Tag Archives: William Gibson

Grab Bag

As the title suggests, this is going to be a bit of a grab-bag of thoughts I’ve had while getting back to work on the current WIP. (Which still lacks an actual title. Hmm.) I was going to follow on from writing a bit about the TV adaptation of American Gods last week by writing about the TV Handmaid’s Tale this week, but I’m not the best person to talk about it and I’m not sure that I have anything especially noteworthy to say at this point anyway. Except I guess that if you haven’t been watching it, you should a) brace yourself and b) go watch it, because it’s quite well done.

I am, as summer reluctantly comes to my part of the world, trying to get back at working on my current project somewhat systematically, with the aim (still?) being to have a complete first draft done by the fall. Part of what I’m trying to figure out is how I can make writing a scheduled part of my routine. I do much better with a lot of stuff when I have a plan to always do it at X time on whatever days of the week than when I just try to figure out when it gets done on the fly. This isn’t just the case for writing, it’s how I get myself to the gym and get my running done and a lot of other stuff. If I leave the time for things vague, they live in an eternal ‘later’, never getting actually taken care of. If I have in my mind that I do this (say) every morning starting at 9, then something takes place.

I don’t at all suggest that this is some iron rule for how to Be an Effective Writer, because that would be advice, and mostly I think everyone needs to figure out their own methods and process that works for them anyway. Some people probably do need to write every day, some people work well with specific word targets per week, some people need to Go To A Place and Work There. Despite (although also in some part because of) all the earnestly written declarations on how to Do Authoring, I think there’s no universal formula and you just gotta figure out what leads to you getting words on the page and then unapologetically do that. Of course that’s not an easy thing to figure out, but neither is trying to contort yourself to fit someone else’s process. I think I have a ‘morning writing’ thing going on now and we’ll see how that works.

Part of what caused me some difficulty recently (along with all kinds of Real Life stuff, and then also just being very tired) was the disappearance of a deadline. I’ve mentioned before that I work very well when I have a deadline (I do not miss deadlines) and that part of the adjustment from being a student to being basically employed by me post-education is not having deadlines imposed on me. Again, that eternal ‘not now, but soon’ becomes very attractive. I’m getting better at working without deadlines but if I’m being honest what I also do is seize on things that I can use as a deadline to restore that familiar motivation.

For this WIP, I had decided that I wanted to have it ready to pitch to the agent Guest of Honour that will be coming to this year’s Can*Con SFF conference in Ottawa, which seemed a solid idea. (Brief aside – I am on the programming team for Can*Con, we’ve got some very exciting stuff planned for this October, and you should definitely come if you can. All the details are not ready to release yet, but you can check out a lot about us here.) Unfortunately, I did the required research and found that she doesn’t rep the kind of thing that I’m working on. Which is of course fine, and of course she’s still an amazing Guest of Honour for Can*Con to have, but her usefulness to me as a deadline suddenly dematerialized, and not a lot got written for a while.

I really need to break myself of this deadline habit.

As I’m writing at the moment, I’m also reading, of course, and right now I’m reading the John Le Carré autobiography I mentioned a while back, and re-reading some William Gibson. They are, I guess obviously, very different writers, but to me they are also similar in that I deeply admire the way they craft with words. They’re both (to me) quite demanding writers, in that their writing requires your attention. Both can get a lot out of a little, conveying things of tremendous importance with a perfectly-chosen word or two, so you really can’t miss anything.

If you’ve been reading the blog for a long time, you’ll remember that there was a time when I tried, very hard, to write like William Gibson, and that it didn’t go very well. I don’t do that any more, but I find reading both him and Le Carré inspirational in the sense of reminding me what is possible to do with words when you put them together right, and to try to push myself to achieve something at least somewhat similar. This isn’t to say that other styles of writing can’t also be effective, can’t also be fun to read, and can’t also be artistic. But I guess the arguably subtler or more intricate mode of operation twangs something inside me just that little bit more, and is the style that I would be most content if I could produce something like. I’m not sure that I’m anywhere in that quadrant of the galaxy, but (all my wittering about struggles with the WIP notwithstanding) I am enjoying the effort.

