‘The bone-yard and the wilderness beyond weren’t visible, but I felt them, in a stillness and quiet that stretched further than sight, and soughed around the edges of my consciousness like wind through broken glass.’
In 2011, when I began a part-time MA, I was writing the kind of stories that I thought I should write rather than following my heart. I never doubted my reasons for joining the course, but I wasn’t having much fun. So, in January 2012, I sat down to write something purely for the joy of it. My first attempt was a 2,000 word sketch about a middle-aged hippy who camps in a muddy field with a bunch of wealthy kids. They forage fire-kindling from the local Co-Op, and pretend that the car parked around the corner isn’t theirs. The realisation that I could manipulate the characters’ dubious motives for my own entertainment was a watershed. Better still, my tutor Sarah Corbett enjoyed it too.
At this time, I was reading Cordwainer Smith’s The Rediscovery of Man (Smith, 1993). Smith's short story ‘Game of Rat and Dragon’ describes mind-melding between Persian cats and humans, enabling the cats to hunt huge, invisible predatory spaceship-eating organisms (Smith, 1993). This wonderful example of fiction-with-no-boundaries showed me that, so long as I wrote it well, I could write anything. The lure of science fantasy was greater than that of mainstream fiction - so I started with sketches of a futuristic world. The feedback on these pieces gave me my first inklings of what worked, and what didn’t. At the time, I didn’t realise that being woefully under-read hadn’t helped my expectations of my own writing. Sarah suggested a new reading list each tutorial, during which I became acquainted with the bizarre prose of JG Ballard, the noir detective fiction of Raymond Chandler, and the sci-fi worlds of Margaret Atwood.
My futuristic worlds are influenced by visual images (the paintings of the Surrealist artists Kay Sage, Frieda Kahlo and Salvador Dali have haunted my imagination since childhood). In particular, memories of Andrea Taubner’s 1987 BBC short film series 'The Surreal Eye' provided me with a model for vanishing people, disappearing doors, and talking statues. Within Surrealism, the unexpected literally takes your breath away, a concept I was keen to work with.
In early 2012, I wrote three short stories based on Jess Green’s world. These gave me some exciting characters and bled out more information about the world, whilst helping tighten up my prose at a sentence-by-sentence level. Thanks to tutorial advice, I put together a check-list. Sarah advised me to ‘remove redundant lead-ins’ such as ‘I felt that,’ ‘I thought,’ ‘It could’ve been’, etc. This was a technical revelation: editing my prose applying this rule alone made the words spring off the page with more immediacy than I’d realised was possible. Yet, after writing and discarding nearly a million words over the years, why hadn’t I ‘got it right’ on my own?
Robert McKee answers my question:
In decades past… writers learned their craft either through university study… through experience in the theatre… through apprenticeship to the Hollywood studio system, or through a combination of these means… to its credit it was a system of apprenticeship overseen by seasoned story editors… an apprentice needs a master.
(McKee, 1998, p. 16-17)
I learn best by example and critique. I now understand that this isn’t a weakness, it is, simply, a truth – although there may be writers out there who can achieve a publishable first novel without guidance, I clearly wasn't destined to be one of them.
My next step was to build the novel on the foundations of my short story Frozen. I began to write, unaware that the things you can get away with in a short story you cannot get away with in a novel.
Who is the Brotherhood?
Why do they flash-freeze people?
What happens to the organs they steal?
Answers to these questions were only hinted at in the short story, but I soon realised that no reader of longer fiction would be impressed by such an absence of information.
I developed a methodology behind the Brotherhood, who they worked for, and what they wanted – in other words, I developed a plot. To give the dark setting some relief, and to bring it alive, I needed more emphasis placing on human feelings. My narrator Jess was my main conduit, because the reader sees everything through her eyes. Jess is a combination of toughness and vulnerability, who initially came across as too wisecracking and confident; in conference, Olivia said she’d be ‘scared to death’ of her. I overcompensated, and Jess went the other way - Ericka pointed out that one scene saw Jess apologise five times to Reg, which undermined Ericka’s belief in her. Critique and feedback helped me to ‘pitch’ Jess more effectively.
