November 30, 2010

Getting your foot in the door of short story publishing - upping the odds?

I'm by no means a widely published author, I currently have about ten works in progress, one story ready to find a home, one almost ready for submission, and one published short story, and a novel which I really should get on editing with. However there is something I've noticed amongst the various rejection letters which become part and the parcel of getting your work out there - "this isn't suitable for us."

Now, this may be a euphemism for "this is crap but nice try," or it could actually be a comment to take at face value. I got a rejection for a journal for one of my stories which said: "this is a nice story, would have been great with the issue of our previous theme but not for the next one," which is actually a nice rejection, you'll notice that a lot of writers are happy with nice rejections, a fact most non-writers may fail to understand.

When beginning the long and painful process of trying to publish your short stories, you decide to play a lottery of submitting things to as many journals as possible and hope that the law of probabilities means that someone will eventually pick your work. How many of us read the submissions and conveniently ignore the bit that says "please buy our journal and see what we're about and if you're right for us" when we're just desperate to get published? I've purchased a few journals, but I have been too lazy busy to read them yet, and just sit on my overcrowded bookshelf making me look literary. Maybe that should be my new year's resolution? Read more lit journals as well as focus on my writing.

I got lucky with my story which was published in the Writers Abroad anthology - it was a perfect fit to the theme they were looking for. Since then I've had the brainwave to start searching for anthologies and submission calls which fit the stories I already have to offer. While you need to still have a strong piece to submit and while not any old crap will do, actually submitting to something which fits the criteria for the anthology/journal opens up the probabilities a lot! This really should be common sense, but it's also a lot harder work for the budding writer - there are so many journals and anthologies out there, how to find them?

Duotrope's Digest is a fantastic resource for looking for the right journal or anthology for you. It has EVERYTHING listed on here. Just look up anthologies only and already you're faced with a bunch of themed anthologies to pick from currently calling for submissions - maybe there is something there perfect for you? Or even something which looks interesting to write for, just for fun and to try your luck

You can also sign up to various journal's mailing list and get updates and submission calls for their themes their interested in. With a little work the opportunities will start to come, and once you start submitting your work which a magazine, anthology, or journal is looking for you might find you're more likely to find an acceptance letter than a rejection.

November 20, 2010

Read my short story "Counterfeit Goods" for free!

The "Writers Abroad Short Story Anthology 2010" has come out in time for Short Story Week  , and features a short story of mine called "Counterfeit Goods".  It features a collection of short stories by expat writers on the theme of expat life, from writers all over the world. Download the e-book for free from their website:

November 8, 2010

Literary Cabaret Night

I've recently combined forces with another friend from my writer's group to do a literary night. I've hosted private literary parties in the past (when you invite a small group of people round and read poetry and short prose and consume vast quantities of wine), and there is a bi-anual open mike night in Madrid too, which focuses on showcasing one's own work, but talking with my friend, we wanted something a little different and informal. She proposed that we should ask the bar owner the café where we hold our writers meeting to let us do something once a month - poetry and prose reading not limited to your own work. However, I have a lot of singer and musician friends and thought maybe we could open it up a bit - make it something with a literary focus, but open to the other arts, and the International Literary Cabaret Night was born. It's a bilingual night, since we had to sweet talk the owner who wasn't keen on an English only night in his bar, but we realised it's actually better to do a night in English and Spanish.

Poster Design by the lovely Lance Tooks

We did our first one back in October and it was a success!  About 20 people came and most of whom participated. Granted, this one was more poetry and prose focussed, but everyone really enjoyed it and the owner is excited for us to do the next one - which is next week.

If you're interested in coming, and you live in Madrid, it's on the 16th of November @9.30pm in Café Isadora in C/ Divino Pastor 14.  Free Entry. The International Literary Cabaret is an night of interactive Cabaret - you are the star! Read your own poetry or recite from your favourite poets; act out a scene from a play you love; sing your favourite aria; read your short stories, or just improvise. Emphasis on English or Spanish, but poetry in other languages is more than welcome! 

November 2, 2010

I'm getting published in the "Writers Abroad" anthology

I've been busy over the summer and autumn months, writing new short stories and working on the novel. In addition to that, I began the long and lengthy process of submitting a story of mine to various journals. Some say it can take up to 6 years to get your first piece published and to brace yourself for a mountain of rejection letters. I submitted into a competition (but it was a prestigious one, so I didn't have very high hopes there), and other journals - some "highbrow" ones - well you don't get if you don't try - and some lower level ones. I got a couple of rejections, some just form ones saying "not for us, thanks" and others saying "good piece, would have fitted with our last issue but not this one, please try us again though." Most of them were still in the system being reviewed.

We had a literary open mic night in Madrid where I read a couple of my poems, even though poetry is the area I feel most self-conscious of. I think out of everything I do, my poems are the most intimate and raw things I write. My friends love them, but a lot of people criticise them for being too personal. But I'm going off tangent here so back to my point, after this night the organiser emailed all the participants with a call for submissions for expat writers and with the theme of dealing with expat life, or just living abroad. The story I was already submitting to journals fit this criteria perfectly. I fit the criteria perfectly!  Anglo-Hungarian writer living in Spain, you can't get more expat than that, right? So I submitted.

 I didn't expect too much and when I got the email yesterday, I expected that it would be another rejection letter. But when I opened my email I started to tremble like a piece of cooling jelly.

"Dear Deborah
Thank you for your submission. I am pleased to inform you that your story Counterfeit Goods has been accepted for the Writers Abroad Anthology 2010 in support of National Short Story Week. "

I ran into the kitchen and showed my flatmates, to check if my eyes didn't trick me. I shook for an hour as I called and texted all my friends. It's not a big journal, no, but they are printing my story. That to me is the most important thing, and it means so much. It's a tiny step into this world, but I won't stop here. I have a few pieces I'm working on now with intention to submit, and it's all a matter of perseverance and finding the right magazine for you.

I think this last point is the key. I was lucky I found out about a call for submissions which was IDEAL for the story I had been sending out. Writing something which is good helps, but sending it to a magazine looking for something else won't really help. They key is finding the right one for your story. Rejection isn't just about quality, a good piece of work could get rejected for not being right for that magazine or issue.

Well, that is an important lesson I've learned.

If you wanna check out my story "Counterfeit Goods" - it should be up on the Writers Abroad website in about 2 weeks in electronic form:

September 5, 2010

Returning from an unintentional hiatus

I've realised it's been months since I've posted in Writing on Absinthe, which is a pity, because this blog was very useful for me to process the things I've learned as a writer. My neglect of this blog does not come from laziness, in fact I've been working (yes, still doing a PhD in Physics), writing, travelling, and sorting my life out.

I have been writing, a lot even. I've finished the first draft of the novel re-write (second version of the novel, but I still call it a first draft because I began again from scratch), which has totaled at 100,000 words. I was amazed I had the motivation to complete it, since I wrote a previous version back in November which I wasn't happy with, but I found by writing a poor quality first draft to be very educational for writing the second version. I love the story and I love the characters, although I suppose this is not unusual for a writer to love his or her own work, but I didn't like the way it was previously written. The story jumped too much without any structure, and in truth it was poorly written. But I've learned a lot since November, and if anything I've grown a lot as a writer thanks to the support I've found in my writing community who have pushed me to learn from my mistakes, as well as the vital task of just write, write, write and read, read, read. I came to the novel as a more mature writer (still with my own faults but at a marginally higher level), and I came up with a better way to structure it. So far the feedback from beta readers has been excellent, and it's really motivated me to work on it more. When someone tells me something is good, I don't feel the need to sit back and give myself a pat on the back, rather think how to make it better. Talent is one thing, but skill is only acquired through sheer hard work. Fortunately the criticism for the book I've received so far has been encouraging, but also practical - highlighting the weak points I need to work on. So the novel project is still very much a work in progress, but one which I feel has a lot of potential, but most importantly - I write it because I love it.

Evidence of my travels - Barcelona

I also undertook the ambitious task of writing a short story a week (first draft, not edited) over the summer. I don't think I met that particular target, but I did pen 8-9 stories at least which is no mean feat. An interesting thing I learned from this was that writing first drafts with such a frequency and intensity, I've already seen a rise in the quality of the first drafts. Previously, my first drafts were AWFUL, and I would edit them over and over again until they we adequate. Now, while they still need editing, I'm reaching a level where they are actually not horrific in quality. I plan on working on the best ones to consider submitting (or just hand into my writers group).

Over the summer I've only learned to just keep persisting. Write and write, but with a critical eye. To look at ones own work without the rose tinted glasses. Seek feedback from outside eyes for guidance or a just a reality check, but at the end of the day try to see things yourself. Most importantly, you have to love writing. To sit down and write and edit is not a an ordeal or a chore, you enjoy it or can't live without it. Without love, writing for any other reason is futile.

