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Obscure Horrors

Alison Flood’s article article in The Guardian set me thinking about horror/supernatural fiction. Readers cite the usual horror suspects (King, Poe, Shirley Jackson…) but I remember as a reader that my literary scares came from reading short stories in old anthologies borrowed from libraries or unearthed in clearance book sales. I discovered new names and old names; wonderful tales by one-hit wonders and stories by writers that you’d normally would not associate with horror/ supernatural fiction.

Links to more available editions  are included where possible.

1)  “Not Exactly Ghosts”  Andrew Caldecott (Wordsworth Editions 2007)
Sir Andrew Caldecott is better known as a diplomat and ex-governor of Hong Kong and Singapore. His administrative legacy endures (Mediacorp, the home of Singapore Broadcasting, resides on Caldecott Hill) but his literary legacy is criminally underrated. Buy this if you want subtle early 20th-Century ghost stories, where mundane objects like a water pump, a pair of trousers and a church organ are haunted .

2)“The Party” “The Partnership” William F. Nolan
What? Horror from one of the writers of “Logan’s Run”? I had to struggle to put the 1976 movie out of my head, Nolan writes superb dark psychological tales and “The Party” was as chosen by Newsweek as one of the top ten most effective horror stories. “The Partnership” is an unsettling sample of American Gothic that was adapted for the anthology TV series “Darkroom” in 1980. Now I want a copy of “Logan’s Run” because the book is much grittier and deserves better, before Hollywood got its mitts on it for the movie.

3)”Video Nasty” Phillip Pullman (1996). Published in “The Mammoth Book of Modern Ghost Stories” edited by Peter Haining (Mammoth Books 2007)

Yes, dear reader you read the name correctly. Mr. Pullman, of “Northern Lights” fame . Just like its title, “Video Nasty” is an unmercifully visceral short ghost story that raises more troubling questions than answers. Parallels between ‘The Ring’ are merely coincidental (it was written 3 years before the Japanese film version hit mainstream Western audiences)

4) The Machine Stops E.M Forster
A dystopian science-fiction story by one of the foremost critics of science-fiction. This is not a horror story but I urge you not to shudder at Forster’s vision of future humans reduced to fungoid growths by their slavish dependence on technology.

5) The Lamp Agatha Christie(1933). Published in“The Hound of Death and other stories”  (Harper Collins Ltd)

The Queen of Crime also reigns supreme as a ghost story writer . Poignant and eerie, “The Lamp” has a unique atmosphere that does not disperse, even when you have switched on all the lights.

6) All But Empty Graham Greene
A murder is connected to an afternoon matinee attended by only two people. Invariably, there is a twist ending but *what* a twist it is.

7) Close Behind Him John Wyndham
In his famous novels such as ‘The Day of the Triffids’ and ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, Wyndham created his own genre of ‘logical fantasy’ and he applies the same precise structuring and prose to this story of murder avenged.

8) The Ball Room, China Mieville “Looking For Jake and Other Stories” (Pan, 2006)
Can China Mieville’s prose hack it in a real-world setting? It does and you almost wish he wrote more contemporary fiction. You will never dare go near a children’s play area after reading this.

9) The Dancing Partner Jerome K. Jerome
The author of the classic comic novel “Three Men In a Boat” displays a rarely-seen warped sense of humour in this tale of a toy dancing-partner that *never* wants to stop dancing.

10) The Signalman Charles Dickens
Incisive social commentary of Victorian England? Check. Effortless lucid prose from a master writer? Check. Eccentric ghosts a la “A Christmas Carol”? Absent. A disturbing ending that ensures sleeping with all the lights on? Present.

What are your favourite horror stories? Other suggestions/ additions to this list? Comment below, thank you

UPDATED! List: 130+ Asian Speculative Fiction Authors (with links)

Eeleen Lee:

So proud to be included on this list!

Originally posted on Carrie Cuinn:

Updated to add suggestions from the comments/email/Twitter. All authors mentioned prior to 4/3/2014 now included. If you’re not on this list but should be, or you’re on it but want me to link to a more recent story or current website, please comment below.

