Review: Universal Harvester (Paperback)

universal-harvesterI’m fortunate that I live a short distance from my local library so I visit often. My library contains a section called Page One in which recently released popular fiction is located. Accordingly, I saw Universal Harvester in this section, on a display with new science-fiction books and, intrigued by the synopsis and on a bit of a punt, I took it out.

Unfortunately, it was only the synopsis that proved enjoyable or interesting. Universal Harvester is set in the late 1990s in the heartland of America, and features Jeremy Heldt who works at a video store where mysterious recordings begin to be reported on the tapes. Now, this synopsis stood out to me because I recall a fairly memorable and highly-rated episode of Doctor Who. I was intrigued to see what the retro, 90s time period would bring (no internet, no smartphones acting like magic wands to the mystery). The synopsis seemed to promise me a creepy, haunting story that threatens the very lives of the characters.

The book starts out fairly slowly, but the first haunted tape soon comes in. I felt fairly hooked – I wanted to find out what the mystery was. Was it supernatural? Was it the shady scheme of some untoward character?

I didn’t really find out as the book seemed to focus more time exploring the backstories and motivations of the characters than actually solving the mystery. There’s virtually no action (save for a car accident that I’m unsure was connected to the mystery) and instead Universal Harvester spends its time navel-gazing at the foibles and tribulations of its characters. Does Jeremy keep his job at the video store or take a better job with better prospects? Does Jeremy’s dad Steve manage to emerge from the shadows of Jeremy’s deceased mother and fix the relationship between father and son? The question I kept asking myself as these characters kept talking and talking was when are we going to get to the mystery?

The trouble with Universal Harvester is that it sets up a creepy mystery in a fairly convincing location (which I feel aided the mystery. Quiet sleepytown America is gripped by creepy videotape mystery works well) but then decides not to actually give any motion to that mystery but focus on the internal quarrels of the characters. I feel the separate storylines do tie together eventually but by the time this happens I’ve become so bored by the individual storylines I pretty much coasted to the end just wanting to finish. How this book managed to creep its way into the science-fiction section of the library where I found it is anyone’s guess as I simply couldn’t detect any hint of sci-fi there; maybe it was subtle, or maybe my abject boredom by the time the plot manages to reach a simmer at best precluded me from noticing.

I didn’t find myself interested in the very personal, very mundane intricacies of these characters lives – they didn’t feel special; instead, they felt totally ancillary to everything happening around them. There are scenes which seem to serve only to forward these uninteresting, mundane character storylines which ultimately bored me – I wanted to see where this all fitted into the mystery with the video tapes but it didn’t seem forthcoming! This made a 200-page novel feel considerably longer.

It’s unfortunate that Universal Harvester doesn’t quite deliver what its synopsis or setting sells as I feel the terse, sparse prose of the author isn’t bad; I just feel that it’s too directed at character study and fatally fails to move the plot fast enough or with enough intrigue to keep my interest. There’s a definite sense that the prose style matches the atmosphere the author is trying to portray, but this doesn’t alleviate the problems I had with the glacial, distant plot that seemed to be second fiddle to the characters. That’s not to say it won’t appeal to anyone but I prefer significantly pacier storytelling.

Perhaps Universal Harvester was trying to be more “literate” than perhaps it should’ve been, focusing on flawed characters, all at a crossroads, rather than the mystery they find themselves embroiled in. Disappointing, but I’d freely admit that it wasn’t for me.

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What have I been doing?

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I realise it’s been time since I last posted on my site – I want to give a bit of an update as to what I’ve been up to and what my plans are for the rest of the year; certainly for September!

Since my last post I’ve managed to pass the second year of my degree in Creative Writing and English Literature, which was a bit of a mixed bag but I’m looking forward to starting my final year at the end of the month. I do want to reflect on Year 2 and I’ll aim to get that reflection up before I stick my head into the breech once again!

