Writing in 2023

2023 has been a mixed year for my writing. I started out planning to release more self-published work and, in the end, the only physical booklet I released myself was Memetic Infection Hazards. But I’ve published some good pieces online, my favourites being:

I’m pleased with the work in Memetic Infection Hazards, but it took me months between getting the cover produced and sorting out the printing. And then I barely promoted it afterwards. I’m not sure what all the resistance I face is, but it is something worth thinking about.

I also produced Fishscale, a double-page spread in Dan Sumption’s Krill magazine, which I was very happy with. This was an entire A4-sized short story collection, containing 12 tiny pieces of writing. I need to do another version of this in 2024.

In July, I started sending pieces out to a substack mailing list, concentrating initially on the South Downs Way collection. Publishing something regularly has been good for me, as it’s got me thinking more carefully about audiences. There are issues with substack’s politics at current, so I need to move platform, but I would like to keep on with some form of mailing list.

I’ve probably shared more work publicly in 2023 than any other year, and this can only be a good thing. It’s made me consider which work is worth finishing and sharing, and how many distractions I have. I’ve deleted a lot of half-finished stories this year, and I need to continue to avoid getting bogged down in old, half-finished ideas.

2023 has also got me thinking about what I want from my writing. Is it worth the effort I put into it, when I could be putting that effort into my career? I’m not sure it has justified the effort in the past, but I want to look at how it could.

My main plan for 2024 is to release the book True Clown Stories. I’m currently preparing the kickstarter with Dan from Peakrill Press (sign up here to be notified about the launch!). This project has been over 13 years in the works, but I am enjoying the collaboration with a publisher.

I’ve a few ideas about what to do after True Clown Stories, but whatever it is will involve a different approach to my writing than in the past. One that focuses more on the joys of creation and sharing my work.

My favourite books of 2023

I read 63 books in 2023. It felt harder to concentrate on reading this year and I found myself bogged down in a few books that I should have abandoned.

Here are my ten favourite books that I read in 2023, in alphabetical order of author’s name:

Jonathan Ames’ The Come Up was an oral history of hip-hop, released for the genre’s 50th anniversary. It’s a sprawling story, and Ames managed to hit most of the important points, including giving time to neglected acts such as Above the Law and Digital Underground.

Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean was a recommendation from Tom, which I posted about back in March: “It starts out as a novel about a queer HP Lovecraft, and then becomes something even more wonderful. The book does not shy away from Lovecraft’s faults, but still manages an empathic portrayal. There are also appearances from William Burroughs and some wonderful jokes about fandom. A beautiful book about long, sad lives.”

I bought Katherine Hale’s book Slenderman expecting a dissection of Internet culture and creepypasta. Instead, I found a book focussed on the human stories in the Wisconsin stabbing case. Hale unfolds this as a tragedy, showing the appalling impacts of America’s lack of mental health care.

I was inspired to buy Catherine Lacey’s novel Biography of X by a review in the Guardian. It’s a deeply strange novel, a biography of a fictional character, but directly re-using elements from non-fiction about New York artists. And then there is the whole alternate history aspect. It’s a book that should not work, but very much the sort of thing I want to read more of.

The Art of McSweeney’s was the first book I finished in 2023, and it was a history of McSweeney’s publishing. The book goes into a lot of detail about how their magazine was published in strange and innovative formats (including one issue that was a pile of junk mail). It tells a fascinating and inspriring story about producing art.

Jay Owen’s book Dust is a mix of first-person journalism and expert summary. Arising from Owens’ pandemic mailing list, the book is full of surprising details, and some evocative descriptions of history, such as her chapter on the water of LA. It’s also unavoidably a book about the anthropocene, and as I wrote a few weeks back it works as a piece of cosmic horror.

I read Aaron A. Reed’s 50 years of Text Games as a series when it was published as a mailing list, but I also found time to read the whole book when it was compiled as part of a kickstarter. Reed foregrounds some interesting and neglected works and produces a curious history of literature in the computer age. There’s something striking about how it details forgotten artists, and shows how important literary work is not always respected at the time.

There have been a number of books written about or using LLMs, but by far the best I’ve read is from poet Hannah Silva. My Child the Algorithm starts out similar to other such books, but becomes a beautiful account of Silva’s life and experiences raising her son. It’s a book that deserves more attention than it has been given.

Studio Moniker’s all the minutes is very much an avant-garde novel, produced for 2014’s NaNoGenMo, an annual competiton to generate novels using software. I reviewed this novel in July. The book is composed of tweets, one for every minute of the day, and produces a striking and moving portrayal of the Internet’s emotions. It’s also a reminder of the sort of things we lose when platforms are not open.

I posted about Darcie Wilder’s literally show me a healthy person back in May. It’s a twitter novel but somehow managed to feel as vivid and messy as Twitter used to be. It’s a brisk read, but an enjoyable one.

