Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

  • Music:

The Braiding Technique

Somewhere along the line, I started using a narrative device where I switched between two characters, one in the present (the now) of the story, and another in the past, or future. Since I was too lazy to actually track down the technical term for doing this, I ended up referring to it as the braiding technique.

The most extreme version of this was in 26lies, where I took one main narrative, and then began braiding all the content from twenty six different chapters so it would intersect in X, in chapter twenty four. But, outside that book, most of the braids have been fairly simple in that they've been one main narrative, one second narrative. Stories like 'The Souls of Dead Soldiers are for Blackbirds, Not Little Boys,' 'The Dreaming City', 'The Funeral, Ruined,' and 'theleeharveyoswaldband' have all featured it. In fact, to illustrate it a little better, here's a quote from the last story there:

From behind rain slicked glass, the streets of Detroit were a dark pattern highlighted by smeared yellow light. To Zarina, it felt as if hundreds of eyes were weeping brightly as she passed. She watched them from the passenger seat of a tiny blue hatchback that was driven by the plump, middle aged Emily Brown, who, as her name suggested, wore a baggy brown suit to match her cheaply cut brown hair and name.

“You’re being quiet,” Emily said.

“Yeah.” They were at a red light. Emily only talked at red lights. “Just thinking.”

“Try not to over think. Nothing good comes from that.”

Zarina made a noncommittal sound, then said, “I think I’m making a mistake.”


But she was. Zarina hunched down into her patched army jacket and stretched her black docs out so that they were under the little car’s heater. She didn’t know why she had done that: she wasn’t cold—in a minute, the heat would seep through her boots and turn uncomfortable—and hunching made her jacket bunch at her neck unpleasantly. But she couldn’t keep still; she fidgeted while trying to reason out why she was there. She should be back in her apartment uploading new recordings and making sure that someone was covering shows for the Pixel Babies and Eddie Isn’t Dead Yet next Saturday. She should be cooking for Sara. She shouldn’t be taking two unpaid days (Friday and Monday) from her call centre job to make this trip to Detroit to meet the sole member of theleeharveyoswaldband. She should have said no and junked the email. But when she had read Emily’s words telling her that Lee wanted to meet her—

“You’re fretting,” Emily interrupted as the hatchback stopped at another light. “I can see it on your face.”

“I don’t—I don’t usually meet artists I like.”

She laughed. “My. I’ve never heard Lee called that before.”

“It’s just—just meeting them, y’know?” Zarina continued, trying to push out her words, her fears. “Meeting them can just—can just fuck it all up. That’s what I tell Sara. That’s always what I tell her. Just the thought of meeting him has woken us up at night.”

“Is Sara your daughter?”



The light turned green.

The other thing, Zarina knew, was her life. She wasn’t ashamed of who she was, knew she didn’t have to justify anything—and wouldn’t, fuck the world if they thought she should—but after that one word, Emily shrank behind the smooth mat black steering wheel and chewed on her bottom lip, allowing the silence grow heavy as she drove slowly through the wet streets. It reminded Zarina of the very real possibility that Lee Brown could say something that would ruin his music for her. All he would have to say was some small-minded thing, some red state thing, and that would be it. Her fingers pressed into the palms of her hands, bones cracked, and she thought about that night, after the Annandale, when she had returned to her apartment. Without flipping the lights on, she had crossed the cold wooden floors, flipped on the stereo, dropped her ipod into it’s cradle, and with Sara’s cool white fingers sliding across her stomach, played theleeharveyoswaldband set. The set meant more to her than Brown ever could.

“Well,” Emily said, then paused. She cleared her throat like a careful teacher. “Well, it doesn’t matter. There’s no need to fret, anyway.”

“I shouldn’t have come.”

“Nonsense. You changed his life.”

“That didn’t have anything to do with me.”


The Annandale Bootleg changed everything, didn’t it?

It made Lee Brown a cult icon. I mean, seriously, I saw him on a fucking t-shirt the other day. Couldn’t believe my eyes.

It is ironic that a man who couldn’t read would be so embraced by net culture.

You got to thank Zarina Salim Malik for that.

You don’t think it would have happened without her?


Some people, y’know, some people—that fame will happen anyway, and it doesn’t matter who is around. I’ve heard people say that if it wasn’t for Sin-e that Jeff Buckley wouldn’t have been found—but Sine-e was just a café that he played in it, y’know? Could’ve been any place, it wouldn’t have mattered cause Buckley was just genius waiting to be found. Buckley was going be Buckley and didn’t matter how it would happen.

