Tag Archives: Arts

Stop wasting your time on trivia

A thought for the new year of 2014.

There is a lot of noise in modern life. Finding your meaning is sometimes a matter of filtering everything out except the signal you need.

Set aside anything you do that is on this list. Competing for status baubles. Trying to look like someone on TV. Comparing your car / house / job with your friends. Worrying about your hair. Holding a grudge. Eating for comfort. Trying to help other people solve their problems. Running away from shadows. Living like you’re in a soap opera. Chasing after girls / boys / entities. Dreaming of the future. Mourning for the past. Being the narrator of your own drama. Greasing the machinery of power. Sucking up to a clique. Playing online poker. Counting your gold. Caring how others see you. Waiting for the phone call. Waiting for the email. Waiting for the status update. Waiting for anything. Working for The Man. Raging against The Machine. Arguing on the internet. Congratulating yourself for being clever. Berating yourself for being lazy. Any and all time spent in shopping malls. Gossiping. Collecting reward points. Categorising your collection of anything. Working in marketing / advertising. Being a banker. Being unemployed. Being underemployed. Being scared.

If you weren’t doing all of that, what would you be doing?

Go do it.

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freedom by jonathan-franzen

Jonathan Franzen is an easily understood genius

freedomAt some point Jonathan Franzen decided to write easily understood works of literary genius. It was likely while writing his 1994 essay Perchance to Dream which tries to find some purpose for the novel in the technological consumer culture of the late 20th / early 21st century (alternate title “Why Bother?”) It’s a decision that has made Franzen the most successful literary novelist of recent decades. And also one that has won me as a reader.

*There may be some spoilers ahead. It’s not the kind of book that is easily spoiled. But if you worry about such things, you have been warned.*

Freedom is a big book about…freedom. It’s a family saga, although in truth while it appears to follow the Berglund family over a number of decades, it is actually all about one pivotal relationship at the heart of that family’s life and identity. The Berglund’s are a midwest American upper middle class family, which is so much Franzen’s societal stomping ground he’s now frequently called on it as a limitation by reviewers. Lots of the story unfolds during the college years of the central characters, so Franzen can also enjoy writing a campus novel. There’s a love triangle, and at heart the book is a very moving story about the relative value of love, marriage and commitment.

And, of course, freedom.

Franzen tips the reader off that this is a book about freedom by calling the book Freedom. He’s trying hard to make sure you don’t miss this, because without having it front and centre in your mind, you’re not going to enjoy the many clever ways Franzen explores the theme of freedom. This is of course an American novelist, writing an American book about American culture. Freedom is the foundational myth of America, the “home of the free.” So literally any observation of contemporary American life an also be re-tooled as an observation on what it is to be a “free people”.

The large but not sprawling cast of Freedom – Walter and Patty Berglund, their two children Joey and Jessica, their oldest friend and rock musician Richard Katz, their relatives and in-laws and – pivotally – the supporting chorus of neighbours Franzen employs for comic relief – all represent different approaches to living a free life. Or not. In response to their freedom The Berglunds choose a not very healthy but very common form of codependent relationship – marriage. Richard Katz chooses total independence, and all the loneliness and craziness that comes with it. Neither is vindicated in their choice, they are merely different responses to the existential problem posed by freedom.

We know Franzen is doing this, because whenever he is done illustrating the conundrum that is freedom in a particular character, he slips in a sentence or two about being free, or living freely, or having freedom.

“She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.”

OK. The instances of free and freedom aren’t actually highlighted in the book. But they may as well be. How stupid would you have to be for the word freedom not to come flying off the page at you while reading a book called Freedom? Which is precisely the point. Franzen knows how stupid we are, and he knows how much he has to compensate for the stupidity of the average reader.

Franzen occasionally confuses his argument by using the word freedom in an entirely literal and non-thematic context. And I’m confusing my argument by being a person regularly guilty of extreme snark who now sounds like he is being snarky when actually he’s being 100% sincere. We need writers like Jonathan Franzen who can say intelligent things and aren’t too proud to highlight them in neon markers for a readership who simply aren’t very good at reading. I’m a professional book reviewer, and *I* need this, so I hate to think what the average bloke on the street needs.

