Less about the world, more about me.

Month: April 2017

Varadkar and Welfare Cheats

Photo by Fiona Hyde

I understand why Leo Varadkar would make a big splash targeting welfare cheats. I do. In his position, I’d do the same thing. It may be transparently cynical. It may not be very original. And it will certainly enrage those who wouldn’t vote for his party anyway. But it does have a proven record in garnering those votes that someone like Varadkar wants. He’s looking to those of us in the struggling middle. The people who pay for everything. The people who get little in return. The coping classes. The squeezed middle.

We’re so important we can’t even settle on one name for us.

I’m one of us. I work, I have a mortgage, I pay for everything, I struggle. I’m one of those who now worries more about the cost of the dentist than whatever physical pain the dentist may inflict on me. I’m one of those who delays going to the doctor because it’s a week before payday. I’m one of those who has to pay his car tax and several insurance policies in instalments, costing me even more. I’m in negative equity and I have no savings. I recognise Varadkar’s siren call because it is composed for my ears.

And it is seductive.

It may not be very original, but it doesn’t have to be. It is an appeal to a part of what we are as a species. It’s an appeal to the basest of our human instincts. It is that dog whistle calling to our very core. It is that opportunity to feel hard done by. To have someone to blame. To feel superior. A chance to hit back. Easy answers so that our frustrations can be exploited and allow us feel good about being so used.

There are a lot of us and we vote.

We humans are a social animal. On the face of it this sounds like an absolute positive. There are some downsides though. We don’t react well to being taken advantage or just thinking we are being taken advantage of. We can get very exercised by that. It’s a trait of ours that is readily exploited. Ronald Reagan became the most powerful man on this planet because of this predilection. He used the term ‘Welfare Queen’ to target the poor. He used it to target the poor with a side order of racism.

Othering works.

I understand why Varadkar is targeting welfare cheats. If I was in his shoes I’d be doing the exact same thing. Those of us struggling in the middle really want someone to blame. If it’s to be people who are even worse off than us, then so be it. Reagan won and he won big. He rolled back what little social welfare provision existed. Over thirty years later and there remains a visceral mistrust in America of welfare. A mistrust that is tinged with racism.

But Reagan didn’t invent this.

It worked because it is as easy to other on grounds of class as it is to for race. At the turn of the last century, British writers could dismiss the intellectual and moral fibre of the poor as readily as they did the African and Asians they ruled. Poverty, like race, was innate. The real trick was to convince the poor that this was scientific fact. That was easier done than one would expect.

It worked because, capitalism.

I say this as a capitalist. One of the foundational pillars of capitalism is aspiration. Without it, capitalism is just a very few rich people lording it over a multitude of poor and struggling folk. Without it, Ireland is just a country with 83,000 millionaires, a growing homelessness crisis and ever more children in poverty. Only faith in an ideal, no matter how far-fetched that ideal, can keep the multitude quiescent.

Aspiration is this faith.

To paraphrase a certain French warlord, every poor person carries a million-dollar idea in his or her knapsack. And no one wants higher taxes on those future millions. Yes, they’re still imaginary millions, but they’re our millions. Let’s focus on the miniscule few criminals gaming the system at the very bottom. They’re probably foreigners anyway. Work shy and foreign, and probably black, or Muslim, or both. My aspirational millions must be protected.

Othering works.

There are those who game the system at the very bottom. That they steal less than is paid out by mistake is inconsequential. There are fewer votes in assailing the incompetence of public-sector workers and their antiquated technologies than there is in condemning the poorest. There are no votes in attacking those enterprising self-employed folks who dabble in the black-economy. We applaud tax-avoidance. We laud the entrepreneur. But we will vote for anyone who deals firmly with those at the very bottom, who need social-welfare just to survive.

There are no easy solutions.

There are 83,000 millionaires in Ireland. The State has proven itself incompetent. Taxes can be too high. Our services are creaking. We in the middle are struggling. There are no easy solutions. But sure fuck it, let’s burn a few witches and warm our hands on the fire.

