500th Post – Are blogs good for writers?

Well. This is my 500th blog post.

HHUUUURRRRAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

Coincidentally, it’s also effectively four years since I started blogging. I opened my blog in April 2006, but did not really start using it fully until August that year, when I moved from Blogger to WordPress. Looking back at my first post, it was quite clear I had no idea what to do with a blog. Book reviews coming soon. How insightful!

I began blogging because I wanted a focus for my writing. In 2006 I was starting to gather short fiction publications, and was taking the idea of writing more seriously. After a short conversation with M. John Harrison at the 2006 Eastercon, I decided I wanted to review and write critically about genre fiction. A blog, I thought, would be a good platform for both. And all things considered I think it was a good call.

Blogging often comes under fire, especially for fiction writers, as a distraction and a waste of time. At an average of 500 words per post, my 500 posts to date equals 250,000 words. Or 2 novels and a short story collection. Or 1 fantasy blockbuster. Or 1/10th of a Neal Stephenson tome. Surely I could have written those instead? Perhaps. They say it takes 1,000,000 to complete a writers apprenticeship. All told, including fiction (most of which will never see the light of day), professional and academic writing and now this blog, I’m probably getting close to that. So those 500 posts served at least one purpose, and I very much doubt I would have banged out the next Lord of the Rings instead if I had not started the blog at all.

But as a 500th post celebration, I’d like to share some thoughts on what blogging has helped me achieve as a fiction writer.

A Focus and a Record of Progress – At last years World Fantasy Convention, Ann Vandermeer gave a group of us Clarionauts an informal pep talk about the writing life. Writing, she said, is a long career. Things you do and learn in your twenties can still be paying dividends in your fifties and sixties or beyond. Everything you do as a writer is one more step on the path (I paraphrase, but this was the sense of Ann’s wisdom). I truly agree with this sentiment. I have been writing with serious intent for seven years, with the standard lifetime of generalised ‘I Wanna Be A Writer’ ambition before that. But beginning to blog was an undeniable catalyst for my development as a writer. Writing is easy to lose sight of, amidst the chaos of real life. But just the act of regularly updating a blog can be enough to bring you back to your goal. And it provides somewhere to reflect on your progress towards that goal. You could reflect in a private journal of course, but the public nature of a blog makes the reflection more focussed. You can, as I have done, set writing goals which you then utterly fail to achieve (three NaNoWriMo’s and two novel drafts to date…) but even those can play a part. And it’s a permanent record of what you have achieved. and in my case at least, it has contributed to progress. I’m certain I would not have had the experience to blog for The Guardian, or the focus to get to Clarion in 2008, without starting this blog first.

Research – there is a lot to learn about writing. Books to read. Genres to study. Techniques to acquire. History to get familiar with. In speculative fiction alone, there is more material than you might hope to cover in an under-graduate degree. Add in general literary theory and criticism, and keeping up outside the genre, and the task of really learning the field is no little thing. I’ve used my blog as a repository for a lot of my learning. Each new post represents an aspect of learning, and ideas that have come up as I’ve been studying various areas of SF. Again, the public nature of a blog gives it an edge over a private journal in this regard. You don’t really understand something until you have written it down coherently enough for someone else to understand.

Community – but the most valuable aspect of this blog has been the extended community of writers and others, mostly in the SF community, that it has connected me with. Something I think it’s important to make clear is that a blog is not a promotional tool. Most of the people both blogs and social networks connect you with are not ‘fans’ (for lack of a less cringeworthy term), but peers. Other writers of similar experience, and a few of much more experience. Social networks, primarily Facebook and Twitter, are also valuable for connecting with your community as a writer. But a blog makes a good base to work from. Whilst it may sound sentimental, when I chat with people on Twitter it feels like having a conversation in the street. But discussing things here on the blog feels like inviting people into my home.

Focus, Research, Community. Three genuine benefits of keeping a blog as a fiction writer that I have found invaluable. I’d like to know the opinions of others on this topic of course, positive or negative.

