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Flotsam

Hey! Hi, howareya?

Kept you waiting, huh? (for all you MGS fans out there.)

Well then. Busy, busy, busy. But finally back to working on my own stuff once again. The Negative Bind hasn’t been forgotten about, it’s still very much on my mind. It has, however, been shelved for the time being, as my short story collection keeps rearing its ugly little head and distracting me.

Once upon a time I had a title in mind for this collection but as time went on I came up with another name for it and ran with that for a while. This new title – A Dog Barked Once – made perfect sense. To me, anyway. You see, the vast majority of my stories contain, somewhere in them, the line “…somewhere in the distance a dog barked, once, twice…”, and so A Dog Barked Once seemed very fitting. Hell, I could even write a second collection and call it A Dog Barked Twice!

Genius.

But no. Again time has moved on, and I find myself favouring my original title – Flotsam.

Why Flotsam, you ask. Well, dictionaries define the word as:

  • pieces of broken wood and other waste materials found on the beach or floating on the sea.
  • anything or anyone that is not wanted or not considered to be important or useful.

If you were to ask me where I get my ideas from, most of the time I’d be unable to tell you. They just kind of appear in my head. The closest I can come to explaining it is to say I view the imagination in my head as a vast, and mostly empty, ocean. Floating around in this Imaginocean are idea boxes – some complete and whole, the majority only a part of the entire story, pieces of wreckage from a fractured tale.

Whenever one of these boxes floats close enough to the shore, I wade out and grab it with both hands before it can float out of reach again. I’ll open the box, see what’s inside, and write it down, before settling back to await the next idea box to drift into view.

So yes, I’m slightly weird. No matter.

A lot of writers like to do cover reveals. They like to keep the image hidden until they feel the time is right, and then release it with great fanfare, or in a more subdued manner, depending on their style. Well, not me. Once I have a cover I like then I don’t mind showing it around (mainly because there’s a very good chance I’ll change my mind and make another cover before long).

And so, without further ado, here is the cover for my upcoming short story collection, Flotsam.

CompleteCover

 

When will it be released? Who knows. Whenever I get around to finishing it, would be my best guess. Until then, at least you have a pretty picture to look at, right?

Right.

As always, that shallot.

Laters…

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Posted by on May 6, 2017 in Books, Writing

 

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Writers… Thoughts…

Inner writer

So, I was thinking the other day. Yes, I know, I should be careful, it’ll make my head hurt. But anyway, the thought…

In the writing world there are two types of writers. Of course, there are many subsets to those two types, but stripped down to bare basics, two is all there are.

The first type consists of the ‘literary writers’. These are those writers who wish to create something with words. They want the words to be beautiful, to be profound, to convey a meaning only those on the writer’s own level can hope to comprehend. They want those words to look striking and powerful on paper. They wish to create a long lasting legacy with those words. They wish to create… *dramatic pause*… a masterpiece!

The second type of writer is made up of the ‘storytelling writer’. These are people who have a story, or indeed many stories, to tell. They want to share this story, or stories, and writing is their chosen medium to do this. If they could make movies, they’d probably make a blockbuster to tell the tale. If they had the first clue how to make video games I’m sure they’d make a Triple A title to relate the story. But as it is, writing is their humble talent, and so write they must. Storytelling is their trade, and Story, be it complex or simple, is the fuel which drives them, the light which sustains them.

Without a shadow of a doubt, I belong in the second category. Though I spend a lot of time writing for other people (it pays the bills, after all), I love to write for myself, to give life to the myriad of stories floating around the ocean of my imagination.

The writers in the first group have my admiration. Those guys know what they’re talking about. They can discuss the literary greats for days on end. Grammar is second nature to them, and they can utilise it without a thought. They’re all experts at cryptic crosswords too!

That being said, I’m more than happy to be fairly and squarely in the second category. Storytelling is my bread and butter. Writing is good, but Story is everything.

So yeah, it was just a thought. Which group of writers do you belong to?

