Posts belonging to Category creative writing



Where do we get our ideas from? Let me tell you about last night’s dream…

Seriously. This is what my head was full of when I woke up at 5.30 this morning.

In the near future, sports organisers have given up trying to stop the abuse of performance enhancing drugs. Not least because global media corporations have become dissatisfied by falling audiences, and the attendant loss of advertising revenue, as it’s become harder and harder for athletes to break records and win or lose is now determined by fractions of a second. So designer drugs to increase strength, speed, agility etc are now really big business.

Except it all goes wrong. A laboratory in Oxford genetically engineers a virus to take this sort of therapy to a whole new level. Alas, funding cutbacks and outsourcing vital services mean that things like bio-security are increasingly lax. The virus gets loose and spreads like, well, norovirus. The effects are hyper-aggression, driving violence in every unpleasant manifestation you can imagine. To the exclusion of all else. People forget to eat, only sleep when they collapse from sheer exhaustion, drink only when thirst overwhelms their other urges. So victims end up dead in about three weeks – if someone hasn’t already killed them first.

Survivors head for the hills – in this case, the Cotswolds. This is very much a middle-class disaster. The chapter where our heroes (male and female) are looting the Waitrose on the Botley Road, while trying not to fall victim to the howling mob outside is particularly Wyndham-esque. Which isn’t to say the deaths weren’t unpleasantly graphic. I dream in full colour, full-sensory imagery with added emotional content.

Now the whole thing becomes a post-apocalypse scenario rather than a zombie-variant movie. Our protagonists end up in a remote manor house, among other things, breeding horses, as they fight to keep the infected out and to drive off other groups of survivors. When the virus has burned itself out, they venture back into the city. Finding supplies is a secondary consideration to finding vital knowledge. So they head for the Bodleian libraries.

Since I dream in full colour, full-sensory imagery, the final scene was particularly effective: two people riding horses down Broad Street in the morning sun, the road strewn with decaying corpses, all the modern shops destroyed, while Oxford’s ancient, enduring architecture rises above it all. Hence the waking up completely and absolutely at 5.30 this morning.

So will I be writing this novel? No, not a chance. I have pretty much zero interest in zombie stories as a reader or viewer and have still less interest in writing them myself.

Besides, this isn’t overly original. I amused myself over breakfast by identifying the things my subconscious had knitted together. Including but by no means limited to:

28 Days Later – screenplay Alex Garland, director Danny Boyle
The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham
Achilles’ Choice – Larry Niven/Steven Barnes
Nod – Adrian Barnes
Survivors – the original BBC TV series

See also – Jurassic Park, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and any number of other ‘Stuff Gets Out of Labs and It All Goes Horribly Wrong’ movies. Plus the upcoming Rio Olympics. Plus discussions on BBC Radio 4 last autumn, following England’s early exit from the last rugby world cup, about what that might mean for ITV’s advertising revenue and the wider loss of income for those towns and venues hosting subsequent matches etc.

So why am I writing this up? Because it really is a good example of how stories come together in a writer’s head. Or at least, in this writer’s head.

Most of all, I want this out of my head. Otherwise I will spend the rest of today getting distracted by new thoughts on tweaking details of the plot, expanding the back story of the various characters, visualising locations with ever more precision.

Do I often have dreams like this? Pretty frequently, especially when I’m not actively working on writing fiction. It’s absolutely no coincidence that I wrapped up the third of the Aldabreshin Compass short stories yesterday – which I will let sit over the weekend before giving it a final polishing pass next week and making it available.

Right, having cleared the mental decks, I will get on with some other work now. 🙂

My thoughts on concluding a series over at Gail Z Martin’s blog

You’ll recall me mentioning I’d been swapping thoughts with Gail Z Martin about the challenges of ending a multi-volume story? By way of a companion piece to her guest post on this blog , she’s hosting some conclusions I’ve drawn over on her own website.

When the end is nigh, take another look at your characters’ “victory conditions”

There’s a fine line to tread between ‘and they all (eventually) lived (more or less) happily ever after’ and ‘they all came full circle and hit the Reset Button’. The first can and arguably should be satisfactorily achieved, because ending a series with overall failure is hardly rewarding the reader for their time and commitment. On the other hand, hitting the Reset Button treats the reader just as badly, when an entire series ultimately fails the ‘So What?’ test. What was the point in following those characters through all that travelling, learning and struggle if nothing has really changed?

Guest post from Gail Z Martin – When The End Comes

Getting the final volume of The Aldabreshin Compass out in ebook has set me thinking about the challenges for a writer when it comes to concluding a series. Since I’m always interested to know what other authors think about a topic that’s got my attention, and noticing her current epic fantasy story is now reaching its own conclusion, I invited Gail Z Martin to share her thoughts on this particular topic. As you’ll see from reading this piece, that was an email very well worth me sending.

Gail Z Martin

Gail Z Martin


When the End Comes
By Gail Z. Martin

Saying goodbye is hard, especially to the people who have been living in your head.

Ending a series is bittersweet, because it brings a story arc to a conclusion, but it often means that those characters who have been in your thoughts every day for years, maybe decades, won’t be hanging out with you anymore.

So how do you wrap up a series in a satisfactory way, and in today’s digital publishing world, is goodbye ever really forever?

