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Surprising myself

I had the surreal experience this week of being surprised by my own writing.

I’d received a relatively detailed rejection email on a short story, for which I must mention Waylines Magazine, as it was one of the most useful and encouraging rejections I’ve had. Based on their feedback, I started reading through the story, looking for bits to improve. It’s a story that I’ve been trying to sell for years, and that’s been through a lot of re-writes. But I was still amazed to find that I’d completely forgotten about my last revision, which transforms the ending. It was a bizarre, dissociative experience to read something I knew I’d written, and yet have it seem completely unfamiliar. It was a good surprise – it’s a much stronger ending than the original one – and made me laugh rather than weep for my failing memory. Still, it was a little unsettling, like when your arm goes to sleep and it seems like that part of your body isn’t your own.

Has anybody out there had the same thing? Or do you always come back to your writing, as I usually do, with a sense of ‘here it comes again’?

Out now – Odin’s Mirror

This week I have another story out, Odin’s Mirror in Swords and Sorcery. This one’s free to read on the internet, so there’s  no excuse for not giving it a go.

The idea for Odin’s Mirror came to me while reading about the history of Latin America. Past 1492, that history is increasingly dominated by a bunch of disreputable Europeans, some of whom were, infamously, mistaken for gods. I can’t imagine any of them played that down. If you’re the kind of armed adventurer who’ll cross the ocean to pillage gold reserves at gunpoint, you’re unlikely to draw the line at religious fraud.

As it happened, I’d just finished reading a book about Norse religion. So when I started thinking about reversing that relationship, about what would have happened if the Aztecs or Mayans had come to raid Europe instead, turning the religious misunderstanding on its head was another obvious feature.

This story touches on the theme of empire that I discussed a while back. I wasn’t thinking about it in as much depth then, so didn’t take the opportunity to fully explore that aspect of the story. But it’s there, one of my little historical obsessions shining through.

All of which makes this story sound like an essay. It isn’t. It’s about a viking warrior. It’s about old religion and new circumstances. It’s about facing Ragnarok, and rebelling against destiny.

So go read, and if you have the time comment here on what you thought. Good, bad, indifferent, I’d value any thoughts.

Finally, a quick note on the formatting of this story. The marks for scene breaks have somehow got lost in transferring this story to the internet. Hopefully that’ll get fixed soon, but in the meantime, if you find a point where odd things happen, that’s probably meant to be a new scene. Sorry for any confusion!

Lessons learned from OCork

I’ve just finished reading Shannon OCork’s ‘How to Write Mysteries’, one of those random charity shop acquisitions I’m fond of. I’m not a mystery writer, but I like to read widely about writing, as it helps develop a range of skills. And to help some of that learning settle in my head, here are a couple of key lessons I learned from this one.

OCork talks about the real and apparent plot. By her reckoning, every mystery should have these two main plots, if not more. The apparent plot is what seems to be going on. The real plot hides behind it, and is slowly revealed as you go through the apparent plot. This is meant to create curiosity and excitement in the reader, as they recognise what is being exposed. I think this idea has value beyond mystery novels, as it’s a way of both building intrigue and helping your reader feel smart. I have a theory that feeling smart is a big part of what makes us enjoy books, so this sits well with me.

The other top tip I took from this book was to use each success to foster another difficulty. The character might retrieve the magical sword they need, but this will draw the attention of the goblin king, creating a new challenge to overcome. They might succeed in wiping the files they were being blackmailed with, but the hack that let them do this draws the attention of the FBI, putting them on the run. It’s a way of piling on the excitement through new challenges, but making those challenges seem to arise naturally.

Abercrombie and action

I’ve been on a bit of a Joe Abercrombie kick recently. Having previously enjoyed his First Law trilogy, I ploughed through all 600 blood-soaked pages of The Heroes in December, finished Red Country last week, and have a borrowed copy of Best Served Cold next to my laptop as I write this.

If you haven’t read Abercrombie, and you enjoy action packed fantasy, then I really recommend all these books. He’s been growing as an author, and to my mind The Heroes and Red Country have shown him becoming more interesting and adventurous. But the reason he’s able to get away with these experiments – epic fantasy as war movie and western, respectively – is a good grounding in action and character.

