The Infinite Monkey Agency

THE SCI-FI WRITER’S PROMPTS

There are a finite number of plots and an (almost) infinite number of ways to tell the stories, yet even a truly infinite number of writers would never complete them all. Some of the best stories (even some of my own) are those which leave the reader thinking, and often finishing the story themselves, sometimes in more than one way. It’s all down to The Infinite Monkey Theorem, the difference between monkeys and apes (monkeys have tails), and a nervous tic…

Infinite Monkey BarInfinite Monkey Theorem, Denver Post

Poking around my head, I’ve found a mind-reversal of my Unfinished Literary Agency (a fictional device which exists to tell the stories of others), and called it The Infinite Monkey Agency, as it’s a repository of prompts for other writers sometimes finding their ink doesn’t flow.

It was Ernest Hemingway who wrote the first six-word story: one with a beginning, a middle, and an open end, all in six words:

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

So most of the work is handed over to the reader. I can knock one out pretty much on demand:

All were defective. Some were admissions.

I was asked recently (and repeatedly) where I get my ideas from. Quite literally all around me. Something I see on TV, or read online or in print; something I see or hear in the real world; a comment or just a person.

The latter are some of my favourites, when I can go off in a Paul Auster-esque tangent and somehow make a surreal coincidence make sense (in my head and for the persistent reader, as in ‘Reflections of Yesterday’). Often, it’s just something in me, and I’ll be in the characters (‘Echo Beach’ and ‘Cardboard Sky’). Mostly though, it’s science, and where that might lead – for better or worse – and in the near- and far-future, whether that be with humankind or regardless of. So many parameters, possibilities and paradoxes.

But so many writers: There aren’t enough to write all of the stories, and I don’t have time to write all those in my head. I figured this was a good time to share. Recently I’ve suffered writer’s block and used writing prompts, and that’s given indirect rise to this.

This ‘sci-fi writer’s prompts’ is a way of thinking about what I’m going to write about, and writing about what I’m thinking, now that I have more than enough. So if any other writers are suffering the block like I did recently, they may not need to suffer like I did.

It’s about giving back. People may not buy my books in bulk and that might have discouraged me. But I’m not the only writer, so these are my ideas for those who’d care to use them. We all know plagiarism, but we also understand intellectual copyright.

There are loads of videos on my personal Facebook timeline and my author page, many with thoughts and propositions attached, but with little audience engagement (as much as you’d get from a colony of ants: oblivious to your presence until you poke fun at their wrinkly babies). Like this one: hardly viral (around 1300 views at time of writing) but which shows small enterprise innovation, and which prompts many thoughts and ideas:

My initial thought was that these could be installed throughout the UK (and other countries) on the rail network (the wind turbines, but for that matter, The Infinite Monkey Agency), in a kind of man-takes-energy / man-gives-back karma. Then I thought aloud some more, in the deafness of Facebook:

Just one small example of how much untapped energy there is in the world. Despite the apparent ubiquity of solar and wind power, we harness less than 1% of our planet’s natural energy.

We’re not even what Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev’s technological scale would term a Class 1 or planetary civilisation: one which has harnessed the energy of its home world.

Astronomers recently found evidence of what could be a Dyson Sphere in the constellation of Cygnus: an artificial structure partially enclosing a planetary system’s parent star to harvest its energy.

Humans are incredibly primitive in the greater scheme of things.

So that’s given me lots of ideas. I’ll write some good stories with some. Others I’ll give up on, and there’ll be many more I don’t start. Some of those will be because they never even occurred to me. Maybe different things will happen to another writer and their readers.

Writing is about sharing what we do. It’s also about sharing ideas, giving fuel to others and encouraging them to tell more. One day, we might all come up with the answers, to these questions which vex us all: Life, the universe, and everything. Until then, we’ll keep trying.

It’s life in the infinite monkey cage and we know we’re in a zoo. We hope we’re read, The Indie Collective (the (nervous) ‘TIC’).

monkey-bard

Just one small example of how much untapped energy there is in the world. Despite the apparent ubiquity of monkeys and typewriters, we harness less than 1% of our planet’s natural energy. And apes don’t have tails.

