One of the very first things I learned as a debut novelist nearly twenty years ago, is how generous established writers are, up to and including household names, with their practical advice, cautionary tales and other essential tips and tricks to help anyone and everyone write their best possible book.
Since then I’ve learned for myself how rewarding it is to share such things – and not just in some altruistic, let-me-polish-my-halo way. Discussing and working through different aspects of writing skills and challenges is an excellent way to realise something key to improving your own work-in-progress. That’s happened to me time and again.
I began teaching creative writing in 2003, stepping in to help out when a last minute crisis prevented the scheduled tutor from leading planned sessions at a science fiction convention. I was working with that original tutor’s teaching structure and all the feedback was very positive so that was clearly an effective approach. That said, it wasn’t my approach. So I started thinking about different ways to share the lessons which I was continuing to learn myself with writers who were as hopeful – but lacking essential insights – as I had once been.
Since then I have taught seminars and day courses at conventions and literary festivals, by no means only limited to talking about science fiction and fantasy. It’s the same skill set after all, whatever genre you may be writing in. I’ve been a guest lecturer for creative writing degree courses at Lancaster University, Edge Hill University, and Anglia Ruskin University, among others. I’ve also taught week-long courses, including one for the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education. The next residential course I’ll be teaching is at Moniack Mhor this December.
When I’ve mentioned these various trips and classes to local pals, I’ve often provoked muted howls of frustration because the time, the place, the whatever simply didn’t work for them. So I’ve decided to offer an evening class in Witney this autumn, drawing on all the material I’ve gathered together, and tried and tested, over the past decade or so.
Full details of the class programme and on the venue can be found here – Writers of Witney and news on guest speakers and views about various aspects of creative writing will be forthcoming.
Spread the word!
I’ve mentioned before how grateful I am for the short story commissions that kept me writing (and sane!) through last year’s VAT campaigning. Well, those particular stories are now appearing for your reading pleasure.
Following on from Tales of Eve, Fox Spirit Books has just published Eve of War.
And following on from my very first foray into SF, in Tales of Eve, my contribution is another science fiction story, set on a space station in orbit around Titan…
“Sharp of mind and instinct; with poise and grace and power – Eve’s Daughters are a match for any opponent. Whether seeking out a worthy test or assailed by brave (but foolish) foes, she is determined and cunning, and will not fail.”
Here are fifteen tales from across the ages; full of prowess both martial and magical, from an array of unique voices.
Miranda’s Tempest by S.J. Higbee
The Devil’s Spoke by K.T. Davies
Himura the God Killer by Andrew Reid
The Bind that Tie by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Et Mortuum Esse Audivit by Alasdair Stuart
Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick by Juliet McKenna
A Veil of Blades by R.J. Davnall
In Amber by Rob Haines
Skating Away by Francis Knight
Ballad of Sighne by Rahne Sinclair
The Crossing by Paul Weimer
Lucille by Alec McQuay
Born by G Clark Hellery
Repo by Ren Warom
One Sssingular Sssenssation by Chloe Yates
Edited by Mahiri Simpson & Darren Pulsford
Cover Art by Vincent Holland-Keen
Along with so many, I am profoundly troubled by the recent murders of gay clubbers in Orlando, Florida, and of Jo Cox MP in the UK. Consequently I am reposting a piece I wrote in 2011, as a guest for some website or other though alas, I have lost the details of precisely where. Because those of us who write about death for entertainment need to be very clear that what we are doing is the exploration of real world violence, not its exploitation.
I do not propose to add to the debates about the motivations, mental states or ideologies of these killers. Please do not make any comments along those lines here. Bluntly, you risk igniting the incandescent fury I currently feel for those who claim the right to take another’s life. If you wish to discuss those aspects of these atrocities, there are plenty of places to do so elsewhere on the Internet.
Meantime, I will fervently hope and work for a day when a post like this is no longer so horribly relevant.
Do you ever get writer’s block? No, but I do get stopped dead.
Writer’s block. It’s one of those questions we all get asked, those of us sitting up at the front on panels at conventions, libraries and literary festivals.
To be honest, no, I just don’t have time for writer’s block. With two teenage sons at school and college and a husband whose (very) full-time job keeps us all fed and sheltered, holding up my end of the family deal by running this household means my writing time is precious and I’m not about to waste any of it. Okay, there are days when the writing goes more smoothly than others but that’s different.