One of the decisions I made in writing this current WIP was to write it just as I wanted to, to just really let myself use exactly the words I wanted to. I was going to thoroughly ignore the questions of ‘is this the right voice?’ and ‘what kind of audience does this appeal to’? I was just going to write something that pleased me, do it as well as I could, and then see what people thought of it. The basic idea is/was kind of crazy anyway, so if it ended up something that appealed to no-one else but me it wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world. Fortunately for me, what I’ve heard back from the Eager Volunteers and my writers’ circle has so far been very kind and very encouraging, which of course makes me more confident to go on doing things this way. Again, I’m not suggesting this is always the right way to do things, but at the moment it’s having good results for me.

Anyway. I’ve got a little over 30,000 words (much of it non-sequential, of course) written, and if I can get down to this over the summer I should be able to finish my story in time for the autumn. Then I will begin a whole new set of challenges, but that’s something to worry about another day. That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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Star Wars and the Future(s)

Last week was the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars, and since (as you will know if you read this blog much) it’s a movie series that I have loved a great deal, I thought I would write a little more about it today. I’ve written some about why I like these films so much before; I like the very clear good vs. evil of the stories and the idea that power always carries a price with it. (We saw a rather more shades-of-grey take on the setting with Rogue One, which was fun, but I hope they won’t continue that with Last Jedi.) I’m not sure I have anything new to say along those lines today, though.

Ok, so something new for this time around. I love the way the Star Wars movies (thinking primarily of the original trilogy, Force Awakens, and Rogue One) look. Specifically, I love the way the technology looks. Most of it is beat up and a lot of it is covered in grime. There’s no touchscreens and not a lot of chrome. In fact, not all that much looks shiny at all (C3P0 being the obvious exception), and the stuff that does mostly belongs to the Empire, to the bad guys. The good guys’ stuff is oil stained and scratched and dinged up, which I think helps quietly and consistently underscore the desperation of the Rebellion.

It’s pervasive through a lot of the tech in the movies, though. The outside of starships are not sleek and streamlined, and certainly don’t have giant bird paintings. There’s pipes and hatches and various flange-y bits sticking out everywhere. In general everything looks (to me, anyway) like tools rather than showpieces; this is all stuff that gets constant heavy use and is designed primarily for function rather than form. I like that a lot.

Now, there’s also arguably a bunch of stuff that is missing from the tech in Star Wars. The touchscreens are one example. There also doesn’t appear to be wifi or anything like it, R2 has to physically plug into computers with those very satisfyingly mechanical, rotate-y ports. There’s no hi-def recordings either, the very best you get is a flickery, blurry, mostly monochrome image, if you get that at all. This is, somewhat paradoxically, a retro-future, and although that sometimes ends up seeming silly, to me it works out.

Another recent example of this being done very well was the Battlestar Galactica TV series, with the corded phones and Cold War looking computers. There was an in-universe explanation for it, first of all that Galactica was an old ship, but also that the more advanced gear we’d expect was fatally vulnerable to Cylon shenanigans. That worked fine, but I don’t think it was necessary. One of the players in my Star Wars RPG likes to think about why there are no touchscreens in the game world, and although I enjoy hearing his thinking, I also don’t think I ultimately need an explanation. There isn’t because there isn’t. There isn’t because it’s cool.

That may be the reason why they continue to keep the retro-future, clunky tech in the new Star Wars movies. Consistency is of course part of the deal, and I like to think that part of it is that technology isn’t the solution to the problem in Star Wars. A lot of the time, technology is the problem, and so maybe that’s why the movies don’t glamorize it. Part of the reason, I also suspect, is that the clunkier tech tends to look more dramatic in action. There was a lot to like about Star Trek: The Next Generation, but no matter how furiously you tap on a touchscreen, it doesn’t convey a great sense of urgency, not like flipping some big chunky switches or slamming a receiver into its cradle.

I also know a lot of the props for Star Wars were scavenged or modified from real world bits and bobs, with the blasters being tricked-out pistols rather than purpose-built future guns. So some of the look is also probably practicality in set building. They used what was relatively easily available and could be used as-is (or as-was, I guess) rather than scratch-building a bunch of stuff that probably wouldn’t look as convincing in the end anyway. I really do like Star Trek perfectly well (not as much as Star Wars, but you probably knew that), but the computers and tech props made for the original series never looked like anything but props to me. Also everything is distressingly tidy. (I wonder whether part of why I like the knocked-about, messy Star Wars stuff is that my spaces tend to be cluttered, and anything owned by me tends to look beat-up in a hurry)

I also think that the way Star Wars looks reflects the way people in the late 70s and 80s imagined the future, which is probably inevitable but is kind of interesting to think about. (Now yes, of course I’m aware the movies are set in the distant past, but I think it’s reasonable to say that in imagining a world of space ships and interstellar travel and intelligent robots we’re thinking about the future of our society to some extent) First of all it’s not unreasonable to say that there are no touchscreens and no wifi in Star Wars because the people writing the scripts and making the props didn’t envision how technology was going to develop. This happens all the time, of course – in one of my very favourite books ever, Neuromancer, no-one in the ‘near future’ setting has a cell phone. That change in tech wasn’t seen coming.

