Dos and Don'ts to apply to your writing, but rather glosses on the fundamentals of how narrative works, as I see it.
This series is my advice for any "new writer" then, this post the intro to... the sort of course I'd set out if I was stuck in front of a creative writing class, tasked with instilling them with the core skills. My ten rules?
You are not a new writer.
Any sign that you don’t know the ropes, is a sign that you’re not ready to go in the ring.
There is no story without style.
POV is not a communal steadicam.
Voice makes character.
Character makes action.
Action makes setting.
Making tea is not protagonising.
Don’t hide the story behind your back so you can sucker punch the reader with it later.
Find the tenth rule.
Some of these are simple, others maybe not so. The first is about mentality. Are you really just “beginning”? You’ve been writing since you first scrawled your name. You’ve been making up narrative since your first daydream. Does it matter if you didn’t even start doing those together until you hit forty, if you write The Naked Lunch? That’s the point: all that really matters is whether you’re skilled or unskilled, and thinking of yourself as a novice or amateur… that’s a rationalization that you lack skill because you’re a learner, an amateur. Bollocks to that. You’re always going to be learning. You might never be published. The nearest you come to a graduation is the day you cease to accept any excuse for a lack of skill in your work. In fact, if you’re looking at other writers like they’ve achieved a special status you wish you had — call it established, professional, whatever — you’re engaging in a fantasy of being a writer when you should be writing. Because you are a writer. Not a beginning writer. Not a new writer. Just a writer.
The second rule is basically just presentation — functional prose in the required format. It should go without saying, but a lot of writers aren’t wired into the sort of online communities or writers' groups where you learn this. The third is possibly a bit contentious, but as far as I’m concerned style versus content is a false dichotomy. Words are the only substance. Style is just how you put them together at all levels — sentences, paragraphs, passages, scenes, chapters, acts. Whether you end a chapter on a wrap-up or a cliff-hanger is a stylistic decision. The key point is that your narrative is an articulation and if it doesn’t work as such, it won’t conjure the story. You can’t just slap some words together into a rough semblance of a vague description of the movie running in your head and expect readers to enjoy the story without that “patina” of style obscuring the “content.” Plot, theme and character are interpretations of story, which is conjured by the narrative. There is no “content.” Words are the only substance.
The others mainly speak for themselves. The confusion of multiple third person limited and omniscient narrator into muddled third person limited and/or amnesiac narrator is the first thing to watch for. Mastering narrative voice (which will also help you stick to a POV) will bring your characters more alive than spieling a profile — physical description, traits and attributes, backstory summary. Actually it’ll bring other characters alive in your viewpoint characters attitude to them; they’ll be fleshed out in that character’s perception as coded into the narrative itself — as will action and setting. But more pointedly, action is only action if it matters to a character; otherwise it’s just stuff happening. It’s the character’s attitude to peril that makes it peril. And the conflict of a narrative — the agon — depends on your characters having agency; without that you just have tin soldiers being smashed against each other. Setting maybe isn’t dependent on action per se, but time and change is a part of any locale, and the principle of the “telling detail” applies here; a leaf falling from a tree can do as much to conjure a forest as reams of blather. And in terms of making tea? Sometimes that’s literally making tea. Mundane tasks like that can be protagonising — as when making tea after a death in the family is a character distracting themself from grief — but dawdle and dross are just tedious.
The penultimate rule -- the only one that really is a rule -- addresses something I’ve been surprised to see in quite a few of the works I’ve critiqued — authors not just keeping a card up their sleeve to make a dramatic revelation with a shocking twist, but completely obscuring the story itself by keeping a POV character’s backstory, for example, a secret to the reader… even though the character knows it, everyone else knows it, the logic of their interactions makes it absurd they don’t talk about it, and most of the action is in fact predicated on that backstory. Aha! the writer says, when they suddenly reveal on page 450 that the POV character is the son of the antagonist… as both of them knew all along. This is especially bad when “later” equals “in a sequel.” Hiding the story till then means not having a story at all.
The tenth rule you’ll have to explain, once you find it.
Anyway, as I say, if you look at the menu bar atop the page you should find the entries in that series so far. If you want a better sense of exactly what each of these "ten rules" are about, start at the top and work your way down.