But some things stop me dead in my writing. Death. Real world death. There’s the personal. Last year my father in law died. In this past month two friends have died. Other years saw other losses. There will be more to come. I have learned that trying to set such things aside and apply myself to the book in progress simply doesn’t work. Sod the mandatory daily word count. I need to take the time to look squarely at such loss, to pay tribute to the departed through the rituals of such occurrences and with private recollection and appreciation of the part they played in my life. Then I can move on, knowing that I have given them their due.
Then there’s the kind of death that makes global headlines. Specifically the death wrought by human malice. Famine in Africa, the ongoing plagues of malaria and HIV, multiple fatalities in a Chinese train crash. These all give me pause for thought, and prompt donations to appeals as appropriate but they don’t stop me writing.
The Norway bomb and shootings stop me. The July 7th 2005 attacks in London. The Madrid train bombings 2004. The World Trade Centre 2001. The Admiral Duncan nail bombing 1999. Oklahoma City 1995. No, that’s not a comprehensive list but you know what I mean.
It’s not grief that stops me writing. Thanks to all the powers that be, I lost no one in any of these atrocities, though a couple of pals came frighteningly close. So claiming any sort of personal anguish is wholly inappropriate and frankly, in my opinion, insulting to those so appallingly bereaved and whose lives are truly changed. Those of us beyond the immediate impact can only offer sincere and honest condolence.
But every time, I have to stop and look at what has happened and then stop and look at my writing. Because I write about people killing each other, whether with swords or sorcery. Sometimes it’s up close and personal with a dagger or a wizardly duel. Then there’s the big-picture stuff when I sit down and draw up an order of battle, work out what twists deliver the outcome which I want and then calculate the losses on each side for the effect on the ongoing plot. Yes, really. I have the casualty numbers (killed/wounded) for every battle in ‘Blood in the Water,’ the second of the Lescari Revolution books. I’m currently looking at forthcoming events in ‘Darkening Skies,’ second of the Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, and working out who will die amid the sort of violent magic which would blow a summer blockbuster movie’s sfx budget. Even Harry Potter.
And I’m doing all that for the sake of entertainment. I’m killing fictional people off, right, left and centre, in the service of a thrilling story. But real world death isn’t thrilling or entertaining. It’s heart-breaking, infuriating, frightening. It has real world implications for our security, our laws, our freedoms, for the abuse of ‘others’ by the prejudiced and the opportunist in this age of global media and social networking. This stuff matters.
So I need to know that my writing matters. I need to be certain that my characters suffer loss in a way that doesn’t belittle a real bereavement. That the effects persist as they do in real life – or if they don’t, I need to be clear why that might be. When high heroic deeds deliver triumphant outcomes, I must always make sure that I acknowledge the cost to those who had no choice or chance to opt out. Not to the detriment of the story overall but just using enough light and shade to paint a realistic picture.
When I’m creating a villain, whether a loner or a leader, I must know and I must show what drives a man or woman to such corrosive spite, treachery, brutality or murder. In the context of my story at least. I cannot hope to uncover any universal truths of the human psyche that might explain such headline-grabbing carnage.
Then maybe, just maybe, I can leave my readers with something to think on, once they’ve closed the book? Something to help their own understanding of entitlement, arrogance, hatred, bigotry, the myriad impulses and experiences that result in a mindset that sees violence as some sort of valid solution? Something to help inform their opinions and their actions when politicians and special interests try to use these abominations to advance their own agenda?
To help to show, to quote Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian Prime Minister “… that the answer to violence is even more democracy, even more humanity, but never naïveté. That is what we owe to the victims and to those they hold dear.”
Then I can start writing again.
You’ll recall me mentioning I went to this year’s Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford recently. The speaker was Terri Windling and she was reflecting on Tolkien’s Long Shadow.
It will be well worth your time, believe me!
You may also recall me mentioning that Terri explained a few things about the directions my fantasy writing is currently taking. She talks of her wish for less codified, more mysterious magic as well as a shift, even a loss, in fantasy fiction’s relationships with landscape.
As those of you who’ve read my various River Kingdom short stories will know, the magic there is very far from codified in any way the wizards of Hadrumal would recognise. At the moment, I’m shaping a novel set in this same milieu and I’m finding various people’s relationships with their particular landscape are coming through to shape events.
So I’ll get back to clearing the decks of a few other things, so I can get back to that. Meantime, you can go and enjoy Terri’s talk for yourselves.
Here’s a thing that occurred to me this morning. However advanced and startling your new exploration of a craft may be, it must still abide by and satisfy the fundamental requirements of whatever you are doing.
Let me explain.
