Friday 29 March 2024

Extracts From The Writing Of Linda Acaster

Base image by dsdkcgl via Pixabay

The Story Must Begin

As readers, we all know of books we picked up idly to pass a few moments, but then found ourselves so engrossed in the unfolding fictional world that we had no choice but to read on. It’s as though a pair of invisible hands reached out by chance and drew us effortlessly into the story. But like so many things, that smooth transition is the product of a carefully crafted opening that took considerable work to construct.

Novelist Linda Acaster, talking about the opening to a story, advises writers, “Don’t faff!” She goes on to say “A book is not a movie script. There are no credits rolling over the opening scene. The story must begin immediately.”

The extracts below are from two very different stories whose opening scenes are constructed differently, but convey the same intent.

The Paintings


Magnolia House, Tavistock Square, was not what I’d expected. The formal gardens out front were there: the usual expanse of muddy grass and bare-limbed trees, all tidied a little too neatly behind an endless run of chipped railings. But where the multi-chimneyed, multi-windowed, Regency terrace should have stood was a 1960s monstrosity of glass and steel.

How its construction had been passed by the planners was beyond comprehension. What the owners of the Regency terraces on either wing thought of it didn’t bear considering. This was, as I’d suspected, going to be a complete waste of my time. No artist worth the name would want to be associated with such a property.

Despite the condensation clinging to the floor-to-ceiling glass of the foyer, I could see a darkened figure prowling inside. Definitely male; doubtless my contact. At least I wouldn’t be kept waiting.

He was turning towards me even as I pushed open the door and walked into warmed damp.

‘Ms Jeffries? How good of you to come out in this dreadful weather. I do appreciate it.’

Thin-faced, thin-shouldered, forty-something Mr Compton sounded as effusively servile as I’d been told he had on the phone, and his smile was no mitigation. We shook hands but I didn’t match him in removing my glove. I trust he got the message.

‘Shall we go up?’ I said.

‘Yes, of course.’

I watched as he did a little side-step to push the button to call the single lift. I hoped it wasn’t tiny. I didn’t want to discover that he had bad breath or personal hygiene problems hiding beneath that overcoat.

‘Em, I apologise for asking,’ he said, his shoulders drooping a little more, ‘but did your company make you fully aware of the unfortunate circumstances of, em... Mr Needsham’s...’

The doors to the lift opened and he seemed relieved to turn away.

‘Mr Needsham’s disappearance?’

‘Em, yes...’ He ushered me inside.

‘The apartment is to be cleared and the paintings are to be valued prior to auction.’

I turned in the small space to find him gazing at me, the doors still open behind him. His eyes seemed to be drooping at their corners, mirroring his stance. I’d been too brusque.

Inclining my head, I said, ‘I’m sorry, Mr Compton. I was led to believe you were a... business associate?’

He prodded the console and the closing doors shut us into the small space.

‘That’s how I met him, many years ago.’ He forced a smile. ‘I was his agent for a number of years, and then a friend.’ He looked at me and smiled again but there was no joy in it. ‘Unfortunately I was not as good a friend as I’d believed.’

I wondered what that meant, exactly, but wasn’t going to pry. I wanted a fast in, out, and goodbye.

***

Linda explains, "The first-person viewpoint is a deliberate choice that holds the reader close, showing the story unfold through the main character’s eyes, giving us access to her thoughts and feelings. We emerge with a surprising level of knowledge about the setting, character, and the backstory." 

She also points out that if we are cynical about that ‘fast in, out, and goodbye’ then we have been left a small step ahead of the main character.

Click HERE if you want to read more.

***

BeneathThe Shining Mountains


“…but other women my age have a lover.”

“No man of standing will bring horses to the lodge of a woman who’s had lovers. You know this. So do they.”

Moon Hawk stopped scraping the clinging fat from the pegged buffalo hide and sat back on the heels of her moccasins. She eyed her mother irritably. “At least they are happy. At least they aren’t ridiculed for still being a maiden.”

Little Face did not falter in the rhythm of her work, nor did she raise her gaze from the skin. “Who’s teasing you? Other young women? They’re jealous. They know what they’ve let slip through their hands. Is it the young men who tease you? They’re showing interest. They see in you the makings of a wife, a woman for whom they would bring horses to the lodge of your father.”

Moon Hawk slapped down her elk-horn scraper, losing grip of her rising annoyance. “Tease me? I would need a love-charm for them even to notice me!”

