Archive for the ‘reflections’ Category

Stockport Central Library, how I love you

Stockport Central Library, how I love you

I recently started using the ebook lending section of my local libraries, and in doing so made an interesting discovery. Having downloaded a book file, I quickly realised that I couldn’t read it, because it was the wrong file format. I read ebooks on a Kindle Fire, which uses Amazon’s exclusive .mobi format, whereas the library books were in the .epub format used by all other e-readers.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious that the library would use epub files. After all, a publicly funded service wasn’t going to use a proprietary file format that only works with one brand of e-readers, even a brand that has two-thirds of the market share. In Britain at least, public services are still meant to be about accessibility and providing an even playing field for different suppliers. And in keeping with that ethos, there was a way around my file format problem, through a browser-based reader that works on my Kindle Fire.

To me, this is also a sign of the future of e-books. Using an exclusive file format has helped Amazon fence its readers in, keeping them using its e-readers with its e-books through its online store. But through this slightly grasping, territorial approach to its market, Amazon has excluded itself from a big public service chunk of the market. As library e-book collections grow, and people get used to using them, this is likely to become a more important part of the market, given that it’s as easy to borrow an e-book as to buy one, and often significantly less costly.

By using epub, libraries may provide a larger service than making ebooks more accessible – they may help to prevent Amazon building a monopoly.

I don’t often write about my depression. It’s a big part of my life, but it’s not what people read me for. That said, discussing this illness helps to raise awareness, and so to help those struggling with depression, which includes quite a few people I care about. So today, briefly, I’m going to talk about depression and my writing.

When it strikes hard, depression gets in the way of my writing. I can’t put words on the page if just facing the keyboard makes my heart race like a steamtrain, or the thought of getting out of bed leaves me in tears. These are real things that happen to me, though fortunately less often than they used to, and just working through it is never the answer – that sets me back even more.

There’s also a difficult balancing act. It can be near impossible for me to tell the difference between anxiety that I can resolve by working through it and depressive periods where the best thing is to rest. Learning to distinguish between them is a huge part of the struggle.

But facing my depression is the whole reason I write for a living. It forced me to face the reality of what makes me happy and sad, what satisfies me or frustrates me. Doing jobs I didn’t really want to do, but had persuaded myself I could live with, was part of what made me sick. Following my dream of writing for a living has caused struggles, not least financially, but I’m a hell of a lot healthier for it.

Depression is the most wretched experience I’ve ever had, and it can hit anyone. So be kind to yourselves and focus on what really matters to you. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but I think it’s what we all need, depressive or not.

Dignity was never my top priority as a student

Dignity was never my top priority as a student

Preparing to head back to Durham for the Nerd East convention has me feeling all nostalgic. I lived and studied there for seven years in total, and though I didn’t do much writing it has really shaped me as a writer. Joining the live roleplay society got me back into fantasy and science fiction in a big way, as well as giving me lots of great friends and character ideas. My first published story was in the university Science Fiction and Fantasy Society’s in-house fanzine, and won me a week’s worth of calories in chocolate form.

And as always, there were the lessons that weren’t directly writing related but have proved useful. I learned to work with others creating plots through LRP, as well as finding out how much chainmail weighs. I gained the confidence to put my stories and other creations out there. I watched a wide range of science fiction and fantasy films, making me better informed about the genres. And where else but a university game of killer could I have experienced what it’s like to stake out someone’s house? (I mean aside from the mob.)

Often the things we label as distractions provide useful lessons. Sure, that’s less true of all the time I spent drinking in the Student Union bar, but then I never needed my dignity all that much.

Or my liver.

If you’re in north east England then you can hear me talk on this more, as well as enjoying a day of geekery and gaming, on 30 May at Nerd East.

I find it interesting to see how writers develop. I see it in my own writing every time I go back to edit an old story. And I saw it in spades reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree.

