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.

The silence of the writing prompt

THE WRITER’S PROMPTS

I picked a writing prompt at random from 642 Things to Write About (San Francisco Writers), and it asked, What is the sound of silence and when did you last hear it? What was missing? And now I’m alone, but for memories…

Depression in menDepression in men: suffering in silence (British Psychological Society)

A less active mind (or one which doesn’t misfire like mine) might dismiss the questions as being nonsensical: Silence implies no sound at all, so the sound is nothing, and what was missing was any kind of sound at all. But that demonstrates no imagination at all. In an imagined empty room with no visible means of exit, there’d be no way out for those souls, when the two exits are to stop imagining (they never started), or to use one’s imagination (which they lack). In my mind, that would be a personal hell.

In amongst my pseudo-scientific atheist belief system is a theory of heaven and hell as personal, and an idea of what each looks like (to me at least). In the simplest terms, I understand how the quantum universe works, and how everything exists in parallel, in one or other state, before one is called into existence by a catalyst.

The simplest demonstration of foundation is the path which splits in two: I’m walking along a path, when I happen upon a fork in the road: Was it there before, when I couldn’t see it? For argument’s sake (and because I’m left-handed), I choose the path on the left. Assuming there are walls and I can’t see the path I didn’t choose, does it still exist? It’s a paradox but it’s useful in explaining death in simple terms.

I imagine the moment of death as little more than a blink of the mind’s eye. For now I exist in a place (a universe), which I’m aware of being around me and all that entails (including physical limitations). At some point in the future (possibly predetermined), my body will cease to function, but the universe in which it lived will carry on. Family and friends may mourn (or celebrate), but I’m not in that world any more. At least, my spirit isn’t.

I use the analogy of a radio or TV to explain my understanding of the human spirit: It sits for the most part, inanimate. But once switched on, it broadcasts. Those signals are always in the air around us, and the media device decodes them into sound and vision. It’s the same with the physical human body (the media decoder), and the spirit (the media itself).

My body now lies like a broken TV set in one universe, while my spirit suddenly became aware of different surroundings: ones in which I have no physical limitations. With no need for food, water, or air, I exist in a form which is free to explore. And I have an eternity to do it.

To me, that’s a dream. The door to all of the universe’s knowledge opens and I’m in a personal heaven. To someone else though, that same place might be hell. A different spirit might find themselves overwhelmed and unable to process their thoughts on what they’re witnessing and experiencing. That’s the sound of silence I’ll never hear. My silence will be me cursing unheard, frustrated at my message not getting through (I need to sign up for ghost courses and learn how to haunt people).

In my scientific atheist, the silencing sound is religion, an invention of man to suppress any thoughts outside a set of conditions, and the wrath of “God” upon all those who seek to disprove or deny him. The last time I heard it was when I tried explaining all this to a small audience. I can’t be sure if the blank expressions were blinded by a light going on, or simple minds blown. What was missing was either a collective imagination or visible clues of a group epiphany. But then I’d possibly just convinced them that God doesn’t exist.

Forest Gump never compared life to a jigsaw puzzle, but it was part of a short story I wrote once. I went on to suggest not following convention by starting on the outside. Just like life, I recommended doing the middle first. Because then the puzzle takes longer to complete. Think outside the box room, the puzzle box and the box of chocolates. That’s as simple as imagining what’s out there.

In using these writing prompts, I’m not really confronting my own fears though, am I? That’s why I originally started writing this blog: The world of the writer with depression. Maybe I can use them more. Perhaps I just did: Because there’s a silence not unlike that I described from my Christian conversion / aversion group: It’s the silence of being ignored. It’s been employed by some cultures as an effective mind-control technique, and outlawed by others (Imagine living in a place where you can’t be heard, despite being entirely aware of the world you inhabit, and the universe beyond).

That’s what isolation feels like sometimes, being overtly avoided. So with little but the thoughts in that empty room, the cracks in the mind of the writer grow larger, letting in the light. The silence of the indie vegetarian can feed on flesh fiction, while the culture vultures on the fringe feast on the spectacle. I remember a time…

The homeless man on the street holds his empty lunch container; a soup cup, hoping to catch another meal. All around, people rush to get out of the rain filling his cup. He’s grateful the storm keeps his head bowed, his face out of sight of those he once knew. He drinks, kissed by someone afar. Even when all the people have gone home into the quiet night, the earth is never silent unless you stop listening.

A sneezing (noun) of witches

FICTION | THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’ve often wondered why I curse a sneeze. A sneeze isn’t an unpleasant sensation, akin perhaps to a mild orgasm of the face, but I curse each one nonetheless: “Ooh, ya fucker,” “Get outa me ting,” and so on (and usually in a regional accent). Then someone told me an old wives’ tale, about each expelled sneeze being a witch’s curse, or specifically the curse of a witch.

