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When short stories aren’t stories

Dave Truesdale, editor of Tangent Online, has caused a bit of stir recently by announcing a new direction for his reviews. On the one hand, I strongly disagree with some of his claims, particularly that SF&F is “a genre infested with politically correct thinking”. Truesdale seems to think that part of the “decline” is down to some magazines allegedly having a rigid policy of including as many female authors as male, i.e. the fiction written by women is poorer quality and only chosen for PC reasons. Frankly this attitude beggars belief, and only serves to show up the level of sexism that still pervades some areas of the genre – science fiction in particular. That same sexism, or at least a distinctly male aesthetic, also appears reflected in Truesdale’s distaste for stories that focus on characters’ emotional lives rather than cool ideas.

On the other hand I have to say that short SF&F does sometimes leave me very disappointed. I’ve recently been dipping into short fiction in order to research markets for my own work, and a depressing percentage leave me feeling ‘meh’. I won’t name names – I don’t want to bite the hands that might feed me one day! – but when I read “stories” that lack either narrative arc or good writing, I begin to wonder whether the editor in question knows his or her stuff.

Not every piece of short fiction has to have a beginning, middle and end, or tension and high stakes, but if it hasn’t got any of those, it had better be either the most stupendously cool idea I’ve read in ages, or such gorgeous prose that reading it is still time well spent. I come to speculative fiction for that wow factor that I mentioned in an earlier blog post, and when I don’t get it, I’m unlikely to come back for more.

So, I’m going to carry on writing the occasional story that is really a story, and hope that there are still readers out there that feel the way I do – and markets to feed both sides.

Wonder Junkies

On the train up to Edinburgh I was pondering what makes some people love SF&F so much, whilst others are left cold, and I came to the conclusion that we fans of the genre are addicted to the wow factor. We want to read books, see movies, etc that make us go “Wow, that is so cool!” – the mundane just doesn’t move us.

What that says about non-fans, I’m not sure. Some of them presumably get their kicks from real-world awesomeness, but I fear that too many have lost their childlike sense of wonder and no longer have any “wow” in their lives. Part of me thinks that’s sad, but on the other hand, perhaps it’s this lack of wonder that makes the mundane world into the dull place that SF&F fans try so hard to escape from. Taoism teaches us there can be no light without darkness, no appreciation of happiness without understanding of sorrow – so we should thank the non-fans because without them, maybe the genres we love so much wouldn’t exist.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Woman-shaped hole

From time to time I revisit The Bechdel Test, because my fiction tends to feature a lot more men than women. Now I’m not going to go out of my way to make sure my work passes, because I hate tokenism in any form, but it does keep me thinking about women in fantasy.

At the moment I’m reading The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan, which is unusual in that one of the protagonists is not just female but black and lesbian. We haven’t seen as much from her PoV as the two male characters, but it’s enough to pass my version of the Bechdel Test; let’s call it the Lyle Test :)

For me, what matters in written fiction (as distinct from film and TV) is not how many women there are and what they talk about, as how unstereotypical they are, how integral to the story and how sympathetic. They don’t have to be nice people, but even villains need a human side or they might as well be CGI eyeballs.

Consider these two examples:

Exhibit A: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Now, overall I quite enjoyed this book (it could have done with some editing, but that’s par for the course these days), but it fails the Lyle test, I’m afraid. There are occasional mentions of Locke’s amour, who is supposedly clever as well as gorgeous, but the women who actually appear in the book are minor characters at best and stereotypical kick-ass warrior babes at worst. It’s probably no more than one should expect from a fairly young male author, but it’s still disappointing for this reader.

Exhibit B: The Rai-Kirah Trilogy by Carol Berg. For me this is a worse offender, since the writer is a woman. Each of the two male protagonists has a female partner, which ought to be good, right? Wrong. Seyonne’s wife is a out-and-out bitch with apparently no redeeming qualities whatsoever (making Seyonne look like a total loser for being in love with her), and whilst Prince Aleksander’s betrothed is an assertive princess, she figures so briefly in the story that I was left feeling like she was just a convenient plot device to help the heroes in their escape. The whole trilogy revolves around the obsessive (but disappointingly unhomoerotic) relationship between the two men, and hence fails the test.

Contrast these with practically any book by Terry Pratchett, where there are women of all ages and classes (and species), as protagonists or in minor roles, and every last one of them memorable and believable.

Boys, you’ve got your work cut out…

Year 7 of 10

It’s often said that it takes ten years to become an overnight success:

“Researchers have shown it takes about ten years to develop expertise in any of a wide variety of areas, including chess playing, music composition, telegraph operation, painting, piano playing, swimming, tennis, and research in neuropsychology and topology. The key is deliberative practice: not just doing it again and again, but challenging yourself with a task that is just beyond your current ability, trying it, analyzing your performance while and after doing it, and correcting any mistakes. Then repeat. And repeat again.”
Peter Norvig, Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years

If so, I reckon I’m on year 7 on 10.

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George R R Martin is not your bitch

To while away a train journey yesterday, I caught up on one of my favourite podcasts, “I Should Be Writing“, which just started running again after a hiatus in May. The first new episode was live from Balticon, and unlike the regular show was a tipsy, sweary and totally hilarious session (not the the regular show isn’t entertaining, just seldom laugh-out-loud funny). The highlight was a song by John Anealio, based on a quote by Neil Gaiman, which inspired this blog post.
The story’s a bit old now by internet standards, but a good story is worth retelling. That’s what we do, right?