On Noveling: Even More Plotting

Last week I suggested I might look at World Building in this post. I won’t be. It has been an interesting week in the plotting arena. So interesting I have to write about plotting some more. As you may recall I decided to sit down and plot this novel out. I did that. Or more accurately, I plotted the first chapter in exquisite detail. The First Act in some detail. The Second Act in a very broad way and the Third Act was hand wavy in the extreme.

With this preparatory and revelatory work done, I sat down to write the first chapter. It was projected to be approximately 5000 words long. I wrote 3000 in two days. It just flowed. I hadn’t written so much and so smoothly in years. Then it stopped. My mood began to dip. I began to eat the wrong things and stay up late and generally be not very useful.

This morning it clicked. I still hadn’t worked out what the antagonist’s motivation was. I had several vague ideas, but nothing that would make sense and hold the story together. I was essentially writing a story that wasn’t a story. Its motivation (yes, I said, its) came to me this morning. I’d, apparently, been puzzling it out as I ate pizzas and chocolate. Probably not the kind of creative process my waistline can sustain.

But I am relieved. My mood has improved. I now have a story that works. It might turn out to be a shit story but at least it will be coherently shit.

Now I have to examine how my mood could dip so precipitously and then rebound. It’s unsettling. Interesting, but unsettling. I wonder how my therapist will react to it. And I have to accept that there’s a strong possibility that I’m post hoc ergo propter hoc-ing this. I hope not, because there is something romantic about wrestling with an artistic problem. Rather than the more prosaic, moody bollox explanation.

For the rest of the week I have to finish chapter one and plot the rest of the novel in detail. Really ensure there are no large holes that might scupper the whole thing. And hopefully next week I’ll finally get round to World Building.

Previous: More Plotting                   Next: Still Not About World Building

Dáil Prayer

There’s a good chance the world will end this week, but here I am writing about prayers in the Dáil. It’s as if my atheism, once again, comes with a capital A. It’s not that the idea of non-religious people being forced to stand to attention while a Christian prayer is said at them, appals me. Irks me certainly, but not appal. It is just one of a litany of petty insults that Roman Catholics like to throw around in this country. But what is important is that by their very nature, members of our parliament are quite a privileged bunch, so a few insults won’t harm them.

What I’ve found more interesting are the inventions by two Kerry politicians, Michael Healy-Rae TD and Councillor John Joe Culloty, on the topic. Neither man could care a whit less about an audience outside of rural Kerry, if you’ll forgive the apparent tautology. They were speaking to their constituents and both men are very skilled at reading and catering to their constituency.

They did not mince their words, other than to offer contradictory and demonstrably false comfort to anyone who isn’t a Roman Catholic. One gets used to listening to Iona types disguising their exclusionary opinions in so much smooth blather. It was refreshing to hear two politicians essentially tell anyone who isn’t a Roman Catholic to fuck off. A little irked, but not appalled.

I even began to feel some empathy for these rural types who fear the loss of their Roman Catholic privilege. Because this is more than simple privilege. Again, I’ve listened to too many Iona types that I forgot to listen to the sweaty masses that Iona like to speak for. This is about identity. Since before there was an Irish state, Irish children were being indoctrinated by the Roman Catholic Church.

Come the revolution, the Church smelled the direction of the wind and jumped on the nationalist bandwagon with all the gusto of the recently converted. And once independence was won, they got to keep the schools. Every generation since then has been taught a type of nationalism that twins Roman Catholicism with Irishness. It should not then be surprising that for a great many people in Ireland, an attack on their Church is an attack on their nationalism, an attack on their identity. An attack on their perception of who and what they are.

No wonder their hackles rise and their representatives smell votes anytime this new-fangled idea of secularism is touted.

To say one’s faith is a private matter goes against a century of conditioning. It’s just that a century of faith formation still seems to require constant public support to survive. The schools, the hospitals, RTE, council chambers, courtrooms, the constitution, the presidency and the parliament are all required to buttress this seemingly weak faith. It appears that there is no faith in the faith of Roman Catholics.

