Monday, December 08, 2008

Back to basics

I know I'm coming late to this but Lynne Truss's book "Eats Shoots and Leaves" is an absolute delight. I mentioned before that one reviewer made me feel giddy when I realised what a difference correct punctuation made to one passage but the feeling was short lived and has only been repeated as I read Ms Truss's book. Not only is it full of rules for the correct use of punctuation but it makes it clear what all the various marks are supposed to do.

One of the most striking sentences in the book is the description of punctuation as: "a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling." I had a real "man with the teeth opening the door" moment (Thanks, Ken) when I read that. Later in the book she talks about the feelings that good punctuation is supposed to provoke in the reader and I had another of those moments. I can now see how useful it can be in writing; how it can make improve what is said; how it can help. (Look at that - two semi-colons in a sentence. Astonishing.)

I suspect Ms Truss must be close in age to myself as she speaks of going through school and never having had any of the punctuation explained to her. Like me. She declares herself a stranger to subordinate clauses. Like me. But I guess that is grammar rather than punctuation but at least now I know the difference.

I suspect I'll have to re-read it to get the full benefit, and maybe copy out the rules, but I feel encouraged by how straight-forward she makes it seem. Doubtless it is not quite as clear-cut as she suggests but at least the basics are a bit clearer now.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Understanding Mildred

I think I've already written about my affection for Of Human Bondage by WS Maugham - now I come to think of it I don't think there is any other book, apart from LOTR, that I've re-read so many times. Pride and Prejudice? Tess? HMS Surprise? Hmm. Not sure.

Anyway I recently re-read it and it confirmed all my best hopes like it always does. What makes it a great book is that every time I read it I discover something new in it. For a long time I've admired its control of character, use of language and how it engenders sympathy for Philip. Although giving him a club foot and making him an orphan looks a bit obvious even to a newbie such as myself.

Anyhoo, this time around it struck me that what gives the book its power is that some of the incidents in it are so well tied to the stage in Philip's life at which they occur. Mildred's destruction of all Philip's property has to happen because in doing that she severs his link with his past - which she represents. By destroying his possessions she forces him to start anew and launches him on that track. After this incident Philips' life slowly, with one major downturn, starts to pick up. He becomes reconciled to who he is and starts to swim well in the stream of life.

For a long time though I just did not get why she did it apart from it being one with her narrow, vindictive character. Which is another reason why its a great book. Not only do the incidents underscore the broader story of Philips journey through life they are also utterly in tune with the characters of the people carrying them out. I'm not sure how many times I've read OHB but I'm betting that 2008 was by no means the last.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

And we're back

August 13th. Ooof. I'll blame crazy times at work for the hiatus. I don't propose to bore anyone with the details instead I'll bore allcomers with more entries. Don't say you weren't warned.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Standard operating procedure

An observation. Another - related to the first. A moment to ponder and give me time to think while I write. A hyperlink. Two. A question about what it means. Is it good? or bad? Perhaps it is both.

Anecdotes to explore what this means. One of them might be quite funny. Or self-deprecating. Oh, other people have gone through this.

Emotion creeps in. Pathos. An attempt to lighten the mood with a pun. A hint of bitterness and regret. A rant that almost breaks out in flaming rage. Hulk smash! Realism drags the post back to saner waters with the rider than I wonder if I'm cut out for this. How many rejections? State how much it matters to me. Again. Verbal teeth are gritted. Fuck it, I'll do it anyway. A witty sign off.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Whine List

I've become a fan of Mur Lafferty's podcast "I Should Be Writing" which is a great source of encouragement for writers labouring in the wilderness - that would be me. It's good to hear about the experiences of someone going through the same hassles I am and Mur has lots of level-headed advice about the trade.

But in this podcast she said something that experience tells me is not true. Writers, she said, should try to get better at what they do because the better the story they write the more chance there is that someone will want to publish it.

I've no quibble with the assertion that writers should study their craft and hone their abilities but, I've got to say, that will have almost no effect on the saleability of a story.

I'm driven to say that because of a comment that turned up in a recent rejection - yet another which was of the "almost but not quite" species. The comment was that the whole picking of which stories to publish was such a subjective business.

