Friday, 6 February 2015

The Rewards of Risk

State of Emergency from Stew Magazine Issue 7
Illustration by Amberin Huq
Stories aren’t just background noise, they’re a vital way of making sense of the world. This is as true for writers as it is for readers, perhaps more so. I remember sitting in front of my web browser late last year, unable to stop myself from reading the horrifying reports from West Africa about the unfolding Ebola crisis. Meanwhile, in Ferguson Missouri, a different group of underprivileged black people were rioting against what they saw as a repressive and unfair system of government.

As ever happens, the two stories began to intertwine in my imagination. But then I pulled myself up short – was I, a white middle-class English man, in any position to engage with this narrative? What insight could I possibly add that those on the ground in Liberia or Missouri had not already contributed?

Yet, something prevented me from stepping away from this contentious territory, as I so often had in the past. Part of that reason was a third idea, which gave me a strong fictional framework in which to explore the issues I was seeing. And another part was my own fear about the threat of Ebola, which was at that time being screamed from the front pages of every tabloid newspaper. I knew in my rational brain that the risk of disease was exceedingly low for those of us in the privileged West, but on an emotional level it was hard to shake a feeling of doom that came from the media coverage.

So, I channelled my fears into the character of Kayla, a young black girl from Louisiana who finds herself in the middle of a terrifying virus outbreak. I took the familiar iconography of the Ebola epidemic (hazmat suits, decontamination, tent hospitals) and fed it directly into the narrative, drawing the long shadow of Hurricane Katrina over the whole story. Of course, most of this detail is subtextual, and a child doesn’t need a grounding in U.S. racial politics to enjoy this dark and twisty conspiracy tale.

On finishing State of Emergency in November last year, I took advantage of the short publication timescales that Stew Magazine offers me. I’m also very grateful for the bravery of editor Ali Fraser, who accepted (without change) a story that many magazines would have rejected as being too edgy. I’ve tried, as carefully as I can, to authentically capture the dialogue and thought processes of my young protagonist, but I’m sure there are faults if you look for them. Ultimately, the story may upset as many people as it finds favour with, but that’s exactly what made it worth writing.


If you'd like to read State of Emergency, you can buy a copy of Stew Magazine issue 7 for £3.99 by clicking here.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Wait for it...

I’m an impatient person by nature, but watching Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood made me reassess the value of creative patience. For those who don’t know, the film was made as a series of five-day shoots over a period of twelve years, depicting a boy as he grows from six to the age of eighteen. The film is engrossing (if not quite the stone-cold classic I was led to expect), and has already picked up numerous awards from critics keen to praise its experimental approach and humane worldview.

What gave me pause was the fact that the director was roughly my age when he started the project. Where did he get the patience and confidence to keep pushing through, year after year? Would I be able to do something like that? In interviews, Richard Linklater seems supremely relaxed, and his personality type has clearly contributed greatly to his ability to deliver. He’s a filmmaker who I admired greatly even before this latest film, and he’s only gone up in my estimation since.

In books (especially literary fiction), there's a definite culture of “slowest wins the race”. Consider the twelve years that J.R.R. Tolkien took to write Lord of the Rings, or the glacial work pace of writers like Donna Tartt or Jonathan Franzen. And yet, when these writers do finally produce new novels, they are lorded as instant classics of towering literary achievement. For these writers, patience definitely seems to bear critical fruit.

By contrast, I find myself constantly frustrated by my own unrealistic expectations of how quickly creative work can be completed. For instance, I’m still writing the first draft of a relatively short children’s book, nine months after I started. And don’t get me started on how long it takes agents and editors to respond to submissions! Yet, other writers seem to zip relatively quickly through the publishing process – I was at a talk by Julia Golding on Wednesday, where she explained that she writes so much that she needs three different pseudonyms to manage it all. I was, needless to say, rather jealous.

Perhaps I’m not comparing like-for-like. I have a full-time job in addition to my writing, whereas Julia Golding has to write that fast in order to survive as a full-time writer. And then there’s all the thinking time required for writing a novel, the exploration of world, character and plot that makes an invisible, but vital, contribution to the finished work. Richard Linklater had the luxury of almost a year’s worth of thinking time between filming instalments of Boyhood, though he was hardly slouching around in the meantime - in the period between starting the project and finishing it, he directed another eight films and a feature-length documentary!

