All entries for January 2008

January 29, 2008

World–builders – from the nerd end of the spectrum

Writing about web page /ttooulig/entry/m_john_harrinson/

Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view

The articles from Harrison about world building are interesting - especially from a philosophical perspective. In what sense can a writer direct people to a world which doesn't exist? Why the desire to "create" a place which simply isn't, to deliver in excruciating detail every aspect of a world?

The philosophical issues run deep. I think there's a valid point to be made that any representation in language, let alone in literature, falls unfailingly short of whatever it strives to capture - or possibly the completely different claim, that anything exists only insofar as it can be understood in language (and perhaps sense-perception). On the one horn, world-building becomes an effort in utter futility, and an author attempting an "accurate" description is chasing the end of Xeno's race track; there are better things for them to be doing. Or on the other, the author is simply being an ogre, removing all possibility of interpretation from the toolset of the reader and giving them a piece on which the imagination can have little scope.

Tasty as they are, I'm not chewing on the philosophical issues now. I'm more interested in the nerdish motivation for world-building.

I was brought up on Tolkein and the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I have been involved in debates about whether or not Luke turns to the dark side when he finally defeats Vader (answer - totally yes, no way a light-side Jedi could fight that well), have contemplated the gestation period of Giger's alien, have attempted to ratify the different cosmologies of the Mage and Changeling RPGs into one continuum. I'm a fat old nerd.

Why the desire for ratified, internally consistent universes? It's peculiar. In a certain sense (and this applies especially for interactive nerdery, like RPGs), it's highly restrictive - if the Lupines and the Kindred are in a state of perpetual war, you can't have a mixed Vampire-Werewolf playing group. The more the world is specified, the more it becomes locked and interpretation is withdrawn from the reader (indeed, this was the ultimate death of the Old World of Darkness game lines - their excellent meta-plots ultimately lead the game world into the apocalypse. They released actual source-books for the end of the world! Not much room for interpretation after that.)

World building might be an artifact of commercial fiction. Take the Star-Wars extended universe. Those books are basically a thousand answers to nerds "what-if?"s. They exist because it is profitable for George Lucas (or whoever) to sell their rights to run-of-the-mill authors. Maybe the most literal example of this is the "What If?" comic series that are periodically released for the Marvel and DC universes, which really are just that. You could say the same for cross-over comics - "The Avengers" is what you get if a board of marketing executives at Marvel listen in on a playground argument about who would win out of The Hulk, Iron Man, Ant Man, Thor and The Wasp.

Is there anything good and liberating to be said for world building? For stories above a certain size it becomes a sort of practical necessity. I can't imagine the Wheel of Time series functioning without the world being very, very detailed, just as a measure against internal contradiction (but then I can't imagine ever wanting to read the Wheel of Time series...) 

Likewise, the Doctor Who universe is one I feel would actually benefit from a certain measure of world building. I hold in evidence Torchwood, which uses Doctor Who's light touch in terms of internal consistency but attempts to be adult, and is unredeemably shit (James Marsters and John Barrowman kissing aside). And as a general note on long-running series, the longer the run, the greater forethought needs to be put into the consistency of events within the world. Not enough forethought means more time spent retconning, and retcons are ugly as hell - big black sticking plasters over wounds that shouldn't be there to begin with. I hold in evidence the "It was all a dream" series in Dallas. Not that worldbuilding guarantees quality - but a well-constructed fictional world need not be thrust upon the reader. It is merely necessary that the author has sufficient competence with the world to avoid unsatisfying cop-put explanations to major plot issues (lets here it for "The Deathly Hallows").

There is something gratifying about the sense of false realism given by a built world. I don't much enjoy it as far as reading it goes, but I think that's because most world-building authors are hacks (fucking Charles Dickens...). Gaming in a built world on the other hand is great fun. There's a sense of inclusion in something larger. And when nerds engage in arguments like "I bet Wolverine could beat the Hulk", they're taking part in an exercise of world-building - what they want is a definite answer to that question (which the owners of the intellectual rights will duly sell to them), and the inductive evidence of that world, together with it's (hopefully demonstrably) consistent logic are what they use to press their conclusion. It's a fun thing to wonder about.

