Mar 31st

Repaying many kindnesses

By John Taylor

A reminder for those of you who haven't seen it to read Skylark's blog of March 10th, repaying-many-kindnesses

We have four days left to donate, and there are many, many people here who have felt Debi Alper's kindness.

Mar 31st

Aonghus Woke (after Stan Lee)

By Aonghus Fallon

Aonghus woke. He stretched and yawned and looked around
Haunted by a thought unfound
Donned his jeans, his boots, his cardigan,
Then remembered the bottom of his garden,
And went to check the spot he’d meant to be a meadow fine
Only to see the havoc wrought by the heedless dandelion.

The humble dandelion, so frail, so small
Yet lord of all
Striving, thriving
Growing, growing, ever growing
Its many seeds forever blowing,
Yellow starbursts everywhere
In clumps, singly and in pairs,

And then he heard to his amazement and despair
The gentle whispering of dandelions in prayer
Countless flowers ever bending
Countless muted voices never ending
‘Thanks, oh great and fearsome master,
For giving us such fertile pasture!
And please protect us from the raging heat, the winds that blow,
The icy frost, the gusts of snow!’

While he stood there, breath bated
Endlessly they supplicated.
But towards what goal? What grand direction?
This pious tide of golden genuflection?
To please their lord, to please their Aonghus?
He raised his head and laughed like Ghengis
At that little yellow flower,
Which had eclipsed all in fecund power,
Begging for his aid.

The dandelion! A common weed!
Expecting him to pander to its every need!
He – a man of intellect and vision,
A creature of such comprehensive erudition!
He the gardener, they the flowers,
Yet they solicited his powers,
What man possessed of countless books, a fine TV,
The best of any recent series on DVD
Would waste his hours in such a spot,
Tending to mere weeds, till red and hot?

He mused: ‘I left this patch fallow as I recall. It was so long ago
Never touching it with spade or rake or hoe,
So that the weeds might prove their worth
– or so I thought – by flourishing on such neglected earth!
Yes, I left untouched this corner here
Sometime in January of last year,
So that nature’s weeds might fend for themselves, just I have done,
(although they are many, and I just one).
Is not that the wonder of any weed?
That it does no gentle nurturing need?
Does not the prickly cactus sprout from arid sand,
Without the intercession of a gardener’s hand?

Of sun and water and soil they have their fill,
And yet they seek the gardener still!
They fight with other weeds for room,
And flourish only so the daisy and the thistle cannot bloom,
Yet never see what is so obvious to I,
That they are born to fight, to thrive, to die.

Aonghus could bear no more
He looked down at those many dandelions so small
So lately grown, so soon to wither in the fall
Had flower failed the gardener? Or the gardener the flower?
His lot to let nature take its course – or to exercise his power?
He didn’t know. He couldn’t decide,
And so he turned away and sighed.

Mar 29th

Tracking It All Back

By Gerry

Every now and then I try to understand what goes on with creative thinking. Here’s the latest attempt at putting it all together.

***

The world is full of objectified thoughts. Buildings, streets, fields, farms, none of these occur in nature but are thought into existence by humans. Similarly, books, films, songs and paintings are products of thinking. They originate inside us and manifest outside. Well, let’s reverse the process. Let’s track the process back and find out where it all starts.

When not overtly creative, we still do a great deal of externalised thinking. In every conversation, we clothe our thoughts in words – quite a mysterious process when you think of it – and speak the words out to the world, maybe to other people, or maybe just to ourselves as we wander round the kitchen deciding whether to have a coffee or a tea.

So far so objective, but let’s have a think about that tea-or-coffee decision. Do we really ask ourselves out loud: “Come on, Me, is to be a coffee or a tea?” Occasionally perhaps, but other times it might be just a grunt: “Uhh, tea.” And yet other times, the words may be entirely internal: Hmm, tea? Coffee? Dunno, maybe water. But – and here is the big point – we frequently don’t use words at all.

We simply visualise the drinks and decide which feels more attractive. Actually we don’t even do that: we experience impressions of them. Tea – good old standby, dobble of milk, oodles of refreshment. Whereas coffee – more bite, darker, better for grabbing and giving you a good shake.

Notice I’m translating these impressions into words. That’s what writers do, they translate. And it’s cheating. If we take writers seriously, we believe that humans are forever soliloquising. No, we’re not: far too much effort. Impressions are much easier.