June 23, 2010

Expanding vocabulary and finding the right words

An excellent skill for a writer to develop is how to express with less. Contrary to popular belief, being able to utilise a copious amount of flowery language isn't necessarily the path to good (modern) writing. Some writers can manage wordiness if it fits their style, while others triumph in taking the minimalist approach. Back in the days when I wrote novels about terrible tragic romances with lots of sighing,  I expanded my book with elaborate words because I believed that more is more. My short story writing has reformed my wicked ways, and now instead of excessive padding aiming to compete with Russian doorstoppers, I now condense short stories into 4000 words or less, hence: cutting out the crap. You learn more by reducing your word count; it has made my writing tighter for certain.

Finding the right words is important: such as saying something with one excellent verb or noun as a descriptive replacement for the weak verb + adverb or the weak noun + adjective combinations. I plead guilty to occasional overuse of adjectives, less adverbs though since I caught the adverb cooties from having read too much on writing (I'm looking at you Mr. Stephen King). Sometimes there will be a word, too vague to convey your meaning and you hit the thesaurus for a better one.

But beware of thesauruses, named akin to a species of Dinosaur they should be treated with the same caution! Sometimes a word, even the perfect one found while perusing is a bad choice if no one knows what the word means. None of us, even literary readers want to read a book which has you reaching for the dictionary every five seconds; maybe the most educated Oxford don might be able to follow your prose, but in the lean, mean, fighting machine world of publishing it needs to appeal to the average person. Play it by eye, if the replacement word doesn't have you reaching for the dictionary then it's good to go. Read more and your vocabulary will expand.

Also think of your sentences. While editing this post I've come across many longwinded phrases which could do with a haircut. Eliminating passive voice helps, because instead of I was walking you'd use I walked: Immediately you cut a word - yay! Annihilate verbs when you don't need them and cut out pleonastic words like "just, actually, this" etc. will reduce word count.

The big question is why? Why should one cut out words? Think of it this way, expressing with less impacts more and clarifies more. Too many words and we trip over sentences.

June 16, 2010

On experience: Are writers interesting people to begin with?

I'm getting to a point where someone will invite me to do something, or go somewhere unusual and my first thought is "why not, it'll make a good story"/"It might inspire me". I'm catching myself thinking this more and more, and it's a reason that is slowly creeping up my list of priorities like ivy on a ruined house.

Writers seem to live very passionate, dramatic and interesting existences. Reading the Diaries of Anaïs Nin, the Tropics of Henry Miller or even notes of Hemingway's Parisian days makes me long for such an exotic and bohemian life. I feel it is almost a pre-requisite to be an interesting person if you want to be a writer. At the risk of sounding conceited, I'm not "boring": I grew up in England and Hungary; living the expat lifestyle since turning 20, first in Germany and now Spain. I've done my own share of unusual things from working in various physics laboratories including CERN; to lacing mezzo-sopranos up in corsets backstage at the opera. Saying that, I know a lot of people with far more interesting and glamourous lifestyles than myself, so I don't feel extraordinary.

But I do find myself saying "yes" to more things these days than before. Trying to find inspiration is hard, and there is the big ol' cliché of "Write what you know", which kinda puts a dampener on the aspiring writer with an uneventful life (a stupid cliché, considering the current popularity in fantasy, horror and sci-fi genres).  It's hard to pull a story out of thin air; in my case it's either long and complex with five million subplots or it's been done. For short stories, which are so vital to me  in teaching myself to edit, 90% of what I write about is basically a fictionalised autobiography. Even when I write a story, which is fiction, purely fiction, I find myself drawing from experiences I've had and places I've been to and really, my fiction is just my sub-conscious vomited onto the page in the form of a plot.

Is experience a valid form of research? Certainly it is, you can read about the Acropolis till the cows come home, and you might even be able to write successfully about it. But it doesn't beat going to Athens and walking the steps of the Parthenon, sitting down and feeling that hot marble soften the muscles in your back with the background noise of multilingual tourists and locals, breathing the contaminated air of Athenian pollution. You can get facts from research, but experience gives you all the sensual little details that helps a piece of fiction take life.

Every experience is of value, but sometimes we can pick and choose from the places, people and things in our life and use our imagination to write something fictional. Yet, I feel there is an invisible bank or portfolio where I can put the more interesting things from my life into and draw from them when writing. I want a heavy bank account to draw from so I'm greedy and take everything which comes (within reason...) which I could eventually use. The question is, are writers interesting because they are writers or writers because they are interesting? I think writing injects the curiosity, but it's up to the writer to do the rest.

June 15, 2010

Giving Criticism

Back in November, when I went to my first writers meeting in Madrid I was scared. Not about showing my own work (although I admit, I was a little nervous about being shot down), but for having to criticise others' work. I wasn't sure where to start. Would I hurt people's feelings, and above all did I have the right to criticise because of my lack of writing experience?

At my first writers meeting, I received a handout on a very useful template on how to critique someones work.  Now granted, I personally haven't used this exact structure in my own critiques (I prefer to give verbal feedback because I still don't feel I'm at the level to write on someone's manuscript), but it's very useful tool for giving effective critique. When I receive critiques of my own work with these points addressed it's incredibly helpful:

1. A Summary of the story in a few sentences.
2. What are the Strengths of the Story?
3. What are the Weaknesses? 
4. Suggestions for improvement.

This format is very useful because it highlights what you did well, since no one likes only negative criticism - even when it's constructive, but it also highlights one's strengths. This is good for morale, but also helps to gauge what I'm good at and it helps me to develop my positive traits and become self aware of my writing. Knowing the weaknesses of course are a necessarily evil. There is always going to be something wrong, something that seems awkward, insecure, a continuity error in the story or even just the grammar. We need our weaknesses pointed out so we can actually do something about it. It doesn't need to be disheartening, we all make mistakes - especially a novice writer. We are not born great writers even those with great talent work their butts off writing everyday and learning from mistakes; writing is a craft which needs to be worked on continuously.

My confidence has increased on the criticism front. I know a lot more about writing from my own mistakes and having read a lot of books about writing. The hours spent on redrafts and re-writes I have made on my own work has taught me to be critical, initially with my own work and now I can apply that same critical eye to the writing of others.

One doesn't need to be an expert to give criticism. This is a very important point I learned. We buy books, read magazine articles and recite poetry (ok the latter not so'll find me reciting Monty Python or Black Books before poetry) and you don't have to be an expert writer to know what you like and dislike and what doesn't work. We all have opinions, sometimes that is all one needs to exercise. It's nice getting feedback from someone who knows what they are talking about, but every opinion is valid so why shouldn't your own be?

Giving your own opinion and criticisms not only helps other writers, but also helps you. It teaches you to develop the critical eye you'll need for your own work and gets you actively thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of other writers, who wont write like you do (none of us write like each other - that's the beauty!).

I think it's important to remember though that another writer's style is not yours. This is a point one also needs to bear in mind. When someone sends you their manuscript, unless they're asking you to ghost write,  for heaven's sake don't bloody rewrite it! I know it's tempting to put things in your own voice; I'll look at a sentence and think "hmmm I would have written that differently" and there is nothing wrong with the suggestion, but often there needs to be the ability to distinguish what is general criticism, something which is a universal weakness to a personal preference. It's good to be clear on these things as you are sure to see different people giving different pieces of advice. Your opinion matters and could indeed be useful, but it is subjective.

Critique the work of others and you'll be able to look at your own work objectively as well.

June 9, 2010

Are we a generation of poets?

Last night I got involved in an interesting conversation in my writers groups about "the young people of today", which makes me laugh since I'm 25 and hardly what you would call old but I'm certainly not a teenager. We discussed how the modern teenager lives an open and superficial life; a life defined by facebook, myspace and twitter. Where everything is immediate and short. Where nearly everyone has ADD and cannot bear to look at something which requires an attention span that even a goldfish could cope with. I don't believe this is 100% true; I know 18 year olds who still delight in the works of Proust and Dostoyevsky, whose lives are not defined by the shallowness that facebook and myspace encourage. Although unfortunately this is not the norm, and more and more I see a world emerging that makes me feel old and alien. I am on facebook and twitter (not myspace though, ick!), but I am not part of the facebook generation. I grew up with real friends and real high school drama. I grew up reading Anne Rice (shut up), popular science novels and writing terrible tragic gothic romances while listening to Nirvana. Those were my teenage years. I didn't even have a computer until I went to university, and even then it was a crappy Amstrad with no internet connection, I only got my first desktop when I was 19 and my first laptop when I was 20 and moving to Germany. I didn't have fandoms or an iPod.

