Category Archives: Writing

The Best Non-Books on Writing – Part 1

BY JON PILL

When I was doing the series of post on the best books for writers to read, I polled my pals about the sort of books they hunted up when feeling a little autodidactic. The books made the previous list but there were a lot of responses along the lines of “this website on the neterweb” or “some lecture series I watched” or “a human’s blog that I read once”.

I shoved those links into a separate document and meant to write them up as a final post to the books articles. That didn’t happen for complicated reasons (lazy, disorganised). But I’ve brought my extraordinary faculties of sedulisation to bear on the bits of fluff that serve me as a brain and sorted them into something resembling a useful list.

Here is that list. Many thanks to those who suggested links, and if I’ve missed something useful or interesting, stick it in the comments.

A lot of them just involve creative people talking about their own ways of creating, from the Ordinance Survey level of the ‘creative process’ through the fine detail of daily schedules down to the electron microscopic processes of choosing a word or punctuation marks.

I’ve split them up over a few posts starting with those links that are for eye reading:

Paris Review Interviews (The Paris Review website)

This huge archive of interviews with mostly 20th Century writers is free and contains hundreds of interviews on how writers have approached their works in general and whatever creative niggles were on their mind at the time of the interview.

It is a fabulous resource which you can access here, and if you suffer from literary tastes and read mostly Westerners then there’s a good chance your favourite authors have done an interview with the Review at some point.

Uncle Jim undiluted (Absolute Write Forum)

Fabulously pragmatic and unsentimental spec-fic hack James MacDonald (not to be confused with Dear Jim) set up this long running, wide-reaching, and hugely educational thread in which he throws out reading and writing exercises, his own personal brand of literary theory, guidance for novelists and short story writers, and information on the publishing industry.

This thread is one of the best places for the inexperienced and unpublished author to start. It is highly unsystematic though, and makes for good reading alongside Stephen King’s more structured On Writing, assuming King’s approach to work works for you.

You can find the thread with all the non-Jim posts boiled off here.

Writing About Writing (Blog)

Fitting in with Uncle Jim’s pragmatic, writing-is-a-craft-slash-job-and-18th-Century-ideas-about-the-artist-as-genius-are-perpetuated-by-morons-now-drop-and-give-me-1000-words-you-maggot approach, Writing About Writing is maintained by prolific blogger and floppy haired swear-machine Chris Brecheen, whose blog broadly fall into variations on ‘Write Every Day’ and ‘Pay Attention to Social Issues When Writing’. If that’s likely to trigger you, then maybe don’t click here.

Also, if you need a relentless pit-bull to remind you to put in some BIC time the Writing About Writing Facebook feed is a wonderful pun-factory 90% of the time, but does a great line in ‘Shouldn’t You Be Writing?’ memes.

Nico Muhly’s Blog (Blog)

If modern classical music is your jam, you will probably get more out of Nico Muhly’s blogs than I did. But it’s always interesting to hear from creatives at work and Muhly is a first-class human-being to spend some reading time with, regardless of your level of musical sophistication/babarism.

Read his ramblings here.

Guardian’s 10 Tips series (Guardian Online)

At the risk of giving away a great deal about my political leanings here I do have to recommend two series from the Guardian online.

Firstly, their 10 Tips series in which writers collect their wisdom into 10 pithy bits of advice. Will Self’s advice is a particular joy, and Elmore Leonard has gained a certain amount of memetic traction (find them here.)

The other is their series of articles in which writers either describe a typical or recent writing day (click here for that) Facinating to see how people organise their time, especially if you are the sort of person who loves a good life hack… speaking of which.

Lifehack.org

It’s not exactly about writing, but for ways of organising your life (so that you have the discipline, methods, and time management to actually do the writing you should be doing if you want to be a writer) there are few places on the internet that work better.

I’d recommend giving it a quick search for ‘Getting Things Done’ and ‘Bullet Journals’ to start with.

Click here to check them out.

I’ll follow up next week with a list of things to watch, and to listen to with your other earholes.

See ya then.