I’ve put a bow on two series now: The original Chronicles of the Necromancer/Fallen Kings Cycle series that runs from The Summoner to The Dread, and the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga series that ranges from Ice Forged to Shadow and Flame. I’m happy with the outcome in both cases, but it’s always sad to reach the end of the journey.

shadowAndFlame.indd

As a reader, I still feel sad thinking about series that ended the adventures of characters I’d come to love, like the Harry Potter series or the Last Herald Mage series. The series came to a planned conclusion, but it was still sad nonetheless that we wouldn’t be going on new journeys together. Having those experiences helps me make my own decisions as an author to give readers the best wrap-up possible and leave the characters at a good stopping point.

For the record, I think the whole debate about ‘happy endings’ is bull. A book’s ending is an arbitrary point chosen by the author. In the real world, we all have good days and bad days. If we are telling a story and chose to end the write-up on the character’s wedding day or the birth of a child or a big business success, that would be a ‘happy ending’ but it doesn’t ensure that tomorrow the character wouldn’t be hit by a bus, which had the story continued would make it a ‘tragic’ ending. That’s why I don’t think happy endings in and of themselves, properly led up to and reasonably executed are unrealistic. It’s an arbitrary decision of when we stop rolling the film on our character’s lives and let them go their way unobserved. I don’t buy into the idea of tragedy being more real or honest than happiness, or that a tragic ending is more legitimately literary than giving your characters the chance to go out on a good day.

So here’s what I think matters when it comes to wrapping up a series or a multi-book story arc:

1. Wrap up the loose ends. Make sure you’ve got all the characters accounted for, the plot bunnies caged, and the stray threads tucked in neatly. Don’t leave us wondering ‘whatever happened to …”

2. Give us closure. It may turn out that fate and free will are illusions and everything is mere random chance, but if it does, human minds will still be driven to assign meaning and context. So whatever journey or quest your characters have taken, make sure that by the end, we know what it all meant and what comes from it. Leave us with a sense of purpose.

3. Glimpse the future. None of us knows what tomorrow brings, but that doesn’t stop us from making plans. So have your protagonist face the future with the intent to move forward, and let us know what that looks like.

4. Provide emotional satisfaction. If you’ve made us care and cry and laugh and bleed for this character, then the least you can do is give us the emotional satisfaction of knowing how the character feels when it’s all over, and perhaps how the other key characters feel as well.

Now for the second part—do we ever have to really reach the end? Thanks to ebooks and the advances in self publishing, it’s possible for authors to continue to create new adventures in series long after the books are out of print or a series has officially ended. After all, authors can make a profit off self-pub sales levels that are far below what a traditional publisher considers viable. Readers love to get additional canon stories. And of course, there are also a growing number of book series that have been reanimated by new writers (Dune, for example) after the original author dies.

I truly think that series extension via ebook is going to continue to grow. There’s a lot of upside, and very little downside. I’ve written three novellas in my Ascendant Kingdoms world that fill in part of the six-year time gap that occurs early in Ice Forged, and I have another three in mind for later this year. (The three stories currently available are Arctic Prison, Cold Fury and Ice Bound, and the coming-soon collection of all three is The King’s Convicts.) They’re every bit as much ‘canon’ as the books, but they’re extra stories that flesh out characters and set up later events.

Kings Convicts Draft 1

Likewise, my Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures are prequels to The Summoner, adding up eventually to three serialized novels of backstory for a very popular character. So far, there are 18 short stories and there will be three more novellas by the end of the year. And in the case of the Jonmarc stories, the original publisher asked to do a collection of the first ten short stories plus an exclusive eleventh and bring out the collection in print and ebook (The Shadowed Path, coming in June 2016). That’s a win for me, for readers and for the publisher, because it keeps existing fans happy while potentially bringing in new fans, and it helps me keep a light on for the characters until I get to write the other six books in the series that are bouncing around in my brain.

So there you have it—goodbye doesn’t have to be forever. Every series ending is the beginning of a new series extension. Virtual immortality, for our virtual characters. Seems like a win-win-win to me!

FC JONMARC COLLECTION
About the Author
Gail Z. Martin is the author of Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Solaris Books); Shadow and Flame the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga (Orbit Books); The Shadowed Path (Solaris Books) and Iron and Blood a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin.

She is also author of Ice Forged, Reign of Ash and War of Shadows in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen); The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) and the urban fantasy novel Deadly Curiosities. Gail writes three ebook series: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures, The Deadly Curiosities Adventures and The Blaine McFadden Adventures. The Storm and Fury Adventures, steampunk stories set in the Iron & Blood world, are co-authored with Larry N. Martin.

Her work has appeared in over 25 US/UK anthologies. Newest anthologies include: The Big Bad 2, Athena’s Daughters, Unexpected Journeys, Heroes, Space, Contact Light, With Great Power, The Weird Wild West, The Side of Good/The Side of Evil, Alien Artifacts, Cinched: Imagination Unbound, Realms of Imagination, Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens, Gaslight and Grimm, and Alternate Sherlocks.

Find her at www.AscendantKingdoms.com, on Twitter @GailZMartin, on Facebook.com/WinterKingdoms, at DisquietingVisions.com blog and GhostInTheMachinePodcast.com, on Goodreads and free excerpts on Wattpad

Why knowing the history of history is vital for any writer drawing from the past

I once had an amiable conversation with a scientist who genuinely couldn’t see what so enthrals me about history. When it’s happened, the past is done, according to him. Once you know the facts, where else is there to go?

