I was writing in the past tense. Now, I am writing in the present tense.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2010 by plumbobrainier

Ok, ok, it’s about four weeks behind the times, but the great thing about the present tense is that it’s always relevant. So, the two Phillips (Hensher and Pullmann) don’t like the present tense, the historical present, and have bemoaned its use in three of the six novels on the Booker shortlist. They call it an affectation, like screaming all the time, devoid of expressive nuance. Well, Jacobson’s ‘The Finkler Question’ won and that’s written in the past tense, so gli due Filipe should sleep soundly from now on.

I have been following the debate, sometimes intrigued, sometimes embarassed (The Observer absurdly and pointlessly recast classic novel openings in the present tense to demonstrate its inferiority, but in the most hackneyed of manners), but mostly with a paradoxical mixture of concern and quiet confidence.

For, you see, the novel I am currently working on, tentatively entitled ‘Raises No Dust,’ is written predominantly in the present tense.

One of the accusations levelled at writers who employ that dreaded mode/device is that it is a hallmark of Creative Writing courses, a cheap gimmick, a ploy to lend a sense of immediacy to a thinly-plotted, insubstantial work.


Is that why I chose it? Do I harbour subconscious suspicions that my novel is lacking in some way, and that it needed sprucing up by being given the narrative equivalent of go-faster stripes? Or was I influenced by a work that I had read, which used the present tense to startling effect? Or was it because MJ Hyland, a lecturer on my course, swears by it and has used nothing but the first-person present tense in all three of her novels, and I therefore thought my work would be more favourably second-marked? Well, no. Although that last suggestion would probably have been a good idea, if I hadn’t messed it up by writing in the third person instead.

I suppose I feel concerned, because it seems like writing in the historical present is a bit of a fad at the moment, and I don’t want to look like I’m jumping on the bandwagon. But, on the other hand, I am quietly confident because that tense just so happens to perfectly suit my subject matter. My novel is about an online relationship, the influence of the past on the present, and time counting down to a life-changing event.

I’ve just made it sound like a cyber-romantic thriller starring Keanu Reeves and his female equivalent (answers on a postcard for who that might be)…

In fact, it’s a tragi-comic novel about suicide, pregnancy, fidelity, internet forums and various thwarted and fulfilled forms of hope. The past tense would, potentially, treat the story and its world as closed off, neat and tidy, when, in fact, it is about messiness and unpredictability. I also like the challenge that the use of the present tense offers. It is a very cinematic way of writing. John Updike’s ‘Rabbit, Run’ (also written in third person present tense) is subtitled “A Movie.” It is this cinematic continuity that creates the challenge, because I find I have to be much more conscious about where I edit the action, otherwise I can end up describing everything in a kind of narrative approximation to real-time.

I can understand how reading the present-tense can be exhausting – it is often exhausting to write, but ultimately more rewarding to me than writing in the past tense has been.

It seems to me that the controversy, or hullabaloo, about the present tense is a load of hot air about nothing, really. If a novel is written well it doesn’t matter what tense it is written in.

I’ll post some links to the key articles about the whole big nonsense shortly…


Shameless Self-promotion, or just an opportunity to embarrass myself horrendously

Posted in Self-aggrandisement with tags , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2010 by plumbobrainier

First blog entry in about thirteen years and look what I go and do.

What you, dear reader, will find below is a YouTube video of me, incorrectly identified as Andy Johnstone (although that might be an idea for a supremely subtle pseudonym), reading from a short story of mine called ‘Donald & CO, F. Bonheur & Son.’ (Feel free to message me if you’d like to read the whole thing… to be fair, what I read in the video is probably the best bit)

It was created as part of a “Digital Content Day,” organised by commapress and literature northwest quite a while ago. I went along, had my headshot photo taken (in which I look less like a distinguished author and more like an excited little boy), and then apparently had a fit of facial spasms and all-over bodily muscle tremors in front of a recording camera. And listen to me trying to be all funny and clever (and failing) during the introduction: “edited by Donald Barthelme.” Oh, please.

Here it is then:

As you will gather, this is merely a shallow attempt at getting the views for the video higher than the current, paltry tally of 37.

Excuse me, there appears to be some politics in my fiction – I’d like to lodge a formal complaint!

Posted in Delicious Morsels with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2010 by plumbobrainier

Ah, politics – love it, or hate it, you can’t ignore it. It’s everywhere, like science making gases, like people sniffing on public transport, or like girls who wear leggings with no skirt or shorts. Yes, just leggings. It’s a fetching look. I am drawn to recall Mr. Bowie’s famous words on the subject: “no, beep-beep, beep-beep, oop bop, do do do do do do do do, fa fa fa fa fashion.”

