Tag Archives: Ursula K. Le Guin

Quinn eager to please

SF & Fantasy need to stop being so damn eager to please

“It just seems to me that, from Ballard to Herbert, SF was on a mission to invent and explore unknown fresh new psychologies. It was a fascinating, daunting task. We were on to something- and we lost the nerve to do it.”

There’s nothing less interesting than something which only exists to please you. And sometimes things of this kind aren’t just dull, but radically off putting and even offensive. Because something that only aims to please is by its nature manipulative, maybe even exploitative. It’s only trying to please you because it wants something from you. And if the thing it wants is money. Well that’s the most boring and offensive thing of all.

The quote at the head of this post was left by my friend Jim Worrad on a Facebook thread sparked by the idea that that Ursula Le Guin would not be published as a debut author today. Jim’s quote really sums up what I’ve felt festering inside for the last few days since publishing my latest Weird Things column on Le Guin’s new selected stories The Real and the Unreal. Thinking about Le Guin’s writing I really found myself wondering why there are so few writers in the fantasy genre producing work of the kind of quality – creatively, intellectually, technically – that Le Guin has produced throughout her career.

Clearly there are some. Lavie Tidhar scooped a World Fantasy Award for his novella Osama today – a book so original and challenging I dedicated a whole column to it back in October 2011. I could list a fair crop of other writers creating high quality fantasy writing, many of them World Fantasy award winners or nominees. Of all the genre awards it is the most consistently focussed on rewarding quality in fantasy fiction.

I’m going to guess that many, many SF & Fantasy readers will be less than pleased by the experience of reading Osama. It is a novel that goes out of its way to challenge its readers. If I was to pin one quality to Lavie’s writing as a whole it would be that. Tidhar is a steampunk author who hates steampunk, and an SF writer who hates SF. But this is exactly why many, many readers of SF & Fantasy enjoy Lavie’s writing. Because they believe that SF & Fantasy are supposed to be original and challenging, not just desperate attempts to please a nebulous mainstream audience.

Many of the current batch of bestsellers, particularly in Epic Fantasy, read exactly like calculated, desperate attempts to please some platonic ideal of a fantasy readership. Brandon Sanderson’s novels read like they were written by a committee of marketing executives, which from the author who sailed Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time franchise home is hardly surprising. Trudi Canavan’s books are basically Mary Sue coming of age fantasies. Pat Rothfuss novels are like post-modern simulacra of of fantasy novels, a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a fantasy novel. Steven Erikson’s Malazan series are well described role playing source books with a feint stab at character that misses more often than not.

SF & Fantasy have a self-destructive tendency to behave like eager to please employees at a new job. You want a five part magical quest story with a singing sword? YOU GOT IT! You want a steampunk romance with zeppelins and robot armies? YOU GOT IT! You want a poorly disgusied sex fantasy / power trip? YOU GOT IT! You want a violent mysoginistic romp with some rape and torture scenes? YOU GOT IT! In short order the strategy of giving people what they want conforms to the law of diminishing returns, because actually people don’t know what they want. If they did, they wouldn’t need artists to give it to them. Do you expect to just get what you want from a doctor? Or a teacher? Or a parent? Or a friend? Then why would you carry that expectation in to the deep and complex relationship an author has with a reader?

SF & Fantasy are, in the words of my friend Jim Worrad, on to a good thing. I say that in present tense because I think we’re still far from losing it all together. It’s made the artform that is SF & Fantasy storytelling one of the most powerful in contemporary culture. But SF & Fantasy don’t thrive on being eager to please. They thrive on being challenging. On being original. On describing both reality and unreality in ever more innovative and beautiful ways. So let’s please carry on doing just that.

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Who is the wisest Sci-Fi & Fantasy author?

Over on Twitter and Facebook I asked folk to tell me which SF author they would turn to for life advice, for words of wisdom and guidance through the labyrinth of life. And I got quite a response!

