Tag Archives: story


It’s nearly three weeks since I submitted my dissertation and effectively finished my Masters. This is the seventh attempt I’ve made to write about what that means. I suspect it won’t be the last, though this one is actually going to make it past the draft stage; I realise I’m hesitating, and I want to step on that habit.

So, there’s a hook: what have I learned about hesitation in the last year? I’ve learned the extent of my fears and insecurities, certainly (and it wasn’t much fun at the time), but I’ve also learned something that it feels like I’ve been waiting my whole life to learn: that the fear can be beaten.

This is a lesson more general than just writing, though. This isn’t the time or place to rake through my past like the entrails of a sacrificial goat, in search of kinked loops or lesions that might auger how I became what I am become, so suffice to say that self-confidence and I are only recently acquainted. (Hardly unique among writers, or artists in general, of course.) To have been pushed to the edge of what I thought I was capable of, and then some way beyond that, and to have come through and delivered in the face of my own fears… “revelatory” is probably a shade too strong a word, but it’s close enough if you can stomach the cliché.

I find myself wishing I’d been pushed like that before, but realising at the same time that I wasn’t ready for it before now. The push is important (and in my case almost certainly vital), but the choice to allow myself to be pushed, to bend to the yoke willingly (if reluctantly and fearfully at times) – that was the most important thing, perhaps, and it had to come from inside of me.

I’m not used to valuable things coming from there. But damn, it’s fucking sweet when they do, isn’t it?

But enough with the wide-eyed self-discovery moments of an emotionally-underdeveloped introvert: what did I learn in terms of writing?

That’s a trickier question than it initially appears, which is why this is the seventh attempt at answering it. The obvious solution would be to list the module topics: I learned of voice and narrative, of character and of place; I learned of the short form, and of the long! But those topics are inherently fuzzy, more like a closely packed Venn diagram, crosshatched and overlapping like the petals of an orchid… and to be honest, they all revolve around teaching you how to read properly, how to read with an eye for certain types of effect (or affect) in the text, and how to see where and how such techniques might be reused in works of your own. A long, long way from “when [x], a good writer should [y]!”, then.

This is a good thing. (Or it was for me, at least.)

If anything, then, we might say that the most important lesson I took away from the course is that technique – or what I think Nick Mamatas means when he snipes at “craft” as a writerly shibboleth – is important only inasmuch as it supports the greater edifice of creation; that there’s sod all point in crafting lovely precise sentences if you’ve not got a story to tell with them, in other words.

But I also misunderstood story itself, I think, albeit in a way that’s remarkably hard for me to put into words. I guess the closest I can get would be to say that I used to think story was almost entirely what I now think of as plot, but now realise that plot is actually subservient to story, which is also inextricably bound up in narrative and character; that story is, in a way, everything but the words you see on the page. With hindsight, I’ve come to suspect that all those writerly advice books and blog posts that talk about how fiction is “driven by conflict” contributed to this problem; I was thinking of story as sequences of unfortunate events, rather than as characters experiencing the turbulent flow of their own lives.

Obvious in hindsight, sure. But internalising that old saw about characters “needing to be just as real as the people you know outside your head”, realising that it’s a description not of some sort of winsomely artsy manifestation of multiple personality disorder, not of hearing voices, but of a process of imagination infinitely more thorough than “oh, let’s say blonde, early thirties, works in a bank in West London, that’ll do”… it’s harder than you might think. Perhaps it’s even a subset of cognitive dissonance: learning to imagine the subjective experience of an imaginary intelligence while simultaneously taking into account your own subjectivity in observing them and the world in which you’ve created around them.

To be clear, I suspect this is a crystallisation of stuff that I’ve been absorbing for some time; doing the Masters has been like adding a catalyst in the final stages of a reaction. I also realise it reads a little like “ZOMFG narcissist discovers empathy!”, which wouldn’t be an utterly unfair way of looking at it; put it this way, I think it no coincidence that the last few years have also seen me becoming more politicised. (Opinions on whether that’s a change for the better are, I believe, somewhat divided. Selah.)

