The Stranger in Our House

THE STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE

 The day starts early,

Sweeping the kitchen floor

Because of the ants.

My mother is still asleep, but drenched in sweat,

When she wakes up I will help her out of bed

Despite the pain,

Strip her down,

Find a fresh nightgown for her,

Put her in the shower and see she doesn’t fall as she cleans herself.

 

I’ve already had breakfast,

So I make her some.

But she doesn’t eat it.

She’ll be dead soon, she says, so what’s the point?

 

The cat has been fed and watered,

So I put the laundry on,

Since her sheets needs washing after the night-bathe of sweat.

Dressing her takes a while

Because she can’t get her arms above her head,

Because of the pain,

Because the new underpants are the wrong colour.

 

I hang up the sheets,

Put her in front of the television after swallowing pills

And giving her a heat pack

Because of the pain.

Kneeling before her to tie the heat pack on is like doing worship.

 

She falls asleep in front of the television,

Which gives me a little while

To do the things that must be done

For me.

 

We spend the afternoon among her hallucinations,

Discussing her friends and our family,

Whose side am I on?

(I’ve no idea,

Since there are no sides.)

“I’m on your side, of course.”

She asks me why my mouth is black

(It isn’t, but this is her fantasy, remember)

So I wipe my mouth.

She wants to know why there were only six roses

On the cat’s grave.

(The cat is curled up asleep at her feet,

Alive and well.)

 

I make dinner, and she goes to bed early

As usual.

I keep her door open and the bathroom door and my own.

So she can wake me in the middle of the night

To help her out of bed.

 

At two o-clock we are awake again

Because her room is full of spiders

That aren’t there.

—Russell Proctor

http://www.russellproctor.com

Life and Death

My mother is dying.

This isn’t an easy concept to come to terms with. The woman who gave me life is coming to the end of hers. She has Alzheimer’s, which for those who have never experienced such a thing is utterly incomprehensible. You can learn about Alzheimer’s, you can read about it. But the only way to know it is to go through it.

It’s probably one of the worst diseases of all. Here in Australia there used to be a TV series called “Mother and Son”, in which Ruth Cracknell played Maggie Bear, a woman with senile dementia. Her son, played by Gary McDonald, spent many “hilarious” episodes dealing with his mother’s affliction in such ways as caused much laughter.

Fuck off.

Alzheimer’s is a shit disease. There’s nothing funny about it. Nothing at all. While we’re at it, let’s laugh about cancer. Let’s laugh about 89 people killed in a Paris nightclub by terrorists. That’s the amount of fun Alzheimer’s disease is.

My mother is dying, and there’s nothing I can do about it. And it tears me apart, because the disease causes disruption between myself and my mother. I’m not angry at her, I’m angry at the disease which is killing her mind. But she does things which make me angry, things neither of us can do anything about.

The worst thing is, my father had Alzheimer’s too. And my mother had to look after him for the last four years of his life. Now she has it, and while I would willingly give my life for hers, that is a totally useless gesture in the face of this killer disease.

My mother is dying.

I will be the one to discover her corpse. That sounds horrible, doesn’t it? One morning I will walk in to discover my mother dead in her bed. That’s not something I’m looking forward to, but it’s going to happen. Each morning I wake up and check on my mother sleeping in her bed and make sure she is still breathing.

Life and death. And love. Because that’s all I have left.

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

The Next Book

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This year, 2015, has been an interesting one for me. I have two novels published, with a third due out in December. I have also had three short stories appear in print, with another two also due in December. So as far as writing goes, things have been going pretty well. More than a lot of writers achieve, less than others, but for me, very credible.

However, lately a couple of darker matters have reared their heads to remind me that life isn’t always the way you’d want it.

First up, yes, I have had two novels published with a third one on the way. However, I have my fair share of rejection slips and some stories and books that have been completed but have yet to find a home. This always leaves a writer frustrated, especially those stories that have gone out several times and been knocked back with polite “no thank yous”. You start to feel just a bit sorry for them, as well as yourself as a writer.

I’m working on it.

On a more personal level, my mother has Alzheimer’s and requires more and more care as time goes on. I am her full-time carer, so quite a bit of my day is taken up looking after her and coping with her inability to remember things. This leaves less time for writing and even when I am writing means a lot of interruptions.  Not that I begrudge her need for ongoing care, but I think you know what I mean.