But nostalgia aside and back to the conversation, and you are wondering what the hell does the shallowness of modern youth have to do with poetry. Amidst all the 2 minute television and the "here and now" demands of the modern media you would think that one wouldn't bother with books because of the tl;dr stigma. Gabriel García Márquez might have won the nobel prize for literature, but the fact his first chapter opens with a three page sentence doesn't exactly give one the instant gratification the current society demands. I love García Márquez, but I could see why your average teen wouldn't read him.
"You would think in this day and age poetry would be a popular literary medium," one person said. 
It makes perfect sense, most poems (and I'm not talking the Epic of Gilgamesh here) tend to be a paragraph long, perfect for the modern day homosapien with a short attention span. Perfect for the person who travels a few metro stops to work and barely has time to read a chapter in a novel or a short story. Poetry is even accessible on mediums such as Twitter: 7x20 is a literary e-zine that is based on Twitter and publishes some good stuff. Even flash fiction and micro-fiction would be ideal for the current market. Less can be more when you look at the Twitter-based writer VeryShortStory who is indeed an excellent master at the art of micro-fiction. However, in spite all of these factors poetry is not the dominant medium, in fact the market for poetry is poor and pays a lot less than for prose. Is this also a factor that our society turns to literature not for artistic merit but for escapism? To lose oneself in a badly written yet escapist novel like Twilight or Dan Brown, or a better written novel that does the trick rather than read a paragraph of perfectly crafted words which describe something or a feeling? Is it not length that's the problem or the content? The question is why isn't poetry more important in today's society than prose.

May 31, 2010

Good writing is...? - Saying things with less.

I want to try to update this blog more often, PhD and personal projects be damned! I want to examine what I believe constitutes good writing.  This is merely a matter of opinion, but by exploring what I believe to be good, and the act of writing it down is a method to process what I personally want to achieve in my writing. Good writing is a subjective thing and what one person considers good another might not (says Cpt. Obvious). Some might think good writing is over descriptive and writerly, full of complex words you would never hear of unless you had a love affair with a thesaurus. Others value simplicity, the short and well punctuated sentences of Hemingway. This is about what I like in writing. So that's the end of my disclaimer.

One thing I've become aware of while writing short stories, as well as reading them, is that a lot can be said with a single sentence. The thing with short stories is that you want it tight and compact, you need to pack all the relevant information into the story in 3000 words or less. I read an interesting article called "Hunting down the Pleonasms" by Allen Guthrie which has been an invaluable resource to me. The idea is eliminate irrelevant words which add nothing such as "just, that and actually", and stresses the importance converting the "adverb + verb" to a stronger verb instead.

Clarity in language, using the best words in a sentence to convey exactly what the author intends requires talent and/or a lot of experience. It's easier said than done, especially when one is self-conscious in their writing; I tend to waffle on using as many words as possible to say what I want to say for fear of not being understood. The same goes for excessive repetition I need to keep in check. Compact and tight prose may also be a byproduct of today's "here and now" world, where you're led to believe the average person suffers from a severe case of ADD and we have no time for Proustly prose. Or is it that literature has evolved? Has the style of literature changed to fit the culture around it, history would say yes. Another belief of mine is that a writer needs to either write for their time, or be ahead of their time, not behind. This is a pet hate of mine when I read someone who writes like a nineteenth century writer in the modern era; this is excusable in historical fiction but otherwise I don't see any valid reason to do this.  But this is an entirely different rant I will try not to go into.

I think being able to master the craft of saying more with less is a step in the direction to being an effective communicator and a good writer. It's something I hope that I will be able to do some point in the future.

May 29, 2010

Write with all the senses

Unless something is written from an omnipresent point of view, one way or another we are experiencing the story through the eyes of a character (or characters if we're dealing with a novel that changes POV between chapters) and somehow we need to forge a connection with them in order to empathise and retain interest in what is happening. What makes writing an effective medium where television and radio fails is that literature can make you experience everything with all the senses. It's not just about seeing and hearing, while these are our primary senses the others shouldn't be neglected too.

Out in real life though we also feel, taste and smell and these can also effect our emotions, define what we feel and trigger old memories. Until all the senses can be provoked I think there will always be a wall between the reader/viewer/listener; TV never manages to feel real.

But a good book or story can hit my emotional centre for precisely this lack of sensory limitation. Someone who manages to not only engage imagery inside my head and what things sound like but also tells me what the character tastes, the smell of a place or a person and the physical sensations they go through be it internal body responses or external stimuli really gives the reader a full-on pull into that world and brings it to life. No longer is it just letters on a page but it becomes a whole reality.

I always try to think beyond what we hear and see in the stories I write. It's not enough to say "he was frightened" when you could show this by the clenched muscles in his stomach, the sweat on the base of his neck, the persistent shaking of his hands. Telling emotions fail to take effect, saying "I felt considerable emotion" is probably the least emotional thing you could write. What are the physical sensations of feelings and experiences? What makes something so real and so sensual? Smell, taste and touch play a large roll in turning writing into something that is technicolor as opposed to black and white. We can see and watch from the outside with the most obvious senses but something will be missing without the others.

May 28, 2010

The importance of the short story

When it comes to writing, I identify more with being a novelist rather than a short story writer. I've written first drafts of about 5 terrible novels since my teens. I mostly wrote for myself so once the first draft was completed I forgot about them until my ex-flatmate handed me a CD-rom of embarrassingly awful prose. I still kept writing though, I've always had some book project on even if I've had a lot of work on the side; I may not have written every day but I still tried to write regularly. 

Six months ago I wanted to take my fiction to another level, to stop being an amateur dabbler and get serious. My main problem was I knew Jack about editing a novel. I invested in books on editing and writing your bestselling novel (yes, shut up) which take up a shelf on my bookshelf. But editing a 75,000 word novel was not a task I relished in and wondered if maybe I should set my standards lower and write something shorter and manageable. I decided that even though I don't see myself as a short story writer it would:

a) Give me something small enough to manage in order to learn how to edit.
b) Learn how to right, how to plot and how to get relevant information in a compact space instead
of waffling on in dragging out prose. 
c) If I can get something published that would give me some valid writing credentials, giving me something 
to work towards that means that my writing has to achieve a certain standard. 

Short story writing is not easy. When I plot, I tend to create really complicated scenarios that need a minimum of 50,000 words to explore them, fitting something down into less than 3000 words was a huge challenge in itself. It requires a great deal of skill to say so much in such little space and hence would go on to make us better writers. I've also noticed the manageability of short stories makes it easier for other people to critique; you'll find far more people want to read 5 pages rather than 300 pages of something you've written. While the craft of the novel and the short story have different challenges, both can teach the writer a lot. I think that it does an aspiring writer the world of good to think small and build up, or run small and big project togethers. I know from short stories alone there has been a vast improvement in my writing. 

May 14, 2010

Using non-fiction to inspire fiction

Often when writers are encouraged to read more, it is often taken for granted that reading will most likely be fiction. Novels and short-stories are great to see what works both from a storytelling perspective and from a technical literary perspective, it is also useful to see what doesn't work either, but to write something original and interesting one needs inspiration. The phrase heard over and over again is "write what you know", but this limits us to write only about first hand experiences. Doing research in a topic you don't know about or even just dipping your toe in intellectually via reading non-fiction can open the doors to other areas to explore.

Currently I am doing a lot of background reading on Schizophrenia for the novel I am working on, and it's been highly inspiring. One of the issues I have is I don't want to trivialise the topic or write about clichés or misconceptions so research is a necessary evil (or good, depending on whether you enjoy it or not). It's been interesting for me to read about it because I have learned a lot, but also I've had to rethink certain aspects of the novel because certain things I wrote contradicted scientific and psychiatric evidence. Someone told me to go ahead and write without researching too much, but maybe it's my inner scientist in me that's screaming at me to work hard as possible. However the final yield of this research has helped me grow so much and has highlighted part of the problem I've had with the initial first draft and guided me in a direction that not only works from a plot engineering perspective but brings in some realism and credibility. Sometimes utter, unbridled freedom can make a writer spin and turn and realise that every direction in the desert looks the same, well for me anyway. Research gives me the boundaries and highlights a path to follow, marking areas for me with neon signs saying "this is off limits" because it is factually incorrect as well as opening doors also to areas that did not occur to me before.

Research doesn't have to be constricting either, I think aspects can influence ideas and facts for a work of fiction you can bend and distort, and while it may not work in reality or be scientifically correct, it could seem plausible because there is a factual basis for it. I read an interesting blog post which addresses this better than I possibly could: , even fantasy writers who don't necessarily need to do background research could benefit from some extra background reading.