Let’s try some other thoughts. Say I’m looking for my glasses. Did I leave them in the bathroom? Bedroom? I could go striding from room to room, and, if sufficiently exasperated, probably would. But the easier option is to check those places in the mind’s eye and see if any memory gets jogged. Bathroom – how about the window ledge, the surface by the sink, the clutter beside the radio? Let’s try the bedroom – what about the bedside table, the desk, under a pile of clothes? And so on, till I remember what I did with the wretched things. (Hanging round my neck.)

Once again, I had no need of words (beyond “dammit” or “bugger”) but how did I visualise the locations? Full photographic detail? Or a sort of swimming effect, more settled at the centre, blurred at the sides – like trying to see a face in your mind’s eye. Easily done till you try to focus on details, then they melt. Impressions again.

Now, the key thing about impressions is they form a link between the conscious and subconscious minds. A good example is trying to remember a word. We know the pesky thing is there, but will it come to mind? We can almost sense the shape of it, the feel of it, even the oomph of it, but no, it won’t come.

And then it does.

How does that happen?

Like this: we switch off the conscious mind, think of something else, and let the little filing clerks in the subconscious trot along with the requested item.

But how weird is that? It’s almost as weird as our need to sleep every night, which, of course, is the biggest switch off of all – barring death. Every night we let the conscious mind dither, dwindle, snuffle and snore – till the mighty, mysterious subconscious can take over. And if we don’t, we’re in trouble. Get ill, maybe die.

So let’s look at this all powerful monster, the subconscious, starting with those strange phenomena on the verge of sleep, that half-awake-half-asleep state where we perceive all sorts of detritus floating in and out of perception. Sights, actions, sounds, songs, music – all unconnected, like a session of drunken channel-surfing.

Maybe we perceive, say, a car riding over a bridge, a market stall loaded with fruit, a cloak-wrapped figure, a child skipping along – one disconnected impression after the other. We might also get nonsense phrases: “the pink of robotics... armature sledging in Cambodia... four carrier-bag Houdinis...” and so on. A musician, more attuned to sound, might notice melodic impressions, or atmospheric noises, or grating effects.

Eventually, we sleep and the disconnected impressions can join themselves into dreams. The car that rode the bridge might crash into the barrow of fruit, the cloaked figure might hurry forward and scoop up the trotting child. However, the stories rarely sustain themselves, and just as we hope the child might escape, the action morphs into a common room full of students, or some half familiar hills we stride along.

The point is we are unstoppably, relentlessly creative, our minds churning away, a constant river of reassembly and invention. And what the mind works on, of course, is the world. Theoretically, everything we have ever experienced gets swallowed and reorganised, ready to re-emerge whether bidden or unbidden.

When we write creatively, it is bidden. There we are, wanting to send our investigator into his great bathroom crisis (he’s searching for the victim’s glasses: on the window ledge, surface by the sink, the clutter by the radio – but there’s a murderer in the heating cupboard), and we have a great gush of images in our subconscious, just waiting to come out and cram the story.

Of course, we’ve got to control the process. So we navigate the flow. We ride the mighty currents in our swirling coracle, frequently biffing and butting the river bank, but pushing off again and riding back into the surge. Now, how do we do that? How do we know where to aim as we scan the shape of the stream ahead? Impressions, of course. Specifically, impressions of life and hope.

Let’s put it this way. Whenever I ransack my memory for instances of choice I always come up with the same answer. I chose because there was life and hope in the choice. If we humans decide to go on a holiday, or buy some furniture, or write a book, or propose marriage, or embark on a career, or learn a musical instrument, or try adventurous cookery – the reason is always the same. We do it because it looks good. We envisage it, in a vague and semi-abstract way, and what we envisage seems to shine with life and hope (unless, of course, we’re feeling a bit psycho, in which case we might favour death and despair).

So it is with stories. We wouldn’t bother starting a project if it didn’t look promising. And as we get into it, the next chapter, the next section, the next scene – all these must shine to us with life and hope, even if some characters have more of a psychotic outlook. (Well, we need negatives in a story for the positives to bounce off).

And the fascinating thing is we can somehow envisage all these items in our mind’s eye, moving characters and events around like chess pieces, seeing which might fit best. We’re not dealing with tangible items here – neither tea versus coffee, nor those spectacle-concealing bathroom locations – we’re dealing with concepts. Impressions of this or that situation. It’s almost like thinking in hieroglyphics, albeit very smudgy ones. And we choose, of course, those which seem to offer most life and hope. Yay, the book’s gonna go well. And, thus enthused, we charge ahead with enhanced energy.

