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Automatic Writing

15 Nov

I’ve chanced upon a new way of generating stories. My primitive smartphone has apparently developed the ability to send text messages all by itself. It’s a new form of automatic writing. As I was walking into town, I pulled the device out of my jacket pocket to find out what time it was and discovered the following message, addressed to no one:

I was sitting on the bus going home when I saw O’Donnell. Missed your Carlson 😦 

Clearly, it’s the beginning of a story of some kind. But who are O’Donnell and Carlson? And to whom is the first-person narrator addressing himself, this person who somehow lays claim to Carlson? It’s a little disconcerting to reflect that one of the main characters in my last work was called O’Connell and my current one contains several characters whose  surname is Kaarelssens… Has my phone begun to pick up on my subconscious, then? Maybe it’s not so dumb after all.

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The author and his neanderthal-phone.  Disturbingly, The Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy lies just behind his right shoulder…

The things our devices do for themselves – and mine’s not even an Android. The third sentence was absolute gibberish, mind you.

Could okloplooooojn meet two-inchoooa?

I’ve previously considered using predictive text to generate surreal, nonsense pieces in the manner of the Oulipo’s ‘S Plus 7’ technique, replacing the nouns in a piece with the ones that follow at seven alphabetical removes (let’s face it, it’s still preferable to the ‘S Club 7’ technique which replaces all meaning with inanities). So far I’ve resisted. It would appear that my phone has taken matters into its own hands. If you should happen to receive a nonsensical message from me in the near future, blame my phone.  

Maybe you can infer more about O’Donnell, Carlson and that third man than me or my phone. If so, feel free to complete the paragraph for us both in the comment box below. 

All text and images © PSR 2016

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Bainbridge Syndrome

17 Apr

Beryl Bainbridge was a real character. She was short-listed five times for the Booker Prize and highly regarded by many. The Times included her in its list of the fifty best British writers since WW2 (it’s an odd litany, mixing populist choices with genuine contenders). I’ve only read two of her novels and don’t feel greatly inclined to read another. Part of the reason I haven’t read any more is that I find them under-written. Yes, they’re intelligent and have great premises but they feel like they need at least another two drafts. Maybe I’ve read the wrong ones. Nevertheless, she provides a useful piece of shorthand for the sin of insufficient revision, Bainbridge Syndrome.

I’ve witnessed it in writers I’ve known. A member of a writing group I belonged to claimed that he never revised his work and could knock out a novel in a matter of months. It didn’t show in his writing, of course… I definitely suffer from it. And my writing suffers too. I never give my manuscripts as many drafts as they need. Bainbridge was pretty prolific. Perhaps this was the cause of the malady in her case. For me, the cause is simple. I don’t have sufficient time to see my projects through to true fulfilment. I’m not a full-time writer and have never enjoyed that luxury. The bills have to be paid. I don’t have a private income. I haven’t ever received a bequest. And thus that extra draft or two that my fiction requires doesn’t materialise.

I’ve recently been reminded of this deficiency in my writing. A reading group, some of the members of which I know, is about to read my novella, Norwegian Rock. So I felt I ought to re-read it myself. If I’m honest, I was quite pleased with how well it stood up. But one thought kept occurring to me – if only I’d given it another draft. Yesterday, I met up with a good friend of mine, who is also a writer, though he has little time for it at present. We hadn’t seen each other for ages and although he’d read my war novel “Mayflies” quite some time before, he hadn’t given me his reaction to it. Although he’d enjoyed it, he found parts of it under-written. It’s a long and complex novel that took me six years to write. I probably could have spent another six on it to get it where I wanted it. Ho hum…

LUAP Special Norwegian Rock

Of course, there’s a danger here. A writer can be plagued by the opposite of Bainbridge Syndrome, becoming unable to let go of a novel, endlessly revisiting it and reworking it. It’s a syndrome by which another good friend of mine is afflicted. It’s not a condition I would wish to endure. Maybe in another life, I’ll be born idle rich and have a bijou apartment gifted to me where I’ll write the fully realised novels that I envisage. And I’ll have the time to make my blog posts perfect too…

Mayflies blank

All text and images © PSR 2016

Recharging Creative Batteries

13 Apr

A week at the writing den soon passed. I made far less progress than I’d hoped for on my almost-finished manuscript. On the other hand, I recharged my sadly depleted creative batteries. I read Michael Krüger’s highly entertaining ‘The Executor’. I went on some wonderful rural stomps, including a stroll around the surreal sculpture park below. I saw a green woodpecker and a raven. I ate lots of good food too.

