Posts made in March, 2012
I didn’t always want to be a writer.
As a kid, my dream was to be an oceanographer. My hero was Jacques Cousteau, and my ultimate fantasy was to be a crewmember on Cousteau’s ship, the Calypso (something I must have in common with filmmaker Wes Anderson, whose movie THE LIFE AQUATIC was completely about that peculiar obsession), but I never harbored any illusions that such a thing was truly possible. I was a realist…or more accurately a cynic. Having grown up in unstable circumstances with chronically unreliable authority figures, I learned at an early age that the best way to avoid disappointment was to simply say, “Screw it.”
Little did I know, that was the perfect training for becoming a writer.
I’m reminded of an aphorism from Matt Groening’s old comic strip, LIFE IN HELL, which goes: “Keep your expectations tiny, and you’ll go through life without being so whiney.” That’s not to say you shouldn’t expect great things from yourself. As a writer, all you can count on is the work you create, and that should be as wonderful as you can possibly make it. To quote a much earlier aphorism, “Life is short; art is long.” Art must be its own reward.
This is hard, I know, because any decent writer is his or her own harshest critic – it’s not easy to take joy in work that falls frustratingly short of the gorgeous ideal one is striving for. The key is to know when to say screw it and move on. Otherwise you wind up like the wannabe novelist in Camus’ THE PLAGUE, who dreams that the first line of his book will be so brilliantly perfect that any editor will cry, “Hat’s off!” Trouble is, the poor guy can’t decide on the perfect line, and dies before his masterpiece is even begun.
I wrote my first novel a long time ago. ENORMITY is actually my fourth or fifth book, and I have several more in the works. This is not to suggest I’m all that prolific – I write only when I have to. Writing for me is more compulsion than avocation…but that’s what makes it possible. It requires my full attention, which means it clears my head of petty nonsense, and it absolutely demands patience.
Fortunately I’m in no hurry. I believe it’s counterproductive to rush unless there’s an actual deadline. The best ideas percolate from the subconscious at their own speed – why kill yourself? It’s better for the work if you make the most of your life and cultivate experiences worth writing about. This is why I’m not fond of social media, because it eats up time that should be spent having encounters with the real world…or at least reading good books.
Writers these days are practically expected to be mushrooms, soaking all our nutrients from the sickly glow of a computer screen. I love my writing routine and I love my non-writing routine, but I’ve found that in recent years the non-writing has begun to involve more and more computer time.
This is not natural to me. I didn’t grow up with computers, and I don’t really like them. As a science geek I’m interested in the purely technological aspect, and I can understand their value as a work tool, but as a way of life I think they are a threat to human civilization. That’s why I was not entirely devastated when my computer was recently stolen (I’m using a borrowed one for this). It was a great opportunity to write in longhand again, using a pencil and paper instead of an expensive piece of equipment with a hundred functions I don’t need. I could go on and on about computers, don’t get me started. That’s enough for now. Let me just add: computers are the devil.
Okay, so that’s my challenge as I see it: being the old-school novelist I want to be, writing the kind of timeless fiction that is immune to trends, while yet staying relevant to readers who may or may not share my crackpot convictions.
Or I could just go join the Calypso.
–W.G. MarshallRead More...
What happens when you publish your first novel? They ask you to write the sequel, and then you fall behind because of… uh, reasons, and you forget to write the blog post you were supposed to write because you were working on the new book, and it ends up being really short and not very informative. Sorry.
Anyway, my first novel experience might not be typical. My first was a Warhammer tie-in novel, and not much happened at all after I wrote it. It got no reviews, no press, and at first very little notice from it’s target audience. Despite that, my publisher gave me two sequels, so I kept my day job and wrote those too, which led to me taking over an established Warhammer series and a fair amount of recognition – at least among fans of the Warhammer universe.
But after that first book, there wasn’t much. I remember thinking, hey! I’m a published novelist. This should open some doors, and I sent my precious author copies of the book to various agents with letters of introductions and pitches for some of my original novels (including Jane Carver). The few responses I got back were no thank yous. Which, in my naiveté, baffled me. I thought the fact that I was published, and could be counted upon to deliver a well-written book in three months would interest them. Not so much. (more…)Read More...
