Trust: Anatomy of a creative writing first draft

oculousThe other day I posted an old creative writing exercise from university and a friend helpfully responded by setting me a new one. He gave me a list of titles to choose from – I chose Trust. He also stipulated that the main character be female, and that the story be 1000 words long (I failed to stay within this limit because I’m a terrible gobshite).

This is the result, and it’s largely rubbish. For a start, the whole ‘game’ thing is pretty vague. That’s simply because I don’t really know anything about the kinds of games I have my protagonist playing. It’s not specific enough to be convincing to a gamer, but not general enough to be readily comprehensible to a non-gamer. And the whole premise is flimsy. I think it can work in principle, and I’m interested in the subject matter, but it needs a proper foundation and some research.

And the pace is all wrong. I didn’t think about structure or pace at all, and I noticeably gallop to the end from about halfway through. This draft is the equivalent of me dumping a pile of clay onto a wheel and maybe thumping it a couple of times in the middle to turn it into a rudimentary bowl. It is very, very far from a viable piece of crockery, and it may never be.

I seem to have about a trillion creative writers in my online network of friends, former colleagues, and people with whom I have some tangential professional or personal connection but have never met, so I figured somebody might be interested in seeing how another amateur writer tackles a first, second, third, etc draft.

Trust

She had always tried to make her avatars authentic, almost to the point of obsession. She could easily spend hours adjusting the bridges of digital noses and hair tones to get as close as possible to her IRL appearance – slim, tall, chin-length mousey hair, high forehead, large brown eyes, a small overbite that she grew to like as she entered her 30s. This dedication to fidelity had never caused her a problem before – there were plenty of female avatars in online multiplayer games, and most of them looked a lot more promiscuous than hers did.

But something changed when virtual reality multiplayer gaming became widespread. She had read about a phenomenon called Player Avatar Identity, which described the way that people who play games come to identify with the characters they control on the screen – not just flinching when their they fall off a building or get hit, but actually taking on characteristics like temperament, confidence, and so on. She recognised the phenomenon in a semi-abstract way, which is to say she supposed it was true, if she narrowed her eyes to let only the supporting evidence through, but when everybody started playing her game as a shared virtual reality space, with body tracking cameras and specialised controllers to erode, as much as possible, the distinction between authentic and simulated experience, Player Avatar Identify became a simple concrete fact, so obvious as not to be worth mentioning.

That was when her problems started. Male characters, generally muscled, or gaunt and cloaked, or lithe and blonde, would approach her avatar and ask her personal questions, like where she lived, or how old she was, or they would simply leer. If she encountered a pair or a group of other players, her chances of being leered at increased exponentially. She switched off voice comms, rendering her importuners dumb, and while she wouldn’t have said that it was worse than the alternative, it wasn’t necessarily much better. Glowing gauntlets, claw-like mechanical hands, tentacles, and talons would brush against her, groping at her breasts and groin. Sometimes they were all around her, jostling beseechingly like cursed spirits. Sometimes a single avatar would follow her all evening, through villages, woods, mountain passes. Those ones gave her nightmares. More often than not when she turned around there would be somebody there, and once she had even looked down to find a wolf-headed hero lying on the ground and peering up her green knee length skirt, his right paw limp and glitching on the ground beside him. She tried to picture the man on his bedroom floor, his right controller momentarily discarded so that he could put that hand to better use.

Before VR, her meticulous ordinariness was like an invisibility cloak, but in VR, which was steadily attaining parity with the real world in terms of the amount of time people spent in its infinitely elastic invented worlds, the humility of her appearance was disarming. It wasn’t just that she looked ordinary by the standards of her game, where female characters – of every fantasy species – were improbably proportioned and highly sexualised. It was the obvious time and artistry that had gone into making herself ordinary. She looked authentic. Nobody else did.

