Monday, 31 August 2009

Gloom Cupboard

The September edition of Gloom Cupboard's fiction section has gone up here. I hope you enjoy it.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Inspiration and Craft

It's a subject that catches my attention every so often, mostly about the time I do something horrible to either my fencing or guitar playing techniques, but the relationship between inspiration and the technique of doing things is an intriguing one, so I thought I'd look at it again.

Particularly, I find myself interested by the relationship between the "plan it from the start" and "just get on and write it" approaches to writing. I know some people will prefer one or the other, and they tend to be pretty adamant about it. It's as though they suspect that doing something different will result in things going horribly wrong, either by the end result making no sense, or it looking like it was produced by numbers.

I've tried both, and I think that there's probably a case for picking a method according to the type of piece you're writing. Extensive planning tends to result in tight, efficient pieces that rarely put a foot wrong. A more "write it and see" approach could produce almost anything, but in my case tends to produce things that ramble and wander, but flow a little more.

For all my talk about planning and "just writing" though, neither is the method that I actually use when I'm writing well. That method goes a little more like this:

  1. I start to think about an idea. Maybe I write it down, so I won't forget about it. Possibly I'll do some incredibly detailed planning on paper. Rather more possibly, I'll do some sketchy planning in my head.
  2. I then forget about it. If I've written it down, I forget where I've written it down. Curiously, this is an important part of the process, giving me time to think about it. Or to do some work I'm actually supposed to be doing. One or the other.
  3. After a bit, I get inspired (or so monumentally bored it feels like the same thing). I will then attempt to write the piece/novel.
  4. It will then go wrong. Occasionally, it will only go wrong a little bit, and I can fix it with a few edits, a few jokes, and a lot of encouragement from people who should know better (as happened with one of my favourite short stories, A Madder Scientist). More commonly, it will go horribly wrong, or fall flatter than most of my attempts at baking. (That's a lie, actually. Most of my very occasional attempts at baking do the opposite, rise far too much, and attempt to barricade themselves in the oven.)
  5. Having gone wrong, I will probably engage in a certain amount of Valuable Thinking Time (or sulking, as it's otherwise known). I might end up throwing the whole thing out and keeping nothing but the idea. I might also decide that there are some bits I like, and keep more of it.
  6. It's generally at about this point that I do some proper planning. Sounds insane, doesn't it? The thing is, what do I have at this point? Something that is alive, and vibrant, and also not set in stone. It's easy to change, but it probably also has some good ideas in there. Ideas that I might well not have come up with had I planned things at the start. From here, I can put the thing together in a way that actually works, but hopefully without sacrificing anything important.
  7. Having done that planning, I will attempt to rewrite, edit, and generally shout at the thing until it comes together. I generally know it's working well when bits I've added to fill holes start to take on their own life, do odd things in conjunction with what's already there, and generally behave like they've been there all along.
  8. Hopefully, the resulting chaos produces something I'm happy to have written.
The weird part is that it generally does. The pieces I'm less ecstatic about tend to show up when I either plan too much (which is the more common problem) or too little. This seems to work because it combines a couple of planning stages (and yes, generally thinking about things at the start counts) with enough freedom to let me do all the slightly odd things I do when I'm writing well.

Of course, put like that, it sounds a bit too much like a list of instructions. It isn't. It's simply an attempt to be truthful about what I actually do. I'm not sure I'd necessarily recommend this to anyone else. What I do recommend is looking at the way you work, and finding out what you really do when you're working well. More people than you might think do something surprisingly similar to this, building on an initial burst of inspiration with the craft they've learned. Possibly fewer of them sulk quite so much in the middle, but each to their own, I say.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Stuff

  • Still proofreading. It's one of those tasks that takes far, far longer than it should. Today's objective: go through all the footnotes again, sorting out tiny details in line with the usual style sheets, then number the chapters and sub-chapters properly. Such an annoying little job, but hours of work.
  • I've noticed that it seems harder to start an article based on the PhD than it is to start a short story, even though the former is what I've got the training in (although putting it that way makes it sound like I was composing essays on the way round assault courses, rather than merely trying to make sense of twelfth century handwriting)
  • I've been trying poetry for the first time in months, presumably as a result of my "no work on the novel while I'm finishing the PhD" rule. I seem to have forgotten how.
  • I read Richelle Mead's Thorn Queen earlier, and enjoyed it, though why I started it when I'm already half-way through both Paradise Lost and Tom Holt's Grailblazers I don't know. The latter has less pizza than anticipated, but more reindeer and atlanteans, so that's all right. The former has surprisingly few of either.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Jonathon Pinnock

