Sunday, 1 September 2013

Life is a Song

I'll be taking a break from talking about writing to explore another major passion of mine: music.

I dare say that there are very few people who claim that they don't like music, and that there are many who claim to more than just enjoy it. This is not surprising, it's powerful in so many ways. For myself:

It Amplifies
Whatever the atmosphere around you currently is, whatever your current feeling may be, the right choice of music can amplify that experience. Those special and rare 'moments' that seem forever frozen in our memory, tucked away there, safe and private and utterly unique to the owner. Often (not always of course, sometimes silence is as powerful - stargazing with someone important to you, for example) music will have been part of the micro-zeitgeist that formed that moment; made it immortal.

It Heals
Any music lover will find a handful of bands or singers with whom they form a kind of imaginary bond. The lyrics, musical style, or just the stuff of their performance resonates within you somewhere you thought was private. It's a bond, but one with distance. It's safe. It's comfortable. You can let it in. When you're hurt and find yourself taking refuge in music, it pushes you through to the other side just a little more smoothly, just a little more gently. You'll hear that music again years later and it will spark a nostalgia, or maybe even melancholy, but it will be welcome. A reminder of what you made it through.

It Identifies
Now I'm not talking about judging a book by it's cover here (though in my experience most people will present themselves the way they wish to be seen), but rather the idea that music can become a significant part of a persons sense of self. Significant enough to form communites based on little else. Any blustery old fart who's ever said 'You all try to be different but end up all the same' is missing the point. It's about a sense of belonging, and it's invalueable to many people (especially in younger years) to find that sense wherever they can.

Ultimately, music has (and I hope will continue to) informed my life since I first embraced it. There will always be artists or even just particular songs that I will associate with certain places, people, or feelings. The more music I discover, the more my potential to form these enriching associations, and the more cherished the old music (and its attachments) become - more of a joy to revisit.

To all my friends out there - In a funny kind of way, you are each a song, to me, and I hope the music never stops.

Matthew McKnight

Friday, 16 August 2013

Lost the Plot

Planning, intention, deliberateness, forethought - all these things are involved to varying degrees in our everyday lives, as well as our grander plans. So too however are whimsy, chance, nonchalance and taking things for granted.

Applying this to writing, specifically plot, there are a few approaches more typical than others. Some writers plot with great meticulousness - every chapter, or even every scene, is sketched out beforehand. Some have a looser version, simply knowing where they will begin and where they hope to end (though a tale in the telling is a living thing, and may develop its own ideas). Others still simply get an idea and start writing.

Myself, I've tried them all at one time or another and have honestly found that they all work. I'd also say (at a guess) that the format of what you're writing matters in the choosing too. I'm currently writing a novella, for example, and have found that I' have progressed more quickly and smoothly since I made the effort to plot out each 'Act' in some detail. For my novel, I simply have a beginning and an end. I find this works better for a larger work as there is much more room for exploration (all that whimsy and chance I mentioned above), whereas as shorter pieces lose focus when such things are indulged too much.

Could these ideas be looked at in the context of life in a grander scale? Certainly, I think. We're likely to plan and plot and be deliberate when it comes to matters of our careers or love lives for example, but to 'go with the flow' with smaller stuff like what to do of a Friday evening - the tendency seems to be that the more value we give something, the more conscious attention we give it too. It makes sense, on the surface. I'm not sure if this is entirely a good thing, perhaps we ought to throw caution to the wind a little more often, even if the idea of having less control scares us. Let's face it, we have less than we believe anyway, and there's always risk in over-analysis. I guess we all have to find our own balance, often through trial and error.

So, if you feel you've 'lost the plot', maybe let the story tell itself for a while, and see where it takes you.

Matthew McKnight

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Mood - Spelling Doom?

Well, only if you spell it backwards, but you already saw that joke coming I'm sure. What I'm really supposing to write about is the ways in which our mood affects, or does not affect, each part of our lives.

It differs from person to person, no doubt, and we each have a certain measure of control over it too. As for myself, I'm quite good at overriding my emotional state and behaving rationally instead, or so I think. It's a tricky thing to be objective about. How do I know my mood isn't affecting how well I feel I'm coping with my mood (stay with me...)? A bit of a paradox maybe.

If you suffer a setback in your personal life does it lead you to throw yourself with renewed fervour (cliche alert) into the other areas of your life in order to compensate, or to distract yourself? Or perhaps you go through a period of increased apathy as you let the feeling run its course?