[View the story "Wisest of the wise in SF & Fantasy" on Storify]

Popular choices include Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Jeff Vandermeer, China Mieville, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Philip K Dick and Douglas Adams. Is it just coincidence that these are also some of our most enduring writers?

It makes me wonder, beyond a good story, great characters, cool ideas and amazing worlds to explore, is what we really value in our writers is the wise guidance they offer us through life?

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5 indispensable guides for fiction writers

Many people say writing can’t be taught. But it can certainly be learnt.

(I actually think it can be taught as well, or I would not teach it.)

When we’re young and full of beans we like to think we know it all. It’s hard to admit to yourself you don’t how to do something. But it’s the first and most important step in learning anything worth knowing. The idea that writing is a mystical skill which only comes to those with some unknown combination of genetics, education and / or the grace of a supreme creator is just another way of not admitting that you don’t know how to do it. If it can’t be learnt, well then you might as well just go right on not learning it, avoid all that hard work and continue just waiting for inspiration to strike instead.

Learning to write good fiction does take time. I would say  roughly five years, for someone with strong literacy and who already reads widely and deeply to begin with. But it can also take WAAAAAAAY longer than that. Without the right inputs, the outputs will always be rubbish. That input can be teaching. A good writing teacher can help you take quantum leaps forward in a few hours that might take years to stumble in to. It can also be one or more good writing guides. The right guides can help you master what Stephen King calls ‘The Writer’s Toolkit’, everything from basic grammar, paragraphs and sentence structure to character, narration, scene, plot and themes. For a novice, a good writing guide should take you from enjoying texts as a reader, to understanding their structure and the tools and techniques used to build them as a writer. That’s an important shift, and one that will save years of trial and error in the learning process.

While there is a law of diminishing returns with writing guides – the more of them you read the more you find the same information repeated – the good ones, as with those I have chosen below, always reveal the unique wisdom of their authors.

James Woods : How Fiction Works

This is the writing guide I would most like to see read by all writers of genre fiction who disdain ‘literature’. James Woods is one of the worlds best literary critics, and Professor of Literary Criticism at Harvard. Fine credentials, in this case backed up by a slim but erudite volume on How Fiction Works which I would rate as the single best book for writers trying to achieve depth and complexity in their fiction. The worst writing guides replace craft with market knowledge. They tell the writer what will sell, which often means discouraging them from subtlety or complexity because these aren’t always valued in commercial fiction. For instance, it’s often taken as gospel by genre writers that a text’s narrative point-of-view stick to one character per scene or chapter. Unfortunately while this makes life easier for weak readers, it also robs prose of one its great strengths, which is the ability to reflect the viewpoint of many characters even within the same sentence. Woods’ book has an excellent section on exactly this topic, as well as many other gems that will set any writer who spends more time considering the market than the craft back on the straight and narrow.

Ursula LeGuin : Steering the Craft

I love this book so much that I regularly re-read it for pleasure. Ursula Le Guin is one of those writers I trust absolutely to say only wise and decent things, so any advice she gives on writing is instantaneously at the top of my To Be Read list. Being a genuine and good person is an underestimated skill for writers. If you aren’t, why would anyone choose to spend hundreds of hours hanging around in your imagination? Le Guin doesn’t explicitly share ideas on how to become as wise as she in this book, instead she focuses on the often neglected fundamentals of good fiction – voice & rhythm – but it’s always possible some of the wholesomeness might rub off just through continued exposure. There are also excellent writing exercises which I have come back to again and again.