In the paid critiques I do for the Writers' Workshop, I'm often faced with writers with a level of narrative prose so rudimentary that I really can't just tell them it needs polish in this respect or that; I pretty much have to tell them the basics of how to write a sentence. Of narrative, that is. Even when the prose is perfectly acceptable as prose in and of itself, there can be so much that's wrong, to be honest, in terms of how it works as narrative, that the easiest thing to do is just pick one sentence in particular and show them how to rewrite it, take them step-by-step through the application of some basic principles. Hell, even when their prose isn't too bad, it's easier to demonstrate than to explain the how abstractly.
So I've thought for a while that maybe I should turn all that work into some sort of Sentence Writing 101 post for the blog, but of course, I can't exactly use a client's text even anonymously. What to do, then? What to do? It's actually kind of hard to deliberately write a sentence that's fucked up in all the ways I need for such a demo. But fear ye not. A flash of inspiration hit me, I had a quick shufty online, and came up with this prime example from Jim Theiss's seminal 1970 novel, The Eye of Argon:
A sweeping blade of flashing steel riveted from the massive barbarians hide enameled shield as his rippling right arm thrust forth, sending a steel shod blade to the hilt into the soldiers vital organs.
I think we can safely all agree that this is unmitigated shite, yes? OK, then. Let's take a closer look at it and see if we can't perform a little alchemy, transform it... well, if not into gold then at least into a serviceable steel. Because really, the principles involved in writing a decent fucking sentence of narrative... they're not that fucking complex.
There are many things you want to say in a sentence, but you can't say them all. Decide between them. There are many ways a thing might be said. Decide between them. There are many words on the shelf, close enough to hand that you could grab any one of them and just chuck it in there. Don't. Stop. Look at those words. Decide between them. And when you do put the words down on the page, there's still a decision to be made as to whether the sentence says what you want it to.
Good decision is conscious, considered, confident, conclusive*. To be those things, decision must be informed. Decision resolves. Decision is therefore ultimately about clarity -- clarity of purpose creating clarity of import.
You're aiming to say three things here, that (1) a blade is swung by a barbarian as (2) his arm thrusts forward, (3) skewering a soldier's belly.
The word "riveted" has been grabbed off the shelf. Is this what you mean? Check the dictionary. No, it's not. How about "enameled"? No, that's clearly just the first that came to hand too. You figured, what the fuck, it was close enough -- but it's not. And "shod"? A blade is made of steel, not shod with it. Did you stop and think what you're trying to say? Did you mean that the sword comes out of the shield (huh?!) or out from behind it? Did you mean that the blade is sent to the hilt or that it's sent up to the hilt?
With "rivet," you should be deciding that you mean a sudden action as from a riveter's gun -- a shooting forward. With "enameled," you should be deciding that you mean "wrapped in." With "steel shod blade," you should be deciding you just mean "steel blade." You should be deciding that the sentence needs "behind" and "up":
A sweeping blade of flashing steel shot forward from behind the massive barbarian's hide-wrapped shield as his rippling right arm thrust forth, sending a steel blade up to the hilt into the soldier's vital organs.
There are many things you can say in a sentence, but you don't want to say them all. We do not give a fuck about many of the things you could say. We do not give a fuck about most of them. Redundancy is fat, and fat should be flensed. Adjectives and adverbs -- all modifying terms -- are to be met with the ruthless scalpel of a surgeon. Do they actually add information that is not carried in the verb or adjective already? Even if so, is it information we need? Even whole clauses are to be put to the sword if they repeat what has already been said. If clarity is a primary aim, so too is economy. Excise all that is extraneous.
So here, since the motion of the sword is the predicate of a clause, it doesn't have to be a quality of the subject too. "The moving blade moved" is redundancy, the verb rendering the adjective extraneous. We can eliminate "sweeping" then. We don't need to specify that it's his "right" arm either; the reader's imagination will default to that. And if the blade "shot forward" then we don't need to know that the arm holding it "thrust forth." This is one action, not two. The secondary action performed by that arm is to send the sword into the soldier's guts, so we can cut and stitch. Similarly we already know that the object in use is "a steel blade."
A [sweeping] blade of flashing steel shot [forward] from behind the massive barbarian's hide-wrapped shield as his rippling [right] arm [thrust forth], sending [a steel blade] up to the hilt into the soldier's vital organs.
A blade of flashing steel shot from behind the massive barbarian's hide-wrapped shield as his rippling arm sent it up to the hilt into the soldier's vital organs.
