Colinthology

Posted by Paul Raven @ 22-10-2012 in General • Writing

Colinthology cover art (by Andy Bigwood)Here is an ebook you might consider purchasing. The Colinthology is an anthology of stories collated by Roz Clarke and Joanne Hall in celebration and memorial of Colin Harvey, a novelist late of the Bristolian SFF parish, and one of my clients from my webdev days.

Reasons to buy:

  • 21 genre fiction stories for just £2.99
  • DRM-free multi-format ebooks, bought direct from an independent publisher (i.e. “screw you, Amazon”)
  • All proceeds go to charity
  • An appropriate send-off for someone who went way too soon

If the reasons above aren’t sufficient, then I doubt this one will make much difference, but nonetheless:

  • The first story in the book is “Biz be Biz”, a collaborative story by myself and Gareth L Powell

“Biz be Biz” takes place in the (currently mothballed) New Southsea universe I was still playing around with at the time, and grew out of one of my Friday Flash Fictions. It was a lot of fun to write; I talked about the process (which ended up as a sort of brinksmanship tennis match, in the best possible way) on a panel about collaborative creation at Bristolcon this weekend just gone, and hopefully the audio will crop up online somewhere at some point, should you be curious to know more. (It was, by all accounts, a fairly interesting panel; I certainly learned a thing or two.)

I was asked to write a few words about Colin for the book, which I think would be suitable for sharing here:

I only met Colin two or three times in meatspace. He was a client in my webdev days, so we chatted via email — but email is no intimate medium, and we mostly spoke of business.

Colin at conventions was different thing; there, the easy-going character familiar from his emails was overlaid with a garrulous, generous bonhomie. The sort of chap who, on seeing you passing, would not merely nod but actively drag you right in to whatever conversation he was involved in; an extrovert, for sure (or so he seemed to me), perhaps with a well-leashed hint of Jack the Lad lurking behind the grown-up façade, but the sort of extrovert whose happiness seemed to derive in significant part from the happiness of those around him. A fun guy to be around, in other words — though tiring, unless you could match his herculean tolerance for alcohol in the early hours of the morning.

There’s a third Colin, too — the one I wish I’d got to know better, the Colin who blogged about rescuing injured baby blackbirds. I only caught the last fifteen minutes of his movie, so to speak; I never got to see the full range of his character, the depths and subtleties.

But you can tell a lot about a character from their final scene, can’t you? And that the writers and readers that knew him have come together to honour his memory with an anthology says, I think, a lot about a guy whose honesty and drive had a knack of making things happen — for himself, yes, but also for others.

He’s still doing it now, as you can see.

A good sort, in other words. The Bristol scene feels Colin’s loss very keenly, and the anthology is a testament to that. I’m very pleased to have my work in there.

#

Other miscellaneous updatery: I move house this Friday! I haven’t properly started packing yet! I have deadlines dropping on me like bat guano on a spelunker’s hard-hat! Everything’s going a bit mental! Nothing seems quite real! But yet I’m still oddly excited!

More on this before the move. Or, if I manage to manage my displacement activities appropriately, after the move. One or the other. Ahem. Yes.

 

 

An open reply to a self-published author

Posted by Paul Raven @ 17-10-2012 in Writing

Email in my inbox this morning; anonymised and dissected for reply here, because if this is indicative of what’s going on out in the ebook trenches, then we’re gonna need more mustard gas.

Hey, Paul Raven!

Hey.

So what kinds of promotional activities are legal, moral & ethical for the EBook Newbie like myself? I’m asking, because you look like a pro. Maybe you can point me in the right direction.

OK, so if I look like a pro, we’ve unearthed your first problem, which is that you don’t research properly. Pro author? Pro editor? I’m neither. Just a writer, and not even a very successful one yet.

But I can point you in the right direction, I think — that direction is best defined as “diametrically opposite the one you’re currently facing”. Calling yourself an “ebook newbie” (with caps or without) pretty much screams out a warning that you’re trying to run before you can walk. As does asking a lot of in-depth questions about promotion, but not a single one about writing, or a single mention of the presumably a-fucking-mazing ebook you’re trying to flog, here.

(Hence the public reply; usually I delete emails like this, because they’re alarmingly frequent, but yours had enough of an undertone of naivete that I felt you might not be too far gone to save, and that you might serve as a useful exemplar of a particular problem.)

I notice some writers asking for Facebook LIKES, promising to Like-Back-In-Return. Is this OK? I have never tried to LIKE any of my own eBooks on Amazon; afraid I would break some rule and get banned for life. I have LIKED all the books I review, however.

It’s very noble, the Amazon self-pub mutual-backscratch club, and a genuine community. I dare say you could accrue many likes and recommendations and linkbacks and hell knows what else by doing what other marginally more successful (or at least more assertive) self-pubbers suggest you do. Sadly, most of them will be from members of the same community… and speaking for myself, I find members of that community a) easy to spot, and b) well worth avoiding, because all they ever do is promote their own self-pub Kindle pages, or those of people in their network.

Take it from someone who went to boarding school: hanging out in a circlejerk is always an option if you’re low on real friends, but bear in mind that, by default, you will be sitting with wankers and talking about wanking.

