gorse

I’m absolutely delighted to have my short story Extrapolations included in the latest edition of gorse.

 

Gorse 2 Cover

 

It’s an incredible journal showcasing the very best in writing talent both in Ireland and beyond and I’m very humbled to have been allowed within its pages.

Here’s a link to an extract of the story, from which you can buy a copy, if you wish.

 

http://gorse.ie/extrapolations/

 

 

 

Enjoy the Silence?

 

So I’m sitting back after taking up my usual spot in Limbo and I’m watching the likes of Dante and all the others pass me by. I’ve sent out a bunch of submissions to agents and publishers and I’m waiting for the rejections to come back so I can send out more to others and keep that particular cycle going.

I’m not someone who is naturally a positive thinker. I don’t believe that me sitting here telling myself that my submission WILL be picked up will change anything about it, or the response of anyone who reads it. I write as well as I can and send each submission out in as good a condition as I can. The dice will fall as they may; I have no control of things after I hit the SEND button or put the envelope in the post box. I know that the majority, if not all, of the responses I get will be rejections and I’m ready for that, I’m ready to try again. That’s the game and I’ll continue to play it.

I don’t really have a problem, as such, with rejections. I don’t like being rejected, nobody does, for anything, but I know it’s part of the process. At least when an agent or publisher sends me a rejection I can draw a line under that particular path and start again. At least I know that that particular avenue is now closed to me, ok, so I move on. The worst thing I have always found with the submissions process is those who don’t bother to send anything, those who just let your submission dribble away into nothing. I’ve spoken about this before and I’m sure I’ll speak about it again.

Today it’s the middle bit I want to think about. The silence between a submission and a rejection. Silence is a problem. You don’t know how long the silence will last and you don’t know what the silence will say. You see, that’s the problem, silence is the most eloquent state of communication because silence says everything.

It’s the same with all and any other facets of life, silence says everything. It always makes me think of when I was younger, much younger, and I would call a girl I liked. Those moments before the phone was answered, or when she was being called to the phone if she didn’t pick up herself, or worse, if she wasn’t in and I would leave a message telling her I called. Those moments, that silence before I got to speak to her, those moments said everything. Did she roll her eyes when she knew it was me, trying to think of an excuse not to talk to me? Did she try to think who the hell I was and what was I doing calling her? Did she try to think up something to get me off the phone as quickly as possible as she was waiting for someone else to call? Or did she actually smile; glad I called and glad to speak to me. That silent gap may only have lasted seconds or it may have lasted hours, or days waiting for a call back, but however long it took that silence was filled with every possible conversation and combination of conversations. It’s a silly, angst-ridden-teen version of what I’m on about but it serves to show how much silence can say, and it’s something we have all experienced.

Silence is the Schrodinger’s Cat of communication. Until we break it and open the box it says everything in every possible way. It’s the same when submitting a manuscript. At any one time the agent or publisher could be reading the submission loving every word, glancing through it, certain they’ve found something to line their hamster’s cage with, have already junked it thinking it’s worthless or have it sitting in a pile of other submissions that someone, sometime will have a look at. You just don’t know. So every option happens, each time, and every time.

Modern technology hasn’t really helped this problem of silence. Yes I can now send out messages via email, Facebook, Twitter and any number of applications and I can be sure that the target of my message will receive it almost instantaneously. But that just means the problem of silence arises immediately. It’s that same old problem again. What do they think when they see my name come up? Do they bother to look at the message at once or leave it for later, or another day or never? If I can send something out so quickly what’s to stop them responding quickly? Modern modes of communication just mean the Silence Clock starts ticking that bit quicker.

So to extend the eloquence of silence, isn’t the ultimate book one that says absolutely nothing, each page saying more and more nothing, blank sheets one after another onto which the reader imposes his or her own meaning and interpretation, a book that changes every time you open it and never says the same thing twice?

(I have seen a book on sale called ‘Everything Men Know About Women’ that consists of exactly that, empty pages, so perhaps in joke form my point has already been proven?)

So maybe this is something for an art-prankster publisher, a Situationist or a Dadaist, a murder mystery where important details are left blank and the reader imposes their logic to the puzzle? Like Cluedo but missing all the pieces? A mystery story written by someone like BS Johnson for example?

Without going that far and without tying myself in all sorts of knots, the literary world of –ists and –isms is one I’ll happily leave to others, I do like the idea of at least approaching silence, like an asymptotic curve, always getting closer and closer to absolute silence but without actually reaching it, pare as much as you can back until almost nothing remains.

A Noir novel where everything is stripped back as far as it can go, right back as far as the nervous system, no interest in witty one-liners, hats, guns, car chases and shoot-outs, just someone making a choice and that choice turning out to be wrong. Someone looking for justice or redemption where there’s no one to mete out justice and no one to grant forgiveness. Like that passing Dante except the top of the mountain is empty and all there is at the bottom of the pit is what you bring there yourself. (Offers for TV and movie rights on the back of a postcard to . . . . .)

So in the meantime I sit back and let the silence say everything to me until someone breaks it and shows me that dead cat and I do it all over again.

 

Writing.ie and a Date with an Agent

I was contacted earlier in the week by Vanessa O’Loughlin from the writing.ie website, for something for their New Ideas section.

I’ve recently been shortlisted for the Date with an Agent event at next month’s Dublin Writers Festival where in addition to attending a seminar offering advice for writers as they try to attract the attention of agents and/or publishers we will also get a chance to pitch our work to an agent in a one-to-one session.

This is similar, in a way, to the Novel Fair idea I was involved in previously through the Irish Writers’ Centre and as with many of these types of events it could be useful, a waste of a day, or a life-changing event, time will tell.

In the spirit of the Date with an Agent I rewrote a previous post and it was put up on the writing.ie site under the title Insert Coin as I again go through the variable experience of trying to get someone to pick up on my work.

Here it is, enjoy.