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I also returned to a remote and inaccessible bay. It’s quite possibly my favourite spot on earth. Being early April, the waters of the Western Channel were far too cold to swim in. I had to settle for sitting on a rock and dipping my welly boots into its jade green but icy water. It’s a place where all cares and worries go whistling away, if only for a short while. The photo below does no justice at all to the beauty of this place. Ho hum…

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I also explored some new places. I had sailed out of Dieppe countless times but never looked around the town. From the ferry it looks uninteresting. Closer to, it turns out to be a ramshackle delight, with grand old churches and a cliff-top medieval castle. By sheer coincidence, I have just picked out Henrik Stangerup’s ‘The Seducer’ as the next read from my bookshelves. It’s subtitled ‘It’s Hard to Die in Dieppe’… Now I’m looking forward all the more to reading it.

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So now it’s back to the grind of the day job and of life with all its hassles. Hopefully, somewhere in amongst it all, I’ll find the time and energy to complete my manuscript this year. In the meantime, here’s a tiny extract. I’ve been much concerned with games, perhaps because my children and I have played numerous games of Cluedo during the holidays…

The Kaffe Muzeesmis is another haunt of the old chess players.  A number of barstools have been crammed against a counter at the end of the compartment.  This leaves room for a single table at which games may be played.  More often than not, the combatants will be Vikktur Kiirilavnas and Valentiin Krutt.  They seem to be working their way through the same restricted and highly symbolic set of moves, as though playing a handful of games from memory.  Are these exhibition matches, then?  Perhaps.  Certainly, they will frequently draw the attention of the other customers, who watch in rapt silence from the bar. 

In the first game, Kiirilavnas plays black.  He undertakes a ruthless demolition of his opponent’s forces, removing piece after piece in rapid succession.  This opening has become known as Kiirilavnas’ Defence.  The older man seems to take particular pleasure in the early capture of white’s bishops and in his deferred pursuit of the queen.  But it is those black rooks, the kjerntuurr that appear key to every move.  In the second game, Krutt is red.  Now it’s the younger man’s turn to go on the offensive.  In a breath-taking display of attacking play, he deploys his knights to deadly effect and the red king or krevnkunikk in an unusually advanced position.  His opponent offers little resistance.  It’s maat in eighteen moves.  For the third game, Kiirilavnas is white.  He plays a highly skilled, counter-attacking game, combining his knights and bishops to destroy his opponent’s defences and soon the black king is staring defeat in the face.  The fourth game sees Krutt draw level again, providing a textbook demonstration in the offensive possibilities of the board’s most powerful piece.  This is Kruut’s Gambit.  The white queen or bjeldronikk controls the game almost from the debut to its endgame, supported by the merciless thrusts of her bishops.  The opposing pawns are soon under her command and then, for black, the game is up.  The old men include in their repertoire a few examples of the modern game, played at irregular intervals – one where Krutt wins swiftly as black, another in which Kiirilavnas sweeps to victory as red – nevertheless, you’d only have to spend a few afternoons observing play at the Museum Café before you’d find the familiar patterns re-asserting themselves, the same four exercises being played out, with minor variations, those sequences to which the players always seem to return.  History repeats itself as tragedy then farce, cataclysm then slapstick, catastrophe then stand-up… 

All text and images © PSR 2016

Is the Experimental Novel Dead?

15 Sep

I note that Tom McCarthy is once again included on the short list for the Mann Booker Prize. He and David Mitchell are touted as the UK’s leading experimental novelists. I wrote before about my experience of reading McCarthy’s novel, ‘C’ and of being unable to finish it. I found its concern with a narrow band of characters from the upper middle class unengaging. In this, the book has far more in common with the work of William Boyd or Sebastian Faulks, it seems to me, than it does with that of Joyce or Beckett. And experimental? Hmm… The timidity of publishers in our dumbed down age stems directly from the industry’s domination by big, risk-averse corporations. I suspect innovative novels are being written out there but no publisher is willing to take a punt on them or the small returns that they might offer. From time to time, something interesting reaches these shores from abroad, a Roberto Bolaño, say, or Diego Marani and reminds us of what is possible. The experimental novel isn’t dead, then. It’s just being buried alive. 

