30 May, 2013

Science Fiction and Post-modernity

Some people look at this and think, "Wow!  Science fiction has such an incredible playground now! Where to begin?" I think scientific development has become a norm of our society. It's expected and not provocative in and of itself. This doesn't mean individual inventions can't be provocative. They certainly can, and if something inspires a story, so long as that story is good, then it doesn't matter whether that "something" is a new way to rewrite long-term memories or a lonely peanut by a gutter. The goal is the same, and so is the potential human significance of the ensuing art.

Before combining these two thoughts, I'll recap:

1) Scientific/technological development has become a cultural norm.

2) It is the human significance of a thing that makes important art, whether we're talking ray-guns, krakens or peanuts on a roadside.

This is the kind of thing that makes me think modern SF needs to change. Challenging a cultural norm is what makes art of political (in the sense Orwell cited in "Why I Write"--if you don't own that book, shame on you) significance, and it is most certainly the remit of so-called 'Golden Age' SF, when it was considered a "literature of ideas". In post-modern society, to challenge the cultural norm of science is to challenge science itself. Significance; purpose; insight; benefit. These are things Modernism took for granted, and Post-modernism does not.

Here we have everything from Quantum Mechanics to Medicine. It's certainly tough to challenge the value of the latter, but let's take it as an example. In my opinion, the best art is about asking challenging questions, especially the ones you feel disgusted even to ponder. Ponder them intelligently, and what better way to make a person think and feel than to raise the questions he's never dared ask himself? As for less touchy subjects, it's the job of the artist in Post-modernity to question the value of culture, and the possibility of forwards motion therein.

I say bring it on, you old buggers (no offense). It's Generation X's turn to fill the bookshelves.

It should be noted that the above discoveries are, of course, for the most part in their infancy. Academia doesn't work by proving the first fraction of an idea and phoning the newspapers. It takes slow steps because those are necessary to find the truth. Still, the discoveries are quite awesome. Click the links below for articles. For etiquette purposes I should say I found the picture on How About Some Real F**king News (among the best sources of accurate news in America) on Facebook.

➤ Rewriting Memories: http://is.gd/JYlapy
➤ Limb Regeneration: http://is.gd/RndLTv
➤ 3D Printed Breathing Device: http://is.gd/cWhG0s
➤ Quantum Link: http://is.gd/u8QIBk
➤ Alzheimer's Molecular Trigger: http://is.gd/ujEg6u
➤ Universe's Light: http://is.gd/4tywM8

21 May, 2013

The Invisible (Hu)man

I must open this by giving Elmore Leonard credit.  He's a truly great writer, enough so that I suspect he'd encourage an analysis of his advice. I will do a series of these posts. I'd intended to start with Rule 1 (don't start with the weather) but the preface caught my attention.

"These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over." Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, preface.

I was invited to a reading and Q&A session with Christopher Priest a couple of weeks ago, and I asked him what to do when you're lost in a story. I had begun my novel without plotting and, far worse, without conviction. I thought I'd figure out what story I wanted to tell if I just leapt in with an interesting character. I explained my predicament and asked what a good author's approach might be.

"Character," he said. There was more to his answer, but that was the gist.

Back to Elmore Leonard:  "if... the sound of your voice pleases you". How about the sound of your character's voice?

Here's a quote from a famous editor and teacher (as in, famous for being great at both of those):

"The story which is the first person narrative of the main actor can have no objective, stage-like scenes at all; it is all impression, personalised, psychological." The Technique of the Novel, Thomas H. Uzzell, p. 98.

It might seem strange at first, but think about it. You're in a character's head. If two other characters are talking, and all your description is action, the interpretation of what's said is still, if the story is well written, all in your main character's head and thus their voice. If you've done a good job, the reader loves the sound of their voice, and anything else, including objectivism or invisibility, would detract from the quality of the narrative.

