Monthly Archives: July 2014

Tips from the crit group I

There’s a common claim that if you join a creative writing crit group, you get more out of critting other people than being critted.

I broadly agree with this. Firstly, there’s a level of precision I’ve developed from critting. It’s too easy for me to think: ‘My thing reads weird – I’ll move some stuff around – there, that reads better’.

In contrast, with other people’s work, I often have to think: ‘Your thing reads weird – why does it read weird? What’s actually going on there? Is that approach ever effective, and if so, what are other writers doing differently with it? (Bloody hell, do I do that?) How can I explain it to you?’

(Of course, now I need to take that precision back to my own editing, which is harder.)

Secondly, advice for other people’s work can be useful for your own. In that spirit, for my benefit, below are some (anonymised) top tips and thoughts from yesterday’s meeting. Thanks to my fellow attendees.

It’s sadly easy to get a ‘white box’ effect when you’ve not enough vivid/concise/telling details about a story’s setting, and a ‘blurry face’ effect for a 3rd person narrator. Both are disconcerting.

We connect with characters when they have goals and desires, because we have goals and desires. [Or do we? Do we connect with the desiring character because it’s actually a kind of idealisation, because we’re a messy bundles of contradictory, partially understood impulses? Are fictional stories selling us the myth of individual coherence, or (less cynically) are they ways of managing and exploring incoherence? (And does that vary between genres?) This discussion took me back to when I studied autobiography – there’s a big dispute about whether autobiography artificially smooths over the contradictions in a life, or is a way of articulating and honouring contradictions.]

Having a character eat their own arm is cool. 

Tell us what’s at stake. Then persuade us it’s actually stake-full. What makes something stake-y? You can state that the fate of the world is in the balance and it still might not have heft – what gives stakes weight?

You still need precision if you’re being messianic and grandiose.

Is it possible to combine the looming, unspeakable, obscure dread of much turn-of-the-century Gothic with the specificity of SciFi worldbuilding? [That was interesting to me because I’m reading Gothic Science Fiction eds. Wasson and Alder at the moment – very fun stuff.]

Use ‘modified’ to reduce the number of pedants distracted by your inaccuracy (e.g. ‘modified shoggoth’)


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It’s all a great big Con

I’m delighted to be doing things at Nine Worlds Geekfest!

Backstory: please imagine it’s last October in a dark pub in Brighton. It’s a publisher party connected to the World Fantasy Con so I’m hemmed in by generous-spirited writers and enthusiastic readers. It’s so packed that everyone has to slide like a tile puzzle so that one person can eventually reach the bar/loo.

The brilliant Jared of Pornokitsch asks me if I’d be interested in doing something at Nine Worlds, as he’s one of the book track organisers.

“But I am not prestigious enough,” I wail. Because being around interesting people all weekend is both inspirational and intimidating for me, with the two moods rising and falling like a fox/rabbit population graph.

I can’t recall his exact words me but the gist was ‘WEVS’ because he is my sometime excellent editor, not my therapist.

So I left that event with the intention to publish enough fiction that when Nine Worlds turned up, I would be less embarrassed.

Which led to frantic writing! Surprisingly successful submitting! Most of the stuff on this page!

After I’d sold some stories, I emailed Jared to say I would indeed be glad to humbly put my name forward for participation.

I think he said ‘WEVS ALREADY DONE IT’.

So I’ll be speaking on this:

Food In Fantasy: A panel discussion with Ed Cox, Mark Newton and Gail Carriger
Saturday 1:30-2.45
Room 32

And chairing this:

Love and Sex: an intimate exploration.
With Rebecca Levene, Tiffani Angus, Sarah Lotz, Laurie Penny
Friday 6.45 – 8.00pm
County C&D

Massively looking forward to both. The food panel will be a chance for me to admit I like mead in public, complain about coffee analogues in epic quests and meet awesome people. Love and Sex will take me back to my academic roots in sexuality/queer theory, see if anyone’s writing slash about Brian the Spider from Blakes Seven, and meet awesome people.

I’m also helping with this:

How To Beat Writers’ Block – with the T Party Writers’ Group
Saturday 3.15pm – 4.30pm
County A

The T-Party are an incredibly useful London-based genre writing group who will help your fingers sizzle as you write.

I’m looking forward to it all immensely.

(Rule 34.)

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Moments of surrender

A post from Kieron Gillen has set me off on an 80s queer disco listening jag. While bobbing helplessly on a sea of ecstatic emotion, I’m mainly noticing:

1. my fondness for a well-turned arch phrase encapsulating angst has not diminished. Compare my teen faves the Pet Shop Boys (Do I Have To):

It’s a fatal mistake, and you know it, that you’re dying to make, and you’ll pay for it…

to my current preference, the Mountain Goats – well, pretty much the whole of their lyrical output. Maybe this one (Old College Try):

someone’s going to do something someone else will regret…

(although without the musical line I admit that’s a bit of a mouthful).

2. I’ve been reading up on addiction, recently (not for dramatic personal reasons).
A suggestion that was new to me was that when someone’s successfully avoided an addictive behaviour for a while, relapse is often preceded by a moment of feeling total helplessness. As in: I am not strong, or big, or powerful enough to resist this. If you know that pattern, you can spot that thought and try to tackle it. Root it out, prop it up, not relapse.

I don’t want to be glib about the suffering of addiction (and I don’t want to back that as a theory – I don’t know enough to critique it, but I can see other reasons one might fall off a wagon). But that idea of a fatal moment of self-doubt resonated with so many lyrics I could think of, which were about (usually) sexual wrongdoing. Pet Shop Boys again:

It’s already too late, go on, admit it…

This is the wrong thing to do, the lyrics acknowledge, but I am going to do it anyway, and there’s relief and joy in that instant: everything will go to shit in a minute but there’ll be just a minute or two of celebration while I set down my burden.
And denial and surrender teeter along together deliciously for a bit – knowledge of the pattern seeps back into the struggling period beforehand and contaminates it, makes it easier (but undermines it) by promising a rest:

I want to say I’m sorry for stuff I haven’t done yet
Things will shortly get completely out of hand

I’m wondering if that moment is peculiarly pop-y.
Surrender to anything makes for good pop music, because the lyrical content can match the feeling of letting music flood your head and heart, or the physical feeling of throwing yourself into dance, or a dancing crowd. Surrender that you know is coming is the hallmark of the lead-up to a particularly ecstatic chorus.
Surrender to a part of oneself that is usually stoically denied is even better.
Sexy surrender = top marks.

In conclusion, drugs ≠ sex ≠ music, and clinical addiction is not the same as really wanting to sleep with your best friend’s boyfriend, but you can certainly work the parallels.

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