World Fantasy Convention – diary entry 1

Being in a foreign city alone is faintly terrifying. It’s the fourth time I’ve done this now, although on the third of those I stayed with a friend, which held its own terrors. Between times I look back on the last trip with a rose tinted desire for freedom. It’s only on the plane, once it is far too late to turn back, that I remember the slowly rising tide of fear that accompanies each flight in to the unknown. This time the thought that I would be abducted by a mexican street gang teased and taunted me from two thirds of the way across the atlantic. Why would a mexican street gang abduct me? What would they want with an English writer of weird fictions of just slightly below average height? Was it my scarf, perhaps, that would make me a target? Should I stow it well away on arrival for fear of attracting unwanted attention?

(I am recording these thoughts while still on the flight, which raises the ironic possibility that I will actually be abducted by a mexican street gang. This note will be read, from my pawned iPad, by a young American woman who will briefly consider seeking down its author, before thinking better of it.)

The seeds of such fears are always small. A brief conversation with a friend about San Diego’s high, although falling, levels of street crime. Glimpsed statistics that Ocean Beach where I have chosen to spend my first night, actually has amongst the highest crime rates in the city! The image of it burning white from the Google generated data map. At 10 kilometres above the earth, encouraged perhaps by the low air pressure, those seeds bloom to full fledged fears. Writing seems to dig out the weeds of worry. Hence this note.

I am staying at the International Hostel in Ocean Beach, San Diego for the next three nights, followed by the Town and Country hotel for the World Fantasy Convention itself. Plans after that yet to be confirmed. Should I fail to Tweet for any length of time greater than six hours please name the Kickstarter campaign ‘Damien G Walter Hostage Ransom Fund’ and spread the word far and wide.

(Even as I write I am picturing the streets of Ocean Beach descended in to post-apocalypse chaos. Roving bands of cannibal vigilantes man flaming barbed wire barricades topped with the heads of tourists. My taxi driver seems unpeturbed. It’s just another day on the mean streets of the USA.)

UPDATE : Ocean Beach exceptionally nice and friendly. Hostel good. Have eaten sushi for dinner.

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Genre boundaries are real power boundaries.

I think of science fiction, including my own, as very much a paraliterary genre. The fact that it lives – and has lived – on the margin is important to its history. If you remove it from that margin, you remove it from its historical context; I don’t think that’s such a good thing. Genre boundaries are real power boundaries. Bringing all the genres together into what, following Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag called “the great democracy of texts” has endless problems – quite as many as trying to mete equality out among classes, races, and religions. “Let’s get al the races together and we’ll have no problems” – starting tomorrow.

Samuel R Delany, About Writing pp 315

Workshop : Narrative

Reading Like a Writer
Image via Wikipedia

The second in a short series of posts accompanying workshops being taught for the Certificate in Creative Writing at Vaughan College. This post is on narrative, and why it is both a simple and deliciously complicated idea.

In Reading Like a Writer, novelist Francine Prose says that the true problem with narration is not who is speaking, but rather who is listening? And sometimes, especially for beginning writers, the problem is understanding that anyone is speaking at all.

We often use the word narrative interchangeably with both story and plot, and forget that while all three refer to some kind of sequence of events, each also has a quite separate specific meaning. A narrative is a told sequence of events. We call the teller a narrator, and the process of telling narration.

When writing a narrative we have to think about the point of view of the teller. Is the narrative being told in first or third person for instance. What is the voice of the narrator? How is it coloured by accent, attitude, emotion or other factors. How much does the teller know about the narrative? These can become thorny, circular arguments for writers, unless they are related back to the fundamental idea that a narrative has to be being told by a person. Sometimes the narrator is the central character, sometimes a subsidiary character or outside observer, sometimes by the author herself, or a combination of all of these.

For most of human history all stories were told. We passed them from one teller to the next, through an oral storytelling tradition stretching over thousands of years. Even once we began to record stories in writing, the written word was still written to be read aloud. With printing and mass literacy came the possibility for novels that were written to be read from the page. But without an actual human voice there to give the words shape, the writer has to work even harder to create the voice and viewpoint of the narrator. So it was really with cinema and TV that we began to lose the relationship between narrative and the voice of a narrator.

