Where can I get more Chinese spec.fic?

Prompted by the news that leading Chinese authors of science fiction are demanding new leadership for Science Fiction World, the countries biggest publication, I went looking for stories by Chinese SF authors.

(Will this rebellion, I wonder, incite similar Coup d’Etat in Western SF publications?)

(Unlikely, as Western editors are not government appointed.Imagine if they were? Who might be assigned such a job? Would they want it?!)

I found From Ball Lightning by Liu Xixin. And what I found was splendid. Truly, one of the best SF stories I have read in a very long time. (To be expected, as Liu Xixin is oneof China’s most successful SF writers) Beautiful, poetic, witty, profound, elegant, intelligent, literary, conceptual. Really magnificent!

So, people, anyone know where I can find more like this?

This week I have mostly been..

…working on the first draft of a new story now titled ‘To Rule the Sky’. (The title only emerged late last night, towards the end of the draft. I take it as a good sign when the title emerges from the writing.) During the writing I’ve been thinking of it as a literary adventure fantasy. The second draft will focus on emphasising the stories theme and polishing the characters. Length should remain about the same at 5981 words.  I’m hoping to submit first to either Fantasy and Science Fiction or Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

The first draft took nine days, including both weekends. (Weekends being my most productive writing time.) My target was to complete it in seven, to finish by this friday so I’ve gone over slightly.

I haven’t decided what story to work on next. I have an emerging sense of a very near future SF story but don’t know the details yet.

That is all.

The Hate Barrier at the End of the Universe

You can’t be all things to all people. A strength in one area becomes, almost by default, a weakness in another. So it is with stories.

The great guru of story, Robert McKee, talks about the story triangle. The relationship between plot, character and idea which means that the more you have of any two the less you have of the third. (And attempting to have a balance of all three means having not enough of any). Stories are imperfect creations, that can at best please some of the people, some of the time.

So when starting to write a new story, our passions run high for what the story IS. A detailed character portrait. A high octane adventure. A sophisticated and original high concept. Words leave the imagination and hit the page like high energy particles after the big bang.

An hour, or a day, or a month (depending on the writer’s endurance) later and the universe of your imagination has hit a slow heat death. Every word that comes out is dark matter, part of a story caught in a decaying orbit around it’s own limitations. The high octane adventure has no space for detailed character study. The detailed character study is a high concept free zone. The high concept is unfolding so slowly it is barely diesel driven, let alone high octane. We hate our story not for what it IS, but for what it IS NOT.

(Which is why I hate my current fantasy adventure story for not being an experimental literary masterpiece!)

Such is the hate barrier. A tough (but not impenetrable) crust of self loathing that forms around the the molten story as it pours from the imagination and solidifies into the solid shape it will take in reality. As writers we train ourselves to joy in the limitless possibilities of the imagination, but we also have to train ourselves to accept and work with the limited possibilities of a story as it nears completion.

There are as many ways to tackle the hate barrier as there are writers. I am learning to work quickly and form the story whilst it is still hot from the imagination, and developing the mental strength to charge through the hate barrier if and when it emerges. I’d like to hear how other writers overcome the Great Wall of Hate!

(Which I am now going to attack again. Face the Hate! Grr!)

In the Evening

I have been for some time now been collecting translations of the poem ‘Im Abendrot’ by Joseph von Eichendorff. I discovered the poem through the Four Songs of Richard Strauss (of which it is the basis for the last and greatest) and it has been a constant source of inspiration for my growing interest in romanticism. So I was tremendously happy to be given a new interpretation / reimagining of the piece written by Neil Fulwood, who attended my Science Fiction and Politics workshops at Nottingham Contemporary. Here is the poem in full, and thanks to Neil for letting me reproduce it.

In the Evening (by Neil Fulwood)

Imagine: while driving home,
companionship and laughter left behind,
the village a string of lights
in the rearview mirror, you pull over

and turn the engine off,
then step out of the car and stand
on a verge of hardened soil,
the road unlit and signless at your back,

and look across the land
as dark comes on, the fields dull slabs
of earth which rise and level out
and stretch away. By day you’d see

a wealth of smaller things:
farmhouse chimneys capped with drifts
of smoke, the dotted lines
of boundaries marked by walls of stone;

and further still: a hint
of distant hills a county away,
and almost on the edge of sight,
a scythe of light on coastal water.