May 13, 2010

Figuring out how to edit a novel: begin again

A lot of things bother me about the 1st draft of my novel: the narrative, the structure, awkward subplots, too much rambling and not enough showing and the list can go on and on like Jacob's Ladder. Still, I love a challenge and I like the idea of what the novel could become, so time for action. I've spent the last month when I've not been doing physics, procrastinating, bleeding on paninis and drinking, thinking about the novel, making notes on the themes I am interested in incorporating, doing research into topics that require background knowledge and character sketches and it has left me with a myriad of ideas! But everything, the conclusions yielded from my research and my exploration of themes in addition to simple, technical things all directed me to the same plan of attack: re-write the whole novel from scratch using the 1st draft as a very basic story board. 

I wondered about whether this is a good idea or not. Most writing books I've read talk about editing like a cosmetic process of tightening up plot holes and correcting technical errors. When I wrote the first draft was an inexperienced writer - I didn't realise then that you can shift POV in 3rd person; I never thought about clichés or adverbs. Now that I am conscious of at least the basics of writing, I feel I can write a better first draft than I could before. I've decided to sit down and plan the novel, working on each chapter at the time thinking about what questions do the make you ask and what incentive do they leave for you to carry on. It's not enough to write pretty prose - the prose needs to go somewhere. You need to give the reader a reason to care and the curiosity to read on. 

Writing is re-writing, and it's a phrase I've heard many times and never thought about what it means. Sometimes it means beginning a certain part again from scratch, and others it could refer to the whole thing. This is not a decision I have taken lightly, and it's not been easy to say "this version is no good - back to square one," but it's an executive decision I feel is worthwhile pursuing, a literary investment I suppose. 

April 29, 2010

The self-conscious desire to over-explain

Something I have the tendency to do whether it be fiction, blogging or even in academic writing is to reiterate the same point over and over again. Maybe I've done it on here, but I know in my private blog and my Madrid ones I am guilty as charged, and I do this certainly in my fiction - but I just don't realise it while writing and editing.

Repetition is fortunately one of the easiest faults to cure. It takes a couple of proof readers to look through the text and point out that I really don't need to say the same thing two, three, or four times. But why? Am I cursed with the memory of a goldfish or what? I thought a bit about this, and I think I understand the cause behind my need to hammer my point home until people vomit on the point I'm making (ok that maybe was a bit of an over-exaggeration). The reason, certainly in my case anyway, is insecurity.  I say something with subtlety in my writing, but self-conscious about whether I make that point I feel the need to state the obvious. Example:

"I glance at the stall on the street corner selling cheap imitations: a substitute for the real thing." 

There is no point to the second half of this sentence after the colon; it's just another way of saying something I have already said. Sometimes this can be something as obvious as saying the same thing in a different way, or as "subtle" as explaining something that should show itself through the action that is happening in the scene. An example I made up on the spot for demonstration purposes:

"Jane felt the gust of wind come in through the window, her skin bubbled up in goosebumps. She was cold." 

This is still pretty simple but it gets the point across. We know that Jane was cold as this is expressed by her biological reaction "her skin bubbled up in goosebumps".

Asides from insecurity, I also do this over-explaining because I am going for emphasis, but again, why do I need to say it twice when I can say it once effectively? Maybe this will only be something I can truly get rid off as my confidence grows and the less self-conscious my writing becomes or I just need to train my editing eye to notice this unnecessary repetition (along with clichés, passive voice, adverbs, POV issues etc).

April 27, 2010

Figuring out how to edit a novel: creating characters

 It's a surreal feeling, when you pick up a manuscript you've written but haven't read properly before. Writing puts you in such a different zone that you visualise everything with such intensity that everything you write feels Pulitzer worthy, but on re-reading what you really think is:did I really write this shit. I cringed through most my novel upon re-reading, especially since I know more about writing now as opposed to when I wrote it. Still, things can still be corrected and re-written which is a start, since all first drafts are shit, as Hemingway said. I've never been under any illusion that this novel won't require a lot of work: I expect hours of writing, re-writing, tossing manuscripts and bleeding on paninis.

But on the positive side: the concept works and the characters could be vivid and interesting. There is a lot potential in the manuscript even though it needs heavy-duty cosmetic surgery. By the time I will have finished this novel, it will be un-recognisable.

Since my last post, someone suggested I check out StoryMill  (a novel writing software),  which has helped a lot in the planning as well as organising my ideas. One of the tools in StoryMill are character notes, using this I spent over a week writing long and detailed biographies for each principle character. Even though the details and histories will not necessarily come up in the novel, as a writer, it gives me a better perspective of where my characters come from: who they are, how they would react in certain situations and why. Considering my novel depends a lot on psychology, I feel this is a particularly important part to address; I need to make my characters as real and believable as possible. When it comes to individual personalities, the most interesting things about them lie buried in their past, sometimes only alluded to, yet their reactions are rooted in this historical foundation of experiences which have formed their very natures. I think, and I could well be wrong, that writers who fail with real and intense characters in their novels don't think about them outside the context of the novel's plot. Sometimes it feels like a waste of time to think about things which don't happen on the page, but what happens off the page is equally important. When I feel lost in writing,  I turn to my characters to direct me as after all, it is their story.

April 7, 2010

Figuring out how to edit a novel: making lists

I have been writing: mostly about physics though,  but I still have been trying to keep up the work on the side. I feel like I've fallen out of the writing mode quite a bit since the pressure from the PhD can be felt intensely as I spent most of the holidays working on a report for my boss. I sat in little bohemian cafés with my new MacBook doing equations in LaTeX... not quite the cliché I guess.

However I decided - enough is enough - and it's now time to work on the novel. I printed out the 75,000 monster and looked at it terrified to read it for fear of it being shit. I read it, and of course, like all first drafts it was shit. At least I didn't lose myself in any delusions of being awesome and patting myself on the back for having written the great Anglo-Hungarian novel of the 21st century (although I could have, since there's not many of those around). I think the fact I have learned so much over the last 6 months has helped me keep a realistic perspective on my writing, so instead of believing what I want I can look at the manuscript and go "this is shit, but has potential - what can I do to make it less shit".

First, I read the whole thing while making notes of things which:
 a) immediately annoys me - changing point of view frequently being one of the main offenders
 b) what actually works - I have to say the premise of the novel and the possible character development is very interesting and could work very well, but I just need to figure out how to make it good. Having a good premise is not enough but it's a good start.
 c) what could be changed - there could be a scene which has potential but something doesn't quite work so to think about what changes would improve it.

I then sat down and summarised the novel chapter by chapter. I opened up a document in open-office and went through the manuscript marking where the chapters should be and proceeded to summarise them. This not only gives me a quick overview of the novel plot, but can help me do some plot edits and I can see in which order things come. Alas at the moment it's a non-linear mess which doesn't quite work and needs to be reorganised but I wouldn't have seen that had I not made a summary.

I then went through the summary and highlighted in green what stays, red what goes and yellow as to maybe go or just change.

I made some separate lists such as what works, what doesn't work, what should I do or include to make the plot more interesting and then some more specific lists to do with certain aspects of the plot.

So far I have a lot of lists, lot of ideas and too little time. I am trying to figure out the next stage. Maybe I'll copy paste the current summary and plan the plot and subplots around the points I made. Will it work? Who knows, but will see how it turns out.

March 5, 2010

Conveying Sexual Tension in Writing

I am working on a short story about two physicists working together on a night shift; there is a heightened sexual attraction between them but they can't follow it through due to social awkwardness, and instead the experiment just goes to pot. It's a farcical romantic comedy, with a strong underlying sexual tension to carry it through.

After each draft, I re-read it and asked myself (and willing victims who volunteer to read my stuff) if the tension comes through. One of the earlier drafts it didn't, so I started to think about what makes sexual tension, and how can I put that down in a story effectively. I've managed to do it before in another story told from third person, so maybe it was a perspective thing, as this one is done in first person present.

These are my theories on making the sexual tension work in a story, to really draw you into the page. Maybe the story isn't quite there yet, but I have the ideas on how to do it.

Firstly it's about physical reactions and sensations. The way the body reacts to someone you are attracted to: shortness of breath, hair standing on end, heart rate increasing, shaking, flutters in the stomach. The main thing noticed in sexual attraction are your own physical sensations, how lust affects the body's responses. But it takes two for some sexy tension, and you can't see the heart beat of the other person or see if their stomach tingles, so the next ingredient is body language.

Body language says a lot about what we think and feel. When we are attracted to someone else, we pay a lot of attention to their body and motions. We become uber observant. So, I not only made my character be very aware of her own sensations, but also aware of the other character's body language, and inferring what his intentions are from it.