I just thought I'd take a moment to point you in the direction of fellow writer (and occasional inhabitant of The Write Idea, which is linked to on my sidebar if you haven't already dropped in) Jon Pinnock. Partly on the basis that one of his pieces will be showing up in the next edition of Gloom Cupboard, when I put it up at the end of the week, but mostly on the basis that I like what I've seen of his writing, and because he was so quick coming back to me when I wrote the words 'Please, please can someone send in something that isn't so deathly serious'.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

On Submissions

I'll be typing this somewhat hesitantly, since anything with even a remote connection to my right shoulder is quite painful today. I've found out the hard way that the diving stop is for professional cricketers, not the rest of us. Talking of which, well done to England.

Right, with that out of the way, on to what this is really about, which is submitting things. This being mostly on the basis that, for no apparent reasons beyond the fact that I think it's rather good, and the fact that I happened to wander onto their submissions page, I've just submitted a query for CofD to the biggest publisher I could find. It might not (and statistically, probably won't) get a positive response, but you never know.

Which is sort of my first point. How many times have you targeted a small, or non-paying, market with work that you really liked? Have you ever had a piece accepted that, in hindsight, you thought might have done better than the market you targeted? It's something I'm not sure about. Generally, I don't have that much idea whether my stuff is good or not. My main clue in this regard (which may have prompted my sudden leap in ambition) was finding a very positive comment attached to my "Motto of the Gnomish Postal Service" poem, asking why I didn't send it to a paying fantasy market.

The initial thought in circumstances like that is, obviously "because it's just a bit of fun", or "it's ok, but it's nothing special". And who knows, they might even be the right thoughts. I'm not going to claim that one kind comment makes fifteen minutes' work a masterpiece. But the thought that followed that for me was "because this is where I submit my silly fantasy poems". Looking at it written down like that, it's not as good a reason as it sounded when I first used it, is it?

So is this just me having an arrogant five minutes? Actually no, I have a serious point to make here. In theory, if you're looking to build as a writer, the plan is that you maybe gain some experience and skills through zines and other non-paying markets, then steadily head upwards, through paying markets, to building a readership, to eventual world dominiation (I may have missed some steps out here. If anyone can tell me what they are, I'd be delighted to know).

But how many of us actually do this? How many of us let our (perfectly natural) modesty get the better of us, and stick with safe avenues for our creative output in the form of places we already know? Even when we go for new places, how many of us stick to ones that are similar to ones we've already been published in? Is there a case for saying that it's worth being more ambitious on occasion, even if the risk is being told no (as might well happen with the novel. Have you noticed that you're generally a lot less confident about work in the moments after it's gone out)?

Just for me, give it a go. Pick somewhere that you wouldn't normally think of sending work to because you "aren't good enough" and submit the piece you like the most. I have no idea if it will work, but given the wonderful writing of some of the people who drop in here, it might, and you don't lose anything much if it doesn't.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Stuff

  • I'm through the first bout of proofreading for the PhD. I'll probably try to make a couple of parts more readable, have another go, then see if there are any comments from my supervisor.
  • England are in a position where they might win the last Test, and thus the Ashes. I can but hope.
  • Proving that life doesn't stop, I'm already thinking of ways I might break up parts of the PhD for some articles. Several articles seems like a better way to build attention in history circles than one book, particularly since I'm not entirely convinced by the whole "book of the research project" concept in general. It seems like you're trying to take something designed for one end, then use it for another.
  • I'm still on my Tom Holt kick, having aquired a copy of Grailblazers, which promises knights, quests for the Grail, and pizza, in no particular order.
  • The radio mentioned one of those annoying "top ten guitarists of all time" lists earlier. Apparently Les Paul is on it. No. Just because he's died doesn't mean he was one of the greatest. Great inventor yes (of both the eponymous Gibson guitar and multitrack recording), but immensely influential guitarist?
  • It's amazing how many jokes you can get out of someone jumping out of a window, as I did in the scene I wrote earlier.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Tom Holt: May Contain Traces of Magic

This did contain some time travel after all, but I thought I'd review it anyway. It's (broadly) another in the series containing The Portable Door, Earth Air Fire and Custard, The Better Mousetrap and You Don't Have To Be Evil To Work Here But It Helps. Its hero, Chris Popham, works as a sales rep for J.W.Wells' various products, ranging from the annoying (a book of all human knowledge that insists on telling him about Gandhi), to the useful (in the form of portable parking spaces), to... well no one has ever quite worked out what they use the dessicated water for, but it's certainly selling well.