In this age of the ‘Identity’ and of all cultures being deemed worthy, it’s difficult to know how best to negotiate this impasse. Is it ageist to suggest that our senior citizens be allowed the comfort of Roman Catholic iconography on television and in hospitals? Is it too much to expect minorities to grin and bare it while an aging and diminishing majority lords it over them? Is it sectarian to accept that only Christians can be judges? I really don’t know how one can manage to keep everyone happy and equal, while ensuring no injury to someone’s dearly held identity.

Speaking about the values of a republic is meaningless in the face of an identity that does not distinguish between faith and nationality. I just don’t know how to square this circle.

On Noveling: More Plotting

Well, it’s been a productive week on the noveling front. But not so much on the actual writing front. As I explained in my previous post, my intention was to carefully plot and plan my novel, ‘In Ten Thousand Years,’ so I’d know what I was doing every time I sat down to write. And in this week’s post I was going to share with you my progress and dazzle you with my tenuous grasp on the Three Act Structure and other things about noveling I like to think I know.

It turns out I’m bloody lucky I decided to do a bit of plotting, because the whole thing fell apart under the most cursory of examinations. The structure, the plot, the characters, all were utterly unsustainable within the narrative I’d initially envisaged. Even the title didn’t work. If I’d persisted in writing this novel as I’d originally half-arsedly planned, then my heart felt squeals, a month from now, would’ve made for a very depressing blog post indeed.

All that remained was the premise. And even that had to get a severe prodding. But it did stand up to my bitter prodding. So, I was left with a premise. A premise I like and consider worth persevering with. But could it be the basis of a novel?

I took a piece of paper (it was A4 printing paper and a clip board, let’s not get too romantic about this) and began to do a bit of mind mapping. I wrote down everything I knew about the worlds involved, the characters and their motivations. Then I began to connect them up. Looked at how they interacted and how they might interact in the future. Then I looked again at the premise. Is there something worthwhile that’ll animate my protagonist (do I even like him?) and are the obstacles interesting? Is my antagonist interesting? Is my antagonist sustainable?

How do I turn this mishmash of ideas into a coherent narrative? A narrative that conforms to the structure that novels demand? How many chapters? What’s the inciting incident and can I fit it into the right place? What are the first act, midpoint and second act crises? And can I World Build in an unobtrusive manner?

As I said, a busy week and still more to do. I’ve planned chapter one in some detail. Now I’m caught between wanting to write that chapter or continuing with planning the rest of the novel. The novel that is now called, ‘Hidden Messages.’ And don’t get too attached to that one either, it’ll probably go at some point.

So that’s my week of noveling. I don’t know yet what I’ll write about next week, probably won’t be plotting exactly. Might look at World Building though. Thanks for reading.

Previous: Plotting                    Next: Even More Plotting

On Noveling: Plotting

I’d planned to blog about ‘plotting’ this week but there’s been a change of plan. My blog, my plan, my plot, I’ll change them if I want to. Yes, this will be one of those moany posts I warned you about at the beginning of this series. Though I will attempt to find and take some positives from this week of getting very little done.

The people I hate most on this planet, after homeopaths that is, are writers who’ve managed to write novels during the brief patches of quiet in their busy lives. I hate them passionately. I don’t have a busy life but I still struggle to find those patches of quiet. That this is almost entirely my own fault does not lessen my hate. That discipline, that focus, are to me the preternatural qualities of an alien species.

What I should be feeling is a mix of inspiration and jealousy towards these aliens. I don’t. I just want to blog my sulk. And sulk, blogged, is a sulk shared and validated. As I’ve couched my strop in grammar and prose, I am making it into a thing that is entirely acceptable and worthy of empathy. OK, that’s not true, but it’s been a frustrating week and this flow of words is the most flowy I’ve been able to manage.

As I try to understand those weird bastards and their snatched spaces I’ve had to conclude certain things. They are innately better than me, and by that, I mean they have the ability to use their time like grown-ups. Or they know their story so well, they are almost dictating it rather than creating it on the hoof. Or a combination of both.