We’re teaching some advanced stuff in our aikido classes at the moment. It’s a small club currently, and with the youngest members off doing exams, we have two students working towards blue belt/2nd kyu and one working towards second level black belt/nidan. Since the other students in the class at the moment are also solidly experienced, we’re working way beyond the ‘stand here, move this foot, then that hand, move here’ level of teaching into refining and enhancing techniques everyone’s already familiar with, as well as using faster and more challenging styles of attack.
With varying degrees of success. Last night I found myself saying more than once, to more than one student, ‘the reason that didn’t work was you didn’t remember the fundamentals of that technique’. And then demonstrating what I meant. What was happening was the student was so focused on the new elements of the attack or some refinement of positioning that had just been explained, that they had cut short or even omitted some element of the actual technique. That allowed a gap to open up or closed up a gap they would need, not taking the attacker’s balance or allowing a recovery, that sort of thing.
The sort of thing we teach from the very start. Because a central aspect to understanding aikido is realising that the early stuff which you learn isn’t the baby steps. It isn’t stuff which you can master and then leave behind as you progress. What you learn at the outset forms the foundation for everything that follows.
Now let us consider books. I’m specifically casting my mind back to the two-hundred-plus books I read in my two years as a Clarke Award judge. Across that broad and varied span of writing, there were some very interesting new approaches and experiments in style, theme, genre-blurring, genre-crossing and more – which ultimately failed, certainly for me, and given their absence from subsequent, substantive discussion, I assume they didn’t make the grade for the other judges either.
Speaking purely for myself, those particular books failed because they were so focused on the new and different thing they were trying to do, that they forgot about the foundations of good writing. Compelling characterisation. Coherent plot progression. Rigorous internal logic. Vivid scene setting. Convincing dialogue. The list goes on. All those things which the reader shouldn’t actually notice happening but which are essential to draw you into a book and keep those pages turning because This Really Matters!
The books that won when I was on the judging panel? The Testament of Jessie Lamb, and Dark Eden? They both broke new ground at the same time as satisfying those fundamental tenets of good writing and thus, good reading.
All of which goes a long way to explain why I have no patience with book reviews that insist we must forgive some obvious shortcoming in a book like clunky prose or a plot hole or an unaccountable absence of anyone but middle-aged white men – again, the list could go on – because this particular special aspect is just so new and shiny!
No. In writing, as in aikido, there must always be balance. The unexpected, the breath-taking, the shocking, the ‘how the hell did that just happen?!’ will only be truly effective when it stems from a solid foundation of essential and well-honed skills.
That’s what I think, anyway.
Just at the moment, I’m thinking about the relationships between writers and a couple of things, one of which is the personal, oral, family history which we learn (proverbially and frequently literally) at our grandmother’s knee. When I’m up to date with current obligations, I plan on blogging accordingly.
Meantime, imagine my delight when I was interviewing Lisa Tuttle for the upcoming issue of Interzone, and conversation turned to this very topic. She’s very kindly expanded on this in a fascinating guest post.
(And do keep your eyes open for her forthcoming novel, ‘The Curious Case of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief’ (Jo Fletcher Books). It’s excellent!
I Dream of Genie – Lisa Tuttle
To me, the experience of doing family history research falls somewhere between what it feels like to read a novel and writing one. These people were real, not fictional creations, but their stories have been lost….only scattered references, clues and hints, the occasional memory or newspaper references remain, so I must use my imagination to try to bring them back to life.
The figure who first caught my interest in this way was my great-grandmother, my father’s paternal grandmother, Eugenia Ash Tuttle – “Genie” – who died a couple of years before I was born. Here’s what my Aunt Gracia (my father’s older sister) remembered:
“She travelled all the time, all over the world, and crossed the Atlantic 17 times. When my father was a little boy, he lived in Paris, and spoke French before he spoke English. His mother had great E.S.P. and believed she was clairvoyant. She studied astrology in Egypt. After she divorced Mr Tuttle [this was her third divorce at a time when it was rare], Genie moved to California and starred in silent movies. Late in life, when she was down on her luck (like me) she went to live with her son in Birmingham, Michigan, but she could not stand the quiet, missed the excitement of her life in California, so back she went!”
Genie’s first husband – my great-grandfather — was Robert Elliott Clarke. He was ten years older than 20-year-old Eugenia, who had known him barely twenty-four hours when she married him in Chicago in 1886. He was the son of Irish immigrants, grew up in Brooklyn, left school at fourteen, had worked as an actor and as a voice teacher. Their son, born in 1889, was years later adopted by his stepfather, Clarence Tuttle, and became Robert E. Tuttle.
My grandfather never saw his real father again after the age of about five, and I suspect any discussion of Clarke was verboten for at least as long as Mr Tuttle was around, but later he did some investigating of his own – the copy of his parents’ marriage license was my own starting point, decades later. The story that came down to me was that Clarke had been “physician to the Court of St James” at the time of Queen Victoria.
