Good read for a cold Sunday

December 3, 2017

some writerly advice

November 17, 2017

When I was a young bookseller in Oxford, I was fortunate enough to have lunch with Agatha Christie at All Souls College. She was very grand but all sweetness, and I plucked up the courage to look for some writerly advice, asking how she came up with such complex novels that tie together so neatly. She told me she wrote the books as normal, all the way through, before pausing at the penultimate chapter. She’d then work out who was the least likely character to have committed the crime and go back to fix a few train timetables, alter some relationships and make sure it all made sense, before proceeding to the end.

Brian Aldiss
Interview with Guy Kelly in The Telegraph 31st October 2015

Needing aliens

November 10, 2017

Cover art for Paranoid Boyd #2 by Black Malcerta

When I decided to make the leap from writing contemporary fantasy to writing a space opera series with my book The Wrong Stars, I spent a lot of time thinking about the elements of the genre I love most and wanted to explore…I started thinking about aliens.

I knew my series needed aliens, just like it needed mysterious ancient technological artifacts, space pirates, snarky computers, and cool spaceships. Turning to the task of creating aliens right after I’d put together my (mostly) human crew made me hyperaware of the issue of culture. One thing that bothers me in some science fiction (more often cinematic and televisual than written, but often there, too) is alien monocultures. Unless you’re talking about the Borg or Cybermen or other sorts of hive-minds, it never made sense to me to have an entire species of aliens with a single culture. How many thousands of cultures are there on Earth, after all, and how many subcultures within those cultures? From differences in music, religion, recreation, art, literature, food, philosophy, sexual preferences — cultures and subcultures get so wonderfully and weirdly granular. And yet, so often when our fictional humans encounter aliens, they discover the whole species consists of noble warriors or aloof philosophers or sadistic experimenters or ruthless capitalists. Where are the pacifist Klingons who run sustainable free-range krada ranches? Where are the Wookies who like to shave their entire bodies and refuse to celebrate Life Day because it’s gone too corporate? The Volus philanthropists? The punk rock Vulcans? Sure, sometimes there’s a plot point involving some rogue weirdo outlier, but in any alien species there should plausibly be whole communities, whole cities, whole religions or sects or affinity groups, who march to the beat of a different Kintarrian Death Drum.

I didn’t want to have an alien monoculture…but I see why writers do it that way. It’s hard enough to create an alien race without accounting for their ten thousand cultural variants too. Trying to cover a halfway plausible range of cultures would be unwieldy, impractical, and would serve as a distraction to readers anyway. Still, I wanted to address my annoyance, so I thought: wouldn’t it be funny if my aliens were defined by their very lack of a single culture? If, indeed, they had a culture of inconsistency, mutual exclusion, contradiction, and self-invention?

That’s how the Liars were born. That’s not what my aliens call themselves – they call themselves thousands of different things – but it’s what humans call them, eventually.

Tim Pratt
Would I Lie to You? Creating Alien Cultures

Antonio Lee

Yes – oh, dear, yes – the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish that it was not so, that it could be something different–melody, or perception of truth, not this low atavistic form.

For the more we look at the story (the story that is a story, mind), the more we disentangle it from the finer growths that it supports, the less shall we find to admire. It runs like a backbone – or may I say a tapeworm, for its beginning and end are arbitrary. It is immensely old – goes back to Neolithic times, perhaps to Palaeolithic. Neanderthal man listened to stories, if one may judge by the shape of his skull. . . .

When we isolate the story like this from the nobler aspects through which it moves, and hold it out on the forceps – wriggling and interminable, the naked worm of time – it presents an appearance that is both unlovely and dull.

E M Forster
Aspects of the Novel

1. My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.

2. Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.

3. Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel.

4. If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction.

5. Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development.

6. Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.

7. For a good melodrama study the famous “Lester Dent master plot formula” which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.

8. If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.

9. Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery).

10. Ignore all proffered rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.

Michael Moorcock
Golden Rules for Writers
The Guardian, 22nd February 2010

fortune teller

“WOMEN DON’T WRITE EPIC FANTASY.”