I'm always talking about what you've promised the reader. If you've promised a character's voice, then invisibility is a break of that promise. You can "never take the reader where the reader wants to go" (Solutions for Writers by Sol Stein, I forget the page), but it's rather pedestrian advice in my opinion. It lacks grounding in psychology, and if you're looking for emotional effect, reader psychology is everything. Scott told me to "maintain the urgency of a single premise," which certainly requires starting a book with conviction (punches face), and it's a greater truth. Go ahead and surprise your reader with the plot, but meanwhile ensure that the promises you've made to the reader are kept. Taking the example of a twist in the tale (tail?) ending, Sol Stein's advice, without the aforementioned psychological understanding, gives you a "what the smeg?" emotional effect, as opposed to any potency. Stein isn't wrong. He's just failed to explain properly.

Before I lose the point entirely, let me bring this post back the promise I made at the start, about a story's voice. There is an author/teacher I'm not fond of (as a person--she's a decent, though be no means exceptional writer) who centres tuition around a story's voice. She's referring to making a story unique. That's a good point, but it misses the psychological issues. The reader wants to know what's happening between the characters. Readers naturally follow human minds, not stuff that happens. That stuff is made enticing by the humans involved in it. That's the difference between a story and a bland account of events. Every story has a voice, because as readers we follow a person through events.

This can, of course, be a different person in every scene, or even every other paragraph. So long as the reader knows where they are (doesn't have the "what the smeg?" reaction) and interest is maintained, there are no rules. There is only understanding.

Leonard's stories do not lack a voice. In fact, most of his fiction is in very close POV, which is not to say it's first person. (Closeness of POV doesn't require or even imply that.) Leonard should be, and probably is, just talking about keeping his voice out of the narrative. That will make his ideal valid, but it also opens all of his rules up to a plethora of potential misunderstandings and, in my opinion, necessary criticisms.

Just to clarify, and again give due credit to a great writer, Leonard's rules are all worthy of consideration. Every author invents their own way of considering the craft, and it isn't even that we're doing different things. We'll just define them differently. Scott Bradfield thinks in terms of POV and narrative time. The person I dislike thinks in terms of voice. Leonard thinks in his own way. Every good writer will have the same things in mind, which is evocative manipulation of a reader psychologically.

I haven't come up with my way of thinking about things yet. If I have it's "Start with an idea you truly love. Never settle for less than that. Amplify that idea to maximum impact."

That's why there's no such thing as scale in good speculative fiction. A human's trials with a mirror can be as potent as a new universe, and every inch as speculative. A great writer can turn a pebble into an atom bomb.

I'm going to write a series of posts on Leonard, but I want to clarify that I do so not to contradict him, but rather to help clarify his rules. I believe we cannot truly understand a thing unless we understand the reasoning behind any exception. Certainly not in the arts, which inherently lack rules.

Elmore Leonard, you're a legend. Again I have to clarify that I'm a huge fan of Leonard's and all my friends are quite familiar with my lengthy rants about why he's awesome. I wouldn't have decided to do these posts had his rules not inspired me to think a great deal about the art of writing, which was, surely, his intention.

15 May, 2013

Alone in a Ruined House

I discovered a desktop background that inspires me to work on my book whenever I see it. That might not be a bad idea for finding a story's voice in general. Some writers, such as Quentin Tarantino, use music, playing the same song over and over to set the tone of a scene. I do that in short fiction, but I find there's too much going on in a novel. A short story is like a song: singular of purpose, effect. Stephen King says it's like a kiss in the dark. I don't like that quote. The narrative purpose of a short story is one powerful feeling, swift and sharp. And if a short story is a song, a novel is a symphony.

My novel is very much lead by a single character. This picture is Ashby all over:

Many thanks to the photographer. I just nabbed this off Google and now I wish I'd made a note of his/her name to post it here. I tried looking up "Piano with a rose" and suchlike, but only got a bunch of foofie smeg. My apologies.

