Death Of 1000 Cuts – Season 2 Preview

Hi everyone. Long-time no blog! I’ve been writing and dadding – all is explained in the mini-sode (ugh what an horrendous portmanteau) of Death Of 1000 Cuts below. If you’d like to submit, get in touch via the ‘contact me’ link to the right.

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 20

So look – since this is the last episode of Season 1 of Death Of 1000 Cuts, I wanted to try something a bit different. I thought I’d suggest some ways of revitalising your writing practice, so in the upcoming weeks you can make some substantial progress and upgrade your fiction to Project Status. ‘7 Steps To Becoming A Novelist’ was the rough title I organised it under.

I thought the episode might run 10 or 15 minutes longer than usual, but since it’s the last one for a few weeks (all being well, I’ll be a father in a few weeks, so I thought it’d be best to take a break so I can enjoy that) I ‘figured’ as the Americans say that it’d be all right. I recorded unscripted, then glanced at the time and realised with a kind of vertigo that I had been talking for over 2 hours and I was late for dinner.

I’ve decided to put the track up ‘as is’ because… I don’t know? I hope I say some useful stuff in there? I got to talk about a bunch of stuff to do with writing I don’t normally have the time for. It’s a pretty comprehensive heap of advice on how to get your fiction moving, how to develop a weekly practice, and how to get yourself from not writing anything at all, to finishing a novel you can be proud of. It’s not as polished as the usual ~20 minute episodes but it allowed me to cover a whole bunch of material I normally have to leave out.

If you suspect 2 hours of my talking about writing craft is going to prove deeply irritating to you, you may very well be right. But if you think it might be useful, if you’re looking for a pep talk or practical suggestions or a plan of action, then that’s in there, more or less. At any rate, I wanted to try something a little different for the final episode and I hope it’s okay. I don’t mean to be self-indulgent and it’s not that I enjoy the sound of my own voice (I really don’t!), but I just didn’t know a better way of getting a lot of advice and information across than just sitting down and chatting to you as if we were on the phone and you, for some reason, had lost your voice and had nothing better to do.

Here are some of the books on creative writing I mention. The one by Strunk & White I allude to but somehow forget the name of despite the fact it was literally directly in front of me at eye level as I was speaking is The Elements Of Style.

About Writing – Samuel R Delany

Aspects Of The Novel – E. M. Forster

How To Write Science Fiction & Fantasy – Orson Scott Card

On Writing Well – William Zinsser (sorry!)

Steering The Craft – Ursula K Le Guin

The Language Of The Night – Ursula K Le Guin

The Art Of Writing Fiction – Andrew Cowan

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 19

Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts, making you an awesome writer one cut at a time. Listen to the podcast, why doncha? Oh, and please share it! If you’d like to submit your work for a future episode, read our submission guidelines to find out how.

I hope you’re well and have had some lovely, interesting experiences this week. Here’s the text of the extract I look at in today’s episode:

The Diviners (by Liz)

The hospital wing at Dunguaire used to be the castle barracks, and later a museum. Now it is gloomy and dark and almost, but not quite, deserted. Luke hovers in the doorway, listening for Mam’s breathing, and edges towards the sound.

There are empty beds in the way, but he evades them with practised ease. The shadowy mass that resolves into a bed pan, though – he sees it almost too late, teetering around it so that his right shoe slaps the concrete floor a little harder than he’d like, and he halts. It’s not like Job to leave stuff lying around. Luke holds his breath but the sharp smell has already invaded his nostrils, and he closes his throat in disgust.

A muttering from three beds over, and his heart hammers, but then she’s silent again. He covers the last few metres and crouches by the mattress, facing her. Now is the most dangerous moment: will she be calm when she wakes? Will she be quiet? He’d be more sensible to leave without saying goodbye, but he can’t do it. Not now.

Her hair tumbles over the edge of the mattress; Job and the other nurses have given up tying it back for her, because she always pulls it loose. Her face is obscured by the night, but perhaps that’s best. This parting needs to be quick, and it will be easier if he can’t read her expression.

He takes a breath, slides a hand over her arm. “Mam.”

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 18

Hi everyone! Look, it’s a new episode of Death Of 1000 Cuts, up on time! WOW. Pretty bananas, eh readers?

Hope you like the show. If you do, please do share it. You might also like my novel, The Honours? If you’d like to submit for a future episode, please read our submission guidelines.

Here’s the extract I look at this week:

Bookbinder (by Catherine)

Once upon a time, we had tonnes of magic. We had magicians who made it good and not wild. But the Queen died and took loads of magic with her and the King died and took more magic.

I squinted at the handwriting of my eight-year-old self.

So the magicians died. And some dragons died. Magic got scary and got into books and paintings and statues and gardens and stuff and made them alive. Billagoes took over places without dragons to eat them. With no people to use magic we had to get people to bind it. The people who bind the magic in books are librarians. The best were called Bookbinders and the best Bookbinder who ever lived was—

‘What are you reading?’ Meryl took the tatty pieces of sewn together construction paper.

I looked up and smiled at her. ‘Old school project of mine. Mum found one of the dogs carrying it around and sent it over. She thought we’d be amused.’

‘Magic and my Great-great-granddad, by Elsinore Bookbinder,’ she read off the cover. ‘Nice choice of crayon.’ She handed the little book back to me. ‘While the subject of your ancestor is currently on the table, have you considered where you might follow in his travelling footsteps?’

‘Nope.’ I swivelled my chair towards my desk.

‘Elsie.’

‘Meryl.’

‘You can’t avoid the Librarian loan programme forever. Your deadline to choose your own destination is in two months.’ She used her stern pay-attention voice.

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 17

Hello, dear friends. It’s another Death Of 1000 Cuts – my podcast about learning to write super-well. Sorry it’s a bit late. Things are pretty hectic in Clare Towers (my house isn’t really called that) as we prep for the changeling. But oof! Here’s another episode and I hope you thoroughly enjoy it.

If you wanna submit your work for a future cast, here’s the link, baby. The extract is below. Please enjoy, and if you like it, share it!

Murder In The Lake District (by Jim)

I woke up, leapt out of bed and clambered over to the bathroom to brush my teeth. I saturated the bristles with a thick blue jelly-like liquid, ran the tap and began to brush. As I looked into the mirror I noticed that something had gone awry. My teeth had thinned, multiplied, turned yellow, inverted , sharpened and curled in my mouth!

“Bloody hell” I mutted as I stared into my own blank eyes. Then I heard knocking at the front door, which quickly turned into banging. I rushed down to the door in a panic, and opened it immediately to discover my father, gazing at me disappointingly, while rain showered him on the doorstep. The rain was matt white milk, and it was streaming down the road by the gutter. It was at this point that I realised I must have forgotten to put on my clothes and was fully naked. My father, arrested on my doorstep like a rusty statue gazed at me as if he hadn’t seen me for years and what he saw now, he had a lot of concern for. All I could do was look back at him and gesticulate, spreading my hands around and jabbing like a praying mantis. This attempt at communication continued ad nauseam for what seemed like a period of time equivalent to the remainder of my adult life.

All of a sudden I registered another presence. A figure began to walk past on the opposite side of the street wearing a full navy pin-stripe suit, crooning gently to himself.

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 16

It’s Death Of 1000 Cuts! Whoop. Learn how to write creatively with me, your host, Tim Clare. Bah. You know how it works by now. If not, listen to the back catalogue. We’ve got a couple o’ hours, now.

If you’d like to submit your own work to the podcast, here’s how.

And here’s the extract I look at this week.

Untitled (by Caleb)

The final notes of “Born In the USA” faded into silence at the perfect moment, just as I pulled my battered silver car up to the security checkpoint. The sun had just risen over the horizon. That’s a good sign, I thought as I rolled my window down. Maybe today won’t suck after all.

“Hey there, Theodore,” the guard on duty greeted me. “Have a good weekend?”

Too embarrassed to admit I could never remember his name, I did my best to make the conversation brief. “Sure, pretty good.” He didn’t raise the gate, so I endeavoured to be polite. “So…how’s it going with you?”

“Same as yesterday,” he said with a wry smile, “and the day before that, and the day before that.”

“Not much excitement, huh?” I said, tapping a finger on the steering wheel.

“That’s it, Theo! Can I call you ‘Theo’? I’m gonna call you ‘Theo’. See, when I transferred over here, they acted like it was a big deal, like I was climbing the ranks.” He chuckled and shook his head, “But look at me; stuck in a tiny little shack out here in the middle of nowhere. Most likely the only one stupid enough to accept the job.”

I cleared my throat, “Well-“

“And who am I guarding?” He continued. “Bigwig politicians? World famous rock and rollers? Nope, just a bunch of kids.”

“Yeah, but-“

“Kids, Theo.”

I waited, but the rant had concluded. He pushed a button and the gate began rising up. I was about to floor the accelerator, but before I did, I leaned out the window. The guard shot me a questioning look.

“They’re not just any kids,” I reminded him.

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 15

Hey writing pals. Here’s the new episode of Death Of 1000 Cuts.

If you’d like to submit a piece of writing for a future episode, please check out our submission guidelines for details.

If you’d like to read my work, why not read my novel, The Honours?

Here’s the extract we look at this episode:

Untitled (by Raja)

The first thing Geerthana felt was the cold. She had felt it before; spending winters in northern India makes one used to the cold. This was different. It was all encompassing; it wasn’t like the cold you feel when you step outside on a snowy day. No, this was different. It was slow and deliberate, and before you know it you’re shivering and pressing your hands between your thighs. Geerthana lifted her face off the floor, her dark hair falling over her face as she took in the room around her. It was about the size of a shipping container – and just as dark.

She had no memory of this place, and when she tried to reach out in her mind, to work through the memories of the past few hours or even the previous day, she drew up a blank. Geerthana shivered again – her teeth clattering as she shifted slightly and sat herself up. Her first instinct was to reach down, unbutton her jeans and check – ‘Okay, so at least that’s some comfort’ as she buttoned her jeans back up before sitting up against the cold wall of the container.

She reached into her back pocket for her phone. Wiping a sheen of dust away, she switched it on. She recoiled slightly as the brightness of the screen hit her face – ‘fuck’ she exclaimed as she realized the battery was just about running out.