So, yeah: I learned a whole bunch of profound-seeming metastuff about fiction and subjective experience that I can’t yet explain very clearly, but which make me feel a) much more engaged with my art, and b) more confident in my ability to do worthwhile art (for values of worthwhile as defined exclusively, at least at the moment, by yours truly.)

I learned that I am capable of completing big and challenging projects, which makes me feel like I can do it again, and do it better.

These are valuable things. I feel like I got what I needed from the course, even though what I needed wasn’t quite what I thought I needed. I signed up for the course with the attitude that I wasn’t really bothered about grades, and at this level, I’m still not; I am a better writer, which is why I came. That said, I’d like to take home a top score, too, not just a mid-list pass. But if I don’t, well, what the hell. With my dissertation, especially, I had to take the decision that rather than worrying about what the assessors would want to read, I had to focus on doing something I felt was worthwhile, something I could be proud of on its own terms, no matter how it got marked.

And I did – but that’s probably another post (or three) for another time. For now, I have vague ideas for two novels fighting for position in my backbrain, an imminent moving-of-house to Sheffield to arrange, and an academic paper on sf prototyping to finish… so I’d best be getting on with it, hadn’t I?


Oh, yeah: I also learned just how far I can take procrastination and displacement activity in the face of intimidating deadlines: while in the middle of doing my dissertation, I somehow managed to research and write a ~10k piece on Nordic LARP, the first part of which is now up at Rhizome.org

New fiction at Futurismic: The Right People by Adam Rakunas

So as usual, I’m balls-to-the-wall busy, but not so busy I can’t point out that we’ve got an awesome new story up at Futurismic called “The Right People”.

It’s apparently Adam Rakunas‘ first fiction sale, but if he can write this sort of gonzo stuff consistently I don’t think it’s going to be his last. I’m really chuffed we’re running it, and also pretty chuffed that we got a plug for it over at BoingBoing. w00t – happy Wednesday! 😀

Other news – I’ve cropped up in yet another SF Signal Mind Meld, which gave me the opportunity to trot out my theories on the inherent fuzziness of subgenre boundaries. As usual, other people have more rational and interesting replies on offer, so don’t let mine put you off. 🙂

Friday Flash: Magic Eyes

Ferrell crouched huddled at at the rear corner of the vehicle’s hold while the carter loaded the last crates of fruit into the cool darkness. The hold was nearly full, and the carter shoved at the crates near the door to make space, jamming Ferrell abruptly between the chill metal wall of the hold and a large box of what smelled like oranges, twisting his ankle sharply. Ferrell stifled a yelp as tears leapt from his eyes, but the sound was covered by the scrape of the crates and the whinnying of the horses picketed out in the Grammar Courtyard.

To judge by his relieved cursing, the carter had finished his work. All was quiet for a moment until the hatch of the vehicle’s hold slammed shut, pitching Ferrell into a darkness shot through with a few pin-thin shafts of dusty light and making his heart clench with fear. It was too late to turn back now … and the price of turning back would be worse than the cost of seeing it through. Ferrell hunkered down and nervously ate a loose orange as he waited for the cityman to return and take him away from Midhurst forever.

After what seemed like hours Ferrell felt the vehicle shift slightly. Suddenly a vast mechanical roar coughed into life beyond the front wall of the hold he was jammed against, and the vehicle tipped and slopped about slightly like a canoe on choppy waters. The roar raised in pitch as if in triumph, its bassy throb reverberating in the hold, and the vehicle became steady before beginning to move. Fingers jammed in his ears, Ferrell felt a wash of elation and fear – he’d done it. He had escaped.


Not long afterwards, Ferrell felt the gliding motion of the vehicle slow to a halt. The machine’s roar stopped abruptly, and Ferrell’s ears rang with a high note as the vehicle settled downward with a gassy groaning noise. He’d thought it would take longer to get to the city than this – it was nearly thirty miles by the old roads, the merchants said. He decided the machine must travel far faster than the tractors the Landed used, and prepared to wait for his opportunity to slip away.