There are many ways a thing might be said. Vaguely is not good enough. Where a sentence of basic prose is purposed to communicate, a sentence of narrative is purposed to conjure. A sentence that only communicates what happened is not narrative; it is deposition. Your job is not just to convey the basic gist of a sequence of events to the reader, but to invoke that sequence of events vividly in their imagination from the cumulative import of every word and phrase. Vividness is cumulative, but so is vagueness, and vagueness is not good enough. Exchange generic terms for precise ones. Look for stopgap phrasings where there's an exact word for the meaning you're delineating clumsily. Look for stopgap combinations that don't work if you really consider the precise meaning. After clarity and economy comes accuracy.
So, here, "shot" is a generic term for sudden movement, including all manner of firing and dashing motions. The word you want is "thrust." Likewise "sent" is a generic term for getting something from A to B, where we could be using something specific to the immersion of a blade in a soldier's guts, like "buried." The term "hide-wrapped" is a stopgap phrasing for a meaning nailed by the term "leathered." Knowing this about the shield, we know what type of shield it is, can replace the generic "shield" with "targe." And "rippling arm" is rather inaccurate. An arm doesn't ripple; it's the muscles of an arm that ripple. So we take the sentence on another step:
A blade of flashing steel thrust from behind the massive barbarian's leathered targe as the rippling muscles of his arm buried it up to the hilt in the soldier's vital organs.
There are many words on the shelf that you could use to say precisely what you mean. But there are some words you can use to say even more than precisely what you mean here. And if the additional import is one you're trying to convey elsewhere, you can pot those two balls with one shot. The word or phrase you use to describe an action can capture qualities of the object performing it, and vice versa. If you can say two things with one word, do so. Even if there's no rebound import, if you can use two words in place of three, do so.** "But isn't this just economy?" I hear you say. Yes, this is economy returned with a vengeance. Where economy is about rigour, this is about vigour.
So, the word "flashing" is here being used to conjure the reflection of light off the blade, but it is also loaded with an import of motion, sudden and swift. So we can kill two birds with one stone, let "flash" be the verb. It lacks the precision of "thrust," but it binds object and action into object-in-action. The phrase "blade of steel" can also now become simply "steel blade."
A steel blade flashed from behind the massive barbarian's leathered targe as the rippling muscles of his arm buried it up to the hilt in the soldier's vital organs.
When you put the words down on the page, does the sentence say what you want it to? The question is, what do you want it to say? The better question is, what do you want it to do? Do you want it to, for example, encapsulate the import of the action, as it happens, how it happens? To cut to the very quick of the event, to conjure it not just as a superficial description of how this did that and such-and-such happened, but to slice it open and drop the reader right in it? Then you need to carve into the nature of reality itself.
How does a sudden attack that puts a sword in your belly play from the inside? If you'd seen the blade properly would it be in your belly? Didn't you see it properly a little too late, when it was up to the hilt? Shift that "blade" and we shift the awareness of it.
Steel flashed from behind the massive barbarian's leathered targe as the rippling muscles of his arm buried his blade up to the hilt in the soldier's vital organs.
Did his arm skewer you with his sword or did he do it, him, the fucking cunt? Did your arm skewer him with your sword or did you do it, you, because you're a fucking god among men? Let muscles of his arm do what they actually did -- ripple -- and let the barbarian take the glory/guilt that's his:
Steel flashed from behind the massive barbarian's leathered targe, as the muscles of his arm rippled and he buried his blade up to the hilt in the soldier's vital organs.
Is his mass mere flabby corpulence, or is it the rippling-muscled brawny bulk of a warrior? Attach "massive" to the muscle rather than the barbarian and we lose the direct specification of his size but gain a more precise, albeit indirect, specification that conjures the larger picture from the telling detail:
Steel flashed from behind the barbarian's leathered targe, the massive muscles of his arm rippling as he buried his blade up to the hilt in the soldier's vital organs.
Apply concision. Apply all previous principles. These aren't stages you move on from, go through one by one. There's no moving on until the sentence is good. So, apply concision. What are "massive muscles" but brawn?
Steel flashed from behind the barbarian's leathered targe, the brawn of his arm rippling as he buried his blade up to the hilt in the soldier's vital organs.
