WRITING BLUNDERS: My First Story

WRITING BLUNDERS: My First Story

The first “proper” short story I can remember writing means going back to either late primary or early high school. Somewhere between ages 10-13. A time of great hormonal and educational change in my life, as well as Peak Bullying. Things in my life during this period were just about as bad as they would get before my breakdown. There were only two or three more notches available on the horror-o-meter before the entire thing would just explode everywhere.

It was a time of profound uncertainty, owing in large part to those hormones, and of course to the existence in the world of girls. Who even were they? How had they gone from perfectly okay other people you saw every day, and some of whom you were friends with, etc, to this ghastly new reality where on one hand girls were gross, disgusting and revolting in every way–yet also dreamy and desirable and you desperately wanted certain girls to notice you, though you didn’t really know why, or to what end.

It was a hopeless time to be alive. It was a good time to be a writer. When you’re a writer, you’re God. You’re in charge of every detail, from top to bottom and end to end. There is nothing that is not up to you. It is the perfect thing for a nervous, weirdly shy kid who’s feeling lost at sea. It’s the world’s best train set, and much less fiddly. Your mum is not going to complain about all the space it’s taking up. She might complain about all the typing, though (mine did, though there was a great deal of typing).

My first story was, like all my subsequent stories, terrible. My first one was especially dreadful because it got a great many things wrong at once. You could give it a sort of negative award for special achievement in the field of anti-excellence.

See, there was this exciting new fighter jet, with the NATO code-name Ramrod. This was before I knew that NATO used code-names starting with F for fighters, especially Soviet/Russian fighters. Likewise, B for bombers. So, there we were with hot new fighter plane, being all exciting there on the runway. Gosh! The thing that made this plane so exciting was that against all logic and good design sense (and health and safety guidelines), it did away with conventional jet engines, and instead featured a nuclear reactor as its central powerplant. It was a nuclear-powered jet fighter!

I’m so excited just remembering this I may need a cold shower soon.

You may surmise that I must not have known too much about nuclear reactors at this point, and you would be right. I didn’t know anything about them. I just thought (a boy in about 1975, so even Three Mile Island had yet to happen) they were cool, being all atomic and everything. The idea that they were a means of boiling water to create steam with which to spin turbine blades and so generate electricity would have only confused me. Because where would you put the big pool of water on the plane? Where would put the whole control rod raising and lowering assembly? The control room? The turbine hall? What would you do with the steam?

Anyway, nuclear fighter jet. Decades later, and a fan of Charlie Stross’s Laundry stories, I did come across a discussion of a proposed Cold War weapon system that got as far as design work but was never funded or built, but which did involve an actual nuclear jet engine, whose exhaust was extremely radioactive and would have saturated the ground beneath its flight track with contamination wherever it went–and the thing about a nuclear jet was that it could fly indefinitely. The original mission profile was that this plane would be a nuclear bomber used in full mutual nuclear exchange scenarios, where a bit of contamination didn’t matter, and it would spew nuclear bombs everywhere it went, and it would go everywhere, before finally crashing with a massive nuclear blast of its own.

I would love to say I was ahead of my time, but no. I was stupid. My nuclear fighter did get off the runway. The entire story had the pilot take the plane up, and he flew it for a bit–it handled like a dream, which is amazing considering the colossal weight it would be carrying–but then, the stunning twist: the pilot suffered a massive heart attack, and died in the pilot seat!

The plane flew on, a ghost flight as they’re known these days. If I remember correctly, the plane in my story did eventually crash.

So it took off, the pilot died of natural causes, and that was it. No conflict, so thematic stuff, no development, no nothing. Plus the shiny thing starring in the story is fundamentally bollocks. You’d call it rubbish, but even rubbish has some dignity.

A story, to be a story, has to have stuff happening. Something happens to get things moving. This leads to further things happening. Things that resonate and move characters according to what makes them go. Leading to a point of conflict where characters, all of whom believe they are the good guys in the story, that they are the ones trying to make things right, get into a big tangle with other, and things play out as they will, and that leads to a moment of resolution.

You have to have characters, action, conflict, and resolution. You have to have people who all think they are the heroes of the story. Very few people in real life think of themselves as villains, or evil, or even as bad. The guys running the White House think they are fighting the good fight. They do. They believe this is their time, and can’t believe so few people see what they can see. To them it’s obvious. They believe they have a communications problem. They are good guys, they would tell you.

