Monday, 29 August 2011

Mister Rhys Mystery, Case #8: Winchester Mystery House

Unfortunately, this post does not take place in Hampshire. I would love to write a piece entirely devoted the town that once housed the UK's fattest teenager, but, in effect, there is absolutely nothing to say about Winchester. If anything, the real mystery is this: when will something happen, and why is everyone so old? (I realise that this is two mysteries). But someone greater than me will have to answer that. Which means it will never be answered!


No, this post is about the American Winchester, which is not a place but a surname. And a gun (named after the surname). This is a Winchester Repeater Rifle:

You will be familiar with it if you have no life. Well this gun was invented by a Mr Lieutenant Governor Winchester, whose son married a woman, if you can imagine, and she was called Sarah Winchester (post marriage, obviously). I won't bother telling you her husband's name because he only goes and dies right at the beginning of the story. Actually, before that, their baby daughter dies too. I promise that this is the darkest, saddest part of the story, if you don't count ghost legions and mental illness.

[This all happened many years ago by-the-by, so please do not request 'sources' or 'fact-checking'; everyone involved is dead and you can't prove anything.]

Well, after her family all died, Sarah Winchester did a bit of a Cherie, and took some advice from a spiritualist who 'helped her realise' that the Winchester family fortune was being haunted by the souls of all those who had been killed by Winchester Repeater Rifles, which was about three quarters of the world's population, ever. The haunting looked like this:

But with less Aragorn and many more Red Indians. These days, Red Indians are called Native Americans and they are not ghosts.

Well, Sarah decides that she doesn't want this haunted fortune, and that she must spend all of the money on a worthwhile project. Her spiritual advisor, and possibly some angels, told her that she should build a house! In California! It is very sad indeed that they told her to build the house in sunny California, rather than, say, Hampshire - very sad indeed!

Anyway, so she built this house, in California, and she did a good job and paid her builders very well for it. When she was finished, her fortune still felt pretty haunted so, she thought, best keep on building! So she added some extensions to the side. And then to the top. And then about five more times to the top. What had been an eight-room house (which... is a fair amount of rooms for one old widow), turned into a seven story mansion! And that took about 25 years all in, most of her adult life.

The interesting things about the house, other than Sarah's bizarre compulsion to build and build and build on it, is that the house made very little architectural sense. Staircases would lead to the ceiling, doors opened out into brick walls, there were no mirrors in the whole house, there's a Hall of Fires and a Seance Room! What on earth was she building? And why?

Well the obvious answer is that she was a distraught widow, trying to cope with a kind of Survivor's Guilt by trying to spend away all of the money she'd married in to, desperately hoping to buy back the lives of her father and child.


It's ghosts, isn't it? She was building them a place to live. Those doorways covered in brick? No trouble for a ghost! Same with the stairways leading into ceilings. Lack of mirrors? That's a ghost thing. Or is that vampires? Both? And the Seance Room and Hall of Fires speak for themselves! That's just the ghostly, olden-days equivalent of, respectively, a conference room and, um, a hall of fires. They made her do it, clearly, and they'll make you do it too, if you get rich. Never. Get. Rich.


Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Writing Novels and Things #9: Short stories, Part 2

So my last post may have been all about how pointless it is to write short stories, but this post is all about how to write short stories! I am breaking you down in order to build you up. Using a combination of my own experience, my creative writing history and the internet, I have compiled a list of five rules that you should always obey when writing short stories. They are, I am happy to say, quite prescriptive.

The rules are in no particular order, so I haven't numbered them. Please do let me know if bullet points aren't enough and you would prefer them in numerical order of importance. Onwards!

Try not to feature too many characters
    I hate this rule, personally, because I like to have loads of characters in all my stories; I love them (and they love me). However, editors like this rule, I think, and so do readers. There needs to be one main character and one significant foil character and that's about it. You can, of course, have other plot-piece characters come along, but the idea is to keep these to a minimum and don't give them undue narrative attention. The longer your story, the more flexible you can be with this rule but I think it serves as a good guideline when you're creating a story. You are, of course, in charge of the story, so if you really try, you can keep the character tally down to publishable levels.

    [The last short story I wrote had three main characters and two prominent supporting characters. I wanted it to be a novel, really, which is why it will probably never see the light of day as a short story.]