Thirdly, words. What the character's say to each other and how they say it tells us a lot about the situation, and dialogue is a good device to create tension. Effective dialogue shows us a lot. Dialogue, beats and gestures in a scene can be used effectively in a scene to up the tension, not only sexual tension.

Finally, an especially useful device if you are going for first person: emotions and fantasies. A way I managed to really get the sexual tension through was to throw my character's sexual fantasies during inappropriate moments. This is not only realistic, but making the character yearn and desire something helps the story go on and gives us tension because they want something so badly.

Writing sexual tension is fun! What other devices do you think would work?

March 4, 2010

Bavarian Road Trip, and Why it Doesn't Work

The last three posts dealt with an excerpt of my work. As I said before: this was not my best stuff, in fact it's probably the worst thing I've written recently. While writing it, I was aware something wasn't right with it. While working on many different projects, this was my least favourite.

The first problem with BVRT is that the story doesn't go anywhere; this might be due it being an anecdotal story. One of the biggest pitfalls in writing from real life is that I get some kind of invisible blocker which makes it hard for me to change fact into fiction. I changed the characters names and descriptions and embellished a few events and details, but in general the story was pretty much the same. Real life is great for inspiration, but one needs to recognise when real life is just not that interesting written down on paper/screen. The story's conclusion ended on a point which was lacklustre, and made it hard to discern to readers if it was a short story, novel excerpt or whatever.

Secondly: there are too many different characters. In real life there were five of us, in the story I combined two characters so was left with four - the ideal number would be three. In a novel it can work having significant cast, but in the context of a short story any more than three characters over-saturates it. From a character perspective, it would have been better to combine the two Russians, taking the dominant traits from each one. Initially, the character of Jens was also two people, but I combined them  because I noticed that five was certainly too much!

Thirdly, it's too long. The ideal length for a short story is around 2000-4000 words, this one clocks in at about 6000+; so it could do with a lot of the details being cut out and such. Short stories are supposed to be tight and compact, where every detail or action should bear some relevance to the plot line. In this case, I could afford to drop a lot.

Also this has no theme. A general theme running through the story would help to give it some structure and point to it  - right now it's about four people who go to Oktoberfest and one guy gets lost. There is no merit to the story.

The truth is, it could be re-written. It would need a heavy re-write: structure the plot in a way that gives a firm conclusion, cut out one character, cut down the irrelevant details, add in a theme and change the title. But, I don't feel passionate about it. I wrote it because I was dry with ideas, so decided if I could make something readable from a stupid anecdote I like to tell at parties. Alas, I think my lack of interest shows. Although I did edit it line by line, trying to structure the best sentences I possibly could, and the actual writing and style in this  - in general, I am happy with. So from that perspective it was a good exercise. I also think the characterisations and descriptions were good, just the plot failed, and no plot pretty much fails the piece.

Anyway, it was also a good example of knowing when to drop something. Most things can be re-written, and in principle I could salvage something good in this. The real question is - do I want to? I know the answer, and the answer is no.

March 2, 2010

Sample: Bavarian Road Trip - part 3

Final instalment of my short story about Oktoberfest. Discussion still to come.


“Here we are.” Jens said. The building in front of us emanated the air of historic Germany, with its carved medieval arches and oak beams. A true Bavarian tavern, not a synthetic tent constructed in the muddy wastelands. I preferred it, less tourist-trap and more authentic Munich. Most importantly - taverns serve beer. I discovered that Hofbrauhaus played host to events marked by Nazi Germany; a sordid past that leaves an uncomfortable aftertaste now, yet during Oktoberfest I found the place deceptively charming.
The music of the Bavarian Oompa band invaded my ears with brass tubas, trumpets and the drunken incoherent singing of Bavarian songs as tourists hummed along, knowing neither the songs nor the German language. It proved to be a mission in finding a place to accommodate our needs, with most of the halls and rooms already full. We wondered the tavern looping on repeat until a vacancy presented itself in the large banqueting hall. We sat down to the accompanying wooden benches at a large oak table. Finally we could imbibe more beer. The cloned Oktoberfest waitress came to our table - another big breasted blonde with strong, meaty arms.
A traffic of people came and went, yet the medium of crowds did not lessen. Many tourists lite came, drank and took photos before going back to their luxury hotels - people who don't understand the ideology of festival, coming only to collect experiences and boast “been there, done that” to their unworldly friends.
The light in the sky went out and the darkness shoved the next act of the evening onto the stage; the hardcore transitioned from mildly tipsy to intoxicated. We shared the company of the Volkswagen office in Berlin who were in Munich for a bonding trip. They loved Ivan. His big mouth and acquired wit amused them. They clinked mugs together and they cried.
“I love Russia,” one of the men said, “I love Russian people, and I love you man.” he said to Ivan.
“Oh yes, I love you too. Lets be best friends man.” Ivan said; I wasn't sure if it was sarcasm.
“Jesus.” Jens rolled his eyes as he muttered under his breath. “Ivan's drinking from this morning is obviously catching up with him. Either that or the hardcore Russian can't hold his drink.”
“I know I can't.” I slurred. I held up the half litre of Hefeweissen. “I'm being a good girl, I switched to half litres two hours ago.”
“Why on Earth do you want to do that?” Ivan said, overhearing the last part of the sentence.
“Well someone has to get us home.” I defended.
Ivan scoffed. “More like you just want to save the embarrassment of us carrying you back.”
A huge roaring cheer contaminated our tables. Ivan's new best friend was up on the table gyrating. The crowd cheered him on. An Italian on the next table, in solidarity also mounted the table to dance. The Berliner unbuttoned his shirt, unashamed, he revealed his pasty chest. The cacophony of “Viva Colonia” sung by a choir of drunks filled the hall as moderation disappeared with the last beer. The Italian who danced on the other table mirrored the Berliner's striptease. They flung their shirts at the crowd who enthusiastically cheered on or scoffed in disgust. Either way the noise echoed.
The tavern security intervened when the two men reached the fly of their trousers. Our two strippers too intoxicated to know better reacted with hostility when the guards handed their shirts back to them.
“Vaffanculo!” The Italian shouted. He threw the shirt to the guard as a form of protest. A frown marred the guard's face. He forcibly grabbed the Italian by the arm and dragged him off the table. He hit the floor hard, but he retained the mobility to jump up to punch the guard. His companions leaped to restrain the violent drunk. The guard's eyes were serious as he expelled the group with a single hand gesture; the Italians understood and vacated the premises taking their feuding friend with them. The guards turned to the Berliner who took the shirt compliantly with a small and embarrassed smile; without further conflict the German stripper left with his friends.
The mob cheered and booed, though within minutes they all forgot the events with an alcoholics amnesia with next beer.
Yuri sat and drank. His face was devoid of expression. The way he lifted his beer to and from his lips followed a mechanical line of a forklift truck. Ivan, although proud of his Russian ability to hold his drink started to squint and slur; Yuri said nothing, his hand was steady and his features fixed in place, fooling sobriety. He took a bored sigh.
“I go to toilet.” Yuri said. He excused himself from the bench, the world swayed around the upright Yuri.

The night dragged on, many drank beer and many pissed beer. It was the natural cycle of life in Oktoberfest.
I noticed the hands on my watch pointed to three.
“Can we go home now?” I said. Being awake for over twenty-two hours plus the influence of beer held a severe grasp on me.
“Good idea.” Jens said, he yawned. “We have to drive back tomorrow and I need sleep.”
Ivan slumped over the table with his arms crossed. He lifted his head and looked around the tavern; he sat up in a jerk.
“Where the fuck is Yuri?” he said.
I looked around our table. Yuri was not there. I last remembered him going to the bathroom, but some how none of us noticed him return, or rather not return.
“Shit.” Ivan slurred and put down his beer, the piss-coloured liquid swished inside the wobbled glass when it hit the table. “I'll go and see if he passed out in the toilet.” Ivan stumbled off.
He came back with his eyes wide open and his mouth frowning down.
“You guys I can't find Yuri.” he said.
“What do you mean you can't find him?” Jens said. He leaned on his elbow for support. “He can't have gone far, he has to be here.”
“I'm telling you guys he's not in the toilet, I looked round the entire tavern and I haven't seen him, hell I even asked the fucking security guy if he saw him.”
“And, what did he say?” I said.
“That they are best friends and brought a house in Swizerland together – what do you think? He laughed at me, the amount of people who pass through this place today is uncountable.” he brushed his black hair back. Jens propped himself up.
“So What do we do?” he asked. “Does he have a handy on him?”
“Nope.” Ivan said. “He's just visiting from Moscow, so of course he doesn't have a German phone, the idiot didn't bring his Russian one either.”
“Does he have one of our numbers?” I said.
Ivan shook his head.
“Jesus!” Jens exclaimed. “He doesn't speak German, he barely speaks English, he doesn't know where we are staying and he doesn't have our numbers. Well that's just great, What do you propose we do?”
“Ah he'll be fine!” Ivan said with a dismissive hand gesture. “Yuri's Moscow – born and bred, he's a tough bastard, he has tonnes of money on him, so he'll be fine. It's his damn fault he walked off in the first place.”
Jens and I look at each other, we probably thought the same thing. We looked back at Ivan with a bemused look.
“What?” Ivan said. He stepped back and put his hands out in a defensive gesture. “Yuri is perfectly capable of looking after himself. He disappeared around eleven, at...” he looked at his watch “three am I highly doubt he is coming back.”
“Ivan has a point.” I said to Jens. “If he's gone then he isn't coming back. Staying here all night wont help.”
“Fine.” Jens shrugged. “We might as well go back to the apartment and get some sleep. Yuri walked off, then Yuri can take care of himself - I don't care. He is not my problem.”
Yuri left us. He had to deal with his own consequences.

