Tag Archives: short story

Writing and the attention economy

As a writer you are asking for the most valuable commodity your readers have. Time. Each of us gets a finite portion. No sum of money can buy us any more. And the demands on it are ever greater.

The novel evolved at a period in history when the constituency of its readers had much more time to waste. Karl Marx would dub them the ‘bourgeoisie’, the section of society who owned the means of production, so profited vastly from industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. The middle and upper classes had time on their hands and little to do with it. The novel became one of the most popular ways of being idle.

“many writers still behave as though their product was scarce and the time of readers unlimited”

The bourgeoisie no longer exists in quite the same way, and it and the proletariat both have innumerable ways of occupying whatever free time is left from work. Yes, there are dozens of forms of entertainment. Films, music, games, sports. But there are also more and more ways for people to invest their time in improving themselves. Is your book really going to compete with the vast range of information available to me for free on Wikipedia? Or the infinite social networks accessible through Facebook and Twitter?

Information of all kinds is becoming a post-scarce resource. While the time it takes to absorb information becomes scarcer and scarcer. And yet many writers still behave as though their product was scarce and the time of readers unlimited. Writing two novels, four novellas and ten short stories a year is great productivity. But completely counter-productive in an attention economy. Because if I read one story by you and it’s any less than excellent, I’m very unlikely to read another. Your first novel is very important to you, but as a commodity in the attention economy its almost certainly worth less than the value of my time to read it. Which is why the vast majority of material written and published every day on the internet disappears without a trace.

The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote, “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” As a writer working in the attention economy you should take Pascal’s remark as the first rule of your professional life. Take the time to write a short letter to the world. Churning out fiction can give you the comforting illusion of progress. No doubt you’ll find one market or other to publish it. But think about the writing you really love and value enough to come back to again and again. How long do the best authors take to create their work? Why should you aim to be anything less than the best?

How to work with theory without snuffing out your creative spark

I spent much of the last weekend live-tweeting from Weird Council, an academic convention on the writing of China Mieville. Many clever people were in attendance, many clever things were said. I only understood about half of them but felt quite good about getting that much. As a good friend of mine says, if more than four other experts in the world understand what you are saying you are not a real academic.

Throughout the day I saw occasional tweets from writers wondering how all these complicated theories about literature combined with the actual act of creative writing. And I believe that is a perfectly valid concern. Most writers recognise that it isn’t the intellectual bit of their brain that writes a great novel or short story. That comes from an imaginative spark. And anyone who writes knows that too much intellectualising can snuff that spark right out.

But nonetheless, all that theory stuff can actually be pretty useful. Science Fiction is sometimes called a conversation. The ideas that writers have developed over the decades are contributions to that conversation. If you don’t know what’s been said before, you risk being the chap walking in to the middle of a discussion and saying what everyone else already said an hour ago. Theory can help bring you up to date with where that conversation is. And this isn’t just true of SF but for any form of creative expression. And theory can also help to spark fantastic and original ideas, if you learn to use it without letting it use you.

When you engage with theory as an artist, you have to resist the powerful temptation to try and be right. Theory often presents itself as an argument, and demands that you take a side. It’s the job of the academic to have that argument, because from the dialectical process of two or more opposing positions debating, new knowledge can be discovered and tested. But that process can be death to the artist. Be curious, ask questions. Enjoy the novel ideas theory can offer. But don’t take a side. Don’t get sucked in to the argument. And don’t try and be right.

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The answer to a riddle

Last year I wrote a short story called A Vast Bit of Hod, which I published to my blog here. As I mentioned at the time, the story is also a riddle. I have congratulated half a dozen people who emailed me the answer. This evening James Everington tweeted me to ask:

btw, when are you going to post the ‘answer’ to the “Vast Bit of Hod” story? It’s been bugging me ever since (in a good way)

Which I have been meaning to do for sometime. So.

Harold, the central character in A Vast Bit of Hod, is completing a crossword when we meet him, behind the counter in the weird antique / collectibles store where the story takes place. The crossword clue is the title of the story. If you aren’t good at anagrams, here is an anagram server to help you. We’ll come back to what the anagram is momentarily.

