Category Archives: 5th stomach

Writing in a time of heinous fuckery®


“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?

joanneharris_wthf 14.16.35

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.





So, my hairdresser said …


Where do you get your ideas?

And I was embarrassed, because I didn’t want to say they just turn up when I start writing, to someone who has spent years perfecting the ability to turn my own hair into something that is art. The ideas just grow, like my hair. Or, to use another, if unco-ordinated, image, I have a fifth stomach which takes the life going on around me and turns it into fiction.

My hairdresser knows a bestselling author who couldn’t sleep for the ideas flowing through her head, day and night. And I said for me writing is about pinning the ideas down at the right time in the right way. Otherwise it’s like indigestion, everything is feeding through the writer’s fifth stomach, something meant to take the ideas out of life and make something similar to, but nothing like day-to-day life. No wonder she didn’t sleep well.

Then he put me in touch with someone who might have exactly the bathroom tiles I’ve been looking for since I took action against the frosted dolphins on the shower cubicle and their bland, rubbery smiles. Someone who has an MBE for services to the tiling industry. The last couple of sentences are completely true. Frosted dolphins are designed to annoy people. I have a strong fifth writer’s stomach, but I couldn’t do anything with them.


You Can’t Always Get What You Want

So the Rolling Stones sang at Glastonbury last night. Or as @sisterspooky tweeted this morning

“I have to clean today. Being a grown-up is rubbish.”

Back to the Rolling Stones, who said the same thing but with more amps. ‘And I went down to the demonstration/To get my fair share of abuse/Singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration/And if we don’t, we blow a 50-amp fuse”, yeah.’

So after a week of hanging around the latest demonstration on twitterscape about sexism in SF/F and whether male writers can write convincing female characters and vice versa, I was ready to exercise my right to free speech. And the funny thing about free speech is everyone’s for it so long as the other guy is saying something you agree with. Most of the time we’ll wade in when we’re sure everyone else is going to agree, but this week an SF author, guest blogging, said exactly what he thought about sexism in SF, demonstrating the essential flaw in free speech – speaking freely.

What was the response? Oh well, the usual response in any public forum where you’re not going to get stoned for saying what’s on your mind.

If you subscribe to the theory of atomic repulsion (and knowing anything quantum is like catnip to bloggers, I’m not linking in case you never come back) we never touch anything, just register a series of atomic repulsions. So if twitterscape is built on the same principles, there’s going to be disagreement.

At some point, when we’re grown up enough to clean our own rooms, nobody is going to step in to regulate what, when you take a straight look at it, comes down to people who are good with words, using words.

Publishers know it comes down to how and what we write. We sit in front of our screens thinking, the reason I’m not published, or not selling is sexism, or ageism or I don’t photograph well. Excuse me, but most writers ARE slightly weird-looking. Check out current best-selling authors before the marketing department gets them an image that explains the hair or the stare or the whole alien-disguised-as-human-being look. Publishers are probably glad when they get an author who looks good, but at the end of the day, I assume the main thing is the book. I hope that’s the way it works, I really do.

And for me the answer lies in the fact we are writers. Whatever makes us writers (and for me writing isn’t inspiration, it’s a fifth stomach that digests reality and comes out with another sort of reality), our imaginations are surely capable of taking us into another person’s head, regardless of the gender of the body that sits in front of the screen. Can’t we give ourselves that?

There are bits of life that my fifth stomach cannot digest. Then I want to get down to the nearest demonstration and share the  abuse. But for that I remember I clean my own room, I’m a grown up, I can’t always get what I want, that’s the way it sort of works. China Miéville writes genre fiction that must have his fifth stomach working overtime. But when he wants to state his political opinions he writes a small, but very effective, political polemic.

Because You Can’t Always Get What You Want, but sometimes, as the lyrics say, you get what you need.

London, true dat

It’s been a fortnight since I went to hear China Miéville – the Boss – on ‘Visions of London’. I should have waited for the transcript*, but I know what I heard and it had an awkward question mark on it. I couldn’t wait to decide whether I was there under false pretences. China Miéville is my Boss, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t the ultimate blasphemy of turning up among the faithful and being totally faithless.

What bothered me was the question about people jumping on a bandwagon. I know there are bookshelves called simply “London” where urban fantasy sits alongside history, guidebooks, social satire, litfic, everything about the amorphous mass of London-ness. I know because I’ve just seen a picture of one on Twitter. At some point, though, the idea came up that has had me thinking hard for a fortnight.

It was about urban fantasy cashing in on the new bookshelf and setting the new book in London, although your writer’s fifth stomach resides in Dorking because, hey, it’s going to be a while before there’s a bookshelf in major bookstores labelled


Since I’ve got hold of a copy of China Miéville’s completely fictionless, political polemic London’s Overthrow I’ve been even more worried about my London urban fantasy.

Is it true dat? China Miéville’s most “London” fiction he said, is Kraken, and although I’ve still got some digging to do, I was struck by how “London” the characters were. I recognized them not only by a resemblance to relatives who were Londoners, but the grin on the violence, the humorous take on the impossible, beautiful and appalling though it can be. And in Kraken it mostly is. The London of London’s Overthrow is there in Kraken which means although Miéville was kind about the authors jumping on the urban London fantasy bandwagon, he’s a true believer.

I don’t need the credentials of background, length of time living in London, but I do have to have reasons for setting an urban fantasy in London greater than a bookshelf.

If it wasn’t the Worst Crime, next time I might take the advice of someone in the queue for book signing a fortnight ago and ask China Miéville when I reach him to, please, read my book. Is it a London-based urban fantasy for a really, really good reason?

* If any of this turns out to be me making things up when the transcript arrives, it’ll change.