Joyous Puppies

I’m fed up with the Hugos. Not the awards themselves, but in the stupid, pointless and vitriolic campaigns by the Puppies – both Sad and Rabid – to swing the vote in a way that in no way serves to promote the work of themselves and their bestest buds.

I suppose I should bung up some links to get you who haven’t been following up to speed: just one second…

Here’s a good overview
And another
Some analysis of their motives
…and what I’ve said previously about writing and politics.

Right. That’s that out of the way. Now here’s my perspective.

I am a man. I’m white. I’m middle class (by upbringing if not by dirty dirty moolah). I’m heterosexual.

I also love reading books by people who aren’t like me.

I love books with black, white, gay, lesbian, intersex, disabled protagonists. I like to read thought-pieces on politics and society, whether left-wing or right-wing – if they’re well-written I’ll read them. Some I might disagree with. Some might make me feel uncomfortable. Some may challenge my preconceptions or just make me massively angry. But how are we to learn if we don’t empathise, don’t explore the lives of others? How are we to grow, to make ourselves stronger if we limit our intake to that which we already know?

There is a place for the kind of fun novels that the Puppies promote. Although I detest the political agenda that seems to dominate their thinking (and what is it but the last fearful grab for power that’s been theirs solely by accident of birth, and now they feel slipping away?) I don’t have a problem with the writing in itself. Unless it’s bad.

But I am fed up with this non-controversy. I am fed up with science-fiction/fantasy being tarred with this pathetic mudslinging. I am fed up of talking about it.

So I am hereby launching my own group. Let us be known as the Joyous Puppies. A group that delights in diversity, who feels that there is room for all members of the writing community to be who the hell they want, to write what the hell they want for the sake of producing great stories.

Happy puppy

A joyous puppy. Because it’s all we need

The SFF world has never been in ruder health. Hell, all of writing is in a golden age. Never has there been more diversity; never have I seen more people reading, talking about, loving books. Finally, after years of being a slightly embarrassing secret, readers and writers from all walks of life are stepping out into the sunlight, stretching, and taking a good long look around them.

Let us celebrate all voices. Let us promote authors who don’t have the fortune that we’ve had. Let us read widely; let us learn and be challenged – hell, let us argue passionately about the merits of particular writers on the basis of the work they produce, not what they look like or where they come from.

Let us celebrate a community where there are no hard and fast rules about what we can write or who can join. Let us be open to all.

Let us dance and sings and get drunk and pass out in the dewy grass and wake with blinding hangovers in the blazing sun of an alien world.

Let us reclaim the SFF world for great books and let’s celebrate those books.

Joyous Puppies – saddle up and ride out!

Dream desperately

I’ve never grown up. Not really. I’m still a big dumb kid, clumsy with puppy-like energy and with that big dumb look on my face when I’m caught doing something naughty. I still need my bed-time stories. But there’s no-one to read them to me anymore. So I read them to myself.

This is, ultimately why I write. I can’t sleep. I have a long history of insomnia and restlessness. So I developed a technique, as one does, of calming my mind and setting myself clear to dream. I tell myself stories.

Just about everything I’ve ever written has been composed in this state: when I’ve lain in bed and tried to distract myself from the morning. In that slow, suggestible state I have created worlds and wonders and witches and wrestlers: stories become multi-volume epics, rewritten and rewritten like a palimpsest until nothing of the original remains. When I’m dozing on bus or train, semi-conscious as a passenger in a car, focussing on song-lyrics and what they’re saying between the words.

This is why I write. Because without my stories I’d be a haunted, pale figure who carries poison in his fingertips.

Night Shift was a meta-story: a tale within a tale, a side-project that I snipped out almost complete from its surrounding skein. Oneiromancer is a small part of a wider cycle, selected because it’s the most real part of a whole horrorshow of freaks and weirdos.

Which is not to say that I could use these tales in the form in which they were originally created. Composing tales in the head and setting them out on paper – for others to eventually read – are entirely separate disciplines. The semi-conscious ramblings of a sleep-starved mind do not a good story make. It’s like translating from a foreign language – or, rather, updating a 19th century tale for a modern audience. The ideas are there, present in their shambling, lumpen form. Now you must build a new shiny body, replacing magic with science and putting the machine into God.

I am a sinner because I don’t keep a notebook and I don’t scribble half-formed ideas when they occur to me. I believe in the filter of my memory to sieve out the bad ideas and to concentrate the good. To me, writing down ideas is to disturb the fragile equilibrium of my thoughts. I don’t want to be inspired: I want to be haunted. I want to be hunted. Rousing from that blissful state is to lose it, like a lama too eager for Nirvana. Desire is the enemy.

Trust your mind. Trust your dreams. As you’re lying down to sleep remember that those thoughts will one day return to support you, maybe five years, maybe a decade from now (both Oneiromancer and Night Shift were originally devised just this side of the millennium).

Terry Pratchett once signed a book for me with the advice ‘dream desperately’. I’ve still to find wiser words for a writer.