Now, this energy might – just might – take us to our deepest level. You see there are various qualities of output. Level one, let’s say, is junk. We’ve tried, we’ve failed. We need to switch off, sit on the sofa, stare into space, and ask the subconscious please to get itself attached because we’re direly in need of oomph.

Level two, we’re getting better, but we really didn’t switch off enough. So we have a scratch. Sigh. Wander over to the sofa, give it a vague kick. Return to the keyboard and suddenly, wham!, we’re onto level three. And the stuff is just pouring out of us. We’ve got the flow, we’ve got the oomph, and we’re directing it, navigating it. More than that, we’re lighting it.

Remember that feeling of life and hope, well we’ve got it, and we’re aiming life and hope at that keyboard, at that screen. We’ve got thoughts and impressions sorted. We’ve got the conscious and subconscious sorted. And next day we look at our work and say “I didn’t write that, did I? How could I write that?” Because we’ve hit quality. Let’s award the concept a capital letter. We’ve hit Quality.

And isn’t it interesting: we were intensely conscious whilst doing it but afterwards we can scarcely remember.

We have levels, we humans. And our deeper levels are way beyond everyday consciousness. They are also our best. They are the real Us. The real Me, real You, real We. And it’s scary that these levels are so inaccessible. And it’s glorious that they’re so paradoxically accessible. We can hit them every day if we’re on form.

There is no one on Earth – absolutely no one – who is as good at being you as you. And there is no one on Earth – absolutely no one – who is as good at being me as me. We’re total geniuses at being ourselves. Sack the million monkeys with typewriters, they’ll never get close to human capacity.

Okay, should we go for a big ending now? (Reader advisory: the following paragraphs contain unsubstantiated assertions.)

Let’s put it this way: thus do we create the world afresh, its stories, its sculptures, its architecture, its cities and provinces, thereby contradicting entropy and building up the world of thought, infusing and nurturing it with life and hope.

Or shall we put it like this: thus do we come to write our most significant story, that of our own life. And the pilot who guides this narrative – the head-and-heart, conscious-and unconscious navigator – is our own mysterious, often forgotten, but always available, soul.

Or shall we say: thus do we echo with our limited humanity the first-cause-creativity of Divine Mind, privileged to join, in howsoever small a way, the cosmic project of mirroring back the Original Perfection till all Creation shares in its Power and Exhilaration and Love. 

Or perhaps we should go for a smaller ending: that guy in the heating cupboard, we really do need to let him out.

Mar 29th

Signed, Sealed and Delivered

By Vox Populi

Yep; the PM has done the deed. Signed, sealed and delivered the letter.

2 years of negotiations, or would that be bun fights, and once again the country strikes out on its own.

I read some of the comments by the readers on certain news articles. Well, what can one say. Poles apart and handbags at dawn - or should that rather be at midday.

How will this all pan out for the country? Only time will tell.

PS: See link:  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/29_03_17_article50.pdf

Mar 28th

Struggling with your first book? Here's one 'solution'...

By stephenterry

I've read on Gerry's blog below that several posters have completed more than one novel, some, many novels. But a few are still struggling to finish their first.

I have this theory that applies to me when I get struck with procrastination, writers block, and a desire to eat dark chocolate instead.

I'm mainly a panster with the outine of my story in my head, nothing much else, even how many characters are going to upset the progress of my M/C. Does that sound familiar?

if so, I think I've cracked it. I call it, mini-planning. One chapter at a time. Let's say I'm ten thousand words in, and run out of ideas what happens next.  And the novel reaches the vegetative state waiting for a kick start. With me, so far?

So what I now do is to plan what is going to happen in the next chapter; how the story moves from A (the starting point) to B (the conclusion) and so on.

Now, although my characters can be very reluctant to conform to a path, they are 'forced' to travel along because I whip them into submission, and warn them they will be killed for disobedience.

An example of this technique I've posted on critiques, because I got stuck with two women characters at loggerheads and no way of extracting them without bloodshed - which (incidentally) could be one way out of the deadlock. When I realised what I needed to do to move the story along, it all became clear, the dialogue worked (I hope) and I'm back on a roll.

And now I'm a 'mini-planner panster' - try it and see if it works for you... 

  

 

 

 

 

Mar 27th

Adventure in Peshawar

By John Alty

Adventures in Peshawar

 

Some will remember my blog “Tea in Peshawar” about my time on the northwest frontier of Pakistan, up near the Khyber Pass, starting up a flour mill. Well, here’s another passage from my never ending WIP, a memoir, then I’ll stop hogging the blog……

 

The start-up.

