WRITERS: sickened by your own success? Come and get your very own personal rejection-to-order from The Stoneslide Corrective. I have done one.
Second issue of the fantastic Universe magazine is out in May, exploring what happens when technology makes our dumb minerals of the world feel alive. Every time you’ve sworn at your phone, you’ve entered the world of techno-animism. (and remember Robotify?)
I sweated silicon over a story called HR, which is going to be in there. Bee-boo-beep.
When the children reached the shimmering border, farther than their parents had ever let them go, the static made their hair prickle.
Jason hefted a pebble, and the barrier emitted a warning hum.
Ole Brodersen, Trasspassing
In the wake of a famous person’s death, their legacy is zealously evaluated. In Margaret Thatcher’s case, her sheer momentousness on the political stage, plus her personal vigour, have spawned all manner of “Thatcher urban legends.”
In the interests of histrionic accuracy, we’ll use this opportunity to clear some of them up.
- Thatcher did not technically evade the Brighton IRA bombing. Rather, she threw her adamantium exoskeleton over the device, absorbing the brunt of the blast. It is estimated that the bomb was powerful enough to destroy the Grand Hotel in its entirety otherwise.
- Thatcher did, in fact, invent the popular “Mr. Whippy” method of portable ice cream extrusion. However, it was originally intended as a method of dispensing more precise amounts of caviar to Britain’s entrepreneurs.
- In 2011, declassified military documents revealed The Falklands War to be a lamentable mistake, caused by Thatcher’s GCSE-learned habit of confusing The Falkland Islands with the far closer and more useful Isle Of Wight.
- 1984’s brutal clashes between the police and the National Union of Mineworkers owed a lot to ongoing deregulation of British industry, but the inciting incident is now known to be a particularly vicious game of Twister between Margaret Thatcher and union president Arthur Scargill.
- “We are a grandmother,” Thatcher’s legendary exclamation of joy, was widely panned as a sign of her burgeoning third-person megalomania, but is in fact a common pattern of speech amongst the insectoid hivemind of her race.
I’ve been told to take it all in one gulp. We practised with a plastic wine glass, which I thought was a bit patronising until my trembles made me spill it down my jumper. I thought god, I’ll never live this down, which made me laugh hard enough to spill the rest.
As I hold on to my cup of the real thing my hand takes a surer grip, as though it knows the import of what it’s holding. Surely that’s ridiculous though; if my hand knew what I know about sodium pentobarbital it would throw the cup across the room, and possibly punch the orderly in his stupid sombre face. He’d take it, too – his blank expression matches his white gown in the illusion that he is a piece of equipment. Mum and Dad wait outside, sent away so that they won’t stop me in the act, and the human cup holder waits in here, all so that I can do my part of the process.
“So, are you a doctor?” I was never good with tension.
“Ah, not exactly. I am more of a technician.” His voice has that singsong Swedish quality, like life’s fine and the air is clean, and Good Storage will solve all the world’s problems. Fuck him.
“A technician? Like you fix boilers in the morning, and do this in the afternoon?”
Bastard. He won’t even smile.
“No, just… just this.”
“Just this? So how many have you done today?”
“T-we’re not really supposed to talk about that.” He smoothens his collar like it’s a job interview, like my opinion of him matters in any way.
“Just a job, right?” Despite the pain, I smile as I ask.
“Just a job. Better than telesales.”
“No kidding! That’s why I’m here.”
He gasps, before his sees me grinning.
“Sorry,” he says. “People are generally a bit more serious.”
There’s a single tree in the garden, strategically placed to be visible from my seat. A young cedar, I think, though it occurs to me that now, I’ll never know, despite Dad’s best efforts to teach me. On the wall by the window there’s a picture of the Milky Way, impossibly big and yet squeezed onto a cheaply framed print. I imagine that if you could magnify that picture, really blow it up over and over then it too would be a picture of that tree, and a picture of me and the jumper and the orderly in his gown and Mum and Dad outside the door in their Sunday best, dressed for a funeral they are uniquely able to predict. The tree and the galaxy sit together like hieroglyphs, a sentence made of objects, forcing their meaning upon me. I clutch at the think strands of wool, grandma’s knit, and I feel like her; sitting at the end point of a narrative someone else started writing two years ago in that GP’s office.
Light catches and pools in the glass, and dances on the face of the orderly.
“Try to be strong,” he says.
And what? I think. But in that liquid, clarity reveals itself.
With a smile, I chuck the poison back. It slides down to its destination, oily and thick. So languid in its travel, as though it has all the time in the world to kill. My throat tickles as I imagine the gentle ice spreading through my body, suffusing the pain, embracing my cells and singing them gently to sleep. Fight’s over. The heart, running for twenty-six years, finally getting its reprieve. Lungs relaxing and deflating and the pain, two years of pain, being satisfied and released. The blazing sine wave that runs through my mind quietening and dying. I can see all these things in that second, and I smile.