The activity that surrounded her was impossible to miss, and soon the leering avatars that attended much of her playing time were challenged by a band of defenders – predominantly female characters who would surround her and ward off unwelcome attention by expending valuable spells and risking high value weapons in single combat. Even though she preferred to play the game passively, only occasionally killing non-player characters for crafting materials or to complete quests, she felt compelled to join in the fights. She enjoyed the first couple of hours of hacking, stabbing, dying, returning. For the first time in weeks she put voice comms on, but there was only a jumble of shrill voices, so she switched it off again. Over the course of several evenings she exhausted her virtual fortune on weapons and spells, and grew tired of the vitiating experience of endless anonymous combat.

She started running away from the fights, and her swelling band of supporters followed her – through the villages, into the citadel, their number incongruous in the traditionally peaceful complex of vaulting stone temples that the community had unofficially designated a safe zone. She made the mistake of revealing her Twitter handle (@MorningMaddy) to a member of her uninvited entourage, and within minutes there was a fitful, unbufferably abundant flow of notifications in the bottom-right corner of her HUD. She guessed that about 80% of them were positive, the rest vitriolic. Some of them contained links to threads on Reddit about her, or even articles on enthusiast sites. One argued that she had become a role model because she had taken a stand against unhealthy body images in gaming. Another argued that her famously authentic avatar exposed the paucity of alternative voices – far from being a feminist icon, she was the embodiment of a narrow, white, slim, privileged demographic. The mentions were closer to 50/50 that day. One read, “I swear I’m gonna get my niece a @MorningMaddy doll when someone starts making them!”

She felt sick, and tweeted, “Sorry guys, this attention, not for me, going offline for a few, peace XXX”

Her entourage responded by disbanding and then changing their avatars to resemble hers as closely as they could manage – in most cases, the differences were barely perceptible. The game didn’t allow more than one player to use the same handle, so they improvised: M4ddy, Madd7, M4dd7, Mad-dy, M-addy… Recognising that she craved anonymity, her fans tried to give it to her by becoming a vast sisterhood of clones, among whom she would be camouflaged.

The result was catastrophic. Like an unwisely counselled celebrity, she was rapidly overexposed, and the audience turned against her. Alongside the tribute avatars appeared parodies. She came across a copy of her avatar wearing an SS armband, and another with a square moustache – references to term “feminazi”, she supposed. Most of the parodies were more lighthearted, dressing her likeness in superhero costumes or animal onesies. Soon the original facsimiles returned to their original forms, and the parodies disappeared in turn. Her Twitter mentions slowed to a trickle.

It was a relief that the attention had subsided, though she had somehow produced a legacy. Inspired by her brief fame, others followed her in trying to make their own avatars authentic. A Twitter mention pointed her to a new Wikipedia page describing the phenomenon of ‘bodyporting’. More and more avatars started to take on a realistic appearance, and, inevitably, some players approached bodyporting with religious devotion, making adjustments every day to reflect the clothes they were wearing, the length of their hair, any noticeable facial blemishes, and so on. The most dedicated proponents published photographs on Reddit to verify the authenticity of their adjustments.

As the (uncredited) originator of bodyporting, she felt a nagging obligation to update her own avatar. She lifted her VR goggles away from her face and felt the air on the clammy skin around her eyes, blinking in the unsteady light of her office. She removed her headphones and silence rushed in. She must have been playing for 8 hours. She looked at her watch – 10. On the way to the full length mirror in her bedroom she attempted to tidy herself up, flattening the front of her t-shirt with her hand, unrolling her sleeves. She drew her curtains and then stood in the sterile winter daylight.

She barely knew what she was seeing. Her reflection, dull-eyed, stooped for a moment before she hastily straightened her spine, defied simple evaluation as competing modules of her mind put forward alternative interpretations. Her belly was just visible through her t-shirt – or was it? She turned slightly and it blended back into the hang of the fabric, so that she was slim again. She opened her eyes widely, adjusted the position of her head and the expression on her face until she was happy with what she saw. Of course, she wasn’t properly dressed, and she hadn’t washed in a couple of days – that explained her disappointing appearance. Unflattering clothes, waxy skin, lank hair. She ran a hand over the soft swell of her midriff, mentally mitigating her belly with crude calculations about her last meal and her last visit to the toilet.