A fan of George R R Martin wrote to Gaiman asking if Martin owed it to him, the reader, to finish his epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Now I’ve only read Volume 1 so far, but I loved it and fully intend to buy the next book once I’ve finished my work-in-progress. Like the enquirer I do hope Martin finishes it in the not-too-distant future, though knowing how slowly he puts the books out, I am not hurrying.
However, as Neil Gaiman succinctly put it, “George R R Martin is not your bitch”. As writers, we don’t owe our audience anything – except thanks for buying our books. Readers have no idea how hard it is to write a novel. Well I have news for you guys; something that takes hours of your time to read can take weeks, months, even years to produce. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow one writes – in fact, writing slowly is much harder work, in my experience. No-one willing writes slowly if they can avoid it; it’s tough to maintain that momentum, the total involvement in the narrative that makes the story come alive. Slow writing is a sign of self-doubt, and we should be encouraging tardy authors, not whining that their books are late. Fan pressure is the side of success that I least look forward to.
So let’s hear it for Neil, George and all the other writers out there. There are a thousand struggling authors who would love you to buy (and read) their books. The wait for the next volume of ASOIAF will go much quicker if you find other books you like – and you might just discover a new favourite in the process.
And here for the record is Gaiman’s original post, which is of course far better written than my incoherent ramblings :)

A Game of Ebooks

Over the last few days I’ve been sorting out my writing den and shaking my head over the number of books and the inadequacy of my shelves to contain them all. Thus when it came to ordering a novel that I wanted to read – Gail Z Martin’s “The Summoner” – I decided to save space with an ebook. Should be easy enough, I thought…

OK, so finding an ebook edition of “The Summoner” was easy enough, but of course it’s always hard to buy just one book. I found myself looking at the very tempting package of George R R Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” and “A Clash of Kings” for the same price as one volume. How could I resist? I’ve been meaning to read “A Song of Ice and Fire” for years, mainly because it’s a modern classic of epic fantasy, so of course I clicked on the link.
That what when I hit the big problem. On mobipocket.com, GRRM’s books are not available outside the US. WTF??? I tried a couple of other vendors of the mobipocket format (the only DRM compatible with my iRex iLiad) and no joy there either. Eventually I found a single-volume edition of “A Game of Thrones” at Diesel eBooks, along with “The Summoner”, and was able to make my purchase. Yay!

As this recent blog post shows, Amazon seems to be trying to kill the mobipocket format in order to drive traffic to its Kindle-specific titles. This is just one practical reason why DRM is evil. It’s bad enough that hardware changes such as VCR->DVD have forced film-lovers to re-buy titles; now software changes are doing the same, with zero justification except to make money for online retail behemoths like Amazon. Once again they have given me a reason to continue boycotting their company.

Come the glorious day when I am published, I for one will be very careful about what digital rights I sign away…

Amazonfail

I’m beginning to wonder if I’m the last person on the Web to hear about this. Not being a Tweeter, and having spent the Easter weekend working on the allotment and garden, I only found out about it when I went to I Should Be Writing, where it was the most recent post.

I wouldn’t be blogging about it so long after the fact, except that whilst reading an article about it on the BBC website, I discovered that a member of my own writers’ group, Alex Beecroft, had been one of the earliest victims. Since I spent a good bit of this week reading the first draft of her latest gay romance novel, this does rather drag me into the affair, so to speak :)

Now, since I’ve been boycotting Amazon ever since the business with Hachette last summer, my opinion of them has not exactly been high, but today it reached a new low. Admittedly after Damien McBride’s recent idiocy they’re up against stiff competition on the cock-up front, but this only goes to prove that having such a large part of the writing market in the hands of a vast multinational like Amazon is a Really Bad Idea.
Nowadays I buy most of my books either from a bricks-and-mortar store, or in the case of out-of-print books, I use AbeBooks rather than Amazon Marketplace. It may not be much in the great scheme of things, but as they say, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

EDIT: Since posting this entry, I’ve learnt that AbeBooks has been bought out by Amazon – typical! I now buy online from the likes of The Book Depository.

The last resort

The other day my husband handed me a promotional postcard for a signing in our local bookshop. It was for an SF novel by a local author, hence he thought I might be interested in going. So, I dutifully read the card…
The first thing that struck me was the lack of mention of a publisher’s name. This screamed “self-publishing” at me, but I didn’t want to let that bias me against it. Fortunately there was a web address on the card, so I went along to the author’s site. First impressions were OK – a bit spartan, very obviously a site specifically to promote this book, rather than someone with a real web presence – but I persevered. That was when it all came unstuck. The blurb read like one of those query letters that regularly get savaged on Evil Editor, whilst the character descriptions and 3-D rendered “portraits” would have been more at home in a third-rate computer game.
Did I go to the signing? Well, what do you think?
I hope the author (whom I will not name, for obvious reasons) does well with his little venture into self-publishing, really I do. But it was a sobering reminder of why we endure the pains of the slush-pile and the agent search. Because the sad truth is that self-publishing is all too often the last resort of the unpublishable. And who wants to be tarred with that brush?