A Vast Bit of Hod began life when my friend Dana, fellow Clarion writers’ workshop graduate, sent out an email challenge to write a story about a shop that sells lives. Because I’m working on novel length things, I hadn’t written a short story for a time, but this challenge brought an idea to mind that I couldn’t resist. Our Clarion tutor Neil Gaiman says that novels are like a long journey, whereas short stories are like seeing a tree and deciding to climb up it. So I decided to climb this tree.

For three years now I have been studying Buddhism. I enjoy it from an intellectual perspective, and I’ve found the insight meditation techniques it teaches tremendously helpful. Two linked ideas in Buddhism are karma and reincarnation. These are both hard ideas to grasp from a rational perspective. There is no evidence of any mechanism in nature to make ‘what goes around come around’, and very few people I know believe they will come back to life as a goat, or even an Emperor. But as myths they point towards the idea that our behaviour defines our life, an idea I do believe.

So in my shop customers enter to select the new lives which they will incarnate within after when they are reborn. They deposit their old lives in the form of an object which they hand to the shop keeper, and select a new object which symbolises their new life. I’m afraid I’m not very complimentary about the lives many of us choose. In particular I heap a little scorn on the fantasy lives we escape in to, while our actual lives decay around us. For a writer of fantasy, I’m oddly ambivalent about the role of fantasy in our lives.

A Vast Bit of Hod is an anagram for (excluding the ‘of’) Bodhisattva. This is the Buddhist term for, depending on your translation, either humans well on the path to enlightenment, or those who are enlightened but choose to live in the world and help others reach enlightenment. Harold is a little bit of both.  He isn’t exactly kind to Anthony, but he does what needs to be done to help the young man move from one life to the next. At the end of the story, Harold is left holding a simple wooden bowl, the traditional begging bowl that is the only possession of Buddhist monks who have renounced all worldly things. Harold has another lifetime or two of suffering before he is ready for nirvana. But first he fancies another biscuit…

You can read A Vast Bit of Hod here.

Good curation is much more valuable than cash

A good friend has just sold a debut story to an excellent but non-paying market. There are a lot of markets for short fiction. Many of them are bad. Some of them pay. Some of the ones that pay the most are the worst. In the world of short fiction money is a very bad way of assessing quality.

There is a popular myth that back in the good old days writers could make a living from short fiction. It’s a myth continued in the idea of the ‘pro-rate’ of pay for short fiction. 5 cents a word can add up to a nice little bonus payment, but it’s only professional money if you are living in the 1920s. And only then if you lived on beans and fresh air.  The only reason the ‘pro-rate’ matters at all is because it gives at least some indication that the publisher is committed enough to invest a little cash in their enterprise.

The only real measure of a short fiction market is the quality of its curation. As readers we rely on editors to curate the best material to suit our interests. That is why the average start-up fiction magazine that publishes thirty stories lacks any value, while the excellent Clarkesworld which publishes just two stories a month has become the top market in short SF. As writers, publication in an excellently curated market is one of the best indications that you work has achieved quality.

Writing fiction is not a manufacturing process. Success is not a product of your Rate of Productivity x Stories Published x Cents per Word. A dozen stories in a dozen ‘pro-rate’ markets can mean less than one story, in one well curated market which puts it in front of the right eye-balls.

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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Rings Extract

UPDATE: This extract from My Love Sick Zombie Boy Band was posted when the story was still being drafted under its working title of Rings. But this secene remained through to the final draft (largely) intact.


Rings grew out of lots of thinking I’ve been doing about magic in urban settings, and the specific image of a girl who collects rings. What she does with those rings got darker and darker as the story progressed, but strangely the character of Amalfrida became more and more sympathetic, at least for me. I think this might be one of a whole set of stories about Amlfrida’s strange, strange family. This is an extract, I’m afraid if you want tor ead the whole thing you will have to petition someone to publish it. Its currently on the slush pile at Realms of Fantasy.


I am not a goth. Being goth is like being pregnant; best aborted at the first opportunity. I thought I was a goth for precisely one week after my thirteenth birthday, then I actually met a goth and that, as they say, was that. A goth is just a model B drone, as much a product of the cultural cookie cutter as any peroxide blonde bimbo. Goths are a shadow of a shadow. I am the shape from which the shadow is cast. Or so says my father.