Would a large number of LIKES on my Amazon EBook Page make my sales goup?

Maybe.

Are there Facebook rules against the I’ll-Like-You-If-You-Like-Me strategy?

Doubt it.

Why not start a Facebook Group: “The EBook Likers?” Join the group, and you pretty much agree to go around and LIKE all the other Member’s eBooks which are on Amazon. The Power of LIKE! (My guess is that Facebook would shut the group down, but there is no reason the group couldn’t organize off of Facebook; it could be done without even a website, strictly by eMails!) Brings me back to the earlier question: What are the Facebook rules on LIKES? Amazon may have its own rules on reciprocal LIKES.

This is one of the saddest paragraphs I have ever read.

Something like this goes on every day at Twitter. (My background is Twitter – **handle redacted** – it’s where I go to let off steam) The I’ll-star-your-tweets-if-you-star-my-tweets factor. Most tweeps on Twitter rarely, if ever, favorite any tweets at all. But there is an in-bred niche of super-favoriters who go to Favstar to track exactly how many stars and retweets each of their tweets get.

By analyzing the data, it becomes clear that the Favstar Superstars don’t achieve their status with superior content, but with superior networking. Take any Favstar Superstar and examine several of their tweets in detail, and you will find the exact same avatars always at the beginning thirty spots, with just a few odd avatars; the further up the number of stars a tweet gets, the more variety in avatars. But Always The Same Exact Gang At The Start. Favstar defaults to the 50 fav Leaderboard; but there are also 10-fav boards, 30-fav boards, and 100-fav boards. Once a tweet gets on these leaderboards, they glom extra favs from “outsiders” not in a person’s Fave-Back gang. I’m just a bit-part player on Favstar, but I have noticed that if one of my tweets gets more than 10 stars quickly, it ALWAYS gloms several extra stars from avatars I have never seen: usually 3-7. I imagine the 30-fave board gets a 10-15 bump: it explains the variety of avatars I see in the higher numbers when I analyze the Superstars. The 50-fav board seems to be the tipping point. Get to 50 quickly, and you are assured of an avalanche of extra Star-Love from the gazillion extra tweeps who see your tweet when they view the default Favstar Leaderboard. (I have noticed another strategy in operation – Favstar Superstars will delete a tweet if it doesn’t get a lot of stars quickly – so that their Gang-Of-Star-Backers won’t waste their starbacks on a tweet that probably won’t bust into the 50-Leaderboard.)

But that was the very saddest paragraph of all. It’s like watching an earnest young accountant, fresh out of college, trying to work out where all the free money is coming from in the departmental Ponzi scheme he’s just uncovered.

Forgive the digression; but it is in the nature of an analogy. It is an example of how the I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine factor operates within Twitter.

It’s also an example of how completely you’ve missed the point.

So, are Review-Backs a thing? I’ll buy & review your book if you buy & review my book?

I fully expect people trade reviews for free, but I’d be surprised if you can get the reviewers to buy their review copies first.

What about a Facebook Group of authors that review each other’s books? Is this more bad EBook Newbie behavior? Or is this a valid networking strategy to help our eBook pages move a few extra sales? Again, if Facebook is not the place to “host” such a group, it could be done on any website, or again, it could be done in stealth mode, by eMail.

As to whether some sort of public behaviour is appropriate or non-jerky, here’s a handy rule of thumb: if you even have to ask, then it’s probably jerky. Corollary: the legality of a course of action is not the first question you should be asking of it (unless, I suppose, one is a career criminal, which I’m assuming you’re not.)

Hey, I’m asking questions! Cut me some slack! If these behaviors are ”gaming the system” then I will humbly add that many of todays ”Winners” gamed the system to get where they are. I personally believe that if you are going to speed in an automobile, that first there must be no children anywhere near, and second that I don’t want to be the fastest car on the road. I want someone else to be faster, so that they get pulled over instead of me.

Ah, OK – now that’s a genuinely illustrative analogy. What you’re saying is that you’re happy to reap all the benefits of cheating, so long as you can ensure there’s no fall-out or consequences. The good news is that demonstrates you’re not a natural born shit-heel; if you were, you’d just be out there doing it anyway.

The bad news is it demonstrates that you’re in the writing game for the wrongest of reasons.

[As an example of "speeding" I offer this: There are sites which track Twitter Users recent following & follower history. I happened to load up http://twitter.com/Scobleizer one night and the history was interesting. Within a 2 week period he dropped the number of people he was following down to about 20,000 (from something like 90,000). And in the next 2 days, followed about 40,000 more people! The time period was March, April, 2009, something like that. Social Media Whores can't do that anymore on Twitter. Robert's response to this change was to unfollow everyone and continue bitching because he isn't on the Suggested User List.]

I know Scoble’s name and reputation. They’re contributing factors in my ongoing disinterest in his work. Scoble is a tech pundit. You’re trying to be a novelist. This is like a ballet dancer trying to improve by copying a door-to-door salesman.

