Friday, 13 May 2016

The last post

I've decided that today's post is going to be the last on this FEM-SF blog.  I've been posting here for around two years, and when I set up this blog I intended to keep it solely for posts about SF.  But over the years there's been a fair bit of bleed of subjects between this blog and my blog, and I've decided that the time has come to post everything on that blog in future.

Several things have led up to this decision.  First, I want to free up the time I've spent in writing FEM-SF posts for writing new short stories. I still don't have enough good stories to send out on circulation, and I need to up the hit Rate.  And some of the stories that have been edited to within an inch of their lives and repeatedly submitted are running out of new markets to try.

So I must write some new stories.  I have no shortage of ideas for these.  I have a lever-arch file full of them, and two plastic wallets full of scribbled notes on pieces of paper.  I have no shortage of material, but I need to set aside time to write them.  I've set a goal of getting at least one short story accepted by a paying SF magazine this year.  So I have to up the story numbers being submitted.  I know full well that this is a numbers game.

Secondly, I want more time to experiment with short stories, try different writing styles, try to push the boundaries of my craft some more.  And thirdly, I have a file of already-written stories that just don't make the grade.  I have three in front of me now that bear the legend 'more setting' on the top.  This is one of my failings, an impatience with large chunks of description, but I am now training myself to enrich my settings by putting enough detail in.

This doesn't mean I'll stop commenting on SF subjects on the wendymetcalfe blog. If the Hugos turn out to be a disaster again this year, I'll no doubt rant about that again.  But I have my fingers crossed, hoping that won't happen.

The more I've written on both blogs, the more I've realised that the things that concern me - issues like the under-representation of women authors - are common to all parts of the publishing world.  Far from being a strange and rarefied genre, SF is afflicted by the same kinds of prejudices, politics, and issues as any other genre. The case for a dedicated SF blog isn't made.  So I'll say goodbye from this blog, and hope to see you over on in future.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

A change of location - good for filling the well

This week I've been out and about to some places I haven't visited for a while.  It's finally spring in England, and the last week has been a sunny and warm one.  The rise in temperature is welcome after a colder than average April.

I benefited from my change of scene by getting a flurry of new ideas.  Going to new places is good for "filling the well" as creativity teacher Julia Cameron calls it.  As I'm out and about I can observe things I want to change in the world, or things which I think need to change.  These provide the driving force for new stories.

And one of the things I notice a lot is aimless people, people without a purpose, or even a plan for the current day.  There are the retired men who buy the cheapest coffee in the cafe then hog the best window seat for three hours, staring out into pace.  But what if one of these aimless-looking men had knowledge that could save the world?  What if they were an adept at an ancient wisdom that was desperately needed to avoid global disaster?  Will our planet go to its doom because Western cultures generally don't respect and honour their senior citizens?

A change of scene has taken me to walking by the shore.  I see the many moods of the sea while walking beside it.  When it's out in the distance it leaves acres of mud flats.  What if someone buried a canister in the mud with top-secret data in it? 

What if this was a sea on another world, and the buried object contained the key to an ancient weapon?  And what if a bitter and twisted antagonist had heard about that burial, and was determined to find the key?  But maybe the ocean itself is the key's guardian?  Maybe it has some awareness that it uses to protect the key.  Or maybe the key itself has some awareness.  Perhaps the ocean and the key can communicate.  Perhaps the ocean knows that it will be harmed if the key is found and used to set off the weapon.  So many ideas from a change of scene and the application of the SF writer's magic question "what if".

A change of scene is a great way to "fill the well" of creative ideas.  Walking with our senses open, and alert to answers to the "what if?" question, we revitalise our ideas and or writing.  Anyone for octopus emperors?

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Feeding the soul, or feeding the bank balance

Research the market... See what the magazines are accepting.  Write something you think they'll take... We've all been told that.  This is a topic I keep returning to In my exploration of who I am as a writer.  Because anyone who's studied any metaphysical texts will tell you that we create our own realities

So how does that translate into becoming a successful novelist or short story writer?  Well, one way is by the way our beliefs about our writing and our world show in our voice.  All agents and editors say they're looking for a distinctive voice in every submission they read.  But what exactly do they mean by that?  

