The Hundredth Master of Ninja Assassin

I  finished The Hundredth Master of Ninja Assassin tonight! Woo-hoo! This story has been on my desktop (I keep all my work in progress on the desktop of my computer so I can’t escape it) for about a year now. I started it after reading The Cambist and Lord Iron by Daniel Abraham, a story with a very clear philosophical meaning, which is what I wanted to attempt with this story. I also wanted to write a ninja story, because my good friend Emily Jiang has been promising to write one for me and I got tired of waiting! I completed the stories last scene tonight. I think it might require another tinker in a few days, but fundamentally the story is now finished and just needs a polishing draft before I submit it.

I also wrote a chunk of a much newer story, Princess, Eaten by Beetles – Regurgitated earlier today. Progress on this story is painfully slow, partly because I’m writing in a very ornate and dense style. And partly because I’ve now run out of story. The Princes has been eaten, and now regurgitated, and I’m not sure what happens next. I’m sure something will occur to me. I think this story might have been influenced by my research into Bizarro fiction. I’ve certainly strayed well into the weird, and I’m thinking about moving back towards the real with my next story.

And now I have one more piece of writing to do before bed. But first…

The Guardian has information about an attempt to set-up an 826 Valencia style writing centre for children to London. I will follow this with interest, if I’m not too busy trying to make something similar happen in Leicester.

Nalo Hopkinson wants more problems and fewer prophesies in her stories.

Thought and Dream

Spent the day at a Writing and Meditation retreat on Queens Road in Leicester. The area seems to be a hot bed of Buddhist activity, with at least half a dozen different meditation groups around and about. The day has left me thinking about how writing and meditation combine.

I’ve always made relaxation and visualisation part of my workshops when I teach creative writing, since I first encountered the idea through a workshop at the first Alt.Fiction festival run by Justina Robson. All complex activities require a certain combination of conscious / subconscious, left brain / right brain, mind / imagination, or whichever terms you choose to use. If you watch a great artist, or athlete, or  musician in action you can see that their mental state is not normal. This is because they are balancing two conflicting mental states, thinking and dreaming, inside one head. It’s from that Thought / Dream space that all true creativity comes, not just art but science and any other creative acts.

Writing places its own particular demands on the Thought / Dream relationship. To imagine a story requires very deep immersion into the Dream space. But to write the the story you need to access the highest levels of your Thought space. And to write really well, you need to do both at once. Most educated people can do the thinking part, and many can recover the skills of dreaming after their education is done, but to get both of these processes working together can be a great challenge.

Meditation is all about balancing Thought and Dream. There are many techniques, but they all return to the same principle of entering the present moment and awakening to both the outer world and the inner world of thoughts and dreams. Once you learn to bring that state of mind to your writing, as opposed to a purely intellectual approach that is often taught, you find that progress comes in leaps and bounds.

But meditation is not an answer on its own. To make the most of the Thought / Dream space, you need to enter it with a mastery of form and technique. Just as a dancer will practice their moves over and over again until they do them without thinking, a writer needs to learn the tools of their craft – narrative, description, dialogue, scene building – so they can use them whilst in the Thought / Dream space.

Now I’m off to do some real dreaming. Tomorrow is an entire day of writing in the library. Wish me luck.

The Princess has been eaten

The story in progress is currently under the working title of Princess, Eaten by Beetles – Regurgitated. (PEBBR) I’m happy to report that the Princess in question has been eaten, and over the weekend will likely be regurgitated. I might post an extract here if and when I find the end of the story.

Just in case I haven’t told you yet, I’m helping organise the Everybody’s Reading festival in my home town of Leicester, nine days of events to get the city reading between 2nd-10th October 2010. If you live in or around the city and have some ideas for getting people reading or just want to lend a hand, give me a shout.

Oh. And I’m reading The Third Bear, new short fiction collection by Jeff Vandermeer. Which isn’t published yet. I’m only saying to make you feel jealous…

Elsewhere:

Yes, I know I’ve said some pretty rude things about poets, but I’m thinking of signing up for I Am an American Poet, This Is American Poetry. And you should also because it looks quite interesting.

Entities underrepresented in weird fiction

So weird fiction has developed a fondness for certain..things, bordering on the fetishistic. Fungus and squid feature prominently. Insects, arachnids and beetles are also reasonably common place. For which we have Vandermeer and Mieville to blame. Thank. Blame. Thank. But there are so many other weird forms of life that deserve representation! For example, which of this weird gallery of fish, sloth and…other things is yet to get a bit part in a weird story? What about the microbial life forms, when do they get a look in, eh? And when does inanimate matter get the weird treatment. What weird entities would you like to see better represented?

And now I’m going to carry on writing about a Princess riding a centipede.

Retreat

I seem to have a growing desire to hide in a dark room, or more likely a quiet library, for a year or so and write something mammoth. To take a journey into the far reaches of imagination and see what is out there. Right now the world is keeping me more than a little busy, but I think maybe sooner rather than later I might just have to put everything on hold for a while take a real writing retreat. Should writers retreat from the world to write, or should we always be engaged and reactive to the world in our writing?

In less existential ponderings…

Ms. Parker reaches my top 10 favourite ever bloggers with this brilliant analysis of the structural flaws in the narrative and subtext of Iron Man 2 (Bird? OK! Why not!…indeed.)

Neil Gaiman writes about Ray Bradbury for The Times. Wunderbar!

Why is literature so miserable?