Besides, I’m not the picture of health myself. I have glaucoma and psoriasis, both of which are inconvenient if not particularly dangerous in us if treated. I’ve had to live with them all my life.

So it isn’t all going my way, particularly recently.

But back to the good things. At the end of October this year I decided to enter NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, which is an international writing challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November. To save you doing the Math, that’s 1666.6666 words a day. Call it 1667. There’s no prize other than the satisfaction of having completed the challenge. I decided to use NaNo to kick start a new science fiction/horror series, The Scream of Years. Now, on Tuesday 24 November, I am on 54,000.

That’s something to be proud of, with 6 days to go and already four thousand words over the target. Of course, it isn’t necessary to stop at 50,000, so I can keep going and really make a start on the first draft of the first book, which has the working title Shine and Shadow. It’s been a full-on experience, given that my writing technique consists of having some sort of vague idea of what I want and making it up as I go.

So, I have a books and stories without homes at the moment, although they will get one, don’t fear about that. And my personal life isn’t one I’d recommend. But here’s the thing: I’m focusing on the next book.

And that’s really the heart of being a writer. The next book. Not this one, or the ones that have found homes or are still at the orphanage, but the next one. That’s the most important book of all.

A writer should never stop being a writer. Whether you spend a lifetime plugging away and get one short story printed in your local paper, or whether you’re the next John Grisham, never stop being a writer. Always make a start on that next book.

That all that counts.

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

Human focused high fantasy: The Fledgling Account by Y. K. Willemse

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Readers of high fantasy have their expectations. The story is supposed to be set in an invented – usually magic-using – world, and writers of it are expected to adhere to certain tropes. Elves, dwarves, wizards, some supernaturally powerful bad guy, dragons, magical creatures and often a protagonist who is someone special or powerful. Usually the world is so complicated and “real” for the purposes of the tale that a map is included to help the reader visualise places and background information. Some writers include glossaries and appendices to “flesh out” things without having to break the narrative with great wads of information within the text. They will have invented languages and characters with “fantasy” names  like Rand al’Thor or Boromir or Arya.

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And then there is Y. K. Willemse’s high fantasy series The Fledgling Account.

Willemse has done things a bit differently. She has an invented world, the Mio Pilamúr. She has a map, although it doesn’t appear in the books. She has an invented language, too. But she also has what I venture to say are radical departures from the genre. Her characters (some of them at least) use firearms as well as swords. Some have fantasy names, others are called Robert and Roger and Elizabeth. She has the supernaturally powerful bad guy, known as the Lashki Mirah, who differs from most fantasy villains by having no real agenda – he’s a total psychopath. He wouldn’t mind taking over the world (hey, don’t we all?), but he enjoys killing people anyway just because it’s fun.

All of these are good things.

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The Fledgling Account is to be a seven book series. Two are out at the moment: Rafen and The Sianian Wolf. Coming this month is Servant of the King, and that will be followed by The Fourth Runi.

There is a lot to like in the series. I like the fact that fights take place using guns. I like that fact that there are no elves or dwarfs or hobbits or any of those other “required” races in high fantasy. I even like the fact there is no world map of the Mio Pilamúr* in the books: Willemse does have one she drew up and I have seen a copy of it in an email. But it’s not in the books and that’s a good thing. It means I can imagine what her world is like, I am involved in the creation process.

I also like the fact that so far Willemse has managed to avoid the two major plot lines of high fantasy: the War and the Quest (or both). The Quest is a major theme of high fantasy: the plucky hero goes off to save the world either by finding some desperately powerful McGuffin or getting rid of it. The War theme is exactly what it says. Often there is a War going on while a Quest is being fulfilled.

I don’t know whether there is a War planned for the series – there’s definitely an excuse for one, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it does come in due course. But what Willemse had produced in the first two books is a Bildungsroman. And if you don’t know what that is, it’s a literary genre (by no means restricted to high fantasy but sometimes forming part of  it) that focuses on the protagonist’s  psychological and moral growth from youth to adulthood.

Willemse’s protagonist, Rafen, starts out as a boy at the beginning of the series, a slave in a coal mine, and over the course of the series develops as a character, makes mistakes, rebels, loves, hates, triumphs, falls again, and ultimately (we hope) wins out over the bad guy. In other words, this series is about the main character growing up. The fact that he is fighting elemental forces of evil is a nice addition on which to hang the story of Rafen’s life. But ultimately the series is about Rafen’s clash with evil rather than the clash of good and evil in the first place.

