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Category Archives: Writing

Much Ado About Nothing? The Unseen Is Too Visible

There were quite a few mentions of the work of China Mieville at WorldCon 2010 and his position as one of the leading lights of fantasy or “new weird” or maybe even steampunk.

China Mieville, The City & The CityHis novel The City & The City won the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award, 2010 Hugo Award, and 2010 World Fantasy Award, as well as being a Nebula Award nominee in the Best Novel category.

However, there are some rather worrying aspects about such popularity. Like, what happened to good editing and great sub-editing. A few examples can explain my reservations.

Suspension of Disbelief

Science Fiction and Fantasy with the capital letters are all about readers accepting one or two “what if” elements to a story, and then seeing how well the author can examine, express, develop and/or personalise that mutually-agreed deceit.

Mieville didn’t believe his central theme in The City & The City or maybe his editor didn’t understand that sf&f readers are comfortable with a pretence at the core of a story. There is no other way to explain the continual, repetitive and superfluous explanations about needing to “unsee” by just about every one of the characters and in just about every major scene in the book.

In fact, Mieville’s writing is often closer to a thesis than a novel, as if a third-year literature student is debating and trying to convince others about an aspect of form and function. Even if we treat the book as a police procedural in a crime genre rather than sf&f, the overstating of the “unseeing” would still be tedious.

Cardboard Characters

In much of American fiction, whether in books or tv shows, the girls get killed and the guys do a lot of shouting and running about shootin’ n’ fightin’ and, occasionally, thinkin’ a little bit. A good example is the recent, impoverished and repetitive works of James Patterson and his many “co-authors”.

In The City & The City the nosy and noisy female gets killed, the bureaucrats bumble, the detective keeps telling us he is a detective and how he operates as a detective, the innocent but attractive female friend of the dead female gets killed, and the story gets “solved” when the detective does all the obvious things, too late, and after getting everyone else to act out of character to get to the conclusion.

Some commercial entertainment is deliberately easy to access and understand and, when done well, can be a success as both art and business. Mieville is not close to this with The City & The City because the strings pulling the monster’s arms and legs are too obvious.

TV Script Repetition

Most TV shows now rely on repetition and restating the obvious, usually two or three times in any ten-minute span. This is now true, unfortunately, of everything from comedies, crime shows, documentaries and, of course, reality shows. Key facts, already obvious and accepted by viewers, are restated:

  • at the start of the show
  • before the ad break
  • after the ad break
  • before the next ad break
  • etcetera, etcetera

Mieville may have saved a team of TV script writers a lot of work. The repetitions are all there, every chapter laden with reminders. I can hear the voiceover now:

“You will remember we have been examining cross-hatching, where people in one city will ‘unsee’ people in the other city alongside them. Inspector Borlu has been trying to explain the concept to a visitor. The story continues when …”

Rating: 2 stars out of 5

The central “conceit of the book” as Mieville calls it is worth one star and the occasional flourish adds a second. Yet overall the book was disappointing, laboured and, in the end, slight. It stands as a potentially good short story or novella, all dressed up in fancy “best selling author” packaging as a novel.

I’m surprised that my views on this book are so different to many others. Perhaps the general dumbing down in media generally, especially populist newspapers, TV shows and movies, is now infecting sf&f.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2010 in Reviews, Writing

 

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Making A Living – professional writing for speculative fiction authors

Being a professional writer is not an easy career path for most of us, according to Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi and George Ivanoff in a discussion at AussieCon4 in Melbourne.

George Ivanoff

George Ivanoff

George advised the audience that to write for a wide range of genres can help create opportunities. He said the education market can be well paid, if you have the interest and knowledge.

John Scalzi

John Scalzi

John is a freelance writer and uses his skills for both fiction and non-fiction. He added that the corporate market can be a great balance for a creative writer, especially as his creativity is “about three hours a day”. His two streams of work for Tor and Subterranean are complementary rather than “either/or”.

Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow

Cory describes himself as a “freelance entrepreneur” rather than a writer, although his SF and speculative fiction is increasingly well-known and award-winning. Some advice to budding writers is that trade publishing is not profitable to many except the big stars, so a well-paid job may be a better option while a writer enjoys a part-time craft.