Until I read that I'd harboured the fantastical notion that an editor presented with ten stories for five slots would pick the five best - by which I mean the most technically adept, the best written. But I have been foolish and deluded. Editors pick what they like to read. By which I mean crap gets published all the time.

It strikes me that it would be perfectly possible to go through an entire writing career turning out technically flawless stories but never getting anything published because no editor liked any of them quite enough. Tobias Buckell said he got rejected 500 times before he started to make it. I hope it does not take me that long. I've just hit 100 rejections after three years. So to hit 500 I'll have to do this for another 12 years.

The days after I realised all this have been dark - I've really considered giving up. Especially when I worked out that since I've supposedly been getting better at writing the ratio of acceptances to rejections has got a lot worse. Significantly so.

I've said before that my motivation hinges on whether I get a good response to what I put out and at the moment I'm not. Now though I realise that the only person I need to please is myself. I feel quite liberated and what I write has changed a lot. Getting published is a bonus that luck has a lot to do with. And I have to believe in luck. How else, to paraphrase Cocteau, how can I explain the success of my rivals?

Monday, July 14, 2008

The rules for the game

In no particular order...
Be specific - sardines being grilled is better than fish being cooked.
Use active and direct verbs - he walked rather than he was walking.
Avoid abstractions - such as horrible, violent, frustration.
Make every scene and sentence count.
Use the minimum amount of magic/hi-tech to get things moving.
Adverbs - Gah, away with them.
Reveal character by action. Put characters in situations that force a response.
Do not hide information. A surprise works better if no-one suspects it is coming.
Experts plan to the end.
Dialogue - Do not let it meander. Conversations are great ways to show character and attitude.
Elaboration of motive - a character's actions should reveal more about them, what they are doing and why they are doing it.
Write for yourself and no-one else.
Writers write - try to make progress every day.
Keep an ideas notebook with you at all times.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Off the leash

I've often wondered if I'm too polite when I write - perhaps it's the curse of my middle-class upbringing. Certainly, it's something one reviewer accused one of my characters of being for his impeccable behaviour during a scene set on the NY subway.

But it was reading The New Weird that really got me thinking that I needed to throw out at least one baby and its bathwater. The book is great on the history of the New Weird and why it came into being. One of the main motivations is dissatisfaction with Tolkienesque type fantasy and the limitations of that form.

I've said before I have problems with elves but my wish to write something different always felt like I was breaking the rules and, to be honest, I felt a little uncomfortable doing it. This is despite the fact that I'm a huge fan of China Mieville (Perdido Street Station is a breath of fresh air) and many other alumni of this field. I just didn't get why they did it and the anthology clued me in.

I'm aware that many books/stories have appeared before now that had a whiff of New Weird about them but it's the extreme nature of the form that defines it - to my mind. The heady mix of insanity, bodily awareness, cityscapes, Dickensian character-building and love of language is hard to mistake once its salient features are pointed out. It is also utterly convinced by its settings - no clever, clever post-modern awareness of the story as a story here.

Reading the anthology also chimed with comments from other writers about their development. Many speak of the moment when they found their voice and started creating the stories they were put here to write.

I certainly feel that a big change has taken place in what I write - I'm no longer ameliorating what I write to fit the conventions. Away with them. Give me liberty or give me daeth. The story I'm working on at the moment has flowed out of me so quickly that at times I feel like a witness more than a writer. It feels more honest. I have no idea about whether it is any good - though the strength of its voice will be a plus.

The changes means that some of my fears about writing have gone in that I feel so much happier about the stories I'm producing. Writing was starting to feel a little formulaic prior to this realisation. And one story very much of the old school keeps getting bumped as I work on these others. But those fears have been replaced by others which centre around whether it is any good at all. There is a lot more at stake too as they are far more personal. Time will tell whether the change means I get more published. But I'm happier than ever about doing this.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Pause for thought

It's fair to say that commas and I have never got on. Perhaps its the way they lie insolent on the line like a drunk in the gutter, perched between the respectability of the pavement and the out and out seediness of sprawling in the road. Whatever. I use them like I use pepper on pasta - the dish looks better with it and occasionally a crumb will land in the just the right place to counterpoint the taste of the sauce. Was that metaphor too tortured? I hope so.

