Tales from Shelley Beach – The Bus Ride home

Short chapters inspired by my new, coming of age novel, Sandbanker, available at no bookstores near you (yet)

The bell at St Christopher’s was not a real bell, made of brass or anything, but electric — it droned, like the torpedos in River Raid. (I didn’t actually have an Atari 2600 to test the theory, and didn’t really know anyone who did, at least someone who I could ask, but that’s what I’d heard.) Whoever they’d gotten to ring the school bell on that Friday afternoon had morsed-coded ‘S-O-S S-O-S’, and everyone had a good laugh about it, but I would’ve bet a case of chocolate frogs they had no clue what it meant. Continue reading Tales from Shelley Beach – The Bus Ride home

Literary agnosia and the short story

The DrawerWriters of every genre will recognise the scourge of familiarity; the sense of intimacy with your own work which is so great that it renders your powers of objectivity impotent. Does this story work? Have I chosen the right phrasing? What should I cut? The questions keep coming but no one answers.

When I’m working on a piece, particularly a short story in which every paragraph must count for something, I often lose all perspective. And returning to the page every day only seems to make the condition more acute; proximity threatens to destroy creativity, like a magnifying glass burning ants as it concentrates the sun’s rays. The pressure to produce and finish stories leads to unsatisfactory conclusions or improbable characters, and I think that sometimes I’m writing simply because I feel I have to and not because I want to… or can, for that matter.

So what do we do? Continue reading Literary agnosia and the short story

The Book, the Machine, and the Corpse of her Values

“Henrietta Saffron changed my life!” That was the one that really choked her goat. Who could have churned out something so deficient in irony than the straight-faced and loose-laced intellectuals of the seventies? Oh, but wait: “Required reading for the new age of the 80s.”

Droll.

By the nineties they’d crucified the last of the scepticism and inquiry and named her the most important writer of the nineteenth century.

Talk about tossing a banana into a bus-load of monkeys.

All for a book.

The Book. Continue reading The Book, the Machine, and the Corpse of her Values

Writer’s block… Oh, it’s real

Writer’s block, A.K.A the bogey man

He lurks behind a milk curtain, morse-coding reprimands and insults with my own cursor. Six dots and a jarring ‘Oh!’ (The exclamation mark is implied).

“It’s you again,” he says. “Did you know that your last idea for a plot was terrible? It was worse than terrible. It gave me migraines in my stapes, and I don’t even have stapes. Where are you taking that wretched creature? That ‘character’, as you name him? Preferably somewhere to die. Because that’s where he’s headed if you start typing – right into the grave. He’ll be pushing up digital daisies before bedtime and you’ll be ten thousand words in the red. Just like I told you.” Continue reading Writer’s block… Oh, it’s real

Pixar’s 22 tips for telling a ripping story

There’s a cart-load of advice out there for would-be storysmiths; everything from websites explaining how to go about self-publishing, right down to books that cover the finer points of stringing together an intelligible sentence.

But the most important and fundamental skill of fiction writing, the marrow if you will, is effective story writing. IT’S THE STORY STOOPID! And, at least in my case, it’s the most challenging.

Fortunately, once in a while you come across advice that is so so incisive that you feel inspired (and somewhat relieved) just reading through them.  You think, “Hey, you’ve just summed up in one paragraph what that other book couldn’t do in twelve chapters.” Although they’ve now been out there a good while, the collected tweets of Emma Coats, former storyboard artist at Pixar, is such advice. It’s all the wisdom she has accumulated working on major animated films and it’s essential reading for fiction writers of all persuasions… yes, even short story writers. Continue reading Pixar’s 22 tips for telling a ripping story

Orphans of the Salt

Introductory ‘pilot’ chapter to Orphans of the Salt – a novel in progress

“I repeat—we have arrived at Tract 16.”

Captain Dinh’s announcement was still crackling through the public intercom as Rosco Haymarket hopped three steps at a time down to the zeppelin’s observation deck, a warm bowl of aphid jelly balanced loosely in his hand. “The Royal Caucus” had spent the last six weeks flying over the New Pacific and he was eager to see something other than the curve of ocean and sky. He threw the bowl into a refuse chute and collected a set of scopes from the equipment racks. Two recovery engineers were already at the windows, their heads pressed hard against the reinforced glass. Continue reading Orphans of the Salt

The doppelgänger’s advice

And then blackness.

Simon found himself in a dream. He didn’t know how he’d arrived there or that he’d even fallen asleep. His last impression of the real world was just a pair of worn blue sneakers walking away from him, their black laces whipping at the cobblestone road. Now he was walking up the stairs in what he thought was his apartment building, but there was no graffiti on the walls and no apartment doors at the landings. Through the door frames he could see directly into each apartment, each of which was dark and empty.

He reached what he judged to be the third floor and stood outside his own apartment. He felt the urge to cry out. Even if he didn’t much care for her, perhaps Mrs Stefano, his neighbour and the house’s unofficial source of inside information, would be there to tell him what was going on.

Clump!

Something heavy moved and Simon heard the echo of shuffling footsteps. He peered upwards through the gap in the staircase but saw no-one. Something told him to turn back, that climbing the stairs had been a mistake. He looked back down the stairs he’d already climbed and was about to retreat when he heard someone clear their throat directly behind him.