 

http://www.writing.ie/news/insert-coin-colm-oshea/

 

 

 

This is the Sound

 

 

Write what you know. Isn’t that the one piece of advice that gets passed around like a hip flask, write what you know. It’s meant to be comforting, I think, it’s meant to be a solace to all those who want to write but have no idea, or think they have no idea, what to write about. Write what you know.

I don’t think it’s as simple as sitting down and transcribing your past or exploring your memories and slavishly transferring the details onto paper. We’re not all Proust or Knausgaard, and probably a good thing. Imagine us all fighting tooth and nail to get our story of the minutiae of our lives published ahead of someone else’s. Instead I think you have to use the ‘write what you know’ mantra with a little more subtlety. Let the details of your life flesh out what you’re writing; let the colour of your life add to the colour of your characters’ lives. Derek Raymond was never a detective in a forgotten department of the London Metropolitan Police, but he knew about those long dark nights of the soul, nursing a can of beer, contemplating the ugly futility of life and the struggle to find any shred of hope. Raymond Chandler likewise never worked as a Private Eye in LA but again he knew what it was to feel like a man out of time, a man holding to a long discredited code of conduct and faced with corruption at every turn. Even someone like Tolkien never travelled the trails of Middle Earth, I know, but knew his way around comfortable meals and tales told over pints of ale. Beckett never wandered a lonely void waiting for, well, you get it. It’s all about using what you know and see and adding this to the tapestry of your story.

I certainly know I have no intention of ever going down the autobiographical route. I spend more time with myself than anyone else and I know it’s not something anyone else is likely to ever want to read about.

Write where you know, now that’s more interesting. Can you use a specific place as a setting for a story, not just recount what it was like to live there, or grow up there, or a story your great-aunt Mary told you, no, use that place and entwine a fictional story into it. This is what I’ve had on my mind for a while.

You see, most of what I’ve written tends to be set either in the inner city of Dublin or in small Irish towns and villages that are usually an amalgamation of places I know well, either because I have relations there, friends there or had relations there who have since died. I seem to have avoided setting something in the town I grew up in so far, and I think that’s because I’ve never really figured out what the town I grew up in actually is.

To explain. For those who don’t know I grew up in a town called Leixlip around twelve miles from Dublin just over the border of Dublin in County Kildare. Up until the early 1970’s the town was really just a small village, basically just one street on what was then the main Dublin – Galway road. Nothing much had changed there in a hundred years or so and it was no different from any other village around Ireland. In the early 70’s, probably as a result of one of the temporary growth spurts we do so well in this country and with improved public transport, the village became a small town. This basically consisted of the small village now surrounding itself with housing estates, fairly non-descript estates with the differences only apparent to those who lived there. And it was into one of these estates that my parents moved after getting married and where they eventually raised me and my siblings. Our estate wasn’t unusual in its collection of houses and green spaces and looked exactly like any number of housing estates everywhere else. In one direction was the village of Leixlip and at the other end of the estate it was all just fields (since developed in our most recent property boom).

The place was, and is, a dormitory town. Growing up the only real industry I remember was a meat processing plant (now replaced on the same site by a factory making printer cartridges). I remember in primary school during warm weather when the wind blew a certain direction we’d have to close all the windows to keep out the smell. Most parents that worked travelled into Dublin to do so and growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s there was always a fair smattering of employed and unemployed parents around, there was never really a sense of one part of town being all that much better than another, we were all just in the same shite together.

My problem with the place when it comes to writing something now is that it was always somewhere defined in relation to something else. For anyone in Dublin being from Leixlip meant I was a culchie, for anyone from the rest of Kildare, and the country beyond it, I was a Dub. Neither really applied, and that’s appropriate for the town too. It was always in that no-mans-land between town and country, it’s in that bland commuter belt that says everything and nothing. Growing up that didn’t really register all that often, playing football matches against others (other Kildare towns in GAA, as we were in the County Kildare leagues, and other Dublin schools as we were included in the Dublin region for schools sports) you would be slated as either a Dub or a culchie depending on the opposition. Meeting cousins from counties Tipperary and Clare usually resulted in the question ‘How are things up in Dublin?’ In either case it was always difficult to put your finger on what, and where exactly, Leixlip was but as myself and my friends and family all grew up there it didn’t really matter.

Later on as the sphere of people I know expanded it became a question I couldn’t answer. People from Dublin seemed to have a well-defined sense of where they were and where they were from, talking about different schools or sporting clubs. In my case I went to the only school in the town and when I did play sports it was in the only club in the town, the idea of being part of something else just didn’t seem to exist. Likewise, and something that struck me more, were people from other towns in Ireland. But these seemed to be very strange towns, towns where people seemed to know who they were, had a character and an identity. It was here that the identity-void at the heart of my own home town crept up on me.

The town really was just a small village and housing estates, all the big supermarkets were in neighbouring towns, we didn’t have a swimming pool (and possibly still don’t) and the idea of even a cinema was laughable.

As I said, my home town is, in essence, a small village street surrounded by housing estates, and that’s basically it (with the addition in later years of a couple of large multinationals) where nearly everything seems geared to getting you into Dublin as quickly and as easily as possible, roads, rail, shops, colleges, jobs. Even after all this time I still can’t put my finger on exactly what my home town is. I could call it a dormitory town for Dublin but that still doesn’t seem enough, what is the place, what are the characters of the people there like in relation to people from other places?

I don’t want to get all psychogeographical on the subject but what does growing up and living in a town like this do to you, especially in comparison to someone from somewhere else?

So this is where the writing comes back in. I’ve decided that my next attempt at writing a novel will be set in a (slightly) fictionalised version of my home town. This isn’t my way of settling any scores or having a go at people who pissed me off, just seeing how a story set in somewhere like this will differ from a story set in either a city or small rural town or village setting. Again it’ll be a crime story and I already have the first few threads of the plot worked out, just need to put more work into it and start getting something down on paper. I’ll start this when I’ve finished my revisions on my previous effort and have sent enough of it out to agents and publishers and I’m in that hole between submissions and when the rejections start to land, as opposed to the long silences from others who can’t be bothered with a cut-n-paste rejection email, ah well.