As always, that shallot.

Laters…

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Posted by on February 5, 2017 in Thoughts

 

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The Key

Quite a long while ago I was challenged to write a story based on a certain image.

key This image, to be exact.

Well, as so often happens, life, and various other things got in the way and the story never got written, although I had a good idea of what I wanted to write. Time has gone on, far too much time, and I’ve been so caught up in doing other things – earning money in order to be able to pay the bills and feed oneself, what a drag that is – that I haven’t done any writing for myself.

Plenty for other people. None at all for me. Now, that kinda sucks, so I decided it’s time I did something about it.

And shock horror! Today I actually put pen to paper. Well, typed words on a screen. Same thing. I didn’t produce much, a thousand words or so, as the writing machine is kinda rusty due to lack of use. But it is oiling up nicely. The words aren’t exactly flowing, but they are seeping out slowly.

Who knows, if you’re good I might even post an extract.

Or not.

Anyway, as always, that shallot.

Laters…

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Posted by on November 10, 2016 in Writing

 

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What is this?

I have no idea what this is, where it came from or where it’s going, but I wrote the words down nonetheless. I’ll chuck it on the ‘Random’ pile, and maybe, one day, perhaps, it might turn into something. You never know. In the meantime, any ideas would be appreciated.

Aton (Homeward)

desertAton gripped the steering wheel tighter, whether in anticipation, excitement or nervousness he knew not. The old truck’s headlights speared the darkness ahead, trying without much success to penetrate the night, and as a result Aton and his wares travelled the lonely highway at a little over walking pace.

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Posted by on February 22, 2015 in Writing

 

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Mrs. McCrommerty – Teaser

What’s this? Another teaser? Surely not. This is from a short, honest to goodness ghost story. Whooo, ghoulies and ghosties, and things that go bump in the night. Scary eh? No? Oh well. As always, I’ll get round to finishing it one day…

Mrs McCrommertyMrs. McCrommerty.

She’d scared him when he was a child. She’d scared him when he was a teenager. And now, over twenty years later and in his early forties, she still scared him – even though she was now dead and about to be buried. Standing at the edge of the grave, he peered down at her coffin, the polished wood gleaming in the bright summer sun. It was such a glorious day that even six feet down in the cool earth he could imagine that she’d be cursing the heat. That said, if it had been ten below and snowing she would have been cursing the cold. She had cursed everything, had Aunt Sylvia.

She wasn’t his proper aunt – as far as he had been able to ascertain she hadn’t been related to anyone in his family, either directly or indirectly. She had favoured bright white blouses with stiffly starched collars and ruffles down the front. Long flowing skirts of a single, dark colour – red, blue, brown, purple, green – you name it, no doubt she’d have a skirt in the darkest shade possible of that colour. Stout black boots and a black walking cane with a silver duck’s head for a handle completed her usual ensemble. She had always dressed the same, and had always looked the same. As a small boy he’d imagined she must be ancient, with her grey hair, deep wrinkles and toothless mouth. So, that means she must have been at least two hundred by the time she’d died.

Jake smiled to himself. He wouldn’t have put it past her to have lived that long. His sister had told him once that Aunt Sylvia was a witch, and in all the years that he had known her she had done absolutely nothing to dispel that image. A slight breeze blew across the churchyard and, despite the warmth of the day, Jake shivered. Did witches really die? Or did their spirits float around looking for a new, younger body to inhabit? Don’t be so soft, he told himself. She was just a harmless, lonely old lady. He smiled again. The brain said be sensible, but the imagination… well, that had always had a life of it’s own. Writing horror stories for a living didn’t help matters either.

Aunt Sylvia hadn’t really been scary, and he chided himself for carrying on with such childish thoughts. Yes, he hadn’t liked being kissed by her dry lips whenever his parents had made them visit her. Yes, he hadn’t liked her bony, arthritic hands tussling his hair, or the stale smell of pipe smoke that always surrounded her like an invisible cloud. A pipe, of all things! An old lady smoking a pipe had to be a witch, surely? All those things made a big impression on a very impressionable young boy, and they had stayed with him ever since. Sudden melancholia swept over him, a sadness for things lost, never to be regained, and he blinked away unexpected tears self-consciously.