    You don't need to resolve everything
      But there does need to be resolution. Short stories are often small moments in time, little windows into the characters lives, that you know are going to change them forever. But we don't need to add epilogues or neatly sew everything up in order to satisfy the reader. They will get that things are different now, if you have laid the correct groundwork. There does need to be a resolution, of course, and all the better if it links back to the beginning, or moments throughout the rest of the story (thematically, with imagery, or dialogue, however you like), but this isn't a novel, where all plots, sub-plots and so on need a proper ending. In a novel, the couple may end up getting back together, whereas in a short story, we can be satisfied if the potential for this is alluded to without, you know, a big sloppy kiss. That's a crude example, but hopefully that serves as a decent example.

      [I can think of a number of strong examples that disprove this rule, but I don't think any of them would have been harmed by following it. So... I stand by it.]

      Know what your characters want (at the very least)
        We should, we fiction writers, know our characters intimately. Or, at the very least, we need to know them better than the reader. You can find forms online, to help you create a character, and it's usually two pages of things like hair colour, age, hobbies and pastimes, middle name, birthplace, pets?, and so on. For a novel, I think these are a great idea, and moreover, I think it's good to write first-person monologues for all your main characters, so you start thinking as they think. For a short story, that feels like quite a lot of effort (and I see no need for physical description, almost ever, but that's a preference, not a rule). The most important thing you must know about a character is what they want, and why, and write it down and stick it somewhere visible while you're writing. It's the driving force of your whole story.

        [In the first short story I had published, I knew nothing of this but subconsciously, I had a very clear idea of the main character's motivations, so it worked. It does not always work, believe me. Eventually, it will become automatic, but until then it's something you should force yourself to remember.]

        Tell a story

        Which is my way of saying that you should structure your story like it's a story (see handy diagram). This is called the Five Act Structure and was invented by some guy called Freytag. It's a perfectly good structure to follow and, to all intents and purposes, still allows for an infinite number of story possibilities. However, in a short story, the Exposition bit should be super short, if non-existent, because you don't have time to waste. You should, really, begin at the point of Rising Action, though sometimes a little scene setting is required, so I will be lenient and say that you don't have to if you don't want to (but you should). There is also the Three Act Structure, which was invented by Aristotle and is comprised of the Setup, the Confrontation and the Resolution. Everything I said above still holds, but with two fewer acts.

        [I find structure the hardest bit about writing but this is likely because it is probably the most important aspect of story telling. You should always be thinking about it, even if it's not a predefined one like I've given above, you can't just put the words down in any old order. Unless you're writing a blog. Self-zing!]

        Try to get it published

        You might as well. You also may as well try to get it published by the most well-respected, high-profile publisher of the kind of short stories that you write. If it's literary, for example, just send it to Granta Magazine. You never know! And then when you have experienced rejection (which will lead to most excellent personal growth), try other publishers who are more willing to take a punt on a newcomer. It's best to go for the ones that pay, but not vital (or even possible, depending on what kind of story you are writing), and I think the joy of getting published will doubtless override... um... poverty.

        [Please see previous post for depressing news about writing short stories.]

        Thursday, 18 August 2011

        Writing Novels and Things #8: Short Stories (Part 1)

        Me and my novel have parted ways, for a while. It's a trial separation, at least that's what we're saying right now; we have every intention of getting back together some day and making it work. We just need some time apart, some distance, so we can learn to appreciate each other some more. It'll be better, eventually, when we reunite, whenever that is.

        I don't even miss it.

        But I do miss the writing, so I have been doing the odd bit of non-novel, non-blog writing in the meantime. I have a little piece (and possibly some artwork) coming out in the next issue of Paraxis, about my love of libraries. I have had a super-short story published today at Paragraph Planet (if you want to find it after today, go to the archive and search for today's date). And it's kind of, technically, Science Fiction, so that's a first. Also, I have finished my first proper short story since my masters, and it feels good. It is currently being read my oldest friend (and most adoring reader) Leila, before I consider what else to do with it.

        The question is though... what do you do with it? I was looking at a short story journal's submissions page recently and they said something along the lines of:

        'If a fifth of the people who submitted to our magazine, actually bought one, we'd be rich.'