‘I can’t remember the last time you swore like that, sis’ a familiar voice called out to her.

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 14

Hey writing pals. Here’s the latest episode of Death Of 1000 Cuts – me, chatting about editing fiction every Friday.

If you’d like to submit the first page of your novel for a future episode (please do!) then click this link to read our submission guidelines.

Here’s the extract I look at this episode. Hey, do me a favour and share the ‘cast, would you? I’d love more people to hear it. Thanks.

Untitled (by Rebecca)

‘That it, now I know you’re not listening. You should go to bed.’

She wiggled her toes by his head. ‘See. Fully awake.’

Andrew sighed and smiled and sat up. His twin’s hands were under her ears, eyes closed as she stretched out, head resting by the foot of his bed. Her brown hair fanned out across her arms and down the side of the bed and a few dark malted strands floated briefly as she yawned like a lion. They’ve been talking for the last two hours, and though he was irritated that he was going to be late for the grand opening in the city, he didn’t mind too much. She was one of the only people he truly wanted to give the time of day.

‘What did I just say then?’

‘You said…you said…you said.’ The last one was emphatic, like she was standing on the very edge of an epiphany. ‘You said…’ she said drowsily again.

‘Hey.’

‘You said that… you were having trouble with your girlfriend, Hannah. See,’ she said in a tired, triumphant way, ‘I was listening.’

‘Her name is Helen, and she’s a perfect goddess. Pay attention.’

‘That’s what you said about Witney. And Jolene. And Amee, Catherina, Vivian and Sam. Maybe,’ she yawned again, ‘maybe, you should flined-’

‘Find.’

‘Find,’ she restated, ‘a girl who isn’t perfect. You know, mix it up. Perfect’s boring.’

‘And who the hell ever said that?’

‘Me.’

‘Well that’s what all the perfect people say.’

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 13

Death Of 1000 Cuts is a podcast for anyone who wants to know how to write a novel. Each episode we look at a listener’s first page and suggest ways of making it better.

But you know all that, right? This week I’m joined by author Nikesh Shukla, writer of Coconut Unlimited and Meatspace. Yes, those are Amazon links; no, you shouldn’t buy his novels from the flesh-eating elder god, but you can read what they’re about there then get them from a retailer who doesn’t lie in dreamless slumber beneath the ocean, absorbing the planet’s vital force and sowing the seeds of discord until one day it bursts forth and consumes the sun. Go into your local bricks-and-mortar. Or get them from Hive.

I’m sorry that I’m such a waffling discursive boor on this episode. Apparently I’d made a pledge to match every salient, helpful point made by Nikesh with a honking laugh or a comment of ‘yes, that’s interesting’. That’s why the conversation runs long. But he gives a bunch of great advice that I don’t completely ruin. So please persevere.

If you’d like to submit to the show, please read the submission guidelines. The ‘Contact Me’ link through which you can email me is on the right of this page.

Below is the text of the extract we – eventually – discuss in this week’s episode. I hope you enjoy it!

Untitled (by Kamil)

On a cloud overlooking Seattle, Malachi, the avenging angel, smoked a cigarette in peace. The lights below twinkled patterns. Cars, with their headlights blaring, struck across the I-90  like shooting stars.

Malachi chuckled. In God’s Infinite Wisdom, he taught his children to ape the majesty of his host. What a pretentious asshole.

Malachi had with him a patio sling lawn chair he’d stolen from a Wal-Mart. The wind pulled at Malachi’s long, wavy mohawk and clinked the buttons on his bomber jacket. It was perfect except Malachi could faintly hear distant hymns and the twang of angelic harps. The chorus was constant up in Heaven.

He heard the shuffling of feet behind him and turned to see Maroel, the compliant. Maroel was short for an angel. His voice was high-pitched and reedy which disqualified him from the angelic chorus. He’d never had much of a handle on wielding divine wrath. The fires of creation, in his hands, were more the warmish embers of impotence. His total lack of skill relegated him to the position of God’s Messenger, which meant Malachi only saw him when God wanted something.

“Where have you been?” shrilled Maroel, walking around to look his target in the face. “We’ve been looking all over for you.” Maroel glared at the space above Malachi’s head. “Where’s your halo?”

Malachi took another drag on his cigarette, “I tossed it into a crater on Ganymede. Why? Is it harder for the Almighty’s hunting dogs to track me if I haven’t got it on?”

Maroel began to hyperventilate. “God has an important message for you.”

“Tell him I said ‘no.’”

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 12

On this absolutely frigging awful pig of a week, here’s another episode of my ridiculous creative writing advice podcast. I hope you’re all right and I hope you enjoy the show. It has me doing possibly the worst dialogue read ever recorded. Audible, you have my email address. Start bidding for my services whenever you feel ready.

If you’d like to submit something for a future podcast please read the submission guidelines, which I realise refer to the blog version and I need to update. But the meat of it is basically correct.

Here’s the extract I look at in this episode:

Phillies (by D)

“Get you another?”

I lift my glass. Light. Nearly empty. Ice-cubes swirl, but no longer clink.

“Sure.”

“Same again?”

“Thanks.”

She’s not wearing heels. Comfortable flats. I can barely hear her footfalls as she walks away down the bar.

The door clatters as someone leaves. There’s frost in the draft that swirls past my stool. One more clatter as the door swings shut, and everything is still again. By my count, I’m the last customer.

“There y’are, hon. Six fifty.”

I hand her three notes. One from the left pocket, two from the right.

“Thanks.”

“Thanks for the drink. You busy?”

“Not so busy tonight, hon.”

“Quiet night, huh?”

A finger taps my hand. I open it. Two coins. I pocket them.

“Uh-huh. It’s pretty cold out.” Southern accent. Tennessee, maybe. A long way from home.

“You mind talking a while? You got things you need to take care of, you let me know.”

The smallest of pauses.

“No, hon. I can talk.”

I sip my drink. Bonfire smoke and Christmas.

“D’you know the worst thing about being blind?”

“No hon.” She’s wary. “What’s that?”

“The worst thing about being blind – ” I take another sip. ” – is not being able to see anything anymore.”

She laughs, relieved if not actually amused, and after a moment I join in.

One more sip, the glass cool and clean in my hand. Run my finger round the rim. A patch of rough. Old lipstick, probably. Not so clean.

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 11

Hey dear friends. This week I’m talking to author Ann Morgan again as we look at another writer’s first page. For those who are interested, the opening song in this week’s episode is a piece I call ‘The Uniform of the 10th Light Dragoons, 1794’.

The show needs first pages to be submitted if we’re to have stuff to discuss – don’t rely on other people! Get critiqued! Read our submission guidelines then send me your work – or, if you already have or you don’t want to (perfectly reasonable of you) then please share the podcast with writing pals who might like to themselves. You can also subscribe to the podcast on Soundcloud and iTunes so you get it as soon as I upload it.

Here’s the extract we looked at:

Hero (by Nathalie)

It happens for the first time when he is eleven.

He doesn’t know how. He is aware of slipping, the scrape of the bark against his fingers, of being faintly embarrassed by his own high whimper of fear, of losing his grip and falling, and then the rush and thud of impact.

He waits, his heart throbbing in his throat and the tips of his fingers, for his breathing to even out and his shoulders to unclench, and then he opens his eyes. His arm is impaled on a fence.

Choking on his breath, Charlie stares. Six inches of metal protrude from the pale, soft flesh of his forearm, levering his upper body unevenly off the ground. He bites the inside of his cheek and, gracelessly, forces himself to his knees and lifts his arm off.

It doesn’t hurt. It occurs to him almost as an afterthought, only as he looks at the split edges of his skin and reaches with his other hand to touch. Maybe he is too surprised to be hurt, he thinks, because he can feel the air on his injury, the cool hum of breeze against the exposed flesh, but nothing else apart from a vague discomfort he is certain he is imagining.

The hole is an almost perfect half-inch square, set like a diamond a little way up his wrist. He is not, he notices belatedly, bleeding. Through the hole he can see the bright green of the grass, clashing against the violent pink and yellow and white insides of his arm, the tiny dark blue threads of his veins.

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 10

Hey you! This week’s episode of Death Of 1000 Cuts has me and Joe Dunthorne talking about another first page.

The show needs first pages to be submitted if we’re to have stuff to discuss – so hey, don’t rely on other people. Get critiqued! Read our submission guidelines then send me your work. You can also subscribe to the podcast on Soundcloud and iTunes so you get it as soon as I upload it.

Please share this podcast with anyone who you think might enjoy it or benefit from it. And that’s it. Housekeeping over. Here’s the extract we looked at:

Untitled (by Anya)

“God damn it, Sarah, where are you?” I yell at the top of my lungs, striding towards the empty trapeze. “Sarah, why the hell isn’t your ass practicing right now?” I say. This is ridiculous. Sarah, of all people, missing tonight, of all nights? I can’t believe it.

Something soft hits my foot, and I stop. The gravel paths are supposed to be completely cleared for opening night. I look down, and see a bloodless, severed head.

No, I don’t.

I see a headshot: Sarah’s. It’s black and white and the wind must have lifted it off my desk and out the window and on the ground and now I’m touching it and it feels like flesh and so I scream.

I scream. Then I breath. Then I scream again. Then I scramble backwards. I bump into another piece of flesh, but this one’s warm, and chest shaped.

It says, “Sorry, boss. Is everything okay? I heard you scream.” It’s Zachary, the fire juggler.

I turn around to face him. I’m panting, and I can’t answer. I start patting my pockets for a cellphone. Of course, there are no pockets in this damn ringmaster gettup.

“Phone,” I say, reaching out my hand to Zachary. I’m shaking.

He fishes one out of the pockets of his shorts. It comes away covered in ash. Some dissonant part of me is glad that he, at least, was practicing. I dial the phone. An operator with a maddening smooth voice says, “911, what’s your emergency?”

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 9

Hey kids. Here’s this week’s episode of Death Of 1000 Cuts – a podcast for writers, readers and people who are nosy about how stories get made. Check out the archives for more episodes.

Below is a text version of the piece we discuss in today’s show. If you’d like to submit an extract of your work for future shows, I’d love that – please make sure you’ve listened to a few episodes so you understand what you’re agreeing to and read our submission guidelines.