I’ve been wanting to expand my reading to include more international speculative fiction, and more non-white American authors. I am privileged to know a couple of brilliant writers who also happen to be Asian, and that seemed a good place to start my reading*. I put together a list of work I’d been meaning to explore, and then solicited ideas from Twitter and the SFWA forums. Most people suggested the same couple of names over and over again… while it’s, honestly, wonderful that we’ve reached a point in SF/F where these authors are being read and discussed at all, there’s so much more diversity in our…

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Festive food

Happy New Year to all blog readers. The annual exodus back to my parents’ hometown happened. Which could be connected to the Year of The Horse.

Ahh food, the staple of any festive season. Food lubricates the merrymaking machine, along with alcohol ( for Chinese New Year, its Henessey X.O or Jolly Shandy), providing a sense of  family. However, as I gaze upon jar after jar of pineapple tarts, love-letters and mini deep fried prawn rolls,  the festive machinery has started to be rendered obsolete by modern methods of crass production.

Take the pineapple tarts, for example, or rather, don’t take them. Especially when you get the type  shaped like stuffed dormice and the jam filling looks like jellied hamster turds, instead of golden dollops of sweetness. Mini prawn rolls fare no better when they are compacted and deep-fried to an unbelievable hardness. The riot police will be using prawn rolls instead of plastic bullets to disperse unruly crowds. Love-letters are aptly named- after being stored in a Milo tin for two or three days, they fragment into forlorn shards, and you are left to pick up the pieces while all your aunts tactfully inquire, “Waah! Still not married yet?”.

The quality of foodstuff is not strained; it droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven. I am not asking for manna during any festive season but I protest the wanton proliferation of substandard manufactured traditional foods. Whereby mass production churns out copies of copies, until the originals are rendered meaningless and forgotten.

Why do we eat pineapple tarts during Chinese New Year? Who invented the pineapple tart? When was the first recorded pineapple tart consumed? These may seem like inane questions but at least mull over them when you unscrew the red plastic lid off the pineapple tart jar. Perhaps, once upon a time, a single pineapple tart contained a whole pineapple, as prawn rolls must have contained whole prawns before being downsized to their modern pellet-shaped incarnations. Love letters used to stand the test of time (until Chap Goh Meh) despite being shaken and stirred in a metal tin.

The obvious solution against crass production would be to make your own festive tidbits, but that is unfeasible with time-pressed modern families. As I watch my cousin bang away on the piano, I declare that we should also ( try to) enjoy any festive season while we can, and insist on quality over quantity. It sounds like a dreadful cliche but you do not want to be saddled with jars of stuffed dormice, riot pellets and shattered love letters after Chap Goh Meh. Particularly when you can’t give them away for Valentine’s Day.

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“Oil on Canvas” in Love in Penang

Oil on Canvas

My short story “Oil On Canvas” is now available in the romantic anthology Love in Penang, edited by Anna Tan and published by Fixi Novo. The book will be launched at the Georgetown Literary Festival 2013 today. You’ll find my story together with many other fine Malaysian writers, who have written individual love stories, some sweet and bittersweet, but all delectable due to the common location of Penang, the Pearl of the Orient and a foodie’s paradise.

Ars longa, vita brevis

Yes, I wrote a love story (put down that drink before you choke on it in disbelief), in this case the proof is not in the pudding but rather in my story’s main ingredient, Dato Chuah Thean Teng.

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SATAY SELLER (1970)

My late granduncle is seminal Penang artist Chuah Thean Teng, and I visited his studio on Burma Road when I was young.  Satay Seller (1970) is a prime example of his experimental style. He was an exponent of batik painting and a true innovator.

The artist character in “Oil on Canvas” is not entirely based on Chuah  (he never worked with oil paints and he had no skeletons in his closet). But when his artwork was being auctioned off in Kuala Lumpur I had the initial inklings of a crime story about art theft and forgery during one of the auctions.  This developed into a more understated story about thwarted romance and artistic obsession.

The story’s title is from British New Romantic (I pride myself on thematic consistency…) band Japan’s fine 1983 live album Oil on Canvas.  Nothing to do with the fact that lead singer David Sylvian has a haunting voice like a Kabuki vocalist and is prettier than a GQ model (no thematic consistency here, just, errmm, coincidence…?).

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In defence of crime fiction

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Judging a genre by its covers

Some snobbery and prejudice against crime fiction still seems to exist, which is often dismissed as lowbrow and popular. I had a university professor who really hated The Silence of the Lambs (both book and film adaptation):

“It’s so violent and gory!” he complained.

“Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus  features scenes of dismemberment, mutilation, gang rape, and cannibalism.” I reminded him, and the discussion dragged on until lunch break…

Maybe it’s the cover art that really goes for the jugular: Bullets! Nooses! Blood! Shattered Glass! Exit Wounds! Or when the cover becomes an exercise in atmospherics: Woods, Shallow Graves, Roads, Alleys, and Lakes. As if publishers want to ensure there’s no mistaking The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for The Girl With the Pearl Earring.

Cover art functions to attract the reader to pick up the book. However,  the graphic  is not really necessary, for the genre’s perennial success shows that crime fiction sells itself.

The ugly side of human nature

A fan of crime fiction may have encountered some of the following reactions (indeed, I have…): “How can you read that?!” or “ Isn’t real news horrid enough?”

A writer of crime fiction receives similar reactions (and again, I have…) : “How can you write this stuff?”, along with questions about said writer’s well-being and mental health: “Do you sit around all day thinking of horrible things to do to your characters?” or “Aren’t you morbid?”

It seems that a writer of crime fiction can never be morbid enough these days. The answer to all those questions is that it’s not the crimes per se which fascinate the reader and the writer — it’s the characters involved in the crimes. The unsavoury, gritty side of human nature that threatens to rear its head and makes people squirm because it asks tough questions about race, gender, corruption, and society.

In 1927, T.S Eliot observed, “The detective story, as created by Poe, is something as specialised and as intellectual as a chess problem…whereas the best English detective fiction has relied less on the beauty of the mathematical problem and much more on the intangible human element.”

Although Eliot displays a natural bias in favour of English detective fiction, he succinctly highlights the  “…intangible human element.” that is character. These days readers want more than mere puzzles in their mystery stories, they want defined characters peopling the story, and compelling protagonists.

Closing arguments

The next time someone asks you how you can read or write crime fiction, tell them that it is for a genuinely good cause. Readers find comfort and assurance that law and order prevail in stories. In Jorge Luis Borges’ essay ‘The Detective Story’, he reasons that, “I would say  in defence of the detective novel that it needs no defence..it is safeguarding order in an era of disorder. That is a feat for which we should be grateful.”

Your turn to embark on a crime (writing) spree

Currently seeking submissions for KL Noir: Blue, the third installment of KL Noir, an anthology of crime stories set in Kuala Lumpur.

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Writing in your head

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Sometimes we don’t have pen and paper, or access to a computer, and during those times we panic. As if our bright ideas are like pet goldfish brought back from a fair – we have to put those ideas in their proper place or fear losing them.

But consider the renowned Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He had no access to pen and paper for SIX years while interred in a Siberian prison camp and he was granted no privileges.To have attempted to scrawl anything in secret would have resulted in more beatings and torture. Grim conditions for any human being, yet alone a writer.

What did he do? Dostoyevsky wrote in his head. He composed and memorised entire novels and essays without writing them down. In 1857 he was allowed to publish some of his work while still serving his sentence, and after his release he churned out novel after novel. You may know some of them: Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot….

There is no need for the prison camp treatment, but we are all in our individual wall-less prisons. Confined by day jobs, family and social obligations. No time for writing. You don’t have to compose your magnum opus while on the bus every morning, but writing-in-the-head works very well for smaller tasks, such as opening lines, short stories and character sketches. Don’t be scared of forgetting anything. I promise you that when an idea grabs you during one of these head-writing sessions, it will be all-consuming.

Related to crime and punishment…(not the novel)

Currently seeking submissions for KL Noir: Blue, the third installment of KL Noir, an anthology of crime stories set in Kuala Lumpur:

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Call for crime fiction submissions: KL Noir : Blue

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I have many feathers in my cap (writer, proofreader, social scourge…). and the most recent addition is editor. Via a series of convoluted events — mainly, Amir Muhammad of Buku Fixi asking me “Do you want to be the editor for KL Noir: Blue?” and me replying, “Yes.” I am now the editor for KL Noir Blue.

What is KL Noir: Blue?

It is the third installment of the KL Noir series of short crime fiction set in Kuala Lumpur, published by Fixi Novo the English language imprint of Buku Fixi.  Previous volumes are Kl Noir: Red (which includes my short story “Oracle of Truth”) and KL Noir: White

What are we looking for?

