Tag Archives: Arts

Secondary World Problems

You know, those things which are only an issue if you happen to be the denizen of a world created in the imagination of a jobbing fantasy author. Or an ageing English academic. Or a frustrated fan trying to turn pro author. A secondary world always tells you more about the inside of the authors head than it does about the world itself.

The secondary world is a problematic construct. The term has become an accepted part of the dialogue around Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and it’s also been taken on by video gamers and game designers, perhaps because SF&F are so hardwired in to that new and still evolving media. But they really haven’t been examined seriously either by literary criticism or contemporary philosophy. They are in fact rejected out of hand, perhaps because, quite rightly, it is awakening humans from fantasy that is the goal of both literature and philosophy.  The cultural phenomenon of secondary worlds is more interesting than the secondary worlds themselves.

I think what might be fairly said about secondary worlds is that they have a tendency to generate terrible, terrible writing. The attempt to build a secondary world through the medium of prose fiction is doomed from the outset. Every step towards world-building is a step away from story telling, which is the heart of M. John Harrison’s now iconic complaint against the clomping foot of nerdism. Arguing about secondary worlds is more interesting than the secondary worlds themselves.

The primary world called reality is a kind of fantasy. We float through reality in the semi-dream state of day to day consciousness, absorbed in our thoughts and in the digital realities constructed on our computer screens. The real problem of secondary worlds, whether on the page or the screen, is that far from being an escape they are another layer to the trap you are already caught it. The sensation you feel when immersed in a secondary world isn’t the thrill of freedom, but the relaxation that comes with a capitulation. Escaping from secondary worlds is more interesting than escaping in to secondary worlds.

Fantastika can do more than that. By drawing you in deeper to the immersive experience of a secondary world fantasy, a great writer can also tempt you along the path to a kind of awakening. These fantasies are few and far between, but once you have experienced them you become suspicious of all those that want to lull you back to sleep.

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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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Micro Sci-Fi 2 : My eyes are dim, I can not see

A Google HUD journalist  auctions the eternal copyright to her feed for a Quora credit fortune but is replaced by a narrative AI generated from her lifetime experience.

Rules of Micro SF:

  • Tell a story in one sentence. It can be any length but must work grammatically and be reasonably well parsed by a reader.
  • Include at least two or more hyperlinks to current developments in science, technology or the humanities.
  • You may expand the stories meaning through the title, which is not part of the one sentence story.
  • Tweet me @damiengwalter and I’ll share your stories with others.
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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.

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.

Emotions when writing

Don’t underestimate or ignore the emotional and psychological challenge of writing. More writers are defeated in this arena than by lack of skill or imagination. Writing can be joyous and fun. But it can also be strenuous, isolating and, sometimes, downright scary.

Every piece of writing is a journey. Some longer or shorter than others. There are maps available, but you can trust them to be wrong as often they are right. It’s a journey you take on your own, across an unknown and often challenging landscape. Isolation brings its challenges.

Voices of doubt and dissent are liable to make themselves heard. Is this the right project? Are you good enough to write it? Will it ever get published? Are you wasting your time? Were all those people who tutted at the idea of writing, right? These are just a few of my personal favourites, every writer has their own versions.

The work itself slips and slides underneath you. One moment the structure and argument are clear in your head, the next all you have are a page full of apparently unconnected sentences and paragraphs. Frustration, anger and despair are all perfectly valid responses. Stop. Turn around. Go home. Or don’t. Only you can decide.

Their are practical issues to concern yourself with. If you’re investing the time needed to write anything worth a damn, especially on a full length book, its likely you aren’t spending enough time on work, friends, family. You might return from your journey to find one or all of them gone. Loneliness, shame and rejection loom like dark thunderheads on the horizon.

And that deep dark unconscious from which all great writing comes doesn’t give up its treasure without a fight. Even if all you’re after are a few colourful memories to set the scene, it will have a barrage of half-truths, unresolved conflicts and other neuroses to throw at you. Go looking for those powerful emotions like love, passion, fear and God help you with what you find. There are monsters on this journey, as scary as you can imagine.

Some writers stop all together when they encounter these emotions. Others avoid the really tough and most challenging emotional ground. Writing that is flat, predictable, generic, cliched and dull is often a consequence of sticking to easily travelled paths.

All you can do is be mindfull of the emotions that arise as you write. Oh look, frustration and anger again, I’ll let those pass and carry on. Horizon looks like bad weather, I’ll just rough it out. Monsters from the unconscious are blocking the path? CHARGE! And remember, if the destination is where your heart wants to be, the journey is always worth it.

Picking up the threads

As a writer, you have to trust that your work will get better each time you come back to it. Very few writing projects are started and finished in one sitting. Even a short story requires planning, writing, re-writing, editing. Novels can take months and years to go from flash of inspiration to final manuscript. Every time you sit down to write, you take time to bring together all the threads of your work in progress. When you stop to rest, they slip from your grasp again.  It can be hard not to fear that the work has unravelled without your attention. Even if it does you will soon weave it again in to something just as good, maybe even better.

If you are fortunate you will be able to return to your work in a few hours, or the next day. But for many of us writing happens around the commitments of life and work. You might return to your writing a day, a week, a month or sometimes even years later. So you have to trust that every time you come back to your work, it is better than when you left it. The ideas it is made of may have changed a little, or a lot, but the new ideas will be stronger, and closer to the spirit of what you are trying to express.

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