That also gets me to another point, though, because Gibson is at pains to point out that he wasn’t trying to predict the future with Neuromancer, and that it was really a book about the 1980s. I think that’s almost always the case with the visions of the future that we create; they’re nearly always more about the time they were created in than any real attempt at futurism. They reflect the perspectives and assumptions that the creator was immersed in when they sat down to write. Neuromancer imagines a future where the line between technology and humanity is becoming blurry, that dehumanises people and makes the artificial closer to human. Star Wars imagines space as a place where people live and work in their regular lives, doing ordinary work; where there are working-class beings putting in a hard days’ labour. This is not a gleaming future with contemporary concerns solved, it is one that still has poverty and crime as things to be worried about as well as alarming space fascists.

Some of these visions of the future become obsolete as time goes by. I don’t think you’d get a lot of traction with a story about the gee-whiz, rockets everywhere, meals in a pill, spandex jumpsuit future of the 1950s any longer. There’s parts of it I think we actively don’t like and parts of it readers would not believe. (Although, I would also love to be proven wrong!) It’s not a version of the future that has aged very well for us. Almost universally (it seems to me), if someone does present you with this bright, shiny, perfected future, it’s because they’re setting up to jerk back the curtain and reveal some horrific underside.

It’s not always a case of future visions simply not aging well. Not all that long ago the futures we imagined seemed to almost always include the idea the virtual reality would become endemic, that we’d be constantly immersing ourselves in digitally created worlds to work and play. I don’t understand the technology enough to get why, but it didn’t happen (Gibson is interesting on the road we may have taken instead), and our VR fantasies seem vaguely silly, now.

On the other hand, we seem to like the 1980s futures a good bit more. That new Blade Runner movie that I fretted over a couple of blogs ago is very much cut from that cloth, for example. There’s something about that grim, crumbling future that still appeals to us, on some level, some part of it that fits with how we either think about our world or think about where we’re headed. You could argue that the steampunk genre takes a Victorian vision of the future as its inspiration. I don’t know why we like certain futures more than others, but it’s been something I’ve been thinking about lately, and I’m hoping to put together a discussion along those lines at Can*Con this fall. We’ll see.

However all that may be, the 1970s future portrayed in Star Wars is obviously one that works for today’s audience, or at least a good portion of it. When the two most recent movies came out, I remember hearing from more than a few people that they were glad to see that the tech was all chunky and beat the hell up. Captain Andor’s U-Wing looks like it has been used for many hundreds of hours by hundred of people and it is glorious. When we meet Rey, she lives in a junkyard of wrecked and abandoned ships. The Rebel base, when we get there, is once again in a dingy, dark concrete bunker. Saw Gerrera’s partisan stronghold was filthy and his gear looked like it might stop working any second now.

40 years is a fantastic run for any imaginary world, and it says something about the basic quality of the Star Wars story that both the original movies and the newer additions to the franchise seem to be as popular as ever. I hope they keep making Star Wars films for us as long as they have good stories to tell, and I hope all of them have that clunky, battered, busted-looking tech as part of them.

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If you’ve missed me talking about it before, the Limestone Genre Expo is in Kingston this weekend, and it’s not too late to register! This will be my second year attending and if last year is anything to go by it will be a marvellous weekend of time spent thinking and talking about reading and writing. I’ll be on a few panels and hanging out at the Renaissance Press booth if you’d like to say hello, and it’s a great opportunity to meet writers and fans of great fiction. Details are here.

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Jules Verne and the Stress Volcano

I’ve got a few different things for you today.

First up – yesterday was Jules Verne’s birthday. You’ll have heard of him. Verne’s wrote in French (of course) but he is (I am told) the second most translated author after Shakespeare, so plenty of readers in English and other languages have experienced his work. There aren’t many writers who have created stories as enduring as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, or Around the World in 80 Days.