“There’s nothing up there,” the voice said.

Simon felt a light thrum in his chest. It was him! “What did you say?”

“I said there’s nothing at the end of these stairs. I already looked so I really wouldn’t bother exerting yourself.” The man’s hands were in his pockets and, although he was smiling, he had a tired, phlegmatic expression, like he was waiting for an answer that he already knew. He was much leaner than Simon, not from any malnourishment or sickness, but rather molded in that sleek symmetry of a swimmer. There was no doubt however: every line, every angle of his frame, even the arrangement of his teeth revealed to Simon that was standing face to face with his doppelgänger.

Simon stepped in closer to study the man’s face. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m not sure to be honest. I wondered if perhaps you might be able to fill me in since it’s your dream we’re standing in.”

“You… you were there at the accident, weren’t you? I saw you. You came and you looked over me. I felt you touch my face.”

“Don’t worry, it wasn’t the hand of fucking God or anything. Nothing of the sort. You just looked so… so pathetic there in the street under that garbage truck, blood seeping from your arm as if you were caught in a still frame of some modern dance step. And I know you can’t dance.”

“Am I dead?” Simon inspected his arm and the back of his hands for blood and scratches.

“Do you feel deceased?”

“How should I know? I’ve not been dead before.”

The doppelgänger rolled his eyes and walked over to the open apartment and seemed to inspect the floorboards.

“So you and I, we’re the same person though, aren’t we?  But you’re from the future or another dimension or something similarly transcendental.”

“I don’t know. Nothing has changed for me. It’s not as if I’ve travelled through time. I mean, I’m just here. I live my life, write my books, I have money and I’m having quite a a splendid time of it, if I must say. I do admit though you look awfully like me, only more… lifeless.”

“Splendid? I don’t talk like that.”

“Well, I just said it, didn’t I? So I do talk like that. Anyway, there’s really nothing wrong with the word. I am, if you’d like to know, of the conviction that people should use it more often. Optimism can be misguided, but -”

“Wait a minute. You said books. I’ve only written one and am not even close to finishing the next. In fact I don’t even think I’m going to manage it.”

“Oh yes, the ‘Tongan prince project’,” Simon’s double said, like he was referring to a bad odour. ‘That particular experiment never got off the ground, did it? Not a bad idea though, and there were some novel angles and, yes, some fines lines of poetry in there, but was never going to be a seller. Stick to what you know for a while before experimenting with lofty abstractions.”

“Ross thought it was a good idea.”

“Hiring Ross as an agent was probably the best and worst thing you’ve ever done. Best because he picked you up when you were a nobody. Worst because he’s a grade A arsehole. Get rid of him.”

“We’ll obviously. It seems as if you’ve decided that for me and already shown him the door.”

“Has he said to you yet, that your ‘meter is out of reach for most poetry readers’?”

“No, not yet.”

“Don’t let him. Lose him.”

“If I ever wake up from thi-”

“When appraising poetry, counting syllables is about as useful as totalling the number the brush strokes in a painting.”

“Yes, thanks. I may have already said that.”

“Oh fuck off. Are you going to accuse me now of plagiarism?”

Simon looked down at the doppelgänger’s black laces. Unlike during their encounter at the scene of the accident, they were tied in a neat bow. “Ok, if you are me. Prove it. Tell me how I met Carla.”

The doppelgänger sighed. “Dear Carla. Carla, the lovely, caramel-skinned Sicilian who holds your hand like it were a fragile parchment. Who knew far better than I the courage it takes to love a-”

“Oh please. Really?”

“Look, I could tell you that I met her in that ratty bookshop run by that walking pork knuckle of a woman, but it’d be far more interesting to say that immediately before I asked her out, I was very much nearly standing in a pool of my own urine.” The doppelgänger raised an eyebrow.

“A bit exaggerated don’t you think? I was scared but I didn’t bloody piss myself!”

“It wasn’t exactly a triumphant moment of ours. A bumbling tool with one week of Italian under his belt, asking out a girl like that?”

“Your Italian seemed fine at the accident.” Simon said and then hesitated. “She left me you know.”

“Yes.”

“What should I do?”

“Let me mull over it. I can’t remember what I was thinking at the time.”

“This is too weird.”

The doppelgänger shook his head and then rolled up the left sleeve of his t-shirt. On his shoulder was a pink, fleshy scar shaped like the head of an arrow. “Tell me about it,” he said.

Simon looked at his own shoulder and winced. Blood was trickling out from a gash and spreading through the fabric of his shirt. He reeled and stepped back against the wall clutching his injured arm. Shit, shit, shit was all he could think to say. He didn’t want to go back. There were too many questions and he had to learn the rest of the story: what he had to do to become a better writer, to win Carla back and, most importantly, why his doppelgänger had appeared in the first place. But from somewhere beneath the third floor a low hum chimed ringing throughout the stairwell like church bells sounding under water and began pulling him back down into the depths.

“Looks like it’s time to wake up,” the doppelgänger shouted from above as David sank deeper. “By the way, your phone is ringing. Don’t you want to answer it?”

And then brightness.