When you as a writer know who is telling the narrative, and also as Francine Prose suggests who they are telling it to, the entire writing process becomes both easier and filled with many more sophisticated opportunities. Take a simple children’s story like Jack and the Beanstalk. Imagine that Jack is telling the narrative as an old man, reflecting on his youthful adventure. Then imagine that he is telling it to the giant, somehow recovered from his fall from the beanstalk. Maybe the story is being told over a flagon of ale at an inn, two old men (or one old man and a very old monster!) reminiscing about better days. Or perhaps Jack is telling the story to his own wastrel son, an old man telling a young one what life is really about. With a scenario like this in mind, the richness and details of the story just come flooding out.

Once we understand as writers that there always has to be someone telling the narrative, and someone listening, we can work with that understanding in subtle ways. The narrator can be made invisible, the narrative transparent. As long as we as the writer understand how the narrative works, the workings can be hidden from the reader. The best narratives often work this way.

EXERCISE
Imagine a woman (or man) recounting a serious crime she has committed, such as a bank robbery or even a murder. In the space of one page, have the woman first recount the crime to another criminal she wants to impress. Then secondly, also in the space of a page, have her recount it to a judge who she wants a pardon from.

Left and Right share the fight

Occupy Wall Street has seemed genuinely hopeful and constructive to me since its first emergence. I hadn’t been able to identify why, so thanks to Lawrence Lessig for stepping up and putting his finger on it:

In brief, Lessig believes that Occupy Wall Street has the potential to become something more than a Left leaning protest movement against a Right centred political system. I agree, and hope it is possible.

We all need to openly admit to ourselves that our democratic political system has become corrupted. No political system is ever without corruption. But since the financial crash of 2008, the system many of us believed to be historically less corrupt than any other, has proved to be much more corrupt than we hoped. We’ve seen that corruption in the inability of our political institutions to reform a financial system that everyone agrees is broken, and we’ve seen it in in the open corruption of our media, in particular the Murdoch media, which has been proved as nothing more than a protection racket and propaganda machine.

At the heart of this corruption, as with all corruption, is  money. Money has always bought power. But it seems at this moment in history to have overwhelmed any and all opposing ideology. Our political system today only serves the interests of money. And that is the very essence and definition of corruption.

Corruption of this kind is not in the interest of any person of any moral standing, whether they are on the Left or Right of the political spectrum. Yes, the arguments of the Left in defence of society’s poor and disenfranchised must be addressed. Yes, the arguments of the right in favour of our innovators and wealth creators must be advanced. Public spending has to be reigned in, just as corporate profits must be effectively redistributed. All these arguments must be had.

But none of this can happen until corruption has been defeated again. The political argument has been hijacked, on both sides, by people who hold no political ideology, who have no moral standing, who believe in nothing but themselves and their own power. These people are always there. The sociopathic fringe who crowd around power like those ugly mutated deep sea fish around volcanic vents. We can’t ever get rid of them. But we do need to learn to recognise them again. We need to learn to see them on our own side, as well as on the opposition. And we need to unite with our opponents, however much we disagree with them, if we are to have a chance of tackling our real enemey, the corrupt and cowardly few who are doing so much damage to the world today.

Occupy Wall Street is, and must continue to be, not a protest of Left against Right, but the seed of a united movement of Left and Right against the corrupt and criminal elementperverting our political system. I believe it can be, if we make it so.

Osama Bin Laden : Vigilante

Lavie Tidhars novel Osama makes me wonder why we can’t all just get along. No, really, why the fuck can’t we?

One common problem for all science fiction writers is reconciling the wondrous world we could have with the one we have negligently stumbled into. At this exact moment in time, in an alternate reality governed by the Grandmasters of Sci-Fi, there is a version of you living a life of luxury in a post-scarcity paradise where your every whim is met by your own robo-butler. Of course, that may already be your daily reality if you are a hedge-fund manager or MP on expenses, while the rest of us are simply grateful to avoid stacking shelves in Tesci. There are certainly worse realities, but there are also so many better ones.

