Bitter poetry

Anita Nowinska Turmoil II

Anita Nowinska; Turmoil II

You can’t talk. You open your mouth and nothing comes out. You want to scream but that’s what the morons do; share every little thought heedless of the consequences. You have a reputation. You care for it. You work hard and nurture it. If you let go now then you’ll have nothing, nothing.

Besides, if you start talking you might never stop.

You have so much to do. You have the time, for once. A lacuna, an eternity; the sort of space that’s bought with death. But the words won’t rest on the page. The eye flits from perch to perch, never quite getting a sense, never quite knowing what’s solid and what’s the Grimpen Mire.

And you can’t start anything new. It’s there; it comes into focus; it’s swept away by the very attempt to gather.

So time flows in gossamer drifts, swirling and swimming through the great cavity in the skull. It’s lost as soon as it’s seen; lost forever, that perfect moment always just out of reach and you can never stop moving: forwards, forwards, ever forwards. To cease is to die. Virtue measured in achievement, purity in production.

The furnaces are cold today. Rats scurry on the foundry floor. They chew on your leftovers, on the parts you discarded, all the skins you’ve set aside. You always kept them – just in case, just in case. But you’ll never wear them again. You can’t look back; too late to heal the wounds.

The bullet’s the wrong calibre. You were sold a pup. You’ve been lied to – mostly you lied to yourself. But that’s okay; you can just rip this face and start again. Maybe this time the dice will land sixes. About time the luck ran your way, huh?

This is bitter poetry. This is a silent scream. This is weakness masquerading as determination. Quitter, quitter, quitter. You’ve turned your back so many times you don’t know which way’s forwards. You’ve convinced yourself you were strong because you kept it all inside, a sin-eater, a martyr.

You put a hand to your forehead and find the seam. You pull and great necrotic scabs scatter the vermin. They return twofold for a feast. The flesh falls and it falls and it falls.

Your shadow steps away. All that’s left. All that remains.

Step into the shadows. Disappear.

Disappear again.

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On the mystery of shorts

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Planet Stories ran from 1939-55; this artwork was probably produced by Allen Anderson or Kelly Freas

“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

Ray Bradbury

I’ve never really got short stories. I’ve read quite a few collections in my time but, with rare exceptions, they’re from authors I know and like rather than miscellanies or speculative picks.

There’s no good reason for this: I totally (like, totally) respect short stories. I guess I’m just used to the long form: a short story, for me is either experimental (China Mieville, Neil Gaiman), and couldn’t be sustained over 300 pages, or feel to me just too short. I want to know what happens next. I want to know what came before. I just don’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong – some are perfect. Pratchett (‘Final Reward’) and the aforementioned Gaiman (‘Chivalry’) have written some wonderful short fictions. Asimov is at his (inconsistent) best when writing shorts, and all ‘classic’ SF writers seem to have collections in their libraries.

But when I hear a favoured author has a new release on the way I’m always a little disappointed when I find it’s ‘just’ a collection. I want more. I want depth. I want the classic forms of storytelling.

It’s not you, little stories, it’s me. I want more than a casual fling. I’m looking for commitment.

So why have I suddenly started writing them myself?

The quick answer is that I have no idea. I just found myself struck, last September, by an idea that seemed to work best in the short form. I wrote it down. I struggled with it, toyed with it, put it down for later reworking.

And then, a few weeks later, I wrote another.

Now I find myself with four of the little blighters and an expression of puzzlement on my face like a veteran punk-rocker who suddenly wakes to find he’s the far side of forty, has four kids and a job in telesales.

How has this happened?

I guess partly it must be because, with a freshly-minted youngling of my own, I’ve not had a chance to really get to grips with a new novel. The short form is merely my creativity seeking some kind of release.