 

Samuel R Delany : About Writing

Have you ever had the experience of struggling for hours with a technical issue – maybe an intractable computer problem thats kept you up in to the wee hours – when in desperation you call in an expert who fixes it in about 18 seconds? That’s basically every other page of Delany’s hefty tome of collected writing advice. The small section on natural vs. dramatic narrative structure (Location, Action, Emotion…which most people present in reverse, thereby boring / confusing the reader) is worth the high price of this rare book in and of itself. But don’t let the fact that I’ve revealed it here stop you! There are many, many more wise words from one of the grandmasters of SF to glean from About Writing. Delany is also a vastly experienced writing teacher, so he spends some time talking about the very subtle differences that sepearte a successful student who blooms as a writer from the many others who, however technically accomplished they become, just never grow as artists.

Christopher Booker : The Seven Basic Plots

I have misgivings about recommending this, because it has almost as many crippling failings as it does magnificent strengths. Paramount among the failings are the hundreds of pages Booker – a social conservative – spends attempting to construct a revisionist history of modern literature as a victory of the Ego over the Self. However, Booker’s core argument that stories reflect our deepest psychological structures is a fascinating and also demonstrably true one. He isn’t the first to make it, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been much more significant in enlighteneting writers to this way of approaching story, but Booker does make an excellent critical analysis of and argument for his seven archetypal plot structures. If you want to write archetypal fiction in the heroic / high fantasy mould then this is an essential read, and will very likely change forever how you approach that task. Just ignore everything Booker has to say about modern literature and you will be fine!

Gail Sher : One Continuous Mistake

The relationship between meditation and writing is one that has been explored quite widely from the 60’s onwards, when the counter culture brought many aspects of Eastern spiritual practice to the west. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is probably the most famous, but Gail Sher brings a sensitivity to the subject that makes One Continuous Mistake quite unique in its Zen-like precision. Writing is a task which requires intense insight in to our inner life, and precise mastery of the balance between the waking logical mind and unconscious dreaming imagination. Gail Sher provides a compassionate guide on how to strengthen both and hence strengthen your writing, using meditation exercises, and also through the longer term practice of your craft and creativity. For anyone who has been overly schooled in the ‘write 2000 words a day, sell a book a year, meet the demands of the market’ way of writing, this book might be just what you need to overcome those ego driven desires and get back to your true self as a writer.

A few I didn’t include and why: Story by Robert McKee because it’s great for screenwriting but can misguide prose writers. On Writing by Stephen King because, come on, you’ve read this right? Are there any other hidden gems of writerly craft I have ngelected?

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Workshop : Imagination

Term has begun at the Certificate in Creative Writing at Vaughan College, University of Leicester, of which I am very proud to be course director. We have 20 new keen creative writing students this year, of all ages and backgrounds. As part of this year’s course, I am going to open a general discussion following each workshop for both students on the course and anyone else interested. As well as a general introduction to the course, this weeks workshop was on the theme of Imagination.

Workshop One : Imagination

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein

“It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.” Ursula K. Le Guin

Where do stories and ideas come from? It’s the question every author get’s asked by readers, and as fantasy author Mark Charan Newton says, most of us don’t have a good answer. Harlan Ellison, the famously grumpy American author of speculative fiction, tells people he pays a regular fee to a little shop in the middle of nowhere, in return for which he get’s sent six new ideas each month. He get’s angry when people believe him, instead of realising the simple truth. We all have ideas, we all have stories to tell, we all have imagination. But finding our imagination and learning to use it isn’t as simple as just having an idea.

EXERCISE : Counting Breaths

Find somewhere quiet to sit, no TV or music! Sit comfortably, either in a chair or on the floor. Now. Close your eyes and breath. Try counting your breaths, in and out. How many can you count before a stray thought distracts you? You might be surprised how difficult this is! Every time you realise you have lost count, return to your breathing and start counting again.

It’s surprising how rarely we sit quietly in this day and age. We’re all busy people, work, family, social life and everything else make free time quite rare. And when we do have it we fill it with music, TV, video games and other things. It can be really interesting just to stop for a while and look at what is happening inside your own head. How many breaths could you count? What thoughts distracted you from counting? How long before you stopped, and why?

