Dark_Night_by_SpyroandCynder

The future is queer

I spent most of my youth being told to get a haircut. As a boy of slight build who usually had hair down around my shoulders, I looked a bit too much like a girl for the comfort of the home counties. Society gets angry when gender roles are blurred, precisely because those roles are a fragile act put on with clothes, hairstyles and makeup. If they weren’t enforced, clearly defined gender roles would not exist.

I take comfort in the idea that most of the young men telling others to get a haircut today are rushing home to play at being buxom dark elf warrior maidens in World of Warcraft. Gamer culture has gained a bad reputation for misogyny, but it seems male gamers are more than a little curious about playing out female gender roles. It makes perfect sense. The real world enforces gender roles, but virtual worlds let gamers express the feminine parts of themselves that don’t fit in with their masculine identity.

Read more @ Guardian books.

 

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Group

Superhero teams. Proof positive that women are at most 25% of the human population

For most of my life I’ve been led to believe by statistics that women represented some 50% of the human population. Scientific people have suggested that the ratio of male to female births is around 106 boys to 100 girls, but scientific people also argue about this ratio. External factors like gender-control and gendercide further tip the balance against women, but then warfare and pervasive cultural violence more tip it back against men, leaving it at roughly 50/50. But all of this is mere scientific speculation. For real insight in to the state of the world today we need to turn to Hollywood.

I love a good superhero movie. It’s just a shame I’ve never seen one. We’re all holding out hope for Guardians of the Galaxy. It seems no matter how often Hollywood suckers us with a compelling trailer that capitalises on the emotional clout of a catchy pop song, we’re always ready to fall for that old trick again. Every new superhero movie is the one we’ve been waiting for, right up until the disappoint of actually watching the full 120 odd minutes of cliches, in-jokes and geekwank fantasy.

But the thing we can rely on every superhero movie for is a balanced and accurate portrayal of gender. Here, have some Avengers.

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There 6 Avengers and, look!, only 1 of them is a woman. That’s…er…damn fractions…uhm…about 17%, being generous.

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And here’s the Fantastic Four. Looking kind of like dicks. But 1 of the 4 is a woman. That’s 25%!

Speaking of Guardians of the Galaxy…

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…1,2,3,4,5 Guardians but only 1 is a woman. I’ve checked and even the rocket racoon ripoff is male! 20%.

Also worth noting that a variety of male body types are represented – from the endomorphic muscly guy at the front to the ectomorphic tree being at the back – and of course we can assume the diminutive racoon is the clever one. But in all our superhero teams so far the women have essentially identical bodies, trapped in early to mid adolescence, a biological impossibility without severe ongoing dietary restriction. Doubly odd, as none of the male characters appear to be skinny fifteen year olds.

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Here’s the Justice League, which despite representing a variety of non-terran powers and wielding the power galactic, are, I am told, of America. And yes, 1 woman vs 5 men makes 17% again.

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I have no idea if this is a representative X-Men line-up. But there do seem to about 2 women in an X-Men team. Mostly so one of them can die and provide Wolverine with some much needed character motivation. 33.3% recurring, I do believe!

Also I like that picture because of how shifty they all look. Whatever the goal of this mission is , they find it shameful.

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Great Lakes Avengers…ASSEMBLE! It took quite some convincing by @PrinceJvstin to persuade me he hadn’t made these guys up. But…do my eyes deceive me…is there a non-anorexic female body type there? Well, yes, although we’ve swung to the far end of the body dysmorphia scale. And for the second time a 33% female line-up!

So. What have we learnt here. Well, as I personally can’t think of any reason why a profit driven entertainment industry would misrepresent the gender balance of the human race, we can only conclude that actually, despite the opinions of scientific people, women make up at most 25% of the population

Here, have a school teacher being torn apart by her zombie students.

 

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Capitalism dialogues with Creativity

Capitalist - Right. We need you to create something so we have something to sell.

Creator - oh ok no problem just give me a moment here.

Capitalist - noweneeditnow

Creator - But I’m kind of busy…

Capitalist - NOW!

Creator - …creating something here.

Capitalist - What? What are you creating? Tell us tell us tell us!!

Creator - Er. It’s just like this thing I imagined and now I’m kind of just, er, like…

Capitalist - What’s the elevator pitch?

Creator - The what??

