Conscious vs. Unconscious: Rematch!

I had a doozy of a weird dream a couple of nights back, so I thought I’d bring back what is undoubtedly one of the easiest-to-write features in the history of this blog. Basically I describe two dreams, and you have to guess which one was the real dream, and which one I made up in my waking hours as a strange sort of creative writing exercise. Here goes!

Dream One – The Hobbit in the Nutri-Grain Hat

Dream where Beyond Studios were filming a version of The Hobbit starring me as Bilbo Baggins. We were about to shoot the scene with all the dwarves invading Bag End (which seemed to just be filmed at someone’s flat) when I suddenly decided Bilbo shouldn’t be bald, so I made the hasty suggestion that I should wear a hat made from a Nutri-Grain box, which for some reason everyone went along with. So we filmed the whole scene like that, and I thought it went quite well.

Later, I began to have doubts about the Nutri-Grain hat, thinking it might distract attention from what was going on in the scenes. I found a curly brown wig under my bed and considered suggesting that we should either re-film the Bad End scene with me wearing that instead, or the Nutri-Grain hat could be digitally replaced in post, or we could start the next scene with me discarding the hat so I didn’t have to wear it for too long. But I didn’t have the nerve to suggest any of these ideas, so we just went ahead and filmed the next scene with the Nutri-Grain hat still on, and me feeling increasingly guilty for possibly screwing up the whole film.

Dream Two – Rainy Day Skydiving Adventure

Dream where my podcast Rainy Day Adventure Club was on its seventy-fifth episode, and to celebrate I invited back a bunch of guests from the past. The format seemed to have changed. There was no discernible adventure – we were just sitting around chatting in a room that looked a bit like the weird restaurant at the end of IKEA. At one point I joked that this was the Quarter Quell of RDAC and all the guests would have to fight to the death like in The Hunger Games. Everyone laughed way more at this than seemed realistic, and I began feeling bad because I thought they were just humouring me, and had been all along. Angry about this, I punched several of the guests in the face.

Later, in a seemingly unrelated part of the dream, I was about to skydive out of a plane with some other people but the man who I had thought was our instructor kept making weird comments that made me think he wasn’t a real skydiving instructor. He would make some off-putting comment like this, then reassure me he definitely was a skydiving instructor, then immediately make another off-putting comment. Eventually I decided I didn’t want to skydive, and as soon as I said this the plane started plummeting towards the ground. Thankfully I woke up before it got there.

There you go! Which of those was a real dream I had recently? Oh, and the answer to last time’s is: Seasickness Tablets was the real dream. Well done to my brother James for getting that right! He knows me too well.

This blog, it is a-changin’

Not necessarily in a dramatic way, but it is a-changin’. For a start, I’ve finally filled in the “About” page and added a “Projects” page which provides easy access to all the creative stuff I’ve done that is currently available on the internet. This includes a few new projects which I will mention here in case you can’t be bothered tiring out your finger clicking all the way over to the new page I spent ages working on.

Rainy Day Adventure ClubFirstly, I haven’t properly talked about it here yet, but in September of 2014 I created a new podcast called Rainy Day Adventure Club, which I’d describe as a cross between a Dungeons and Dragons game, an audio version of Knightmare, a Choose Your Own Adventure book and something very silly indeed. There are nine episodes already, with more to come in the not too distant future. I’m rather proud of what my friends and I have done with it so far – it’s even family-friendly-ish, which is unlike us. If you’re interested, go and listen to some episodes in the archive to see if it’s your sort of thing.

ScarecrowSecondly, late last year I helped some of my more talented friends make a finger puppet version of the Wizard of Oz. It’s quite delightful, though decidedly NOT family-friendly. Definitely worth watching if you’re into irreverent and satirical twists on innocent subject matter. You can find the whole thing on YouTube here.

And there is more going on with my creative projects too, a lot more – an exciting whirlwind of stuff! – but I’ll save that for later posts. Hopefully there will be plenty of those in the near future, as I’m going to start using this blog as a hub for pretty much everything I’m doing. That will almost certainly still include complete garbage like this though, so don’t worry. Things won’t change too much around here.

Conscious vs. Unconscious! Fight! Fight! Fight!

