The Mystery Woman

It was a different world, then, you see.                                                              

Those of you under 25 won’t be old enough to remember much about life before the internet, when Facebook didn’t rule the world, and writers didn’t spend almost as much time social networking as actually writing books. It must seem as quaint as brogues and Sunday school.

In those days readers had to wait months, even years for their favourite author’s latest book to reach them. What else they got to read of those  authors was an ocassional interview in a magazine, perhaps -if you were Isaac Asimov or Frederik Pohl- there would be  an autobiography, written long after the event. Everything else had to be decoded from the actual stories. With the exception of Harlan Ellison, of course, who lived life as if he was on the internet long before it was invented.

It made the writers mysterious. What were they like, those men and women, who SF back in the early to mid 1970s? The most readers could hope for was a specially written afterword or introduction, which we pored over for clues. Of course, nowadays such reclusiveness is all but impossible.

Unless your name is Kate Wilhelm, of course. It’s ironic that I should know so little about someone I’ve been reading for over 35 years, especially since her memoir/ writing manual, Storyteller won her a second Hugo in 2005, and she’s taught dozens, perhaps hundreds of writers at Clarion for over 30 years. But that’s the way she seems to be — even in the case of Storyteller, the book was as much about others as herself.

When I first encountered her in 1975, I wasn’t that impressed. “Whatever Happened to the Olmecs?” didn’t have any of the flashiness of a Zelazny or a Delany. Indeed, it barely seemed to my unsubtle teenage self to be SF at all.

But year by year my knowledge and appreciation grew. I won’t list the award winners or the Best Of appearances; you can read them for yourselves. Welcome, Chaos won me over, and “Forever Yours, Anna” made me a fan – it should have won a Hugo to go with the Nebula, but the best stories don’t always win.

For the last twenty-five years she’s been writing mystery novels rather than SF, but many of those mystery stories were leavened with the fantastic, although equally as many weren’t. Be it SF or mystery, all her novels are character-oriented and shine with a beautiful prose style.

I’d been thinking about her more and more over the last couple of weeks, with her recent appearances in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and the realization that she’s mastered not one but two genres with equal aplomb, and my two favourites at that. Because she’s lauded for her SF, but reading Skeletons today, I realized what an impressive writer she is.

Reading PD James, for example, a teenager in one of her books talks as if they’re ninety, because James can’t capture the voice of anyone but her own generation. Similarly, all Ruth Rendell’s novels, for all their quality, have that same pedantic, slightly prissy voice. But Lee, the protagonist of Skeletons sounds exactly like a twenty-five year old, caught up in something innocuous, which escalates inexorably into a political thriller.

Perhaps it was cutting through the clutter of some of the Transtories submissions* this week, and then reading the stories in A Flush of Shadows so soon afterwards that rammed home to me that there’s not a word wasted in her prose:

They walked on the hard-packed wet sand at the edge of the water. Lime green waves rose knee-high before they lost themselves in the froth. Flocks of sandpipers probed the sand, scattered at their approach, settled again as soon as they passed. (“With Thimbles, With Forks, and Hope)

* Which is not to denigate those contributors; I’m sure that when they have over fifty years experience, their prose will be as effective. 

Not a word out of place, not a spare adverb or pronoun. Perhaps I should follow her example, and bid you farewell, until the next time you stop by.

• May 6th, 2011 • Posted in Writing • Comments: 0

The Paragraph

By a happy coincidence, since I wrote the basic outline of this a day or two ago, my fellow author Joanne Hall has posted this article on editing over at Writer Revealed.

It seemed particularly timely, since this week –and the last two or three weeks before that- I’ve done a lot of editing for Transtories (yes, the one without a cover, so I’ve used Andy Bigwood’s cover for Dark Spires).

I’ve probably spent about sixteen to twenty hours a week on the process, which might not sound a lot, four hours a day, but because of the concentration that it calls for, it’s probably one of the most tiring activities concerned with writing.

What’s I’ve drawn from this is that many semi-pro writers, those easing toward their first professional sale, are quite capable of writing fine turns of phrase, even individual sentences; where they struggle is to convey information through organization of paragraphs.

There are two theories of organizing paragraphs. The more basic one is that each character’s actions and speech should be separated and given a paragraph to themselves.

Then there is the Chip Delany view, that the paragraph is the unit of emotional currency, and that it’s okay to group related activities together.

When I looked through my various books on writing this morning (Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction;  Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller; Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint; Steve May’s Doing Creative Writing) none of them -that’s none, note- have an entry on paragraphs.