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My Top 40 Films

BY JON PILL

After Empire magazine Tweeted out Edgar Wright’s list of 40 favourite films, I have had conversations with several friends about what would make our own top 40 lists. Being perhaps of a more obsessive bent than some, I actually went away, sweated, strained and came up with mine.

The thing we all agreed on was that the list should be “favourite” films, not “best”, or “greatest”, or the films we most admire, or would most recommend. Just films that for whatever reason are the ones we loved regardless of more objective criteria.

The list is not in a definitive order thought there is a rough gradient in place and the number one spot is my number one. There are also films on here that might not be on another day, and several films which would take their place. There were also a lot of extremely difficult cuts.

But I am drifting into apology, without further ado the list:

My Top 40 Films

After Edgar Wright

  1. The Exorcist
  2. The Godfather
  3. Cool Hand Luke
  4. Casino Royale
  5. Singin’ in the Rain
  6. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
  7. A Muppet Christmas Carol
  8. Infernal Affairs
  9. Jurassic Park
  10. Silence of the Lambs
  11. Pitch Perfect
  12. The Hustler
  13. Rounders
  14. Fight Club
  15. American Psycho
  16. The Prestige
  17. The Guns of Navarone
  18. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  19. Memento
  20. Donnie Darko
  21. True Romance
  22. Skyfall
  23. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
  24. Se7en
  25. Wall Street
  26. Network
  27. Robocop
  28. A Clockwork Orange
  29. Bubba Ho-Tep
  30. Back to the Future
  31. Starship Troopers
  32. 2001: A Space Odyssey
  33. Top Hat
  34. The Princess Bride
  35. The Graduate
  36. Pan’s Labyrinth
  37. Goldeneye
  38. Hot Fuzz
  39. Layer Cake
  40. 633 Squadron

Your thoughts and lists in the comments please.

 

 

 

 

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Update: 12th July 2017

BY JON PILL

Goodness, gracious, where does it all go? The time that is. The time between tossing out the last fortnightly missive to Jim and the sudden tumbleweed silence of the last two months.

This is not a return to your regularly scheduled programming unfortunately. Work, by which I mean, writing work – off which I have been living for the last month or so – has slurped, and continues to slurp, up time and, far more importantly, energy. The blog, with its pious penury is fun to write and in its own way an important place for me to expend some of my creative soilings, but it does not cough up the necessary potatoes and so cannot take up too much of my time at the moment.

That said. I am hoping to get at least a skeleton posting schedule back up and running shortly. In the meantime, consider this a hopeful fluttering in the ribcage of the corpse.

Here’s what you’ve missed:

Writing

June was my most productive month possibly ever for writing, a little over 40k in words the vast majority of them for Poker Tube, where I was doing the live tournament reporting for the World Series of Poker.

I’ve also got back on the Buzzy Magazine roster and should have something out with them shortly on Season 7 of Game of Thrones which is airing this Sunday.

And I am continuing to write for Front Vision. But there is always room in my schedule if you need something written, or know someone who does. Blog posts, ghost writing, articles, erotic poetry… you name it I’ll write it. Get my email from the About part of the site and hit me up. I’m not proud and I gotta eat.

Reading

A lot of this, mostly disciplined until the last few weeks when my ‘Currently Reading’ pile exploded to sixteen books. Among them is Finnegans Wake which I continue alone, having been abandoned both by the GoodReads group and by Jim, both of whom were reading it with me.

Other key books include The Expanse series (on book 2 atm, not as good as the TV series, but fun) and the gigantic The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism which I suspect will be an endless frustration of pseudo-intellectual gabble about stuff which sociology, anthropology and psychology are all studying by looking at facts.

Much to Jim’s relief, I have also started American Pastoral.

Life

Keeping on top of writing, reading, and the various habits I try to keep going: eating well, meditating, exercising, socialising and various smaller things mostly aimed at keeping my mental health solid as the little grey cells will allow, all makes for a certain amount of cat juggling and ball herding.

While May was a fabulous month where everything lined up, the last month and a half-has been rather more chaotic and as a result, while specific things have been working it comes at a cost of other things. Word count goes up, exercise gets pushed out for example.

