Monday, December 31, 2007

Back and forth

I was going to do this post all about why writing SF&F is like being a billionaire - and I don't mean because neither one has money in their pocket - because the hardest part seems to be thinking big. This thought was occasioned by watching Top Gear which had a segment set on a race track built by an oil billionaire. Clearly whoever did that has grasped the magnitude of their wealth and run with it. Same goes with genre stories. It's the only literary form where bigger is better. Most modern fiction is set in a small town and about a small guy or gal and their small problems. By contrast SF&F can encompass the death of worlds, of everything and everyone.

But now I'm not going to write about that because I'm becoming increasingly unsure about the posts I've put on this blog. I'm doing it because I'm told I should have one - even though I don't have an audience as yet. But I'm still wrangling with what I want it to be.

At the moment all I know is what I don't want it to be. Perhaps its the built-in diffidence of being a Brit but I wince every time I read a blog post which screeches about that writer's award winning story or the places it has been published, or republished, or translated. If you met someone in the pub who talked about themselves all the time they'd be a boor - same goes online. I do not read the blogs of writers (and I don't read many) to hear about how great they are. I read to get more of a sense of who they are - their view of the world. Based on a reading of many writer's blogs you could be forgiven for thinking that they are all braying hoorays.

So I'm not going to be doing that. There are some blogs I want more of and I want to emulate their slice of life/tiny story post type thing. Hence the Train of Death post below. So I want to do more of that.

And, if I'm honest, I don't know enough about SF&F to compete with the lengthy essays put out by the best in the field. And I have a limited amount of time to write so don't really want to commit that to research to make those longer pieces better when I could be writing stories and learning my trade. So, not that either. Well, only every now and then.

I think what could be useful, to offset the rampant egoism of writing this, I'll put in stuff I'm learning about writing and the trade. And what I have learned leads me to the subject of this post.

The single most important trait a writer can have, as far as I know, is persistence/dedication. Success seems not to revolve (solely?) around talent. I'm not aware of anyone that broke through with a single story sale. Perhaps it's cruel of me to admit that I was heartened to read that even Ted Chiang regularly gets rejected. So battering away at editors with story after story, showing them that you are getting better seems to be the way to break through. Familiarity in this sense breeds contentment and the willingness to take a chance and print one of your stories.

All of which has led me to set myself some pretty steep objectives for 2008. I kind of did the same in 2007 and managed to send out more stories than ever before but my approach was pretty scattershot. I'm aiming to write a story a month next year but will settle for nine - pretty paltry when folk like Jay Lake claim to write one a week - but limited time etc etc. Plus I want to make a pro sale and/or sell enough stories to join these folks.

I know I can do it. If there is one other character trait (flaw?) that writers need it is for a boundless source of hope. It's that which makes me look forward to the post every day to see if I've got any acceptances, it's that which gets me up in the early hours to write down an idea or an outline that's been battering the inside of my head like a trapped moth, it's that which drives me day after day in the face of almost 100 rejections to keep at it. All I have to do is think big.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Train of death

On Thursday engrossed in The Old Curiosity Shop I looked up to see which station the train had reached (Fulham Broadway) - I've missed stations before now when swept away by a good novel. Though the upside of that is that I spend more time on the train reading. But then, I glanced around to see what everyone else was reading. And everyone I could see, everyone, was reading a book about murder. Some were crime capers, some were thrillers, some were about serial killers thwarted by the timely actions of troubled, but decent, men. But all of them involved death, mutilation, stabbings and murder. Usually on a grand scale. Odd. Usually there's some chick lit or a classic in the mix but not today. Perhaps that's the primer you need on the way in to work on a weekday. Just before Christmas.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Elf and happiness

It is probably heresy to say this but I really have my doubts about elves as a magical species - especially as they are depicted in most modern fantasy. I just don't buy all that fey, hippy dippy stuff, art nouveau look they sport.

To be honest, to me, they come across like fundamentalist Christians - in the sense that when they are around people are wary of saying the wrong thing and breathe a sigh of relief when they leave the room or go back to their elven homes.

I've yet to read a compelling treatment of what it is really like to be an elf. Even Tolkien's elves, for all their deep history, didn't really convince. I guess it's hard to draw a compelling picture of the motivations of creatures that live so long. I got the sense that they thought humans, being very short-lived by their standards, were a bit of an annoyance. Like humans are with the blowflies battering against the windows. The buzzing can be a bit annoying but, you know, they will be dead soon so it's not worth bothering to kill them or sort out their problems.

There is a difference to be drawn here between a depiction that presents them as essentially unknowable with motivations vaster and more important than we mere humans can appreciate and making them a bit ineffable. Most of the depictions fudge the issue - because it's a difficult one I guess - but I'd give them points for trying.

