Assorted Reflections on First-Time Novel-Writing

The 31st of January 2019 may mean nothing to you. Fair enough. But it means a hell of a lot to me. Everything, really. It was the day I finished – truly, conclusively ‘finished’ – my first novel. A considerable self-imposed pressure was lifted from me that day. A pressure which I had felt squeezing my bone marrow into thin stringy pulp for quite a long time.


Before I get into why that was, first some background information.

The story of its creation begins as a disjointed one. As was perhaps unavoidable. Because I was asked to start writing a novel, rather than independently choosing to. So it’s not like I just sat down one day and resolved that this was the life goal I was going to tackle next. (Though it was, as with most writers, a vague ambition of mine. Whose start-date was set for some unspecified tomorrow.) And therefore it kind of just… came about. An external impetus set things in motion. But then I let that momentum sweep me along until, before long, I had my head down and I was running so much faster than the fading tidal wave behind me…

Okay, don’t wanna get ahead of myself. Let’s back up all the way. At university, I majored in English Literature and minored in Creative Writing. To be frank, I did not enjoy the in-person CW classes themselves. I want to be careful with my language here, so as not to overstate the matter. They weren’t a… horrible experience. They were generally just kind of a chore, and not very useful.

I disliked how some teachers would try to impose rigid rules (sourced from either received wisdom or their personal preference) about how one should write onto their students. Whenever they introduced one of these rules, my imagination reflexively conjured up a bunch of instances where defying it could work out well. And, alright, maybe I just have an overly rebellious cast of mind. It is true I’ve never loved being told what to do. But given that this ready abundance of counter-examples was obvious to even an inexperienced writer like myself, I think it was only fair to be dubious. I’m sure I was far from the only student there who was.

Now, I don’t for a second doubt these teachers were well-meaning. It’s just that their approach was, I believe, a very poor way of helping young people discover or cultivate what kind of writer they want to be. There is an adage which states that one must be deeply familiar with ‘the rules’ before one is entitled to and competent enough to break them. On the face of it, this seems to make sense. And such knowledge, when not inculcated as dogma, is indeed usually a benefit. To be consulted as one option among many; not a sacred yardstick. Yet it has long been my suspicion that it’s very dangerous to ever immure yourself inside that staid, conventionalist mindset. Before you know it, those perfect walls will suddenly seem so… homely. Aye, far too neat and straight and comforting to permit any impulse to start chipping away at them. This complacency isn’t just a novice’s bane either. No no no. It has seduced much, much better writers than you or me. And only towards the end of lengthy literary careers have they clawed through the brittled drywall and screamed their mistake through that gaping, jagged hole. I propose we heed their cautionary tales. These were, it should be said, offered for our benefit. If nothing else, it would be rude to spurn such a gracious gift.

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The New Self-Appointed Gatekeepers of Sexuality

I just read an op-ed on The Guardian scolding a british celebrity. (I know nothing about them, to be honest. Plus, I’ve gotta say, I never thought I’d be writing about something to do with a former Spice Girl. Even at the third remove…) Now, this by itself is not noteworthy. Anyone who has ever flicked an errant glance at their op-ed section knows this is frequently par for the course. It’s a way of pretending to be above the vapidness and indignity of celebrity-worshipping, whilst really just putting on a different mask and serving up yet another form of obsessing over celebrities. (‘No-one Cares What Rich-White-Man George Clooney Thinks About Child Poverty!‘ blares the typical headline. And with a ‘witty’, equally dismissive subtitle for good measure. But what is it then followed by? Four thousand words meticulously dissecting what George Clooney thinks about child poverty. This is an age-old sleight of hand. Just a shameless workaround for having it both ways. Keep an eye out for it and you’ll start seeing it everywhere.)

However, in this particular case, there was an added peculiarity which caught my attention. This article is upbraiding the performer in question for discussing her past experiences having sex with another woman. Because she said it on television. The implication is that she’s therefore doing “lesbianism” – a term it’s refreshing to hear someone besides your out-of-date conservative grandparents using – very wrong. Yeah. I’m not fucking with you, I promise. That link above is real. I haven’t somehow spoofed the website and forged a phony article. This was on The Guardian. (And, as it turns out, it’s not the only one on there with this exact take either.) Damn, isn’t it funny how the world turns?