Between reviewing, critiquing, research and work commitments, it seems like I rarely get to read a book just because I want to. But every now and again I get the desire to read something purely for pleasure. And quite often when that happens, I want to read a book that I might loosely describe as ‘happy’ or ‘warm’. Something with a sense of humour, an intriguing plot, deep characters and most of all a positive worldview. But I still want all those literary qualities I generally demand of a good book.

(It has just been pointed out to me that I am basically describing a grown-up, literary version of Sesame Street, which may very well be true.)

Maybe I am hard to please (actually there is no maybe about it, I am incredibly hard to please) but ‘warm’ books of this kind are hard to find. It’s not that there aren’t great books in the world, but so many of them tend towards the maudlin, negative, pessimistic and downright miserable.

Why?

Is it something in the lives of great prose writers? Are they fundamentally sad people who express that in their work? Or do we think that to say something profound we must adopt a cynicical worldview? Or is it in the nature of good fiction, that its internality leads inevitably to a certain misery? Or do we simply live in a terrible world about which it is impossible to say anything both meaningful and cheerful?

In other places less angst ridden…

Jeffrey Ford has a blog. Go and read it.

Some people won Nebula Awards, and John Scalzi is the new president of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Kraken by China Mieville

China Miéville has a passion for London. The multi-award winning author has reflected the city’s surreal side in Un Lun Dun, set it to a drum’n’bass beat in King Rat, and inundated it with vampire imagoes in The Tain. Now, in his new novel, Miéville threatens to destroy the nation’s capital entirely in the tentacled embrace of a giant squid. And while Miéville is far from the first novelist to threaten to obliterate London, he may win the prize for having the most fun along the way.

Read more at The Guardian

The Accidental Expert

I gave a talk this afternoon to the DemonCrew, a very nice group of creative writing students at De Montfort University. Preparing for the talk made me realise just how much I know about the topic of Weird and Speculative fiction(s), (quite a lot, without sounding like a trumpet blower). It’s odd to find yourself knowledgeable about a subject, especially when the knowledge has been accrued accidentally whilst pursuing a passion. One moment you are wondering what al these weird books are book, the next you are trying to explain what they are about to everyone else. Odd.

And…

The Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop is online. Follow them in the blogosphere and on twitter.

Is there any decent Bizarro fiction out there?

So the term Bizarro fiction has crossed my path three times in as many days. That trips my curiosity circuits, which in turn activate my data collection probes, which tell me that I need to read some of this stuff.

Bizarro fiction styles itself as ‘literature’s equivalent to the cult section at the video store’. To my outside eye it seems like literature much more influenced by film than by other literature, literature that wants the schlock and awe factor of cult cinema, rather than the deep immersion of good fiction. But it also seems like Bizarro might be a healthy and timely cure for the ever more burdensome seriousness of much genre fiction.

In this interview Rose O’Keefe draws a line between Bizarro and New Weird. It’s a line I somewhat agree with, with New Weird defined by its desire to present weird stories that please literary readers, whereas Bizarro is more likely to offend them. I’m tempted to like Bizarro for that reason alone, but fear it will all be as poorly written as the few examples I’ve found so far.

Sturgeons Law says 90% of everything is crap, I’m sure it holds for Bizarro. So what is the 10% of good stuff? Who is the ideal exponent of Bizarro? What is the best Bizarro novel? Are there great Bizarro stories to read online? Give me names and links people!

And also…

Michiko Kakutani’s review of the new Martin Amis novel is so virulent it has become the story itself.

Community, Copyright and IP. Richard Nash, founder Soft Skull Press on a new business model for publishing.

The Internal Editor

One of the things about reviewing (and blogging, and developing literature) is that it determines your reading. At any given time I can have a dozen or more books being read in one professional context or another. And while many of the books are wonderful, its always a joy when you get the opportunity to read for genuine pleasure. This weekend I went to the second hand bookshops around Queen’s Road and spent hours browsing, the result being battered paperback copies of Lanark by Alasdair Gray and The Drowned World by J G Ballard. Began reading both with a huge pot of Earl Grey tea. Really, I am becoming a cliche of myself.

(I never read just one book at a time. Some people find this odd. Straw Poll: How many of you out there are poly in the book department?)

Elsewhere…

Rachel Parker lets her internal editor loose, which in turn inspired some of us to share choice quotes from our own internal editors on Twitter around hashtag #myinternaleditor

A bunch of people including Cat Valente and Hal Duncan are talking about fanfic. Truly, the people who think of it as illegal, while they may have the law on their side, are really doing nothing more than demonstrating an absolute ignorance of their own readers. Those are your fans! Just thank them for paying you the highest form of flattery and move along.

Alt.Fiction 2010

It may not be the biggest Fantasy, Horror and Sci-Fi convention in the world, or even in the UK, but the Alt.Fiction festival (Saturday 12th June, Derby) is one of my favourites. If some festivals are like a leisurely stroll through SF fandom, Alt.Fiction is the equivalent of a high level triathlon. One day of condensed SF goodness in an easy to swallow and affordable package. Panel discussions, workshops, dozens of pro writers, editors and agents to chat with and a staggeringly cool array of lovely books. Alt.Fiction is especially great for fans and new emerging writers, as a small event it has a very friendly atmosphere and you are almost guaranteed to get chatting with people. And of course I will be there, so really, what more reason do you need to buy a ticket?

If you are going to be at Alt.Fiction, leave me a note bellow and I will see you there!

And for further reading, my think piece on the Alt.Fiction label for The Guardian in 2008.