A Night of Strange and Vivid Pictures

I had a sleepless night last night. Not a ‘deep dark tea time of the soul’ kind of night, more a ‘strange vivid pictures in the head’ kind of night. About midnight the first paragraph of a story I’ve been considering for some time came to mind. I worked on the story for an hour or so, but when I tried to turn off the light my mind just would not let go of the thing. I kept getting back up and scribbling a few more notes. So by morning I had the opening of a new story, and an eight hour sleep deficit. When I did sleep I had weird, visionary dreams that were so close to real life I kept thinking I was awake. Then when I was awake, my thoughts were so dislocated I wondered if I was still asleep. Then I went out for breakfast and made notes about dream addiction and drug induced psychosis in aboriginal shaman (which is an idea I encountered in The Hero With A Thousand Faces).

As 2010 approaches I realise I’ve had the pleasure of making many, many new friends this year, so to friends both old and new, Happy New Year!

A few catch up links and some news..

Jeff Vandermeer has been hosting a fascinating debate on Paying it forward, Paying it Back, Using Your Leverage. I think Jeff’s Booklife articles are becoming essential reading for anyone in the writing game.

If you can spare a few coins, consider supporting the Spider Robinson fundraiser (You will get a really cool e-book in return)

My short story Cthul-You will be repeated on BBC Radio 7, 6th January and 18:45 and 00:45. For UK residents it should also be on iPlayer for a week following that date. You can read the ‘Uncensored’ version here.

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Damo’s Ebook Reader Review

So. As regular readers will know I gifted myself an eReader for Xmas. I did this for  a number of reasons. Firstly, I read. A lot. I read for my day job, for my writing, as a reviewer and for pleasure, so I wanted to see if an eReader could make my work stream more efficient. Secondly, as a writer I want to understand what the eReader experience is like for readers and assess if eReaders really are the coming thing. Lastly, I like shiny gadgets and wanted a new one that would be constructive, rather than a time waster. Continue reading Damo’s Ebook Reader Review

Science Fiction is not about science

Today I occupied myself with more reading, and the first draft of my battleplan for 2010. Real down time is a rarity in my life these days, so I’ve been soaking up every moment of solitude before the world starts turning again. I made it through the entirety of Ayn Rand’s Anthem in one sitting. It’s a sharp science fiction novella, although nowhere close to The Fountainhead, which I will likely talk about in more detail in a future post.

(I’ve been finding the variety of responses to my new found interest in Ayn Rand interesting in their uniform negativity. Why is she so hated?)

(And…the eReader is somehow increasing my reading speed, perhaps because the line lengths are better adapted for speed reading than a print edition. More in the upcoming review)

This is the first year I’ve felt the need to write out an overarching battleplan for my life. A few years ago I would have been more than a little cynical about the idea. But I am in the tremendously fortunate position of having more options in front of me than I can realistically pursue, and if I don’t set my own priorities the pressure of each passing day will set them for me. I highly recommend it as an exercise in the run up to the new year.

Issues of note:

Jetse de Vries asks if SF should die? Jetse lays out some of the core arguments around this much debated topic. My own response is very simple, Science Fiction needs to escape the limiting notion that it is about science. It is not, and never has been. Science Fiction is part of our modern mythology. Just as ancient mythology drew on the technological imagery of its day (swords, horses, galleys) Science Fiction draws on the technological imagery of the modern era (lasers, rocket engines, space craft) to create mythic stories for the modern era. Science Fiction isn’t about science, it uses science to create myth. So there!

The Guardian publicises the top 100 books of all time. I would like to second the nomination of Ovid. The Metamorphoses rule!

Living the Booklife

I have let my Boxing Day be consumed by reading. I can’t really think of anything more wonderful. I will try and give a full review of my new Sony Pocket eReader, but I need a little more time to digest the experience. (It is good, but not without issues)

Jeff Vandermeer’s Booklife is, as advertised, filled with strategies and survival tips for 21st Century writers. I can’t think of a writer more qualified to talk on the subject, as Jeff has carved a career out of the quickly evolving landscape of the internet in a way that few writers would be able to emulate. Divided into two halves exploring first Public Booklife (roughly concerned with surviving and thriving in the internet jungle) and Private Booklife (methods for maintaining a creative space in the face of all the pressures to the contrary), with a Gut Check section sandwiched between (a few basic questions you need to confront yourself with if you are going to take on writing as a career). I read Booklife today in a giant gulp, and with a sense of absolute recognition. Regardless of where writing takes me in future, I’m at this moment in time one of a generation of writers who are very much engaged with navigating the turbulent but exciting waters of a writing career in the 21st Century.  And every page of Booklife brought out a new grunt of recognition as I recognised my own strategies and tactics being reflected back to me.