Where next for my blog? I have the serious intention of being able to look at this blog when I’m sixty, and read back through 10,000 or so posts, at an entire career in writing (and possibly some non-writing related occurrences!). I think that would be quite something. But, I’m also intending to put the blog on hold for periods to give undivided attention to fiction writing when it is required. But until that time, I’ll continue to enjoy sharing these posts with whoever wants to read them.

Goodnight all.

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How big is SF fandom?

Whilst debating the possibilities of tomorrows SF magazines, I began idly wondering how big SF fandom really is. To give the question some parameters, SF fandom in this case means written speculative fiction, not mass media sci-fi. Once you add together all the cons, ‘zines, online and offline communities and all the other ways that fandom manifests, and excluding the large number of keen SF readers who likely aren’t even aware fandom exists, how many people are actually engaged in fandom? And as a subsidiary question, is fandom growing or shrinking?

There is an untapped audience for SF magazines

Will Ellwood continues our series of guest blogs from The Speculators writing group. Will writes short fiction with a hard edge that comments on contemporary politics and hacker culture. He is also a frequent contributor at the Whitechapel forums. I’m looking forward to seeing his story Freedom Fields in print sometime soon.

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There is an large untapped audience for more popular SF magazines.

There are millions of people who already read SF novels, and who watch SF based film and television. Even more people also read SF flavoured comics, play SF inspired computer games, listen to music and look at art that could have stepped from the pages of an SF story. Whatever it is SF gives people: challenging ideas, original thinking, mythic storytelling, entertainment or sheer untold weirdness, people want it and they want it in their millions. This is an untapped audience which exists as part of the mainstream in our society and wants more material to consume.

SF magazines could be selling more issues, to more people. SF short stories are anideal way to give people contained bursts of the most intense and original SF. It is fiction that fits in the small gaps of time that permeate modern living and provide a complete experience. Films and novels are lifestyle products. They are cultural events which demand the attention of their audience. Why do SF magazines not demand the same attention?

I do not think that there are any SF magazines at the moment interested in that sort of attention. Is it because at present SF magazines are deliberately niche publications? Maybe. It keeps the costs down and the expectations low. When success happens it is good, and when lack of sales force the magazine to close then no one is too disappointed.

To actually get people reading SF magazines beyond the present small circulation there need to be new magazines which adopt different tactics. These new SF magazines must demand the readers attention, just as films, books and other SF in the mainstream demand attention. But how?

An successful SF magazine must be a container for radical and entertaining ideas. Ideas able to inspire and enthuse thousands of people, just as the genres original magazines inspired thousands of people their day. Stories that could provoke controversy and discussion on important questions our society faces, and the futures we face.

Tomorrow’s SF magazines must make the short story a prestigious and financially attractive form for talented writers to write for. The stories must not appear to be the work of amateurs. They must not be written as second rate alternatives to making a TV show or film. They must be written in the full belief that short fiction can tell unique stories in unique ways that no other medium can manage, or not written at all.

Tomorrow’s SF magazines also need to be beautifully designed and efficiently distributed. At the moment SF magazines are at best a couple of years behind contemporary magazine design. They all look dated. This is not helping them attract new readers, and it is not helping people read the stories inside. Tomorrow’s SF magazines should be winning important design awards. Tomorrow’s SF magazines should also be on the leading edge of digital distribution so they are readable by anyone around the globe.

And holding together the best ideas, the best writing and the best design, the SF magazine of tomorrow must have a strong identity. Each magazine requires it’s own unique high concept. SF magazines can not continue to face the question: What is an SF magazine? With the answer, a magazine with SF in it. Each new SF magazine must have as strong and relevant concept today as the original SF magazines had in their day.