Every time I look at this I feel all the things that make my story happen, which is everything in Ashby's head. Playing alone in a ruined house hits the symbolic nail, and I'm glad to have it hammered home every time I'm tempted to play a chess game or check my email in the morning (he says while making a blog post while he should be writing). Anyway, back to work!

09 May, 2013

Spank Me

With all this talk of inspiration and toughening up, there's a point that needs to be made.

This is something we all learn from bitter experience.

Let me preface this by saying I got my critique form my agent recently. She said exactly what I'd expected. Lots of constructive comments, a little helpful dialogue over email, and she didn't think the book was perfect. Neither did I. That's why I wanted the comments. I put myself, and all my best efforts, naked before her so she could...

And... SMACK!

"Ow! Damn, lady! If I were into that stuff maybe but--"

"You'll take it. It's good for you. I know you want it."

And... SMACK!

"Give me back my clothes!"

In a (not erotic) sense, the experience reminded me of my martial arts training.

Fear is something very few martial arts teachers acknowledge. If you're well trained, they say, you won't feel it. You'll just fight.


Military teachers know that even hard-core special forces guys are quaking in their boots when the action hits. They've just become comfortable with it. That's why good fighters scream like banshees when they're in combat, instead of staying quiet like a Shaolin monk stereotype. You don't enter combat expecting to win. You enter expecting to fight. The most dangerous fighters enter expecting to die.

It's vaguely related, but skip it if you aren't interested in martial arts.

This isn't something a person can teach you. It's something I discovered from experience. Once I'd been in 700 or so fights (controlled so we didn't kill each other, but with no rules aside from "let the guy tap out", "stop kicking him once he goes limp" and "don't leave him blind or impotent") I stopped thinking about victory or defeat. I just fought, feeling the combat around me. Only then could I fight well, and martial arts stopped being theory and became practise. In terms of technique, Tukkong Musool is quite simple. That simplicity allows it to be experienced effectively by the student, and the experience, the method of learning via doing, is what separates it from other martial arts. There is no theorisation, only practise. That's why it's used by Special Forces squads all over the world.  Even Brazilian Jiu Jitsu teachers feel the need to inundate their students with the idea that all fights go to the floor. Most do (which is why we do BJJ in Tukkong, because it really is the best ground-fighting art) but when fighting multiple opponents, taking someone to the floor is a death sentence. BJJ teachers neglect to explain this incredibly obvious fact. It has to be deliberate, because no one is that stupid. In truth, I've never seen another school that gets you training in practise against multiple opponents, and I've looked extensively. I'll reiterate the reason I say all this: Special Forces units and all of the elite warriors of this world were trained by getting their asses kicked, and there is no substitute.

End of Rant

I can tell you not to fear rejection, to revel in advice and look forward to your agent/editor tearing your manuscript to shreds to help forge it anew, but I'd be like a martial arts teacher telling you not to feel fear. That's smeg. You will be afraid of rejection, and even acceptance that includes extensive criticism will hurt.

When Leslie gave me my feedback on my novel, it tore me up. I was out with friends, having a great time. I checked my email on my phone and had to be alone. I couldn't even tell anyone why because I was so ashamed.

The next morning (in which I write this post) I looked at her email and realised she didn't say she hated the book, she just said the plot digresses a bit and it needs some work. I ALREADY KNEW THAT!!!! I sent it to her expecting her to say those exact smegging things! She even offered the advice I'd hoped for!

If we follow the spanking metaphor, I'd just gone into her office and done this:

I got what I'd asked for. Why did it upset me? Because it hurt. Because emotions are idiots. Much as we love them, they don't submit to logic. (I'm a huge advocate of the importance of emotional intelligence, just to be clear. I mean this stuff tongue in cheek.)