I’m always wary when people say a particular book is an attempt to explore something, specifically it it’s an attempt to explore a larger social point. I worry that if you set out to explore something you lose sight of trying to write a good book. The vogue in Ireland over the last few years has been the idea that someone needs to write the great novel of the end of the Celtic Tiger. Many have tried and posterity will be the judge of whether any have succeeded. My own theory is that the good novels are those where a particular theme being explored is something that came about subconsciously, or even accidentally. A good writer setting a story in the here and now will explore these events but will let the story take its course without the supposed theme overpowering him or her. I do think it’s only after the fact that someone can say such and such a theme is being explored, leave that to the reviewers and the commentators.

I do intend my own exploration alright but it’s a personal thing I suppose, so whether it fails or succeeds it’ll do so only as a story, not as a contemplation on whatever, blah, blah, blah.

I’ve always loved history and live in the inner city of Dublin and know that the street I live on dates back to almost medieval times. I know from photographs that the development I live in replaced earlier slums which grew out of houses built in what was known as the Dutch-Billy style possibly brought over by Huguenot settlers. I can walk around the city and think about what happened on each street and what they once looked like, who lived and who died. The land the house I grew up in was built on had formerly been farmland and had probably always been farmland. The patterns of old field boundaries were still visible around the estate from older trees that hadn’t been removed or front walls that would occasionally subside as they were built over incompletely filled in ditches. That space had been a blank before the houses arrived.

So no matter where I am now or where I’ll be in the future I’ll always be a child of the suburbs, that peculiar no-mans-land between the two major forces of Irish life, the city and the country. I don’t know if it means much, if anything, but I’ve felt it as a gap in nearly everything I’ve tried to write so like a scab I have to start picking at it. And like picking at a scab it’ll most likely make things worse but fuck it, it’ll annoy the shit out of me if I don’t.

 

 

 

Colour Clash

Writing, and writing something that you actually want someone else to read really involves playing two games. The first is when you actually do the writing, sitting down, concentrating to the exclusion of almost everything else, shutting the world out and putting everything you have into it, then going back again and again and again trying to make it better, almost like trying to beat your previous high score. The second game is when you want to get others to read what you’ve written, by attracting the interest of an agent or a publisher and releasing your story out into the wilds.

Self-publishing is something I might come back to another time. Here I’m just looking at playing the game that attracts the interest of a traditional agent or publisher.

Again, like the first game, you can treat this like a video game. Now I’m not talking about the modern, immersive worlds of games like Worlds of Warcraft, or the Grand Theft Auto versions, I’m talking about the old-school arcade games, or the type of game I would have played as a young lad on my ZX Spectrum. The sort of game where you battle through increasingly tougher levels to advance, and where you die regularly and have to go right back to the start. As I continue to try to get published this world seems more and more like the world of the arcade games I thought I’d long grown out of.

Like the arcade games you start off not knowing too much, a basic idea of the controls, what buttons you press for what, that sort of thing. You plough along blindly and then, over time, you start to think you’re getting the hang of it. You feel your submission chapters are as tight as they can be while giving a good flavour of the story as a whole. You think your synopsis is as good as those infuriating bastards can be, again you hope that whoever reads it will get what you’re trying to do and hopefully it will click with them. So you battle through the level of the game, killing the bad guys along the way, shooting the aliens or kicking the snot out of the monsters, whatever. So you send off your submission to an agent or a publisher, or even when you enter a competition, and you wait. This part is largely out of your hands but is the part where your submission meets the end-of-level boss. In all of these games each level was completed when you defeated and end-of-level boss, normally a bigger and badder version of whatever you’ve been battling before.

Invariably you’re defeated by this end-of-level boss and you die. So you’re sent back to the start, you insert another coin, and you start again.

And that’s what it’s like.

No matter how much you try to ignore your submissions once they’re out there, in the back of your head is that little voice whispering maybe, maybe this is the one that will work, like in a game you hope this particular frantic set of button-pushes will be enough to defeat the end-of-level boss. For the sake of your own mental well-being you try to ignore this particular voice, it always helps if it can be shouted down by the other voices in your head and thankfully as a writer they’re normally not in short supply.

But it’s when that rejection email arrives, or a long enough period of time has passed when you realise no response is forthcoming and your submission isn’t worth the cost of an email (now there’s a subject for another post), you get that little computerised death scene, the words GAME OVER appear in front of you and the screen goes dark, only to be replaced by the INSERT COIN message and you try again.

That’s kind of what it’s like, every rejection is like a little death, and not the good little death (check your French people!), where effectively you’re sent right back to the beginning and have to start again.

And it really is a colossal, dispiriting, pain in the arse when that happens, you realise all the work you’ve put in to get that far has been wasted, that you’re no further along than you were when you started and that nothing you’ve done will, in any way, help you when you try again because you have to start right back at the beginning like everyone else just starting out.

Maybe you think you’ve figured out where you went wrong when fighting the end-of-level boss, maybe someone gives you some tips (No, you aim for the third head from the left and press UP, UP, LEFT, LEFT, RIGHT) and you go back into the game feeling more confident? Maybe the more you play the better you get? Or maybe you get sick to death of it and go and play another game instead, that sit-on-your-arse-and-watch-nothing-but-reality-TV-for-the-rest-of-your-days game does look enticing at times like this.

But if you’re a sick, deluded fool like me you take your stack of coins, line them up and prepare to insert them into the slot again and again until you’ve beaten that end-of-level boss, or you eventually run out of coins, who knows?

Now one of the many lessons I’ve learned from friends of mine who have signed with agents and/or been published is that like all of these arcade games once you beat the end-of-level boss you haven’t won the game, you just move up to the next level. If you win the get-an-agent level you just go on to the get-published level and after that you have the promote-book level and of course the get-second-book-published level and so on and so on. And you’re never really sure if you can ever win the game, or if the levels keep recycling themselves over and over again and you just hope you can make it onto the high score screen.