The Reverend Bywater finished his sermon with a loud Amen, and the small crowd of mourners began to drift away. Jake stayed where he was, lost in thoughts of the past. This was his first visit to Penrith in almost ten years, and nothing had changed. A small, historic market town, it hadn’t altered much over the centuries, he guessed. Businesses and people may have come and gone, but the buildings had stayed the same. Born and raised here, he had left in his early twenties to pursue his journalistic ambitions, and had rarely visited since. He absently watched a small beetle scurry over Aunt Sylvia’s coffin lid as he wondered why this was so. His journalism career hadn’t taken off but there was no shame in that, no reason to stay away, as less than a year later he had sold his first book and had been making a good living off the back of his writing ever since.

“Hey, Jakey boy! That you? Woof woof! How’s it going, you old dog you?” Sighing, Jake silently questioned, not for the first time, the wisdom of parents with the surname Russell calling their son Jake. Turning around, he saw Trev, alcoholic brother of an old school friend staggering towards him, beer can in hand. Maybe here was one of the reasons for not returning to his home town more often.

As always, that shallot.

Laters…

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Posted by on September 23, 2014 in Writing

 

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What makes a great story?

What does make a story great?

Everybody has their own opinions about this, but Marcus Geduld, a former assistant to a BBC director, and son of a film historian, answers the question well… in my opinion…

Most stories are good, but what makes them great?There are always exceptions, but if I was planning to violate any of the following rules and principles, I would seriously think about why I was doing it. Also note that aesthetics are largely subjective. The following will help you write stories that will satisfy someone like me.

1. A great story is constructed to hook me and refuse to let me go. There are many techniques authors can use to do this, including creating high-stakes drama, making me care deeply about characters, piquing my curiosity, etc. At each point, there must be something driving me to move from one sentence to the next.

2. It overflows with sensual detail. The story is told, as much as possible, in a way that makes me feel as if I’m seeing things, smelling things, hearing things, tasting things, and touching things. Orwell describes a character’s experience eating a rancid sausage as “bombs of filth exploded in his mouth.” That hooks me much more effectively than, “The sausage was disgusting.”

3. Its characters should obey “Stanislavsky’s Rules.” Stanislavsky was a Russian actor and director who formalized (amongst other things) a system of analysis many actors use today. It’s based on the premise that characters pursue goals. They’re not necessarily self-knowing: they may not know what their goals are. But, still, they have goals and they pursue them.

For instance, a particular character’s goal might be “to marry the girl.” Conflict occurs when a character’s goals are thwarted by a competing character (another suitor), by a force of nature (the girl dies), or by his own inner qualms (shyness). If a character achieves his goal or is permanently thwarted, he must either form a new goal or be out of the story.

The author needn’t communicate his character’s goals, and doing so is often a bad idea. As a reader, I just need to feel that the characters are psychologically plausible, even if I can’t explain how.

Despite its title, this is a great book for writers: A Practical Handbook for the Actor. So is this: Games People Play: The Basic Handbook of Transactional Analysis.

4. Its characters need to be distinct from each other. One doesn’t necessarily have to draw them as broadly as Dickens, but Dickens is a great teacher. In well-told stories, characters (even minor ones) are never collections of quirks. “He always scratches his beard” isn’t a character. Neither is “He’s continually sarcastic.”

5. Its stakes must be high. That’s not to say all the characters must be in life-or-death peril. Some great stories have been written about high school kids with crushes. But I need to both understand and, more important, have a visceral feeling of why it’s vital Shelly get a date with Dan. The author must make me care!

6. Its plot must be plausible. By that, I don’t mean it must avoid dragons or giant robots. I mean that stories should obey whatever logic they set up. If it’s established in Chapter One that the sultan has a flying carpet, the author has to explain why, in Chapter Two, when he’s locked in his bedroom, he can’t just fly out the window.

