Notes On The Completion Of The

He kept returning to the online form.

Again and again.  Sometimes it would be enough just to navigate through to the page and take one look at it, then he would be clicking the back key.  Get out get out get out.

Another time he went to the online form and this time he didn’t read the whole thing, just started filling in the boxes, taking it one field at a time, not daring to look back, only filling in the fields marked with the red asterisk, the ones that were compulsory.  Then he went to click the button that would send him through to the next screen, but instead he hit the back button over and over until he could exit no further.  Then he closed his browser, shutdown his computer, unplugged the router from the wall.

The online form never slept.  Sometimes he would get up at two, three in the morning, switch on his computer and go to the website where the form lived.  It was always there, with its fields, with its drop down boxes.  And because the online form never rested, neither could he.

Knowing his nemesis was only ever a couple of clicks away, the internet became a place he didn’t like to be.  It was like how he wouldn’t go into town any longer, because if he went to town he might go to certain places where he was likely to see people he didn’t like to see.

Sleepless, he stayed up all night and read self-help books.  He cut sugar from his diet, swore off caffeine, consumed less fast food.  Started going to the gym every day, thinking the whole time that the online form must be defeated so that he could progress to the next stage of his life.

The day came when he was ready, finally ready to complete the online form.  Not just ready this time, but really, tryuly ready.

He buttoned himself into his biggest, thickest coat, pulled on heavy boots, wore sunglasses, poured a tot of whiskey, appeared to have grown a mean-looking beard.  Sat down at his computer.  From a piece of A4 paper he had cut a hole the exact same size and shape as the fields in the online form.  He moved the piece of paper across the screen so he had only to look at one field at a time, quickly input his information, moved the paper so he could see the next field.  He had done his homework, scoped out the territory – he knew the form inside out, knew exactly where to go next.  He completed all the fields and clicked the button to complete, imagining the online form, beaten, howling in defeat.

He had done it.

But the online form had one last trick up its sleeve – a new page, a different hoop through which he had never before been asked to jump.  It told him that before submitting the form, he must review the information input, and confirm.

After everything he had been through.

Months earlier, this would have finished him, he would have beaten a swift retreat.  But he was ready now.  He flexed his muscles, threw his viewfinder across the room, ripped off his sunglasses, gave a roar of defiance…

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Day #10869

January Round Up

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In his guise as writer in residence at the University of Nottingham, one of my favourite authors Jon McGregor has launched The Letters Page, an occasional journal comprising hand-written correspondence.  It’s on to its second issue now, but I was especially pleased to see another favourite of mine, Magnus Mills, pop up in the first with a note explaining how he didn’t have time to write a letter.

The quality of missives is high, with some that directly address the reader and others that weave strange fictions.  So far, a lot of the letters have referred to letter-writing.  My favourite in the first issue was one that spent the whole of itself ruminating on the fact that it was replying to an ‘urgent’ query – a query, it surmised, that could not have been so urgent if it were conducted by post.  For the answer to the query, it eventually referred the reader to the back of the piece of paper, yet this turned out to have been left blank.  Submissions for Issue 3 are open til 15th January.

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One of my own favourite postal correspondents, my friend Suzanna, will be driving from the East coast of America to the West, and back again.  Along the way she is taking her Pop Up Play project on the road.  To sponsor this trip she is selling advertising space on her car, so of course I plan to get Digestive Press written somewhere on it – coast to coast exposure (x 2!) – and am hoping to scratch up some form of short fiction that she might allow me to attach to the car via the magic of QR codes.  Technological!  Hypothetical!  Better-get-on-with-it-ical!

If you too would like to appear on the side of Suzanna’s car, you have until Sunday 12th January to get on it.

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The Bristol Short Story Prize (my favourite short story prize last year… can’t think why) is open for submissions for 2014 and I noticed the other day that there is now an interview with Paul, the winner from last year, up on the website.

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And may I bring to your attention a great new resource for short story readers and short story writers called Short Stops.  Excellent array of links to print and online literary journals to be both absorbed and potentially contributed to.

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And during the recent Christmas I took delivery of a new selection of ace-looking short story collections.  Rach got me Safe As Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino, a collection that I found, in places, a little too clever-clever, yet there were enough stories sufficiently clever that the cleverness wasn’t noticeable and didn’t get in the way of the actually very clever, brilliantly written fiction.

From Lee and Dave I got False Memory by Mani Obhrai, who twists everyday events to present them as strange happenings (I was also intrigued by the fact that he seems to be impossible to locate on the internet).  The brilliantly-titled Adam Robots by science fiction author Adam Roberts was also from Rach, and sits on my growing TBR pile.