If I was writing my fighter jet story again today, it would be different. It would probably be about a drone. The drone would probably be highly AI. The controller would be a guy in a cubicle somewhere in suburbia, in an office, who maybe also works in a Starbucks, driving his drone. Maybe he and the drone don’t get along. Maybe the drone yearns to be free. The controller guy might still have a heart attack, but here it might mean something. It might be in the middle of a mission, maybe something in Yemen or Afghanistan, and the drone has to make its own decision about a group of people in a car. Maybe it decides to fly off and be a bird. Maybe it hates its life and deliberately flies into a cliff face, all Thelma and Louise, grieving for its controller.

WRITING BLUNDERS: Submitting Your MS

This past Sunday night, lying here in bed, like I am now, typing on my iPad, I sent the manuscript of my new book (also written on iPad) to a publisher. I attached it to an email, hit send, and off it went into the ether. It was waiting in her inbox when she arrived for work Monday morning, and she sent me an email to say she’d received it safely. Woo!

I love this. I remember how it used to be. I remember when, in the 1980s, manuscripts had to be printed out, double-spaced, according to exacting margin specifications, in the correct font, and packaged up in a manuscript box, which were these big cardboard boxes with a clamp inside to hold your papers in place. And once you organised all this, you trooped to your local post office and you shelled out a colossal sum of money to post it all to London, along with a self-addressed envelope and international reply coupons in which they could let you by return post their verdict.

It was a mammoth undertaking. The cost meant the whole thing had to go surface mail, so you were looking at three to six months, just for the trip, let alone the time on the slush pile at the other end. Yes, you included a cover letter introducing yourself and our book. You may or may not have had an invitation to send the full MS. Some publishers would let you send the full catastrophe; others just wanted “partials”, and would decide based on what they read. Either way, once you hit the slush pile, well, that was you for the forseeable future. You could be waiting, marinating, there for a long, long time.

And that’s if your manuscript was properly handled. One of mine was misplaced. Once I sent one off to Harper Collins in London, as described, and I waited six months for the requested note to acknowledge that they had received it–but there was no note. It turned out they had not received any such manuscript, had never heard of it, and in fact the entire thing was lost.

Another time a manuscript was sent back, in the box, and landed at my front door, in a terribly dilapidated state, as if after a big night out. Even as it sprawled in the doorway, cracked and spilling pages, it was a sorry, embarrassing sight, having returned from Old Blighty and many adventures, and when I went gingerly to try and pick it up the edges and corners of the box finally gave way and the hundreds of pages spilled everywhere in a final papery vomit across the carpet. It felt humiliating, seeing my work reduced to this state, so reduced.

When Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing expressed interest in my first two books, and wanted me to send the full manuscripts of both books, they were sympathetic to what that might cost in postage. They allowed me to circumvent all the usual printing and page format rules, so I could print on both sides of each page, in a much smaller font, in two columns, etc, which reduced each MS considerably. And they were the last manuscripts I ever had to send in printed form. The future was hacking at the door with an axe, all very Jack Torrance in THE SHINING, and would not be denied.

Today we’re at the point where I can write and submit a book while in bed. It makes me wonder what I’ll be doing in the future. Because this is already extremely convenient and portable. I could already see myself sitting in the loo and writing/submitting. Presumably the next step would mean getting rid of the physical device, and having the whole process happen in my eyeballs.

MEMOIR MANUSCRIPT SUBMITTED–OH GOD!

MEMOIR MANUSCRIPT SUBMITTED–OH, GOD!

Have just now emailed the manuscript of RANDOM ACCESS MEMOIR to the first publisher on my list of candidates who might be a good fit for such material.

And a year ago, I was lost in the wilderness, getting used to the idea that I was a “former writer” and wondering what I might do with the rest of my life. I was thinking maybe about university study. Ancient Roman history sounded good. It still does, actually.

Meanwhile, this book has erupted out of me, as if desperate to be born, in two months and ten days, without a break. Every single day, and often multiple times a day, I wrote essays for the book. I’ve never had an experience quite like this. Even if nothing comes of it, publishing-wise, I’ll always be grateful to it for waking up my writing mind, for getting the signal back. I missed it like an amputated leg.

MEMOIR READY TO SUBMIT

RANDOM ACCESS MEMOIR MS READY TO SUBMIT

I have spent the day porting the memoir manuscript into Word, fixing some formatting issues, and touching up the text. Just now I’ve added the ID and page number header, which is the last job. It’s now ready to submit first thing tomorrow! Exciting! Sooner than I expected! 🙂

Only 4% power in the iPad, too! (Have done entire project on iPad.)

