Reflections

Posted by Paul Raven @ 26-09-2012 in DissertationDiary • Writing

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

Posted by Paul Raven @ 01-10-2008 in General

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! :D

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

Posted by Paul Raven @ 25-04-2008 in General

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

Posted by Paul Raven @ 28-03-2008 in General

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

Posted by Paul Raven @ 14-03-2008 in General

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.â€

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

“Oh? Why not?â€

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

Friday Flash: Leaving Mars

Posted by Paul Raven @ 07-03-2008 in General

The food tastes no different to the flash-frozen irradiated crap I’ve been eating for the last twelve months. I don’t know what I expected; it’s not as if they were going to give me a special treat or anything. That would just have shaved from the bottom line.

I’ve got about half an hour, the mission doctor said. It’s almost funny; he used the exact same dead-pan serious tone the brain specialist back home used when he told me I had two years. Almost two years ago. I thought I’d be more scared the closer I got, but it doesn’t work that way. At least, it hasn’t for me.

I start to suit up for the last time, and at the same time I start counting off seconds. I’m almost ready to put the helmet on when Doctor Morton’s voice comes over the link. Ten minutes forty-three – he spoke as soon as he saw me move for the suit, allowing for the round trip of the laser carrier.

“Er – what are you doing with the suit, Rogers?”

“Thought I’d wear it out on the surface one last time, doc,” I say. “We’ve become pretty close, me and this suit. Can’t think of a better friend to be with at a time like this. Well, none that are near enough. Might be nice to have you here, but I guess that’s out of the question, right?”

I’ve got another ten minutes before he can reply, and the last twelve months have shown they’re too professional to discuss me with the line open, let alone harangue me without waiting for my replies. They can see me on video in sync with my voice, though, so they know what I’m doing. I fix the helmet to my suit and perform the checklists, then I cycle myself through the little pod’s airlock one last time.

It’s coming up for sunset; the sun’s burning faint and red just above the mountains on the horizon, and there’s very little dust. Pretty good weather, all things considered. I make my way in bounding steps to the edge of the cliff, and I sit myself on the roughly square block of umber rock that I have taken to referring to – in the privacy of my own skull, and purely facetiously – as my throne.

Mike Rogers – First King Of Mars.

It’s not much of a kingdom, to be fair. Mars is like a long holiday in a foreign country; everything’s thrilling and new for the first few weeks, but after a few months you become as accustomed to the routine as you would back home.

Still, no regrets. I’ve not lost any time I would have had otherwise – that lump in my brain is due to make an end of me real soon. I’ve made my mark on history; the Neil Armstrong of my generation. And I know Kathy and Emma will be provided for for the rest of their lives, because that was my condition for coming – the one bit of the contract I got to stipulate.

My count reaches ten forty-two for a second time, and here comes Morton’s passionless voice again.

“The contract says twelve months before cessation, Rogers. You gain nothing by going outside. We saw you eat the food; just relax and let the toxin do its work.”

I laugh. “Contract tells me when I have to die, doc, but it doesn’t say anything about where. I should know, I’ve read the damned thing through enough times. Now shut up and let a man die in peace, will you?”

It’s feeling even less scary the nearer I get. Maybe that’s the toxin working, I’m not sure. I am starting to feel a little sleepy, but then it’s near to my scheduled time for lights-out anyway, so that could just be the conditioning. The valley stretches away in front of me, its walls layered with grades and shades and levels of colour, like the terracotta swatch card Kathy got for the kitchen in our first apartment. And it reminds me of Arizona, that time we went when I was little. So many reds, so much dust. Arizona was much hotter than this, though, wasn’t it Mom?

“God bless you, Rogers,” comes Mom’s voice. No, not Mom, the doc. Morton’s voice. Musta dropped the count there. Damned theist doctor.

Sun’s going down. Like the mountains are burning; looks real pretty.

Guess it’s bedtime now.

G’night, Mom.


[ * Apologies to Jason Stoddard for the title. Space-news geeks may well guess that this story was inspired by the Lone Eagle Mars mission idea; and yes, I'm aware that the plan doesn't call for the guy to die alone, but I thought I could make a story out of a situation where it did. ]

BSFA short fiction shortlist to be podcast

Posted by Paul Raven @ 05-03-2008 in General

Now this is a good idea. The StarShipSofa boys are going to podcast all five of the short stories on the shortlist for this year’s BSFA Awards.

