Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I Forgot to Say...

I finished the next novel. Finally.

Yes, it's been... a long time, to put it mildly, the last few years having mostly, it seemed, consisted of running excitedly ahead on this or that project, and slamming face-first into a brick wall after just enough steps to get up the optimum speed for breaking one's nose. OK, let's get this show on the road, let's get the ball rolling, fire up the creative engines and -- SMACK! What the -- why the - who the fuck put that there? And what the fuck is it anyway? A financial crisis, you say? A relationship meltdown, you say? Ach, never mind, I'm sure I can soldier on and -- THUMP! Oh, that would be a slow and crawling dread that you've really, secretly written the One Book that was in you, that having exorcised this 400,000 word monster from your backbrain, that daimon that was in you is now gone, flown the nest. Oh sure, it pops back to visit from time to time, and over a passionate evening, weekend or fortnight, you and the muse get busy, and out of these sporadic flings comes some short fiction or poetry, but is it going to stick around for the long haul on anything now, or have you had your share?

Thing is, the way gamblers are about Lady Luck is the way at least some of us scribblers are about the Muse -- irrationally personifying it, that is, attributing it all sorts of freaky behaviours that largely amount to fucking with our heads. As soon as you get far enough into a project that it's properly a project now, not some half-arsed experimental notes and jottings -- as soon as you commit, basically -- that's when the Muse decides, I'm boooooooored; I wanna do something else. And so you find yourself sitting at the laptop, this inner monkey clambering out of you as you try to grab it, climbing the curtains, clamping itself on your shoulders when you pry it down, twisting around till it's latched on like a facesucker from Alien, till you're screaming through a mouthful of fur: Fucking sit the fuck down and fucking BEHAVE, YOU FUCKING FUCK! Swear to Cock, sometimes it's like getting a dog into a bath, a cat into a box and a child to bed -- simultaneously -- just trying to get your own creative MonkeyBrat to do... what it fucking wanted to do in the fucking first place. What it fucking demanded to do, insisted was the single most important thing in your life.

Now, me, I seem to have evolved a couple of coping strategies for dealing with my inspirational sprite's wantonness and disregard. The first is not entirely healthy, I'm sure, since it basically consists of not fucking stopping for other than the most cursory necessities of teas, pees, nosh, snooze and booze -- the latter meaning, like say, a weekly pub meeting with mates, required to maintain at least some sense of connection with reality. I'm not talking PKD's amphetamine-fuelled week-long stints here, but if you don't give the MonkeyBrat time to lose interest, if you can keep the momentum up, writing through the wee hours to midday, writing till you're too fucked to write any more... well, I do find it keeps me in the Zone. When you wake up at five in the afternoon after a three hour nap, you're still thinking about the story -- and that's what counts, right?

As I say, it's hardly the healthiest approach, but I've found it a way to get something done even when the MonkeyBrat is refusing point-blank to work on, say, the retelling of Gilgamesh that's meant to be your third novel, the one that you've been blathering about for years, the one that tons of people are really quite excited about, the one that you open up in Scrivener and stare at only for the MonkeyBrat to leap out of your head, plank itself on the keyboard and stare back at you in utter inscrutability. Actually maybe it's less of a monkey, more of a lemur. Like this guy:

Lemurs have more of a "I might just be evil, you know" look to them, I think. Like, "I look all cute like a monkey, but I might just have the babybreath-sucking soul of a cat, bwahaha. Not that I'm telling you."

Anyways, with that little fucker staring me coldly down over FUR, realising that I just wasn't getting anywhere trying, Cock knows, trying to trudge on ahead word by word by word, I did find that just saying, Fuck this shit, and jumping into short stories was one escape. I've seen others say similar things when it comes to writers' block, that for them it's seldom an absolute and crippling inability to write anything at all. When you can write a full short story in a one night blast, dusk to dawn, of impassioned swashtyping, wordbuckling, swaggering wild-eyed zeal, really, it seems even a bit nuts to describe yourself as blocked. It's projects that run into ditches, stall with bone-juddering suddenness, grind to a halt, gears jammed... if you can't keep them running at a breakneck speed for the finish line, going so fast that there's just no time for something to fuck it all up.