Sighing, her mother raised her eyes from her work. “You exaggerate beyond belief. If you stopped scowling your true beauty would be seen by all. Your nose is straight, your eyes bright. Your skin is soft, and unmarked by the spotting sickness which killed many during your childhood.”

“I’m small.”

Little Face straightened her bent shoulders and raised her chin. “My lack of height did not deter your father.”

Moon Hawk was about to point out the dissimilarity of their situations but drew back. Bear On The Flat had never taken horses to her mother’s lodge. She was not an Apsaroke, but born of their enemies, the Piegan. He’d captured her on a raid and carried her back in triumph as his personal property.

Because her mother rarely spoke of her life before being brought to the Apsaroke village, Moon Hawk didn’t mention it, either. On the few occasions that she had, Little Face had merely smiled and said, “I was happy there. I am happy here.” At times, it was difficult to know what she truly meant.

***

This opening is different from the first. Linda points out, "This scene does not take us inside the head of either of the characters and so is less staccato. Instead, we eavesdrop on mother and daughter, listening and watching as they work. As we listen in, we again absorb a surprising amount of detail about both the story's setting and the events that have led to this point. Backstory can be carried via narrative due to the further distance third-person viewpoint offers."

If you want to read more, click HERE

***

Talking about the reasons for constructing the opening scenes this way, Linda says, "My priority is for the reader to emerge from both openings with a sharp image of where the story is set, tangible knowledge about the backstory and, due to the chosen tone as much as what is being conveyed, becoming alert to problems likely to be encountered by the characters." 

She goes on to note that despite the different techniques used in each opening sequence, "...both setting and backstory only appear as incidental touches - anything more would smother the growing drama - but as that drama becomes more intriguing, those touches build in transparent layers to give depth."

***

Learn more about Linda and her writing HERE

 

Friday 23 February 2024

Extracts From The Writing Of Stuart Aken

Exploring The World Of Artificial Intelligence


Stuart Aken started to delve into the world of artificial intelligence (AI) in the early 2010s when he began work on a novella, The Methuselah Strain, which featured androids designed to pleasure their owners in any way the humans wished. Realising that these androids could never be convincing substitutes for human companionship without an emotional aspect, Stuart considered the consequences.

‘Once emotion was a requirement,’ he notes, ‘self-awareness naturally followed. These artificial servants were built for profit. Their self-awareness and emotional capacity would be paramount to their owner’s experience and such qualities would quickly become sophisticated.’

In The Methuselah Strain, one of these androids is abandoned for a human partner, and then taken on by another android. The story explores how self-aware and emotionally intelligent androids react to this experience, and how it colours their views of the human beings who share what is now their world.

The Methuselah Strain was published in 2015. In a later trilogy, Generation Mars, Stuart takes the ideas developed in The Methuselah Strain and puts them in the context of the colonisation of Mars, following catastrophic climate change that has made Earth almost uninhabitable. In terms of AI, Stuart says, ‘Early in my research, it became clear that AI would be an essential component of the automated systems needed to establish a place on the Red planet where humans would be able to live in some sort of comfort.’

Although the AI in Generation Mars has been developed with very different aims from the AI in The Methuselah Strain, this story, too, explores the consequences of building entities with self-awareness and intelligence.


9 Short Extracts From The Methuselah Strain

In the heart of town, Randal sprawled on his bed next to LoCon in the TipTop NonStop Hip-Hop Pop’n’Shop Mall. Oblivious of the dawn, he dreamed recurrent fantasies of human female companionship; all that life now seemed to hold for him as a Sexual.

***

In an ancient stone barn, preserved as a picturesque relic overlooking town, the Prime Renegade stirred at sudden silence as rain ceased hammering the roof. Her movement rustled the dry straw of yet another temporary bed. Pulling her stolen fun-fur coat close about her, she considered the coming day and hoped, without expectation, it might bring some release from loneliness.

***

Randal woke for the second time, in his customary sweat, and covered it with a disposable t-shirt he’d worn for three weeks. It mattered not that it stunk and was tattered and torn beyond its intended daily life: no other human being had visited the Mall for years.

Life as Mall Manager seemed pointless, and demeaning.

***

‘But she ain’t real; can’t be. That Prime Renegade’s just a bogeyman, lurking out there threatening civilization. I mean, nobody really believes in her; especially not looking like that. It’s a horing rumour, put about by CenCon to make us think they’re horing wonderful.’