But theleeharveyoswaldband wouldn’t have been anything without Malik. The music was shit, Brown couldn’t keep a band, he could never get regular gigs—and then she showed and bootlegged him in a pub and put it on the net and suddenly it’s everywhere and people can’t get enough of him.

Thanks, in part, to Xeni Jardin at Boing Boing who pushed the link through the site to the thousands of bloggers who reproduced it.

Exactly. Blog culture, the net—it just gave theleeharveyoswaldband an audience, and that allowed Malik, who eventually became Brown’s manager and record label, to exploit it.

I remember reading this article that said that the success of the band rested in the fact that it never released a studio album, and that new recordings—new unique records—were put out at every live show and loaded up by dedicated bootleggers, making them part of the process. Part of the music—the sharing, the distribution. It was basically saying that because it embraced everything established music didn’t want too, that’s why it worked. Which is some weird logic, you ask me, and ignores the fact that Brown was just messed up, and that the brains behind it all was Malik, a blogger with an already existing bootleg audience. But, apparently, the more messed up he became—

Well, the more of a cult figure she could make him.

I picked the story, incidentally, because you can read the whole thing here, if you're curious.

Anyhow: as you can see, the aim of the quote is to take the arrival of Zarina at the house of Lee Brown and add an extra layer to it through the conversation with 'Jack Ruby', a former band mate of Brown. There's a whole tragic, post Cobain feel to Brown who, illiterate, unable to organise a set list, and just generally fucked up, is made famous through one meeting with Zarina, for who, in my mind, is the centre of the story. The trick, therefor, is to braid the two lines, that of Brown's fame, and Zarina's meeting with him, so that you can see the resolution from it at the same time as seeing the cause--rather than extend the story out in a linear fashion for twice it's length, where you get the same resolution buzz, the braiding, in my mind, anyway, allows for you to create a tighter, and shorter, piece.

I must admit, I grew fairly found of this technique very quickly, to the point where I had to actively stop myself using it, afraid that I'd just be writing dozens and dozens of stories that worked in the same way. It's a quick way to become bored as an author, and boring to an audience, I think.

Still, I found it a lot easier to write like this than using a straight, linear narrative. Whatever the reason, I find writing like that quite difficult. It's either the sustained distance of having one long scene, and putting in the pauses and breaks and build up, or it's just that the fragmented, pull together at the end thing is much more representative of my mind. When I give it thought (it isn't much), I come down on either side--but I am a fairly fragmented kind of guy, and I lose track of conversation threads, get distracted very easily, and tend to jump round. Whatever it is, I'm always impressed when someone can pull of a linear narrative without scene breaks or line breaks for any length beyond two or three thousand words and still make it an interesting story.

At any rate, my love of this technique got the better of me last year, and I decided that I would use it in the novel I'm writing, Across the Seven Continents of the Underworld. The heart of the book is the story of Matt Brady who, having been released from prison on the penal colony Ailartsua after thirteen years of chain gangs and prisons, discovers that his only family member, his brother Alex, has been murdered (with, in fact, his wife and two children). What follows then, is a narrative in which Brady hunts down the five men who have, in recent years, moved to the new colony to set up their business. It's a very simple heart of a story: kill the men who killed your brother. I'm a simple kind of guy, really, though while I was forming the book, I decided I would also weave in information about European settlement of Australia, specifically referring to the generational genocide against Aboriginal people. I've become interested in the idea of marrying reality and fiction together, in part by an interview I read with Lydia Millet who, and I'm paraphrasing here, said in relation to Oh Pure and Radiant Heart that there was no good reason why you couldn't mix non-fiction and fiction together. So I'm giving it a quiet push and shove in this book, because in the next one I have planned, I actually want to use the braiding system not with a second narrative, but with actual non-fiction content, such as she did in that book.

With Across the Seven Continents of the Underworld, however, the braiding technique is split between Matt and Alex, a past tense third person narrative for the former, and a past tense first person narrative in the form of a diary for the latter.


Well, okay:

I am sitting in a coach as I write this, Matt. It is warm, stuffy, and even though the children have wound down the windows to let what is passing for a breeze in, I find myself drifting off. The four of us (the driver sits at the front, outside, just as they did over ten years ago) take up too much space in this box and, with the motor beneath the floor burning hot with coal, and that heat rising through the bronze floor, there is nothing to do but feel your blood turn sluggish and your limbs heavy. We all have another six hours remaining to us in this little moving sauna.