As I’ve finished University for the summer, I’ve taken a bit of a summer break. A couple of months ago I finished the first draft of my post-apoc novel The Thaw which was great, and the rest I’ve taken has been really good – it was an intense writing process and allowing myself some time to chill before I approach anything more creative has been great, as burning out is not something I want to experience. I now feel refreshed enough to be able to now properly begin looking over the draft and beginning the editing process, which I’m excited to start as I truly feel The Thaw is going to be a great book!

Speaking of reading, I’ve been playing a bit of catchup with my Goodreads Reading Challenge for the year. I’m already reflecting that 40 books is perhaps the upper limit of what I feel is achievable for myself without reading becoming mechanical and formulaic – I don’t want to find myself reading just to tick off the right number of books, and it’s hard to go from one book to another. I find a couple of days break is helpful between stories.

Thinking about my reading (and how I’m essentially chasing my challenge target), I realise I’ve been fairly remiss in posting reviews. These, I definitely feel, are worthwhile endeavours for building my critical skills so I’m going to be getting on that again very soon! As a writer, it’s good to be able to synthesise meaningful, precise feedback – how can I expect to take feedback when I never give it out? It’s a symbiotic thing I think is important about writing as a craft.

So then – what to expect from me in September?

  • At least a couple of book reviews; maybe more, when I pillage my “read” list.
  • I’ve been working on a new little short story called The Landlady which I hope to post this month!
  • My Year 2 University reflection.
  • A mini-post about my recent, brief trip to Edinburgh during the Fringe (which I really enjoyed)
  • A potentially controversial blogpost opining on the new Doctor Who (started this a while ago but I need to be in a certain mood to add to it!)

Regardless, it’ll be great to reconnect with my blog and get posting again, as it’s something I definitely want to do more of and become regular again. So stay tuned!

Defrosting The Thaw – My Planning Process

I was asked to write about how I planned my post-apocalyptic novel The Thaw, and seeing as I’m pretty much done with the first draft and am going to be putting it away for a while before I start editing, it’s a great opportunity to look back at the workflow I devised, see how it worked out, and perhaps reflect and think about how I can further improve this.

My general goal as a writer is to learn and adapt my workflow with each project I embark upon. Learning what works best, and exploring new ideas is a great way to show evolution of my skills. I remember quite vividly the first novel I attempted to write, and how I didn’t plan it, really, and I didn’t even chapterise it, which made editing it a nightmare and hence it’s mothballed. Not to say I’m, not proud of what I’ve done; but I’m still not in a place to do the heavy lifting to realise that project just yet. But stay tuned!

I was surprised to discover quite how invaluable Microsoft OneNote was for planning. OneNote has proved an effective and invaluable tool for laying out notes for my various projects. I use OneNote quite extensively at university for tracking lecture notes and essay plans and I like several aspects of it. First, it’s available everywhere – I can sync my notes, via OneDrive, to any device, whether that be my iPad, iPhone, desktop PC, ThinkPad or even anywhere via the web, which is invaluable as inspiration can strike in the oddest places, so I can get my phone, and quickly write down ideas or snippets of thoughts and know it’ll all be catalogued in one online notebook.

OneNote’s format also pretty much gets rid of formatting that I feel can be constraining. I can write anywhere on the page in OneNote, so I’m not limited to overly linear formats on the page – I can draw links to ideas wherever; this is most useful on my iPad – I use this with a keyboard but the touch/ink facilities there can be invaluable.

onenote-1In terms of how I use OneNote specifically for The Thaw, let’s look at my folder tree. I have a single folder for The Thaw inside a writing notebook linked to my account, separate from my university and personal notebooks. I can create pages, and subpages. Nothing gets thrown away, either, hence a variety of versions of the plot outline.

The plot outline for The Thaw was always in my mind, but planning the outline was probably the hardest aspect of the book as I had a very cloudy overall feel for what I wanted, and the core signposts of the story, but the specifics were at times really hard to. It took a couple of tries to get something I found was workable, but my general philosophy was to not over-plan the chapters; this would make the actual writing feel both too constrained (like joining the dots) and I’d also know I’d get subconsciously anxious about deviating too much from “the plan”. So I decided on a structure I feel was a good compromise – I detailed general aims for the chapter in the heading, with four of five key plot events that should take place. I also put checkboxes on each of the chapter headings so I could see at a glance what was done; I also implemented a quite useful “point of view” tag for the characters each chapter was seen through, using different coloured fonts to easily differentiate, so I knew how long at a glance it had been since a point of view shift, et cetera.