 

Once I’d completed my pre-commissioning checks and corrected a myriad of installation errors made by the local electrical contractor I informed Salahuddin (the mill director) we would start cleaning and conditioning wheat the following day and the day after that we would start production. 

Starting production was treated as an auspicious occasion by the client and to my dismay an opening ceremony was hastily prepared. Many local dignitaries were invited and a celebratory feast was to be held for the local poor, the food served from huge vats in the mill yard. The process of starting a mill for the first time is a chaotic affair and I would have liked a few days running to get things sorted out before being put under the limelight. This was like stepping out onto the stage for the opening night of a play without benefit of a rehearsal. 

At my insistence the visitors were not allowed into the mill but they gathered on each floor of the stairwell, crowding around the doors and staring in at the equipment, chattering excitedly. I had to dash from floor to floor to check all was well and my progress was greatly hindered by these human obstructions. Within a few minutes of start up I was hurtling down the stairs to the ground floor to attend to some malfunction or other when I encountered a group of people blocking my way. Hearing my shouts and seeing my headlong dash they moved quickly aside and as I hit the ground floor landing my feet slipped from under me and I slid into the wall opposite with an almighty smack. Struggling upright I saw my hands were covered in blood. Then I realised my backside was wet with blood and there was blood all over the floor and over the steps. I quickly established, to my considerable relief, this wasn’t my blood but that of a goat that had been sacrificed on the mill steps and which the group of religious men were now holding up for me to see. 

Fortunately the mill settled quickly into a steady rhythm with only occasional interruptions and I was able to go to my rooms to change out of my bloody white jeans and tee shirt and give them to Rafik for washing. The mill ran continuously for the next two days and product quality and capacity were brought into line with the customer’s requirements. After that we had a few days stop for correctional work and when the mill started up again it shut down only one day a week for planned maintenance.

 

Mar 27th

A Cumbrian Adventure

By Daedalus

A blogpost I wrote for 'The Adventures of Kate' website which may interest some. Plenty of photos of snowy mountains.

"I’m not sure when I started to get an itch to start bagging Wainwrights, but Ros noticed it before I did. A couple of Christmases ago, among my presents was something tube shaped with a tag reading ‘for accounting purposes.’ The package contained a chart of the Wainwright fells and a ‘tick list’ where you can mark off the date you reached the summit."

Mountain Monday - A Cumbrian Adventure

Mar 26th

The Limbo of the Quarter-Born

By Gerry

I guess a few of you have had this. You write your novel – big task, big commitment, especially all that redrafting – but eventually you’ve got a submissions package. And somehow the synopsis makes sense, and somehow the cover letter doesn’t sound too crazed, and somehow the first three chapters hang together. So you feel you’re in with a chance. Worth a punt.

 

So you trawl Agent Hunter or Writers and Artists, and you adapt your cover letter to half a dozen recipients, and you click ‘send’ on your anxiously checked emails – cos you really don’t want Ms Whosit getting Mr Thingammy’s letter.

 

(All of which is much easier, by the way, than just the other day when you needed half a dozen print-outs, half a dozen S.A.E.s, and half a dozen A4 envelopes – though chances were you’d get a full set of replies thudding on your doormat, not the six-week, eight-week, twelve-week silences of email).

 

Anyway, you’ve given it the max. Probably had the novel read by worthy people. Acted on the worthy advice. Not overdone it, though, not turned the thing into a three-legged donkey. So you’re good. Chances are good. Life’s great.

 

What do you do now?

 

Mm, have a holiday or two? Meet old friends and apologise for being a hermit? Take up ballroom dancing?

 

Or do you – here’s the addiction – find it difficult to stop? Well, you’ve built up a lot of momentum, how do you expect to switch it off? There’s a gap in your life. It clunks as hollowly as, say, an old time S.A.E. landing on your doormat.

 

So you confine yourself to just the one city break, and you look up just a couple of old pals, and you just watch dancing on YouTube. Then you’re back to it.

 

Volume Two.

 

Makes sense. A fab book like yours will obviously need a follow-up, won’t it? Mr Agent and Ms Publisher will want more than a single book out of their time-and/or-money investment. You could be looking at a two-book deal. Maybe three, with a following wind.

 

So off you go. Volume Two. And this time it writes like a dream. Well, of course it does. You know what you’re doing now. You know the characters, you know the situations, you know the likely shape of the overall story – where the challenges will be, where the surprises will come, where the turn-arounds, revelations and self-revolutions will arise.

 

Meanwhile six weeks pass, and you’ve got two rejections. But never mind, four agents are still in the game. Eight weeks pass, and there’s another rejection: not to worry, there’s still three in the game. Twelve weeks pass: okay, those other three will never reply.