(I’m still not entirely certain I believe in writing as a career, any more than I believe in street preacher, revolutionary leader or polar explorer as careers. But I’m happy to be persuaded.)

Booklife came as a timely reminder that I need to redefine my own Public and Private Booklife, in particular the balance between the two, in the coming year. As 2009 turns into 2010 I will have been writing ‘seriously’ for five years. I measure the point of seriousness from the period I started sending work out, and educating myself about the business of writing. In that time I have made some headway. I have had roughly two stories published a year, plus a few reprints here and there. I’ve been read by Douglas Coupland, won an Arts Council grant, been professionally mentored by Graham Joyce, broadcast on BBC Radio, blogged for The Guardian and been to the Clarion writers workshop and back.

(Where Neil Gaiman told me the audition was over and I needed to show what I could do when I took myself seriously)

I have not: finished the half dozen solid short story ideas that I know I can do and would get published. And I have have not: written a novel. I can offer the excuse that over these five years I have been learning. It is a true excuse. I was technically good enough to finish a novel three years ago, but it would have been a very different novel than I would write today, or a year from now. It’s only in the last year, assimilating what I learned at Clarion, that I feel I have a grip on how to tackle the (technically more demanding) short stories. But really, this is an excuse cloaking a deeper truth.

If you walked up to me on the street (or more likely in a coffee shop) and asked me what I would be doing in five years, I don’t think I would say ‘being a writer’. I take writing very seriously, but the reality of being a writer still seems eternally distant, a destination I will forever be struggling towards but never arriving at. So despite good advice to the contrary, I still don’t, quite, take myself seriously. And, if I’m going to continue, I need to.

A few idle distractions for those of us living the booklife:

Notes on being a grown-up, Year 2.

If you too unwrapped an eReader for Xmas, load up on free content at Feedbooks.

Free download of Murky Depths 6

As a special gift this festive period Murky Depths are offering a free download of issue no.6, which just happens to feature my short story Horizon. Murky Depths are quickly establishing as one of the leading British spec.fic publications, added by their cunning combination of comics and short fiction. Go have a read!

You can download Murky Depths 6 here. It’s in Comic Book Reader CBR format and quote big at 25 meg!

UPDATE: You have to Left Click, then Download File…or whatever equivalent your OS supports.

What is the the demographic for the fantastic?

I just took a stride through the SFF section of my local Waterstones. I do this regularly but I don’t tarry as long I used to, there are rarely enough new additions to hold my attention for more than a moment. For many reasons the books I really want to read often aren’t to be found there.

What I did find today were a group of late teen / early twenty something kids hanging around the stacks. Three boys all of the Trenchcoat Brigade (one sporting a very fancy leopard dyed three stripe mohican), and a girl who had obviously read more than a few Lenore comics. IE…standard issue emo-goth-indie-metal-geeks. No surprise finding them looking at the SFF books. The weird, speculative and fantastic has always attracted the kids who make a space for themselves outside the mainstream in one guise or another, the Alt. kids.

(Hence the mission of the upcoming Alt.Fiction festival ((Derby, June 2010)) to stage a literature festival that appeals to all those Alt. people outside the mainstream who love books.)

When I was an Alt. kid, I loved SFF  because it was as weird as I was. It was written by nutty Oxbridge academics, or insane Californian hippies, or bearded kaos wizards. I had little if anything in common with these people save our shared passion for the fantastic. Which was really the point. The fantastic took me to places I could never go, through the minds of people I could never be. Those people weren’t writing for me, or even for people like me, they were writing for reasons all their own and I was just tagging along for the ride.

