Tag Archives: fiction

London Gothic

Mystery is the doorway to fantasy. Dark forests, far away galaxies, roads that wind into the distance: any space that allows our imagination to play without the interference of mundane reality can be a portal. And there are few places more expectant with mystery than cities. Every road, building and doorway is a new unknown. So it’s no surprise that writers of fantasy find endless inspiration in cities, and in no city more than London.

The current trend for recasting London through the prism of fantasy metaphors began, arguably, with Neil Gaiman’s television series (and later novel) Neverwhere. Gaiman imagines a fantasy underworld beneath the mundane reality of London, built around the names of stops on the tube map. Blackfriars, Angel Islington and Old Bailey become characters in the underworld. It’s the kind of simple, beautiful idea Gaiman has a knack for; the sort you feel you might have thought of just a moment before he told them to you.

Read more @ Guardian Books.

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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!

Why Sense of Wonder sucks

Many writers of fantasy fiction describe their work in terms of its ability to evoke a ‘Sense of Wonder’ in the reader, and go out of their way to find sources of ‘wonder’ to energise their stories. This is self-defeating in the most serious kind of way.

Stories that attempt to create a ‘Sense of Wonder’ fall in to a variety of traps. They return to ideas and images that evoked the sensation at some time in the writer. So we keep writing about manned missions to Mars, long after the idea has gone stale. They enter the escalating arms race of weird ideas. A troll isn’t good enough any more, it’s gotta be a steam powered were-troll…with laser eyes! And this exacerbates an already problematic tendency in fantastic fiction. You can’t actually create that steam powered were-troll in the readers imagination. You can try, with paragraphs of descriptive prose. But they’re far more likely to evoke boredom than wonder.

Trying to create ‘Sense of Wonder’ in a reader’s imagination is like trying to make the rabbit actually materialise out of your sleeve. Or believing you really can psychically intuit which number I’m thinking of. (42!) Magic tricks exist in the mind of the audience. The magician doesn’t create the trick, he plays on the fact that we desperately want to experience it, and will overlook his sleight of hand to do so.

A boy looking at a daisy through a magnifying glass can feel a perfect ‘Sense of Wonder’. It’s not the daisy’s doing, it’s all inside the boy. The other thing we call ‘Sense of Wonder’ is awe. We feel awe when we see things as they really are. You walk past millions of daisies without feeling awe. But when you stop to look, to REALLY look, then awe arises.

The writers job is just to make the reader stop and look. Leave the ‘Sense of Wonder’ to us.

All hail the New Pulp

Imagine a scale of literary productivity. At one end, place current darling of the American literary scene Jeffrey Eugenides, bating a steady average of one book per decade. At the other, put Jack Vance – at 95, perhaps the last of the great pulp fictioneers – who has produced 60 novels across the SF, fantasy and mystery genres, as well as hundreds of stories for pulp magazines such as Thrilling Wonder Stories. Label one end of the scale great literature, the other pulp fiction.

Read more @ Guardian Books

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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.

Micro Sci-Fi 2 : My eyes are dim, I can not see

A Google HUD journalist  auctions the eternal copyright to her feed for a Quora credit fortune but is replaced by a narrative AI generated from her lifetime experience.

Rules of Micro SF:

  • Tell a story in one sentence. It can be any length but must work grammatically and be reasonably well parsed by a reader.
  • Include at least two or more hyperlinks to current developments in science, technology or the humanities.
  • You may expand the stories meaning through the title, which is not part of the one sentence story.
  • Tweet me @damiengwalter and I’ll share your stories with others.
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Osama Bin Laden : Vigilante

Lavie Tidhars novel Osama makes me wonder why we can’t all just get along. No, really, why the fuck can’t we?

One common problem for all science fiction writers is reconciling the wondrous world we could have with the one we have negligently stumbled into. At this exact moment in time, in an alternate reality governed by the Grandmasters of Sci-Fi, there is a version of you living a life of luxury in a post-scarcity paradise where your every whim is met by your own robo-butler. Of course, that may already be your daily reality if you are a hedge-fund manager or MP on expenses, while the rest of us are simply grateful to avoid stacking shelves in Tesci. There are certainly worse realities, but there are also so many better ones.