I think that having popular and widely read SF magazines is important. To me the health of all genre fiction depends on it. Short SF is often seen as the crucible of new ideas in genre fiction, and I think that it can be. However it can only serve this purpose if these stories are being disseminated to a wide audience. Without successful SF magazines the pace of progress in genre fiction slows, and we risk becoming irrelevant and fixated on old ideas and forms; losing readers in a vicious cycle of boredom and nostalgia. To survive in tomorrow’s markets, SF magazines must grow into the imaginations of new readers who will help enrich all genre fiction with new stories to tell and new worlds to imagine.

A few fiction and non-fiction magazines outside SF that fulfil these criteria:

McSweeneys

Electric Literature

Coilhouse

Dodgem Logic

Wired UK

Genres are the fossils left by movements

During a conversation between The Speculators writing group recently, we came up with this idea.

Genres are the fossils left by movements.

To explain. Movements are conversations between writers, conducted through stories. During the period of movement, writers are talking to each other, exchanging ideas and generally discussing how to move the art of fiction forward. As these conversations develop, the movement develops identifiable motifs. Over time, these motifs solidify in to tropes, which become genres.

Some examples. William Gibson, Bruce Sterling et al shape a movement to reform Hard-SF, which results in the Cyberpunk genre. (And also the Steampunk genre) J.R.R Tolkien, C.S.Lewis and the other Inklings form a movement to bring mythic values back to modern stories, and some decades later the Epic Fantasy genre is the outcome. A motley crew of British and US writers have the ambition to write fantasy and horror with added literary value, and a decade later we have the squid obsessed New Weird.

Genres are the fossils left by movements. True? Untrue? Unfair? Spot-on? is there a movement in the other direction, where writers eat up the fossilised genres to fuel new movements?

Thoughts on The Lifecycle of Software Objects

There is an intelligent question at the heart of Ted Chiang’s new novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects. The story is set in a near future, where online virtual worlds have grown to such levels of sophistication that they are able to support genetic programmes which can imitate the behaviour of life. Initially marketed as digital pets, it quickly becomes apparent that these software objects are far more lifelike than their creators intended. The novella follows the progress of the lifeforms and their carers over the formative years of the new lifeforms, if lifeforms they really are.

Artificial Intelligence is one of the more familiar tropes of Science Fiction, and one that has made it into the popular imagination through films like Bladerunner, Terminator and The Matrix. The machines are alive, and they’re coming to get us. How the machines come to life is less often explored.  Often they are constructed, manufactured as full adult intelligences rolling from assembly lines. Or they are emergent, ghosts arising from the complexity of the machine and information systems. But they are rarely nurtured. Why would they be? A machine body does not need to be grown like a biological body, so why would a machine mind, or even a machine consciousness?

In The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang asks, what if Artificial Intelligence can only be created through nurture? What if an infant AI requires all the same care, protection and love as an infant human? Can such an AI still be considered a machine, or would it be owed all the same rights and privileges as a human?

It’s a question that allows Chiang to explore not just the moral consequences of AI, but more broadly the question of consciousness. Of all the unanswered questions in science, consciousness is among the most intransigent. Whilst our knowledge of the brain has advanced in leaps and bounds, it has brought us no closer to really understanding the fundamental nature of consciousness. Is consciousness merely a product of the brain? If so, what is it’s physical process? Is it rooted on the quantum level, in which case is it even attached to the human body? Or is, as the Buddhists claim, consciousness a universal quality that simply arises through the human form?

The only really significant thing we can say about consciousness is that we do not know. And given that lack of knowledge, many of our most fundamental moral assumptions come in to question. Chiang has a startling capacity to challenge those assumptions in the most direct and economical of ways. If the AI of the story are really only software objects, then why is it so horrific to learn that hacker groups have developed torture programmes for them? Or that software objects that are ‘hothoused’ and grown without human contact become autistic or even psychotic? Why should we care about these software objects, more than say an iPhone app or the latest distro of Linux?

Towards the end of the novella Chiang states his thesis as ‘experience is algorithmically incompressible’. Experience is the only source of intelligence. In order for Artificial Intelligence to exist it must live and experience, fully and completely, so that we can no longer truly consider it as artificial. In the end, we care about the software objects of Chiang’s novella because they have shared our experience. Whether they share our form or not, whether they are truly alive or not, the software objects are part of the human experience, so in some way human.