I don’t know how much LIKES and Reviews even help a purchase, except to give whoever is viewing the eBook page a bit of “trust.” I have found the best predictor of whether I will enjoy an eBook is reading the Free Sample. Screw the reviews, if I like the sample I’m probably going to dig the book.

Amanda Hocking’s success strategy is interesting. She bombarded book bloggers and eBook reviewers and got them working for her! I’ve been wasting the last two decades querying agents and editors about my novels. Should I shift gears and focus on book bloggers & eBook Reviewers? There are online lists of book bloggers and eBook Reviewers. I can bombard them with eMail queries. Hell, with the help of PeekYou and some other services I can get their actual physical snail mail addresses.

Imagine how freaked out they will be when they get my physical promo package!

Yes, that’s the usual effect of an unsolicited package… people can get so uppity, just because you dug their mailing address up out of some service they never even signed up for and sent them something they didn’t want, can’t they?

Any thoughts? Or am I just another irritation?

Hooooo boy.

I’m gonna be totally straight here, my friend. You need to make a decision about what it is you actually want: do you want to be famous, or do you want to be a writer?

Reason I ask is because you’ve sent me close to 500 words here about the mechanics of promoting your self-pubbed books, but you’ve not even mentioned your actual writing so much as once. This means you either consider it worthy of publication already, or that the quality of your work is a secondary consideration to how you promote it.

And I dare say that may be why you’ve been querying for two decades without success.

So I feel safe in saying that if you’re in this because you want to be known, because you want your name in lights, because you want the accolade and glory (and maybe a little bit of income) from Being A Published Author, then it’s time to quit.

Seriously. Two decades of writing and subbing and querying, and these are the best questions you can think of asking another writer? The questions you think will make the difference between fame and obscurity? I can’t begin to explain how badly you’re missing the point here, how much of a rod of misery you’re making for your own back. Quit. Stop wasting your time. Get a new hobby. Develop an alcohol habit, if you don’t have one already. Spend more time with the (grand)kids, I don’t know. Just get the hell away from your computer, if all you can think of doing there is finding ways to corner people into commending your work for any reason other than that they found it and genuinely enjoyed it. Seriously. You’re just adding more noise to the signal, and the signal’s hard enough to tune in on as it is.

Amanda Hocking is, probably quite literally, a one-in-a-million oddity; if you look at the numbers, the odds of visible success as a self-pubbed author are probably just as high as they are for one who followed the old-fashioned agent-editor-publishing-house model. Self-publishing is not a short-cut, not a tradesman’s entrance through which you might slip after being turned away from the front door. Sure, people have made fast money and overnight fame that way. Some of them have even done so with books of staggeringly poor quality. But the odds are spectacularly low, and the field incredibly wide. It’s a crap-shoot; you’ve been at the table twenty years, talking loud and walking proud, with nothing to show for it. Walk away, cash your remaining chips, sit down and enjoy yourself. You’ve played the game, and lost. There’s no shame in having tried and failed. Let it be.

There’s no magic marketing bullet that will make your book sell better. Luck and circumstance might, but if you can influence them, you don’t need my help or anyone else’s.

There’s one thing that might make your book sell better, though — and that’s making it a better book. Or making a new book that’s better than the last, and another one that’s even better than that, and then another and another. And sending them out, whether to agents or editors or straight into the whirlpool of the Kindle store, and letting them speak for themselves, while you wait at home patiently, writing the next one.

I’m no pro writer, my friend, but I’m privileged to know a fair few. And you know what pro writers worry about, ahead and in front of pretty much everything, from marketing and reviews right up to the household finances?

They worry about their writing. How to make it better, stronger, more compelling, more moving. And the worry comes out as work. The response to a book that doesn’t sell is to write another, better book. Rinse and repeat.

Writers write. Everything else is secondary.

So here’s your choice: you can decide that your book hasn’t sold because you haven’t plugged it enough, and as such you can use every channel of desperate huckterdom that the internet provides (and, by heaven, there are dozens more than you’ve yet discovered), you can do anything other than writing more and better in an attempt to shift that product, and you can send more emails like this one hoping for someone to tell you the magic answer to your problem, so long as that answer isn’t “well, you know, maybe your book just wasn’t actually very good?”, and you can spend the rest of your life blaming the unfair world for failing to recognise your genius, despite all the effort you put into telling people that you had it.

Or you can decide that your book hasn’t sold because it’s just not as good as its competition in the market.

And if you make that decision, and respond to it by sighing deeply, perhaps even railing loudly about the dearth of taste and appreciation in the reading public (ideally in the privacy of your office), before sitting down and starting again, then you are a writer.

But if that’s the last thing that you want to do, if you’re all done with the story-telling and ready for the phase where you sit back and let the accolades and glory and self-belief flood in, then it’s time to realize that you don’t want to be a writer; you want to be famous. The latter can follow from the former, but it’s the former that requires a steady input of work.

If you’re not willing to do that work, honestly, it’s time to quit. Writers write, and keep writing. End of story.

Yours sincerely, &c &c.

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

Notes from Babylondon

Posted by Paul Raven @ 26-07-2012 in Poetry • Writing

Everyone was so pleased when I announced completion of my first draft that their responses have totally crashed Twitter, apparently. Ahem.