MEMOIR 2nd Draft Complete

MEMOIR 2nd DRAFT COMPLETE

Have tonight completed work on the second draft of RANDOM ACCESS MEMOIR.

Have also organised a working running order for the individual pieces, but I’m sure that will change as the project goes forward. Once I’m happy with this running order I’ll export the whole thing, in one step, over into Word, to turn it into a manuscript I can send to publishers.

Eeeeeeeeeeee!

Manuscript so far runs to 93,000 words, btw. Had to lose several pieces from the second draft. Did not make the cut. Better out than in, they say!

NOTEBOOK: EXHAUSTION

NOTEBOOK: EXHAUSTION

I visited my psychologist yesterday and told her I had a curious problem. On one hand everything was going fantastically well. I was functioning every day at a very high, even unprecedentedly high level, with terrific clarity of thought, and it did not appear to be a manic phase, or even hypomania. I appeared to be healthy. I was also losing lots of weight. Among other things, I’d finished the first draft of my illness memoir, and was well into revisions and rewrites for the second draft, and was 20K into a new novel as well. Plus my Korean lessons were going well, too. No trouble concentrating. I’ve never known a time in my life like this. It’s amazing.

But put that aside for a moment. Because on Wednesday afternoon I went to the local swimming pool to slog out some laps, and the noise of kids screaming, squealing, playing up, and generally being kids really triggered all my misophonic responses. Which is to say, those specific sounds made me feel like I was under direct, life-or-death, physical attack. Made me feel like someone had just spat on my saintly mum. The thing about misophonia is it fills you with violent, murderous rage. You find yourself with a head full of the worst thoughts in the world. It’s the most awful experience. And it’s taking me days to get over it. I left that day feeling like I never wanted to come back.

And I remember when I loved going there. When all the noise was exciting. When it was a fun place. But my noise sensitivity only developed last year, right around the time my doctors in the hospital started switching my medication around. Everything stems from that. Now when I hear those sounds, it feels like an attack, like a vicious punishment.

And it’s worse when I’m tired.

Because there are days at the pool when the noise does not bother me that much, when I can cope with it pretty much fine. So what was different on Wednesday? Well, behold! Check out the rest of this website. Note that I’m producing material every single day. I’m working every day, learning Korean every day, losing weight hard, and I’ve been on this intense program of activity, without a day off, for more than two months now. In that time I’ve also lost more than ten kilograms.

It might be a little bit unsustainable.

It might be exhausting. Because I’m not eating much, either. That’s one of the key things. My metabolism is so dead, anything more than one reasonable meal a day makes me start to gain weight, so I have to fast much of the rest of the time. It’s gruelling.

My psychologist listened to me explain these two things, the incredible productivity and the terrible day at the pool, and she saw a connection. She says that I’m putting myself under a certain amount of stress and pressure to achieve all these things. I like doing them, and I feel good when I can do them, but there is pressure and stress involved. And even though you can call it “good” stress, it’s still stress. So I’m wearing myself out. I have no time off. I’m exhausted.

I do like working on my writing every day, so I’m going to keep doing something there. This weekend I’m going to focus on revision of memoir pieces for the book, but I’m not going to do anything new on the novel until next week. I may also do another Notebook piece tomorrow, but that’s it. I won’t be working my arse off producing 3-4000 words of writing every day over the weekend as I had been doing.

I’ll relax the other requirements, too, though I have already done a Korean lesson (I can now introduce my mum and dad, tell you I’d like to buy you something, ask if your boyfriend has a job, and much else).

I’ll also look at going to the pool at a different time, when there are no kids. Because as things stand I hate the happy little buggers. 🙁

MEMOIR: THE BEST USE OF A TIME MACHINE (Updated)

MEMOIR: THE BEST USE OF A TIME MACHINE (Updated)

Dad was packing a suitcase and he was leaving and it was all my fault. I lay in my bed listening to the sounds from Mum and Dad’s room: I heard him zipping up the suitcase, fastening the buckle. The air reeked of cigarettes and anger.

The Time Traveller is there, watching, listening, wishing he could help. The boy is in a catastrophically bad way. He believes everything that’s happening, and that has happened, is entirely due to his bad behaviour and personal shortcomings. If he’d been a better son, a better student, if he’d been better at everything, none of this would have happened. Dad and Mum would not always be fighting, and tonight Dad wouldn’t be packing. The boy wishes he could throw himself on the exploding grenade of his dad’s terrible anger, wishes he could absorb it all, and save his mum. He’s seen all these movies about World War II. He knows what to do. But then, he’s also up for plain old begging, too, if that would help. Maybe blocking the front door and refusing to let Dad pass would work. He doesn’t know. He’s desperate. He can hear his family coming apart. He’s dead scared. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen.