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And this is what makes Willemse’s saga such a refreshing thing. The main focus of the series is a character. Not a magic ring or a map or an invented world or some fantasy creature like an elf (be honest,  how many actual elves do you know in real life?), but a raw, vulnerable, fallible human being. So far, Willemse hasn’t let the Mio Pilamúr and all that it contains overshadow the main point of the story: Rafen himself.

I guess that’s why the first book is called Rafen. Makes sense. In fact, when you think about it, all of the four (known) book titles refer to Rafen. Even the series title – The Fledgling Account – refers to him.

I’m not saying high fantasy is jaded or tired or overdone. But it’s nice to find someone willing to take it on and show the world that there is another way of doing it. It’s a brave move and, I hope, a successful one.

(Map excerpt by Y. K Willemse; Illustrations by Ruth Germon)

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  • Apparently it’s called THE Mio Pilamúr, not just Mio Pilamúr.

Russell Proctor   http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

 

 

Avoiding Cliches Like the Plague

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a cliché is (a) a hackneyed phrase or opinion or (b) a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person. I used to have a dictionary of clichés, I think also published by Oxford. The precise purpose of such a reference source eluded me. Perhaps it was so people could check they were not using clichés in their writing or speech.

Because, of course, we must avoid using clichés. In this post I’m not so much concerned with the first definition above. We all recognise these things for what they are pretty quickly:

Not in a million years…

For all intents and purposes…

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks…

As heavy as lead…

Millions of these things are espoused daily and eliminating them isn’t too hard with a careful edit. But today I want to discuss the other definition, which is far more insidious in writing and film. The situational cliché. The story that goes along predictable lines and ends the same way lots of other stories have in the past.

There are lots of these too. I mentioned one years ago when I reviewed a film, Hansel and Gretel. There it was what I called the “too cool to look” hero walk. You know the one. The hero has just beaten the bad guy and lit the fuse for an explosion. As the bomb detonates in the background the hero is seen walking towards the camera, dead-pan expression on his face or maybe lighting a cigarette, not bothering to glance over his shoulder as the explosion blows the final shreds of the villain away. It’s meant to show that the hero is ultra-cool, so cool in fact he can ignore an event that would have everyone else ducking for cover or at least turning around to look at*. So cool he doesn’t need to run.

It’s been done a lot. It’s a cliché. It’s the sort of thing writers need to avoid.

I myself had a recent problem with a cliché ending to a series I’m writing at the moment. My cliché was “the hero sacrifices herself to save the world but isn’t really dead and comes back when everyone least expects it and manages to destroy the bad guy…” I wanted to avoid it and it took a while to do so.

The Star Trek film franchise did this a lot. In The Wrath of Khan Spock is killedHe’s back in the next movie, not really being dead at all of course…well, sort of but not really. Even the Enterprise has been destroyed a number of times but there is always a new one just being completed the crew can transfer to. Handy, that.

There are book series out there that have cliché endings. Lots of them. The Harry Potter series for instance. Harry gets killed and brought back to life because he’s not really dead…well, he is, but not really. In his book Destiny Unfulfilled: A Critique of the Harry Potter Series, Jim Adam states that J. K. Rowling uses the cliché of the Christ-like sacrifice to save mankind (or in her case Wizard-kind). The hero needs to die, to sacrifice his or her own life, in order to save the lives of others.

That’s been done too.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Christ-like sacrifice, except that it’s been done. A lot.

And this was the problem I had. It took a while to solve it, required me to consult with my editor, and is going to necessitate a heavy re-write of the last part of my final book in the series, but at least I am happier with the ending.

Cliché is an easy trap to fall into. Movies, especially the plethora of prequels and sequels they engender, are full of them. Books, too. A good writer should be careful to spot them as they arise and deal with them before it’s too late.

Damn! Before it’s too late… A cliché!

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* It always strikes me as a bit weird: surely the only person not looking at the explosion is the one who set it off. Think about it. The villain blows something up and the police don’t know who to arrest. Try arresting the only person in the street NOT looking at the explosion!

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

A Different Way to Write Realistic Characters – Part 3: Affective Memory

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In the last two parts of this short series (don’t worry, this is the last) I proposed a method of character creation for the writer which is based on the method actors use to create a persona for stage or screen. It’s called the Method, and was developed through rehearsal by Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky.

In this last part I’ll discuss two other means that can be used to flesh out story characters, and to help when the writer is a bit uncertain how a character might act in a given situation.