We have left Issuer for Ledornn, finally. Seven years working in that town was more than enough for me. It was enough for Lauren as well. The streets are so weighed down with damaged people that it begins to effect the way you see the world. Eventually, you begin to see only the grief in everyones eyes, that powerful emotion that has ground their life to a halt, and which causes you to wonder if they will ever recover from it. I suppose this state of mind is the natural result of living in the shadows of the Ovens—how could they not? When I stepped outside and looked up at the cracking brown-red sky in the morning, the first thing I saw was the huge, hulking, soot stained monoliths that dominated the skyline. The Ovens. They never fade into the background, either, not with the constant influx of men and women from all over the Shibtri Isles arriving each week. Each one of them bringing their dead. Bringing their grief. There is so much work to be had in Issuer now that the Ovens burn once a week, and every Friday, a tart sweetness drifts through the streets. It arrives with fresh, fatty black ash. It takes a rare kind of person to live in such a town for the entirety of their life, and when I say rare, I mean in a damaged way. Damaged both physically and emotionally. Damaged to such a point that the environment around them is in such compatibility to their own self that they see nothing wrong with living in air stained with the bodies of men and women and children.

Yet, for all that I think this, and as the hundreds of windmills that spin over the houses of Issuer became thinner and thinner until they faded away against the red horizon, I do feel a tiny sense of loss. Lauren and I had just married when we arrived. It was our first home. Both Angela and Iain were born beneath the Ovens. I was paid well, too, for the work, and we never went without want. Yet, I remind myself—I must remind myself—that the work I did was never my own, the house never ours. I was always living in Mrs. Fraé's house. I was always writing in her script. I was always working on her skin.

In returning to Ledornn, this will change. I will be taking over Adina Benjamin's skin, and making it my own. I will use my own script to write, and have my own skin to write it on. After all this time the name Adina is probably one you have forgotten, Matt, but she was the mortician that I served my apprenticeship under. She is close to eighty now and her script, or so she wrote to me in a letter, is suffering—I suppose it could be true, as the lines that she wrote in pen were not as strong or as bold as they had once been, but I think it more likely that she is leaving before her work suffers. The idea of skin being read before God in an unsure hand is not one that any mortician likes to think of.

In her letter to me, Adina said that she had a hundred and twelve skins, which I recall is about half of the number from when I was there. I'm curious as to what has happened to the number, but Mrs. Fraé, when I discussed it with her, said that such a decline at the end of a mortician's working life was not uncommon. They stop taking on new skin. Old skin dies. They are preparing to leave. This means that the business is not as strong as I first thought it to be, but, also, it means that I will only have to write in Adina's script on a hundred and twelve skins, and not the two hundred plus that I had thought. I will be able to begin using my own script as soon as new skin is brought to me.

Lauren has just asked me what I have written to you. She has Iain lying next to her. He has fallen asleep on her long, brown panted legs, and there is ash in his blond-brown hair. When I told her, she told me that I was boring you dreadfully and that you must now be hunting for something to burn this diary with, or at the very least thinking it is a prison trick. She said I should describe the empty, ash coloured world around us, and the unpaved road we're traveling on. That, she said, would be more interesting that anything I had written.

Matt, I think she hates you.


The street leading to the hotel Five Down, Five Across was made from hard red dirt. Brady had left the paved road two blocks back, where large, multi-storied gazebos cast frail shadows. In a way, he was glad, because the shade did nothing to stop the stones from catching and holding the midday heat, and it was actually more comfortable to walk on the dirt and the sun faded wooden steps that lead to the hotel's door. Inside, he found a round, spacious room, elevated from the dirt by a rough wooden floor, and with a three tables, a dozen chairs, and a long counter down the right side on top of it. The furniture was made from a sun bleached white wood, though a quarter of them had been painted red and brown, and the appearance of the room was motley and rundown. There was only one person in the room and she, a heavy set woman in a loose green dress with dark blue tattoos up and down her thick arms, had her equally thick feet propped up on a chair in front of her while she waved an orange paper fan at her face. When Brady entered, she paused in her waving for a moment, then said, “It's three pounds a night for a room, and there are no floors. It's just dirt. The register is over there.” She nodded with her greying, uneven hair cut towards the counter.

“There a bed?” he asked, still standing in the doorway.

“Single. You want a double, that's five pounds.”

“Single will do.”

At the counter, he found the ledger open. There were two pens sitting next to it: the first black, the second red. The former was more popular to write in, it seemed, as only one man had signed his name in red on the nearly full page.

“Black,” the woman said, fanning her face. “You want to use the black pen.”

“Why is that?” Brady asked, holding the red.

“The red is for the blacks,” she replied, completely without recognising the ridiculousness of her words. “Every one of the natives that stays anywhere in Ailartsua has to sign their name in red.”

Blacks? Brady hadn't seen one since he had stepped out of prison, and said so.

The woman chuckled in response, and said, in a lazy, faux innocent tone, “I hear they're a dying kind of tourist.”