Do subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud so you can be sure to get every new episode as it appears. I don’t do ads so if you’d like to support my work, please share the show with folk you think would like it, and buy my novel, The Honours.

Clear (by Dan)

They don’t even have magazines any more, just pamphlets smeared with filth. I can smell the mother with wide, sun-cracked shoulders, fat kid lolling in her arm pit. Girl next to me looks vegan, pale and pointy. No smell.

My jeans haven’t dried properly and I smell like a banana.

I try to pull into myself, tighter and tighter, but I bend back to shape like a coat hanger. Another fat mum, pushchair too big. Not regular either: tubes, pipes, a machine for God’s sake. Baby seems chirpy though, gurgling into its raw pink chin. Try to look normal.

I’ve been rehearsing my script. I can’t tell them what it is and admit I’ve been googling gloopy wreckages of flesh since 4am. Last week it was Impetigo, so she said. But it’s…

Tom Creckan, room 6

Polite knock. He actually gets up and meets me at the door. Normally just a sullen clack of the keyboard, whiff of mint. New and keen. And clean. Creamy hand-soap hand-shake. Hint of acne himself if you peer close enough, gnawing at the corners. No hair gel/wax/crème, just a breezy morning fluff. Shirt well ironed. This man is a fucking morning.

I start my tale. Just throw it right in.

‘I get these cold sores.’

He stares, unflinching, bobbing my reflection in his spectacles.

‘Last week…your colleague said it was Impetigo…I mean, not that I’d question…but…’

He’s about to stop me. Smother me, politely, with a creamy palm.

 

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 8

Hello everyone. Hope you’re having a good week. Here’s the latest episode of Death Of 1000 Cuts. I’ve got a few more episodes recorded with authors Joe Dunthorne and Ann Morgan which I’ll drip out over the coming weeks while I have gibbering conniptions over deadlines and project crush and other luxury problems.

If you’d like to submit your work to be examined on a future episode please read our Submission Guidelines. Also, please subscribe to the podcast on Soundcloud or iTunes. And finally, please please share it with your friends and communities who write if you think it might help them with their craft. If it’s been useful or entertaining to you, chances are it will be to someone else.

Here’s a text version of the extract I discuss this episode, so you can read along if you like. Good luck with your writing.

Love Underground (by Andrew)

It began when I realised writing the song could not fail to make her love me back.

*

A week later, I knelt in wet leaves at the foot of my parents’ garden, soil under my fingernails and a hard plastic treasure clamped between my teeth. Crimson-flushed with embarrassment and October cold, I dug. The earth below the surface was freezing and alive. I rubbed my fingers and shuddered. By the time I had scraped back the leaves and made a hole, I was panting, my lips numb and flecked with spittle where my teeth gritted round the cheap CD-R. I spat it onto the ground and steadied myself; thrust it into the hole and heaped earth back on top. I rocked to my feet, breathing heavily.

I wiped a hand on my jeans and squirmed in the pocket for a Nokia mobile phone. Fifteen minutes until the train back to Edinburgh: to its Old College, and cobbles, and long-dead ghosts. I spat one last time to clear the taste of grey plastic, and hefted my rucksack from the damp grass. I made for the gate, walking fast, gripping the phone one-handed. My fingers were brittle in the cold, but I found the button to compose a new message.

In the garden. You’ll see it. Come tonight.

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 7

Hi everyone! Here’s this week’s episode. I had a go at recording some two-player versions of the show in London. It’s my first time doing so, so still learning how to do it, but my two guests, Joe Dunthorne and Ann Morgan, were absolutely brilliant. I’m still going to do my usual one-person episodes as well, I just want to try mixing it up a bit. Sorry that the levels are a bit skew-whiff. As I say, still learning. Thank you for bearing with us while we learn the recondite art of podcasting.

If you want to submit for the show, please read our Submission Guidelines. Here’s an iTunes link too.

I think that’s about it. Except to say – and there’s no way I can deliver this without sounding insincere or ersatz or cheesy, I suspect – thank you so much to everyone who has got in touch to say they’ve been enjoying the show so far, and to everyone who has shared it. I’m a nervous, broken fellow and I was genuinely frightened about delving into something new, so thank you for being so kind and generous with your support. It means a lot.

Untitled (by Brittany)

My name is Lucy Lively and I’m a zombie. I know, right? Lively was a great stroke of ironic luck but Lucy is surprisingly appropriate. Lucy was the first human; I’m the first zombie. Patient zero. Public

service announcement: if your sketchy-ass dealer ever says, ‘here try this shit I just invented,’ and they don’t have a chemistry degree – scratch that, even if they do have a chemistry degree – don’t fucking try it.

Aside from the actual dying part, every day of my death so far has been a party. Being a zombie is awesome. It’s like being a super villain only I get to win at the end of the story because everyone else is dead.  I do whatever I want, whenever I want and it never bothers me that I mostly just want brains.

Then Emily had to go fuck it up.

I had spent the last several hours staring at the paint peeling on the walls of a dilapidated tenement listening to Bassnectar. I’d visited the place off and on for several weeks now. There was something about the rot and decay there that spoke to me. Like the building was an echo of my crappy human life, or a metaphor for the death I now wrought or, I don’t know, some other real poetic shit.

I digress. Emily was about to fuck shit up. There was a knock at the door, which was unusual. Zombies, as a rule, don’t knock.

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 6

Hello dear friends. Episode 6 of Death Of 1000 Cuts, the podcast, is now up. Thanks for spreading the word about the show. We’ve had over a thousand listens now, which – while modest by podcasting standards – is a lot more than I expected from some random bullshit that I’m learning how to do as I go along. Next week I’m hoping to do record some two-hander episodes. It might take a while to work out the best way of managing those – I mean, it’s not exactly a radical podcast format, two people talking – but fingers crossed something good will arise out them.

In the meantime I leave it to you to enjoy this week’s episode and continue to let others know that this podcast exists and isn’t wretchedly awful.

If you’d like to listen to the podcast on iTunes, that is also a thing you can now do.

Here’s the piece I talk about this week. If you’d like to submit, please read the submission guidelines. You can get in touch via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right.

Here’s this week’s submission, in case you’d like to read along:

Untitled (by Ben)

The raucous blare of repetitive, brain-numbing music sent the crowd into a frenzied rave. Bright red, green and yellow lights blinked from above and below. If Jack had not already been working there for two years he would have thought he was caught in the limbo between an LSD overdose and a slideshow of kaleidoscope images.

A pair of cackling women stumbled into the bar. One in a gaudy scarlet dress fumbled into her purse before slamming a handful of coins and notes onto the counter in front of Jack.

“Two thunder crackers!” she slurred after a flick of her puffy, pale blonde hair. Jack turned to the shelves of liquors and booze behind him and sent his hands into the meticulously organised collection of drinks. A few moments later he turned back to hand the women their cocktails. They nabbed the drinks from his hands and wobbled off into the crowd, their laughs like the screeching of a fork across a plate.

Jack returned to the counter behind him to return the drinks to their rightful positions on the shelf: two kinds of vodka, rum, whiskey and soda water—a local mixture designed to ignite the throats of drunkards, idiots and thrill seekers.

The lights dimmed, heralding a change of song and a brief lull in the nightclub’s raves. Jack seized the opportunity and quickly shuffled to the water tap at the away from the dancefloor. That end of the bar was much less crowded, visited only by the occasional sober loner.

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 5

Hark! A huge podcast is approaching! Well, just a regular-sized one actually, but density-wise it’s certainly unequaled in terms of raw creative-writing-technique-opinions-per-minute. Go! Listen!

My multiplayer versions of this podcast are coming together – which is to say I’ve booked a date to record a bunch in London. Now all I needs are some willing, warmhearted authors with opinions to co-host with me. Not sure how they’ll compare to the solo show – some bits will be better, I imagine! It’s worth having a go, and it’s always worth hearing a range of perspectives.

If you’d like to listen to the podcast on iTunes, that is also a thing you can now do.

Here’s the piece I talk about this week. If you’d like to submit, please read the submission guidelines. You can get in touch via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right.

The Tale of Chocolate City (by Olly)

Chocolate City had run out of chocolate. Not just dark chocolate, which any right minded citizen of Chocolate City knew was only really for older people who had sensitive teeth, but also milk chocolate and white chocolate. It had run out of the chocolate that went in ice cream, in sweets, on pancakes and even the mint chocolate that rich and refined people liked to dish out at the end of fancy dinner parties.

It was a catastrophe….

“It is a catastrophe,” wailed a short stumpy looking man, clad in the flowing red robe of the Chocolatiers. A stern looking colleague, with a dark, neatly trimmed beard, and deeply set green eyes, sat listening distractedly, just across the fire place.  He was taller and somewhat firmer looking than the man sprouting forth with fire and brimstone about the future of their beloved city. The hearth between them burned with the last breaths of a long night; they had been running over the problem for days now and had come to no conclusion. The sterner man cleared his throat thoughtfully, uncrossed his legs and lent forward to speak,

“Well alchemy always states…”

“I don’t give a damn what your crazy magic states, you can’t just make chocolate from thin air. You’ve been trying for thirty years, ever since you were kicked out of the academy for mixing fruit and nut with chocolate…. I mean, the sheer audacity?”

Gerald knew he had gone too far then.

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 4

Hello! This is episode 4 of the Death Of 1000 Cuts podcast. I put it up. You maniacs. I’m committed to doing a run of 10 while I find my feet with this audio lark and get my head around recording, and – yeah. I like doing it! I know I keep saying I will talk to other humans too. That will happen, it’s just a case of getting them in the same room as me. Some little day trips to hunt them down may be in order.

If you’d like to listen to the podcast on iTunes, that is also a thing you can now do.

Here’s the piece I talk about this week. If you’d like to submit, please read the submission guidelines. You can get in touch via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right.

Untitled (by Dan)

I didn’t realise I’d overslept until after I’d woken up. Flailing my way out of my bedclothes and into the bathroom, I cursed myself for forgetting to check my watch in my dreams.

It was the date of the great village fete. As I hopped down Hicklemore Road attempting to apply trousers to my legs, I briefly wondered why my alarm clock hadn’t gone off, before making a mental note to purchase an alarm clock.