Ah, but whose facts? Because this isn’t maths where a particular equation always gives the same result or chemistry where adding Stuff A to Stuff B has a predictable, repeatable outcome. One of the most fascinating things about studying history is analysing the interpretations of a particular set of known facts and seeing what that particular view tells us about whoever drew those particular conclusions. Because historical scholarship invariably tells us as much about the time and place where it was written, and about who wrote it, as it tells us about the actual historical period under discussion.

For those who were interested when I talked about this at Fantasycon 2015 – and begging the indulgence of any genuine academics reading this – here’s a brief and necessarily broad-brush look at the ways in which classical Greek homosexuality has been viewed in successive decades. Because as the first hand sources make very clear, intense friendships between teenage boys and older men were common and even encouraged. This much is known – but what exactly does that tell us about the society of Athens in the 5th century BCE, according to the historians?

According to classical scholars writing in the 50s and 60s, these were perfectly wholesome relationships where gentlemen with more worldly and military experience would mentor and advise the next generation of Athenian citizens – and there’s absolutely no reason to assume any sexual component to these relationships. NOT AT ALL, according to the prevailing not-very-sub-text of those scholars, because as we all know, Decent Chaps Do Not Get Up To That Sort Of Thing! They would cite the mockery of effeminate characters in Aristophanes’ comedies as indisputable proof and move briskly on.

The thing is, these scholars were not in denial. They weren’t lying or distorting the facts. But they were most assuredly viewing the past through the lens of their own times and society. These are academics who would have been educated and be working in predominantly if not exclusively male environments where the Old Boy Network was a flourishing institution. Given study of the classical world was considered to be the study of history’s greatest thinkers and institutions, a shining example for civilized men to emulate ever since the Enlightenment, seeing similar relationships to their own at work in Classical Athens merely served to endorse their belief in the essential and inevitable benevolence of the patriarchal status quo.

More than that, given the way in which that particular system of education considered the classical world’s stamp of approval defined so much that was worthwhile and praiseworthy, the idea that these friendships could have been homosexual relationships is quite simply untenable for them. Because these men grew up, were educated and were writing in an age when homosexuality was illegal. And not merely illegal in a way that wasn’t actually a problem because kindly, blind eyes were turned. Gay men were imprisoned. They lost their jobs and their families. Some killed themselves. Some killed others to protect their shameful, filthy, guilty secret – as it was seen back then. If you want some idea of society’s prevailing views and their reflection in the media, look into the case of John Vassall, a British civil servant who was blackmailed into spying for the KGB. If the Profumo Affair hadn’t come along, Vassall’s case would be the definitive 60s sex scandal.

So for those scholars to uphold classical civilisation as an exemplary model on the one hand and on the other, to accept that it also included behaviour which they’d been taught to believe was repellent, was quite simply impossible.

Fast forward to the 1970s and 80s when legalisation and the gay rights movement meant gay men could be out, loud and proud, challenging prejudice head on. Now we can find classical scholars offering very different views. Of course all these relationships were fully and physically homosexual, as far as their equally honest and sincere interpretations are now concerned. Without the shame-based culture promulgated by subsequent religions, men in Classical Athens were able to express their natural sexuality exactly as they wished before the obligations of citizenship demanded wives and children from them. Bisexuality was effectively the norm, not the exception, certainly according to some.

Obviously, a degree of decorum was expected. According to this scholarship, that same mockery in Aristophanes makes it plain that the 5th century equivalent of aging, flaming queens were a joke. But homosexuality itself was entirely accepted and acceptable – which of course means that those gay rights proponents could and would now claim that very same Classical Civilisation Stamp of Approval previously so jealously guarded by The Establishment.

Fast forward again to scholarship in the 21st century and to current interpretations informed by the ways in which understanding of gender and sexuality is moving beyond a purely binary view. Not only as a result of campaigners’ efforts but also as an unforeseen consequence of other things. After decades of denial, the issue of AIDS forced civil and military authorities to acknowledge the reality of same-sex encounters in all-male environments such as prisons and the armed forces. Public health considerations required supplying condoms both for avowedly gay men and for those who would have same-sex liaisons even though they still considered themselves wholly straight and who opted for heterosexual relationships outside such environments. Which, for instance, casts quite a different light on Socrates sharing a blanket with Alcibiades while on military service and subsequently marrying a woman as a good Athenian citizen was expected to do.

These days the idea that young men might experiment sexually with each other before settling into heterosexual marriage is (hopefully) unremarkable. Now Aristophanes’ mockery is seen not as lampooning gay men for their sexuality but as targeting those whose excessive self-indulgence of sexual alongside other appetites mean they are failing in their duties as citizens. Provided a man meets those obligations, how he chooses to satisfy his sexual desires, gay or straight, isn’t the central issue, according to current readings. Add to that, there’s now plenty of evidence for male and female prostitutes working in classical Athens and no stigma in visiting them.