7. Either its plot or characters (or both) must surprise me. If a story doesn’t have plot twists—if it’s obvious what’s going to happen—then I must be surprised by how the characters get from Point A to Point B, or by their reactions. “This is a love story, so I know the woman is going to fall in love with the man, but he ruined her business and she hates him! How is he going to win her over?”

8. Its writing style must either move out of the way or reveal an interesting (often invisible) storyteller character. Great writing (in the stylistic sense) can be matter-of-fact. It can be so simple that you don’t notice it: you only think about the plot and the characters. Much brilliant genre writing is like this, and it takes just as much skill to write as “flowery” prose. It’s vital that the author removes all clunky phrasing and he must make his writing as sensual as possible.

Or he can make the narrative voice a distinct character—one that calls attention to itself. He can use obscure words, noticeable rhythms, complex metaphorical systems, wordplay, and so on, as long as this is in service of a distinct voice: the evocation of a storyteller I enjoy spending time with. (It’s worth considering Stanislavsky’s Rules for this hidden character, even if he’s an unnamed 3rd-Person narrator.)

9. It uses metaphor to make the abstract sensual. Here’s a simple example from “The Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker.

She tried to imagine herself chatting and laughing with a roomful of strangers, completely at her ease. It seemed an impossible fantasy, like a child wishing for wings.

“An impossible fantasy” is an abstraction. Wecker makes it visceral by likening it to a child wishing for wings. This is the primary use of metaphor in fiction. It’s why, “I’m describing something abstract” is never an excuse for not making it sensual.

10. It lacks gratuitous elements. As a reader, I don’t need to understand exactly how everything fits together, but I must feel that it does. The main difference between a well-told story and a real-life sequence of events is the former is a coherent whole and the latter isn’t. Nothing should be in the story because the author thinks it’s cool, unless it simultaneously serves the story, moves it forward, and/or helps the reader experience something in it. This is what is meant by “kill all your darlings.” Cut anything that’s gratuitous, even a single sentence.

Also note Chekhov’s rule that if a gun appears in act one, it must be fired in act two. (Otherwise the gun is gratuitous.) Every detail must exist for a reason!

11. Even if it’s a tragedy, it contains humor. Shakespeare understood this, well. Most readers shut down when subjected to page after page of misery. If there’s no humor, the story had better be damned interesting.

12. It must avoid awkward exposition. There are only two acceptable sorts of exposition: (1) straight-forward description that doesn’t pretend to be anything else (e.g. the text crawl at the beginning of “Star Wars”) and (2) exposition that’s so deeply hidden, the reader doesn’t notice it.

Let’s say you need to get the reader to understand that Sarah is Bill’s sister. You can not have him say, “Sister dear, please pass the butter,” unless you’ve established that he always talks to people in that stilted way. In casual conversation, most people don’t label their friends and family. They just say, “Pass the butter.”

You must either be overt—”Bill turned to his sister and said, ‘Pass the butter'”—or incredibly stealthy: “Remember when mom used to buy that really salty butter?”

13. It shouldn’t be too “on the nose.” Many contemporary stories (especially ones written for film and television) violate this by giving their characters too much self-knowledge and having them express their wisdom via the language of pop psychology: “I now realize that I pushed him away because I saw too much of myself in him.” This rings false. Most people don’t know why they do what they do.

Also, most of the time, unless we’re talking about something trivial, we don’t say what we want. We’ve all swallowed social rules that make us temper or hide our desires.

So, if George wants his wife to quit fussing over her face so they can get to the party, he probably won’t say, “Quit fussing over your face so we can get to the party” (unless their relationship has reached an intense moment of crisis or he’s a specifically antisocial sort of character). He’ll glance at his watch and say, “Do you think they’re wondering where we are?”