Now seeking short crime fiction submissions of 2000-5000 words. The anthology will be published by Fixi Novo in April 2014.

What sort of stories do we want to read?

Blue evokes order, calm,and  harmony —  like a solitary swimmer in a pool. But is that a swimmer or a corpse floating face down? What price for diving too deep for answers and rocking the boat? Should you call the police? Who can you trust? Don’t just scratch the surface — go below it, disturb it. Render it unrecognisable.

What does it mean to live, thrive or survive in Kuala Lumpur, a city where lines are easily blurred (not in a Robin Thicke way…) and law is marred by disorder ? Your story does not have to include brushes with the law (but include them if you can) as much as they should be about transporting your readers into dangerous new urban territories peopled by memorable characters.

Send in stories related to crime, detective or suspense fiction. This includes police procedurals, detective stories, sleuths, revenge , heists and locked-room mysteries, etc. and whodunits and howdunits. Bullies, addicts, pimps, con-artists, crooked cops and gun and fun-loving criminals are also accepted.

When do we want it?

Deadline: 31st December 2013

Email submissions or queries to: info@fixi.com.my

Preferred submission format:

  • 12 point Courier, Arial or Times New Roman. (No Comic Sans Serif *PLEASE*)
  • Double spacing
  • Number your pages on top right-hand corner of each page.
  • Refer to William Shunn’s manuscript format as a handy guide.
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Daily Mail headlines from Middle Earth

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All of my tweets on the #MiddleEarthDailyMail hashtag that was trending last week:

  • Horse meat found in 4 out of 5 Rohan school lunches.
  • Hoodie Nazguls Attack Helpless Hobbits In Prancing Pony Inn.
  • Goblin Food Is Bad For Your Elf.
  • “The Eye of Sauron is an invasion of privacy!” according to latest polls.
  • Ents March Against Fangorn Forest Deforestation. Saruman the White unavailable for comment.
  • “No one tosses a dwarf!” Gimli speaks up for abused dwarves in latest campaign.
  • Exclusive Arwen interview: Why she says 10 out of 10 Human-Elf marriages fail to stand the test of time.
  • Gollum Added to Middle Earth Sex Offenders Database.
  • “Would you like mushrooms with that?” Radagast the Brown found homeless and high on drugs in Mirkwood Forest.
  • Smaug the Dragon Is Red Hot as He Destroys YET another village. (Exclusive pictures on page 4).
  • “My Precious! We Wants It!” How addiction to new street drug, 1Ring, destroyed my life!” according to Gollum.
  • Broken Middle Earth: How Orcs stole jobs from millions of Morian miners.
  • Grima Wormtongue, (King Theoden’s spokesman) denies any knowledge of horsemeat in Rohan school lunches.
  • “Boil ‘em! Mash them! Stick’em in a stew!” Samwise Gamgee charged for grievous bodily harm against potatoes.
  • “You shall not pass!” Balrogs complain of bigoted treatment at Moria Border Control.
  • Shire housing shortage is forcing MILLIONS of Hobbits to live in holes in the ground and pay bedroom tax.
  • Austerity causes Rohan Army at Helm’s Deep to recruit underage soldiers.
  • “50 Shades of Gandalf the Grey!” Galadriel kisses and tells of their steamy fling! More on page.11
  • Equal opportunities gone mad! Smaug the Dragon named as Middle Earth’s next Finance Minister.
  • “One ring to rule them ALL!” A wizard, an Elf, a Dwarf, a human and four Hobbits smash largest paedophile ring ever found in Middle Earth.
  • Seige of the Prancing Pony Inn – at least four Hobbits have been unaccounted for.
  • Oliphant driver denies being on drugs as he lost control and drove into Mordor troops, killing thousands.
  • Millions of Elves using immortality and fake drivers’ licenses to claim OAP benefits.
  • King Elrond denies using the Well of Galadriel to watch porn.
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New science fiction short story “Future Gardens”

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Illustration by Kazimir Lee Iskander

The wonderful people at Fixi Novo, Poskod.my and the organisers of #WORD: The Cooler Lumpur Festival 2013 asked Malaysian six writers to envision Kuala Lumpur in 2063. The result is a collection of six science fiction stories published online at FUTURA and it asks the question:

“Is our future bright? Beautiful? Bureaucratic? Bent on destroying us? Find out with FUTURA

Three stories have been published so far and my story “Future Gardens” includes illustrations by the very talented Kazimir Lee Iskander.