As I have written about recently, I am experiencing anxiety. I am already over the worst of that unpleasantness, but dealing with small things, like cutting the lawn, going to work, walking Arwen, putting my contacts in, are a little bit more stressful than they have a right to be. They distract and tire (and it’s tire not exhaust because moaning aside, I am a lot better than I was even two weeks ago). I’m managing to go to bed before midnight, most nights. I am getting up reasonably early, most mornings. I am eating the right things. But I’m not managing to sit in front of my computer most days. And I think I know why.

And fortunately, it ties in with what this blog post was supposed to be about, plotting. My process was to do the absolute minimal amount of prep work possible then just make shit up as I write. This is clearly not working for me. I think I have to plot this novel to death, before writing it. When I sit down to write, I need to already know what I’m going to write. It’s a method I’ve always resisted because I’ve assumed it’ll negate those lovely moments when unexpected things happen.

It’s a thrill that’s hard to describe. I’m writing a scene, I’ve an idea where it will and must go and suddenly I’ve written several paragraphs of something entirely different. It’s pure invention. It’s the closest I get to feeling like an artist. Except it isn’t very useful when trying to structure something that is at the very least sixty thousand words long. As much as I wish it wasn’t the case, there are right ways and wrong ways to write a novel, before one even gets into the territory of judging its quality.

I need to plot. I need to know that when I sit down to write, I already know what I’m going to write. How I retain those creative spurts? I’ll just have to work that out as I go along. So next week, will be about plotting. Hopefully.

Previous: The Characters                    Next: More Plotting

On Noveling: The Characters

Last week I wrote about naming my novel, ‘In Ten Thousand Years’. This week I’m going to describe how I create the characters that will inhabit it.

There are university courses, libraries and innumerable online resources that examine the process of character creation. I’ve looked at a fraction of a fraction of all that information. And even that tiny portion has taught me something important, characters matter. I know, shocker.

Without characters the reader has no one to care about. No one to empathise with. No one to hate. No one to make laugh or cry with. No one through whose eyes we can see the world and experience its vicissitudes. This means the characters have to do a lot of heavy lifting. Get the characters wrong, and by wrong, I mean characters that fail to feel real, then plot and theme are lost.

My novel, is all about the plot. I like the plot. It popped into my head almost fully formed and I really want people to care about the plot. So, I need characters that’ll grab the reader and make them want to turn the page.

The characters in this have taken me a bit longer to dream up. I wrote a few thousand words. These words were the opening scene and a scene that happens later on in the story. In doing so I discovered traits I wouldn’t have otherwise managed.

Some writers will invent and develop their characters before they even think about a first draft. While this approach doesn’t appeal to me, it highlights the importance of having fully realised characters from the beginning. And by fully realised I mean, name, appearance, age, gender, origin, family, species (if writing sci-fi or fantasy), sexuality, right or left handed, habits, idiosyncrasies, foibles, culture and a thousand other details that guide the writer and help convince the reader that this person is real, this person is behaving in a believable manner, this person’s choices reflect all that we know about the character, this person’s fate matters.

A biography of each character is vital. I dislike doing this because it’s a chore. Also, what if the plot requires something that I’ve already stipulated the character could not or would not do? You have three choices, change the character i.e. rewrite the character from the beginning. Change the plot i.e. rewrite the plot from the beginning. Or just hope your character has been so poorly rendered that the reader won’t care or notice the inconsistency. I get a little paranoid about giving the characters so much detail that I paint myself into a corner, but with proper planning, of both character and plot, this possibility will be greatly reduced. No matter how prepared the writer is, there is no protection from a sudden insight that changes everything.

I have two main characters and at the time of writing this, only one other minor character.

My protagonist is called Lord Ithell and antagonist, Series Three. When naming non-human characters, I use one of the several online name generators. I can usually find a name that fits within the first 100 suggestions. Thus, Ithell. Series Three was easy, it describes what it is. That took a lot of pressure off. The third character is called Auttarc. Again, that name is taken from a name generator. When using invented names one can go down the Tolkien route of inventing languages and creating names that fit and have history. Most mortals however just make them up, but they do at least try to have some kind of consistency.

These names are enough for now. The next task will be plotting, which will necessarily lead to more characters.

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