The 2024 General Election

At some point in the next year the UK will have a general election – the last possible date is 28 January 2025, but I can’t see anyone wanting to campaign over Christmas. Most speculation has the election being a resounding victory for Labour. I even read a post discussing the possibility of the Tory party being eradicated.

I think its going to be closer – the Tories are good at the messaging, good at sounding strong, and good at mocking their opponents. That’s something that has worked for them: most people would rather stand behind a bully than beside a victim. And, on top of that, Labour are not offering a radical improvement – Starmer does not produce the same excitement as Blair. His current popularity rating is -22 compared to +19 for Blair at the same time.

As much as I disliked Corbyn, his results in the 2017 election are inarguable – he brought out voters who normally don’t bother. He offered people something different. While I don’t think Corbyn was capable of delivering his policies, Labour is refusing to learn the lessons from his increased support.

Right now the country is in a terrible state. Health experts have warned that “universal dental care has likely gone for good”. There are horrific stories of people being trapped on trains. Privatised companies are paying shareholder bonuses while providing poor service, filling rivers with sewage. Labour are offering nothing better than managed decline. They can’t even stand against a ridiculous policy which is spending more than £1 million per person to send 200 people to Rwanda.

British politics feels like it’s about getting everyone used to things being shit. Labour offering to hold the spoon feeding us this shit does not improve things much.

Writers Notebook: Do you need to be an influencer to be a writer?

Jason Pargin is a successful writer who emerged from Cracked and has gone on to publish six novels. He also has a substack, and his recent post Celebrity Worship is Weird and Will Only Get Weirder discussed the strange situations that he’s in as an artist.

While Pargin has a big readership, it’s not quite large enough for bookstores and publishers to do his marketing for him. In order to let people know he has a new book out, he needs to keep an audience around ready for that announcement. Which means he has a newsletter, but that needs to be entertaining rather than just containing adverts for new books. He’s also had some success on TikTok, but that platform requires regular updates. A significant amount of Pargin’s time is spent maintaining an audience that he can market his books to.

As Pargin writes: “I literally cannot write novels as a full time job unless I turn myself into a multimedia influencer that posts daily to a large, loyal, highly-engaged audience.”

Writing a novel takes a substantial amount of work but, at the end of it, you then need to take it to readers. I’m guessing this was never an easy thing to do. But in the past you were dealing with human gatekeepers, but now the gatekeepers are algorithmic. You either need to build an audience, or be amplified by someone who already has one.

The obvious case of the latter is how a twitter review of This is How You Lose the Time War by someone called Bigolas Dickolas boosted the book to the top of the charts. It’s a lovely story. But Robin Sloan compared this to ‘the breath of the gods’, pointing out this is not a very efficient system. You either spend a substantial amount of time cultivating your own audience, or hope to be picked up by someone else’s.

You can complain about this state of affairs, but you still need to think about it. Writing a novel takes a large amount of time. Finding people have want to read a novel requires either hard work as an influencer or trusting to luck.

What does Rishi Sunak think about when he watches Star Wars?

One of the revelations in Ben Riley-Smith’s book on the Tory party, The Right to Rule, was that Liz Truss loves karaoke, and that one of her favourite songs is Common People. The idea of Truss singing that song as a Conservative party minister makes me think that Pulp should have made the song much less ambiguous.

I’ve been thinking a lot about some blog posts by Paul Watson about whether art can be revolutionary. Initially, he was inspired by Star Wars tie-in Andor and how some genuinely radical stories seemed to be emerging from huge corporations, but he’s also been looking at how easily these stories are recuperated.

When Rishi Sunk became Prime Minister, the newspapers made much of him being a Star Wars fan. The BBC described him as The Star Wars fan turned political force. He apparently has a collection of lightsabres and tweeted a picture of himself at the cinema with Savid Javid to watch The Rise of Skywalker, describing Javid as his ‘Jedi Master’.

Star Wars is all about revolutions against oppressive government. The Tory government is hardly the Galactic Empire, but I wonder how Sunak can watch Star Wars and then participate in a government that argued against providing meals for poor children, or that has been responsible for a huge rise in poverty. Star Wars might be a simplistic, Manichaean universe, but that should make its politics only more obvious – and which side Sunak is closer to.

So what does Rishi Sunak think about when he is watching Star Wars?

Mycelium Parish News 2023

I’ve just published a new zine, The Mycelium Parish News 2023, in association with Dan Sumption of Peakrill Press. The Mycelium Parish News is a collection of things that have happened in our particular corner of UK counter-culture over the last year and features a list of podcasts, books, websites, events and more. It’s available on Etsy for just £2.30 including postage (£5 for overseas).

What is the mycelium? It’s the word coined by Daisy Campbell for a loose network of creative people, across the UK and beyond, which emerged from a knot of discordians, KLF fans, Robert Anton Wilson afficionados, arts labs and magicians. We’ve also included lots of links that will be interesting to people we know. One inspiration for this is the counter-culture readers in the 90s, where you could pick one up and find half-a-dozen links that might change your life.