Twitterbork

I’m no expert, but that’s looking like pretty bad news. It didn’t take long for spectacular un-graceful failure states like this to disappear behind web2.0′s equivalent of the hold music, our old friend Fail-whale. Where’s he today, huh?

(Just occurred to me that half the problem is probably down to millions of people hitting refresh or their devices hammering the APIs. I’ll bet there’s some wailing and hair-tearing in that datacenter right now. Or has it gone down under the weight of some 9-11 grade Bad News Item?)

Of course, the really scary thing is how much I feel its absence, leering at me out of my second monitor. The cyborg’s augmentations fail; what does he do next? Life as cliché cyberpunk101 vignette.

PLOT NOTES:

protag. rolls cigarette, thinks nihilistic thoughts, hates on traffic hovercars armed kid gangs on scooters the gov’t.

Maybe he edits a magazine – yeah, a zine, but it’s IN CYBERSPACE! [need good neologism for this, something really cool-sounding] So he broods, writes his zine thing; he’s not found much time for it since he got his new implant. What next?

** Get milk, bacon. CAT FOOD Email [redacted] about that bloody invoice they got a month ago

So, yeah. Sure is warm today.

Thought occurs: make periodic catastrophic failure a feature of Twitter. Every three months, complete reset, all old tweets killed off, all connections erased; only your handle remains the same (though you can change it, if you like). Be interesting to see which were the people of your follows and followers would find themselves following again the soonest, wouldn’t it?

Update, 17:51GMT – Twitter appears to have reappeared, though it’s still struggling under the wave of returning users. No cataclysm tweets… but then I guess you can’t livetweet a cataclysm for long, right?

So, anyway, first draft – complete! Not the first draft of my dissertation, though. Oh no. Totally different project. Pitched an article on Nordic larp to Rhizome back in May and got it accepted, foolishly overlooking the fact that I had a rather big project to be going on with already (in the form of said dissertation) plus my day job (which has kinda taken a backseat for the last fortnight, so to speak). Worse still I had to ask for two extensions on the deadline, partly because it rapidly became a huge fascinating monster of a thing, and partly because my time-management skillset has been tested to destruction. I’ve not touched my dissertation in the last week.

But now it’s [edit for clarity: the Nordic larp piece, not my dissertation] in first draft form, all 11.5kilowords of it, sat in the editor’s inbox… and the editor is going on holiday for a fortnight starting tomorrow, so I get to let it simmer until then, while I get back to, erm, all the stuff I’m meant to be doing right now.

First draft of a non-fiction piece is always a sweet moment, because that’s the hard pushing done, the baby delivered into the waiting arms of the doctor/editor, who takes it off to be examined… and then returns, solicitous above a steely core, to discuss which organs and appendages need to be surgically removed before it can be seen in public.

What would we do without them? Hug your editor today! Or buy them a coffee, maybe. Not everyone is digging on random hugs. Or coffee, for that matter.

*

Postscript – it’s none other than Bruce Sterling, ladies and gents, reproducing a string of sullen tweets I sent from the bowels of Tuesday’s London heatwave as… prophecy? Poetry? I dunno. I’m just amazed he noticed; to my shame, I totally failed to mention drones. But then again, I doubt they’re deployed around here; Chelsea comes with its own brands of privacies and surveillances, and it’d take a long time to get the locals hungry enough to riot. Selah.

In a fit of total vanity, I’m gonna embed those tweets below. Wouldn’t put it past CondeNast to just disappear Chairman Bruce’s blog one day, and I am passing proud of these. I do all my best poetry when surly, y’know. *flounces off*

Moveable feast

Posted by Paul Raven @ 05-04-2012 in General

So, Easter rolls around once more.

In recent years, Easter has become the pivot point of my annual circuit around the sun; Eastercon has a little to do with that, as does the standard 12-month rented housing contract. It’s probably amplified by the fact that I don’t celebrate Xmas or my birthday, too. Which isn’t to say I celebrate Easter, as such; I just tend to find myself looking around – in varying states of wonder and confusion – at the state of my life at this time of year.

Last Easter, for instance, I was making the move back to Velcro City from Stockport. The Easter before… well, we won’t rake over that again, though I made it to Eastercon that year, which probably went a fair way to helping me avoid some sort of full-scale nervous breakdown. (Not something Eastercon is regularly accused of, I’m willing to bet.)

So, what do I see from this year’s fulcrum? Looking backwards, I can make out the first half of my Masters: six hectic months of hard but thrilling work, running in parallel with me learning the ropes of my Research Assistant post. Before that, a long and lazy spring’n’summer in Velcro City, which took me back to its fractious bosom without so much as a “where you been, brah?” It was good, and just what I needed – a proper reboot, a return to familiarity and comfort after my long sabbatical on the banks of the Styx.

But I also feel like it cured me of something. By going back, I was able to leave again on my own terms, and for the right reasons. Stockport was grim because it felt like penance for my naivete and failure, and P-Town came to represent a normalisation point, a load-from-saved-game-and-start-again. I like to think I’m blitzing the level this time through, if only by comparison to last time.