It’s an interesting thesis because it removes AI from the realm of sci-fi fantasy, and places it firmly in the bounds of very real probability. Chiang so skilfully explores his thesis in relation to the dynamics of the software development industry, consumer culture, capitalist economics and human nature, that after finishing the 30,000 word novella it’s difficult to imagine that some form of Chiang’s scenario will not emerge sooner rather than later. It’s both a hopeful and a horrifying prospect. Hopeful because any new emergence of life in to the world brings immense hope for the future. Horrifying because if The Lifecycle of Software Objects illustrates anything, it is the immense human capacity to abuse and damage consciousness that arises in any form, even its own.

Guest Blog: The Silence of the Limeys

Jim Worrad is a member of of my writing group, The Speculators, and a fine writer of space opera styled science fiction. Jim and I were discussing the logistical problems of getting stories out to American magazines, and wonderful human being that he is, Jim agreed to pen a piece on the subject for this blog. This is the first guest blog I have featured here, but not the last. If you have an idea for a guest blog, drop me an email.

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We live in an age of high-speed information, but you wouldn’t think it to look at some speculative fiction magazines. I’m not kidding. Two of America’s ‘big three’ SF publications—-Analog and F&SF–will not accept your story submission in electronic form*.
Who knows why? Perhaps they imagine only the serious writer buys stamps, ‘talent borrows, genius seals envelopes’, if you will. Or maybe it’s the virus thing. Fair enough. After all, we can’t expect everyone to be as firewall-savvy as Saga magazine or the WI (both of whom accept E-mail submissions). My own theory is their editorial staff received too much cyberpunk material back in the ‘eighties and consequently live in fear of jack plugs penetrating their spines the moment they open a Gmail account.
But all this is prologue. What I want to bring to the attention of readers here is this – practical correspondence with aforementioned mags is impossible from the UK, because the Royal Mail no longer sells International Reply Coupons.
Oh, yes, they say they do, but it’s in the same way they say past winners of The Running Man are drinking daiquiris in a holiday resort somewhere.
Trust me. Some time ago I tried sending a story to Asimovs (Bless ‘em. They’ve recently decided to accept electronic submissions—-the only one of ‘the big three’ to do so. Somewhere, Isaac smiles) and took it in an envelope to my local snailmailery.
‘Oh, no one asks for those things anymore,’ the Postmistress told me when I asked about IRCs. ‘The Post office hasn’t issued them for a while.’
‘That’s not what your website says,’ I said, which made everyone behind the counter smile. Mentioning the RM’s website has that effect on its staff – it’s their equivalent of when Del Boy falls backwards through that bar in Only Fools and Horses. Talking about it brings warm, fuzzy amusement to anyone in earshot.
Helpfully, the Postmistress suggested I could always ‘pop a few pounds in the envelope’ so that the receiver could exchange them for dollars and go out and buy stamps with it.
Hmm… Could this be the reason Asimov’s went electric in the first place?
My fellow laser’n’dragon hacks tell similar stories. Asking for IRC’s in Leicester Post Offices gets you the same blank stare as asking for IEDs. I imagine the same holds true throughout the rest of Albion.
So there you go – an SF writer living in the UK cannot send their work to the US inkies and expect to get a reply! Ever! So why bother, when other venues do? It’s a real shame, truly, but there you have it.
Have Analog or F&SF even noticed this silence of the Limeys? Their guidelines still rattle on about International Reply Coupons, so we can only assume not.
Maybe someone should tell ‘em. Oh, wait a minute…

*Ironically, one can send an email submission to Solander, the fiction magazine of the Historical Novel Society, without fear of the ducking stool or the thumb screw. Stick that in your singularity and vaporise it, Analog! Unfortunately, I can’t speak for literary fiction magazines. I write stories where something occurs.