Wednesday 11 November 2009

Writing Peace

I've known since a very interesting #writechat session a few weeks ago that I needed to write an article about this. This ISN'T that article, which will appear later on the Year Zero site, but I want to start a discussion that will help me have the first clue where to start that piece. but given that it's Armistice Day, it seems nuts not to post something now. Please be argumentative and outspoken.

A fortnight ago, Marc nash wroet a wonderful article, Pain, in which he posed the question whetehr it's possible for writers to write a reader's pain. It has, by dint of accident, the fascinating subject matter, and the quality of Marc's thought, become somewhat programmatic for our recent works, and indeed will provide the introduction to the forthcoming anthology Thirteen Shadows Waiting for Sunrise. There has been some incredible discussion, some breathtaking writing, and some very deep soul-searching. But what I am hoping some of my fellow Zeroes will turn their thought to in the New Year will be seen as far more sinister and disturbing than writing pain. I want to know if it's possible to write peace.

Specifically: can there be a great novel without conflict?

Now, I'm not daft enough to equate conflict in a literary setting with guns & ammo, or even with dragons and jealous fathers and the old hackeneyed staples that have come down form the courtly tradition. Although I DO want to ask about this, as well - the differnce between internal and external conflict, whether one is the subject of literary fiction, the other genre fiction, as is sometimes posited.

We are so used, thanks to that courtly model, and thanks to the almost universally worshipped Dwight V Swain, to the idea that a novel is driven by conflict, that a character is only interesting if they are flawed. It is so much a commonplace that if flaws and conflict are absent a critiquer or editor will simply box-tick, saying "add conflict". Most of the time, of course, this is sound advice. but is it really a no-brtainer box tick?

I want to finish posing the question with some thoughts I and the ever insightful @kashicat put forward:

- the reason peace is seen as uninteresting often has to do with the fact people think of peace as the absence of conflict. In fact peace is a rich, wonderful, and fascinating state with a multitude of contents of its own.

- humans are imperfect. We therefore think of a character without flaws as being impossible to relate to. But is a flaw really the same as imperfection? What about motivation?

So: a novel where all the characters are "good" (discuss!) ; set in a peaceful land with no obstacles to be surmounted. Would anyone care to read it? What on earth would it look like? And how could we possibly set about writing it?

Monday 9 November 2009

The View From the Shoe: Busted Typewriter

Busted Typewriter is one of the most extraordinary sites I have ever come across through twitter. It combines the indie craft feel of an etsy site with some fascinating high art concepts - it is, essentially, just what it says - a site exploring different things you can do with broken typewriters - and other non-standard uses for writing-related implements, and musings thereon. It also incorporates Complete This Tweet, a rather fun daily writing exercise that is, again, exactly what it says

complete this tweet

Here are the words of the man behing Busted Typewriter

Thank you so much for your time. So, Louboutin or Converse?
I like to mix it up. Black dress shoes with slacks one day. Hoodie and sneakers the next. But my wife buys my shoes, so I don’t give it much thought.

What do you do?
My job is an advertising copywriter, so I write commercials and other pieces of marketing.
But on my own time, I experiment with projects like making Kindle covers out of old books – you can find them here
I also create websites like – which is a daily writing challenge I just started on Twitter.
Pretty much anything I can think of besides actually writing a short story – which is what I usually imagine myself doing.

Why is there no one in the world who does it quite like you?
At work, I’m willing to take on the projects other people turn their noses up at. It’s paying your dues and part love of the craft. But if you can turn a job everyone expects to stink into something great, you’ll earn respect. And when the next cool project comes along, they remember.
Outside of work, something I’ve gotten over in the past few years is my fear of failure. I used to scribble ideas down in a notebook and leave them there to die. Now whenever I come up with something, I just execute and let it go into the world.

What do you really, really love about it?
I love thinking about problems in different ways. In advertising, they call it “concepting.” Most folks know it as “brain storming.”

