How and Why Test-Readers/Copy-Editors/Any Fresh, Thoughtful Eyes Improve Creative Writing

This is really interesting. If you look back at the short story I posted yesterday, you’ll see that I have now edited one word. I have changed the line in question to

noting which pupils could now usefully be directed towards reading Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey.

Because in the comments on my main blog, a reader wondered why only girls should be directed towards those books, as the initial text implied. That’s a very good question and the quick answer is self-evident. There is no good reason why only girls should read Austen and the Brontes. Indeed there are many good reasons why boys should read the full range of such classic literature.

The longer answer is more complex and more revealing. Writing this story, I was drawing on my own memories of A Level English, where, yes, we studied Keats. This is particularly the case because that first impulse to write this story was prompted by a friend I have known since that very class. It was her helpful phone that turned ‘varifocal’ into ‘verifcation’. We went to the same girls’ grammar school, so in my mind’s eye, the class I’m recalling is entirely female.

Then there’s the Twilight angle which you’ll see in the story. Again, I’m drawing on my own experiences going into schools these days and teaching creative writing. It’s invariably a dreamy-eyed girl who askes me if I’ve read Twilight. (To which my answer is always,’No, I haven’t got round to it yet, but I do read Kelley Armstrong and Patricia Briggs and now you’ve read all the Twilight books, why not give them a try’.) So once again, in that particular paragraph, my writerly subconsious is full of girls.

The key thing here is that while the longer answer is very illuminating, the shorter answer is the one that counts. Because there is no good reason why this line should only refer to girls. In fact, changing the word to ‘pupils’ actively improves the story in several subtle ways.

So there you go. A real-life, real-time example of the editing process and what it contributes to the books we read. Isn’t that great?

A short story prompted by predictive text’s idiosyncracies.

Yesterday I remarked online that I keep finding I’m peering over my glasses or shoving them up on my head for close work now. Assorted pals put up their hands, admitting to their bi-, tri and varifocal lenses these days. One long-standing friend was caught out by her helpful phone which declared she now wears ‘verification’ glasses. The consensus was those sounded a lot more interesting than the usual opticians’ offerings.

As is the way of writers, I found myself thinking idly, doing the washing up and on the school run this morning. So here you are.

