On Stories and Endings

So, I’ve got two books out this week. Actually it’s the same book and it’s already been published, but there you go. Welcome to the temporally asymmetric world of international publishing, where the hardback first US edition of Regeneration drops in North America on 3rd May, and the UK edition mass-market paperback (MMP if you want to sound like an insider) lands elsewhere in the English-speaking world on the 5th. The MMP is the smaller, cheaper print copy that fits in your bag and costs about the same as your workday lunch, conveniences that the publisher and I hope will entice lots and lots of you to check it out.

It feels like a lifetime since I got the call that led to this moment: my agent had secured a preemptive offer for three novels, based on the Gemsigns manuscript and outlines of two further books that I’d hastily sketched at his insistence. I hadn’t planned a trilogy. Now, five years later and with the last of those three books about to be available throughout a good chunk of the planet, with me thoroughly embedded in the world of publishing and the life of a writer, it’s worth taking a moment to feel just slightly awestruck.

I made up a story, and in so doing changed my own story.

That’s some kind of magic.

And so I find myself thinking about the magic of stories: how they change and how they grow, where we join them and where we leave, and what happens when we’re not looking. How they seem to have their own reality and logic – whether or not we are living them, whether or not we are writing them.

I’ve always loved the Tolkienesque idea of the neverending story, an endless tale that the characters – and by extension the reader, and indeed the writer – inhabit only for a little while. One of the things I wanted to achieve in the ®Evolution novels was that sense of continuity: of a tale that had begun long before the writer started writing or the reader started reading. That both would visit for a time, and depart at some point of the writer’s choosing, rather than come to the end of. That had enough weight and heft for me, the writer – and you too, dear reader – to feel almost incidental to its existence.

Stories are real. We spin them out of dreams and desires, fears and hopes, moments of inspiration and confusion. We turn the electricity in our fingertips into bits and bytes, and somehow it all becomes actual. Solid. A tangible object full of the crumbs and stains of workday lunches, bearing a kinked spine and edges frayed by the passage of time; familiar yet somehow, hopefully, undiminished.

Not unlike ourselves.

The best stories tell us the truth about the real world. The best stories stay with us, even when we have left them behind. The best a writer can do is try to write that kind of story.

And so this is my hope for Regeneration, and all of the ®Evolution: that it will feel no less real for having been made up, and that its ending will be for you, as it is for me, a departure rather than a conclusion.

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Another Good Conversation …

… this time with the wonderful Ian McDonald (I chronicled our first meeting in one of my earliest posts on this blog). Strange Horizons asked if we’d like to have a conversation for publication on the subject of Energy in SF. We may have meandered around and away from and back to the topic just a bit …

Utopia Season

What a week it’s been. I generally add press news to the link page (see menu tab above), tweet once or twice and move on, but there’ve been a couple of things that deserve a bit more bigging up than that (and not just because I’m in them).

It’s Utopia season on BBC Radio 4; it kicked off with a documentary commemorating the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia (which is well worth a listen). Last year the BBC and acclaimed SF author Geoff Ryman approached me to participate in another documentary for the series: a retrospective on the proto-SF feminist utopian novel Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which would also examine how gender evolves – or doesn’t – in the futurist fiction we write now. I’d written a short post on the fictional possibilities of utopia; an approach I’ve taken in my own books, and not unrelated to the fact that they are subtly but thoroughly egalitarian when it comes to gender. Geoff and I had a long chat about the intersection of these issues at Nine Worlds in August, recorded by BBC producer Nicola Swords. Rather more than I expected made it into the final cut of the Herland documentary – along with wonderful insights from Laurie Penny, Sarah le Fanu, Dr Sari Edelstein, Caitríona Ní Dhúill, Sarah Hall and of course Geoff himself. The result is an elegant combination of a respectful look back and a provocative look forward, and though I do say so myself, it’s well worth thirty minutes of your time.

Do spend another fifteen with No Point Talking, the short story Geoff wrote while working on Herland. It’s a fantastic portrayal (and performance!) of a conservative alpha male protagonist in a near-future America in which his traditional views about gender and society are shaken to the core. It’s heartbreaking, infuriating and funny – often all at the same time.