The hatch opened, and Ferrell heard the quiet grunts and puffs as someone lifted crates out of the hold. Within a few minutes light was flooding in and falling against the hold wall right next to where his feet were hidden by a crate. The sounds stopped, and Ferrell waited.

“Come on, kid, get out,” said a deep voice. The cityman! Ferrell stayed still.

“I have a schedule to keep, you know, and I think you’ll find the ride a lot more comfortable up front.” The cityman sounded amused. “I know you’re there, kid – the Gasbag has cameras. Magic eyes, y’know, so I can see if the carters try to lift my stuff. Not often I get left with something extra instead of something less.” Laughter.

“You’ll not take me back, sir? You’ll not take me back there?” asked Ferrell, still huddled away in his corner.

“What, and have the Rurals hang me for trying to steal a Saved child?” The cityman chuckled. “If I’d not wanted to carry you, I’d have got you out before I left. Now come on out of there. You’re planning to live in the big city, you better get used to facing shit you’re scared of.”

Ferrell shuffled forward on his behind and peered around the crates; the cityman was sat in the hatchway, smoking a small pipe. Ferrell carefully scrambled toward the hatchway, squeezed past the cityman’s leather-clad shoulders and stepped out onto the cracked blackstone of the old road. He turned to face the cityman, who was grinning around his pipe. The stranger held out a set of goggles much like his own.

“Come on, kid. We’re past the estate borders, but it’s another twenty miles before we get to New Southsea. Now help me get these crates back in the hold, and we’ll consider your ride paid for, OK?”

[ Crikey. A few weeks out of the routine, and my confidence has ebbed considerably. Need to get back into practice; this is a poor showing for about five hours of frustration. But hey – back in the saddle, right? ]

Friday Flash: Karmachanic

Weng-Li worked his worn knuckles along the knotted RJ45 cable stapled to the altar. The stereo played today’s freshest animantras through a sun-shot fog of Nag Champa and cheap Afghani hashish; Weng-Li altered the cadence of his chant slightly, modulating it to incorporate and celebrate the roar and clatter of the train as it passed over the shanty. All must be included in the One.

Weng-Li didn’t need to look behind him to know his client was kneeling patiently on the packed dirt in the corner of his shack as instructed. His reputation spoke for itself, and a client with sincerity would know not to disobey; just like the old gods, the new ones were not to be disrespected.

Weng-Li closed his eyes one last time, slowly lowering the mantra to a looping drone as the shafts of sun drew mandalas through his lids. The last clangorous chord of the tinny temple music faded away, replaced by the muted rattle and chatter of the shanty market in full swing. Weng-Li opened his eyes, looked down at the altar in front of him — at the small pile of grubby used dollar bills resting on a cracked china plate, and at the eviscerated circuit board of the broken DVR. His mind was clear; the paths were plain.

Still holding the holy note in his throat, Weng-Li stretched out his hand and reached into his toolbox.

[ With apologies to Jeff Noon for the blatant theft of the title … but then again, it’s his fault I write sf anyway, so there’s your divine justice, I guess. 🙂

This is a tweaked and polished version of the sketch I produced during our Friday Flash Fiction workshop at Eastercon, in case you were wondering. More of a vignette than a story, I guess, but there you go.]

Friday Flash: Deflowered

Emmeline’s throat was raw, and the acid stench of her own vomit steaming in the gutter made her retch again, without results. Angus stood off to the side smoking a cigarette and trying to look like he wasn’t nervous. A few yards away, the thing’s corpse was decomposing rapidly on the sun-dappled tarmac of the road.

“First time’s always the hardest,” said Angus, grinding out his fag with his boot heel.

Emmeline coughed a weak little laugh. “Oh, that’s reassuring,” she said. “Great news. Maybe after a while I’ll actually start to enjoy killing things.”

“You don’t want that to happen,” said Angus, giving the corpse a wide berth as he walked toward her.

“Oh? Why not?”

Angus passed the rifle back to her. “How d’you think they got like that in the first place?”