I'm not sure why it is that commas and me are such strangers. I'm a whizz at spelling but I have no recollection from my school days of the laws of commas being drummed in to me like spelling - though the fact that I read like a crazy person might have helped my ability to spell.

This admission is perhaps something of a surprise given where I work and what I have done for a living for the past 15 years. It's perhaps a comment on the sad state of prose in the papers or simply that, even if I do not know, many of those that I have worked with do. Subs are a boon!

Lots of the comments I've got on stories I've put together recently have focussed on commas and my cavalier (ab)use of them. One story was critiqued by an English teacher and, this is going to sound a little odd,I got a real thrill to find out where they should go. It really changed the way the lines read. I'm a long way from being like Proust or Oscar Wilde who, it is said, having removed a comma from one line pored over the text for two days and then put it back in. At least then, the story goes, they knew why it was there.

That very kind reviewer pointed me to this site and it turns out there are rules for using commas. I always thought it was something much more abstruse but no. There are proper places where they should be used. Cool. That OWLS site is fab in other ways too - it has lots of great advice for novice writers. And the more I write the more I realise that's what I will always be.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Get on with it

I'm not sure why but three times in the last two months a story has descended on me almost complete - ideas, settings, dialogue, scenes, structure - the whole lot has bubbled up from some hidden spring.

It has happened before but not with such intensity nor for such a sustained spell. Perhaps the planet is passing through a region of space loaded with inspirons like the Perseids. Dunno. All I do know is that I've produced two or three tales in a very short space of time.

I don't mention this to disingenuously suggest that I am struggling under the burden of my talent which often leaves me breathless and marvelling at my own splendour. And I don't really want to complain about it though stories which arrive in this way are no less clear of problems than ones that have to be wrung out word by word. They still need honing to do their job properly. Lots of the words that look stellar in the light of the early dawn as I scribble them on the paper I keep by my pillow fade during the editing process. Lots get cut out.

It has to be said though that I feel something has changed. SDL, my touchstone for these issues, said that in his writing there came a time when he felt he had some kind of breakthrough and his writing improved a lot after that even though outwardly it read very much the same. I don't know if I've gone through the same process but it feels a bit freer and the sense I have on what needs to be done to a story seems deeper. Time will tell whether that will translate into published stories, or glory, sales.

But as Ze Frank and the level-headed Mur Lafferty have said ideas can very seductive. "Brain crack" is what Ze Frank calls them. I keep wanting to hare off and chase those ideas down instead of getting on with finishing the story I'm currently working on. It's all too easy to keep chasing ideas, which pretty much always look brilliant, than it is to get on with the graft. But it's been said that the difference between writers and everyone else is that writers write, others don't. I guess to that you can add that one similarity between writers and everyone else is that they have ideas, the difference is that writers ignore a lot of them.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Killing to be kind

I've not written that many stories (19 for those keeping count) but I've recently had to carry out the unpleasant task of pensioning off a couple of the older ones. I've had to do it because I've run out of places that I want to submit them - though that's not to say there aren't more places where they could go.

The decision comes about for a couple of reasons. I typically have about 8-10 stories circulating at any one time. I could have more out there in the ether but the administrative and mental overhead of keeping those flying is about the limit of what I can cope with. I also have a lot of respect for the stories and submitting them willy nilly anywhere and everywhere would not feel right. It has to be said that not all markets are created equal - I'm aiming for a particular section of the genre media and going beyond that would dilute that focus. (Can you dilute a focus? Hmm, perhaps not.)

Anyhoo some of the stories that I've pensioned off are pretty old and were first written three years ago. I'd like to think that I've got better since then so they are not the best advocates for what I can do.

But I look back at affection with those stories even if they are slightly tarnished in memory because they have racked up so many rejections. Mothballing them does not end their usefulness though. They are peppered with useful phrases and ideas that can find a home in another story - one key idea from the retirees became catalyst for a flash story that has been accepted.

There are some that I'm planning to re-write too as I really like the setting and framing idea that got me to dream them up in the first place.

