The Final Word

FREE FICTION! FREE FICTION! FREE FICTION! Now that I have grabbed your attention in a most indecorous manner, I would actually like to offer you some free fiction.  Mine, as it happens. Some time ago I wrote about a piece of innovative fiction that I submitted to a competition run by Diagram Magazine. Now that the competition has run its course, I’m making my story available here for everyone to download via the link just below.

The Final Word by Andrew Cookson

The story is called The Final Word and could be described as an intellectual, satirical detective story, presented through non-standard narrative means. I would love to hear your feedback, either as a comment below or via email here. To give you a taste, here is the first page.

THE FINAL WORD

You know what advice I’d give to people, if I could, one piece of advice so that they’d never be convicted of a crime? Don’t do anything out of the ordinary. And that’s it. If you have a daily routine, stick to it. Religiously. That way there’s nothing to explain. That’s my advice – never, ever leave yourself with something to explain.

J. Smith, on his release from prison, after spending 40 years inside for a crime he did not commit.

You know what makes an epistolary novel unbelievable? When none of the letters go missing. I wish I lived in a world like that. And why do we only see the relevant letters? If you want to show a person’s life through their letters, why don’t we see them all? The utility bills, the flyers for delivery pizza firms, letters addressed to previous tenants and the rest. Just imagine now, doing the same with the modern day equivalent – a novel told through an exchange of emails. A festival of badly-written notes, carelessly devoid of grammar, baffling and patchy capitalisation, unspellchecked spelling, all bookended by an awkard and often incongruous approach to personal formality. Not to mention the deluge of spam from online casinos and drug vendors. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea after all.

C. Johnson, prominent literary critic and neophyte blogger.

It’s a Wave

Today’s poem was “found” in the music of Radiohead, and is followed by some details of the writing process should you wish to find your own poem. I hope you enjoy it!

It’s a Wave

It’s a wave,
it is full up,
such names are here –
all eyes up,
here for you.

More!

What answers, there?
How old am I?
It’s our hate – if I must –
it will save us fast,
it will ensnare us,
or see through,
as if we lose.

What is happening?

For your women,
where you sneak up on us:
tomb.

It’s not here anymore,
it’s more evil,
it’s more evil.
It’s more evil,
more.
No good winner.

Lick your lips,
silent!
Well, next time I
will eat
you.

You were there,
you good men,
you all wavered,
stood in the road.
End.
No Moses…

Remember it,
no excuses
if you find suffering in it.

It’s more evil,
it’s more evil.
More evil voices,
they send me down.

The following video is of Thom Yorke singing the beautiful Radiohead song Videotape from their album In Rainbows, with one crucial difference – the recording is reversed.

Listening to this reversed Videotape/epatoediV, I attempted to find a poem by trying to “understand” the garbled audio. Some of the mirrored lyrics seemed to leap out quite naturally and I formed new interpretations almost automatically. Other sections of the song appeared impenetrable but taking a phrase as a whole it evoked a feeling or an idea, which could be translated into verse. The caveat implied in this is that any efforts to compare the audio with my words will almost certainly bring about contrary opinions and disagreement.

For proof of this, note that the finished poem contains far less of the structure and repetition of the original song. This creative process is apparently not entirely reproducible, even with the same writer, the same sounds, or perhaps sounds only slightly changed, will evoke a different thought at a different time. It’s clear then that everybody will find their own unique poem in this music, and there’s something quite pleasing about that.

As a final piece of trivia, fans of Radiohead will know that the band themselves have played around with reversed audio on the song Like Spinning Plates, its genesis in the reversal of another of their songs, I Will. If you want to listen to the original, correctly-oriented version of Videotape, and I recommend that you do, as it’s a fantastic, moving song, then here it is:

Which Artwork Should You Be Creating?

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles & Ted Orland

This was the first of three pieces of advice that I’ve encountered recently on the topic of artistic creation. They’ve conspired to accumulate and in synergistic fashion approach the same question, albeit from different angles. I suspect that they will be equally valuable to other writers and artists, but as you’ll see, even knowing these things, doesn’t mean that we will always and reliably follow them – external prompting helps.

Now, I could almost quote every other sentence of Art & Fear, but rather than doing that, I recommend that you buy yourself a copy. I can guarantee you’ll read and then re-read it, particularly if, like me, you’ve never been to art school or equivalently taken a degree in creative writing. This book can in part form a surrogate for that missed experience. The book explains what it is to be an artist (in whatever medium – paint, musical notes, words), and how to continue to create art in the face of doubts and external indifference.