I find that significant. Are budding writers supposed to learn by osmosis? I’m all for learning by example, but it helps to know the theory.

So, with the agreement of one of the contributors to Transtories, I have selected a short story at random and reprinted a paragraph from it, and then edited it. It’s my opinion only, and will probably vary from day to day, but it’s a useful exercise to perform.

This is the first version:

Settling back into the polished leather, she pulled her small, rough purse nearer, giving it a reassuring pat in the process.  A wedding present from her uncle, its texture felt comforting, the familiarity soothing.  The cab smelled damp, its dim illumination cast by two oil lamps making the purse look dowdy and old.   The memory of her uncle brought forth a renewed desire to escape, and with mounting resolution she settled back as the coach moved off.

So here’s the summary of the series of actions.

1) She settles back in the seat.

2) She pats the purse.

3) Background on the purse

4) Description of the cab, smell, illumination etc

5) More on the purse

6) More on her uncle

7) She settles back in her seat (again)

 Notice at least one action recurs – her settling back into the seat. If you have to repeat something -unless you’re doing it purposefully, for emphasis, it’s a sure sign that there’s something wrong with your paragraph structure. Notice how the author (and this is not intended to make them feel bad, I’m just as guilty during first drafts, and sometimes beyond) flits from purse to uncle to cab

And this is the same version after I’d edited it.

She gave her small, rough purse a reassuring pat.  A wedding present from her uncle, its familiarity soothed her, although the lamplight made it look dowdy. Thoughts of her uncle loaned her bravery and she settled back into the polished leather as the coach moved off.

It’s 40% shorter, because all the elements are grouped together and flow logically one into another.

I may post more such entries, where I think that the standard textbooks are neglecting key points, but for the moment it’s a one off entry, but for any of you struggling with your writing, I hope that it helps.

• April 30th, 2011 • Posted in Writing • Comments: 0

Looming Deadlines

After a glorious day out in the sunshine, it’s back to the grindstone with a vengeance, although the continuing sunshine helps to soften the grind.

What is less wonderful is that I have eight deadlines due in the next nineteen days; six of them are academic, including three in two days, two of them on the same day.

Of the two to do with writing, one of them is out of my control, so I just have to keep a watching eye on it.

The last one is for Transtories, the anthology I’m editing for Aeon Press (publishers of Albedo One); if you’re looking to sub a story, you have another week to get it into me.

If it all goes quiet around here, you’ll know why — I’m already having to put some new projects on hold until the deadline crunch has passed.

• March 24th, 2011 • Posted in Books, Writing • Comments: 0

Catching Up

The nice thing about conventions is the opportunity to catch up with friends, old and not so old. It was good to see Richard, Chris, Doug, Julius and the others from the Exeter SF Society again, and to meet the newer attendees for the first time. As usual a curry was disposed of on the Friday night, and we spent far too much in the Impy, but hey, taht’s what cons are for…  

What isn’t so good is what a convention does to one’s writing ability.

My last post here was last Wednesday, and what with a bad cold, Reading Week (during which one is supposed to catch with reading — and I did, so I at least managed something!) and Microcon, it’s been a real struggle getting back into writing mode.

This semi-rambling effort marks the first hurdle surmounted. Later this week, I’ll post an interview with Writers of the Future award winning author, Bradley P. Beaulieu, whose first novel The Winds of Khalakovo is published by Night Shade Books in April, and maybe revisit that hoary old topic, self-publishing.

Meanwhile,  I have a film blog to update.

See you later.

• March 8th, 2011 • Posted in Appearances, Events, Writing • Comments: 0

January Stats

This post is especially for Marc, who absolutely loves stats…

So I’ve compiled the January work numbers.

In 31 days, I worked 217 hours – exactly 7 hours a day, or 49 hours a week, if you prefer. That’s down on November, but up on December. The averages are complicated by the Christmas holidays; I only worked 46 hours in the last two weeks of last year, and worked only 49 hours in the first nine days of January.

Excluding reading, I spent 42% of my hours on Uni work, again complicated by the holidays. If I include reading, I spent 56% of my time, so uni and writing work was split almost 50/50. Unsurprisingly, ‘other’ work dominated work hours, while slightly surprisingly, Genre dominated my uni split with 13% of my hours worked. If you’re what ‘others’ is, it can be as diverse as fixing a printer or reading my e-mails each morning.

Since I delivered Ultramassive to Angry Robot, fiction writing dipped in January, at least until a couple of days ago, while I spent least uni time on Feature Journalism — in both cases about 8%. If I was splitting absolutely eveything equally, I’d spend 11% of time on each.

