Category Archives: Writing

the satisfactions of submission

What did I get up to over the Easter weekend this year?

Yup, crankin’ out a grant application, because academia is a harsh mistress, and I choose to abase myself in the hope of her favour.

Thanks to slightly improved process management protocols on my part (read as: keeping track of when I do what I do, and for how long), I now have an answer to the question “how long does it take to write a grant application, anyway?” That answer is “about 30 hours”—though it bears noting that the requirements of funders vary hugely when it comes to the amount of written material required (FORMAS, for instance, want a lot less from you than the ERC, but then they’re offering smaller amounts), and further that those are hours of actual drafting and writing, and don’t include the (effectively unmeasurable) hours of actually thinking up the project idea in the first place.

It’s because of the latter that you couldn’t just string the former together into one working week of doing nothing else but writing a grant. Or, well, you could do that, and I believe people quite often do—I don’t think it a coincidence that FORMAS puts these deadlines right after the long weekend at the start of spring!—but it would be a pretty unpleasant slog of a week, and you wouldn’t have the bonus time for your subconscious to work out the kinks while you’re doing something else.

(You would also lack the time for things serendipitously encountered in the course of your current research to provide you with the hook or connective concept that turns an interesting but vague idea into an actual project, which was definitely the case here: I only became properly aware of the actual site/case at the heart of this application a couple of weeks back.)

Well, then—now begins the long wait to see if I can convince a panel of reviewers as well as I can convince myself. I’ll know whether I succeeded or not by late November… by which time I may (or may not!) have heard whether I got anywhere with the job applications I did back in January.

Bleurrrgh, why exactly is it that I want to be an academic anyway? Oh, I remember—it’s because, for all the bureaucratic hoopla that comes with it, it’s still the only job I’ve had that I feel like I’m good at, and actually enjoy doing. No tiny violin here; I’ve chosen to play roulette at this particular table, and I’ve chosen to bet everything I have. If I don’t come out on top, it won’t be for lack of my giving the wheel a good spin.

Selah! Now that’s out of the way, I can get on with the book chapter that’s due in *checks calendar* oh, seventeen days…

(EXIT, stage left, pursued by deadlines, but still smiling)

it’s too big and they are a lot harder to play than they look

I wouldn’t describe myself as a Nick Cave fan; I know far too many folk who are deeply into one or more of his various phases of work to claim that I’m anything more than aware of his position in the cultural landscape.

(It probably dates me pretty clearly if I note that, for me, Nick Cave will always be first and foremost the droll yet terrifying cranium-and-curtains that loomed over Kylie in the rinsed-on-MTV video for “Where the Wild Roses Grow”.)

So, yeah, I’m aware of the guy’s position in the landscape—and aware that you don’t get to such a position without having some sort of artistic mojo, even if it’s not to everyone’s taste. I’ve heard some of his music, which is enough to know he has a knack for narrative, but I’ve never read any of his fiction.

Having read this recent tall-tale anecdote about him meeting Nicolas Cage, however, I find myself thinking I should give his writing a try: it’s a brilliant little story, well-paced, making best use out of the eccentric reputations of both major characters, and full of the sorts of telling details and self-deprecation which make even an admitted (partial?) fabrication into something that you dearly want to believe. If I were teaching creative writing, I think I’d put it on the syllabus.

changing phases

I seem to have gotten myself published again, in the fiction qua fiction domain*.

Talk about TOC imposter syndrome… I had no idea I’d be appearing alongside that roster of names! (Click through above to see it in full, but it includes Corey J White, Eugen Bacon, Paolo Bacigalupi, Greg Egan, Simon Sellars, Cat Sparks, Grace Dugan… I mean, c’mon now.) Many thanks to Matthew Chrulew for seeing some merit in the thing I cranked out, and for being forgiving on deadlines for a contributor who lost a week to The ‘Rona.

(Yes, this was one of the many things I had to write very quickly in January—and almost certainly the most enjoyable, given the others were job applications.)

Here’s the cover in full, courtesy artist Perdita Phillips on the birdsite:

If you’re wondering where and when you can get a copy, well, so am I; that news is not yet out. I would point you at Twelfth Planet Press’s website, but it doesn’t seem to have been updated for a couple years, so best follow their birdsite account as embedded above, I guess? I’ll point to more concrete things when I know where to point.

[ * I say “fiction qua fiction” because so much of my academic work tends to have fictional, or at least speculative, elements in it these days… but the irony is that my fiction, when I have the time to produce it, increasingly includes non-fictional and/or academic forms and styles, and this piece is no exception in that regard. But if you want to know what I mean by that, well, you’re just gonna have to buy the book, aren’t you? ]

thoughts on (academic) writing

Not mine, to be clear—I still think of myself as woefully underqualified to advise on academic writing, even more so than the other sorts of writing I do—but rather Dave Beer’s thoughts on academic writing.

I like that he’s at pains to frame them as thoughts, rather than as rules, or even tips; writing advice can easily be taken as gospel doctrine, not least because that’s what many newer writers are looking for, and they may thus miss the conditional stuff if it’s not heavily signposted. (That was certainly the case for me, at any rate.)

Some of these cross over with writing more generally, but I’m comforted to see a few of my own stumbled-upon strategies among the more academically oriented ones. F’rex:

3. Try to get a structure in place as early as possible. The structure can adapt but always have a working structure. Only change it if a better structure comes along.

Hell, yes. My corollary to this one would be: the abstract you pitched for this thing, which you will probably write a number of months or even years before you actually start writing the piece itself, should implicitly sketch the structure you have in mind. If you can’t see the basic structure of the thing you’re pitching, don’t send the abstract. (Learned this one the hard way.) Also, do a sketch of the outline somewhere you’ll be able to find it when it comes time to start the writing, as this will remove one of the major anxiety-procrastination obstacles to getting started.