In make-up with Max Headroom

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There are three people in all of us (and I’m one of them): The person we think we are; the one others see; and the third, inner (or shadow) self. I’m in touch with that third person, just as I can write from the perspective of others. I can read thoughts, then write them down for people to think about. I can be omnipresent in my virtual worlds, directing the thoughts of those there with me, and that’s where I’m finding myself lately, in an empty room. It’s where I left my ego.

Max Headroom in make-upJohn Humphrys at Frieze

A great philosopher never wrote this:

Imagine you’re in an empty room, with no visible means of exit: How do you escape?

Whether or not anyone had posited that mind experiment before, it was one I’ve posed to myself many times. In any case, I’d first ponder whether the subject might not want to escape. Then I’d propose one of two things: Stop imagining, or use your imagination.

I may not got out much (social anxiety), but I will if someone needs me and they can’t get to me. It’s far easier (mentally) not to go out, and have friends like me, who’ll make an effort when I need someone. Unfortunately, I don’t have one of those.

I thought I did. Even as recently as my birthday, I was prepared to put my personal plans to one side to help a friend who said they needed a shoulder and an ear. Even if they didn’t need me on the day, I’d let it be known that I’d appreciate the company (to one who said they’d drop everything for a friend in need), but apparently it doesn’t work that way. I seem to be back living on one-way streets again, but that’s fine.

I’m used to being kerbside, just watching the world go by or hitching a ride, and my birthday told me where I stood: Far from alone in the real world life, but apart from most and not a part of many. I have to choose my own adventure, like the fighting fantasy books I used to read before I had anyone to play Dungeons and Dragons with (back in my teens, but no longer). All the geeks grew up and got jobs. I’m the only one who lost all their hit points and longed to be a teenage nerd again, but when memories are forgotten, they become stories.

Everyone else respected my annual tradition of wanting to be alone, on the one day of the year I can allocate myself to gather my thoughts. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder, and the mind grows wiser, as I realised I’m better alone than surrounded by carrion feeders anyway. It seems some I thought were friends (in the mutual, two-way paradigm) are only that for their own convenience, when I have something they want, or when it suits them. A plague of rain and floods on fair weather friends, as no-one needs those, least of all when mental health issues make that one vulnerable (and causes one to refer to oneself as ‘one’).

In the virtual world, a quick scan of the (admittedly, quite a few) messages on Facebook told me more than a night out with all of them would (I wouldn’t have time to get round them all, it’d cost too much to drink with each, and I’d have to travel). There were many notable absences, which stung a bit, but that perhaps told me something too: they’re less likely to be there in the real world when I need them than I thought.

Truth is, people are frightened of what they (and I) don’t understand: my broken brain. Always the elephant in the room, laying eggs for people to walk over, I don’t have the luxury of avoiding me, because I live there. I can’t run away to escape my mind, and no-one else visits it, so I face the mirror.

Ever the cracked actor, this blog has always been both the mask I hide behind and some of what goes on behind it. I’m far more comfortable being someone else, but that’s often the person I want to be, in whom I feel comfortable, but who others can find overwhelming in real life. But in the virtual world, I can be that inner persona.

As a writer who’s been compared to others I admire in the various genres (Lovecraft, Kafka, King and Poe in horror; Douglas Adams for sci-fi; Paul Auster in my more complex writing; many children’s authors; and the surrealists, Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas for Cyrus Song), I’ve decided now’s as good a time as any for reinvention and a change of clothes.

My recent depressive episode coincided with the latest attack of writer’s block. Having worn so many hats in the past, I wasn’t sure which one to put back on. But then that third person in me suggested another way: don’t conform to any. Do something different, unconventional and surprising. Mix things up a bit and come up with the thoughts no-one has (like the two foundation ideas in Cyrus Song). There are a finite number of plots, but infinite ways to write them, each creating a new universe and all talking to me.