Who the fuck knows?

Incidentally I’ve called this particular post Colour Clash as a reminder of the days playing games on my trusty old ZX Spectrum where, due to what was probably a design flaw, each square of eight by eight pixels on the screen could only contain two colours and when a third colour entered the eight by eight square, for example your character walks across the screen in front of some background scenery, you got a horrible blocky mess that could make it impossible to see what was going on. To stretch the analogy of this post to almost breaking point I could always claim that what I’ve been encountering with my submissions has been the equivalent of colour clash, that the material is perfectly good, but it just doesn’t mesh with the people I’ve submitted it to, that all I’ve been doing is running into colour clash and eventually I’ll hit the right person and it’ll all be grand.

. . . Well that’s what I try to tell myself anyway. . .

Here’s a selection of GAME OVER scenes, now just imagine them in email form

That time of year again . . . .

Right, before I begin let me stress that this is not, repeat not, a blog referring to the Christian festival celebrating the birth of Christ, the fact that it accidentally coincides with the ages old mid-winter celebrations and the birth of various pre-Christian deities is just the luck of the draw and not an intentional attempt to steal their thunder. For anyone interested in such things I can only repeat the words of the late-lamented Irish Comedian, Dave Allen, ‘May your God go with you’.

No, I’m talking about what’s now the cross denominational, social festival of Christmas where we’re beaten over the head from almost before the end of Halloween with various messages, liminal and subliminal imploring us to buy more because not to do so makes us all bad people.

By now we’re probably all suffering from Christmas fatigue and can’t wait for that one-day binge of eating and drinking to be past us so we can try to clear our heads and start all over again. Yet every year we repeat the same old complaints, Christmas is just for kids, Christmas is too commercialised, Christmas is just a lie to make us all go out and spend money, etc, etc. and as someone without kids it would be very easy for me to side with this camp and sit at home grumbling and wait for the crowd to leave the pubs and the shops so I can once more visit these places without the risk of being run over.

Yes, I agree with some, Christmas is indeed a lie (I refer again to my non-religious caveat at the beginning, no burning torches in my direction please), it is a lie, but it is a necessary lie.

Despite what we all try to tell ourselves we do spend an inordinate amount of time thinking just of ourselves, running all our choices and options through the filter of how it will affect us first and others later. Yet the idea of Christmas, the ‘Christmas Spirit’ if you like is to force us to actually put others first, even if it is just for a few days of the year.

Now what I’m talking about here isn’t necessarily the consumerist Christmas, though this is often the language through which we express our feelings at this time of the year, I’m actually talking about the sentimental, story-like, dare I say it ‘Hollywood’ Christmas that we see in stories all around us. From soppy Christmas versions of various TV shows to regularly updated versions of A Christmas Carol, innumerable Christmas movies and topping it all the glorious It’s A Wonderful Life, we’re beaten over the head with the idea that Christmas is a time to embrace those around us, go that extra step for a stranger and generally, for even one day, treat people how, with any decency, they should be treated all year round.

It sounds so easy, it sounds so simple but if it is then why don’t we do it all the time?

Maybe it’s my love of crime fiction or fiction in general that looks towards the darker aspects of the human soul or maybe it’s my own outlook on life, but I find it almost impossible to go even one day without seeing one example of man behaving in a shitty manner to man (of course in that gender neutral, 21st Century kinda way, I mean man as encompassing all mankind, the good lady folk aren’t immune). So maybe this is why I actually like Christmas, the soppy, sentimental Christmas to be honest, maybe it’s the world’s way of grabbing us all by the short-n-curlies, pressing our faces against the glass, forcing us to look outside ourselves and shouting HEY, SHIT-FOR-BRAINS, HOW ABOUT YOU ACTUALLY THINK OF OTHERS AND ACTUALLY DO SOMETHING NICE, FOR ONCE, or words to that affect, probably with even more swearing but you get my drift.

So what if we express this by going out and spending money, so what if many of the gifts are unwanted and soon forgotten, it means that for that brief moment, that tiny little flash of time, we were thinking about someone else. What the sentimental Christmas does in the best way is beat us over the head with the idea that Christmas is a time when we actually do this, when we can actually be better people, even for a little while, and the challenge is for us to behave like this all year round.

The sentimental Christmas doesn’t sneak up on us anymore, though it’s usually hidden in the crowd of consumerism, but it will sap us over the head all the same, probably take our money and leave us dazed in a darkened alley somewhere, and if it does its job right the first thing we do when we come to isn’t to bemoan our bruises, it’s to run to the important people in our lives and, even temporarily, try to let them know what they mean to us.

It can be a dark, lonely, miserable world out there at the best of times, we need something that forces us to think of others, to draw us all together, physically or emotionally, even for a little while, and huddle together against the cold.

To finish there’s only one place to go, the one, the only, one of the greatest movies of any genre of all time, It’s A Wonderful Life. For those who haven’t seen this at least a hundred times I ask what the fuck are you up to?

For myself I intend to sit back and bask in its utter magical brilliance, though I may have something in my eye for the next 130 minutes.

To paraphrase Bill & Ted, Be excellent to one another, and see you all in the new year when, don’t worry, the turgid misery will return

Oh and if anyone out there is struggling for gift ideas all I can say is visit your local bookshop and buy books, that is all, just buy books.

Heroes?

Heroes, do we still have heroes anymore? Are we too grown up, too cynical, too knowing to call anyone a hero, does the idea even exist outside the worlds of movies or fiction or comics?

What about literary heroes. As a writer, and I’m sure something I hold in common with other writers, I have writers I admire, and yes I would call them my literary heroes. Writers I look up to because of their skill, their dedication and the fearlessness with which they engage with their subject matter. All the while as I try to write they sit on my shelves looking down on me, whispering in the silence that if I want to call myself a real writer I have to be willing to go as far as they went, put as much on the line as they did, be willing to be as brave and as courageous as they were with what they put on paper.