Did you bury your blade in his vital organs, or did you sink it in his guts? How do you think of innards as a barbarian? How do you think of sticking the fucker? Isn't there just a little more of your satisfaction reflected in a sssssank!
Steel flashed from behind the barbarian's leathered targe, the brawn of his arm rippling as he sank his blade up to the hilt in the soldier's guts.
There are many ways to structure the words in a sentence. There are all the commas and conjunctions you could ever want on the shelf, close enough to hand that you could just grab them and chuck them onto the page, as and when it seems you could maybe do with one. Put them down and look at the sentence. Just because it's grammatically correct doesn't mean it's good. Remember, where a sentence of basic prose is purposed to communicate, a sentence of narrative is purposed to conjure. The logic of structuring a sentence of narrative goes beyond grammar. It is a matter of dynamics, of focus turning and twisting this way and that, slick as a swordsman's parry, feint and thrust. The structure of your sentence is its dynamics. The dynamics of your sentence is its drive. The drive of your sentence is the impetus of narrative, drawing the reader in, whirling them through your slingshot syntax, hurtling them onward, sentence to sentence to sentence. There are many ways to structure the words in a sentence. Decide between them.
So, here, the swift flashing of steel requires a swift phrasing. So we switch the full descriptor for a punchier pronoun, let the brute hulk of the barbarian fall back to his moment of triumph:
Steel flashed from behind his leathered targe, the brawn of his arm rippling as the barbarian sank his blade up to the hilt in the soldier's guts.
If that steel is being whipped out from behind the shield, suddenly being made visible, we can let the structure of the sentence reflect that, present the "from" adverbial first, then spring the flashing steel upon the reader as suddenly as it's sprung on the soldier:
From behind his leathered targe, steel flashed, the brawn of his arm rippling as the barbarian sank his blade in the soldier's gut up to the hilt.
When does the brawn of his arm ripple? Simultaneous with the sinking of the blade, but after the flash of steel? Or vice versa? Is it all happening at once -- steel flashing as brawn ripples as the blade sinks into guts? Or is what we're going for here the sequence in which they register, the shift of those moments... quick, quick, and suddenly all too final.
From behind his leathered targe, steel flashed, the brawn of his arm rippled, and the barbarian sank his blade in the soldier's guts up to the hilt.
If we're applying the same logic of perception to the rippling of brawn as to the flashing of steel though, let's apply the same syntax. We're not losing the precision of an arm, if you think about what brawn is actually involved here. We're gaining the precision of an arm, a shoulder, a whole body putting its bulk behind that blow:
From behind his leathered targe, steel flashed, brawn rippled, and the barbarian sank his blade in the soldier's guts up to the hilt.
But in that final action, is it awkward that the "up to the hilt" is dislocated from "sank his blade"? Would a reversal of phrasing, "sank his blade up to the hilt in the soldier's guts," be better? Or maybe that dislocation is exactly what we want -- two stages for the blade's motion, "in" and "up to the hilt." Let's apply incision here, and carve ourselves a new clause entirely, bring back a verb from the cutting room floor to give the barbarian a syntax that springs out steel and brawn on the soldier too fast for him to deal with, skewers the poor fucker in the belly, and then drives his death home to him with relish:
From behind his leathered targe, steel flashed, brawn rippled, and the barbarian sank his blade in the soldier's guts, thrust it up to the hilt.
That's how you write a sentence. It's not a great sentence, just passable, but then really, if you asked me to get to a good sentence from that line, I'd suck my teeth, shake my head and say, "You don't want to be starting from here, mate." But it's a functional sentence of narrative, wrangled out of shite by the application of basic principles to the words and their structurings -- those principles of decision, excision, precision, concision, incision... which are all, you'll note, derived from the Latin word for cut. Words are, as I've said before, the only substance. Style is not a patina, a decorative finish; it is a process, the process described above, performed with the scalpel of one's savvy upon that substance.
Which is why, of course, the end result is 25 words versus the 34 of the original.
Because style is not a fucking patina.
* Excellent decision is instinctive, intuitive, instant, a skill learned to automation, but to master the skill to excellence you need to go through competence. If you think you have mastery as an innate facility, I am not innarested in your condition.