Verne is sometimes (and apparently was during his life) praised for being a predictor of the future, and future science in particular. I learned yesterday, and found it very interesting, that he apparently wasn’t very comfortable with the label, protesting that he never intended to predict anything, never claimed to be a scientist, and was mostly writing about things of interest in his present, albeit using fantastic means to do so.

I guess I found that striking because SF writers continue to get called ‘prophets’ and discussed in terms of their work predicting the future of science or society, or not. Sometimes older works of SF will be criticised for failing to accurately predict how things would develop. One of my very favorite authors, William Gibson, often gets written (and spoken) about along these lines; for his books having accurately predicted technological advances or societal changes to come.

A couple years ago now I heard Gibson talk about this very issue and he said the same thing that Verne did – it’s never been his intention to predict the future. His most famous book, Neuromancer, wasn’t meant to be about the future at all; it is about the 1980s, viewed through a fantastic lens. Obviously two is a pretty small sample, but the parallel is pretty neat.

I’m not sure why we (as readers) seem to want SF to be a prediction of the future, and are sometimes disappointed when it isn’t, especially since it seems as though that’s not often the intent of the author. I guess to some extent if you write a book set in times yet to come, it isn’t a great surprise if people want to check your work, as it were – but why do we seem to start with the expectation that something fantastic should also end up being true to real life?

I know there are some writers who do (and have) deliberately tried to predict the future with their writing. I’m not really convinced that that is what most SF writers are trying to do though – I think in general they’re trying to tell a cool story. It’s of course an interesting question as to why one might choose the future as a way to express the story you’re trying to tell, but that’s a long discussion and one I’m not sure I even have an answer for.

I find I’m happiest as a reader when I just enjoy the vision an author is presenting and take the imaginary world on its own terms, rather than fact-checking it as we go along. If it’s a good story, I’m in for the duration. I think when you’ve created characters like Captain Nemo, still popular 150 years after they were created, and ideas like the balloon race around the world (even though not that much of Around the World actually takes place in the balloons), that have endured similarly you’ve done pretty darn well along those lines.

(I know much of that is my personal taste)

In any case, a happy (slightly late) birthday to Jules Verne – I hope his stories continue to delight readers for many generations more.

———-

I also learned yesterday, via Ken Liu’s Twitter, about an app that is meant to help writers’ productivity (I guess). It works like this – you punch in a length of time that you want to write for, and the app puts you into a fullscreen writing mode. If you exit before the time you set, anything you wrote is erased. If you stop writing for more than five seconds, everything you’ve written to that point is deleted.

This sounds more like a torture method than something that will help a writer to me. My immediate reaction (also on Twitter) was that it would turn my head into a stress volcano. I guess there may be a very specific type of person who would find this sort of thing useful to their process, but I’m guessing it’s a small number.

The app, by the way, costs $14.99 and that’s my main concern with it – this seems like a pretty expensive gimmick that will be marketed telling writers that it will help them work, and then probably won’t. I’ve been amazed at the amount of very expensive stuff that is advertised to people who want to write telling them that they need this app or expensive online training session or writing retreat or whatever else if they’re going to succeed in their goals, and most of it seems like chaff to me.

I guess as long as there are lots of people who want to be writers, there will be people trying to make money off that desire, just as with a million other things. I don’t really like to think of people getting scammed with things that probably won’t do much but empty their bank accounts when one of the glorious things about writing is that you can just do it. Sit down at the computer or with pen and paper and write stuff. Show it to people and ask what they think. That’s how you get better as far as I can see.

Now, making money at being a writer is (as I continue to learn) not easy, but I don’t really think a $15 app that will make your eyes explode with stress is really going to help with that either. There’s lots of good advice out there, almost all of it free, on how to market your work if that’s what you want to do.

It’s probably not entirely fair, but I feel as though as soon as someone starts asking for money, you should at least consider running very fast in the other direction.

——

Ok, so process. I’m going to talk a little about mine. If you read the blog regularly you’ll know that I’ve been working on the sequel to The King in Darkness, and may even remember some optimistic forecasts about it being done for the end of November and such. As I said last week, it isn’t exactly done.

(It’s not done)

I’m trying not to kick myself too hard about this – I think it may still be possible to have the book out by fall, if all goes well – but as much as I hesitate to give any advice (I’m not sure I know what I’m doing well enough to do that) I thought it might be helpful to talk about a particular thing that I realized had happened the other day.