The first one will appear on Monday 10th March, with one daily after that – which means they’ll all be ready well in advance of voting time at Eastercon.

So none of your “I was too busy to read ‘em” excuses*!

If you aren’t too busy to read them, here are the links:

So, who’s psyched for Eastercon, eh? :)


[ * OK, to be fair, this is usually my excuse. ]

UXO, BOMB DOG – fresh fiction at Futurismic

Posted by Paul Raven @ 03-03-2008 in General

We have promised; now we have delivered.

I am as proud as anything to see the first piece of new original fiction go up at Futurismic – it’s been a long time coming, but I think it’s been worth the wait.

It’s a great story, too – I certainly think so. A study in the development of narrative voice, with just the right blend of tragedy and triumph.

Go read “Uxo, Bomb Dog” by Eliot Fintushel and tell me what you think.

Friday Flash: The Fayre

Posted by Paul Raven @ 22-02-2008 in General

After only a couple of hours on the road with Rex, I was already regretting picking him up. Thankfully the roar of the trike’s engine made a convenient excuse for not hearing his attempts at conversation, and I focused on watching the scrub at the sides of the cracked concrete motorway for potential ambushes.

To be fair, Rex wasn’t the “hands-on†type — but then they’re actually easier to deal with, because your course of action is clear. Rex was pretty free with his eyes, though, and seemed to think that I’d offered him a lift to the Fayre for more than my stated reason of wanting an extra pair of hands. At first I’d figured it was vanity — he wasn’t bad looking for a rural freelance.

It soon became clear that vanity had less to do with it than stupidity; Rex was plainly not very bright. Still, both looks and brains is too much to expect of anyone – as countless end-of-night Romeos have tried to tell me in the past.

At least Rex had some good tools. It wasn’t so important to be leet at the Fayre as it was to look like you had the capability of being leet.

The trike’s GPS was on the blink again and all the old road-signs had been scavved years ago, so it was almost a shock to crest a hill and see the Fayre sprawled along a few miles of beachfront in the distance. Behind me, Rex grunted something and gesticulated at the turn-off we’d just passed. I decided to ignore him. There’s always a quieter route in, and when the Fayre’s involved it’s the course of wisdom to stay out of the way of nubes and their predators.

A few miles on was smaller turn-off that led through a picked-clean ghost town, street after street of eyeless buildings that must once have catered to people coming here to spend time by the beach, back when tourism was still an industry and not an anachronism.

The Fayre was not a tourist attraction.

As we neared the beach, I could see the reports were true; the sea was festooned with bobbing cargo of all sizes as well as Fayregoers working hard to land the stuff safely. Cloud consensus seemed to be that it was the contents of the Republic’s last big diesel freighter, sunk mid-Atlantic by hell-knows-what on its way to hell-knows-where. The facts were probably out there if you wanted them, but most people here weren’t as interested in the facts as they were the lure of free salvage rights.

In no time at all, the roar and buzz of the Fayre was audible over the trike’s engine, and we pulled into a field that had been commandeered by an entrepreneurial crew and labeled with a crudely-lettered sign that read “valay parkinâ€. The tires of vehicles were turning the spring-moist soil into a morass, but I’d built the trike for that sort of work and she rolled neatly to the far corner of the field that the boss-eyed kid in the booth by the gate had pointed at.

Rex watched me extract the ECU from the trike and stuff it in one of my webbing pouches.

“Now what?†he asked, his arms hanging loose at his sides, eyes betraying an awe and nervousness he was otherwise hiding well.

“Now we go make it clear to the parking gang that any damage to the trike will be taken out on their bodies when we return. Then we head over to the Fayre office, and get us a trading permit.â€

“A permit? But we’re not planning to trade what we salvage at the Fayre, I thought you said. Why do we need a permit?â€

I laughed; I couldn’t help it. “Look, man, let me handle all the paperwork. You just keep your mouth shut, act like you’ve been to the Fayre before and know it all, and you’ll get your thirty percent cut. Are we good?â€

He shrugged resignedly, and began trudging slowly through the mud toward the parking tollbooth. I reached under the chassis activated the countermeasures on the trike before heading after him.