        Sadly, I totally believe that. Newspapers may do one short fiction supplement annually, few magazines feature them (maybe some of the women's weeklies), there are no mainstream magazines or journals devoted to them and even Radio 4 is trying to cut back on their short story output (or is it?). Weirdly, in our crazy bite-size-loving world, the popularity of short stories is still on the downturn.

        Granta 115: The F Word (Feminism) (Granta: The Magazine of New Writing)I have to confess, my Granta magazine subscription aside, I have read only one short story collection this year, and none by a specific author. I love Raymond Carver, obviously, but, well, reading a whole book of his short stories is so much harder than just reading a novel! There are so many endings, and so many characters to invest in from scratch, and then there's more endings and all these new characters and just when they're starting to mean something to you... it ends! Basically, you just can't immerse yourself in a short story the way you can with a novel.

        I think, though I may be wrong, that it would be almost impossible to make a living as a short story writer. The only person I can think who might have a chance is Tobias Wolff, though they are undoubtedly a few others. [The only book of his I've read, I have to confess, is his novel Old School - though it is about short stories, at least.] It's exceptionally difficult to get publish (relative to, say, a feature article), and almost nobody will read it. And yet every writer, and especially a new one, wants to write them!

        Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories (Vintage Contemporaries)They're shorter, I suppose, than a novel, so that's easier. You won't get bored. If it's rubbish, there's less shame in giving up and walking away. If you make mistakes, there won't be too many people that notice. And who cares, anyway, because you'll be on to the next one by the time anyone says anything. Writing a novel is a huge commitment, writing a short story is, like, whatever. You know?

        Well, in theory. For me, writing and editing a short story is every bit as difficult and painful as my novel has been. Except it's worse, because you don't have 80,000 words to get someone invested, you need to keep them riveted with each word. With a short story, by necessity, you have to rip apart and rewrite every sentence until it is perfect and exists solely to serve the story. If you're anything like me, you will start out thinking this is a fun, worthwhile experience that will result in your own personal growth. Moments later, you hate yourself, your loved ones and the fact that language was ever invented.

        [If this doesn't happen to you, and you like the editing phase, I don't think we could be friends.]

        The point of this post was to lay out my ideas, and findings, about how to approach writing a short story, but have slightly detoured. In summary though, people who write short stories do not have it easy. Writing a good short story is extremely difficult and I'm not entirely sure I ever will. So I am in awe of those who do, and I am going to make more of an effort to actually read them.

        So... you know what that means? Two-parter!

        Tuesday, 9 August 2011


        So, one time, I wrote this blog post about incest. And then I was asked to write an essay on the subject, and I think, though I don't know, that this essay was published somewhere.

        Well today I was thinking about things I've had published (there aren't loads) and I thought that I wanted to post this essay up on here. It's probably not entirely in keeping with the tone of the blog, and there's no pictures, but I hope you like it anyway.

        Without further adieu, I give you:

        The love that dare not speak its dirty stinkin’ name

        One’s natural inclination when writing is often to celebrate (imaginatively) the familiar.  We’re told, to make it easier, to ‘write what we know’.  The fun though, sometimes or always, often lies in the unfamiliar.  Sitting down at a desk and setting to work, that is the hard part but when you’re there, there’s no need to go easy on yourself.  You’ve overcome the fear, which is really just your imagination or something, so you may as well put the work in; you never know when you’ll be back.  So I look at what I do not know.  And further, what I do not want to know.  What do I not want people to think I know?  Well, there are a number of things that I have little interest in exploring – I shan’t list – that might provoke anything from boredom to outrage to disgust but there’s one topic the mere mention of which gives me the proverbial willies.  Incest.  I feel it’s safe to say that a fair amount of the world’s population feel the same as me, and most legal systems too when it comes to the physical act of love between immediate relatives.  We’re a world that is united in our extreme and automatic distaste for incest.  The thing is though, I do ask myself, why.  What is so inherently disgusting, wrong and/or evil about incest?  Well, obviously, it’s not natural, it results in mutant babies and it’s just not right, ethically and stuff.  And so, I would like to look at whether that is in fact true – why exactly is the practice of two consensual adults who are related privately engaging in non-abusive sexual relations deemed unlawful in these generally tolerant times?