Perhaps then the answer is a built world of infinite scope. Eternally fresh frontiers, and although the explored world is defined, what has yet to be createdis still a tantalising mystery. The freedom to imagine, and the surety of a base from which to make excursions into the unknown.

There is another artefact of truly enormous built worlds like the Marvel or DC universes - collapse. They reach such a size and complexity that they become unsustainable without (for example) retconning, the introduction of new and once again inexplicable elements, or a slash and burn rebuild (think "The Ultimate" universe reboot of the main line of Marvel). Which means that anyone engaged in discussions about (for example) Peter Parker, will almost definitely not be talking about the same experienced entity. Reader interpretation creeps in over the ruins of the built world.

There's more I could say - instead I'll leave you with a comic about World-building and the musings of Jerry Holkins, from the truly marvellous Penny Arcade.

January 17, 2008

Consummate Secrecy

So, last week's assignment. I've written this very... genre? I don't know which genre, but it certainly feels "genre". I'm happy with the dialogue - it's natural-ish. And the pacing is satisfying to me. Admittedly the episode is of no use as a short story, but it would fit into a larger whole, and I think the pacing would be quite comfortable for a novel. So although the narrative wasn't one that energised me, it was gratifying to know that I can write at roughly the right pace for a novel.

Of course what this doesn't show is that in two more pages I would have run out of adjectives...

Consummate Secrecy

Rupert crept in through the servant’s door, boots clicking on the slate-tiled kitchen floor. He winced, adjusted the long-johns beneath his coarse workman’s trousers, and tried to sit down at the wooden preparation table on one of the kitchen’s three-legged stools. The bandages made it a little difficult but in a moment he was propped tentatively on the edge.

The door from the wash-room opened to reveal Alissandra, a wash-basket full of sheets propped between her right arm and body, and a rolled cigarette and a lighter in the other. She nodded to him as she passed through into the courtyard, the door tapping in the frame as she left it unclosed.

“Close that, yeah?” She called back at him. Rupert set his face and steeled himself as he made the journey to the door. Walking was the trickiest part. No. Running had been the trickiest part.

“Bugger it”. He murmured under his breath and slipped back out into the breezy courtyard. Alissandra was smoking happily against one wall – the washing lay undisturbed in the basket beneath the line.

“What happened?” She asked, offering him her roll-up. He took it gratefully as she hoiked out her tobacco pouch to make another.

“What makes you think something happened?”

“You get caught?”

“No.” Rupert said with a tight smile. That much was true.

“You’ld be dead if you were caught.”

“True.” He let the smoke go in a hot stream of ash. “And what makes you think something happened?”

“’s in your face. I can read faces very well.”

“You’ve to stop having these delusions of being some gypsy mystic, Aliss, you’ve been told.”

“I can and that’s truth.” She overcut him. “I’m good at reading faces. So you tell me what happened.”

It would get out as soon as he told her – the serving community in the village was closed, insular, had loose tongues – but it was going to get out anyway. It was embarassment, not fear that had closed his mouth so far.

“What happened to Lord Partridge last summer. Same as that.”

“No. Noo! Oh, that’s going to cramp you, eh?”

“Well I reckon so yes.” Rupert crossed his arms in frustration and turned away from Alissandra, stifling a gasp of exasperated pain. Alissandra chuckled.

“Painful, then?”

“Not so much as I was expecting, no.”

“Lord.” She leant back against the wall, rolling the cigarette from one end of her mouth to the other. “Lord, me.” Her face lit up with a devilish grin. “So what did the Posh say about it?”

“Well she took it worse than I did, didn’t she?” Rupert stared up at the clouds. “She was bloody screaming like a mad thing and I thought sooner or later that jobbing idiot Palmer was going to burst in thinking she was dying.” He sighed. “So my first time down the drainpipe and me in no fit state.”

“Wouldn’t want to be doing her sheets.” Alissandra mused, kicking a pebble over at it with a curious foot.

“No.” Said Rupert sourly. He looked into the garden proper through the courtyard archway; it made a pretty frame around the Summer Royals. Just this morning, he thought, he had been looking forwards to blanketing them up for winter. Now the notion of even bending down filled him with dread.