Plus I learned something while writing them and they kept my name in front of editors that I am trying to impress and convince to publish my stuff. Given that, so far, I'm keeping to my stated ambition to write a story a month losing one or two is not so bad. Though I'm going to face a real crisis if any of my work gets published as that will punch a hole in the numbers available to send out.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sympathy is the very devil

As I close in on 100 rejections I can see a trend emerging in the letters and e-mails that accompany those stories that don't quite make it.

I can sense I'm making progress in that more rejections express the hope that I'll keep bothering those editors with my stories. Perhaps its rejectomancy to read too much in to that but given the thin nourishmnet from the big table I've had so far those crumbs taste pretty good. Cuspy? Look it up in the dictionary and it'll have my picture next to it.

Three of the rejections I got recently all mentioned failings of character. Those letters mean more than most because they do chime with what I think about where I am at. I now know I can handle setting, structure, dialogue and I'm getting a handle on action.

But character? Hmm - I know that the characters I write are pretty thin.

So I turned to the web and my collection of "how to write" reference books for help. To paint good characters SDL says I need to show them performing actions that are "habitual, purposeful and gratuitous". Reading that I realised the importance of action - in the sense of putting a character in places they must react rather than a sword or gunfight. People reveal themselves by their action otherwise they are just being shuffled from place to place and looking blankly on.

Also important, say folks like Orson Scott Card, are telling details - habits or incidents from a character's past to round them out. Then there are the elements revealed in dialog beats - reactions or additions to the words and the attitude a character brings to events.

I also found this great note by Jim Kelly about how to go about it. There's great stuff here - about how telling in a short story is okay but showing is important too. Probably the best advice he gives is to try it and keep on trying until it works. Writers learn by doing rather than be being told - they are not alone in that.

But I also came across the frightening information that Iris Murdoch felt she had never mastered the art of creating good, for which read sympathetic, characters. And that chimes with what I've felt reading Murdoch, her characters feel like exquisitely made mechanical people rather than living, breathing individuals. Where that leaves me I'm not sure. Perhaps I'd better go and find out. So, if you'll excuse me...

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

London calling

I've alluded to this before but I am very superstitious about giving away too much information about the stories I'm working on before they are published. I'm not sure where this phobia stems from but my fear is that the entropic load of a story is pretty light. By that I mean they wear out fast if told too soon.

That fear has made me reluctant to use this blog to promote stories I'm working on. But I've realised a few things. Firstly, I'm not interesting enough to sustain people's attention forever all by myself. And (1A) I don't want the blog to become the place I use to bemoan my lot. Which it has a danger of doing.

The second realisation is that if people do start visiting then they'll do so because they are curious about what I might be coming up with next. So, I'm starting an allied blog (much of which will be reflected here) about a novel idea I've been kicking around for a while. It's a steampunk romp and in that blog I'll work on the setting for it. My tentative title for it is The Brass Boy. Part of the reason I'm doing this is because a public announcment can be a good spur to action. I can ignore my conscience with increasing ease but lots of other people saying: "Hey, whatever happened to The Brass Boy?" is harder to dodge.

Steampunk seems a natural era for me to choose because I've become a Dickens nut over the last few years, have been a fool for Victorian history for years (Flashman!) and Jerry White's magisterial A Human Awful Wonder of God made me realise the parallels between 19th Century London and modern life. The pace of change from 1800-1900 was breathtaking and many people struggled to cope. Just like now. Plus this story I've been dreaming up has been battering me for a long time with scenes, characters and events. It'll feel good to give some of them a home.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Son of Sam

Like any other dough boy in the trenches I need something to keep me fighting when I'm up to my knees in mud, dodging bullets and subsisting on the meagre rations the writing game doles out. I don't wrestle a glossy of my sweetheart back home out of the pocket in my battledress but instead turn to Sam Delany's About Writing.

It's one of the few books that utterly changed the way I think about writing and what writing can be. I turn to it when I'm labouring on a story or when one is going well and it has never let me down. It is packed with good sense, useful insights and all round encouragement. There's so much in it that I can open it pretty much at random and find something useful. I'm heartened to discover that successful writers like it too.

