Silicon Fiction

August 27, 2007

Why I can’t write fiction.

Filed under: Diary — Chris Neal @ 7:21 am

I love the process and craft of actually writing. The typing, correcting mistakes, editing drafts to make the narrative more concise and punchy. But what I seem to have a problem with is thinking up the story I want to write. I read novels and marvel at the way the author has created a fictional world out of thin air, with characters, a believable setting and an intriguing plot, and I think to myself: I could never do that.


I recently took a short course on writing fiction, and in it you had to do several writing exercises where you were told what to write about: describe a setting, a particular kind of conflict shown in dialogue, etc. I found this no trouble at all and quite enjoyed it, but I think this was because it was part of the course activities, so I knew that this piece of writing would be short-lived and valid within its context, and that it had to be done in order to complete the course successfully, but that’s as far as it went.


I now feel that the only way I can actually write something new every day is to continue that practice of picking individual themes, characters, places out of the air and writing a short piece about them, but something is stopping me. It’s as if I don’t want to begin writing something that I know will be discarded as an experiment because I view it as a waste of time. If I sit down and do all the the thinking and planning that a good piece of fiction deserves, then I want the result to be read, to survive, to live forever. It’ll be different when I get ‘The Idea’, I think to myself. One day I’ll have my Eureka moment; I’ll know what my novel is to be about and I’ll work like a man possessed from that moment on, the creation consuming me, until I have my blockbuster, prize-winning debut novel. I’ll be an overnight success, a millionaire, I’ll be invited on chat shows.




Every successful author I have read about reveals themself to be industrious, experimenting, drafting, re-drafting, trying things, throwing them away. The words you read are the tip of an enormous literary iceberg, nine tenths of which is not fit (in their eyes) for human consumption. In short, the novelists I admire got where they are today by doing precisely the ‘donkey work’ that I am so studiously avoiding.


My problem is made worse by my tendency to fence-sit. It was the same growing up. I was never one of those adolescents who could easily answer the question, “What do you want to be when you leave school?” I couldn’t understand those who so confidently and assuredly replied, “A nurse”, “A vet”, “A lawyer”. How could they close down their options so early on in life? Think of all the possible vocations and careers they are denying themselves by closing their minds to all other than their single childhood ambition. I have never felt strongly enough about anything to allow it so completely into my life, to let it push other aspects of life out of the way. It’s the same with professional sportsmen/women. In order to attain the high levels of performance they need to qualify for the Olympic Games, or whatever lies at the top of their chosen sport, they have to deny themselves so much: training when their friends are off having a good time, early nights and water when their friends are drinking and partying. I have never been able to relate to this single-mindedness. I find the same problem now when I’m sitting at my computer trying to think of a story idea. It’s not that I can’t think of one – quite the opposite. I can think of many, but feel unable to choose one to actually plan out and write because it would mean discarding all the others. So I stew in this soup of revolving ideas. They fly in slow circles round my head and I sit there, waiting, for dog to eat dog, for the weak ones to fall by the wayside of their own accord, for the fittest of them to survive. Then I would be able to write it, because someone – or something – else had made the choice for me.


August 1, 2007


Filed under: Flash Fiction — Chris Neal @ 9:41 am

Helen’s corner was still her corner even though she’d had the lounge to herself for two years now. On the small mahogany table to the left of her chair and illuminated by the yellow glow from the wide-shaded standard lamp behind were her reading glasses, with frames of clear pale-pink-tinted plastic and large, round lenses. These rested on the historical romance novel she had almost finished. On the small wall shelf above the table stood a framed colour photograph of her with John and their new grandchild Justin. It had been taken in the hospital, a year before John’s death. He had been thrilled at becoming a grandfather and had doted on Justin during the first few months, until he was no longer able to recognise the baby. Next to this was a pile of opened correspondence — bills, letters, junk mail, catalogues — that Helen would deal with when she got around to it. On the carpet under the table, her craft bag contained the beginnings of the yellow cardigan she was knitting for Justin’s new brother or sister. She was half-watching a game show on the old fourteen-inch television set, which stood on a new-looking mahogany cabinet in the corner. On the shelf below was the video recorder and two blank tapes, still in their cellophane. The volume was always set lower now that she had the remote control. The red brick fireplace was John’s domain, so it had lain cold since his death, replaced in Helen’s world by a portable electric fan heater which was humming hot, dusty air at her slippered feet. One duty she had taken over from him was the winding of the clock: a large, heavy wooden clock with a round, cream-coloured face — a wedding present that had stood officially in the centre of the mantelpiece, marking the rhythm of their lives for the last forty-seven years. She had felt like a thief as she opened the small wooden box on the mantel and took out the key for the first time, but the prospect of this room without the constant reassurance from the low, stately tick-tock was unthinkable. The rest of the room lay unchanged and untouched: John’s armchair with it’s greasy stain where his oily hair used to rest now lacking purpose, the plain wooden fold-out table in the bay window with its small pile of newspapers and three straight-backed wooden chairs, the glass-fronted dark wood bookcase next to the hall door with its full set of encyclopaedias, unopened since they’d been pressured into buying them by a man at the door twelve years ago. All of it redundant, yet silently admonishing Helen to leave it be. Whenever her daughter came round with Justin, they would use the dining room, which now looked more like a playroom. The game show finished and a commercial offered loans for the over-50s. Helen’s tea had gone cold and her eyelids started to droop.

Black & White

Filed under: Flash Fiction — Chris Neal @ 8:26 am

I’d said I would come over to keep Jimmy company for Terry’s first solo appearance on The Tonight Show at ten o’clock. When I got there at eight it was obvious that Jimmy had been drinking for hours. He was wearing grey jogging bottoms and a white vest under a gold silk dressing gown, which was hanging off one shoulder not quite meeting in the middle. He looked like a bag of showbiz washing. I sat down on the sofa and he poured me a whisky (he had no ice) that it would take me all evening to drink. He flopped down in his chair like a child who’s just been told they can’t go to the party. As I dutifully listened to him ranting on, his eyes fixed on the TV screen, my own eyes took in the mementos around the room that reflected my relationship with the duo over the last fifteen years. Black & White had been performing since I was a schoolboy and were already national icons when we met, but I like to think their continued success into old age was thanks to my scripts. Maybe it was, at least in part, but the two had also got to a point where they were untouchable in peoples’ hearts; fans would still watch re-runs of their Christmas specials on TV no matter how good or bad the latest gags were. Their classic sketches were tattooed onto the nation’s funny bone.

There’s a vulgar opulence and sparkle in celebrities’ houses. Life is another stage from which they have to project themselves to get the attention they crave so desperately. The curtains covering Jimmy’s lounge window and hiding us from the world outside were redder and more velvety than yours or mine could ever be, his lampshades more theatrical, his doorknobs more golden. The collection of ornaments, awards, and the framed showbiz photos that covered the wall were all placed to invite fawning comments from visitors. Jimmy’s world was like a theatre: the public areas bright and glamorous, but backstage it was dark .

I came out of this reverie as Jimmy snorted and poured himself another whisky. The theme music for The Tonight Show had begun to play . The break-up had been messy, bitter, and inevitable. They’d been at each others’ throats for years, each claiming to be “carrying” the other. Yet despite their well-publicised mutual loathing, here was Jimmy, watching his ex-partner plugging his autobiography on a chat show. Terry White was chatting to the host about his book and the break-up, but he was no longer the long-suffering straight man the public knew and loved. He was like an inflatable model of himself with a slow puncture.

In last week’s Variety editorial, Black & White had been called The Siamese Twins: life together unnaturally and uniquely intertwined, life apart impossible.

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