Chris quickly finds himself not-quite attacked by demons, saddled with graduate trainees, and talking to his Sat Nav, which is talking back, and would quite like to get out of the horrible plastic box, thank you. As if that weren't enough, he's got his failing relationship with Karen to deal with, while his usually supportive friend Jill is doing a good job of dealing with the supernatural incursions, but getting remarkably preoccupied about some missing digestive biscuits.

It's good fun, though as usual quite baffling until Holt explains it at the end. The gags are as good as ever, and it's a fast paced read, even when half of what's going on doesn't make much sense. Holt plays with the business of being a sales rep expertly, and as usual my only slight annoyance is the time travelling plot, which seems to make a surprising amount of what follows only semi-relevant. Having said that, it only comes in towards the end, and doesn't detract from what are some very funny characters, so this is still very much worth reading.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Proofreading: Some Thoughts

Because I'm gearing up to the submission of the PhD, I've been going through all the last minute things, including a few final rounds of proofreading. I've also had chance to do this in the preparation of novels, and to work with an editor in the pre-publication editing of Searching. As such, it seemed like a good opportunity to offer some tips on the process of proof-reading your work.

  1. Do it. Basic, obvious, but frequently ignored. Maybe people think that their work is perfect. Maybe they think that editors somehow have reserves of patience beyond those of ordinary mortals (which rather suggests they haven't been paying attention). Maybe they just can't be bothered. More likely, they've been correcting as they go, which doesn't work, because you're concentrating on content, not presentation. Putting together work is like the bit on those cookery shows where the chef has about a dozen pans on the go at once. Proofreading is more like the bit at the end where they go around wiping stray bits of sauce off plates.
  2. Do it again. One pass through is not enough. You will miss something. Everyone always misses something.
  3. Then get someone else to do it. If the work is remotely important, get someone else to look through at the end. This is different from the usual reading and suggestions, because the content is not their first concern (though if something major becomes obvious, be prepared to change it, on which, see below). They are looking specifically for spelling, grammar, layout, etc. Give them a red biro if you really want them to do an obsessively thorough job. Most people can't resist.
  4. Have a goal with each pass. Today, I was correcting my footnotes. I didn't even look at the body of the text. The bits you are correcting at this stage are the boring bits. If you allow yourself to look at the other bits of the piece, they will distract you from the parts you are supposed to be doing.
  5. Don't try to do it all at once. Making corrections takes longer than you think. You're correcting every mistake you made over what might have been months or years of writing. You're also correcting every mistake you put off as too time consuming. Guess what? You were right. I've had to split the corrections on my footnotes over two days, though to be fair, their were more than 750 of them to check and fit to my chosen style.
  6. Which is probably the most important point of the process. Be consistent. Pick what abbreviations you'll allow, and stick to it. Choose what you plan to do with thoughts, random asides, footnote conventions, and all the other little parts of layout. If the place you're aiming at has a house style, it should probably be in line with that.
  7. Now sit back, relax, and... hang on, there's something horribly wrong with chapter three. No, not there, about five paragraphs down. You'll have to re-write half the chapter. Only of course now you don't want to because you've done the proof reading. If you're on a tight deadline, you might have to leave it and hope that it's just your imagination, but more usually, the better response is to go ahead and fix it. The piece is not final until it's out of your hands, or even until it goes up to be published. I once put an article together for a magazine, checked it, sent it to the editor, who checked it, made some corrections, checked it again, sent it back, had it accepted as fine, and then found a spelling mistake on the galley proofs. But that was fine, because it meant we could correct it before it went to print.
  8. Above all, if you want to stay sane while you do it, remember that the purpose is to make the whole thing better. If you want to see it for yourself, keep a copy of the un-edited version, then compare it to what goes out. Even small changes will end up making it look far more professional.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Aphelion August 2009

Aphelion seems to have switched to coming out about midway through the month now, and this month's has just gone up. It contains my rather silly fantasy poem 'Motto of the Gnomish Postal Service', because you can only take these things so seriously.

Resolutions 3

Alex Moore is having a look at how her New Year's resolutions are standing up this late in the year, so I thought I'd have a similar look, not that I could remember what mine were. Still, there's a chance. They were (since I didn't take the whole thing entirely seriously):

  1. Remember to send things out once I've written them.
  2. Don't start new work part way through the old.
  3. Try to fence smarter, leaving the Nu-sabre well alone.
  4. Include more penguins in my stories. (Because I like them)
  5. Actually remember to write something shorter than a novel occasionally
  6. Finish the PhD. I mean it this time.
And how have I done with them?