Where was I?

Ah, politics. That old horse chestnut. Now, I’m no politician, and my understanding of politics is pretty limited. I’m a writer (no sniggering!) and so my interest in politics extends to how politics interacts with fiction. One question that contains a small kernel of interest is the question of whether fiction should address politics explicitly. Should it? [shrugs] Presumably all fiction addresses some aspect of politics subplicitly, or imptextually. I’ve read my own work (as well as having written it) and I see little to no political content. But, just wait till a Marxist gets their hands on it! Then they’ll be prosecuted for breaking and entering, presumably. You see, I was making a joke there about my not having been published, which means that my work is not publicly available. Jokes are always funnier (a) when they need to be explained, and (b) when they don’t need to be explained, but are explained regardless.

Anyway, this has all been playing on my tiny mind this week for two reasons.

The 1st of these is that the General Election is coming up (mark it in your calendars! May the 16th! Isn’t it?) and whilst I was writing a story about two cats who become very close friends despite their opposing views with regard to capital punishment, abortion, and the social benefit system, I realised that I had, without even realising it, named the cats David and Gordon, and that next door there lived a small wood pigeon called Nick. It’s inescapable!

The 2nd reason is that, last week, I was clicking my way quite happily through the Guardian Bookclub pages when I stumbled upon, or rather, actively sought out an article written by a certain Ms. Lorrie Moore, American humorist. In it she mentions a story of hers called ‘Debarking,’ about which she had the following to say:

In “Debarking” I was interested in making two incongruous things intersect, or at least interested in making them sit side by side: post-divorce middle-aged dating and a shocking war beginning on the other side of the globe. All that these two subjects have in common is that they are American and create high levels of anxiety within the protagonist. Making public events coexist with private ones in the consciousness of a fictional character is not usually recommended by anyone (not editors, not teachers, not other writers, not even me). Incongruous subjects, or subjects asymmetrical in proportion, often compete and cancel each other out – and I did anticipate and in fact receive editorial feedback to that effect. “What is the war in Iraq doing in this story?” was the gist. “Well,” I thought, “what is the war in Iraq doing in the world?”

Now, I know that the war in Iraq is far more than just a political issue, but it is, in political terms, a piping hot potato nonetheless. To cut a longish story shortish, I was intrigued, and so I booked a flight to Wisconsin, discovered that Ms. Moore was actually in New York, met her there (see photographic evidence), borrowed a copy of her collected stories off her (note to self: remember to send copy back to Ms. Moore and apologise for having taken it), and proceeded to read the story in question whilst she sat opposite me in a New York deli, silently drinking a flat white coffee.

Lorrie and me. She might not be showing it, but she's just as excited to be meeting me...

The story, which you can read and judge quietly here, is, in my underinformed and underread opinion, very funny and fabulously well written. That’s the norm for a L. Moore story. But it’s also interesting for the way in which the main character’s reactions to the onset of war in Iraq colour certain scenes. I did at times think, “hold on, what is the war doing in this story?” The characters in the story take a definite line when it comes to the war, but aside from indicating the contemporaneity of events depicted, does such commentary add anything to the story of a divorcee dating a woman, also a divorcee, who is rather weirdly obsessed with both statues of naked boys and her own teenage son? The threads of the story are as Moore puts it, incongruous. Incongruity is a theme, or even the mode of the story. It is perhaps a fallacy to think that mentions of the war have no place in ‘Debarking’, that they ought to be edited out. Of course, fiction, or at least, realist fiction (whatever that is! Aggghh!), is life, edited down to a few points of interest. Moore’s story posits that the war in Iraq, in all its horrible magnitude, was and is too big to edit out, even if it serves no purpose in the story’s plot. Politics encroaches!

Although I wouldn’t write an overtly political novel myself, I wouldn’t purposely avoid mentioning politics in my fiction simply because I fear to be branded POLITICAL. Politics is like anything else: it’s there, in your face all the time. It’s like Facebook. Or bodily functions, one’s own and those of others. These things will make it into fiction. And, perhaps, (perhaps!) they have to be there.


What do YOU think?

On a side note, I’m thinking of killing off the two cats in my story.