Without getting into too many intricacies of a book you haven’t read yet, a while ago I was working on the thing and realized there was a pretty big yawning hole in the middle of things that I wasn’t sure how to fill. At all. So I thought about it for a while, didn’t have an answer, and so I put the work aside. Sometimes this is a good thing to do because you can come back when you do have an idea and are less discouraged.

The problem is that I kept it put aside for a good long while. I did other things – I wrote on some other projects, I cleaned the house, I went to the gym. All arguably worthwhile things, but now I hadn’t worked on the manuscript in long enough that not having worked on it was A Thing and the project had acquired a kind of inertia, sitting there unworked-upon.

All of which to say that over the last week or so I made myself start chipping away at the problem again (having been startled by January turning into February), and I now know how to fill the hole in the middle of the thing, and feel pretty optimistic about getting the book finished relatively quickly.

I’m not sure what perverse part of my brain (and perhaps, other people’s brains) makes me decide that the best way to deal with a problem that I’m not sure how to solve is to put it away and leave it unsolved. I suppose it relieves the stress of not having a solution, but it doesn’t (ever) move one towards solving the problem.

I know it works much better if I keep trying to do at least small amounts of work on something that I’m finding difficult (with writing or otherwise) than putting it aside completely. I keep trying to remind myself of that, and perhaps writing this will help imprint the concept on the sludge of my mind. Maybe it will be useful to other writers.

Keep plugging at it. Your work is good. Don’t put it away just because you’re struggling now.

The book, by the way, will be called Bonhomme Sept-Heures. I really am looking forward to sharing it with you.

Once I finish writing it.

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Overtime

I’m going to be extraordinarily selfish today and continue a couple of thoughts I had from Can-Con panels a couple weeks back, today. (Who knows, maybe I can keep mining Can-Con for blog topics until the new year!) The panel discussions – both when I was on the panel and in the audience – were really engaging for me and it always felt, at the end of the hour, that it could easily go on for a good deal longer. I guess I’m going to give myself a little bonus time today.

One panel was a reader’s panel on SF and one of the questions was along the lines of ‘what makes great SF for you?’. I had to think about it, because I like all different kinds of SF writers and stories, but eventually I got it figured.

I guess the defining characteristic of SF is that it includes some kind of future technology or alien world, but for me a really great SF story is still ultimately about people. I want to see how these things affect individual characters, or human society, or I guess ideally both. My favourite SF writer (who you will guess if you’ve read back in the blog) is William Gibson, and although his stories are filled with intriguing speculations about future uses of technology, the meat of the thing is always about what that tech, and what that world, does to the people in it.

SF is an interesting genre in having a big fissure right down the middle of it between ‘soft’ SF (which I have clumsily just described) and ‘hard’ SF in which the science is often the star and the human characters have a secondary role. I read hard SF stories, and often enjoy them. One from way back that I still reread from time to time is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, which is a fascinating book about humanity’s encounter with what they first think is an asteroid, but quickly turns out to be a dormant alien spacecraft. It is a wonderful imagining of what such a ship might be like, how it might work and ideas about a society that is (from the hints we get) truly alien. The human characters, though, are primarily just there to walk around inside the ship and allow all this stuff to unfold, and none are especially deep or memorable. It’s a good story, but I’m not sure I would call it great,for me, because I want the people to be the star, not the alien ship.

This reminds me, now, of a column that was on the Guardian website last week which posited that most famous SF includes massive, impersonal technological constructs (this was in connection to the recent speculation about megastructures – or whatever the objects are – apparently orbiting around a distant star) and not much in the way of humanity. It’s certainly easy to think of examples of this: another Clarke story, 2001, features the famous massive, implacable monoliths and the most intriguing character is a computer. So it’s certainly true, some of the time.

I don’t think I agree overall, though. I suppose it depends in part what you’re defining ‘famous’ as. Gibson’s Neuromancer is one of (if not the) most influential SF books ever written, and it’s far from impersonal. I guess it may not count as ‘famous’, though. Does Ray Bradbury? John Wyndham? A lot of Asimov is primarily about people rather than technology, even if ‘robot’ is in a lot of titles. Hell, E.T. is one of the biggest (in terms of money) SF movies ever, and it’s not about massive impersonal things at all. Those are just off the top of my head, and why I don’t agree with the premise that ‘famous’ SF is impersonal SF but I do accept that that is ‘SF’ to a lot of people. It’s a part of SF to me. It’s not my favourite part, though.