  1. I've been sending things out, at least occasionally. I've remembered to submit the novels, though I'm going to have to push CofD on some more agents, now that rejections have trickled in from all but one of those I sent it too (I'm vaguely hopeful about the last, but only vaguely, since there's a faint chance that I might have received a rejection and then forgotten.)
  2. I haven't done this, so that's a success, right? Although the whole business of writing a completely different version of the sequel possibly counts against it.
  3. Until a few weeks before the end of the season, this was totally out. Between Ratneswaran in the student nationals, Dave Woodborough in the Yorkshires, and watching the world championships on Youtube, I was completely into that style. I still am, largely, though it has been modified by spending some time at the Yorkshire captain's club and inevitably copying elements of his approach. Also by a lesson from university coach Tony, who solved in five minutes my problem of getting too close with my feints, when several others have failed to diagnose it quite as precisely.
  4. Still just the one, I'm afraid. I must think of a way to deal with this.
  5. I have the odd short story floating around, so that counts.
  6. Nearly done. Very nearly. Honest.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Stuff

  • I've put in my official 'intention to submit' form for my PhD- the bit of paperwork that gives the university notice to rouse an examiner or two and check that I have in fact done all the modules I think I have. Technically, I must now wait three months to submit (I found this out in the office today) which is a little annoying, but I'm hoping that if everything is in place, they might accept it a little sooner.
  • I'm reading Tom Holt's latest: May Contain Traces of Magic. It's hilarious, and there's no time travel, for once, so things more or less make sense.
  • It turns out that putting in html tags by hand (endless paragraph breaks) is really boring. I know, because I spent much of the morning doing so on a piece for my little corner of Elfwood.com. Yes, I know it's a forum and as such not a publication, but I'm hoping to use a few of my not-particularly-submittable pieces (The Receipt for a Dragon series that I keep adding to despite it being a weird open ended series of silly fantasy short stories) to attract the attention of fantasy loving types to my other work. Cunning, no? Well no, not especially, given the html, but at least this way someone will get a laugh out of them.
  • In among my endless applications for vaguely publishing relating things, I've applied for something I might have more chance of getting- a research post working on some local history. Just me, a million incomprehensible sources, and a history to write to deadline. Same as usual, basically.
  • The poetry section of Gloom Cupboard is up. Go and read it.
  • Should (and I admit the odds probably aren't that great) anyone find themselves in Edinburgh's Forest Cafe in the next few months and see an unnaturally tall chap in glasses selling a collection of short(ish) stories, I recommend you grab a copy. That's my friend Adam, and though he can't write briefly to save his life, he is one of the most engaging short story writers I know. The closest parallel I can find in tone is probably Ray Bradbury, though I'm not sure that's quite right. Also unlike me he puts tons of research into every one, so you end up finding out unexpected things.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Eight Suggestions

Not that I'm particularly in a position to correct the short story writing of others (no, hang on, I edit them, don't I? So I am by definition in a position to do exactly that. Oh good. I thought I was going to sound like I didn't know what I was doing for a moment there). Still, there are some issues that I keep seeing in short stories, whether my own first drafts, or those sent to GC, or simply things I've run into elsewhere. Because everybody loves being told exactly where they've been going wrong (or is that nobody? I forget sometimes), here are some of the ones that crop up surprisingly often.