I think Pratchett was more on the money with his depiction of elves as cruel and downright dangerous to any thing that doesn't share their longevity.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

History lessons

It is fair to say that there is a lot more to writing than I ever thought. It is a craft that gets harder the more you know. In my breezy youth I used to just embark on a story sure that my raw talent would, like a storm surge, overcome the barriers to getting it finished and it actually being any good. Now, much older and wiser I know a huge amount more about how to construct a story, how to handle character, voices, use setting to reinforce the action, change pace to aid exposition and so on, and so on.

As an aside I used to think I would be one of those writers that would be interesting because he was a success enviously young (like Bruce Sterling). But now I’m in danger of being interesting because I’m getting to it so late. But, as others have said before now, the good thing about writing is that you do get better at it as you get older and it’s not the type of physical work that a body simply cannot do at an advanced age.

If I have any regrets about not getting on with it earlier it is that I’m just realising how much there is to know and time is not on my side to learn all that. Though, if you believe John Gardner, (no, not that one) I’m already sunk because I didn’t study literature at University.

Anyhoo, what I have realised, and I know many other budding writers are the same, is that not all stories are created equal in the boiling ferment of the brain. There are some stories, often that have been nourished for a long time, that a writer will shy away from writing until they have the talent to do them justice. I know I have – several of them. And that’s just odd.

It is only partly explained by them being held so close for so long that a writer, like a parent, does not want them to go out in anything but their best clothes. But only partly. There is some deeper appreciation thrumming through stories that demands a writer take notice. And it only gets worse. The more you know, the more scared you feel because you know that the potential for doing a story down is a heinous act. A betrayal almost. Which is really odd. But there it is. Writing increasingly is all about confronting that gap between what you know and what a story demands. When I got going I never thought I would need as much courage, determination and hope as it is becoming apparent I do. This is work, real graft, and it is no good just hitching your belt and waiting. You have to set out and get on with it because every story is a mirror in which you confront yourself and means that what is at stake is your self respect.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Reading rites

Amazon’s launch of the Kindle got a lot of people thinking about e-books – but what matters to me in this debate is the light that gadget casts on actual books, what they are for, and why people, mainly me, read. I’ll say it now, I am a fool for books. There have been days in my youth – mainly as a student when I had less caution than sense and much less money – when I bought a book rather than lunch. Sad, I know – evidence of addiction but it has to be said that there are worse vices.

One of the most devastating lines I ever read was in a New Scientist feature (no idea which one) which worked out the number of books someone could read in a lifetime. The idea that there was a cap on the number of volumes I could get through hit me hard – even though I knew there was no chance I could read everything. But I’d like to have thought that I’d do my share. No chance. Copyright libraries grow by about 12.5km of shelf space per year. By comparison I get through about 20cm of books a month. At most 2.5m per year. Give or take. So I’m falling way, way behind.

But that’s all to the point. I think the Kindle has its ethic the wrong way around. Which book I buy is important – but it’s the book, the physical thing, that I want. I really don’t get on with libraries – possession is ten tenths of the law as far as I’m concerned. I don't want every book just ones that become important for who knows what reason. The trouble is that I don’t know which ones they will be until I read them and the crowd of circumstances assails me and turns that title into a must keep rather than a meh. They become part of who I am – in quite a profound way. I suspect that it’s the same for any serious reader. The collection is the thing – it’s part of what you have become. And that's about comfort not convenience.

Once I know which books are important then I might want to tote around copies and dip into them now and again but Kindle, and its ilk, don’t cater for that. They’d force me to buy it in both formats. And I don’t want that. In buying a book I’d like to buy the right to read it in lots of formats – I might even pay a tiny bit more just so I can. But pay twice? Sorry, but I’m not in the mood to burn money.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Hill start

So, anyway. For days in the run up to my 40th birthday I was nagged by a feeling to re-read The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie. Why, I don’t know. But I was in need of a book and I’ve learned to trust those impulses so I gave in. It’s a great book, well worth a re-visit, but I didn’t know why until I got to Chapter 13. And there it was. The reason to re-read it. Lying there like a newborn, expecting nothing but your admiration. The epigraph. Every man over forty is a scoundrel - George Bernard Shaw. Which made me feel great. Am I a scoundrel? No need to ask. GBS has decided for me. So I bathe in the warmth of that pronouncement for a happy hour or so, but then doubt sets in. Why did he say that? Where did he write it? I don’t know much Shaw beyond the names of some his plays and, after all, there are so many books and I have so few eyes. But it turns out that the phrase comes from Maxims for Revolutionists (1903) and is intended to make young revolutionaries distrust those who are into their fifth decade. Not a scoundrel because they will seduce your sister but because they are so steeped in the status quo. But because I'm keen to extract a grain of comfort from it I can claim that I'm still dangerous to someone. So, all in all, bitter-sweet really. Just like turning 40.