P. R.

Top 10 Writing Tips in the World… Ever! Vol. 42 (expressed as pushy, exclamatory imperatives)

Posted in Delicious Morsels with tags , , , , , , on April 10, 2010 by plumbobrainier

I’m not exactly current. The Guardian of our moral consciences published the top ten rules for writing of many pen-wielders about half a century ago and now I’m jumping on the station wagon, even though my opinions on the subject are of little to no consequence, and probably entirely derivative of others laid down previously. Feel free to agree with religious fervour, or disagree vehemently.

Here they are:

  1. Read anything! Don’t fill your head with nothing but highbrow stuff. Wikipedia, for exemplum, is a writer’s bestest friend, and is a useful model for anyone who employs elaborate digression. Don’t forget to write though…
  2. Don’t settle on one place/time of day/sitting position to write! Defamiliarise yourself from the process – write on a bin in the street, write whilst standing on one leg, write in landscape layout, write in different colours, type in a hideous font, write whilst listening to the same song on repeat, write when very tired and when very hungry.
  3. Don’t neglect presentation! Make your writing look like it would do if it were published – respect yourself and your wordy extrusions. Admire it smugly. A little dreaming never hurt… but…
  4. Don’t expect too much! Chances are that, like me, you are not a genius, so your writing isn’t always going to blow the top of the world’s cap off.  Wade on through until you’re sailing again. Sentences are like the changing views from a river – pretty mediocre most of the time, but with passing sublimities. & Good metaphors for sentences are like interesting parts of a parade: non-existent.
  5. Don’t get too attached! As much as you love a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, a story, a novel, a life’s work, if it isn’t doing its job properly then it’s got to go.
  6. Find someone you trust to read your stuff! Chances are you don’t have the gift of the gab and the (more important) gift of a fully-functioning bulls**t detector – so find someone who does! I have. And I married them so they’d never get away! Muuuhahaha!
  7. Redraft! But not lazily. Write it all out again! Touch up jobs on Word are just pushing the dust around.
  8. There is no number eight! Take a breather once in a while. Go on Wikipedia. Look up your hometown.
  9. Be ambitious! Just don’t get single-minded about those ambitions. Would it really be that bad if you don’t win the Nobel Prize at twenty-nine? That would be a pretty silly thing to kill yourself over…
  10. Don’t forget that not everyone’s a writer, but everyone’s a reader! Don’t talk too much about writing, concentrate on giving people excellent stuff to read!

How’d you like them apples?

Much love,

Canada, Canada-da-diddy-doody-da!

Posted in Reviews of the Kind of Thing You Wouldn't Hear in Lifts with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2010 by plumbobrainier

Thing: Owen Pallett (w/ Next Life) @ The Deaf Institute, Manchester, 28/03/2010

ETA: 20:30

ATA (Actual Time of Arrival, because I was so excited I walked much more quickly than anticipated): 20:05

Company: My better half (who else? who better?)

It’s a tiny place, is the Music Hall atop The Deaf Institute. The disco ball hanging from its ceiling is comically oversized for the space – a great, reflective, kitschy-camp planet.

We were stood in the centre of the room, gradually finding out that we were amongst the oldest in the growing crowd. She was, in her own words, a granny, and I made the inevitable gag that soon I would find rock concerts too darn loud.

I got the drinks in.

She said to me, “I think I’ve just seen him.”


“Owen. Owen Pallett.”

“Oh yeah? Where?” (I said this whilst trying to hide my boyish excitement)

“Has he got long hair?”


“Oh, it wasn’t him then.”

The pretend Pallett with the long hair turned out to be a member of Next Life, the support act. His bandmates were a skinny, shaven-headed Southeast Asian-looking guy wearing an Assuck tshirt, and a very large-chested man with long black hair and a goatee, who looked like he had just retired from international football, playing for Italy, in order to take up the drums.

Next Life are the kind of band you’d expect to play at the Deaf Institute if, like Alanis, you like to sing “well, isn’t it ironic” to yourself. Their’s is a brand of ear-splitting electronica-inflected vocal-less death-sludge-metal-core (they’re concertina-ing train wrecks are genre descriptions) played with drums, electric guitar, a keyboard contraption, and two MacBooks; although I suspect that the guitarist’s showed him the musical score – it would have been necessary, so complicated was the stop-starty barrage of major chord, tombstone-slab riffs and squiggly keyboard lines.

My reactions went as follows: this is loud, this is hilarious, this is a joke of Owen’s, this is great, this is samey, this is I-don’t-know-what. But by the end, Next Life had won a special place in my heart. Their guitarist and keyboardist spent their 20 minute set head-banging around, doing the best impressions, respectively, of a mute pitbull terrier and a horse’s fly-swatting tail I’d ever seen. & yet, the guitarist nodded with sweet enthusiasm between songs, and explained so very much with the words, “We are from Norway.”