Another reason is that I’ve had a lot of time to ponder little things: the rise of fake news, for example; or the changes in technology and attitude that have led inexorably to the Fitbit. These have given rise to little ‘what if we take this to its logical conclusion?’ questions – in other words, speculative fiction. These thoughts are often inconsequential, whimsical: they can’t on their own sustain a novel-length plot but strike me as – well – fun.

I struggle with fun. Humour is one thing that my novels really lack. But in short fiction I can play. I can (by my own standards) be witty. I can be Douglas Adams or Pratchett; I can embrace lunacy and surrealism the way I’ve never managed before.

I’m also writing purely for my own pleasure. Short stories: the literary equivalent of masturbation, or modern jazz. I’m not going to seek publication; there’s no great message I’m trying to impart. I’m just enjoying myself in a way I’ve never done before.

That’s not to say that if I see the right competition or submission criteria I won’t chance my arm. I’m also aware that enough material might lead to a compilation of my own. These stories are words in the bank, so to speak. But I’m not writing with any particular aim in mind.

I’m simply having fun. And this is a revelation. No-one ever told me writing could be enjoyable.

Now: back to the thorniest issue of the day. Why didn’t King Arthur wake during the second world war?

Sex & violence

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This arm belongs to someone called Halsey,  who is apparently famous. The quote’s from Romeo and Juliet

So I’m back at The Nasty Scene. I’ve written about this before – repeatedly, in fact (see here and here) – but it’s still vexing me. If you’ve neither time nor inclination to check those links, this is my scene of sex and murder. It is, deliberately, deeply unpleasant. And I’ve decided to cut it.

I’ve been considering deleting it ever since I initially wrote the damn thing. Before, in fact; it was nearly killed at birth by the guardians of taste that dwelleth within. But write it I did and ever since I’ve been wondering whether it should remain.

Without going into too much detail, my justification was that this scene matched the characters of both killer and victim; that the novel needed a dose of visceral horror at this point (it forms the mid-novel pivot); and that it served to propel the story forwards. These are all true. So why have I decided to get rid of it after hours of writing, rewriting, testing on colleagues and rewriting again?

Well, the short answer is that I read of a new prize for thrillers that avoid sexual violence against women. Now I didn’t immediately think ‘Hey, I can win this is I just rewrite this one scene.’ For one thing Oneiromancer ain’t a thriller except in the loosest terms. It’s more that this was the last piece of evidence I needed for a conviction. It brought home to me that I was/would be perpetuating a trope that I dislike.

I don’t believe in censorship. I’m glad that people can self-publish material even if I find what they’re saying objectionable (though of course it’s people’s right to complain about such material). I’m not saying that I would never write another scene of sexual violence, should the story demand it.

But I also have to live with myself. I’ve never been happy with this scene, and that should be enough to tell me that it needs revisiting. Everyone censors themselves every day (all the things you didn’t say or do) for a whole host of reasons: writers call it editing. I’m not happy with something I wrote so I’m doing something about it.

I’m glad I tried. It proved a good exercise, pushing me beyond the safe and into new territory. It made me focus on a new kind of language and imagery; a (literal) nightmare of sensation and emotion I’ve never tried to conjure before.

But now it’s time for it to go.

Of course, this means I’ll have to find something to replace it. But that’s an entirely different matter.

The rotting carcase of the word-whale

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Ideas. I don’t trust ‘em. Sneaky little beasties, creeping in where they’re least welcome, turning your world upside down and then glancing apologetically at their watches and sidling out when you need them most.

I’ve been working on my Problem Child of a manuscript for five years now. I’ve written two others in that time so it’s not been wholly consuming, but always at the back of my mind was the knowledge that I had unfinished business with this one. Now I’ve had an idea that might – might – just help me fix this horrible quagmire of a nearly novel.

Five years is a long time. Long enough for the Earth to die in. I could have saved myself the pain – and all the time spent scowling at an uncooperative manuscript – if I’d just abandoned the thing long ago.

Or if I’d self-published it.

