Category Archives: writing

Writing in a time of heinous fuckery®

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“Heinous fuckery” is not my description, I say with great regret. It belongs to @ChuckWendig, who is wondering how to keep writing while being in the middle of it. He’s not the only one. Kameron Hurley says here

Ongoing national horrors can’t be unplugged, but we go on

They are saying, from inside Trump’s America, that there is no end in sight, this is how it is, and how do you write when you have to respond to what’s happening around you? If we’re writers, we respond in a particular way, but we’ve got empathy hardwired as part of the package. Readers escape into the worlds writers create, the bugger is that the writers can’t.

We’ll come to John Scalzi later, because @scalzi has got the answer. It involves leopards, hope you’re not frightened by leopards. If you’ve not been scared shitless by an orange pre-sentient smear with his little fingers on the button, a spotty predator with massively powerful haunches and little, neat ears, isn’t going to bother you so much.

What do we do about this?

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Classic British understatement which covers the reality of carrying on writing in the middle of the fuckery. To start with, we used our words to fight the horrors, words passionate with feeling, honed with sarcasm, every bloody trick in the book, designed to take down a vulgar, ignorant, racist online. There was a peevish reaction amongst the online fanbases unused to finding politics clogging up the source of their stories and storytellers. The authors sighed, interspersed the political with pictures of cats, sunsets, heirloom apples (Thanks, Chuck), even tried getting a book or two out there.

But the thing is, this is the thing writers do.

Writers have always been the ones weaving patterns out of everyday life with words, whether dealing directly with the facts as journalists, or a metaphorical version as writers of fiction. Getting better at the words is time, hard work, getting less shit at it. But writers, despite looking like everyone else, have an alien digestive process when it comes to reality. Most human beings respond to what is going on outside their own heads by (a) fighting it (b) achieving an amicable relationship with all but the really crappy parts over time and (c) pretending it isn’t there. Writers are not only on this headmessing spectrum but hardwired to empathise with the world around them, like the lettering in seaside rock. A writer is no more able to cut off an empathy with the world around us, than seaside rock can deny the existence of Scarborough.

A writer digests the raw stuff of life and produces story, which is life rewoven to show the warp, the weft, the pattern, the meaning, if we’re getting up ourselves. Human beings need to know what it’s all about, which explains why, in every cave, there was a storyteller, usually accompanied by someone waving a club around to convey the importance of narrative in case they were thinking of dragging her out to hunt mammoths. The storytellers were too busy making up stories about hunting to go out and bring the mammoths down, but the clan needed both. Still needs both action and the words that explain the action.

You ask, what about the leopards? Be calm, we’ve come to the leopards.

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The storytellers have always been hardwired for empathy, and retained a sort of sanity by a digestive process that finds the pattern in the best and worst of circumstances and turns it into something that explains it. The old, primitive threats posed by leopards find new horrors which, forgive me, I will not list because there are too many and we have the means, with words, in the right order, to fight.

I think we need to keep our words, our best words, for our writing, for telling the stories that make sense of the heinous fuckery. Creativity is a storyteller, not the hunter of mammoths; when the primitive instinct to fight kicks in, on Twitter or any else, I think we have to go back to a unique way of responding and focus on that.

And now, I’ll probably return to Twitter and join a rant about Trump.

I’m saying what we should do, not what I necessarily do.

 

 

 

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The Naked Author 1: This Census Taker

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Francis Spufford’s review of This Census Taker in The Guardian, heads the “stoic bleakness” in the novel with a choice of author photograph designed to bring out the same qualities. The familiar image of China Miéville: tats, muscles, shorn head, undisputed winner of any imaginary fight with pretty well any living male author of his size and weight you could name, is spot on. Having encountered him, on the other side of a book signing table, courteously and briefly explaining the meaning of “perichoresis,” the image remains, translated permanently into a muscular imagination of mindnumbing flexibility that nobody with any sense would think of arguing with.

What struck me about This Census Taker, however, was a glimpse of the naked author. I’m interested in the idea of the naked author; this for me is where something appears in the story that remains unresolved. Why China Miéville and why this novella? Because Miéville’s ability to hew out new genres by virtue of an imagination you could break rocks with proves the unresolved feeling at the core of This Census Taker is nothing to do with an inability to tell the story.

That is in not in any way to suggest the imagination isn’t still on rock-breaking form. It is another extraordinary experience of a world both familiar and then – not. Headlong as the boy running down the hill screaming in the opening paragraph, the tense shifts, POV breaks, swoops, returns, little animals dislodged from their genres scuttle ahead. The ride has started. Now keep your hands inside the car!