Of course, health aside, the real problem with that "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" approach is that it's therefore more suited to short fiction than long. Whipping the MonkeyBrat into a shrieking howling fury of (somehow wondrously right) word-flinging can only be sustained so long. Sooner or later there's... well, not so much a Person From Porlock as a Long Weekend In Porlock. Some fucking thing comes up that takes you out of the Zone for two, three, four days and when you're done with it, you sit down at the slightly longer project, the one that's not a full novel, but pushing towards that length -- "Assault! On Heaven!" say -- and there he is, sitting on your keyboard, staring at you again:

So you extend the "jumping ship" technique to a strategy in its own right. OK, if that novella ain't going anywhere right now, I've got an idea for a Bradbury-meets-Davenport idyll on a terraformed Mars. It's gonna be long, but let's see how far we can get on it by treating it as an escape when I'm meant to be working on "A!oH!" And if you grind to a halt on that, why, that's when you jump back to "A!oH!" treating that as an escape from this other novella that the MonkeyBrat is now refusing to work on simply because the little fucker is now seeing that as work ergo not fun ergo not a creative act. Fucking pig-headed fucking intransigent fucking stubborn fucking downright thrawn bastard motherfucker of a gleetsucking cuntmunch, you think, I will hoodwink you into getting something of a decent length completed if it's the last fucking thing I do.

So, yeah, this has been the shape of things for me over the last few years, to be honest, all too aware of eager eyes awaiting projects I am actually still stoked about but hadn't, until recently, been able to evolve the requisite writerly discipline to defeat the wicked wiles of the MonkeyBrat. Until recently, I say, for bless the little cotton socks of Gary Gibson and a fair few other writers on Twitter -- none of whom probably actually have the little cotton socks that phrase actually conjures for me (like, ickle girly bobby-sox, yanno?) -- I have found Freedom.

Yes, apparently there's a third strategy for getting around the MonkeyBrat which simply involves switching off the fucking interwebs. Duh. It sounds to simple to be true, but yes, this little piece of software that just kills your internet connection for however many minutes you specify, up to eight hours at a time, somehow turns MonkeyBrat into this:

Whut the WHY?! says MonkeyBrat. No interwebz?! Buts what are I do NOWZ?!?!?!

Lookit, MonkeyBrat, says I. A shiny half-written novel... Look at it just waiting to be finished.

Awwww, buts novelz am BOOOOOORI- ooh, wait! I GOTZ AN IDEA!!!! I GOTZ AN IDEA!!!!

Seriously, having somehow miraculously managed to sustain an insane pace on the new novel through the hectic hurly-burly of my 40th, most of the way up until the Christmas/Hogmanay period, getting halfway through the second draft's work of weaving in a framing/interstitial narrative thread of what I guess you could call an "unreliable editor," so close to the end I could fucking taste the Guinness waiting to be downed in celebration, I found that the Feastival Fortnight In Porlock had derailed all that momentum completely. And trying to get back into it, I found myself yet again gnashing my hair and tearing my teeth at a frustrating inability to engage with a work that I cared about deeply and that, this time, was near enough completion that I knew it wasn't a matter of some misstep here or missing piece there.

(Like, I got blocked on "Escape from Hell!" for *cough* months because I hadn't realised a crucial but simple detail about Lucifer's viewpoint. I suspect one common cause of project-specific block might just be the niggling quasi-conscious knowledge that something isn't right, that there's something gone wrong somewhere, something that's maybe just not there at all, and unless that's fixed the rest is going to be dead on the page, stone cold fucking dead. And you can't know something until you know it, and until you know it, you're only going to fuck it up, end up with a half-arsed failure of commitment, a fucking compromise of a work where you've shrugged and said, oh well, I suppose that'll do. Bollocks to that. Adequate just ain't adequate, man. Mediocrity is not a fucking option.)

So, yeah, there I am discovering yet again the joy of Xeno's Paradox as it applies to writing fiction, where you half the distance to the end again and again, but with each push forward the time it takes doubles -- if it doesn't go up by an even larger exponent -- until it feels like wading through tar. And MonkeyBrat, of course, starts kicking off now, climbing the curtains, hurling objects from the top of the fridge. Only this time, spurred to action by the wise words of the aforesaid Mr Gibson, I download the free trial of Freedom, install it and fire it up. And forty minutes later, the internet withdrawal shakes are kicking in and I'm up there on the curtains with MonkeyBrat, but I have... a little bit more written. And I check my email and Twitter, fire up Freedom for another forty minutes and... end up with a little bit more on the page. And indeed, the more I do it, the more MonkeyBrat starts behaving.