“Future Gardens” is a cautionary tale of the extremes a large corporation may go in order to preserve a very precious resource in the future: Viable living space. Michael Crichton’s 1973 film  Westworld  was an inspiration and I did consider inserting a paraphrase of the film’s tagline “Boy, have we got a vacation for you!” into the story.

Another influence that sneaked in under the radar was Corey Hart’s 1985 hit, “Sunglasses At Night”. Streaming music while your write is a double-edged sword.

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Very Honest Motivation

© Dana Rothstein | Dreamstime Stock Photos
© Dana Rothstein | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Remember those motivational posters that were so popular in the 1990s? Didn’t they get really sickening after a while, with scene after scene captioned by some trite axiom or phrase? Its not surprising that the backlash came with Very Demotivational Posters

I wish that a motivational poster came out with the following caption, “I’ll Show You Motherf*cker!”- possibly the motivational sentiment (but not inspiration) behind many a historical moment:

Numerous Mongol army officers: “You can’t conquer the whole of Asia on horseback!”

Genghis Khan: “Eat horseshit, motherf*kers!”

 

Various Macedonian army officers: “You can’t conquer the world!”

Alexander the Great: “I’ll show you, mallacas!”

 

Ancient Chinese court officials: “You can’t build an entire wall to keep out the Mongol invaders!”

Emperor Shuang Zhi : “I’ll show you real great *wall*, motherf*ckers!”

 

Pope Julius II: “I bet you can’t paint something on this ceiling.”

Michelangelo: (to himself) “I’ll show you, you motherf*cking eminence!”

 

Various members of Congress: “You can’t abolish slavery!”

Abraham Lincoln: “I’ll show all of you four score and seven maternal fornicators!”

 

Various US inventors and patent holders: “You’ll never invent a working lightbulb!”

Thomas Edison: “I’ll show you where to shove it, motherf*ckers!”

 

Friend/writing tutor/ relative/ agent/: “You’ll never make it as a writer!”

(Insert your name here) : “I’ll show all of you motherf*ckers!”

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Scary Tunes

(This was originally a Halloween post but if you write horror it should be relevant at any time of the year.)

Halloween approaches like a horde of zombies outside a makeshift survivors’ camp and the usual lists of Scariest Films/ Books/ Stories/ Urban Legends rear their disembodied heads.

However, here is a list of scary music which may help when you are writing horror by creating a conducive mood for your session. Scary tunes will keep you wide awake so think of the money you’ll save on coffee and Red Bull.

Feel free to add your suggestions for more scary tunes in the comments below. I look forward (arghh!)  to hearing them….

1. Atmospheres  Gyorgy Legiti (1963)
Part of movements “Kyrie” and “Dies irae” from “Requiem” by Gyorgy Ligeti. Atmospheres  is famously used in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001 – A Space Odyssey whenever the black alien monolith appears.

Sounds like?
The beautiful disembodied wails of dead souls swirling in the void outside a derelict spaceship as a swarm of nanobots eat away at the lining of your spacesuit (and that is just the introduction!)

2. Imperial March  John Williams  (1982)
Don’t laugh at the familiarity of this piece. Yes, now you can hum it but remember the first time you heard it during The Empire Strikes Back ? You thought the Empire was going to destroy your home planet.

Sounds like?
Darth Vader and legions of Stormtroopers marching into your home. What? Uh-huh these aren’t the droids you’re looking for muh lord….

3. Dead Souls  Joy Division (1979)
The title is based on Nikolai Gogol’s incomplete 1842 novel although you can’t really tell from the lyrics and Ian Curtis’ doom-laden singing.

Sounds like?
Icy desolation punctuated by stentorian vocals, dissonant guitars and a regimented drumbeat. The atmosphere from Manchester circa the winter of 1979 seeps through the ages to genuinely chill your bones.


4. Doctor Who Theme  Composed by Ron Grainer at the BBC Radiophonic workshop (1963)
The original was cut and spliced together on segments of analogue tape – no digital jiggery-pokery here.

Sounds like?
Sinister swoops, electronic ‘stings’ and pulsating bassline. Imagine your radio suddenly tuning into an alien signal from another dimension.