And this is the question: even without the re-write I’m contemplating now this novel is better than the one I originally drafted. But would I have been better off just moving on and working on other things?

I’m a perfectionist, but then isn’t everyone? No-one sets out to put out bad work. I know writers who self-publish and I admit I envy their way of moving forwards; they somehow seem to know when a book is ready for the wider world. Do they have the agonies of chances missed? Do they ever feel uncomfortable about the material they’ve shared with the world?

I guess the envy really is in their resolution to say ‘That’s done. It is what it is. Onwards.’

Because the alternative is to endlessly circle the basin and never quite fall down the plughole. I know there really is no such thing as perfection; the basic conceit will always have a flaw somewhere. There’ll always be descriptions you can’t bring forth because you have to keep the story moving. There’ll be times when you have to bend the characters to your will. There has to be a beginning and an end and these are never the true start or finish, just the place the telling demands. There’ll also be the things you never saw but the readers will leap right on.

And that’s before we get into plot-holes, clichés, stereotypes and all the other things we’re going to hit in our first, roughest drafts.

How long can you keep at a piece before the structure beneath you starts to sag with the weight of rewrites, bolt-ons, new characters, new locations? How long before you’re left with nothing but the rotting carcase of a word-whale?

Maybe you should have self-published years ago. Maybe that really is the better option.

More on bad books

Bad books

I’ve never read Stephanie Meyer and have nothing against her and her work. But I still find this funny because I’m a horrible person.

I’ve finally finished Trudi Canavan’s Priestess of the White. It didn’t get any better. And whilst I could ramble on about its flaws and failings, let me ask another question: why did I follow it all the way to the end? It was hardly short – 688 pages; over 19 hours in its audio version – and yet I stuck through it. Why? And, more generally, why do ‘bad’ books become hits? I’m particularly thinking of Dan Brown and EL James here: critically reviled and yet astonishingly successful.

‘Life is too short to waste your time with bad books’, says Michael Kruger. Joyce agrees: ‘Life is too short to read a bad book’, he says. Piffle and poppycock, says I. There’s nothing wrong with reading a book that someone has labelled ‘bad’ – even for reading a book you yourself know to be bad. Here’s a few reasons I might stick with a non-critically-lauded anti-masterpiece:

  • Bad books can be easy reads

Bad books often use simple language. Not only that but every sentiment will be rammed home myriad times. Every subtext will be explained. This means you don’t have to worry about missing a key fact or ‘clue’ because the significance will be hammered home. You know what’s important. You never get lost.

All this makes a ‘bad’ book easy, undemanding company: sometimes you want simplicity, especially if you’ve a busy, complicated, life, or if you only get to read in short snatches and are frequently interrupted. Bad books (of the Dan Brown variety) do not make heavy demands on you, and sometimes it’s nice to be told what matters.

  • A bad book can have excellent elements

You can fall in love with characters. You can be gripped by plot or seek out sizzling sex scenes. You might be desperate to see what happens. A ‘bad’ book can still seize you by the neck and refuse to let go despite flaws so large they can be seen from space.

This is the Philip K. Dick defence: the writing’s bad but the ideas are so strong that it’s worth the effort. At some point you might decide that the book’s not bad after all. But you can’t honestly say that, by the basic ‘readability’ test, it’s not pretty damn poor.

I promise never to write the phrase ‘sizzling sex scenes’ ever again. Urgh. I feel dirty.

  • Bad books help you learn

Why is a book bad? If overuse of a word sticks in your craw then you’ll know not to make that error yourself. If a deus ex leaps out at you you’ll make sure you appropriately foreshadow in your own work. A writer cannot live on badness alone but bad books can be invaluable adjutants in the long march to brilliance.

  • Morbid curiosity

Part of the appeal of EL James and Dan Brown is that they’re supposed to be bad. Who doesn’t like the odd ‘scoffee break’ in their lives? See also: all women’s mags ever*. I suspect that, in reality, it’s really difficult to hit that sweet spot between compelling and crap that these two have hit. And that’s why they’re rich and you’re not.