Looking ahead (and ignoring, for the sake of convenience, the hand-in date for my spring semester assignments the week after next), it’s five months of dissertation, plus more infrastructure research for my patient employers at the Pennine Water Group. Come September or so, once I’ve handed my dissertation in, it’ll be time to move out of London. Where will I go? I’m not sure yet, to be honest, but I’ll need to start thinking about it sooner rather than later.

I also need to think about what comes next. If I do well enough in my Masters (and I have some hope that I might), then I might well apply to do a PhD. But in what, and with whom, and where? I have some ideas, but it’s all very nebulous at this point. I need to learn more about the upper echelons of academia before trying to make those decisions, I suspect. And I need to finish these assignments.

But first, it’s Eastercon – a long weekend of hanging out with friends, talking about books and writing, and boozy fun-times.

After that? Well, we’ll have to wait and see.

A postcard from Chelsea

Posted by Paul Raven @ 29-10-2011 in General

So, the last three weeks have been busy.

This is an understatement.

Let’s start with geography. I have once again left Velcro City behind me. Yes, this was rather sudden, but a shift of situation was followed immediately by the sort of opportunity that it would be madness to pass up on. When the wind blows favourable, you hoist your sails, right? So, long story short: I’m now living in London for the first time in my life.

And not just any part of London, oh no; yours truly is rockin’ an SW3 postcode, lodged like a lonely cigarette butt in the sumptuous banquet of oblivious privilege that is Chelsea. I’m used to standing out from the crowd a little bit, but when I walk down the King’s Road to the shops, people stare like I’m leading a troupe of tap-dancing zebras by chains made from links of fire and lost languages. To be fair, I do some staring back; there’s no shortage of eccentricity around here. It just expresses rather differently, y’know?

Historical ironies abound, also; maybe a few minutes walk around the corner from my new abode, an Indian restaurant occupies the King’s Road shop where – way back when, around the time I was born – Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood acted as manipulative and Machiavellian midwives to the subculture that came to be known as punk. Gentrification’s apogee, ladies and gents; even the sanitised contemporary mutations of punk would look out of place in this neighbourhood. Walk a few minutes northward, and old chaps in colourful trousers (cravats optional, but still popular) stagger in and out of the Chelsea Arts Club; along the Fulham Road, boutiques decorated in earthy tones are staffed by willowy hungry-looking young women who look utterly uninterested in selling the ludicrous clothing that they label with ludicrous prices. Make no mistakes, I grew up with a port-side deck-chair on the SS Privilege… but the folk round here mortgage the damned boat to the cruise company, so to speak. I tend to feel at least slightly out of place pretty much anywhere I go, but the sense of being an interloper here is very tangible. It’s also quite fun. I’ve been doing a lot of cheery grins and how’d-you-dos to people I pass on the pavement. Politeness is a highly hackable protocol.

Alongside new digs, I’ve got new duties: my new Research Assistant post is getting interesting very fast, and there’s plenty of work to be doing. Ironically, considering I thought I’d successfully beamed off of Planet Webdev, a lot of this week’s work has involved thinking out a methodology for building a wiki for one of the projects I’m working on… and you can’t have a methodology without an information architecture, which means my inner librarygeek has been getting’ his taxonomy on, too. Guess all that talk about transferable skills means something after all, eh? Feels good to be stretching my brain around some real challenges.

And speaking of new challenges, I’m three weeks through the first semester of my Masters. The first two modules are going well; just about managing to keep on top of the reading lists and assignments and critical note-taking and what have you, and learning a lot in the process. But the biggest challenge of all attends next semester’s module on writing the novel, in that I need to have written a 90,000 word first draft of one… by January 9th.

In some respects, that’s not as bad as it first sounds; the challenge was set at the start of this semester, leaving the best part of three months to complete it. Nearly ninety days means you hit the goal by writing just 1,000 words a day. It may sound a little blasé, but a thousand words a day is easy; I probably do twice that wordcount most days, anyway.

But writing ninety discrete thousand-word lumps that all fit together and make a novel? That’s a totally different receptacle of ocean critters. We were ordered to start afresh rather than reboot an old or half-written project, so I dragged out one of my little idea nuggets from Evernote and got rolling… only to have become bogged down in the muddy verge. A third character/strand/scenario has been stubbornly refusing to cohere for the best part of the week, and at the lower right-hand corner of my monitor the date keeps changing with a sly, sleazy wink.

The whole point of the challenge, so far as I can tell, is to put us in a position where we don’t have time to think too hard about what we’re writing; we just have to write. This is a very alien position for me to be in. I am not what I think of as a “process writer”; the physical and mental act of writing itself, when I am conscious of it, is deeply unpleasant. It’s only when I cease to be conscious of the process that the decent stuff comes out, at least with non-fiction material; the leap to that higher quantum brain-state is not under my conscious control. Very rarely, it’s there first thing in the morning*; more often it takes two or three hours of battering the keyboard for the keyboard to disappear and the words to start stringing themselves through my mind like fairy lights. Some days, it just doesn’t turn up at all. Those are the days when this job is just typing, a joyless mechanical process that doesn’t even have the consolatory nigh-meditational oblivion provided by assembly-line work or physical labour.