Be original: Your individuality is your originality. This could be a metamorphosis, a changing of the chameleon’s colours, or just another crack I’ve found in the actor’s mind, but I’ll see where it takes me and my typewriter as we make up and wake up.

Much of the writing I did in those recent troubled times, and which is in the notebooks I carried around and sat in front of the TV with, is all over the place, like I was. In amongst it all though, there are stories, and some like none I’ve written before. There are elephants in there: floating elephant heads, which walk on their trunks (eight each, like a spider), sucking up eggs and denying the birth of another life, preventing sentience, self-determinism and coping mechanisms.

There’s a plastic population: people who are part plastic (every human); there’s the hacking of human DNA; a quantum computer, becoming one with its creator; nano-drones, right under our noses, observing and interacting with us while we curse a sneeze; the tale of an escaped Schrödinger’s cat, back to tell tales of nine lives spent in parallel universes; and the world’s greatest irony, in a lake beneath the Kalahari desert, where the water is fossilised.

I don’t know what else might emerge. As a writer, I’m going to experiment, play, throw away, and I’m keen to find out. I’m stuck in a room, but I have an imagination. I’ll write more in that third person and occupy the shadow self. Making love with my ego. Like a leper messiah.

Cyrus Song is available now.

Life in tablet form

THE WRITER’S LIFE | BOOKS

I’m feeling quite proud of myself, for swallowing some of the pride I was only just learning not to be ashamed of. I feel like Joseph, throwing off his dream coat: I published an e-book, which is far bigger news than it ought to be, but it’s why I did it that’s more important. It’s because Cyrus Song contains a perfectly plausible answer to the ultimate question, of life, the universe and everything; and because more people wanted to read it.

Life in tablet form

A few forays aside, I’ve not bothered the Kindle charts, partly through a kind of snobbery. The self-publishing independent writers who’ve democratised the publishing world are undeniably many and talented, but certainly in the e-book area at least, it can be somewhat overcrowded and claustrophobic with so many competing for attention. The printed book market is only slightly less so, but as one who’s always read printed books, I’ve eschewed the non-tangible ones. If nothing else, I’ve been somewhat foolish and naïve in denying myself such a market.

The writers I know personally are split roughly between three publishing camps: Printed books only, just e-books, or both. Some write different books for the two platforms, and others dual-publish both formats, sometimes offsetting the two (kind of like a cinema release and a DVD). I was only firmly pitched in the tangible book camp, because that’s how I like to read. So while I was talking to writers, I also consulted friends who read too.

Reading preferences are as varied as writing genres, and I had to conclude that I really was missing a trick by not publishing my books for e-readers.

The recent attention I’ve been getting as a writer, in peer groups, reviews and encouraging comments, has all reinforced what another writer said to me late last year: Don’t be ashamed to be proud of what you’ve done. Coming from where I have (on the streets four years ago) is indeed quite an achievement and this was recognition by someone else (a peer), which made me realise I should accept that I’ve done something quite – dare I say – impressive, especially when I’m so respected as a writer. It can be difficult to accept praise that you’re good at something when you’ve been such an arse in the past, but that’s just the guilt which must be borne by the truly penitent person, who sobered up when drowning personal demons might have been easier.

My recent personal paradox has been that of having a lot to say, but with social anxiety doing its best to silence me, so I write it all down. Like all writers, I crave an audience, but I shied from promoting myself too much, as I didn’t want the attention. And then it hit me, and it was something Simon Fry said, as I’ve carried on talking to my fictional character (see the last two blog posts).

I was a bad person once, who got drunk and hurt a lot of people, and there are very few (all now abandoned) who continue to judge my past, unprepared in some cases to accept that I’ve become a better person in myself, and better than many of them. That’s their problem, for not talking to me (or reading me). Some of that past is my shame and I still carry it. I have chronic depression, PTSD and a life-long guilt trip of sobriety as a hangover, so writing is my therapy. I’m pretty good at that, as there’s so much to write about, and I will be judged for what I’ve become.