But what about literary characters, are any of those heroes?

I’m always reluctant to call the main characters in anything I write the ‘hero’, it sounds like they should be running around with a fedora and a wisecrack, besides, none of them ever do anything particularly ‘heroic’, I always like the idea that someone does something wrong and their life unravels as a result, much more interesting than the indestructible hero with the chiselled jaw, the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and the dame simpering at his feet.

A friend of mine prompted this. She happened to be telling me one day that her favourite book is Jane Eyre, she was rereading it for the first time in years, and that the character of Jane Eyre is still a hero if her’s. Now while I don’t know the book that well and rely on film adaptations to be honest for my knowledge of it I can see why this character is so admirable, her intelligence and strength of character are certainly attributes to admire, and knowing my friend I can see aspects of Jane in her, see why this particular character would appeal to her.

So what about me, do I have a literary character hero, is there some character out there that I admire more than others? Can I pretend that I’m too cool for such an idea, that as a writer these things are beyond me? Thankfully not.

Most of the books I read tend to be one-offs and while certain characters stick in my mind, the unnamed narrator of Beckett’s The Unnameable, the lost souls of the Philadelphia dive bars from the world of David Goodis or the equally lost denizens of Georges Simenon’s romans dur struggling in their world in which one mistake has caused their lives to descend into misery, or where they try to escape from lives that have closed around them like traps, and of course not forgetting the eternal losers in the smoke filled bars of Patrick Hamilton’s world. Don’t get me started on the protagonists of Richard Yates’ brilliant books, all starting off well and going downhill faster than an Olympic luge. And yes, I do see a pattern but at this moment in time I’m sitting in a chair not lying on a couch so we’ll let that one float on by for the moment if you don’t mind.

Admirable as all of these characters are in their own way I couldn’t really count them as heroes, much as I would sympathise with them and wish them well as they try to snatch one small victory from life’s defeats I still wouldn’t call them my heroes.

Thinking over the idea of a literary character as a hero I eventually realised mine was a literary type, specifically in two series of books, with the honourable mention of a third. Each of these characters inhabit the same basic characteristics and are all essentially variations on the same theme, and while many have imitated them over the years I don’t think this character has been better defined than in these examples.

The versions of the same character I’m talking about are Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Derek Raymond’s nameless Detective Sergeant in the Factory series of books and the mention goes to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series set in Nazi Germany.

For most Philip Marlowe is the embodiment of the Private Eye, fedora, mac, cigarettes, bourbon and wise-cracks, Humphrey Bogart eyeing up the dames as they saunter into his office, yadda, yadda, yadda. Even if you’ve never seen Bogart as Marlowe (and why the fuck haven’t you!) you know the type, and Bernie Gunther is very much a carbon copy of same. Indeed if your crime novel includes a private detective and isn’t set in a country house or cruise liner a la Christie, then chances are your main character is a version of what I’ve described. But it isn’t the wise-cracking street-smart Shamus that interests me, it’s another aspect of their character, and one the three examples I’ve picked share in spades.

These characters exhibit something beyond a world weariness, to me it’s an inherent sadness, sadness at the world around them, the sadness of knowing that the more they learn about the world the worse it gets. These are characters that live in worlds without pity, without justice, without love, everyone they meet is lying, corrupt, or just pure evil in their own way. But it’s the relentlessness that I admire, knowing just how shit the world is they choose to go on, they know that the world will not be a better place when they finish, they know they will not put things to right but they go on, hoping that in their own small way they can let a little chink of light penetrate the darkness, even for a moment.

Chandler’s Marlowe is the oldest of the three, and serves as the template for this kind of hero. It’s no coincidence that in an earlier version I believe the character was called Malory after the creator of Le Morte D’Arthur, the classic tale of chivalric knights in search of the holy grail, because in his own way Marlowe, and the Detective Sergeant, and Bernie Gunther are knights, they are men out of time on their own quests, eternally seeking for something they will never find. I see these figures as romantic heroes, not in the sense of chocolates and flowers and jumping in a lake fully clothed (if you’re a fan of BBC mini-series), no I mean romantic in my own reading of the original sense of the word.

The romantic knights in their quest to find the grail weren’t necessarily looking for a cup (or a bloodline or any of that shite); I even believe some of the early tales refer to grails, not just one. The quest for the grail was a quest for the divine, for perfection, for an ideal, an ideal that they can never find because it doesn’t exist in this world. I’ve always felt that a cynic has to begin life as a romantic, someone with the concept of the ideal but who realises that this ideal cannot exist and now sees the world around them as something tawdry and lacking because of the absence of this perfection that they may once have had a glimpse of but now forever remember. Marlowe to me is such a knight, transplanted from medieval Europe to the Los Angeles of the 1940s, like the cosmic balance to Mark Twain’s story. Marlowe tries to live by his code, to live with what are now alien concepts such as truth, justice and decency but everywhere he looks he sees these ideas corrupted, everywhere is a corruption of the ideals he tries to cling on to.

I recently reread Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, not one of his best and one I haven’t read in years. This book does display the flaws that others have pointed out in Chandler’s work, namely that the plotting can get a bit confusing and convoluted, though as always it is the character of Marlowe that keeps you interested. What I noticed this time is the all-pervading sadness in the book. Marlowe is hired to find a man’s missing wife, in doing so he discovers the body of another woman, the titular lady in the lake and the plot continues weaving both strands together until the finale. The sadness infects almost every line; it’s as if Marlowe knows that this will not end well, not for him the satisfaction of solving a crime or uncovering a murderer. As I said it’s the gradual revelation of the venality of the people he meets, the slow revelation that almost no one he encounters can even pass as a decent human being. This is also something I find in Simenon’s Maigret books, the cases are never solved triumphantly; he finishes every investigation almost regretting that he has found out what he has.