We could draw a parallel with radio. Compare the conservative scheduling of a commercial station like Planet Rock (playing the same old songs by Status Quo and Deep Purple) with the new and interesting bands played on 6 Music. We’ll miss the BBC when it’s gone. New bands will continue to form and experiment but we won’t hear them. They’ll be ignored by Sky Radio 1 and Virgin 6 Music in favour of talent show winners rehashing easy listening from the 1970s. 

‘What genre do you write in?’ asked a new member of my writing group. ‘He writes in a genre of his own,’ remarked Stephen, a writer whom I’ve known for many years. I would make no great claims for the originality my work. I try to write books that I myself would wish to read. I’d describe my fiction as having an ‘experimental twist’ rather than being purely experimental in nature. I aim to intrigue the reader, not to alienate or infuriate him or her. I combine techniques that I’ve encountered in my reading and hope to create something new as a result. And I make no secret of the influence on my work of Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and WG Sebald, among others, even if I’m not worthy to clean their metaphorical boots. 

An image from my latest manuscript - thank you, Herr Sebald

An image from my latest manuscript – thank you, Herr Sebald

If all fiction becomes backward-looking, harking back to the realist tradition of the nineteenth century or to tired genre stereotypes, cultural stagnation will surely result. We need the experimental novel, even those of us who do not read it. In the past, innovative fiction has renewed the mainstream. Think of the influence of Hemingway or Kafka. Without it, what will fiction have that television or film cannot offer? 

The extract that follows employs a univocalic. That’s hardly new, I know, but the device pushes your writing in interesting directions, forcing you to give up a little control…

Toomo Tork stows down on Box No. 15.  Toomo’s story follows. 

Locos – lots of locos! – roll by.  Tow tons of goods, stocks, so on or so forth.  Box No. 15 follows Box No. 14 follows Box No. 13… from Moscow to Oslo, Rostock thro’ to Porto, Stockholm down to Brno.  Look now.  Boozy old hobos, Olof or Oolf, hop on or off – Toomo too – go to or fro, got no work or odd jobs only – work on crofts or chop logs – short of food, knock off hooch or hock or scotch, croon songs on dobros of doom or gloom, ‘got no tomorrow, only sorrow’.  Crooks, clowns, snoops, so on or so forth, show ghostly photos of lost towns or sons, old dogs or smoky motors.  Locos roll on slowly thro’ frosty woods of dogwood, cob, broom, holly, thro’ hollow nooks, follow flow of cool stony brooks, by smoggy old towns, sooty lorry or loco works, by spooky ghost towns of low blocks (no doors, no roofs, no floors), roll on now, God only knows why.  Cows low on foggy moors – ‘Choo-choo!’  ‘Moo!’ – flocks of rooks or crows roost on rocky knolls, owls hoot from snowy rooftops, poor dogs howl, woof-woof, bow-wow… 

All words and images © PSR 2105

Revamp

19 Jul

So, after a couple of years of my blog looking exactly the same, I’ve had a bit of a revamp… I hope all three of my readers like it.

I’ve had a bit of fun with the randomised headers. They’re snaps from my travels, picture postcards from some of my favourite places, seven different countries in all. Refresh the page and a new one should appear – fiendish conjuring! Let me know if you recognise any of them. Here’s one of them in all of its glory.

Mystery destination...

Mystery destination… it’s in an eighth country

Happy summer hols!

Short Cuts to a Readership

11 Mar

My friend, Mari Biella always writes interesting posts on her blog. Recently, she drew my attention to a writing site called ‘Cut’. It’s short for ‘Cut a Long Story’ (for me, this name evokes uncomfortable memories of Spandex Ballet…). To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what this site is. It says that it carries out an editorial process determining the suitability of submissions for publication. But I don’t know if they just say that to all the writers. The team there converts the Word document of your concise masterpiece into e-book format, though, you don’t seem to be able to view your work without paying for it! I may be wrong, of course, given the legendary limitations of my technical prowess. The site takes half of the proceeds from anything it publishes (another reason, presumably, why it’s called ‘Cut’). I’ve been looking at several of these sites over the last few months. Which brings us to another problem that Mari recently posted about… The more time a writer spends investigating ways of marketing his or her work on the Internet, the less time he or she can actually devote to writing anything. Perhaps it’s a sinister plot. If I spend enough time ‘developing my online presence’ on Twitter, my intellect will be totally eroded and I won’t be able to bother publishers with my manuscripts as I’ll have become incapable of writing anything more than 140 characters long. I’ll have committed haiku-kiri.

