Tuesday, 29 September 2015

And this is progress, how?

Words written c35500
Stories completed 5
Rejections 82
Acceptances 1

Recently, two young women asked me to jump start their engine.

I'd like to say that's a euphemism but I mean it literally.  They were stuck just down the road outside my house having left their lights on all night and wanted me to jump their engine.

So, I pulled my car up to theirs, unlatched the bonnet (or 'hood', if you're reading this in the former colonies).  And stared.

I'm not totally impractical, although I'm better with houses than cars (have I mentioned my self-build book is available on Amazon?).  But, for the life of me, I couldn't even find the battery.

We used to drive a previous version of the same model and I've previously whipped the battery in and out at regular intervals, mainly because the alternator was dead and I was flogging the beast until it finally gave up the ghost.  But this space-age (well, 2012) update of the same vehicle had had its mechanical innards covered with molded plastic.

I eventually located two unspecified terminals poking out of the side of the molding.  On checking the manual as to which was negative and which positive it simply told me to leave the whole caboodle alone as it was far too complex for my small homo sapien brain to comprehend and that anything to do with the battery - or any thing else - should be left to a qualified mechanic.

For a car battery. Ye Gods.

When we got the new car we still had the old for some time.  I remember holding up the key to the old (traditional design, sits in your palm or pocket quite comfortably) against the new (an unwieldy 'keycard', dimensions of The Little Book of Calm but thinner, although equally stress-inducing) in a restaurant, railing "And this is progress - how?"

This isn't isolated; it's a direction of travel misnamed progress.

I'm firmly of the belief that, if and when the balloon goes up, any medieval child would survive - catching rabbits, making its own shoes - whilst we would starve, staring at a tin can, opener-less, like an abandoned cartoon cat and wondering whether our coffee-shop loyalty cards are still valid.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Filling in the gaps

Words written c35500
Stories completed 5
Rejections 80
Acceptances 1

So, I learnt recently, but only by reading month-old news, NASA’s best candidate for a ‘twin’ for Earth, a planet orbiting its star in the so-called Goldilocks zone, Kepler-452b, is only possibly rocky (and equally likely to be gassy), and then only possibly has an atmosphere and liquid water.  And then, and only then, may it possibly have life.  Oh, and its 1400 light years away.

Face it, we’ll never make it to the stars.

Not that I’m personally bothered; I found commuting from Devon to Edinburgh back in the springtime taxing enough.  However, my thoughts turn to the implications for science-fiction.  Not so much the implications of what we know is out there, but the avenues that, one-by-one, close off. 

Let me explain.  It strikes me that SF is, and always has been, ‘filling in the gaps’.  As knowledge increases our scope for speculating shrinks.  For example, until faster-than-light travel is proved impossible (if a negative can ever be proved) stories will still be littered with inexplicable sleight-of-hands in the shape of portals and wormholes lifting our protagonists to impossibly-faraway worlds.

But something curious happens when a hitherto possible gets crossed through in red ink. Once we know what is or is not, it is hard to posit what could have been.  If a proof is ever offered and accepted of the impossibility of FLT then all such story devices will become somewhat silly.  They feel that the author is cheating.  But - and this is the curious aspect - stories written before the bar dropped somehow seem exempt.

There is something about ‘period’ SF (or any fiction) where we naturally find ourselves reading it in the context of when it was written.  It seems impossible for the brain to tell itself to ‘pretend this story were written in 1950’ whereas it happily copes with a story genuinely written in 1950 with all its accompanying pre Moon-landing clunk?  I mean, it’s all a fiction anyway and we have to buy into a fictional storyverse, so why is it so hard to buy into then-current truths being circumvented, even when done in a non-cheating way.

Compare two books, one I’m reading, H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain, with one I finished a few hours ago, Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness.  Both, in different ways, fictional anthropological studies, the former of a society on another planet, the second of the dark continent of Africa.  But I can read Haggard in the context of it being written with the mores as well as knowledge of the Victorians, whereas LeGuin’s 1960s novel has to move its unknown society into space.