It came up on a separate panel that for a while, SF stories generally involved some sort of problem – often involving space travel or an alien world – which was solved by human ingenuity and the application of technology. This became less the case as we (Western society, anyway) got less optimistic about technology as necessarily being the solution to every situation, and sometimes being the problem, so we don’t see as many of these ultimately optimistic stories any more. There certainly is a great deal of dystopian or post-apocalyptic SF being written and read these days, which may just be the fashion or may reflect broader trends in society; I suspect it’s a combination of both. I like to hope that there’s some room for optimism in our fiction today, though. Certainly another thing about the stories I like best have some sort of positive development in them – you can generally say ‘and afterwards, things were better’ in summation. That’s what I enjoy reading most these days (I get more than enough situations that don’t work out as I or we would like in the real world) and that’s very broadly the kind of thing I like to write at the moment.

I was going to transition over to a point from yet another panel but I think instead I’ll touch on something that just dropped while I was writing this blog – the World Fantasy Convention announced that the recently-distributed World Fantasy Awards will be the last set that will come with trophies modelled on H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft, of course, is an undeniably influential figure in fantastic writing, and some (certainly not all) of his stories are very creative and chilling. Just as undeniably, though, his stuff is also rife with distressingly racist ideas, ideas that he apparently stuck to his guns on even as the world around him was moving forward. While I don’t think this necessarily means everyone has to throw their copies of Lovecraft into the trash (although if you want to, that’s certainly understandable too), it does mean that there’s no way he’s the right emblem for an organization to be using in 2015, so this is unquestionably, I think, the right move.

I suppose some people will moan about ‘political correctness’ but I really don’t think it should be a controversial stance for any group to say that they aren’t going to have a racist as the trophy they hand out as an award any longer. I doubt there was any racial agenda when Lovecraft was picked as the model for the trophy, but since the connotations of his image have been pointed out, and people have said, loudly and eloquently, that it upsets and offends them, it’s a good step for any organization to simply admit that the way they’ve been doing it is wrong and make a change. I’m sure getting rid of the Lovecraft trophy (which is a kind of odd pick for a World Fantasy award anyway) will make things more comfortable and feel more inclusive for writers (and probably fans) from diverse backgrounds going forward.

Also now I guess they’ll have to pick something new for the trophy, and everyone will get to argue about that for a while. With how broad and diverse fantasy has become as a genre, it’s going to be pretty hard to pick something that encompasses all of it, and it might be impossible. For what it’s worth, I don’t think they should do another author head because I don’t think there’s any one author that really works as the figurehead for all of fantasy. (Although if you have suggestions I’d love to hear) I’m going to predict they go with a dragon, because dragons are cool and not too many people would likely raise too much objection to it. If it was left entirely up to me I’d probably do a sword in a stone, in part because of my affection for Arthurian stuff and in part because everyone who gets an award is, in that moment, the chosen one, and so the sword in the stone would be kind of appropriate. But I get that that is pretty ethnically and culturally specific and probably wouldn’t work out. Good thing it’s not up to me.

I’m glad they’ve made the change, for what that’s worth, and I hope it’s part of helping to increase the diversity in speculative and fantastic writing going forward. It can only help the fields we love so much. I also look forward to seeing what the new trophy will be.

And now this is maybe enough for one entry and I’ll leave the other stuff for next week. I’m continuing work on my next book and I feel like it’s progressing reasonably well. I’ve been excited and flattered to have several readers ask if there is a sequel to The King in Darkness coming and I’ve been pleased to be able to say that yes, that’s what I’m working on right now. Hopefully there won’t be too long to wait.

Details on PopExpo in Ottawa are still to come, but they are coming!

Thanks for reading once again.

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Not Guilty

In my last post I wrote about a book series being a ‘guilty pleasure’ and (entirely true to form) I have felt somewhat bad about it ever since. The term is a rather disparaging one and even if we ignore the vast gulf in achievement between me and Bernard Cornwell, it seems a little inappropriate to be throwing a negative label on books and stories that I obviously like.

Because I do like them, the Sharpe series and a whole other array of stories that I reach for when I’m in the mood for a story, but not one that is going to ask much of me. I just want to relax and enjoy, not be stretched and challenged. Not all books are good for this. When I read The Quantum Thief a few years ago, it was an amazing ride, but I had to be sharp before I was ready to climb on board. This is a story that will leave you behind if you can’t keep up. I find John Le Carre’s books somewhat similarly challenging because he uses language so subtly and well that if you don’t really pay attention to every word and consider it carefully you will probably miss some tiny important thing, and the gradual accretion of all these tiny important things will lead to you not really understanding what’s happening.