Mo Okoli, Jess’s handler, began life as a two-dimensional, monosyllabic shadow. When I encouraged him to speak more, his early dialogue was immature, and forced Jess into a corner from which she yelled back. This simply didn’t hit the mark for adult fiction. In order to deepen Mo’s character, I spent several weeks exploring ‘leading men’: Case Histories (Jason Isaacs); Twenty Four (Kiefer Sutherland); Bones (David Boreanaz); Lie To Me (Tim Roth); Cold Case (Danny Pino); The X Files (David Duchovney); Zen (Rufus Sewell); XXX (Vin Diesel); James Bond (Daniel Craig). I then built certain selected characteristics (including strength, loyalty, a notable weakness, and a dark secret) into Mo, in an effort to make him a more fully-rounded and attractive lead.
My dystopian New World was certainly not one I'd made without reference. From Atlantis, through Hiroshima and the gas chambers, to Chernobyl, visions of an obliterated society permeate both the human psyche and real human memory. From the thick air and mass exodus of Earth in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Dick, 1968), to the state control of Brave New World (Huxley, 1932), Nineteen Eighty Four (Orwell, 1949), and Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury, 1953), the themes of societal re-modelling, loss of freedom, and dictatorship recur in sci-fi. Frozen is saturated with references designed to resonate with a reader already well-acquainted with futuristic dystopia (men with faulty implants are euthanized; people of no use to society are crushed in street compressors; Eyes spy on the populace).
Fusing physicality with psychic perception became an integral part of Jess’s world view: ‘The bone-yard and the wilderness beyond weren’t visible, but I felt them, in a stillness and quiet that stretched further than sight, and soughed around the edges of my consciousness like wind through broken glass.’ Such descriptions became important in my quest to take the reader inside Jess’s head, to show her world as bigger than three dimensions, whilst remaining ‘normal’ to her.
In the later stages of writing Frozen, I began to think about the influences of the huge reading list I’d assimilated during the MA. What had I taken with me?
JG Ballard, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Raymond Chandler, and Kate Atkinson were all huge influences. Ballard’s dream-scapes, crystallized forests and drowned cities showed me over and again that I could write anything that I saw in my head. Margaret Atwood’s sci-fi fiction infuses invented worlds with ‘real’, believable personalities, something I tried hard to emulate. Doris Lessing’s fiction often juxtaposes technically superior communities and tribal communities, deliberately exploring different stages in human culture and evolution. In Frozen, the Spider People (Mo’s mother’s desert tribe) echo this. Had I thought about it consciously, when I first wrote about them? No, but the influences that led me to create a band of people who live in poverty and freedom against state rule were obviously in the mix somewhere to begin with. Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (Chandler, 1939) had an immediate effect on my prose. My sentences became more abrupt, which Sarah felt made Frozen too noir. I worked on bringing back different sentence lengths and experimenting with rhythm. Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories (Atkinson, 2004) helped me see that Frozen was too complicated, and that I should emphasise the thrill of a classic who-done-it by relying on a series of clues to hook the reader.
With regards to genre, the waters are far from clear following the long-standing debate about what constitutes Sci-Fi or fantasy. Bruce Sterling proposed a new term, ‘slipstream’, as an umbrella for fiction
...which is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion… simply makes you feel very strange...
‘Slipstream’ (essay), Science Fiction Eye
July 1989, p 77-80.
Margaret Atwood feels that
… Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Sword and Sorcery Fantasy, and Slipstream Fiction: all of them might be placed under the same large 'wonderful tale' umbrella.
Atwood, 2011, p 8-9.
Where does Frozen stands in the genre debate? Frozen features laser weapons and moon cargo vessels, therefore it is sci-fi. Frozen has cerebral sequences and a fortune teller from Ancient Greece, therefore it is also fantasy. The dark, futuristic setting brands Frozen both dystopian and gothic. My protagonist is an investigator, therefore Frozen is detective fiction. She is also a wise-cracking loner with personal problems, so Frozen must be noir. Perhaps Frozen is a meeting point for various genres, sliding between them, perhaps only truly consigned to one genre or the other depending on a reader’s individual preferences.