“Morning, vicar!” called the greengrocer as I sprinted past. I had no time for his pleasantries, so I didn’t return his greeting. Also, since I’m not a vicar, there was a good chance he was addressing somebody else.

The fete was already in full swing when I arrived, apart from the full swing band, which hadn’t started yet. No wonder. They could hardly start without their lead saxophonist.

“Come on Dennis,” shouted the bandleader, Gordon. “Where’s your sax?”

I clasped my hands to my head in exasperation, a manoeuvre I was able to accomplish injury-free thanks to the absence of my Buescher 400 saxophone case.

“That’s ok,” said flaxen-haired Melissa. “He can play mine. I’ll play clarinet instead.” She handed me her alto as I sat down next to the flaxen-haired and now sax-impaired Melissa.

“Good,” said Gordon, glaring at me before turning to the rest of the band. The rest of the band were sitting in the same general area as me, so he didn’t really need to turn, but he did anyway.

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 3

Episode 3 of Death Of 1000 Cuts is now up! Please share, give me feedback, send me your writing extracts and, most importantly, enjoy. The update schedule may sometimes be a bit wonky, but I’d rather sometimes miss a week and keep going than hold myself to rigorous standards which I immediately fail to live up to. Hope that’s okay avec toi.

If you’d like to listen to the podcast on iTunes, that is also a thing you can now do.

Here’s the piece I talk about this week. If you’d like to submit, please read the submission guidelines. You can get in touch via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right.

Sniper

Time slowed to a crawl. Will, following some primal instinct that had saved his ass five, six, now seven times moved to the left; the bullet cut a path through the space where his head had been and struck the skeleton of a bus, some twenty yards back. A deafening clang came to his ears, but no gunshot, was the gun silenced or was it just the wind? He couldn’t tell. And shortly after the first shot, his guardian angel sixth sense pretty much left him for dead because the second one entered through his right breast, shattered his rib, and dug a path through flesh and lung before exiting out the back, white-hot, and throwing him to the ground with the force of a sledgehammer.

He hit the asphalt and everything sped back up.

While he reeled, Sarah grabbed his collar and began to pull. She had her rifle in one hand and was dragging Will toward the bus with the other, yelling where did it come from, Will? What direction? as a third shot hit the pavement at Will’s feet. He coughed and tasted blood, acrid and metallic; looking down at his shirt he saw a growing blot of crimson and thought how exactly did I go so long without being shot? while Sarah frantically dragged and said oh shit, oh shit, oh shit–he hoped they had taught her how to treat sucking chest wounds in medical school.

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Episode 2

I’ve recorded another episode of the Death Of 1000 Cuts podcast. The last one was technically episode zero, the pilot, but literally no one cares about my fidelity to numbering systems so let’s just say this is two. No theme tune yet.

If you’d like to listen to the podcast on iTunes, that is also a thing you can now do.

Here’s the piece I talk about this week. If you’d like to submit, please read the submission guidelines. You can get in touch via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right.

Untitled (by Caleb)

Some have remarked that my childhood wasn’t normal, and I can’t deny their statements entirely. I was born with a family, of course. Everyone is. The only difference with mine is that it lasted less than a year. My mother and father left me, abandoned me, forgot about me; or perhaps even decided they’d be better off if I’d never been born at all.

That’s what the pirates tell me. I’ve lived with them ever since they found me as a baby, lying in a basket by the harbor. Not an ideal beginning, to be sure, but I know this life can’t be what I was destined for. There are so many other things I could be doing, like fighting in the British army, exploring the vast, grime-covered streets of London, or simply playing with other children my age. I’d settle for that in a heartbeat. Sometimes I lay awake at night, imagining how much better my life would be if I was living it on land.  The grass is always greener on the other side.

That’s what Barnabus told me, at least. He’s my confidant/friend/schoolmaster all rolled into one. Plus he’s one of the Captain’s oldest friends, which explains why he’s still here, when a younger, stronger man could do his assigned duties with more vigor. Speaking of the Captain…I hate him. I know it sounds callous, but you haven’t been around him like I have.

Death Of 1000 Cuts – Podcast Pilot

Hey everyone – so I’ve gone ahead and recorded a pilot for the Death Of 1000 Cuts podcast. This is just a test run, to hear how it sounds, to practise recording it and putting it up, and to get feedback. I’m not giving this a big push as this isn’t a launch, per se. We’re still in beta and I’d love any constructive feedback from you on how I could make it better. It’s not the only format I’m planning to try – it would be good to chat to guests, maybe answer specific listener questions, etc.

Here’s the piece I discuss, if you want to look at it yourself, and if you’d like to submit, please read the submission guidelines. You can get in touch via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right.

The Bone Station (by Ed)

Garth was standing behind a mahogany desk that spanned nearly the width of the carriage, bare except for a pair of beeswax candles that dripped down ivory candlesticks, their light catching on the medallion that hung from the man’s neck. All the other furniture and ornaments were gone. A bottle of home-brewed liquor – “Minister’s Oil,” Marion called it – was already open, filling the air with fumes, and as I entered Garth sloshed some of the pungent liquid into stoneware snifters.

“Here,” he said, thrusting one of the drinks towards me, spilling as he did. “Have a drink. Sorry I don’t have anywhere for you to sit – everything’s been moved to the new hall.”

I took the drink. “What do you want, Minister?” I said, knowing the answer.

“No time for pleasantries?” Garth didn’t look surprised. I didn’t say anything, and he sighed. “Well enough,” he said. “Your week’s up, Amos. You asked for time, and time you’ve had. I need you to make your decision.”

“You need me to stay, you mean?”

“I want you to stay,” said Garth. “But stay or go, I need you to make a decision. It was still autumn when we arrived; we’re now well into spring. Every day we build more houses, yet people still come back to the train to sleep and eat. As long as it’s here they will never lose their dependency of it. Either drive it back yourself, or I’ll send it away without you.”

“It’s not that simple,” I said.

Call For Submissions

Hey everyone. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? How are you? Well, I hope.

So I took a little break from writing Death Of 1000 Cuts because I was feeling overworked and low. I feel a lot less sad now! In fact, if you plotted my mood on a graph over the past decade it would describe a wiggly but undeniably upward-trending line. So that is a Good Thing.

But like the authentic Dutch bulbs now poking up from the flowerbeds in my front garden, I’ve begun to feel a certain yearning, a Springy burst of new growth within me. Also I’ve been poking around for good creative writing articles on the internet and found sod all because PEOPLE ARE IDIOTS*.

I think this means I’m ready to come back.

And how I want to come back is this: I’m going to try a Death Of 1000 Cuts podcast.

Without wanting to poo all over the idea before it has had time to crawl from its chrysalis and shake the moisture from its wings, it does occur to me that audio may be a suboptimal format for analysing work in a written medium. Maybe having a page there in front of you is just better? I don’t know. I know I’ll never know and never have a chance to iron out the wrinkles unless I try. So I’m going to try.

Which means: I’m going to bash out a run of 10 episodes to see how it sounds. I guess this will be a tester, to see how much work it is, how shit they are, how much I enjoy it. Some of you will know I used to do a weekly radio show. I’d love to try shifting to the challenge of podcasting, see if I can sound not like an utter git and maybe pass on something of merit to the world at large.

I’m not really selling this, am I?

Ok. Wait.

GET FUCKING EXCITED, PEOPLE. I’m going to bust out the creative writing podcast all of humankind have literally, consciously been waiting for. Listen while sitting on a toilet, because you will evacuate your bowels the moment the first syllable leaves my lips. It’s going to be shit hot. You will learn so much your sentences will flow from your fingers like shimmering birds of paradise and people will bludgeon one another with tyre irons just for the privilege of being first to thrust bales of cash into your hands, out of sheer gratitude for your contribution to culture.

Better?

I want to talk about writing, I want to talk about practical, not-fucking-useless ways to make your writing better. I want every single episode to contain information which you can immediately apply to your own work, not just glib fist-pumping aphorisms that make you all fired up about writing but improve your skills not one whit. I am, I think it’s fair to say, not shit when it comes to talking about fiction writing, and hopefully I can translate this into a decent podcast that can help people.

So. I need stuff from you. Sozzo. I need submissions. Each episode, I want to look at a different first page. I’ll read it out, post the text on this site, and then look at ways to make it better. I can’t really use submissions for the blog because I didn’t ask for permission to use them in podcast form. So this is a clean slate. I’ll include submission rules in my first recording, but basically, send them to me by clicking the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right.

I want a max 250 word submission of the first page of your novel. Ideally, you will have finished your novel, reread it, and redrafted it several times. I want your best work, please. In return, I’ll do my best to find as many ways as I can to make it better. If you’ve not read Death Of 1000 Cuts before, please look at some to get a sense of my tone. And here are the standard submission guidelines for the blog.

Without submissions, I can’t do the show. They’re the heart of it. So please submit, and please spread the call for subs far and wide. I will do my best to do a really good job of feeding back on the pieces I receive, if I use them in the show, and I’ll expand on what I want in the first recording.

Also – please, please comment below or email me with suggestions of topics you’d like me to talk about, things you’d like covered, small questions you’d like answered, etc. I really, really want to engage people and make the show a discussion and a dialogue. This isn’t about a hierarchical system of handing down teaching, it’s a partnership – I’ll do my best to be honest, but it’s just, like, my opinion man, not gospel. I guess I see it more like a team of writers working together, of which I happen to be one.

Also: suggestions of people to ask to come on the podcast and talk with me? I think it will be much better with two people talking, not just me yammering away on my own. It would be great to have guests on who can help me look at that week’s piece and also chat about writing in general. Please suggest anyone/everyone you think would be good: authors and publishers, maybe writers from other fields like film or video games, whoever really.

I’ll really appreciate any signal-boosting you can give this, and any feedback you provide. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this far. I expect things will start off a little ropey soundwise to begin with, given that I live next to a busy three-lane road, but I’ll do my best to make it listenable and compelling and actually useful. I reckon we could see the first episodes within the next couple o’ weeks.

That’s it. Does it sound good? Let me know. Over to you.

*People aren’t idiots really. I like people.

6 Rubbish Christmas Boardgames You Must IMMEDIATELY Burn – and 6 AMAZING Christmas Boardgames to Replace Them With

Around July this year, I decided to quit video games until my novel was finished. I had been struggling with procrastination and I thought setting aside my 3DS and the various titles on my laptop would help give me the focus I needed to push through to the bitter end.

