Something sensational to read in the train

I’ve known for years that if you want to be a writer, you need to carry around a notebook. Inspiration may strike at any time. So I diligently bought a notebook, used about 1/3 of the pages and lost it. Repeatedly.

But I get older, and wiser, and I’ve finally finished a whole bloody notebook!

It was well worth picking up that writerly habit. Now I need never forget:

  • my inability to let go of a bad idea (on three separate ideas-generating pages, having completely forgotten the last time I wrote it down, and with escalating insistence):

IMG_20150926_221836

IMG_20150926_221853

IMG_20150926_221808

Before this genre-shattering twist occurs to me:

OR not really vampires?

  •  This rather optimistic bit of self-interrogation:

NOTEBOOK subtly

(Spoilers: I am, if anything, less subtle and complex than a chase-y shooty plot and doubt if I could pull one off with any competence or flair.)

  • Finally, this terrible decision:

NOTEBOOK satan

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Coming out plots and dead ends

UKIP recently applied to march at London Pride, and were refused.
The debate – particularly those who wrote in defence of their right to be included – made me aware (again) that for many UK LGBT people, LGBT identities are white-by-default.

I (partly) blame the coming out story. (Or at least I think it’s contributed to the problem.)

Coming out stories were a big chunk of gay, lesbian and bi publication in the 80s and 90s, both autobiographical and fictional. They were powerful, and useful, and some of them are a delight. The stages of the coming out story became a kind of template for gay identity: first doubt, then self-discovery; telling others, getting hurt, finding friends; moving to The Big City.

However, a lot of these coming out stories followed the same pattern. The protagonist, a young gay chap, was supposed to be the inheritor of his culture. He was white, middle class, able bodied – why, then, was he an outsider? Why wasn’t he scooping up the goodies due him?
Because of homophobia!
This works, up a point. It shows homophobia can affect even the otherwise fine and dandy, so it shows how powerful homophobia can be.
But it’s a really politically limited rallying cry.
These advantages/goods/privileges aren’t neutral things. A young person taking up a position of privilege (even if they’ve overcome homophobia/biphobia to do so) isn’t a straightforward happy ending. The coming out story too often says: ‘The world is mostly fair. It’s a tragedy that you, gay chap, didn’t get the penthouse because of the world’s one bit of unfairness.’ That isn’t a narrative that makes sense for working class people, queer women, disabled people, people of colour. It’s a way of telling the story which actually relies (for impact) on the not-straight person being privileged in all other aspects.

If this one type of story corners the market, and becomes ‘the story of being gay’, it helps to make gay identity white.

Not all coming out stories do this. At its best, the realisation of homophobia/biphobia leads to a greater examination of the way the world works. Characters/writers in less privileged positions often develop other, more nuanced plots to tell their stories.

White not-straight people, myself included, need to pull away from the ‘where’s my penthouse’ way of telling the story. It’s got the pull of a simple plot – it’s a kind of boiled-down hero’s journey – but it’s a dead end.

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Tips from the crit group II

More partial advice from a hive mind quarreling with itself.

In a dodgy town, would a dodgy business have a big sign? A literal question which nevertheless raises questions of nuance within extreme societies. Could a town which embraces violence nevertheless frown on drug use? Does the Biggest Cheese blatantly advertise, or go subtle and upmarket?

Neologisms. Explain them the second time you use them, to create an air of mystery. Also, ones that look like typos will just keep grating on the reader’s nerves. My hero, Teh, agrees with that.

Extended metaphors are cool but need to be consistent and not overlap too much. BONUS GENRE POINT: Particularly if they’re actually a function of a collective hallucination.

A protagonist’s lack of interest may be entirely in character, but it blocks the view of the reader trying to see the world.

Make sure you know the humans are human. I can’t remember what that meant, or who ‘you’ was in the sentence.

Losing the bar fight would be better. Sympathy is a powerful connection between reader and character, and nobody likes an invincible smart-arse.

A person’s greatest strength is also often their key weakness. I don’t think this is actually true – but then, I don’t have any weaknesses. I’m an invincible smart-arse.

