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.

Advertisements

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.