Friday Flash: Gabriel and Jezebel

Posted by Paul Raven @ 15-02-2008 in General

Gabe was about half way through the watering when he saw the Unsaved girl.

He’d just reached the window end of the tenth row. He liked to work away from the standpipe and outwards each time, because he enjoyed the sensation of moving slowly and steadily towards the light and warmth of the sun.

He liked feeling the watering can swing easier in his hand as he limped from plant to plant, testing the soil for moistness with his thumb the way Brother Matthew had showed him to, gently tipping the liquid into the containers when required.

And at the end of each row, he liked to stand and look out of the open side of the tower, over the Unsaved city at its feet, across the Solent with its gaggle of grey glowering hulks and on to the emerald of the Island.

He wasn’t supposed to stop at all, because The LORD frowned on laziness. But it was only for maybe a fraction of a minute each row, and Gabe secretly thought that if The LORD really didn’t want him to look out of the tower sometimes, he wouldn’t have made it seem so interesting. He knew better than to mention that to Brother Matthew, though, just like he knew better than to get caught.

As he turned around to return, Gabe gasped to see a girl of marriage age crouched mannishly at the standpipe, dressed in garish clothes that left her arms and legs uncovered, her cupped hands catching water and raising it carelessly to her mouth.

Gabe started at the sound of his watering can hitting the floor, and the girl looked up.

“Hey man, didn’t notice anyone here,†she said, standing to face him. “Otherwise I’d have asked first.â€

It wasn’t clear with her stood in the shadows, but there was something strange about her right eye. “You shouldn’t be here, sister,†Gabe stammered.

“How come?†replied the girl, plucking a tomato as she wandered towards him. “Not like there’s any bars on those big open sides, is it?â€

“This is a House of The LORD, sister, and you are Unsaved,†said Gabe, still staring at the girl’s eye, which seemed to be surrounded and covered over by metal and plastic. “The Unsaved may enter, but only through the Door of Penitence.â€

“Ah, right,†said the girl around a mouthful of tomato. “Never knew a cult had the top of this tower. Probably wouldn’t have climbed it otherwise — no offence. Hey — my eye freaking you out or something?â€

Gabe felt his face heat and he looked at the floor. “I meant no insult, sister, I -â€

“No worries, I’m used to it. Draws a lot of attention, even downtown. Beats the shit out of only having one good eye, though.â€

Gabe’s head jerked up. “So it’s true? The Unsaved really use machines to remove the flaws which The LORD deemed necessary to balance the gift of your life?â€

The girl laughed — not the modest laugh of a Saved Daughter, but something that seemed to pass through her like a spirit.

“Well, you could put it that way,†she said. “But I don’t think some sky fairy messed up my eye before I was born any more than one did for your leg, there.â€

Gabe felt awkward again; not ashamed of the flaw that was his burden from The LORD, but ashamed at wondering what it would be like not to limp. He squashed the thoughts, as they were impious.

“Hey, I guess I’d better go — I’m making you twitchy,†said the girl, maintaining an endless stream of chatter as she started unclipping various strange objects from her belt and attaching them to a large coil of rope across her shoulder. “Hell knows how you get any work done with that view there, though — what I came up to see in the first place. Tomatoes and conversation a bonus, right?â€

“You … you climbed the tower?â€

“Yah. Kind of a hobby, but everyone’s started doing it now, so the fun’s fading. I liked it for the solitude, y’know? Anyway, better leave you to yours. Name’s Jez.â€

She stuck out an open hand toward Gabe, who found himself unable to do anything more than stare at it blankly.

“No shakes with the unsaved, huh? Fair enough. Not even gonna tell me your name? Gabriel – OK. Well, maybe see you around, man. You ever come downtown, gimme a shout. I’ll get you lunch in exchange for the tomatoes and the water.â€

Gabe watched, still dumbstruck, as the girl who called herself Jez pulled on some odd-looking gloves, attached some small devices to the lip of the window, and clambered downwards out of sight with a shouted farewell.

“I heard voices, Brother Gabriel; to whom were you speaking?â€, asked Brother Matthew as he entered the growing room.

Still staring out over the city, Gabe told an outright lie for the first time he could remember. “No one, Brother Matthew. No one at all.â€


[This just doesn't work the way I wanted it to, because as I started writing it I realised there's much more to tell than will fit in a piece of flash. But I had no time to do another piece, so this is what you get. Selah.]

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