Tag Archives: kelly link

Oh please GOD no STOP writing! (so much)

There’s a terrible meme emerging from the internet writing community. It arises from good intentions and common sense, and like most examples of common sense applied to complex situations it is utterly, utterly wrong.

You can see this meme at work in the debate around publishing a book a year following Steph Swainston‘s retirement from fiction. You can see it Chuck Wendig’s (who I agree with more often than not) recent musings Write More, Word Slave. You can see it in the 50,000 word a month culture of NaNoWriMo. And you can see it in the commonly held wisdom that if, as a writer, you can just get your name out there in front of readers enough, you will eventually achieve fame and fortune.

You won’t. Well, you might. But it won’t be because readers have seen your name so often that they just give up and declare you a genius. It will be because somewhere in that torrent of words you’ve poured out in to the world, some of them were good enough to really stand out.

If you had only put those words in to the world, you would have done even better. Many writers seem determined to become their own worst source of signal interference on the channel between their work and those people who might be interested in their work.

The Entertainment Machine

Part of the problem here seems to be the belief that writers are part of the entertainment industry. That a writers product should be as uniform and regular as eight seasons of Star Trek : the Next Generation. I have a soft spot in my heart for Star Trek, I do. But if I want easily digested mind fodder then the TV is right there to give it to me. From books and the writers who write them I want insight…into life, society, the world, the universe. Writers are as much part of entertainment industry as doctors are part of the pharmaceutical industry. The latter’s job is to make product from which they make money. The former’s job is to heal people.

Protestant Work Ethic

Many of us work in places where the prevailing belief is that if you turn up from 9 to 5, do all the things you are told to do and do them well, you will prosper and may eventually get a promotion. These places are called factories, whether they are producing car parts or processing data of one kind or another, many work places are still factories. But writers are not factory workers. The rules of the protestant work ethic don’t apply to writing. You don’t get rewarded for producing x number of words, or x number of novels. Your job is to make things that are unique, wise, truthful and inspiring. That’s why you’re an artist, not a labourer.

Update Your Marketing Savvy

We’ve all grown up in a world where marketing was a thing done to the masses. You turned on your favourite TV programme and it was interrupted every 10 minutes by a mega corporation with a message designed to make you feel insufficient so you would buy their product. With enough people watching, and enough money spent buying ad space, the products sold. This approach has never worked for writers. It doesn’t work so well for Mars and Coca-Cola any more. Writers who try and flood the market with a book a year, or four books a year, or a short story a month, or a short story a day, or eight short stories a minute, or whatever, are attempting to apply the dynamics of mass marketing to a niche audience. It’s absurd and counter productive.

The Need to Make a Living

Stop trying to make a living from writing. You may as well try to make a living as spiritual leader or political revolutionary. People do make a living at these things, but it’s rarely their first priority. They’re trying to change the world, hopefully, for the better. It isn’t every writers job to change the world, but you should be trying to effect the people you are writing for. I don’t read Haruki Murakami, or Neil Gaiman, or Ursula Le Guin, or Stephen King, or M John Harrison, or Mary Renault, or Kelly Link, or any of the writers I love, because I feel the need to contribute to their bank balance. I read them because they show me the world in new and wiser ways. I’m sure you read your most loved authors for the same reason. Write something true and wise and brilliant. Making a living will look after itself.

Genre needs to stop applauding crap, and respect its best writers

Sarah Crown has started a fascinating discussion on the resurgence of fabulism in literary fiction over on The Guardian book blog, brought on by Tea Obreht’s surprise win in the Orange prize.

I didn’t need to read the comments to know there would be at least half a dozen from irate members of fantasy fandom, complaining that we in the world of genre have been writing such novels for rather a long time. And of course it’s a valid point. There are writers within genre producing amazing examples of fabulism of exactly the kind highlighted as emerging within Lit.Fic by the article. One or two are tremendously famous, like Neil Gaiman. Many more are less known but equally good – John Crowley, Kelly Link, Nalo Hopkinson, Elizabeth Hand – to give just a few examples.

(I’m looking through my copy of Conjunction 39: The New Wave Fabulists as I write. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a starting point to understanding fantasy and fabulism.)

Sturgeons Law predicts that 70% (or 80% or 90%, depending on the version) of everything is crap. It’s a law that stands for all kinds of writing, Lit.Fic, SF or otherwise. And genre produces its measure of crap, no doubt. Some of that crap is just bad writing by bad writers. Some of it is writing that does one thing well – explores a niffty scientific concept or creates a cool new monster – but fails in most other ways as fiction.

And some of that crap is very popular. Some of the crappest books in genre are some of the most popular. They may well be fun crap, or effectively escapist crap, or crap branded with the latest sci-fi franchise, but they are still crap. Crap sells.