Chandler famously described the character of Marlowe in The Simple Art of Murder (1950):

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

That pretty much sums him up. But as I said it’s the almost unworldly aspect, the idea that he is a man out of time, the idea that he will hold on to his principles no matter what, knowing that what he is doing is essentially futile and meaningless. That to me is what makes him heroic.

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther is a more recent version of this hero but his stories take place in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Even more so that the Los Angeles of the 40s this is a great example of the hero trying to hold to his code in a world of horror. How more futile can it be to hold to such ideals in the horrific world of the Nazis, what’s the point in scraping out one iota of justice in this particular circle of hell? And yet he does it, he tries. Again it’s the self-knowledge of the character, realising that it is all completely futile, and being aware of it, that perversely in his own way makes him heroic.

The nameless Detective Sergeant of Derek Raymond’s Factory series adds a more modern slant to these two errant knights. For him it is the mean streets of Thatcher’s Britain, where famously there is ‘No such thing as Society’. The Detective Sergeant is assigned to investigate crimes that no one cares about. People die, unwanted and uncared for so it is to the unwanted of the Metropolitan Police Force that they turn for answers, though nobody really cares whether the cases are solved or not. Raymond’s hero perfectly encapsulates the world of noir fiction in one beautiful, perfect sentence

‘For the span of my own lifetime I would always arrive too late’

(I Was Dora Suarez, Derek Raymond, 1990)

In his two masterpieces, He Died With His Eyes Open and I Was Dora Suarez the Detective Sergeant investigates the murder of two unwanted people, one a failed writer confining his thoughts to a series of taped confessions (a thinly veiled self-portrait of Raymond himself) and the other an unwanted immigrant working as a prostitute. In both cases it is the compassion of the Detective Sergeant for the two victims that shines through, even though he knows that the resolution of the investigation will bring no justice and that no one bar him will even care. As the Detective Sergeant prepares to confront Dora’s murderer he says a silent prayer to her, acknowledging that he, like everyone else, has failed her in life and hoping that in some way his actions now will bring her some peace.

Despite his prayer and in common with Marlowe the Detective Sergeant is well aware of the futility of his actions, what he does will not change the world, no one cares and they are often blunt in telling him that, yet he tries in a vain attempt to atone for the worlds failings. It always reminds me of a line I remember from a television show years ago, I can’t remember what it was, but the line stuck with me, it may even have been borrowed from something else, I don’t know (ok a quick Google has now revealed the line comes from Joss Whedon’s Angel, ok not the great classic work I was hoping for but I’ll stick by it, I always liked that line and the guy can sure write):

‘When nothing we do matters all that matters is what we do’

So that’s it really, my literary hero is not one but two characters, but basically two sides of the same coin. Philip Marlowe and the nameless Detective Sergeant, both prowling their own mean streets, both trying to shine even a little light in a world that’s long since gone dark, both failing, but trying again. Both knowing that there is no reward, in this world or the next but they do what they do because there is no reward, because it is the right thing to do, and for no other reason than that.

(I don’t know, maybe I should just invent a superhero, indestructible, infallible, omniscient, leaping tall buildings, saving the day, walking off into the sunset with his best gal as the credits start to roll, but where’s the fun in that?)

Incidentally, speaking of walking off into the sunset. I’ll leave you with an image, possibly one of the greatest images in cinematic history, from John Ford’s The Searchers. While John Wayne doesn’t exactly fit into the mould of my literary heroes as described above (neither of them would have made a pro-Vietnam War movie like The Green Berets which famously ends with Wayne standing on a beach in Vietnam looking out to a glorious sunset, even though Vietnam doesn’t have any westerly facing beaches) the last scene of this movie does demonstrate how the hero does exist outside of the rest of the world, my own heroes exist outside a rotten and corrupt society while Wayne’s character feels his violence is more attuned to the wilderness, not the domestic world of the settlers. Either way, it’s easy to see my two heroes walking away, alone, as they know the rest of the world is one in which they do not belong.

Here I go again

So here I go again, once again, trying to roll that rock back up that hill and write a new book.

sisyphus-1549

For someone who’s in that no man’s land where you don’t have an agent, publisher or books on the shelf, you’re left with a few options when you’ve finished a book, or in my case two.

The first is to go back and rewrite, to see if you can get your completed book into some better condition than it was when you finished it. This isn’t without merit. Every time I look over something I’ve written I see places where it could be better or things I don’t like anymore so rewriting has a value. However rewriting can become an endless cycle. Without some outside direction it’s possible to keep rewriting forever, endlessly telling yourself that the book isn’t finished yet because you keep going back and tinkering with it. Like a literary version of the Forth Bridge you get to the end and it’s time to go back and start again (though I believe, fact fans, that they’ve now started using a new paint on the Forth Bridge that doesn’t require constant repainting but for the sake of argument we’ll stick with the older version, or insert the name of a constantly repainted bridge at your leisure). Constantly rewriting is also a way of putting off that day when you send your book out into the world and look for approval, you can’t submit a book and say in the email that this may be draft 36 but if they email back you can now send them draft 48. Essentially you need to shit or get off the pot, to put it bluntly. There is only so much you can do on your own. I truly don’t believe that an agent will reject your book because they feel it could do with another draft. As has happened to people I know the agents have come back to the writers, offered encouragement and advice and requested the rewrites and moved on from there. Everything they get will be rough in one form or another. You give it the best shot you can and send it out, the alternative is you keep rewriting and rewriting and fill your life with unfinished manuscripts.

The second alternative is to move on to another book, this is what I prefer to do. This probably comes from the way I write. I’m a planner, a plotter, a thinker, a note-taker. When I get an idea for a story I generally think through things like the characters, the plot, even the general feel of the story before I start writing. I normally know the beginning and the end and most of what happens in between and why. This makes the process of writing much easier for me as I’m effectively typing something I already know instead of sitting staring blankly at the screen wondering what comes next. For this reason I like to move on to another story, a short story maybe or in this case another novel.

