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.

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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.