We are a culture of surface and sensation. The cultural activities we actually do willingly are things of immense visual spectacle – stadium sports, blockbuster movies, widescreen home video games etc etc – and they in turn are experiences of intense sensation. We like food that burns our mouth with spice, drinks saturated in sugar and acid, news that soaks us with fear sweat and dramas that make us shriek and weep at the villainy and heroism on screen. We fill our real lives with fast cars, high power careers, extreme sports and hallucinogenic drugs. All of it, all of it, every last shred, to escape from the mundane life we would have to live if these things did not distract us.

Literary fiction does none of these things. It is, arguably, the antithesis of surface and sensation. It is the stripping away of fantasy and delusion to take us back to mundane reality. And it does this to help us see that it’s in the actual lives we are living that all the most valuable things are to be found. Love. Relationships. Emotion. Meaning. Hope. But to get there we have to re-engage with all the mundane stuff we’ve been avoiding. Lost love. Relationships gone sour with lack of care. All the emotions of grief, fear, hate, anger and the rest that we try so hard to avoid feeling. But without feeling them we can’t find any meaning or hope. It’s why literary fiction so often seems gloomy and depressing. It’s taking us back to our own gloomy depressing reality, without which we can’t find any true joy or happiness.

This is the first reason why literary fiction is a hard sell. It’s so much easier to escape in to a fantasy than to face reality, and there are whole genres of fantasy for readers who would rather do that. The second reason is somewhat more prosaic. As a culture of surface and sensation, we simply aren’t conditioned to look at the subtle internal life that literary fiction directs us to. In fantasy grief is solved when the hero kills the villain and saves the princess. In reality, grief is never solved. Things and people lost generally stay lost, and every time we lose something else the grief gets worse. That’s reality. It’s hard. Literary fiction can help show us – as Freedom does beautifully – how grief can be transformed in to redemption and renewal. But for those of us conditioned to look for a comforting fantasy, following the subtleties of real emotional experience and human behaviour is hard.

Franzen understands that for the potent medicine of literature to get through to readers, it sometimes has to be blunt. It’s tempting for literary writers to make the subtleties of emotion and experience ever more subtle. Maggie goes to the kitchen and washes a mug, and from this we’re supposed to divine that Maggie has found piece with the loss of her elder brother some years before. Well, frankly, most of us aren’t going to get that. We need writers like Franzen who’ll already have told us repeatedly that this was Johnny’s favourite mug, and will then have Johnny’s pet pitbull enter the kitchen with a note tucked in its collar from Johnny that he wrote as a joke just before dying which ironically lists all the things he finds annoying about his kid sister. Now, some of the audience at least are following along.

Freedom is one long series of well placed notes strapped to pitbulls. It’s a highly engineered work of fiction about important and subtle realities of life that almost anyone will be able to read with pleasure and take at least something from. In a world that seems to have fewer meaningful stories, and ever more escapist fantasies, that makes Freedom a book of immense power and value.

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On being bossed around by Neil Gaiman

I’ve been outlandishly busy in recent weeks. So much so that I haven’t been able to post anything personal here on my blog. One of the costs of having more freelance writing than you can do is that it squeezes out the personal projects that you love. So here’s a round-up on some of what I’ve been doing recently.

You may have noticed (unless you are reading this in the Andromeda galaxy) that Neil Gaiman has a new book coming out. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a remarkable story, that I was lucky enough to receive a very special edition of some time ago. My review is over on Medium, where I’ve been posting occasional things because I like their platform so much. I feel like Ocean is the start of a new phase in Neil’s fiction writing, and I’m excited about where it’s going to take him next.

Today Neil has been guest editing the Guardian books section, for which I write. He also edited SFX magazine, to which I am a regular contributor. Which kind of means Neil Gaiman has been my boss for the last few weeks. So what’s it like being bossed around by Neil Gaiman?

Well. I got to go on a tour of Weird London, chat with M John Harrison about weird fiction, and record the experience as an audio documentary.

And I got to interview Harlan Ellison. I have been reading Harlan’s fiction since I was a teenager, and I think All The Lies That Are My Life is possibly the only great meditation on being and SF writer ever written. It was an intense interview. You’ll have to go read it to find out what happened.