Thinking about the Alt. kids today I wonder if they are getting the same experience from that section of the bookshop as I did. It could well be that I’m turning into a grumpy old man who thinks the kids of today are missing the point. But to be honest, I don’t think so. Today it feels like the Alt. kids are a demographic that the genre is dedicated to attracting, rather than one it accidentally picked up on the way to a more interesting destination. If was an Alt. kid now I don’t think the SFF genre would be all that interesting to me, if only because anything trying that hard to suck up to the twenty something me would have instantly lost my trust.

Whatever the demographic for the fantastic is the last things we should do is cater to it, or we stop being fantastic at all.

Which ebook reader should I buy?

Waiting alone at a dark, midlands train station and typing this post to keep circulation going through my fingers and and because the light from my phone seems to be the only illumination. The battery is running low though and I don’t want to know what happens around here when the lights go off…

…if you don’t hear from me again the assume the people of Wellingborough have done for me. If someone could gather together all of my unfinished stories and give them a posthumous publication that would be great.

Assuming I make it back to civilisation eventualy, I am starting to covet an e-reader. The problem is that none of the current models seem to have established a real foothold and I’m not confident that whatever I buy won’t be defunct by next year. Anyone have any buying advice?

Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain.

What do you do when you realise that you are the villain of the piece? It’s often said that the worst (or best) villains firmly believe themselves to be the greatest heroes. It’s an absolute truth that nothing empowers us to acts of pure evil better than a complete conviction in our own rightness. Perhaps this is why villains are so much more interesting than heroes, because heroes are just villains who haven’t been caught out yet. Shakespeare understood this. Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Shylock. The line between heroism and villainy in Shakespeare is so narrow that with the slightest slip can laeve you standing on the wrong side.

Life, I think, is more like Shakespeare than we care to admit.

(I gave the speech from Hamlet that provides the title of this post for my LAMDA Gold Medal Acting exam some years ago. The best thing about Shakespeare is how little I understood him at sixteen, and how little I understand him at thirty two but in a completely different way)

My personal favourite literary villain is Mordred, of the Arthurian saga. The illegitimate son of Arthur and his half sister Morgause. He is an absolute archetype of villainy – a bastard son driven to the worst of crimes by the terrible pride and arrogance bred in him by his mother. But it would take so little to cast Mordred as a heroic figure, a mothers son fighting against the implicit evil of men as personified by his brutal father. I might write that story one day, if I can bring myself to confront that character for long enough to finish it.

And in other news…

Thrin wants to know what is wrong with literally worshipping pagan gods?

The Alt.Fiction festival gets with the Twitter thing. Go follow them.

Seal of Approval

Sigh. The Hundredth Master of Ninja Assassin is malingering. You know that moment when a living malleable story turns into a dull lump of hard, dried up clay in your hands? Yup, thats where I am.

One of the joys of writing is observing your own development. If Clarion was about cracking my writing open, the almost year and half since has been about reconstructing the pieces to be better, faster, stronger. In the last few years I’ve tried my hand at every style of writing I could think of, and along the way I’ve stumbled into some ideas that would make good novels. But my writing seems to be finding its centre down in the dark depths of the human subconscious – I seem to be most comfortable and confident dealing with the internal state of my characters, and less and less interested in the external conflicts surrounding them. It’s an interesting transition to observe.

A couple of things I’ve been liking today:

The Guardian continue the neverending debate on the new paradigm of digital publishing. The term ‘seal of approval’ is thrown up to describe the power of a publisher to define what writing is valued and what is discarded. I like the term, it seems somehow central to the future direction of publishing. The major publishers are still clinging to the ‘seal of approval’, just, but it is quickly slipping from their fingers.

I’ve just discovered the new Realms of Fantasy website. Realm’s was the first short fiction magazine I ever read (discovered in a Martins newsagent ion Reading train station when I was 15, back when newsagents sold really good things like RoF and Eagle!)

Agent and editor 1-2-1 meetings at WIC 2010

A little more information the Writing Industries Conference 2010, including agents and editors available for 1-2-1 meetings. W00t!

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Writing Industries Conference 2010
Saturday 6th March 2010, Loughborough University
A Literature Network, Writing East Midlands
and Loughborough University project.
http://writingindustries.com
Twitter #wic2010

Book tickets online here.