But the reality of her appearance could only be manipulated so much. She didn’t feel like stepping on the scales, but she was heavier than she had been two or three months before. Fine – she could make adjustments. She had spent too long in VR, she now realised. A few weeks of sensible eating and a bit of exercise would restore her to her previous state.

Until then, of course, she had a duty to bodyport herself as she was now. She sat at her computer and slid her VR goggles back on, feeling herself relax as the bright, interminable outside world was replaced by the comforting smallness of her game. She navigated to the customisation menu and started to make adjustments to her avatar, which looked ludicrously attractive in comparison with the woman she had just spent a despondent five minutes looking at in the mirror. She filled her character out, favouring the hips, buttocks, and breasts over the midriff and face. She inflated these too, but less, and she didn’t do much to her face – just an increase of 3 points on the 100 point scale of cheek plumpness. The overall result was that her avatar now looked conspicuously more beautiful than before, but she saved her edits and headed out anyway, figuring she had made adjustments that were broadly consistent with the changes that her real world appearance had undergone. Her mentions picked up.

@MorningMaddy U R so hawt!

@MorningMaddy Love how you rock those curves missy x

@MorningMaddy Whats ur secret ?!

She travelled to the citadel to be left alone and watched her mentions file into the pane on her HUD, replying at random with thankyous, and then, as she grew more confident and the memory of her incident at the mirror this morning faded, with nuggets of advice about diet and exercise, being careful never to imply too strongly that she had dieted or exercised herself. Outside, the winter sky was dark blue by 4pm and the streetlamps shot harsh white light through the blinds in her bedroom, which competed in the dull, still, musty space with the glow from the yellow ceiling lamp downstairs, spreading up the stair wall. The house was silent but for a dripping tap, the noise of the cars passing by outside, and the clacking of her keyboard, and just out of hearing, belly noises, shallow breaths, and other unavoidable sounds.

An awkward thing that happened to me once

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Who’s got two thumbs…

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How to make orange and ginger marmalade

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When I took my daughter to see the film Paddington, we had to leave early because she was afraid of Nicole Kidman. If my daughter had any sense, she would have insisted on leaving long before Nicole Kidman shows up. She would have run screaming from the cinema during the opening scene, when Paddington slides down a chute into a cauldron of boiling marmalade. He spends the rest of the film in remarkably good health, given that he effectively napalmed himself.

Making your own marmalade may seem like an unsufferable middle class softy trait, but it’s actually very risky, like an Indiana Jones adventure or an assault on one of the many death stars. Happily, it culminates in an elevated version of marmalade that makes the stuff on the shelves in Tesco look like garbage, and the people who buy it like utter imbeciles.

This recipe is adapted from Delia Smith’s – I’ve taken the sweetness down a bit, and added ginger.

Cooking time: 4-5 hours probably

Ingredients

900g Seville oranges (about 6 or 7)

2.25 litres of water

1 lemon

1.7kg granulated sugar

1 piece of fresh ginger (I don’t know how much exactly – just a bit. One stalk, or lump, or whatever it’s called. A tumour of ginger. You know how fresh ginger comes in knobbly lumps? One of those. The bigger you get, the more gingery it will make your marmalade. I don’t know – do what you want. But don’t forget to peel it.)

6 or 7 pieces of crystallised ginger in syrup

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Method

Cut the oranges and the lemon in half and juice them into a big pan, using a sieve to collect all the pips and mush. Put all the pips and mush onto a muslin.

Cut the peels in half again, and then chop them as finely as you like. Finely chopped peel gives less texture but also less trouble, whereas thick peel can be a nuisance to spread – particularly if your marmalade has a loose set.

You might want to examine your hands for cuts at this point, as the skins of six oranges and a lemon contain citric acid, and if you have any skin abrasions you’re basically inviting every molecule of that burning acid to a pain party on your nerve endings.