I came to Kay through his more recent work, which is some of the richest and most brilliant in modern fantasy. The Summer Tree is a good read, but lacks the overwhelming beauty of Lions of Al-Rassan or The Sarantine Mosaic. But it helps in understanding where those books come from.

 The Roots of the Tree

Most obvious is the Tolkien connection. Kay helped Christopher Tolkien edit his father Silmarillion, and boy does it show in The Summer Tree. There’s a world of culturally varied nations that will pull together in the face of external menace. There’s an epic mythology frequently alluded to. There’s a battle brewing between everyday good and epic evil. There are even ordinary people suddenly thrown into great destinies.

Christian Ethics, Pagan Trappings

Its underlying morality also shows Tolkien’s influence. I don’t know what Kay’s religious beliefs are, but Tolkien was a Christian, and his stories showed Christian morality beneath pagan trappings. The same can be seen here.

Throughout The Summer Tree, we see self-sacrifice. In some cases characters literally sacrifice their lives for others, but just as often they sacrifice their happiness or desires. Although the most prominent example of this, using the Summer Tree of the title, draws from northern European pagan mythology, the repeated theme is a very Christian one. Good comes not from people expressing their own interests and finding a way to further those together, but from subsuming themselves in service and sacrifice.

An Interest in Art

While the book shows Kay’s past, the shadow of Tolkien from which he would eventually emerge, it also shows his future, and in particular the importance of the arts in his books.

Art and its relationship to power is a repeated theme in Kay’s novels, including poetry in The Lions of Al-Rassan and mosaic in The Sarantine Mosaic. Like the Sarantine books The Fionavar Tapestry series wears that connection in its title.

But there are other links too. Music plays an important part in stirring emotions and signifying Paul’s past. Carefully crafted letters stir the heartstrings. Kevin solidifies friendships by playing guitar. Ivor’s tribe express themselves through dance.

Watching the Kay Tree Grow

The Summer Tree may not be as great a piece of writing as Kay’s more recent works. But seeing his development toward the writer he is today adds an extra pleasure to this already very good book.

'Hello, God? I know I don't believe in you, but could you please send everyone fluffy kittens - things are getting way too tense down here.'

‘Hello, God? I know I don’t believe in you, but could you please send everyone fluffy kittens – things are getting way too tense down here.’

I love that the world is changing. I love the variety that brings and the novelty it creates within our culture, even as the dark fingers of uncertainty send tremors of fear through my body.

Unfortunately, fear of change is currently rearing its big, ugly head all over geek culture.

The most prominent and hideous example of this is the treatment of feminists in computer gaming. There are some great designers and critics out there critiquing the domination of gaming by white, straight, male gamers and characters, and the way this excludes others. This has triggered a huge backlash, in which people have been called the vilest names and even had their lives threatened for expressing their opinions on a medium they love.

Then there’s the fuss, for the second year in a row, around science fiction and fantasy’s Hugo awards. I think there are a lot of problems with the Hugos, but they’re certainly high profile within the core of sf+f. This year, a reactionary group have managed to dominate the nominations with a slate of conservative, white, male authors. It’s a shame, but it is at least getting people engaged with the awards, and may favour the pro-diversity arguments in the long run.

Outside the world of geek, anti-immigrant party UKIP have risen to prominence in this year’s British general election. It’s no great revelation to say that an anti-immigrant party is reactionary and playing on people’s fears.

I find all of this distressing, especially given the way that it has impinged upon what I normally consider a safe space, the welcoming a varied world of geek culture. And I find it hard to balance my own emotional reactions.

On the one hand, I understand that change is frightening, that many of the reactionaries respond this way because they feel threatened. I feel sorry for their hurt and for the way that they aren’t able to embrace all this wonderful variety. But in understanding them and trying not to become reactionary against the reactions, I risk undervaluing my own feelings on the subject. They’re attacking things I value, they create an unpleasant atmosphere, and it’s not unreasonable for me and others like me to feel hurt by that, even a little frightened at where this is going.