Piracy was considered “small-time” by Cory. The three big players – Sony, Apple and Amazon – over time will become almost universally accepted, he said, and all easier to use than torrents.

AussieCon4 was the 68th World Science Fiction Convention, held in Melbourne, Australia, Sept 2nd-6th 2010. The panel discussions included SF, fantasy, speculative fiction, steampunk, movies, comics and fandom.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2010 in Fandom, Publishing, Social Media, Writing

 

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Fantastic Females – writers discuss feminism at WorldCon

Gail Carriger

Gail Carriger

It is perhaps no surprise to hear some excellent points of view when a panel includes Gail Carriger, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Glenda Larke, Delia Sherman, Catherynne Valente and Alaya Johnson. AussieCon4 was a great event and it is a shame panel discussions like this one did not receive wider distribution.

Alaya Johnson

Alaya Johnson

Many on the panel write and also read and review a wide range of fantasy and speculative fiction, including Young Adult (YA). Tansy summed up the frustration of noticing a lack of feminist content in many fantasy and spec fic books. Alaya had a strong interest in a female buddy theme but, more particularly, “one that worked”.

Tansy Rayner Roberts

Tansy Rayner Roberts

Gail‘s approach is to use Victorian settings, and the bias of that age, alongside Isis myths as she prefers not to artificially include feminism before its time. Cat wanted to write positive but noticed it could be easier to describe sexist situations and to include sexist characters rather than create something “honest” that reflects a bisexual modern woman.

Cat summed up the views of many of the panel and the audience comments when she said she has no interest in female antagonism but wants realistic characters. Cat was concerned, also, that our culture as a whole is still at 101 while female speculative fiction and YA writers are at 501 already.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2010 in Fandom, Social Media, Writing, YA

 

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Cyberpunk and the City – the view from AussieCon4

Commentary with great validity from the 2010 WorldCon echoed many traditional science fiction themes. A panel discussion with Marianne de Pierres, Charles Stross, Russell Blackford and Gord Sellar looked at genres and modern examples.

Nylon Angel by Marianne de Pierres

Nylon Angel by Marianne de Pierres`

Although influenced by cyberpunk but suggesting they may not be cyberpunk writers, both Charles and Gord agreed with Marianne on a basic point of view – we are living in a world that is exhibiting phobias brought on by future shock. Examples from the panel and the floor included the seeking of power and the resulting repression and “police security” culture in some countries, and even some states or regions within countries.

Clarkesworld by Gord Sellar

Clarkesworld by Gord Sellar

The “city as a character” was examined, including Gotham and the writing of Dickens, while it was also suggested cities have not achieved their full promise yet. The city need not necessarily be dystopian or bleak although the rise of China and Japan offered potential storylines of cities with vast populations and the impacts on the citizens.

Saturn's Children by Charles Stross

Saturn's Children by Charles Stross

The panel also suggested sub-genres, for example biopunk, and books like Shockwave Rider were essentially concerned with people in extreme future shock. The discussion included examples of post-cyberpunk – which has changed organically – but the overview suggested the underlying aesthetic from William Gibson still exists. The themes of fundamentalism, whether political, cultural or religious, inform many steampunk novels, short stories and the related sub-genres.

One stream of discussion wondered if William Gibson and other early writers of cyberpunk were using a personna building methodology and so “punk” is about the writers rather than an integral element of their stories.

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2010 in Fandom, Publishing, Social Media, Writing

 

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Pitching The Novel – advice from AussieCon4

An important stream of panels at the 2010 WorldCon concentrated on the publishing issues facing authors and artists, including John Berlyne, Simon Spanton, Rowena Cory Daniels and Ginjer Buchanan speaking on how to approach agents and publishers.

The blogs of agents and publishers – plus the Twitter feeds from agents, authors, publishers and editors – are full of advice for new and established writers. Nonetheless the panel gathered together most of the important issues and techniques that now assist authors in their quest for publication.