People sometimes talk about plot or action as if they were antithetical to good character and idea writing, distractions from the art of depicting the depths of personality or exploring the possibilities the intellect provides. This seems to be a given of much highbrow literary study. Personally, I think that’s rubbish. Bad action and bad plot get in the way, but so does bad character writing. Good action, like Abercrombie’s, is both exhilarating and enlightening. It exposes the characters involved, their weaknesses as well as their strengths, and makes you care more about them for the perils they face. In Red Country, he uses action sequences to reflect upon the features of the western genre, and the nature of heroism, calling many assumptions into question. This doesn’t mean that the action slows while he writes a paragraph on the meaning of each blow, but rather that the meaning is coded into the action, for you to find if it interests you.

Clever writing doesn’t have to mean dull writing, thank goodness. And once again, I’ve found someone whose stories inspire me to go write.

Out now – Justice Like Clockwork

I have a new piece published today in the January edition of eSteampunk. ‘Justice Like Clockwork’ is the story of a dedicated suffragette and an obsessive engineer held in a mechanical prison. With the gears grinding as hard as the oppression, and both warders and inmates looking to break their resolve, where can hope be found?

Like many of my stories, this was inspired by something I once studied. The panopticon was developed by a Victorian utilitarian as the ultimate form of prison, where the inmates must behave because they never know when they are being watched. The French philosopher Foucault later turned this into a metaphor for society, and the way that we internalise behaviours and power structures. Both these things made it a natural fit for a story. A chance to create a more intense, steampunk version of a real Victorian invention, and to sit this alongside characters acting against the roles that society has given them. I started writing it at a time when Mrs K. had challenged me to write more decent female characters, so that became part of my aim, and hopefully I’ve achieved that too.

This is also a case of me coming back to a story I’d given up on. Somewhere in my first round of editing, I lost my enthusiasm for ‘Justice’. I didn’t believe anybody would want to read it, and I gave up. But when I dug it out a year later and polished it off, I was proved wrong. The acceptance email from eSteampunk was glowingly enthusiastic, and now it’s out there in the world. So please, go pick up a copy of eSteampunk, give it a read, and see if you agree with them.

Empires

Thinking about the nature of steampunk got me considering an issue that it tends to ignore, but which is inextricably tied into the industrial nineteenth century society on which steampunk is based. That issue is imperialism, and the nature of empires, and it’s interesting to think about how it fits into fantastic literature.

Empires are a fairly common feature of genre fiction, especially fantasy. Whether it’s the imaginatively named The Empire of Star Wars, or the expansionist evil of Mordor in Lord of the Rings, we love a good empire. But this is usually just empire used as a shorthand way of indicating an evil and/or expansionist nation, a big bad for the heroes to oppose. It doesn’t get into the nature of empire.

There are some notable recent examples bucking this trend. George R R Martin’s Westeros is clearly an empire, made up of disparate nations brought together by war and compromise, some more reluctantly than others. Martin uses features of empire, such as a government geographically and culturally distant from many of its people, and the resentments and rebellions that exist on the fringes of a vast state.

Joe Abercrombie hs created another example in his Union. Again, this is a nation that doesn’t self identify as an empire, but clearly is one. And again, features of empire are explored. An elite turning the efforts of the masses to their own ends, especially in the case of the mage Bayazid. The role of the military in such a society, with actions on the field of battle shaping and shaped by political competition and hierarchy. The dehumanising experience of people ground down, often to their deaths, by the needs of a state for whom they are anonymous resources, as shown throughout The Heroes. And the conflicts on the fringe of empire in Red Country, as so-called civilisation bears down upon the wilds beyond, restricting the choices of free living people, leaving them to flee, submit or die.

In some ways, it’s hardly surprising that empire is seldom dealt with in this way, especially in the sort of celebratory fiction that is much steampunk and Victorian fantasy. It’s hard to portray an empire as something sympathetic, and so it is usually a villainous institution seen from the outside, or an absence, an empire in name only, like the Britannia that plays background to much gaslight fantasy. I’m not judging this, just noticing the pattern, and perhaps the opportunity. As Martin and Abercrombie have shown, there’s a lot of interest to be found in this theme, and for writers of steampunk in particular, there are new ideas to be had.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve missed loads of other examples of empires. If so, let me know – it’s as good for me to learn something knew as to keep writing what I already think.