Brady had heard similar—had heard it often, after the fiasco of sweeping the land for renegade blacks—but he didn't much care if it was true or not, and would care less once he was gone. Wordlessly, he swapped pens, signed his name, and walked over to where the woman sat. There, he counted out three pounds from the bag of coins that the Warden had given him. For her part, the large woman paused in fanning herself, and pulled a bronze key from a larger ring of bronze keys and gave it to him. She pulled the keys off the chair next to her, where she also kept a short, ugly looking shotgun. On the back of the key the number '1' had been scratched. With a nod in thanks, Brady walked to the back of the hotel and stepped out into the hot, midday sun again. Ahead of him were five small gazebos, each made from unpainted, sun bleached wood and copper corners. They each had lattice patterns over the windows and doors to provide a sense of security, and behind that pattern were thin white curtains. Brady found his gazebo room quick enough: inside it had a narrow bed made from wood and with a thin mattress. There was a small table in the corner and that was it. Regardless of the meanness of the room, Brady fell gratefully onto the bed.

There, he pulled out a long bottle of beer from his duffle bag and, having pushed himself up against the wall, cracked open the lid and took his first drink in eight years. The last drink Brady could remember had been in stolen: he had taken to robbing coaches on the roads through Cirotciv and Tuos Weh Senlaw after his last escape. It had not been his plan, of course: every escape he made in the early years was meant to result in his return to the Shibtri Isles, but he always required money to pay for silence on the ship, or he needed to lay low for a while so that he didn't get caught on the docks. It was difficult, also, to find work, since the only things that Brady had been trained to perform were acts of violence and he found himself naturally gravitating to it—and thus it was not surprising, even to himself, that he fell quickly into robbery when pressed to survive. Of course, this had resulted in a larger than usual bounty being put on his head, which meant that it was only a matter of time before he was captured. Brady's last drink had been taken, in fact, as he stared at a rough drawing of himself, with the word REWARD written beneath, and the offer of a hundred and fifty pounds. He had been tempted to turn himself in for the money.

The next morning, however, he had been awoken to the sight of two lean soldiers in maroon and black, and with ugly, tarnished rifles pointed at him. Behind them, a tall, thin black man was resting in a crouch, and it was clear, before even a word was said, that he had tracked him from the town to his camp.

It was the knock that brought Brady out of his thoughts and back to the warm darkness that he sat in.

It was not a hard knock, when it sounded again: it was soft, polite, almost, but Brady had—quite reasonably—not been expecting anyone to come to his door and so he found a suspicious frame of mind quickly. It was made even worse by the fact that he had not been in his room for more than an hour. The knock sounded again, and Brady pushed himself up off the narrow bed. Still holding the brown bottle in his hand, he opened the door, and felt the midday heat push itself uncomfortably against him. His attention focused, however, immediately on the slim, elderly man in front of him. The man had a grey band of hair around the side and back of his head, and a neatly kept grey and white beard, and was wearing a light, black suit, with a white, long sleeved shirt, the cuffs of which poked out around his wrists from beneath his jacket. Over the back of his hands, and around the open collar of the elderly man's shirt, Brady could make out the black tattoos of words.

“Mister Brady,” the elderly man said, “my name is—”

“You're a mortician.” Brady lifted his bottle in mock salute. “I don't need no new marks. I been judged enough.”

A tiny smile creased the mortician's equally small mouth. “I'm afraid you misunderstand.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes. May I come in—the sun is quite taxing on me, I must admit.”

“You should have come at a different time in the day.” Brady had not yet moved out of the mortician's way, partly because of the black leather bag he held in his hands. It was there that morticians kept their tattoo needles and their ink. “What is it that you want, anyway? If you're just hear to—”

“I'm hear to talk about your brother, Mister Brady. About Alex.” The elderly man ran a hand over the skin on his head. “Please, may I come in?”

Brady did, at that, step back. He did not want too, however. No mortician—no man or woman—would come out in this heat to talk to a man about his brother for a good reason, he knew. Good news could always wait. He knew that he was not going to turn around, sit on the sun faded bed and have a discussion about how Alex was looking forward to seeing him. They were not going to discuss work in Ledornn. The fact that Brady had not received a letter from Alex in six months, and that the last one he had received was dated the year before, took on a new meaning. Before, he had been able to pass it off as nothing, as a just the way the system worked—every convict had the same problems, and they were worse if you were being punished—and this allowed him not to worry about it, to believe that his brother wanted him home, to believe that he had a home to return too... but now, with the old man standing on the edge of his bed, he had a sudden clarity, a realisation that of course Alex would not want him with his family, and thoughts of self loathing began to burst in his head.