My ideas about utopia have a lot to do with being collaborative and collegiate as opposed to hierarchical or exclusionary – so it’s particularly serendipitous  that the week started with Tricia Sullivan’s article in The Independent on how SF authors negotiate the boundaries between fact and fiction. What’s remarkable about Trish’s approach is that she got the gig as part of the promotional push for her new novel Occupy Me – and then went about it by interviewing myself, Karen Lord, Anne Charnock and Emma Newman and quoting us liberally in her piece. I’m humbled by her generosity. I’m also impressed by her publisher, Gollancz, which will be posting all four interviews in full on their website in the coming weeks.

The world, we are often told, is going to hell in a handcart. Spend half an hour watching any news programme and it’s hard to disagree. But somewhere among the embers, the flame of utopia flickers on.

TFFX: 10 Years of The Future Fire

Today I welcome Valeria Vitale to the blog to talk about The Future Fire, a magazine of social-political speculative fiction which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, TFF is crowdfunding an anthology: TFFX will include new fiction and artwork, plus reprints of some of the best work from the past ten years.

Valeria is one of TFF’s editors, and is also co-editor of the Fae Visions of the Mediterranean horror anthology. She has a soft spot for ghosts, vampires and old mythologies, but enjoys all sort of stories. When she’s not busy writing and reading (for pleasure or work) you may find her staring at ancient objects in museums or modelling buildings in 3D. At night, when she can’t sleep, she makes toys.

How did you first get involved with The Future Fire? Without looking it up, what is the first story you can remember buying for the zine, and what did you love about it?

Valeria Vitale: My first contact with TFF was as a reader, with issue #24 and I was really impressed by the quality of the stories and illustrations published. Discussing stories is pretty much my favourite activity, so I started doing it with other readers and with the editors, and, before I realised what was happening, I ended up being more and more involved with both TFF and the FFN (Futurefire.net Publishing) anthologies.

The first story that I remember strongly recommending for publication was Rebecca Buchanan’s “Sophie and Zoe at the end of the world.” It is a good, short story that points out issues of race, class and privilege. But what really struck me was the portrayal of the relationship between the two young girls. It felt so honest that it catapulted me back in time, to when I was that young, and very close to my best friend. It reminded me how our bond was built on sharing experiences, thoughts, and things we both loved. As for Sophie and Zoe, those things were, often, books. While reading the story, I knew that, if I had been in Sophie’s shoes, I would have given my leaving-for-a-hibernation-program soul mate a big, ridiculously heavy bag full of books too.

Do you have a favourite word and/or one that you hate?

VV: As many readers (and wannabe writers) I do love words. And I like learning them in other languages, and comparing them. It allows you to look at words from outside; to discover their strength, beauty, or fascinating precision like a foreigner visiting for the first time a place that, although awesome, is ordinary for the people who live there. My absolutely favourite word comes from the pages of French author Raymond Queneau who, I believe, minted it. The word, (in its Italian translation) is: “nottinauta”, traveller of the night. I fell in love with it at first sight. Because I think it suits me and my nocturnal attitude, my love for ghosts and vampires, for dreams and celestial bodies, I even made it my twitter handle.

There are a few words I hate, too. Usually those that _I_ tend to use too much. When I realise it, I start loathing them. But to be fair, it’s not really their fault.

What TFF story would you like to see adapted for the big screen?

VV: The first I could think of is Sara Puls’s “Sweet Like Fate.” Although part of the circus’ charm is definitely in the bold colours, I imagined the adaptation as a short movie in B&W. I think it would take the “glitter” away from the atmosphere and be more effective in showing things from the perspective of the artists, for whom that is a place of hard work and, in the case of Lambeth, of humiliation.

It’s a bit obvious, but I would use high contrast lights to show close ups of the (horrible) people in the audience. I could say in the style of Lang or Welles, but let’s not be too heavy handed. Kaurismaki’s style should be enough! The camera would show that the magic is not happening on stage, but behind the scenes, among the two main characters. Like in a Fellini movie, the tender, the oneiric, the surreal will take over reality. I also imagine it to be without spoken words, as Tati would have done it: with sounds, and only indistinct voices from the other characters. No dialogue between Ru and Lambeth, but looks, smiles, hesitations. The only words, those appearing on the acrobat’s skin.