” I shouted, ‘My mother killed my father!’ “

This, said at the end of the opening section, is not fixed or certain; it soon becomes apparent that this is the complete opposite to what he thinks has happened, and we have no way of knowing, by the end of the book, whether that has happened or not.

Miéville’s fiction, any reading of his sparse non-fiction political standpoints confirms, has no more authorial authority than a ride operator sending you, strapped into immobility, on your way. Miéville does not establish his authority by being Miéville but by his skill as an author. Which is why I think we see a glimpse of the naked author in a story which leaves uncertainty at its heart. After all, we are not in the hands of the ‘unreliable narrator’ of less ambitious storytellers as the reveal on the boy emerges early. He is unreliable by virtue of being a boy, and the unsettling shifts in his age, while including the adult, never give us the simple resolution of adulthood or a simple rite-of-passage tale. He achieves authority and adulthood but we have no more sense of what the authority is based on than we know what his father’s skilled craftsmanship of keys to unlock impossible secrets, consists of. The craftmanship of Miéville’s world-building in this novel, in primitive retreat from some apocalyptic state to urban fable, the glimpses of the fully-fledged worlds of his other novels, are like one of the keys. We are handed a key crafted with enormous ingenuity, but it doesn’t unlock the story.

The only reason, for me, why a writer of Miéville’s imaginative muscle would not give us the key to this world, is that we are not supposed to have it. This Census Taker is crafted with great skill to leave us, regular readers and committed apprentices of that skill alike, with something beyond solving. The confusion of the boy, left by one parent in a way that throws doubt on the other is left vividly unresolved. He finds stability as a census-taker;  but whether or not he is this census taker, the authority of a “census taker” in this post-apocalyptic world is unclear.

Like the hole in the hill that receives the dismembered animal bodies of his father’s unexplained episodes of violence, the mystery of the mother’s disappearance is never fully explained. Like the boy, the story skirts around the contents of the pit, revealing possibilities of the unspeakable without answers. The craftmanship in leaving this uncertainty at the heart of This Census Taker makes this, for me, one of the most vivid examples of the naked author.

The next example appears in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.

 


Urban Fantasy is dead – What?

 

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I feel an attack of slottishness coming on. Slottishness is when the book you’re submitting is the wrong genre for the current climate. You’ve learned, painfully resuscitating the trampled corpse of the novel you wrote for everybody, anybody and their little dog, to give it a category in the submission letter so the agent knows what they’re dealing with beyond the fact your naked longing is clogging their in-box, along with the other 500 hopefuls (that’s about one month’s worth of unsolicited submissions for a good agent).

It is very tempting to force what you’ve written into a popular slot, a literary sluttishness that comes to all of us. My breaking point came with a direct submission for an 80,000-word urban fantasy which was rejected because the publisher wasn’t taking urban fantasy. The reason being

Urban Fantasy is dead.

“I submit my urban fantasy … complete at 83,000 words …”

No, don’t hack the corpse around. It’s gross – and unnecessary. This living, breathing piece of writing, hewn from your pulsing viscera, is what it is. The genre is just the label put around its wrist to distinguish it for the purposes of assessing, financing, producing and selling a book.

For the purposes of identification between SF/F/YA/litfic I’m fielding The Story Dolly. It has bendy arms, depending on the label on its wrist.

YA (Young Adult)

Still alive and kicking ass, any book where a young-adult protagonist bursts through the door, bleeding from cuts to their head, face and torso from an attack by: apocalyptic gangs, contemporary gangs; vampires; dystopian police states; spaceships.

Literary

The gaps in the ring-fencing around this one are growing but broadly, any book where the protagonist comes through the door emotionally or mentally bleeding from attack by bad relationships or angst. Deep-mined metaphors are OK, but actual elves/zombies/time travellers, you’re in genre territory, however cast-iron your lit cred.

Sci-Fi

Sci-Fi escapes all gravitational pulls and takes you with it. Yes, I’m a fan.

Fantasy (trad/hard core)

Protagonist bursts through the door, pursued by orcs/something with a sword.

Fantasy (contemporary)

Protagonist bursts through door, pursued by pterodactyls that have climbed out of wheelie bins.

Did you see what I did there? OK, so I don’t have pterodactyls, I have south-London tattooists re-writing themselves and other people into a meta-punk dimension, but it is

NOT urban fantasy.

Oh no, it’s contemporary fantasy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Fanfic is Real, OK?