I remain hopeful. I’ve always been something of an opportunistic humanist, and the history of humanity, as well as that of the culture I love, to me shows an upward trend toward great diversity and understanding. But there are downward moments as well as upward ones, both becoming ever shorter and more frequent as humanity grows and change accelerates. For the sake of my sanity, I’ll lean into the hurt as well as the hope, use it to power my own work, and remember that this too will pass.

Whatever the outcome of the Hugos, the general election, and a series of nasty Twitter spats, the diverse and joyful things I love aren’t going away. The ranting of sad and angry reactionaries will never stop that.

Sometimes two different books can look a little too similar.

Sometimes two different books can look a little too similar.

Working as a ghostwriter leads to some odd situations. One that struck me recently is that I could commit an act of plagiarism just by using my own words.

Not Owning My Work

As a ghostwriter, I don’t own the copyright on what I produce. There are hundreds of thousands of words out there that I crafted but that have someone else’s name on them, whether it’s the name of a real person or a made up name. Not only am I not associated with those words – I have no legal claim on them.

Legally speaking, I’m effectively not the author of those words. Someone else owns them.

Riding the Roundabouts

Recently, I’ve started to return to territory I’ve covered in previous works. For example, I’ve been writing about the Tudors. So when I did that, I opened up previous writing assignments I’d done on them. If nothing else, it would save me from replicating my research – why reinvent the intellectual wheel? I’ll even copy and paste something I’ve written before into the working document, so I can keep track of what elements I still want to include. But I have to be really careful that those same phrases and patterns of words don’t appear again. Because if they do, I’ll be plagiarising work that belongs to my client, which would be illegal and bad for my career.

Favourite Phrases

It’s weird not to be able to copy myself. Weirder still to think that, sooner or later, I’ll probably do it by accident. If I come up with a phrase I really like and use it a ghostwriting project, what are the odds that it won’t occur to me again later? And if I forget that I used it before, then a tiny bit of repetition slips into the mix, and I can come close once again to plagiarising myself.

None of this is meant as a complaint. I have a great job, and when I ghostwrite I accept the consequences of that – I get my money, I lose my words. But it’s very strange to think that, however unlikely it is, I really could break the law just by writing in my own voice over and over again.

bookdesign348My latest steampunk release, Guns and Guano, has taken me into some tricky territory. Though it is in many ways a rollicking adventure story, it also deals with serious issues around slavery, colonialism and race relations in the 19th century. I firmly believe that a story can both be fun and carry a serious message, but in this instance that created serious challenges for me.

I’m a white, male, heterosexual, middle-class English bloke. I am not part of a group that has ever suffered from systemic oppression, as happened to many Africans and their descendants as a result of colonialism, the slave trade and the racism that endures in some quarters to this very day. I do not know what it feels like to be in that position. I am unlikely to ever know, and no amount of research is going to give me a full understanding.

This means that I can never fully understand or completely represent that experience. If I can’t do that, should I then avoid representing and addressing it?

I think not. To do so would be to retreat into the safe and the familiar, to keep representing, and so perpetuating, the privilege of people closer to my background. It would be to avoid facing the uncomfortable elements of history that put us where we now are. And from a purely aesthetic perspective, it could get pretty bloody dull.

So how do we, as writers, square this circle? How do we represent something if we can never get it quite right?

For me, the answer is by being heartfelt and humble. I’ve tried to use this book to give some voice to the suffering of that oppression. Despite my best intentions, my initial drafts got a lot wrong, and thanks to the feedback of my beta readers the results are much better than they would have been. I know they’re still not perfect, that I’ve made mistakes and will continue to do so, but I’ve done my best, with the best of intentions, and I hope that people enjoy the results.

* * *

Guns and Guano, the first in a five volume story of action, adventure and the dark side of the Victorian age, is available now on Amazon and other ebook retailers, and is free from most sites. The second volume, Suits and Sewers, is coming in the next few weeks.

