“The work is never finished. The work will never be finished. There will never be a nice, comfortable utopia where we can rest on our laurels and sip strawberry daiquiris by the pool and trust that now things are Fine and we can all relax. Utopia is not a stable system. It doesn’t last. The best we can hope for is five minutes, an hour.”
Through an agreeably unlikely chain of events that started with a chat at the bar of my favourite pub, one of my stories has been recorded and broadcast on Sheffield Live!, a community radio station.
For those of you keeping track, “Staunch” was originally written for Jason Heller’s CyberWorld anthology, and repubbed in Newcon Press’s Best of British SF 2016*. And now it’s been read by Joy Wright and produced by Andrew Tildesley for the Write Radio show, and uploaded to Y*uTube for posterity:
I sat in on the recording, mostly to reassure Joy on some of the word choices and emphases; in contrast to my poetry, my stories aren’t necessarily written with audio performance in mind, and there were definitely some spots in this one where my rather prolix and terminology-dense approach to prose doesn’t make for easy reading-aloud. (Something to watch out for in future works, I think.) Nonetheless, I was pleased to find I liked the story better than I remembered.
Now my doctoral research is done, I’m working to reestablish my fiction-writing practice; it’s pretty rusty from neglect, and I’m arguably busier now than I have been in the last five years, but nonetheless a couple of things are starting to take shape. Watch this space, wot?
[ * – I was initially disconcerted to find there were no VCTB posts about “Staunch”, until I recalled that it was published around the time I was experimenting with using Known as a blogging platform at my canonical website… and then Known went the way of so many FOSS projects, and I needed to revamp that site, and so I pulled it down and junked the blogging there, because I couldn’t find an easy way to import the material to WordPress. So there’s a hole in my personal history for web historians to ponder over, I guess… though it seems likely they’ll find more important things to worry about. ]
INTERVIEWER: Do you really think creative writing can be taught?
VONNEGUT: About the same way golf can be taught. A pro can point out obvious flaws in your swing.
And somewhat less flippantly:
VONNEGUT: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—
INTERVIEWER: And what they want.
VONNEGUT: Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.
Or at least this person thinks so. An anonymous book collector turned blogger is writing posts about titles from their (apparently quite capacious and varied) library, which includes a copy of Fables from the Fountain from Newcon Press, which just so happens to contain my first properly published short story. Quoth said blogger:
One of my favourites is ‘On the Messdecks of Madness’ by Raven about which I can say almost nothing without spoiling the enjoyment except it’s the only fantasy story I can recall that uses the great diarist Samuel Pepys’s admiralty career as a basis of the plot.
I’m almost certain that there are other sf/f stories in which randy ol’ Samuel is a character and/or plot-point (though I’ll admit I’m unable to recall any right now; answers on a postcard, and all that). “Messdecks” was first drafted circa 2009, not long after I’d left my part-time day-job at at the Royal Naval Museum Library in Portsmouth — though it was actually published some time later, in 2011, because [early days of a small press] — and I have no shame in admitting that I responded to my first commission by resorting to the oldest writing adage of them all, recommended by some and deplored by others: write what you know.
And what I knew then was just how many crackpot conspiracy theorists with a naval history obsession there are… because the bulk of my job at the RNML was to answer their (often rather accusatory and poorly spelled) emails as diplomatically as possible. I think I lost them all to an old hard drive’s dying, but I used to have a pretty good collection of stock debunking essays on everything from Nelson’s supposed satanism to the voyages of HMS Habbakuk, the aircraft carrier made of ice. (A scale-model experimental version of the latter actually existed, but never saw action, and was anyway too small to carry any aircraft; Nelson had manifold flaws as both human being and national hero, but as far as I was able to discern, worshipping the Lord of Lies was not one of them. He was way too much of a priggish wanker for that sort of gig, anyway.)
I left that job to go full-time freelance, just as the post-crash recession was really starting to dig in. A massive mistake in many ways — but hey, I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t. (Wherever “here” is.) Regardless, it was nice to be reminded of that daft but fun-to-write story, and nicer still to find that some random someone thinks quite well of it, seven years after it was published.
Found material might be “evidence” –might even be a direct, indexical sign of a thing that happened–but the thing that happened, the life that contained it, can’t be reassembled, or back-engineered into existence. It’s only what it is now: if you try to glue the fragments together with the sentiments “evoked” in you, all you will have is a golem. All you’ve done is bully the mud into a shape that satisfies your needs.
Fiction-writing advice from M John Harrison. Or at least I’m interpreting it as fiction-writing advice… with Harrison in particular, you can never be entirely sure.