“Hey, you talk to Parsons?” Alissandra asked. He nodded, grimly.

“Old quack. He bloody laughed didn’t he!” The old doctor’s face had scrunched up like a boot, with the split toe as the mouth and the sun-burnt brown leather of his face scrunching up around the smile.

“Well, he must have given you something at least.”

“He told me to dip myself in salt water for three weeks.” Rupert groaned, and Alissandra laughed up from her belly as Rupert shuffled back into the house, his mouth downturned into a miserable grimace.

A little flash fiction

So, here's a little short story that literally smashed out of my cranium and onto the page. How bad a writing process is that? No structure, no idea of what would happen, just one metaphor and two faint characters and up this popped. I hope you find this enjoyable. George, I hope it's not too cliched ; ) Anyway, this is a first draft - if I'm ever happy with it I'll send a later draft out to journals.

“Carpe pullo” I scrawled on Marcy’s left thigh, ironically. Everything we did was ironic. Our affair was in the height of irony. Neither of us was married, for a start, although Marcy did have a live-in lover. Later he would break my nose and three of his knuckles in one impressive punch, but not over Marcy, and not for three more years. My nose is now wide and French, and he had to learn to write with his other hand.

“’zat mean?” She asked, and I replied, “Seize the cock.” So she giggled and scribbled up the words she was putting on my stomach, low, just above the jeans line. I wasn’t wearing jeans then, I wasn’t wearing anything, but I always wore them too skinny. They left a red band like a belt that I was inexplicably proud of.

We were in a wood, naked. It wasn’t overly warm and we hadn’t had sex – we never had sex. Not once in the whole thing. I wanted to of course, and nowadays I think she did too, but she told me the first time I ever asked: “Nuh-uh. If it’s not cheating for Monica Lewinski it’s not cheating for me. So it’s just oral and cigars.”

I didn’t actually know about Lewinski. The whole thing with her and the American president had passed my by, while I was still lurking moodily in my bedroom in my parents house, without a television but with a huge sense of universal injustice. I think I passed that entire period of my life either sulking or masturbating, so a television wouldn’t have raised my awareness anyway. Marcy had to explain the reference to me, and when she did I bought the largest Cuban cigar I could and fucked her with that instead of my fingers. “Carpe pullo” might have been one of those little pushes I made to try and get some more, like the forty year old rubbing his cock against his wife’s brown dot and grinning like a cat, hoping she’ll say “go on them” and let him in.

The sun was a hazy white dot through a streak of cloud, and between us we had four very rigid, painful nipples. It was Autumn, and soon it would rain, but not for a few more days.

“Keep writing.” She said, and I bit her softly on her cheek – her left buttock - and twiddled the marker in my hand. “You’ve gotta keep writing.”

That morning we were on the bus. I was Indie, and we were riding nowhere in particular. You have to have whims. I had secret hopes of spotting a record store I had found once, very drunk, late at night, closed of course, but very secret, rising from the drunken fugue like the ruins of Atlantis. I didn’t know where it was or what it sold. The chances were I’d hate the music. But a good whim.

Marcy was with me because her boyfriend was out of town and she was even more ironic than I was. “I’m a New Romantic.” She said, and she was. Text book. Apparently Romance was reinvented in the 1980s, landing with A Flock of Seagulls and taking off again around about the time of Thatcher’s second term. I listened to underground music, the deeper underground the better. My favourite bands fought troglodytes and morlocks to make it to the mic stand. Hers were just uncool. I ached to be that ironic.

“Yu?” I said. It was a solid reply.

“Yuhuh, I looked it up. All my faves’r New Romantics. And my beanie-hat”

I didn’t have a fucking clue about the beanie hat, so I said:

“Yep. That is one New Romantic beanie-hat.”

And she laughed, possibly because I was wrong, possibly because I was stupid, not that it mattered. That laugh. It was dreadful. I mean that in the ancient sense, the one that’s lost to our world of “downloading” and “computeach”. It filled me with dread. A base ape-like fear that I was missing the plot entirely. And it was beautiful too, in a Jackson Pollocky sense. Broken and cracked by a little too much smoking. The rest of her was dainty.

