A talk I am giving

Yes. This is me being eaten by the picture frame.

Leicester Writers’ Club presents
Damien G Walter on Thursday September 29th 2011
7 pm – 9 pm at Wellington Street Adult Education Centre Entrance Free

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Writing is hard, lonely, low paid work

I think we need to spread the following meme as far and wide as possible:

“Writing is hard, lonely, low paid work.”

It’s a stark message, and perhaps lacking some nuance. But it needs to be to impact the growing legions attracted to writing as a pathway to celebrity, status and wealth. Those people need deterring for their own good, so I believe those of us who know better should start propagating this meme.

So why would anybody want to write? Especially smart people who could probably do better if they just concentrated their effort on their day job?

I work with a lot of people who want to be writers. Over the years I’ve had to try and explain to myself what that desire is about. Writing has become confused with celebrity and status. But the truth is I think we write to learn and grow as people. Mastering the skills of writing, finding your story and your meaning, even making the long hard journey towards publication, are all good for our spirit and soul.

(I mean good here in the way Spartan society believed exposing babies was good for them because it turned those who survived in to hardy souls.)

If you learn and grow enough, you might write something which contributes a little or a lot to other peoples growth. At which point, such things as success, acclaim, wealth may start falling in to your lap. But it doesn’t matter if you ever get to that point, as long as you get the growth you need from your own writing. Sure, your ego will take a hell of bashing along the way. But maybe a good hard kicking is exactly what your ego needs. Maybe thats why you are putting yourself through all this anyway?

Which is why its so damn sad when people enter in to this endeavour purely for the ego trip. Because they are condemning them self to a hell of a lot of pain until they learn better.

The Magicians is Harry Potter for grown-ups

If you could journey to any fantasy world, which would it be? I, like many millions of others, would have to choose JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth – although, given the option, I’d divide my time between Gondor and Rivendell, and skip the guided tours of Moria and Mordor. Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians and its sequel, The Magician King, might well choose that other classic of British fantasy literature, the Narnia of CS Lewis. But without doubt, the Milllenials out there who grew up with the works of JK Rowling are at this moment gleefully shouting: HOGWARTS! HOGWARTS! HOGWARTS!

Read more on Guardian Books.

Yep. That needs another draft.

It’s a great feeling to finish a piece of writing. Triumphant. So looking at work you thought was finished and realising it isn’t finished at all is painnnnnnful. The mind goes in to self-defence mode. Or self destruct mode. Obviously you suck. What ever made you think you could write at all. Give it up. Anything, except the truth of the situation.

Yep. That needs another draft.

Swear a bit. Punch something inanimate. (Try not to break your hand though, you’re going to need it.) Have a stiff drink and / or a smoke. Then knuckle down and get writing, because what separates the professional and everyone else is the willingness to tear your writing apart and put it back together again, better, faster, stronger than it was before.

It’s going to be a long weekend.

The spy who came in from the multiverse

Will Ellwood is a member of The Speculators writing group, which is now accelerating towards its two year anniversary. This week Will has had his first professional publication in issue 12 of Flurb, edited by Rudy Rucker. It’s a hell of a way to start a writing career, being published alongside cyberpunk legends Bruce Sterling, John Shirley and Paul DiFilippo. Expect to hear a lot more from Will Ellwood in the future.

Walls Between Worlds by Will Ellwood

Arkady left the Ministry of Defence building in Whitehall and encountered a demonstration outside. Most of the protesters Arkady recognized. This crowd assembled everyday on Horse Guards Avenue holding home-made signs with the names and photographs of missing loved ones. They chanted for answers. Scattered amongst the grieving protesters the expected bloc of Socialist Workers Party protesters joined in, giving the Ministry an excuse to do nothing.

From the Victoria Embankment he watched the wheel of the London Eye turning against the sky. In another London he had been responsible for the growing of a memorial garden in its place.

Read more in Flurb issue 12

Science Fiction is the most valuable art ever. Discuss.

Coming Soon!
Image by psd via Flickr


So. Today at the Out of this World event at the British Library (which was really rather wonderful), Neil Gaiman shared a fascinating factoid with the audience. While appearing as a Guest of Honour at China’s largest state approved Science Fiction convention, Neil decided to enquire why SF, once frowned upon by the Chinese government, was now not just approved of but encouraged. China is now the worlds biggest market for SF, with the highest circulation magazines and the largest conventions. A point Neil reiterated by mentioning that the opening ceremony of the convention he attended was shown on national television.

I don’t think that’s ever been the case at a WorldCon.

The answer Neil was given is very, very interesting. China is the worlds manufacturing powerhouse. But it doesn’t invent or design the things it manufactures (I’m sure there are numerous exceptions to this, as I am also sure the general trend holds true.) China wants to capture the creativity and imagination of the culture that has produced companies like Google and Apple. So researchers talked to people involved with those and other companies to see what factors they had in common. Guess what the answer was?