In the end, all I could do was follow my heart through the shifting sands of the emerging story, picking out the pieces which bring the characters to life and drive the story onward, holding them up into the light for the reader to see clearly.
I hope that I’ve succeeded.
The above blog is an extract from my creative writing MA, submitted in July 2013. It's been a revelation to pull this out of its file two and a half years on, bringing with it some lovely memories of tutorials with Sarah Corbett and my critique group (Dee, Ericka and Olivia). I've put this document into a blog with the hope that somebody, somewhere, either creative writing student or otherwise, will find it useful. A full bibliography appears at the end. Every book featured has played its part in helping me along the tricky path of fiction writing.
The Eternity Fund was originally called Frozen, an unfortunate choice of title in the year that Disney spin-off books from the musical of the same name were topping the sales charts on both sides of the Atlantic. We had no choice but to re-name it, but it appears (to follow) under its original name.
Bibliography & References
Atkinson, Kate. 2004. Case Histories. London: Transworld
Armitage, Simon (Ed). 2000. Ted Hughes Collection. London: Faber & Faber
Atwood, Margaret. 2011. In Other Worlds: SF and The Human Imagination. London: Virago
Atwood, Margaret. 2009. Oryx And Crake. London: Virago
Atwood, Margaret. 1985. The Handmaid’s Tale. Ontario: McClelland and Stewart
Atwood, Margaret. 2010. The Year of The Flood. London: Virago
Atwood, Margaret. 2003. Negotiating with The Dead. London: Virago
Baccolini, Raffaella and Moylan, Tom (Ed’s). 2003. Dark Horizons: Science Fiction & The Dystopian Imagination. New York: Routledge
Bainbridge, Beryl. 1974. The Bottle Factory Outing. London: Duckworth & Co
Ballard, JG. 1994. Rushing to Paradise. London: Flamingo
Ballard, JG. 1966. The Crystal World. New York: Berkley Books
Ballard, JG. 1962. The Drowned World. New York: Berkley Books
Ballard, JG. 1979. The Unlimited Dream Company. London: Johnathan Cape Ltd
Barnett, David. 2008. Hinterland. Stafford, UK: Immanion Press
Baxter, Jeanette. 2009. JG Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London/New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd
Ballard, JG. 1974. Concrete Island. London: Johnathan Cape Ltd
Bradbury, Ray. 1953. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine Books
Chandler, Raymond. 1939. The Big Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Mystery. New York: Alfred A Knopf
Chekhov, Anton. 1894. The Black Monk. www.online-literature.com. Anton
Chekhov.The Black Monk [accessed 7th February 2012]
Christopher, John. 1965. A Wrinkle in the Skin. New Jersey: Wildside Press
Christopher, John. 1970. The Guardians. London: Hamish Hamilton
Christopher, John. 2000 edition. The Little People. New Jersey: Wildside Press
Clare, Cassandra. 2007. City of Bones (book I). London: Walker Books Ltd
Collins, BR. 2009. A Trick of the Dark. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Collins, Wilkie. 2004 edition. The Woman in White. London: Planet Three Publishing Network Ltd
Devereaux, David. 2007. Hunter’s Moon. London: Gollancz
Dick, Phillip K. 1968. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. New York: Ballantine Books
Dick, Phillip K. 1956. The World That Jones Made. New York: Ace Books
Eliot, TS. 1917. Prufrock and Other Observations. http://eremita.di.uminho.pt/gutenberg/1/4/5/1459/1459-h/1459-h.htm [accessed 11th March 2012]
Flaubert, Gustave. 1877. Three Tales. 2005 edition. London: Penguin Classics
