Stop. You are not a machine.

I do not know the origin of this. But I agree with it entirely.

 

 

Stop. You are not a machine. Your natural design does not tolerate 2-4 hours of travel per day, 8-12 hours of slave-labor 5-6 days per week for whatever monetary compensation on 5-6 hours of sleep in a system built on penalistic principle and a life under judgmental surveillance. Like it or not, you are human. Stress, harassment, constant financial worries, fear and sense of inadequacy destroys the health of any human. This is a scientific fact. So why is it that we accept and tolerate a system that in actual reality demands that you erase your needs, and in effect commit a slow joyless suicide for someone elses profit? You have a choice, stop pretending that you don’t.

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Understanding Christopher Priest

Writing can be a cruel game. Not least for those who, to innocent bystanders, might seem like winners in the game of literary life. Take Christopher Priest for instance. With a long and esteemed career in writing, numerous accolades under his belt and a Hollywood adaptation of his novel The Prestige still within living memory, Priest has enjoyed a bigger piece of the pie than most writers will ever know.

So why then would a man held in rather high esteem by the community of Science Fiction writers and readers throw a hissy fit about the recently announced Clarke awards shortlist? The immediate assumption one might make is that Priest is somewhat vexed about his own novel The Islanders being overlooked for this year’s shortlist. And no doubt this is one of many straws piled upon this particular heehawing donkey’s back, but in this case probably not the most significant one.

A more significant reason might be that Christopher Priest has spent most of his professional career not being J G Ballard. The two writers began their professional careers around the same period of the early to mid 1960’s, among a number of writers who would become known as the New Wave, all loosely connected by their shared agenda of making SF a serious and respected literary genre. Priest is not now among the first writers that come to mind in discussions of the New Wave…which is of course the point.

The role of camaraderie and rivalry is sometimes overlooked when we draw up our cultural historic narratives. But they are a powerful force in the lives of writers as with all artists. Yes, there is the pure joy of creation. Yes, there is the need to have your work read by an audience. Yes, there is that other need for a hefty pay cheque now and again to keep body and soul together. But what really drives us is the desire to be…part of the scene, in the loop of the creative life, up amongst the top names in the field. In tempting to believe that all the top writers of the day are all bosom buddies, that they are live in a big house together and go on rambunctious group holidays. But while this is not literally true, there’s no doubt that these writers pay each other a very great deal of attention, even if sometimes that attention manifests as deliberately ignoring your rivals.

Christopher Priest has spent his entire career being close enough to the top table to smell the gravy, but has never quite been invited to sit down. His writing is extremely clever, but even in the ‘literature of ideas’ that is SF, “extremely clever” is really a way of saying rather unemotional, dry, and hard to love. It has all the qualities of someone who has spent decades studying, learning, dedicating every fraction of a considerable intellect to learning the rules and structures of fiction, but never quite managed to get his own soul on the page. Which, in the end, is the only thing we really demand of a novelist.

First the New Wave, then wave after wave of SF writers have swept past Christopher Priest. Many of them far less intelligent. Most of them far less educated in the field of SF. And now, just when Priest might have expected to be acclaimed as an elder statesman of the genre, another wave of writers have taken the limelight instead. The bulk of the criticisms Priest lays at the feet of the current generation of SF writers including Charles Stross and China Mieville are products of his own swollen, bruised and delusional ego, but a few are true. All artists are imperfect, all fail in many, many ways. But then don’t we always in the end love the people we love as much for their imperfections? The rhetorical framework of Christopher Priest’s screed, a rhetoric shared by some other extremely clever writers, seems to pose a kind of Platonic ideal work of fiction, for which they are always striving, and which gives them cause to hurl abuse at those weak, frail, all too human writers who fail to reach it.

Because the real cruelty of writing is what it makes some writers do to themselves. Christopher Priest is and will continue to be highly respected in the SF community. His next book will likely be more highly publicised than all his others put together after this hissy fit. Let’s just hope he puts his soul on the page this time, rather than another mechanical exercise in platonic perfectionism.