But if genre wants to gain the respect it deserves in the world at large, we need to get better at telling the world who our best and brightest are. We need our major awards like the Hugo’s and Nebula’s to really reflect the best writing, not just the most popular writers. We need more reviews and criticism that talk seriously about our best books. And most of all we need to vote with our feet. The next time you’re browsing the Sci-Fi section, skip volume 33 of whatever entertaining saga you happen to be reading and pick up something less crap instead.

Because genre is not a cohesive entity. It’s a few million fans of the weird and speculative and the writers we love. But if we want the best of those writers to get the respect they deserve then we, each of us as individuals, need to make that happen.

New women’s worlds in fantasy fiction

Continuing the slow progress of archiving my pieces from The Guardian. It’s interesting to think that three years on from this piece, women writers now seem (to me at least) stronger than ever in all the genres of speculative fiction. I hope it’s a trend that continues. It’s also interesting for me to see how my own understanding of SF and Fantasy has developed over the same period. I hope that continues as well!

Originally published on 14th February 2008 on Guardian.co.uk.

Once thought to be a primarily male genre, women writers are expanding its frontiers in the 21st century.

The Secret History of Moscow, the new novel from Ekaterina Sedia is garnering widespread acclaim from readers of contemporary fantasy, and comparisons to some of the genre’s most respected writers, including Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint. It also marks Sedia out as one of a number of women writers pushing the boundaries of fantasy writing.

Of course, women writers are nothing new in fantasy or even science fiction. Ursula K Le Guin’s work has long been one of the benchmarks by which others are judged. Alice Sheldon (better known as James Tiptree Jr) may have felt it necessary to adopt a pseudonym to penetrate the notoriously male-dominated arena of “hard” sci-fi before producing some of that genre’s best short fiction, but writers such as Connie Willis and Nancy Kress have proved that even among the rockets’n’rayguns brigade, women have achieved a level of equality. And in recent years, women have been at the forefront of an emerging brand of contemporary fantasy, very different from the mainstream epics of Goodkind, Feist or Jordan that many readers will associate with the genre.

Sedia’s novel is emblematic of much that is good about contemporary fantasy. It unites a classy prose style evolved through a string of small press publications with first-hand experience of a 90s Moscow crippled by post-Soviet economic decline. The story is infused with the tropes and traditions of fantasy, but set amid the grim reality of that decade’s turbulent politics. Sedia’s writing is a perfect example of the unique ways fantasy allows writers to examine reality.

A number of other, similarly distinctive voices are also refreshing the genre. One of the most influential writers of contemporary fantasy to emerge in recent years is Kelly Link. In just two collections, Link has shown herself to be among this decade’s most talented writers of short fiction, regardless of genre. Switching effortlessly between fantasy, horror, fairy-tale and literary fiction, her stories feature an odd assortment of young, marginalised characters who are often themselves obsessed with fantasy and fiction in its many manifestations, reflecting a readership as likely to quote Jacques Derrida as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Taking a different but equally striking approach to the fantasy genre, the wonderfully monikered Catherynne M Valente has characterised her own work as “mythpunk” (adapting the “cyberpunk” tag which has also spawned “steampunk”, “splatterpunk” and the wonderful “monkpunk”). Valente has built a reputation for retellings of myth and fairytale in contemporary settings, distinguished by their intense, almost obsessive approach to the crafting of words and language. In a genre where transparent prose is king, Valente’s opaque approach is both refreshing and confrontational, challenging the genre to wonder when it became so afraid of words.

Marly Youmans‘ work is rooted in American history, starting with historical novels such as Catherwood and The Wolf Pit, then evolving into the fantasy world of Adantis and her best known novel to date, Ingledove. Writing for the young adult audience, Youmans’ novels follow in the tradition of figures such as Diana Wynne Jones and Jane Yolen; fantasy for children that adroitly dissects adult reality.

And these women are far from alone. In recent years a host of fascinating (and fascinatingly named) women writers including Theodora GossCat RamboErzebet YellowBoy (yes, real names all) and most recently Rachel Swirsky have risen to prominence as writers of distinctive, contemporary fantasy.

Underlying the emergence of these writers is a flourishing small press scene that in recent years has rejuvenated contemporary fantasy. Small Beer Press, through which Link self-published her short fiction collections (the second of which, Magic for Beginners, was later picked up by Harper Perennial) continues to put forward new talent in the influential fanzine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Both Ekaterina Sedia and Catherynne M Valente’s work has been championed by Prime Books, which has quickly become the leading publisher of contemporary fantasy with a literary edge. And Marly Youmans’ latest work will emerge later this year from PS Publishing, the UK’s leading genre small press. These publishers and many others have established a market for contemporary fantasy that transgresses the boundaries of the genre by serving an audience that mainstream publishers seem to have abandoned. May the writers they champion go from strength to strength.