Capitalist - The high concept! The Unique Selling Point! You know, the thing you tell important people so they’ll see the commercial potential in your pitiful dreams?

Creator - I guess I never thought about it that way.

Capitalist - What other thing is it like? Try combining two existing commercially successful things together. “It’s like The Wizard of Oz directed by Quentin Tarantino” or “The Sopranos meets Sesame Street.”

Creator - It’s like the colour between green and yellow, as reimagined by a benign and blissful deity.

Capitalist - No that isn’t working for me.

Creator - I am so sorry.

Capitalist - What we need is something just like the last thing we had.

Creator - Won’t that bore the people who saw it the first time?

Capitalist - Yes. We need something completely different. But exactly the same.

Creator - Why don’t you ask the last person who created something for you to sell?

Capitalist – They want too much money.

Creator - How much do you pay?

Capitalist - We can offer great exposure.

Creator - Just wait a moment while I expose my ass.

Capitalist - And I know a great coke dealer.

Creator - Look. Maybe I can just make something cool and we can see how it goes.

Capitalist -

Creator - Are you ok? You look kind of pale.

Capitalist - What. If. It. Doesn’t. Boxoffice?

Creator - I guess that’s a risk.

Capitalist - RISK? Do you know how many hundreds of millions of dollars we’re investing in your project?

Creator – Er…look…about that. There’s really no need. I got some pens and paper, and an old Kodak camera, and some friends are coming over later and we’re going to sink a few and just make shit up. Hey, you ok? You really don’t look too good?

 

Writing Practice – why it’s time to stop thinking of writing as a profession

If you go to a good art school (and yes you STEM readers out there, such places do exist) they teach you to think of your art as a practice. And yourself as a practitioner. There’s a purpose to this tradition, although admittedly it takes most art students – myself included – until well after they graduate and are in to their practice to understand why.

Before I say more about practice, I should say why I think this idea is useful at this time for writers. Today the writing world is in a certain amount of turmoil. Digital technology means that the limitations imposed by print have evaporated overnight. And although the change could be seen coming long ago, many writers and publishers are struggling psychologically to adapt. Questions like whether it is still possible to earn a living as a writer, whether self-publishing is a viable route for writers, and in particular who qualifies as a “professional” writer at a time when a personal blog can have more readers than a national newspaper, are much under discussion. And I think the confused welter of responses all stem at heart from two incongruent perceptions of writing – one belonging to the print age, and one the digital.

That word “professional” is one to think on. In the still recent past professional writers were those who produced content for the print publishing industry, for which in return they were paid. Today that line around professional is a lot less clear. A self-published Kindle author or a blogger pushing traffic to Google Adsense account might be considered professionals. They can certainly be making much more money in some cases. But the status of professional, I believe, is still what most writers crave on some level. I also believe that the best thing any writer who wants to become a professional can do, is to stop thinking of writing as a profession at all.

And start thinking of it as a practice.

What do artists mean by the term “practice”. I’m going to put forward three meanings for the term, all of them useful. But perhaps the third is the most significant.

Practice 1 - When asked about the sticky question of “making it” the comedian Steve Martin says “be so good they can’t ignore you”. That’s not a message a celebrity saturated, get rich quick culture likes to hear. And it’s sometimes disturbing how many people bring that mentality to writing. Of all the ways you might try to grasp at fame and fortune, writing is possibly the most masochistic. As I’ve stated *repeatedly* before on this blog, the only way to achieve anything that resembles traditional perceptions of “success” as a writer is to get very good at writing. And yes, even Dan Brown, E L James and Stephanie Meyer are good writers. Within the bounds of what they do, they excel. And once you get beyond the outliers who achieve fame and fortune with a little luck, you find the large number of writers who  sustain a career are all good at what they do. Want a long lived career as a feature journalist? You’ll need to be as good as these Pultizer prize winners. Getting that good at anything means practice. And if you want to get that good at writing, then writing is the thing, day in and day out, that you will have to practice. And that does not means just doing – it means studying, reflecting, and critically appraising your own work. There’s no getting around it, if you want to be a writer you’re going to have to practice and study just as hard as you would for any other advanced career.