Which isn’t to say that these relationships between teenage boys and older men aren’t a concern for current scholars. It’s the cause for concern that’s changed. When 5th century sources say that the younger partner should be beardless and with hairless thighs, does this mean prepubescent? If so, academics are now very keen to discuss how very much later puberty occurred in the days before modern nutrition, with secondary sexual characteristics appearing as late as sixteen or seventeen years of age. And how old is the senior partner in that particular historical context? Primary evidence is emphatically cited for such relationships only being socially acceptable for men up to their late twenties or early thirties. Scholars flag up contemporary sources condemning those in their forties and fifties seeking out the very young – in other words, exactly the sort of men whom we now consider predatory paedophiles. It’ll be interesting to see if these interpretations still stand unchanged in twenty years’ time or if they are considered at least in part, as a reflection of this particular decade’s belated acknowledgement of, and overdue resolve to prevent, child abuse.

So it really is at least as important to look at who’s telling you something about history, and the time and context within which they are working, as it is to look at the thing itself. Personally I think this is particularly important for writers of epic fantasy who may well start out, at least, by drawing on the history they recall from school and on general resources, particularly online, which are far more likely to draw on recycled and outdated material than to be keeping current with the latest academic research.

And of course, looking at who’s telling you something is an equally valuable skill when it comes to analysing the pronouncements of modern politicians and the mass media so eager to push their own political and commercial agenda. As Cicero used to say – and he was no slouch when it came to manipulating opinion – ‘Cui bono?’ Who benefits?

Where to find my thoughts on Tropes and more Anthology news

Over on Kate Elliott’s website, I’ve contributed a piece on Tropes to her Worldbuilding Wednesdays series of posts – all well worth reading, incidentally, just like her novels.

Just what is a trope and what should you do with it?

It’s one of those words batted back and forth in creative writing conversations, and if everyone else nods wisely but you don’t actually know what it means mostly you’ll mostly sit quietly and try to work out what it means from context.

Unless you can stealthily look up a definition in an online dictionary. Though that may not be overly helpful. According to the Concise OED, it’s ‘a figurative (e.g. metaphorical or ironical) use of a word’, from the Greek/Latin for ‘to turn’. Merriam Webster is more useful. ‘A common or overused theme or device’.

Oh, so it’s another word for cliché? Yes and no, and this is why this particular word has become useful in discussions about plot, character, setting and all the other intricacies of creating convincing fiction.

Click here to read the whole piece

Meantime, over on Joshua Palmatier’s blog, the Table of Contents for ALIEN ARTIFACTS has been announced.

What’s this particular anthology about? Well, here’s the back cover copy…

What might we run into as we expand beyond Earth and into the stars? As we explore our own solar system and beyond, it seems inevitable that we’ll run into aliens … and what they’ve left behind. Alien artifacts: what might they reveal about us as we try to unlock their secrets? What might they reveal about the universe?

In this anthology, nineteen of today’s leading science fiction and fantasy authors explore how discovering long lost relics of alien civilizations might change humanity. Join Walter H. Hunt, Julie Novakova, David Farland, Angela D. Penrose, S.C. Butler, Gail Z. Martin & Larry N. Martin, Juliet E. McKenna, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Andrija Popovic, Jacey Bedford, Sofie Bird, James Van Pelt, Gini Koch, Anthony Lowe, Jennifer Dunne, Coral Moore, Daniel J. Davis, C.S. Friedman, and Seanan McGuire as they discover the stars and the secrets they may hold—both dark and deadly and awe-inspiring.

My story now has a title, The Sphere, and if you click through you can look for clues in the list of tales from everyone else. As well as seeing the very fine cover art and for details on the book’s publication date and how to order it.

And by the way, do check out Joshua’s books, and novels from his alter ego Benjamin Tate, the next time you’re looking for a good read.

Guest post – Zen Cho on ‘My Year of Saying No’.

You’ll recall how much I enjoyed reading Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown. (If you missed my review, click here) So I’m extremely pleased to host this illuminating and thoughtful post reflecting on that story’s origins and her experiences as a newly published writer.

My year of saying no

Photo credit - Darren Johnson / IDJ Photography.

Photo credit – Darren Johnson / IDJ Photography.

In 2015 I became super obsessed with the BBC miniseries Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This wasn’t terribly surprising – I love the book and have reread it several times, and the series had everything I like: men and women in pretty period outfits, magic, humour, and even a touch of the numinous. It wasn’t a perfect adaptation, but an adaptation that’s sort of almost there but not quite is perfect for inducing fannish obsessiveness.

What was new and surprising was that, for the first time, I started identifying with Jonathan Strange. Jonathan Strange is nothing like me. He’s a fictional rich white dude who would be dead now if he was ever alive. I’m a real middle-class Chinese Malaysian woman who’s only spent time in 1800s England in her imagination. He’s the Second Greatest Magician of the Age. I’m a lawyer who moonlights as a moderately obscure fantasy writer.

I’m also fundamentally not as much of a douche (I love the character, but it’s gotta be said). I take no credit for this. It is because I was socialised as a woman and was therefore taught things like listening skills and how to feel guilty for taking up space in the world.

But there was one big thing I had in common with Jonathan Strange. We had both figured out what we’d been put on earth to do, and we were doing it. The vocations we had each chosen were potentially of great value and importance to society as a whole — magic in Jonathan Strange’s case; writing in mine — but we were mainly doing it for selfish reasons rather than to benefit anyone else. Nevertheless our work felt like a great and serious charge, and what this charge required of us was a determined selfishness.