Typically thinking myself the former, I was slightly surprised when looking through some old material, written at a trying time. While I was certainly at a productive high, the tone of the work speaks volumes (at least to me) about how I was feeling at the time. I'll also add that I don't think the quality suffered. If anything, there's a sort of painfully earnest quality to it.

Maybe this indicates the 'correct' way to react to personal upsets; to use them as fuel for whatever it is we do. Writing is always at least in part an attempt to describe the human condition. It has been said that creation (or art, if you'll suffer the difference) is born of suffering. I'll subscribe to that happily enough, but maybe that's only my mood talking.

Matthew McKnight

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Incomplete Worlds

Here's a freebie for anyone who, like myself, sometimes does not finish what they start. Enjoy!


James sat cross legged on the sofa, the coffee table pulled close to it, and upon the table his laptop, meekly illuminating the otherwise dark room. An ashtray spilled some of its contents as he pushed the end of a hand-rolled cigarette through the stubs of its predecessors to the bottom. A dirty cup half filled with cold instant coffee rested next to it. He took a sip of it and automatically reached for his tobacco tin again. He often chain-smoked in this situation; thirty or more hours awake, stomach contents a slurry of coffee and beer, and a blank document glowing before him. He was still young enough that such poor habits did not worry him too much. As a writer he felt he was 'supposed' to smoke and drink and never sleep or eat. Sometimes he conveniently forgot that what he ought to do as a writer, was write.