Voice is a collection of many things; our writing style, whether our way of telling a story is straightforward with short, functional, sentences, or told in longer, lyrical sentences in a more "literary" way.  It's our choice of words, and our choice of angle on the story.  The way we tell that story, what we focus on, is part of our voice too.

I usually write about 'strong female heroines'.  What a cliche that phrase is.  So how do my 'strong' women become individuals? By what they choose to focus on, and by what they do about the events in their lives.

My characters' voices are quiet and firm, like that of lyrr musher Anyu.  She resists the harassment of the alien Itea stoically, and when the time comes to get her revenge on them for the lyrr they killed, her part is to quietly transport a hit team through a blizzard.

My quiet characters explore my concerns.  They seek justice for the slain creatures of the natural world.  They seek to free women from sexual and reproductive slavery.  And they usually do so quietly.

These are the stories that feed my soul, that say things that I need to say.  They're not cashing in on some current craze. Many a time I will ignore human affairs in my stories.  They're just too petty for me. My focus is on the wider universe.  Only time will tell whether this feeding of my soul will resonate with others and feed my bank balance as well.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

The price of being a bestseller?

On Wednesday night I listened to a talk from a successful women's magazine short story writer.  But the interesting thing was that when she talked about her real writing passion, it wasn't women's fiction.  It was crime.  Another writing friend who knows her work says that her crime is quite dark.

This raised the question of writing for the market just to earn money.  Our guest had decided that the women's magazine market offered her the best chance to earn a living.  I did toy with that idea myself a few years back, but my heart wasn't in that market.  My stories were about single women rejoicing about being out of constricting marriages, or women making great successes out of their careers.

But our speaker created a career for herself writing stories that aren't her real passion.  She is churning them out to pay the bills.  And that got me thinking about the price of success.

Publishers want novelists to establish their 'brand' right at the start of their careers.  They also love series with the same characters.  But I don't know if new authors think in terms of being trapped by their series when they get their first contract.  I'm sure that many are just so grateful to stop banging their heads against the publishing brick wall they accept the first contract offered.

But we need to have the vision to think about the long game of our career right from the start.  So our first published book or story needs to be in a genre and about a subject we're passionate about.  So if it's successful, we're happy to write many more using similar themes.  And if we have characters we love and want to develop through several books, so much the better.

If I applied that speaker's logic to writing novels, I should be writing crime or thrillers, or romance, for a shot at the bestseller lists.  But here's the thing: all these books are about humans doing things to other humans.  They're not my passion.  My passion is wildlife, and examining the way that humans use, misuse, and destroy it.

The price of havIng to write about humans murdering other humans would be too high for me.  My writing serves a higher purpose than mere entertainment, if murder can be called such a thing.  And SF  is the best route to explore the issues I'm interested in.  So I'll remain an SF writer, thank you, and take the longer and harder route to bestsellerdom.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

I don't need any more courses

I subscribe to Writing Magazine, and I usually  buy Writers' Forum too each month.  And every time I read these magazines my eyes stray to glossy adverts for writing courses.

Over the thirty plus years I've been writing I must have attended hundreds of them.  Go back fifteen years and you would have found me, and most of my local writing friends, eagerly preparing for the annual Writers' Conference at the University of Winchester.  Some years I even booked for the Friday all-day workshop as well as the weekend.  My Friday would start at ten in the morning, and not finish until ten-thirty that night.

When I knew nothing about the publishing industry, or the business of writing for publication, I learned a great deal from course tutors and fellow writers. I did courses on creating powerful characters, pitching to agents, the state of the publishing industry, and self-publishing.  And I've lost count of the times I've walked out of a one-to-one session with an agent feeling dispirited.

On one occasion I cut short my fifteen-minute interview with an agent after she suggested that there should be a romance in the book between the male and female leads.  Considering that the female is a cat-shaped half-human and the male is full human, I thought it was the stupidest and weirdest comment I'd ever heard from an agent.  I think that has to count as one of the lowest points in my search for publication.

