Creative Writing in Your Lunchtime

20190605_153747887_iOSI’ve generally been trying to use my local library – Sutton Central Library – more as a workspace that inspires concentration as one of the worst traits I know I have is that I procrastinate like mad at home. Over the weekend I spotted a poster in the lift for an upcoming series of free creative writing workshops taking place over the summer. Intrigued, I signed up, and went along with Gary Thomas. The inaugural session took place on a couple of days ago.

I had previously attended a creative writing-themed session at Sutton Library some time ago, talking about self-publishing, which I still maintain an intrigue toward, despite my plans for my work-in-progress novel The Thaw to be traditionally published. That session was a bit of a let down as the speaker didn’t seem to have much faith in the aspects of self-publishing that I, certainly, held most interest in – their work was self-funded and the lack of an expression of faith in editors, or any discussion of online marketing, left me leaving underwhelmed.

Nevertheless I approached this new session open-minded. And I was pleasantly surprised! Walking away I was feeling, honestly, quite reinvigorated. It was a casual affair that took place in the library’s new Family Lounge and was hosted by Sutton Library’s writer-in-residence Rachel Sambrooks. We had a good group chat discussing why we write and that writing can be, and indeed is, an extension of ourselves. The conversation was good – there was a decent turnout of a diverse range of writers – from myself and Gary who are fairly experienced at the craft to people who’d read but never written.

I applaud them for having the courage, frankly, to come along as it can be daunting, even to someone like me, to face a group of people when it comes to one’s writing. Also in attendance was vlogger Aridja Kals – who came a fair distance to attend! – who made some great points in the discussion that Rachel led that we shouldn’t be afraid to fail at creative endeavours. The theme of the first workshop was based around a quote from Bennie Brown: that the search for instant perfection is the enemy of innovation. I definitely agree that that feeling is a barrier to writing that people seem to unfairly place upon themselves – there’s an expectation with creativity that things will emerge from the forge of one’s imagination perfectly formed, when it’s really not the case, and it’s absolutely fine! It’s so important to not reject one’s work off-hand and I was glad that was one of the first things Rachel imparted upon us – I certainly appreciated the refresher! But also I feel it was a good piece of advice to perhaps “mythbust” the craft of writing to those that might feel daunted at the prospect!

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Aridja made a good point in the discussion that it might be useful to see the word “fail” as a retroactive acronym for First Attempt At Learning. I agree and Rachel made an important point that “failure” is perhaps not the best term for attempting something – which to some in the group proved totally new – and realising that a particular piece isn’t working. We as writers need to be willing to throw an idea against the wall to see if it sticks in order to create and develop from that.

From my own perspective as a writer I feel that’s really key, and I was pleased that this was discussed at the workshop. Sometimes it’s too easy to psyche oneself out of writing, especially if it’s either outside of their comfort zone or a totally new endeavour – but I try to counter that in my own mind by reminding myself nothing ventured, nothing gained. And it’s an important tool in all aspects of learning to attempt new things and then identify weaknesses and strengths and work on those areas. Sometimes a story or a piece of writing just won’t execute well and that’s fine; it doesn’t all boil down just to skill – identifying that a piece didn’t work is a skill in itself.

It was also good fun to have a go at a few writing exercises. Based on the earlier theme of “failure”, Rachel asked us to come up with a list of ten “failures” that might happen in life – an exercise that I found surprisingly difficult on the hoof! We used these scenarios to then have a go at some free writing – again, something I’ve not done since my university days! I was refreshed to see how quickly the words ended up flowing, and when the time was up I did want to continue!

We were urged to not necessarily rely on laptops for writing. I’d brought mine but had also packed a notebook and pen, almost foreseeing this. Writing freehand did feel a bit more personal and artistic, as if the words flowed in a purer sense through into my scrawl. It was definitely refreshing, even if my wrists were a little sore! I’m buoyed by what I had written and I may even continue it! Certainly the session reaffirmed in my mind that it’s fine to write pieces just for practise and not all pieces need be ones to submit or get out there. Writers need practise too – and if good ideas result from that practise, all the better.

20190603_125024187_iOSThe session ended with a game of lateral thinking that I found more useful than I’d otherwise expected – word association. Initially we started with a group effort but split into individual attempts and I found it a refreshing challenge – the most challenging part of both exercises being the plucking of ideas and snippets from thin air, though I will persevere! It’s a useful and key skill to keep supple in my writer’s arsenal.

Honestly on reflection now I found the exercises hard as it does tap into that ethereal ability to conjure ideas on the hoof out of thin air. This is always the hardest, but arguably most rewarding part of writing I find, and I appreciated having to stretch myself!