SorcerertotheCrownUKcoverlargeIn 2015 my first novel came out. It was a bit like getting married: it meant that something that had been private suddenly became very public, and people treated me differently about something I’d been working away quietly at for years. And it also meant that people started wanting stuff from me. They wanted me to answer questions, write blog posts, submit to anthologies, show up to events, blurb books, critique manuscripts ….

It’s nice to be wanted, of course, and it was a refreshing novelty. As with most writers, rejection is the backing track of my life, so it was nice for once to hear “please will you?” instead of “no, thank you”. But it meant I had more demands on my time than ever before, when I had less time than ever before.

I had to learn to say no. Which was hard, because women aren’t encouraged to say no, and they especially aren’t encouraged to refuse to help other people. We’re supposed to be nurturing. Fortunately, I am pretty bad at being nurturing, but even so I struggled.

A lot of the requests I get are for nice things, things that support diversity in SFF and publishing, which is something I both care about and benefit from. How could I refuse when it was for such a good cause?

But I realised that if I was not ferociously protective of my time — if I didn’t play that role of The Rude Genius — I would soon find it sucked up in mostly uncompensated labour, in things that weren’t writing my own stories.

I don’t, in fact, have a room of my own. I have a sofa and an inbox full of requests for publishing advice that the querier could Google for themselves. So I’m learning to patrol the boundaries of the uncluttered space I need for writing — and for living, because I don’t owe anyone time and attention even if I’m not rushing to meet a deadline.

I’m still not as good at saying no as I should be, but I’ve already been accused of being grand for the appalling crime of not answering emails. I wonder whether the same accusation would be lobbed at me if I was a white man. We expect men, especially white men, to be rude geniuses. But it seems we feel entitled to the time and energy of women, especially Asian women.

You’ll point out I’m not a genius, which is true, but then I’m also not that rude. I say yes far more often than I say no. There’s still that fear, whenever I turn something down, that I should make the most of any attention I’m getting now, because people will stop asking eventually.

But you know what? I have never, not once, regretted saying no. And even if people stop asking and go away, it’s not like they’ll take the stories with them. Writing is mine – and it would be foolish to let a general sense of obligation to the world at large chip away at it. Jonathan Strange would definitely say something sardonic about that.

“You can teach craft but you can’t teach talent.” The most useless creative writing cliché?

I’ve worked with aspiring authors on an ad hoc basis for well over a decade now; running workshops at conventions and literary festivals, guest-lecturing at universities and colleges and occasionally running longer courses*. Most recently, I’ve spent a thoroughly enjoyable session with the Creative Writing M.A. students of Lancaster Uni, and had the distinct pleasure, and privilege, of selecting poems and prose pieces on the theme of ‘Monsters’ submitted by new writers, to feature in the new Mar/Apr/May 2016 edition of Mslexia magazine (now available!).

When I mention I’m doing one or other of these things, there’s a good chance someone will trot out this particular truism. It irritates me more and more, especially when you ask someone exactly what that means, and they say something vague about ‘well, people have to know how to spell and punctuate, but you can’t teach someone to have an imagination.’

Let’s examine both those notions.

There’s a whole lot more to writing craft than knowing where to put a full stop, or even the correct use of the semi-colon. An infinite amount; just look at the boundless variety of prose styles in published fiction. One of the workshops I run takes a wholly unremarkable sequence of dialogue and explores the different ways in which words can be woven around those identical spoken sentences to create significantly different effects for the reader, with regard to the place and the people. In one case, the addition of a single letter can be enough. Consider the implications of describing a woman as wearing ‘skirts’ as opposed to ‘a skirt’.

Then there’s the skill required to create atmosphere, whether that’s tension, sorrow, apprehension, excitement. It takes finely shaped prose to convey a character’s sorrow. passion, delight or fear. To indicate where the reader’s sympathies might lie or to hint that perhaps we’re not getting the full story quite yet? To write natural sounding dialogue – which is not at all the same as transcribing an actual conversation. To manage a narrative’s point of view, whether that’s in the first person or third person, and any transitions between perspectives. To convey vital facts and background to the reader without boring them rigid with a five page data-dump. I could go on but you get the idea. And that’s not even the half of it.

Once you’ve got all those words on the page, there’s the craft of cutting away the ones you don’t need. The more I write, the more eager I am to get the end of a first draft, to start refining and honing the piece, whether that’s a short story or a novel. Learning how to do that to best effect is a real challenge. Another workshop I run on such editing presents students with a piece of my work in draft and challenges them to get that down to a final version that’s on a par with my own. When I explain this means cutting those 388 words down to 117, hopeful writers’ faces vary from aghast to disbelieving. Because that first draft which they’ve just read is a perfectly good piece of writing, exactly as it stands. The craft comes in identifying the bits which the overall story can do without.

So let’s not get snobbish about the value of craft. Without a good carpenter’s skills, you’d be using splintery planks to board up that hole in your house instead of coming and going through a well-made and secure front door. Let’s definitely not accept any implication that writing craft is merely a toolkit of basic skills which a writer only needs to get to grips with once. I learn new twists and subtleties about different aspects of writing with every piece I write and frequently from what I read. Every writer I know says the same.

Now, about this notion that you cannot teach hopeful writers to have ideas, to have an imagination. The thing is, I’ve never, ever met an aspiring author who didn’t have an imagination. Surely that’s a prerequisite for being a keen reader, never mind for taking up a pen or keyboard to create original fiction? Would-be writers are never short on inspiration. Reviewing those Mslexia submissions proved that – not that I ever doubted it.