The second piece of advice was given by the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, in an interview with the Guardian. When asked, what advice would he give a young writer, he answered:

Finish everything you start. Often, you don’t know where you’re going for a while; then halfway through, something comes and you know. If you abandon things, you never find that out.

If it’s true for writing, it’ll almost certainly be true for other artistic disciplines as well. That’s two pieces of worthy advice then, but without personal intervention they are easy enough to ignore.

In a recent post, Anyone For Some Innovative Fiction?, I mentioned a piece of work that I was going to submit to a writing competition, with the brief of “innovative fiction”. As of now this story is just over 9000 words in length. But in no way was it conceived as a whole. In fact, it all sprung from a tiny idea based on a piece of grammatical wordplay, nothing more than a single sentence. This pun only forms a small part of the finished story, but without it the rest of the story would never have emerged. However, it took four different stories before it finally found a natural and finished home. Colm Tóibín was right.

I say it’s finished, but that’s no longer true. The story was finished, then submitted, put aside, finally hands washed and back to the keyboard to commence the next project. A project which has been stewing in my mind for some time, and which I believed to be the perfect one, my own single perfect pot.

What’s strange is that in that being so open-minded as to avoid, for the most part, conventional narrative prose, I had become quite closed as to the larger possibilities of the work – an artistic myopia. Feedback on this work, graciously provided by Mark Nelkin of BeautifulOrange, suggested that the story could easily be extended into a novella or novel. My immediate reaction was somewhat sceptical, allowing only that perhaps a novella could be a possibility. Perhaps.

He was right though, as within a week I had two sides of A4 of jotted ideas for new plot lines and the elaboration of existing ones, not to mention a host of innovative narrative structures and devices. Certainly enough new ideas to fill out, at the very least, a short novel. And with Colm Tóibín’s advice having held true thus far, I can hardly begin to ignore it now. Nor will I ignore Bayles & Orland; I’ll write many stories and explore many ideas, rather than fixating on creating a single, perfect one.

If anyone wants to read the aforementioned innovative fiction, just send me a message here or simply “like” this post if you have contact info on your blog/gravatar profile, and I’ll be in touch. Thanks!

Anyone for some “innovative fiction”?

So far, I’ve posted essays, reviews and poems on my blog. Now it’s time for some fiction! There is one catch. First of all, it’s not quite finished. And secondly – two catches then – I’ll be entering it into a competition, and so I won’t be uploading it here for a few months. However, I will gladly email the story to anyone who wishes to read it. If you would like to take a look, just “like” this post (if you have contact information in your Gravatar profile) or send me an email here, and I’ll send you the pdf just as soon as I finish it (31st March at the very latest).

However, if you wish to know more before deciding, and who could blame you, then read on… The competition in question is run by the American literary magazine Diagram, and this particular brief is for “Innovative Fiction“. Apart from a limit of 10,000 words, that is the only instruction. Hardly much of a constraint. My response has been to write a somewhat intellectual, detective story, containing multiple levels of narration, each of which raises philosophical questions about the effectiveness of those narratives and the limits of language itself.

In an earlier draft of the story I had also included an element which questioned the very possibility of writing innovative fiction (since removed to accommodate other plot developments). The question this previous version raised was this: what is innovation in fiction? More specifically, if one introduced an innovative form in a story, could its reuse ever be considered innovative? Or is the fact that it has been used once before enough to rob it of all claims to innovation, even if it were very far from the literary norms.

In one sense, any good book is innovative, if by that we mean, it contains original characters, plot, ideas etc. Trashy genre fiction aside, all books can be considered to be prototypes that break some sort of new ground. And to what extent is this merely a question of fashion or timing? One very innovative novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, was published from 1759 onwards, but for a long while after this the form of novels became more conservative. At some point in the past, a return to Sterne’s form and style would have been considered a break with the norm, even innovative, except for the fact that it had already been done. Therefore, for how long does an idea need to remain dormant before its reactivation is considered novel?

Perhaps it’s a fools errand to worry excessively about this. Given the vast quantity of literature – too much for even an army of men to read, and in many languages at that, so too much even for a multi-national peacekeeping force – it might be impossible to make any definitive pronouncements. One culture’s innovation could be another’s standard, if not, cliched form.

An inherent problem with attempting to create these kind of groundbreaking artworks is that they are more difficult to write, principally due to a lack of training data. Conversely, they are also harder to judge for quality. An even greater quantity of good fortune then is required to meet with a positive reception.

And so back to my own innovative fiction; who knows if it is actually, truly innovative. I think many aspects of it are certainly creative and original, but whether overall it is innovative, I’m not sure. Maybe you can tell me? Then again, probably it doesn’t matter; if it’s interesting to read, then maybe that’s enough. Innovation be damned.