But like Nicholson Baker when he wrote about John Updike my liking for this book of Delany's is not based on any familiarity with the rest of his work. I thought I had read some SDR but it turns out I haven't. So I've no idea if SDR's good sense on writing is carried through to his own work. I don't regard that as a problem given that sometimes the best managers were mediocre exponents at their particular trade.

I think that what I like about it most though is that it hums with the sense of what writing can be. Delany claims that writing is about creating false memories - painting a scene so vividly that it feels like a distant memory of an event someone lived through. In example after example in the book he shows how that can be done and how most prose fails to reach such heights. I have to admit I much prefer over-fed prose that borders on the purple though very spare text, such as found in Cormac McCarthy, can be just as good at evoking a sense of place. What matters is that a writer tries for that effect.

Despite buying About Writing a year or so ago I've not rushed out and bought any of SDR's books partly because I don't want to lose the sense of wonder and sheer possibilities that it has brewed within me. By reading quite a few books about being a writer I feel that I've got an idea of the craft it takes - in a way they've taught me how to build a brick wall. But Delany is the only one that has got me thinking about building cathedrals.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Books on tour

I've been on holiday hence the hiatus in posting and while I was away I read The Business of Dying by Simon Kernick. It's a good holiday book in that it is easy enough to read but, to be honest, it's not a great book, not even a good book. Why? Well, the central character was adequately drawn but the prose was pretty lumpen. There were no flights of language that painted a scene effectively, the action scenes were stodgy and the plot was telegraphed so clumsily that even I, who is only an occasional reader of crime fiction, could spot whodunnit.

But what also struck me was that, despite it being shelved under crime, it was a fantasy and it deserved that epithet almost as much as Tolkien does. By that I mean it depicted a world wholly unrecognisable from our own which turned out to be quite comforting in the way it worked. The reactionary revelation at the close of the book suggested that the crimes its central character is investigating, rape and murder of several young women, are caused by conspiracies among the great and the good who rule over us.

That's comforting because it absolves us of any duty of care and the alternative, that these young women are vulnerable because people do not act, is almost too terrifying to contemplate. We have let them down and continue to do so. It is much easier to think that nothing can be done about the neglect society as a whole visits on vulnerable people and it confirms many people in their powerlessness. That's another reason it is a bad book.

I'm not saying that men, or indeed women, in high places do no wrong. I'm sure many have, do and continue to do so. But it is as John Crowley said via Pierce Moffett in Aegypt (and one of my favourite books) - secret societies have not influenced civilisation but the idea that secret societies have influenced society has influenced society. There is no conspiracy, just us. And the sooner we contemplate that and do something about it the better.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Jewel crafting

There are times when a story has to be beaten bloody before you can drag it out into the light. When the words are so reluctant to come forth that you wonder if they perhaps have a better paying day job and that explains why they are so unwilling to show themselves and get down to some graft for you.

And then there are the times when you seem blessed, when the world helps so much with the writing that the cynic who lodges within suspects a set-up and advises you to tread carefully unless the Earth decides that the price of such benevolence is your body and opens up wide to swallow you whole.

I'm having such a time with the story I'm writing right now. Irrational fears about the momentum of the story stop me saying too much about the tale but it is set in New York around Wall Street. I needed some guidance on street names so duly turned to Google maps to find out where a particular subway entrance debouched commuters. And there it was on the map, around the corner from the stairs, a street named The Canyon of Heroes - a perfect fit for the story. So perfect in fact that if it is ever published lots of people will suspect I've made it up. And then there were lots of other parts, names, people and objects that fell into place too. Whether the finished story is better for it remains to be seen.

I've done enough of this to know when the writing is easier because of all the planning that has been done and this story I have planned endlessly - my pack of notes for it is verging on the Brandoesque. But that only explains part of how, or why, it is working. At times it feels like there are other forces at work that you are not so much writing a story as uncovering a hidden history that has always existed, unseen, until someone trips over it and looks back to see what caught their toe and sent them sprawling. And then, in the dust, they discover a gem. Only time will tell whether that turns out to be a diamond or glass.