The first is called The Magic “If”.

You’re writing a story. It’s going well, and suddenly you place your character into a situation and wonder how they might behave or react to what is going on.

“Well, let me see…” you think, staring out of the window at the passing parade of human beings, and suddenly realise you have no idea what they should be doing in terms of the story. “I’m not him!” you wail. “I created this person but I’m not him! How would he react?”

And you suddenly realise that you’ve created a monster, someone who doesn’t behave like you at all and so you have no idea what to do. “He’s a serial killer. I’m not a serial killer…how do I know what to do in this situation?”

You just solved your own problem. The Magic If means asking yourself “What would I do if I were in this situation?”

If I were a serial killer…

If I were a King…

If I were in love with a handsome man…

If I were a fifteen year old boy who just got kicked out of school…

There are millions of situations we never encounter. But that doesn’t stop you writing about them. Just mentally put yourself in the same situation as your character and write about what you would do.

And that’s what your character would do.

The other technique for creating realistic characters, linked to the Magic “If”, is called  Affective Memory.

You may have heard the phrase “Write what you know”. It is often regarded as a misunderstood phrase, and it is, since it tends to limit fledgling writers to writing only what they have personally experienced. New writers run the risk of limiting themselves to certain places and character-types, since they think they can’t write about something about which they have no experience.

But, as a number of other writing tips sites have suggested, “write what you know” is about emotions and sensations rather than actual experiences. A writer should write about being scared, sorry, angry etc rather than try to re-create a place or time or situation they have never actually encountered.

The thing, is, I don’t think those sites go far enough. This is where affective memory comes in.

A person who has never lost a family member might find it hard to write about a family member dying in a story. How do they know the sense of loss and gut-wrenching sadness that such an event entails? How do they take their character through that experience if they’ve never done it themselves?

Here’s the problem: you have a great character on the boil, she’s rolling the story along at a fantastic pace, she’s funny and engaging, emotional and thrilling all at once. The readers are going to love her. You love her. “Why can’t I always write characters like this?” you think to yourself, as you slurp coffee and go along for the ride.

And then, in the course of the story, something happens that you have no experience about. And you – and the character – come up against a wall. How will she react in this situation? What would she do? You’ve never experienced this situation in real life, so you have no idea how anyone would behave. How do you “write what you know” now?

Affective memory is applying personal experiences to fictional situations. You, the writer, recall experiences that produced an emotional response at some time in your life and write about how you felt. If you have never experienced the death of a family member, you write your emotional responses to something that you have experienced. Maybe the loss of a pet, or how you felt when you broke up with a friend. Something – anything – that could produce a similar emotion. And write how that made you feel.

Actors and writers are different species. As I pointed out earlier, an actor on the screen usually has to worry about just one character. A writer has to worry about all the characters she creates, and make them real so the audience cares about them. So a writer has a harder job than the actor, in one sense. Using Objective/Obstacle, the Magic “If” and Affective Memory will aid the writer to make characters that are alive on the page.

Russell Proctor   www.russellproctor.com

A Different Way to Write Realistic Characters – Part 2: Objective and Obstacle

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(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/activityandadventure/10197830/The-worlds-most-dangerous-mountains.html)

If you’ve read Part One of this short series of writing tips, you will have seen the importance of creating interesting and realistic characters, even if they aren’t human. Your characters need real human emotions for your readers to relate to them.

There are many, many blogs and books that tell how to create such characters. My purpose here is to suggest a way of doing it that is the same as how actors prepare a character for a film or play. As a professional actor myself, I’ve used this method lots of times, and I find it works just as well for creating fictional characters in stories.

The essential difference is that actors usually prepare representations of characters that another person has already out down on paper. The playwright or screen writer has already dreamed up the character and the actor uses her art to bring them to life for an audience. A writer of prose must create the character from scratch. Also, an actor usually only has to worry about one character at a time. The writer is responsible for all the characters in the story.

That’s the one main difference. But the writer can use the same techniques as the actor to help invent the characters.

The method I propose here is, in fact, called ‘The Method’ (Great name, wish I’d thought of it). It was developed by Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and director who developed it as a rehearsal technique. Method acting, as it’s called, is one of the foremost acting  methods used in the Twentieth century (and is still used today) and is particularly effective in realising consistent, realistic and natural characters.

In this part of the blog I will focus on two things that any actor – and certainly writer – needs to develop for their characters. The first is called Objective, and the second Obstacle.