What writers need to learn is how to make most effective use of those plots and characters, scenarios and themes which are clamouring so loudly for their attention that the only thing to do is start writing them down. In some cases, the writer’s primary need is getting to grips with particular aspects of writing craft to make best use of their idea. As a teacher it’s very rewarding to see someone learning the skills that will turn their rough diamond of a draft into sparkling prose.

In other cases, in very many cases, the hopeful author needs to learn boldness. I see this time and again. I’ll be reading a well crafted piece, offering a solid foundation for a story, a character, an idea, but this particular writer hasn’t yet realised where and when they can take an extra step, or more often, a giant leap forward. Because all they can see is a leap into the unknown. Those of us who’ve already been through that learning process can now see it from the other side, where wide, new horizons open up before us. At other times, we take that leap and find a new vantage point to look back on a familiar idea and see it from a whole new perspective.

Here’s a case in point – without spoilers because this particular draft novel got all the way to publication and I don’t want to give anything away. The writer presented a confrontation between Our Hero and The Enemy. Our Hero used a recently acquired weapon to drive off The Enemy. I asked, why doesn’t he kill The Enemy? Because he’s not a killer, was the initial reply. No, I pointed out, but he doesn’t understand the weapon he’s got hold of. In this situation, he’s a toddler with a loaded handgun. He can still kill someone without any evil intent. What happens then? I saw the writer’s eyes widen, appalled at that notion, before they narrowed in thought… Even though that meant rewriting major chunks of the story to deal with the subsequent fall-out, both for Our Hero and for The Enemy’s Friends.

It’s that sort of boldness, offering some new angle, with some fresh take on places, characters or themes, which editors are looking for. Because they will have seen way more than enough slush submitted by writers who’ve been suckered into believing that the first idea they’ve had will take them all the way and once their genius is recognised, someone else will take care of full stops.

So let’s ditch this particularly useless cliché. How about we replace it with something someone whose name I alas failed to make a note of said? “Talent without craft is like fuel without a rocket. It may burn ever so brightly but it’s going nowhere.”

*For those interested in a week’s residential course focused on writing SF and Fantasy, I’m teaching at Moniack Mhor in Scotland, in December this year, alongside Pippa Goldschmidt. Ken Macleod will be our guest writer. More details here

Discussing diversity & representation in SFF – links round up

My post on the erasure of women last Monday clearly struck a resounding chord, which I find extremely encouraging. Though I’m by no means the only, or indeed the most recent, writer to post reflections on this issue. Here’s a selection of pieces I’ve found well worth reading recently.

I’ve pulled some quotes to give you a flavour of the pieces – and I urge you read them in full. Then go and read these authors’ books. I personally enjoy all their work – the books are well written, engaging, intriguing, entertaining. Better yet, the way these authors really think through what they’re writing, about who, how and why, gives their stories satisfying richness and depth,.

Here’s an excellent piece by Judith Tarr over on Charlie Stross’s blog. “What goes around…”

It can get really, really tiresome to fight the same battles over and over and over again, and to watch the older battles and the women who fought them be systematically and consistently erased. But when I realize how deeply ingrained the silencing of women is, I find it all the more remarkable that there’s actual, perceptible progress. Women’s voices are actually being heard–and sometimes even being taken seriously.

“is my malfunction so surprising ’cause I always seem so stable and bright?” asks Elizabeth Bear.

See, the funny thing is, it turns out that people of color and queer people and women and genderqueer people and disabled people… we’re not types. We’re not categories. We’re individuals with certain characteristics and we may have very different attitudes and philosophies and relationships with those characteristics.

So, saturation matters. We need a lot of stories with different kinds of people in them, and not just a token stereotype, one per book or movie or TV show.

And actually, finally seeing yourself as a protagonist or a significant character in art is a tremendously empowering experience. Seeing yourself reflected makes you feel real and noticed, and it’s important.

Since it’s vital that this debate includes a fully representative range of voices, I am indebted to Stephanie Saulter whose Twitter feed alerted me to this next piece from Tor.com.

“Writing Global Sci-Fi: White Bread, Brown Toast” by Indrapramit Das

Growing up with these imaginative riches curiously absent from Indian contemporary art and media, I didn’t even notice all the white protagonists, writers, directors, and actors in this boundary-less creative multiverse I so admired and wanted to be a part of. Or I didn’t mind this prevailing whiteness, because I was taught not to. That, of course, is the quiet hold of cultural white supremacy.

It wasn’t until I was on a campus in the middle of Pennsylvanian Amish country, surrounded by young white undergrad creative writing students in a workshop class taught by a white professor, that I realized I mostly wrote white protagonists. I’d never felt less white, which made the repeated pallor of my protagonists blaze like a thousand suns.

I’m not apologizing for growing up inspired by so much science fiction made by white people primarily for white people. Hell, I think white creators should be proud that their work found fans across the planet, and acquired some shade of the universality that sci-fi is supposed to espouse in its futurist openness. Just as languages spread and mutate on the vector of history (I see no need for gratitude, explanations, or shame for the words I use just because they were introduced to India by colonizers—Indian English is no different than American English or Quebecois French), so too do genres and art, and it’s time to recognize that sci-fi and fantasy are so dominant in pop culture now because fans the world over helped make it so. But if international sci-fi is to change, instead of stagnate into a homogenous product for the algorithm-derived generic consumer, it needs to foreground the profuse collective imagination of the entire world, instead of using it as background color for largely white stories.