I’m a writer now. People have to accept that. If they don’t want to read me, they can exercise consumer choice. If they want to find out what I might have been writing about them, they can do the same. My last two books are the ones I’ll be judged on, until I finish the next. Simon Fry is very good at saying these things for me.

I gave a few copies of Cyrus Song to close friends when it first came out, mainly the younger people I know: students to whom a book would be quite a significant financial outlay. I’ve written before of how I’m aware of this and other demographics, which is why my books can be requested at lending libraries.

One young friend lost her copy, another didn’t want to carry a book around, and a third simply couldn’t be arsed to read anything for longer than a few minutes. The latter was my adopted little sister and mum to my god daughter, Courtney. Typical of many her age, she has a short attention span (and she’s on the ADHD and autism spectra), and she’s somewhat at sea without her mobile phone. I ended up reading Cyrus Song to her, but I can’t do that for everyone, and even as I did, she was distracted by her phone. There it was, right in front of me: if she had the book on her phone, she’d be less likely to lose it and more likely to read the book in between social media.

Of course, others have known this for years, but I was blind to the obvious, even though it was in front of me then, and around me all the time. People do actually read e-books, even though I’ve read hardly any. After an autopsy of the situation, I had to conclude I was a book snob.

I needed more people to hear me, but it was something Courtney said which made me finally swallow the pill. Even though she’s prone to exaggeration, and although it’s a cliché, “Everyone needs to read this book” warrants a writer paying attention. To get more people at least reading my surrealist sci-fi RomCom, I had to make it more accessible. The really big thing I’d missed was the democratisation of the audience, through the very devices which opened up the writing market to so many authors like me. I’d also become jaded with some of the (at best) mediocre fiction offerings out there for e-readers, when it’s a completely free outlet (democratically and financially). Once, it might have felt somehow dirty, like I was selling myself out. But I’ve got a track record and a reputation now, and if you’re good, you’ll stand out in any size market.

Cyrus Song wants to be read, and it is a good book (see the reviews on this blog (on the bookshelf), and on Amazon, where I need more). Unlike its author, the novel decided to go out and be noticed, rather than wait to be found. Simon Fry suggested that, and it’s much more his book than mine. It’s a book for everyone, which is why I’ve made it more obtainable. It’s still available in paperback and always will be, for those who prefer a tangible book (and who might want it signed). But for everyone else, there’s now the Kindle edition (compatible with most e-readers, tablets, phones etc.)

It does still carry a cover price, because I’d be doing no-one any justice making it free. It’s £2.99 and it comes with 14-day lending rights to others. It can also be bought for 99p when buying the paperback, and borrowed for free with Kindle Unlimited. I’m not devaluing myself, as there are no costs (apart from my time) without print, so I make roughly the same royalties per copy, but hopefully in greater volumes now.

I’d like everyone to hear the Cyrus Song, and see that the answers really are all around and inside us, wherever they read the book, and even if they use tablets. The price of a coffee, to wash down the tablet version of the answer to the life, the universe and everything.

Cyrus Song for Kindle (other readers are available) is out now.

Throw off your paper chains…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Don’t crack up, Howard Jones once counselled. He went on to advise bending your brain, seeing both sides, and throwing off your metal chains. This is an old and new song…

Paper Chains

Just lately, I’ve felt myself starting to feel at home as a writer. I’m into my fifth year of being one, and I’ve lived at the studio for almost two years. But it’s lonely and I’m socially anxious, so I’ve started getting out more in a virtual way. It’s still a bit like standing on the edge of the playground in the first week of school though. Welcome to my world. Or put another way, this is my world and you’re welcome to it.

I wrote previously of how everything seemed to conspire in a solitary Christmas and New Year, when I used the time to re-evaluate a few things. I’ve met new people, who don’t have time to read the last five years’ posts, so long life story short, I got drunk, upset a lot of people, had a moral responsibility to put things right, did. This was almost five years ago and those who’ve been here for some time (who met me online) will know some or all of it (like most of those I know in the real world, including some new ones). There are those from my old (offline) life who seem to begrudge my recovery, and most are simply too ignorant to learn, preferring to remain in their made-up state of mind than actually talk to me.