5. Tubular Bells  (Introduction)   Mike Oldfield  1973)
Famously used on  The Exorcist  soundtrack although I did not watch the film until I was much older. All I knew was that this was a rather sinister piece of prog-rock and was impressed by how well it sustained its mood.

Sounds like?
Leaves stirred up by an ill wind as you hurry past that ‘bad’ house in your neighbourhood.

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Breaking your fight scene virginity

Sex and violence sell very well. So you have to learn how to write the darned scenes that contain them. But you’re not alone if you’ve never written a love or fight scene before. We’ve all been in that position. It’s daunting because involve similar — movements, limbs in awkward positions, adrenaline

Easier said than done. But let’s concentrate on the violence for this time.

You may not be choreographing a Hollywood fight scene but even the most far-fetched sequences are grounded in reality. Heroes dodge bullets and take beatings but they still bleed. I’ve discovered that it really helps to take an assortment of self-defence or martial arts class. You’ll discover that the most important part of combat is the mind. Strength and lightning-speed reflexes are nothing without control. You’ll also find out that most fights are brief and brutal. Real punches and kicks hurt (and you’re only sparring). I’ve been hit with the end of a fencing foil many times — so, imagine one lethal stab.

The other inhibition is related to writing love scenes. Some writers feel a little awkward at first, because they feel that readers may think the violence described in the story comes directly out of the writer’s own experience. Relax, just because you know of 50 different ways to kill a person with a pair of chopsticks doesn’t mean you’re a killer. A little more inventive, perhaps.

Life of Pi goes from page to screen without being lost at sea.

Life of adaptations

Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

“Book to film” — the phrase sounds simple, like traversing two different mediums but the process is more like a change of state. Think of dry ice sublimating into carbon dioxide and the amount of energy required for the transformation. You may get a weak fizzing or a loud explosion before viewing the final product.

Some adaptations are good films but bad adaptations (Blade Runner is off-worlds away from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) or bad films and good adaptations (Perfume managed to convey the olfactory overload of the novel at the cost of pacing and charactezisation). When a film delivers on both counts (good film and adaptation), readers and movie audiences should rejoice.

Life of Pi is not perfect but it takes the best elements from an unfilmable source text. The main draw is the interaction between Bengal tiger, Richard Parker and shipwrecked boy, Pi Patel . If you thought the apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes were realistic you will be glad that you are not stuck on the same lifeboat as Richard Parker.

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You’re a new writer — every time

Try not to faff about when it comes to revisions and rewrites. I know this sounds harsh but I wield a red pencil and I’m not afraid to use it.

“But it’s not quite how I envisioned it! Gimme more time!” wails the writer.

You’ve had your time. In fact, the problem is of too much time in some cases. Try being on death ground and facing a tight deadline. All the faffing about evaporates when faced with money or the prospect of not getting paid.

But do you ever consider why your revisions are not working? Insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result each time. For example, your last published story was character- based so you may also approach your newest story based on character. But your writing muscle gets bored easily – the plot dynamics start taking over and you’re left wondering how to make your characters fit.

You are a new person every time you write a new story. Perhaps, that sounds insane but consider that it is inevitable with the passage of time. You’ve had other experiences between stories, or perhaps nothing has trickled down from your previous stories or your literary interests have moved on.

Knowledge is power -- be the most powerful writer you know with these titles.

Non-fiction for fiction writers

General ignorance may get you through life but will create gaping holes in your fiction. Fill in the gaps with this list of non-fiction titles. (Click pause on slideshow for a more leisurely read)

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J.G Ballard -- rewards more and more you every time you read his work.

Images of gorgeous desolation: Reading J.G Ballard

Steven Spielberg’s 1987 film adaptation of Empire of the Sun brought JG Ballard to my notice. After watching the film I sought out the original source novel and tried to read it, thinking rather naively that it’d be easy young adult read because the protagonist Jim, is ten years old. After vivid nightmarish descriptions of a ruined Shanghai and a street urchin’s memorable refrain of, ‘No momma, no papa, no whisky soda!’ I put the book down because it was beyond my ten year old reading capabilities. It was too complex, but I promised myself that I’d return to Ballard when I was older.