I always thought my problems would be solved the moment I had an agent and my manuscript sold to a publisher. I thought that once you were published the negative voice in the back of your brain vanished forever. Ha! Yeah. Not so much. The voice that tells you you suck merely acquires a new script. You’re not a real writer because you’ve only one book in print. You’re not a real writer because your book didn’t sell enough copies. You’re not a real writer because you haven’t won an award. You’re not a real writer because… well, you get the point. But you know what? Dealing with that negative voice, blowing it off, and still writing — that is being a real writer. It’s having to cope with all the doubts and all the things which you’ll never have control over. (Like how many people buy your work.) It’s not easy, but every job has its downside. That’s why you have to love writing with every fiber of your being. Because it’s just not worth the heartache, otherwise.
With the first book, you’ve all the time in the world. I had three years to do all the research I needed to write Of Blood and Honey. When it came time to write And Blue Skies from Pain frankly, I panicked. The pressure to get everything as correct as I could get it had become too much. I didn’t know if I could finish the second book. I cried all over my agent’s t-shirt at the retreat last summer. He told me it was going to be fine and that I really did have all the information I needed. It took an expert on Northern Irish politics, Nicholas Whyte, to make me understand that for sure. (Thank you, Nicholas!) My agent was sooo right. Of course that wasn’t the only stress. There was that awful internal critic. It was chanting, “The second book won’t be as good. No one will like it. You’ll never write anything as good as the first.” (Thank goodness that turned out to be not true.) My goal has always been to improve as a writer over time. There’s so much to learn! There is no way anyone can know everything about writing, and now I feel I can grow. That first book isn’t everything.
Honestly, all this pressure and stress is normal. It’s why being a new writer is so difficult and also so hard for outside people to understand. The second book is where you find out if you can really hack it as a professional. The first… well… I wouldn’t call it a fluke, myself. You work too damned hard and bleed too damned much to call it that. It’s more than mere luck — far more. Sure, luck is a factor, but you made that luck with your bare hands and others helped — many others. But the second book is where the training wheels come off the bike. There’s a risk of falling over and skinning your knees or cracking open your head. There’s always that risk that you’ll have to put the training wheels back on too, but there’s also a chance you’ll ride down that road in no time with your hands in the air, laughing. You never know until you try.Read More...
When I finished writing my novel FAITH, I experienced what I thought was a strange reaction: I closed the file on it and didn’t want any more to do with it. This isn’t to say I reacted against it. I felt proud of it, and still do, and I reckon I’ve written it as well as I’m able to. It was simply that I felt I’d said everything I wanted to say about those people and that universe, and any more would be mere tinkering. At least, that’s how my agent explained it when I described it to him, and he said it’s not uncommon for authors to have such a feeling. Do any of the other Night Bazaar authors recognise it?
When Lord Chesterfield said that a novel must be exceptionally good to live as long as the average cat, he probably had a life of eleven or twelve years in mind. Our house has always had cats, and most of them have lived that long or more. Our longest-lived cat was Chloe: twenty-seven years. She was a small skinny cat, with lovely tortoiseshell markings, and something of the sinewy build of a Siamese. She simply wasn’t afraid of anything. She’d have faced down a pack of velociraptors if they’d come into our garden (admittedly not a frequent occurrence in the English Home Counties) and she went through life like a sort of feline bag lady, swearing copiously at anything that invaded her space. I’d like to think that my book will be out there in twenty-seven years, conducting itself like Chloe.
I’ve enjoyed doing internet interviews about FAITH. One of the questions was to describe the book in 140 characters or less. The answer I gave was:
“Motiveless, invincible alien ship. Almost-alien human opponent. Moby Dick meets Kafka meets Duel. Irresistible force meets irresistible force.”
I’d love to see someone reading my book on a train, or browsing it in a bookshop. We British tend not to speak to each other unless we’re introduced, but I’d find it hard not to start a conversation.
I’m writing my second novel now; I’m nearly halfway through it. It’s also SF, but very different, and deliberately so. It will be a kind of political thriller, but with strange edges. I’ve set it in the future (about fifty years from now) so I could explore ideas about how politics, economics, technology, culture and religion might develop by then. And that’s why I love the SF genre. Whenever I get an idea for a book, I turn almost automatically to SF as the genre in which to express it. SF gives the freedom to explore and develop ideas. It’s not impossible in other genres, but it’s more possible in SF. At least, that’s how I’ve always felt about the genre, but again, I’d like to ask the other Night Bazaar authors if they feel the same way.