If I had a dollar for every time some dude on Reddit said something that started with “Women don’t…”, I’d be so rich I wouldn’t be reading Reddit.

Erasure of the past doesn’t always follow a grand purge or sweeping gesture. There’s no great legislative movement or concerted group of arsonists torching houses to bury evidence (that’s usually done to inspire terror). No, erasure of the past happens slowly and often quietly, by degrees.

In her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, science fiction writer Joanna Russ wrote the first internet misogyny bingo card—in 1983. She listed the most common ways that women’s writing—and, more broadly, their accomplishments and contributions to society—were dismissed and ultimately erased in conversation. They were:

1. She didn’t write it.

The easiest, and oftentimes the first appearing in conversation, is the simple “women don’t” or “women didn’t.” If delivered to an indifferent or ignorant audience, this is often where the conversation stops, especially if the person speaking is a man given some measure of authority. “Women never went to war” or “Women simply aren’t great artists” or “Women never invented anything” are common utterances so ridiculous that to refute them becomes tedious. As I grow older, I’ve ceased making long lists of women who, in fact, did. More often, I’ll reply with the more succinct, “You’re full of shit. Stop talking.” If, however, the person who says this is challenged with evidence that yes, in fact, women have and women do, and here are the examples and the lists, the conversational misogyny bingo moves on to…

2. She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have.

I hear this one about my own writing a lot, and I see it applied to romance writers and other outspoken feminists in particular. The writing is too sexual, too political, too feminist, or even— funny enough—too masculine to be real writing. This type of writing, because it is written by women, is considered somehow deviant or disorderly. It puts me in mind of those angered at the idea that science fiction is only good if it isn’t “political,” which is code for “does not reinforce or adhere to the worldview shaped by my personal political beliefs.” The reality is that all work is political. Work that reinforces the status quo is just as political as work that challenges it. But somehow this type of work is considered particularly abhorrent when it’s written by women.

3. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.

Men, famously, can write about anything and be taken seriously. Jonathan Franzen writes books about family squabbles. Nicholas Sparks writes romance novels. Yet these same subjects, when written by women, are assumed to be of lesser note; unimportant. Jennifer Weiner is especially vocal about this erasure of the weight of her own work. Yes, she wrote it, they will say, but of course she wrote about romance, about family, about the kitchen, about the bedroom, and because we see those as feminized spheres, women’s stories about them are dismissed. There is no rational reason for this, of course, just as there’s no rational reason for any of this erasure. One would think that books by women written about traditionally women’s spaces would win tons of awards, as women would be the assumed experts in this area, but as Nicola Griffith’s recent study of the gender breakdown of major awards shows, women writing about women still win fewer awards, reviews, and recognition than men writing about… anything[1].

Writers of colour also see this one in spades – yes, they wrote it, but it wasn’t about white people’s experiences. Toni Morrison laboured for a very long time to finally get the recognition her work deserved. It took a concerted effort, complete with very public protest, to finally get her a National Book Award. Arguments were made that Morrison’s work was dismissed because she wrote about the experiences of black people. This type of erasure and dismissal based on who is writing about whom is rampant. While white writers are praised for writing about non-white experiences, and men are praised for writing about women, anyone else writing about the experiences of the people and experiences they know intimately is rubbed out.

4. She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it.

Few creators make just one of anything, including writers. It generally takes a few tries to get to that “one-hit” book, if one ever achieves it. We also tend to remember writers for a single, seminal text, as with Susanna Clarke’s massive undertaking, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Yet Clarke also has a short story collection available – though few hear about it. Others, like Frank Herbert, write a number of wonderful novels but become known for just one great text, like Dune. Few would argue that Herbert only wrote one novel worth remembering, but I have checked this off on the bingo card listening to someone dismiss Ursula Le Guin because “she really only wrote one great book and that was The Left Hand of Darkness.” A lack of reading breadth and depth is on the reader, not the author. But one sees this applied most often to women writers. “Yes, that was a great book, but she only wrote one book, so how great or important could she really be?” one says, forgetting her twelve other books.