Diversity in steampunk

It’s not uncommon for proponents of steampunk to call for more diversity in the genre. Whether it’s Steampunk magazine‘s stated desire for fiction that reflects diverse backgrounds, or Ann VanderMeer’s mission to show different takes on steampunk in Steampunk Revolution, it’s a familiar mission. Despite this, the steampunk I see is at least as centred on white western countries, especially Britain and the USA, as sci-fi and fantasy. For all its revolutionary cries, this is fiction dominated by first world white male characters.

Many of the reasons are probably the same as for science fiction and fantasy. The majority of influential writers and publishers, especially of English language work, are white guys, and this is self-perpetuating. There’s also an expectation, rightly or not, that the core of the readers fit this type and want to see characters like them. And there’s an element of cultural default, to which I’m as prone as any writer. In Britain, our ‘average person’ in any given piece of culture is white, male, and fairly well to do. Any deviation from this is a distinct characteristic, while these are used to represent the neutral. Of course they’re far from neutral, but we’re so used to this that it takes a conscious effort to depict someone different, and when concentrating on other aspects of writing we’ll often default to this for characters both great and small.

But I think there’s also something specific to steampunk. While fantasy literature as we currently see it was strongly influenced by European mythology, there are other mythologies to be drawn on when creating fantasy. For steampunk, this is harder. It’s a genre based on a nineteenth century experience of industrialisation and progress through steam-powered technology. That’s something that was experienced most accutely in Europe and north America, with privileged white guys as the main agents of change. Other parts of the world experienced that particular form of industrialisation in a more limited way, both technologically and geographically, and by the time industrialisation became a global norm it was already moving out of the era of gaslight and steam, into one of electricity and diesel.

This isn’t to say that we can’t explore steampunk from a myriad other perspectives. Whether it’s the role of women, children and the poor; shining a light on parts of the world that experienced that more limited, externally inspired industrialisation; or reimagining the industrial revolution as created by another culture. But there are less existing images and models to inspire and shape our work.

We should always aim for more diversity in what we write. It makes it more interesting, and expands the potential audience. But that’s harder work in some genres than others.

Anyway, if you know some good examples of more diverse steampunk, whether in literature or elsewhere, leave a message below. I could do with some inspiration to help me practise what I preach!

Great speculative cities

Writing about why I like cities as settings led me to think about some of my favourite examples. Obviously, cities play a large part in urban fantasy – the clue’s in the name – but my choices lie elsewhere.

The most obvious one is Terry Pratchett‘s Ankh-Morpork. It’s a classic example of a city as a place full of the extreme and the unexpected, giving the author a massive sand pit to play in. Pratchett uses Ankh-Morpork to draw comparisons between his fantasy world and our real one, with endless metaphores for the way we live. Whatever you think of his increasing focus on these parallels, there’s no denying that they allow fantasy to comment on reality. But for me the most exciting thing about Discworld’s first city is something more than that. Over the course of many novels, Pratchett has shown us a city as a site of change, a place of accelerating social, cultural and economic upheaval. This is what cities are like, constantly shifting places which act as catalysts for wider social change, and Pratchett’s shifting focus means that his own changing interests are reflected in, and breath life into, the city. Personally, I liked Ankh-Morpork’s city watch best when they were a faltering, run-down institution failing to battle their own irrelevance, but watching their transformation has still been more interesting than if they had stood still.

While Ankh-Morpork shows a city changing over time, the twin cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma, described in China Miéville‘s The City & the City, reflect divisions within a city as it stands. Miéville examines the fractured nature of urban communities, where people ignore each other in the street and different ethnic communities can exist in adjacent buildings yet barely interact. By feeding this through the fantastic machine of his mind, he creates something extreme and fascinating, exploring the absurdity and the necessity of the social conventions by which people live. The idea that two cities can exist in the same space just by ignoring each other sounds ridiculous, but Miéville makes it work, and that risk of the ridiculous makes it all the darker and more tragic, while his academic knowledge of the mechanisms of politics and society ensures a convincing extrapolation of this mad idea.