I’m also including this piece by Jim Hines – My Mental Illness is Not Your Inspirational Post-it Note for two reasons.

Firstly, diversity is about showing and allowing access to every marginalised group – and all at the same time. It’s long past time to do away with the ‘Highlander’ approach to representation, insisting “There can be only one!” so if people of colour (or any other group) want the single ‘Minority Seat’ at the table, white women (or whoever else might be sitting there at the moment, but oddly, never the white men in the rest of the chairs) must take a step back.

Secondly, the piece underlines the importance of getting things right and actually listening, if you want to be an ally, and even more so if you’re writing about a group you’re not personally a part of.

This is a group that’s set themselves up as advocates for people with mental illness…while ignoring feedback from the very group they claim to support. I don’t know the individuals behind Team Notashamed or their situation, but this feels like symptoms of Toxic Ally Syndrome, where you’re so determined to be an “ally” of Group X that you ignore or argue with members of Group X because you know best. This is often followed by choruses of, “Why are you getting angry at me? I’m your ally! Fine, if you’re gonna be so ungrateful, I’ll just take my allyship and leave!”

Right, that’s enough to be going on with. That said, feel free to flag up any other good pieces you’ve come across in comments.

EDITED TO ADD –

The Geek’s Guide to Disability by Annalee over at The Bias blog.

I want the science fiction community to be inclusive and accessible to disabled people. I want our conventions and corners of the internet to be places where disabled people are treated with dignity and respect. I’m hoping that if I walk through some of the more common misconceptions, I can move the needle a little–or at least save myself some time in the future, because I’ll be able to give people a link instead of explaining all this again.

for instance

The use of “differently abled” is especially a problem within the science fiction community because it feeds the myth the people with disabilities develop compensatory superpowers. Some of us read and watch so much bullshit about disability that we have to be reminded that Daredevil is a comic book and not a documentary.

I’m using DareDevil as my example ‘supercrip’ because a lot of folks honestly believe that blind and low-vision people develop heightened senses of hearing and touch. The evidence for that is, at best, inconclusive. (The National Federation of the Blind says flat-out that blind people don’t develop sharper senses).

Once again, I strongly recommend reading the whole piece.

Guest post – Simon Morden discusses Down Station and portal fantasy.

DOWN-STATION-SMA new book that I very much enjoyed reading this month is Simon Morden’s Down Station. For a fuller assessment, you can read my review in the next issue of Interzone.

For those of you unfamiliar with Simon’s work, his website is here – and for a chance to meet him, along with Tricia Sullivan, author of Occupy Me, they’re both signing at Forbidden Planet, Shaftsbury Avenue, London on 20th February, 1-2pm. Simon will also be a guest at the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club on 23rd February.

One of the things that particularly interests me about Down Station is the fact that it’s a portal fantasy. So I invited Simon to share some thoughts on that particular topic.

In defence of Narnia and other portals
Simon Morden

I recently discovered that Narnia* is a real place. Quite how that fact has eluded me for my entire adult life is a complete mystery, but I have a sudden hankering to go there and make an in-depth investigation of their wardrobes.

Because you would, wouldn’t you? Or did you grow out of that urge? The ghost of the Susan argument rears its ugly head: wanting to escape this world, with its social and economic obligations and constraints, is something that a child would do, kicking against the goads of adulthood. When a person knows their place in society and accepts it, they no longer need such escapist diversions.

Lewis, however, was speaking of a more fundamental truth even as he got it hamfistedly intertwined with 1950s social mores. Rather than agreeing that wanting to escape to another place is a mere childish notion, to be discarded as we embrace a more mature understanding of our own world, he was proposing that it’s us – the grown ups – who are the ones who lose out.

The belief that our world lies side by side with others wasn’t invented by Lewis. It goes far back, beyond recorded history. In my native islands, the Celts believed the Otherworld was connected to us at certain times of year and in certain sacred places. People could cross over, usually by invitation rather than trickery, and sometimes even return. With the coming of Christianity, these became the ‘thin places’, where Heaven and Earth pressed together, but the result was always the same: those who came back were forever changed, either by their experience of the Other, or of the Divine.

Throughout history – and prehistory – the point of these stories was that the intrepid travellers to other worlds were never escaping: they were questing. They went for a reason – either to gain something which could be used in our world, be it wisdom, a skill, or an artefact, or to give something to that other world, to save it from evil or break a curse. That we’ve turned – some might say corrupted – an important facet of our mythology into a genre that adults shouldn’t consciously entertain is problematic, to say the least.

At its worst, yes, Sturgeon’s Law (that 90% of everything is crap) applies. A portal fantasy can be all those things their critics say it is: cliche-ridden wish-fulfilment in which nothing is at stake. Perhaps, after a while, these overwhelm the market and the whole genre goes out of fashion. Certainly, anecdotally, portal fantasies have been a tough sell for years. There were always exceptions: May’s Pliocene Saga and Pullman’s His Dark Materials being perhaps the most notable. But here we are, like buses, with two coming along at once, my Down Station and Seanan Mcguire’s Every Heart a Doorway. We’re probably at the cutting edge of a new wave, and editors across the land will hate us in six months’ time for unleashing a torrent of portals across their desks. For now, though, they represent something different to the usual fare.