Finely chop the crystallised and fresh ginger and put them in the pan. You can grate the ginger if you like, but it’s quite a fibrous root and grating it leaves you with intact fibres, which look like hairs. They don’t affect the flavour at all, but whenever you serve your marmalade to anybody you’ll feel obliged to warn them that they may discover objects that look like hairs, even though they definitely aren’t – although, if you’re really honest, any given hair-like object that the recipient of your marmalade discovers COULD technically be a hair. You can’t rule it out – it’s not like you wore a hairnet or anything. I would just chop the ginger and avoid the subject of hairs altogether.

Make a little bindle out of the mush and pip-filled muslin and suspend it in the pan. You can do this by tying it to a wooden spoon and resting the spoon across the top of the pan, but I prefer to thread the end of the muslin through the handle of the pan I use, making sure that there are no stray flaps of fabric anywhere near the flame. Your pan might not have a handle though. You’ll figure it out.

Pour the water into the pan, bring it all to a gentle boil, and simmer until the peel goes soft. It takes 2-3 hours, depending on how thickly you cut it (and how soft you want it). I find the best way to test it is to scoop out a bit of peel and cut it with the edge of a spoon. If it cuts easily all the way through, bingo.

Once the peel is soft, take out the bindle and rest it on a plate. At this point you are at a fork in the road. In front of you is a ball of boiling mush, and you need to squeeze the pectin out of it. You can either leave the muslin to cool and squeeze it safely and comfortably a few hours later, or you can follow my example and impatiently compress the red hot muslin for a millisecond at a time and then drop it and silently scream in pain, over and over again, pausing occasionally to dab the tears from your eyes, until you’ve scraped off all of the cloudy orange mush that extrudes through the weave of the muslin and dumped it in the pan.

After running your hand under the cold tap and quietly weeping for 15 minutes or so, weigh out the sugar and pour that into the pan, stirring until the marmalade is clear. At this point you might want to review your safety protocols, because the substance in your pan will not only burn you but it will also stick to you, like a flaming blanket of terrible glue. Evacuate the kitchen area, ensuring that no children or cats are within 50 metres of the hob.

Crank the heat up to maximum, and when the marmalade starts to boil set a timer for 15 minutes.

Pop a saucer in the freezer.

And now the most important bit of all. When the timer goes off, take out the saucer and spoon a bit of marmalade onto it. When the marmalade has cooled, nudge it with the tip of a teaspoon. If it wrinkles, take the marmalade off the boil. If it doesn’t, try again in five minutes.

Ah, but what is a wrinkle? Not much is the answer. You want to take your marmalade off the boil at about the point that it forms a sort of half-hearted mucous globule when pushed. It needs to be the next point on the spectrum along from liquid. If its consistency even vaguely resembles that of the marmalades you can buy in shops, you’ve gone too far and might as well throw your afternoon’s work down the toilet or feed it to a pig.

You may think you want it to resemble marmalade from shops, but a) marmalade from shops tends to be too firm, and you’re just too ignorant to realise it at the moment, and b) it’s eventually going to set more firmly than it does on the saucer. The important thing is to hold your nerve and take it off the boil before it looks ready.

Pour it into jars, giving it a stir to prevent the peel from drifting to the top.

And then, well, just look at it. Look at it there. See how smug it is, judging you as it glows in those fancy Kilner jars (£1.75 from Ikea).

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A very old writing exercise called Fireworks

One of the things I want to use this blog for is to give me a useful, mildly discipline-encouraging destination for the fiction that I want to get back into writing. But I haven’t done any yet, I’m just going to dump something old up here as a sort of marker.

I wrote this in 2002, for a creative writing module at university. I quite liked it at the time, and I still mostly like it, though – as I generally find with prose I wrote when I was much younger – it also makes me cringe.

In the spirit of transparency, however, I won’t touch it. Maybe I’ll pop a revised version on here one day.

Fireworks

I look up; there’s a corrugated awning over the platform, covered with specks of moss and twigs that I can only just make out through the translucent plastic. Sparrows patter against it, then flutter away into the trees across the track, then, after a while, flutter back.