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Well, maybe not “real” in the usual sense. Re-reading one of my fanfics it is a heady brew of reverent but extreme use of Joss Whedon’s wall-to-wall fan catnip, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the unravelling playfulness and unrivalled banter of the Big Purple Forehead’s scripts lifting it (just) above oestrogen-fuelled passion and plot arcs on a permanently disintegrating orbit around Spike’s fallen angel.

I’m a Spuffy. Bangel shippers, I respect your tenacity but have you noticed Bangel shares the same initial letter with “Beer Bad”? The cookie dough speech is, of course, open to interpretation, and I’m not speaking out-of-canon by suggesting the space bonking in the comics was possibly heavily influenced by the freedom of the format. Or something. But if we’re reading the subtext, that coupling of initial letters is …

Yes, OK. Moving on.

My first real writing was fanfic. I still think it is real writing, and I have six reasons for thinking it was the best place to start:

Fans Go Too Far

In fandom there is no such thing as going too far. In my slathering adoration I wrote violence, scenes of a sexual nature (see below), shedloads of extreme threat, for the first time. The posting algorithms on my fanfic site were touchy about certain words which I’ve used with a sense of gleeful freedom every since. But otherwise, I had powered through a personal reticence, in and out of writing before I realised I’d done it.

Stripping Off

Never mind baring your soul, fanfic is about writing while stripped down to your knickers. We’ve all done it, written our favourite characters into hot and heavy scenes. I bottled out at the last minute and didn’t post, most fanfickers do post. Whether the result is eeewwww, genuinely erotic or ingenious and insightful slash fiction (the best place for written gender bending), fanfic is where you learn to write from below the waist.

Real for Me as Well as You

I never wrote from a distance, a perspective, coolly (or indeed calmly). Writing for people as passionate about the Jossverse as myself, taught me to write from the gut, and believe me, it had to be bloody good.

Collaboration

Ah, yes, best of times, the real-time convos like stepping onto a moving carousel, scrumptious dialogue spooling into pages, the fastest, most exhilarating writing experience ever.

‘… beat me with a scapula’ …’Was that when you came out?’ … ‘No, I hadn’t tidied’ … OK? … SORRY JUST TAKING WASHING OUT … ‘my room for six weeks’ … Who says that? … Patrick … THAT’S SCRUMPTIOUS.

Also, as the old saying goes, when you aren’t loving the people who love what you love, you hate them. Wolfie, that time I spent three days on the scene between Patrick and Andrewwhile you had Willow and Kennedy, but I gave it wall-to-wall character development and that, and you wrote one line

“That far into the closet you should have discovered Narnia.”

and the whole forum was squeeing over that line (twenty-four people quoted it in Comments)?

Well I forgive you. Ten years’ later.

Joss is my Master

I was trying to write like Joss Whedon. This was impossible, but the sheer audacity of it got me a long way, like somebody running over a cliff and doing that mid-air cycling when you look down and realise.

Into the Ferdy-verse

Eventually I got comments like, “It’s really good, but it’s not Jossverse, it’s Ferdy-verse.” And that was good, because I started writing in my own way. But without fanfic, I wouldn’t have reached Ferdy-verse, it was as far away as Narnia.

Here’s a sample of what I wrote as Ferdy-m. I still think it’s bloody good. Manga Spike, I salute your scrumptious cheekbones.

 

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Are writers the worst liars?

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Writers are well known for making things up. Neil Gaiman is known to over two million Twitter followers as someone who

will eventually grow up and get a real job. Until then, will keep making things up and writing them down.

Speaking for myself, as a writer I keep making things up and writing them down, which, if drawn as two intersecting circles, puts me on a .0001mm intersection with Neil Gaiman; normally I am a small rock (not drawn to scale), a two-millionth particle of a rock around his Twitter account, but on this occasion there is an intersection.

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As a child I was a liar on three occasions (that I can remember). I told my sister that if I rubbed a ring on my finger, a monster would appear. I remembered this as an early foray into making things up until my sister told me a couple of years ago that she believed it at the time and was still remembering it a matter of decades later. The other was a matter of a skipping rope and the third will never reach the light of day.

Despite this, I believe writers aren’t the worst liars, in fact we are hopelessly honest to the point of self-impalement on our own honesty, a contradiction that is occupying me in my writing at the moment.

It makes sense that if writers are taking the stuff of raw reality and producing a recognisable version which is made up, writers can recognise the difference between the two. A mechanic can hear the sound of a problem in a running engine, a teacher can detect the point a class is about to go lord-0f-the-flies, a Jedi detects fluctuations in the Force, so the writer knows the difference between making things up and lying. Regardless of our rep as individuals, we simply cannot afford to leave the writer’s equivalent of a loose bearing, behaving badly or the early intimations of the destruction of Alderan in our writing. A book is a particular version of the truth, as Neil Gaiman wrote, and a reader found important enough to tattoo onto her body:

I can believe things that are true/and I can believe things that aren’t true/and I can believe/things where nobody knows/if they’re true or not.