Insight

She entered the classroom, put her handbag on the desk and opened it, taking out her glasses case. ‘Good morning, everyone. Settle down please.’
11JW did as she asked, with greater or lesser alacrity.
Swapping her everyday glasses for the ones in the case, Maeve reached for the textbook and opened it. ‘Keats, please. St Agnes Eve.’
‘New specs, Miss?’ Amy looked up from the front row.
Maeve smiled. ‘They’re verification lenses.’
Sitting next to Amy, Emma laughed. ‘You mean varifocals, Miss.’
‘Do I?’ Maeve smiled again before looking up to survey the class. ‘Well, now, I hope everyone has read the poem and made some notes after last time. Who wants to start today’s discussion?’
‘Oh, Miss, it was so romantic. Like Twilight.’ Becky propped her chin on her hand, eyes dreamy.
‘Romantic?’ In the row behind Becky, Josh laughed lewdly. ‘It’s all about some bloke sneaking in to a girl’s bedroom to give her one.’
As the other boys sniggered though, Maeve saw the silver thread of yearning stretch from the centre of Josh’s chest to hover, stopping just short of caressing Natalie’s exuberant, black curls.
‘Do you think that sort of coarseness will improve your chances with a girl, Josh?’ she asked mildly.
As the boys subsided, abashed, Maeve nodded, satisfied. ‘Though you do have a point, Josh, and we’ll consider that when we reach that part of the poem. Becky’s also raised an interesting question. Where do we draw the line between romantic pursuit and stalking? Why do some remarkably old-fashioned ideas persist in modern literature?’
That prompted a lively debate between the Twihards and the rest. Maeve let it run for a few minutes, noting which pupils could now usefully be directed towards reading Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey.
‘So—’ she raised her voice to reclaim the class’s attention ‘—let’s get back to Keats. Oliver, you haven’t had anything to say so far. Did you do your homework?’
‘Yes, Miss,’ he said defensively. ‘Just didn’t like it.’
He was lying, obviously. Maeve could see the tell-tale crackles of black suffusing his aura.
‘Appreciating literature is just as much about understanding why we don’t like a piece of work,’ she said sternly. ‘I will expect you to set out all your reasons with relevant quotes in your essay. Vicky, bring your phone to me.’
‘What?’ Vicky looked up, aghast. ‘Miss?’
‘Your phone, Vicky.’ Maeve held out her open hand.
Blushing furiously, Vicky heaved herself out of her seat and slouched to the front of the class. She handed over the phone with an exaggerated sigh.
Maeve noted the furtive shuffling of the others who had imagined they could keep their phones unseen in their laps beneath the tabletops. Doubtless they could, when they were dealing with other teachers who couldn’t see right through the tables.
‘Thank you. Collect it from the office at the end of the day.’ She smiled at the rest of the class. ‘Now, let’s start with the poem’s first stanza.’
The rest of the lesson proceeded according to plan and by the time the bell rang, Maeve was well satisfied with the class’s contributions.
‘Thank you, everyone, and I will expect your essays first thing on Friday.’ She closed her text book with a sharp slap as the teenagers began leaving their seats and hauling their bags up from the floor.
‘Sarah, one moment.’ Maeve raised her hand to command the girl’s attention. ‘You’ve got a free now, I believe? Could you take this note to Miss Williams in the library for me, please?’
‘Yes, Miss, of course.’ Sarah tried to hide her relief.
Maeve handed the envelope to the girl, walking to the classroom door with her. ‘What are you three waiting for?’ She looked sternly at Jade, Tasha and Jenna who were loitering in the corridor. ‘Get to your next lesson!’
Maeve stood in the doorway, her expression expectant, until the vicious trio retreated. The acid green tendrils of their spite which had been coiling around Sarah all through the class shrivelled as they departed. They were bullies but they weren’t stupid. They wouldn’t risk cornering this week’s chosen victim when she was running an errand for a teacher.
‘I’ll go and start work on my essay, Miss.’ Sarah turned in the other direction, heading for sanctuary in the library.
As 9FW surged noisily through the double doors at the end of the corridor, Maeve smiled, satisfied.
She knew that Jade, Tasha and Jenna called her an old witch behind her back. What the girls didn’t know, of course, was they were perfectly correct. Though not an old witch. Maeve was merely a middle-aged one, and perfectly capable of taking the necessary measures when her third eye’s vision started to feel the passing years’ effects.

*Edited to change ‘girls’ to ‘pupils’… analysis and explanation to follow in the next blog post.

How I met the Warlock of Firetop Mountain

As regular readers will know, I rarely blog between Christmas and New Year. As well as the holiday season, we have a slew of family birthdays from 20th December onwards so it’s a very busy time of year. This year however, I did write a guest blog for Jonathan Green, who’s been running a Kickstarter to fund a book celebrating thirty years and exploring the history of Fighting Fantasy Game Books. I’m thrilled to say the project is now funded – but there’s still time to get involved, and there are some great rewards up for grabs here.

And while you’re thinking about it, here’s that blog post, to explain why I’m backing this particular project.

I encountered Fighting Fantasy gamebooks not too long after they first appeared. I’d gone up to university in 1983 and that’s where I’d discovered Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, Aftermath, Toon, Heroes, Car Wars and other tabletop role-playing games which instantly appealed to my lifelong love of fantasy and science-fiction. Such gaming offered me a whole new interactive and participatory way of engaging with such stories. After all those books which I’d read, wanting to slap some sense into the hero who persisted in doing something so dumb that surely only an moron would go ahead. Now I could shout across the table to stop the idiot paladin about to open the grim portal or ominously rune-engraved box. I could be the one suspiciously interrogating the apparently helpful peasant giving directions to the dragon’s den. Now I could be the one rolling a critical fumble and getting skewered by a kobold. (As with just about everyone playing AD&D in that era, our group played a highly personalised and modified version of the rules).

