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.
Quoth the redoubtable Nicholas Whyte:
This is a very well done and well executed piece of work, and I really enjoyed reading it and can understand why people nominated it. However it is clearly a work of fiction, so I won’t vote for it at all in the Best Non-Fiction category.
Well, it’s clearly not a work of non-fiction, if you’ll excuse the double negative; I think it’s just as clearly not a work of fiction, either, or at least not entirely. It is a hybrid thing, a mutant, a creature of the liminal; the spotlight is not flattering to such animals, which is why they shy away from it.
The same may be said of its author.
I get published, y’know.
Now, I announced the release of the Noir anthology from Newcon Press aaaages ago, but the world of reviewing moves pretty slowly when it happens off-line, and only now has this incredibly flattering write-up of my story “A Boardinghouse Heart” made it onto the hallowed pages of Vector, courtesy of the mighty Martin McGrath (who is not know for cutting crap fiction any slack, I might add). Quoth McGrath, the story:
“… is very fine indeed — compact, dense and intelligent, it is more-or-less everything I’d hoped for when I picked up the collection. It’s a detective story — or at least it’s a story with a detective in it — set on the slippery streets of a richly realised city. The protagonist, as should be the case in all good noir stories, is hopelessly out of his depth and beset by those more powerful and cleverer than he is. The most effective element is the way in which the story immerses you in a city, gives it history and heft, yet never burdens the reader with hefty exposition. I also liked its refusal of any heroic narrative. It’s a fine achievement and worth the price of admission on its own.”
That price of admission is £2.01 as a Kindle ebook, and rather more for paperback or hardback (signed) versions, should you be tempted by this effusive praise.
There have been few reviews of the Twelve Tomorrows anthology, possibly because MIT Tech Review took a somewhat “fire and forget” approach to promoting it, but the October print edition of Locus picked it up in two separate columns, in one of which Gardner Dozois declares:
“[t]he best stories here are Lauren Beukes’s “Slipping” and Paul Graham Raven’s ”Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico (Pirates of the Plastic Ocean)”, both of which manage to inject human drama into their visions of the future, as well as characters you care about who are faced with situations where they have something and something significant at stake.”
Which is a fairly writer’s-workshop-y kind of compliment, perhaps, but it comes from a man who’s been in the anthology editing game for almost as long as I’ve been alive, so I’m gonna go right ahead and take him at his word. Twelve Tomorrows also available in ebook form for UK readers via everyone’s favourite rapacious and riparian online retailer, for a mere £5.99. A steal, really, when you see who else is in there alongside me.
Last but not least, albeit considerably less glamorous, here’s an article I wrote for Water & Wastewater Treatment Magazine about Pipedreams, one of the big meta-projects of the Pennine Water Group, wherein I am currently embedded as a postgraduate researcher. Even though I struggle to explain my own research concisely, I can at least explain that of my colleagues, wot?