When we look at what’s happening inside our own heads for a while, we start to see what chaos it all is! Thoughts fly around like leaves in a storm. One moment you’re worrying about something at work, the next you’re wondering what’s happening in Eastenders. The inside of a even a relatively normal persons head is utter chaos. Writer’s heads are often even worse.

To cope in the world, we all have a part of our self that tames all that chaos. This is the part of us that makes ToDo lists, checks them off, fills out spreadsheets, makes it on time to appointments, understands how to read bus timetables, remembers passwords and generally makes civilised life possible. You can picture this part of your self as a smartly dressed, highly skilled office administrator, possibly called Ian or Clare.

But, we also all have a part of our self that loves the chaos. This is the part of us that dreams. It’s the part that loves how food tastes, or the feel of a summer breeze. It’s the part that makes friendships and falls in love. The part that cries at a piece of beautiful music, or gets angry when you see somebody being hurt. This is the part that makes civilised life worth living. Imagine this part of you as a free living, long haired hippie kid in tie-dye clothing called Sky or River.

Now. To write anything worth writing, Ian/Clare and Sky/River both have to collaborate. The problem being that, by nature, they don’t get along. Ian wants to make loads of rules and have every part of the story worked out before you even put pen to paper. Sky just writes random words down because she likes the sound and expects everyone else to share her joy.

Imagination is really the act of getting Ian and Sky working together effectively. Sky grabs hold of things in the chaos of your thoughts and recognises how beautiful they can be. Ian applies the rules of grammar and structure to them so that they are expressed as strongly as possible in words. When both our logical, ordered self, and our random, chaotic self can work together, that is when truly imaginative ideas emerge.

There are two things that can help merge order and chaos. The first is learning. In creative writing that means learning what Stephen King calls the Writer’s Toolbox, which we start looking at in the second of these workshops. The second is practice. The more you work with your tools, the better you get at using them. That bit is really down to you!

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Oh please GOD no STOP writing! (so much)

There’s a terrible meme emerging from the internet writing community. It arises from good intentions and common sense, and like most examples of common sense applied to complex situations it is utterly, utterly wrong.

You can see this meme at work in the debate around publishing a book a year following Steph Swainston‘s retirement from fiction. You can see it Chuck Wendig’s (who I agree with more often than not) recent musings Write More, Word Slave. You can see it in the 50,000 word a month culture of NaNoWriMo. And you can see it in the commonly held wisdom that if, as a writer, you can just get your name out there in front of readers enough, you will eventually achieve fame and fortune.

You won’t. Well, you might. But it won’t be because readers have seen your name so often that they just give up and declare you a genius. It will be because somewhere in that torrent of words you’ve poured out in to the world, some of them were good enough to really stand out.

If you had only put those words in to the world, you would have done even better. Many writers seem determined to become their own worst source of signal interference on the channel between their work and those people who might be interested in their work.

The Entertainment Machine

Part of the problem here seems to be the belief that writers are part of the entertainment industry. That a writers product should be as uniform and regular as eight seasons of Star Trek : the Next Generation. I have a soft spot in my heart for Star Trek, I do. But if I want easily digested mind fodder then the TV is right there to give it to me. From books and the writers who write them I want insight…into life, society, the world, the universe. Writers are as much part of entertainment industry as doctors are part of the pharmaceutical industry. The latter’s job is to make product from which they make money. The former’s job is to heal people.

Protestant Work Ethic

Many of us work in places where the prevailing belief is that if you turn up from 9 to 5, do all the things you are told to do and do them well, you will prosper and may eventually get a promotion. These places are called factories, whether they are producing car parts or processing data of one kind or another, many work places are still factories. But writers are not factory workers. The rules of the protestant work ethic don’t apply to writing. You don’t get rewarded for producing x number of words, or x number of novels. Your job is to make things that are unique, wise, truthful and inspiring. That’s why you’re an artist, not a labourer.