14. It should avoid judging its characters. Let me, the reader, decide whether they are good or bad. In the best stories, that’s difficult, because the “good guys” have negative traits and the “bad guys” have their charms.

15. It should avoid didacticism. Let me, the reader, draw my own moral or conclusions. In the best stories, all conclusions are complicated. If the entire “message” of a book is “bigotry is bad,” the writer could have just told me that, and I probably knew it, already.

A great story about bigotry involves me in a world in which bigotry is a force and helps me feel what the characters feel, both the sufferings (and lusts for revenge) of the victims and the fears of the bigots. The story has the confidence to let me live in its world and emerge however I emerge. It doesn’t drive me towards a school-lesson conclusion.

16. It should contain just the right level of ambiguity. This is the most difficult effect for stories to achieve, and so we generally find it (along with other traits) only in the world’s greatest literature (films, plays, etc.). If a story answers all its questions, it’s forgettable. It might divert me as piece of light entertainment, but once it’s over, I rarely want to read it again. If a story is too ambiguous, it’s confusing. I get irritated because I have no idea what’s going on. So the trick is to find the sweet spot between these extremes. Great stories haunt without being confusing. In my mind, a great example of perfect ambiguity is the ending of Bergan’s film “Fanny and Alexander.”

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2014 in Writing

 

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Slaughter of the Innocents – Taiji

Have you heard of a place called Taiji?

If you have you’ll know why the mere mention of the name makes me shudder. If you haven’t, then please, take the time to enter the name into google and read all about it. And if you’re an animal lover, prepare to be upset. Fair warning. If you’re left unmoved, then you, my friend, are welcome to leave this planet and return to your own any time you wish.

Taiji is a small town on the coast of Japan. Taiji Cove is a place where humans slaughter dolphins. Not one or two, ones that might have unwittingly found themselves in the cove. They slaughter them hundreds at a time.

TaijiA fleet of boats sets sail. Out on the ocean they’ll locate a pod of dolphins, organise themselves for the hunt, then drive the pod back to Taiji Cove. Once there, and trapped, the dolphins are slaughtered inhumanely for their meat. Not all are killed – some are selected to be sold, alive, to various marine theme parks around the world. So that paying tourists can marvel at how beautiful and intelligent these creatures are…

I won’t get on my soapbox and start preaching about this barbaric practise, that isn’t what this blog is for. Besides, far better qualified people than I can argue the case better than I ever could. Links to them can be found at the end of this post, should you wish more information, or to support them in their efforts. (I’m not averse to sensible discussions about this and many other topics. I can be messaged on my Twitter and Facebook pages, or emailed direct – info at alenbcurtiss dot com)

So, back to the point of this post. Last weekend 250 dolphins were driven into Taiji. The ‘lucky’ few were removed, to live out their lives as ‘entertainment’ for overcharged tourists. The rest were slaughtered, the ocean yet again turning red with their blood. Yet again, those who care tried to raise awareness, tried to get the world to take notice. Yet again, the majority of newspapers didn’t print a single word about the atrocity. Yet again, news channels failed to broadcast a single second about the slaughter. It seems the only ‘news’ they believe people are interested in are stories about arguing politicians and cheating celebrities.

I was watching yet another news item about an exchange of words between politicians in the House of Commons, concerning tax avoidance by large companies. At the same time I was reading tweets by @SeaShepherd and @CoveGuardians as the dolphins were being slaughtered. Which one you consider to be more newsworthy is your choice, but it got me thinking – what if it wasn’t dolphins? What if it was children that were rounded up, herded to a certain place, and then hacked to death? Would the world ignore it? Would people sit back and let it continue? Would the media fail to report stories about it?

You know what? If it went on for long enough, long enough to seem routine, I rather think they would.

The following is the beginning of a story inspired by these events, and by the above questions I asked myself. As always, I’ll get round to finishing it at some point. If you know me, you’ll know this isn’t anything new.