Monday, February 25, 2008

This posting by John Scalzi really got me thinking. Just why do I write? Why do I put myself through this, neglect my family (a little) to satisfy my ego? It’s not, as Jeff Vandermeer found many people claim, because I am driven to do it. It’s a choice I have made and I find myself regularly questioning that choice every time a rejection comes back and every time I’m not enjoying the success I thought I would.

I guess if I’m honest I’m not as committed as I might be. Part of that is because I have a fairly busy job and a family so, unlike the lone gunslingers out there, this cannot be all that I do. And that causes me pain, because I’d like to. There is a lot at stake in trying to make this work, in trying to be a writer. Part of who I think am, who I consider myself to be, is a writer. If I cannot be that person, cannot live up to it for one reason or another, then that is going to do me some psychological damage. Because it means I have to re-think who I actually am. No longer am I the lizard-eyed ace of the keyboard who can turn a memorable phrase as easily as they can a corner. Instead I’m someone who couldn’t do it. Couldn’t live up to the idea of being a writer and became something else. Notice that all those comparisons are negative, I’m genuinely worried by what I would be if I cannot do the writing thing.

I’m a fool for books, I’ve said that before, and the life of someone who does that for a living seems an envious one. I remember reading Charles Stross saying that, after years of messing about, he suddenly got serious about writing and its gone as right for him as it can for anyone since he made that decision.

But I’ve read too that the difference between writers and everyone else is that writers write. Others do not. So, even if success is elusive then the fact that you are writing is some compensation. Just not enough to retire on.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Petrol fumes

Inspiration is a curious beast - capricious and generous in equal measure. Sometimes days can go by without hearing a peep, when thoughts about a story rattle around your head like a coin clattering on a cathedral floor.

And then there are days when you can hardly keep up with the ideas and you risk a high-speed writing injury as you struggle to get them all down without losing a precious word. Sometimes I'm convinced that I haven't got all the fragments and rack my brains for what I have missed.

Though when I can't I console myself with the thought that I may be like the man described by William James about the man who under the influence of laughing gas knew, just knew, the secret of the Universe. Sadly, as he came to the knowledge evaporated. With a huge effort he managed to write down the shattering insight which turned out to be: "A smell of petroleum prevails throughout".

I used to regard the words gifted by inspiration as a manna from heaven and such strong stuff that they had to be laid with care in any story. Such gilded words, of course, would elevate any story about the quotidian and render it startling to the reader. Now, of course, I realise it's not like that. At all. From time to time inspiration has produced a corking phrase or idea, and I can remember exactly where I was when the best ones struck, but most of the time it is just another idea that needs to be assessed like its less blessed brethren. Some I discard or they change in the process of working on a story, others go in the ideas file (mine now runs to 66 pages) for later use.

Far better are the ideas that emerge as a story is being written - though at times the part of me that produces them can be reluctant to co-operate. This can delay a story getting going but I've learned to trust that Secret Partner (As Kate Wilhelm calls it) and wait for the right moment. It does mean I'm much clumsier than usual when this is going on because a good part of my attention is focussed internally.

But the reason I trust that SP is because, to be honest, it seems to be much smarter than me. I'm sometimes impressed when I go back and read some of the stuff I've written because there are parts of I could never come up with alone. People who know me well have often asked me after reading some of my stories - "Did you think of that yourself?" Something they have never said to me.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Light at the end of the...

It may seem an odd day to like but December 21, the Winter solstice, is one of my favourites. Because it is the day on which we start the long climb back to the warm days of spring and summer. And on Friday it felt like one of the lower summits of that climb had been reached. At the moment my journey to work coincides with sunrise and on Friday, as the tube train was slowing down near Parson's Green, we passed a narrow gap between two buildings through which the brazen light of the rising sun was being squeezed. As we passed a thin bar of warm light passed over everyone in the carriage like we were being scanned by some alien intelligence. I had my back to it and I felt its warmth pass over my head like a caress. People looked up, squinted into it, squirmed under it as it moved through the car and silence fell as it passed through. For a moment, a long moment, there was a palpable sense of presence. Like spring walked among us, reminding us it existed and giving us a taste of the summer and languid days to come. Fabulous.