No, wait, you don’t understand! It’s, like, done in a vaguely semi-jokey way or whatever! Well… despite the ultra-petty, caustic jabs about this performer’s supposed lack of cultural relevance. And despite the earnest attempts to shame someone for discussing their sexuality in a supposedly-distasteful context. And despite the exhortations for this performer to keep their mouth shut about such things in future, lest they incur the, uh, high-minded ire of ‘cultural critics’ in the commentariat.

I mean, hey, tell me if this sounds crazy… but I think that if you’re essentially saying ‘no, no, no, STOP THAT! you’re doing xyz sexuality WRONG!’ you should step back and re-evaluate your own attitude. Because you sound bigoted. In the most literal definition of the word. And in this case the writer also kinda seems high on some childish power-trip. One which has made them erroneously believe that they can ridicule (and silence) other people’s choices about discussing their sexuality, because they’re commenting as an LGBTQ+ person. Well, I’m an LGBTQ+ person too – though one certainly needn’t be to validly make this point – and I can tell you that that’s rank stupidity whoever it comes from.

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The imminent gun ban in New Zealand is Foolish Practically and Wrong Ethically

In the aftermath of the recent Mosque killing spree, the New Zealand government have announced that they will be banning “military-style semi-automatic” guns (which, despite the oh-so-scary buzzwords in apposition, evidently just denotes most modern firearms under NZ law). The intention being to prevent further such attacks.

I’ll put it bluntly. This plan is remarkable for being both stupid and immoral.

To explain why that is, allow me to delineate a crucial distinction.

I vehemently despise and oppose the wide-ranging firearm prohibition here in the UK. It is disgusting. It is an utter disgrace. I’m appalled and disheartened that there is not public outcry about it every day. And I have felt this way for a long time. It’s one of the very first political commitments I remember becoming passionate about.

However, I will concede something important. When someone argues for maintaining (or even intensifying) the strict gun control here, that is – at the very least – not an infeasible proposition. On the face of it anyway. For there are relatively few legally-owned guns in the UK. I have read estimates that there are a little over 1 million shotguns as well as half a million ‘other’ firearms in private hands. And, yes, that’s unquestionably far more than most people would ever guess. But you also have to keep in mind three counter-balancing facts. Firstly, those figures apply to a country of nearly 70 million people. Secondly, because individual gun-owners often have multiple (or even very many) guns, they constitute a much smaller group than those figures suggest. Thirdly, there is a de facto national registry of every single legally-owned firearm. And so, advocating that guns continue to be tightly regulated and largely kept out of the hands of the populace is – sadly – achievable. It can, therefore, simply be debated in terms of whether it is right or wrong.

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The annoying similarity between the Theranos and Fyre festival Documentaries

A little while back I watched two documentaries (released by Netflix and Hulu) about the Fyre festival bait-and-switch debacle. And just a few days ago I watched a documentary (released by HBO) about the implosion of Theranos. It was very glaring that they all share the same central flaw.

First, a word on quality. (Because, funnily enough, this has been much discussed online.) I’d say the Netflix-released Fyre documentary is clearly superior to the Hulu one. Not that the former is spectacular or anything. It’s just a decent, watchable documentary. Whereas the latter is frankly not even worth your time.

It commits one of the cardinal sins, which is an overreliance on pointless stock footage and flashy motion graphics. Best I can tell, this is done in pursuit of three aims. 1) To have filler content during narrator-heavy sections. 2) To pad out the runtime. 3) To lend the film some semblance of being ultra-modern and visually interesting. This trend in documentary filmmaking is fast becoming a pet peeve of mine. It really is just a lazy way of trying to artificially keep the viewer’s attention. And, in that sense, there’s an aspect of condescension in it. “The facts surely won’t be enough to keep you ADD-era simpletons engaged for ninety minutes, so here’s some eye-candy footage of… uhh, I don’t know… the skyline of some metropolis to keep you entertained while we dole them out.” Even under normal circumstances this is irritating. But when your documentary is about an event attended by vloggers obsessed with filming themselves – who would no doubt love to let you use their videos and display their Youtube name – you really don’t have any excuse for not showing us the thing itself as much as possible. Viewers want to glimpse the chaos as it unfolds. Not hear you describe how paying to go viral on Instagram works.