Someone mentioned a screenwriting standard technique – write your characters out and draw lines to show their connections. Any characters with only one line attaching them to the rest gets cut. (I’d be happy to give credit for this nifty technique, but can’t find the origin.)
Presumably, instead of being cut, that lonesome character could be further entangled. (In fact, I tend to merge outlying characters together when editing; this increases their connections to the main plot, does weird things to their motivations, and creates personalities with real psychological incoherence depth.)

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Gay Elves

Last year, I saw a Special Issue call for LGBT fantasy fiction.

This was brilliant news for me:
Most of the fiction I write has a fantastical element.
Most of my characters aren’t straight.

So: bingo.

Plus, an explicit call felt like a chance to really dig into plots, metaphors and motifs around sexuality and gender. I’ve read a lot around the topic, and I get frustrated by the lag between the complexity that’s possible, and my comparatively rough-hewn writing. This call seemed like a chance to level up – to make my creative explorations more sophisticated.

I had the following exchange with my brain.

ME: So! What have we got? First thought, best thought! Sock it to me.
BRAIN: GAY ELVES.
ME: Oh, come on. I’m not even that interested in elves.
BRAIN: GAY ELVES.
ME: There’s literally no limit on the worlds we could invent. Whole cultures, new ways of living. That’s the point of fantasy. Nobody even has to reproduce the way humans do! What would that do to socio-sexual norms, eh, brain?
BRAIN: GAAAY EEEELVES

And that carried on for weeks.

I couldn’t believe that a genre tag had become a weird clamp on my imagination. Faced with limitless possibilities, I recoiled into the bog of the idea of Proper Fantasy – quasi-mediaeval doorstops with non-human warrior types. This was daft, as a third of the books I read last year were ‘fantasy’ (depending how you categorise vampire erotica) and I know it’s a very broad church. (Last year I read Saladin Ahmed, Mary Anne Mohanraj and Kameron Hurley, none of whom are doing elves). Even the doorstops have variety.

Alright, I thought, gay bloody elves. Bring on the pseudo-celtic posh-boys, let’s see what can be done with them. I heard the harp music, saw the tips of their pointy ears in the mist. But they wouldn’t speak, dance, snog, or develop any independent motivation. They just floated there, hair wafting in an invisible breeze.

So I had to peel my brain away from them.

I wrote this, which has no elves in it*. I clearly couldn’t handle infinite possibility, so I grabbed a fragment of European mediaeval life that fascinates me – travelling players – and spun it sideways.

(And it’s been published by the excellent Expanded Horizons, whose mission is to put out more diverse speculative fiction, and who probably never get gay elves stuck in their heads.)

*May contain traces of elves. Manufactured in a flat where other products contain elf oils and byproducts. 

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God-scale in Scotland

I’ve a short story on Daily Science Fiction (top notch site) – the timing is excellent, as I’ve been in Edinburgh, and was thinking of Edinburgh when I wrote it.

I can’t go three paces in Edinburgh without a gob-smacking view. Vertiginous drops to leafy ravines. Surely-that’s-masonic church spires. The big stone slab of Arthur’s Seat, jutting as though it’s just been pushed up by a terrifying force. And if you’re lucky, and it’s not foggy, there’s a sharp delicious light on everything.

Views can have amazing emotional impact. I’m often wary of them, when they’re man-made – it takes a fair bit of money to own a house, but it take a troubling amount to engineer a vista. You pretty much have to own everything from the place you stand to the skyline. As a child, I was lucky to visit Stourhead Gardens a lot. Check it out:

Stourhead_garden

Big views, big money. Not necessarily used destructively (there’s some interesting architecture, and some amazing plants which wouldn’t otherwise have been brought into the country). But it’s an extraordinary thing to take a chunk of the West of England and say ‘It would be nice if it looked more Italian‘. It reminded me when young of Edith Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle, and I still feel like an awestruck child when I visit.

Edinburgh is full of butter-coloured buildings of incredible size. They’re not created out of altruism (as far as I can tell, the New Town was built because of commercial opportunism, the Age of Enlightenment and hardcore plumbing malfunctions). They’re huge – but they don’t make me feel small. Instead, I feel I’m being honoured and given the red carpet treatment. Other places which are similarly large make me feel tiny, scurrying and unwelcome. I don’t know what flips that switch, for me. 

My story is, in part, about big buildings, and spectacular vistas, and the difference it makes if you think they were made for you. 

(Stourhead image thanks to Lechona at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

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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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