Read more at Guardian books.

Workshop : Imagination

Term has begun at the Certificate in Creative Writing at Vaughan College, University of Leicester, of which I am very proud to be course director. We have 20 new keen creative writing students this year, of all ages and backgrounds. As part of this year’s course, I am going to open a general discussion following each workshop for both students on the course and anyone else interested. As well as a general introduction to the course, this weeks workshop was on the theme of Imagination.

Workshop One : Imagination

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein

“It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.” Ursula K. Le Guin

Where do stories and ideas come from? It’s the question every author get’s asked by readers, and as fantasy author Mark Charan Newton says, most of us don’t have a good answer. Harlan Ellison, the famously grumpy American author of speculative fiction, tells people he pays a regular fee to a little shop in the middle of nowhere, in return for which he get’s sent six new ideas each month. He get’s angry when people believe him, instead of realising the simple truth. We all have ideas, we all have stories to tell, we all have imagination. But finding our imagination and learning to use it isn’t as simple as just having an idea.

EXERCISE : Counting Breaths

Find somewhere quiet to sit, no TV or music! Sit comfortably, either in a chair or on the floor. Now. Close your eyes and breath. Try counting your breaths, in and out. How many can you count before a stray thought distracts you? You might be surprised how difficult this is! Every time you realise you have lost count, return to your breathing and start counting again.

It’s surprising how rarely we sit quietly in this day and age. We’re all busy people, work, family, social life and everything else make free time quite rare. And when we do have it we fill it with music, TV, video games and other things. It can be really interesting just to stop for a while and look at what is happening inside your own head. How many breaths could you count? What thoughts distracted you from counting? How long before you stopped, and why?

When we look at what’s happening inside our own heads for a while, we start to see what chaos it all is! Thoughts fly around like leaves in a storm. One moment you’re worrying about something at work, the next you’re wondering what’s happening in Eastenders. The inside of a even a relatively normal persons head is utter chaos. Writer’s heads are often even worse.

To cope in the world, we all have a part of our self that tames all that chaos. This is the part of us that makes ToDo lists, checks them off, fills out spreadsheets, makes it on time to appointments, understands how to read bus timetables, remembers passwords and generally makes civilised life possible. You can picture this part of your self as a smartly dressed, highly skilled office administrator, possibly called Ian or Clare.

But, we also all have a part of our self that loves the chaos. This is the part of us that dreams. It’s the part that loves how food tastes, or the feel of a summer breeze. It’s the part that makes friendships and falls in love. The part that cries at a piece of beautiful music, or gets angry when you see somebody being hurt. This is the part that makes civilised life worth living. Imagine this part of you as a free living, long haired hippie kid in tie-dye clothing called Sky or River.

Now. To write anything worth writing, Ian/Clare and Sky/River both have to collaborate. The problem being that, by nature, they don’t get along. Ian wants to make loads of rules and have every part of the story worked out before you even put pen to paper. Sky just writes random words down because she likes the sound and expects everyone else to share her joy.

Imagination is really the act of getting Ian and Sky working together effectively. Sky grabs hold of things in the chaos of your thoughts and recognises how beautiful they can be. Ian applies the rules of grammar and structure to them so that they are expressed as strongly as possible in words. When both our logical, ordered self, and our random, chaotic self can work together, that is when truly imaginative ideas emerge.

There are two things that can help merge order and chaos. The first is learning. In creative writing that means learning what Stephen King calls the Writer’s Toolbox, which we start looking at in the second of these workshops. The second is practice. The more you work with your tools, the better you get at using them. That bit is really down to you!

Thoughts on economics

So. We’re facing the worst financial crisis ever. Don’t believe it for a second. This isn’t a crisis. It’s a collapse. The final and overdue collapse of a system that has been in a constant state of crisis, with brief periods of remission, for at least the last few decades.