The car was more spacious on the journey back to the relief of every aching muscle in my body. The light of dim clouded skies even scattered with drops of rain hurt my eyes. The car bumped along the road, Ivan groaned in the back as he lay down trying to sleep. We no longer carried the crate of beer and we missed a Russian so I sat in the front in first class luxury. Jens' face was grim, his mouth turned down and his lines highlighted his age.
“How long have we been on the road for?” Ivan groaned waking up. Stretching his limbs as far as he could in that cramped back seat.
“Two hours.” Jens said, his voice matched his somber expression.
Ivan took his glasses off to rub the bridge of his nose; he scrunched his eyes and felt in his pocket for his cell phone.
“You know, I think I'm gonna try to call the lab, maybe Yuri turned up there.” he said sitting up.
I grunted and hit my head against the window again. The cold glass against my forehead soothed the impending headache. The road shone from the rain and the wind-screen wipers bat against the transparent front window. Jens drove on with a scowl.
Ivan took the phone out and punched in the numbers with a loud tap forcing the sticky keys; he put the phone to his ear. My hangover did not appreciate the loud Russian shouting of Ivan on the phone. Fortunately, most of the dialogue came via a dim voice from the other end sprinkled with occasional bouts of laughter from Ivan. Jens and I darted looks of curiosity between us, a mutual anticipation to know the meaning behind the strange language of untranslated words. Twenty minutes later Ivan hung up. I turned round and faced the back with wide eyes; Ivan still laughed.
“So?” I asked. “What happened?”

Yuri found himself wondering lonely city streets. The flashing digits on his watch told him it was three in the morning. He could not remember where he was or how he got there. He looked at dark buildings finding it hard to decipher their architectural characteristics. He walked around hoping to find his memory lost somewhere in a back street. While Yuri searched for clues, he noticed the Latin - not Cyrillic- lettering on shop signs, posters and street names. He knew English, but it wasn't English and it certainly wasn't Russian. He realised the first simple fact – he was not in Moscow. Yuri thought hard for an answer to his questions - When did he leave Moscow? How did he leave Moscow? Where the fuck am I? Intoxication lingered in the bitter taste of stale saliva, a good night wasted in lost memories.
He looked at the unfamiliar language for more clues found between the umlauts and the queer “B”s which coiled like “S”s; he matched features to the language: German. But which German speaking country? Germany? Austria? Switzerland? He remembered then an experiment scheduled in Darmstadt for the end of October. The date on his watch agreed with his hypothesis, he at least knew which country he was in. He checked his front pocket finding a bunch of fifty euro notes crammed in like used handkerchiefs.
He swayed into a main road. Seeing a taxi parked outside a Kebab shop, Yuri ran across the tarmac careful not to trip again on his stumbling legs. He opened the door of the taxi and scrambled in the back. The cab driver turned with a furrowed bushy brows and his mouth dripped with the yogurt sauce from his kebab. Yuri released an awkward grin, realising he can't speak German he opened and closed his mouth like a fish.
“Wixhausen, Wixhausen,” Yuri eventually said. He leaned forward and thrust a fifty euro note in the taxi driver's hand. The cabbie shook his head; his eyes and mouth wide open.
“Waß?” he said in a strong Turkish accent.
“Wixhausen, Wixhausen... bitte.” Yuri repeated, proud for remembering the German word for please. But the taxi driver's face enhanced his look of horror with his eyeballs protruding further out their sockets in the certainty he did not mishear. Wixhausen is a real village located in the suburbs of Darmstadt, but harbours another more sordid meaning as phonetically it translates to “Wank town”. The taxi driver's lips tightened. He got out of the car and walked to the back, wrenching the rusted handle with a jerk he opened the door. He looked Yuri in the eye, those beady eyes filled with a mix of fear and hostility. He swung his arm away from the car violently gestured for Yuri to get out the car. Yuri blinked and took out another fifty euro bill. The taxi driver looked at the hundred euros with a snarl of disgust, throwing the money back in Yuri's childlike face. He shouted a mixture of German and Turkish profanities while dancing on the spot in a frustrated fury. Yuri blinked again. He looked at the notes and counted his money, he took out the rest of the crumpled bills from his pocket and handed over everything he had - taxis must be expensive in Germany. The cabbie's face flushed scarlet. He growled like a pig pulling Yuri out of the car, Yuri clung to the sides and knocked his arm against the rim of the door. He stumbled up the side of the car bracing himself for a punch but the taxi driver only stuffed the money back into Yuri's coat pocket before pushing him into the middle of the road. Yuri lips turned down and his round eyes widened; he turned back and watched the taxi driver jump into the front of the car and speed off. The tires screeched on the damp road.
Yuri slumped down onto the curbside. He leaned against the cold concrete he wondered if he mispronounced please in German. The sweaty fumes of meat from the kebab shop cut through the chilly night with warm promises. His stomach still swimming in beer pulled at him like an alcoholic to an off-license. He walked into the neon lit shop jumping at the loud blaring buzzer attached to the door. Yuri found himself greeted by the leather faced proprietor standing behind the counter, with pinprick holes for eyes set in yellowish white sockets. Yuri shifted from one foot to the other nervously and pointed to the first picture on the menu. He said nothing, just pointed. After the taxi driver he was too scared to even say please. The owner looked at the picture and mumbled something in confirmation, Yuri just nodded. He held his finger out again pointing to the picture, he repeated the number in Russian, English and with his hands. The man nodded and turned to scrape the waxy turnstile of meat.
Posters of Turkish tourism were decorated the shop, old yellowed fliers flaked off the walls promoting local businesses. The same word word stood out though; found on all fliers, business cards, and even the kebab menus. The footer of the address contained the word “München”. The man placed Yuri's doner on the counter. Still looking at the business card, Yuri put some coins down on the counter and placed the card besides it pointing to the word.
“ München?” Yuri asked. The man blinked with long lashed eyes.
“Ja?” he said.
“München?” Yuri tapped his finger again to the word.
“Waren sind in München,” the Turk said. “Munich” he pointed to the ground. “Munich – München.” his fingers traced an arc towards the street. “This Munich” he stuttered in English.
“Not Darmstadt?” Yuri said, optimistic at recognising some English.
“No Darmstadt, Munich.” the man said.
Yuri took the kebab with him into the street; he bit into the concoction of reconstituted meat and yogurt sauce. He thought - How the fuck did I get to Munich? I only realised I'm in Germany half an hour ago! Darmstadt he could accept, but Munich? He sat down on a bench, his stomach thanked him for the food, his taste-buds didn't. He thought hard, defragmenting old memories. He remembered the lab. He remembered going to Darmstadt, or more specifically Wixhausen. He remembered working with Ivan and the conversation about a road-trip. A road-trip to Oktoberfest.
The power went back on in his head and left only with only a few damaged fuses the black out was finally over. He remembered the road trip; driving down from Darmstadt, the drinking in the tent and the tavern. He looked at his watch – four am – no point trying the tavern, it would be closed.
He remembered the apartment; they had gone to Jens' sister's place to drop off their bags in the morning before the festival, an open spaced apartment in an old building with an wrought iron balcony. He got up with a new purpose to find the apartment his friends stayed in. He looked at the street, should he take right or left? It didn't matter, he had no idea where he was going anyway, he now relied on pure luck to get him there so he turned left and started walking.
When the sun was dim on the horizon and a mist came down from the mountains he reached the cold part of the morning; the warmth of the beer had worn off. But Yuri was tough, he was Russian – he survived his military service in Siberia, for him this was summer. But he craved a warm, comfy bed to sleep in and a glass of water to wash the stale taste of beer from his mouth. The city was illuminated by grey light on its grey stones by six in the morning. He recognised the centre realising he had come back in full boomerang.
The edifice of the Hauptbahnhof offered an appealing temptation. He could go back to Darmstadt. He had money, he could get on a train and be home by midday. He felt torn about leaving his friends behind but by now it was too late. Inside he looked around the imposing structure of rectangular steel pillars, and he trembled at the thought of administrative procedures since he didn't know how to buy a ticket, or how to even ask for one. He was still afraid to say please in German for fear of getting kicked out, he wanted an alternative. He had money on him, and there was always the option on getting on a train to Darmstadt and paying the guard money if he needed to. A train presented itself with Frankfurt as the destination, due to stop in Darmstadt. He ran to the platform and got on the sleek, white ICE train. Yuri found a comfortable empty seat in a dark corner on the train, he slipped into it and fell unconscious. When he woke up, he arrived in Darmstadt. Yuri had crossed half of Germany for free.