What would be the most important thing for you to hold onto if civilization started to break down in your city?

VV: I happen to work with one of the most iconic cases of sudden disasters: Pompeii and Herculaneum. When reading the archaeological reports, it always strikes me how differently people reacted to that tragedy, and what they decided to take with them when they left their houses thinking that the world was ending. Some people made practical choices taking lamps, weapons, medical equipment. Other people tried to carry their most precious goods. But not everyone was that rational. Other people preferred to take amulets and religious statuettes, for protection. And others were found with objects that don’t have, in our eyes, any immediate practical or ritual use and maybe were just things that had an emotional value to them. I’m afraid I belong to the last category. If the world was collapsing and my house burning, I would take something not particularly useful but meaningful to me. Likely because it is a gift. Something I could look at when I need to find some inner strength. I suppose it will be one of my toy crocodiles (I have a few. Don’t ask…). And then I will start looking for some more sensible person to be my companion in the survival attempt.

Tell us more about the TFF tenth anniversary anthology and fundraiser?

VV: I see two main reasons for this initiative. The first looks at the past and is celebratory. Ten years is a lot of time for a small publishing house. We survived a few crises but we’re still here. And we want to ideally toast with all the authors, artists, and readers.

The second looks at the future. We keep receiving good stories and illustrations, but we feel we don’t give our authors the full recompense they deserve for their work, and we would like to change that. Many of the stories in the anthology are already available for free on the TFF website, but we’re also publishing new stories, flash-fiction sequels to earlier stories, poems, illustrations and Borgesian pseudostories. If you enjoy reading our illustrated stories and want to read more of them, please consider supporting the fundraiser. We have a list of nice perks to tempt you with—story critiques, artwork, or I’ll knit a zombie doll that looks like you!—or you could simply pre-order our 10th anniversary anthology featuring some of our very best stories plus new, exclusive extra content.

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Many thanks to Valeria, and to editor-in-chief Djibril al-Ayad for making this interview possible. Do head on over to the fundraiser page; the TFFX e-book can be yours for only US$5, and there are great book bundles and other perks to be had. I plumped for the five e-books …

Utopia: a usable definition

The question of what constitutes a utopia vs. a dystopia keeps coming up online and in conversation, along with what I think is a reflexive dismissal of the narrative possibilities of utopia. That’s because utopia is presumed to preclude any kind of distress or conflict – and how can you write an engaging story that doesn’t have some sort of strife?

Don’t ask me; I need upheaval as much as the next novelist. However I don’t think that “nothing bad can ever happen” is a particularly helpful definition of a utopia. I’m also annoyed by how easily virtually any science fictional scenario in which there is discord and the risk of things going badly – which is to say pretty much all of them – is labelled a dystopia. I’ve already grumbled about that here, with respect to my own books. This post is a slight expansion of a contribution I made elsewhere earlier today, on the subject of dystopia’s opposite.

A useful concept of utopia is not one in which there is never any crisis or conflict – not least because that sounds to me a lot like being dead (somewhat ironically, the ultimate result of a dystopian state). Instead a practical, achievable and narratively interesting utopia would be a system in which there are clear, legitimate and accessible methods of addressing crises or resolving conflicts. Given that the generally accepted understanding of dystopia (political/ environmental/ economic etc.) is of a state in which there are no legitimate or generally available means of redress, and in which the protagonists have to somehow overthrow, subvert or completely escape the system in order to fix what’s wrong with it or even to survive, its logical opposite would be a state in which problems can be solved without resorting to such measures. But because there’s no guarantee that the problems will be solved, it does not inherently lack the potential for narrative tension. There can still be untold dangers and conflicts; the distinction is not in whether they exist, but in the means available for dealing with them.

Counting the ®Evolution: Who Are These People?

I’ve said a number of times over the past few months that I have yet to really wrap my head around the fact that I’ve now written a trilogy: an arc of three substantial and self-contained novels, a coherent and completed vision. A BIG vision. It’s so big I haven’t quite felt like I could see the edges of it.