Practice 2 - Doctors, lawyers and architects also have a practice. But commonly we talk about a legal practice, we mean a business. These are professionals who build a unique skill set, expertise, or creative style. A General Practitioner might have broad knowledge of may disciplines but they have unique knowledge of their patients. Lawyers have areas of expertise and hold delicate and confidential information on their clients. To succeed at the highest levels architects must develop a unique style and vision, like but unlike any other before or after. The business of these professionals – their practice – builds around them as their expertise grow and their relationships to their clients expands. And writers are no different. Haruki Murakami – by any measure among the most successful writers of the today – puts his success down to the fact that he writes books that hook people. And over the decades of his career, millions of people have been hooked by his books. So when he publishes a new one, it sells millions. How different is that to the absurd idea held by many genre and self-published writers that they can “build” a career by flooding stories in to the world at a rate of 10,000 words a day – or 80,000 words in a weekend! - that will sweep them to fame  and fortune. Successful writers build their practice book by book, reader by reader.

Practice 3 - For most of my 20s I helped people with writing. I don’t mean helped them learn to write, although in my 30s I’ve now taught creative writing at a dozen or so universities. No. I ran writing workshops and community projects that used writing to help people. Sometimes that meant working with kids. Sometimes old people. Sometimes people with poor mental health. Sometimes people with addictions. Or people who were just poor and lonely and depressed. I wrote a little about this for Aeon magazine last year. One of the things I learnt – and I mean really learnt in the you won’t stick your hand in the fire again kind of way – is that you can’t help people. You can only be there as they help themselves. Which is, when you think about it, much harder. The other thing I learnt is that there is a reason why so many people are drawn to writing. And I’d guess at least a quarter of all people feel a serious draw, at some point in their lives, to expressing themselves seriously in words. And a proportion of those will pursue it. But this isn’t idleness, vanity or ego driving them. Writing, as people explore its potential, is a tremendous tool for growth and development. When someone feels the draw to write, they’re feeling the same draw a daisy feels to turn its face up to the sun. All of us, even those professional writers among us, write to connect with a source of nourishment inside us, without which our souls shrivel up and die. As Ray Bradbury said in Zen in the Art of Writing, if he went a day without writing, he felt restless. Two days, sick. Three days and he felt his mind falling apart.

There’s a term for something that we do that feeds our being in this way. It’s a spiritual practice. Or if that term offends you might call it a health practice. Although in the final account, our spirit and our health are one and the same. I’ve had a meditation practice now for five or six years. It began with sitting on a mat every morning for 30 minutes watching my thoughts. Now it extends in to most of my day, cultivating awareness of the present moment as I experience it. It’s been invaluable to my happiness. And so has my writing practice. When we write, we’re drawing on our deep imagination, that blooms from the unconscious mind where our dreams our kept. And we combine that imagination with language, the very mechanism of our conscious mind. That’s hard. It takes practice. And it is sooooo good for you. Writing is for the mind as running is for the body. Sitting down with a blank page, grasping an image from the imagination and spinning it out in to language is something I do every day. I almost take it for granted. Except when I teach workshops, I see what a revelation it is to people who perhaps never in their lives had that experience. Right there inside everyone – and I do mean everyone without exception – is a wellspring of imagination. Some people struggle with the language to express it. Others have to much language, it gets in the way of the imagination. Different kinds of blocks. But all of them can be worked out.

Really these three meanings of practice are all parts of the same process. You’re drawn to something that you want to excel at, writing for instance, so you begin to practice. That practice, of course, is great for you. It is part of growing and developing as a full human being. And over time as your practice develops, it can also become a profession. Because if you get good enough, they can’t ignore you. As I said up at the top of this, I think the third of these meanings is the most important stage of the process to think through. Because it is the easiest to lose sight of in a world that can leave very little space for good spiritual health.

If you accept, even for the moment, the idea of writing as a spiritual practice, that calls in to question some common ideas about it as a profession. Because while it is entirely possible for your writing practice to grow in to a profession, the attempt to make it a profession can seriously damage it as a practice. The most unhappy and creatively unfulfilled people I know are those who traded in their writing practice for a professional career at a time or in a way that was not in balance with their needs as a practitioner. And its an easy trap to fall in to. If you take the time to get good at writing at all, you’ll quickly find that all kinds of people do in fact stop ignoring you. They’re often extremely kind and generous, sometimes thoughtless, and occasionally malicious. The agent who suggests you write a genre style that’s currently “commercial” but clearly not what you do. The editor who says your writing has to be in close third person because that’s what George R R Martin writes. The reviewer who savages your short story because, on some level, they wish they’d had the courage to write it. Or you can do it to yourself, by giving up on that promising but odd story with no real direction to write something more saleable instead. All of these things can, if balanced with your writing practice, be the right thing to do professionally. But they can also crunch your practice. And more often than not when they do that, they don’t work out professionally either, and you end up with neither.