“Stupid asshole doesn't remember what happened between the time he left the table and when he realised he wasn't in Moscow.” Ivan said.
“I find that impossible to believe, he seemed sober.” I said.
“Oh Russian's don't get drunk like normal people.” Ivan said. “We can take a lot but there is no transition, you can flip between stone cold sober to utterly wasted. That, my friends, is what happened to Yuri.”
“Bastard.” Jens said.
“Why do you say that?”
“He's back in Darmstadt and I have to drive this piece of shit another three hours, in the rain no less.”
“I'm not complaining.” I said. “I'm not being squished against the window for five hours. Means I can pass out in luxurious comfort.”
The car ambled on down the German highway. The entire party tired, hung over and missing one Russian.

February 25, 2010

Sample: Bavarian Road Trip - part 2

Part two of my failed anecdotal short story. Part 3 and commentary to come, on why this doesn't work and what I could do to improve it, and why I won't work on this any more. The formatting might be screwed so apologies for that.


Oktoberfest resembled a theme park designed by Hell. The gaudy and the obscene adorned the fairground rides in pretence of Bavarian authenticity, where coloured lights flash neon and people wear lederhosen in public. A multitude of drunk Italians and Americans invaded the converted wastelands, where unconscious bodies already lay in the mud besides the tacky souvenir stalls.
People packed themselves into tents in the late morning with a sole purpose – to drink a magnum of beer and intoxicate themselves into oblivion. The tents were full and once they were full no one goes in, only a few come out. Those who do come out only do so in order to throw up.
“There's no point, we got here too late.” Jens said, he slurred his words in exhaustion, unenthusiastic to go drinking.
“This queue isn't moving.” Ivan said. “See that moron in the feathered cap? I saw him here about half an hour ago when we tried that tent over there. He hasn't budged an inch. So what do we do then. We are here in Munich, in Oktoberfest and we can't get a fucking beer.”
“What about that one.” I pointed to a small tent in front of us. The queue moved slowly. “They are letting people in, and people are coming out too.”
“That's the lunch tent. They serve food there.” Jens said.
“Do they serve beer?” I said.
“Yes, but you have to eat food to go in there.”
“Well I'm starved, I could eat something. Hey it's better then nothing, no? We can down a few litres of beer along with lunch.”
The boys looked at each other, each shrugged in turn and gave a communal nod. We left the stagnant queue to cross the mud to join the another. Our plan - to drink vast quantities of beer under the pretense of eating food

All the orphaned drinkers came here looking for adoption. True to German efficiency, they vacuum packed us into neat lines onto wooden pews inside this caricature of a tavern decorated with kinder surprise ornaments. The loud multilingual shouting - as alcoholic tourists asserted themselves after their fifth breakfast beer - made it hard to converse at a standard volume. The menu offered meat, mostly pork, including five different types of sausages. A buxom waitress with yellow pigtails came to our table
“Vier mass.” Jens said.
The waitress came back, carrying a dozen litres of beer with her strong, meaty arms and the tray of her ample breasts. I wonder if it is a pre-requisite for Oktoberfest waitresses to possess a DD cup or up?
I picked up the giant mug and I felt small and insignificant - it was heavy. The golden liquid swished inside the cup as I raised my arm and my muscles clenched to our toast. Each glass emitted a musical chime when we knocked them together. My first Oktoberfest beer.
“Here's to getting utterly trashed.” Ivan said, when we toasted.
“I'll toast to that.” I said.
Our food arrived and we all had sausages; the waitress threw down our weapons for attack missing the set belonging Yuri. He grabbed the frauline by the arm and she turned. Yuri blushed. He panicked when he remembered he didn't know any German. He lifted his hand and mimed the action of cutting a steak, his face contorted into accompanying expressions. His hands flapped about and his mouth stifled cries. The waitress knotted her brows deciphering Yuri's overacted charade, until Jens tapped her on the arm. He explained in German, she looked back at Yuri's acting once more and gave an awkward nod to Jens. She finally brought Yuri the knife and fork he danced for.
The boys drank gulps of beer more generously; advocating the slow food movement as they ate slowly. The pace of ordered beers became sped up as they got through three mass each by the end of lunchtime. I nursed the same mug for the hour we ate. When the forks were placed in the finished position, the waitress took our plates, our money and ushered us to the door. Staying there and drinking was obviously not an option. With only two bites left Jens cordially ordered me another beer which I had to down in a swig as soon as I finished my food. My stomach expanded and contracted from the shock. I felt tipsy and nauseous when we emerged in Oompa land.

“So what now?” Ivan said. “We can't stop here. Lets go on a ride.”
“Are you high? I'll throw up if we go somewhere like that.” I said.
“We could go into Munich.” Jens said. “There are lots of bars there equipped to deal with people from Oktoberfest. We can drink beer and sight see too.”
“Is it far?” Ivan moaned. “I want a beer at least to last us the walk.”
“Half an hour without alcohol will not kill you Ivan.” I said.
Leaving the grounds did not admit defeat for we had more adventures to attend to. I saw the city in a haze. It was only lunchtime and I already staggered. A chaos expelled and inhaled by the festival included the sights of unconscious tourists in Bavarian attire; Japanese taking photographic documentation of the strange and the mundane and Italians who shouted insults with vivid hand movements. I expected the crowds to thin out the closer we approached the city centre, but we found other Oktoberfest outcasts looking for a home to drink in.
The mist of the alpine humidity trapped inside the city made the November air cold and damp. Jens and Ivan moved with non-linear motion down the street. I grabbed onto the railings, leaned on the walls or whatever object I found to support my left. Yuri maintained a sober line while Ivan still held onto his wit and argued constantly.
Munich is a beautiful city, it is very grand, traditional and catholic. The centre consists of stone churches and cathedrals, but it was the cleanliness of Munich that left a lasting impression. Germany is tidy - Darmstadt and Frankfurt - the cities I know intimately are well cared for, yet I found them shabby in comparison to Munich. Even in the face of it's mass alcoholic tourism Munich retained the vibe of a city proud of its personal hygiene. The imposing towers of Fraukirche dominated the skyline with its rotund, green topped phallic-mammary towers – a hermaphrodite morph of the masculine and feminine.
“Hey know what would be fun?” Ivan said. “Look at that fountain?”
“What about it?” I said.
“It has stepping stones.” he grinned.
“You are kidding me.” Jens said. His voice held a tinge of slur set against a serious background.
Ivan still grinned. “Jens when are you going to stop being such a pussy?” he said. He walked on over to the fountain, and started hopping the little stone ornaments in the water. Jens rolled his eyes accompanying the disapproving locals who gaped at Ivan. Yuri yipped and ran in after Ivan, his natural clumsiness caused him to lose his balance and he fell into the water. I felt a grin cross my face. The fun tempted me and I moved forward.
“Oh no, not you too Jessie.” Jens groaned.
“Live a little Jens.” I said. I went after the Russian frogs hopping on stone lily-pads. No one stopped us. Perhaps during Oktoberfest the Muncheners tolerate anything short of vandalism, violence or litter. The many drunks that walked past us cheered on in solidarity.
“Come on.” Jens called after us. “If we don't go now we won't even get into a bar. The fountain will be there later.”
The three of us looked at each other for a response, Jens did have a good point, with the Russian indecisiveness I led us out of the fountain; Jens grumbled with both his eyes and arms crossed. Yuri tripped again on a stepping stone, soaking his trousers. Ivan came back with a hop.
“So lets get more booze then shall we.” Ivan grinned. Jens sighed tutting, he pointed a digit towards the main square marking the route to follow.