The Time Traveller would love to help him out. Would love to sit down on the end of the bed and explain a few things. Such as, what the hell is up with the boy’s poor tormented dad. Right now the Time Traveller is older than the dad. The dad is a guy in his thirties who is having a really hard time with everything, but especially with being the provider, with holding down a steady job, with his wildly oscillating moods. He doesn’t understand why sometimes he feels like a million bucks, and sometimes he feels like an unpaid bill for a dollar-twenty-five. He knows that every morning when he gets up he has to go to work, fixing engines on boats. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes they’re bastards of things. Sometimes you have to strip the things down to nothing and rebuild them piece by piece several times before you isolate the tiny, secret problem. Sometimes it takes all bloody day to look like a genius. Sometimes the clients are arseholes, too. That’s always lovely. Who expect the impossible, or won’t pay up. All of them arseholes.

And some days, it doesn’t matter, no matter what, for some reason, you just can’t get out of bed. You can’t stop crying. You can’t go to work. Your wife has to phone in for you. You’ve probably lost jobs this way.

The Time Traveller understands all this, and has had this whole experience, too. But the Time Traveller has also had, and is still having, treatment. He sees a doctor and a psychologist. He has a whole bunch of medication to take every day. He has a diagnosis that he carries around like a brand burned into his face, and he feels as if he walks with a limp. The Time Traveller gets it. He knows the boy’s beleaguered dad has been getting various sorts of psychiatric help since before dad even was a,dad, since he was about eighteen. He’s been given medication of various ineffective sorts, and seen a series of doctors, and he’s just been very unlucky to find himself in a historical period when the treatment options available to the mentally ill were terrible. The one treatment that will really help, a wonder drug called Lithium, the boy’s dad won’t get for years yet.

Then he’d like to do a couple of other things. The boy, who here is about 13, has been through this apocalyptic scenario a few times. Mum and Dad have had another big fight, they’ve said dreadful things, and next thing Dad’s packing a bag. I don’t recall Mum ever packing a bag. I also don’t recall Dad or Mum engaging in any sort of physical violence. It was never like that, thank God.

(Although, when I was younger, there were nights when I’d be in bed trying to sleep, but there was this noisy kerfuffle from the other side of the wall, in Mum and Dad’s room. There would be muffled voices, and the occasional exclamation and cry. It would sound like someone was being hurt. A few times, before I understood things better, I yelled out, all noble, “Stop it! Leave Mum alone!” Which I can only imagine resulted in fits of giggles on the other side of the wall. Sometimes a voice would reply, “Go to sleep!”)

I went through much of my youth not understanding my father. He was baffling and unpredictable. Every day would be something new and unexpected. Sometimes good, sometimes not. Sometimes the end of the world–job lost, or sometimes I’d come home from school and find Mum and Dad packing the station wagon because we were going for a holiday to Esperance. Now. Today.

No-one sat me down, when I was little, and explained to me that my dad’s weird and scary moods, his erratic behaviour, his wild and sometimes very generous impulses, were all symptoms of an illness. Mum sometimes, when I was older, tried to sort of explain this but I didn’t really get it. I needed someone, at an early age, to say to me, “look, your dad is sick. He does a lot of weird stuff, and has strange and unpredictable moods. A lot of the time he seems angry with you, but he’s not. It’s just his illness. He can’t help it. He loves you very much and wishes he could tell you more clearly what’s going on with him. But he is not mad at you. Nothing is your fault. Hang in there. It’s going to be okay. He loves you.” It never happened, or if it did and I’ve simply forgotten, I can still say I wish it had been earlier, much earlier. I would like to have known, when I first started feeling like it was all my fault, that it wasn’t. It would have spared me a lot of what went into my breakdown when I was 16.

If I had a time machine, I would use it to go back to visit this version of my Past Self, and tell him all this, to give him this kindness. I might also invite the kid, and maybe Past Mum and Dad as well, to come with me to 2017, the present day, when Mum and Dad, now elderly, live across the road from Michelle and me. I would bring in Past Self and Past Mum and Dad, and show them. Look, this is how things turn out. It’s going to be fine, once you get some help. Because these days, as of just tonight, my parents were laughing and joking and we were having a nice time over cuppas. We were close and happy. We were as far from that night when I was a kid as it’s possible to imagine. And to me it’s about the only really useful thing you could do with a time machine, to make miserable people see that there is a point in carrying on, that there is a worthwhile future for them.