So, what do you think makes a book innovative? Have you read any that seemed particularly innovative to you, and did you feel that this helped or hindered the story-telling? And, once again, do let me know if you are interested in reading my story. Thanks!

Five Ice Cream Vans

A frosted sky makes gentle diffuse sun,
that soothes this politicians’ bridge.

And there five ice cream vans idle,
tune nothing but a childhood hum.

Above, the dandelion Eye looks on,
and each of us circles around one thought:

where have all the people gone?

The Many Surprising Sides of Poetry

When I started this blog, I thought I knew its purpose and intended content. What I didn’t expect was for poetry to play such a large role, least of all that I might find myself reading some in front of an audience! Yet of the 14 posts I have written so far, 5 are poems or are related to poetry.

First came a piece of fiction, Life at Sea, that embodies this whole process, writ small, and charts a gradual descent into verse. This was followed by the analysis of a haiku found quite unexpectedly in a book about classical music, the post Hidden Haiku, Hidden Depth. Further chance discoveries led to me downloading J. Fisher’s intriguing iOS poetry app What We Mean and reviewing it in Do I Say What I Mean?. After this, I found myself writing a poem, which through much effort and editing became Stitch Yellow Quilts, and soon thereafter came a haiku, Eutrophication. If I wished to bolster my argument through dishonest arithmetic, I could even include this article in the count. Make it 6 then.

So it has been a rapid inculcation into the beguiling discipline of poetry, a process that has continued apace; on Tuesday evening I attended, and performed at, my first open-mic poetry reading. The event, Poetry Unplugged – a name that could provoke many surreal fantasies of clockwork poetry robots – is held weekly, at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, London.

Wander down the darkened street to inquire within – timidly in my case and continually on the verge of mumbling excuses and backing out – and you’ll be encouraged by all the staff to give it a go, on the assurance of meeting with a friendly reception.

Sure enough, I was greeted with raucous applause as promised, an equal treatment to the other performers, though ‘unplugged virgins’ are particularly are well taken care of, and afterwards received another helping of the same. But before you start fantasising of a world organised similarly to the one in Martin Amis’ short story Career Move – a world reversed, in which poets are treated like film stars and their poems eagerly anticipated and developed in a big-budget way, while screenwriters are left to languish in poverty and a state of eternal hope – let me stop you right there.

No, there aren’t any waiting agents, ready to sign you up with an enticing cash bonus and year-long tour of the world’s literary festivals. The biggest financial reward you’ll receive for performing is a £1 discount to the entry fee. Can I mark this as my first literary advance? So there are many incentives. To reference myself, referencing someone, referencing Chekhov, another motivation was the opportunity to acquire additional grist for the blogging mill.

As for my performance? Inevitably, if the one delivered in my head beforehand was a tour de force of emphasis and timing, the reality was a resounding and solid OK. Overall, I think I was a little flat, and missed several stresses that made the poem seem worse than it is. Sorry, poem! But that’s okay, as one of the “old” hands said to me afterwards, I should just come back and read it again but better. And why not, given how much effort went into writing it.

If any poets are reading this, and wondering whether they too should consider public readings of their work, then I would say to them, ‘yes, you should, you must!’ The prospect of reading aloud in front of others, first made me raise my game for fear of looking stupid, a much bigger risk than with a blog post, and secondly, forced me to consider the rhythm of the poem far more carefully. No longer could I let my brain glide serenely past the additional beat as though it weren’t there – the lips aren’t nearly so able to forgive. Equally, those same lips came to the end of a line and carried on moving, but there was nothing for them to say, only ghost words, and so I had to insert extra words here and there to give the rhythm its full space for expression.

You don’t have to take the word of neophyte though, talking to Unplugged’s congenial host Niall O’Sullivan at the end of the night, he revealed that the unconscious editing of poetry that can happen during a performance, particularly if speaking from memory, can be quite astonishing. Words, lines, and sometimes whole verses can disappear. They simply weren’t needed. So, if you’re struggling to edit a poem, maybe this is the answer: memorise, read, and record. Then play it back to discover what your brain has figured out, without you having to think at all. This is mere hypothesis though, has anyone tried this for themselves? Let us know below. Thanks!

Now that I’ve begun, I hope to write more poetry, and every now and again post the shorter ones as a midweek fillip, perhaps saving the longer works for the main, weekly post. And when I’ve got a few new poems stored away I will return to the Poetry Cafe, better prepared this time. Maybe see you there?