But you see it (imagine)
for the final time now, in the evening,
the small details that gave it life
stolen by an horizon brought nearer

by twilight, gathered up,
hidden beneath silence and darkness,
a silence that is absolute,
a darkness that takes the evening

and plucks from you
your valediction: the one name
that never left your heart,
a thing remembered even as it passes.

Independent and happy that way

Today was spent at States of Independence, a gathering of independent publishers organised by Five Leaves press and De Montfort University. Great to see so many independent publishers under one roof, and I had a great day talking with many old friends. It was also good to see both speculative fiction and comics represented by TTA Press, Factor Fiction and Time Bomb comics, which gave some much needed colour and excitement among the yards of sober, literary materials on display. Oh, and I bought 5 back issues of Interzone, which should keep me busy.

I actually breathed a sigh of relief on receiving a rejection email from the selection board of Stamford Univerity’s Stegner Fellowship earlier in the week. With 170 applicants for every place the odds were steep, and made even steeper by the apparently very narrow range of candidates admitted to the Stegner in previous years. In the highly unlikely circumstances I had been offered a place I would had to have taken it or spent the rest of my life wondering ‘what if’. I am looking at other similar opportunities though, especially ones with an element of travel, so if anyone has any suggestions then, please, suggest them!

Items of fascination

John Dewey Nakamura Remy has almost as many poses as names.

Characters should cast a shadow – interesting notes on the role of character by Kate Elliott.

Poetry is perfect for social media

Carol Ann Duffy’s ode to David Beckham is a perfect illustration of why poetry is experiencing a tremendous revival in the age of Twitter and social networks.

Achilles (for David Beckham)

Myth’s river- where his mother dipped him, fished him, a slippery golden boyflowed on, his name on its lips. Without him, it was prophesised,
they would not take Troy.

Women hid him, concealed him in girls’ sarongs; days of sweetmeats, spices, silver songs…
but when Odysseus came,

with an athlete’s build, a sword and a shield, he followed him to the battlefield, the crowd’s roar,
and it was sport, not war,

his charmed foot on the ball…

but then his heel, his heel, his heel…

The medium is the message, and as we return from the mass media, to the power of word of mouth (mediated through the internet) poetry once again comes into its own. Tiny, dense packets of information, perfect for viral dissemination through a media that demands the message be short and sweet.

Have we made writing too easy?

A good friend drew my attention to the disappearing act of calligraphy this week, and the beautiful work of master calligrapher Paul Antonio captured by The Guardian. Coincidentally, I am part way through reading The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Mushashi, a martial text from circa 17th Century Japan, an era and a culture that considered calligraphy an essential art.

In our culture and era writing has been reduced to a purely functional act. Computers and printers have turned calligraphy into word processing. Content is king, and the physical act of writing is only a means to that end.

But clearly, the act of writing informs the nature of the content. Inscriptions carved in stone tend toward brevity. The era of vellum and quills produced much of our greatest poetry, Shakespeare included, beautiful language for beautiful materials. Academic studies have demonstrated the correlation between the amount of ink held in a dip pen, and the length of sentence used by writers like Dickens, who trained themselves to compose sentences of the right length to be completed with one charge of ink.

Calligraphy is difficult and full of limitations. Word processing is easier, and gives far more freedom, qualities generally accepted as good. But often it is the restriction imposed by a medium and the disciplines it enforces that bring out a writers greatest creativity. Poets fit their thoughts into poetic structure, novelists tell stories within genres, both to give their infinite imaginations a scaffolding to build within.

Have we lost something important in abandoning calligraphy, script, and even handwriting? I think perhaps we have.

The act of writing is really indistinguishable from the act of thinking. You may believe you have grasped an idea in your mind, but it is only when you attempt to write it down that you really test the idea. (Hence why I am writing this post, to test the idea about writing that I had in my head) The freedom of word processing allows writers to lay down words at such a speed and with so little investment that, unfortunately, it often seems that there was little thought involved with their devising.

Am I suggesting a return to the quill and velum? No. Although I’d be fascinated to see what effect on my writing working with older implements would have. A computer keyboard is a superior tool for writing. But perhaps we all need to find ways to turn writing back from a process into a craft, and by doing so reconnect the act of writing with the act of thinking.