Every character must have an Objective and an Obstacle.

In a story, all your characters must want something. Not just the protagonist. Each character you create, be it the hero or a walk-on extra with one line, must have something they need to achieve. An objective. The more immediate and important the objective, the better.

I’ll illustrate this with a hypothetical example. I could refer to any one of the millions of books and stories written, but because not everyone might have read the one I pick, I’m going for an imaginary story I’ll create for the purpose of this blog.

It’s the story of a man who wants to climb a mountain. Let’s called him Bob. Bob’s father was a mountaineer who tried to climb the same mountain in his youth (let’s call the mountain Mt Tain, because that’s…well…Mount Tain, get it?) Bob’s father tried to conquer Mt Tain and never made it. He died in the attempt. Bob now wants to honour his father’s memory be conquering the peak himself.

All well and good. Bob has an objective: to climb Mt Tain. But notice that it isn’t just any old objective. It’s spiritually and psychologically important to Bob that he do this. It will honour his dead father who tried to do the same thing. In a sense, Bob is climbing the mountain for both of them. When you think of your character’s objectives, go for strong action verbs. To climb is better than to attempt. To conquer is even better than to climb. “Be bloody, bold and resolute”, as a certain fictionalized Scottish king once said. Give your characters important, even desperate, objectives.

Right, so Bob has an objective, and an important one. What we need now are obstacles to his achieving his objective. Bob’s problem is he has never climbed a mountain before. This is his obstacle. Mt Tain is a known killer of climbers. That’s another obstacle. Bob wants to do it alone, like his father did. Another obstacle.

Actors don’t act. They react. They respond to events that happen around them. Another character says something and their character responds according to the personality that has been devised for them. An event occurs and they react to it. This is the heart of acting, and it should, in my opinion, be the heart of writing. Let your characters react to what is flung at them.

So Bob sets out on his mountain climbing attempt, and must face certain obstacles that you, the writer, place in his path. How will Bob react to the fact that he’s never climbed a mountain before? Will he train? Get lessons? He wants to do it alone so he doesn’t want to take a more experienced person with him. How will he react to the mountain’s reputation as a killer? Will he seek local knowledge? Will he study what previous climbers did in order to try and avoid their mistakes? And what about going alone? Is he a loner naturally, or will being alone be a new test for him? As a writer, you answer these questions as the story progresses.

Bob reacts to what happens to him in the story. He faces obstacles that prevent him from achieving his objective.

That’s what your characters should do in a story. They must overcome certain obstacles you place in their path. They may not overcome all the obstacles. Solving some may cause other obstacles to spring up. But in reacting to the obstacles, the character moves towards their objective.

One more thing today: your character should not have just one objective. Bob could have a number of objectives in the story. His main objective is to climb Mt Tain. But there can be a whole lot of sub-objectives that must first be achieved. He needs to get climbing lessons. He needs to get enough money, and perhaps even sponsors, to pay for the attempt. He needs to convince his wife to let him go on this mad enterprise. He needs to get to the base of the mountain. He needs to work out the best method of climbing, etc.

All of these are objectives that must be reached before the main objective, climbing the mountain, can be realised. And of course, each of these sub-objectives have their own obstacles. Bob may overcome some of these, and be defeated by others, but they are necessary challenges in his path.

This is what makes conflict. And it is by placing your characters in conflict that you create story. How your characters react to the obstacles is what reveals their personalities.

So: (OBJECTIVE + OBSTA CLE) = CONFLICT → CHARACTER.

Don’t stint on your obstacles. Don’t be weak with your objectives. The stronger, more dangerous choices make for more conflict, and the more your characters can bounce off the conflict the more real they are.

I said earlier that every character needs an objective and obstacle. Even the taxi driver who drives Bob to the airport when he is about to fly to the mountain needs an objective, and an obstacle. The former might be a simple as “Get this guy to the airport in time to meet his flight”. His obstacle might be that he thinks Bob, who has told him of his plans as they chat on the way, is crazy and will die. But the driver, of course, wants the fare. So he overcomes the obstacle by keeping his opinion to himself. That shows the reader something of his personality.

Determining a character’s objective and obstacle is vital for the actor in creating a part. This same technique can be used to create dynamic characters in stories and novels.

Next time I’ll move on to something called the “Magic If” and how it can be used in writing. It’s trickier than straightforward objective/obstacle, but is magic indeed when used properly.

 

Russell Proctor   http://www.russellproctor.com