My Love Sick Zombie Boy Band

My Love Sick Zombie Boy Band is published in the special double issue of Electric Velocipede #21/22. This story started life as the memory of having my heart pounded to bits when I was a teenager. I really did give the young woman a silver ring, but whether it had any magical properties or not is open to debate. The zombie boy band just appeared on the page as I was writing. I had to give Fred something to play with, and dead boys seemed to make her happy. This story got me in to Clarion and has had editorial guidance from Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman, so I think its probably my favourite of my stories to date. It will also be published in the audio magazine Dark Fictions in April 2011.

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My Love Sick Zombie Boy Band

I am excavating an eight-pointed star onto the pages of my textbook when I catch the boy looking at me. I keep the pen moving, the shiny blue ink bubbling and frothing, soaking the pink paper. At the centre of the doodle I draw a lidless eye. It gazes up at me unblinking, forever caught in devotion and desire. The boy is looking at me like he owns me. Boys are so dumb. Don’t they get that beauty is a trap you fall into by looking?

I hear voices whisper my name. Antonia, Jane, and Elisabeth, the three bitches, are hissing at the back of the class. I used to be bitch number four, until I went from bitch to witch. There is nothing that teenage society hates more than an unauthorised image change. I turn to stare them down, but they take cover behind perfect schoolgirl flicks that muffle their mocking laughter.

“Alexander,” Miss Holloway calls out the name in her frustrated drone. I suppose if I was an unmarried 40-something school teacher I might be frustrated as well. Rumour is that Miss Holloway used to be the world’s biggest Harriet. Now she is making up for all that niceness with a bitch impression of the highest calibre. Hers is the face a person gets from having their heart torn still beating from their chest and brutally stamped on, not just once or even twice but over and over again. Her lesson for us is simple—there are no happy endings.

Buy issue #21/22 of Electric Velocipede here.

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Momentum in StarShipSofa

My short story Momentum is featured in the Hugo award winning audio magazine StarShipSofa this week. This story was originally published in Electric Velocipede #13 and has been reprinted twice since. It’s great to hear it in audio, and the narration by Victoria Kelly is really good. Thanks to Tony and StarShipSofa for producing this, alongside so many other great writers.

Momentum
When great uncle Peter came to live with our family in the house by the sea I asked my mother why it was he never spoke. My mother explained that great uncle Peter had always been silent, that when he was born he came out without even a scream. Great uncle Peter could have only been young when the family; his mother and father and his sister Ranyevskya – my great grandmother, came over the sea from the old country. And in the smoky streets of London they learnt the tongue of their new home to speak in the world, and kept the language of the old country for home. But great uncle Peter spoke not a word of either. And years passed and then decades and my grandmother was born and my mother and then me and as far as anyone knew great uncle Peter said never a word.

Listen to Momentum in StarShipSofa.

Five lessons learnt at Clarion

The Clarion Writers workshops http://clarion.ucsd.edu/ and http://www.clarionwest.org/ are now taking applications. At the suggestion of Jim Kelly, former Clarionauts are sharing five things we learned at Clarion as a Facebook meme. Here are my five for non FB people.

  1. I want to be a great writer. Which is a real bummer, because being a great writer takes real work and dedication and sacrifice. I was hoping at some point I would sell out and write a fifteen volume fantasy saga and get filthy rich. But it’s looking less and less likely. This is the problem with having great teachers…you have to live up to the standard they set.
  2. Your writing has as much depth as you do. It’s not possible to reach beyond the emotional range of your own experience. You have to live fully and explore your humanity before you stand a chance of writing stories that help others do the same. That doesn’t mean exploring unknown continents necessarily, it does mean exploring the unknown hidden in your everyday experience.
  3. Stop wasting time. Clarion is bootcamp for writers, because life afterwards is like going to war. The intensity of the experience is designed to show you the kind of intensity great writing requires. So much of life is wasted on things which, in the final analysis, have no meaning or value. Decide what is really important to you and focus on it to the selfish exclusion of all else. Throw away your TV and game console. These things have no place in your life anymore.
  4. Be with other writers. If you want to be great at anything, surround yourself with other people who are better than you. The real value of Clarion is being in the community of your peers. Join a good critique group or build your own. Go where other writers are. Make them your friends. And take joy in their success. Only bad writers hold on to jealousy over other writers achievements, because the only real person you are up against in this game is yourself (if that sounds like a platitude please know that I 100% mean it)
  5. Find your voice. There are many opportunities, especially in genre fiction, to imitate other writers. Don’t take them. If Star Trek franchise novels are truly how you express yourself then go ahead and write them, otherwise ignore anyone offering to pay you to write unless you can be sure you can find your own voice in that work. finding your voice isn’t a step on the path, it is the destination. If you accept anything less you are missing the whole point of the journey.