I assumed it would hit me in August, when Regeneration is published; but I have in fact just now started to grasp the scale of the thing. It’s all Nicola Budd’s fault. One of her (many, many) jobs as editor at Jo Fletcher Books is to prepare the ebook editions; and one of her strategies has been to elicit bonus content from authors, special little Easter eggs that will come packaged in the ebook. I was still bogged down with the actual writing when she first broached it to me, and in a state of desperation and quite possibly insanity suggested that, as Regeneration would conclude a series that has boasted a large and complex cast of characters, I could produce something along the lines of a dramatis personæ for the entire ®Evolution.

She said that was an excellent idea! … At which point I realised that I didn’t actually know how many characters I had created over the years; nor did I have a definite sense of how to break them down into primary/ secondary/ tertiary levels of importance. I would have to work that out, and I’d have to decide who to include in the cast list for Nicola. But I didn’t want to just cherry-pick the obvious characters; I wanted to know who was being left out. So, with Regeneration edits, copy-edits and proofreads completed and this just about the last task I have to accomplish prior to publication, I decided to conduct a census.

That was two weeks ago.

I went through each book, plus an as-yet-unpublished short story, and created a comprehensive (I hope) list of characters. I determined who were the main drivers of the plot, and defined them as primary. Those with whom they interact in ways that clearly impact the narrative have been dubbed secondary, and those whose role is more textural are tertiary.

Then I had to create a combined list of all three, and work out the categories for that – because some characters who are secondary in one book are primary in another, and some never have a major role in terms of plot but are nevertheless key to the actions of other, more central characters.

Based on that logic I came up with a list of fifteen ‘core’ characters – the ones without whom there would be no story – and have just finished writing the promised cast list, complete with short descriptions for each of them. They’re 40-80 words long, about the same as the standard author bio you’ll see accompanying a review or a guest post. They contain key facts about the character and the role they play in the ®Evolution, including major events across all of the books.

Being able to do that for fifteen characters may not sound terribly impressive, and indeed it isn’t. But according to my census, there are ninety-one named characters in the ®Evolution (and many more who aren’t); and I could write a similar bio for every single one of them. I know the backstory and basic personality traits of nearly a hundred fictional people. I know why they’re in my stories and what they get up to there. Many of them – most of them – quite possibly all of them – could carry stories of their own.

I am finally starting to grasp the scale of this thing.

Where Ideas Don’t Come From

My least favourite question these days is, ‘Where do you get your ideas?‘ Sadly, it’s also one of the most common. It pops up in interviews and conversation; it’s posed by any number of people, however briefly and randomly met. For many, it seems to be the obvious question to ask a writer.

I’m afraid that whatever makes it obvious to them is lost on me. Every time I’m asked I wonder if they envisage a place where ideas exist in their multitudes to be examined and acquired, much as one might cast a judicious eye before surreptitiously squeezing the tomatoes in a supermarket. Perhaps they imagine a quasi-mystical space where writers in search of ideas stumble over the germ of their next opus. Either way the question presumes that ideas are things one goes out and gets; as though they exist independently of the person who has them.

That is rarely how it happens, and the pained expression on the face of every writer who has to come up with a polite answer should be a clue that there is something fundamentally wrong with the question. It would be far more sensible to ask (though not necessarily easier to answer), ‘How do you get your ideas?

Ideas arise not from place, but from process.* In my experience this process mostly takes place without any conscious intervention on the part of the writer, and the results are often as much of a surprise to her as to everyone else. Somehow, in some way which I am unable to adequately explain, different bits of stimulus and influence, knowledge and opinion, affinity and experience, combine to produce the magical thing (and I think it is very close to magic) that we call inspiration. It is a deeply mysterious alchemy, and I do not understand how it works.

I’ve never met anyone who does. I suspect that even if you are able to trace your epic tale of star-crossed romance between the children of rival hunter-gatherer tribes back to an article you read six months ago on neolithic basket-weaving, you’ll struggle to put your finger on precisely what it was about that particular piece of paleoanthropology, that on a particular day sent your imagination soaring.