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“The horror! The horror!”

I find I cannot help but think of this famous, chilling line from Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. (A novel which I greatly admire.) Specifically, its connotations of being overwhelmed to the point of a sort of semi-dumb stupor, robbed of all eloquence or power to elaborate, by the sheer horrificness of something. It is like one’s very soul is gasping for air, having been punched in the gut by the world being so heinously unlike how it should be.

When the news broke several days ago about the massacre at two mosques in New Zealand, I… found I just couldn’t bring myself to read about it in depth. The news sites I frequent had already divulged enough in their blunt, formal headlinese: Dozens Dead. Shooter Live-streamed Killing Spree. Racist Manifesto Discovered. Those kind of summations, alone, sufficed to give me a sense of how unbelievably awful this tragedy was, how especially twisted and monstrous the plan behind it was, how stomach-turningly sick its perpetrator was. And I could not will myself to seek out and absorb any further details. For even the outline of the story was so dire, so depressing. Such a large number of innocent people attacked in such a nightmarishly brutal and callous way. I believe that the current count stands at fifty killed, fifty injured. (And the youngest victim was just… two years old.) Good god. But, of course, it doesn’t even end there. One ought to spare a thought for their families too. Who must be going through nigh-unbearable grief and sorrow.

It occurs to me that words cannot properly capture or convey the sheer evilness of such a thing. And there would be an absurdity in even trying to make them do so. Nor does the mind fare much better. It reflexively recoils in disgust and fear and abhorrence, failing to grapple with the true extent of the crime’s hideousness. This limitation is, perhaps, a small mercy. Even if the universe should have cared more about alloting merciful treatful to the victims instead.

In point of fact, I usually do click on these sort of news stories and, unpleasant though it is, make myself read about what happened. Half because I think it’s important to stay apprised of what the fuck is going on in the world; half because of – I’ll be totally candid here – an irrepressible morbid curiosity. That’s why this choice not to was significant. I’m not quite sure why I made it. I guess I just finally felt like I could imbibe no more of the horror. It might be that it was just a gradual wearing down of the mental fortitude needed to read such things and not let them destroy your day, or even a few days in a row, with vicarious sadness. As there is undoubtedly no shortage of these grisly stories to perpetuate that chipping-away effect. Just today, it’s being reported that there was an attack in the Netherlands, where multiple people were shot whilst riding a tram. And it seems that, at the very least, several times a month one wakes up to find just such a story dominating the news. “Oh look,” you say to yourself, “some unbelievably vicious act of unbelievably idiotic violence has claimed yet more lives.” This grim internal-monologue remark has become a continual presence in modern life. It is the only thing which springs to mind anymore. And its matter-of-factness is jarring, yes. But remember that that’s born from the self-reproaching apathy of compassion-fatigue.

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Y’know, I think you may miss the Social Media Monopolies if they’re Dismantled…

Elizabeth Warren recently pledged to break up tech and online companies which have a monopolistic chokehold on their particular space. (She named Facebook, Amazon, Google and, later, Apple as some examples.) I read the written version of her proposal, which is much more detailed than the talk she gave at SXSW.

I have three comments I want to get out of the way initially:

Firstly, I was kinda surprised by it. In a positive way, I mean. I expected that it would probably just be a salad of lazy populist-fawning and empty stick-it-to-the-data-barons grandstanding. [Look, hyphens were on sale at the punctuation store. What am I supposed to do? Not buy in bulk?!] And… sure… there are a few requisite sprinkles of both. Politics is still politics after all. And cheap emotive rhetoric remains the gold standard. But those exceptions notwithstanding, I found it to be a fairly substantive, soberly-written proposal with, regardless of my opinion on them, some well-considered points. It shows a certain respect for the reader (i.e. the potential voter) which I think is creditable. In relative terms at least. Most politicians – by which I of course mean their speechwriters – talk to their audiences as though they’re drooling simpletons who will likely need painstaking instruction on how to insert the ballot into the ballot-box. This causes any discourse which dares to rise above a third-grade reading level to suddenly seem like fucking ‘War and Peace’. Go figure.