What do you think about the BSFA awards shortlist?

So no sooner does one event sail under the bridge (yesterday’s Writing Industries Conference went swimmingly, more details tomorrow perhaps) than another comes bobbing along on the white water rapids of life. I will be at the next meeting of the British Science Fiction Association on Wednesday 24th March, and will be discussing the shortlist for the BSFA Awards along with Donna Scott and Sarah Pinborough. The meeting is at the Antelope Tavern in Sloan Square, London from 7pm. (I’m told things start swinging from 5pm onwards however.) If you are nearby then stop in and say hello.

In the mean time, what do you think about the BSFA awards shortlist? I’d like to know.

The Big Five-Oh

Well. Perhaps not really that big. My blog, yes, the one you are reading right now, raced past the 50,000 visitor mark today. It’s a pretty big five-oh for me, although I might reserve the actual party for 500,000. Or maybe even 5 million!

Not that the number of visitors is really all that important. I started keeping a blog to give my writing more focus, way back in June 2006. And it has done its job and then some. I don’t think half of what has happened with writing since then would have without this blog. I’ve given a couple of talks recently on using blogs and social networks as a writer. As much as they might play a part in promoting a book, their real value for me is in providing a focus of activity. I’ve never really sat down and looked back through my blog and I’m not planning to do so for some time, but I am looking forward to doing it many years from now and being reminded of all the weird things that happen when you set out on a career as a writer. Wherever that career takes me, I like knowing that my blog can and will go with me. Until then a few stats from the last 50,000 visits:

  • The busiest month was December 2009 with 2,856 hits
  • My most popular post is To Self Publish or to Not
  • Top referrer is SF Signal. Thank you!
  • Most used tag is Neil Gaiman. Yes, I am a sad fanboy.
  • Most common search term this quarter is ‘iPad Fail’

Being Good and Being Great

I tend to become a night-owl in the run up to exciting events. We are x-minus 4 days to the Writing Industries Conference. A few i’s need dotting but (touchwood) everything is going to plan, and we are very close to sold out. But none the less it’s 1:26am and I am very far from sleepy. So I’m going to write a blog post to settle my mind.

Perhaps because of the writers conference, my mind has been filled with meta-debates about writing in recent weeks. Are we facing the end of the Print Age? Does publishing still need its gatekeepers? Is serial fiction due a serious revival? Has podcast fiction died on the vine? These are useful debates to have, but ultimately I always arrive back at the same answer.

One of the issues that came up again and again at Clarion was the difference between being good, and being great. Kelly Link, in her week one introduction, told us the challenge we all (the 18 of us attending Clarion) faced was taking the step up from writing a good story to writing a great story. In week three Mary Anne Mohanraj broke down the Strange Horizons slush pile into 70% bad or average, 29% good and 1% great. And in truth I think 1% is being generous. I’d guess that about 0.01% of all the stories written are great.

Thats 1 in 10,000. Seems about right.

I’m not going to try and define great. Or even give examples. You all know what I mean. These are the stories (of any length and in any medium) that make us love stories, and that make us want to tell stories.

The one and only goal of any writer is to tell one of those 1 in 10,000 stories. (Preferably more than one, but one is a good starting point) Nobody knows what makes a great story or what makes a writer of great stories, and anybody who says they do is lying. Some writers struggle through an entire career and never tell a great story. A rare and gifted few tell only great stories. The rest of us sit on the spectrum between, searching for the great story we dream of telling. Just one great story can make a writer beloved for generations, whereas a thousand good ones are forgotten every day.

So every meta-debate about writing always comes down to the same answer. Write something great. Great is the rarest commodity in fiction. People fight for the right to publish great stories. Readers go crazy for them and literally beg the authors for more. As long as there are great stories to be read, people will find a way to read them whether it’s from a printed page or an iPad screen. The world needs more great stories, the reason why the bookshops are filled with so many good, average or even bad stories is because there are so few great ones. Write a great story, and the rest will fall in to place around it.


StarShipSofa needs to win a Hugo this year, because it is great.

Paul M. Berger bring some Clarion greatness to the digital pages of Strange Horizons. Go forth and read.