Too many ideas..ah..ah..stop them!

Kelly Link continues her blog tour around the paperback release of Pretty Monsters with a post about ideas, where they come from and why we have them. (Kind of.)

(Kelly was our Week One instructor at Clarion ’08. She is a brilliant writer, an evil Mafia player and I can’t think of her without thinking of Micha.)

(Oh…it is also approaching two years since Clarion. Wow. I will write something about this.)

Kelly’s list of things she likes in other peoples fiction (The list starting with theme parks, cults etc etc) is a wondrous idea. I love it, but I also fear it, as I fear all forms of random idea generator. I’m one of those writers who lives with such an unending stream of ideas that it becomes a burden. I can barely start working on one idea before another one comes along. I write brief fragments of them then add them to my big ideas file. I can barely begin work on one idea before another one arrives to distract my minuscule attention span.

(I explained my minuscule attention span to Kelly in our 1-2-1 meeting. She nodded and agreed that yes, that was a problem for a writer.)

Kelly’s story are like amazing cakes. The kind of cake you get when a life long lover of cakes has a long think about all the things they love about cake, and then makes a cake that brings together the best qualities of cakiness from many different recipes in previously undreamt of combinations. Like my favourite of her stories,  The Hortlak, which combines unrequited love, all night convenience stores and (I think) Egyptian mythology. The story is more than the sum of its parts, but the parts are pretty good as well.

So I am going to get over my fear of things that give me even more ideas, and give Kelly’s technique a go. I’ll report back on the results. Maybe.

And in case you have not heard…

There is something wrong with the sun. My my, puts that global recession in perspective, doesn’t it just?

John Gray may be an early precursor of ‘serious’ intellectuals jumping on the SF bandwagon, like teenage girls in the grip of Mieville Mania.

To self publish or to not

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about self publishing recently. I’ve been considering two projects that might be described as self publishing. And I’ve been looking at how self publishing fits into my professional life as a literature development worker. And I’ve just been following a thread incited by a Facebook status update from Mary Robinette Kowal on the brutal existence of self published authors at conventions. Basically, I think its time I put some of this into words.

Continue reading To self publish or to not

Brokeback Tales

It being late Sunday evening, I want to throw a question out into the void and see what comes back.

Geoff Ryman often rolled out the term ‘broken backed’ when he was teaching at Clarion. Geoff meant it not as a general term for a bad story, but as a specific term for a good story with something very wrong with it. Thats an interesting line to draw. A bad story is a bad story. But a good story, even with major flaws, is a thing of interest. So what to do about the broken backed story?

In my thinking a broken backed story is one where the writers imagination outstrips their skill. You are hit with inspiration for a truly original / inspiring story but your skill with the pen isn’t enough to express it in words. But that doesn’t quite work. Anyone who has sat down to write their Tolkienesque epic fantasy and failed is discovering how easy it is to imagine more than you can realise.

Another thought we all took away from Clarion, thanks to first Kelly Link then Mary Anne Mohanraj, was that there are many good stories in the world, but only a handful of great ones. Anyone can learn to produce a good story, but the thing every writer struggles with is stepping up into greatness. Stories are both complex and illogical, they are mechanisms with many moving parts, driven at their heart by a kind of magic none of us really understand. You can think you have all the parts mastered, only to find the magic is not there. Even the greatest writers only get the alchemy write some of the time.

Broken backed stories are the ones where writers are striving to get all the parts running smoothly and the magic blazing as well. They are like insane science experiments mixed with wild sorcery, Frankenstein’s monsters colliding with dancing mops to the music of Fantasia. They do not work. They are off kilter, out of joint, fucked up beyond all reason. Monsters that we keep looked in our trunks or exhiled to unused areas of hard drive.

Which leads me to my question. What should we do with them? Keep them locked away? Put them out of their misery? We might say ‘rewrite them and make them whole’. But what if we can’t? What if they can never be fixed? And what if fixing them means losing the mysterious spark that might have made them great?  Isn’t a great story always a little broken backed? I think most of my favourite stories are in one way or another.

Maybe we need some kind of home for the broken backed that will never be whole.  A Freakshow of Brokeback Tales. Hmmmm…I think I smell an anthology brewing!

Clarion: Graduating Class of 2008

So today I graduated Clarion.


It has been a long, hard six weeks. So long. So hard.

They don’t tell you how much hard work Claron is going to be when they let you in. I heard the words ‘Bootcamp for writers’ and thought..pfaff…all day every day to just read and write stories. Eeezy peezy. OMFG was I wrong. For any prospective Clarionites reading this and thinking about applying, be aware of what you are getting yourself into.