Slaughter Of The Innocents

They came in the morning. Silent, grim faced men spilling from their transports and quickly surrounding the small primary school. Morning assembly had just begun and the pure, sweet voices of the children within could be heard, raised in a joyful rendition of All Things Bright And Beautiful. Bright and beautiful described the day perfectly. A golden summer sun beamed down from a faded denim sky, small wisps of pure white clouds sailed serenely across the heavens. Brightly coloured birds sang their newest compositions to each other, while honey bees acted as backing singers as they buzzed and hummed from one iridescent flower to another, legs already heavy with the first of the day’s pollen haul.

The grim faced men stood in a silent ring around the school, their black clothing absorbing the heat of the morning sun. Sweat ran in rivulets down dispassionate faces as temperatures rose. They cared not; they had an important job to do, and do it they would. Some carried worn sledgehammers, others favoured rusty swords, each tool of choice strapped to its user’s back. Hands were to be kept free for the Herding, which came before the use of such tools would be necessary.

The two transports the men had arrived in sat off to one side, engines rumbling, exhausts belching black fumes into the clear air. The heavy treads of their tyres had chewed up the green grass of the playing field, four muddy lines tracing their route across the soft turf. The cage trucks, only two for a school of this small size, were already parked by the chosen collection ground – a small park half a mile from the school. The commander of the black clad Collectors – a large, heavyset man with pinched features and watery eyes – had chosen the park purely because of the sculpture of a leaping dolphin in its centre. It appealed to his artistic side.

On the summit of a small hill to the north, a group of observers gathered, huddling together as if for warmth despite the heat of the day. The group consisted of the schoolchildren’s parents, and opponents of the Collections. Banners had been unfurled, placards were held high, all bearing slogans in defiance of the barbaric practise – ‘Stop The Slaughter!’, ‘Children Are Innocent!’, ‘Compassion Before Greed!’. They waved their signs in near silence – the New Laws clearly stated the penalty for ‘aggressive vocal opposition’ was a minimum of five years in one of the government’s correctional facilities. Actual physical opposition resulted in a lifetime of ‘corrective therapy’ and, in extreme cases, public execution.

Another, smaller group congregated a respectful distance from the first. Reporters, cameramen, photographers milled about, drinking coffee from plastic cups, and chatting quietly. Less than a dozen here to cover this particular Collection, less than a dozen to broadcast their reports to a disinterested world. Their numbers dwindled with each Collection – newspapers no longer printed the stories, news channels no longer aired the ‘exclusive’ reports. The world, it seemed, no longer cared.

The Commander stepped a few paces inside the ring of his hand picked Collectors. Each man had passed rigorous tests for ruthlessness – the slightest sign of compassion, the merest hint of sympathy meant instant failure for new recruits and a return to the job queues. The Commander had selected each one with meticulous care, over the years building the finest Collection Unit in the western world. In his opinion, anyway.

He gave a subtle hand gesture and the two rumbling transports fell silent, their engines switched off by unseen drivers. Up on the hill the observers turned their attention to the scene below. Some noted how the wildlife had also fallen silent, no birds sang, no bees buzzed. Even the slight summer breeze had abated. Mother Nature holding her breath, awaiting the inevitable.

The Commander raised a small and intricately engraved silver whistle to his lips. Today’s Collection was ready to commence.

The atrocities were about to begin.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So there you have it. Not exactly a masterpiece, and a long way from complete. Hopefully though, it’s made a few people think about what’s really important in the world, and maybe even look at things from a slightly different viewpoint.

The wonderful people of Sea Shepherd are doing what they can to stop the atrocities of Taiji, and also to protect all of our seas and oceans, and the wonderful and unique wildlife they contain. They can be contacted on the following:-

Sea Shepherd website – SeaShepherd.org

Sea Shepherd on Twitter – @SeaShepherd, @OmarSeaShepherd, @CoveGuardians

Sea Shepherd on Facebook – Sea Shepherd Official Page

Thanks for taking the time to read my scribblings.

Laters…

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Posted by on January 22, 2014 in Rant, Thoughts, Writing

 

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