Oh, look, there's the little pop-up that says time's up and we can get back on the interwebs again!

Shooshtz! I are SKRIBBLING here! Iz FUN!

And lo and behold, in just a few days, I'm back in the Zone, and in just a week or so I'm... done. I feel like I've kicked a crack habit. No, I feel like I've taken it out back and put a fucking bullet in the back of its head. That little app, Freedom... man, it's well-named. I haz a new novel done and dusted. Finally. After fucking forever.

I await with no small trepidation to see how my agent and the few beta-readers I've sent it out to will respond to TESTAMENT, my anarcho-socialist détournement of the gospels -- that would be the five gospels, by the way, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Thomas -- written in seven parts of six titled sections of four panels of exactly five hundred words each. It's... out there. I mean, sure, Michael Moorcock and Gore Vidal and Philip Pullman have all tackled that subject matter. And while it's fair to say my own approach is somewhat confrontational over the anti-Semitism I root in two millennia of Roman apologism*, this is a serious engagement with the scriptural mythos in a way that "Escape from Hell!" is not. It is not, by any means, transgressive just for the sake of being transgressive, or even as EfH! is, in fidelity to a balls-out satirical stance. But I'm all too aware that the word "controversial" is likely inevitably, tediously going to be attached to this. That the subject matter and some of the metafictional devices at play may well make some readers think that, yep, he's actually followed PKD into religious nutjob land. And yeah, that the whole five hundred words per passage thing... well, I'm sure editors just love working with texts confined by crazy arbitrary Oulipo constraints like that.

But fuck it. I think it's a fucking good book right now. Right now it feels fresh and fierce, and most of all it feels finished. No doubt I'll fall out of love with it if and when it gets sold, fingers crossed, and I have to work my way through edits and copy-edits and page proofs till I'm cursing the infernal thing. But right now, I have that kick-ass satisfaction of a full-on novel in the bag after too many years of fucking around. Almost feels like something I needed to get out of my system, the culmination of years of thematic flirtation. Like now I can get on with everything else. I'm itching to get the sequel to "Escape from Hell!" done and dusted too, hopefully over the next few weeks. I know what's up next. The MonkeyBrat feels like he's back inside my skin, his hands mine as we fling words at the screen with wild-eyed precision. We're back in business.

And talking of business -- talking of "Escape from Hell!" and aforesaid Mr Gibson as introduced me to the blessed Freedom -- just as a little addendum, I should probably let y'all know that it looks very much like "Escape from Hell!" will be joining the line-up of Gary's new ebook imprint, Brain In a Jar Books, and thereby becoming available to all you as likes to read on them thar newfangled whatjamaflips rather than via dead tree mulch. So yeah, all is good with the world, as far as I'm concerned. 2012 is shaping up nicely so far and I'm keen to get me teeth into stuff as will keep it going thus.

Ciao for now.

*Two millennia of Roman apologism carrying on right up to the 2000 production of Jesus Christ Superstar wherein, as you'll see from about 3.09 in this YouTube clip, the process of fucking blood libeling the Jews as "Christ-killers" reaches its absolute fucking nadir (apotheosis?) in staging the scourging so it's not the Romans whipping him, oh no, not some fascii-toting centurion soldier of the occupying force, but rather the Jewish people, one by fucking one running up to slap the Aryan anointed with their blood-spattered hands.

For real. By visual symbolism, they actually transfer even the action of the torture -- transfer not just culpability but action -- out of the hands of the Romans and into the hands of the Jews, not just exploiting but developing, furthering, what is possibly the single most heinous textual taproot of systematic scapegoating in all of history, that whole, "Let his blood be on our hands and on our children's hands" line. I would almost say, watching this, that words fail me. But they didn't. They don't. Words boil up out of my soul in bloody defiance and accusation. Eighty four thousand words to be exact.

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Anonymous Paul F Cockburn said...

While writing non-fiction/journalism isn't quite the same thing, I've now realised that, when it comes to that cursed MonkeyBrat, there's nothing quite like having an externally imposed deadline LOOMING over us — with lots of sharp pointy things pointing in my direction — to kick things into touch. Too much choice of what to do is debilitating; when the choices are few, the decision is so much easier.