Another question I’ve been asked in interviews is whether I’ve thought of doing a sequel or prequel to FAITH, or at least a book set in the same universe. Again, I’d like to know what the other Night Bazaar authors think about sequels or prequels. Personally I’m not enthusiastic, for the reasons mentioned above.
I think this will be the last of my scheduled Night Bazaar posts. I’ll always remember that my first one was on January 3, the day FAITH was published. I’ve really enjoyed doing this, and getting to know the other Night Bazaar authors, and finding how many things we have in common. I hope to get over to some conventions in future, and perhaps we can meet up and talk about favourite authors, music, and whether the Ultimate Answer really is Forty-Two. Very best wishes for the success of your books.
W.G., once again I’m sorry about what happened to you and I hope you get your home back to normal.Read More...
It is a blessing and a curse being the guy who posts on Friday around here. A blessing, because I get to read what everybody else wrote about the week’s topic, and sometimes that gives me an idea when I’m stumped for my own. It’s a curse because sometimes one of the other inmates steals my idea before I have a chance to write it, and then I gotta go think up a new one at the last minute.
This week it’s a blessing, because reading everybody else’s posts has kindled within me the burning spirit of 1977, and made me want to pull on my old black leather jacket and stomp boots and shout along to “London’s Burning” all over again.
Why? I’ll tell you why.
A lot of the others talked about the tenuous connection between punk music and the various genrepunk sub-divisions, and how the connections have gotten even more tenuous as time has gone on – and they’re right. Cyberpunk started off pretty punk. It was written by a new generation, about a new generation, in a new and dangerous way. Splatterpunk, ditto. It went for the visceral and ugly, and prided itself in providing not a shred of relief or comfort to the reader. Steampunk? Okay, not so much. And even the earlier genres have lost a lot of their rusty razor edge as they’ve aged, just like punk rock did. Blondie went disco in three albums. The Ramones did movie soundtracks. Johnny Rotten did beer advertisements.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. Yes, the “punk” suffix is basically just a marketing tool now, but so what? It could mean something if we wanted it to. And I want it to. (more…)Read More...
Well, this is interesting.
Yesterday evening I had just finished writing a blog entry on this week’s subject, SF subgenres that end in “-punk,” and was all set to post it here first thing in the morning…but in the meantime my wife and I had a dinner date with friends.
When we got home, our house had been broken into.
We must have interrupted the burglar, because very little was taken – just some cheap jewelry of mainly sentimental value, my wife’s reading glasses (no doubt grabbed accidentally because they were on the box with the jewelry)…and my laptop computer. The computer which held in its hard drive my just-finished Night Bazaar entry – damn.
Now I’m driving myself crazy trying to remember what exactly I wrote in that essay, and more importantly if there was anything else stored on that computer that wasn’t safely backed up in some other location. This is going to eat at me.
It’s after midnight, and I’m trying to be calm. Someone has been in my house. They broke a locked window and smashed a wooden shutter, which must have taken some determination, and they went through every room looking for loot. Fortunately, there wasn’t much to be found amid all our clutter. It could have been worse – they didn’t trash the place; maybe they just didn’t have time.
We arrived home to find the house wide open, the night breeze wafting in through the busted window and yawning back door, the cat a bit traumatized and very grateful to see us. Too bad he couldn’t describe the thief. Tomorrow we have to call the insurance company and also look into some means of making the house more secure, or we’ll never again feel safe leaving it. Right now it’s hard to imagine.
The questions arise: Was it a past acquaintance? A neighbor? Who else would know our comings and goings better than someone who lives right next door? Or was it a friend of a friend, someone with inside knowledge of our plans? Our phone answering machine registered a hang-up shortly after we went out – could it have been someone checking to see if we were home? When the police investigator comes in the morning, I’ll ask if he can trace that call.
Phew…I’m getting tired. The adrenaline is wearing off; I can barely see straight. Guess this will have to do for my blog post this week. Shame about losing the other – it was a good essay, and I worked hard on it. God knows what else I lost. Fuckit, I’m going to bed now.
–W.G. MarshallRead More...