The trees moved very slowly, at their own pace. “They’re not moving with the wind.” I said that out loud, I distinctly remember it, and she said nothing, even though it was such a damn stupid thing to say. Admittedly she was distracted. We were both covered in ink, and now she was working it off me.

The bus was one of those clanky old fuckers with angry drivers who’ve long fused with their seats, one leg stuck on the accelerator, the other on the brake, their urinary tract feeding into the cooling system for the engine through a specially arranged catheter. We weren’t alone onboard or my hand would have been in her trousers already. I was an idiot for never fighting her boyfriend.

She had these small breasts that made her look like a boy, almost, and which I found intensely, worryingly erotic. They were nearly non-existent, hidden like faces on the moon – you had to want to see them. They were a wonderful secret. But they made her look very young.

“If you shaved your pubes,” I said, gazing into that tangled blackness, “I don’t think I could have sex with you. Too wrong”

“You can’t have sex with me anyway.” She laughed. “That would be cheating.”

And she dotted the “i” on my chest.

The cloud was low, soft and wide, wispy and English. Later I walked back under fish-skeletons covered in gold lace, black shadows and gold ribs melting into the fading sunset. “It’s getting colder.” I said, which was a lie. It was already too cold to feel the difference. The town had been sweating all summer and now that sweat was evaporating, chilling us down at the speed of science.

Walking through the town the cold had been crueller. My undeclared search for the record shop was over, abandoned due to pointlessness, and the weather had no respect for my feelings. Pointless projects are the ones closest to the heart.

I put that on her skin as well. And “2+2=5”. And “Autumn is the cruellest month”, which I scribbled out when I realised Autumn wasn’t a month. The mess turned into a mouth – turned into a monster – tuned once more into black nothing. I was gazing at her crotch.

Two weeks later she shaved it. We were on her boyfriend’s bed, fumbling in a well-practised way, when she pushed me back, silenced me with one finger to my lips and another behind the hem of her skirt, and then stripped, just the skirt, and left her t-shirt on. Then she lay back, legs akimbo, and said, “Come on.”

I hesitated. Just long enough. She caught it in my eye and pulled it out, reaching for a felt-tip pen – one of the same we bought the day I didn’t find a record store – and scribbled on herself, a fake fur of ink. “Eat me then.” She commanded. I did – rubbing my face and mouth in there, licking and working and building up a shiny black nose of ink.

The felt-tip pens came from the same store we bought the cake at. She was always better at whim than me.

“We pack a bag with felt-tip pens and cake and then we go out into the country.” And we did, filling my satchel with pineapple upside down cake and twelve thick marker pens, one of which got lucky later, barely ten minutes after we started to ink each other, and found it’s way as far into her affections as I ever had.

We were swimming in our afterglow which almost stopped me shivering in the dusk. I was covered in ink and the sun couldn’t be seen in the woods now.

“I should probably go.”


“Okay.” I said. “I’m just gonna stay here.”

“That’s right.”

“While it gets colder and darker.”


“My clothes won’t keep the cold out.”

“You’re naked anyway.”

“Very wise.” I observed. “What’re you gonna do tomorrow?”

“Don’t talk about that.” She said, and held on to me.

She looked very sad, sitting there still naked, this glade of trees bowing around her, her flesh a pattern of ink and white, so smeared and intermixed you could hardly tell which was the real colour, as I walked away. But then she laughed and waved and pouted and put on a sad face again, and then I almost hit a tree, and after that I watched the path instead of her.

We could have had sex, I’m sure, if I’d only had the nerve to break something. What she really wanted was for me to shatter society – to break my own inhibitions – to cripple taboo and just fuck with her, naked and covered in ink, in a town square, surrounded by the old and young and CCTV cameras and police and pigeons, slowly and pleasantly, at ease, enjoying it, with everyone watching and staring and wishing they could be us. But I think breaking her boyfriend’s nose would have done the job almost as well.

January 12, 2008

Some more thoughts on writing script

So here's an odd thing. I'm acting in Crowskin, (plug! week 2, Capital Centre, free tickets!) as well as one of the writers for it, and the other day we were rehearsing a scene which I have both written and act in (in fact I got to write almost all of my parts). What is odd though is that, coming to act the scene, I'm doing things with the character I never imagined I would do with him - that I never imagined anyone would think to do with him.