A bit more time in the day, or a bit more money in the bank?
I’m always feel more productive and challenged when I have less free time. So I’m trying to build up the nest egg.

Imagine you “make it”. You wake up, and imagine the day ahead. Tell us about breakfast.
A cinnamon bun from the street cart on the corner of 6th Ave and 24th St. It’s just heavily processed flour and sugar, but I have to stop myself from grabbing one everyday.

What’s your Jimmy Choo? And what’s just cobblers?
I really want to own my own home, but price of real estate in New York is still obscene.

Tell us about the last time a fan made you feel 100 feet tall.
Not to kiss up, but it was when you asked me to do this interview. You are a fan, right? [ed's note: I most definitely am!]

Independent and poor, or under contract and rich?
Not having to worry about paying the rent gives you the amazing freedom to think about other things.

Do you remember that bit on Play Away where Brian Cant stood behind people and did the actions whilst they spoke? If you could choose anyone to stand behind you and do the actions to your sales pitch, who would it be and why?
Not familiar with it. But I plan on playing myself in the movie.

Frocks or socks?
I’m toying with the idea of wearing mismatched socks on purpose. But my wife buys my clothes now too.

Saturday 7 November 2009

Literature's the new Art: so who's Jay Jopling?

Well, no one's actually said literature is the new art. Apart from me. Most people say it's the new music and they've got a point. Even more people say it's NOT the new music and talk about how literature can't use the gigs & merch model. And they're wrong. About the latter bit, anyway. But what I can't help feeling is that, whilst the music industry is something from which we can learn a lot - about downloads and gigging, and connecting with fans and streamlining businesses; it's actually to the art world we should be looking to understand literature.

I'm always sniping about Goldsmiths and CSM in the 90s and how they were glorified school tie networks, and how the MA Creative Writing from UEA threatened to become the same, but that's not what I mean.

What I mean is this: literature, with a publishing industry on its knees and a load of creative talent chomping to escape the shackles, is shaping up to be the next YBA (Young British artists - Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread, Michael Landy, Gavin Turk, sam Talyor Wood, The Chapman Brothers, The Wilson Twins et al ad inf).

It's not to do with new tech - not directly, anyway. It's more that I see more and more groups of writers outside the mainstream coming closer and closer to the big time by doing things their way. People like MCM, groups like Jet-Pack and Backword Books, our own beloved Year Zero, salons like Book Club Boutique. Perhaps most groundbreaking in her own way - and you'll laugh at me for saying - Catherine O'Fynn with her mild unassuming "this is just how I did it" approach.

It felt for a little while as though we may have got there a few years ago - as though someone had finally swept Amis and McEwan and Swift out with a broom and replaced them with a hungry new generation of people hungry to put ideas on paper. But A M Homes and Monica Ali and even the Great White Teeth Hope Zadie Smith just got subsumed into the same old same old mainstream. At least Tracey Emin took 20 years to sell out!

So what went wrong with the last generation of new hope? Well, to answer that, take a look at what went right with YBA. If one wants to generalise hideously and lay oneself open to all kinds of loopholes, then one can lay the answer at the feet of two men. And neither was called Saatchi.

What happened for YBA were Jay Jopling and Nick Serota. Curators. Jay Jopling, for those of you of more tender years than me, was the owner of White Cube, the gallery that not only showcased but promoted the work of the fledgeling YBAs. He was the PT Barnum, the - should we rather say - Malcolm MacLaren of YBA - the man who made everytone else think pickled sharks were cool. Nick Serota, of course, was the legendary Tate curator responsible for the Turner Prize.


That's what the literary world lacked when White Teeth, Brick Lane, The End of Alice hit the shelves. People who were prepared to take a generation - not just one or two but a wave - and bring them to the public. People who spotted talent, nurtured it, showed it off, and didn't care if there was a place for it in the mainstream - because through force of showmanship and chutzpah they created a parallel and more exciting space.

And that's the big issue the literary sphere faces today if it's going to see all that talent blossom into a golden age, a movement, a new dawn on the public consciousness, a whole fistful of cliches that boil down to one thing: getting the general public talking about books.