February 24, 2010

Sample: A Bavarian Road Trip - part 1

I've debated with myself whether to post any of my own work here, but anything that shows promise and I want to publish someday is a no no to post online for a blog, and anything crap is well... crap. This story is basically a fictionalised anecdote about Oktoberfest, which I used essentially as a medium to experiment on editing and style. As a short story it doesn't work; it's pretty much biographical - it runs more or less the same way as events did in real life. With some tightening up and trying to wrap up some kind of theme in it might make it work... but truth be told is I have many other projects I am working, so bye bye. Unfortunately, this means I am only going to post my worst stuff on here... so please try not to judge too harshly, but hope there is something here which can be enjoyed :)

I'll probably write a full commentary after posting the full story about why it doesn't work, and what does (in my opinion). The format comes out a bit screwed on here, so my apologies.


I woke up with my stomach in the air. The car drove over a bump in the road;
its insides shook and banged. I squinted out the window and at 80km/h the
rocky landscape of pine clad hills shrouded in morning mists cycled by.
Momentary glimpses of ruined castles appeared and disappeared into view,
scattered on top of mountain peaks like rejects from a fairytale.

    Wedged in by the window and crammed into the back seat, two Russians
competed for space next to me.Elbows thrusting into bruised flesh with
 the clammy heat of human contact tenderising tired muscles.
     “Morning Jessie, beer?” Ivan said, he thrust a bottle of Binding in my face.
     “What time is it?” I said. I pulled the lank hair out of my face and my
mouth gaped for oxygen. Ivan glanced at his counterfeit­ designer watch.
     “Just gone eight,” he replied.
     “It's eight am,” I rubbed my eyes for sleep dust, “and you guys have
already started to drink?” I said. I could feel my face twist in disapproval.
     “Not me,” Jens,the Germanic teddy bear in the front, said. “I'm driving,
only those two are drinking.”
      The car stunk of rotten hops; bottles both full and empty rattled on
the floor and leaped off the front passenger seat. 
     “You sure you don't want a beer?” Ivan persisted. His grin widened
and his eyes offered a further slant as he attempted to push the bottle up
my nose. I felt the gag reflex as I caught the stale scent oozing out of the
green glass cylinder. Yuri leaned forward and pointed to his beer while
grinning. He stuck his thumb up in approval. 
     “No thanks I think I'll wait until I've at least had breakfast.” I said,
feeling my stomach crunch. 
     “You know what you guys are? You're a bunch of pussies.” Ivan said
loudly. He downed the contents of his bottle. “You guys have nothing on us
Russians.” He beat his chest proudly before pointing to Jens and myself.
     “You not Russian, you from Vladivostok,” Yuri said.  “Your family
 were Chinese.” Even when he attempted humour, Yuri sounded like
someone just died.
     “Hey my family have been in Russia for generations, just because
I have Asian ancestry doesn't make me any less Russian you motherfucker,”
Ivan snapped back.
     “Oh Shut up!” Jens shouted. “It's bad enough I've been driving this piece
of shit since five am, I don't need you two getting drunk and going all
 'Crime and Punishment' on me.”
     “When are we stopping?” I whined, desperate to extend my body since
I am not a contortionist. 
     “Soon, we can get hold of some coffee and food.”
     “And more beer.” Yuri said with a grin. He lifted his bottle and wiggled it.
     “You guys won't be able to walk by the time we get to Munich” I said.
     “Nonsense – we give harder stuff to children for breakfast” Ivan said.
“I have some Hefeweissen too if you want, it's essentially liquid bread.”
He reached into the crate on the front seat and pulled out a bottle of
     “Get that away from me! ” I squirmed.
     Ivan took the credit for the Oktoberfest road trip. He suggested we take
 Jens's car and crash at Jens's sister's place ­ actually I don't know if Jens
had any say in the matter.

 The hours when the drunks are unconscious in their beds and the
workaholics wait for their morning alarms to explode, we bundled into the
sardine tin that Jens called his car. I sleep­walked from the house to the
vehicle, unconscious again before we even left Darmstadt. I woke up
somewhere outside Stuttgart.  Two Russians, one German and one
English going to a beer festival sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.
     Jens pulled into the rest stop and the engine turned off with a
mechanical whimper. We all looked bad in our own way; Jens had black
circles under the eyes, Yuri's skin was fish pale, Ivan's glasses were twisted
in Picassoesque proportions and my hair showed trademarks of Medusa's
hairdresser. I'm sure our combined odor made people move tables in the
     Like all aesthetically deprived roadside structures, the station kept in
Vogue with its concrete blocks, metal hinges and glass doors. We walked
through the glass doors to the oasis of exhausted travellers where quality
becomes irrelevant because you just don't care anymore. We entered the
café and sat down to wobbling tables and the cold metal chairs; after
spending hours crammed in the back of the banger I relished the luxurious
leg room. Jens returned to the table carrying a vision piled with pastries and
magnum sized coffees caffeine and food enough to fuel a bus. Jens
encouraged gluttony with good reason ­ we planned to drink a lot and
something needed to soak the renegade alcohol from nausea. He chucked
back successive cups of black coffee and took large bites from the pastry to
cleanse the palette before attacking the next quadruple espresso.
     Our table attracted disapproving looks and conspiring whispers from the
other customers as our two Russians became animated in Slavic discussion,
which, to the tone deaf ear sounded like they should take it outside.
     I rolled my eyes and looked across the table back to Jens,noticing he might
 smile if one placed a mirror under his chin.
     “What time will we get to Munich” I said.     “Two hours maybe if we are lucky.” Jens said in a monotonous and dry voice.
“I told my sister we would be at her place around 10.30.”
     “That's if your car doesn't fall apart first.” Ivan said with a snigger.
     “Hey, my car is an East German classic.” Jens said. I couldn't tell from his tone if he joked ­ Germans seldom joke – his voice rarely varied
with emotion.

     “It wont be much of a classic if it breaks down between Stuttgart and Munich. Your car is already a piece of junk.”
     “Hey Ivan, you can walk to Munich if you want, or maybe if you start
 walking back to Darmstadt now and we can hoot at you on our way
     “I swear Jens, the amount of weed you smoked in your youth has warped your mind man.”
     “You're one to talk 'Mr. I drink vodka for breakfast'.” Jens said. 
     “Hey vodka is at least legal asshole,” Ivan said, animating his voice and
pointed his finger back at Jens.
     “Oh shut up.” I said. I put my hands on my ears. “I am tired, sleep
deprived and in two hours time we are going to be imbibing beer by the
litre. Can we have some peace for five sodding minutes?”
     “But we already drink beer.” Yuri said. His cupcake eyes oblivious to the
conflict while wearing a smile of idiots ignorance.
I threw a sugar packet at Yuri. Crystalline flakes scattered across the table
served as a reminder that I don't appreciate humour beforemy third morning
     “Hey Jessie it's OK to drink like a girl, when you are one.” Ivan said,
he winked like a Eurotrash star.
I passed a scowl to him. “Don't give me shit just because I don't have a liver
of steel.”
     “Enough of the bitch fights. Lets eat up and get back on the road. I told
my sister we would be there before 11 and it's...” Jens looked at his watch.
 “already 8.30.”
     “Stop being so bloody German Jens.” Ivan said, he lent back and
threw his hands up. 
     “Guys as much as I love all the little racist stereotypes, and how cute it is
to see you guys bicker like old women, it's too early for this.” I said.
I downed the bitter liquid and picked up the sticky bread. “Come on then
lets get back on the road.”
     “What?” The guys said in unison, still they sat with drooping eyes. 
     “Why waste time on breakfast when we could be in Munich drinking
liquid bread in a couple of hours?”
Jens got up from the chair and the Russians remained continuing their
discussion.  Ivan looked up sensing movement; he found himself subjected
to our mean stares he dragged Yuri out by the collar. The Russians got into the back of the car leaving only a tiny corner left for me to morph into.
     “Remind me again why the front seat is unavailable?” I asked Jens.
     “Ask these two here,” he pointed to the back-seat drinkers “they are the one who insisted on bringing not only luggage but also a crate of
beer as well.”
     “And the boot?” I asked in vain since I assumed the answer wouldn't be
good. “Can we not put things there?”
     “Um... it's jammed shut, can't open it.” Jens brushed his shaggy brown hair back.
     “Can we move their crap to the back seat?” I said, signs of my desperation for space cracked at the seams.
     “No time, we really must get going now.”
I sighed, I got back into the car and I squeezed myself next to Ivan, Jens closed the door applying the extra force to stuff us in. I had to survive
the next three hours until Munich and prayed I wouldn't get deep vein
thrombosis on the way. Ivan offered me a beer, but his eyes offered comfort
instead of mockery this time. I took the bottle in self­-medication.