FenellaFenella the kettle witch, in an episode of Chorlton and the Wheelies

There’s a difference: A witch’s curse would be a spell cast upon another person; the curse of a witch is the actual words spoken as she escapes. They were all invisible to me, but so are most things which lack proof, and so create intrigue. But for as long as there are questions, fear will remain, because the most fundamental human fear is that of the unknown.

A sneezing of witches is a collective noun I invented, to complement my favourites in the real world: the tower and the crossing, both of which come later. For now, with all these witches now exorcised from my head – and with others sure to join their sisters – I had room in there to ponder an overriding question: Where do the witches go?

Most socially anxious types don’t venture out much (it scares them), but the night holds a comfort for me. If I can’t see so much of my world, there’s less for my inner agoraphobic to fear. It’s counter-intuitive and a paradox, given that humans are meant to fear the unknown (and the unseen). I can only think it’s the horror writer in me, finding a comfort zone.

Aside from our fear of the unknown as a species, the greatest individual terror is to be witness to the degradation and dehumanisation of our loved ones, and horror has as many tropes as witches have curses, limited only by my imagination.

For the protection of my family and close friends, I didn’t go on the witch hunt; I sent one of them instead. My reasoning was that whoever went wouldn’t be killed horrifically before everyone else’s eyes. I still had the issue of me only having a one in several chance of being the one dispatched in true horror story denouement style.

The identity of the person dispatched on the witch hunt is irrelevant for the current narrative, and anonymity increases the jeopardy. The longer whomever is out there, the more time I have to make sure no-one I love gets killed. None of them can write like me though, so I’ll continue in the first person for continuity while I think of plot devices.

You might expect my witch hunt to take place in a dark woods or an old house, but that would be a cliché, so I brought the scary places here, into the studio. I put the kettle on, and was about to conclude that witches were merely the invention of horror writers and skewed local legend, then something got up my nose.

I felt the tell-tale sensation of an invader on my nasal lining and tried to sniff the alien back, but that just agitated the thing. It felt like a tiny dot with legs, scuttling around the back of my nose where my brain comes out. I think it shot some sort of beam, because – like I’d been tasered – I suddenly tensed up and threw my head back in spasm. I managed to fish out a dead ghost (a handkerchief) from my pocket, so that I didn’t offend the rest of the room with what was coming: “Getchoo fuckin’ Bastet”.

Bastet is a name I picked up from a cat once. It was a refugee, escaped from Erwin Schrödinger’s mind experiments, who popped in and spoke to me on the Babel fish over a glass of milk and some sardines on toast. She told me that Bastet was a cat-headed woman and a goddess worshipped by the ancient Egyptians. She also mentioned something about mankind needing cats 3000 years ago, and that we’ll need them again soon. In the interim, she said, thanks for all the fish.

I sipped my coffee as I sifted through the creepy places now filling the room, but still there was no witch. Then another twitch of the nose. “Me bitchin’ innit,” apparently straight out of Jamaica. And I guess I did make her: A curse is a wish by another name, so as I cursed my sneeze, she appeared.

Me bitchin’ innit?” My words echoed, as a bird began to materialise in the chair opposite my spot on the sofa (marked by a stripey cushion, it has the best line of view to the TV and everything is within easy reach (apart from the kitchen)).

She had wings at first, as I heard my words repeated in a slightly croaky voice, like that of a mynah bird. Or a witch: a slender, dark-robed woman with dreadlocks and a crook nose, and skinny black legs protruding beneath her plumage.

They (witches) don’t look like they do in the usual imagined way, and how they’re portrayed in film and literature, at least mine didn’t as she altered form. Mine now looked exactly like someone I know very well and whom I care about very much. If I use that shape-shifting doppelgänger, it’s only a small leap for the reader to place themselves in my position, to imagine themselves and their own nearest and dearest. There are only a finite number of plots, but an infinite way to write them.

Age and gender are interchangeable and the relationship itself as specific as the viewer. It’s as unique and individual as it is personal, so it’s all the more unsettling and surreal when you hear something from someone you didn’t expect (a bit like your nan calling you a cunt, or you calling your nan one).

We thought this might make things easier for you,” she said.

Who’s we,” I wondered, “and what things?”

Your curse, and all of us who’ll watch over you to make sure you keep up your end of the bargain.”

I don’t know what it is yet.”

All in good time,” she said, “such a platitude Steve. You really need to stop writing things like that.”