Update Your Marketing Savvy

We’ve all grown up in a world where marketing was a thing done to the masses. You turned on your favourite TV programme and it was interrupted every 10 minutes by a mega corporation with a message designed to make you feel insufficient so you would buy their product. With enough people watching, and enough money spent buying ad space, the products sold. This approach has never worked for writers. It doesn’t work so well for Mars and Coca-Cola any more. Writers who try and flood the market with a book a year, or four books a year, or a short story a month, or a short story a day, or eight short stories a minute, or whatever, are attempting to apply the dynamics of mass marketing to a niche audience. It’s absurd and counter productive.

The Need to Make a Living

Stop trying to make a living from writing. You may as well try to make a living as spiritual leader or political revolutionary. People do make a living at these things, but it’s rarely their first priority. They’re trying to change the world, hopefully, for the better. It isn’t every writers job to change the world, but you should be trying to effect the people you are writing for. I don’t read Haruki Murakami, or Neil Gaiman, or Ursula Le Guin, or Stephen King, or M John Harrison, or Mary Renault, or Kelly Link, or any of the writers I love, because I feel the need to contribute to their bank balance. I read them because they show me the world in new and wiser ways. I’m sure you read your most loved authors for the same reason. Write something true and wise and brilliant. Making a living will look after itself.

The SpecFic books I read again and again

Cover of "Consider Phlebas [SIGNED, First...
Cover via Amazon

John DeNardo challenged a number of writers to think about the speculative fiction they return to again and again. My response is bellow. I would love to see a similar challenge for the nonSF books that Sf writers are influenced by, that would be fascinating. Also, I seem to have declared the death of Science Fiction in my choices. A position I stand by.

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I certainly have books that I come back to time and time again. As a reader these are the books that I love. As a writer they are the core influences that inspire my own work. And as a critic they are the touchstones that I measure new work in the genre against. Some are single books, others runs of work that represent the best of a particular author. I suspect that many of these books come from the Golden Age of SF, IE my late teens and early twenties. That seems to be the age when the ideas of SF have the most impact. But I am still finding books that leave me staggered and awestruck, but more and more it seems to come from outside SFF.

Neuromancer – William Gibson’s work is engraved in to the deepest parts of my subconscious. This and his short fiction are still books I refer to constantly, because Gibson is as good a structural writer as he is a futurist. What strikes me now about this work are its mythic elements, prototypical Joseph Campbell monomyth through and through. On top of his other achievements, Gibson was perhaps the first writer to signify the collapse of science fiction, and the rise of fantasy as the mode of serious discussion in speculative fiction.

The Sandman – not a book, but nonetheless Neil Gaiman‘s magnum opus, is arguably the most important work of speculative fiction of the last quarter of the 20th century. I might write an essay on how Neil Gaiman killed Science Fiction. But not here.

Iain M Banks culture novels from Consider Phlebas to Look to Windward – I might jokingly suggest that Iain M Banks titles two of these books with quotes from T S Elliot’s The Wasteland because that was the state of space opera and nearly all American SF at the time. A desolate, moribund wasteland of ill considered, poorly written libertarian posturing. Banks re-imagined space opera as a vehicle for intelligent, liberal discourse on the nature of utopia, while at the same time bringing a level of literary quality that still eludes all but a very few writers in genre.

One Hundred Years of Solitude – if there exists a platonic ideal of what speculative fiction could be, Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘ masterpiece of magical realism is it. Combining the traditions of Western realism, and indigenous South American magical narratives, the book does not so much create a fantasy world, as demonstrate how our own world is permeated with the magical and fantastic just beyond the reach of the rational / scientific worldview.

Earthsea – OK. Neil Gaiman did not kill science fiction. He just finished off the twitching remains left behind by Ursula Le Guin. If parents realised the potent mix of post-modern and Taoist philosophy Le Guin is smuggling in to the minds of little children, it’s quite possible these book would be banned in numerous states of America.

I could go on, but that is enough from me for now.