The orderly gasps, and Mum and Dad practically fall into the room. Mum gazes at me, her face frozen. I grip the seat tightly enough to tear it off. The orderly opens his mouth to speak-
The Milky Way spins on its faraway axis-
The liquid sinks into the carpet, undrunk-
“Dad,” I ask.
The thing I most regret leaving behind at BBH, apart from friends, was Robotify.me. It’s finally ready to use, and it’s absolutely gorgeous, and seems to have all its fingers and toes.
During the long days of development when I sometimes felt a little superfluous, I tinkered around with a possible backstory. Here you go. I really hope you like it.
The children huddled in a circle round Old Man Tesla. He gave an affected cough, and at that signal the girl, Amy, produced a bottle of clear liquid, poking from a newspaper blanket. The man smiled his crooked smile and slugged at the bottle. After the shakes and convulsions had abated, he gathered the children to him in a closer circle, ‘til they were flinching from the rusty kerosene fire.
“Now children,” he said, “what’s it to be?”
“The tower! Tell us about the tower,” they whispered as loudly as they dared.
Old Man Tesla closed his eyes and began to sway, like a pianist at the stool, breathing in the heavy petrol fumes. He gave a low hum, like a man who’s been caught mid-flow in his argument, which built in volume until the noise itself seemed to snap his eyes open, and he began:
“In the beginning there was one. Over time there would come to be ones and zeroes-“ and he raised his hand to indicate the tower – “but before the tower, there was only one, and this was M-Bot. M-Bot was an excellent being, but she was alone in the world. There was great potential, but nothing could be seen for miles around. For this was the Time of Scoping, when dreams range large upon the plains and destinies wait to be fulfilled.
“M-Bot thought deeply for some time. There must be others like me in this world, she reasoned. And because she reasoned such, so they appeared. They were the first. And do you know children, they were just like us. They had hopes, and fears, desires, and the most curious habits running through their circuits. They were made in man’s image, you see, because while you may exist in this world, there is another you, trundling across that world. More like you than you can imagine. So true to you, that you might not even recognize it the first time you met it. But it has your needs, behaviours, and personality-“
“Does mine have a hat?” The youngest piped up.
Old Man Tesla gave a rheumy chuckle. “Why, I believe it might have that very thing. There were six of them in the beginning, and they wandered the plains in solitude. There were all sorts of clusters of information out there of course.”
Tesla scratched waving lines in the ash.
“Over here, see! The ocean of Facebook, never-ending tides of uniform blue. And to the west, the wild, free jungles of Twitter. Some of them had lived previous lives there, but when they looked back it was an iteration of themselves they could scarcely recognize, an emotional alpha-state. This is why they searched. They were searching for a place where they could truly be themselves, do you see? Where they weren’t defined by a status update, or a check-in, or a video of a dog talking in Spanish-“
“What’s a dog?”
“Nobody knows any more. But none of these things alone should define a person, or a robot. We are rich and varied, with hundreds of data points across many dimensions. And so they searched, and they, searched, for the place that could show them in their wholeness. And do you know what they did?” The children squirmed with excitement at their favourite part.
“They had almost given up, children. They were about to resign themselves to living out a sepia digital existence in the deserted wilderness of Bebo, when one of them said, ‘we could build a tower.”
He leaned in, and the children did too until their faces were glowing. “And so, the tower began. Just a small tower, at first, with the simplest of rules: every robot had a floor on the tower. This floor was their responsibility. And in time, that floor would become a manifestation of that robot. A perfect living space, reflecting who they were. A womb, a garage. A home. The tower was no more than an apartment block in those first days, but it was their block, and they loved it.
“Soon, word spread through the other networks, jumping from robot to robot like some kind of virus. As robots heard about the project, they made their pilgrimage to the Tower, seeking their own piece of themselves. And M-Bot and the founders welcomed every one with open robotic arms, because every robot added a new floor and made the tower stretch ever-higher. Higher than you can imagine, children. Hundreds of floors, then thousands, stretching out of sight. Towards what, they couldn’t be sure. But they determined to reach it.”
Old Man Tesla drained the dregs of the clear liquid, and sat back with a sigh. The children crowded in.
“But… what happened? Did they make it?”
“That,” said the old man, “would require another bottle.”
I don’t really write about writing. I don’t really write about me, because I’m not sure there’s enough to say, and it seems like an easy way to spill words without really creating anything - the act of writing, without any meaningful content. Indeed, when I first wrote For Sale at the end of 2010, I didn’t really put down any words about the experience. Any word spent that wasn’t going towards the total was an expensive word indeed.
Then again, that was one month. Editing it has been a rather more involved process, that I finished about an hour ago. So, from the heat of the moment, here are a few subjective observations on editing a novel.