For a while now, in a rather abstract, never-bothering-to-do-any-actual-research kind of way, I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between our conscious and unconscious minds. So as a creative exercise I decided to stage a little writing competition: me vs. my unconscious mind! I’m going to describe two dreams: one is a dream I have actually had, penned by my highly imaginative unconscious; the other is a fake dream I made up in my waking hours. See if you can guess which one is the real dream! Here we go!

Dream One – Crash Drink
I was in a supermarket a bit like Corstorphine Tesco. In the dream there was this Crash Bandicoot themed tropical fruit drink which came in ridiculously tall thin cans – called “two metre cans” because that’s how tall they were. (I think this was significant because that’s how tall Crash would be in real life.) Everyone loved this drink and was going on about how amazing it was, as if it was somehow going to change the world for the better. But it had just been banned or discontinued for some reason, and there was a profound sense of injustice and oppression around this, as if some dystopian government had needed to crush the drink before it started a revolution. When I got to the checkout with a few (now normal sized) cans, I was really worried that I would be arrested for even trying to buy it, but I made it out of the store without incident. I was happy about this, but also sad that the Crash drink would no longer be manufactured, and that some sort of hope for the world seemed to have been extinguished. There may also have been helicopters flying overhead at some point, which made the whole thing seem even more dystopian.

Dream Two – Seasickness Tablets
I was going on some sort of boat trip, and was trying to acquire some seasickness tablets before we set off (presumably to avoid a repeat of what I will only refer to as the Amsterdam incident). The first shop I tried was on the boat itself, and it claimed to sell seasickness tablets, but they looked more like weird sweets, and I didn’t trust that they actually were seasickness tablets. So I got off the boat and ended up in another shop, possibly the Boots near my house. All the staff somehow knew why I was there and laughed at me. I was a bit indignant for a minute, as it seemed perfectly reasonable that I should want to buy seasickness tablets, but eventually I realised their laughter was all in good fun. In fact it turned into a strangely heartwarming moment, where I felt accepted by them and by society as a whole.

There we go! Can you guess which dream was invented by my conscious mind, and which by my unconscious? And which one displays more imagination? That was a fun exercise, so I might do it again in the future, and when I do I will also tell you which of these was the real dream. Because it’s important that you know, you know?

Who is this guy?

A week ago I began working on a new book. It’s a collection of three short stories set in the same world as Project Snails, the massive fantasy novel I keep going on about (which is nearly finished but I’m letting it lie fallow to give myself a bit of perspective before I do my final round of edits and start trying to shove it down publishers’ throats). For the purposes of this blog I’ll call this new, smaller book Project Bitesize. The stories in it all follow the same character but are reasonably standalone – they have a bit of a noir flavour, and were conceived to be fun, light, fairly simple and relatively quick to write. What could go wrong?

I realised what could go wrong last Monday, the first day I worked on it full time. I had an outline for the first story, but as I began to write I discovered my outline was woefully inadequate. Even in writing the opening scene, which is primarily about setting up a mystery around a secondary character, it became painfully clear that the main character wasn’t pulling his weight. He was doing and saying whatever was necessary to advance the story, but had no particular agenda of his own. Halfway through the scene, I forced him to do something unexpected, in a crude attempt at turning him into a proper character, but in fact that had the opposite effect – he had subverted our expectations, yes, but in a way that made him even less understandable. There was no thread running through his words and actions to help readers, or me, to empathise with him.

At this point I started questioning everything about the project, particularly my own writing ability. How do you create an interesting and believable character? Suddenly I had no idea. I like to think there are at least a few examples in Project Snails, but I never followed any sort of formula to create them – they sort of grew in my head, over the course of many years and countless revisions of their story. When I started I didn’t know who they were – they were just (made up) names, each with a gender, age and arbitrary hair colour attached. From age 11 (I remember this because the youngest of my three main characters was slightly older than me when I began writing him) I spent years fumbling about, improvising a largely incoherent plot, and later abandoned more or less everything about the book aside from four or five characters and the fact that some of them board a ship quite near the beginning. So I was every bit as clueless then, I just didn’t know it. And doubt is certainly nothing new.

What’s thrown me is that it’s been so long since I wrote something completely new (the last major thing being the now dormant webseries Project Chippy back in 2011) that I’d kinda forgotten what to expect. After spending a couple of years writing characters I know inside out I forgot that there are such things as characters I don’t know. And the protagonist of Bitesize turned out to have no discernable personality at all. Why should he? I hadn’t given him any in my plan. I’d thought, maybe subconsciously, “Ah well, this story isn’t so much about him, it’s about the events he gets caught up in, and I’m sure I can write him to be just kind of generically charming and fun to go on a journey with”. How wrong I was.