        Imagine a couple, called Hansel and Gretel, who met each other as adults.  After a brief and terribly romantic fling, they get married and have babies.  After which things get a bit Moll Flanders as Gretel’s Aunt Dorothy reveals that she is also Hansel’s Aunt Dorothy - for the two are in fact long-lost brother and sister.  Dun dun daaaaah!  And then Hansel and Gretel are locked up and their perfectly happy and healthy children taken away.

        Now imagine another couple, named Jack and Jill.  They have lived next door to each other since birth, went to school together and became boyfriend and girlfriend as teenagers.  They attend the same university and get married upon graduation, after which they live a very happy life together, uninterrupted by shocking revelations.

        While some might find the first couple’s story tragic and the second a bit odd, I imagine the general reaction to each of the couples as so: Jack and Jill, sweet; Hansel and Gretel, gross.  I’m not going to argue the pros and cons of going out with your neighbours but I think this example shows that our issues with incest don’t come from any kind of emotional reasoning.  By which I mean that it’s not the intimacy of the act, it’s not that fact that we know our family too well that we can’t be with them romantically.  It’s the physical act that turns our stomach.  Two biologically similar humans doing the deed.  The relatedness. 

        So, if it is the biology that we are hung up on, it must be because incest is not natural.  Nature doesn’t like incest.  Does it?  Well, the short answer is kind-of-maybe-yes. But only in the absence of any other suitable candidates.  Nature would prefer it that all organisms have sex with someone who can add something new to the gene pool.  This way, there is always the potential for new and stronger genes to permeate throughout a bloodline and ensure its continued survival.

        Yet many species of plant or animal, particularly in secluded areas like islands and mountaintops, are happy to either reproduce asexually or with close relatives - whatever's easiest.  It’s kind of lazy and/or desperate and doesn’t, on a large scale, help a species to evolve but it does happen enough that we could call it a natural behaviour.

        It hasn't been discovered yet, but it is thought that some animals, in particular humans, have evolved past incest.  This would mean that our psychological revulsion towards any physical expressions of love towards family is by biological design, to keep human bloodstreams interesting.  But the gene responsible for this remains undiscovered and I’m sure that a simpler explanation would be that our psychology in this regard, as in most others, is learned. 

        It's not a huge stretch to say that most societies these days are not big on incest.  Any sexual relationship with a direct family member is almost always illegal and marriage between first cousins is even forbidden in some countries, including a number of states in the US.  And one can’t forget that that all of the major world religions refer to it only as an abhorrence (if you don't think too much about Adam and Eve or Noah).  All of this, I would imagine, colours many of our opinions on the matter.  If something is illegal, majorly frowned upon by religious leaders and widely thought to produce deformed offspring, one's natural reaction would be repulsion.  What leads me to believe that it can't be natural for us to have evolved past incest is that 2000 years ago, such a short time evolutionarily, incest was routinely practised by a number of societies. 

        At this time, a Roman census revealed that the Ancient Egyptians, including the royal family, celebrated all kinds of intra-familial marriage, be it father-daughter, mother-son or brother-sister; Cleopatra VII, for instance, married more than one of her brothers.  Graeco-Roman society was less a fan, with literature such as Oedipus and Antigone displaying disastrous results for incestuous couples and their offspring.  Conversely, many gods and titans of the ancient Greek pantheon were married to siblings, Zeus and Hera being the most famous, and nothing much was made of that.  And, while illegal in Roman society, Caligula was still thought to have done the deed with all three of his sisters.  While generally the practice was forbidden, it seems to have been enough of a concern that people needed to be warned against it.  If people were doing it or warning people not to do it just two millennia ago, evolution has not had enough time to create a genetic failsafe against incest.  Which again leads me to think that the biggest influence on our negative thinking on this are societal rather than biological.

        One big argument levied against incestuous relationships is the fear that any offspring could easily spring forth from the womb sporting an extra arm, no toes and a magic finger.  It will come as a surprise to such thinkers that, in actual fact, having a baby with a relative will not, in and of itself, result in any deformities/superpowers.  Breeding within the same gene pool is merely increasing the chance that the child will develop any genetic weaknesses inherent in either of the parents .  If you have an unhealthy but recessive gene, often your partner will have a healthy version of the same gene, which will override the unhealthy one.  This wouldn't happen if you had the same genetics and the two unhealthy recessive genes might result in a defective baby.  So there is a slightly increased risk of genetic illnesses but if both parents are healthy, this will result in a similarly healthy child (physically).  Putting this into some perspective, one could say the same of those who carry cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s genes.  Carriers of these genes could potentially be responsible for passing on terrible, life-shortening genetic conditions and yet it is not illegal for them to ever have children.  And they’re certainly not forbidden from ever having sex with each other... ever!