From a biography of Queen Victoria I learned she’d had a personal physician named Sir James Clark. Could this possibly be my ancestor? The dates did not fit, nor did his life – he never went to America, and nor did his son, who had no children.
My reading was too random to be classified as research. Only after the internet came along, and the wonders of searchable digitized archives and newspapers, did I make a real effort to unravel this old family mystery, and discovered this headline from Washington, D.C. in February 1891:
“Robert E. Clarke Disappears – He Left Many Checks, but No Bank Account”
He’d been selling bogus shares in property investment, and skipped town just in time to avoid arrest. Thanks to the many digitized records available through Ancestry.com, I was able to find out where he “disappeared” to: In March, he applied for a passport, to include his wife Eugenia and their little boy, at the American Embassy in Berlin. He claimed he was a “merchant” from New York.
What they did, how they survived, abroad for the next four years I don’t know. They moved around. They spent time in Paris (where my grandfather learned French) and in London. But I have no detailed evidence of their lives abroad, and that blank spot has inspired a curiosity, which has led to me a fascination with the period. I have read a lot about other people who lived in – and Americans who visited — London, Paris and Berlin in the early 1890s, developing a feel for the zeitgeist of the time. This led me to write fiction – not about my great-grandparents (I want to know them, not turn them into fictional creations) but set in that time, so I embarked on a series of detective stories….and the first novel in the series, The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, set in London in October and November 1893.
My grandfather returned to the U.S. – for good – with his parents in April 1895. They left Southampton on 4 April 1895, on the Manitoba, bound for New York. It was a single-class passenger liner and there were only 26 passengers on board for that voyage, so they would all have become acquainted during the 12-day journey – I imagine it a bit like a floating house-party. Among the passengers were three prominent members of the Theosophical Society – Dr Archibald Keightley (who had been responsible for bringing the founder of that group, Madame Blavatsky, to Britain from America, paid her bills and supervised the publication of her book The Secret Doctrine), his wife Julia (formerly Mrs Verplank) and their close friend Alice Leighton Cleather. I feel sure Genie would have been fascinated by Theosophy as she was by all such spiritual, esoteric subjects.
On the passenger list, Robert E. Clarke claimed his profession was “Physician.”
I’m guessing this reflected a new scam he’d developed to earn a living whilst in Europe. And he continued to call himself a doctor after he got back to New York, as per an article that appeared in the New York Herald, Monday, 16 December 1895:
MANY SEEKING G. ELLIOTT CLARK.
An Army of Creditors Call at His Former Residence To Find Him Gone
FAT PERSONS DISGRUNTLED
He Agreed to Cure Them Of Obesity, but Many Still Mourn Over Their Corpulency.
How He Made Men Taller.
The story beneath the interesting headlines says that he put the letters “M.D.” after his name on his card, although “he did not openly practice as a physician.” He sold bath salts that were supposed to aid in weight reduction, and special shoe inserts to make men taller. By the time he left – assumed to have returned to London – his wife had taken their son and gone back to her mother in D.C. She did not stay where he might have found her, but went to Chicago, divorced him, and – but the rest is a story for another time.
Artwork Ben Baldwin
I am really enjoying writing these stories – even if fitting them in around other work and obligations can be tricky.
So here’s the next installment of Dyal’s adventures. This one rounds out and explains the shocking events in the Redigal domain referenced in the early chapters of Western Shore.
If you want to catch up with the story so far, the first and second stories are here – along with a few other things, all free to read and enjoy.
I’ve yet to see the X-Men Apocalypse movie, so I can’t comment on Sophie Turner’s performance. Her work on Game of Thrones – especially at the moment (NO spoilers in comments please!) – gives me every reason to expect she’ll do a thoroughly good job.
The thing is, though, this is becoming A Thing for me. An amusement at the moment, rather than a distraction, but definitely A Thing.
I caught a trailer for A Knight’s Tale on the TV last week, which is one of my favourite movies. Now though? That’s the one where Robert Baratheon makes The Joker’s armour while The Vision bigs him up to the crowd…
Ripper Street? Did you see the one where Blackfish Tully dragged Bronn out of bed, possibly to chase after Jorah Mormont, or maybe Barristan Selmy, because both of them have turned up, and been up to no good.
Now, this is nothing new – Ronny Cox is merely the first actor who comes to mind for me, thinking about recurrent faces in fan-favourite movies and TV, going back to the 80s. Always doing sterling work. The same goes for Brian Cox. And other actors whose surname isn’t Cox, like James Cosmo.