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The Critics of Fantastika

Science fiction and fantasy may not seem like natural targets of literary criticism. The last thing anyone wants while trying to escape into a fantasy world is some clever clogs popping up to tell you the novel you’re reading is a reactionary construct perpetuating an outmoded value system in the face of a post-industrial reality. So it will quite likely come as a surprise – not least to many ardent fantasy fans – that a considerable body of critical thought has accrued around fantasy literature.

Read more on Guardian Books.

STORY SALE: Star to Universe Magazine

I’m quite chuffed to say that my story Star has been accepted by new UK based Universe magazine and will appear in their first ‘Albion’ themed issue in May 2012.

Star was written in the 5th week of my time at the Clarion writer’s workshop in 2008. I went to Clarion with the mission of breaking my writing…kicking apart the style I had developed and finding different directions to go in. I spent the first four weeks doing that, and getting suitably savaged in the critique sessions, so in week five I returned to my more familiar style of dark, intense flash fiction and Star was the product.

In one aspect Star is a glimpse at a dystopian, alternative Britain 60 years after Nazi Germany won world war II. Britain’s history as an imperial and industrial power is a strong theme in much of my fiction, and Star was one of the first times I explored this idea. In another aspect it’s a very personal story about growing up in a British culture I felt deeply and often aggressively alienated from. And, reading the story back three years after writing it, I see there is also an emergent idea about belief and materialism in the story mix. So I am very happy that the story has found a good home.

AND: My Lovesick Zombie Boy Band, first published in the Hugo award winning Electric Velocipede, is available for free on Amazon Kindle for a few days from Saturday.

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Im Abendrot

UPDATE: A new translation sent to me by Richard Gardner

UPDATE: A contemporary re-imagining of Im Abendrot by Neil Fulwood

UPDATE: I have added a new translation contributed by Robin Wallace, and the amazing performance by Jessye Norman of Richard Strauss ‘Im Abendrot’.

I’m collecting translations of the poem ‘Im Abendrot’ by Joseph von Eichendorff, which was the basis of the final work by Richard Strauss of the same title. I’m particularly interested in the second line of the last verse, most often translated as ‘So deep at sunset’ and other possible translations. All suggestions welcome.

 

 

Evening
We have gone through sorrow and joy
hand in hand;
from wandering we now rest
on the silent land.

Around us, the valleys bow;
the air is growing darker;
two larks soar still
with reverie into the fragrant air.

Come close to me and let them fly about;
soon it will be time to sleep;
let us not lose our way
in this solitude.

O vast, tranquil peace!
so deep at sunset.
How weary we are of wandering –
Is this perhaps death?

 

At Gloaming
Through want and joy we have walked hand in hand;
We are both resting from out travels now, in the quiet countryside

Around us the valleys fold up, already the air grows dark,
Only two larks still soar wistfully into the balmy sky

Come here and let them fly about; soon it is time for sleep
We must not go astray in this solitude

O spacious, tranquil peace, so profound in the gloaming.
How tired we are of travelling – is this perchance death?

 

Twilight (Trans. Ivan Grosz)
We have gone through joy and sorrow
Walking hand in hand
Let’s rest from all the wanderings
Here, on this silent land

The valleys slip beneath us
The air is turning dark
Up into the balmy sky
Dreaming soar two larks

Come close to me and let them twirl
It’s almost time to sleep
Be careful not to lose our way
The solitude is deep

Oh broad and peaceful silence
Set in the evening’s dark red glow
Of wandering we are tired
May death be waiting for us now?

 

 

Im Abendrot (At Sunset)(translated by Richard Gardner)

Through misery and pleasure,
We wandered hand in hand;
And now we take our leisure,
Above the tranquil land.

Ringed by valleys leaning o’er,
The air to darkness bent;
Just two skylarks upwards soar,
Day-dreaming in the scent.

Come and let them whirl away,
It’s time for us to sleep;
Lest we err and go astray
In solitude this deep.

Vast and silent stillness fired
With sunset red the breadth!
How can we feel so tired?
Can this perhaps be death?