  1. Not naming the characters. It's supposed to be either mysterious or to make it clear that they are in some way archetypal, but in practice it rarely works, and usually introduces a rather stilted effect. Look at it this way: if I didn't name my cat, would that make him more mysterious? No. Would it make him archetypal? No. Would it make it incredibly awkward to shout him inside for his dinner? Be practical, give your characters names.
  2. Pronounceable ones, for preference. If it sounds like it was rejected by the Welsh Scrabble Association (and I really hope that exists, if only for the world records) then you shouldn't be using it. Also, be consistent. The only way three characters named Xzthl, Fargamon and Fred can co-exist is if someone is making fun of the whole thing. Yes, I accept that I write this having created Bob the Vampire, but I am making fun of the whole thing, so that doesn't count.
  3. Talking of which, who decided that short stories had to be so deathly serious? Admittedly, humour is a subjective thing, and therefore quite capable of falling flat with any given editor, but not every short story has to be quite so full of human misery, thank you.
  4. The natural extension of this point is that you should consider the appropriateness of what you're writing for the place you're sending it. Or, to put it another way, try to write with some taste and decency. "Person goes mad, kills everybody in gratuitously gory fashion" is a surprisingly common theme in my inbox, but is pretty much never going to get any response beyond a polite version of "go away and get some help". If you've written some particularly hardcore erotica, there are probably plenty of specialised sites that will want it (this is the Internet, after all) but is the literary zine you're planning on sending it right for that? I'm not saying that it never will be, but there do seem to be some people who mistake writing with emotional impact for simply trying to shock people.
  5. Almost at the other extreme from the above is the group of people who try so hard to be "literary" that it gets in the way. There's nothing wrong with literary fiction, but there is quite a lot wrong with utterly over-egging the language in an effort to make it beautiful. One particularly annoying manifestation is the stacking up of needless petty silly adjectives before every nice lovely perfect noun. Or, having heard of the importance of description, putting in a lengthy description that still somehow avoids what might be key details, like a...thing.
  6. Pointlessly long stories. Avoid. Sorry, that was probably a bit too brief, wasn't it? Actually, the length of the piece is not necessarily a problem in itself. There are good novellas in the world, and good very short flash fiction pieces (hint fiction?). This is one of those piece of string moments, I'm afraid. The thing is, a story needs to be as long as it needs to be to tell the story, or explore the scene, or do whatever it was you were hoping to do. It doesn't need to be any longer. Sometimes, I see things where the first five or six hundred words has no connection to the eventual ending. It shows some aspect of a character, but not one that has any bearing on the piece as a whole. Do without it.
  7. In particular, avoid pointlessly long stories where nothing happens. This is not necessarily an argument in favour of heavy Plot, and antiplot can be fun when it's done by someone who knows what they are doing, but the number of people who can really make it work over page after page is tiny.
  8. Take a certain amount of care over the thing. There seems to occasionally be an attitude that says "it's only a short story, and it's not like I'm getting paid, so I'll dash it off". That's fine, but be prepared to run into the editorial attitude that says "they obviously can't be bothered, so no". There is possibly a lot to be said for working fast in the initial moment of inspiration, for skimming over the keys at finger-blistering speed to keep up with the white-hot idea bursting to get out. It's just that, once it's out, I suspect it might be worth reading it through to make sure it's come out right.
Right then. Eight points for improvement. I'm off to delete about half my work. I did say that most of this applies to mine as much as others.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Stuff

  • I'm meeting my supervisor next week, and on the agenda is finalising submission dates. Finally. Delays have put me a couple of weeks back from where I want to be, but this sounds like it's back on track. I just have to hope there are no real changes needed.
  • I've had an acceptance from Semaphore Magazine for my comic fantasy piece 'The Apocalypse Factor'. It will go up in their September issue. I'm really pleased about that, because I like Semaphore as a magazine. It's one of the few where I'll usually enjoy reading the whole thing through, even when I don't have something in it. As usual, the contents of their anthology are determined in large part by their reader ratings, so if anyone feels like giving me a good rating once they've read the magazine, that would be even better.
  • I've been re-reading Tom Holt's Earth, Air, Fire and Custard. Wonderfully funny as usual, but there are moments when I wish Holt would give up on the time travel. No one, not even him, can make it work as well as a more straightforward story, because it inherently undermines the sort of causality at the heart of most storytelling.
  • Things we've learned from scenes I've written in the last few days: Donkey carts make poor getaway vehicles. The traditional sort of "sneak through the castle ducking into alcoves" sort of heroism isn't always a good thing. Vampirism's tendency to make people sadistic sex-kittens with a love of evening wear can apparently be overcome by some victims' natural vacuousness. And, to finish, what those vampires really want from their human slaves is someone to do the dusting (because it ruins the evening wear if they do it).

Monday, 3 August 2009

Acceptance

Some good news. The sequel to my urban fantasy novel Searching, currently entitled Witch Hunt, has just been accepted by the publisher. Although I've drifted away from serious urban fantasy a little bit since writing it, that's still good.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

A review

Some random ambling around the Net, of the type that usually occurs when I should probably be doing something else (I'm trying to think of a way to suitably parody Pygmalion with vampires, since you ask), has turned up this review. It's of Semaphore Magazine's March edition, and I particularly like the bit that goes:

In “Last Orders,” Stuart Sharp tells the story of humanity’s last few moments on Earth. You might think that’s a morbid little tale, and you’d be right, but it’s also a fun romp of a story. Sharp makes the seemingly endless dialogue between a barkeeper and his last customer flow smoothly, and at the same time that you want to tap them on the shoulder and point out that there are only a few minutes left, you’re reveling in the familiar drama of day-to-day life. “Last Orders” is distinctly reminiscent of the start to Douglas AdamsHitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but that resemblance does it more good than harm.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Gloom Cupboard

Issue 102 of Gloom Cupboard is up, both prose and poetry. Enjoy.