Eventually I decided I’d have to shift the scene introducing the mystery back, and make the opening more about the main character – like how in A Study in Scarlet, the first couple of chapters are about Watson’s impressions of Holmes, before the titular case is introduced. And adding that scene has helped – I’m beginning to get a vague sense for the character of the main guy, and am enjoying building his tangled relationship with another recurring character, who was not even in the plan a week ago, but who has become absolutely central to the whole thing. I’ll probably work it all out in the end, though I’m coming to accept that the draft I’m writing now may turn out to be more an exercise in character-building than a publishable story.

If you want to take a painfully obvious lesson away from this post, try this one: if you want to write a story and you don’t know what your main character is like … um, you should probably fix that. I dunno. Despite having written a 200,000 word novel that I’m rather proud of, I sometimes feel I’m just learning for the first time what everyone else learned in their first creative writing class at primary school. Or perhaps writers simply have to relearn writing every time they start a new project?

Either way, I’m aiming to finish a draft of the first story by the end of this week, at which point I’ll reflect and decide what to do next, possibly in another blog post. It could be starting the second story, editing the first, going back to the more familiar territory of Snails, or sitting around watching Orange is the New Black and eating a whole bag of Mini Eggs. What mental state will I be in this time next week? Who can say? Never mind characters, sometimes I feel as if I’m the one I really don’t know.

Snails, Sirens, Scary Paintings, Singing Kettles

For this post I’m going to try out more of a journal format. Instead of rambling on for ages about one thing, I’ll ramble briefly about a bunch of fairly unrelated things. If it turns out too disjointed and pointless I won’t do it again – just mixing things up because that’s the kind of crazy guy I am.

I’ve been working on Project Snails for three solid weeks! Go me! After a rocky end to last year, I had an equally boulderesque start to this one – was still recovering from Project Ho Ho Ho and writing the credits song for it which took way longer than it should have – but when I finally got my butt in gear and placed it on a chair in front of a computer with my novel open on it, I found a burst of creativity waiting for me. That’s the upside of taking an extended break from something, I suppose. When you immerse yourself so fully in a project, your unconscious carries on working even when you think you’re doing something else.

AaaaahhhI’m now at 95,000 words in the latest draft. 100,000 is what I’m thinking of as the halfway mark, though considering how brutally I’ve been cutting stuff during this rewrite, I’ve probably passed the true halfway mark already. Everything’s going pretty well, though one major storyline is having to be so severely reimagined as I go that I feel as if I’m laying down railway track in front of a moving train à la Gromit in The Wrong Trousers. Also, I’m using Scrivener now. It’s pretty good, especially if you have lots of different chapters and drafts which you want to be able to quickly switch between and view side by side. Which I do.

The Sirens of TitanI’m not reading enough. As I’ve mentioned before, writing does this to me. The only book I’ve finished since my last book post is The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, so I might as well talk about that now. Having grown up ingesting The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in various forms, it’s hard not to read Sirens as a sort of precursor: wry science fiction (wryence fiction) where dysfunctional people get whisked off to various planets and moons and put in vaguely absurd situations by forces outside their control. In the process it captures some of the random, chaotic, weird beauty of life. Breathtaking imagination is on display, in for example the descriptions of the creatures that live on Mercury, and of the being called Salo; these passages ought to make most writers – myself included and emphasised – slightly ashamed of their own lack of imagination. Also, it’s nice to finally know what my parents were talking about when they used to go on about chronosynclastic infundibula. Nerds.

I’m watching the first season of In Treatment. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a show which is set almost exclusively within the therapy sessions of several different people. The characters seem so real that it feels almost wrong to be spying on them at their most vulnerable, as the show invites us to. Its more intense episodes can leave you numb and in dire need of a hug. But your investment in the characters’ progress and the weekday-based episode structure draws you back. The music is great too.