I would like to think I’ve done something new with my own portal(s). Featuring non-standard protagonists is a start, being chased across the threshold is another, and the world of Down itself owes more to Tarkovsky’s Solaris than it does Narnia. But I’ve done something old, too, as old as time itself. Down is a place of challenge – there are secrets to be uncovered, battles to win, knowledge to be retrieved, and two worlds to save – and change, both mental and physical. The three questions that recur in Babylon 5 – Who are you? What do you want? Do you have anything worth living for? – are circumvented by Down, because it already knows the answers, even if you’re in denial.

At its best, portal fantasy offers us a narrative metaphor for seismic shifts in our cognitive landscape. Because our image is clearly reflected in the mirror, it can help us better decide if we like what we see. If we cross over to the Otherworld, we come back different people, if we come back at all. The portal is not a way out, but the way in.

The importance of thinking about ‘local values’ when you’re writing.

An American pal and her sister spent a few days here recently. A circuitous route to avoid some roadworks took us past Oxford Airport. Or, as I remarked, what locals still call Kidlington Airfield. I mean, the aircraft using it are twelve or twenty seaters.

‘Oh,’ says my pal, ‘big planes then.’ There was a ‘beg pardon?’ pause from me and a laugh from the car’s back seat. You see, these friends grew up in rural Alaska. As far as they’re concerned, a small plane is one where it’s just you and the pilot. Twelve seats? Luxury travel! Because normal is what you grow up with. As you can imagine, that led to a very interesting conversation.

And as is the way with authors, it’s started me thinking about the issues around local values when it comes to descriptive writing. I recall a conversation some time after Northern Storm was first published. In a bar, so after I’d given either a university or local SFF society talk. In that particular book, the magewoman Velindre spends time both in Einarinn’s frozen northlands, and later, in the tropical Aldabreshin Archipelago. The former is ‘bitterly cold’ and the latter is ‘oppressively hot’. I don’t recall what started the conversation but we were discussing exactly what those terms meant to us personally – and why I, as the writer, hadn’t included specific details to make it clear what a thermometer would say.

The first and most obvious answer is because I didn’t need to. With regard to ‘bitterly cold,’ the reader needs to know there’s snow on the ground and water is frozen. There was no plot or character related reason for me to indicate whether the temperature was minus three degrees or minus thirteen. Even a short paragraph going into more detail would have been wasted words and as far as I am concerned, every word in a book must count.

But it goes beyond that. My personal assessment of ‘bitterly cold’ is going to be very different to my Alaskan friend’s. Just as ‘oppressively hot’ means something entirely different to an author friend who lives in Hawai’i. At World Fantasy Con in San Diego a few years back, she was sitting in the full sunshine in a cardigan and considering getting a jacket while those of us just in from a UK October were grabbing all the shade we could find, sweltering in the most lightweight clothing we owned.

So going back to Northern Storm, adding more precise detail to either of those descriptions could well have been actively counterproductive. Specifying ‘oppressively hot’ in my own personal terms could very easily throw a reader used to a different climate right out of the story. Because their instinctive reaction would be ‘Wait, what? No, that’s not hot weather!’ And even something as apparently trivial as that could undermine the whole book for them. Because if a reader can’t believe in the background detail, how are they going to believe in the wizards and dragons?

On the other hand, you can turn this issue of local values to your writerly advantage, in the right place, for the right character. When I said minus three degrees or minus thirteen a few paragraphs back, I meant Celsius, because my local weather values are centigrade. When I come across temperatures given in Farenheit in US crime fiction, I always have to pause and do a quick mental conversion calculation. It disrupts the flow of my reading, so as far as I am concerned, that’s a bad thing.

But if I was a character in a book? If the author wanted to convey someone feeling unsettled and out of their usual place? Sure, that author could tell us ‘She felt unsettled by the unfamiliar numbers in the weather forecast’ but you could do so much more, and far more subtly, as a writer by showing the character’s incomprehension, having her look up how to do the conversion online, maybe being surprised by the result. It gets how cold in Minnesota in the winter?

It doesn’t just have to be about the weather. How about food? Anyone in the UK who travels to different cities and eats in Indian restaurants will know how much the chilli scale on menus varies. As I can attest from personal experience, what’s ‘medium hot’ in Bradford is a world away from ‘medium hot’ in Blandford Forum. There’s a lot a writer can do with that sort of thing.

It’s also worth checking your own local values/understanding against any historical or other background facts and resources you may be using. I was once attending a convention panel discussing the ancient world, when a genuinely baffled audience member sought clarification after a speaker discussed issues arising from the impossibility of telling slaves from free citizens in ancient Athens. But surely, the colour of their skin…? Because that questioner’s knowledge of slavery was entirely US-based and she was assuming central aspects of that were historically universal. Not so, by any means.

That’s perhaps an extreme example, but for instance, I’ve been caught out – though thankfully in a book’s planning phase, not in print – when assumptions I’ve made about growing and harvest seasons, based on my experience living in the UK, turned out to be nonsensical for the different climate and latitudes where I was setting some action.

So it really is worth taking a little time to consider what that well-known online phrase ‘Your Mileage May Vary’ could mean in relation to your writing, for readers and for characters.