WIC 2010 – APPLY NOW FOR AGENT AND EDITOR 1-2-1 MEETINGS
The Writing Industries Conference 2010 is now open to applications for 1-2-1 meetings with agents and editors. Writers will have the chance to present their work in fiction, creative non-fiction and spoken word. A limited number of 1-2-1s are available and only ticket holders to WIC 2010 may apply.
1-2-1 meetings are available with:

For guidelines and details on how to apply please see: http://writingindustries.com/1-2-1-guidelines/

WIC 2010 will bring together writers from across the East Midlands and professionals from the writing industries to share knowledge, develop skills and forge new contacts. 200 writers from the region will have the opportunity to hear from and meet with professionals from the writing industries in a variety of settings:

• Agents and editors in one-to-one sessions with selected writers, giving advice and support in their area of expertise.

• Panel discussions exploring specific areas of writing, from breaking into commercial publishing to working in the community.

• Writing industries fair featuring stalls from local publishers, funders and other organisations involved with the writing industries.

• And of course there will be plenty of opportunity to meet and talk with other writers over a coffee.

Details of the full programme will be announced soon.

Book tickets online here.

If you have any questions regarding WIC 2010 or would like further information please contact:

Alyson Stoneman
WIC2010 co-ordinator (part-time)
Email: alysonstoneman@hotmail.com

Where are science fiction’s superstars?

I’ve been following the unfolding debate about the decline of science fiction over at Mark Charan Newton’s blog, and recently added my own response:

Hmm…I think your insight into the industry is strong Mark, but actually I think you are over complicating the problem facing SF.

I pin it on something much simpler…the Michael Jordan effect.

That is the effect that one or a handful of ‘superstar’ figures can have on a cultural activity. Jordan’s superstar status pulled the whole sport into mass popularity. You get the same effect in all kinds of areas. Maybe the best example in fiction is J K Rowling, who pulled the entire YA section from minow to giant in the publishing industry.

The bottom line for SF is that it has been a while since it had a superstar. Gibson and Banks in the 90’s were the last ones to really reach star status, and most of the cyberpunk / space opera stuff on the shelves today is really just riding the wave they created. There have been a lot of authors mentioned in these responses (and many commenting) but I don’t see any who are threatening to go nova and take the genre with them. There are some good writers out there, but none of them seem to have that real star quality.

Fantasy on the other hand has had some real stars in recent years. Neil Gaiman of course. China Mieville. Susanna Clarke and quite a few others. People whose work does something that genuinely excites people, and that excitement then spreads out to the rest of the genre they work in.

One thing that tends to connect those superstar writers is that their work often redefines the genre they emerge from. It’s my feeling that most of the science fiction I’ve read recently has been more concerned with fulfilling genre expectations than redefining them. Maybe that’s why the genre is flagging.

Why I find things beautiful

I am listening to Prophecies by Philip Glass. I find it very beautiful. Especially the break around 8:45. It gives me those special shivers that come from things that are beautiful beyond comprehension.

On my last flight out to California I got a glimpse out of the window as the flight came in over greenland. I remember feeling a little knot of – more than fear – of awe perhaps. Watching endless folds of white ice roll on beneath you for seemingly forever is a stark reminder of how little of even our own planet is hospitable to us. A strip of temperate zone around the belly of the planet that has taken tens of thousands of years to carve out, that we have filled with roads and cities and the rest of the life support systems of human civilisation, and that would collapse back into wilderness without our constant supervision. The human world is a profoundly unstable place: a few patches of solid ground  on the cooling surface of a ball of molten rock orbiting a vast nuclear explosion that is in turn part of one great big bang.

Philip Glass wrote Prophecies for the documentary movie Koyanisquatsi, which for anyone who hasn’t seen it is all about the relationship between man and the natural world. Prophecies scores the films final sequence, and Glass captures in music the awesome fragility of human existence. I feel the the same touch of awe listening to it as looking down at those frozen wastes.

Back on planet earth…

Pretty much every major author of literary fiction of recent years is slated in The Guardian’s Worst Books of the Decade. Speculative fiction triumphs from its omission.

The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi makes TIME magazines Top 10 Books of 2009.