Unfortunately this isn’t as easy as it sounds. I prefer to write in the first person, to get inside the main character’s head and tell the story from there. I heard the term ‘voice-book’ used by someone else and I think I’ll borrow it. I write voice-books, but it can mean writing them can be uncomfortable places to be, even if you know exactly what’s going to happen and can type away as fast as you can without having to pause to worry about what happens next.

Take my new story for example. It’s about a man whose girlfriend has been murdered. I’m roughly 10,000 words in but basically the work so far encompasses the initial shock, grief and despair, not a pleasant place to be. As the story unfolds a secret will come to light that will change how both the protagonist and his girlfriend are seen and sets the story down a particular path, but that’s another days work, I need to get through these parts first before I can move on. I prefer the linear approach, start, middle, end, as there are often little things that creep in that colour the text as it goes on. That, as they say, is the plan anyway. If I keep on track I should have a finished draft of this new book by the end of the year. My target is the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair competition which is useful not only for the chance it offers but because I work much better with a target, a deadline, or to get all Chandlerish for a moment I don’t know what to do until that man walks through the door with a gun and points it at my head.

There is, of course, a third option, that is to throw my hands in the air, admit I’m a failure, wipe my hard-drive and never write another word. Maybe I could take up a more socially acceptable hobby, like alcoholism, or cow tipping? Despite the occasional pangs I’m not ready to be a failed writer just yet. The word ‘failed’ implies finality, a full stop. Perhaps in my case the term ‘failing-writer’ is more appropriate, though of course that leaves me in the ‘fail again, fail better’ category and I’m always happy in such company.

Working to a plan and a schedule as I do is, of course, just a pale imitation of the master of working in this manner, Georges Simenon, the great European crime writer and one of the greatest writers of them all. Reading his books is a great pleasure for me but also a humbling experience, especially when you see the pace at which the man churned out such fantastic work. If you haven’t read any of his books I urge you to immediately turn off this drivel and get your hands on them, especially the non-Inspector Maigret stories. Someday, if I feel I have the chops to do it, I intend to write a blog post about Simenon’s work, maybe a series dedicated to each of my favourite crime writers? But not today (quickly scribbles ideas for future blog posts).

Simenon is a legendary writer, as Luc Sante put it in the introduction to The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, nyrb, 2005;

The legend of Georges Simenon expresses itself in statistics: four hundred books, ten thousand women, half a million pencils, some exalted quantity of pipes.

And of course if I could go to that hole in the ground having written a percentage of the books he has I would be a very happy corpse, a percentage of the number of women would also be very much appreciated as you’re offering (where are the dudes with the horns, cloven feet and contracts when you need them?), though I’m pretty ambivalent about the pencils to be honest and the pipes you can keep.

The speed at which he wrote was astonishing, I always remember a picture taken from a biography I read showing a page from one of his calendars. Carefully marked off were nine days for writing, a pause, and then three days for revision. AND THAT WAS IT. Many writers have struggled for much longer time and completed something not even a fraction as good as the books Simenon could just knock out. So every time I start to plan out a book I have that page from his calendar in my head. Even if I had the time to do so and didn’t have to worry about little things like a full time job I know I’d never be able to finish a book in that short a time.

calendar (1)

But it’s like someone who plays five-a-side football with his mates looking at YouTube videos of the Brazilian team of 1982, sometimes it’s important to sit back and admire those who raised the bar, even though you might never get within a million miles of it you know you have something to aim for.

You can read shite, aim low and try to copy it but can you look yourself in the eye while doing it?

So I start pushing that rock back up that hill again. And though the top of the hill is the standard set by those I regard as great and though I know I’ll never reach the top of that hill I’ll keep pushing.

. . . It sure beats the shite out of sitting at home every evening watching reality TV now doesn’t it?

Research

Research, that seems to be a big thing doesn’t it, research? Is it just homework for adults, something we have to do but won’t make any actual difference to what we achieve or is it important?

Especially in genre fiction, crime and historical fiction more than most, research seems to be a big thing. I can understand why it matters in historical fiction. If the protagonist of my novel is on his way to swop bon-mots with Oscar Wilde over a glass or two of absinthe then he or she really shouldn’t be checking their mobile for text messages. I’ve always loved history and read non-fiction books on various historical events and people on a regular basis but couldn’t class myself as an expert on any of them. I know these experts exist and I know the online comment world is full of ‘helpful’ suggestions of historical inaccuracies in books, plays, films and television shows, oh how the creators must love them! I’m sure we’ve all spotted such errors ourselves, you’re reading a book and something just doesn’t feel right, the characters wouldn’t have done that or said that, you feel. You might be right, you might be wrong but in either case the spell of the book is broken, temporarily at least.

Though what I really hate is the other extreme, someone who has obviously spent months if not years researching a particular historical period and will stop at nothing unless they can squeeze the maximum amount of said research into their book. I remember reading a particular book set in the 19th Century and commented to a friend at the time that I felt that hacking off at least two hundred pages would have greatly improved the story. TWO HUNDRED PAGES, and that was just a rough guess. The book was so full of detail that I forgot what the story was meant to be about and by the time I finished it I was beyond caring.

In the world of crime fiction there are those who go to great lengths to get specifics right, especially when it comes to forensic science. Now I can understand this to a degree, after all there’s so many stories involving the world of forensics than an error would shine out and be quickly picked up on. Likewise in the world of guns, an almost pornographic level of detail can be entered into when describing guns, different calibres, makes, sizes, colours even. Again the writer runs the risk of being ridiculed if they get the details wrong. After all, if the hero is an international hit-man for hire and doesn’t know their Glocks from their Smith and Wesson’s it won’t work. I can understand that.

But apart from the technical or historical detail there seems to be an interest in researching all aspects of a story, getting as much real life detail about a subject as possible before putting a word on the page. My initial reaction to this is usually:

IT’S FICTION. YOU’RE WRITING FICTION.