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Getting your kicks from mocking ‘Bad Writing’ is a shitty thing to do

Maybe I’m just a pedantic stickler – hey now, you don’t all have to pipe up in a heartfelt chorus of ‘fuck yes you are’ – but when people try to redefine a word or phrase to let themselves off the hook for something, it bugs me. It really does. Maybe it’s because I have a degree in ‘English Literature and Creative Writing’. (For the low, low price of fifty thousand pounds in student loans, you could have this lucrative-opportunity-flypaper too! *jazz hands* Be careful you don’t trip over sprinting to your local university’s enrollment office! Please! Form an orderly line!) Now, I know most people wouldn’t trot out an undergraduate degree, let alone in the dreaded… humanities, as a justification for anything at all. I must admit, I see the self-aware wisdom in that reluctance. But bear with me for a second here. Because I want to tell you that getting that diploma was kinda like going to a seminary for three years. Where instead of worshipping some absentee-dad in the sky, you learn to worship meaning-laden squiggles on a page or screen. And one of the tenets of that reverence concerns the permissible and impermissible ways in which one may abuse the words themselves. Maybe you previously looked at that line in the sand askance. Well, no longer. You’ll gain a quaint sort of squeamishness when it comes to any flagrant disregard for it.

With all this in mind, let me start by saying that a ‘guilty pleasure’ ought to be essentially innocuous. Here are some examples which fit the bill:

  • Waking up in the middle of the night and blearily traipsing over to the kitchen to snarf down chocolate whilst half-naked, half-asleep and bathed in that harsh refrigerator light. (I can cop to this one. Hard.)
  • Rewatching Friends on Netflix for the 78th time. You now not only know it word-for-word – such that you could nearly stage a one-man table reading of any given episode’s script from memory – but you also know the notable mannerisms each actor performs in each scene. (My girlfriend has to raise her hand for this one.)
  • Begrudgingly listening to pop songs you don’t even like, because they’re so precisely and expertly engineered to be earworms that you just can’t help but give into the craving to hear them again. (Unless a species-wide firmware patch is someday applied, fixing this exploitable bug in human psychology, I think everyone is unfortunately stuck with this one…)

You’ll notice that in these cases, and all other applicable ones, ‘guilty pleasure’ is really somewhat of an exaggeration. You don’t really need to feel bad about doing these things. They’re not ideal, perhaps. And you may wish that you made smarter or healthier or more productive choices in their place. But they’re still not anything which reflects poorly on you as a person.

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Some Thoughts on Joe Rogan & Alex Jones

So… Alex Jones was on ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ podcast again several days ago, for an almost five hour long episode. (Which is, by the by, easily the longest podcast episode I’ve ever come across in my life.) I must admit, when I saw this pop up in my new-podcasts feed, I was very intrigued to hear it. For reasons I’ll expound upon in just a moment. I hope you won’t mind being a little patient here. Besides, isn’t that one of the components of enlightenment which the Headspace™ meditation app has granted you? (Of course, I was taught how to meditate during an ultra exclusive nine-year silent retreat hosted by transhumanist half-cyborg monks on the dark side of the moon. But, hey, I’m sure that learning from an… app… is just as good. ˢᶜʳᵉʷ ʸᵒᵘ ᵖᵒˢᵉʳ)

First off, let me say that I have somewhat mixed feelings about Joe Rogan. I’ve been listening to his podcast, albeit very much on and off, since close to when it first started. And obviously its place, in the public consciousness, on the Mount Rushmore of long-running quality podcasts is well-deserved. There have been some truly excellent episodes, featuring really in-depth conversations with fascinating thinkers and personalities. I feel I’ve learned quite a lot from it. And I’ve always liked his unapologetically long-form, one-on-one conversational podcast format (though he’s also branched out into other setups). It has been widely influential in the podcast space and with good reason. I’d even say it was one of the inspirations for the form my own podcast takes.