        And if the sex is not procreative, then this issue is eliminated anyway.  What then, would the problem be?  I'd imagine that most sex, in the Western world, isn't of the baby-making variety at any rate. Contraception is, I feel confident in saying, recommended by most.  Abortion... less recommended, but still legal.  And homosexual practice (which I’m not likening to incest!  I add, defensively) also does not result in babies.  So while the lack of (healthy) children, and the aforementioned potential genetic weaknesses, are often touted as a reason to condemn incestuous practice, I don't think that this is the cause for our distaste towards it, at least not today with our more liberal attitude towards non-procreational sex.

        Blaming our culture, the media or whatever seems a bit simplistic and, in any case, I don’t think I could ‘blame’ anything for incest being illegal.  But I just can’t see the reason for two consenting adults making love in the privacy of their own home as something prison-worthy.  Yes, it’s possibly indicative of an unhealthy approach to relationships and sex but one could say that about commitmentphobes or fetishists or prostitutes…  Oh.  Well the first two still stand.  It might be something that we would find completely unarousing or possibly disturbing but you don’t arrest someone because they have an interest in watersports.  Moving on, I feel that the reason this particular sexual act garners quite so much revulsion must run deeper.  A huge part of this has to be the inherent association with abuse, because we rarely hear stories of mutually loving and caring incest, just the abusive and the paedophilic.  And then there's the madonna/whore complex, whereby we view our mothers (and other female relatives) as saints who we don't want to imagine anyone having sex with.  When they're up on a pedastal, untouched by earthly contaminants like sex, the last thing one would want to do is have sex with them oneself.  Plus incest is illegal, don't let's forget, which makes it even more taboo, and less advisable.
        The standard, and best, argument in the defence of incest is Mill's Harm Principle which is the belief that a victimless crime such as this should not be punishable by the law.  Essentially, if they’re not hurting anyone, leave them be.  Liberally guilty and open-minded as I like to think I am, the thought of doing anything with my family does completely freak me out.  And I can’t imagine a time will ever come that a parent fixes her children up because ‘they’re just perfect for each other!’ or even a time when each social circle has its token incestuous member but (and this is hard for me to write) this is what I think: incest should be legal.  There, I said it. 


        Monday, 8 August 2011

        Working From Home Forever, Day 50ish

        I went away! I left the house, and then Bristol, and then... I left England!

        I landed in a continent called Europe and then I spoke another language, one from Just William times, called French. With it, I would order a taxi, or a hotel room, or dinner, and the response would be, without exception, word-perfect English. It appears that an A-level (grade C) in French has granted me the linguistic skills of your average Swiss child (with a low reading age). My French disintegrated under the blinding lasers of the Swiss's English. Still, everyone knows: it doesn't matter, so long as you try! And I didn't prefix every conversation with 'English?' so I did better than some.

        While in Switzerland (not, unfortunately, for play-play), I was made to do 'networking', or 'schmoozing', or 'speaking to people'. Some of this speaking to people was with a PowerPoint presentation, and this is known as 'public speaking'. I realised some things when I was in Switzerland, utterly failing to schmooze, and dying inside as I publicly spoke: working from home is not good for my social skills.

        I have spent the last two-ish months revelling in the absence of office politics, and the absence of the office bully, and the absence of inane conversations, and the absence of people talking when you're on the phone, and the absence of having to get dressed every day, and so on and so forth. What slightly hit me in Switzerland, in lovely beautiful Switzerland, was that I miss quite a lot too. I miss chatting, and gossipping, and laughing, and over-analysing Lady Gaga videos, and Robyn lyrics, and episodes of Doctor Who and Mad Men, and getting the post, and going for tea, and walking the same old walk around the crummy old industrial estate every lunchtime, and uniting against office bullies. Human interaction, basically.