I can go back and change it.”

Too late, already done.” She adjusted her angle in the chair, now aiming her knees at me. I tried to file Basic Instinct in the back of my mind. “You thought it, Steve. You created another world when you had that thought, so you had to write it down. That world exists now and can’t be undone.”

The theory of fictional realism posits that everything which is possible has already happened. Because of the (to all intents) infinite nature of the universe (or multiverse) it stands to reason, by law of averages, that everything has happened somewhere in that vastness before now. Somewhere out there are worlds where Depeche Mode had more than enough, and another where you can hang with MC Hammer and he lets you touch things. Now there was a world where I’d flogged an already dead horse, and in doing so just wrote another cliché.

You see,” she said, “a shark with lots of pilot fish hanging around underneath it.”

I can imagine, yes.”

And,” she continued, “you see a dog with fleas.” Again, I imagined. “And,” she went on, “you see vultures and hyenas, eating a rotting carcass?” The upward inflection suggested she’d finished by posing a question.

I can see all of those things,” I replied, “in my mind.”

That be some of your friends, and that be your Christmas past, present and future.”

I didn’t have time to collect that thought before she went on:

You see,” she started again, “you see a herd of elephants. They don’t forget and they mourn their dead.” She sniffed. “And you see a tower of giraffes, and a crossing of zebras.” I knew them as collective nouns. “Some of dem, they not be your family.”

I assumed that was the curse, to be forever burdened with those thoughts, the ultimate upshot of which would be me topping myself (I tried that before and it doesn’t work the way I tried). But that wasn’t all anyway.

Your curse,” she rattled some bracelets dramatically, “is as it always has been, living with the guilt of a sober mind, which you’ve not extinguished by swapping the blood in your arteries for alcohol. Instead, that fire and venom transplanted to your pen when your mouth was silenced and you found yourself with no live audience. Now you live alone, on the bank of the river of White Ace flowing by, and every day like a struggling escapologist, when your keys are in your mouth.

You made a wish, perhaps upon a binary star, so you are cursed. Your mind won’t stop creating and imagining, so you don’t sleep. There’s a spell on you which compels you to write those thoughts, for fear that if you stop, you will surely die, because that will be your spirit escaping. Your curse, should you decide to accept it…” Then as I pondered, “Too late, it’s already written innit.” 

So here I am, the sole survivor of that encounter on my planet, having just saved the lives of those who sometimes don’t notice me, by being the one in the story, and I’m forever under a witches’ spell. Cursed to confront my thoughts daily, and my only escape to write and share. Because if I stop, everyone dies. Deus ex machina.

Everyone else sleeps at night, untroubled by dark places of the mind. None of them can write like me anyway.

Fenella 2

A cannabis production, brought to you by the writing prompt ‘Sneeze’.

An elephant plugged into the wall

THE WRITER’S LIFE

If there’s something more disconcerting than footsteps approaching your door late at night, it’s hearing the sound of a key in the lock. It could be someone returning keys I’d lost, and their excuse for letting themselves in, that it was the easiest way to be sure they had the right address. That’s potentially a psychopath killer I just allowed to walk into my home, just with my imagination (I wonder if many other people have such thoughts). It started with a writing prompt: ‘A knock at the door’…

Elephant butt

In real life there’s rarely more than a waste of time at my internal door (the outside one has a bell), but I sometimes wish I could turn the door off like my phone. Like the rest of the social tenants in the building, my main income is from disability allowance (that’s what it’s called when you have mental health issues). Yet I seem to be the only one who has things, or rather, who makes things last on a budget, which is then messed up because I’m always being asked for baccy, money (and even food) by those who’ve run out. Anything for a quiet life, but if only that door wasn’t there.

A Do Not Disturb or Fuck Off sign would be redundant, as it’d be ignored. They always turn up at the most inopportune moments, just as I’m cooking or eating. They’re not to know of course, but it’s like they have a radar. I’d give them x-ray specs, but then they’d see the other reasons why I sometimes don’t go to the door. Short of installing an electrified Braille panel, there’s no way to repel the ignorant and illiterate. There’s no point ignoring the knock, because they’ll only come back later. Sometimes they do, when they’ve run out of what I gave them. That’s when they get told where to go (after I’ve closed the door on them, and I chant voodoo incantation as they walk away).

Voodoo magic works in the quantum universe, as that’s where it’s drawn from in the first place: Every single one of us is connected to everything else in the universe through quantum entanglement (sub-atomic particles, ripped apart at the moment of The Big Bang, which retain a quantum link to their partner, over the vast distances of the cosmos). If you’re connected to that ‘spirit world’, you can use your connectivity with things to impart wishes on them, otherwise known as a spell or a curse.