I have wondered since why SF&F meshes so well with table top gaming. I think it’s because speculative fiction invites engagement with the narrative to a far greater extent than other fictions. SF&F isn’t reflecting the world as we know it, offering us insights into the reality we inhabit. It’s constantly asking us to imagine ourselves somewhere else, where the rules we think we know don’t necessarily apply, whether those are the laws of physics or society. The eternal question of SF&F is ‘what if…?’ That wish to step through the barrier of the pages and participate directly in the stories ourselves naturally follows. Indeed, portal fantasy has been a staple of the genre since Alice first fell down the rabbit hole and Lucy entered the wardrobe. Who would have imagined that a handful of weird-shaped dice could satisfy that longing?

Which was great as long as I was at university. But come the end of term time, I had to go home and in those long-ago pre-Internet days, there was no way of finding like-minded souls back in Dorset. How could I continue that direct participation in story-weaving that I’d got so used to enjoying?

Fan fiction? That was also something I’d encountered for the first time at university, through the dubious medium of a much-copied photo-copy of ‘Spock in Manacles’… Setting aside the literary merits of that particular work, I was familiar with the motivation behind fan-fiction. More than once, during a particularly tedious English lesson discussing the Romantic Poets, I would stare out of the window and indulge in a light reverie about Blake’s Seven, mentally writing myself into an episode never to be seen outside my own head. The thing is though, such episodes weren’t particularly satisfying and not only because I still had such vast amounts to learn about characterisation, pacing, exposition and all the other facets of writing craft. The main problem was, there were never any surprises. I knew what was hidden behind the curtain or in the talking box because I’d thought it up in the first place. All in all, I found such indulgent daydreams as unsatisfying as playing chess against myself.

Then someone lent me a copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I forget who it was but I’m pretty sure they were in the same fix as me outside of term time. Now we had a solution! Solo gaming within a system that played fair in the sense of punishing stupidity as well as rewarding intelligent thinking and still with the added edge of unpredictable dice rolls landing you in no-win situations. Because game systems should be fair but as the Goblin King reminds us in Labyrinth, real life simply isn’t. Which was great, because the endless variations and possibilities meant you could play the book time and again. Even once you’d won, you could go back and see where the roads not taken might have led.

I love the way these books endured despite the arrival of computer games. I remember playing early attempts at those and being very unimpressed, both by the quality of the writing and plotting and by the inadequacies of the graphics. Fighting fantasy game books offered far superior game play for a good long while as well as the fabulous pictures inside my own head, spun off the wonderful cover art and the line drawings inside. It’s only in recent years that computer games have come anywhere near matching such visuals, never mind such intricate storytelling and replayability.

So of course I’m backing this project. I am intrigued to learn more about the history of these books. How the idea first originated, how they came to be published and who was involved in their creation and development and why. Quite apart from anything else, I bet I’m not the only one currently writing epic fantasy fiction with such fond memories of flipping through an increasingly creased paperback, pencil between teeth and dice ready to hand.

Traditional British Reserve 0 Readerly/Writerly Enthusiasm 3

Being involved in a Kickstarter is a decidedly unusual experience. Writers have not tradtionally stood up and asked directly for money for their work. We contract that out to our lovely agents, publishers, booksellers and so on. British writers especially are pretty reticent when it comes to shameless self=promotion on the web or at conventions. There’s generally more of an unspoken ‘if you would care to buy my books, to y’know, help keep my children fed and shod, that would be very decent of you’ vibe.

So me posting another update about Tales from the Emerald Serpent… is that ‘quite the thing’?