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This is a format I feel worked really well, so it’s a structure I feel very comfortable using in the future. My plot outline wasn’t massively detailed (indeed, I didn’t document a whole lot of the backstory, but this is something I want to do as I’m going to be hinting at a lot of it in future drafts) but it served a purpose as a series of signposts, not barriers, to keep me roughly in line with what I thought I should. But also it was a flexible outline style so that helped keep it malleable when waves of inspiration struck and threw everything into disarray, as these things do. It’s extremely easy to plan every item of minutiae into the outline and I tried to avoid that as it just sucks the fun out of writing – there’s no discovery to the writing process and it’s just too constrained.

My only real regret is that, as I was writing The Thaw, I didn’t necessarily become disciplined in keeping the outline in OneNote up-to-date with what was happening in the actual draft. Again, I’m glad the story gained a sense of organic growth, but I feel I have in some respects made life difficult for myself by not keeping the outline updated with as much discipline as I should have; for instance, the end chapter has been quite difficult to write as the outline is very scant.

Looking at my outline file now, I focused mainly on the plot of the book, with relatively scant details on characters and settings, mainly because they were assembled in my head and translating them to the notebook was difficult. That’s not to say I’m not going to nail down my character profiles and my backstory ideas – of which I’ve had many! – because I feel having that overview of characters, their desires, needs, wants and fears, and also a written and codified “bible” of the world my story takes place in is just the sort of detail that needs to be consistent to be added into a future draft, so my “month long vacation” from the book that I’m planning may be spent drawing maps, writing profiles and working out the intricacies of this post-apocalyptic world I’ve created – and that’s something I actually cant’ wait to do!

I definitely feel I should’ve taken more time to plan more of the story – I began the draft with the plan for the initial act and half of the second; I feel a bit more gestation time would’ve been useful but conversely, I was glad to begin and not be too bound by what I thought would work so that any ideas I came up with – especially for the middle portion of the book, which was easily the most difficult to plan – would disrupt that. However, I did feel that I’d been planning The Thaw for months, perhaps to procrastinate from actually putting the first words down, so I did eventually just decide to be bold and throw the words down, with the overall plan never far from my thoughts, if not my OneNote file!

Like OneNote, Dropbox was a key cornerstone of my workflow, and it worked largely behind the scenes as a key method for both ensuring my drafts were kept backed up online, and not slaved to one computer (and ferried around on an easily-lost USB key, or constantly “emailed to myself”). I’ve a dedicated writing folder in my Dropbox for all my work this year, and I have archival folders going back to 2010. With the baked in support for my iPhone and iPad there’s really no excuse for a writer to not use a solution like Dropbox to keep their work backed up.

I also elected to use Dropbox as my working folder, so when working on my draft in Scrivener, it would be updated pretty much automatically, which worked well for making sure changes were saved in a timely manner, and also cut out another step of remembering to copy the project into Dropbox. With the way Scrivener works on Windows (projects are comprised of folders populated with many smaller files that contain the text etc), it also made a lot more sense to just work on the project from Dropbox direct. Now, Scrivener’s an entirely different beast that I will talk about separately because I’d not really be able to write The Thaw without it; sure, I could’ve written in Word but Word, from previous experience, is not best suited to long-form narrative projects whereas Scrivener is tailor-made for this work.

I was quite lucky that I didn’t run into any conflicting issues with having the project open on more than one computer or device; Scrivener, the writing software I used (I will talk later in depth as to how useful Scrivener has been) has some built-in protections from that.