5. When editing, don’t be afraid to delete content. See it as blowing away the loose chippings to reveal the carving underneath.

I know this is good advice, but I’m terrible at doing it. My compromise hack is a combination of versioning (i.e. save the early draft full of stuff I know you should delete but can’t bear to, rename the file, save again, then delete the stuff) and clipping (i.e. slicing those bits out and dumping them at the end of the document, so I can tell myself they’re there to reinstate if I need them; I very rarely need them).

8. If possible, printout and do the final read through on paper and mark-up changes with a red pen. Printed versions create distance and make the spatial aspects of the writing visible.

This is universal advice for all writers of any sort. I mean, seriously.

12. Plan the writing to give you a reason to read the things you most want to read.

An interesting strategy, and an interesting insight into a more mature (and presumably less precarious) academic practice. I assume this goes for a lot of non-fic authors and long-form journos as well.

14. Try to have only one substantial writing project on the go at any one time. Always know what the writing priority is before sitting down to write.

Hahahahah, oh fuck. *looks at writing schedule* Fuck.

19. Writing is difficult. Embrace the difficulty.

Well, yes. But the quality of that difficulty changes with experience, I think. My difficulty used to be getting the words down on the page, but nowadays the difficulty is getting the good words out of the vast pile of not so good words I’ve vomited forth in the drafting process.

Which is why—in contradiction of my own feelings about giving advice mentioned above—I am a cautious advocate of the handwritten draft: writing by hand slows you down a bit (though not so much as you might think, once you get back into the swing of it), and it also forces an early editing stage when it comes to getting the thing into the digital domain for further work. But I’ve also found it weirdly freeing: a blank screen still intimidates me horribly, but a blank notebook page is a place to play around with ideas without risk. I guess this is a result of the practice.

haunted by (hopeful) futures

The great pleasure of following Adam Roberts’s blogging—once you’ve gotten past the minor frustration of finding that he’s upped sticks and moved to another domain and/or platform for whatever he’s currently driven to write about—is watching him try out ideas, throw together a hypothesis, then start poking it to see if it holds up.

Latest case in point: do the ghost stories of Dickens mark a shift in the way in which fiction thinks about futurity? It’s quite a chewy idea, and you should read the whole thing if you’re curious, but this is perhaps the crucial part of the argument:

By the end of the [19th] century, most notably with the variegated futuristic fictions of H G Wells, the notion that the future would be in substantive ways different to the present had bedded itself into the emergent genre, such that it is — now — a core aspect of science fiction’s many futures. Nowadays ‘futuristic fiction’ simply comes with the sense, baked-in, that the future will be different to the present, not just in the old utopian writing sense that a notional 1776, or 1789, will usher in a new form of social justice and harmony (according to whichever utopian crotchet or social-reform king-charles-head happens to be yours), but that change will happen across multiple fronts, have intricate and widespread ramifications. That the future will be a different country, they will do things differently there.


What I’m trying here is to see, by laying it out, whether there is a argument of some significance that can be established. Does it begin with Dickens? So, to strike the keynote again: in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1765) Scott’s ‘Wandering Willie’s Tale’ (1824) or Pushkin’s Queen of Spades (1834) the present is haunted by the past, as is the case in most ghost stories. But in Christmas Carol and ‘The Signal-Man’ the present is haunted by the future.

I am not anywhere near sufficiently well-versed in C19th fictions to have an opinion worth hearing on this theory, but it’s interesting nonetheless—particularly as Roberts ties his proposed pivot (in part) to the concretised-modernity of the railways in “The Signal-Man”, and as y’all know well by this point, infrastructure as a cultural and political force is totally my jam.

I will also include this earlier part of the argument, for reasons of resonance which will become clear:

Through the early nineteenth-century plenty of books were set in ‘the future’, many of them utopian works in the Mercerian mode like Vladimir Odoyevsky’s The Year 4338 (1835) and Mary Griffith’s Three Hundred Years Hence (1836). But alongside this ‘new’ version of futuristic fiction was a vogue for a second kind of futuristic fiction, secularised (to some extent) versions of the old religious-apocalyptic future-imagining. […]

We might style these two modes of imagining the future as spinning ‘positive’ (utopian) and ‘negative’ (apocalyptic) valences out of their futurism, but let’s not. That would be clumsily over-simplistic of us. I’m more interested in the way the two modes feed into one another.

Again, no prizes for intuiting my interest in this part of the piece, and it will be interesting to see how (if?) Roberts collides the axes of utopia/apocalypse with haunting-pasts/haunting-futures. But it also chimes nicely with a little bit by Warren Ellis (who I’m very glad to see blogging once again):

A dystopia is a speculative situation where the absolute minority of people habitually experience hope and joy. Embedded in every piece of dystopian fiction is utopian thinking – the speculative condition where the absolute majority of people habitually experience hope and joy.

Commercial dramatic fiction requires tension between two poles. It requires stakes, change, a goal to advance towards. Conflict. Dystopian fiction is almost never actually about the dystopia itself (although writing dystopia is good, crunchy stuff with lots of detail to relish in the authorship). Dystopian fiction is almost always about the utopian reach that’s suppressed by the situation.

Nothing theoretically novel in that, perhaps, but it’s a very succinct way of stating one of the major threads of post-Moylan critical utopianism. As someone caught awkwardly between the positions of critic and author—and, some would say, not really covering all the bases on either pole; Roberts is a hard act to follow on that front, and not only because he’s so terrifyingly prolific—it’s satisfying for me to find statements from someone firmly in one camp (in this case, Ellis as author) that map clearly to statements from the other.

Because, contrary to the cliches, this theorist is pretty keen on seeing how theory plays out in practice…