I was certainly glad that I went to the session at the end of it – it reminded me very positively of my university days where my peer group would workshop ideas together. Those were arguably the most valuable sessions from university. I’m definitely going to keep going to these sessions at my local library – they’re free and it’s no real trouble to get to, and it’s nice to be surrounded by like-minded writers again! Excited for next week now!

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Review – The Blinds (Paperback)

The_BlindsThe Blinds is one of those books that piqued my interest on the table in Waterstones ages ago that I only just decided to bite the bullet on. And I’m glad I did; as I devoured most this book in the course of two train journeys. That was fun.

I recall the premise of The Blinds caught my eye. A sleepy, forgotten town in the middle of a desert inhabited by people who’d chosen to have their memories wiped, and given new identities.Eight years of anonymity rocked by a series of murders. A killer in their midst. This is just the sort of thirty-minutes-into-the-future science fiction thriller that I’m trying to be better at reading. But The Blinds isn’t really a science-fiction book – yes, how people’s memories are selectively wiped is touched upon and explained. Instead the book focusses more on why people have had their memories wiped, and the repercussions what this does to the human condition.

The book takes perhaps the more interesting perspective of examine what this technology does to people. Indeed throughout I took away the sense that the story wouldn’t have a happy ending. Certainly from the off we’re presented with an unusual take on the crime techno-thriller that weeps with foreboding and leaves a definite imprint on the mind. I recall the first chapter being intriguing, urging me to dive in.

But enough about themes for now – let’s dive into the nitty-gritty!

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Discovering The Blinds in Waterstones, amongst other great books!

The Blinds is powerful, atmospheric and tense. The town of Caesura, the location for the tale, is a remote outcrop set up to house the “volunteers” in the experiment. Already the story is being kept away from the rest of the world, and the isolation is palpable, ostensibly for the protection of the residents but also it serves as a narrative device to keep the characters in a confined space. And yes, despite being in the midst of the Arizona desert, the setting of the town, a run-down, almost-forgotten collection of bungalows and chalets, feels contained. The events of the story are clearly never meant to leave Caesura, and it’s when they begin to spill out that trouble brews.

Indeed, whenever the residents of Caesura have any interaction with the outside, trouble comes knocking. The premise states that residents, with their memories erases, are indeed free to leave the settlement, they do so at their own risk, and some are never seen again. Early on we learn that The Institute administers the programme, and quickly we become suspicious. What is the Institute? And how at-arms-length are they keeping, how benevolent are they and what are their motivations? Early on I became fairly intrigued to learn how they stood to gain from the programme – it couldn’t entirely be a philanthropic application of new science? And this leads on to the liaison with the government between the town of The Blinds and the Institute. And even the new arrivals that we the viewer follow as they are inducted into the programme. As the plot progresses, these outside influences converge to really impact upon the town.

The premise of having selectively wiped one’s memory (ostensibly as an alternative to prison, to somehow absolve oneself from their crimes; a plot device that reminded me very much of One Way, which I read previously) allows for a unique opportunity in character development. The characters choose their own new names, from a list of former Vice Presidents and movie stars, which is a cool and innovative way of naming characters. But there’s always the interest in revealing these people’s real names, almost more so than their crimes, that does drive the reader on. And none of these characters, as we discover, is a white night or a dark horse; indeed, some of the expectations we have are reversed as the mystery unwraps.

Certainly The Blinds is dealing with some hefty themes – but I was most pleased to realise that the plot behind these themes is strong enough to motor through without becoming too self-indulgent. The story lasts about as long as it needs to in order to convey those themes enough so they persist, ironically enough, in the mind of the reader. Overall the plot itself is interesting enough that readers who may be less attuned to picking up thematic riffs can still enjoy the book – it’s a solid, atmospheric thriller with a dash of Western and a dash of science fiction.

It’s also partly an interesting ethical tale – we have characters that are neither black or white, and the book itself openly ponders why this amazing technology is being used for the lowly task of giving criminals a second chance when there are so many more “worthy” applications. Purportedly there are “innocents” that have been seeded in with the guilty or the witnesses to atrocities that are escaping those memories. But as the book progressed we start to question whether what we’ve been led to believe can be taken on face value. And soon enough nothing we may have assumed as the tale progresses can be trusted. It’s riveting. Overall I found it just added to the unsettling, not-quite-right tone that struck a chord for me.

Prose-wise… it was perfunctory without being overwrought, and I don’t mean that derogatorily. The Blinds employs a light, transparent prose style that I do approve of; it allows the story to flourish through it without wrapping itself up. It’s light enough to carry the action and the plot as demands but not flimsy; it conveys the themes that the author’s clearly putting across – that of what it means to lose one’s sense of identity, and as the back cover states: “identityloss [and] meta reality” – quotes that did somewhat concern me, as I am not really a massively literary reader but there was plenty of plot meat on the bones, so I came away pleasantly surprised.