Read more at Guardian books.

Good curation is much more valuable than cash

A good friend has just sold a debut story to an excellent but non-paying market. There are a lot of markets for short fiction. Many of them are bad. Some of them pay. Some of the ones that pay the most are the worst. In the world of short fiction money is a very bad way of assessing quality.

There is a popular myth that back in the good old days writers could make a living from short fiction. It’s a myth continued in the idea of the ‘pro-rate’ of pay for short fiction. 5 cents a word can add up to a nice little bonus payment, but it’s only professional money if you are living in the 1920s. And only then if you lived on beans and fresh air.  The only reason the ‘pro-rate’ matters at all is because it gives at least some indication that the publisher is committed enough to invest a little cash in their enterprise.

The only real measure of a short fiction market is the quality of its curation. As readers we rely on editors to curate the best material to suit our interests. That is why the average start-up fiction magazine that publishes thirty stories lacks any value, while the excellent Clarkesworld which publishes just two stories a month has become the top market in short SF. As writers, publication in an excellently curated market is one of the best indications that you work has achieved quality.

Writing fiction is not a manufacturing process. Success is not a product of your Rate of Productivity x Stories Published x Cents per Word. A dozen stories in a dozen ‘pro-rate’ markets can mean less than one story, in one well curated market which puts it in front of the right eye-balls.

Reality is for people who can’t handle Science Fiction

It’s all too easy to dismiss science fiction and fantasy stories as escapist nonsense. But there’s ultimately something despairing about the charge of running away most readers of these genres encounter at some point. It tends to come from an authority figure of some kind – a teacher, a boss, a parent. It is often well intended. But even as they make the accusation, you can hear a part of them whispering quietly, “I want to escape! I want to imagine! I want to dream!” Unfortunately they’ve forgotten how, and reality is too important to escape from – even for a moment.

Read more on The Guardian website

Damo’s Guide to Getting Published More

Its occurred to me that submitting stories to short fiction markets is a bit of a mystery to many people, so I thought I would write a post about it that some might find informative. I hope others don’t find it patronising.

Ok, like most people I quite like bragging about my successes so I’ll start there. My acceptance rate is about 1 / 4, which for an unknown writer like me is very good. Clearly I like to assign this to my huge talents as a writer, but realistically it also has something to do with having an organised approach to submitting stories.

Anyone trying to get short fiction published would do very well to start by considering this advice from Robert Heinlein.

  • You must write.
  • You must finish what you write.
  • You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
  • You must put the work on the market.
  • You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Yes, these are all common sense. But its amazing how easy it is to abandon common sense when making personal decisions. Writing is for many people a treasured dream. The reality of exposing that dream to public gaze can create strange behavior. Its all to easy to waste years believing in yourself as a writer, but never actually writing. Once you get going its easy to not finish. Once you are finished, its easy to endlessly rewrite because nothing is ever perfect. The fear of rejection can keep excellent stories sitting in draws, only to be swooned over by amazed relatives long after the author has died. And its very very easy to get that first brutal rejection and be too scared to ever send a story out again. And these aren’t transitory issue. You have to keep objectively checking whether you are breaking these laws because its all to easy to lapse in to bad behaviour after a bit of success. So go through the list and with a harsh but honest tone, ask yourself which ones you are breaking.

Have you done it?

Good. If your answer is none, go back and do it again because unless you are Stephen King already you are definitely breaking one of them. Once you’ve found the ones you are breaking sit yourself down and give yourself a good talking to – don’t do it again! I’m telling myself off for not finishing what I write even as I am typing.