Ten years later one of the tutors on my 20th Century literature module assigned the aptly named Crash as a text for class discussion- which was disastrous. The class coincided with the release of David Cronenberg’s controversial film version and I recall two of the students, a pair of middle-aged ladies fuming at the choice of reading text and the content because both were emergency ward nurses and they were outraged at the fetishistic nature of Crash . My tutor seemed to delight in this provocation while I kept expressing that the film version is more graphic than the novel and that the class had trouble separating film adaptation from novel.

“You actually saw the film?” one of the nurses gawped at me as if I was a twisted pervert.

“Twice.” I replied, deliberately excused myself from class and walked past both nurses with an affected limp. I didn’t go back to class; instead I sat in the campus cafe and marveled at the power of literature to challenge and provoke.

Nowadays, in reading and rereading Ballard I’m astounded at his genius in creating scenes of desolate beauty and exoticism. Although there are shocking elements in works as The Atrocity Exhibition, even in Crash beauty is present in bleak sterility; ‘For half an hour I sat by the window…looking down at the hundreds of cars in the parking lot. Their roofs formed a lake of metal.’ Here’s another gem (no pun intended)  from The Crystal World: ‘On a lawn of green glass spurs a child’s tricycle glittered like a Faberge gem, the wheels starred into brilliant jasper crowns.” Finally here is my personal favourite from The Day of Creation: ‘Signal flares were falling from the air, like  discarded pieces of the sun.’ 

Nicolas Shakespeare’s review of  Ballard’s memoir Miracles of Life: From Shanghai to Shepperton offers some insight into Ballard’s writing headspace:

“What most excites (Ballard’s) imagination are the shells of his native city: a drained swimming pool, a friend’s gutted house, a bombed-out casino – “more real and more meaningful” as empty and ruined than when thronged with gamblers, and giving Ballard a sense of precariousness he never lost: “that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment”. In Ballard’s fiction, the more ruined and desolate the setting, the more beautiful and haunting the images. Like Borges, the most surreal Ballardian tale is anchored by a core of profund truth.

Finally, I still love space operas and other conventional science-fiction forms but reading Ballard’s essay ‘Which Way to Inner Space?’ provided me with an alternative compass for writing science-fiction. According to Ballard, space fiction can no longer provide the ‘main wellspring of ideas for sci-fi’ because it is becoming increasingly dated and the stuff of science fiction is now becoming science fact . Ballard suggests that sci-fi turn its back on aliens, outer space etc…and become more literary and metaphysical in its ideas and approach. “It is the inner space-suit that is needed and it is up to science fiction to build it!”

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Writer Olympics

Let’s be honest with ourselves: writing is not very physical. Heaving the laptop/notebook to the cafe is probably the most active a writer gets when they are working, or pacing the room and tearing your hair out while threatening your Muse to show up. Not that I’m saying all writers neglect exercise as some make the best exercisers – Murakami even wrote a book on long-distance running.

But I’m sure you are an athlete in your mind (otherwise you won’t be insane enough to be a writer.) you train yourself everyday to bang out those words on paper. You can create a team of characters in the time it takes to run 100m! Your plotting strategy is worthy of field sports! You run multiple marathon writing sessions!  You tell yourself mental exhaustion/burnout is for amateurs!

Citius, Altius, Fortius! Pay tribute to the highest manifestation of human athletic ability — The Olympics, by taking the following quiz, inspired by the Guardian guide to Winter Olympics

Which Olympics Sport Matches your Writing Style?


1. You prefer to___
a)Work alone
b)Work with a friend/ buddy
c)Write and then present work to a group for critque
d)Write as part of a group for the competition

2. Once started on a piece, you___
a) Stick to it and block out outside intrusions – its gonna be a long hard slog.
b) Contact your friend/buddy regularly
c) Need a nudge or a push from your team (friends, family) to get you going
d)Brace yourself against all odds.

3. Which best describes your progress?
a) Slow and steady. With scheduled breaks
b) A sustained effort as long as your friends/team mates perform well.
c) A fast start but with a tendency to get sidetracked.
d) A furiously intensive session. Other people have to referee on your behalf

4. Which response best describes your response to writer’s block?
a) Take a break and resume writing when recovered.
b) It’s their problem too!
c) Should’ve seen that coming!
d) Head on. With a long stick and body armour

5)How do you react to unjustified negative criticism?
a) Shrug it off.No one said it was going to be easy when you’re alone.
b) Smile at each other. All judges are biased anyway.
c) Blame your equipment (“@#$%ing spellcheck!”)
d) Pick a fistfight, it never hurts to entertain your audience too….