But no. Addiction is a tenacious little monkey, and the locus of my timewasting simply jumped the species barrier from electronic to actual, tangible games. For the past few months, I have been playing boardgames.

So now we find ourselves staring down the barrel of Christmas, traditionally the season when those of us who don’t even like boardgames end up playing them as a means of passing the endless, otherwise-unmediated hours of contact with family and loved ones. If you’re anything like me, this may be one of the only times in which those few boardgame boxes come down from the shelf, crusted in a grey, feathery layer of dead skin, looking about as inviting as a moist bin liner full of medical waste.

I’m not about to mount a defence of the Christmas games you’ve learned to hate. Your antipathy is understandable. They are shit. Perhaps, you conclude, you’re just not a games person.

And that’s possible. I don’t think there’s anything more likely to confirm someone’s suspicion that they don’t enjoy games than trying to chivvy them into playing against their polite refusals. Boardgames are just an excuse to spend memorable time with people you love, and if you can achieve that rewatching a favourite movie or slathering your naked bodies in cocoa butter, putting whalesong on Spotify and turning the dimmer switch down to a seemly crepuscular hue then I would be a Grinch indeed to stop you. But – but but but – many of the games that have been most popular in Britain over the last 30 years have also been some of the shittest. A sizeable revolution has taken place in boardgames over the last decade, one that most people don’t know about, because boardgames don’t really have an outreach programme, and so families are still joylessly handing down Monopoly from generation to generation, tragically unaware that there is a better way.

Quite a few people, aware of my sickness, have asked me for boardgame recommendations for the imminent festive season. Here are my suggestions for games to burn, laughing, and what you should replace them with.

1. BURN: MONOPOLY / BUY: CHINATOWN

I’ve played Monopoly more than any other boardgame, and we all know the major design flaws, right? How it becomes clear who’s going to win some 30 minutes before the game actually ends. How, as the properties are sold, you have fewer and fewer decisions to make, until you’re just using the dice to generate random numbers and watching the game play itself.

It’s popular in the modern gaming community to rant about how egregiously shit Monopoly is, and though I have a certain amount of sympathy with that position, I think it’s important to acknowledge what it does right. After all, there must be some reason so many of us play it, beyond a kind of repressed self-loathing that demands hours of joylessly nudging a metal scotty dog round the perimeter of a square.

Deals. Doing deals in Monopoly is fun. Someone else has a property you want, you’ve got something they want, you’re competitors but you need each other, you’ve got these big wads of play money. It’s a great part of the game, negotiating with your enemy to get the properties you need to build a shitload of hotels and tax them out of the game. How do you convince someone to work against their own self-interest? That’s a good puzzle and a funny social dynamic, and it allows opportunities for really memorable interactions.

Luck. For the most part, dice rolls in Monopoly feel arbitrary and dull, but occasionally they create some great moments, like when you’re forced to run the gauntlet of Park Lane and Mayfair with hotels on them, and your little motor car is sitting there on Bond Street like a plucky little prairie dog about to dash out of his burrow under the shadow of a looming eagle, and you cross everything and roll and… land on ‘Super Tax’, which is apparently a thing. It’s either exciting or stressful, depending on your perspective, but it’s definitely engaging.

So look: what if I said you could have all of Monopoly’s cool deal-making and real estate haggling and empire building, plus all of the excitement of pressing your luck and gambling and riding the winds of fate, without the hours of tedious downtime, the late-game lull, and the dearth of meaningful decisions?

Chinatown is an awesome little real estate game set in 1960s New York where you and your friends compete to see who can create the most profitable business empire. It’s dead simple – much easier to teach than Monopoly, with all its fiddly un-mortgaging at 10% and rolling doubles to get out of jail – yet rich and challenging and really, really funny. Each turn you’re going to get some title deeds to parts of the city – you just get dealt them, no farting about rolling dice and paying money – and some businesses, like restaurants, pet shops, factories and camera stores. But to get the big money, you’re going to need your bits of real estate to connect up. So then comes the meat of the game – the deal making.

When I first heard about Chinatown it didn’t sound like my cup of tea. I like games that tell grand stories, and squabbling over Unit 17 didn’t exactly strike me as epic. But you’ll just have to trust me when I say it’s wonderful. At barely five minutes in, erstwhile lovely, retiring friends will be scheming, charming and browbeating one another into five-figure real estate deals with all the desk-pounding blowhard bullshit of Donald Trump, albeit with – one would hope – none of the batshit racism.

All negotiations happen simultaneously, meaning that players can undercut one another, jumping in on a deal just about to close, offering something better and freezing someone out. This leads to hilarious scenarios where someone draws a piece of real estate right smack dab in the middle of three other people’s business empires, and ends up receiving the other players like suitors as they all make their pitches as to why they can offer the sweetest deal.

And luck plays a wonderful, satisfying role in shifting the tides of the game. A plum plot of land one turn can become near-worthless on the next if other players draw the units surrounding it. Pull a couple of factory tiles out of the bag and suddenly you might be the only way your opponent can finish their big six-unit cash cow. Sometimes the person who rejected your advances the previous turn is forced to come crawling back to you, cap in hand, to try to charm a business out of you – and that’s really, really funny.

Oh, and you can lie. Any deals made on a turn are binding for that turn, but you can promise to furnish people with property or businesses later in the game and then basically screw them over. What I particularly like about the game is how players who do this never win. The other players end up cutting them out of deals in revenge, and so a short-term gain usually translates in your business suffering long-term – which again, feels great and thematic and appropriate.

Chinatown takes about 5 minutes to teach, and comes with little player cards that summarise how much each size of business is worth. The makers suggest it takes 60 minutes to play, but I reckon 90 is more realistic with the full 5 players, given how intense the negotiations get. The components are bright and the bales of play money add a nice feeling of grubby lucre to proceedings.

2. BURN: TABOO / BUY: CODENAMES

Here Taboo stands in for a whole genre of ‘guess the word’ games, including Articulate, Guesstures, Charades, Pictionary, etc. You know, where one person has to communicate a word or phrase whilst obeying some kind of restriction.

I don’t hate these sorts of games, per se – of course it’s entertaining to see someone try to frantically mime ‘donkey’ by giving themselves fake ears and silently braying, only for everyone to guess: ‘Demon! Raptor!’ Then they try to mime kicking like a mule and people shout: ‘Kung fu! Jackie Chan!’ Then they go for broke with ‘ass’ and the team are bemusedly yelling: ‘Bottom! Lost in Space! Ring of Fire!’ Still… eh. It’s weakly amusing, at best.

And I’m very aware that for some people, this can feel a bit like being publicly humiliated for the entertainment of the group. You’re up there, alone, clowning badly while people bellow nouns at you. You don’t always want that level of hopping about on Boxing Day. Also, you’re up there alone. It can feel quite isolating, and even I – a noisy extrovert – have sometimes felt my cheeks go all hot and my mind go blank as I attempt not to fail my team. Finally, these games tend to be a bit, well… manic. There’s a lot of shouting over each other and the actual ‘game’ portion is over very quickly, and often once you’re done and reveal the clue a team member will look annoyed and say ‘but I said that’ and you’ll be like ‘really?’ and they’ll be like ‘yes’ and you’ll be like ‘oh’ and so you just capered about like a gibbon for two minutes because of a communication failure. Which feels less amusing than it sounds.

Codenames has gone from being this game I heard excited whispers about, to appearing at almost every games night I go to. Its slim, sunburst maroon box is a welcome sight whatever the mood. It’s tense, it’s hilarious, it’s easy to teach, and it just creates great moments.

In Codenames, two competing teams of spies are attempting to make contact with their agents ‘out in the field’ without harassing innocent bystanders, inadvertently helping their opponents, or getting themselves killed. Both teams see the same 5×5 grid of 25 words – like SHARK, BEIJING, POISON – possible aliases your team’s spies might be operating under. Two team captains, or Spymasters, have access to a map showing them which code names correspond to which team, which are just civilians (and therefore worth nothing to either team), and which one is the deadly assassin.

The Spymasters take it in turns to give a one-word clue to their team, to help them find their agents. The one-word clue is accompanied by a number, indicating how many agents they want their team to try to guess this turn. So they might say TEETH: 2. Then their team know to look for two names that have something to do with teeth. So they might pick SHARK, or they might pick BRUSH, or they might pick SMILE, or maybe they’ll start being assholes and going ‘wait – a GEAR has teeth; oh, hang on – what about SALAD? Because spinach gets stuck in your teeth’ and you, the Spymaster, will be biting your fist and saying nothing because you’re not allowed to react or give any clues whatsoever, but SALAD is the assassin and you know if they choose that your team will lose the game instantly.

Whichever team finds all their agents first wins. I love Codenames. I liked the look of it when it first came out and, yeah. I worry about overselling it to people and putting them off so usually I just break it out and suggest we play without too much fanfare, and it sells itself. A super-solid, simple idea with loads of replay value.

It’s both fascinating and horrifying to hear team mates discuss how your brain works and what you would or wouldn’t associate with a particular word – kind of like unsolicited guerrilla therapy. Weirdly, although it’s a competition, you feel a real camaraderie with the rival Spymaster. They’re the only person who understands your anguish as your team mate’s finger hangs, Damoclesian, over the assassin while the group decides whether you meant PART or COMPOUND, and many have been the times when we hide our faces from the groups just so we can pull tortured grimaces at one another.

I love it. It’s much less of a catwalk for extroverts than Charades but loud, excitable groups will have a wonderful, raucous time arm-wrestling over clues and gasping at risky guesses. It’s sillier and more creative than Taboo, and more importantly the theme makes the stakes feel far, far higher, even though, at its core, Codenames is just a game about word association. It allows for real creativity and wonderful sideways logic, and the way you score means that – unlike similar games in the genre – the game is never over till it’s over. One team can always go for a final 5-word Hail Mary mega clue if they’ve fallen behind, and the leading team can always balls it up by accidentally picking the assassin when they’re just about to win.

This game is spreading, fast, and I suspect by next Christmas it will be a staple of many people’s boardgame collections.