A regards the books themselves, in both cases I find their fictional anthropological studies interesting intellectually, but ultimately hollow.  Both sag when the story doesn’t move forward - the novel as shark.  It reminds me of a point made in my (largely linguistics) masters degree: that there are savants who can master any real language in days, but find artificial, man-made languages impossible.  The point there is about a need for Chomskian deep-grammar; the point here is about documentary needing to ring true.

For my money, world-building is only of interest in the context of story telling, then the test becomes whether the story is consistent with the rules of the fictional world rather than whether the rules of the fictional world are themselves internally consistent.  I find some SF authors and editors too interested in the science not the story - I once had a story praised by an editor for speculating on unmanned mining ships set to come down in the Australian desert, but rejected for the not being enough of such conjecture.  To me, that was just a throwaway bit of background travelogue; what about the story?

But, whatever the story, prepare for it to become archaic should anything you posit turn out not quite to be the case.  Haggard could build his world on this planet; LeGuin had to, literally, push the boundaries.  As SF always does.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

A candle flares, briefly illuminates my soul, and is lost to darkness again

Words written c35000
Stories completed 5
Rejections 79
Acceptances 1

One of the myriad frustrations of being a semi-professional (i.e. desperate to get paid, but hardly ever doing so) writer is rejection.

Not so much that you get rejected; experience teaches me to expect every email from a small press or magazine to be one, making the odd acceptance a joyous high, but that you hardly ever have any idea how near or far off target you were.  The form rejection rules.  How many careers ended before they begun because writers were blind to how close to print they came, I wonder - or, conversely, were needlessly sustained because they imagined their crayoned drivel had only just missed the mark?

My email revealed four rejections this morning, including one from CC Finlay, Editor at Fantasy & Science Fiction.  These followed on closely on one from ‘Lucy’ at Andromeda Spaceways.

What makes CC’s and Lucy’s notable amongst the 79 so far received this calendar year is that they had some feedback.

CC’s first, in full: Thank you for giving me a chance to read "Share the Love." I got to the end of the story and had no idea what it meant either... Overall the beginning started too slow and the narrative developed too slowly for me until it got to the weird, interesting stuff. I'm going to pass, but I wish you best of luck finding the right market for it. I appreciate your interest in F&SF and hope that you'll keep us in mind in the future.  

I’ve decided, at arm’s length, that I like CC.  He’s my kinda guy.  I think we could drink beer together.  No idea why I’ve come to that conclusion.  Never met him, no idea what CC stands for.  Could be thinking of CC Baxter, of course.

And now an extract of Lucy’s: The first ten pages move very slowly and indirectly. This is novel speed, not short story speed.

Hmmm.  Feedback that tallies is almost more unexpected than feedback at all.

Of course, my inclination is that I have judged the pace correctly, whilst acknowledging that there’s always some fat on the carcass that can go.  They've been written, rewritten, honed and polished.  But when two editors are on the same page...  Share the Love is essentially about a man dropping down, step by step, into the pits of despair until the succour offered by a religious cult that brings peace through linkage - mental, physical and spiritual - with a giant cockroach appears to be his best option.  You don’t strip away his job, relationship, reason for living in three pages.

Or do you?  Perhaps I’m missing the point of what short story editors want in a world where we now have a shorter attention span than goldfish.

Remember that Chandler quote, When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand?  Raymond Chandler was writing about what to do when the plot flags; perhaps in 2015 it needs to be applied just after the by-line?

That said, it’s worth exploring the section of Chandler’s 1950 The Simple Art of Murder in which it appears:

This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to over-reach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong

As I look back on my own stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published (my emphasis)

Happy to take the feedback on the nose, respond to the market and make my drafts quicker and slicker, make them a firework - even if, in my eyes and, possibly Chandler's too, they may not be as good as the slow burn that I’m writing.