The scene is one which I wasn't happy with immediately after I'd written it. Having acted it and seen what can be done with it I'm much more content. Some things still niggle (I think the geek content might be a bit much, and I'm worried that I've treated one very serious topic with too much levity). But seeing speeches come to life in a way I hadn't imagined is gratifying and also suggests that there is a spark of life in them.

Not to mention seeing it in the context of other actors. The Crowskin team is excellent across the board, and having absolutely no control over how they treat certain parts is showing me (teaching me) where I've been too prescriptive with a line, and where I've gotten it right.

January 07, 2008

What I did over Christmas

A little confession. I have been writing creatively over Christmas. I should have been writing essays. Naughty naughty.

In fact, I've been working on a play-script. It's untitled, and it's at the first draft. I'm showing it around to readers for opinions (and in the hopes of reeling in a director - but that's far to the future) and if anyone wants to volunteer, then you're more than welcome. Here's an excerpt, from the very beginning -

Scene 1

A strange room. A spare bed is covered with a sheet, a human form distinguishable underneath it. There is a lot of blood, some dried, some wet. Paper, notepads, pens, rubbish, books, manuscripts, bottles of ink, magnifying glasses, paints, frames, sketchpads spill out from underneath the bed like surf. The walls are plastered with newspaper cuttings, journal articles, and hand-written scrawlings. We can hear how bad the room smells. A writing desk, similarly limed over with droppings stands to one side, and there is a wardrobe and a toilet at the other end of the room, together with a full-length mirror and a sink. The room is constellated with dozens of standing lamps, at different heights, seemingly at random around the room. Although there are very many of them, the room is still dim. There is knocking at the door.

Topski            Hello? Mr. Lewis? (a beat) Mr. Lewis? Fuck.

                       (Topski opens the door and enters. She is carrying a briefcase and is obviously unsure what’s going on)

Topski            Okay, so you’re not here – oh my

                       (She edges towards the bed and the body. She unveils it – V-girl sits bolt upright, and screams. Topski screams)

Topski            Oh, fuck! Fuck!

V-girl              Who are you?

Topski            I’m here- I was looking-

V-girl              What do you want?

Topski            I’m here to see Mr. Lewis, but-

V-girl              What’s your birthstone?

Topski            What?

V-girl              Favourite colour? What’s your favourite colour?

Topski            Yellow!

V-girl              What was your mother’s maiden name?

Topski            Deblorovich- but why-

V-girl              Don’t stop answering, I need to find out!

Topski            What?

V-girl              I need to know!

Topski            What?

V-girl              Have they got to you? Have they got to you too?

Topski            WHO!?!

V-girl              (V-girl gives Topski a poisonous look, before finally deciding she’s safe) Ugh. Fine. Grab a chair. You’re clean.

Topski            Are you okay?

V-girl              Grab a chair, woman

Topski            Could you tell me what’s going on?

V-girl              Get a chair, first

                       (Topski grabs a chair and sits. V-girl crouches in the bed)

Topski            Are you sure you’re quite alright?

V-girl              I’m fine. I was sleeping

Topski            You were screaming-

V-girl              You woke me up. You were screaming

Topski            I thought you were dead!

V-girl              I am dead

Topski            What?

V-girl              I’m a vampire

Topski            … okay. I’m a, I’m a handwriting expert, it’s nice to meet you.

Writing script is a very strange experience. Nothing but dialogue, you think! My goodness, but this is going to be easy.

Think about that though. Nothing but dialogue. Which means you have nothing else to work with. Well, stage directions. But no thought bubbles. No lengthy descriptions of intimate items. No "She read the letter..." If a character reads a letter, they either read it to themselves (and then you've just made a statement to the audience - you're going to find out what was in that letter, later) or they do it out loud - but why does anybody read a letter out loud? You'd better be justifying that, Mr...