Monday, February 04, 2008

I'll come in again

Suddenly I feel like the Inquisitor Michael Palin played in the Monty Python Spanish Inquisition sketch. I've written before about the qualities needed to become a writer (though my comments are necessarily proximate because there is no sense in which I am such a creature) and realise another one needs to be added to the list. Arrogance, or to be a bit kinder about it, conviction that you are right and others are wrong.

I'm writing this after getting five rejections in six days all of which, bar one, were of the "close but no cigar" form. Sigh. I've read about the exercise that Kate Wilhelm conducts at Clarion which involves attendees holding a manuscript aloft, saying "This is me" and "This is my manuscript" and then dropping said script on the floor. This is to show them that they and their stories are distinct and that a rejection of one says nothing about them as a person or writer.

I have some sympathy with that, for psychologically necessary reasons if no other, but it is hard to be upbeat about what you do when every person of standing in the writing community who looks over your work says "no".

So to sustain themselves writers must be convinced about their own work and about its value. I have few illusions about writing and know that really all that matters is self-respect. Being sure that you did your best. Audiences are too fickle to trust. Writing to please them can mean you please no-one and for every person that loves a story many will hate it or be indifferent. And, as William Goldman, has asserted about every creative industry "Nobody knows anything" which is to say - success is always a matter of luck. We are still waiting for the Einstein who can give us the theory to explain the physics of the hit.

It should also be noted that the vast majority of writers, 1 in 7, do not make a living at what they do. Certainly writing short stories is everything but lucrative, so much so that established figures such as Cory Doctorow have likened it to vanity publishing.

So, in a situation in which audiences cannot be courted, editors are like blind men playing poker and financial rewards are as elusive as a Grand Unified Theory writers must be sure about what they are doing. Or they would give up. That explains a lot, why there is so much bad fiction around for a start, and why writers keep going. It's the egotism that drives them, ego demands an audience, because every beginning writer quickly learns that if there is one thing worse than being noticed it is being ignored.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Five minutes...

inside my head.
- like seeing JG Ballard in a sandwich shop it would somehow lessen my opinion of them. I have the notion that he, and a few select others, are entirely nourished by their imagination and never have to trouble themselves with any activity as mundane as actually consuming food.
- there are no dogs.
- vegetarianism is not a religion, its not like there's a pope of it, the grand turnip or something. Or observances.
- tonight we are sending bombs to Mars, no that sounds like we're delivering something. Better - Tonight we begin bombing Mars.
- I have not been inside a McDonalds for more than a decade and its been perhaps 15 years since I ate there.
- the camp should ring with the name. Give the idea that it's what everyone wants.
- Charlie Stross - he's the black monolith and we are the apes hooting in its shadow

Monday, January 21, 2008

Elizabethan superlatives

Ask me for an Elizabethan swear word and I'll happily oblige - pretty much the only lines I remember from Henry IV Part I (I studied it for O level) is the insults that Falstaff and others heaped upon each other. For a brief while when I was 12 a "bull's pizzle" was never far from my lips when I was looking to cast opprobrium.

Although I know the swears I don't know how Elizabethans used to express delight - which superlatives they used. I had this problem in a recent story and it was then that the lack of knowledge struck me. So much of the way we talk about these things is tied to our culture and the words we use change so quick. In 1993 I heard two people in a lift chatting about their weekend. Said one of its start: "Friday was enormous" which seemed so much of that time. Similarly can anyone imagine saying "fab gear" anymore, even ironically?

So I had a look online consulting a concordance which didn't really help much. Will Bill did use "fantastic" but in its proper sense - ie to do with fantasy not the usage that, according to the OED, started to mean "good beyond expectation" in 1938.

This PDF helped the most though - and suggested "marry"(by Saint Mary), "Now by my faith" and "i'faith" as the 16th century counterparts of Wow! Sweet! and Awesome! respectively.

But of course it's not just the words that change it is the usage too. In Shakespeare's time the world was changing so much that language had to change to accommodate all the novelty. New words were coined and they started to be used in new ways.