So, what are my lessons here? Well, short of quitting my day job, perhaps I could improve my work rate by reducing procrastination, setting better targets and interleaving projects more successfully. I’m also very outcome-focused, and (regular readers will sense a familiar refrain here) I need to nurture a love of the process rather than the results. I’m quite sure that Linklater didn’t approach each year’s filming of Boyhood with a fearful pain in his stomach, wondering what would happen if he died before finishing the film (in fact, he had a contingency plan where actor Ethan Hawke would take over). Each 10-15 minute yearly segment of the movie was approached as a short film, which was later built together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

I don’t think I’m about to embark on my own epic project, but I can definitely go easier on myself and others in terms of how long stuff takes. The important thing is to keep (sustainably) busy, and with that in mind I’m sure I can find plenty of creative challenges this year to occupy myself with. After all, I’ve written complete flash fiction stories in 0.025% of the elapsed time taken to produce Boyhood!


Friday, 9 January 2015

Flashback to the Future

For some reason, I started thinking about flashbacks today (perhaps the reason will actually become clear in a later blog, explained through the use of a flashback?)

The flashback seems to be in vogue at the moment in serious TV drama, as a narrative device to add character backstory. The final season of Boardwalk Empire had them, Broadchurch is now including some, and Game of Thrones will apparently have a flashback at the beginning of its forthcoming fifth season. This latter decision is interesting, given the avoidance of flashback in the Game of Thrones world up until now. Considering how much of the plot revolves around lineage, longstanding grudges, references to dead kings and inter-family rivalry, a few judicious flashbacks would have made the first season much more digestible for the casual viewer. But perhaps that isn’t the point of Game of Thrones - it’s a story that you have to swallow whole or not at all.

Lost was the series that cemented the use of the flashback in serialised TV drama, focusing on a particular character’s backstory each week. The timelines involved were deliberately blurred, and it often wasn’t until the final flashback segment of an episode that you understood how (and when) the strands fitted together. Sometimes, you didn't immediately know which character the flashback was even about! This was a neat formula that kept the viewers guessing and allowed the writers to play some clever dramatic tricks. The most surprising was surely the final episode of season three, when it was revealed that what we presumed were flashbacks were actually a flashforward to season four. That very much threw the cat among the narrative pigeons, but in retrospect, it was perhaps also the point where Lost became too clever for its own good and started going downhill (a few years later, a series unimaginatively titled FlashForward tried to reuse the Lost template to greatly reduced effect).

So, what accounts for the current popularity of the flashback? Dramatically, it adds weight and structure to a story, which can make these TV series seem more important when awards season comes around. As serious drama continues to have more money and time in the schedule allowed to it, so space opens up for subplots which enrich character (and what is flashback if not just another kind of subplot?)

But there are dangers to the technique too. What begins as heavyweight and important can quickly drift into self-importance. It’s easy to indulge in excessive world and character building when you should be pushing the main storyline forward. When I think of a series like House Of Cards (which has incredibly detailed character work with minimal use of flashbacks), it’s clear to me that time spent in the past would greatly reduce the number of present-day characters that could be depicted, along with the ever-shifting web of allegiances that gives the narrative its tension and drive. It may be heresy to admit it, but I find the portentous flashforwards in Breaking Bad to be more annoying than tension-building, especially since the series is so damn tense already as to be almost unwatchable!

There seems to be significantly less use of the flashback in books, possibly because there’s a range of easier ways to deliver exposition. J.K. Rowling came up with a neat way of packaging flashback using Professor Dumbledore’s pensieve, which allowed Harry to experience other people’s backstory as it happened. Often, when flashbacks are used in books, they tend to be so numerous that they form a parallel narrative instead.

Maybe novels don’t need such devices to convey a perception of weight and importance, because just by being novels they’ve already achieved this status. I’m reminded that one of the key objectives of the HBO series The Wire (a strong influence on much serialised TV drama today) was to be more novelistic in its storytelling than conventionally televisual. So, I wondered to myself, how many flashbacks were used in five critically-acclaimed seasons of The Wire? Exactly one (in the pilot episode), which was demanded by network executives, worried that viewers wouldn't be able to follow the story. Where flashbacks are concerned, less is definitely more.


Monday, 22 December 2014

The Museum of Me - The Lost Years

I hadn't expected that the shameless trawl through my archives which is the Museum of Me would turn into an annual event, but here we are for the fourth instalment! So, Merry Christmas, and I hope you enjoy the lunacy that I've dredged up from the deepest recesses of the internet for you (and if this instalment doesn't put you off, you can also catch up on parts one, two and three of this monumental series)

I'd implied last Christmas that there wouldn't be another Museum of Me this year. That was primarily because I'd run out of decent content to present, and I didn't want to descend into barrel scraping. But there remained two major gaps in my personal archive, both of them from around the turn of the millennium.

One of those gaps was my epic biography of Mark Tastic (something that I mentioned in my Evolution of Max post earlier this year). I knew that I had the basic text of this, but had lost all the photos I'd taken of my friend Peter in the titular role. The other missing item was my wholly unprecedented foray into home cinema satire. Called Reverse Spiral, this column ran for about 9 months in the early noughties, on a very popular (but now long defunct) DVD website.