Hark at me whining! One of the shibboleths of writerdom is that the writer who hates writing should do something else. Well, screw that. I hate writing, sure… but I love having written. Having written is the strongest, subtlest drug I know of. I suspect that I’m not entirely alone in this. Furthermore, I suspect that better writers than I have come to love the process for the same reason a junkie loves the needle’s kiss: the high comes after the pain, and – after a while – the association becomes established, a sort of Pavlovian tropism of the intellect. The prospect of a by-line rings bell-like in the hallway, and the imagination starts to salivate… but the reward lies at the far side of the minefield of your own insecurities.

And so it goes. It’s alarming and instructive to see how losing the momentum with which I started has allowed the daemons of of defeatism to raise their voices. You can’t pull it off, they mutter, it’s a step too far; you’ve done OK with non-fiction, but did you really think you could write a novel? Even a ragged first draft, with cardboard characters and plot-holes that could hide entire planets? Even if you can, it’ll probably suck.

Well, that’s the thing I’m trying to cling to, perversely enough. If I tell myself that, yeah, it’ll almost certainly suck, then somehow it doesn’t matter that it will suck.

No, I have no idea how that works, either.

Still, this psychological self-hacking ain’t gonna fix the more tangible and immediate problem, namely the lack of a third character where I need one to exist. Only one thing’s gonna fix that, and that’s me sitting down and writing until someone or something reaches out and tells me where they need me to send them… so it’s time to leave aside the tempting displacement activity of blogging (which, in reference to my claim further up the page, has already seen me assemble over a thousand words into something approaching order this afternoon) and do that thing where I try to press the keys in the right order: the order that makes them – and everything else in the room, maybe even the whole universe – disappear.

So, to work.

[ * Clarification: I adhere to the Warren Ellis definition of "morning", namely (and I paraphrase): "the first three hours after I get out of bed, whatever the lying bastard clock says". ]

Anatomy of the writing process

Posted by Paul Raven @ 01-04-2011 in Writing

Via the Double-Boing, Ed Yong of Discover‘s Not Exactly Rocket Science blog presents a graphical representation of his writing process, which is so incredibly similar to my own experience of writing reviews and essays that it’s almost scary… right down to the querulous “maybe pissing around on the internet would help?” (It never has yet, but I refuse to deny it the chance.)

An anatomy of the writing process by Ed Yong

Fables from the Fountain

Posted by Paul Raven @ 23-02-2011 in General • Writing

Fables from the Fountain - Ian Whates (ed.)From the NewCon Press press release that just hit my inbox:

Fables from the Fountain (ed. Ian Whates) is a volume of all original stories written as homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart, featuring many of today’s top genre writers…

… and some other guy with a silly name. How’d he sneak in there? Item five in the TOC, look:

The Fountain, a traditional London pub situated in Holborn, just off Chancery Lane, where Michael, the landlord, serves excellent real ales and dodgy ploughman’s, ably assisted by barmaids Sally and Bogna (from Poland).

The Fountain, in whose Paradise bar a group of friends – scientists, writers and genre fans – meet regularly on a Tuesday night to swap anecdotes, reveal wondrous events from their past, tell tall tales, talk of classified invention and, maybe, just maybe, save the world…

  1. Introduction – Peter Weston
  2. No Smoke without Fire – Ian Whates
  3. Transients – Stephen Baxter
  4. Forever Blowing Bubbles – Ian Watson
  5. On the Messdecks of Madness – Paul Graham Raven
  6. The Story Bug – James Lovegrove
  7. And Weep Like Alexander – Neil Gaiman
  8. The Ghost in the Machine – Colin Bruce
  9. The Hidden Depths of Bogna – Liz Williams
  10. A Bird in Hand – Charles Stross
  11. In Pursuit of the Chuchunaa – Eric Brown
  12. The Cyberseeds – Steve Longworth
  13. Feathers of the Dinosaur – Henry Gee
  14. Book Wurms – Andy West
  15. The Pocklington Poltergeist – David Langford
  16. The Last Man in Space – Andrew J Wilson
  17. A Multiplicity of Phaedra Lament – Peter Crowther
  18. The Girl With the White Ant Tattoo – Tom Hunter
  19. The 9,000,000,001st Name of God – Adam Roberts
  20. About the Authors

Yup, that’s actually a real story by me. In a real book. Alongside writers who… well, just look at that list.

Holy shit.

(Yeah, I’ve known about this for a while, but it’s still crazy as hell seeing it in real words.)

Anyway, don’t let my presence in that TOC put you off, because this is for a Good Cause:

2011 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Arthur C Clarke Award.  This volume is produced in part to raise funds for the Award, which lost its sponsor last year due to the closure of Sir Arthur’s publishing company. The book will be released May 2011.

Available as an A5 paperback or a dust-jacketed hardback, limited to just 200 copies, each individually numbered and signed by all the authors. Cover art by Dean Harkness.

Price: Paperback, £9.99; Signed Limited Hardback, £29.99

The NewCon Press site is currently offline pending the resolution of some rather troublesome domain registration SNAFU, but I’m told you should be able to pre-order Fables… from Amazon in the fairly near future. More details as I get ‘em.