3. BURN: CLUEDO / BUY: MYSTERIUM

For a game about murder, Cluedo feels oddly bloodless. It’s so dry that, when I played it again last Christmas, after a break of maybe 20 years, I couldn’t even remember how the game worked. I knew vaguely that I would, at some stage, be saying it was Colonel Mustard, in the Ballroom, with the Candlestick, but I didn’t know how I would come to that conclusion or – and this, I think, is the real kicker – why I should care.

And you know what – after playing, I wasn’t much the wiser. Cluedo is fine, sort of. You potter around this spartan top-down blueprint of what we’re told is a country house, walking into rooms and making baseless accusations, more or less at random. You don’t feel any investment in your guess because you’re just picking whichever room was nearest to you – you’re like an apathetic Keyser Söze, cobbling together an alibi about meeting a Mr Crest to play Dominoes because you’re lying amongst discarded pizza boxes and cans of super-strength lager.

And having to roll a die in Cluedo is unforgivable. It creates no tension whatsoever, just randomises your walking speed across a bland, symmetrical grid. So sometimes you can’t reach the conservatory for three turns because – what? Reverend Green has a sudden flare-up in his gouty leg? And then another player accuses you of murder in the library and you’re teleported there through the mystic powers of interbellum justice and the whole thing was a waste of time anyway.

Bolted on to this incoherent heap of gameplay mechanisms is quite a fiddly process of deduction based on elimination that, I admit, I struggle to get my head around. For me, it feels a bit too much like those logic puzzles you used to get in annuals that are all like ‘6 people of 6 different nationalities live in 6 neighbouring houses of different colours. Mr Wallace lives in the house with the blue door. The Frenchman lives on the end of the row. The green and red houses are not next to one another. Mrs Jones’ neighbours are Welsh and Greek.’ etc. It just feels like doing taxes, except without the motivation of avoiding a massive fine.

What I want is the feeling of solving a mystery. Cluedo doesn’t offer a mystery, it offers an algebra problem. It’s the most literal interpretation of Sherlock Holmes’ famous adage: ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’.

Mysterium does not eliminate the impossible – it embraces it. You know, one of the main flaws in Cluedo is that we don’t have any investment in the murder victim. He’s just a white cross on a poorly-rendered flight of stairs in the middle of the board. In Mysterium, the murder victim is the key player.

Mysterium is set in the 1920s in a haunted country mansion. Laird MacDowell, owner of the house and a gifted crystal ball reader, has gathered the most talented psychics from across the globe to help him exorcise the ghost that plagues his family home. However, when they arrive, the assembled mediums immediately discern that this spirit, although tormented, is not hostile – indeed it appears to be the ghost of a servant murdered decades before. Together, the mediums must work with the ghost to recreate the night of the murder, assemble a list of suspects, and then name the culprit so that justice may be done and the ghost may rest at last.

So, like Cluedo, you have a list of suspects, a list of rooms, and a list of objects. Unlike Cluedo, the artwork is beautiful. Absolute sex. Every illustration is lush and evocative, riddled with tiny details and brimming with mood.

Everyone is working together – the psychics, and the murdered ghost. So it’s easy, right? The ghost goes ‘it was her, there, with that’ and everyone claps and you all go home.

No, you twonk. As any long-term fan of Derek Acorah et al will know, ghosts aren’t able to send clear, coherent messages from the spirit realm. Instead, they transmit vague intimations and flashes, weird images dredged from the medium’s subconscious that hint at the spirit’s true meaning. Thus, as the ghost, your only means of communciating with the psychics is by sending them bizarre visions via a deck of surreal picture cards which you draw from each turn. As the ghost, you have to choose which of these dreamlike visions – a rat wearing a top-hat, a chimney sweep riding a penny farthing through the air over a town while suspended from balloons, a figure weeping at a crossroads, etc – might hint at a particular suspect, location or object you need to steer each psychic towards.

If the psychics succeed in recreating a shortlist of suspects, matched with the locations the ghost remembers them in and the potential murder weapons they touched, play proceeds to a final round in which the ghost at last recalls who killed him, and gives the group a shared vision pointing them towards one of the combinations of culprit, location and murder weapon. Psychics who have performed better with their predictions during the seance get to see more of the vision before secretly voting on who they believe the murderer to be. If a majority of psychics pick the correct culprit, the game is won. If not, the ghost vanishes, his soul still restless.

THIS GAME IS FUCKING GREAT, YOU GUYS. Caveat: to get the most out of it, players need to be prepared to get into the spirit – oh ho – of it. It’s not the sort of thing to play with the football on the telly in the background and people checking their phones or getting up to put the roast potatoes on. We played our first game in a darkened room with a crackling log fire, with the ambient soundtrack provided by the game’s makers, Libellud, playing in the background and the ghost communicating only through a ‘spirit drum’, a big floor tom my wife uses in her band, with one boom for yes, two booms for no. The players all got into character as numerologists, pendulum dowsers, I-Ching diviners and tarot readers, sustaining accents of varying authenticity for the entire game, even appropriating a globe lamp as a crystal ball.

I don’t think most people need to go that far, but it definitely rewards a bit of mood lighting, and players who are prepared to focus for the duration of the game. The box says the game takes the bizarrely specific playing time of 42 minutes, but I reckon 90 minutes is more realistic – including rules explanation our game definitely took 2 hours.

I played as the ghost, and it was definitely an intense experience, desperately trying to cobble together some kind of coherent message out of recondite surreal bullshit – but hugely satisfying when a psychic made a sideways connection between the images I sent them and the suspects in front of them, linking – for example – the coffee cup beside the policeman suspect with a coffee ring in one of the images, or spotting how the hooks along the top of one vision matched the hooks that cuts of meat were hanging from in the larder. We played with the full 6 players and decided to jump straight in with the medium difficulty setting, rather than the easy version the rulebook suggests, and we just managed to squeak a win.

I don’t know how the game holds up to repeat playings, whether certain cards or combinations of cards become familiar, or whether each new ghost brings a different set of bizarre mental associations to the images. You don’t have much control over your hand of picture cards, as the ghost, so you have to try to make links where you can – inevitably some psychics end up with much ropier, vaguer visions than others! But this is part of the fun – indeed, you really feel like a frustrated spirit, unable to get your message across, desperately trying to nudge the players towards the truth. Each time someone correctly identified a suspect, location or object, a big cheer went up round the table. It really felt like an adventure.

If Mysterium sounds like a good fit for your family, I heartily recommend it – with the one warning that, at the time of writing, it is sold out almost everywhere in the UK. Everyone is buying it because it’s brilliant. Ring round your local gaming shops, and if you can, reserve a copy. There’s really nothing like it.

4. BURN: RISK / BUY: GAME OF THRONES

Risk is very dear to some people’s hearts – generally people who haven’t played it in at least 10 years. We tend to forget how it could drag on, how badly Risk suffered from ‘runaway leader’ syndrome, where the winner becomes obvious well before the game is officially over, how drawing bad start positions could basically lose you the game before you began.

But – lest I start to sound like a boardgaming hipster, cocking a snook at anything with a whiff of popularity – let us salute Risk for what it succeeded at. Amassing huge armies on your neighbour’s borders feels very, very exciting, and in that first moment where you go on the assault, swarming into the juicy peach of their territories like so many ravenous ants, you feel powerful and they feel appalled and it’s good fun. Then the next turn, when your opponent gets reinforcements and they see you’ve spread yourself too thinly and they come steaming back into you and claim all those territories back and more, that’s fun too. You’re punished for being greedy, and you don’t feel ripped off, you feel like it’s poetic justice and that’s a great experience for a game to provide.

But still. For the most part, Risk feels arbitrary and imprecise and vanilla. You don’t have much investment in your territories or armies, you can’t really do deals or truces except in the most rudimentary ‘please don’t attack me this turn’ sense, and one little plastic soldier is the same as another. Who are you? Why are you fighting? Why are your forces randomly distributed across the globe in small pockets? When would that ever happen?

Now – I didn’t believe it when someone first told me that the Game Of Thrones boardgame was good. I haven’t watched the show or read the books, but I was pretty sure it would just be a shitty cash-in that leveraged dumb fans’ brand loyalty into shifting tat for £££s. The repackaged Lord of the Rings version of Risk, or the Pirates of the Caribbean reskin of Waddington’s Buccaneer, or, indeed, Star Wars Monopoly, all set the bar so incredibly low for licensed tie-in boardgames that the bar is basically at the bottom of a marine trench, crushed into a kind of egg by the water pressure.

But it’s everything you’d want it to be: a big, backstabby wargame where the different houses are all trying to defeat each other not only by conquest on land and sea, but via political intrigues and pragmatic alliances. I don’t have any interest in the lore of GoT nor the various characters, but it was impossible not to get caught up in such an epic battle across Westeros for the Iron Throne. Each turn you secretly place orders on units, meaning everyone decides simultaneously – there’s a lot of tense gambling here, as you try to read your opponents’ intentions. Did they just put down an order to march into your territory and attack your castle with their siege engines? Should you order your troops to defend? But if you do that, you can’t collect taxes and harvest food from that territory, which you need to wield political influence.

The influence track is one of my favourite bits of GoT. Every so often, players have to participate in blind bidding to determine their positions on the game’s three influence tracks, broadly representing political power, martial prowess and espionage respectively. Ending up on the top of these tracks gives you a massive advantage over your opponents – but your dominance might only last a turn before things change again, and if you get too powerful the other players may band together to wipe you out.

Another lovely marriage of game mechanics and theme is the ever-present threat of the Wildlings building up in the north. Each turn, more and more nasties gather in the north, preparing to attack. Working together, the players can easily take them on. All you have to do is get the various houses cooperating selflessly for the good of Westeros.

Ah. Yeah, so most of the time you’ll painstakingly broker a truce to face the Wildlings threat then one backstabbing little shit will pull out at the last minute and everyone loses the resources they spent and loses the battle and yes, that backstabbing little shit is usually me.

You absolutely don’t need to like or watch GoT to enjoy this game – I’m proof of that – although I daresay encountering your favourite characters and using them as generals in battle slathers a nice saucy layer of narrative white sauce over the waiting lasagne sheets of strategic combat. One itty-bitty proviso: the game definitely works best with the full complement of six players. With less, it can feel slightly skewed towards players whose territory borders on neutral land, which is fine if you’ve got some less experienced or younger players who you want to give a boost to, but feels a bit unsatisfying if you want an asymmetrical-but-balanced war experience.