Next Life are a band of paradoxes. Despite their metal-heaviness (which is no bad thing), I could see why Mr. Pallett had chosen them: their music was intricate, expertly played, yet deceptively simple, and contained snatches of childish innocence and playfulness amongst its holocaustal hammering. Their guitarist’s parting words: “It was nice to play here. You are a nice audience.” Subject your own ears here.

Owen appeared without fanfare, at the side of the stage. I darn-near swooned. His last brace of albums are probably my favourite two records since records began (I’m sure I’ll put a very masculine list of all me ol’ faves up on here soon). He was looking serious, he was, staring at the stage. He has a small chin, I noticed. A perfectionist’s brain was mulling over the elaborate setup. A young man approached him and handed him a tupperware tub of homemade biscuits. Owen looked bemused and smiled, gratefully. It would be another half hour until his set began.

Owen Takes His Shirt Off

I’d read about Final Fantasy gigs before, and seen clips on Youtube. If you’re reading this (and have read this far), you probably know that Monsieur Pallett plays the violin and uses a loop pedal to build songs up layer by layer. I hadn’t quite realised exactly how fascinating and impressive this would be until I saw and heard it for myself, in reality itself. It is absolutely enthralling, and inspiring in its ingenuity. It looked difficult; and the refreshing thing was that Pallett didn’t make it look all that easy. In fact, the look of satisfaction that crossed his face when he pulled off the timings said it all: this was tricky stuff – like musical juggling. You could almost accuse the plucky Canadian of showing off, if it wasn’t all just so incredibly, sublimely beautiful.

He had a friend along with him called Thomas Gill, who played the guitar, provided percussion (as well as backing vocals and some mightily impressive whistling) and seemed generally quite in awe of Mr. Pallett. Much like everyone else in the room then.

Having someone else on stage meant that O.P. had a foil for his witty banter (delivered in a supremely sarcastic, deliciously camp voice). T.G. left the stage for one song and as he walked off, O.P. cooed “love you,” before explaining that T.G. was disappearing for a biscuit break because there was nothing for him to do during the next song, and it was therefore boring for O.P. to have T.G. sitting up there. Apparently T.G. had taken to providing an accompaniment of interpretative dance, but this had disturbed previous audiences. […] Well, I thought it was funny at the time.

Of special note were three songs I didn’t recognise. I have since discovered these to be an original called ‘The Man with no Ankles’ (Owey Pally’s favourite song from ‘Heartland’ which didn’t make it onto ‘Heartland’, apparently) and two covers (both of which had me expel an instance of an amused alarmbell cackle); the first: ‘Interview‘ by Simon Bookish, the second: ‘Independence is No Solution for Modern Babies’ by Sylvester Boy. Don’t know anything else about either. Songs were good though.

I left the gig elated, truly happy I’d had the chance to witness Canada-da-diddy-doody-da’s finest floppy-haired son do his stuff. It was all over too soon. And the cherry on the already well-iced cake? My better half loved it too!

I realise that this post long ago became a grossly fanboyish gush. I’m sure that it has been of little-to-no-interest to anyone who isn’t inclined towards Senor Pallett already. But if I have any modest ambition for this article it is that I hope it piques the curiosity of those who haven’t yet heard his audio-outpourings, and earns the bon hombre one or two more fans.

Of course, less than (or equal to) two people per week read this thing……

……. BUT! if those two or fewer people listen to, enjoy, and go see a live performance of Owen Pallett’s music, then our planet will be a minutely better place, and I will have played my part and have gone some way to becoming the change I want to see in the world!

That was a trifle overblown, wasn’t it.

[N.B. What’s great is that I delayed writing this review for so long that some internet-habiting person had the time to put the whole gig up on YouTube… Mr. Pallett is made for sharing. Enjoy!]

A Few Words to Fill a Sad, Sad Void… Or, some verbal trailers, if you will.

Posted in Delicious Morsels with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2010 by plumbobrainier

So – yeah.

I’ve not been overly proliferiffic of late.

But there are things on the horizon – OH READER! The metaphorical horizon is metaphorically littered with articles and bluedogposts and ideas for articles and blankhogposts!! These may look like insignificant dots from you’re standing (if they’re visible at all, especially to the young lady with the restricted view from behind the pillar at the back – next time fork out the extra few quid for a proper seat!) but in not too much time at all I hope they will sitting on this webface with disconcerting pride.

