Read My Fiction

Shukhov’s Glass Ceiling

I’ve done something that I really don’t do often enough, and sat down with no distractions, and written a short piece of prose from beginning to end. No grand, ambitious plans for a multi-storyline epic that fizzle out into nothing, just a brief, punchy little story.

I hope you enjoy it.

Shukhov’s Glass Ceiling

Comrade Sidorova stood on the Middle Line of the Moscow GUM, looking down to the Lower and observing what capitalism had brought upon his country.

Huge arches, maybe fifteen feet across each, contained the glass storefronts of shops owned by multinational corporations. The architecture was stunning – Pomerantsev’s genius had survived communism from beginning to end, which at one point he feared nothing in his beloved homeland would manage. But their use was a barbaric joke – he could see three arches in a row containing the name and products of an American jeans company.
Sidorova had never been able to follow the logic of jeans as a luxury product. He had worn them on occasion in his younger days – they were uncomfortable against the skin, and downright abusive when wet. It was the propaganda which swung it, he had decided – marketing, to use the capitalist term. Perhaps knowing that the product itself was not much use, units of the rough material were moved out of stores worldwide by using imagery of rugged American cowboys and trendy modern party-goers.
It hurt Sidorova’s pride to know that, for many young Russians today, their ideal of masculinity was not their fathers and grandfathers who had worked without complaint in the fields and the military, but an American posing in the Texas sun.

Sidorova looked upward. Shukhov’s glass ceiling was magnificent – even a century after its construction there were few like it anywhere in the world. It flooded the building below in so much light that Sidorova could almost believe a God must have created it. There was a train station in London whose roof was also built more of glass than metal. But even there the ratio of iron to glass weighed more heavily on the side of practicality. Saint Pancreas? Some body part, but he wasn’t sure which. Even the great Victorian engineers – perhaps the greatest engineering nation ever to have lived – could not match the innovative genius of Shukhov.
Beauty comes from that which is natural, Sidorova felt, and man should only interfere when it is a necessity. Centralised planning is the worst form of human interference.

This building had played it’s part in Sidorova’s awakening from his propaganda induced childhood stupor. As a young man, he had been assigned here, in the days when queues for the more practical items it stocked stretched across Red Square.
Although the desperation on the people’s faces were hideous, his superiors had drilled it into him that one day this magnificent, palatial shopping centre would serve it’s purpose, to help feed and clothe the people of the world’s rising superpower. The problem was that the party simply had not had enough time to get things working the way they should.

But the offices of the shopping centre silently debated this point. A few were still used, a faded image of the days when this was the central point of planning for Stalin’s first five-year plan. Many more laid empty, abandoned.
It was as he stood here, in this very spot so many years ago, that he was struck with an idea. Simply seeing the sheer amount of light that flooded in from the ceiling, while the ceiling held solid, was a revelation to him. A combination of nature and man – the warmth of the indoors, with every inch of the hallways flooded with natural sunlight.  He saw the beauty of the natural world with eyes that he had never used before, and realised immediately that it must have been a genius who could build such a structure. A genius who built a thing of beauty before the Communist party rose to power.
It was a beauty that was misused by the party – he could see thugs in state uniforms pushing around the poor as they merely looked for enough food to keep their families alive.
Sidorova had thought of the entire building as a new form of propaganda, created not for the glorification of Stalin, but the glorification of the natural world, and the men who could tame it.
As he took the train journey back home, Sidorova appreciated the beauty of the fields, the skies, even the ramshackle huts, in a way he never had before. The thought had simply never occurred to him that Mother Russia could thrive without the party’s blessing, that his dissatisfactions were circles that could not be squared.
By the time he reached home, his mind was consumed with blasphemous ideas.

Sidorova did not consider himself a killjoy, he knew there were important things in life beside bread and water. But he also knew the profit margins on trousers, sports shoes, jewellery, and considered it a sick joke that so much of the price went to the propagandists. In Asia the clothing was crafted by workers who toiled for pennies.

Banner after banner on the Lower Line bore a single message – advertisements for a perfume company. Giant bottles were painted on the sheets, repeated over and over, lest consumers forget their implicit message – CONSUME! – in the seconds walking from one to the next.

Despite Sidorova’s melancholy, he knew that, beyond doubt, what he saw around him was better than what had gone before. He had no doubts over the side in the struggle he had chosen, and, were he required to do so, he would do the same again without a moment’s doubt. But he had dreamed – more than that, believed – that the fall of communism would see power given to the people. That they would no longer be manipulated into actions for the benefit of the powerful.
Thinking back over his life, Sidorova realised what it was he missed about communism – the struggle against it.
The secret meetings. The walks through the streets of Moscow on winter days when the poor starved and his breath seemed to freeze in the air… He was warmed by the knowledge that he and his colleagues were struggling together for the common good.
But now… Who was left who would struggle with him against the modern propaganda for over-priced trousers?

FootballOpinion

A Link to the Column with No Name (Like Clint Eastwood Before He Went Crazy)

Wednesday afternoon the latest edition of the Lower League Week went up… shortly before the announcement of Terry Brown’s departure from Wimbledon, and Mark Robins’ appointment at Coventry. If a week is a long time in politics, an afternoon is apparently a long time in lower division football.

I write about Steve Evans’ latest ban (the Rotherham manager probably has a worse disciplinary record than most midfield enforcers); Tranmere and Andy Robinson’s great start to the season, Coventry’s stadium negotiations, some of the impact of Financial Fair Play, and a transfer from League On to the Conference being delayed because it’s classed as an international transfer.

Wales is the bit that’s in red.
Because it’s the colour of dragons.
They’ve set everything on fire.

There wasn’t a clear theme to this week’s edition, so it’s subtitled The ‘I Couldn’t Think of a Title’ Edition.

