All the way down



Street art in Richmond VA. Artist unknown, by me at least

Everything is a trope. Every idea you’ve had, every thought, has come before. The precise number of plots is debatable but all who have managed to get others to pay for their opinions agree: stories are finite. Only the telling varies. Yet there is no algorithm to tell us how to write the perfect story. We continue to devour tales that seem to us to be distinct and unique and precious. Experts, our brains scoff, what do they know?

It’s the same with tropes. We can identify them: there’s the Dead Lesbian and the English Villain (beloved of Hollywood); there’s Women in Refrigerators and Humans are the Real Monsters. There are so many that it becomes almost paralysing. You don’t want to be part of a trend, do you? You don’t want to perpetuate damaging myths or be victims of the witch-hunt of the week.

I try not to be racist. I try not to be sexist. So when I’m writing I try to have a diverse cast. I try to have characters of differing sexualities – not representations but living, breathing people – in significant roles. I do this because it represents the world we live in and the future I’d like to see (and I try to read diversely too). But it’s also a minefield. With so many tropes littering the path it seems impossible not to trip up somewhere.

Do I, for example, dare to have a BAME villain? Or a woman? Can my nastiest character be homosexual? What if I cause offence? The internet is a rage machine: do I want to be defending my work – my character – and do I have to be defended by racists and other people I detest?

Recently Lionel Shriver caused controversy by pointing out that all fiction is inherently fake. It’s a difficult argument: she’s right, of course: everything I do is a lie and part of the job description is to put myself in the head of someone I’m not. But there is a horrible arrogance in her position; that we shouldn’t care about the opinions of the people we’re representing (appropriating); that we can take at will without hearing their voices directly.

Now we have sensitivity readers to help us, and that’s good. We don’t know everything and we need help in picking up the slack. It’s been said that this will limit the issues we can address, but I see the opposite. I think the growth in awareness will give us – us being, I suppose, white western cisgender writers, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t work the other way too – the confidence to address controversial issues and periods of history.

I am in favour of political correctness. I want to be challenged. I believe that it’s right to listen when someone tells us they’ve been offended. If nothing else these issues make us reassess our own prejudices; and, I hope, help us produce better work.

This is what I want to communicate here: being aware of all these issues makes our work better. You can rail against all these limitations or you can use them to build more rounded characters and plots. This is what I’m trying to do. If I realise that I’m falling into a trope-trap I will work harder to think of a more creative solution. The story will be richer as a result.

We still live in a massively ‘white’ world. If we want to write about other peoples and cultures then the least we can do is get it right.


Signifying nothing

Union Market

Mural at Union Market, Washington DC. Artist, at least by me, unknown

I’m beginning to think I can’t do this any more. The whole writing thing, I mean: I just have no ideas left. Aside from a few unedited short stories I haven’t knocked out anything new for over a year.

This is the 250th post I’ve written for this site. Not all of those have been posted – some, indeed, are files with but a single line in them. But still, 250 posts. Let’s say the average word count is 400. That’s 10,000 words on words, and, at a rough estimate of an hour and a half per post, that’s 16 days solid writing. That’s before we get to the whole stress it provokes.

You gotta ask yourself what the point is, dontcha? My only consistent writing is on a blog about writing.

I‘m not saying this for reasons of moaning, or despair, or to beg attention (though that’s always nice) but because this is something I’m sure most writers experience at some point: that sense that they have nothing, that they’re just going through the motions, that they’re a fraud.

And of course I’m in a privileged position. I’m going to be published (and I rather hope my publisher isn’t reading this right now). I’ve got the whole impostor syndrome thing to look forwards to. Right now, though, I’m in the whole ‘Oh God, I’ve got to do something better for a follow-up,’ hole. And circumstance is making serious brain-work a challenge.

I also compensate myself with the thought that all this blogging must be good for something. True, the edifice is hollow. But all words written are useful – just not as useful as the creation itself.

Hopefully this will be a temporary feeling and I’ll find a way to write what I want to write in the near future. And my post-modern writing about writing with no writing to write about self-reference-o-thon will soon be over. But for now the struggle continues.

A touch too much


Image stolen from this article, which you might also find useful

This is what I find most difficult: knowing how much is too much.

Description is simple: you just need to find the few details that let the reader fill in the rest themselves. Okay, I’ve got that. But when you’re writing lurid, emotion-laden sections like the post I hastily threw up a few weeks ago, how far can you go?

I’ve recently been working on a new passage for Oneiromancer to replace The Nasty Scene. The aim is to keep the horror but lose the distastefulness of the original. It must contain abomination and terror and make my character wish for death without the readers doing the same.

Horror is in the little things. It’s in the burst of the pimple or the sudden spurt as the eyeball ruptures. It’s in the smell of wet fur, the clacking of claws on tiles or the tearing of cloth. It’s in the changing pressure as the trapdoor rises. It’s in small. It’s in intimate. And it’s easy to go too far.

The trick is not in saying all these things but in making the audience experience them regardless. I’m not sure I know how to do it. It’s not just horror, of course – the same applies to any emotionally-charged scene. When do you lay it on? When do you take a step out of the action to describe what a bullet (or knife, or claw, or particularly devastating put-down) actually does? This sort of interruption can be terribly effective – a catch in the throat before momentum reasserts.

I just wish I knew how to use it.