Sometimes, I’m not in the right space to do that. Sometimes I want an easy ride, and I do genuinely like the stories that give that to me. Grabbing another random example, while I would genuinely put John Carpenter’s The Thing up there as an absolute classic of the SF/horror genre, I also just as genuinely like Big Trouble in Little China, albeit in a rather different way. William Gibson is my all-time favourite writer, but some days I’m just not up to the challenge and just need a murder mystery.

There is, to be sure, enjoyment to be had in stories that challenge us, and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. Being asked to think of things in a whole different way is amazing at the same time as it is kind of scary. There’s the pleasure of solving a puzzle when you unpick the mystery of what’s going on in a story that has been trying to hide it from you. Engaging the intellect is exercise, and it feels good.

Except I’m not always in the right place, mentally or physically, to exercise (like this week, as I continue to try to get rid of a stubborn virus) and then I know I will be suffering rather than strengthening my faculties, either by trying to run 10 kilometers or by trying to tackle Bring up the Bodies. But I still want to read (it is a very rare day when I don’t read anything) and so then perhaps (especially given my previously-discussed tendency to re-read old favourites) it is time for one of Sharpe’s Spanish battlefields.

I especially like these things when I am tired, or upset, or sick. I just want something I can get some enjoyment, perhaps some distraction, from and not need to work very hard at getting it. Sometimes I just need a reminder (or the illusion, if we’re being cynical) that good can triumph over evil and that there is such a thing as a happy ending. So in many ways these books are the ones that have been with me when I have been at my worst and have helped me feel better, so I really should be as kind to them as they have been to me.

It’s a reminder about the power of story (for some people at least) that things like this can make one feel a little better during our low points. I think stories can do all kinds of amazing things, and this is one of them, at least for me. Really, a story that provides comfort or inspiration or amusement to a person who is in need is pretty darned good, which is another excellent reason not to throw a negative label on them.

Essentially I think I need another term for the kind of books I enjoy at those times when I just want to sit back and be amused. In some ways those are my favourite ones and I don’t want to malign them. Anyway, I promise not to call them guilty pleasures any more.

Late last week I got to see early sketches of book cover designs for The King in Darkness. Having another artist produce something (even if it was only sketches) for a story I wrote was very exciting. Things are moving ahead!

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William Gibson and Writing Crisis #1

Slightly over a week in now.   Things are going all right although I did have to push today to get to the 1,000 words.  That’s good though, that’s the point of the exercise.  Anyway I still don’t know exactly what to do with this blog outside of word count updates so here’s something I wrote about one of my favorite authors.

 

Somewhere out there (and I fervently hope the answer is “in a landfill”) is a purple spiral-bound notebook containing numerous probably (and perhaps fortunately) illegible stories written by a 17 year-old trying very hard to be William Gibson.   Gibson was probably my first ‘favorite author’ in the sense of an author who I admired for their style of writing and their skill at the craft as opposed to just thinking ‘hey that was a good book so this person must be a good writer I guess’.  I mean I remember writing down Terrence Dicks and Malcolm Hulke as favorite authors for something at school once but that was because they did novel adaptations of Doctor Who and Doctor Who was about my favorite thing at the time.  I kind of doubt I would have gotten the same level of enjoyment out of something else that they wrote, I just liked Doctor Who and so books involving Doctor Who were my favorite ones.

On the other hand William Gibson, once I got reading his stuff, I enjoyed on just about every level and even though the stories I read first were cool SF-y adventures (and thus, more or less in my wheelhouse), after the first one I was actively looking for more William Gibson to read, not more cool SF-y adventures.  So he’d be the first author I think I genuinely admired for themselves or their own work.  Maybe Susan Cooper should be in there, although again I haven’t read anything of hers outside of The Dark is Rising series and never felt any inclination to, so again, it’s not really the same.

Anyway, Gibson knocked my socks off.  I spent many lunch hours in high school in the library reading their copy of Neuromancer, which I would stash in a potted plant so that no-one could borrow it before I had a chance to finish it.  (This eventually led to a tragically damaged copy of Neuromancer after it turns out someone watered those plants from time to time.)  I’m not sure why I didn’t borrow it myself – perhaps the idea of bringing home a book that has an orgasm in it was not something I was prepared to contemplate at that stage – but anyway I didn’t.  But I did read it, love it, and set out to read everything by Gibson that I could get my hands on.