Cigarette prepared, though dangling from his lips unlit, he clicked his way back to his internet browser. He checked his friends' status updates, stopped to correct someone's grammar, with some effort stopped himself from starting an argument about something trivial, and logged out. The second open tab showed a list of free online games. He browsed them pessimistically before settling on a mouse-only puzzle game, and lit the cigarette. He'd been clicking away red squares and watching blue ones fall from the screen for what felt to him like five minutes, when there suddenly came a voice from somewhere in the room.
"Aren't you going to write anything today, scribe?"
James sat up straighter and looked around the room quickly – he had not heard anyone come in. "May I? 'Course I can Jim," came the voice again. James thought he knew it from somewhere now, and his mind, drunk from fatigue, began to struggle with what was happening. It sounded as though the voice had come from beside him on the sofa. He could swear he felt the weight of another person sitting beside him. He found words when a plume of smoke was exhaled next to him by no visible person and he saw that his tobacco tin had moved to the far armrest.
"What the fuck?" was what he managed. "Very good. Funny. You got me. Who is it?" He couldn't fathom it, but it had to be a trick. His mind reeled through a list of his friends' names, stopped to consider a hidden camera prank, and onwards into waking dream territory.
"It's me, Jango!" came the reply, and suddenly it was. A man was there, on the sofa, smoking a roll-up. James' idea of a dream seemed stronger now. He could easily have nodded off, it happened to him at least once a week he guessed. And who was Jango? The name was familiar yet elusive as the voice.
"Jango. You'll have to help me out here," he said, surprisingly calm and sipping his coffee again.
"Jango Fale. F-A-L-E, at your service." It was only when the stranger named himself completely that James could make out the details of his form. Tall, perhaps six feet, maybe early thirties and with what looked to be deliberately maintained stubble of jaw and chin, with a moustache that looked taken from a 1st World War officer. The man was clothed in dirty blues and greys; form-fitting wool with a somewhat synthetic look, almost reflective. He wore a leather glove on his left hand only, bore an eyepatch and a scar too perfectly placed on his cheek. A longcoat with upturned sleeves and a split back completed his outfit.
"Bollocks," he said. Jango dropped his lit cigarette and got up, animatedly patting at himself and the sofa. He was handsome and well spoken, but clumsy and prone to slapstick moments. An endearing loser with a charmingly inflated opinion of himself. He was also captain of of the pirate vessel Lucy IV, and a smuggler of booze during the great galactic prohibition. James suddenly knew all this, because Jango Fale was a character from a story he had never finished. A story he'd abandoned when he realised, as he always did before the end, that it was no good. "You can't be," James located and retrieved Jango's fallen smoke before it could set alight the fabric of the cushion or wink out, "you're made up."
"You must be dreaming then," said Jango, accepting the offered cigarette and sitting again, "because I'm here and I'm talking to you."
"That's just what I was thinking," answered James, quite calm now that he felt he had explained what was happening.
"But,"started Jango, pausing deliberately.
"Thanks for playing Jim. But, if you're dreaming, and you're aware you're dreaming, well, there's a word for that isn't there?"
"Lucid. This is a lucid dream. Yes it would seem so."
"Ought you not to have power O' whimsy here then Jim?"
"I suppose so. I've never had a lucid dreaming experience before, but that's what I believe." A small smile crept across James' face. Like all men in their twenties, he knew what he'd like to dream about if he had power to choose. "What shall I do?" he asked Jango.
"If this was a lucid dream, as you understand them, I wouldn't be here and you'd be doing it already. You wrote me smart Jim, smart as you think you are." Jango smiled and winked cheekily, only to sputter and cough as smoke from one end of his cig invaded his still open eye, and caught in his throat from the other. "You wrote me to be a clown too," he lamented, trying to recover. "Go on then," he continued as James looked at him with uncertainty, "summon up a girly. Fantasy woman or someone you know? Sure make it a pair, you wrote my story very PG, I could use a little female attention." James suddenly felt very silly, exposed even. But surely that was silly in and of itself. This Jango character was just that, a character, living within James' mind. He couldn't think of a better test however. He tried to think of some suitable scenario, some suitable cast, and tried to seem as though that was not what he was doing, unable to entirely dismiss Jango as a real person in some sense. His failure in subtlety was apparent at Jango's laughter. "Problem?" Jango asked sarcastically.
"No there is not. Lucid dreaming takes practice, I've read about it. Or perhaps it doesn't work the way I thought it did."
"Is that what you think?"
"Yes. It is, Jango," it seemed a concession to absurdity to form the name,"What do you think?"
"The same as you I'm afraid Jim. You wrote me. I'm your creation." James considered Jango for a long moment, looked him up and down.
"You really are, aren't you? Just the character I imagined. This is kinda cool actually."
"I don't think so," said Jango flatly, getting up. "Mind if I have a drink?"
"Why not?" said James. "That's my answer to both, by the way."
"It is not cool – one for yourself? Course you will." He moved past the sofa into the small open plan kitchen, opened the fridge. "No Star-Ale. Off-brand domestic lager it is then." He returned and sat next to James again, opening his tin after handing James his own, spraying himself with foam. "Bloody hell," he muttered. "Never ends." James nodded his thanks and opened his own beer, spray-free. "This is why it's not cool, Jim," Jango continued. "I'm a joke! Clutzy and droll in the worst way. I'm two-dimensional; an unintentional parody of an already tired archetype. I mean, come on, 'Star-Ale'. Really? And, my ship, the Lucy IV. Actually, I kind of like that one, but anyway..."