Rowena Cory Daniels

Rowena Cory Daniels

Rowena is an author and also runs workshops on pitching. Her advice summarised many key requirements of how to approach getting a novel published:

  • define the genre you’re working in
  • create a brief “elevator pitch” and polish it til it shines
  • develop a powerful synopsis
  • determine the market strengths of your work
  • undertake extensive research into agents and publishers

Simon is deputy publishing director at Orion and Gollancz and added some pointers:

  • the novel must be finished
  • never under-value the research into agents and publishers
  • don’t rely solely on pitching
  • use the web or workshops to get your name and work known

John from Zeno literary agency added:

  • the quality of the writer is exhibited in the pitch although that may not accurately reflect the quality of the novel
  • the quality of submission needs to be professional rather than clever
Ginjer Buchanan

Ginjer Buchanan

Ginger is editor in chief at Ace, alongside many other key responsibilities in the publishing empire she inhabits. The advice from the other panelists was underlined repeatedly by Ginjer with a number of humorous anecdotes from her experience.

Ginjer added that pitching to an editor is the same protocol as pitching to an agent, and please desist with bold, underlined, red, green and/or blue “emphasis” (or indeed any other “tricks”) in your pitch documents. While mildly amusing for a moment, such devices do not create a professional impression and may ruin the publication hopes of a well-written novel.

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2010 in Fandom, Publishing, Writing

 

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The Steampunk Playground Within Speculative Fiction

The issues of “what is” and “where is” could be more important to steampunk than the conventional “what if” of science fiction themes, according to Richard Harland, John Berlyne and Jay Lake.

John Berlyne

John Berlyne

In fact, Jay considers steampunk is fantasy rather than science fiction, while Richard pondered whether steampunk is a style rather than a literary movement in itself. Nonetheless the panel said style can continue as a standard and separated steampunk from being just “a fashion” which could be seen as a date-related fad.

Richard Harland

Richard Harland

The panel considered steampunk today is historical and Victorian to a large extent, whereas Wells and Verne were writing contemporaneously so, in a sense, not steampunk although their themes and concerns inform the genre today. The panel also viewed medieval and Dickens and gothic within the style, while suggesting Dune as an archetypal steampunk movie.

Although the writing style exists in its own right, games, costumes, movies and art probably return more revenue than books.

Steampunk requires strength in the characters and in the storylines so it appeals to the eccentric and the non-sterile mindset, and John added that it has a link to raw invention, making it pre-technology to an extent.

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2010 in Fandom, Publishing, Social Media, Writing

 

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The Eternal Border, a discussion on taboos at the 2010 WorldCon

An AussieCon4 panel including Deborah Biancotti, Richard Harland, Jason Nahrung and Catherynne Valente took a starting point that dark fantasy can push at boundaries and examine various taboos.

Deborah Biancotti

Deborah Biancotti

Deb is a Sydney-based writer, psychology graduate and a dark fantasist who likes “playing with” the taboo of death. She also notices the differences within cultures and how there are many alternatives to a Christian or “western” approach.

Catherynne Valente

Catherynne Valente

Cat has written over a dozen novels and won many awards for her challenging work. She cites Lolita as an example of a work that is so powerful because it is so beautifully written. The skill of Nabokov’s story can be seen as shocking because it implicates the reader. Writing about subjects a particular culture is afraid of can lead to some backlash. Cat mentioned that Americans and Italians, particularly, are not happy if Christian teachings are treated in stories as mythology rather than fact.

Richard’s prolific output includes Steampunk and he mentioned stories with a macabre emphasis, for example involving body parts and also torture, can now be accepted by librarians.

Richard Harland

Richard Harland

Of note was the thought that there are no longer any taboos in comedy or horror, and perhaps speculative fiction and fantasy have reached similar acceptance when dealing with many taboos.

Cat found, however, that what appeared to be autobiographical content distressed a small but nonetheless significant percentage of her audience. Polysexual themes are “accepted in spec fic” however, she said, and suggested that is why there are many poly people in that community.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2010 in Fandom, Publishing, Social Media, Writing

 

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