If you chose:

Mostly As:
Cross Country Cycling
Endurance and tenacity are your main strengths. But know when to pace yourself.

Mostly Bs:
Synchronized Swimming
Something genuinely beautiful can emerge from collaborations if you can both master your egos.

Mostly Cs:
Bobsleigh
Your team (agents, editors, friends and family) are behind you all the way but you are driving your bobsleigh, and have to figure out the best way along your personal track.  Maintain control and don’t lose it

Mostly Ds:
Water Polo
You play fast, and score goal after goal. Writing feels like a full contact sport and you tell yourself you thrive on challenge. Beware of mid-career burnout and play nice with the other team.

Post your results in the Comments section

Listen up! The best audiobooks for your aural reading pleasure!

Audio conversion: Best audio books list

If you remain unswayed by the following audiobook recommendations you may not possess a pulse.

(Links to available editions are provided where possible).

1. Beloved  Toni Morrison (read by the author)

I studied this book on my English Lit courses, but that sort of environment doesn’t make the prose leap off the pages. When I did raise the subject of Beloved‘s prose rhythm in class, my very PC male professor became very awkward and said that I shouldn’t “stereotypically” talk about rhythm just  because a work is written by an African- American.

F*ck you Prof! Obviously, you’d never listened to this version of Beloved.  It’s all vividly rendered  by Morrison’s  poignant and measured voice. Plus, this version exorcises the ghost of that mawkish 2000 movie adaptation.

2. Bright Lights, Big City Jay McInerney (read by Daniel Passer)

I first heard this on BBC Radio 4′s Book At Bedtime  series back in 1998. But Bright Lights Big City  is more that an ’80s period piece. Daniel Passer’s wry tone and McInerney’s seminal use of second person combine to haunt and amuse in a tragicomedy of narcotic excess and thwarted success.

3. Roald Dahl 

The Twits (read by Simon Callow)

The Enormous Crocodile (read by Stephen Fry)

George’s Marvellous Medicine (read by Richard E. Grant)

The Witches (read by Kathy Burke)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (read by Eric Idle)

Roald Dahl’s wicked stories read by some of the most distinctive British actors. I recommend these for children but not for bedtime – because you too will be tempted to stay up with them in collective delight.

4.Prey Michael Crichton (read by Robert Sean Leonard)

The prospect of listening to a bestselling techno-thriller may appeal like stuffing fast food into your ears  (Over too soon, but at least it was temporarily entertaining.) Cheesy sound effects and background music tend to clog up audiobook versions of thrillers. But this adaptation is more like a polished radio monologue. The rare use of first person in a Michael Crichton novel allows for the exposition and scientific details to integrate into the narrative, and Robert Sean Leonard’s understated reading conveys the protagonist’s increasing fear as a near-future technology spins out of control .

5. A Room With A View E.M Forster (read by Juliet Stevenson)

This accomplished actress should be Audiobook Queen for her versatile voice that unearths nuances in passages you may have read many times before. Stevenson well serves E.M Forster’s coming-of-age novel of repression and lost innocence

6. Devil May Care Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming (read by Jeremy Northam)

How can any writer tackle a James Bond novel without coming across as an imitator or with the slightest hint of parody? How can any reader convincingly read out a James Bond novel without lapsing into Bond impersonations? Well done Sebastian Faulks, the acclaimed author of  Birdsong and actor Jeremy Northam!  Respect to both.

8. The Red Necklace Sally Gardner (read by Tom Hiddleston)

Do not dismiss this novel as The Scarlet Pimpernel  or  A Tale of Two Cities  for children interwoven with fantasy elements. Sally Gardner (I, Coriander ) displays masterful control by balancing suspense, mystery, romance and a well rounded historical portrait of the French Revolution. Tom Hiddleston (yes, he plays Loki in Thor) reads so well that it’s easy to forget that the novel’s parade of colourful characters (revolutionaries, gypsies, prostitutes [!] dastardly counts and spoilt aristocrats) are all voiced by him.

I’d love to hear (excuse the pun…) your audiobook recommendations. Feel free to leave them in the comments section.

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