Holy shit.

Pulse: an interview with Paul Cornell

Posted by Paul Raven @ 02-06-2010 in General

Paul Cornell is one of UK fandom’s most ubiquitous (not to mention relentlessly cheerful and charmingly modest) figures, and I’ve spent plenty of enjoyable beer-fueled hours chatting with him on a whole variety of subjects.

Not being much of a television watcher, however, I’ve largely missed out on much of his professional output as a writer… but here’s my opportunity to get in on the ground floor of his new project. Paul is lead writer for pilot-stage BBC techno-horror drama series Pulse; you can see the pilot here at the BBC’s website, or on actual real telly tomorrow night (9pm, BBC3).

And what better an excuse to drop the man a line and ask him some questions about writing in general and Pulse in particular, eh? None better. None better at all.

PGR: Imagine (for a disturbing and hallucinatory moment) that I’m a cigar-chomping Hollywood director – gimme your elevator pitch for Pulse. Stat!

PC: It’s a medical horror show, about conspiracy and dark experiments within the NHS.

PGR: OK, now the additional layer of challenge: how would you convince someone who doesn’t go much on supernatural or horror themes, or who doesn’t watch much genre TV (or maybe both) that they should pay attention to this series? What’s the USP?

PC: ‘Supernatural’ is the wrong word: our horror is technological in nature.  And if you like the gothic, if you like dramas about intense, disturbed relationships, I think you’ll find a lot to interest you in this.  The thing about horror that people forget is that it’s deeply about people and how they relate to each other.  I think that gets lost when a lot of modern horror movies are ironic thrill rides. We want you to love our characters, and to not want to see bad things happen to them.  And then bad things happen to them, and you’ll have to hope they get through it.  It’s about our female lead being challenged, and finding out how resourceful and hardy she is.

PGR: I believe this is your first series as lead writer, yes? What was the hardest thing to adjust to in that position? And by contrast, what’s the best bit?

PC: I’m not sure. It doesn’t feel like it’s all down to me, it’s still a team effort.  I really enjoy being part of this team, they feel like old school producers but with a modern sensibility.  I like the idea that I’m at the heart of putting together the plots for the rest of our season, and tying it all together at the end.  Working with other writers is going to be interesting too.

PGR: You’re a multi-format writer – television, comics, short stories, novels. Do you have a favourite mode, and if so, what is it that draws you back to it? What are the most enjoyable aspects of each, from your perspective as a creator?

PC: Prose is my favourite thing. A part of my brain actually finds writing it to be relaxing. It’s still work, but it sorts something out inside me. Comics and TV are both fun because of the different opportunities offered, in terms of telling stories in other people’s worlds, and because of the contributions of other people. Being a novelist must be lonely, but I hope to find that out by ending up just doing that in a few years.

PGR: There’s been a lot of discussion recently about TV series endings – more specifically, their tendency toward frustrating endings. How do you balance the creative constraints of the format with your preferences as a consumer of the same sort of material you produce? Do you find yourself thinking about what the audience will say about the shape of a plot while you’re writing it, or does that concern creep in at a later stage (if at all)?

PC: I’ve been frustrated with the reaction of a part of the audience towards the ending of Lost, which I loved. I think some people want a lecture with diagrams rather than drama. I’d like to hear how on earth they think some of the ‘answers’ they were after could ever be dramatised, let alone during a dramatic conclusion. ‘Jack, I love you, but… what were those polar bears doing here?’ (Especially when the answer to that one, and to a lot of these, is in the previous seasons.) You have to have an internal audience, but you can’t let them limit you. Indeed, you have to be willing to hurt them, because that’s the job of drama, to make them feel anxious, tense and, yes, often hurt.

PGR: With Pulse, one presumes you started with something of a blank slate, character-wise… but with your comics work and your writing for the Doctor Who franchise, you’ve had to take well-established characters and bring them to life, balancing a respect for the canonical (as policed by vocal and passionate fandoms) with the need to make them relevant to as wide an audience as possible. Can you tell us a little bit about how you developed Pulse in the early stages? For example, did you start from some character ideas, or did the characters emerge from the concept? Is it harder work, or is it a kind of liberation?

PC: I’m the third lead writer on Pulse, so you’d have to ask the very talented Ben Teasdale about a lot of that. I started from a script, and moved some way away from it. That process included a lot of character work, a lot of discussion about what sort of people we needed in the mix to give us potential conflicts and interests later in the series. Doing your own thing is always liberating, and I really feel like they’re mine now, but that’s a required feeling no matter what you’re writing. I feel Lex Luthor is mine right now, but I’m simply wrong about that!

PGR: That’s a point worth raising – the sense of ownership and, in some cases, entitlement that fans feel for characters. It’s probably as old a phenomenon as fandom itself, but the internet has made it easier for fans to state their minds in public. How do you feel that’s changing the attitudes and approaches of writers in various media? Do you think things were substantially different back in the “good old days”?