Thinking about theatricality is very difficult as well. I want to write with performance in mind - a text that suggests interesting visual set-ups, interesting audio creations, and which is possible within a realistic performance space (I remember hearing from a friend that he wanted to set a play in a tank, underwater). "Crowskin", my previous project (plug o'clock! performance in week two, capital centre, and tickets are free!) is a globe-hopping play, with locations all over the shop - that's going to affect staging very heavily. With this one I've gone for the more traditional "three people stuck in a room" approach. But why are they stuck? What do they have with them? Will the air run out!? (Okay, that last one's not so much of a concern).

Conversely of course, I don't want to be too controlling. Theate is an interprative media - it is interpreted by the director, the actors, and then finally the audience (thankyou to James McPhun for that insightful piece of advice). The director has to give the actors leeway for their own interpretation - the writer has to give the director leeway. That's not just about putting ambiguity into the text, it's about suggesting your vision, rather than dictating it.

The only solid path I've found for this is to be a genius. I don't think I'm there of course, so I'm waiting on the opinions of several directors to see if they ring up those issues as a problem. Time will tell.

Characterisation is interesting. In truth, I'm not going to be characterising these people - whoever performs them is. But I have to make a text which suggests a coherent character. One experience when performing in "Dinner" was that my character (and arguably some of the others) wasn't entirely internally consistent. It made choosing a direction for the character exceedingly difficult. Nonetheless, as an actor I had the final call. It's very odd, writing characters, and knowing that the goal is to make them interpretable as people, not to make them into people.

Anyway whilst the buzz lasts I'm going to go write a short story and finish learning some lines! Toodlepip!

Musings on intelligent life

The Christmas break is over, and the creative vampire bats that suck up the blood of language have returned to me at last. Which isn't to say that I've not been creative over the holidays - anyone who witnessed my abortive attempt at roast potatoes would have a hard job denying it - but rather I have once more been hit with a mad spell of creativity. Which is why I'm writing this, of course.

Who knows how and why they come and go. Perhaps they follow magnetic currents and land marks like birds, moving in migration patterns from one willing mind to the next. Or perhaps they reside deep within the animal hind-brain of the human vessel, rising to the surface only when summoned with the correct libations - a certain concoction of stress, caffeine and milk. Who knows.

Anyway, as an impulse purchase I picked up a copy of "intelligent life", a new magazine being published by the economist. (My semi-autistic half is railing, since I managed to acquire episode 2 of voume one. Fortunately I have a yorkshire half as well, which wears a flat cap and keeps its money in the mattress, and it refuses to allow the autistic half to send off for a back issue numer one). I don't actually have very much to say about it, but I felt I had to blast something out before I started writing on a wonderful short story idea that just came to me.

The magazine is gorgeous, in terms of production values. It resembles those strange photography magazines you only find in very large or exclusive bookshops, the ones that cost more than a hardback. The print is large and sprinkled lightly over the pages like chocolate dust on a cappucino. Or Moccaccino-latte, or whatever kind of chocolate-topped caffeine beverage you sup on. The articles? An interview with Phillip Pullman, the main reason for my purchase, a little light musing on the value of language to clear thought (very much removed from all the Kripke and Frege I was studying last term, I'm sure), an interview with a man who believes that the average IQ is increasing...

It's chocolate box intelligencia, for people too busy and disinclined to read artistic journals, and yet too expensive and rich to read the Guardian. (G2 magazine specifically. A weeks-worth of G2 will give you pretty much the same content as two copies of "intelligent life", although the fashion advice and the review sections you would have to take from the Saturday Guardian and the Observer). You can tell the wealth of the demographic by the adverts - one of them, for a private money eating firm or something, reads "Too much money? We can help. Our specialist money-burners..." and so on.

It may sound like I don't like it. Actually, I very much do. The feel of it in my hands. The opulence. The lush paper of the pages (they're practically card they're so thick and glossy), the beautiful full colour photography throughout, the high quality graphic designer they've obviously shanghaid. I'm waiting for a moment to spring straight into Philip Pullmans dirty six page pull out, and gobble up every sparse word.

The magazine is classy, it promises to make the reader classy. Classy enough not to have to use words like "classy". Classy enough to be cool without saying it. Classy enough to be unafraid of its own intellect.

Will it last? I don't know. I probably won't buy it again unless they keep up the interviews. Not that that matters - the real demographic for this sort of thing is the rich. And how many rich people can there be?

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