I had an incredibly unsettling dream last week. It was framed as a trailer for a horror film, though I was actually experiencing it rather than watching it. I was wandering round an underground art gallery which seemed to have no exits but was quite full of people. All the paintings were fairly normal except for this creepy painting in one room which was of a woman with a messed up face (either she had a freakishly oversized mouth or there was just a hole where her face should be). Gentle, sad classical music was playing in the gallery but whenever I looked at the creepy painting it changed to disturbing, chaotic, dissonant strings. I tried to avoid looking at the painting, but as I walked around I kept hearing the music change as the painting entered my peripheral vision. After a while, bad things started to happen – people in the room with the painting started dying, other paintings started to change – but I don’t remember many more details. The strangest thing was that the dream didn’t scare me that much at the time – as it was a trailer, I was more impressed by its scariness than scared by it – but the more I thought about the dream the following day, the more it freaked me out. Posting it here in the hopes of exorcising it from my mind, so apologies if it latches on to yours.

Our Singing Kettle spoofThe actual Singing Kettle people apparently saw our dirty Singing Kettle parody. This was mentioned in a recent issue of the Scottish Sun (the article is also online but I won’t link to it because I feel icky enough just being mentioned in a tabloid). The main emotions this conjures up are the customary shock and disbelief that come with my stupid little world making momentary contact with the larger, real world, and some to-be-expected traces of shame. At least they were nice enough to laugh it off, so we can probably stop worrying about being sued now!

Ho ho ho! We did it!

And by “we” I mean me and a group of my friends. Mostly me and Gavin. Okay, me and Gavin and Euan and James. Okay, a whole bunch of people, including some lovely people who I don’t even know that well, but who got roped in to help us out. Thank you, all of you, for helping us get it done.

And by “it” I mean the Beyond Studios Advent Calendar, a collection of 25 comedy sketches we made for the first 25 days of December 2012. I’ve mentioned it before; it was Project Ho Ho Ho, one of the eleven projects mentioned in the very first post on this blog. Which means it is the first of those projects to be definitively finished. Hooray! If there’s one thing that can make absolutely anything feel worthwhile, it’s scoring a big line through it on your To-Do list.

But before I do that, I want to take a quick look back at it. For all my self-ascribed creativity there aren’t many things I’ve done that have produced a complete, publicly accessible end product, and this is one of even fewer that I’m really quite proud of. It was also quite an intense experience in that Gavin and I spent pretty much a whole month working on and thinking about nothing else but the advent calendar. There was a fair amount of stress about filming during the days and an unfair amount of staying up into the small hours of the morning to get sketches edited in time. But it was worth it. For someone who’s been unemployed for far too long, there is something refreshing and necessary in tearing yourself out of bed at 5am and setting out into the cold pre-dawn to catch a train to Glasgow and help film a guy running around in only boxer shorts and clown make-up.

Which reminds me, here’s a sketch I wrote:

There! Preserved for future generations to enjoy. Something you might have noticed about that was that it was a bit weird. I seem to have trouble writing normal sketches – the sort where someone walks into a shop and has an amusing conversation with someone else – so most of the ideas I came up with for the advent calendar (many of which didn’t get past the ideas stage) were what you might call “gimmicky”. Here’s another example, based on the constant stream of thoughts inside my head in various social situations:

That sketch is one I wasn’t quite sure about when we were making it. I had the idea for a while but didn’t write it until a couple of days before we had to film it. I kept rewriting the ending but couldn’t work out how to make it punchy, and I started to want to shelf the idea until after the advent calendar to give myself more time to do it justice. But we needed all the sketches we could get, and the filming was already partially arranged, so we bit the bullet and went ahead with the best version I had. Ultimately, I think the actors are great and make it work, so I’m glad we did it. It’s easy to keep all your precious ideas locked away, never fully developing them in case they don’t turn out the way you imagine. The advent calendar provided just the right amount of pressure to make us release some of our ideas into the world, regardless of whether they were perfect. I think that’s a valuable thing sometimes, especially in terms of learning to do better next time. And it clears some space on your shelf for new ideas.

Anyway, let me link to a few others not written by me, to show I’m not entirely self-centred:

  • Hilarious Pranks! is probably my favourite of all the sketches, though some would say we went too far with it.
  • This spot-on Masked Magician parody was written by my brother.
  • Jesus: The Teenage Years has been received well by those who don’t mind a bit of light sacrilege.
  • People also seem to like Royal Pregnancy, our most topical sketch – written, filmed and edited overnight after the announcement of the royal baby on the 3rd of December.
  • Though I hesitate to link to it, this terribly vulgar Singing Kettle parody is our most viewed video and one of the few that seems to be continuing to accumulate views. People are disgusting, and clearly I can’t exclude myself from that statement.