All they know is what’s in their heads, put there by themselves and their fellow conspirators: I got drunk, lost everything and it was all my own fault. Let’s take that as a given. So now I’m an alcoholic, and that’s pretty much all they want to see. They don’t understand alcohol dependence syndrome, PTSD, or any of the other diagnoses on my medical record. But the people who don’t understand a functioning alcoholic are the same as those who can’t tell the difference between a paediatrician and a paedophile. They want to see me fail. Well I’d never do that to anyone, least of all myself, and most of all because it would be for someone else’s vindication.

Despite being anxious and paranoid (conditions hardly helped by those people), I had to conclude – after all other avenues were exhausted – that it’s their loss, if nothing else then for the sake of my health. I can unify science and religion, yet I can’t reconcile myself with those kinds of people. I’ve asked myself more than once since I sobered up, saw things differently and opened my mind (weed helped), did the whole world change while I was gone, or is it just me?

On the sideline of life, like the edge of the playground at school. Watching the kids I wish I could teach: the blinkered, the conditioned, the bullies who don’t listen. Now I see all these new kids, some are like me, and I want to introduce myself.

I’ve been hanging around the edges of various social media groups, with other writers and sci-fi types. I don’t have to know them personally, as they’re already kindred spirits, like the other bloggers who follow me and I follow back. Ours is very much a sharing community, with exchanges of links, advice and help, and other writers wondering why even their closest friends don’t seem all that interested in what they do. It’s something I’ve considered before, because it’s quite depressing. But like so many things, I’ve not taken it personally. More on that, as I consider a question posed to that collective: Why do you all write? It’s a good question, especially when us ‘Indies’ get so little attention. It suits a socially anxious person, but when that’s a writer, it can make them paranoid.

For my part, it’s therapy, and a coping mechanism for all that goes on in my head with depression. But why I write, breaks down into many other reasons, including empathy with others. So when I consider the question of why so few of our friends buy our books, I swap roles.

If I was asked what most of my friends do, I wouldn’t know. But few of them are writers. Unless they have an interesting vocation, I’m not interested. Many people simply aren’t interested in writers. They think it’s cool that you are one, but friends or not, unfortunately few people buy books. My frustration as a writer is a reflection of life: I have much to say, but no-one has the time to listen. As writers, we’re lucky we have a means to bang on in vain hope. When you’re a good writer, you long for other people to tell you that you are. It’s not vanity, it’s frustration. Why do I write then?

I can rewrite the past, or imagine futures. I can take myself back to situations and place myself, not only in my own position but those of others. I can create people and worlds, situations too, both good and bad (I can play the atheist god). Sometimes I visit the places and characters I’ve created, because in my mind at least, they really do exist. I’ve been known to have an entire conversation with one of my characters and publish it as a story.

I have many trademarks, which are what get me some of the little recognition I do enjoy. Talking to myself is one I use rarely, but I do inhabit all of my stories. Whether it’s a mannerism in a character, or a place from the depths of memory, there’ll be a part of the writer in each story. I’m said to have a deep understanding of the human condition, which isn’t surprising given my mental health and the life I’ve lived. My ability to “…hold a black mirror to the soul,” is born mainly of the time I lived on the streets. Whether they’re science fiction, horror, or some other genre, my stories tend to have a psychological element (I strive to make them affecting).

There are crossovers in my writing: Characters from stories already told, popping up in others, sometimes with significance but often just walk-on parts. In real life, I’ve dealt with many young people, and I was one myself in the 1980s, so I take myself back there sometimes. I have recurring themes and places, often time-shifted (the most obvious would be The Unfinished Literary Agency). I can see utopian and dystopian near-future and far-away scenarios. I can evoke the sentience in animals and AI. These are not my words, but what others have said (and all documented).