And that got me worried about the fantasy stories I write. Not that I should be aiming for versimilitude but has anyone analysed how our language has grown? Listed the earliest words? I'd love a source, or tool, which dated words by their meanings so at a stroke I could check if a story was authentic enough. Marry, 'twould be a boon.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Start write here

Writing a story seems a very simple thing. You sit down, you write, when you notice you have typed 'The End' you stop. But as many people on this blog have noted - writing involves a lot more than just the typing.

For me the process by which I work up to actually writing the story is chaotic - I build up a huge amount of notes for scenes, names, events, themes on post-its, scraps of paper and computer and they help me plan the story. I've long kept a sheet of paper and pen by my bed to jot down any ideas that break through during the night. Sometimes though too much is being beamed through and I have to get up, go to another room in the small hours and write it down properly. Experience has taught me that if I don't I will get no rest - inspiration is the broken car alarm of the mind.

I've long appreciated that I need better working methods and I've started to streamline them and organise myself better. For a start I now no longer use Word or Open Office - because they are too rich in features I don't need but lack the ones I do. And that is perhaps why my discovery of Scrivener set me salivating. Binders! Corkboards! Outliners! Inspectors! Sadly, the thing is only available for the Mac and all my home PCs run Windows. Curses.

Even so I was seriously considering buying a Mac Mini so I could run it. Or hacking a PC to run OS/X. But now I'm wondering if my interest is really just writing avoidance. At which I am a master. I find that I will do almost anything to avoid getting on with writing a story. Not least because that is the hardest part of the whole effort. I turn the net off when I write now as I know that the vast leisure sink that is the web will claim me if I remain hooked up. I'll order the shopping, check the blogroll, putter about online, play yet another round of Bejeweled 2 - anything rather than write. Learning to use Scrivener could use up lots of cycles, yet to my warped mind, be justifiably called writing. In the event I went for a Windows alternative - Page Four - which really helps me organise and get on with the writing.

I avoid writing because the potential a story has before it is written is far greater than the stark reality of the finished tale. The shining purity of what it might be never matches what you find when the phantom is wrestled out of your head and pinned to the paper. Never. That can be good in that you may get a better result but often I find that it becomes something entirely different. And slightly unsatisfying for that reason. So you go back and try again, and re-edit and submit it for review by your peers so it more closely matches that ideal. But as you are chasing a phantom that can be a long, drawn out process. Many, many times typing 'The End' can just be the beginning.

Monday, January 07, 2008

That was my idea

In my callow youth, when I first started trying to write SF&F fiction I thought the most important part of a story was the idea - the original shattering insight around which you can hang the story. At that time I was paranoid about the ideas that came to me and ground my teeth every time I read a story that seemed to steal one or more of those precious insights. I even wrote a story, lit by the fuse of bitter resentment, about someone who is the fount of everything that happens and only he knows it (can anyone say "hubris"?). My fear was that all the big ideas I had would be played out by the time I got round to writing them up and leave me with nothing to say.

Now I'm older, though still very much starting, and I realise that originality is not everything. Other factors, such as character and plot (though like SJD I'm leery of that word) matter more. A coherent story needs much more going on than a gosh, wow moment. I've often read in writing guides that good writing can make a bad idea into a decent story and many editors claim they would take a good story over a good idea any day.

I've also learned that the stories in the short fiction magazines now may have been submitted long, long ago. Stories can take months to be rejected and, paradoxically, even longer to be accepted. For that reason, if no other, true originality is rare.

I guess the other reason it is rare is because relatively few SF writers are tuned in to technology enough to suffer those moments of clarity. Originality is rare because we are all half-informed about what is coming down the pike.

It is also something of a blessing that originality is so precious because if the short fiction mags only printed what they had never seen before they would be pretty thin - though very entertaining.

Finally, and this is observation is perhaps triggered by that smoking fuse, I've read lots of stories by well-established names which build stories around very hoary ideas. Stories that would get you roundly booed if you submitted them to a writer's workshop. Maybe I'll know I've arrived if I ever do that and someone calls it a "brave re-imagining of the genre's most treasured tropes" rather than a sorry re-tread of a much over-worked idea.