I have a tendency towards purple prose. I enjoy the florid and ridiculous. I try to keep these urges well repressed, but there are times to go all organic and to burst out all exuberant and to push the poetic. It’s fun. It reaches directly out to the senses. And when it works it works wonderfully.

But a little goes a long way. Editing is a constant flow of addition and subtraction, trying to find the sweet spot, the perfect pitch, the golden mean. Too little is prosaic, too much parodic. Unfortunately, no-one seems to know just where the scales tip.

On the mystery of shorts


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?

On honesty


Mikko Kuorinki: ‘Wall piece with 200 letters.’ Quote from David Foster Wallace

If I have a unique selling point it’s this: I’m honest. This blog isn’t about my perfect world. Writing is hard and I don’t mind sharing my struggles with you, my lovely bloggee.

But honesty isn’t always the best policy. I can’t, for example, tell you of every interaction I have within the publishing industry. It would be unprofessional to discuss current dealings, and to criticise an individual agency or organisation is not only rude but might damage my chances with other bodies in the future. Publishers, agents, editors – they talk. A hastily-worded blog-post may not see me blackballed forevermore but it certainly might flash some red lights somewhere. They’re on social media and they scan the profiles of prospective workees. They don’t have the time or inclination to work with arses.

Similarly I’ve read too many horror-stories of writers popping up to argue with reviewers. Nothing good can come of that. Your comments will only drive off potential readers.

I also can’t tell you every little thing about my past work. My best writing is always in the piece I’m working on*. My earliest works are never going to be as good as the last I did and none will be as good as the Ghost of the Novel Yet-To-Come.

And that’s good – great, in fact – but I still want to publish older novels. I still hope for a publisher and still actively consider self-publishing as an option. So to dissect older works in a public space like this – where I want things to be read – is self-defeating.

Honesty is wonderful but has to be balanced by both self-interest and the interests of others. All the thoughts you read here are self-censored; they’re not the unconscious outpouring of genius. I get things wrong. I misstate. And I’m careful about just what I reveal about what I’m doing or plan to do.

Hopefully a little caution now will allow me to be more open later. Sometimes a hesitant or held-back blog-post (I don’t publish everything I write, sometimes for reasons of quality, sometimes because they cut a little too close to the bone) will help me work out how to make my point later, when the issues are in the rear-view mirror. An example is this recent post, which was very hard for me to share. Also, now I read it back, I can feel myself swerving away from and euphemising some of the real issues.

So my advice to you is to be honest, be open, and share your experiences – just not all of them. And not whilst you have an empty bottle of gin by your side, the last remnants of which are still burning in your gullet. Be honest, but be aware that whilst you’re contemplating the void, the void might just be staring right back at you.



*This is not necessarily true, but a good enough lie to stand here.

Nothing doing


I’ve done nothing, you say? Nothing at all? Tish and piffle. Here’s what I’ve done this week:

  • Learnt the difference between a rook and a crow: “If it’s ‘crows’ it’s ‘rooks’. If it’s ‘rook’ it’s ‘crow.’” (The point being that rooks are social and crows solitary.)
  • Continued my studies of comparative suburban architecture by dint of walking for tens of miles through various estates, trying to identify the basic ‘house’ beneath years of alterations
  • Studied the interactions of homo sapiens sapiens in a variety of habitats: a greasy spoon in a middle-class town, for example, or the chitterings of parents in the back of a small car
  • Learnt of the longevity of Fen-management techniques and of the benefits of flooding
  • Critiqued a stranger’s décor
  • Was judged on appearance and attitude by strangers
  • Lay on the floor for a while and contemplated the futility of human existence
  • Fought with the NHS switchboard and its plethora of Kate’s
  • Led the expedition to conquer the many roundabouts of Milton Keynes
  • Was deposed from leadership of expedition to conquer the many roundabouts of Milton Keynes
  • Explored the origins and implications of the Tribal Hidage
  • Dithered over the costs and benefits of childcare
  • Studied mothers and children
  • Pined for social media
  • Ruminated on the nature and necessity of tact

A writer doing nothing? Impossible. What you may think is wool-gathering, or prevarication, or honest-to-goodness laziness is, in fact, method acting: assimilation of source material; an exploration of perspective. What might appear to be idleness is merely necessary research.

So be wary when contemplating the writer. It’s rare that the observer isn’t also the observed.

Seeking inspiration


If you’re in a hole, stop digging. Unless you’re trying to find water, in which case pause to check you’re in the right place, wipe your brow, and dig on.

Should your well run dry, there are two possible solutions: you could read, or you could talk to writers. You should also try not to be too hard on yourself, but I’ve never been good at that one.

The great August of Doom is over. Life rolls on. I achieve little. But talking literature (in its broadest sense) is always an inspiration, so last night I made one of my periodic excursions to my writing group – less regular that I used to, thanks to sproggage and associated exhaustion – and I now find myself somewhat recharged: still frustrated by my lack of personal progress, but a little less empty, a little less flat.

The experience of experience and evaluating the work of others is always rewarding. Ideas spark ideas: a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. This is horrendously trite but no less true for that. So I return to an old piece of advice: if you want to write you should join a writing group. Even if you feel you have nothing to contribute, do not miss the chance to be inspired. Do not miss the chance to learn. To not miss the chance to improve, even if you never share your own work and just listen, absorb, and swell with literary power.

I suppose this is just another way of saying that I’ve achieved nothing this week. But that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe – just maybe – it’s not an onrushing train.