On Monday I’m heading to the Royal Society of Literature event ‘Magic, Memory and Survival’ where Mr.Gaiman is talking and copies of the new book are being sold. Super-excited about this, and will be live-tweeting the whole event at @damiengwalter

In and around all this I’m continuing work on my book, and also a couple of side projects. And teaching my course in creative writing at University of Leicester. And tweeting too much! It’s a pure joy making my living from writing and teaching writing at the moment, and getting to spend so much time around writers I admire. Happy days.

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Does God have a place in science fiction?

If SF is grounded in hard scientific fact, and science is killing God, then what place does that leave for divine intervention in the pages of SF literature? When I tweeted this question, @MirabilisDave gave Arthur C Clarke’s famous dictum a twist, quipping that “Any sufficiently advanced technocrat will be indistinguishable from God.”

Read more @ Guardian books

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What critics really mean when they say…

Nothing in publishing means what it says. Especially book reviews and the stuff they put in blurbs.

Renowned – unknown

Bestselling – crap

New York Times bestseller – utter crap

Seminal – almost dead

Legendary – actually dead

Cult – only readable by drug addicts

A powerful debut – you will never hear from this author again

Winner of… – went to uni / slept with a judge

A tale of love, hate and [INSERT IRONIC SUBJECT IE ironing, cats, bee keeping] – the book is essentially just the unremarkable life of the author who erroneously believes they are quite interesting

Volume 7 in the Chronicles of Tel’neth – sales started tappering off after Volume 2 and have never recovered, we’re hoping the author will die before we have to tell him he’s no longer in contract

One of our greatest living novelists – everyone is saying nice things about this but I really don’t know why

Hypnotic, spellbinding - didn’t get it

Brilliantly conceived, bold and exuberant – didn’t read it

Impossible to put down - only read the beginning

The long-awaited return of – written by the author after a minor nervous breakdown in a desperate attempt to pay their medical bills

The literary sensation of the year – author got to all the right parties

Astounding – competent

Astonishing – incoherent

Amazing – predictable

The list could go on forever. And why shouldn’t it? Tell me the ones I missed @damiengwalter

Can you teach writing?

Is the wrong question. What we should ask is, can you learn writing?

To which the answer is an unequivocal YES! All writers teach themselves, through an intense and lifelong process of reading, writing, critiquing, editing, rewriting and rereading. This is how we learn.

In this process, a good teacher can save you immense time and effort. A good teacher can show you in an hour the four main point-of-view styles that the bulk of commercial fiction is written in. I have seen students stumble for years to find what they could learn in an hour.

So if the answer is self-evident, why do we continue to ask, can you teach writing? Is the question we are really asking; is writing teaching of value? Is it, in the logic of the capitalist market system, worth a buck?

Here is one certain answer. If you are asking that question, you are not ready to learn any creative discipline yet.

Why Standard Manuscript Format matters more than ever

For the last few days I’ve been following the editorial pains of friend and fellow British Fantasy Award judge Hal Duncan on Twitter. I don’t know what it is Hall is editing, I’m just glad its not me having to do it!

https://twitter.com/Hal_Duncan/status/276818447965499392

https://twitter.com/Hal_Duncan/status/276818866250866688

It’s amazing how many writers can plaster their manuscript in copyright warnings, but can’t format it worth a damn. This says all the wrong things about how you see your own work. Because what it says is, “I don’t believe in myself as a writer.” If you really believed in yourself as a writer, you would know that no reputable editor would ever rip your work off (if you’re sending to disreputable editors then no amount of copyright warnings will protect the work). Editors and publishers need great writers, not just great writing. If they like what they see, they don’t just want what the book they are reading, they want the next dozen books that follow it as well.

I’ve seen two discussions recently about Standard Manuscript Format basically saying, why bother? Sure, there are editors who aren’t concerned about manuscript format, mostly at small presses and fanzines because they haven’t heard of it. But there are also many, many editors who won’t even read a manuscript that isn’t in SMF. Why? Because if the writer doesn’t even have enough respect for their work to place it in the professional format, how can you trust them to be professional in the thousands of other ways a writer needs to be if you’re going to invest in publishing their manuscript? Also, they get a bazillion scripts a week so it’s an easy way to just get rid of some.