So when you ask a writer the dreaded question and we lamely answer, ‘I don’t know,’ we are not being evasive or disingenuous. We are telling you the literal truth. And that strangely commodified perspective embodied in the construction of ‘where do you get’ is not only incorrect, it’s jarring – as though we had been asked to quantify a rainbow, or draw a map of love.

If ideas come from anywhere, that place is a state of mind. And you don’t go looking for them. They come looking for you.

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* It’s true that some writers have techniques for triggering this process, which may include spending time in a particular place: a country walk, a cottage by the sea, the stacks in the library or the shed in the garden. But the trigger is at least as likely to be an activity as a location: doing the ironing, walking the dog, doodling, gardening.

Nine Worlds: The ‘Just Don’t’ list from Writing the Other workshop

One of the things I did at the Nine Worlds convention over the weekend was run a workshop, Writing the Other (well two of the things really, since there was a repeat session on Sunday morning for those who couldn’t get in on Saturday). Writing the Other is intended to help writers learn how to identify and avoid harmful tropes, stereotypes and associations when creating characters that depart from the dominant paradigm; and to write with greater accuracy, sensitivity and insight. Many thanks to all the attendees – you were engaged and interested and lovely, and I learned at least as much from you as I hope you learned from me.

The reference text is Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, which for the purposes of the workshop I summarised, Anglicised and crammed into just under ninety minutes. I ended with a checklist of some of the tired, offensive and oft-repeated devices that serve only to reinforce unfounded prejudice, unearned privilege, and unquestioned presumption. I’ve been asked to post my notes on this section; so here is my plea to …

DON’T. JUST DON’T: 

  • Cast heroes/villains exclusively along lines of race, religion, sexual orientation or any other form of ‘other’ – a classic example is embodied in the line “The dark hordes attacked.”
  • Use the issues which affect a minority/marked group to reemphasise the importance of, and say generally positive & uplifting things about the majority/unmarked group – Glory syndrome
  • Create a marked secondary character whose sole purpose is to validate or create a motivation for the central character – i) the cool sidekick phenomenon, ii) “fridging”
  • Reinforce power imbalances; often done even when characters are beautifully and sympathetically drawn, but nevertheless and for example: all the Asian women just happen to be timid & obedient; all the black men just happen to be sexually promiscuous; all the poor people just happen to be uneducated. This is a subtle form of victimisation, but it’s still victimisation.
  • Cast the unmarked-state hero as saviour of the marked-state victims.
  • Fetishise difference, by an unmitigated focus on the characteristics of otherness. Examples include: the Noble Savage; the simple-minded spirit-worshipper; the ‘beautiful flower’ sexual stereotype of Asian women.
  • Use a specific instance to imply a general truth; where an assertion or action of one member of a group is taken as representative of the entire group.
  • Be disrespectful with dialect. I don’t hold with the view that the marking of accents and dialects in the text automatically deprivileges them by flagging them up as nonstandard; pretending variations don’t or shouldn’t exist is just as deprivileging. But the careless use of dialect, diction and language is a very easy way to be unintentionally and terribly offensive. Be careful.
  • Emphasise evil by ramping up innocence – the Saintly Victim trope. The target of racism does not need to be honest, quiet and hardworking; the child who is abused does not need to be the most adorable infant ever born; the rape victim does not need to be a nun; for racism, child abuse, rape to be abhorrent.
  • Use abuse as a catalyst for positive transformation – for example the rape victim who emerges stronger, smarter, better from the experience, with the implication that it was the thing that finally ‘turned them around’, made them ‘get themselves together’, etc. ad nauseum. (To say nothing of the victim who falls in love with his/her rapist. Really? Don’t.)

A lack of parity isn’t the LRB’s only problem

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted that I might need to rethink my support for the London Review of Books; not only in light of their poor record on gender parity – one shared by many publications – but because of their apparent disdain for the notion that active steps should be taken to correct the imbalance. Having just read Elizabeth Day’s piece on the LRB in today’s Observer, I find myself having to rethink my rethink.