If you want to write non-fiction then go and do it. If you want to be a journalist then, again, go and do it. If you’re writing crime fiction then sit down and write FICTION. Now I’m not saying ignore any and all research, I’m just saying that there is enough information out there, readily available, so you don’t need to be asking the Gardaí or local police force how they do what they do and while you’re at it can you lock me up in a cell overnight for the craic.

There are newspapers, news shows on television and radio, shelves and shelves of true crime books, and have you heard about this new thing called the internet? Now I’m not really trying to be sarcastic, I just think there is enough information readily available, to hand, for free in a lot of cases, to provide the fuel to kick-start your story. I also think it’s a bit of a waste of time to ask the Gardaí, or your local police force, to provide information to you as research when they should be out doing other things.

It’s like this. Take for example the novel I’m working on now. I’ve just started but it’s basically about a man whose girlfriend has been murdered, how he reacts, how he deals with it and how he tries to live with it, all the while the investigation into her murder is on-going. I won’t go into any more detail but you get the basic idea. Now if I wanted to get a direct line of research on this how would I go about it? Would I ask the Gardaí the specific details of what happens in a murder investigation? Possibly. They might be very helpful detailing the procedures and duties of the investigation team, or they might tell me to fuck off and stop wasting their time as they have real investigations to carry out. So without the specific detail what am I to do?

Likewise, if I want to get the inside view of a murder, how does it feel to have a loved one taken from you in such a sudden and brutal way, what do I do? Do I read the newspapers, find out the latest such victim and go up and knock on their door, explain that I’m writing a crime novel and ask them to share the worst moment in their life with me? Bollocks I do.

Now I’ve intentionally chosen to write stories that aren’t police procedurals, in this case the investigation will be shown from the outside, so I’ll avoid the need to have detailed knowledge of a murder investigation. A cheat, well a little cheat perhaps, but my interest in the story is seeing how things happen through the eyes of the living victim, I don’t care how these operations are run, other books have been much better at detailing this work, I don’t feel the need to try to copy them.

Likewise with the victim, I couldn’t excuse asking someone to share their real life trauma for me to try to turn it into entertainment, to try to make money off it.

That’s why I prefer the secondary sources, news stories, occasionally true crime books. I just want to get the general feeling in my head, a general idea of what the experiences were like, I can write from there.

This brings up another problem I have with research. Like I said it’s called fiction, if I wanted to write fact I’d have become a journalist (stop laughing at the back). I like to just have some general facts about an event if I’m to write about it, too much and it becomes fixed in my head, I can’t do anything with it unless I copy it verbatim. The same thing applies to stories people tell me. It’s a fairly common thing, someone tells a writer a story and they go off and turn it into something else, a short story or a full blown novel. Fair play to them. I’ve tried things like that before, taken little stories I’ve heard or taken people I know and try to turn them into fiction. It doesn’t work, not with me anyway. The more detail I put in about a real person or event, the more it becomes fixed in space and time, any attempt by me to mould it into something new just collapses in a heap, it doesn’t work. Of course I’ve included real things I’ve heard, real people, real stories, in things I’ve written, but I can only use them sparingly, as colour to the broader story, nothing more, I can’t make them work as anything more than a little aside.

I’m sure other writers can take such things and do wonders with them, like a chef with a handful of random ingredients, some can make delicious dishes, I just end up with muck that needs to be thrown out.

The upside of this is, I suppose, for anyone I know, that I’m unlikely to take anything you tell me and turn it into a story. If you tell me that A met B and they did something to C then unless I report it as exactly as I can it’s useless to me, I can’t make it work any other way, it’s fixed. So I actually have to sit down and try to make stuff up on my own. The people in my life, for good or ill, are not here to provide background information for me. Basically if you don’t want to run the risk of me writing about something that happened to you tell me about it.

Now this doesn’t mean that I don’t get ideas from what I see around me, but that seems to be from secondary sources. Generally the best thing anyone with aspirations to write can do is keep their eyes open, there’s enough shit going down in the real world to keep us in material for generations.

There are fantastic writers out there who do the exact opposite to what I’ve been saying, been very successful with the types of stories that require great detail and intimate knowledge of the world’s they’re describing. I’ve been lucky, to an extent, so far, the stories I’ve wanted to write have never required these levels of research, I’ve tried to keep my stories small, intimate, I try to go inside the skull instead of outside into the big bad world.

What I want from research is to give me a framework. Once I get the general idea about what I’m going to write about I’m fine, as long as I don’t deviate too far from the real documented truth of a subject that’s more than enough for me.

I like to think of research as like scaffolding around the building. You need scaffolding of one kind of another when constructing a building but the whole point is that once the building is finished you take the scaffolding away and forget about it. Irrespective of how much scaffolding was required or how complicated it was once the building is finished you have to take it away. If I’m looking at a building and all I’m thinking about is the amount of scaffolding then the building fails

And here’s the thing, take two writers, both ending their story on death row in a prison in, say, Texas. One writer has travelled to Texas, spoken to the guards, managed to get a look inside the prison, seen the prisoners and how they live. The other has a vague idea of what death row would look like, based on movies, some documentaries, and a couple of books. Now unless you’re one of the relatively few people who have seen this death row you’re not going to be able to tell the difference in their work. You’ll make your judgement based on who you feel described a place you’ve never been better, essentially who is the better writer. And maybe that’s enough.

Well, that’s my excuse anyway.

(Though, of course, if I even got my researching shit together I’ve a KILLER idea for a historical crime novel, . . ., ah well)

My Story – My Eurydice

I was very fortunate recently to have a short story of mine published in the Irish Independent (27th July 2013) as part of the Hennessy New Irish Writing Awards.

You can read the story by following the link below. Unfortunately the structure of the Irish Independent website means you can’t actually tell the story is by me. Well it is, honest. Those who saw the newspaper on the day can attest to the photograph grimacing from the lower corner of the page (a hastily taken selfie)

To the suggestion that I should have smiled in the picture I can only comment that it would have put more readers off, imagine looking at that over your morning coffee!!

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story.

http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/myeurydice-29452709.html