I even new it would hurt. I was emotionally prepared. Still, there was a part of me that wanted her to say the last story she'd fallen so in love with was A Clockwork Orange, and she thought it grand that another talent like Anthony Burgess had joined her agency and she wanted to be my biggest fan for all eternity and she'd send me flowers and love letters and panties and, while I would have been a bit weirded out, I certainly would have taken it as a compliment.

Now I'm hard at work fixing the glitches that I knew were there, inspired by Leslie's words and thankful for her guidance. I repeat: emotions are idiots.

I'm not sure what to offer here by way of advice. I don't think I've truly learned anything, which is to say, I'm not sure this experience will change me much. Maybe I'll become more confident as my career progresses, but I have no way of knowing yet. All I can offer is this: getting spanked hurts, even when you see it coming, and even when it's for your own good. Don't send your manuscripts off expecting them to be loved. Send them off expecting them to be read.

03 May, 2013

Big Business and Modern Publishing

China Mieville

China MiƩville: Writers should welcome a future where readers remix our books Novelist says anti-piracy measures mooted for literature are 'disingenuous, hypocritical, ineffectual' and 'artistically philistine'

The link above leads to an (in my opinion) excellent article about the evolution of publishing. I always find China's words fascinating. I think he's one of the foremost intellectuals writing fiction today. I don't always agree with him, but I have never come across an argument of his that I did not think was valid and worthy of debate.

In the spirit of my blog having become about "me and stuff" again (that's a reference to an old post) I thought it high time I post something about publishing in my capacity as a Sociologist.

I think everyone agrees that publishing is changing. I also think fear-mongerers, and hopeful self-publishing writers too often think in terms of the extreme idea that traditional publishing businesses will collapse.

Large businesses need to move slowly when undertaking a vast shift, simply because businesses do not directly control the majority of their money. It's invested. I doubt they will die before the necessary shifts, already being frantically planned and implemented, come into effect.

Did video game companies die when online content became available? No. They thrived.

Did anything bad happen to the record industry? Yes, very, and temporarily. Record companies survived and are now making more money than ever. Not all of them survived, but they were replaced not with anarchy, but with new companies that serve the exact same purpose.

The same thing is happening with publishing. Electronic media means a wider audience. Powerful businesses will, unless they are very stupid, invest some of their plethora of resources into adapting. I think one reason it's problematic is that it's happening during such a bad recession.

But money is a representation of resource, not a conjuring trick. The reasons for a recession are never "there's less money", unless that's coupled with "there's less resource." That's simply not the case today. The publishing market has actually grown. I've heard a plethora of people (usually older people) say that nobody reads anymore. Bollocks. More people, and a greater percentage of the population, read for pleasure now than ever in history. It's called Modernity. Populations are far higher. A far greater portion of the population are educated. Book sales weighed against population have shown strong percentage increase year by year since the invention of the printing press, as have production costs steadily declined.

We are in a recession, which means people (and businesses) have less money to throw around, but a larger audience means resources, when supplied, are already demanded and thus find ways to be bought. That's one reason why self-publishing works. People seek interesting books even while publishers are afraid to invest in new authors and unusual projects.

I think China's point is mainly that publishing houses will hopefully, as he says, become less parochial. I agree that that would be a good thing. I just don't think the monetary side of things will change as much as some worry and others hope.

I certainly do not wish to imply that I think ill of self-publishing. I do preach caution when it comes to high hopes, whether it's self-publication or not. I think such hopes are unhealthy and detract from the quality of both life and work.

Knowledge, on the other hand, is always useful. I'd argue that we should watch the larger publishing houses, understand how big business works, and not decide the internet is going to set libraries and bookstores on fire. Even if it does, big businesses will, soon enough, be the ones manufacturing the matches. Modern capitalist society is, economically speaking, structured around the relationship between money and resource. Business not only wins by nature, business is nature. The real question is whether the likes of Google and Amazon will control publishing, or if it will remain in the hands of people who actually give a smeg about books. I'm rooting for the latter.