Do not judge genre by its covers

Science fiction and fantasy book cover designs are as fashion fickle as an emo kid’s dress sense, and produce the same kind of response. Like some sober-suited middle manager tutting over his son’s electric blue spiky haircut, the literary reader sees the genres’ gaudy covers and wonders how they can go out in public looking like that. Why can’t they be more like a Penguin classic, or that nice Faber poetry collection next door? Boring, says genre as it slouches out of the door to meet its friends. It wouldn’t want to be seen in public with the olds anyway. But behind the lurid illustrations hide some masterpieces of fiction.

Read more at The Guardian

Are you ready to enter Stapledon-Woolf space?

Jim Worrad returns to this blog in the latest of a series of guest posts. Jim is a member of The Speculators writing group, a writer of weird and wondrous Space Opera stories and an interviewer for Interzone magazine. Here Jim has done no less than identify a new literary element – are you ready to enter Stapledon-Woolf space?

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Please indulge me. I have identified a literary element, a meme-state if you will, which I hope will be of some small use to anyone grafting away at space opera. I call it Stapledon-Woolf space.

I’m sure you’ll recognise the surnames. Olaf Stapledon, of course, wrote First and Last men and Star Maker. I use his name in reference to his penchant for scale–has anyone ever daubed tales upon a larger canvas than this man, in terms of time and space? Millennia pass within a sentence, races rise on page 48 and are rendered extinct halfway down page 50.

I open Star maker at random to read:

‘The great majority of the stellar population had now passed their prime; multitudes were mere glowing coals or lightless ash.’

As someone once put it, Stapledon is a writer who can’t write about anything unless it’s everything.
At the very other end of the scale game we might usefully identify Virginia Woolfe. Her stream-of-consciousness style and innate hypersensitivity capture the least moment and the smallest detail:

‘With a painful effort of concentration, she focussed her mind… upon a kitchen table, one of those scrubbed board tables, grained and knotted, whose virtue seems to have been laid bare by years of muscular integrity…’

Stapledon-Woolf space is a fiction-state in which the scale characteristics of both these writers exist simultaneously. Or, more simply, a single sentence in which galactic grandeur is meshed with some small matter, something human and intimate. An example, off the top of my head, might be-

‘He recognised the scent upon her, a perfume distilled from the flowers of a hundred worlds.’

A crude example, but I hope it illustrates what I’m driving at. There’s better, of course. Iain M Banks’ latest novel, Surface Detail, describes a massacre of sentient star ships-

‘…collapsing into particles more dense than neutron star material, all that prized wit, intelligence and knowledge-beyond-measuring snuffed…to a barely visible ultra-dense cinder almost before they had time to realise what was happening to them.’

On the other hand, I skimmed through Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality stories thinking they’d be drenched in Stapledon-Woolfe sentences and found none. The Ballad of Lost C’Mell, for instance, has its share of epic imagery and more human detail than many ‘literary’ stories, yet the two extremes never bind together in a single line. As with many space opera tales, there’s only a background radiation of proto-SWS. Still, doesn’t stop C’Mell from being a favourite of mine.

So far I’ve found three properties to Stapledon-Woolfe space-

  1. It is inherently complex.
  2. It is inherently unstable.
  3. It is unique to space opera.

1) is simple enough – SWS cannot exist within one word. At least, I know of no word in English whose meaning holds such gulf-like contradictions.

As for 2), a state of pure SW cannot be maintained for long within a narrative.  A sentence or a short paragraph at most. Firstly, the Stapledonian and Woolfian elements pull in opposite directions. But, more to the point, the story itself will curtail SWS before too long. It has to, or the plot would lose all momentum and die.

3)- is contentious, I’ll admit. But I’m sticking with it. No other subgenre has the requisite colossal dimensions as Space Opera to tolerate such extremes. The stars in Epic fantasy can only ever be cosmetic, something for the characters to gaze at in wonder but never comprehend, never approach. And Hard SF, in my experience, rarely concerns itself with the personal for long or at depth.