 

Diagnosis? Well, obviously the submission package wasn’t up to it. Time to get some serious editorial appraisals paid for. Get the submission package reviewed. Maybe get the whole book reviewed. (Someone read the damn thing, please!)

 

As for Volume Two, the momentum has gone. Why push ahead when Volume One is an endangered species? I mean, Volume Two should be a decent enough stand-alone, but, well, it would help if the punters read Volume One first. And anyway, if Volume One is crap, why should Volume Two fare any better? Think of it, maybe the whole concept is wrong. Or its timing is wrong. It might have been great twenty years ago or twenty years in the future, but right now? With the world as it is? With publishing as it is?

 

No, there’s a time for standing back, reviewing the options, and heading off in an entirely different direction. No more arctic romance. Consider ghosts. Consider crime.

 

And so the Limbo of the Quarter Born receives another resident. Well, you probably got a quarter of Volume Two done, didn’t you? Drafted at least. And you can always dig it out of limbo when arctic romance becomes viable again. Or when your ghost-stroke-crime novel hits it big. I mean, come on, ghosts who go around stroking criminals, who could resist?

Mar 25th

An annual Word Cloud competition.

By Athelstone

In autumn of 2010, AlanP set up a competition on the Word Cloud called Inter City Challenge. This was a themed short story competition open to all Word Cloud members. There were sixteen entries and some wonderful stories. It was judged by the entrants themselves. Five more competitions followed, with different themes, and the latest, Now and Then, is about to conclude with the winner announced today, Sunday 26 March. The field has almost doubled with thirty one entries.

For many members of the Word Cloud this has become a special event and it certainly produces some remarkable work. Some of the stories have gone on to publication, others grown into novels, and more still have featured in national competitions. Most of all, it brings out the best in the competitors. It really is as though people find themselves far more challenged by the competition and themselves than by the prospect of winning and I count some of the entries as being amongst the best short stories I have ever read.

Much of the credit must rest with Alan; with the way he has set up the competitions and with his inimitable style in administering their progress. It’s a great personal achievement and one which he should be proud of.

I missed the first one but entered the others and they have all been amazingly enjoyable and enriching. I owe Alan a very big ‘Thank you’ for making the effort and keeping this going so brilliantly for so long. Personally, I can’t imagine not having a competition to look forward to as autumn begins, but the thing is, Alan has decided to call it a day.

 

Anyway. A few weeks ago I was with a party of Word Cloud folks in a flat in Newquay, when somebody said to me that I should have a go at running something. Never one to volunteer, this struck me as a terrible idea. However, as the cold reality looms that this could, otherwise, be the end, maybe it isn’t so daft. A lot can happen in six months and the Word Cloud is a forum that encourages anybody and everybody to step forward. I’m open to other ideas and alternatives. If anybody has an overwhelming urge to take up the baton, then this would be the time to say. But as things stand, when summer fades away and all the leaves are brown, I intend to get the ball rolling on another competition.

Mar 24th

Lost for Words

By AlanP

I have a lawyer acquaintance downtown* The other day I was buying him an expensive lunch at the foot of the Nat West Tower (now known as Tower 42 for reasons to do with the decline of Nat West Bank). It’s something I have to do from time to time in order to remind these chaps that I’m still alive and although playing it cool, don’t enjoy the vacuum that used to be filled with business. Anyway, it turns out Mike is a bit dead in the water himself at the moment. The conversation turned to more social things and led me to reveal my literary side as I mentioned I had just sold one of my stories for a pathetically few dollars on a contract he would fall about laughing at. He said he had always wanted to create a graphic novel, so I encouraged him to have a go.

This led to him telling me about contracts that his firm’s offices in South Africa are preparing. There’s a real literacy problem in S Africa, lots of people starting up small business simply can’t read and write. So these contracts are entirely graphic. Business contracts in flat pack assembly instructions mode. It made me think - I assembled some IKEA flat pack stuff the other day and, when I got home I dug out the instructions from the recycle, just to check. Not one word. I hadn’t noticed, I just put it together. There were numbers for parts, even a picture of someone scratching their head and a telephone number for support. But the assembly itself included not one word. And now it seems that whole business contracts are being created with the same techniques.

It’s interesting. The developing solution to people being unable to read and write is not to teach them how to read and write so much as to remove the need. I’m not sure where this will end.

* Stanley Kowlaski – A Streetcar Named Desire (Tenessee Williams). Always give credit when you steal a quotation, they may sue you if you don’t. :D

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