I’ve written five books so far, by my own admission, each better than the last. I’m an honest writer, and I wouldn’t want anyone to feel in any way unfulfilled. That’s why, on my Typewriter page, I aim to make every purchase of my books an informed one. I realise that a book is a financial outlay and I make mine available in libraries (on request), because I realise not everyone can afford books, but I want as many people as possible to read mine, as there’s so much in them that might help others (the answer to life, the universe and everything is in Cyrus Song). I spent many of my homeless days in libraries, so it’s my way of giving something back.

When I found myself on the streets with nothing to show for my life, then life gave me a second chance, I felt obliged to return the favour. As I’d sit writing in various venues, I resolved to be the best that I could be at that which I enjoyed the most. That way, I could give the most back.

I’ve been lucky enough to receive my fair share of plaudits, in person and through reviews. Those are rare and well-earned, but we have to realise that even fewer people than read us will take the trouble. It’s a lonely world, but we have each other. If only more people were listening.

One day, someone will notice us fringe writers, independents, self-publishers, and many other undiscovered talents. Like all the arts, writing is huge and democratised, so there will always be many trying to be heard. Writers are at a disadvantage because what they do shouts the quietest and takes longer to hear. If we wrote songs, we’d need a few minutes of someone’s time; if we made films, a couple of hours; but a book requires days, if not weeks, and it’s usually a financial outlay in a world flooded with free stuff and always in a hurry. And with so many books out there, why choose ours, especially as we’re outside the mainstream and not on a lot of shelves? Some of us might not even be discovered while we’re alive, but we’ve immortalised ourselves already. Even if we are plucked from obscurity, we may only be fashionable for a while, and it’s a very rare artist who becomes a household name.

So we seek recognition at least with our peers. But we can’t all be expected to read each others’ books, any more than any one person is likely to buy all of ours, or lots of people just one or two. The best way is as part of a collective, so that we at least have company in our lonely quest.

What can I do for other writers, and what can I give them to better help me? I figured this blog post might be a good start. People deal with people and it takes one to know one. I’m already liked and followed, on Facebook, Twitter and this blog, and I reciprocate. I always want more, and I want to be shared, so that I have a better chance of being heard. And I want to tell all my followers about other writers I myself read, whose voices I recommend they listen to. The best tips are qualified.

I figured I’ll pick a book a month, either at random, or on the basis of something which piques my interest. We can’t all be market analysts, and many book purchases are on impulse anyway. But if I want anyone to do anything for me, I have to give something back. So I’ll buy someone’s book, read it in a considered manner, then post reviews wherever appropriate: On the book’s Amazon or other retailer page, in the peer group where that person lives, and on this blog.

I’m not one for posting links on every thread, so I hope this might be enough to persuade others to look further at what I do (and what I’ve done already). If one of them buys a book and takes the time to review it, it’s a favour returned and a qualified recommendation.

The reason those people from my past can’t find me, is I’m simply not there. I moved on and moved out. If they’d care to look me up now, all they’d have to do is Google my name. By doing no search engine optimisation at all, by paying nothing for ads, and just by being what I am, I get a Google ‘Answer box’: When people search for my name, Google assumes most are looking for the author now.

That’s what I am now: a writer. It says so on the internet. Pleased to meet you. That’s my world and you’re welcome to it.

I’m socially anxious and I don’t get out much, but I crave attention. As a writer, I’m good at blurring the lines between real and virtual worlds, when the latter is the one where I feel most comfortable. I’ll always try to make time spent here at my place time well spent.

To those new to me, I’d recommend two of my own books to get to know me more: My critically-acclaimed “sci-fi RomCom”, Cyrus Song; and my latest collection of short stories, The Unfinished Literary Agency. Those are the books I hang my novelist’s hat and writer’s scarf respectively on. Signed copies can be arranged with me in private, and I’m almost confident enough to offer a money-back guarantee on my books. The only thing preventing me, is the anxiety I need help in overcoming, by people reading my books, realising I really can write and telling other people.

This is a song to all of my friends
They take the challenge to their hearts
Challenging preconceived ideas
Saying goodbye to long standing fears

(‘New Song’, Howard Jones, 1983).