Yes, but, look, here’s a taster from Martha Wells’s story – and since I’ve been lucky enough to read the whole thing, I want to share it with everyone. (And if you’re not already reading Martha’s Books of the Raksura click here to see why you should be.

From her Emerald Serpent Story –

REVENANTS

by Martha Wells

They made an odd pair for a number of reasons, but one was that she was tall for a Jai-ruk and he was short for a Kin. They were dissimilar on all counts, except for their interest in the past, and in strange myths, and mysteries, and how the world had looked before they set foot on it. They talked of things no one else cared about. Rather than an odd pair, everyone thought they were just odd.

“This is a job that will pay us well,” Kryranen said. “Up in the Golden Jaguar District.” She added unnecessarily, “Where people like the Vash live.”

“You’re supposed to be keeping the notes,” Jelith pointed out. Most inhabitants of Taux assumed Jai-ruk were too brutish for scholarly pursuits, but Kryranen’s handwriting was better than his. Her hands were large but her fingers were slender and dexterous; his notes looked like the scratchings of a child next to her elegant script.

She leaned forward to look at the book and her grimace suggested she agreed. “I’ll recopy it later.” Exasperated, she said, “You just don’t like working for money. It’s too bad we can’t eat history.”

“You would eat history if you could,” Jelith felt he had to say. It was true.

She folded her arms and gave him the long-suffering look.

He sighed. “What is this job?”

“They want us to lay a ghost.”

Jelith stared. “Are you out of your mind?”

You can find out a whole lot more abou the Jai Ruk (and other cool stuff) on the Emerald Serpent Updates page

And then there’s this terrific video, put together for us by Shane Wheeler, one of our pledged supporters, for sheer love of the project.

Incidentally, check out the Kickstarter page and you’ll see the bonus level for further volumes is now set at an additional $5000 per anthology. Why yes, all of us involved are that keen to get the chance to write more in this world.

(For anyone clicking through expecting this post to be anything else, you clearly missed the memo about Arthur C Clarke Award judges not making public statements about the shortlist or anything else. Sorry about that.)

Ready, Steady, Flash! Instant fiction at the SFX Weekender 2012

Since a consensus has emerged that we’re all going to blog our various pieces, here goes.

“We” being myself, Stacia Kane, Tony Lee and Paul Cornell. I am still wondering how Lee Harris talked any of us into doing this; namely, writing five minute short stories from subjects given to us on the day, no forewarning, no nothing. I’ve never done anything so nerve-wracking at a convention – my first fear being crashing and burning personally, closely followed by the fear that someone else would crash and burn, because that would have been pretty much equally dreadful. Thankfully instant camaraderie was apparent as we took our seats along the table – in a ‘we who are about to die’ kind of way – and as it turned out, we could all turn our hands and different styles to the challenge without disgracing ourselves. Phew.

On reflection I’m entertained to see what inspiration my writerly subconscious grabbed for under this pressure, and trust me, I can identify all their sources… It’s also interesting to see how naturally I fell into a three-beat structure, and also, into writing from first person. I’ve not done that in my novels for a good few books now. It’s equally fascinating to see how very different our styles and approaches were, as you’ll see when you compare and contrast my efforts with everyone else’s.

So, here goes – bearing in mind this is what I have written down but I know I verbally edited a bit as I read them out…


The Old Gods

“The Old Gods are jealous gods. They live in out of the way places. They have been forgotten. They have not forgotten you.”

Not the most reassuring note to find in among the gas bill, the letter about the water rates going up and two pizza delivery leaflets.

And this was a new house. Some smarmy bastard had bought it as a buy-to-let to make a fortune out of people who can’t get a mortgage even though the rents they’re paying cost more than a mortgage would. Sore point? Too damned right.

So, anyway, I screwed up the note, binned it and went to work. When I got back the landlord was there, bitching about the stain on the carpet that had been there when we moved in.