** Unless there's a damn good reason not to, like not demoting an object to mere modifier, or simply because it would foul the rhythm. Note that I haven't changed "rippling muscles of his arm" to "rippling arm muscles." The rhythm of the former is smooth, a slicker combo of syncopated punches finishing on an uppercut -- DUMdum DUHruhruhruh DUM -- while that of the latter is awkward -- DUDdum DUM DUHruh -- not helped by the shared "m" at the end of "arm" and start of "muscles."
From a couple of years back, a series of cityscapes constructed as collages of gay pornography. You may well have seen these before, if you've been following this blog for a while; I figured I'd collate them into a single post while I'm transferring links from the sidebar to the menu.
Yes, it's been... a long time, to put it mildly, the last few years having mostly, it seemed, consisted of running excitedly ahead on this or that project, and slamming face-first into a brick wall after just enough steps to get up the optimum speed for breaking one's nose. OK, let's get this show on the road, let's get the ball rolling, fire up the creative engines and -- SMACK! What the -- why the - who the fuck put that there? And what the fuck is it anyway? A financial crisis, you say? A relationship meltdown, you say? Ach, never mind, I'm sure I can soldier on and -- THUMP! Oh, that would be a slow and crawling dread that you've really, secretly written the One Book that was in you, that having exorcised this 400,000 word monster from your backbrain, that daimon that was in you is now gone, flown the nest. Oh sure, it pops back to visit from time to time, and over a passionate evening, weekend or fortnight, you and the muse get busy, and out of these sporadic flings comes some short fiction or poetry, but is it going to stick around for the long haul on anything now, or have you had your share?
Thing is, the way gamblers are about Lady Luck is the way at least some of us scribblers are about the Muse -- irrationally personifying it, that is, attributing it all sorts of freaky behaviours that largely amount to fucking with our heads. As soon as you get far enough into a project that it's properly a project now, not some half-arsed experimental notes and jottings -- as soon as you commit, basically -- that's when the Muse decides, I'm boooooooored; I wanna do something else. And so you find yourself sitting at the laptop, this inner monkey clambering out of you as you try to grab it, climbing the curtains, clamping itself on your shoulders when you pry it down, twisting around till it's latched on like a facesucker from Alien, till you're screaming through a mouthful of fur: Fucking sit the fuck down and fucking BEHAVE, YOU FUCKING FUCK! Swear to Cock, sometimes it's like getting a dog into a bath, a cat into a box and a child to bed -- simultaneously -- just trying to get your own creative MonkeyBrat to do... what it fucking wanted to do in the fucking first place. What it fucking demanded to do, insisted was the single most important thing in your life.
Now, me, I seem to have evolved a couple of coping strategies for dealing with my inspirational sprite's wantonness and disregard. The first is not entirely healthy, I'm sure, since it basically consists of not fucking stopping for other than the most cursory necessities of teas, pees, nosh, snooze and booze -- the latter meaning, like say, a weekly pub meeting with mates, required to maintain at least some sense of connection with reality. I'm not talking PKD's amphetamine-fuelled week-long stints here, but if you don't give the MonkeyBrat time to lose interest, if you can keep the momentum up, writing through the wee hours to midday, writing till you're too fucked to write any more... well, I do find it keeps me in the Zone. When you wake up at five in the afternoon after a three hour nap, you're still thinking about the story -- and that's what counts, right?
As I say, it's hardly the healthiest approach, but I've found it a way to get something done even when the MonkeyBrat is refusing point-blank to work on, say, the retelling of Gilgamesh that's meant to be your third novel, the one that you've been blathering about for years, the one that tons of people are really quite excited about, the one that you open up in Scrivener and stare at only for the MonkeyBrat to leap out of your head, plank itself on the keyboard and stare back at you in utter inscrutability. Actually maybe it's less of a monkey, more of a lemur. Like this guy:
Lemurs have more of a "I might just be evil, you know" look to them, I think. Like, "I look all cute like a monkey, but I might just have the babybreath-sucking soul of a cat, bwahaha. Not that I'm telling you."
Anyways, with that little fucker staring me coldly down over FUR, realising that I just wasn't getting anywhere trying, Cock knows, trying to trudge on ahead word by word by word, I did find that just saying, Fuck this shit, and jumping into short stories was one escape. I've seen others say similar things when it comes to writers' block, that for them it's seldom an absolute and crippling inability to write anything at all. When you can write a full short story in a one night blast, dusk to dawn, of impassioned swashtyping, wordbuckling, swaggering wild-eyed zeal, really, it seems even a bit nuts to describe yourself as blocked. It's projects that run into ditches, stall with bone-juddering suddenness, grind to a halt, gears jammed... if you can't keep them running at a breakneck speed for the finish line, going so fast that there's just no time for something to fuck it all up.