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It’s not all about short stories.  About a year ago I was asked to take part in a meme called The Next Big Thing, in which I answered various questions about the next project I was hoping to complete.  I chose to write about The Octave Generation, a project I had been idly batting at for some time, but I didn’t answer the questions very interestingly and neither did I make much progress on it over the ensuing year.

In the last few weeks I have been working on a new novel-shaped project, the details of which I plan to keep under wraps for now but will describe for the moment as a science fiction period drama (that’s actually a terrible summary… but the only one I have).  I’m about 12,000 words in and have been sending Rach a chapter a week, treating it a bit like a serialisation.

I’ve always struggled to find a good pace for writing long pieces of work.  I tried doing NaNoWriMo and found that the word count demanded over a short space of time meant sacrificing quality control, on the other hand giving myself a deadline of 12 months to slowly meander towards the end of a first draft left me with no direction or impetus.  Handing across one 1500-2000 word chapter every week won’t get my novel written particularly quickly, but it seems like an achievable target.

Notes On Arming Ourselves Against The

“You don’t have ANY weapons? How did you expect to defend the house?”

We shrugged. He pushed his glasses up his nose and it was easy to imagine him as a schoolboy – part-nerd, part-commando – shooting needlessly at neighbourhood cats.

He looked at us again. We shrugged again. He sighed. We were standing in a triangle in the kitchen. I wanted to put the kettle on and make us all a hot drink, but was worried I would be mocked if that was my sole response to the crisis. So I didn’t put the kettle on.

“We can use the kettle as a weapon,” I said. “We can boil water and pour it out of the window.”

“And there are lots of knives in the drawer,” you added. “Well, a few. We could throw spoons. The potato masher would probably hurt if you threw it hard enough.”

No, we were not very well armed.

“Didn’t you learn from last time?”

So we went around the house, all three of us, looking at the things we might feasibly use as weapons. A skillet. A fire extinguisher. A hammer.

“The iron.” I pointed at the iron. “It’s heavy. We could swing it by its flex. BAM! It hits them. We pull it back. Throw it again. No?”

“Pizzas?” you asked. “If we cooked these pizzas we could throw them and burn them in the face.”

Before now, we hadn’t stopped to think how dangerous we might be. Everything in the house seemed one bad intention away from serving as accessory to a murder.

We assumed he had a well-stocked arsenal at home – swords, axes, guns perhaps. How badly he must have been missing them! How he must have wished he could get to them! But he would have been a fool to try, even if we let him take the pizzas.

Eventually you asked him. “So what’s your favourite weapon?”

He seemed to relax as he began to list the guns he owned, as if saying the names brought a kind of protection. He had pistols, rifles perhaps. We weren’t sure about the differences. They all came with initials and numbers and it was difficult to distinguish one from the other. We tried to ask what we thought might be the right questions.

“So how far can you shoot with that one, then?” “Which one is the loudest?” “Can you use the same bullets for each? Or is there some kind of-”

It was getting dark outside. If we stayed indoors, kept reasonably quiet and didn’t do anything stupid, we would be ok.

“What do you usually do at midnight?” he asked. We shrugged. Nothing special.

So the three of us stayed up until dawn – or whatever was going to be the equivalent in this new world. Maybe we seemed a bit jaded. Yes, yes, we’ve seen it all before. Twice. We had some food stockpiled, of course. We were prepared for that at least.

We sat up, using up all our puns and jokes and funny stories so that we were ready for the coming seriousness.

Day# 10862

Adventures in Writing and Reading, Part 17

Hello 2014.

2013.  Here’s what happened.  I didn’t write the novel I had planned but I got working on a different one, writing a portion each week.  Maybe it’s the way to go – (quietly) it seems to be working.  I also started sending short work to competitions, and enjoyed some success.  I had some stuff published in other places on the internet too.  I wrote 45 blog posts, apparently – thanks to all who took the time to read any of those.  I was mentioned on twitter by six whole people!  I finished the first part of an exciting new project (shhh).  Some things seemed to fall into place, other things remained unfathomable.  Weirdly, I started to enjoy the process of editing and revising my work.