I've sought regular feedback on my manuscripts, read them to countless critiquing groups, and had my self-published books rigorously copy and line edited.  I've learned to think in terms of a commercial product.  Then in 2008 I had a book taken off the slushpile by a major publisher.  They read the whole thing, and liked it, but didn't offer me a contract.  But to have got that far from an unsolicited approach was a real boost, and they gave me lots of positive feedback on the novel .  More recently, an agent kindly critiqued my  cover letter for the novel I'm currently submitting, telling me she couldn't improve on it.

So I've decided I don't need any more courses.  I've learned my craft.  Now my quest to get published has shifted to finding the people who believe in my vision of the future, and don't try to turn my female characters into sexy airheads.  Courses can't help with that search.  It's down to numbers, self-belief, and perseverance - and a whole lot of luck.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Committing to my characters

I'm currently re-writing a novel which I originally wrote as a young adult tale.  Leaving aside my naive view that YA fiction was simpler and needed less depth than adult fiction, there are other reasons why the story didn't work.

I've mentioned in previous blog posts my tendency to pull my punches in describing characters' emotional reactions to events that affect them, but in this particular book I've committed a far worse sin.  I've failed to get into my character's skin.  I could see what she was seeing, but I didn't describe the differences between her vision and a human's.  But what I hadn't done - surprise, surprise - was describe her emotional reactions to the things that were happening to her.

And that was fatal for this particular manuscript.  For starters, she's just returned from a field trip to find the research station she departed from a few hours ago a smoking ruin.  But even more traumatic was her discovery of the burned remains of her parents there.

I've had the experience of my own parents dying, and I know the feeling of being suddenly cut adrift.  Two people who have been around for every day of your life are suddenly gone.  And this plunges us into a black hole of grief.  Each of us grieves in our own way, but if we cared at all about the person who's died, then we will grieve their loss.

But my character Chita was being too stiff-upper-lipped.  True, she is in constant danger of attack and has an ongoing threat to her own life, but I needed to show her grief.  I needed more of her emotions, a sense of that black hole that her dark thoughts are constantly falling into.

What I needed to do was get inside her skin.  She's a genetically engineered cat/human, and I think I've always had my internal censor sitting on my shoulder when I write about her.  "This will never work" it says.  "Do you have any idea how Impossible it would be to combine I'shara and human DNA to create a viable hybrid?"

This is when I need to silence that voice and commit to my character.  She does exist, a fully-functioning big cat with a human brain, language, and intelligence.  And my task now is to get fully inside her fur, live her life, and bring this glorious creation alive.  I have to commit to my character.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

In at the deep end - what's going on?

Recently I've been trying to read several SF books by highly regarded authors which I couldn't get into the first time.  I know we've got to pitch our readers right into the middle of the action, but the reader also needs to know where they're being thrown to.  And especially in science fiction and fantasy getting the balance of action and world description right is crucial.

One of the books I struggled with started with an introduction (a prologue by any other name) which was 22 pages long.  That section is written in the first person, and is the record of an unknown therapist.  The client he/she is talking to is also not identified by name.  She's a female, but the introduction takes the form of the therapist's notes, and all the way through she's only called the client.

In short, this prologue is one massive info-dump of backstory, told by one unknown character to another.  And it's a very confusing and and complex backstory at that.  It involves two husbands, a lost brother, and half a dozen events that made no sense to me at all. 

And yet... the novel is published by one of the major UK SF imprints.  We're not talking about a thrown-together self-published book here.  We're talking about a book that has been accepted and edited by a mainstream publisher.

Having looked it up, I see that this is the fourth book in a series, so I think this marathon prologue info- dump is an attempt to tell the reader what happened in the first three books.   But it really doesn't work.  And even the back cover blurb mentions that the world is confusing, and that there are an awful lot of interweaving story strands,

You might say that I ought to seek out and read the first book before criticising this.  But readers often don't come to a series in the order the books were written.  And I've picked up middle books of other series before and had no trouble working out what was going on.  And wanted to read the rest of the series.

But not with this author.  And after struggling through a 22 page info-dump attempt to get up to speed, I've no desire to persevere with the book.

Yes, I do get impatient with long descriptive set-ups, but this long interview didn't pitch me into the middle of the action at all.  It pitched me in at the deep end, and I had no idea what was going on.