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” — The Princess Bride
What do various subgenres really mean? It’s important to think about the answer to that question because SFF works are constantly being categorized and re-categorized. The English language is a living thing in that it constantly shifts and changes. Words are dropped out of current use and others are revived. The particulars of grammar alter over time as does spelling. One can object to such things, but it doesn’t do much good. (Although, I do wish sometimes that people had a bit of historical context.) Readers need labels in order to find what they like. There are simply too many books out there. Here are my thoughts on a few subgenre labels.
The meaning of Urban Fantasy seems hotly contested these days. There are those who swear it is Fantasy with a romantic sub-plot (a newer definition) and those who deny that romance has anything to do with it and that it merely means fantasy set in an urban environment (an older definition.) As I’ve said before, while I don’t agree with the first definition (I’m in the ‘not romance’ camp) it does have merit. Those of the first group tend to use television (specifically Buffy the Vampire Slayer which aired starting in 1997) as the start point. Those of the second group are referencing Borderland (an anthology published in 1986) and authors which contributed to it and the subsequent series such as Terri Windling, Charles de Lint, Ellen Kushner, Emma Bull, and Will Shetterly. Neil Gaiman and Jim Butcher are (in my opinion) Urban Fantasy authors. Traditional Urban Fantasy also has a musical (usually punk but also country-folk) element. Laurel K. Hamilton started as an Urban Fantasy author and then drifted into Paranormal Romance, that is, fantasy with romance plots. (She is where the lines between the two start to fray.) If you ask me, the whole argument is a bit like asking music fans about the origins of punk music. Some will say that punk started in New York and is defined with music and fashion only. Others will state with absolute certainty that punk started in London and also encompassed a political movement. (I’m of the belief it started in London.) The truth is, while the London scene had a bit of a jump on the New York crowd — each heavily influenced the other from the very beginning. Which brings me to the next set of subgenres.
As you can probably tell, I’m into punk music. So, the word punk has certain associations — subculture, youth, rebellion, shock culture, artistic edgy-ness, fringe, political upheaval, anger, DIY, chaos, anarchy, and anti-establishment. Now that ‘punk’ has become a genre suffix… well… I don’t believe that it’s necessarily being used in the same way. In the case of Steampunk, I’m dead certain it isn’t. However, it can be argued that Cyberpunk (the first subgenre to use -punk) did intend the ’70s era meaning of the word. Cyberpunk stories contained high-end technology combined with a disintegrating social order, that is, chaos. It tended to glorify the loner, had a DIY (do it yourself) mentality (if you were a programmer) and very definitely was anti-establishment. Steampunk, on the other hand, is about nostalgia, more specifically, a nostalgia for empire. My theory is that the movement is rooted in the anxiety that America (like Great Britain before it) has lost its status as the dominating super-power in the world. Thus, steampunk looks backward instead of forward — to the good old days when men were men and women wore corsets and looked dainty and everyone (well everyone not being oppressed by the empire in question, anyway) was optimistic and financially stable and all was right with the world. (Again, provided you weren’t a minority.) For that reason, I don’t understand why Steampunk rates the punk suffix. Perhaps it’s because of the DIY costuming element, or maybe it’s the mad scientist angle, but for me that isn’t enough. Of course, there are authors who are challenging the Steampunk stereotype. Frankly, I look forward to seeing that aspect of the subgenre develop more fully.Read More...
I had a long and interesting career in the music industry, but not as a performer. My love of music is equalled only by my inability to perform it or compose it. In the absence of those abilities I ran PPL, the world’s largest record industry copyright organisation, and worked for performers and record companies by doing rights negotiations and fighting legal cases.
To quote Elvis Presley (US Male), I said all that to say all this: because of where I spent most of my working life, the word Punk has a particular resonance for me. Perhaps more than the suffix -Punk. As a movement which shook the pomposity out of popular music, Punk has a huge resonance. As a suffix appended to other words it has – for me, at least – rather less. It denotes various kinds of sub-genres which have produced novels and novelists I admire hugely, but none of those sub-genres has shaken the whole of SF in quite the way Punk shook the whole of popular music.
Chas Chandler, of the great sixties group The Animals, was an early advocate of Jimi Hendrix (John The Baptist heralding Jesus? I always found that comparison irresistible, if tasteless). I went to the first Jimi Hendrix Experience concert in Britain, at the Marquee in London in 1967. When I heard and saw what he did with a guitar, I might have used the expression Shock of the New – except that it didn’t appear until the 1980s, when it was used to describe the advent of modern art, but with hindsight it fits.