 

 

In the Evening (by Neil Fulwood)
Imagine: while driving home,
companionship and laughter left behind,
the village a string of lights
in the rearview mirror, you pull over

and turn the engine off,
then step out of the car and stand
on a verge of hardened soil,
the road unlit and signless at your back,

and look across the land
as dark comes on, the fields dull slabs
of earth which rise and level out
and stretch away. By day you’d see

a wealth of smaller things:
farmhouse chimneys capped with drifts
of smoke, the dotted lines
of boundaries marked by walls of stone;

and further still: a hint
of distant hills a county away,
and almost on the edge of sight,
a scythe of light on coastal water.

But you see it (imagine)
for the final time now, in the evening,
the small details that gave it life
stolen by an horizon brought nearer

by twilight, gathered up,
hidden beneath silence and darkness,
a silence that is absolute,
a darkness that takes the evening

and plucks from you
your valediction: the one name
that never left your heart,
a thing remembered even as it passes.

 

 

In evening’s final breath (translated by Robin Wallace)

Through sorrow and life’s happiness
We’ve journeyed hand in hand.
Now we may rest from wandering
Above this silent land.

The valleys lie in shadow,
And darkness fills the sky.
Two larks alone, their dreamy course
Through fragrant evening fly.

Come close and let them slip away;
Soon it is time to sleep.
Oh let us not forget our goal
In solitude so deep.

What broad and silent peacefulness
In evening’s final breath.
How tired we are of wandering.
Might this perhaps be death?

 

And the original German by Eichendorff…

Im Abendrot
Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand;
vom Wandern ruhen wir
nun überm stillen Land.

Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft,
zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.

Tritt her und laß sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit,
daß wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde–
Ist dies etwa der Tod?

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5 indispensable guides for fiction writers

Many people say writing can’t be taught. But it can certainly be learned.

(I actually think it can be taught as well, or I wouldn’t teach it.)

When we’re young and full of beans we like to think we know it all. It’s hard to admit to ourself we don’t how to do something. But it’s the first and most important step in learning anything worth knowing. The idea that writing is a mystical skill, only known to those with some rare combination of genetics, education and / or the grace of a Supreme Creator, is just another way of not admitting that you don’t know how to do it. If it can’t be learnt, well then you might as well just go right on not learning it, avoid all that hard work, and continue just waiting for inspiration to strike.

Learning to write good fiction does take time. I would say roughly five years, for someone with strong literacy, who already reads widely and deeply to begin with. But it can also take WAAAAAAAY longer than that. Without the right inputs, the outputs will always be rubbish. That input can be teaching. A good writing teacher can help you take quantum leaps forward in a few hours that might take years to stumble upon. Or you can read one or two good writing guides. The right guides can help you master what Stephen King calls ‘The Writer’s Toolkit’, everything from basic grammar, paragraphs and sentence structure to character, narration, scene, plot and themes. For a novice, a good writing guide should take you from enjoying texts as a reader, to understanding their structure and the tools and techniques used to build them as a writer. That’s an important shift, and one that will save years of trial and error in the learning process.

While there is a law of diminishing returns with writing guides – the more of them you read the more you find the same information repeated – the good ones, as with those I have chosen below, always reveal the unique wisdom of their authors.

61e3sUUoQ-LJames Woods : How Fiction Works

This is the writing guide I would most like to see read by all writers of genre fiction who disdain ‘literature’. James Woods is one of the world’s best literary critics, and Professor of Literary Criticism at Harvard. Fine credentials, in this case backed up by a slim but erudite volume on How Fiction Works which I would rate as the single best book for writers trying to achieve depth and complexity in their fiction. The worst writing guides replace craft with market knowledge. They tell the writer what will sell, which often means discouraging them from subtlety or complexity because these aren’t always valued in commercial fiction. For instance, it’s often taken as gospel by genre writers that a text’s narrative point-of-view stick to one character per scene or chapter. Unfortunately, while this makes life easier for weak readers, it also robs prose of one its great strengths, which is the ability to reflect the viewpoint of many characters even within the same sentence. Wood’s book has an excellent section on exactly this topic, as well as many other gems that will set straight any writer who spends more time considering the market than learning the craft.