And I’ve no wish to deny actors work. Their employment and earnings statistics make being a writer look like steady, well-paid work!
But I am curious. Why has this become A Thing for me? The cumulative effect of the sheer volume of stuff that I’ve watched in 50 years? Or because of the particular things I chose to watch?
But as far as my sons are concerned, Sean Connery is and will always be ‘Indiana Jones’s Dad’ because that’s the role they first saw him in. On the basis of one viewing, it seems that Vanessa Redgrave is permanently tagged as ‘Coriolanus‘s Mum’ for them. So maybe not so much.
Because we can watch what we want, when we want, so very much more easily these days? Instead of seeing things on release at the cinema or when they were broadcast – or not at all? So performances weren’t so apt to all come along in a rush?
But then, you could hardly escape James Norton on UK television earlier this year, what with War and Peace, Happy Valley and Grantchester, and that was all down to scheduling.
As I say, I’m curious. I don’t have any particular conclusions, beyond hoping it remains an amusement rather than becoming a distraction.
Anyone else finding this is A Thing?
Seriously. This is what my head was full of when I woke up at 5.30 this morning.
In the near future, sports organisers have given up trying to stop the abuse of performance enhancing drugs. Not least because global media corporations have become dissatisfied by falling audiences, and the attendant loss of advertising revenue, as it’s become harder and harder for athletes to break records and win or lose is now determined by fractions of a second. So designer drugs to increase strength, speed, agility etc are now really big business.
Except it all goes wrong. A laboratory in Oxford genetically engineers a virus to take this sort of therapy to a whole new level. Alas, funding cutbacks and outsourcing vital services mean that things like bio-security are increasingly lax. The virus gets loose and spreads like, well, norovirus. The effects are hyper-aggression, driving violence in every unpleasant manifestation you can imagine. To the exclusion of all else. People forget to eat, only sleep when they collapse from sheer exhaustion, drink only when thirst overwhelms their other urges. So victims end up dead in about three weeks – if someone hasn’t already killed them first.
Survivors head for the hills – in this case, the Cotswolds. This is very much a middle-class disaster. The chapter where our heroes (male and female) are looting the Waitrose on the Botley Road, while trying not to fall victim to the howling mob outside is particularly Wyndham-esque. Which isn’t to say the deaths weren’t unpleasantly graphic. I dream in full colour, full-sensory imagery with added emotional content.
Now the whole thing becomes a post-apocalypse scenario rather than a zombie-variant movie. Our protagonists end up in a remote manor house, among other things, breeding horses, as they fight to keep the infected out and to drive off other groups of survivors. When the virus has burned itself out, they venture back into the city. Finding supplies is a secondary consideration to finding vital knowledge. So they head for the Bodleian libraries.
Since I dream in full colour, full-sensory imagery, the final scene was particularly effective: two people riding horses down Broad Street in the morning sun, the road strewn with decaying corpses, all the modern shops destroyed, while Oxford’s ancient, enduring architecture rises above it all. Hence the waking up completely and absolutely at 5.30 this morning.
So will I be writing this novel? No, not a chance. I have pretty much zero interest in zombie stories as a reader or viewer and have still less interest in writing them myself.
Besides, this isn’t overly original. I amused myself over breakfast by identifying the things my subconscious had knitted together. Including but by no means limited to:
28 Days Later – screenplay Alex Garland, director Danny Boyle
The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham
Achilles’ Choice – Larry Niven/Steven Barnes
Nod – Adrian Barnes
Survivors – the original BBC TV series
See also – Jurassic Park, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and any number of other ‘Stuff Gets Out of Labs and It All Goes Horribly Wrong’ movies. Plus the upcoming Rio Olympics. Plus discussions on BBC Radio 4 last autumn, following England’s early exit from the last rugby world cup, about what that might mean for ITV’s advertising revenue and the wider loss of income for those towns and venues hosting subsequent matches etc.
So why am I writing this up? Because it really is a good example of how stories come together in a writer’s head. Or at least, in this writer’s head.
Most of all, I want this out of my head. Otherwise I will spend the rest of today getting distracted by new thoughts on tweaking details of the plot, expanding the back story of the various characters, visualising locations with ever more precision.
Do I often have dreams like this? Pretty frequently, especially when I’m not actively working on writing fiction. It’s absolutely no coincidence that I wrapped up the third of the Aldabreshin Compass short stories yesterday – which I will let sit over the weekend before giving it a final polishing pass next week and making it available.
Right, having cleared the mental decks, I will get on with some other work now. 🙂