I now have the impression that 75-year-old LRB editor and co-founder Mary-Kay Wilmers is less a reactionary anti-feminist than a woman who has already seen so much change over her lifetime, has already been so much a part of – in many ways, so emblematic of – those changes, that she is perhaps a bit bemused at the anger and impatience of younger contemporaries. An Oxford graduate who was told by the then equivalent of the careers office to train for secretarial roles, she has for the past 22 years edited what many regard as the world’s best literary magazine. You don’t gain that kind of stature by accepting crap about your own supposed inadequacy, but you also don’t achieve that kind of recognition by willfully upturning establishment applecarts.

The LRB has maintained a standard of lengthy, thoughtful, well-argued (and well compensated) articles that have largely disappeared from the mass media. It does not seek to avoid controversy, and has in fact earned a reputation as a venue in which contentious opinions are voiced; but neither does it pander to the current vogue for poorly considered groupthink and knee-jerk outrage. Despite a significant amount of free online content and a fairly consistent Twitter feed, it is in many ways the antithesis of the kind of intellectual morass into which social media conversations so often descend. This is why I like it. But this is also, I suspect, why it has found itself criticised for being in its own way moribund.

The coterie of intelligent, articulate, highly literate contributors who make it the success that it is are – no doubt for historical reasons – largely male. They appear also to be very insular. They know each other. They know they can count on each other. They know they need to expand their talent pool, but they don’t know who else can be counted on, and they’re scared of risking that which they have already achieved.

Fear is not an excuse, but it is an explanation.

The challenge of achieving parity at the LRB – a challenge which Wilmer should, I stress, be meeting head on, no matter how tough she and her colleagues find it – strikes me as not unlike the situation facing the newly appointed managing editor of a venerable SFF genre publication, with whom I recently had a conversation. Said publication has gender parity statistics even worse than the LRB’s. There too the problem appears to be less a matter of active sexism than institutional inertia: the (mostly male) commissioning editors in the various departments have had the same pool of reliable (mostly male) contributors for decades. They are used to dealing with what that pool produces; it is content which, in tone, focus and quality, they understand and are comfortable with. Moreover, they don’t really know anybody else. They don’t quite know how to go about expanding their circle of editorial acquaintance. And they definitely don’t know how to suddenly start saying ‘No’ to those reliable contributors – and friends – of a lifetime in order to make space for a broader, deeper, more diverse and more evenly gendered talent pool.

When told this, I sputtered that being able to turn down regressive, repetitive work in favour of something new, adventurous and exciting is fundamentally part of an editor’s job. Few would disagree (and the editor I spoke to is committed to achieving parity, no matter how many toes have to be stepped on). But editors are people, and like people everywhere, the entrenched crew with the poor record are nervous about change. They don’t want to upset their own applecarts. And they are scared of hurting people’s feelings. That’s unquestionably a failing in editorial terms, but it’s also a very human response. It shouldn’t be accommodated – not in this context – but it does merit some degree of compassion. And I wonder if something very similar isn’t going on in the rarefied atmosphere of the LRB’s editorial meetings. After all, they too are full of humans.

So I’m feeling slightly more kindly towards them than I was when I tweeted that tweet. But I’m also now far more concerned about the future of the LRB because, ironically, they appear to have a further problem that the tiny subscription-supported genre publication doesn’t. For all their acclaim and relatively high circulation figures, Day’s article also reveals that ‘the most successful literary publication in Europe’ doesn’t break even, let alone actually make any money. That high level of quality and commensurately high level of compensation to writers is supported by generous infusions of cash from the family trust fund of Wilmers herself – a trust to which the LRB is already £27million in debt.

That makes it not a viable business, but a labour of love; one that is not likely to be sustainable beyond Wilmers’ tenure, or at any rate once the money runs out. Important though the parity imbalance is, resolving it isn’t likely to have much of an impact on the financial one. And if the end of the story is the failure of the LRB as an institution – even if by then it’s a meticulously equitable institution – because it can’t work out how to make such a high-quality publication financially sustainable, then I’m not sure what, in the long term, will have been gained.