Cumulatively, reading has taken most time over the last three months, accounting for 15% of my time. I’d quite like to wave that figure under the noses of those lecturers who complain how little reading students do. ‘Other’ work accounts for 14% of my average 50-hour week. Making a Film is the most time-demanding uni subject at 12%, and will increase this month as we head into the heaviest period — when we actually make a film!

There’ll be more stats in exactly four weeks time.

• February 1st, 2011 • Posted in General, Writing • Comments: 0

Dark Spires News

Did you know — and as Diggory Venn would say, not a lot of people know this – that today is the 83rd anniversary of Thomas Hardy’s death? And to mark the occasion, Ove Jansson’s excellent Cybermage site has posted the anthology’s first review.

Until now, the book has been available to order as a paperback, either from the site or at conventions, and for those readers who don’t embrace dead tree format, as a mobi or e-pub download.

But now the good people at Wizard’s Tower Press –who actually reside deep within Hardy Country– have also been able to make the book available as a Kindle. To mark the occasion,  they’ve posted an extract from Roz Clarke’s wonderful ‘Last Flight to West Bay’ to read for free on the website.

This is terrific news because amazon is a whole new ball game, and makes the book available to a whole new set of readers, which for a small press is absolutely crucial.  It also means a slight price reduction to American readers, since until now WTP have only been able to price in sterling, and PayPal adds a conversion fee. And for about twenty-four hours only, they’ll be knocking a pound (about US$1.60) off all formats.

On another front, I’ll be posting about an anthology I’m going to edit soon, but today is Dark Spires’ day, so head on over to Wizard’s Tower’s site, and read the first installment of Roz Clarke’s story for free, and save yourself some pennies if you like it!

• January 11th, 2011 • Posted in Books, General, News, Reviews, Writing • Comments: 1

A Month of Daily Science Fiction

This morning a friend of mine sent me a link to a review at Diabolical Plots.  They reviewed the stories posted on Daily Science Fiction‘s website throughout the magazine’s first month, last September.

Amazingly, he picked my story Chameleon as the best of the month. I’m staggered because as I said in an earlier post, the story virtually wrote itself, and I don’t feel that anything that easy to write could be that good. Which just goes to show the discontinuity between what’s in my head, and what’s in a typical reader’s.

And secondly, he damns with faint praise Mary Robinette Kowal’s brilliant American Changeling, which was not only my favourite story in September, but in any month.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to compare opinions, and to get the insight that many review sites won’t review DSF because ‘there’s too much to review.’ Hopefully Diablical Plots doesn’t feel that way, and will produce a review of October and subsequent month’s contents, because an awful lot of new, upcoming and talented writers are publishing new there — and it’s free to read.

You can read the full article here. If you’re familiar with the magazine, you might like to compare your picks with Frank’s. If you’re not, go and see for yourself.

• January 7th, 2011 • Posted in General, Reviews, Writing • Comments: 0

The Turning World

This piece has now been taken offline.


• December 21st, 2010 • Posted in General, Writing • Comments: 0

Reading Matter

It’s that time of year again when people start to look back, peaking around about December 30th when it’s hard to find a TV programme that isn’t a retrospective (which is a good reason to watch DVDs, or better still to turn the box off).

SF is no exceptions to this, and a couple of sites have already started, running their ‘best of/ the following are eligable for’ lists, while the ToC for Rich Horton’s Years Best has already popped up at SFSignal, which also carries Jonathan Strahan’s ToC. Interesting that they have at least two overlaps, Peter Watts and Elizabeth Hand, while Neil Gaiman has different entries in the two collections.

I already have a heavy reading list, and adding in the reading I’ve already done for the Nebula means that I’m almost ready to cry mercy. I’ve already read a lot of the contenders due to reviewing Asimovs and F & SF for Suite101, but there are a lot of other worthy works and authors out there.

At some point by the 30th, I shall endeavour to post my own list, but meanwhile, what do you think are the best stories and novels of the year?

• December 16th, 2010 • Posted in Awards, Books, General, Reviews, Writing • Comments: 0


With all the frantic goings-on yesterday, what with cheese-buying, Clarke-posting and interviewing (and here’s a hint — if you’re going to pick a venue to be interviewed in, avoid Bath City Centre in the Christmas run up) I completely forgot to mention that my entry on the Angry Robot Advent calendar was up.

Now, where did those Icelandic elves get to….?

• December 15th, 2010 • Posted in General, Writing • Comments: 0