12:44 am  
Anonymous Paul F Cockburn said...

Oh, and congratulations, by the way, on finishing Testament. Look forward to reading it!

12:45 am  
Anonymous Jakob said...

That leaves me no choice but to call the German publisher of Vellum and Ink and ask him to ask you to let him have a look at the manuscript as soon as possible, so I can have a look at it, too. Otherwise, I might not be able to bear the antici ----- pation, as Frank N. Furter would say!

8:48 am  
Blogger neil williamson said...

Ah, as it turns out we've seen that production of JCS. It's the one that's been touring for a while, including the "climbing down the pillars thing", the "roped up Jebus in a coincidentally crucifictional pose" bit and, yes, the "bloody hands of mob" bit. TBH we didn't give it much thought - probably too busy grooving down to the Heaven On Their Minds intro riff that underpins the lashes. It's all about the music, man.

I do take your point though, and look forward to it being made even more succinctly in Testament.

1:52 pm  
Anonymous mike cobley said...

good for you, dude. I got till end of August to hand in my next and my guiltomatic alarm hasnt even started sounding yet. Yet.

2:05 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Paul: Sadly, deadlines just make my MonkeyBrat explode into full-on leaping scrabbling panicking dervish mode, doing a full circuit of the room as high up as possible -- bookshelf, TV, mantelpiece, fridge, curtains, kitchen units, armchair -- round and round, all the while shrieking at the top of his lungs, until I manage to hit him with the tranq gun.

Jakob: Heh, by all means! I'm all for publishers being... kept informed, shall we say, of reader interest. (Actually, maybe I shouldn't joke about that. Cause "Hey, everybody phone up your nearest publisher and insist they buy my book" would probably be... counter-productive.)

Neil: I do loves that riff, right enough. Darigga dig daun! Daun daun! darigga dig daun! Daun daun! And some of the other staging stuff in that production I really like. But that particular twist was just... *head-desk* doesn't do it justice.

Mike: Cheers, man. Congrats on the nomination for the Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire, btw! Great news!

4:02 pm  
Blogger neil williamson said...

> But that particular twist was just... *head-desk* doesn't do it justice.

Well 'it's only a *musical* after all'...

[Those quotes are sarcasm, honest, SARCASM!]

4:05 pm  
Blogger MEStaton said...

Hal, I am so there with you right at this moment. After four years of writing in circles, thinking in circles, researching in circles, the book finally decided it needed to be written. Off I went with none of the bollocks that stopped me all those other times I started. Somewhere it just clicked. Not quite so much like a switch, more like a boiler heating up for the first time.

Perhaps it's reaching that pinnacle the great 40 (mine was January). There isn't so much a sense of urgency as a sense that there is, basically, no choice. If you don't write that book now you may never do it. Your possible 60 year old self is looking you straight in the eye and saying "don't be disappointed by what you have not done 'get busy living, or get busy dying.'"

Mediocrity, is indeed, not an option. Not in writing and not in life.

7:17 pm  
Anonymous Ilari said...

Congratulations, insofar I comprehend what it is you write about. For two months now I throw myself into habit of regular writing in my mother-tongue, after decades of deep despise, dislike ant the like. It is very little but it is definitely something. This is not because of the Books of All Hours, but it is partially because of the Books of All Hours I have found this enjoyment and magic anew, and the magic really works at times. What the fuck has happened with your language, people ask. Many things, I know, some of which are more important than the others. I am the Weird School of Political Commentary.

Every morning at five am I go to the gym to spend two hours alone with Rock Radio and iron, then I go and write and post my comment, then take care of the daily tasks of my rather abjected daily life. I actually like to drink in the afternoons in a classic homeless-man style, organically grown German white wine alone in some nearby forest where the trees, mostly Tannebaum, are covered with snow and one can listen to the whispers of history from the never-used trenches dug by unfortunate Chinese slave-workers during the World War I. I never freeze, it is fucking beautiful here, and I am thinking little bit about HD, which is many things and more of so now.

11:27 am  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

Cannot wait to read it, Hal!

8:00 pm  
Blogger Bob said...

Fucking nice one, Hal! There's been too big a gap of bugged-out crazy brilliance in my reading lately... ever since EfH!, come to think of it. Hope it gets on the shelves soon, man.

10:29 am  

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