Short Story Laboratory, or what I learned from going small

A few months ago, something very flattering and totally unexpected happened. Someone I’d met at a con, and who had subsequently read Gemsigns, asked if I would be interested in contributing a short story to an anthology to be published later this year. The theme of the collection is one of the classic scientific conundrums, and the list of people who’d already agreed to take part was impressive. The prospect of getting to add my own take on the topic, and in such starry company, was very exciting. I wanted to say yes immediately. But I hesitated.

Unlike many – possibly most – speculative fiction authors, I’ve never been much of a short story writer. I don’t have a file full of 10-30 page manuscripts, much less a history of publishing same. I did have to write a lot of micro-fiction in order to establish the Scriptopus website in 2010, but those were intentionally constructed as snippets – a paragraph or two that read as a small chunk of a larger work, to encourage the next participant to write the next chunk. The first fully-fledged story that I really wanted to tell emerged as a feature-length screenplay; followed a couple of years later by another screenplay; followed a few years after that by Gemsigns – all 104,000 words of it. Eighteen months later, Binary topped out at 114,000 words. Not exactly GRRM-scale doorstoppers, but – I don’t really have much form when it comes to short fiction.

Which of course (me being me) meant that I really wanted to give it a try. I wanted to see if I could take what I’d learned writing two thematically complex novels, with large casts of characters and multiple interweaving plotlines, and distill the essence of what makes them work into a few thousand words of self-contained story. But I didn’t think it was fair to simply accept the invitation without warning the commissioning editor that it was going to be a bit of a first for me, and I half-expected the enthusiasm on the other end to dim considerably as a result.

Instead I was told – go for it.

So I did, and I learned a few things along the way. One is that what interests me doesn’t seem to change because the frame I’m working in is smaller; so once again, I’ve written a story with some fairly significant ethical questions at its heart. I’m pro-science and pro-technology, but more than anything else I am pro-humanity; and negotiating the intersection between what is possible and what is moral is a theme I keep on returning to in spite of myself.

Another is that, lacking the scale for complicated plot development and lengthy character arcs, short fiction requires some hard choices about what to put in and what to leave out. It seems to me that genre writers mostly tend to focus on plot, often constructing the classic three acts that allow the short story to feel complete but forgoing much exploration of the internal lives of characters (and sometimes forgoing characters altogether). That’s a perfectly legitimate option, of course, but for me a story is made interesting (or not) by the people in it; so I decided to go in virtually the opposite direction, and to focus entirely on what the characters think and feel about the situation they find themselves in.

That meant finding a way of constructing plot almost as a side effect of exploring character; and it also meant accepting that the story remains, at the end, unresolved. It’s up to the reader to draw conclusions about what will or should happen, based on what s/he now knows about the characters. That felt like quite a risky thing to do, and it leads me to a third thing I discovered: short fiction is a great platform for trying things you haven’t tried before. In addition to the open-ended ending, I employed several narrative tricks and techniques that I’ve not (yet) used in my novels. There was a character whose gender I couldn’t decide on; it wasn’t important to the story, so a third of the way in I decided to see if I could write the whole thing without being backed into the pronoun corner (turns out I could). I told it in first-person present-tense, bouncing between four different points of view. I used highly emotive language to construct what is usually posited as an essentially intellectual dilemma.

I don’t think I would have attempted, or could have sustained, that kind of concentrated stylistic experimentation over 100,000+ words. At less than 7000 it was just about do-able, although the jury is still out on the result. I sent the manuscript in a couple of days ago, but the editor is backed up with projects (aren’t we all) and so probably won’t get around to reading it for another few weeks. Which means I probably won’t find out whether it’s been accepted into the anthology for a couple of months yet.

I hope it is, of course – along with my second novel, I’d love this to be the year I also have a professionally published short story. And I hope there’ll be more, but I don’t think I’m going to morph into a prolific short story writer. One of the other things that’s become apparent is that my ideas tend towards the larger scale; a beta reader remarked that the first draft read to him like the opening chapters of a novel, and would I be writing the rest of it?

So now I’m thinking … short stories as a way of developing techniques, themes, characters, which are then more fully explored in a longer piece? Or conversely, focusing more intensely on an aspect of character, theme, technique than is possible in a longer piece? I’d be really curious to know if anyone constructs a dialogue between their long and short fiction in this way, and how well it works for them.

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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