*My personal favourite: Take A Break’s psychic special – ‘Help – my bowel is haunted!’**

**No, really.

  • A bad book is better than no book

This is clearly self-evident.

  • Stubbornness

This is my sin. I just can’t bear to give up on a book once I’ve committed to it. If I’ve made a decision to read past a certain point then I want to see it home. No, I don’t know what that point is. And yes, unless you’re a reviewer or beta-reader or have some similar excuse, this is stupid.

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Anyone got any recommendations for can’t-miss bad books? What makes you stick with a book even though part of you wants to hurl it at the nearest wall? Are some sins just too much to bear? Comments, as always. welcome.

The big board of truth

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I wrote nothing in 2017.

That’s not quite true. I did significant amounts of revision and turned out a few short stories. But nothing substantial and this bothers me. It’s time to do something about it. Yes, folks, at long last it’s time to start planning.

I’ve read two books on screenwriting in the last two years: Dave McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!. Both ended with advocating the same writing process: that of using what I like to think of as The Big Board of Truth.

They suggest that, before a word is written in anger, a story is constructed by using postcards on an idiot board: each postcard represents a scene (or group of scenes) and you build the story piece by piece, moving then around until truth and beauty become one.

This advice is meant for screenwriters and I’m not by nature a planner. But the benefits, as I see them, are that it’ll help focus my mind on the gaps in a currently nebulous plot. It’ll help me take the ideas from my head – where they’re currently floating free and randomly bashing everything else out of place – and pin them into physical form.

Will this work? Will it do anything more than take up valuable writing time? We’ll have to see. But I’ve made a start in my own particular, half-assed way. A big idiot-board? Pah, I have a spreadsheet.

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A brainstorm of initial ideas. The colours represent ‘acts’: yellow is backstory; green the opening; blue the story’s ‘meat’ and red the climax

The details are sketchy (and – unfortunately – blurry). It’s written in my own shoddy shorthand. It’s simply a list of ideas, some of which will be abandoned whilst others will be so heavily disguised that they could appear in an Anonymous’ Anonymous meeting without anyone being the wiser.

The next step was to transfer each scene to its predicted place in the finished novel, thus:

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I’d generally recommend a physical model rather than a computer version; solidity changes the way we perceive a concept. But I’m drowning in a sea of clutter as it is. If the worst comes to the worst I have scissors.

So now I have a plan. A plan of a plan, no less. Will this idea serve me at all? It’s kind of up to me. At the moment I’m just trying things out, trying to pin my errant dinosaur mind into the tar-pit of rationality. I’m hole-hunting. I’m seeking flow, direction and drive.

I’m seeking out characters to transform from placeholders into flesh-and-blood. I’m looking for motivations; for causality; for sub-plots; for flow. I’m using the technique to unspool a convoluted plot and find its place in a narrative. Whether this will become a one-off or will become a regular prelim to my writing – well, we’ll see.

I shall, of course, keep you updated on progress. But for now it’s peace out, y’all. Happy writing.

The most anticipated releases of 2018

Stack of books

Morning all. After a quick canter through my favourite books of 2017, here’s a simpler post: the books I’m most looking forwards to getting my grubby little protuberances on in 2018.

The Queen of All Crows – Rod Duncan

This, the first of The Map of Unknown things series, is already out and garnering excellent reviews. I’ve just finished the first chapter and am already seized.

Rod is a great writer (and a lovely chap) and Elizabeth Barnabus is a great character. I can’t wait to see how the Gas-lit Empire will finally fall. I’m just hoping it involves more of the dwarf Fabulo.

Out now

The Dark Angel – Elly Griffiths

I don’t read as much crime as I used to but I still can’t resist the lure of a good murder. The Ruth Galloway series is a wonderful example of how to carry characters over long arcs – this is the tenth book and the pleasure is as much in the protagonist’s uncertain relationship with (married, but not to Ruth) DI Harry Nelson as it is with solving mysteries.