‘Hey, nice goth outfit.’

I look down at my plain black tee, black skirt, black leggings and black boots. Yes, they are Doc Martins. Then I look up at the boy and manufacture an edged smile.

‘I am not a goth.’

‘Oh.’ Dumb pause. ‘Right.’ Idiotic hesitation. ‘Sorry.’ How do boys get away with being so stupid?

I have accidentally strayed in to the guitar shop. A dozen adolescent males are staring at me as though I am the final representative of an otherwise extinct species. There are important philosophical reasons why girls do not come in here. Why have I violated them?

‘Hub’ The boy sticks a hand out for me to shake.

Hub is the bearer of the tuffty blue hair that has drawn me unwilling into this hellhole of masculine posturing. I saw it from outside and just couldn’t resist scouting out the owner.
He has the typical loser chic of a young man with a fine future in stock replenishment. And what kind of name is that?

‘What kind of name is that?’

‘Oh right, yeah. Hubert. My parents didn’t like me.’

‘Mine don’t like me either.’

‘What did they call you then?’

‘Amalfrida.’ This is unprecedented. I never tell people my name.

‘Oh right, yeah. What does that mean?’

‘How should I know!’ I snap. He looks suddenly crestfallen and despite myself I feel guilty.

‘Look, mostly people call me Fred.’

‘Oh right, yeah. Fred.’

‘You say that a lot.’


‘Oh right, yeah.’ I parrot in my best dork impression.

‘Oh right, yeah.’ There is a pause and then we both burst out laughing. This carries on long enough that people start to stare.

‘My name.’ I say once things have gone quiet and we are just looking at each other. ‘It’s traditional. Gothic.’

‘I thought you said you weren’t a goth?’

‘Not goth. Gothic. My family. They’re like ostrogoths? Going way back to the old country.’

‘Old country?’

‘You really do ask a lot of questions.’

‘Oh…wow. Um. So do you play guitar?’

I play clarinet and flute at grade eight, write musical notation as fluently as I read it and composed my first cantata at the age of nine but am forced to admit that no, I do not play six string guitar.

‘I know four chords.’ The moron tells me proudly.

His blue tufts have been waxed into unruly spikes, stiff like the blood crusted mane of a tribal warrior. I can’t help finding it cute.

‘So what brings you in here?’

I am utterly appalled to find my heart beat quickening as I consider my reply. I do not get nervous about boys!

‘Giving you the chance to ask me out.’

No sooner have the words left my mouth than the colour leaves his face and for a moment he looks like he might have just peed himself. What fun! To his credit he recovers his composure with a smile.

‘Where should I ask you out to?’

‘Dunno. What you doing now?’

‘Dunno. Nothing.’

‘Then ask me if I want a latte.’

‘Right. Do you want a latte?’

‘I’d love one.’

It turns out Hub is allergic to coffee. And milk. So he has lemon tea, then we end up just floating around the shops like ghosts, talking relentlessly about nothing at all. How we end up starring into the glass display cases I do not know.

I recognise the ring instantly, although I have never glimpsed it before. It is a circle of hand forged silver, twisted at its crown into the curved cross of the ankh. The tip of one finger presses against the glass, like the flickering snake of a tongue tasting the essence of desire.

‘Do you want it?’

‘No’ I lie.

He looks at me confused. Am I really that obvious? I suppose he thinks am not able to afford it or some such.

‘Hey its OK, I’ll get it for you. How much is it?’

The trader is a Pole. I know him. He can’t recognise me, if he did he would cut his own throat before even considering selling this thing to a daughter of my fathers family.

‘I don’t want it. I don’t want you to give it to me.’

‘But it goes with all your others. I have to get it for you. No big thing, right?’

‘Everything is a big thing.’

I turn and walk away, weaving through the sudden crowds that surround us.

‘Hey!’ He grabs for my arm.

‘Don’t touch me!.’

I turn sharply and slap him across the face, hard. I don’t know who is more shocked, him or me. And then I bolt, running as fast as I can. I will not see him again.