So how, as SF writers, is this of any use to us? Well, in my opinion, the fusion of Stapledon-Woolfe space creates a charge, a buzz of textual energy the reader cannot help but feel, if only unconsciously.

This Stapledon-Woolfe energy is a bit beyond my ability to explain, I’m afraid. All I know is I get a tingle upon reading it. A unique one at that, a sort of gut feeling within the brain. Maybe it’s in having the human condition framed by the very stars themselves, a view to how utterly microscopic yet inexplicably vital we are. As Olaf himself put it in Star Maker’s appendices:

‘A living man is worth more than a lifeless galaxy. But immensity has indirect importance through its facilitation of mental richness and diversity.’

A final note of caution. No writer should intentionally create sentences chock-full of SWS. That would be artificial and could only make for artificial writing. The key is in editing. A few – a very few – sentences of a first draft will naturally contain Stapledon-Woolf particles in an unrefined state. So edit and identify them. Refine and enrich them. All the fun of being North Korea with none of the concomitant nastiness.

Hmm… I’ll go now before the inspectors arrive.

Story Sale to Dark Fiction

My Love Sick Zombie Boy Band, very soon to be published in the Hugo award winning Electric Velocipede magazine, has been accepted by Dark Fictions podcast magazine for their April issue, which will be on the theme of The Waste Land (Death, Living Death and Moral Decay) inspired by the TS Eliot poem.

In only three issues Dark Fiction have published some pretty cool writers including Lauren Beukes, Cory Doctorow and Jon Courtney Grimwood. The story is going to be read by Sam Moffat, who has the perfect voice for MLSZBB’s central character, Fred. This is the third story I have had recorded in audio, so I’m really looking forward to hearing it in April.

You can read an extract of My Love Sick Zombie Boy Band here.

Perform the injunction!

Writers block. Most suffer from it. Many deny its very existence. Some of us manage to do both at the same time. Writing is a complex and demanding mental, emotional and physical task. It’s hardly surprising that even the best of us sometimes fail to muster the necessary forces to support our cause.

Having argued that writing is complex, I’m now going to reverse the argument and say that from another perspective writing is a very simple act. So simple in fact, that you can easily forget to do it, even while doing it.

To do anything, you must first perform the injunction. For any act, there are basic steps that you must take to achieve it. To swim, you first have to somehow get in to the water. To walk, you have to be standing up. To fly, you have to fall (and then just not hit the ground, of course). Of course, for even the simplest tasks there may be many steps required to make them happen. Skills you need to learn. Equipment you need to gather together. But the injunction is the simple step that almost inevitably leeds to the act. It isn’t just that you need to get into the water to swim. It’s that if you get in to the water, you almost inevitably will swim. However complex the task, once the injunction is performed the outcome starts to become inevitable. Strap yourself in to the rocket, and arrival at the moon is the logical outcome. Ask yourself why that apple fell out of the tree, and theories of gravity are only a few thousand hours of work away. The space between the injunction and the event might be separated by thousands of complex and difficult challenges, but once the injunction is performed, the outcome becomes somehow inevitable.

To write fiction, you must write and imagine AT THE SAME TIME. A two part injunction, both of which are required or writing is unlikely to happen. You can sit and stare at a blank piece of paper desperately THINKING about writing all you like, but unless you can actually engage the shy beast that is the imagination, nothing will happen. You can spend all day imagining the most amazing stories in the world, only to find that when your eventually sit down to write them it is as impossible as remembering lost dreams.

Every writer will have their own unique requirements around this basic injunction. Some need silence, others music or noise. Some like fountain pens, others manual typewriters. Some people like to read before they write. Others like physical exercise. But, whatever your specific requirements, the basic injunction for writing fiction remains the same:

WRITING + IMAGINATION = FICTION

Perform the injunction, and the outcome becomes (almost) inevitable.

Locus Round Table Group

Locus discuss my suggestion that to be true, Science Fiction must be beautiful in their Round Table feature. Thanks to Karen Burnham for starting this conversation. Other participants include Paul Graham Raven, Gary K. Wolfe, Andy Duncan, Russell Letson, John Clute, Cheryl Morgan, Paul Witcover and Terry Bisson.

You can read the full conversation here.

If I have time later in the day I may return to this and add my own response.