The happiest and most creatively fulfilled writers I know are the ones who tend to put their writing practice ahead of any and all professional concerns unless they can be balanced. They also, in the counter-intuitive way of such things, tend to be the most successful in professional terms as well. Here is one of them.

Let me flip this around in to another perspective to try and convince any stragglers who are still determined to sell their writing out at the first opportunity. What calls you to writing is the same thing that calls you to reading. A kind of joy, one hopes. It’s the same thing that calls you to play games in the playground as a kid. Or tells you, out of the blue one day, that you need to get in to snowboarding / French cuisine / dog grooming [DELETE AS APPLICABLE] so you go to a class and BOOM meet the person who will become your husband / wife. Some people call that our soul, our higher self, God, intuition. Try not to get turned off if because those aren’t your words. They are just words, in the end. The question is, do you listen and act when when the calling comes? Or do you, instead, react with fear. Because if you’re called to write, but instead try to turn your writing prematurely in to a profession, that’s fear. Maybe it’s rational fear, because writing might mean living a different kind of life than the one your parents / friends our even you once wanted for you. But it’s fear nonetheless. And if you allow fear to dictate your responses in life you’re guaranteeing yourself a great deal of unhappiness.

My way of resisting that fear is always to return to the idea, that I learnt at art school, of my writing as a practice. I try not to ask professional questions – what will sell, who should I network with, what is my status. Instead I focus on the basic questions of a practice.  What do I need to learn next to get better? What do I need to make next to grow my practice? Who am I writing for? What do I want to tell them? And the counter-intuative reality is that whenever I focus on my practice, I make professional progress . But whenever I try to be professional, both the profession and the practice suffer.

Like many of my blog posts, I wrote this for myself firstly, but thought I would share it for others on the path.

The improvised word leaves space for you

Improvisation is a powerful part of art. Dancers, musicians and actors – those things we name the performing arts – all learn to improvise as part of their craft. Their work is temporal and transient. Once the move or note is performed it is gone forever.  A recording of Miles Davis playing Kind of Blue is only a representation. To experience the real thing you need to see the artist live.

The great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami owned and ran a jazz bar before he began to write. Murakami’s books have an improvised feel, and it’s something he often touches on when interviewed. 1Q84 – Murakami’s recent three volume novel – has the structure of a thriller. There’s an assassination, a private detective, a stake out. But it’s a thriller written by Murakami (who happens to also make it a homage to Marcel Proust) so like no other thriller ever written.

Eleanor Catton is my favourite new writer for a long time. We need many more people in this world willing to say that creation is divine. In this interview for The Guardian she talks about the process of writing The Luminaries. It’s a mystery, that Catton made up scene by scene, by asking at each point what a reader might enjoy reading. That’s the heart of improvisation – being open to what comes in the moment.

Improvising doesn’t mean just making up anything. Neither is it an excuse for poor quality art. To improvise you need great expertise. You need to have internalised the structures of your art to such an extent that you can work them without conscious thought. That’s hard. It takes time and practice but also immense openness and trust. Because yes, you might fail.

When you plan, what is it you want? And which part of you wants it? Planning is an intellectual exercise. It pleases your mind to plan things out, because then your mind can be satisfied that everything is going to go as planned. Your mind doesn’t like uncertainty. It doesn’t like the possibility of failure. But without that possibility, there is no chance of success. You have to be wary of your minds motives. “I have to pay the rent this month” isn’t a thought that is going to help you create, however true it may be.

This isn’t an entry in the debate between outlining vs. not outlining a book. I don’t care, whichever is better for you. But be aware that both can be done either from grace or from fear. A fearful outline will try and fill in all the space that your imagination needs to improvise in. A graceful outline will focus much more on establishing narrative dynamics than plotting. Refusing to outline can be it’s own kind of fear, rejecting the mind’s technical knowledge, without which the imagination can create nothing tangible. “I don’t need to learn anything to be creative” is one of the first barriers hopeful creators will need to get over.