We print the zine as a hard copy as we think it’s important to have a physical artefact of the year, and we work to keep it as cheap as possible. Once we’ve distributed the print copies we will put the PDF on the Internet archive (you can currently read last year’s edition).

And, yes, we are already collecting things for the 2024 edition.

Mini Book-Review: Jay Owens’ Dust as Cosmic Horror

I recently finished Jay Owen’s Dust. While the book is non-fiction, it felt like a work of cosmic horror, as it made me uncomfortably aware of the scale and fragility of the world.

The main marker of cosmic horror is that the characters become aware of the true scale of the universe, its hidden natures, and wrestle with the meaning of that. This book shows that dust affects us on a massive scale. Soot from forest fires can fall on glaciers, changing the albedo and speeding up their melting by making them absorb more heat. The Amazonian rain forest relies on phosphorous blown on the wind from Africa. And nuclear fallout from weapons tests will be with us for unimaginable lengths of time.

Inevitably, the book wrestles with the nature of the Anthropocene and the huge changes that are being thoughtlessly produced by humans through dust. Owens is a good guide, travelling from the stolen water of Los Angeles to a rave at the lost Aral Sea, and I loved reading this.

Monthnotes: November 2023

November felt like a slog, mostly due to very poor sleep. It took me a while to get used to the clocks going back, and I also felt like I had too much on. But the big news is that I finally released my new short story collection, Memetic Infections Hazards, which is now available on etsy. More about that below.

I had some good outings this month. I made a dawn hike over to Howarth to join a Wednesday Writers workshop. I also attended a workshop with Naomi Booth, who I knew from Sussex. Sophie came to visit with her new baby Rudyard, and Dan S came over to work on the Mycelium Parish News zine. I also saw Joelle Taylor perform in Todmorden, with a stunning performance from her book C+nto. The Thought Bubble comics convention in Harrogate was fun; although I didn’t spend too long there, I met some lovely people and bought some interesting things to read. At the end of the month was a night out in Manchester for the launch of David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the Sun Machine, where I got to meet some old friends.

November was a big month with my writing, as I finally managed to print up some copies of Memetic Infection Hazards. This has been ready for months, but I was very slow to do the final stages – my main problem with writing is getting things into the world. The cover and text of this were complete in July. This is now available on etsy.

I’ve been slightly faster with the Mycelium Parish News, which I’ve been working on with Dan Sumption. Pulling the text together has been tough. My lesson for next time is to compile it over the year, rather than having to pull together scrappy notes before the deadline. That should be available to buy early next week. Meanwhile I have continued writing pieces for the substack, and I am particularly proud of Distant Voices, which is probably the best thing I’ve written this year.

I cut down my daily steps to focus on eating better, which worked for a couple of weeks then fell apart. My total steps were 257,187, a decent proportion of the previous month’s 289,759. My average was 8573, and the highest was 21,666 when I hiked to Howarth. I’m going to keep the low step count for December and repeat my efforts to improve my diet. I’ve been doing better with my physio and maybe I’ll be good to start the couch to 5k once the weather gets better.

Liverpool from the ferry while on the Krossing

I watched 14 films, all reviewed on my letterbox diary. Foe was enjoyable, a suggestion from Jude, where I went to the cinema knowing nothing about what was coming. John Wick IV was beautifully-made nonsense. Talk to Me was a wonderful horror movie, which played with the tropes enough to remain interesting. I watched Dream Scenario in Harrogate’s Everyman cinema, which was ridiculously plush. My favourite movie of the month was Spike Lee’s 25 Hour. I must watch all the Spike Lee films I’ve missed!

I also watched a little TV. Marianne was great and Netflix’s failure to renew this for a second season is a tragedy. Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is going pretty well. The family drama is entertaining enough to fill in the time between monsters, and the kaiju are getting more interesting as the show continues. There was also a new episode of Dr Who, and it’s a relief to have the show being done properly again. I’m looking forward to Ncuti Gatwa taking over as the Doctor.

I am still struggling to focus on books, and have had a bit of an amnesty on unfinished books. However, when I set out to read John Darnielle’s novel Wolf in White Van, I finished it in a couple of days. I also finished Jay Owens’ book Dust. While this was non-fiction, it evoked the same emotions as cosmic horror.

While November was tough, I’ve mostly been enjoying work, and just passed my one-year anniversary. I’m both excited and terrified about how generative AI is about to change my job beyond all recognition, something I wrote about in my blog.

The People’s Pyramid (my future home)
  • Progress on fixing up the house is very slow, but I made a little. I now have vinyl flooring in the bathroom. This involved some DIY on my part, as I had to lift a door, but I am very happy with the results.
  • While I’ve done a lot of train travel in the last month, much of it has been blighted by cancellations. As public infrastructure collapses, the government seems more interested in picking culture war fights about the Parthenon Marbles as a distraction.
  • I grew a moustache for November. I removed it on the first day of December.