Because whether it was marvelling at the brilliance of Whiteread's inside-out house, or spitting disgust at Chris Ofili's dung-filled portraits, Emin's unmade bed, or Hirst's pregnant cow cut in two, the thing Jopling and Serota did was get people talking about art. And not just artworks. A decade or so ago you could walk down a high street in the UK and hear your average Jane and Joe Public discussing what art meant. When was the last time that happened with books? Sure, we talk about vampires or Lost Symbols, but you can't stand at the bus stop and hear people jibe "Ah, but is it literature?"

And that's what we need. We need someone to make the general public talk - with gasps of delight and disgust - about books. About this book and that book and "what is literature?"

So who will it be? You'd think it'd be a publisher, wouldn't you? Vicky Barnsley, maybe, at HC, or Jessica Weiner at Harper Studio, maybe even Scott Pack at Fifth Estate. They're doing good things, all of them. But. Oh but but but.

Maybe the agents then. What about? Well, precisely. Most writers will have heard of Nathan Bransford. Lovely guy. Enthusiastic. And his authors, his individual, exciting, but somehow with a common sense of purpose authors are? Well, precisely (to repeat myself).

So who WILL be the Jay Jopling of the Literary World? Richard Nash, of Soft Skull and Cursor fame, believes it will be him. No, whatever he tells you, he DOES. And he may be right. Maybe.

I'll give a good guess. A good guess is that it'll be one of two people. It'll be a celeb - an Oprah or a Richard & Judy (and you could make a case they've partially done it already, scoff ye not) who says "I'm gonna say f*ck mainstream books. I'm gonna have me a book club and choose me the best most exciting damn books on the planet WHEREVER they come from" and shouts them from the hills. Or it'll be the person who sets up a prize with a million pound pot for the best self-published book of the year (or maybe even the best unsigned ebook - and, by the way, where ARE the ebook only awards? hmmmmmm - and hires a team of rockstars as judges.

Just a guess. And trust me - one of them WILL happen. Within 18 months.

Or it could be one of us.

Now there's a thought.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Book Launch!

(all photos courtesy and copyright of Janelle McCarty)

I’m always saying that being a writer is about engaging with readers, about getting out and talking to them directly. Which si very easy to do from the safety of one’s keyboard. But last Thursday, it was finally time to put my money where my mouth was, and find out if I felt the same way when I actually had to do some direct conversing with readers. It was time for my book launch.

I’d chosen to hold the launch for Songs from the Other Side of the Wall at The Albion Beatnik bookstore in Oxford for several reasons. First, the owner, Dennis, had agreed to stock my book. Second, it’s the coolest bookstore I’ve ever been in, with its specialities of books on jazz music and the Beat Poets. And third, it’s a perfect venue for hosting not just reading but music.

Because, finding it oh so easy from cyber-safety to say how I didn’t want this to be like any other book launch; I didn’t want a table and some chapters read aloud to polite listeners who’d applaud and maybe buy a signed copy afterwards; I had decided I wanted a gig. A proper gig with live music. Because that’s what my book is about (well, literally, it IS about musicJ); and because that’s what Year Zero is about – giving our readers a great time.

I was very lucky that local singer-songwriter sensation Jessie Grace, whom I’d first heard at Radiohead’s old haunt The Jericho Tavern, said yes, she would play a set from her new album, Asleep on the Good Foot. Throw in some free Tokaji wine (the book is set on a Tokaji vineyard) and I was genuinely excited. When I went into the shop the day before the gig only to find a young guy chopping up Shirley Bassey records to make art, I knew I was in the right place!

Add to all that the fact that Jessie’s producer, Kevin from Selecta Sound, had swung us a 9-strong film crew from Worcester University, and I was in hopping up and down with excitement media tart heaven with anticipation.