Further reading, for those who want to know more about poor Mary Tudor

I’ve recently been doing some freelance history writing. As part of this, I’ve spent time reading and writing about Henry VIII and his daughter, Mary I. It made me feel some surprisingly extreme things, and I want to talk about that experience and how we deal with emotions when writing for work.

Poor Bloody Mary

Lets start with a history lesson.

Henry VIII is generally treated as a hero or a joke in English history – the strong leader with the six wives. But when we look at his personal life, we see something that by modern standards is pretty monstrous. Among other things, he accused his second wife Anne of cheating on him and had her killed because they’d fallen out; had his fifth wife Catherine killed for actually cheating on him, despite his own numerous extra-marital affairs; declared his daughters Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate and largely excluding them from his life because they weren’t boys; bullied Mary into signing a document that went against both her values and her respect for her late mother, out of fear that he’d have her executed; and much more. You can make all sorts of arguments about the necessity of his actions, but that still looks like horrifying domestic abuse to me, whatever the reasons for it.

There’s a terrible irony to the fact that his daughter Mary helped Henry through a period of depression after Catherine’s cheating and execution. Mary’s own understanding of depression came from the fact that she’d suffered it for years thanks to her father. Long deprived by political circumstances of the chance to marry – something she strongly desired – often isolated from friends and support, when Mary finally married she suffered from a neglectful husband and a series of miscarriages and false pregnancies. The death of many Protestants at her hands is appalling, but so is the suffering she endured in her life, for most of which she suffered from poor physical and mental health.

As I say, Henry is mostly remembered as a great leader and/or punchline, Mary as a villain. It appears that memory, like their lives, has little taste for justice.

Feeling History

Reading and writing about Henry and Mary hit me very hard. I’ve suffered from depression. My wife and I have struggled with the long, frustrating process of trying to have a child, only to be robbed of it by a miscarriage. This stuff hit me where I live, and it hit me hard. I’ve worked in schools and for social service, read case files and heard first hand accounts of the vilest treatment dished out to families by abusers. How much worse then to see the effect of a parent who was outright abusive and who is now regarded in the playful and positive light Henry is.

There’s another irony here, and it’s in my attitude. When a king is presented to me as a villain, like King John has been, and I then learn about the other side of them, I can somewhat come to terms with their appalling behaviour. John was responsible for the death of his nephew among others, but because of his troubled upbringing I’ve come to see him in a more forgiving light than the traditional tales of the evil king. I recognise the hideousness of some of John’s actions, but I can step back and put them in context. In contrast, hearing about Henry filled me with near-unbearable bile. I was literally shaking with anger and sorrow.

Part of this is of course about current discourse, not just history. I’m almost as angry at our idolisation of Henry as at his behaviour. A domestic abuser shouldn’t be seen as a hero or the subject of casual jokes.

And part of it is how personal these issues are, not just to me but in a general sense. Looking at the domestic lives of Henry and Mary takes us past the veil of top level politics, something beyond most of our lives, and into the realm of the personal, where we all live. We all have some experience of love, loss and family. Seeing those things warped and broken affects us all.

Dealing With the Pain

There’s a part of me that wants to rationalise away these feelings. To tell myself that I’m getting wound up over something that’s not about me, that I should just calm down and do my job. This is my work, not a place to get emotional.

And to that I give a heartfelt cry of ‘bullshit!’

These are my feelings. This is the way the world affects me. They are a way of drawing attention to something that is wrong. Millions of years of evolution have equipped me to feel these things, and repressing them isn’t just incredibly unhealthy, it’s a waste of part of my human potential. Our feelings have a legitimate place in every corner of our lives, including our work. How else would we ever care about what we achieve?

More than that, this is the work of writing. Words are meant to move, not just to inform. They’re meant to fill our bellies with fire, our eyes with tears, our hearts with rage, sorrow, love and the desire to change the world.