The beauty of improvisation in any creative act is that it allows us to experience the world as YOU see it. Write a thriller, that’s a great structure. But write YOUR thriller. Write a space opera or an epic fantasy, there are rich images and symbols in there to explore, but make them yours. That’s a scary thing to do. We might all see what an oddball you are! But for everything person who turns away, you’ll find many other who love you for being yourself.

A Nebula award shortlist that makes me feel good about SF

The Nebula award shortlists have just been announced by the Science Fiction Writers of America. And they are excellent. Focusing on Best Novel…

  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Marian Wood)
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (Morrow; Headline Review)
  • Fire with Fire, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
  • Hild, Nicola Griffith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • The Red: First Light, Linda Nagata (Mythic Island)
  • A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar (Small Beer)
  • The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker (Harper)

This contains three of my favourite books of the year by authors Neil Gaiman, Nicola Griffith and Helene Wecker.  The Golem and The Jinni in particular is a wonderful, wonderful novel that I cannot recommend highly enough. Go and read it!

Quick thought experiment. Apply the common (and deeply flawed) definition of “Hard SF” that many of the field’s awards have fallen in to the trap of applying.  It’s likely that Wecker, Samatar, Griffith and Gaiman would be excluded, and the award would be far less rich and less representative of the best the SF field has to offer.

The SFWA has been at the centre of numerous difficult stories this year. But it’s worth noting that the organisation taken as a whole is standing right at the forefront of diversity of all kinds in science fiction and deserves wide recognition and applause for that.

See the full Nebula award nominees here.

Welcome to viral book selling

UPDATE:  sadly Baboon Fart Story reached #9 on the narrower >General bestseller list, selling a mere 21 copies before being pulled by amazon. But still an interesting example of a book catching some viral publicity.

Today a book called Baboon Fart Story climbed to #9 on the Amazon bestseller list. The book featured the word “fart” over and over again and a cover featuring a baboon drinking its own pee. This “book” began its life as a rhetorical device in a blog post, an example to demonstrate that anyone can put any book on Amazon they like. Some bloke took the idea seriously and made it real. And, low and behold, as such things are want to do, it caught a wave of viral publicity and sold some copies.

At which point Amazon took it down. Disproving the original idea that Amazon will sell any old shit. But demonstrating a much more interesting truth.

There’s been much talk about the Amazon ebook marketplace this week. Primarily because of Hugh Howey’s “Author Earnings” report. With some scraped data from Amazon, Howey publicised what is already a pretty well documented fact. A relatively large number of writers are making quite large sums of money, almost overnight, by selling their indie published ebooks direct to readers. There has been wailing and gnashing of teeth, focused on whether Howey’s stats are correct. All of which neatly avoids actually asking what the hell is happening over in the jungles of indie ebook publishing.

What’s happening is that the dynamics of viral publicity and marketing which rule on video sites like YouTube, and on “news” sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, are arriving in the world of book selling. The books selling on Amazon aren’t quite the same books selling in bookshops. Oh, the big bestsellers like George R R Martin are there. But alongside Game of Thrones are books like The Atlantis Gene by A G Riddle. You know what you’re getting with The Atlantis Gene. Because everyone has heard of Atlantis. It doesn’t matter that the book reads like it’s been written by a twelve year old who has never read a book. Because most readers aren’t going to read it. They’re just buying something for a few quid that happens to look interesting. Crazy cat videos don’t have Hollywood production values either. It doesn’t matter, their viral marketability does not rest in their high quality.

There are two ways of looking at this viral quality that the Amazon ebook marketplace brings to book selling. One is that it undermines quality and the hard work of talented writers. Well, I guess that is true to an extent. But. The other is that writers now have a fairly solid digital marketplace where they can make money. IF they understand, and are willing to work with, the dynamics of that marketplace. So it’s not the right place to launch your intense literary masterpiece. But it might be the right place to bang out some cheesy but fun action oriented fantasy novellas and make a bit of money selling them to help fund your serious work.

Are you doubting this is possible? Remember, today a book with a peeing baboon on the cover made it big. If you’re a talented writer, why not use your talents to exploit a rich marketplace like this? Why not experiment with new kinds of story that engage the kind of casual but numerous readers the Kindle store attracts? Perhaps the question isn’t “does this undermine quality”, but do you have the chops to make quality writing that works in this space? Thought of as that kind of challenge, the reason so many writers are excited about ebooks becomes clear.

Writer. Guardian columnist. Writing a book.

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