PC: I don’t think they were. Dickens and Conan Doyle found themselves under the same sort of pressure. Ownership is something an author strives to create between an audience and the characters. I just wish said audience were more conscious of the process sometimes, and didn’t feel so much that the characters had chosen to befriend them of their own volition.

PGR: As a fan yourself, do you ever find the writer part of you wrestling with the fan? I’m thinking particularly of Doctor Who here, which has a fandom that – from the outside looking in, at least – defends its darlings with the savagery of a mother wolf. If there was one writerly rule or necessity that you could explain to fandom, what would it be?

PC: That there’s real sexism, racism and homophobia in the media, and that hurting your favourite character and making you cry isn’t an example of it, but us doing our job properly. That’s the ‘not being conscious of the process’ bit I’m talking about above. There are people out there now actively campaigning for ‘drama’ that doesn’t hurt.

PGR: On the flipside of that, have there been any occasions where you felt the fans of a franchise you’ve worked on called you out with justification? Or, alternatively, any massive screw-ups made by other writers with a character or property that you’re a fan of yourself?

PC: Oh, loads. Back when I wrote Who novels I paid a lot of attention to reviews and adjusted what I was doing: it was pop music, those were the only audience. Nowadays, it’s much more complicated, you’re part of a whole group of lovely and talented people, whatever show or comic you’re working on, and you never want to say “we didn’t do as well as we could have” in public, because what gave me the right to speak for everyone else? (And no, I don’t have any particular thing in mind.)

I generally think that any fandom will, once we’ve got beyond the fact that the characters have got their brains in a vice, speak, when you listen to their collective average voice, and not the millions of individual voices all saying different things, only the truth. And that’s usually exactly the same truth the mainstream consumer will speak, only done with more awareness and concern about the text, and a bit more excited madness because of it.

PGR: Is that part of the appeal of writing novels and short stories, then – that chance for a sort of creative autonomy, to be king of your own sandbox and beholden to no one? Do you find yourself saving up ideas for your own prose work because you know you’ll be able to do it your way?

PC: I think that’s one of the appeals, although complete autonomy isn’t what you’re after, you always need someone to give you another perspective. It’s impossible to save up ideas like that; if an idea fits, you use it.

PGR: If you could work with any writer or writing team, dead or alive (or even imaginary), who would it be? What sort of project would you do?

PC: I’d like to have been at the Marvel Bullpen in the 1970s, when there was a huge mainstream audience and a lot of cutting edge work was being done. Not that there isn’t now, but there’s a flavour to the Bronze Age stuff that you don’t get anywhere else.

PGR: What do you see happening in the screenwriting world in a few decades time – for a start, will the internet kill off the traditional broadcast channels? Where will the money for good drama come from? Have you looked at any alternative funding models for your work before, or will you in the future?

PC: I think broadcast is indeed close to being over for the younger audience, though give them what they want and they still come flocking. But the TV audience is, on average, much older, so we’ll still have watercooler shows for a while yet. I think the iPad and its successors are about to change everything, and we’re about to see a lot of approaches as yet undreamed of arise from chaos.

PGR: Lastly, what do you hope will be your writerly legacy to the world – the thing you’re best remembered for?

PC: A novel, I hope.

Well, we’ll have to wait for Paul’s novels (though based on the short stories I’ve seen, they’ll be worth waiting for). But you don’t have to wait long for Pulse, as it’s going live at 9pm UK time on BBC3 tomorrow (or Thursday 3rd June 2010, for those of you who’ve come here from the future of the internet).

Visitors from the future may find that the trailer isn’t online at this link any more, but those of visiting in the present have no such excuse. So clickity-click, go watch it, like it on Facebook, all that stuff… and as Paul says, “please leave a comment, because it all helps towards us getting a series.”

Well, you heard the man. If you want quality television to get made, go support it.

Friday Photo Blogging: my other echo pedal is also a Memory Man

Posted by Paul Raven @ 03-07-2009 in General

One of the joys of being in a band that actually plays shows is that it’s a lot easier to convince yourself to spend money on new musical toys as a result. So when I was PayPal’d some cash for a big bunch of books I recently sold off, I was on eBay within five minutes purchasing this little doozy:

Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai

I already own the other Memory Man (the original Deluxe) as well; it’s true analogue, so sounds more lush, but the Hazarai here has all the handy crazy extras: tap-tempo, sweepable filters, loop recording and overdubbing, reverse delay… it’s like Pink Floyd’s entire career crammed into one small box.

Now all I have to do is learn how to use it. What a chore… :)


I had a bunch more stuff typed out at this point (though admittedly less than in the FPBs of old), but it appears that WordPress has decided to eat it all without storing the automatic drafts-in-progress it usually does. And I’m afraid I can’t be bothered to spend another half hour retyping it all, so you’ll just have to believe me when I say that I’m still busy and that pretty much everything is going about as well as I could expect or hope for.

Though I will just say this: go read the latest Futurismic story, “Homeostasis” by Carlos Hernandez, because it’s a good story with a zero-schmaltz happy ending, and the twenty minutes it’ll take you will be repaid by putting a smile on your face. Once that’s done, you can head off and have a good weekend; that’s certainly my intention. Hasta luego!

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