Of course, health aside, the real problem with that "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" approach is that it's therefore more suited to short fiction than long. Whipping the MonkeyBrat into a shrieking howling fury of (somehow wondrously right) word-flinging can only be sustained so long. Sooner or later there's... well, not so much a Person From Porlock as a Long Weekend In Porlock. Some fucking thing comes up that takes you out of the Zone for two, three, four days and when you're done with it, you sit down at the slightly longer project, the one that's not a full novel, but pushing towards that length -- "Assault! On Heaven!" say -- and there he is, sitting on your keyboard, staring at you again:
So you extend the "jumping ship" technique to a strategy in its own right. OK, if that novella ain't going anywhere right now, I've got an idea for a Bradbury-meets-Davenport idyll on a terraformed Mars. It's gonna be long, but let's see how far we can get on it by treating it as an escape when I'm meant to be working on "A!oH!" And if you grind to a halt on that, why, that's when you jump back to "A!oH!" treating that as an escape from this other novella that the MonkeyBrat is now refusing to work on simply because the little fucker is now seeing that as work ergo not fun ergo not a creative act. Fucking pig-headed fucking intransigent fucking stubborn fucking downright thrawn bastard motherfucker of a gleetsucking cuntmunch, you think, I will hoodwink you into getting something of a decent length completed if it's the last fucking thing I do.
So, yeah, this has been the shape of things for me over the last few years, to be honest, all too aware of eager eyes awaiting projects I am actually still stoked about but hadn't, until recently, been able to evolve the requisite writerly discipline to defeat the wicked wiles of the MonkeyBrat. Until recently, I say, for bless the little cotton socks of Gary Gibson and a fair few other writers on Twitter -- none of whom probably actually have the little cotton socks that phrase actually conjures for me (like, ickle girly bobby-sox, yanno?) -- I have found Freedom.
Yes, apparently there's a third strategy for getting around the MonkeyBrat which simply involves switching off the fucking interwebs. Duh. It sounds to simple to be true, but yes, this little piece of software that just kills your internet connection for however many minutes you specify, up to eight hours at a time, somehow turns MonkeyBrat into this:
Whut the WHY?! says MonkeyBrat. No interwebz?! Buts what are I do NOWZ?!?!?!
Lookit, MonkeyBrat, says I. A shiny half-written novel... Look at it just waiting to be finished.
Awwww, buts novelz am BOOOOOORI- ooh, wait! I GOTZ AN IDEA!!!! I GOTZ AN IDEA!!!!
Seriously, having somehow miraculously managed to sustain an insane pace on the new novel through the hectic hurly-burly of my 40th, most of the way up until the Christmas/Hogmanay period, getting halfway through the second draft's work of weaving in a framing/interstitial narrative thread of what I guess you could call an "unreliable editor," so close to the end I could fucking taste the Guinness waiting to be downed in celebration, I found that the Feastival Fortnight In Porlock had derailed all that momentum completely. And trying to get back into it, I found myself yet again gnashing my hair and tearing my teeth at a frustrating inability to engage with a work that I cared about deeply and that, this time, was near enough completion that I knew it wasn't a matter of some misstep here or missing piece there.
(Like, I got blocked on "Escape from Hell!" for *cough* months because I hadn't realised a crucial but simple detail about Lucifer's viewpoint. I suspect one common cause of project-specific block might just be the niggling quasi-conscious knowledge that something isn't right, that there's something gone wrong somewhere, something that's maybe just not there at all, and unless that's fixed the rest is going to be dead on the page, stone cold fucking dead. And you can't know something until you know it, and until you know it, you're only going to fuck it up, end up with a half-arsed failure of commitment, a fucking compromise of a work where you've shrugged and said, oh well, I suppose that'll do. Bollocks to that. Adequate just ain't adequate, man. Mediocrity is not a fucking option.)