It’s hard to figure out what to say about the event itself. It’s not really good form to talk endlessly about yourself, so I’m not going to do a review of the gig. Although I WILL say that Jessie Grace, with her clean, pure voice and dirty guitar, elevated the music part of the evening way beyond anything I could have hoped for.

So what will I talk about? I don’t know. Whether it lived up to my expectations, or whether I decided to shut up and stick behind the keyboard for one. What it was like meeting up with some fellow Year Zero Writers and the lovely Bee Drunken for two. How it felt seeing my boss walk through the door just as I was getting to the juicy bit of a sex scene? Maybe not.

The day itself felt like I’d set up an Authorworld theme park ride. I went from buzz to despair to being physically ill to control-freakery to having, ultimately, the time of my life. I decided went I chose the venue and asked Jessie to play that I didn’t want to play safe. And that had always seemed like the right thing. At Year Zero, after all, we don’t do safe. We do different and exciting and out there for the audience. Come the morning, however, the decision to augment my readings from the book with an impromptu talk about French cinema (I still haven’t quite figured that one out), and a reading of the first three parts of SKIN BOOK, seemed like a Very Bad Idea. Not just because, frankly, saying “Is it wrong to want your snot-piss-shit-come-vomit on my skin?” in front of work colleagues is embarrassing/apt to get you fired. But because SKIN BOOK is my attempt to reach into the darkest parts of the psyche, and to do it justice I was going to have to lay myself absolutely bare. It took several twitter-buddies more effort than I had any right to expect to tweet me up from the depths.

By the time I arrived, though, a can or two of Relentless later (because everyone knows caffeine’s great for anxiety), all I was thinking about was making sure the performance was as good as I could get it. That meant laying the venue out perfectly, sorting out glasses and wine, and laying out the souvenir programmes. Best of all, though (for me, not for them), having three cameras, with an editing suite in the basement meant I had enough to focus on getting my positioning and delivery right that I didn’t have time for nerves. And all the while Dennis, whose shop had been utterly overrun all day by swarms of camera crew and sound people, was an utter saint, if a very bewildered and despairing-looking one.

One of the great things about the evening was I got to meet some of my favourite people from the web. I’d already met Anne Lyken-Garner (pictured, left, in the purple) but it was a delight to meet her again. I got to meet another Year Zero Writer, Penny Goring, who was lovely, ferociously intelligent, and an utterly electric personality – one of those people who has the kind of presence that can make a whole room go quiet. And the author of the Bee Drunken blog, whom I interviewed a few weeks ago for The View From the Shoe, came along and added her wit and charm to proceedings.

And the performance? Jessie was incredible. Me? I’d better let others answer that, but I CAN say that I am very glad not to have been found out in a lie – reading live to an audience is the most exciting thing an author can do – it’s what storytelling is all about. I loved every second of it, and can’t wait for the next one (December 1st, Café Tarifa, Oxford, as part of Free-e-day, before a big gig in London). I would advise every writer out there to get out and read!

Monday 2 November 2009

The View From the Shoe

I didn't mee Nikki Loy on twitter. I met her busking in the streets of Oxford. No, not even that's really true. I HEARD her busking the streets of Oxford, thought "wow" and took her card. I went to her myspace and got in touch, and now we're set to play a gig together for Free-e-day. She IS a twitterer of note, though:

In her own words

Thank you so much for your time. So, Louboutin or Converse?

Sorry?Loubouwho? so I guess converse... hang on.. let me Google that....
OMG!!!! Louboutin! Louboutin!! Louboutin!!! Hmmm... Shooooeess... Oh dear, I think I now have a new vice!

The thing is though I only have a pair of converse in my shoe collection :0(

What do you do?

Well now, I’m a singer and a songwriter... among other things.. I sing, I busk, I gig, I get involved in just about any project that will have me. Most recently I became the lead singer for JoshWard84’s superband! It was brilliant.. We had about 25 musicians all playing together!

I am a solo artist of course . I like to write songs.. (You can download my tunes from iTunes - Shameless self prmotion!!) and I really love to perform them :0) And I am on the Journey towards living my dream..