5. She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art.

Genre writers have contended with this one for years – men and women alike – but this excuse for dismissal is still more often used against women. Even within the genres, women’s work is skewered more often as being not “really” fantasy, or science fiction, or simply not “serious” for one reason or another. It’s a “women’s book” or a “romance book” or “some fantasy book with a talking horse for God’s sake” (I actually saw a female writer’s book dismissed this way after it showed up on the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist one year, as if whale-shaped aliens and time travel were any less ridiculous).

Women’s backgrounds are also combed over more than men’s, especially in geek circles, and you see this with the “fake geek girl” backlash, too. Is she a real engineer? Okay, but did she actually work for NASA or just consult for them? “Yes, she wrote a science fiction book, but it doesn’t have real science in it” or “Yes, she wrote a science fiction book but it’s about people, not science” are popular ways of dismissing women’s work as being not “really” part of the genres they are written in, or simply not real, serious art the way that those stories by men about aliens who can totally breed with humans are.

6. She wrote it, but she had help.

I see this one most with women who have husbands or partners who are also writers. Women whose fathers are writers also struggle with this dismissal. Rhianna Pratchett, a successful writer in her own right, finds her work constantly compared to her father Terry’s, and, coincidently, folks always seem to find ways her work isn’t as “good,” though Rhianna’s style and her father’s are completely different. For centuries, women who did manage to put out work, like Mary Shelley, were assumed to have simply come up with ideas that their more famous male partners and spouses wrote for them. The question “So, who really writes your books?” is one that women writers still often get today.

7. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.

The “singular woman” problem is… a problem. We often call this the “Smurfette principle.” This means that there’s only allowed to be one woman in a story with male heroes. You see this in superhero movies (there is Black Widow and… yeah, that’s it). You see it in cartoons (April, in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). And you see it in awards and “best of” lists, typically but not always written by men, who will list nine books by men and one book by a woman, and that woman is generally Ursula Le Guin, Robin Hobb, or Lois Bujold. The singular woman expectation means that when we do see more than one woman in a group, or on a list, we think we’ve reached parity. Studies have shown that when women make up just 30 percent of a group, men and women alike believe there are an equal number of men and women in the room. At 50 percent women—a figure we see so little in media representation that it appears anomalous—we believe that women outnumber men in the group. What this means is that every woman writer is given an impossible task—she must strive to be “the one” or be erased.

When we start to list more than one female scientist (“Yes, there was Marie Curie” tends to be the answer when one asks about women scientists), or astronaut, or race car driver, or politician, we’re often accused of weighting women’s contributions more heavily than men’s. Though my essay “We Have Always Fought,” about the roles of women in combat, was largely well received, most criticism of the piece rested on this accusation: that by focusing on remembering and acknowledging the roles of women in combat, I was somehow erasing or diminishing the roles of men. “Yes, women fought,” the (largely male) commenters would admit, “but they were anomalies.”

8. She wrote it BUT. . .

The experiences I write about in my fantasy and science fiction novels tend to be very grim. My work comes out of the tradition of both new weird—a combination of creeping horror and fantastical world-building—and grim-dark, a label most often applied to gritty, “realistic” fantasy that focuses on the grim realities of combat and a nihilistic “everything is awful” worldview. Yet when my work hit the shelves I was amused to see many people insist my work was neither new weird nor grim-dark. There was too much science fiction, or not enough sexual assault against women (!) or too much magic (?) or some other “but.” Watching my own work kicked out of categories I was specifically writing within was a real lesson in “She wrote it but…” And lest you think categories don’t matter, remember this: categories are how we shelve and remember work in our memory. If we’re unable to give those books a frame of reference, we are less likely to recall them when asked.

I am still more likely to find my work remembered when people ask, “Who are your favourite women writers?” than “Who are your favourite science fiction writers?”

And that, there, demonstrates how categorization and erasure happen in our back brains without our conscious understanding of what it is we’re doing. Yes, I’m a writer, but…

When you start looking at reactions to the work of some of your favourite women writers, you will see these excuses for why her work is not canon, or not spoken about, or not given awards, or not reviewed. I could read a comment section in a review of a woman’s work, or a post about how sexism suppresses the cultural memory of women’s work, and check off all of them.