They all read Science Fiction.

Now I’m sure I don’t need to rehash issues of cause and effect that impact on this kind of social analysis. Science Fiction might just be a popular hobby amongst the demographic that are drawn to working in science, technology and other creative fields. Or…it might be that Science Fiction is an essential influence in the development of top level creative thinkers, especially those dealing with technology.

Let’s go with that second idea for a while. We live in an age of unparalleled technological development, which is creating change across society of an unprecedented magnitude. Is it really so inconceivable that SF in all its forms is a valuable tool for helping train people to creatively work with that change? SF doesn’t just show us possible futures, it trains us to anticipate new technology, model how it will impact our lives and exploit that insight. Isn’t that basically what Apple, Google and billions of workers in technology and the knowledge economy are now engaged in doing, day in and day out?

Take this argument a step further, and it’s possible to make an interesting case that Science Fiction’s contribution to the global economy is far greater than the apparent value of the SF publishing industry. Economists could spin all kinds of mumbo jumbo about the actual value of SF in this scenario. At the very least it might suggest that SF writers should get paid a bit more!

When I interviewed Charlie Stross in 2008, he made the argument that literature can no longer afford to view our social and cultural lives as separate from our technological and scientific advancement. Events such as the Out of this World exhibition at the British Library suggest that many people outside the world of SF agree with Charlie. I’m going to go out on a limb and make a prediction that I hope I’m around to crow about when it comes true. Fifty years from now Science Fiction won’t exist as it does today. It won’t be dead. Instead it will have evolved as an integral part of literature and culture. Because the story of the next fifty years, if it isn’t abbreviated by war or environmental collapse, will be one of technological change and human adaptation. The art and literature of the future will reflect on that story, and they will drive it, just as Science Fiction does today.

Why a book is not a film

The Lumiere brothers
Image via Wikipedia

There’s a nice idea in the Ricky Gervais movie The Invention of Lying, where in a world without lies, films are now factual scripts read by their authors directly to a camera. Without lies you can’t have fiction. Or actors. In fact you can’t have films as we know them. Films are treated like books. And of course, that does not work.

There is a grammar to film. The intercutting of shots and scenes, the abbreviated narratives imposed by the act structure. These things are transparent to us because we grow up with them. But you can see their evolution in the history of film. From the Lumiere Brothers Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, through Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps scene and Orson Welles’ Citizen Cane, to the shaky cam of Saving Private Ryan. Film seems to most of us almost as natural as reality. But it is pure constructed artifice, projected at 24 frames a second.

Far fewer people learn the grammar of novels. More than ever before, but still a minority. There was never a golden age of fictional literacy in the world. Even Dickens, one of the first true literary superstars, only sold to a small number of well educated people, although he was read to a few more. We might be on the brink of such a golden age, but we aren’t there yet.

Literacy, in the West at least, is near universal. We can read cereal packets and glossy magazines no problem. But constructing a narrative out of words, sentences, paragraphs and pages can be more problematic. The Novel is a powerful narrative form, but like any form it relies on the readers familiarity with the rules of its grammar in order to work. Readers who are blind to qualities of voice and rhythm for instance often struggle with literary writing that relies on those tools.

So the popular novel performs a remarkable chameleon act, and adopts the grammar of film as its own. Scenes and settings are laid out like the opening shots taken through a camera. Most of the page is filled with dialogue, with instructions like stage prompts to inform the reader what the absent actors would be doing if they were there. Visual detail dominates description. And there is little indication of what is going on inside any characters head unless it’s revealed by an external gesture. ‘Bob nodded his head sideways with a wink of the eye.’ Do you know why Bob did that? Neither do I. The writer knows, but he’s not letting on.

Novels that only ape the grammar of film fail in more ways than one. It’s a common technique in franchise novels, where the reader can imagine all the details of the scenes and characters of their favourite TV show as they read. But they aren’t really satisfying. They are just filler between seasons of the TV show. They’re quick to write because, like FanFic, if you just sit on the surface of the narrative with characters and situations that have already been defined, there isn’t that much to think about.

And they absolutely don’t satisfy people who love reading for its own sake. Remember those prose films from The Invention of Lying? Remember how ridiculous and boring those films were? Well that’s how ridiculous and boring a book that limits itself to the grammar of film seems to me. And a LOT of other people. It’s why readers scream ‘MY EYES! MY EYES!’ when forced to read a page of Dan Brown style prose. It’s why SF, Fantasy and Horror that is written for readers trained to the grammar of film and TV, however well done, will always fail as literature. Trying to make a book work like a film is a nice shortcut, but in the end it doesn’t lead anywhere worthwhile.