Being self-employed gives me plenty of flexibility to manage my time. But it is possible to get a little paralysed by the choices. I’m hoping that there will be a series of articles on time management in a little while, but not until I get back into practice what I intend to preach.

Till then there should be a few more Dear Jim’s and book reviews coming out. But they will probably remain sporadic at best for the next couple of months.

For everyone reading this, thanks for sticking with me. You’re my kind of sucker.

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Dear Jim . . . (#23) Re: Pregnant in the Head-Brain

BY JON PILL

Dear Jim,

Fertilisation of the womb requires that sperm are deposited high in the vagina of a woman close to the time of ovulation, says my university physiology textbook. You did ask about the earliest point of gestation right?

Oh, reread your letter. That makes more sense.

Gestation as metaphor for art has a heavy pedigree. I’ve just been corralling the Oxen of the Sun in Ulysses for the second time and apart from the fact that reading that section feels like a labour of a different sort, it also gives us the subtle imagery of Joyce’s avatar Stephen spouting off about exactly this gestatory idea of art, while an actual parturient shits out a wee bairn (or whatever the Guinness-swillers call them) on the upstairs landing.

You are more aware of these things that I am, but presumably the whole thing goes back at least to Plato’s apology for pederasty in The Symposium – in which ideas are treated as spermatozoa and young minds as vagina’s into which the semen of wisdom is to be deposited. Less is said about exactly where the beloved’s literal deposits are going, but that may have just been prudishness on the part of the translator.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth [… … …] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

I think gestation is a rather grandiloquent word for what art is and does (imagine a carpenter discussing the ‘gestation’ of your dining table). I rarely go in with as clear a sense as you do when putting together a story; or at least am unclear in a different way (no musical touchstones or trees in the mist). Most often I have an idea or a voice or a form I want to play with and I just start a game. The mucking about continues until there’s enough of a sense of what can be done with it all. Then the mucking about becomes mucking in as I get a sense of direction. Most often this point comes when I know how the whole thing will end.

To be more specific I might have to look at a given story. The story that has left the clearest tracks in the snow is probably one called Switches. That story came from my reading a story on the New Scientist website about Boltzmann brains* (with one of the greatest headlines ever). As I began to write a stream of consciousness for one of these things from the point of it coming into existence.

It ran out of steam and I needed a new thread, and I was reminded of two things: I had also previously read about the China brain on Wikipedia and the two ideas bonded. The third part of the story came from a Brian Greene book on types of multiverses in a chapter of which he describes the universes we might simulate in a computer.

A little more batting around and I had my format, plot and ending. The rest is history (or will be when I can find a damn place to publish it) as I sat down to hammer out Switches.

He who sees everything and founded the land, who knows (everything) and is wise in everything.

But you can probably go further back on that story. Those two brains and a universe were harvested as story materiel because of the types of things I like to to write about. For whatever reason, non-human consciousnesses stimulate my creative prostate, I can’t get enough of them. The great apes, GM-animals, insect swarms, computers, human hive-minds, clockwork synapses, Boltzmann brains its all fabulous grist.

To keep following the tracks of the gestating story-fetus: some of that interest can be traced back to my teenage reading of Michael Crichton books; Prey and The Terminal Man in particular – maybe also Congo. They set me up to think of a person’s mind as mechanical and mechanical-minds as potentially persons. (In that vein I recently read the excellent Blindsight by Peter Watts – thanks to Laura Heron for putting me onto that – which can be read for free here).

Probably some of Dan Dennett’s TED talks, Richard Dawkin’s science books, and my various readings in psychology during A-level. All these things till furrows into the folds of grey matter, thickening the womb lining in preparation for the fertilised zygote which then metamorphoses into words on the page.

I want to speak of bodies, changed into new forms.

As well as the plottier ideas: formal conceits, voices and structures also come from external fertilisation followed by manipulation once they have accreted onto the original play-draft.

In Switches, the rhythms of the voices refer back to my other teenage obsessions: Fight Club and American Psycho, both of which have a particular kind of narrator, flat of affect and simple and direct in his sentences. Palahniuk also does a line in line-repetition that I have stolen and used in almost everything I’ve ever written.