Overall though I’d definitely attribute OneNote and Dropbox as key tools in my writer’s toolbox, because writing a book like The Thaw really demands at least some consideration of the planning process that goes on for a long time before writing starts. I’m really confident in The Thaw so I wanted to do the idea and concept justice with planning, but at the same time striking a balance between letting the story have the right amount of space to evolve and take its own course, in a way, but while also having a general idea, written down, of key events that need to happen – so it’s about applying my learning process from previous projects to this one. I do feel that I maybe almost spent a bit too long thinking about it  – outlining is possibly the hardest part of novel writing for me because it’s the literal application of ideas to a blank page, but I definitely feel I had a workable structure to my overall plan and I had the tools to help me shape that plan throughout the writing process!

Ghosting: Further thoughts and updates

A couple of months ago I posted an important (personally, at least) article where I discussed discovering that I had been ghosted by a close friend and the profound impact that it had had on my mental wellbeing. The reaction to that post was really and surprisingly positive and I’m still feeling so empowered that I was able to call out my ghoster and I could feel… not a sense of closure, but at least at peace in some way toward being ghosted.

Last week I was surprised to see this video by a friend of mine, Andy, which was inspired by my original blogpost, and I thought it gave a good opportunity to touch base on what I’ve discovered and how I feel since that last post, and to touch on some of the points Andy made in his video.

Again, I was genuinely touched that my post inspired Andy’s video, which I feel was greatly positive and captured the core points really well. I think there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding of ghosting as a nascent phenomenon that has been made all the easier to do, and easier to notice you’ve been the victim of, through social media. The internet really does make disconnecting from someone as easy as clicking a button, but I feel that it also allows people to avoid a social responsibility or callback that would perhaps exist if they saw the person every day, or lived nearby.

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And for me, especially, seeing a wall erected between me and someone I had a pretty deep and meaningful friendship with appear overnight was probably the most shattering part of it. When it comes out of nowhere, and with no explanation, it hurts the most; for me, relating to my own story of ghosting, I thought things were on the positive with this person and still, 18 months later, they refuse to answer any questions about it. How is that acceptable? Well, it isn’t; and I’m ok with that.

Andy, in his video, reflects on his own experience which I saw the parallels of in my story – he had a friend, a best friend in fact, who would go out of their way to not ghost them, but made moves that gave mixed messages. Not sharing a new contact number, or email address, and not explaining why. I feel that’s insidious – as much as we all hate confrontation, when it comes to interpersonal relationships, especially friendships, I just feel to lead someone up the garden path when they are unaware of the twisted rationale behind it is quite discourteous. If you’ve made the choice to end a friendship then I feel it’s at the very least disrespectful to not be open and honest about that.

When you communicate through a screen, you can say whatever you want to someone, or completely ignore them, without having to physically face the consequences of seeing their heart break, or hearing their voice whimper when you tell them it’s over.

People aren’t disposable, and being ghosted made me feel like I was, and I feel that was one of the worst feelings it was possible to experience, especially when I was mentally fragile to begin with. For me, it led to a lot of resentment and, worse, it led me to question myself in the worst possible ways. What did I do wrong? What’s going on? Which leads to well, bad people get treated like this, so I must be a bad person. The self-doubt that it instils bred depression and low self-esteem, a rut that I’ve only just felt strong enough to come out of. You can’t help but, in the face of no facts to the contrary, blame yourself and that quickly leads to dark places. I’m only glad that I can say I triumphed over those dark feelings and I can look back and recognise that – I’ve never felt as mentally strong as I do now, but I’m not going to deny that the journey was painful and tortuous, both for myself and the friends that were there to support me.

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With ghosting, it’s easy, as Andy said in his video, to try to deflect some of the responsibility back to the person who was ghosted, but this isn’t helpful, and it just makes the damage the ghosting has done worse. I had it with my own post, where an associate of my ghoster decided to anonymously comment, trying to do that very same thing, to try to justify their friend’s actions.  They were simply missing the point.