“The news is not very good, Mister Brady.”

He knew that.

“Would you—could you please face me?”

“Just say what you have to say,” Brady muttered, “then get out.”


“Say it.”

“I'm afraid...” The old man cleared his throat. “Your brother is dead.”

Again, silence.

The mortician began, “Did you—”

“I heard you.” Brady straightened, turned. “Get out.”

“Alex was murdered,” he said, instead. Brady heard the black bag click open and a rustle of paper emerged. “We have come to you as part—”

“How many times do I have to tell you?” Brady found himself growing angry, while at the same time he was blinking rapidly to keep tears back. “I know what you and your kind want. Leave.”
The mortician was silent, but then, slowly, nodded. “Of course.”

Brady thrust the door open with his hand and the hot, red sky waited.

“My name,” the elderly man said as he paused at the door, his gaze trained on the world outside and not Brady's slowly, crumbling face, “is Dekal Ballantine. I am at The White Horse Hotel, and will be there until the end of the week. Please, see me before I leave. I have left a diary for you. It was your brother's. We found it in his house—it was addressed to you. This is how we found you, I am afraid.”

“Just get out,” he whispered harshly. “Now.”

The door clicked shut and Matthew Brady was left alone.


Ledornn. Eight hours in this coach. Everyone is asleep around me and so it is I alone who sees our approach to the city. From a distance, it looks like a body lying broken on the ground. In its arms and legs and chest and skull are lights from the apartment blocks and houses and streets and those lights are in bloom. They are like flames breaking through the skin.

Fun, innit?

Half the trick to making braiding work (at least, in my mind), is being able to bounce the narratives off each other. It's not enough to leave them distinct from the other, and in fact, if you did that, I tend to think it would fail something awful.

In my head, when I think of having the narratives touch each other, I use the word 'bounce', rather like you're in an old game of video game ping pong, where you move your flat disk round to bounce the square ball back and forth. It is because I have a doctorate in literature that I can use these terms, like bounce, and like braid, and make comparisons to old video games, and know that they make perfect sense. Honestly, you could just about call them anything: touch, slap, tickle. But I use the word bounce, because I just like to hit the second narrative, then jump back into the first (or hit the first and jump back into the second). You don't do it all the time, of course--just the same way that the pinging sound in ping pong speeds up and becomes irritating when compared to that slow, steady ping, you can overdo the bouncing by repetitively hitting each narrative. The best way round this, I find, is to seed in a thematic concern so you can go long periods without having the two interact and then, when you do so finally, you create a nice dramatic effect.

But still, I began writing this book last year, the start of last year, and I have only just begun to see daylight at the end of it. There's still about forty thousand words to go--I'm at about eighty thousand, I think--but I know where everything goes, where everything bounces, and how it ends, which is of course in blood and violence and history, which is a nice and obscure line to add here. But yet, yet, what I didn't realise when I set out to write this book, was just how fucking time consuming doing this braiding would be--sure, it always took me a while to write the short stories, but the truth of it is that short stories have always taken a while to write--I hate feeling that I'm repeating myself, I like to try new styles, new narrative techniques, and I rewrite a lot. But this is the case regardless of if the short story is braided, linear, or experimental. The shit takes me some time.

With the novel, I didn't realise just how time consuming that would be. There are weeks, maybe even whole months, were I've felt that I haven't made any progress on the book, because I've had to go back, seed earlier scenes, fix up the bounces, rearrange the braid, mostly because I cannot switch voices as I go along. I don't write Brady, Alex, Brady, Alex--instead, I write a section of Brady, usually about ten, fifteen thousand words, and then a section of Alex, to fit around that, and at about the same length. With the braid, you're forever going backwards, forever reworking, and as a result, the first seventy thousand words of the book are fairly polished, which is some joy, I must admit, since once I'm done, will mean I won't have to spend a lot of time reworking.

Anyhow this is just me, thinking aloud, dropping notes in, and giving you all a monster long post to read. Say hi when you read the bottom.
Tags: acrossthesevencontinentsoftheunderworld

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  • John Clute on Steampunk: Revolution, edited by Ann Vandermeer.

    John Clute wrote about Steampunk III: Revolutions on Strange Horizons and my story, 'Possession', gets a nice mention: Some of the stories…

  • Sirius Reviews

    Here's a pair of responses from Locus and Tangent Online. The first is Lois Tilton: Contamination. A human colony on a planet gifted to them by…

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    A review of Above/Below appeared in Locus by Rich Horton: Also worth a look is the linked set of novellas, ‘‘Above’’ by Stephanie Campisi and…