Switches is particular marked by repetitions because of the voice but as well as stealing other people’s voices and moulding them into something new, there is also the more direct theft from Hitchhikers of the mind suddenly brought into being by chance and then being destroyed by its not naturally tenable position in the galaxy. The monologue of my Boltzmann brain is – ahem – very like the whale’s. Which is another case of  something being stolen and then redrawn in a fun-house mirror.

The end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

I feel like learning something new next week. Since you’re doing sondage on a number of topics lately, I’d like a letter on how you research for your fiction and how much getting the facts right matters to you.

Yours originally,

Jon

P.S. These are theoretical consciousnesses that must arise in an infinite universe in which quantum fluctuations are constantly producing matter at random in the void of space.

P.P.S. This is a theoretical brain made up by the population of China who are given walkie talkies to communicate with each other and specific instructions which, if followed, will mean they communicate with their compatriots the same way as a given neurone in a human brain. The idea is that this brain of people would be just as conscious as any of the brains in the humans that make the China brain up.

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Dear Jon . . . (#22) Re: The Lowest Hottest Place on Earth

BY JON PILL

EXT. DESERT – NIGHT

A figure stands in the desert, silhouetted against a bad moon, which rises from between two plateaus leaving a dark valley in which the figure is trapped.

MEDIUM SHOT – The figure, shot from behind, still in silhouette, standing in the middle of the prickly pears which line the valley. The night is so hot that we can see vast Fata Morgana’s forming over the blurred horizon where the moonlit soil touches the deep-sea darkness of the sky.

The figure turns and we can see it is you. But you have no eyes.

There are no eyes here.

BLETTER (v.o.)

This is the other extreme, says the voiceover. The shot travels low over vivid green pools crowded with strange almost coral-like formations. The shores of the pools are white, crystalline. Only the blue sky seems to confirm or suggest that this isn’t some other planet.

The shot does no such thing, ignoring the voice over and dollying in on you. Suddenly you are lit by a flickering glow.

You stare about the scene walleyed – you have eyes now, loads of them, at least fifty, a wall of wall-eyed eyes, there are loads of eyes here – and confused.

YOUR FACE

Where is this bletter speaking from?

The camera moves in close on the back of your head. We hear a CRACKLING fire from behind us on the surround sound.

BLETTER (v.o.)

The place, as the voiceover continues to say, is the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia – one of the lowest and hottest places on planet Earth. The footage, from Planet Earth, that flagship BBC programme of the 2000s. The voiceover, of course, David Attenborough.

This place patently is not. You spin around and are confronted with the lie. We see the look of anger on your face before we CUT TO:

POV – Your-eye view, just one of them there are so many now that this eye can see other eyes falling off and rolling away. It can also see a BURNING BUSH, 26, a multi-foliate rose of the desert. Bush speaks not with the voice of David Attenborough, but with the monstrous voice of the Bletter.

BLETTER/BUSH (v.o.)

For many people, perhaps particularly for those of our generation, this was one of those TV that sticks in the head, that stays with you…’

The flames freeze. The crackling stops. There is a RECORD SCRATCH and a sudden burst of light as the celluloid in the projector burns up. Then there is just the clatter of the maltese cross and sprockets, and the harsh yellow light on the screen.

TITLE CARD: CLICK HERE FOR THE REST OF THE BLETTER.

FADE TO BLACK.

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Dear Jim (#19) Re: Turning Heads and Changing Minds

BY JON PILL

exorcist

I understand that people think of “The Exorcist” as a horror film, I totally get it. You don’t have to worry about it, it’s only a horror film. But I think it deals with issues far more profound than what you find in the average horror film. To be frank with you, [writer] Bill Blatty and I never set out to make a horror film. The idea never crossed our minds.’ – William Friedkin, Director of The Exorcist

Dear Jim,

Advocate for something, you said. Sell you something. You don’t need to ask me twice.

I don’t know if I can necessarily swing your opinion on The Exorcist. You’ve seen it, and weren’t hugely convinced of its myriad qualities. But it is my favourite film. Perhaps at the very least, I can help you understand why I love it, even if if I can’t be categorical that you should.