And that’s just a scattering of the sketches we made. If you enjoy these, please do go and watch the others (and delve into the older videos on our YouTube channel if you feel like it). One of the most interesting things about this whole project was seeing other people’s reactions to what we did. Even though we weren’t sure of some of them, I’ve heard almost every sketch being singled out by someone as one of the highlights. Which suggests to me not only that we didn’t make too many irredeemably bad sketches, but that we made quite a variety of them to appeal to different tastes. That may be the thing I’m most proud of, and reassured by. 🙂

Good housekeeping

If you are a writer and you own a whiteboard, at some point you inevitably end up with something like this:

White board nonsense
If you want to find out some secret details about Project Snails, feel free to do some CSI-style image enhancement on the blurred out areas here!

This is a diagram to help me rethink one particularly troublesome chapter in part two of my novel. I’m finding that the most troublesome chapters are the ones without a central nucleus to hold them together. If something major happens in a chapter, it’s fairly easy to structure. You know where the meat of your chapter is, and arranging the more minor points around the edges isn’t too much of a challenge.

But then there are “housekeeping chapters”, where all you have is a bunch of small but essential things you need to get done. For example, you need to build up the relationship between two characters, you need to describe the place they are passing through, you need to reveal a bit of someone’s backstory, and you need to get a certain object into someone’s possession. How can you make these things flow into each other and feel like a coherent whole? What should come first? How can you best end the chapter in a way that fools the reader into thinking something meaningful has happened?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneOne of the ingenious things about Harry Potter (and there are many) is that there are very few housekeeping chapters, at least in the early books. If you go back and flick through Philosopher’s Stone (I know you have it, don’t lie to me) and look at the chapter names, I guarantee you’ll audibly go “Wow, this is a veritable treasure trove of stuff!” Pretty much every chapter has a strong central concept – some major event or new element of the wizarding world that we’re being introduced to. Maybe it’s just because everything has become so iconic now, but for flip’s sake: we go from meeting Hagrid to visiting Diagon Alley to travelling on the Hogwarts Express to being sorted by the Sorting Hat to meeting Snape … I say we because that’s who it feels as if it’s all happening to, and I don’t have a bloody clue how she does that … oh god, I so want to go and reread Harry Potter now.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh yeah. Housekeeping chapters. Ultimately I should probably try to purge them from my book, or at least make them feel less like housekeeping chapters, but for now I’m struggling just to give them a coherent structure. There’s a lot of “Well, this needs to happen before this, but a bit of time needs to pass between that and that, and if that happens before this then I’ll have to cut that bit out, unless I move this other thing to an earlier chapter… aaargh! Okay, that’s it, I’m getting out my whiteboard!” It becomes like one of these logic puzzles:

Houses from left to right: green, red, blue, yellow, purple
This is Puzzle Street. For some reason only one person lives in each house, except for one of the houses which has been empty since its owner was killed in a tragic cryptic crossword accident. Some facts about the street’s current occupants: Bob got sick of all the stupid puns about him living in a green house (example: “What’s it like living in a green house, Bob? It must get hot in there during the summer!”), so he swapped houses with Alison, who lived at the opposite end of the street. Todd likes to spy on Alison in the shower, but she lives two doors away, so he has to borrow binoculars from Jane who lives next door to him. Sometimes Jane’s other next door neighbour sees Todd borrowing the binoculars, but she’s too busy wondering where her next fix is going to come from to think anything of it. Which is the empty house? Have fun! (Clue: IT’S THE YELLOW ONE.)

And this doesn’t just happen within individual chapters. You can end up shuffling the order of chapters around, and that gets even messier – especially if, like me, you switch between viewpoints and the idea of putting two chapters told by the same character next to each other makes your toes curl in abject disgust. That’s when you find yourself walking past stationery shops and thinking “Hmm, maybe I should get some Post-it notes, they’d make this whole process less painful”. And before you know it, you’re waking up in the stock room of W H Smith, high on highlighter fumes and covered in Pukka Pads filled with scribbled plot points and character arcs.

And after all this is sorted out, you discover that while you’ve been focusing all your attention on how to logically progress your story from point A to point B, your characters have turned to cardboard and your style now consists exclusively of sentences like “the man walked through the door”. Time for another rewrite, and time to uncover another set of deep structural problems with your story! Yay! Writing is such a joyful cycle.