Give it a read.

Mech-ing a Comeback

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I’ve recently been quite privileged to have been invited into an exclusive group of people testing out a new incarnation of StoryMechs, which my good friend Sam Richards previously ran as Tweet RPG back in the heady, halcyon days of Twitter in 2012 – the days with 140 character tweets and before GIFs and Emojis. A simpler time!

StoryMechs – and its predecessor, Tweet RPG – are a really innovative new spin on the choose-your-own-adventure story, utilising the utility and convenience that technology allows to really allow for dynamic stories. I have fond memories on playing some of the early Tweet RPG stories, and indeed met some cool people I still talk to regularly today.

I’ve previously written about StoryMechs when it was brand new – but alas, this came at a bit of a busy time for Sam so the project’s been dormant for a long time; however it was great to hear from him about re-energising the project for new stories. He’s got some really solid ideas and I’m eager to see how they develop.

So, very recently Sam invited me and some others as part of the StoryMechs Focus Group to participate in a brief new adventure to test out the waters. This was a good idea; Sam by his own admission hadn’t run something like this for some time, and considering his plans for the future, this was wise. The week-long adventure, My Valentine, was good fun, so Sam should be reassured that his ability hasn’t waned in the interim.

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My experience in the focus group did, however, get me thinking: previously, I think Tweet RPG was almost ahead of its time, existing in a time before Twitter polls and Facebook feeds. I can only imagine how much admin this would’ve added; indeed, now with these features extant on platforms like Facebook and Twitter it makes both the playing of the game a simpler process and I can only imagine how much easier it makes the game to administrate behind the scenes, so it’s a win-win in terms of infrastructure.

However Sam brought up an interesting point in the group chat – that as players using Facebook for a platform, we seemed less willing to add our own spin on our choices – in the old format, where votes and decisions were made through hashtag, it would be accompanied usually by the player’s own comments or point-of-view; with Facebook separating the voting and the comments quite distinctly, it’s almost harder to do that organically; however I feel that wherever there’s a comments field, players will find a way to put in their own spin on what’s happening.

But on reflection, also, I felt there wasn’t as much need – in the case of the mini-adventure Sam ran to test the new format out, cyberpunk yarn My Valentine – to add my own commentary as I think that certainly Sam’s writing has become more filled out and he’s clearly given the story a lot of thought in each permutation. My strategy in the focus group, in my mind, was not only to test out the infrastructure of using a Facebook group to run the game but also in a way to test how Sam’s writing had evolved. I was pleasantly surprised and I feel his work remains strong and enjoyable.

Sam plans to run forthcoming stories using Patreon as a platform for players to reward and incentivise his work, which I feel is an excellent idea. I was pleased to become Sam’s first official patron; I’m more than happy to support him as a fellow writer and friend in developing StoryMechs. Overall it’s a really innovative spin on a classic form of storytelling that I can tell Sam is a natural fan of, and it’s an intriguing and engaging spin using new technology. We’re all prone to mindlessly scrolling on social media so why not add in the opportunity to engage in something truly fun with the medium!

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I do however identify some areas I feel that need addressing or considering going forward. I think there’s a genuine market for compilations of completed adventures – even some of the legacy Tweet RPG stories too – to perhaps be sold under the StoryMechs brand; perhaps including author’s notes for a more behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the story? Certainly there’s scope to create wide-ranging universes to tell multiple stories within; the key there would be keeping these worlds malleable – multiple adventures spanning different genres would give StoryMechs a broad appeal to a variety of fiction fans. Sam’s writing is strong and I think StoryMechs is a great vehicle for him to get his narratives out there through an innovative and imaginative medium.

I’d also recommend that Sam look into setting up a StoryMechs website that is platform-agnostic where players are able to sign up, read some of the reviews or previous adventures and learn about the system and story behind StoryMechs before jumping into an adventure through Facebook. At this early stage I realise that Sam is going to have to rely on Facebook or Twitter for infrastructure but the sky’s the limit, though how he combines those two distinct social networks is going to be interesting; we all know people who “aren’t on Facebook” (and likewise with Twitter) so I think Sam needs to be resolute in which platform he chooses to use. My personal view is that Facebook’s near-ubiquity and utility make it an obvious choice.

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Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Sam in real life at an event (more on that in a future post!) and it was great to finally put a face to the name I’d known on Twitter for some considerable time. His enthusiasm for what he wants to now do with StoryMechs. I’d strongly suggest that if you’re into interactive fiction you give StoryMechs a good look. It’s so refreshing to see a writer in his element, and innovating in telling stories he’s clearly passionate about, and is passionate in sharing. I’m certainly feeling pretty inspired! For more information follow the StoryMechs Twitter and Sam Richard’s personal page now!