Why is there no one in the world who does it quite like you?

Cos there is no one else in the world who is quite like me?

What do you really, really love about it?

I love singing. It’s the singing that I do it for. I like to loose myself in the moment and sing until those little endorphins start flowing and the natural high kicks in.. I get sooo much pleasure from singing.. and thankfully it seems othercpeople also enjoy it!!

A bit more time in the day, or a bit more money in the bank?

Funny you should ask that now... I handed in my notice this week. I am giving up my well paid job just so I have time to do what I want to do. I may end up skint but life really is too short to spend your days doing something you hate just to make good money. Wouldn’t it be great to make money just doing the things you love. *Sigh*

Imagine you “make it”. You wake up, and imagine the day ahead. Tell us about breakfast.

Hmmmm.... I’m sure there will be two types of breakfast when I ‘make it’. There will be the on the run breakfast where I wake up at the crack of dawn knowing I have to be somewhere for a photo shoot or to treck to a gig. So I will grab something, bleery eyed, and head out the door before I realise what it is I hsve picked up. Or, truer to my current form, eat nothing until the hunger actually kicks in... At which point I will scoff the box of cornfalkes that I have been carrying under my arm.

And then there’s that other breakfast.. On the terrace of my beach house, the breeze just lightly catching the voile curtains in the french doors so that they billow and beckon me to have a sumtpuous continental breakfast on the balcony in the sunshine over looking the beautiful bay... while I read .... *sigh*

What’s your Jimmy Choo? And what’s just cobblers?

Hey???? I’m really not that materialistic... Just give me cuddles :0) I can’t live without cuddles!!!!

Instead of that question.. can answer this one: What was your best gig to date?

I used to live in Sydney and there’s a bat there that can be hired for functions.. It was called the Sydney Glass Island. It was completely glass all the way round (except for the hull of course). The boat and my band had been booked to play a wedding.. we spent the evening cruising round Darling Harbour up and down under the Harbour bridge and McQuarie’s point playing music dancing singing and generally loving the venue!!! It was brilliant!! But tomorrow I am playing on the top of an open top bus whilst driving all round London for the day... That might top the Sydney Glass Island :0)

Tell us about the last time a fan made you feel 100 feet tall.

It’s just a small thing really. I watched a local band play. They played a lot of gigs locally but it was the first time I had seen them. They were good I enjoyed their set. When they came off stage, I was about to say to tell them how much I had enjoyed them, but they beat me to it... They started parising me before I could get a word in! It’s a small thing but I was blown away. I was just part of the audience that night!

Independent and poor, or under contract and rich?

Ahh... I shouldn’t be so flippant as too answer before qualifying my answer.. The thing that drives me, truely drives me, is the love of singing and performing not the love of songwriting. I would therefore be glad of any oportunity to sing. How much more wonderful if it brought wealth as well... I guess independence really only matters where you feel that you have a message to present to the world.. and will not compromise.I just love to sign so I guess it doesn’t really matter. That said I do not compromise on morality.. as long as that is not in question I’m happy to be under and contract and rich...

Are you disappointed?

Do you remember that bit on Play Away where Brian Cant stood behind people and did the actions whilst they spoke? If you could choose anyone to stand behind you and do the actions to your sales pitch, who would it be and why?

Sandra Bullock... I like the characters she plays.. they are often clumsy, lacking in grace and humerous in some way.. Which is kinda like me.. I’m more likely to fall off my stool than wow you wih my grace.. But her characters usually have the redeeming qualities of being intelligent and good at what they do.. and she beautiful. :0)

Frocks or socks?

Need you ask???? ..... Mmmmm but an idea has just occurred to me. You have not stated the context in which you present the question....

On me? Frocks for sure... A girl is always going to chose a glorious frock to wear...

However... If the question related to clothing a gorgeous naked man.... Sock... Red Hot Chilli Peppers style all the way!!! ;0) besides I never like seeing a man in women’s clothes!