Review

I Am The Secret Footballer

Since the horrors of Hillsborough and the rebranding of English football under the Premier League logo, the culture of the game has changed dramatically. Football has moved away from the gritty, working man’s game it once was, with players being required to be hyper-drilled athletes, smooth and inoffensive in front of the cameras, in case they accidentally say something that could affect one of the club’s sponsors. This has resulted in an interesting contradiction – there’s never been more ways to interact with players, and learn about their lives, but the truth is often hidden away behind a glass-sheet of superficial perfection.

Two respectable English chaps play the gentleman’s game, what what?

While of course the game itself is the main draw, getting inside the head of the players we admire, understanding how they push themselves to the levels they do, and what their lives away from the pitch are like, are also more than a little intriguing.

Around two years ago, a footballer began sharing stories of his playing career in a weekly column in The Guardian. To avoid repurcussions, not to mention offending his team-mates and family, this column was published anonymously, under the name of The Secret Footballer.

Last month saw the publication of the player’s autobiography, I Am The Secret Footballer.

I have reviewed the book for Born Offside.

FootballOpinion

Matches against Portsmouth and Brazil

A little late, as this post went up on Born Offside on Thursday night.

This week’s Lower League Week focuses on Port Vale, whose financial woes have deepened, with prospective owner Keith Ryder no longer returning the administrator’s calls.

No matter how long they waited, the call just wouldn’t come.

Harry Redknapp returned to football with Bournemouth, di Canio refused to stop talking, Preston have put together a decent run of results, an Oldham player made his international debut against Brazil, and Martin Allen took Gillingham to Barnet, who decided against appointing him manager in May.

Click here for the column in which I ask Where in the World is Keith Ryder?

FootballOpinion

The Truth about Hillsborough

On 15th April 1989, a football match between Liverpool FC and Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground, Hillsborough, went drastically wrong.

In basic terms, for those not familiar, crowd control issues meant not all fans were inside the ground by the time the match kicked off, and security decisions, as well as the ground was structured, made things worse. In the end, 96 Liverpool fans died needlessly.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, both the police officer in charge and national newspapers tried to shift the blame onto the fans themselves. The Sun famously claimed that many were drunk, violent, and that some were thieves and necrophiliacs. Sadly, I’m not exaggerating the last claim.

The families of the victims have fought long and hard to clear their collective names, with the results of an inquiry released today, propelling the story back into the headlines here in Britain. If you’re unaware of the facts behind what happened at Hillsborough, I’d recommend this article, which gives a pretty thorough explanation, but you’ll find dozens more written in the last few days.

Though I’m far from an expert on the facts of the story, I’ve written a brief emotional reaction to the news at Born Offside.

Analysis, Storytelling Geekery

Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet – Planet of the Apes (1968)

Blake Snyder wrote an influential plotting guide, Save The Cat, which contains his famous Beat Sheet.
Tim Stout, himself a writer of a how-to guide on writing graphic novels, has put a condensed version of the Beat Sheet up on his blog, and I’m going to quote the whole thing:

Continue reading “Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet – Planet of the Apes (1968)”

Analysis, Storytelling Geekery

Story Structure

Amongst the ways you can divide fiction writers are the division between those who like to plan their stories out beforehand, and those who like to make things up as they go along.
George RR Martin, the writer of the Song of Ice and Fire books which have recently been turned into the excellent Game of Thrones television series, describes this division as being between Architects and Gardeners.
The Architect plans things out in detail before starting, while the Gardener enjoys waiting to see what things look like, then decide where things will go.

A writer of Ice and Fire. And a Gardener, surprisingly.

It’s easy to see Architect writing style as stiff and uncreative. I’ve read writers who’d probably describe themselves as Gardeners who say that a lot of the fun of writing is seeing where the story will take them.
But when I try to write in this style, I either regret the choices I take with the story, or end up spending ages setting up a relationship or describing the working environment, or introducing the hero and villain, with no solid idea of what they’ll come into conflict over.
I’d definitely describe myself as an Architect.

As a result, I’m fascinated by story structure. I’m sure there’ll be people who see structure as the death of creativity. I’m pretty confident there’ll be some big name screenwriters of the 70s and 80s who see the arguments put forward by Robert McKee and similar prescriptivists as being responsible for the lack of creativity in modern blockbusters. (The truth is, of course, that it’s entirely Michael Bay’s fault.)

Having said that, he does do a pretty good impression of a tidal wave.

The best way I know of to achieve this is a term I’ve only heard of in the last year, ‘breaking the story’.
In essence, you start with the story that you want to tell. That could be a story from your own childhood, something in the news that struck you as fascinating, or just a bunch of characters you want to play around with.
You then ‘break the story’ to get across the things you want to say, the jokes you want to tell, in the best possible way. Story structures, if they work, are rough rules for when things should happen.

I’ll start with a really basic story structure, which you’re probably already aware of – the three-act structure.
In basic terms, the first act is where characters are introduced and a conflict arises. In the second act, things get worse and tensions rise, and the third act is where the finale and ending occur.
That probably sounds really obvious – if you’ve ever seen a film, read a book, or told a joke, you basically know all that. But I just used a basic example to demonstrate that structure and creativity aren’t necessarily opposed.

Anyway, the point of all this, is that one thing I intend to do more of soon is to reverse engineer existing stories, look at how others have approached the idea of structure.
I’ll look at Blake Snyder’s 15-part Beat Sheet & Dan Harmon’s Circles soon, and others not long after.
I’ve done a little of this before (though not on the blog) and I find it both interesting and useful to look at how other writers have structured their stories. So if anyone else reading this wants to join in and link to their own reverse-engineered story plans I’d be interested to take a look.