In a future world of my imagining, we’ll live in houses made of nano-blocks: These are microscopic machines, which can change shape and form. The upshot is that your entire home can be changed with a gesture.

Imagine if you will, a single-room living pod (this is comfortable universal housing, in a world of over-population) which can be changed into any other room. During the day, you might work in your home office, then make it more of a living space when you finish for the evening. You touch your office chair and push it gently into the middle of the room, as it changes into a sofa. You swipe your desk and it becomes a coffee table. Press the back wall and a kitchen appears, and so on. Then later it can become a bedroom, and all the time you can create new furniture, change it and move it around on a whim. A different home every day. In that world, I’d remove problems of the door with a swift swipe of the hand.

For now I’m still in this room, albeit with a stranger I’ve just invited into my imagination, which makes them real, and host to other stories. I’ve been on a freestyle ramble around my virtual life and worlds, remembering places I wrote before, where I might show my new guest around.

Perhaps we’ll dine out at August Underground’s, or maybe print a pizza. We could invite some local cats and dogs round and plug in the Babel fish, or take a trip to London. Or we might just talk into the night, before one of us kills the other, or we think of more things we could do together.

There’s always an elephant in this room, and that’s me, recently climbing the walls with no-one to talk to and writer’s block. The elephant plugged back in, and there was a knock on the door.

Wearing a sieve like a helmet

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Although I’m (not over but) dealing with a few issues in my real life, I’ve still been struggling to write. The real world issues are the ongoing personal lives of loved ones (friends and family), those of the world at large, and the ones in my head. With so much to write about, I’ve struggled to know where to start, or started writing and found myself in a land of digression. But I digress. I’ve found a solution. It’s something I’ve had for ages, but which I’d forgotten about.

Pinhead LegoPinhead (centre): Head like a sieve

Salvation came indirectly from a kindred spirit, another blogger commenting on my last post. I felt empathy, as I was reminded how the universe can answer you if you ask for something, and I read Annother Voice | Unsilenced. That moment of quantum entanglement was what reminded me of the thing I’d lost: Not empathy or universal connectivity, but a book.

Like other writers, that blogger often uses writing prompts, an exercise I’ve rarely undertaken since I first got into writing on a home study course. I’ve always preferred writing freehand, in a notebook always about my person, or at my desk, just seeing what comes out. That’s where most of my fiction starts life, but writing about life can be difficult: It’s that paradox of having too much to say in my head.

I’ve had to compartmentalise my mind (again), so that all I can’t easily write about (the complicated and the not finished), I’ll think about some more first. What’s left is fiction ideas, plots and outlines in one pile, and other freehand notes in another. Then, like my mental health labels, I’ll pin those memos in my head and try to make sense of it all (like Hellraiser with Post-Its).

Pinhead Post It

Still though, I find there’s so much from my mind in those notes that it’s hard to know where to start. That’s where the book came in.

I first noticed 642 Things to Write About in a book store when I was out with my children, and immediately I dismissed it. As the name suggests, it’s 642 ideas about things to write. But I can come up with ideas from my own imagination; that’s where my stories come from. I thought The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto had quite some front, publishing a book of mainly blank pages, with suggestions for things to write about at the top of each. They were charging people money to write their book. So I bought a copy.

The impulse to buy came with a simple thought: 42, which always gives rise to other thoughts. These may be just 642 ideas, but they’re those of other writers. There are only a finite number of plots, but an infinite number of stories which can be written. Each copy of 642 Things sold – if filled by writing freehand – would be a unique volume. I thought I could get quite into that.

Even though I have a fertile imagination, there’s something challenging and refreshing about writing something suggested by someone else. I liked to think those writers at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto might be interested to see what others made of their ideas (in fact, I’ve been tempted in the past to ask another writer to take one of my ideas, then for us to write two completely different stories). Then I forgot about it.

The book and the beginning of my 642 Things got lost in my real life, just as I was lost in my inner third world and my thoughts, so that I forgot my virtual life and writing. It was the perfect storm. And then that other voice came along, reminding me of writing prompts, and that I had a whole book of them. I guess that prompted me to write a blog post about writing prompts, a foreword to my own 642 Things, some of which I’ll share and a few may become stories.

The best prompt came from another writer and blogger, a kindred spirit who connected the dots without realising, when I didn’t know what to write. Sometimes we wonder if anyone’s reading us, and I’m glad I read that other voice.

I’m the cracked actor with much on my mind, wishing to escape. Blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light, like umbrellas in the night: Full of holes where the rain gets in, but the holes are small so the rain is thin.