The question becomes, once we are aware of these common ways to dismiss women’s work, how do we go about combating them? These ways of disregarding our work have gone on for centuries, and have become so commonplace that men are used to deploying them without challenge as a means to end all debate.

I’d argue that the easiest way to change a behaviour is first to become aware of it. Watch for it. Understand it for what it is. And then you must call it out. I’ve taken to typing “Bingo!” in comments sections when these arguments roll out, and linking to Russ’s list. When we see sexist and racist behavior, the only way to change that is to point it out and make it clear that it’s not okay. The reason people continue to engage in certain types of behaviors is because they receive positive feedback from peers, and no one challenges them on their assertions. If we stop swallowing these excuses, and nodding along when people use them, we take away the positive reinforcement and lack of pushback that’s made it possible for them to use these methods of dismissal.

Because I write such dark stories, many people think that I’m a pessimistic person. But that’s not true. I’m a grim optimist. I understand that the road to a better future is long and bitter and often feels hopeless. Yes, there is a warm gooey core of hope I carry with me at the very center of myself, and it is the hope of someone who knows that change is difficult, and feels impossible, but that even a history that has suppressed and erased so much cannot cover up the fact that change is possible.

[1] Nicola Griffith, “Books about Women Tend Not to Win Awards”.

Kameron Hurley
The Geek Feminist Revolution

gavin-gordons-i-turn-my-collar-to-the-cold-and-damp

Some people . . . claim that there’s nothing new in horror. In a sense, that may be true. More than sixty years ago, H.P. Lovecraft drew up a list of the basic themes of weird fiction, and I can think of very little that the field has added to that list since then. But that’s by no means as defeatist as it sounds, because the truth is surely that many of the themes we’re dealing with are so large and powerful as to be essentially timeless.

For instance, the folk tale of the wish that comes true more fully and more terribly than the wisher could have dreamed is the basis not only of “The Monkey’s Paw,” but of Stephen King’s Pet Semetery and of my own novel, Obsession, yet the three stories have otherwise far more to do with their writers than with one another. That suggests . . . that one way to avoid what has already been done is to be true to yourself.

That isn’t to say that imitation never has its uses. Here, as in any other of the arts, it’s a legitimate and useful way to serve your apprenticeship. . . . If you’re writing in a genre, it’s all the more important to read widely outside it in order to be aware what fiction is capable of. It’s less a matter of importing techniques into the field than of seeing the field as part of a larger art. Depending wholly on genre techniques can lend too easily to the second-hand and the second-rate. There’s only one Stephen King, but there are far too many writers trying to sound like him.

It’s no bad thing to follow the example of writers you admire, then, but only as a means to finding your own voice. You won’t find that, of course, unless you have something of your own to say. I did, once I stopped writing about Lovecraft’s horrors and began to deal with what disturbed me personally. I began to write about how things seemed to me, which was more important and, at first, more difficult than it may sound. I tried (and still do try) to take nothing on trust to describe things as they really are or would be.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that the horror field is riddled with clichés. The house that’s for sale too cheaply, the guy who must be working nights because he sleeps during the day . . . , the attic room the landlady keeps locked, the place none of the topers in the village inn will visit after dark—we can all have fun recognizing these and many others, which is by no means to say that they haven’t been used effectively by masters of the craft. But I think there are more fundamental clichés in the field, and I think today’s writers may be the ones to overturn them.

Take the theme of evil, as the horror story often does. Writing about evil is a moral act, and it won’t do to recycle definitions of evil—to take them on trust. Horror fiction frequently presents the idea of evil in such a shorthand form as to be essentially meaningless—something vague out there that causes folk to commit terrible acts, something other than ourselves, nothing to do with us. That sounds to me more like an excuse than a definition, and I hope it’s had its day. If we’re going to write about evil, then let’s define it and how it relates to ourselves.