So I killed him. The next day I got that new job I’d applied for. And the next note in the post said ‘The Old Gods approve of your sacrifice…’


(I won that round on the basis of audience acclaim)

Zombies in Prestatyn

Seaside towns. God’s waiting room. I used to live in Bournemouth. Talk about Days of the Living Dead.

So I didn’t have high hopes when we found ourselves driven to the North Wales coast, trying to avoid the Plague, the Syndrome, the whatever-it-was dropping people in their tracks, in the hospitals, until they started getting up and ripping lumps out of people.

Then I found out what old people can really do, with a walking stick, a zimmer frame, a golf club. Did you know that old boys who remember their National Service can be quite handy with a Molotov cocktail? That grannies who went out with buckets of sand to put out incendiaries dropped by the Luftwaffe aren’t easily intimidated by zombies.

I asked one of the old ladies about that and she told me, when you don’t have much life left, you’re not about to let some rotting youth take it away from you.

(Tony Lee won that round with a POEM!)

Unicorn Sandwiches (this was the audience participation suggestion…)

I don’t know who decided that unicorn sandwiches are the official, sacred, royal food for a coronation but that was the kingdom’s tradition and kingdoms like their traditions. The king’s mage said it had to be done and that was that.

The thing is, unicorns are bloody dangerous. Horses are dangerous enough with hooves and teeth and kicking. Unicorns have that horn too and it’s not just for show.

The other thing about unicorns is only a virgin can tame one. I was the princess and thus was uniquely qualified by virtue of royal birth and being untouched by human hand. That’s what the king’s mage said and that was that. Bloody wizards.

So the night before the hunt, I cut up my sheets and plaited and knotted and made a rope and tied it to my bedstead and hung it out of my window. And Sir Pelin climbed up.

And the next morning, I wasn’t qualified to go hunting unicorns and the king’s mage couldn’t do a thing about it and that was that. Because sometimes, once a night is enough.

(Stacia Kane won that round and you’ll see exactly why when you read her offering)

(while my own piece demonstrates so clearly how vital the revision phase is in writing, because reading that back, I now see that last sentence should be ‘Sometimes one (k)night is all it takes.

(and this is when we ran out of time)

Good Housekeeping’s Writing Competition does NOT rule out SF&F

Some weeks before Christmas, a couple of pals alerted me to Good Housekeeping’s forthcoming competition. “Have you got a best-seller in you?” the magazine asked. If so, the winner could see a £25,000 advance, their book in print and get introduced to a top literary agent. Come to that, free laptops to the runners up isn’t to be sneezed at.

The competition’s in association with Orion Books and literary agent, Luigi Bonomi. Such credible, professional involvement is even more encouraging, especially when there are so many sharks and charlatans preying on aspiring writers in the murkier shallows of the creating writing biz.

So far so good. Until I read… “We’re looking for entries from any grown up genre whether it’s historical romance, whodunit, comedy or international spy thriller.”

No mention of SF& Fantasy. What does that mean? Was this intentional? Do they perhaps not consider SF & Fantasy grown-up? It wouldn’t be the first time. Or do they not think the magazine’s readership would be interested in our genre? Once again, the outdated stereotype of the teenage fanboy might be lurching around in zombified fashion.

But this seems all the more puzzling when we consider Orion/Victor Gollancz are one of the longest-established and currently strongest SF&F lists in publishing.

So I decided to ask, courteously rather than table-thumping which would hardly help. Not that finding out who to contact and how was particularly easy, and there was also the Xmas/New Year rush/hiatus being typically unhelpful.

Anyway, I’ve just got a reply, from which I quote –

I would like to stress that science fiction and fantasy are by no means excluded from the competition – the only genre excluded was children’s.

Gollancz is part of Orion Books, and even if the winning entry isn’t SF (and it may be!), a good entry could still find its way onto their desks. So please tell your pupils or any aspiring writers you know to enter and I wish you all the best. The entry form is still on our website.

So, those of writing SF&F are not ruled out and while there are no guarantees here, any more than in any other area of life, that’s a usefully positive response.