At Sports Emporium he stopped the trolley and viewed Hengst’s 2224 Olympic Gold one hundred metre sprint: 8.7962 seconds from start line breach to finish laser. He’d watched it a thousand times. The last Olympic sprint run by real men, and there was no doubt these men were real.

***

Luce knew Repoz held everything known to man but it was no place to find the type of man she wanted. Her ability to bypass security made such a hunt simple. But a technophobe or a natural wouldn’t make the use of technology that would leave the traces she needed. Once she’d identified the actual presence of humans in certain geographic locations, a physical quest was the only answer.

***

So, she crossed to the east, found the landing point for the Atlantic Seabridge, and walked, transtrolled and hopped freight monorails right across the ocean. Misnamed Greenland, she’d discovered, was mostly barren rock and more or less deserted. The remnants of the great glaciers now causing no more than a slow flow of grey river water. Iceland had no ice but plenty of volcanic activity and hot springs to bathe in with frisky natives.

***

Caution slowed Luce as she left the tree-lined lane. Without the vagabond cover of her old coat, she was aware of her vibrant femininity and felt vulnerable, in spite of her bodyguard. Though she hated labels, she knew she’d be marked by all and sundry as a Sexual. Earlier attempts to alter her appearance had made no difference and she no longer bothered trying to hide her appeal. That the Intellectual tag wasn’t so readily attached, in spite of her extraordinary mental abilities, sometimes peeved her. But she understood she presented a rare combination.

***

‘I want to be loved! And you, Monster, for all your muscular good looks, boundless energy and deliciously sensitive touch, can’t love me. Love, Monster, causes tears and laughter at the holodrome or theatre, when there’s anyone there; blocks throats with lumps, makes hearts race, inspires poetry in books. When did I last curl up with a good book?’

***

‘Does anybody live here? Anybody at all?’ Her call echoed from lifeless buildings, mocking her as it returned splintered and unanswered from a thousand gleaming surfaces. Ahead, stood the glittering crystal and chrome icosahedron of the Mall, perched on its seven hexagonal pillars of glass. The reference was not lost on her and she smiled at memories of the ancient comedy.

***

Learn more about Stuart and his writing HERE

 

Friday 26 January 2024

Extracts From The Writing Of Madeleine McDonald

Experimenting With Different Angles


Photo by Anika Huizinga on Unsplash

Author Madeleine McDonald is a novelist but is better known for her short pieces, both fiction and non-fiction. The example below shows her taking an idea and expressing it using two different forms, a 50-word story and a tanka.

Madeleine says, “Very short stories simply have to meet a word count, whereas a tanka must be shoehorned into a non-rhyming formal pattern of five lines with 5,7,5,7,7 syllables respectively. Sometimes I just cannot make a particular word fit into the required number of syllables and still 'sound' right, and I have to find an alternative.” She notes in passing that, “The Japanese have other, arcane rules which Western authors ignore.”

The 50-word story
‘Come with me,’ he says, ‘to the islands of the west, golden in splendour.’ A number 9 bus looms out of the London murk. As we board, hand in hand, an aura of dejection and wet coats envelops us. Who cares, when mythical lands of adventure stand on the horizon?

The tanka
Come with me, he said
To the islands of the west
Golden in splendour
A number 9 bus arrived
All adventures start somewhere...


Madeleine also writes poetry although she notes that “Poetry is not my forte. I prefer short fiction.” She says of her prizewinning poem Hidden in Plain Sight, “Although I have written articles on modern slavery, I hoped the message would have more of an impact as a poem. I wrote it because the comfortable Western world ignores the realities of modern slavery. Out of sight is out of mind, just as sugar plantation slavery was 200 years ago.”


Hidden in Plain Sight
We do not want to see, hear or know.
To preserve our ignorance, we allow shifting
sands to settle over brutal truths.
Day by day, hour by hour, we unlearn
inconvenient facts; we lock them into a vault in
our minds.
50 million people are held in slavery or
servitude in our interconnected modern world.
The facts are there, recorded in stark newsprint
or on fleeting digital screens.
We turn away. It is not our children who choke
on dust, or whose fingers bleed. It is not our
children who sleep under workbenches and
see no daylight.
We turn away, unwilling to acknowledge the
human price of our modern comforts. It is
easier to focus our outrage on the slaveries of
yesteryear.
A hundred years hence, once our denial has
acquired the patina of history, our
grandchildren’s grandchildren, appalled, will
ask, ‘Why did you not act?’
Hand on heart, we will say, "But we did not know."

Links to Madeleine’s novels and several of her many published shorter works can be found in this profile