All good fiction consists of looking at things afresh, but horror fiction seems to have a built-in tendency to do the opposite. Ten years or so ago, many books had nothing more to say than “the devil made me do it.” Now, thanks to the influence of films like Friday the 13th, it seems enough for some writers to say that a character is psychotic; no further explanation is necessary. But it’s the job of writers to imagine how it would feel to be all their characters, however painful that may sometimes be. It may be a lack of that compassion that has led some writers to create children who are evil simply because they’re children, surely the most deplorable cliché of the field.

Some clichés are simply products of lazy writing. Tradition shouldn’t be used as an excuse to repeat what earlier writers have done; if you feel the need to write about the stock figures of the horror story, that’s all the more reason to imagine them anew. . . . It’s only fair to warn you that many readers and publishers would rather see imitations of whatever they liked last year than give new ideas a chance. But I’ve always tried to write what rings true to me, whether or not it makes the till ring. If you don’t feel involved with what you’re writing, it’s unlikely that anyone else will.

There’s another side to the field that is overdue for attack by a new generation—its reactionary quality. A horror writer I otherwise admire argued recently wrote that “it has been a time-honoured tradition in literature and film that you have a weak or helpless heroine”—implying, I assume, that we should go on doing so. Well, tradition is a pretty poor excuse for perpetrating stereotypes (not that the author in question necessarily does); time-honoured it may be, but that certainly doesn’t make it honourable. In fact, these days, so many horror stories (and especially films) gloat over the suffering of women that it seems clear the authors are getting their own back, consciously or not, on aspects of real life that they can’t cope with. Of course, that isn’t new in horror fiction, nor is using horror fiction to define as evil or diabolical whatever threatens the writer or the writer’s lifestyle. But, at the very least, one should be aware as soon as possible, that this is what one is doing, so as to be able to move on. I have my suspicions, too, about the argument that horror fiction defines what is normal by showing us what isn’t. I think it’s time for more of the field to acknowledge that, when we come face-to-face with the monsters, we may find ourselves looking not at a mask but at a mirror.

Ramsey Campbell
Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death
From: On Horror Writing, edited by Mort Castle

snow-and-moon

Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colours in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvellous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.

Vladimir Nabokov
10 Criteria for a good reader
Lectures on Literature

cummingagain

Diary 1st May

Sunday, bloody Sunday. The 1971 film directed by John Schlesinger and written by Penelope Gilliat who died, sadly, from her alcoholism. She was a fine writer, but is today almost forgotten.

Triangles figured prominently in Gilliat’s fiction, commencing with her debut novel “One by One” through to the playlet “Property”, a devastating portrayal of a woman caught between her two ex-husbands. The script of Sunday, bloody Sunday explores the relationships of Daniel Hirsh, a Jewish doctor and a middle-aged woman, Alex Greville who are both having affairs with the same bisexual male artist, a sculptor named Bob Elkin. Not only are Hirsh and Greville aware that Elkin is seeing the pair of them, but they actually know each other as well.

Poor Gilliat had to give up a promising piano career as a young woman because of a bout of anorexia; she attempted suicide at least once in her life, and her drinking became so bad that she was unable to look after her daughter. Eventually, of course, it killed her.

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I love vulgarity and kitsch. The bathroom at the old house was decorated shocking-pink and canary-yellow and everyone without exception said how vile it looked. So what? I loved it and that’s all the matters.

Although I must confess, I’m nowhere near as bold now days…

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Novels aren’t sociology textbooks, nor are they history or language books, either. The goal of learning through observation, questioning and research is to draw a character that is a product of such influences, without making the reader feel they are reading long passages of background narrative…

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Or then again you could do a Sinclair Lewis and faithfully record reams and reams of “overheard” conversation for inclusion in your novels.

Lewis, of course, was another author who died from advanced alcoholism…

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And Peedeel has a hangover this morning…

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As often happens, while sitting on the loo this morning, I find myself beset with difficult questions. Was Teflon nonstick coating worth the billions of $s spent on the US space programe? What about super glue?

Imponderables.

Like S. She climaxed quickly and often, but was never ever fully satisfied. Sex for her was an unending chase from one exploding bubble of intense pleasure to another…a plateau of sensation to be maintained, not a series of crests to be climbed.

Reading today…

April 23, 2016

reading for today