#1: Fuck me, it’s tough. Here’s some naivety for you; I thought editing would be easier than writing. You’re only changing stuff, right? You did all the actual making stuff up before! Well, yes. But the making stuff up isn’t the hard bit. I would impress that particular point upon anyone who’s scared of writing a novel - if you just want to get one out of your fingers to begin with and that is literally all you want, it will come easily after a time. It will even be fun. This explains all fanfiction. Editing is much harder emotionally, slower, and takes longer. This is because…
#2: All your responsibilities come back into play. These include but are not limited to responsibility to your (potential) audience to give them something they’ll want to read, responsibility to your story to unlock its best aspects and its potential, and responsibility to yourself - to do yourself justice, to keep living your life, and also to not become one of those neurotic novelling types that lose all their friends because they are their book and oh god, haven’t you finished that thing yet?
#3: You’ll have a much better time if you can come at it from a position of love. By this, I mean to attack a particular view of The Novel Edit: that one’s first draft is an unruly, dirty child that needs to be beaten and trimmed and scrubbed into bookability. I certainly set off with this view, but it very quickly leads you down the path of self-flagellation. Silly novelist, why would you put that? Let grown-up Editor clean it up for you. By all means kill your darlings, or whatever it was that guy said, but at least try to understand why you birthed those darlings at the time. Let the novel keep its character, let it still be yours. Strangely, I only realised this halfway through when I started reading ‘proper’ books again and realised how ridiculous they can be.
#4: Expect Nothing. I am still very far away from some imagined ‘ultimate goal’ (the p word, whisper it) and that will remain so for some time. Things got better in the process when I realised that. When writing a novel it’s pretty simple; your finishing line is the last line of the draft. When editing, what marker of progress is there other than your own sense of taste? I initially went through chronologically, tightening and trimming, but the closer I got to the end the more I found inconsistencies and weaknesses that would have editing ramifications for the previous 10k words. And so, back to the drawing board with nobody to notice. And no satisfactory answer to the question your friends will lovingly ask: “how far through are you?”. So if you want to preserve your sanity you’ll devise some internal metric of progress. Amount of time spent, perhaps. Where you can, you’ll celebrate particular small victories. An inversion of character’s motives that turns a bastard into a real shithead. A chase sequence that provides a needed action beat at the close of a big section, and also, somehow, ties together a couple of hanging threads. A part where you salvage one of your own first-draft in-jokes and actually make it work. All of these things actually happened.
There are more things to be said, but I’m not qualified to say them. Perhaps there’ll be another one of these posts entitled “Thoughts On An Agent”. But if that takes a while, I don’t think I’ll mind too much. I’m pretty content, for now.
If anyone has a #5 (what kind of a list has four things? Amateur), tweet me @jamescmitchell. I’d love to hear it.
and was waiting for the LA bus when all of a sudden I saw the cutest little Mexican girl in slacks come cutting across my sight. She was in one of the buses that had just pulled in with a big sigh of airbrakes; it was discharging passengers for a rest stop. Her breasts stuck out straight and true; her little flanks looked delicious; her hair was long and lustrous black; and her eyes were great big blue things with timidities inside. I wish I was on her bus. A pain stabbed my heard, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world. The announcer called the LA bus. I picked up my bag and got on, and who should be sitting there but the Mexican girl. I dropped right opposite her and began scheming right off. I was so lonely, so sad, so tired, so quivering, so broken, so beat, that I got up my courage, the courage necessary to approach a strange girl, and acted. Even then I spent five minutes beating my thighs in the dark as the bus rolled down the road.
You gotta, you gotta or you’ll die! Damn fool, talk to her! What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you tired enough of yourself by now? And before I knew what I was doing I leaned across the aisle to her (she was trying to sleep on the seat) and said,
‘Miss, would you like to use my raincoat for a pillow?’
-On The Road
Raphael went to the Village with a brand-new penknife because, he said, he genuinely meant to do some damage to his bedpost. I thought it was a miracle that it got through security but, he said, you could basically get away with anything as long as you weren’t doping. He said it wouldn’t be surprising if someone smuggled hGH inside a bag of Jamaica’s finest. The security teams would wave it through as a matter of “cultural sensitivity”. I think he was half-joking.
Athens, Raphael said, had been positively Bacchic. His thighs had burned more from the parties than from his actual event. But then, he’d had a gold. “Silver gets you into the parties, my boy,” he slapped me on the shoulder, “but Gold gets you into the back room.” This was why he’d been training harder than ever. This was why he carried the knife.
I got offered a job in a wine merchants...
I need to mull it over…
Wenlock the warrior
At the mascot games
fun and sweat win every time.
Dignity is last.
Fetishization of the Past + Dread of the Present + Fear of the Future= Wrong, wrong wrong
Dwindling afternoon by the Tanjong Pagar...
“In TED world, problems of aid and development are no longer seen as problems of weak and corrupt institutions; they are recast as problems of...”
Berlin Hack'n'tell 13: Quil: A Processing wrapper in Clojure
Sorry for the slightly gestört presentation.
Here are some links to the projects...