Less removed from our reality than either of these, but all the more terrible for it, is Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli’s depiction of a war-ravaged New York in DMZ. They use the city as a microcosm for an American civil war taking place minutes into our future. The choice of New York, a place widely shown across our culture, gives it a sense of familiarity even to someone like me who has never set foot in the big apple. The use of a single city gives their story focus and heart by limiting its scale, while also allowing them to show a variety of responses to the war. While it lacks the small town intimacy of Jericho, the nearest parallel on TV, it makes real the speculative elements of the story, and brings home the reality of millions of people already living in warzones like this.

There are many, many more great depictions of cities in speculative fiction. If you’re reading this, and have favourites of your own, please leave a comment – I’d love some more fantastic cities to explore.

All cities great and small

I love cities. From the sprawling metropolis of London, to the picture perfect heart of Durham, to the relaxed comforts of Norwich, I’ve lived in some of the most contrasting British cities, and loved them all.

I love them as settings to write in as well. I think the reasons for that are the same reasons I love them as places to live – it’s the potential. In a  city you can always find something new. Whether it’s a dusty secondhand bookshop down a street you never wandered before, a real ale rock bar hiding round the back of a chain pub, or some slither of history preserved between a shopping centre and an office block.

You can usually find what you want as well. The large populations of cities, and the people travelling in from all around, mean they can support specialists – oriental supermarkets, comic shops, novelty tearooms, jazz bars, and a hundred other things too specialised to survive in even a decent sized town. Museums? Check. Libraries? Check. Galleries? Check. In the same half mile of Manchester I can browse back issues of Batman and balls of double knit wool, then go drink coffee while Victorian art.

These same things that make cities great in life make them great for writing – you never know what you might find, but you can always find what you want. In a city you can throw in the crazy and the extreme, and whatever niche you need filled in your story, you’ll find a way. They also make great settings for odd characters, people who might seem out of place elsewhere – an astrologer, a steam mechanic, a smuggler of dragon eggs, they each have a few other settings where they might be found, but they can live shoulder to shoulder in a city. And yet, if you need to make them uncomfortable, challenge them with something unfamiliar, just have them take a wrong turn and within two streets they can be in the dreaded district of the existentialist spiders.

Sure, not every story fits best in a city. But as sources of inspiration, as places to write, and as places to write about, I’ll always love cities.

All in the name

Having done a thousand words of emotional and descriptive edits yesterday, I now have a story fit for reading, in all but one key regard – the title.

Titles are important. They give a first impression of the story, set readers’ expectations, can make the difference in whether someone picks up your work.

They become more important when you’re working with a smaller number of words. You can see this at its most extreme with drabbles, stories of exactly a hundred words. There, the title becomes a cheat, a way of adding words to your story, of clarifying theme or situation in ways you couldn’t fit into the text. But this also extends to other stories. The title can focus the reading experience, highlighting themes, indicating genre, making the reader pay attention when the title phrase appears within the story.

For me, this isn’t always a problem. Some of my stories, in fact some of my favourites, were inspired or shaped by a  phrase that became the title. This applies to both the stories I have in Ann VanderMeer’s steampunk collections. ‘The Cast-Iron Kid’ took its title from a character and flagged up its mixed genres, steampunk and western. ‘Urban Drift’ calls attention both to the sculpture around which the plot revolves and the mobile city setting, as well as referring to the sense of purposelessness urban alienation can trigger, against which background the protagonist’s own purpose is tested.

For the story I’ve just finished revising, set in a steampunk prison, I don’t have such an obvious title. The original inspiration, the panopticon and panopticism, is no longer central, and another easy label hasn’t bubbled up to replace it. I’m not going to let this stop me sending it out. I’m sure that today I can find a title that will do, given the alternative of sitting indefinitely on my story. But it’s just not the same.

Titles matter. And for me, the lesson this time is to think about them as I go along, not just wait for the end.