Here’s the webpage with all the info. All entries must be received by 31 March 2012.

On Irene Adler and outrage (and influences and Charoleia)

I’ve very much enjoyed both the movie A Game of Shadows and the series opener to the BBC’s updated Sherlock. Despite – and please do not underestimate the strength of my feelings here – the truly appalling way both stories ripped up (and worse) the character of Irene Adler as depicted by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

NB: If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read on until you’ve seen the film/programme.

In A Scandal in Bohemia, she is beautiful, a supremely talented singer and – this is the crucial bit – she outwits Holmes and departs to live her own life on her own terms. Now she is a pawn of Moriarty, to be killed off in the first instance, and in the second facing death only to be saved by Holmes’ melodramatic intervention. Yes, in the original story, she is ‘an adventuress’ in her youth, but at this point, she is devoted to the husband of her own choosing. Not some dominatrix whose power over men and women apparently begins and ends with her naked body.

This really pisses me off and I am not the only one. See here for CE Murphy’s reaction – and please do read the comments as well . Also this from Another Angry Woman and from The Guardian, Jane Clare Jones on ‘Is Sherlock Sexist?’.

These are only the pieces that have caught my eye, I imagine there are more. What I’d be very interested to know is if there are any similar expressions of outrage from men. Because it’s women I see getting really incensed by this, online and in person.

Why is that? Why am I so thoroughly and lastingly annoyed, tarnishing all my other enjoyment of both film and TV programme? I’ve been giving that some thought. Well, I first read the Holmes books in my early teens. Looking back I don’t think I consciously noticed the lack of female characters with any authority and agency; the realisation of such absences in ‘classic’ fiction and the misogynist implications when such patterns are followed unthinkingly by contemporary writers came later. But I’ll bet I noted it subconsciously, because I really loved those stories. The classic teen response to beloved fiction is to identify with the particular character whom one imagines is most like oneself, maybe even imagining oneself into the milieu in fan-fiction fashion. That’s really hard to do for girls reading Holmes – until we encounter Irene Adler. The Woman. A Woman we can all aspire to be, even if we don’t yet realise it.

Not in these two recent stories. Not any more. And for no compelling reason in either case. Not for plot purposes that couldn’t have been achieved in some other way. Thus betraying the enduring and infuriating blind spots when it comes to male film makers and script writers writing women characters – the way in which even the strongest so often end up defined by their relationship to men. Grrrrrr.

And I’ve realised something else that reflects back on just what a lasting impact this one character, only appearing in one early Holmes short story, had on me and ultimately, on my writing.

I’ve been doing one of those email interviews where we swap questions and answers (and I’ll post a link when it’s available for reading). One of the questions is about influences and I’ve said how I always find them impossible to identify. For instance, a good while ago, when conversation turned to the works of Alan Moore, someone, I forget who, remarked on the clear influence of Halo Jones on my first female protagonist Livak. I looked at them in astonishment. Not because they were wrong. Because they were so right – and I would never have seen that for myself.

With that in mind, and thinking about Irene Adler this morning, I’ve just realised what a major element she is in Charoleia’s character-DNA. For those of you who haven’t yet encountered Charoleia, she’s an ‘information broker’; which is to say, she gathers and trades information about the rich and powerful, profiting handsomely in mostly unspecified ways, thanks to her extensive network of contacts from highest to lowest in political and criminal circles (especially where those overlap) across all the countries that once made up the Old Tormalin Empire – and beyond. And here’s something crucial; she isn’t a kiss-and-tell, pillow-talk merchant. Yes, she’s strikingly beautiful and will use her allure as and when that’s the most effective tool to hand. But she’s no whore, nor even a courtesan. When Charoleia takes a man to her bed, it’s on her own terms, of her own choosing and not for coin.

She and Irene Adler have a lot in common, in my writerly subconscious at least. So that’s definitely one element in why I am quite so cross – though by no means the only one.