To be a writer

Anyone can be a writer. All it takes is dedication and time and a will to learn.

To be a writer is the most beautiful thing. You live in many worlds simultaneously, can fly and swim in the currents of deep space and the darkest bowels of unimaginable hells. There is wish-fulfilment and anarchy and freedom and passion and dreams, dreams, dreams.

To be a writer takes work. It takes devotion, and sacrifice. You have to set priorities and stick to them. You have to give the words room, a safe space to explore. You have to be strong-minded and disciplined, and, if you ever hope that your words will be read more widely, you have to be able to take the blows. You have to be used to having your ego squished on a regular basis. You have to know how unlikely success (in many measures) is and you have to do it anyway. You have to hope. You have to both face and deny reality. You have to have a safe place to cry.

To be a writer you have to get better constantly. You have to push yourself. You have to sift out bad criticism and act on the good. You have to find an exit from the womb, your comfort-zone of safe, secure words, and taste the air outside. You have to read widely. You have to watch television and films and be uplifted by glorious songs and feel the pull of your soul in the orbit of some heavenly body. And then you have to replicate these emotions without ever telling the reader what it’s really all about, Alfie.

To be a writer you need to get used with having your guts torn out in front of you. You have to love your characters and then have them ripped from you and eviscerated. All you can do is take it – no fighting back – and accept that your beloveds are weak and fragile things. And then you have to take the pieces and stitch them back together until the thing you loved is a patched-up monstrosity, terrific, somehow beautiful but not the thinly-veiled metaphor you dreamt as a shadow of yourself.

To be a writer you have to know that there’s no money in the business. You have to know the odds are that you’ll never have the career – the full-time pays-your-bills career – that you’ve dreamt of all your life. To be a writer is to accept that you’ll probably be fitting your calling around paid employment for the rest of you life. You have to accept your vulnerability; you’re vulnerable to mockery, to dismissiveness, to hearing all the bloody time that other people write too – and they want to talk about themselves, thank you, not you. You have to take their manuscripts with a smile, as if you didn’t have enough to read already.

You have to be an artist and a businessman. You have to be a designer and an accountant. You have to be a salesperson. You need to be a CEO and a warehouse-monkey all in one. You have to devote some of your precious writing-time to blogging, to being on social media, to learning not only better ways to ‘word’ but also new technology, new apps (whatever they are). You have to understand search-engine optimisation and other esoteric applications that are far, far removed from the real world.

You have to want and you have to know that you may never get.

To be a writer you have to know all this and do it anyway. Because that’s what being a writer is.

To be a writer is to have the best bloody job in the world and to know that nobody can ever take that away from you.

Bad words

If you wanna write, write a thousand words and read for at least half an hour a day.

I can’t remember where I found that advice – I was going to say ‘quote’, but I’m not sure it qualifies – but it’s still the best advice I could ever give any prospective author. The more you do the better you become. But there is a cost.

I love reading. I always have – I think all writers are readers first. Nothing thrills me like getting a new book by my favourite author – or, having picked a title up at random, look up an hour later and realise that you’ve just let someone new into your heart. It’s a dream. It’s bliss. It’s calorie-free and more nutritious than any diet.

But these days I’m finding that the more time I spend on writing, the better I get as I refine my craft, the less tolerant I am of bad writing. And, unfortunately, there’s a lot of it out there. I’m currently listening to an audiobook that is tormenting me with its overwrittenness. Not in a Terry Pratchett honeyed-prose way, or in an Adams-esque layering of surrealities, but in that bad old way:

“He frowned. He seemed unhappy.”

That sort of thing becomes extremely annoying over the course of a novel.

It’s frequently-given advice – to read books with a mind to its qualities of dialogue, of structure and character. But I don’t read to learn – or, if I do, I want to set aside time to do it properly. I read books because I love them. I love stories, of worlds far away or simply of worlds contained within one soul. My question is: does learning the skill of writing detract from the joy of reading?

I never pick up a book with the hope of being able to sneer at it. No-one, not reviewers or agents or (especially not) friends of the author, hopes a book is error-strewn and incompetent. I want to be enraptured. I want to learn. I want surprise, or thrills, or delight, or comfort – or all at the same time.

There is truly nothing in this world that gives me as much solitary pleasure as finding a book that I just cannot put down – no, not even that old male standby. Now, though, I find myself less able to get past the introduction without thinking ‘ah, so that was the inciting incident.’ ‘That character must have a deeper role to play or he wouldn’t have been brought in here.’ It is, frankly, a pain in the bum. Nothing gets my goat like a misplaced comma or unnecessary adverb.

Thankfully I’m still able to forget my practice when I get about a third of the way through. If I get that far without hurling it against a wall – and I’ve not needed a plasterer yet – than I know it’s all going to be okay. I’ve been ensnared by characters and story and the imperfections slowly fade into obscurity.

But it’s a good job I’ve got the audio version of this particular novel. My old desktop PC is a bit heavy to hurl around. And any resulting impact would likely need more than a plasterer to smooth out.