Eventually, Neuromancer did make it home because I did an OAC English project on it, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, which may or may not have been crap but I was super into this writing.  I eventually reached a point where I owned two copies of Burning Chrome, and I still don’t exactly understand how that happened.  But both copies travelled with me through several moves and sat there next to each other on the shelf because it was William Gibson and you don’t just get rid of that stuff.

Unfortunately (as I see it now) in admiring Gibson so much I set out to write stories that were basically William Gibson stories, and filled that spiral-bound notebook (along with various other places) with my own attempts at near-future cyberpunky dystopian tales that even at the time I had a deep and nagging certainty simply did not work, though I didn’t understand why.

I didn’t figure it out until very much later, although in retrospect I think the answer had been coming for a while.  The final penny drop was related to a story I wrote called ‘Virtually Dead’ which was supposed to open in Vladivostok.  I have no clear recollection as to why I chose Vladivostok except that a) that sure was far away b) the name is cool and c) (although I’m sure I would have denied it at the time) Gibson stories take place in  Unusual Locations.  Anyway my creative writing professor immediately observed that what I had described was ‘nothing like Vladivostok’.

Now my first reaction was to wonder what, exactly, were the chances that I would end up with a professor who had been to freaking Vladivostok, but as this criticism (valid, I do not doubt) percolated a bit I realized the problem.  I had never been to Vladivostok, and just had a vague idea of a story that I wanted to be international (also for vague, Gibson-tinged reasons) and so threw it into an international location I knew almost exactly nothing about.  And herein was the problem with trying to write William Gibson stories (leaving aside the whole problem of being a derivative parasite of course) – Gibson’s stories about shady underworld characters and the margins of society work because he actually spent parts of his life with shady underworld characters from the margins of society.

My stories had an indelible taint of lameness all over them because I had grown up in a reasonably affluent bedroom suburb in Southern Ontario and the closest thing I had yet come to an underworld character was that one guy in my Grade 7 class who shoplifted M.U.S.C.L.E. Things from Zeller’s.  (Although he was pretty hardcore about it – he got the big boxes that had like 50 of them in it, not the little ones)  Basically I was trying to write about things that I had literally no experience at all with, had no idea what they were like (aside from what I had gleaned from William Gibson novels of course) so what I was producing was like a bad photocopy of someone else’s depictions.  This clearly Would Not Work and Had to Go.

This became Writing Crisis #1 – can I write interesting stories that are not based on shit I know nothing about?  Because honestly I have not had that exciting a life so perhaps there may be a problem unless I wanted to write about life in a suburban town – which I emphatically do not.  Anyway somewhere in the midst of my undergraduate period (after the creative writing classes) I decided the answer to Writing Crisis #1 was “no” and promptly didn’t write anything for a long time.

I have since revised my answer, perhaps obviously.  In part, the solution is just the ‘smoke that baby’ directive with which I began the blog – write the story, don’t let yourself be ‘carded’ by people who have been to Vladivostok, there is no admittance requirement for this particular ride.  However, there was still a problem with trying to write William Gibson stories – they weren’t my stories.  This is the key thing to smoking that baby, it seems to me.  Make sure it is, in fact your baby.

I was trying to emulate stories that I liked a lot, not creating a story of my own.  They were set in seedy urban environments and involved shady characters making questionable decisions because this is what happened in cool stories that I liked, but there wasn’t much of me in there, just ‘me too!’.  Ultimately I had to figure out a story I wanted to tell on its own merits, and then decide if it really needed to be set in Vladivostok, or not (It doesn’t).

So even if my efforts to write my own Neuromancer were ultimately ill-fated and ill-conceived, I still love William Gibson’s writing.  Even Distrust That Particular Flavor, which is a collection of columns he wrote for various publications, is great reading.  It is (I imagine – this is another on the long list of experiences I have not actually had) kind of like hanging out with an inscrutable learned master of some elevated philosophy, waiting for the next unprompted utterance to meditate on (Japan, again?  All right…) and determining what you’ll take away from it.  It’s an unquestionably odd experience, but well worth doing.

So yeah, I still really enjoy William Gibson and he is on the short list of writers whose books I will buy without knowing what they’re about – I just take it as read (har) that whatever it is will be good.  However, I don’t think I’m trying to be William Gibson anymore, which is probably just as well.

 

Word Count: 10,278.  Keepin’ on.

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