"Is this why I'm dreaming you?" interrupted James. "My subconscious is telling me I'm a bad writer? Or just that 'Adventures of Fale' was a bad idea? So bad that the star is here to tell me as much?"
"Not quite. I'm here – and I don't know why - you can keep thinking it's a dream if you like, because I'm pissed at you."
"What?" James almost smiled incredulously, but there was a mote of uncharacteristic (and he should know) sincerity to Jango's tone.
"You're the architect of my world, Jim. The designer. The 'Prime Mover'. You're God, and I'm here to declare it better to reign in Hell." Jango paused, locked eyes with the now uneasy James as he sipped his drink. "Space-age prohibition. A galactic empire too large to effectively govern, let alone police, and a roguish character making a living as a pirate and peddler of alcohol. This could be a good story! I could be a memorable and loveable character! But no. You didn't write me well. Didn't take the time, didn't think. You didn't even finish my story. That is why I'm here. To hold you accountable." James took a deliberately long draft of his beer. A shadow of the sinister had invaded the light of this interaction. He made a mental note of this terrible turn-of-phrase as he put down the can and reached (somewhat carefully) across Jango for his tobacco tin, to buy himself more time to reply.
"Well Jango," he began, "this has been interesting, and a little disturbing. If it's all the same to you, I'll be waking up now." James rarely remembered anything of his dreams, save for the nightmares, and because of this, he knew that he could always wake himself when he needed to. He always realised it was a dream and woke himself just as the terrible something was about to get him. He didn't know what it was to die, so his brain couldn't simulate it, had always been his explanation.
"You're not in any physical danger," said Jango, as though he had read the thought. "By all means though, go ahead." Jango began to help himself to another roll-up, taking the tin back from James and reclining on the sofa when he had the makings of it in hand. Taking a puff of his own, James closed his eyes and tried to will himself awake. It was experimental thing for him. He tried to remember those nightmares wherein he had done it before – The house party that had been invaded by zombies, the alien creature that rushed him as he fought on rooftops, looking in the mirror as he slit his own throat with a razor – none worked. He just couldn't capture that feeling. Perhaps Jango was right, not in suggesting that this was in fact not a dream at all, that was silly. But that he was not in any real danger.
"Actually, Jango, this is still fun. Let's continue. You're upset because I didn't finish your story, is that it?"
"I have already said as much, Jim."
"Well, what do you want me to do about it? Are you going to sit over my shoulder and help me?" There was some scoffing in James' tone. Despite this very odd evening (or was it early morning?) he had confidence in his writing ability. He was also beginning to think that Jango was a rather good character, and that his story might work after all. Maybe he would pay it another visit when this madness, whatever it was, was done..
"Well Jim. I won't say that I'll do that, but I won't say otherwise either." He stood up and looked around, the swish of his longcoat allowing James a first glance at the weapon he had holstered by his belt. A 'Blaster pistol' he'd called it, though he meant to think of something more original later, it was just a stop gap. Stop gaps were fine. "I think you need," Jango continued as he took a little tour of the dank, dim and embarrassingly messy room, "to take yourself more seriously." He then stopped and looked at James as though he expected to be fully understood. James' communicated that he did not in fact understand with a look of his own. "I'd guess you're a materialist," said Jango flatly. James nodded and replied,
"You'd be right."
"Well I disagree. All thought and feeling and imagination just neurons firing and chemical action? You imagined me and I'm here. Maybe you are right and this is only a dream, but if you're wrong... Well then there's substance to it all."
"What has this to do with 'taking myself more seriously'?" James' eyes flicked back and forth between Jango's face and his weapon. Noticing, Jango unholstered it and aimed at the wall, pulled the trigger a few times. Nothing.
"It doesn't work. You never explained how it might," he offered as explanation. "And while I may mean you no harm," he continued, "others might. You need to take yourself seriously because we do." James raised an eyebrow, inviting Jango to expand. "You can't just toy with creation, Jim. Look at this – your world. Your 'God', if you believe it, creates and then disappears. The result? Carnage. And yet you all still care. You take 'God' seriously, even those who don't believe. We, the characters of your creations, don't like being abandoned. We care too." For the first time James had the sense that he was being genuinely warned.
"This is so fucking weird," is all he could manage.
"Yeah. Just wait till a less civilised chap comes to see you. You've written more than a few unsavoury ones I'll bet."
"You think I' this again?" James couldn't help but begin to imagine having a chat with some of his two-dimensional villains. That would be much less fun.
"You will. Every night until we, all of your creation, are satisfied. This is a gift if you allow it to be Jim. One that has been visited on others before you. Think of all those most prolific of writers. Some of them, pure talent and determination, sure. Others received this gift of visitation." Jango allowed a moment of silence to pass, then added, "Don't fuck this up," and was gone. The room was still as the myriad questions on James' lips. He stared at the space where Jango had been for minutes. Sipped at his beer, lit another cigarette. Upon failing to either wake up, or suffer another delusion, he opened a page on his word processor, and began,
'Jango Fale was a remarkable and good man, a pirate and outlaw, but a good man none-the-less. This is a story of one of his adventures...'