Anyway, if you’re interested, I put my short story, ‘Horror Story’ up on the site for a king’s ransom (99p). You can find it here. As you might expect from my writing, it’s not in fact a horror story at all. It’s a little exercise, written as a pastiche of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. Here’s the cover image and underneath a short extract from it.

The Horror Story is set here...

The Horror Story is set here…

And so we set off on our voyage.  Quagdyke is about twelve miles out of town and lies in the middle of a salt marsh.  Kitts had supplied Harkness with some rudimentary directions.  Take the road to Chapel-le-Marsh.  Turn right by the chapel.  Keep the dyke on your left and keep going.  Quagdyke is the last village.

“Don’t tell the old girl where she’s taking us,” he whispered.  “She might not like it.”

We chugged out of town in the direction that we’d been advised.  Fifteen minutes later we arrived in Chapel-le-Marsh.  The building that gave the village its name had been turned into a garage.  Each former arch of stained glass had become a servicing bay.  The graveyard was now a forecourt with a row of dilapidated cars lined up on it.  ‘Remoulds and Salvage’ read the sign outside it.  We didn’t allow ourselves to be fooled by this piece of subterfuge.  We took the right hand turn, signposted for Quagdyke.  It seemed that Kitts’s directions weren’t so bad after all.  The road was one of those dead straight ones that used to be built across the marshes.  It soon joined up with the dyke.  Harkness was happy.  Forgetting his previous counsel, he began to wonder aloud about his new acquisition.  And sure enough, about four miles short of Quagdyke the old girl proved that she’d been listening after all, and that she’d taken umbrage.  The lights faded on her dashboard, her engine cut out and she glided to a standstill.

“Shit!” remarked Harkness.  “We’ll never make it by eight now.”

“What do you think’s wrong with her?” I asked him.

“How the hell should I know?”

“Well, aren’t you going to look under the bonnet or something?”

“Whatever for?  I don’t know what’s in there, do I?”

I tried a different tack.

“I don’t suppose you’ve got breakdown cover?”

“Nope.”

“Hmm.”

“Are you sure you want another one of these?” Stimpson asked.

Harkness didn’t answer.  He appeared to be thinking.  There was something of the England rugby captain about him, in his day job as­ an infantry officer (the blubber aside).

“We’ll just have to continue on foot,” he said at last.  “Shackleton’s pony or whatever.”

“Surely it was a penguin?”

Harkness didn’t dispute it.

All text and images © PSR 2015 

Writing Update

4 Mar

At the moment, my writing seems to have ground to something of a halt. I’m not “blocked”. I don’t actually believe in such a thing. “Mentally exhausted” would come much closer to it. It’s put something of a brake on my blogging too. I realise that I’ve been missing some of my blogging friends, even though I’ve never even met them physically. The urge to gain those insights into what’s happening in their lives and writing is manifesting itself again.

The twin-pronged approach to my works-in-progress has seen me through up till now. Four months devoted to one, eighteen months to the other, another month on WiP No. 1 and back to WiP No. 2… However, I seem to have arrived at difficult points in both of them, at the same time. WiP No. 1 is theoretically close to completion. I have 100,000 words and much of the tale has been told. So ahead of me lies the challenge of pulling together the words on the page into some kind of coherent whole. I’m also going through one of those phases that all writers will recognise where I’m questioning the validity of what I’m doing. From this perspective, it’s making my task with WiP No. 1 look Herculean and myself in need of some Christ-like powers of transformation. WiP No. 2 has 34,000 words but now I’m wondering whether the idea is too slight to make a novel…

Stained glass and iconography encountered on a late winter's walk

Stained glass and iconography encountered on a late winter’s walk

My mind isn’t even right for reading at the moment. I’ve stalled for the last three months over Martin Amis’s London Fields. I usually read between 20 and 25 books a year but Mr Amis’s tome and my psychological fatigue are getting in the way of this target. I took it on my recent trip to the writing den and didn’t read a single page. The trip was more about recuperation in the company of a photographer friend of mine, who was also in need of a break. And the writing den provides the perfect location. Good food and drink, walking and conversation were the order of the day.

The best bar in the town close to the writing den

The best bar in the town close to the writing den

On an optimistic note, I start a new job in September. Even though I’ll be yet more broke than I already am – if that’s possible – it should give me more time and energy for writing and to embark on the logjam of projects that I have stored up over the years. For now, though, I’m off to check out some of my friends’ latest musings…

All text and images © PSR 2015