SMF was once essential because the manuscript had to go through many processes that depended on standard format. Now word processors make those processes easier. But they also mean there are more writers, submitting more manuscripts than ever before. If you really want to stand out from the crowd, don’t hand scrawl your manuscript on mauve paper scented with truffle oil. Put it in Standard Manuscript Format. Make it look like nearly every great, soon-to-be-published book that has ever hit the desk of any editor anywhere. These days, that kind of professionalism and confidence stands out a mile.

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The Density of Words

At anywhere between 80,000 to 150,000 words or more the average commercially published novel might seem like a huge space to fill. I know the idea of creating that many words is often intimidating to my writing students, who may never have written more than 2-3 thousand words on one story in the past. But once you start to work at the novel length, you quickly begin to realise that even with 150,000 words to fill, you don’t have words to burn.

Once you establish the scene structure of your story, the style and structure of your chapters, and the information on character, setting and action you need to give the reader to support the story, there really should not be much dead space on any given page of your novel. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”

(The last time I posted this on Twitter I got a tweet back from @Neilhimself with the addendum “or be funny” which also works for me.)

NaNoWriMo is an excellent exercise. It’s a great way to demonstrate to yourself that you *can* find the time to write around all other commitments. And it’s great fun. But. Whether you achieve the 50,000 words in that month or not, I would suggest that 50,000 words a month is not a realistic writing goal for any writer.

Can you write 50,000 words in a month? Yes. But they will most likely fail Kurt Vonnegut’s and Neil Gaiman’s advice. Can some writers write 50,000 *good* words in a month? Yes. But only under exceptional circumstances, in an established style they can produce effectively at that speed. Do some professional writers produce and publish 50,000 *bad* words a month? Yes. But do you really want to be one of those writers?

I’m personally comfortable producing around 5000 words of fiction a week, or around 20,000 a month. That’s about what I’ve been doing every month for the last three years. At that speed my first draft is 80% of where I want it to be. Any faster and that dips radically to 50% or less. Any faster for me would certainly not be better.

What rate of wordage do you find most productive?

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My Kitschy Predictions 2012

The Kitschies are among my favourite speculative fiction awards for the simple reason that they give awards to very good books. Last year I nailed A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness as the winner. So this year I’m going to take a wild stab at predicting the whole shortlist (!) How will I do?

  • Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
  • Railsea by China Mieville
  • Among Others by Jo Walton (An outlier as one of the judges keeps saying how much they hate it…)
  • The City’s Son by Tom Pollock
  • Channel SK1N by Jeff Noon
If I get 3 right I will be quite happy. 5 and I will start to wonder if there is something up!
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How to work with theory without snuffing out your creative spark

I spent much of the last weekend live-tweeting from Weird Council, an academic convention on the writing of China Mieville. Many clever people were in attendance, many clever things were said. I only understood about half of them but felt quite good about getting that much. As a good friend of mine says, if more than four other experts in the world understand what you are saying you are not a real academic.

Throughout the day I saw occasional tweets from writers wondering how all these complicated theories about literature combined with the actual act of creative writing. And I believe that is a perfectly valid concern. Most writers recognise that it isn’t the intellectual bit of their brain that writes a great novel or short story. That comes from an imaginative spark. And anyone who writes knows that too much intellectualising can snuff that spark right out.

But nonetheless, all that theory stuff can actually be pretty useful. Science Fiction is sometimes called a conversation. The ideas that writers have developed over the decades are contributions to that conversation. If you don’t know what’s been said before, you risk being the chap walking in to the middle of a discussion and saying what everyone else already said an hour ago. Theory can help bring you up to date with where that conversation is. And this isn’t just true of SF but for any form of creative expression. And theory can also help to spark fantastic and original ideas, if you learn to use it without letting it use you.

When you engage with theory as an artist, you have to resist the powerful temptation to try and be right. Theory often presents itself as an argument, and demands that you take a side. It’s the job of the academic to have that argument, because from the dialectical process of two or more opposing positions debating, new knowledge can be discovered and tested. But that process can be death to the artist. Be curious, ask questions. Enjoy the novel ideas theory can offer. But don’t take a side. Don’t get sucked in to the argument. And don’t try and be right.