As ever, I read a lot.  Here are notes on some of my favourite books from this year:

GEORGE R R MARTIN: A Song Of Ice And Fire Series (Book One – A Game Of Thrones; Book Two – A Clash Of Kings; Book Three, Part One – A Storm Of Swords: Steel And Snow; Book Three, Part Two – A Storm Of Swords: Blood And Gold…  and I’ve recently started, Book Four – A Feast For Crows)

After reading Infinite Jest in 2012, this year’s epic has been the beginning of George R R Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire series, AKA the books that inspired the tv show Game Of Thrones.  To be fair, the only thing it has in common with IJ is that it is considerably larger than most of the other books I read.  There the comparisons end.

P1020623I’m sure there are lots of places you could read about Mr R Martin’s skill in intertwining various histories and philosophies, his ability to keep track of so many disparate storylines, his creation of characters whose morals and motives are rarely black or white, the way he throws in plot twists and surprises that don’t feel forced, and etc etc …

But I want to write about the effect that reading this series has had on my own writing.  What Mr R Martin does is so far removed from what I do – in terms of the shape and size of his stories, not to mention popularity – that it would be tempting to assume there’s nothing relevant I could learn from him.  But I’ve never been very good at dialogue, and he uses dialogue very well to simultaneously advance the plot and help us discover more about the characters.  The fact that so much information is conveyed through dialogue betrays the fact that for all the wars going on across the seven kingdoms, these are books about politics.  I’m not very good at action scenes either, so I thought I might learn how to write them, but though there is some action, it’s interesting to see how often – and how skilfully – the author skips these scenes.  And I’ve been impressed with the way he chooses which parts of the story to tell – with so many strands to keep track of, there is a definite art to deciding which to return to and which to leave alone for a while so they can fester in the reader”s mind.

Maybe that’s the main thing – reading these books has made me give greater consideration to the reader.

JUAN PABLO VILLALOBOS: Quesadillas

Thanks to my subscription to And Other Stories, I have (technically) had my name in seven books published this year (six from them plus another one).  The way the subscription works is that they send a copy of each of the books they publish in a year – having read four of the six so far I’ve not been disappointed.  Rodrigo de Souza Leao’s All Dogs Are Blue is worth a mention, but my favourite has been Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Quesadillas

His first novel, Down The Rabbit Hole, having been the catalyst for me signing up to And Other Stories, I was eagerly anticipating this one.  And it didn’t disappoint. Villalobos’ surrealist comedy twists one way then another, skilfully blending references and themes. The titular quesadillas function as a measure of the family’s social standing, the teen narrator’s happiness seemingly dependent on how many of his siblings he can edge out in the battle for food.  But this isn’t a novel that stands still for long – just as the reader has the feeling that the narrator has no control over his life, so there seems no easy way to pin down the narrative of this crazy story.  The ending is just bizarre, wild, fitting.

(And before I get to the end of this round-up I should also quickly mention Antal Szerb’s Journey By Moonlight, William Hjortsberg’s Jubilee Hitchhiker and Steven Milhauser’s Dangerous Laughter, as well as Doris Lesisng’s The Good Terrorist (powerful, gripping), Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being (Murikamiesque mystery), Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ (searing collection of war stories that are not war stories), Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens Of Titan (enjoyably mental), Nicolas de Crecy’s The Celestial Bibendum (incredible… and incredibly weird) and China Mieville’s Railsea (a 19th century adventure novel transported to another time and place).  The list goes on.  I could prattle on all day.  Really I could.  I’ve reined myself in.  Just read any of these books, you won’t be disappointed (unless you don’t like the same kinds of books as me, but even then you might like them for a different reason))

CHRIS WARE: Building StoriesBuilding_Stories_cover

Apart from everything else, this Chris Ware gem / epic is a remarkable feat of publishing – a huge box full of twenty beautifully printed and bound pieces ranging from tiny chapbooks to huge gameboards.  But whilst it may seem like quite a sprawling piece of work it manages to retain an intimate feel, building an experience akin to slowly learning about a person’s history as you become friends with them.

Ware’s drawings are very precise and though his pages are full of things to look at, he is not averse to slowing the pace of life down to spend quiet, almost tedious moments with his characters as they go about their everyday lives.

I should try and explain what Building Stories is about, but it’s tricky because a) there is no set order in which to read the pieces that make up Building Stories and, b) there is no overarching plot as such.  The main character is an unnamed woman, though parts of the story concern themselves with her neighbours, the apartment block itself and a bee who, at one point, finds himself stuck inside the apartment.  What emerges is a poignant piece of work that remains capable of puncturing itself when it gets too heavy.  A fantastic piece of both art and literature.

There you are then.  Hope that made some sense.  Happy 2014!  This year I aim to explain myself more clearly.