Story Collapse

Bugger. The story I’ve been working on for the last three weeks reached crisis point today. Crisis point means (a) I hate it and (b) I think I have good reason to hate it. It’s almost inevitable that any story over a few thousand words will have these crises along the way. Hopefully when I look at it again the problems will be not as bad as I think, or I will see a way to solve them. Grrrrrr……

UPDATE 30/08/08: I’ve found a different hook into the story and feeling much happier about it today. Hooray!

You Are Not On Your Own

Well, that was interesting. Obama did exactly what he needed to do tonight. He gave people a vision of the American dream, and unless McCain can trump that vision, or undermine it, this election is as good as won.

The soundbites were there for all to see, ‘We are a better country than this’ and ‘The Republicans must own their failure’. being among my favourites. But those are an essential part of modern rhetoric. More fundamentally interesting was the message woven through Obama’s speech. Whether he was talking about his own life and background, or outlining policy, or attacking John McCain, every element came back to the same idea – that America needs to unite and rebuild its strength and standing as a nation. At a time of global crisis and domestic economic collapse this was exactly the right message to project. He hammered on the Republican philosophy of giving more and more to the rich. If you are poor or weak in today’s America you are in Obama’s words, ‘On you own’, but Obama will change that. In a time when more and more people find themselves poor, that was the right message to project. Obama even played on the natural cynicism of voters who have seen these promises made time and again, and been let down time and again. Obama is not the change coming _from_ washington, he is the change coming _to_ Washington, a force from outside politics delivering the will of the people. In a time when people have lost any faith in politics, that was also the right message to project.

I don’t expect government to solve problems. The modern world is too complex, there are too many forces at play outside any human control, for goverment to be any more than either a minor salve or irritant to the way things are. I’d like to lay every problem in the world at the Bush’s door, but however much their policies have exacerbated problems, they are not the sole cause. An Obama government can do very little in practical terms to solve those problems, although I hope that it will do what it can.

Governments don’t solve problems. People solve problems. If our society works it not because of government, its because enough people get up every day and contribute to it, and help each other. What our leaders provide in the end are not solutions, but vision. The Bush visison has been on every level grubby and cheap and weak. The real tragedy of the last eight years has been to see that vision manifest itself in America and in the world. But the vision Barrack Obama gave people last night was solid and strong. There are many barriers to that vision becoming a reality, but ultimately if people choose to believe in it, and choose to make it happen, then Obama will be the right president for our time.


Tonight I’m going to stay up late to watch Barrack Obama give his acceptance speech to the Democratic conference.

It isn’t a political thing, although in the balance Obama is my favoured candidate for president. This is a matter of history in the making.

In the age of the soundbite, it is rare that great stakes hang upon a moment of oratory. But it is oratory above all else that has swept Obama to the Democratic candidacy. But to date he has had the wind behind his sails, with everything to gain. From this point on he has something to lose. Obama’s speech tonight is, for me at least, the first real test of the man. Does Obama have anything of substance to say? Does he have the conviction to do more than spin rhetoric?

As a writer, I find the art of speechmaking fascinating, not least because many great writers make their living crafting speeches for our great political figures. But even more than that, because whilst most things in the world of politics come and go, speeches remain a constant. Some of the most momentous moments in history have turned on a speech made well. Or made badly. So I’m gambling a few hours sleep against the chance of tonight being one of those moments.

I think it’s a good bet.

The Value of Short Fiction

Gordon van Gelder, editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, has started a debate about the value of short fiction, specifcaly questioning whether it is being finacialy devalued by the increasing number of online venues distributing stories for free, venues such as Futurismic which have also taken up the debate.

As a writer of short fiction, I’ve never prioritised the finacial reward of creating stories. When I’m considering which markets to submit stories to, my first priority is the reputation of the editor (working with good editors is IMHO the most important benefit of writing short fiction), followed by the quality of the readership of the publication. Rate of pay comes a very distant third. Even the highest paying markets offer so little financial reward that rating one market over another on that basis makes little sense to me, although the steadily increasing rates at new online markets like Clarkesworld or are starting to change that equation (both of which distribute online, for free (and yes, Baen and Medecine Show also pay better but are subscription markets))

For me, the value of short fiction is not measurable in financial terms. Some of our best writers do their best work in the short form – Kelly Link, Ted Chiang, M John Harrison – I could write a long list but won’t. Whilst there are still many ‘casual’ readers of short fiction, the energy that makes it an interesting creative arena comes from the core readership of writers, editors, critics and fans who follow short fiction. Its the arena where the genre talks with itself, develops new ideas and discovers new talent. Until recent years that arena existed in the print digests. But with the arrival of webzines like Strange Horizons and Fantasy, that arena is shifting to the online world. It seems to me that, whatever the financial consequences, that is currently making short fiction a much, much more exciting experience for readers and writers alike.

The Reading

‘The Reading’ a special issue of Behind the Wainscot edited by Jonathan Wood exploriing the theme of The Tarot is now online. I was over-joyed to be invited to write a reading for ‘The Sun’ card, alongside Hal Duncan, Forest Aguirre, Ekaterina Sedia, Catherynne M. Valentte, Erzebt Yellowboy and the list of cool writers goes on and on. You can construct your own reading by clicking on the link below.

The Reading – Behind the Wainscot – Issue 15

George Pelecanos…

…is one of my favourite authors at the the moment, and there is a great feature on him over at the NPR website. I discovered Pelecanos through the HBO series ‘The Wire’ and have picked up a coupke of nis novels since. I don’t tend to read crime fiction, but I love his work for the depth of character and the amazing dialogue. Well worth a read for anyone interested in really well done contemporary noir.