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Feel THE FEAR…and write it anyway

I did a little whoop of joy, followed by a nod of recognition when I received Gareth L. Powell’s guest post in my email inbox. The first because Mr. Powell is among Britain’s very best science fiction authors. The second because like every writer, I recognise THE FEAR that Gareth describes. You will no doubt recognise it also. Find Gareth L. Powell online at www.garethlpowell.com and on Twitter @garethlpowell

I’m always happy to feature guest posts from fellow writers and passionate readers. Find me on Twitter @damiengwalter

If you want to be a writer, then sooner or later you’ll have to face THE FEAR. However confident you may feel as you start to write your latest novel or story, at some point you’ll look at what you’ve written and hold your head in your hands.

“Give up,” a little voice will whisper in your head. And that little voice is THE FEAR.

THE FEAR will plant questions and doubts in your head. It will tell you that everything you’ve ever written is crap. It will tell you that you’re not a real writer, and that you should quit now before people find out what a talentless hack you really are and expose you as a fraud.

I have spoken about THE FEAR to other writers, and they all recognise it. They all have that inner demon whispering to them in their darkest moments, undercutting their confidence and self-belief. For some, those dark moments are at the beginning of a project, when they’re staring at a blank white page awaiting inspiration. For others, THE FEAR creeps up on them during the editing process, or just prior to submission.

For me, THE FEAR tends to manifest around the halfway point of a novel, when the end seems very far away, and it becomes almost impossible for me to objectively judge whether what I’m writing is any good or not. I start to worry that the characters are jabbering trolls gesticulating their way through a nonsensical plot, and that I’ll never reach the final chapter.

If you let it get hold of you, THE FEAR can paralyse you, leaving you unable to function. The only way I’ve found to fight back is to keep writing; to keep soldiering on until you stagger over the finish line. Only then will you be able to look back with anything resembling objective clarity.

But how do you keep going? How do you keep the motivation going when the voice in your head tells you that you’re wasting your time? You can blot out THE FEAR with alcohol, but that’s only a temporary solution; and most people find it hard to do their best work when they’re smashed.

The only practical way to prevail is to keep your goal in mind. Get in front of your keyboard every day and do the work. Tell yourself that you will finish what you have started. Listen to THE FEAR and learn to identify it. Don’t let it trick you. When it starts sowing its seeds, gather them up and lock them in a quiet corner of your mind. Tell yourself: “This is just THE FEAR talking.” And try to ignore it. Or, if you can’t ignore it, try turning it to your advantage. Harness the nervous energy to make you more productive. Surf that anxiety wave! Tell yourself that you are going to feel THE FEAR, and do it anyway. Keep your eyes on the prize, and keep buggering on until you get there!

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Secondary World Problems

You know, those things which are only an issue if you happen to be the denizen of a world created in the imagination of a jobbing fantasy author. Or an ageing English academic. Or a frustrated fan trying to turn pro author. A secondary world always tells you more about the inside of the authors head than it does about the world itself.

The secondary world is a problematic construct. The term has become an accepted part of the dialogue around Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and it’s also been taken on by video gamers and game designers, perhaps because SF&F are so hardwired in to that new and still evolving media. But they really haven’t been examined seriously either by literary criticism or contemporary philosophy. They are in fact rejected out of hand, perhaps because, quite rightly, it is awakening humans from fantasy that is the goal of both literature and philosophy.  The cultural phenomenon of secondary worlds is more interesting than the secondary worlds themselves.

I think what might be fairly said about secondary worlds is that they have a tendency to generate terrible, terrible writing. The attempt to build a secondary world through the medium of prose fiction is doomed from the outset. Every step towards world-building is a step away from story telling, which is the heart of M. John Harrison’s now iconic complaint against the clomping foot of nerdism. Arguing about secondary worlds is more interesting than the secondary worlds themselves.

The primary world called reality is a kind of fantasy. We float through reality in the semi-dream state of day to day consciousness, absorbed in our thoughts and in the digital realities constructed on our computer screens. The real problem of secondary worlds, whether on the page or the screen, is that far from being an escape they are another layer to the trap you are already caught it. The sensation you feel when immersed in a secondary world isn’t the thrill of freedom, but the relaxation that comes with a capitulation. Escaping from secondary worlds is more interesting than escaping in to secondary worlds.

Fantastika can do more than that. By drawing you in deeper to the immersive experience of a secondary world fantasy, a great writer can also tempt you along the path to a kind of awakening. These fantasies are few and far between, but once you have experienced them you become suspicious of all those that want to lull you back to sleep.