41VqkRTiLSLUrsula LeGuin : Steering the Craft

I love this book so much that I regularly re-read it for pleasure. Ursula Le Guin is one of those writers I trust absolutely to say only wise and decent things, so any advice she gives on writing is instantaneously at the top of my To Be Read list. Being a genuine and good person is an underestimated skill for writers. If you aren’t, why would anyone choose to spend hundreds of hours hanging around in your imagination? Le Guin doesn’t explicitly share ideas on how to become as wise as she in this book, instead she focuses on the often neglected fundamentals of good fiction – voice & rhythm – but it’s always possible some of the wholesomeness might rub off just through continued exposure. There are also excellent writing exercises which I have come back to again and again.

Samuel R Delany : About Writing71Cqp1WC4mL._SL1500_

Have you ever had the experience of struggling for hours with a technical issue – maybe an intractable computer problem thats kept you up in to the wee hours – when in desperation you call in an expert who fixes it in about 18 seconds? That’s basically every other page of Delany’s hefty tome of collected writing advice. The small section on natural vs. dramatic narrative structure (Location, Action, Emotion…which most people present in reverse, thereby boring / confusing the reader) is worth the high price of this rare book in and of itself. But don’t let the fact that I’ve revealed it here stop you! There are many, many more wise words from one of the grandmasters of SF to glean from About Writing. Delany is also a vastly experienced writing teacher, so he spends some time talking about the very subtle differences that seperate a successful student who blooms as a writer from the many others who, however technically accomplished they become, just never grow as artists.

81gN21xfs-L._SL1500_Christopher Booker : The Seven Basic Plots

I have misgivings about recommending this, because it has almost as many crippling failings as it does magnificent strengths. Paramount among the failings are the hundreds of pages Booker – a social conservative – spends attempting to construct a revisionist history of modern literature as a victory of the Ego over the Self. However, Booker’s core argument that stories reflect our deepest psychological structures is a fascinating and also demonstrably true one. He isn’t the first to make it, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been much more significant in enlightening writers to this way of approaching story, but Booker does make an excellent critical analysis of and argument for his seven archetypal plot structures. If you want to write archetypal fiction in the heroic / high fantasy model then this is an essential read, and will very likely change forever how you approach that task. Just ignore everything Booker has to say about modern literature and you will be fine!

61uWN6QltsLGail Sher : One Continuous Mistake

The relationship between meditation and writing is one that has been explored quite widely from the 60’s onwards, when the counter culture brought many aspects of Eastern spiritual practice to the west. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is probably the most famous, but Gail Sher brings a sensitivity to the subject that makes One Continuous Mistake quite unique in its Zen-like precision. Writing is a task which requires intense insight in to our inner life, and precise mastery of the balance between the waking logical mind and unconscious dreaming imagination. Gail Sher provides a compassionate guide on how to strengthen both and hence strengthen your writing, using meditation exercises, and also through the longer term practice of your craft and creativity. For anyone who has been overly schooled in the ‘write 2000 words a day, sell a book a year, meet the demands of the market’ way of writing, this book might be just what you need to overcome those ego driven desires and get back to your true self as a writer.

A few I didn’t include and why: Story by Robert McKee because it’s great for screenwriting but can misguide prose writers. On Writing by Stephen King because, come on, you’ve read this right? Are there any other hidden gems of writerly craft I have negelected?

The Quest for Weird

Fellow seekers, I need your help as I seek the grail of great, original and independently-published fiction in ebooks and on the web.

People have been telling weird stories for as long as we’ve been huddling around fires attempting to keep the dark at bay. Our earliest stories overflow with the weird. The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, the heroic saga of Beowulf – all are rich with fantasy. Dante, Shakespeare, Milton: give the western literary canon a good shake and weird stories come tumbling out from every direction. And today the fantasy franchise dominates the popular imagination, with tales of boy wizards, magic rings and teenage vampire romances filling page and screen as far as the eye can see.

Read more @ Guardian books.

[View the story “The Quest for Weird” on Storify]

Check back for more updates every few days as the Quest for Weird progresses.

Upcoming Events *Eastercon Update*

As my winter hibernation comes to end I’m stumbling like an angry bear from my cave for a few events over the next few weeks. (Actually I’m quite a chirpy bear currently, so no fear for any of the events organisers involved!)