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Ad Libitum

Well, a friend of mine pointed out I've been neglecting this blog lately, and I'm afraid it's largely been as a result of having little to say. Still, I was flattered in a way that he said so.

Ad-libbing, then, will be the method for today.

I'm still writing, though not as much as I ought to in the last few weeks. A form of apathy has set in I think. Conversely, I've taken on another couple of writing projects - working on a script for a film-maker friend, and stories for an RPG 'choose your own adventure' style app. Maybe the increased workload and decreased willingness to do it are related.

Another possibility is that I've somewhat written myself into a corner. I know what has to happen in order for the plot to progress, but the logistics of it are elusive for now. Perhaps some ad-libbing would be the answer there too.

Overall, I'm trying to stay true to my own (admittedly second-hand) advice from previous entries, and just get on with it. Write it first and worry about the quality second. They say it takes around a fortnight to form a habit (performing the exercise daily), I wonder how long it takes to break one? A much shorter time I'd wager, and I'm afraid that's just what I've done. Here's hoping this blog entry, and the 500 words I'm (surely, ever so surely) going to force myself to do immediately following are day one of my fortnight.

On the theme of ad-libs, here's a poem:

We are what we do,
Yet nothing can
Perform no action.
May I be what I think?
Aye indeed,
If you write it down.

Therefore I am?
Therefore I do.


Wednesday, 13 February 2013


My latest lesson from my writing course talks about the 'mid-novel doldrums'. Ironic because it comes just as I'm slowing down a little with regards to my written output.

It talks about how having a plan, or at least an outline, helps with this. So long as you know where to start, and where you're trying to get to, you can be creative with the journey. 'Always know where your horizon is', my mother told me once. The problem could be inspiration, or simple logistics. If you're bored or unmotivated in the middle, put something in to make it more interesting, it suggests. A line from Macbeth comes to my mind when I consider this:
"I am in blood steeped so far, that turning back were to be as tedious as continuing on."

The idea that the fact that you have come a certain distance infers that you ought to carry on to the conclusion rings logically false, but is compelling none the less. There is a satisfaction, a sense of achievement in finishing what we begin - and most certainly the idea that we should strive to have fun along the way is a good one, if a touch sappy. Maybe it's better to 'suffer for your art'. All creation is born of suffering, it's said. Then again, one man's hell....The idioms contradict and confuse; there's one for every opinion it seems.

Personally, I do believe that putting your nose to the grindstone and just bloody well getting it done has tremendous appeal - as an idea. Actually doing it is where the difficulty can be found, and also where we are tempted, if not well-advised, to sneak a little of the fun in. It's a cheat in a way, a very good one. Perhaps another quote puts it more succinctly:
"I hate writing, I love having written." - Dorothy Parker.

Is it just the journey's end we seek? Is looking back better than looking forward? Maybe rose-tinted glasses are a conceit we allow ourselves, excusing one another in return for the same favour in a circle of mild hypocrisy.

I've noticed that I've been taking examples about writing and trying to equate them to a broad range of things without having set out to do so. Except this time. I think the above musings can apply to almost any process we undertake.

Anyways, off to fill my pen with blood, and enjoy it never the less.


Sunday, 20 January 2013

What's In A Name?

"A rose by any other name, would smell just as sweet."

Doubtless this is true, but that doesn't mean there's no such thing as degrees of 'good' or 'bad' in a name. Even The Simpsons joked about this, imagining they were called 'stinkweeds' or 'crapblossoms'. Names matter, especially with people. They are one of the things that influence the way we think of someone.

Naming characters in fiction is something many people have difficulty with. It's obviously important that the reader gets the correct impression of the character, and one of the first things they will (usually) learn about a member of your cast is their name.

Some names will just feel right, others very wrong. There are studies that show how certain names, even just certain sounds, carry ideas with them. Names with prominent consonant or glottal components tend to sound stronger, for example.
"Your middle name's Judas, but you tell everyone it's Johnathan," quips Lister to Rimmer in Red Dwarf. It's a good example. Judas, of course is a name chosen for comedy; it's hard to imagine a less desirable yet still legitimate name, but even if you'd never heard the story of Judas I dare say you could see in some way how Johnathan is a 'stronger', somehow more masculine or heroic-sounding name.

In high or heroic fantasy, or when writing for children, it's a little different. Names can be totally invented, or lifted from/inspired by mythology, and they tend to identify whether a character is good or bad very readily.
Sauron. Saruman. Sinister, soft, sibilant - you can guess these guys are evil. Darth Vader, Cruella D'eville, Skeletor (ok, going a bit far :p), they all wear their hearts on their metaphorically monogrammed sleeves.
Aragorn, Gandalf, James Kirk, Luke Skywalker, Optimus Prime (I had to...), these are clearly good guy names. They're heroic, strong, and they avoid those serpentine soft sounds.

There's more to it than the above of course. Maybe you want a character who's 'ordinary', but still good, or with heroic potential. Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins are good examples of this kind of name. Ultimately, you just have to trust your instinct I guess, and decide whether you want a big 'good/bad guy' label stamped across a character or not. Chances are, if a name feels a certain way to you, it will to other people too.