PS: if you want a war game but there’s only two of you, rather than trotting through Risk’s shitty two-player variant, buy Twilight Struggle. It’s a game of global conflict set across the entirety of the Cold War, there are coups and espionage and the real danger of the game ending in a worldwide nuclear holocaust, and you learn a bit of history while you play. When I played with my Dad my Mum had to come in and remind us to sit down, because we’d been standing for over half an hour straight, right next to our chairs, desperate not to mix some essential detail of the global political situation. It’s excellent.

5. BURN: THAT CRAPPY 5000-PIECE JIGSAW / BUY: CARCASSONNE

I understand the appeal of jigsaws, in the same way I understand the appeal of watching a food mixer chop breadcrumbs or following the wiggly pattern in a carpet as if it were a maze to see if you can get all the way to the skirting board and ‘escape’. Still, if I’m going to veg out I want to fall into it accidentally, not make an afternoon-long activity out of it.

If you want to build a lovely thing and relax while you’re doing it, Carcassonne offers a far richer, more fun experience. Build a medieval empire in southern France and populate it with little wooden people! Look, there’s a river, and a city, and monastery, and a little abbot tending a flower garden. And I just connected my road with yours and robbed you of 8 points and now you’re furious with me. That’s the gentle experience Carcassonne offers.

It’s a simple game for 2-7 players where you pick tiles at random from a stack. Each tile has a bit of landscape on it – a bit of city, or road, or river, or maybe a monastery – perhaps several of those things. All you have to do is pop it down on the table next to a tile the landscape joins up with – so connecting a road to a road, or a city to a city, or whatever. Then you get to pop one of your little wooden people – called meeples – down on the tile you just placed. Every time you complete a piece of terrain, like a city surrounded by walls, or a monastery surrounded by land, you get your meeple back and score points. That’s it.

Carcassonne is very simple and a great game for people who don’t usually get on with games. It’s not too competitive and there’s some luck involved but it’s not brainless either – you definitely notice yourself getting better after a few games, making shrewder choices with your tile placements, holding back meeples when you’re running low. Most games that say they’re for 2+ players don’t really hit their stride until 4 players are involved, but Carcassonne makes for a really nice, low-intensity two-player game as well as an enjoyable, mildly strategic 4 or 5 player game. There are metric tonnes of add-ons and expansions in case you want a bit of variation, but the core set has enough to keep most people going for years.

6. BURN: LUDO / BUY: SURVIVE – ESCAPE FROM ATLANTIS

Ludo is the worst. It’s the absolute pits. I maintain that no one has ever experienced joy or even mild amusement whilst playing Ludo. It projects a suppressant field that prevents all pleasure. If you really must have your fix of arbitrarily shunting tokens round a board to satisfy the whims of a die, at least introduce the possibility of having your grandmother feed you to a shark while the rest of your family laughs and applauds.

In Survive – Escape From Atlantis, you and your friends’ little meeples are trying to escape from the island of Atlantis as it sinks into the ocean. Rising out of the waters are sea monsters, sharks and whales who will capsize your boats and gobble up your meeples. Can you reach the safe isles at the edges of the board before the island’s volcano erupts and the final mountainous regions sink beneath the waves?

Each player controls a different colour of meeples, but – just like in real life – the value of each person is determined not by the colour of their skin but by the big number painted on their bottom. Big numbers are carrying more treasure and are therefore worth more to you if you manage to get them home safely. In a neat twist, you’re not allowed to look at the number once you’ve placed each meeple on the board, meaning you need to try to remember which of your meeples are the high value ones and which you can safely sacrifice to the kraken.

SEFA is really silly fun. Each turn you move your meeples a total of 3 spaces, remove a tile from the sinking island, and roll a die that lets you move either a whale, a shark or a sea monster. Maybe you’ll move a sea monster farther away to leave a clear route for your boat to reach the shore. Maybe you’ll swim a shark into one of your opponent’s meeples who has fallen into the sea and gobble them up. Luck plays a big part but so does the revenge and taking big risks – each game tells its own little story, it’s easy to learn and the components are colourful and great.

Death Of 1000 Cuts

So, um. I hope it’s okay but I’m going to take a little break from writing Death Of 1000 Cuts posts for a few weeks. This is definitely not one of those ‘on hiatus’ things that basically means giving up forever. It’s just, well…

I am trying to a draft of my next novel finished and I need to knuckle down. This means action stations, balls-to-the-wall, write-like-you-mean-it level commitment. So I need to clear the decks a bit. I love writing DoaTC but it takes me about half a working day to produce each one, so – for at least the next few weeks – I need to put it aside.

But mainly, I have been struggling a bit with depression and anxiety. Actually, not just a bit – a lot! I always feel embarrassed and a bit crap about admitting it, but there we have it. I’m doing a lot better than I used to, and this is the first big whack of depression I’ve had for years, so I’m making progress. Still. It has been a tough year and both conditions make producing anything way, way, way harder than it should be. That jokey voice authors say they have in their heads, telling them: ‘This is shit! This is useless! You should give up now!’ Well, I have that shouting at me all the time, and also if I stop writing it just code-switches to: ‘You are shit! You are useless! You should give up now!’

We get told all the time that, if you’re a writer, you need a thick skin. You have to be tough, and if you ever question whether you’re a writer, you’re not a writer. Writers just do it, because they have to, because it’s a compulsion, because it’s as vital to them as breathing.

Which is, of course, self-mythologising bollocks. You’re a human being, and to only think of yourself as a ‘writer’ is to internalise a constrained view of your own humanity. Also, if you think of yourself as a writer, whenever you’re not writing, you start to feel this sick, ontological malaise, as the very basis of your identity begins to ebb away. So you write, to shut down the self-loathing and the nausea, and you tell yourself you have to do it because you’re a writer.

Well, you know what? There is another way. Being kind to yourself and writing because you love it.

So I am working on approaching my work with a kinder, more positive attitude, and slowly rebuilding my self-confidence. I am okay, by the way. Please don’t worry about me. I have heaps of support and I am having good patches along with the tricky ones, so it’s all right. But I need to not take on too much while I pop my poorly heart in bed with a mug of cocoa and some Super Nintendo.

Once I am a bit more back to my old self and feeling more on top of things, DoaTC will be back stronger than ever. I was really pleased with the response to last week’s post about Amanda McKittrick Ros and the next step is recording a pilot podcast. I would love to do a short season of DoaTC podcasts alongside the weekly posts. And I’m hoping to arrange some more live DoaTC events next year. The panel at 9 Worlds was really fun and went better than I had expected.

If you want to get in touch between then and now, you can do so via the ‘contact me’ button on the right. I’m still taking submissions for the blog, as well as mailbag questions if there’s anything in particular you want me to cover. And hey, if you’d like to buy my first book, The Honours, (that’s your Christmas gifts sorted for all the weird, artsy people in your family) that would be lovely too. Yes, I am attempting to leverage my sadness into book sales. DEAL WITH IT.

So anyway, I suspect I’ll be up and running in a few weeks. See you then.

Death Of 1000 Cuts – The Worst Author of All Time

Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.

Last night I did a talk at our monthly literary cabaret, Homework, about bad writing. I thought I’d adapt it for Death Of 1000 Cuts, because it’s on topic and people found it interesting and also then I can get two uses out of one piece of work. Recycling, yo.

The theme of the night was ‘Sitcom’, and my current hilarious situation is that I’ve spent the last few months in a small room, alone, feeling sad.

I’m writing my second novel, and if I do it well enough, I earn the right to stay in that room, alone, for another few years and write a third, then a fourth, then a fifth, and so on, through the numbers – you know them – until I die. And, um, I always wanted to be a writer because I didn’t really know what it would be like, and I find it really difficult and not very enjoyable, but what makes it all worthwhile, the real joy of being a writer, is when someone else, someone you’ve never met, is shit at it.

List of the Lost

This is Steven Patrick Morrissey’s debut novel, List Of The Lost.

Before it came out, I wasn’t sure if it would be very good. But then, a lot of novels aren’t very good, celebrity-written or otherwise. It might even be true to say that most novels aren’t very good. It’s a complicated form, and we humans are just these fallible spam golems with a brief window of sentience in which we try to accrue, interpret then spurt out information in a medium that can survive our deaths. It’s not surprising we do novels badly. It’s like trying to wrap an awkward present while piloting a three-foot raft over a waterfall.

Still, even with these considerations in mind, List Of The Lost is special. You’ve probably read some of the reviews by now, and – to be honest – I thought they were likely being mean because Morrissey doesn’t play the game of English self-deprecation, he speaks his mind, and he’s not in awe of the artistic establishment. Then I read it.

This is an extract from early on in the novel, when he’s talking about the four-boy relay team who compromise the central characters.

‘It may be quite true that we unwisely reduce others in order to make them ours, yet here was a foursome to whom no outward event could dent flesh or expression. It should be said that they were indeed contracting parties, since their combined aim was to dispose of every other half-mile relay team across the land, and this they must do, biological chance providing all the damn-straight confirmation they would ever need. It is certainly something to dwell excitedly within a body that fully and proudly shows whatever a person is, since we all, for the most part…’

And it continues in this vein for the entire novel, or rather, novella, because it’s not very long. It’s just, Morrissey has a prose style where a single page feels like rowing through swarfega. For every sentence of action there are several paragraphs of general reflections on the human condition. And as I read, this weird sensation started to come over me. I thought – I’ve read this before.

Something about Morrissey’s prose felt eerily familiar to me:

‘Have you ever visited that portion of Erin’s plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?’

This is the opening line of Delina Delaney, written at the dawn of the 20th century by Amanda McKittrick Ros who is widely regarded as the worst novelist who ever lived.

AMR

A lot has been made of Morrissey’s apparent attempts to ape the high, lyrical literary styles of writers like Joyce, but I think his true influence was Ros.

Amanda McKittrick Ros was born in Drumaness, County Down, on December 8, 1860. She trained as a teacher, but towards the end of the century she began to write, inspired in part by the author Marie Corelli, whose works during the period sold better than the combined efforts of authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and HG Wells. My favourite fact about Corelli is that her novel, The Sorrows of Satan, invented the name ‘Mavis’.