I’m not saying this experience has been good for me. I’m not saying all this grief and anger I’m feeling for long-dead aristocrats is fun. But it’s a part of writing, a part of reading, a part of responding to history. It’s a part of being human, and that’s something to be proud of.

*deep breath*

OK, got that vented, for now at least. In case you hadn’t realised, what you just read was part of my dealing with this.

And now over to you. Are there parts of history or works of fiction that really move you, in happy or unhappy ways? Have they surprised you by doing that? I’d love to read about your experiences in the comments below.

Not the sort of books you can listen to

Not the sort of books you can listen to

If there’s one thing most readers love as much as reading, it’s talking about the books we read. Whether it’s presenting theories on Jon Snow’s parentage or discussing which is our favourite Pratchett book, we all do it. But that’s become a little tricky linguistically.

Reading With Your Ears

For over a year now, I’ve dabbled in the Sword and Laser reading group on Goodreads. It’s a great place to find out about interesting books and to discuss them with other readers. It’s made me aware of a trend I’d never noticed before – referring to listening to audiobooks as ‘reading’.

When people want to discuss the experience of taking in a particular book, whether by reading, listening or a combination of the two, it’s become common to use ‘reading’ to refer to the experience in general. We don’t have another word that covers it, and that’s become the default. But it can occasionally be confusing, as it turns out that someone has been ‘reading’ a book without ever looking at a single line on a page or screen.

Does it Matter?

This came up in a discussion with fellow speculative fiction author Rita de Heer about one of my previous posts. As Rita pointed out, the way we take in stories changes the experience. An audiobook gives you around 150-160 words per minute, while an average silent reader will take in and understand 250-300 words. Proof reading might take you to 200 wpm, depending on the quality of the work, but we go a lot faster when reading novels.

Then there’s the fact that an audiobook adds another person to your experience of the story. The quality of narration can add to or detract from the experience. I love listening to James Marsters reading the Dresden Files books (review of one coming up next week), but there’s no denying that I’d imagine Harry Dresden differently without that voice.

So Is It Reading?

We need a word to refer to taking in stories whatever the format, as it’s still the same story and we want to discuss it with ease. Until we come up with something else, ‘reading’ is going to have to do. But if we want to appreciate the subtleties of how reading works and what it means, we need to remember that there’s a difference between reading and, well, reading.

Do you refer to audiobooks as ‘reading’? Do you have another word to cover all ways of experiencing stories? Leave a comment, share your thoughts.

“Nobody reads with their finger on the page while mouthing the words anymore – how can someone *really* engage with a text if they don’t physically need to touch the words and sound them outloud?

And what’s this crap about cutting up books into tiny, short-attention span size “pages”? A book is a continuous organic medium – the only appropriate way to consume it is on a roll of vellum.”

The words above come from my friend Marios Richards, not me. But he so perfectly skewered a certain reaction to change, that I had to share it.

Not as good as vellum?

Not as good as vellum?

Google’s Tom Uglow recently gave an interesting interview in which he discussed experiments in telling stories in different ways. I think this work is fantastic, and I’d love to see where it takes us. But he also suggested that the short forms of content we read a lot of at the moment mean we aren’t reading as deeply, and that’s an idea I just can’t get behind.

There are a whole bunch of false assumptions behind that idea. It assumes that the majority of people used to read big, dense texts, rather than the short forms that have often been popular in the past, or widespread illiteracy that existed when many works of ‘great literature’ were written. It assumes that we read short texts passively, in isolation, without bringing together the different ideas presented as we would in a book. In short, it focuses on the individual text, not the reader and how they use it. And it treats that unattended reader as a passive chump.

I’ve seen far more nostalgic, patronising takes on this idea. It’s one Tom Uglow only references in passing, before moving onto the awesome innovations he’s involved in pushing. But this nostalgic view of past literary glory versus modern shallow reading is nonsense. It’s a reaction against innovation, and as Marios highlighted, it could be brought out at every stage in the development of writing.