The evolution of Rogan as a person and of his opinions over the years has been both stark and fairly admirable. Not to mention, very interesting to watch. In his current form, I have heard him say many astute or thoughtful or compassionate things. Many things I have agreed with and respected that he said. But I have also heard him say (flippantly or otherwise) some very stupid and even repugnant things. Listing them all would perhaps be gratuitous. In recent memory though, I’ve heard him make comments about fat people which clearly betray a deep-seated form of disdain or disgust for them and their fatness. And some of the ridiculing, dismissive things he has said about being transgender do not exactly redound to his credit either. Far from it. Likewise, his knee-jerk tendency to, when the subject enters a discussion, bring up things like the outlier cases of unethical doctors carelessly prescribing very young children hormone replacement drugs is revealing and unsettling. And it summons something else to mind. This is in no way a direct analogy, but it is somewhat reminiscent of how a few decades ago anti-gay campaigners would make the bad faith misdirect of bringing up the tiny percentage of homosexual predators or pedophiles in response to the question of whether homosexuality should be normalized in society.

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‘Beware The Twin Neurotoxins of Jealousy and Insecurity,’ said I to Myself

Sometimes I feel very strongly that I truly cannot rest easy until I have… oh, I don’t know… a couple million words-written to my name. To know that I was able to do it. And not bullshit graphomaniac word vomit either; but rather, creditable efforts I can be proud of. Such will be the exorbitant price of admission for a moment where I can finally just breathe and be content. Because I’ll be able to point to that body of work and say: look at that! that proves I’m worth a damn! that retroactively gives my life some meaning!

(Out of curiosity, I looked it up. That moment has five out of five stars on Yelp. But that’s sourced from relatively few reviews. And the reviewers kind of seem like a mix of bots and fakers. Hmm. Weird. Oh look, a moment called ‘the strangely comforting victory of learning to be okay with what you already have’ only has three stars but it does have a shit-ton of reviews. From what seem to be nice, normal, well-adjusted people. Its popularity is enticing, I have to say. Damn it. Choices, choices.)

Okay, so… my motivation for this goal sounds insane, I know. And in a sense it very much is. But stick with me. I’ll try to explain. Hopefully it may make infinitesimally more sense by the time I’m done.

I suffer from jealousy way, way more than I’d like. To an unseemly and humiliating degree really. I feel it in many aspects of my life, but most often and most especially when it comes to the craft of writing.

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Thoughts on the Jussie Smollett fiasco

Let me just say a few things up front. Before this whole scandal unfolded, I did not know who the actor Jussie Smollett was. And, moreover, I obviously do not know whether he truly did fake the assault upon himself. I have not seen the evidence amassed against him. So I will be talking from the hermetically-sealed chamber of hypotheticals at various points throughout this post. (Shit. I hope I remembered to turn on the oxygen valve in there.)

To be completely honest, I must admit that when I first heard the lurid details of the attack, there was just something about them which did strike me as… well, I’m not sure quite how to articulate it. A little too on the nose? A little too perfectly despicable? A little too… theatrical? (I know I am far from the only person to feel that.) But, of course, I also knew that faint hint of weirdness doesn’t mean anything at all really. It was certainly no reason to doubt it genuinely happened. I mean, so what if it seemed oddly theatrical? When deranged individuals decide to attack celebrities, they do sometimes plan it out for quite a while beforehand, sweating the little details. Trying to get everything just right to convey the intended message, to achieve the intended emotional effect. Because they’re hoping to get into the news, to spawn eye-catchingly fucked-up headlines. They’re hoping to make some kind of disturbing statement with the nature of the act itself. In that sense, the attack itself almost becomes half violence, half utterly depraved spectacle.

However, now that Smollett has been charged with making a false police report – a felony – it’s officially alleged by prosecutors that this event was just a twisted attention-seeking performance. On the one hand, I believe wholeheartedly in the virtue of the presumption of innocence (and not just in the stuffy confines of a court of law either.) And it must be noted that Smollett is still insisting that he is not guilty. But on the other hand, if the prosecutors do indeed have the wide range of conclusive evidence they claim to have, I’ve got to imagine that this will be an open-and-shut trial in their favour. Like, we’re talking a total cakewalk here. Don’t even bother showing up, defense attorneys. Treat yourself to a vacation.

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