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If you’re feeling like you’ve drifted apart from a friend (which is normal and fine, these things happen), or they’re doing things that they’re subconsciously unaware are irritating, or you can no longer countenance their different (but totally valid) opinions because somehow you want a pure echo chamber on your Facebook, and are emotionally immature to the point where you can’t handle that difference, the least you can do is give them the courtesy of telling them, especially for a long-term relationship or friendship. Courtesy costs nothing, and failing that basic social premise will invalidate any beef you had. You don’t just up sticks and disappear, as that just isn’t justifiable, whatever you may think. As before, it’s emotional and psychological bullying, plain and simple.

Psychologically, we’re abandoning someone, betraying their trust, and leaving them completely in the dark as to what happened and why we left.

When we’ve been ghosted, before the anger sets in, we turn inwards and blame ourselves.

Did I do something wrong? Am I too clingy? … Is my radar broken? Am I unlovable? There’s so much mental anguish that goes into over-analyzing what happened. It’s soul-crushingly painful.

Ghosting impacts our self-esteem and self-worth. It can lead to depression, which affects our sleep, appetite, concentration at work, and desire to be around friends. It can also cause anxiety in which we obsess and ruminate about what happened, feel on edge, and are filled with worry and insecurity.

Whereas I’ve accepted the criticism, the friend that ghosted me hasn’t. That’s really sad. They chose to shift the emotional responsibility, and that’s just wrong. It’s indefensible, it’s immature and it’s just cruel, ultimately – I found it very difficult to deal with, and it’s insidious. Like Andy, who had a best friend who seemingly didn’t know how to do the decent thing and end the friendship, not with a blazing row, but with a calm discussion, respectful and civil; unlike Andy, I suppose my ghoster skipped straight to the “erasing from existence” phase; whether that was more or less “cruel” is entirely another question. With either case, there’s no answers, no closure, no tying up of matters. And with long-term friendships, especially deep and meaningful ones, I think ghosting is even less acceptable than it is for, example, after a relationship or when dating – it’s that sudden, unilateral severing of an emotional relationship that causes that pain.

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But what do I aim to achieve with these posts? Partly they’re an open letter – yes, if my ghoster dropped me a message tomorrow, I’d listen. To be honest, I’d probably forgive, but listening is the start. I’d have that conversation. I don’t want to shout at them, or vent; I’d rather I helped them understand that their conscious choice of actions, to “duck the issue”, did more harm than good. Yes I have been angry, I do feel they’ve been “immature” and “cowardly”, but those are just words, and I don’t think, especially in my case, words should be held against me, especially out of context. I do think they’re scared because they know they let me down, but they never gave me the chance to explain how I felt and to make reparations. It’d be a hard conversation, sure,  but it would also be cathartic and, I feel, a good opportunity to part on less ignoble and ugly terms, especially context taken into account.

I don’t see the point in grudges; fair to say I have been angry, I have been resentful but I don’t have any energy left for that. I’m honest about my flaws and I’m open – I just want them to understand about the harm they have caused me, not to make them feel guilty, but to hopefully enrich their own life so that they don’t, inadvertently or not, do this again. As no-one deserves to be ghosted. Some deal with it better than others, but I am proud to say I am a survivor and I still feel mightily empowered, and I hope that my advice continues to inspire people to realise that it doesn’t have to negatively impact them.

Ghosting, like I said before, says more about the ghoster than those being ghosted. Courtesy costs nothing, and the rise of ghosting as an apparent “acceptable” way of ending interpersonal relationships in the digital age… it’s a side of the times that I’m not keen on. But talking about it, being open and realising, first and foremost, that if you’re being ghosted, it’s not your fault; and, if you’re ghosting, yes that’s a bad choice, and you shouldn’t, but you shouldn’t run from those whose emotional judgement you’re probably seeking to avoid. Accept that you are, which is the first step. The second? Message them, be optimistic, open and at least try to open a dialog? Because, ultimately, even after a month, a year or more, what do you have to lose? You may even be surprised!

But in either case, I don’t believe there’s an emotional chasm too wide to at least attempt to bridge. So then, even after this long a time, what do you have to lose?

Article Referenced

“What You’re Really Saying When You Ghost on Someone” – The Good Men Project