        I have spoken to five people today: my boyfriend; my mum; a work phone call; a waitress; a telephone chugger. I sent about 100 emails, I finished reading a book and I'm writing a blog post. I'm achieving a lot more than ever before, and I am feeling intellectually and creatively nourished, so I am not sad about any of it. I just don't want it to go on forever, is all.

        Having said that, look at what I can do with a little app I downloaded! I'd never have done that if I had any friends.

        First, this is beautiful Lake Geneva with some kind of mountains in the background. I want to say they're the Alps...?

        And then it becomes...

        I know that Hipstamatic has been around forever (and this isn't even that), but I was impressed, at any rate.

        Tuesday, 2 August 2011

        Rhys Recommends... 2011 superhero films (kind of)

        Last night, I saw Captain America, which means I have now seen all the superhero films that have been released this year and that is five.

        I do wonder if this is the year that the superhero thing finally jumps the shark. It has been the fad du jour, ever since the first X-Men film in 2000 (though obviously made much more popular than that with the Spider-Man and Batman franchises), which is quite a long fad. But... I don't think that people are getting as excited by them these days as they used to be.

        X-Men: First Class didn't make anywhere nears as much as either of its preceding (and bad) films. Did anyone go and see Green Hornet? Nobody that I know. And that's with two A-list stars and a well-loved director. Green Lantern also received very disappointing numbers (and reviews).

        [Maybe people just don't like the colour green...?]

        Thor did do pretty well, to be fair, if not Spider-Man numbers, and Captain America seems to be doing equally well (though with its patriotic title, it may not quite share the overseas success). All of which is good news for the Avengers film next year. Which will a) be brilliant and b) make a shit-ton of money.

        I can't see the new Spider-Man, nor the new Batman, doing anything other than setting the Box Office alight, it's true, but they are established franchises now, all three, even with S-M's reboot. They won't be a success because they're superheroes, but because people loved the films that came before them. And as far as I know, they aren't releasing any new superhero films next year.

        I wish the films this year had been better, and that maybe their hadn't been quite so many of them released in such a short space of time; even I'm getting slightly fatigued. After next year, I do wonder if we'll see a break from superhero films, aside from all the sequels to this year's most successful. To be honest, I wouldn't be angry if the studios started to look into some other fads, at least for a while. Like... maybe vampires? Ho ho.

        For those interested, here is my little league table of this year's superhero movies, counting down from worst to best. 1 and 5 were easy, but the middle ones were slightly trickier, no doubt due to their patchy quality.

        5. Green Lantern.
        Not awful just... a bit bland. Not the fault of the performers, who all did well, just quite lazy storytelling and a pretty unfun script. It felt very much like a post-Men in Black, early Noughties action adventure, but slightly more boring.

        4. Captain America
        This could have been the Batman Begins of the Marvel films, and there were some flashes of that, but it just... wasn't. Given that it was set during, you know, WWII, it could have been all gritty and dirty, but it felt slightly neutered and, like GL, quite formulaic. And weedy Steve Rogers did not work. Great performances from Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones though!

        3. X-Men: First Class
        This would have been higher if not for the awful, nonsensical final 20 minutes. The visual style of the film was excellent, and the emotional journey of the central characters, but it felt like they got bored of subtlety towards the end ('They're just following orders,' says Xavier to Magneto, the concentration camp survivor) and turned every character into an cock. Also, the film was completely overburdened by its desire to give us the origin of everything (Xavier's disability, I get, maybe even Beast's blueness, but did we really need to know the back story of why Mystique likes to be naked?). So I really enjoyed most of this film, but the bits I didn't enjoy, I really didn't enjoy.

        2. Green Hornet
        I expected this one to be fifth. I didn't really even want to see it. But, I will tell you, it's pretty good! It's a bit like what would happen if Pineapple Express had more gadgets and kung-fu, basically. Which is a great idea. Combine that with some excellent action and trippy fight scenes, and it was a thoroughly entertaining film. I'd be hard pressed to pick between this and Kick-Ass in terms of quality (though this film does obviously suffer from a lack of Hit-Girl - as do all films). A very pleasant surprise.

        1. Thor
        This film was just excellent, I thought. Great action, sharp script, very likeable lead and an excellent mesh of the Norse mythology and the new Marvel movie-verse. They should make more of these.