A few months ago, I made a systematic search of all my old backups, in the hope of finding any trace of Reverse Spiral. I didn't, sadly, but in a long-forgotten folder on a long-forgotten hard disk, I found the fully-illustrated saga of one Mark Oswald Geronimo Tastic:

It's That Man Again

I should say up front that Mark's biography isn't for the easily offended - in fact, it contains something to offend almost everyone. At the time, I think I envisaged it as a sort of anti-Forrest Gump, or how Martin Amis might write after a lobotomy ;-) Fifteen years later, many of the references are dated, and (in a post Operation Yewtree world) a couple of the jokes cut closer to the bone than I'd intended. But it also prefigures the London riots and the unstoppable rise of Simon Cowell. I wouldn't (and probably couldn't) write something like this now, which is why it's worth presenting in its original form.

Who is Mark Tastic? (1999) - Click image to open website in a new tab

The biography was intended for inclusion on a website spin-off of my CheeseCrank fanzine, which should explain the references to that publication and its editors A.C. Wilton and Bartholomew CheeseCrank. It's puerile, sexist, thoroughly debauched and also rather amusing. Enjoy!

The Internet Never Forgets

And now, onto the archaeological find of the year. My search for Reverse Spiral had yielded nothing, and it seemed that the site would continue to exist only in my memory. But then I discovered an amazing resource called The Internet Archive. Since 1996, the non-profit organisation behind the archive has been crawling the internet and saving the results. With 435 billion web pages in the archive, it seemed like there might be a chance. After typing the URL for the DVD website, I found some captures stretching back to the year 2000. But what about my section of the site? With baited breath, I clicked the link.

Suddenly, there was Reverse Spiral. I can barely express how excited and happy I was at that moment of rediscovery. The archive wasn't perfect, or complete, but it was something I could work with. A great deal of work, as it turned out. Although The Internet Archive contained a lot of the web pages, many of the images were not present. Thankfully, the glorious Crayolavision of How DVDs are Made survived almost intact, because I don't think it would have been worth reading without them. For other parts of the site, though, I've had to reconstruct the pictures from memory with only the image filenames to guide me. Here's an example of the work I had to do on Ask Agony Ninja:

For all that fiddling, I'm really pleased with the results, and I hope I've maintained the slightly amateurish feel that the articles originally had. Sadly, a number of the pages were hosted on a separate site and seem to be lost forever, which unfortunately means that you won't get to search the Anne Widdicombe Film Censorship Database any time soon. Perhaps that's a blessing.

Reverse Spiral (2000-2001) - Click image to open website in a new tab

I've added a short glossary at the top of the site, which should help with some of the technical terms that crop up. For instance, the name Reverse Spiral comes from Reverse Spiral Dual Layer (RSDL), which is a process used to fit twice as much data onto a DVD. See, you've learnt something already! I'd also like to stress that the letters sent to Agony Ninja did genuinely come from users of the site. Reverse Spiral was wildly popular in its day - How DVDs are Made was read 2,875 times and the most popular article (which was too damaged to present) received nearly 6,000 views. It's nice to think that a few more people will now get the chance to read it.


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why You Should Support Stew Magazine

I’ve taken a break from the Stew Magazine short story I should be writing, because I wanted to talk about the Kickstarter campaign that’s just launched.

Stew Magazine is looking for £18,000 in crowd funding over the next month, to ensure the magazine’s survival and continued growth. That the magazine has reached the end of its first year is down, in no small part, to Ali Fraser. As editor and publisher, Ali’s vision and drive (together with the creative skills of the many, many contributors) have ensured that six terrific issues have reached hundreds of kids during 2014.

Here's where you come in, because we now need your help to continue into 2015 and beyond. I’d like to offer just a few reasons why you should pledge your cash to Stew Magazine:

  • It’s a lovely product
    I wish that this blog post could come (Willy Wonka style) with a free copy of Stew that you could hold in your hands. The magazine is professionally produced to the highest standards, with beautiful full-bleed colour layouts printed on thick matt paper. Every issue feels substantial and yet very accessible – you’ll want to read it and keep it. Ali has a great eye for selecting illustrators with a range of styles and then combining their illustrations with the text in imaginative (but not gimmicky) ways. And it even smells good!
  • It’s advertising free
    Stew is all content from cover to cover, so you can be sure your kids are getting brain food rather than being trained to be mini consumers.
  • It tackles difficult subjects in an accessible way
    Along with all the fun games and articles, Stew has taken a fearless approach to non-fictional topics like human rights and scientific ethics. Even though I write fiction, the magazine’s independent status has emboldened me to tread similar “edgy” ground. Just in the last year, Stew has included stories by me that address subjects like female empowerment, child labour, the end of the world (twice), the effect of technology on personal privacy and the secret conspiracy behind all those free gifts on other kids’ magazines (OK, that last one may be a tad more fictional than the others). As a writer, the freedom to explore the issues that matter to me (and by extension the reading audience) has been priceless.
  • It’s serious without being worthy
    Although Stew isn’t afraid to tackle difficult issues, its content is neither sugar-coated nor moralistic. Today’s kids are smart enough to consider the issues for themselves and make their own decisions. In fact, that’s the only way we can ensure the future is a better place than the world of today.
  • The contributors deserve to be paid
    Now, I’m not suggesting you should do this specifically to pay my wages – I have a decent day job and am lucky to be in a position to freely give my time to Stew. But many of the illustrators are students or recent graduates who I’m sure could really do with the money. And beyond the physical act of payment, there’s a moral imperative to protect and nurture creativity, to value our efforts in the face of outside pressure to devalue what we do. I know Ali has been keen for a while to start paying proper commissions, and this campaign will enable him to do that.

So, for all these reasons and more, please visit the Stew Magazine Kickstarter campaign and make a pledge, no matter how small. Your support will help us to publish many, many more issues of this excellent publication.


Friday, 3 October 2014

What’s the Story?

I’m a keen student of myself (let’s face it, if I don’t study me, nobody else will!) So I’ve been keeping a weather eye on my short story work, especially as I reach the end of the first year of my Stew Magazine contributions. I’ve written ten flash fiction stories for Stew so far, each one between 600 and 800 words. Five of those have been printed, with a sixth coming in the November/December issue. One or two of the others may appear in future issues, but inevitably some stories suit publication in the magazine better than others.

It’s always been my policy to let the story concepts evolve organically, then once the idea has formed, to write the actual words as quickly as possible. Thus, some months I might write three stories, and other months none at all. Every story is conceptually completely different to every other, and yet it’s fascinating to me to see the similarities that exist between them. Here are some common themes I’ve picked up:
  • Point of view: All of the stories are written in first-person. Many of my protagonists are nameless, and often cast in the role of passive observer – acting as a clear proxy for the reader. In many ways, I can see that these short stories have allowed me to explore passive characterisation in a form where this enhances, rather than detracts from the reader’s experience. If I had a pound for every time I’ve been told off for allowing characters in my various novels to be too passive, I’d be rich enough to lie around all day doing nothing!
  • Bring on the darkness: Without fail, bad things happen in these stories, even the ones that initially seem playful. In fact, the latter stories are arguably even darker because they allow initial rays of light in, before shutting out the sun forever. In The Door Keeper, I take the theme of darkness to its logical extreme and stage most of the story in the pitch black!
  • The end of the world: Apocalypse Wow was the first story I wrote for Stew, and ever since then the apocalyptic themes keep resurfacing. I’m drawn to extremes as a writer, and like to extrapolate current trends to place my characters in seemingly unwinnable situations. Sometimes they barely escape with their lives, other times I kill everyone (evil cackle).
  • It’s not all doom and gloom: Although the above points may make the stories sound depressingly nihilistic, they aren’t intended to come across that way at all. Some of them are actually quite humorous, and I hope they all hold emotional truths. These are stories for and about kids, after all, and it’s often said that children’s stories should end on a note of hope. Even in the story where the world is destroyed, my aim is to express some hope for human nature, to make readers reflect on their own mortality and live more fully while they still can. I’m also very clearly talking to myself on that point!
  • If in doubt, subvert: Now I’ve discovered all these themes, I reserve the right to completely subvert them in the very next thing I write! In fact, this process of subversion is essential to keep things fresh, both for me and the reader. Expect the unexpected.

I retain the rights for all my Stew work, and I’ve been idly thinking about self-publishing the stories in a separate anthology. This is particularly because I know a lot of you haven’t read them in Stew and may be wondering what the hell I’m yammering on about. However, when I pulled together all ten flash fiction stories, they only amounted to 7,000 words – which is a very short e-book. Maybe I need to do another year of this before I have enough content to warrant asking people to pay money for it. In the meantime, I’m looking into bringing some back issues of Stew to the SCBWI conference, if anyone would like to buy one. More details on that when I’ve worked out exactly what I’m doing!


Friday, 26 September 2014

You Don't Have to be Mad to Work Here...

I’ve found myself drifting back towards actual bricks-and-mortar bookshops recently, both in a “use them or lose them” way and in the hope that I 'll discover something completely unexpected (my continuous diet of kids’ fiction over the last few years having started to feel a little constrictive).

Thus, it was while browsing the graphic novels in Waterstones recently that I chanced upon a book called Marbles by Ellen Forney. I don’t know what it says about me as a person that when I picked up a graphic novel memoir by a bipolar bisexual cartoonist, I knew I had to buy it!