Garner, Alan. 1967. The Owl Service. London: Collins
Gee, Maggie. 1998. The Ice People. London: Richard Cohen Books
Hamilton, Laurel K. 1993. Guilty Pleasures. New York: Ace Books
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. 1844. Rappaccini’s Daughter. http://www.shsu.edu/~eng_wpf/authors/Hawthorne/Rappaccini.htm [accessed 17th January 2013]
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. 1853. The Minotaur. http://www.classicreader.com/book/2113/1/ [accessed 2nd April 2013]
Hemingway, Ernest. 1952. The Old Man and The Sea. New York: Scribners
Hill, Susan. 1983. The Woman in Black. London: Hamish Hamilton
Huxley, Aldous. 1932. Brave New World. London: Chatto & Windus
Kafka, Franz. 1912. The Judgement. www.kafka-online.info/-the-judgement [accessed 14th March 2012]
King, Stephen. 2000. On Writing. London: New English Library
Kress, Nancy. 1993. Beginnings, Middles & Ends. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books
Le Guin, Ursula. 2001. Tales from Earthsea. Chicago: Harcourt Publishers, Inc
Lessing, Doris. 1999. Mara and Dann, An Adventure. London: Flamingo
Lessing, Doris. 1974. The Memoirs Of A Survivor. London: The Octagon Press
Lessing, Doris. 1981. The Sirian Experiments: The report by Ambien II, of the Five
London: Johnathon Cape Ltd
Mantel, Hilary. 2005. Beyond Black. 2010 edition. London: Fourth Estate
McCaffrey, Anne. 1987. Get Off The Unicorn. New York: Del Ray
McKee, Robert. 1999. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (Methuen Film). London: Methuen Publishing Ltd
Meyer, Stephanie. 2005. Twilight (book I). New York: Little, Brown & Company
Munro, HH. 1902. The Music on the Hill. http://www.classicreader.com/book/1849/1/ [accessed 2nd April 2012]
Orwell, George. 1949. Nineteen Eighty Four. London: Secker & Warburg
Poe, Edgar Allan. 1843. The Black Cat. http://www.online-literature.com/poe/24/ [accessed 19th April, 2012]
Prose, Francine. 2006. Reading Like A Writer. New York: Harper Perennial
Rendell, Ruth. 2000. Piranha to Scurfy and Other Stories. London: Hutchinson
Said, Kurban. 1937. Ali & Nino. 1970 edition. London: Hutchinson
Self, Will. 2006. The Book of Dave. London: Penguin Group
Sherrill, Steven. 2004. Visits from the Drowned Girl. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd
Smith, Cordwainer. 1993. The Rediscovery of Man (New Edition). London: Gollancz
Spark, Muriel. 1970. The Driver's Seat. London: Macmillan
Sterling, Bruce. 1989. Science Fiction Eye. Issue no. 5, July (1989). California: Electric Shepherd Productions
The Bridport Prize 2008 (anthology, short stories and poetry). 2008. Bristol, UK: Redcliffe Press Ltd
Waters, Sarah. 2009. The Little Stranger. New York: Riverhead, Penguin
Watson, SJ. 2012. While I sleep. London: Black Swan
Woolf, Virginia. 1925. Mrs Dalloway. 1996 edition. Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Editions Ltd
Wyndam, John. 1955. The Chrysalids. London: Michael Joseph
Wyndam, John. 1960. The Trouble with Litchen. London: Michael Joseph
Yoshimoto, Banana. 1993 (translation Backus.) Kitchen & Moonlight Shadow. New York: Washington Square Press
Film & TV
CBS Network, Cold Case (USA, 2003)
Eon Productions, Casino Royale (UK, 2006)
Eon Productions, The Quantum of Solace (UK, 2008)
Fox Broadcasting Company, Lie To Me (USA, 2010)
Fox Broadcasting Company, The X Files (USA, 1993)
Fox Studios, Twenty Four (USA, 2001)
Left Bank Pictures, Zen (UK, 2011)
Revolution Studios Original Film, XXX (USA, 2002)
Ruby Film & TV, Case Histories (UK, 2011)
Taubner, A (BBC Short Film Series), The Surreal Eye (UK, 1987)
20th Century Fox TV, Bones (USA, 2005)