The really sad, and I mean tear inducingly sad thing about the incredible pain and suffering many people are going through because of this collapse, is how utterly avoidable it all is. It requires only a shift in perception to cure the entire problem. But then, perception shifts, even tiny ones, are among the most difficult thing to achieve.

What would that shift be? Hmmm…let’s see.

Many, possibly most people, believe that you get wealth by taking something from somebody else. It’s a belief that people hold on many different levels, from people who think that its OK to invade another country and enslave their people, to those who think its OK to employ workers and drive down their pay over time to create your profit margin. In the last 30 years this belief has come to dominate our economic system. Consequentially, we now have an economy which is dominated by ever more complex ways for a few people to take stuff from everybody else.

Some people, maybe, on a good day, a slim majority of people, understand that wealth comes from trade. Which, in an idealised Sesame Street version of the world, is also called cooperation or sharing. The more humans cooperate, the more wealth we all end up with because our economy becomes more and more efficient. If I grow wheat, while you catch fish, and we trade / cooperate / share, then we both end up with wheat AND fish, for the same total amount of work. Scale that up to the modern post-industrial era and you have the one and only reason why our lives are so much nicer and comfier than they were back in the day.

Taking wealth can work in the short term. But in the long term, you destroy the actual trade and cooperation which is creating the wealth. Which is why all evil empires collapse. They grow too quickly on the wealth they take, then collapse when the source of that wealth is destroyed. Does that seem like a familiar picture to you? Even slightly?

Capitalism isn’t entirely evil. Much of a our modern wealth does come through trade and cooperation. That’s something we can all be proud and happy about. We’re argubly more cooperative than ever before. But. Over the last 30 years or so, we’ve all been party to the resurgence of the belief that it’s OK to get wealthy by taking something from somebody else. We’ve taken stuff from third world people by wearing the clothes and using the manufactured goods produced in their sweatshops. (Hardly surprising that they are now not very sympathetic about or plunging living standards…) We’ve taken stuff from poor people by driving down relative pay for people employed in ordinary jobs. We’ve taken stuff from our neighbours by selling worthless consumer products to each through forceful sales and advertising techniques. We’ve even taken stuff from our parents by forcing down spending on the elderly, sick and infirm. Oh, and now we’re taking stuff from our own children by forcing them to shoulder vast debt just to get a standard education. WELL DONE US! WOO HOO!

You can’t build a strong economy on the basis of fucking each other over. What we are watching now is the inevitable collapse of our attempt to do so. The response to this collapse has been for the richest to work ever harder at fucking over the poorest. And of course, this has set-up a positive feedback loop which has sent us spiralling ever quicker in to collapse. And thats the direction we will continue to go in, until we shift our perception, away from ever more strenuous attempts to fuck each other, and on to finding better ways to trade, share, and cooperate with the tremendous wealth we have made in the world, while we still have it.

We need a unified spec-fic award in the UK

The United Kingdom has one credible award for speculative fiction. It’s called the Clarke Award, and it is decided by a panel of experts each year.

In addition we have a splintered field of popular voted awards including those organised by the British Fantasy Society and British Science Fiction Association. These awards carry little weight even within the British SF community, little or none internationally, and absolutely none at all in the big wide world of literature and culture more generally.

Worse yet, the scandalous outcome of this years British Fantasy Awards shows how, at their worst, these awards have become a positive embarrassment to British speculative fiction.

The UK awards began as fan awards. However, as those fan communities have matured, and the internet has mad it much easier to publish and promote new work, those fan communities have become communities of amateur writers and publishers. It’s no surprise then that the awards are now dominated by amateur writers and publishers voting for their own work.

Speculative fiction writing is incredibly rich in the UK, but a splintered field of amateur awards is failing to reflect this richness to the outside world. We need a unified award for spec-fic in the UK, that many fan groups contribute to, which is taken seriously by the SF profession, and the larger world of publishing and culture. British SF is fantastic and creative, and we deserve an award that truly reflects that.

Can this be achieved? What are the barriers and challenges? How can they be overcome? Please let me know your thoughts.