“What time’s the train, again?” he says.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“Ten o’ clock. Five past. Look at the board.” I watch him go. He walks half way to the wall where the board is mounted, then stops and comes back. He looks at his watch.

“It’s quarter-to now,” he says. “Fifteen minutes to decide.”

“I’ve decided.”

A breeze passes through the station, ruffling his hair. He plunges his hands into the pockets of his mangy suede jacket. I can remember when he bought the jacket, at Marie Curie, or Oxfam. Or maybe I bought it, and gave it to him – it was on the hook by my front door for a while. I was glad to get rid of it. I can’t remember who bought the jacket; only choosing it; rubbing the thick musty suede between my finger and thumb.

“Where are you staying, again?” he asks.

“I don’t know.”

“On her floor, do you think?”

“She’ll let me share the bed.”

“A single bed? I thought you hated that. I thought you said you couldn’t sleep.”

“I’ll have to put up with it,” I say. “And anyway, Jacquie and I share a single bed.”

He sits down on the cold concrete and crosses his legs. He doesn’t speak for over a minute, and I wonder whether I will ever hear him speak again. Of course I will. I try to remember his last word to me. ‘Bed’?, ‘Her’?, ‘Sleep’? The yellow digits on the clock flap forward.

“What’ll I tell Jacquie?” he says.

“Whatever you want.”

“She always knew you’d do this, sooner or later.”

Something is bearing down on me – misgivings, remorse, I don’t know. I feel like I’m being crushed; that my ribs are going to snap. Soon I’ll be in London, surrounded by high buildings, looking up at a strip of white sky. I’ll work in a sandwich shop, and get drunk with her when I can, and wake up parched and dejected. But when I step off the train today and see her standing on the platform with a blue scarf wrapped around her neck and her hair heaped upon the blue scarf, it’ll be like drinking water when faint with thirst, and I’ll feel my head fizzing like a sparkler on bonfire night.

I have to sit down.

“You okay?”

“My chest is sore.” I rub my chest with the palm of my hand.

Through the bare trees across the track I can just make out the yellow and blue of the Jobcentre, and I feel a tiny, habitual satisfaction because it’s Saturday of the second week – only two days till I next sign on. Till I would have been signing on. It’s not the first time I’ve thought about this: I won’t tramp up Berwick high street at nine in the morning any more, chatting with my queue friends. Nor will I bomb down Ravensdowne hill on my bike at seven o’ clock to play pool at the Salmon. I pinch my brow. Jacquie will lie on the couch and watch TV, not moving, like she did when her mother moved out. I look across at him.

“Is that my jacket?”

I can tell he is affronted. “I don’t know,” he says. “Do you want it back or something?”

“No! For fuck’s sake! I was just asking.”

“It’s mine. You picked it, I bought it. You had a leather one.”

“Okay fine, I was just asking.” I sigh heavily, and run my hands through my hair and down the back of my head. The seconds flap onwards. I feel like my torso is in a vice.

So I stand up.

“Fuck it. Let’s go.”

“Where?”

“The White Horse.”

He laughs. The grip on my chest slackens.

I have £70 in my wallet that I was going to spend on the ticket. I had saved up. I sign on this Monday. I’ll buy Jacquie a box of chocolates from the newsagent, and spend the rest in The White Horse tonight, The Salmon tomorrow, and in the Co-op on Sunday; on a bumper bacon and egg-mayonnaise bloomer, so big that I have to eat it in two goes.

*

I once woke up with my head against an aeroplane window, looking out over Hong Kong, a hostess’s voice murmuring over the intercom. It was midnight, and against the black landscape Hong Kong glittered with colour; pink, blue, orange, green, red, like spilled fairylights, in stacks and swirls, over high billboards, around tall buildings, and in white clusters across the ground. Still bleary, I took the city for a firework display, and expected the lights to scatter and fade.

When they clung to the darkness I felt elation – awe. I could barely breathe. I pressed my face against the glass and shut out everything else until the moment we landed, and as I held my mother’s hand through the arrival hall I framed this half-dream, as if sewing it into fabric.

A representative encounter between two toddlers

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