Also it’s set in my spiritual home of Norfolk and features an archaeologist in the lead role. What’s not to love?

8th February

Smoke Eaters – Sean Grigsby

Grigsby is a new author for me; another I came across via Twitter. Smoke Eaters will be his debut novel and the idea – firemen versus dragons – is temptation enough on its own. The buzz for it is building, and that – along with an excellent cover – is enough to intrigue.

He also runs the Cosmic Dragon podcast, if you’re at all interested.

March

The Soldier – Neal Asher

I used to recommend Asher to all and sundry; he’s certainly one of the best sci-fi writers out there with his mix of AIs, interstellar warfare and viral contamination. Sadly, his politics means I can no longer extol his praises. His ‘Owner’ trilogy was just too much for me.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not eagerly anticipating his new release. I’ve learnt a lot from his writing over the years – he’s one of those surprisingly influential writers that seem to creep up on you unawares.

May

Revenant Gun – Yoon Ha Lee

 The concluding part of the ‘Machineries of Empire’ trilogy, Yoon Ha Lee is one of the authors (along with Ann Leckie) who has really changed the way we look at science-fiction other the last five years. This series isn’t for everyone, but it is great. Looking forwards to this immensely.

14th June

Lies Sleeping – Ben Aaronovitch

I love the Peter Grant series. I can’t express just how much I wish I could write with this much smart humour. And, as ever, it’s the audio version for me: Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s voice is perfect

21st June

The Labyrinth Index – Charles Stross

In The Delirium Brief Stross left us with the government killed and an elder (evil) God in charge of the country. How will we get out of this one? Bob only knows.

And no, you’re not allowed to complain about spoilers. You’ve had months to read it. And spoilers only whet the appetite. It’s true. I read it on the internet.

July

Priest of Bones – Pete McLean

I’m not so massively up on grimdark. I respect it, for sure, but I like some sense of hope in my life. I like to be able to feel that things might some day be better.

But Pete McLean is a great writer. I trust he’ll bring some smart humour to illuminate the darkness.

October

The Widening Gyre – John Scalzi

Sequel to The Collapsing Empire, I recently learned that the series was inspired by musings on the trade empires of the colonial era, and what would happen if the winds suddenly changed. And if that’s not enough to get you reading, I don’t know what is.

October

Night Shift – Robin Triggs

Cheap plug alert! 2018 should see my debut release. Yes, I’m in a state of eager, anxious anticipation. Stay tuned for more news.

Late 2018

The Thorn of Emberlain – Scott Lynch

Volume the fourth in the Gentleman Bastard series, and if you’re not up on the Gentleman Bastard series you’re missing out. They’re wonderful: the long con is a wonderful game to watch, like an episode of Mission: Impossible set in a nightmare fantasy-land of depth, conviction and – yes – horror. Really looking forwards to this. We just have to hope that it actually comes out this year after a series of delays.

Who knows?

Winds of Winter – GRR Martin

Will 2018 finally see the release of the next book in the Song of Fire and Ice series? To be honest I’ve almost forgotten about Martin: I’ve avoided the TV show because I want the characters to still be the ones I’ve created in my head and it’s been such a long time that they’ve become lost to me.

But maybe, just maybe, this will be the year it all comes flooding back…

Maybe?

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This little lot, plus the three shelves of books still to be read from last year’s accumulation, will keep me busy. But I’m always distracted by new shinies: my local library will no doubt tempt me from the straight and narrow. And you, lovely reader – what’s tempting you this year? What have I overlooked? All recommendations gratefully received.

A second note: I came across several of these authors (and others without scheduled 2018 releases like Aliette de Bodard) through Twitter, and through them being nice people. The rest I found through my local library. These things work, folks. Make use of them and make the world a better, more interesting place.