But unlike Corelli, Amanda McKittrick Ros did not sell well. Her books were self-published. But in 1898 a copy of her first, Irene Iddlesleigh, was sent to the humourist Barry Pain, from whom it reached people like Mark Twain, and JRR Tolkien, and CS Lewis, and Aldous Huxley. Twain called Irene Iddlesleigh ‘one of the greatest unintentionally humorous novels of all time’. In Oxford, the literary group the Inklings, which comprised people like Tolkien, Lewis and writers like Neville Coghill, would have competitions to see who could read sections of her work for longest without laughing.

Here’s the opening to her first novel:

‘Sympathise with me, indeed! Ah, no! Cast your sympathy on the chill waves of troubled waters; fling it on the oases of futurity; dash it against the rock of gossip; or, better still, allow it to remain within the false and faithless bosom of buried scorn.

Such were a few remarks of Irene as she paced the beach of limited freedom, alone and unprotected. Sympathy can wound the breast of trodden patience,—it hath no rival to insure the feelings we possess, save that of sorrow.’

Much has been made of Morrissey’s apparent attempts to ape the limber, lyrical prose of authors like Nabokov and Joyce, but I think the real tradition he’s writing in, the person he most closely resembles, is Ros.

So, I’ve compiled some points of concordance between the two authors.

MOZ V ROS – A CRITICAL COMPARISON

1. Alliteration, really long sentences and philosophy:

‘Age sets its own terms, with its growing servitude catching that haunted reflection – one of no distinction because your frown now belongs to time. The wide-eyed girls were many, offering their conscious will as the running boys turned into overlords – strangers to the crowd yet well known in its imagination as the erotic reality of the deltoid deities who have no inhibitions in bodies fully occupied and enjoyed. The crowds look on with a lascivious dependency that a knife to the throat would never force them to admit. In servitude is the watcher, asking of the do-er that he assumes all aspects of the watcher’s desire…
Heatedly the four gather daily, minus boos and taboos, free of the prohibitions that dishonour us all should we dare remark upon each other’s physical good fortune (and lucky are those who might be remarked upon).’

– Morrissey

‘As the earth revolves on its axis exhibiting its ephemeral revolutions, so families revolve round the world’s wicked wheel, at one time close to its nave, at another climbing down its spokes, and lastly becoming imbedded in its iniquitous axle crushing out their existence forever, thus leaving their offspring to mourn beaten to a shadow like me with the mallet of sorrow and remorse, then death ends the hunt. Such–is–life.’

– AMR

2. Obsession with bad names:

Morrissey gives all his characters improbable names, then immediately stops to point out how improbable and interesting these names are. Here’s the first two lines:

‘Ezra, Nails, Harri, Justy. You’d dig hard and deep to excavate four names quite so unusual.’

The main character, Ezra, has the full name ‘Ezra Pound’. Which is a clever reference to the poet, ‘Ezra Pound’.

Ros had a similar obsession with linked names. All her protagonists had alliterative names: Helen Huddleson, Irene Iddlesleigh, Delina Delaney, and her work of arch satire against those who had mocked her – Donald Dudley: The Bastard Critic.

In Helen Huddleson, all the main characters are named, completely po-facedly, after fruits: Lord Raspberry, his sister Cherry Raspberry, Sir Peter Plum, Christopher Currant, the Earl of Grape and Madame Pear. No one in the story notices this.

3. Shoehorning digs at the legal profession into their work:

Morrissey has fought a few court battles in his career, and it’s obviously left him a little disenchanted with the law. Here’s a character in List of the Lost, a hearty American boy of 20, pausing on the verge of death to deliver a disquisition about the state of contemporary jurisprudence:

‘Judges don’t live in the ghetto … they are exclusively verbal beings. What can they understand about the way life moves? … Would judges even recognize dog shit if they saw it? … Judges have to live in secrecy, don’t they, because they’ve done so much harm to society.’

Ros inherited a lime kiln from a neighbour and got into legal wrangles with locals over how she ran it. This led to several lengthy legal battles in which she came to loathe lawyers. She wrote a revenge piece about a lawyer in her poetry collection, Poems Of Puncture – see if you can detect the subtle note of criticism in her choice of name:

‘Readers, did you ever hear
Of Mickey Monkeyface McBlear?
His snout is long with a flattish top,
Lined inside with a slimy crop:
His mouth like a slit in a money box,
Portrays his kindred to a fox.’

4. Bad At Dialogue:

Here’s one of Morrissey’s 20-year-old, hearty, sports-loving American boys, talking, in the 1970s:

‘I suffer greatly in painful silence and I speak to you, now, with servitude whilst also pleading for your understanding. I am alone and I agonize in an exasperated state.’

In Ros’ second novel, Delina Delaney, the heroine’s mother’s dialogue is all rendered phonetically, the better to convey the true living language of the Irish working poor. And when I say ‘phonetically’, I mean, not phonetically at all, just random consonants thrown into the middle of words to make them more or less unpronounceable:

‘Raising her hands above her head, Mrs. Delaney first looked at her daughter, then at Lord Gifford, saying, “Fadther ive saints! is it thrue dthat mac poor choild has tuk lave ive hur sinses buy pramisin’ ta be dthe woife ive our koind an’ good landlady’s son, an’ hur jist dthe offspring ive poor Joe Delaney-a poor old fisherman?”’

So. Time for the late-essay volte face.

I think a lot of Amanda McKittrick Ros’ work was mocked because of snobbery and sexism (two things which I find unacceptable – sorry capitalist patriarchy!). Which isn’t to say it isn’t bad. To pretend her novels are brilliant would just be a different flavour of condescension.

Inklings

But the Inklings were a group of upper-middle-class men, sneering at a Northern Irish housewife who had dared to attempt to write. Much is made of the fact she was self-published, but the publication of her first novel was a gift from her husband on her tenth wedding anniversary. Which I think is really nice, and not stupid or arrogant at all. He died soon after, and she kept on writing.

She kept on writing even as some of the most high profile authors of the age, Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley, Siegfried Sassoon and C S Lewis, wrote sarcastic, mocking reviews of her work, inviting the well-read round the country to laugh at the presumption of this woman, who had dared believe she was allowed to write. And actually it’s not as if Lewis and Tolkien aren’t to a certain extent renowned for their propensity towards overblown, sentimental, self-important prose – and I say that as an admirer. But what they were mocking her for is, I think, something that they subconsciously recognised in themselves. That they maybe feared.

British humour and sitcom have this history of revolving around class. One of the most common comic characters in plays, musicals and TV shows, be they Shakespearean, Wodehousean, whatever, is the lower class character with ideas above his or her station. So you have Constable Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, you have the tyrannical housekeeper who bosses people about below stairs, you have the pompous, angry French chef who speaks the language of Proust and knows his way around the wine cellar, and yet is reduced to cutting pastry. You have Captain Mainwaring, a bank manager whose deputy, Wilson, is upper-middle class and so constantly undermines him. You’ve got Basil Fawlty, bowing and scraping to ingratiate himself with guests he perceives as higher class than him, sneering at those he sees as lower, desperately trying to climb the social ladder and always being punished for it. You’ve got Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. You’ve got Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. You’ve got Freddy Frinton’s butler in Dinner For One, which is a sketch shown every New Year in Germany, across Scandinavia and across the old Eastern bloc countries, where this butler has to play the parts of various dead upper-class friends of a rich, elderly widow at an annual dinner, looking, of course, like a buffoon as he does so.

David Brent Neil

You know, I’d say even with David Brent, part of the joke is class-based – especially in the second series of The Office, where Neil becomes his boss, this clearly higher-class guy, who wears the right fashions, to whom authority comes effortlessly. David struggles to mingle with upper management, who look down on him, and he struggles to bond with the working class men in the warehouse. Brent’s mate Finchy, is a working class guy who we’re invited to mock when he claims to be cultured because he reads ‘a book a week’. Dawn’s boyfriend is implicitly wrong for her because he’s working class – and so makes all sorts of gauche, crass statements – whereas she and Tim are middle-class.

And that, I think, was the big joke with Amanda McKittrick Ros. She didn’t apologise for not having a PhD like Tolkien or Neville Coghill. She didn’t humbly present her work as the little folly of a scribbling housewife but frankly, as the thing she felt she had been called in her heart to do. She acted ‘above her station’. And she worked hard. All that alliteration, all those extended metaphors – those are her attempts to saturate every line with quality, with richness, with value to the reader.

And, in a sense, it absolutely works. Her lines are memorable, even as a lot of them are incomprehensible and a bit silly.

And to bring it back to Morrissey, that’s what I think’s going on with his novel. I don’t think he’s got all those sinuating, complicated sentences because he’s arrogant. I genuinely think he’s trying to give value to the reader. He’s working hard to make every single line memorable and interesting, to make it original and resonant and to give it a sonorous kick.

And he fails. Completely fails. It doesn’t work. The effect is like being cornered by a pissed Treguard out of Knightmare, who starts going ‘Come, adventurer, step into my dank dungeons of doom and despair…’ for six hours but never actually lets you start your quest.

But I think he tried his best. And contemporary literature certainly has its fair share of anaemic, ‘readable’ book club picks which risk and challenge not at all.

Far more laudable, I think, to fail so explosively, in the pursuit of giving readers a genuinely amazing experience, than to trot out more of the same, piss-weak blandishments because you know they will sell.

Ian McEwan

I find writing really hard and I know that doesn’t illicit much sympathy because, seriously Tim, your life could be much worse, but I do recognise the desire to mock a writer with ambition, who publicly, spectacularly fails. Because in the writing of Morrissey and Ros, I recognise myself. I recognise mistakes I’ve made, and I recognise that desire to do something big and interesting and sweet and rich and memorable. And it’s scary admitting that to yourself, because you know you’re probably not up to the task. That the beautiful butterflies flitting around your head will probably die beneath the killing jar of your own incompetence.

That people will see you’re trying your best, and laugh.

More on the life and work of Amanda McKittrick Ros

Full text of her first novel, Irene Iddlesleigh

My first novel, The Honoursplease support my career by buying a copy!