  • Saturday 29th March :  Talking at the Afterfutures event in London.
  • 6th – 9th April : EASTERCON! I’m on a couple of panels at this year’s British Science Fiction Association convention, including one on literary sci-fi and another on the nature of conscious (I’m the token non-materialist.) I sense intense debate in the near future…

***EASTERCON UPDATE***I’ll be on the two panels ‘What is I?’ and ‘Mainstream published SF&F”. I’m in friendly disagreement with the premise of both, so they should be lively discussions!

What is I? – Friday, 6pm
We all think we know who and what we are, but the more science delves into the nature of ‘I’ the more ‘I’ seems to disappear. Is consciousness just a figment of our brains, and if so, where does that leave us?

Mainstream published SF&F – Saturday, 1pm
It seems that more and more sf and fantasy is being published outside the genre. Is this an accurate perception, or has it always been there and we just notice it more today? What is the relationship between mainstream and genre – is mainstream science fiction and fantasy really categorically different to that published by genre imprints? What factors influence whether a title is published as mainstream or genre, and what affects whether a mainstream book is picked up by the genre community? If mainstream-published SF&F are on the increase, what does this mean for our perception of the field? Are more diverse authors published outside the genre imprints?

 

Typography
Typography (Photo credit: Auntie P)
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Writing Mind, Big Mind, Judging Mind

My friend Amy Sundberg talks about the Writing Mind, in response to Jeff VanderMeer’s missive that forcing your concentration to meet a fixed daily word count isn’t a universally good idea. Even when you aren’t writing, you can still be writing. The imagination is always busy, and sometimes it does its best work when we give it space and time. I know that for me a daily word count is not all that helpful. The words will come when they come. I might get other words to come, but the chances are that if I force it, they won’t be the words I need.

Amy’s idea of the Writing Mind reminds me of what zen buddhists call the Big Mind. Most of us, most of the time, live in our Small Mind. If you’re worried, stressed, anxious, uptight, angry, being needlessly aggressive or competitive, that’s your Small Mind doing what it thinks it needs to do to keep you alive. I say ‘what it thinks’ because when you look back at the sum total of time your Small Mind spends worrying about things, you can be fairly sure that 90% wasn’t worth worrying about, and the other 10% wasn’t improved by worrying about it anyway. Your small mind is about you. What you need. What you want. Your survival in this big bad world.

The Big Mind is all about We and all about Us. It understands that the world is made up of 7 billion interdependent human beings and that in anything but the short term acting selfishly for your own interests alone doesn’t get us very far. And because the Big Mind understands the interconnectedness of all things, it understands that there is really no need to worry. When you are relaxed, happy, calm, blissful, joyful and at peace, that is your Big Mind being in charge.

(If your internal voices are shouting ‘This is all nonsense! I have to look out for number one first and foremost!’, well…that’s your Small Mind talking.)

The other thing that your Big Mind does is create. Whether it’s a work of art, or an essay, or a business, anything humans create has to come from our Big Mind. Small Mind isn’t good at creating. Creativity is risky. That book might not sell. That essay might get a bad grade. The whole business might go bust. It’s better to do things that are routine. Where the outcome is assured. Keep the money coming in. Pay off that mortgage. Get that pension scheme built up. Don’t, whatever you do, decide to become a writer. If Small Mind has one ultimate commandment, that’s probably it.

A daily word count can be a way of dealing with Small Mind, by powering past it. But it can also be capitulation to the Small Mind. Because you are turning the creative act of writing in to a routine act that Small Mind can control. Get those two thousand words written. Sell a book a year. Earn enough from writing to…pay off that mortgage. Get that pension scheme built up. Not that you shouldn’t have these things. But the part of you that wants them isn’t often the part that creates anything splendid and beautiful.

AND A LITTLE BIT OF NEWS…

British Fantasy Society logo (circa 2008)
Image via Wikipedia

I’ll be exercising my Judging Mind as a judge for this years British Fantasy Awards. Which is…quite cool and exciting. I can already feel the power going to my head. If you are a member of the British Fantasy Society or attended / attending the 2011 / 2012 FantasyCon you can vote for the shortlist, from which we judges will be selecting winners. So go and vote, and give me some good stuff to read.

 

 

 

And a little bit more on Big Mind…

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