However, it has to be truthful to itself.

Which brings me to my problem. When I started writing for publication, I worked with a powerfully charismatic and commercially successful creative, let’s call him Bob. The effect was like going down to the end of my cul-de-sac (for real, I lived in a cul-de-sac) and a long-loader, lit up like a fairground in the twilight, drew up with a hiss of hydraulics. I got aboard thinking I’d probably have to walk home at some point, which is what happened, but for a while I travelled the route taken by a big, commercial creative. It didn’t stop anywhere unless there were connections to merchandising centres, or the potential to set up your own.

Now gaming is part of my urban fantasy, Skinny Inkers, but the deeper I got under the skin of the story and the characters,  the more truthful I’ve had to be about gaming. Gaming is geek culture, which I love, but it has its dark side and two of the characters needed the dark side – gamergate, addiction – to work. This must happen to every writer, whether we sign up to it or not.

… and so the merchandising opportunities disappear into the distance, tail-lights flashing as the long-loader goes over bumps in the road.

 


Living in Nine Worlds

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The unstoppable force in agenting known as Juliet Mushens tweeted on the last day of Nine Worlds Geekfest 2014

Please can I live here.

I can really get alongside this remark, just like everything else I heard from @mushenka. Because I wanted to live there. This was despite a wobbly start. Deep in conversation about the things half an hour at Nine Worlds had made a priority – was Servalan’s buzzcut hairstyle too much in the last season, like, rule the galaxy and destroy Blake’s Seven … Six … Five, but keep looking good, babe – I made a large gesture and caught the tray of a passing waiter. Coffee and napkins cascaded down the back of the woman sitting behind me. I expected annoyance, but she was so nice, even when I lifted her shirt to mop her back with a napkin and check for first-degree burns.

 

By the time I’d made a comment on one of the Geek Feminism panels about aligning with cupcakes which to be honest could have done with more thought, I realized what it was about this convention.

It was an offence-free zone.

 Tracks, more than I can mention – Oh, well, I can, Creative Writing, Future Tech, Skepticism, Social Gaming, Geek Feminism, Comics, Cosplay, mingled in the bizarre Edwardian vibe of the hotel, passed on the staircases. I went to the Buffy Sing-a-long where the Whedon love was practically tattooed onto everyone’s forehead (sorry it ran late, I know that was one of the few issues) but the cos’s were from every fandom going.

And the queues …

It all happened for me in the queue for the next cup of tea. I had problems with two characters in my book who are IT programmers, met Mel (all best for the four panels at World Con!) who shared the home life of two IT programmers, including The Zone. Sorted. Talked to Gareth Powell, learned more about writing than I think he realizes, for over 30 minutes despite his imminent pulmonary collapse.

I want to live in a place I can turn up in a retro frock unrelated to any track except, possibly, comics and dressmaking and people say, “I like your frock,” Simples.

 

 


UF or Hokusai’s Manga

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The sun’s come out and you may have something better to do than burble around with me on this one. It was a very interesting Twitter with Amy Boggs @notjustanyboggs about UF. We may have been exchanging meta-level parries on the subject of Unpacking Felines, a growing problem in space-saving households relying on vacuum packing stuff to put under the bed but I think it was about Urban Fantasy as a genre. I’m sure Amy won’t mind if I repeat her scrumptious one-liner.

Genre is genderless.

That sums up anything I was thinking of saying about UF and gender bias. I certainly hope so, but anyway, the one-liner always rules.

Moving onto how stretchy UF is, it seems to have all the benefits of other ambiguous, shelf-shifting genres. It is genre reflecting faithfully where it comes from. UF with major cred from ultimate genre writers like China Miéville’s The City and The City pitches up and authors who live mainly in LitFic, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, take second homes. Some authors lived there before it had a name; I have a personal theory that the best writer of urban fantasy EVER was Muriel Spark. These houses are recognisably smarter, they have more dosh spent on them than the rest of the neighbourhood but basically, UF, like parts of south London, is open to interpretation.

Hokusai created The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. He also drew manga, rambling excursions into his visual imagination like the hairy-finned mermaid and even-hairier fish. UF offers the same freedom, over 100 years’ later, to write what you want to write. So far, UF isn’t worth enforcing planning regs over.

Yet.