And then get into it.

Clarion has been, without a doubt, among the most intense experiences of my life. It has stretched me on every level – intellectualy, psychologicaly, artisticaly and not least nutritionaly. I’m going to make some detailed posts reflecting on the experience over the next few weeks when I have some distance to view it objectively. Until then then I just want to say a HUGE CONGRATULATIONS to the eighteen graduating students and an even BIGGER THANKS to Kelly, Jim, Mary-Anne, Neil, Geoff and Nalo who guided us through.

Kelly’s Crows

Today I finished two weeks at Clarion. It feels like much longer. There is a consensus that one week of Clarion world time is about three weeks of real world time (or should that be the other way around?). One of my fellow clarionites has observed that we are living in strange environment. The weather is the same every day. There are lizards and rabbits and crows leaping all over the UCSD campus, and eucalyptus trees everywhere with flaky bark that looks like skin. Its possible that the crows have been sent to watch over us, and conceivable that we are all living in a Kelly Link story (in which case dear reader, please don’t stop!)

Clarion is very hard work. You critique all morning. You write all day. You read all night. Sleep is scarce, but deep. Like intense, structured exercise, this kind of exertion has the effect of stretching the muscles being exercised. I can feel myself arriving at new revelations about story writing everyday. The combination of hours of writing, reading and deconstructing up to 20k words of story every day, discussing those stories, talking almost non-stop about story and being around one very skilled professional writer after another is filtering so many concepts into my head that I will still be processing all the details years after Clarion has finished.

Last weeks story, ‘Ocean Beach’ got all the experiences I’ve been absorbing from California and San Diego out of my system.  Its very far from finished, but I’m really happy about the ideas I developed in the story, and its likely to be first on my list to complete when I get back. I hope I don’t lose the thread of it when Kalifornia is no longer looming all around me, being weird in ways that I think only this strange environment can be.  I did a flash piece last week as well called ‘String Music’ which I will polish and submit when I have a spare few hours. This week I’m working on a high fantasy story, complete with Elves and magic rings. Its going v.well and is a good change of pace and style as the other pieces were very dense, this is much more exciting. I’m not expecting to walk away from my six weeks here with any finished drafts, but do want to generate as much material and absorb as many insights into the craft as possible.

Aber Reads

The locals call Aberystwyth, the almost capital of Wales, simply Aber. It makes sense, its a mouthfull of constanants.

Its an odd almost capital. Twelve thousands residents, seven thousands students. Some tourists and caravan parks. More than a few hippies and a sprinkling of writers, if you can seperate the two. I like it. I want to move.

My second trip to Aber and I wanted to get some reading done. Its a town that suits fantasy. High cliffs. Long grey beaches. Sea gulls the size of labradors. I took some books with me but was also lured in by the Waterstones 3 for 2. A mistake.

The Merlin Codex is one of those sophisticated fantasy novels I’ve been meaning to read. I keep picking it up off the book shelf the putting it back. I’ve read the prologue six or seven times so this week I read the rest. Its very evocative. Intense prose. Packed with dark imigiary. But where are the characters? Merlin, Jason, Medea and other figures from the Greek / Celtic mythic melange author Robert Holdstock mixes are there, but in name only. Perhaps its the fantasy iotself that overweighs the chracters, but facinating as the book was I couldn’t really get absorbed into it. Maybe it was just me.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss wasn’t me. This book seems to fulfill all the worst accusations levelled at fantasy blockbusters. Perhaps that isn’t entirely fair. Rothfuss is trying to write the kid of gritty, low fantasy that George R R Martin has popularised. Writers like Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch and many more have followed down this path, none very successfully IMHO. These books are very, very ambitious. Dozens of lead characters with hundreds more in support. Numerous intertwining plotlines. Massive themes unfolding accross a vast imagined world. It takes a massive amounts of skill and craft to write this kind of books, and with the exception of Martin, few of the writers attempting it are good enough. The Name of the Wind typifies this for me. It has grand ambition but the basics of good storytelling and character bulding are’t there.Thats a great disappointment because I really want a book to get lost in, but The Name of the Winde surely is not it.

My Clarion reading continued with Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman and Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link. Interesting to read these two short story collections intertwined with each other. there are a lot of commonalities. Gaiman’s writing is more diverse, whilst links has the edge in intensity. I could sit and read the Gaiman collection straight through, but Link’s is more a thing to read over time.  I also read through some more James Patrick Kelly, which reminded me that I wat to catch up with some more hard-SF. Its two weeks to Clarion now. I’m excited in ways I can’t express.