Tag Archives: Writing

Reflections

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

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

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

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”. ]