But I can say I don’t think you should just be scared or disgusted or any of the visceral stuff that makes The Exorcist so entertaining. I want to talk about the other stuff that makes it moving and thought provoking. It is proper art, serious art. With serious intention behind it.

I watched it for the first time when I was fifteen or sixteen, having been raised in a house where we were never allowed to watch a film rated higher than our age. I had my DVDs of American History X, Fight Club, Silence of the Lambs confiscated, in the case of American History X I don’t think I ever got that one back. So watching The Exorcist was a taboo experience from the get go, ramped up by a genuine belief in the voodoo of the Church and its pitchfork-tailed opposite down below.

It was scary and disgusting and visceral, and also deeply uncomfortable: the blasphemy, the sordid sexual undertones, and the existential challenge of eternal damnation and priest without faith.

Demonic possession in broad daylight in an urban street felt close and real in a way a backwoods cabin doesn’t. Isolated characters are easy to see as vulnerable, easy to root for, but when you step out of the cinema onto a crowded street the film evaporates. The Exorcist happens in Washington and the victims are surrounded by people. The movie follows you home.

When I rewatched it, older, wiser and more skeptical of religion, I was struck by the diagnostics of the film. The House-like elimination of the alternatives and the fact that the Priest – himself struggling with his faith – is only called in as a form of hypnotic suggestion. The reading that suggests that it all might just be hysteria on the part of Regan and her mother seemed to live alongside the more straightforward superstition of the ‘real’ possession. I think one of the great things about the film is that it maintains ambiguities in just the right places to allow you cognitive dissonance. You can believe in the pit and in medicine, can fear God and fear madness, at the same time as you watch.

Around this time I also found a video* which makes the case for an undercurrent of sexual abuse that lends the film a different sort of dramatic intensity and a new different sort of discomfort.

New things occur to me each time I watch it. So much of the story telling happens indirectly, Regan’s desecration of the church – an act that could just be an atmospheric coincidence or sign of the evil spreading – is confirmed not by a line, but by drawing attention to Regan’s clay animals the design of which mirror the additions made to the Virgin Mary’s statue. The infamous masturbatory scene, is prefaced by the Mother removing the crucifix from the room, making its return all the more sinister. The whole film is full of this sort of detail.

The more I watch it the more I appreciate the technique of it. The special effects (you can see their breath in those final scenes because the set was an icebox), the make-up on Regan, the performances, and above all the sound design. My favourite piece of cinema is the first ten minute of this film, the almost wordless sequence with the ominous stopping of the clock, the one eyed man, the creepy old crone, and then the drive out to the statue of Pazuzu and the shot of man opposed with the statue as the wind howls and the dogs bark and fight.

It’s exciting, and unsettling and sets the scene perfectly for the transition to that chilly room on the first floor with the noises in the roof, and moving furniture, where something very old and evil waits.

A lot of what made me fall in love with this movie comes out in the re-watching. You’ve been talking about going back to re-read old books. That can be your topic for next time.

Yours faithfully,
Jon

P.S. It was while ranting about how great The Exorcist is to a friend that I was first put on to the BBC’s Flagship Wittertainment. Which seems as good a reason as any to say ‘Hello, to Jason Isaacs.’

P.P.S. * Watch the revamped version of that video here.

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Dear Jon (#18) Re: This Is Not For You

BY JON PILL

I am in a strange street, empty of people but full of voices. A light rain forms a mist into which the two ends of the street vanish. Neon signs hang and hum along with insect light-traps and one of them sparks as a moth meets its end.

The voices are under the street calling out a garbled message: ‘Dear Jon,’ they say. ‘Be gone buzz words. Buzz off buzz words. Bzzzzzzzt.

There is a pause and I step underneath a shop’s doorway to shake the earwigs from my cochlear canals they slither down a drain and the psychic audio bletter becomes clearer:

‘Let’s talk attitudes, because there’s another aspect to deal with. There’s one attitude which you talk about, I should read, listen to, look at x. One side of the groat there. The other side of the groat: but it’s not for me, it’s not for people like me, it’s for other people…’

The voice trails off. The sign above me reads: ‘CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST.’

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