In addition to Heinlein’s Laws here are some other things I have picked up in the last few years that might help:

Be Realistic – publishing short fiction has few rewards at first. Don’t expect to get paid. Don’t expect fan mail, or to be reviewed. Don’t expect a book deal, award nominations or any other kind of plaudit. Don’t even expect anyone to read your story. Why bother then, you may ask? Because those first publications are essential to building your belief in yourself as a writer. That self belief is in turn an essential part of developing the craft of your writing.

Be Professional – approach submitting a story like applying for a job. Would you send a hand written job application in pink ink on the back of a serviette? Every story you send out is a piece in the career you are trying to build in writing. Don’t buy into the myth that ‘creative’ or ‘artistic’ people don’t need to be professional and organised, its just that, a myth.

Rejection is Standard - most of what you send out will be rejected. This will hurt. Take the the pain, deal with it and move on. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the paranoid delusion that because your story has been rejected, you have been rejected. Don’t stop sending to a market after a rejection. Repeated rejections from the same market can often proceed an acceptance.

Know Your Markets – this is the main mistake most people make. ‘Why hasn’t the New Yorker accepted my Tolkienesque fantasy? Why hasn’t Realms of Fantasy accepted my postmodern prose-poem?’. Most short fiction markets, be they magazines, anthologies or otherwise, serve very niche audiences. Find the markets that serve the audiences that you want your writing to reach. The only way to do this is to read read read read until you find the work you really like. As you get to know the markets you will see where your work fits, or can be made to fit.

Be Organised – keep a record of what you have submitted, where and the outcome. This is essential. When something is rejected, send it on to the next market. If a market has a reading period, note it in your record and send something the day the market opens. If a story has been rejected from every possible market, then and only then consider doing a rewrite. There are a thousand little things that improve your chances of getting a story published, but you won’t notice any of them unless you keep the process organised.

Cascade your Submissions – start with the suitable ‘professional’ markets and as rejections come in send the story out to progressively smaller markets. The judge of a short fiction market is its readership – the more readers the better the market is a good rule of thumb.

Start Small - most short fiction is between 3000 – 7000 words. At the upper end of that or higher, an editors commitment to a story will have to be much higher for them to pick it. On the other hand, a 1000 word story is much easier to fit in amongst other things and more likely to persuade the editor to take a risk on a new and unknown writer.

Develop Your Bio - Let editors know about your other publications. As you start to develop a track record, editors will pay more attention to your submissions. This won’t get a bad story published, but it can get a good story noticed which might otherwise have been missed.

A final thought for when those rejections come in as they inevitably will…some might disagree but in my view fiction is a sellers market. Really great writers, at the peak of their craft, making really great work, are a rarity. Getting your work published is a part of developing your craft as a writer. With some talent, lots determination and an almost infinite amount of dedication its possible to master that craft. If you get to that point then instead of you chasing people people start chasing you. Taking the journey to that point is a big part of the real joy in writing, and the thing that hopefully makes the more frustrating parts worthwhile.

Right, I’m off to finish one of those stories.

D

Countdown to Doomsday

I haven’t made any meaningful posts for a while. I’ve been working quite hard on ‘Rings’ so there hasn’t been much free time for work. Even though the finished story will only be 3 – 4k it’s in a very dense first person style which I’m enjoying, but it means a high work to word ratio. I’ve been making myself write third person wherever possible so stepping back to a style I’m more comfortable with is quite nice.

I have exactly one week to go until I hit the world of part time employment. Having taken this time off to write my first novel I’m a little worried that the novel itself is in a slight limbo state. Either the pressure of arriving at my first day of effective self employment will galvanise me to action, or I’ll crumble and end up buying an X-Box and Halo 3. Stay tuned to discover which! (If it’s the latter I renew my request that you, gentle reader, come round to my house and put me out of my misery.)

I’m yet to receive my copy of Transmission, but postal strike permitting it should be next week. As I’ve clearly already read the story this is probably less frustrating for me than those of you who have let me know that you ordered a copy. Electric Velocipede is still on tracj for November with my story ‘Momentum’ and I found out earlier this week that ‘Circes’ is being considered for a January publication in a publication I like a lot. More details on this when they are available.