As a writer, you get used to doing thing for yourself. But one piece of common place wisdom is that in order to get published writers need a literary agent. Mark Liam Piggott at the Guardian blog is not so sure about that, having been represented by agents but eventualy selling his first novel himself to small press / independent publisher Legend. And if anyone is in any doubt that there are bad agents in the world, you need look no further than the SFWA’s Thumbs Down Agency List.

But while there are bad agents in the world, it would be very foolhardy to assume a writer is better of without any agent. The issue is finding the right agent. I’ve been lucky enough to talk to many established, successful novelists in the last few years and every single one of them is represented by a good agent. While you can get published in the small press without an agent, I’d argue its much more difficult to break into a major comercial publisher, and near impossible to build a sustainable career with the right agent in your corner.

I’m yet to even apply to a single agent, but that is because I’m not at the right point in my writing career for an agent to be useful to me, or vice versa. But even so, I have a very good idea of the agents I most want to be represented by, both here and in the US. An agent is not like a plumber. This might sound obvious, but many people seem to approach finding an agent like finding a plumber. Grab Writers Year Book (the literary Yellow Pages) stick a pin in the agents section and send your work off. Or stick twenty pins in, and send your work off twenty times, more likely. The reality is that whatever kind of writer you are, there are probably only a small number of agents at any give time who have the right expertise, and the right contacts, to effectively represent your work. Knowing who those agents are is as essentail as knowing every other element of the market you are trying to sell your work into.

For instance, an aspiring UK genre writer with a literary edge to their work could do worse than being represented by Mic Cheetham, whose clients include Iain Banks, M John Harrison, Toby Litt, Jon Courtney Grimwood, China Mieville, Ken McLeod, Tricia Sulivan and Steph Swainston. If that looks like a roll-call of late ’90s / early 00’s UK science fiction thats because it is. Cheetham pretty much cornered the market on genre writers with mainstream appeal over that period and still does to an extent. A good agent is a lot more than a contract negotiator these days. They are the talent scouts and first line editors for most major publishers, and being spotted by one can be the first step to a career in fiction writing.

How many Clarionites does it take to record a podcast?

Eighteen apparently.

Every week at Clarion, Shaun Farrell of the podcast Adventures in Sci-fi Publishing would pop by and interview the instructors, then in the final week he interviewed us, the Clarionites. You can listen to the result here.

Be aware, I have not yet listened to this myself. The thing they don’t you when they let you in, is that leaving Clarion is PAINFUL. Imagine making eighteen best friends and then losing them all on the same day. Thats the last day of Clarion in a sentence. Add in my new found longing for the blue skys of California, and I’ve been pretty miserable since my return. I almost wish Clarion 2008 had collapsed into internecine squabbling and awful cliquiness so I would now have some hatred to buffer me against the pain, but no, I love all of my Clarion friends equally. Consequentialy, its still a bit too raw for me to listen to everyone on that podcast just yet. (Yes I know, beneath that British stiff upper lip I’m just a big softy)

But as the pain of Clarion withdrawal has lessened over the days, I’ve realised that far from being an end, Clarion is really a beginning for all of us. No force in the verse will keep me away from at least one con a year where I can hook up with as many Clarion alumni as possible. And I’m going to carry on reading, critiquing and writing for our online Clarion group, and staying up late to IM accross the Atlantic. And I even feel an extra incentive to scale the heights of Mount Publishing, just to get an American book tour.

The Kindle is to E-Books as the IPod is to…

Or rather not. Today over at the Guardian, Jack Schofield asks if the Kindle ebook reader is becoming Amazon’s IPod. Schofield argues that it may be newspapers, not books, that lauch the e-reader revolution and draw the Kindle up to IPod status. But as Schofield himself points out, its more likely that e-books will proceed down the path they have already established, on general purpose portable media devices – PDA’s, smartphones, and even IPods themselves – rather than dedicated readers like the Kindle.

After some consideration, I’m no longer expecting an ebook or ereader revolution. Ebooks will slowly grow in popularity as a format, and while there may be a few minor or even major casualties in the print sector, publishers will reach the common sense realisation that it is to their benefit to provide their content in as many formats as they possibly can. The idea that a brand like the Guardian exists purely in print, or even on the web, is already becoming more and more difficult to sustain. Brands, be they national newspapers or bestselling authors, are going to make their work available in every format. I’ll be very surprised if major novels aren’t simultaneously released as print, ebook, audio, blog-serialsation and the rest within the next few years. And in coming years the number of possible formats will multiply massively, until the central function of a publisher will be making contet available through them all.

Of course, the ugly head or Digital Rights Management and Intellectual Property is the boggie man in the corner of my utopian vision. I wonder how long it can be maintained, or will it even manage to cripple the media entirely as it currently threatening?

Clarion: Graduating Class of 2008

So today I graduated Clarion.


It has been a long, hard six weeks. So long. So hard.

They don’t tell you how much hard work Claron is going to be when they let you in. I heard the words ‘Bootcamp for writers’ and thought..pfaff…all day every day to just read and write stories. Eeezy peezy. OMFG was I wrong. For any prospective Clarionites reading this and thinking about applying, be aware of what you are getting yourself into.

And then get into it.

Clarion has been, without a doubt, among the most intense experiences of my life. It has stretched me on every level – intellectualy, psychologicaly, artisticaly and not least nutritionaly. I’m going to make some detailed posts reflecting on the experience over the next few weeks when I have some distance to view it objectively. Until then then I just want to say a HUGE CONGRATULATIONS to the eighteen graduating students and an even BIGGER THANKS to Kelly, Jim, Mary-Anne, Neil, Geoff and Nalo who guided us through.