So, yeah, there I am discovering yet again the joy of Xeno's Paradox as it applies to writing fiction, where you half the distance to the end again and again, but with each push forward the time it takes doubles -- if it doesn't go up by an even larger exponent -- until it feels like wading through tar. And MonkeyBrat, of course, starts kicking off now, climbing the curtains, hurling objects from the top of the fridge. Only this time, spurred to action by the wise words of the aforesaid Mr Gibson, I download the free trial of Freedom, install it and fire it up. And forty minutes later, the internet withdrawal shakes are kicking in and I'm up there on the curtains with MonkeyBrat, but I have... a little bit more written. And I check my email and Twitter, fire up Freedom for another forty minutes and... end up with a little bit more on the page. And indeed, the more I do it, the more MonkeyBrat starts behaving.
Oh, look, there's the little pop-up that says time's up and we can get back on the interwebs again!
Shooshtz! I are SKRIBBLING here! Iz FUN!
And lo and behold, in just a few days, I'm back in the Zone, and in just a week or so I'm... done. I feel like I've kicked a crack habit. No, I feel like I've taken it out back and put a fucking bullet in the back of its head. That little app, Freedom... man, it's well-named. I haz a new novel done and dusted. Finally. After fucking forever.
I await with no small trepidation to see how my agent and the few beta-readers I've sent it out to will respond to TESTAMENT, my anarcho-socialist détournement of the gospels -- that would be the five gospels, by the way, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Thomas -- written in seven parts of six titled sections of four panels of exactly five hundred words each. It's... out there. I mean, sure, Michael Moorcock and Gore Vidal and Philip Pullman have all tackled that subject matter. And while it's fair to say my own approach is somewhat confrontational over the anti-Semitism I root in two millennia of Roman apologism*, this is a serious engagement with the scriptural mythos in a way that "Escape from Hell!" is not. It is not, by any means, transgressive just for the sake of being transgressive, or even as EfH! is, in fidelity to a balls-out satirical stance. But I'm all too aware that the word "controversial" is likely inevitably, tediously going to be attached to this. That the subject matter and some of the metafictional devices at play may well make some readers think that, yep, he's actually followed PKD into religious nutjob land. And yeah, that the whole five hundred words per passage thing... well, I'm sure editors just love working with texts confined by crazy arbitrary Oulipo constraints like that.
But fuck it. I think it's a fucking good book right now. Right now it feels fresh and fierce, and most of all it feels finished. No doubt I'll fall out of love with it if and when it gets sold, fingers crossed, and I have to work my way through edits and copy-edits and page proofs till I'm cursing the infernal thing. But right now, I have that kick-ass satisfaction of a full-on novel in the bag after too many years of fucking around. Almost feels like something I needed to get out of my system, the culmination of years of thematic flirtation. Like now I can get on with everything else. I'm itching to get the sequel to "Escape from Hell!" done and dusted too, hopefully over the next few weeks. I know what's up next. The MonkeyBrat feels like he's back inside my skin, his hands mine as we fling words at the screen with wild-eyed precision. We're back in business.
And talking of business -- talking of "Escape from Hell!" and aforesaid Mr Gibson as introduced me to the blessed Freedom -- just as a little addendum, I should probably let y'all know that it looks very much like "Escape from Hell!" will be joining the line-up of Gary's new ebook imprint, Brain In a Jar Books, and thereby becoming available to all you as likes to read on them thar newfangled whatjamaflips rather than via dead tree mulch. So yeah, all is good with the world, as far as I'm concerned. 2012 is shaping up nicely so far and I'm keen to get me teeth into stuff as will keep it going thus.
Ciao for now.
*Two millennia of Roman apologism carrying on right up to the 2000 production of Jesus Christ Superstar wherein, as you'll see from about 3.09 in this YouTube clip, the process of fucking blood libeling the Jews as "Christ-killers" reaches its absolute fucking nadir (apotheosis?) in staging the scourging so it's not the Romans whipping him, oh no, not some fascii-toting centurion soldier of the occupying force, but rather the Jewish people, one by fucking one running up to slap the Aryan anointed with their blood-spattered hands.
For real. By visual symbolism, they actually transfer even the action of the torture -- transfer not just culpability but action -- out of the hands of the Romans and into the hands of the Jews, not just exploiting but developing, furthering, what is possibly the single most heinous textual taproot of systematic scapegoating in all of history, that whole, "Let his blood be on our hands and on our children's hands" line. I would almost say, watching this, that words fail me. But they didn't. They don't. Words boil up out of my soul in bloody defiance and accusation. Eighty four thousand words to be exact.