These are just a few of the things looking to squelch out of the pipeline in the coming hours, days and weeks:

Arise, Ms. Bullock!

1. A long overdue assessment of the filmographic works and humanitarian achievements of Ms. Sandra Bullock.

2. An in-depth discussion of the postmodernist narratology which pervades the musical output of Mr. Owen Pallett, of Toronto, Canada.*

Robin Hood fell ill - Mr. Pallett dons the tights!

*Mr. Owen Pallett’s latest album, ‘Heartland,’ was called a “firecracker of an album” by Pope Benedict the 16th, and “the soundtrack to my life getting really good then falling apart far too quickly” by Pope Benedict the 16th. These rave adulations make an assessment of Mr. Pallett’s literary value particularly pertinent.

3. A guest feature! The Paris Review has kindly donated an overlong and overtedious interview with an author, whose talent is only matched (and possily even superceded) by his obscurity. Tune in to find out who! (special prizes for the young scamperoo who can guess! Who says literature can’t be more fun than a parade?)

4. A review of page 53 of ‘Don Quixote’; the Cervantes version, not the Menard.

5. A tantalising teaser of Andy Johnston’s forthcoming, sure-to-be-earth-shattering novel, translated into Russian and then back into English.

6. The full publication of the above author’s Bewilderbliss-printed story (which was met with a belligerently hostile review within the four walls of this ettablisement), but with a twist! The English has been translated into Portuguese, and the Portuguese has been translated into English.

7. A 15,000 word description of my face.

Watch out! You’re drooling on your keyboard with anticipation!!


P. R.

A Review of a Story from Bewilderbliss

Posted in Reviews of Literary Outpour with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 3, 2010 by plumbobrainier

Oh dear.

Didn’t Hemingway go out with the Ark?

Shotgun (w/ Hemingway attached)

We’ve all seen and heard the rave pre-announcements, shout-outs and reviews of the latest issue of Bewilderbliss, Manchester’s premier student-led literary organ; but what could possibly have possessed the editorial staff to publish the story, “Uma Amiga” by Andy Johnston, which sits like some diabolical vomit puddle on pages 48 through 53?

If ever a story was borne out of a creative writing workshop exercise, this is it. Shades of Ernest Shotgunmouth abound in everything from the clipped sentences to the imbecilic vocabulary, from the setting (a cafe, for goodship’s sake!) to the Iberian language! It’s just “A Clean, Well-lighted Place” with Portuguese people, and some different characters, and a completely different theme.

Speaking of the characters, never has a story of this brevity repeated the words “old waiter”, “younger waiter” and “young woman” more often than this one. By the end, I felt like three people (two of whom were waiters) had been bashed through the front of my skull.

Cliches fly in from all quarters. There’s the woman in black (a femme fatale as it turns out, who even wears sunglasses, has a cigarillo case, and smokes!), the old/young double act, and even a cheating husband, who (surprise-surprise!) gets his head bashed in. One can only assume Mr. Johnston ate a few pulp novels, masticated them until even pulpier, then spat the mess onto his submission.

When he’s not describing wholly inane actions (“the water fell back and stopped,” “Miguel shrugged,” “She lifted a gloved hand,” “Miguel was holding a metal table,” “The old waiter pointed,” “Miguel was still holding the table,”), Mr. Johnston indulges in overwritten, malapropic nonsense:

“The young woman shrugged, lit her cigarette and walked away, birthing bent pillars of smoke, which trailed behind her.”

Artist's Rendering of Ark (gone out now)

Birthing? And how would she create pillars (pillars?) of smoke? How this made it past the copy-editing phase, I haven’t the faintest idea. I can only assume bribery, or some inappropriate favour was involved (although I certainly wouldn’t want to bring the name of Bewilderbliss into disrepute).

Mr. Johnston, had felicity granted him sense, might also have provided translations of the Portuguese he uses, perhaps included as footnotes. It is, however, clear that it is his intention to alienate the reader. It is anyone’s guess what Fode-se, Senhora, or Bom could mean.

Glancing at his Biog, it is sad to note that Mr. Johnston is wasting everybody’s time on a prestigious MA programme at Manchester Univercity. I plan to write to him and make him reconsider his continuing attendance as a public service.

(Andy Johnston’s “Uma Amiga” appears in Issue 3 of Bewilderbliss, available in Blackwells and The Cornerhouse, £4)