Review: One Way (Paperback)

One_WayI really enjoyed The Martian and it remains one of my favourite books. So, approaching One Way on the shelf at my local bookshop… it intrigued me. A skeleton crew working against the odds on the surface of Mars? Colour me fascinated. And the twist that they’re all convicts intrigued me further.

One Way pits Frank Kittridge, convicted of murder, at a crossroads: face a lifetime behind bars or serve out the rest of his sentence on Mars, helping to construct the first permanent base on the planet’s surface. There are no bones about the offer: it’s a one-way trip. Frank knows from the off that he’s being used, and we’re quickly established what skills it is that Frank has that made him eligible for the project.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves in terms of the plot. Frank is a relatable everyman that the audience at large won’t struggle to relate to. He’s also the most well-developed character – his backstory isn’t unique; he’s not a bad guy, but a victim perhaps of his own morals. He killed one man – his son’s drug dealer, a backstory that while plain vanilla is relatable, I suspect intentionally. This establishes Frank as a man who does things like this only at the end of his tether, when the cause is just enough in his eyes, if not the law’s. I didn’t dislike Frank as a character – again, a criminal with morals is an interesting dichotomy to take, but ultimately Frank is no career criminal, nor does he relish what he did.

The other characters we’re introduced to are less well-developed. Frank is joined by a crew of six other convicts that have made the choice to be sped across the stars than stare at the same four walls. Some of them are archetyles – Dee, the classic “boy genius gone bad” being one, but there’s certainly some interesting subversions of expectations – One Way is unusual in a book where the reader is genuinely shocked with a neo-Nazi, with whom we almost begin to sympathise, on a human level, is dispatched in mysterious circumstances.

This I feel is one of the key strengths in One Way – it subverts what we expect from the characters – yes, they’re criminals, but they’re also human beings. That’s not to say their crimes are waved off but it explores the depth behind the characters’ criminal status, and one of the most impressive things it leaves behind is whether we, the reader, judge too quickly on the basis of criminality. It’s certainly food for thought.

Supervising Frank and his posse is the inflexible superintendent Brack, whom harbours an open hostility to the crew; if you like, Brack’s attitude – dehumanising and shallow – counters nicely the impression the author seeks to make with the characters discussed above.

Naturally, with a crew of criminals on the surface of Mars, things begin to go awry fairly quickly. Bodies begin to pile up, as does the atmosphere – when there’s only eight humans on the whole planet, the tension really begins to ramp up. I did feel in a way that the supporting cast in this relatively concise book were a little disposable – most of the narrative effort is spent on building Frank’s character as a custodian of the other crewmembers, and the closest we see to Frank having a kindred spirit is the first to perish in what seems like an accident at first.

There’s a taut, choking feel to the narrative, especially with the crew dropping steadily. The unfortunate accidents that befall the crew, one by one, just as we think the characters have hit narrative stability, prove to be less “accidents” and more foul play. This realisation, and the finger-pointing that threatens the tenuous bonds between the crew, spins the narrative into a higher gear. The ante, and the tension, taughtness that defines One Way piques, and it’s gripping.

The whole atmosphere of One Way is cloying and claustrophobic and it works so well. It’s not a long book but packs a definite punch. Knowing that there’s a murderer on the loose on Mars really adds to the tension as the group dynamic breaks down as suspicions boil up. Marooning the crew on Mars is the ultimate no-escape situation, and the tension really builds up to the final confrontation.

One Way features a macro as well as a micro narrative that plays out through the emails and correspondence from executives of Xenosystems Operations, the “evil corporation” that controls swathes of the economy, including privatised prisons, that preface every chapter. Of course, the Mars Base is being built by XO, the company personified as your pretty standard amoral corporate giant, by convicts for one reason: cost. Clearly this is a message the author wanted to obliquely nod at, and while it’s not necessarily one I’d subscribe to, it works well in building up the tension. Notably, the dehumanisation of the crew by the company’s interest underlies that message – a powerful indicator of this for me was the fact that the crew can’t find their personal effects on the Martian surface; we the reader find out that the company, to save the cost of transporting that weight to Mars, incinerated the personal effects.

This stripping of the humanity of the convicts is a powerful, if somewhat didactic, plot device. As I said, I identified it as a clear narrative choice, perhaps pertaining more to the sci-fi tropes of Evil Incorporated, it worked for the purposes of the narrative. It’s a good counter to the spirit and camaraderie that is plain to see through the convict crew, with some moments of genuine heroism and character connection that tug at the heartstrings just enough for the tension that follows to really hammer home.

The cliff-hanger at the very end of the book, when the tension of the plot reaches a crescendo, already has me looking forward to reading No Way, the recently-announced sequel. Overall, I was very impressed with One Way, and I look forward a great deal to picking up from the brutal conclusion in the sequel sometime very soon!