Come hang with me and a shitload of excellent fantasy authors including Joe Abercrombie, Lauren Beukes, Ben Aaronnovitch at one of the best indie bookshops in London. You’ll need a ticket, but you can get one at the link above.
I went back to the house I grew up in today. Jen had her birthday party in that part of town, and it had been nearly ten years since I saw the place, so I thought I’d see what had happened to it.
I walked down the long straight avenue of Crystal Palace parade, through web of spindly shadows cast by the radio mast. I walked, and then ran, down the hill, past the school my sister went to, and a little before sunset, I found myself standing on the old railway bridge behind our road, the points burning in the dusk, and I looked down on the house, with it’s x-shaped crossbeams under the slates and it’s messy garden backing onto the tracks.
I never cry when I got to visit Mum’s grave. I don’t even really get choked up. I guess graves are just one of those symbols where the meaning attached by our culture and the meaning attached instinctively by my heart don’t line up. Her grave – actually a really lovely spot in a garden under a daphne bush – always seems empty to me.
But I cried tonight, and I think I know why.
It’s because that’s what I’m mourning, not her presence in the ground, but her absence from everywhere else. And most especially, her absence from that old house.
We left it soon after she did, and I haven’t gone back until today, but in a weird way it felt good. Like standing for a few moments in the warmth of the long remembered summer of my childhood.
Yep, as usual puppets and explosions and stirring trumpets can mean only one thing.
At Forbidden Planet, London, on August 7th we will launch….
OUR LADY OF THE STREETS!
And it will look like this:
And, because it’s one of my launches, there will be brownies, and they will look like this:
And if you come and say hello I will be so excited, I’ll look like
This is the last book in the series, and it would be utterly amazing if you guys came and celebrated it with me/came to the pub afterwards and poured enough coke into me so that I ping off the walls like that bit in Star Wars II when Yoda goes bonkers with a lightsaber.
FB page here, and if you RSVP’d it would ease my neurotic need to be loved no end:
There’s been a whole lot of ink spilled already in what feels like round 9 quadrillion of the debate on the value of YA, and I have only this to add:
We all know what books (or any kind of story) can be at their best, right? A vehicle for empathy, a glimpse into the joys and sorrows and above all the intricacy of another mind. At their core, stories are a chance – brief, and partial and astonishing – to live as someone who isn’t us.
YA books, like Nova Ren Suma says, aren’t books for teenagers but books about teenagers. Writers write and publishers publish for anyone who’ll read and buy their work. What makes a book YA is what’s on the page, not the part of the bookstore it’s stacked in.
So to my mind, when someone says ‘adults shouldn’t read YA’ they’re saying ‘adults have nothing to gain from the experience of empathising with teen characters’, or more bluntly, ‘people like me don’t need to empathize with people like that.’
This is the same impulse that lies behind the claim that boys need to read boys’ books, so we should publish more books about boys to get them reading. It’s the impulse behind the argument that we can’t publish books with diverse characters in science fiction and fantasy because the readership won’t buy them. Here as there, it’s wrong, and it’s sad.
Of course it is. It’s the exact opposite of what reading all about.
Here, have a video of a guy dropping a slinky in HD Slow-Mo. Not because it’s relevant, just because it’s cool.
I don’t know when, and I don’t know how, but at some point when I was a teenager I came to believe that hating myself was the only way I could make myself better. I didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was.
I decided that judging myself harshly was the only way to protect myself from what I perceived to be the harsh judgments of others, and more important – the only way to motivate myself to improve. And shouldn’t I aspire to that? To get better? Always?
I told myself I was being unflinching, when I was really just unforgiving. I forgot those two weren’t the same thing.
I became goal-oriented. I set myself targets and sometimes I reached them and sometimes I didn’t, but even when I did they gave me little joy. Everything I accomplished got assimilated by the Borg that was the baseline. Every achievement was proven insufficient by the sheer fact that I’d done it. The definition of where I needed to be was wherever I hadn’t gotten to yet.
Everything was judged by the same mechanism. How much food I let myself eat, how many miles I made myself run, how much work I made myself do. It infected the way I think about art, and about writing -even something as subjective as that - it makes me crave numbers: sales figures, rights deals, reviews, ways to quantify an unquantifiable question. How good am I? Where am I? Where should I be? Is time running out to get there?
Control. Control. Control
And with twenty years of proof banked up behind me, I’m still trying to process this fact:
It doesn’t work.
I don’t think goal-oriented works for me. I’m not sure the ‘strive-achieve-strive for the next thing’ is a good framework for my life. What to replace it with? I don’t know, but I’m going to try some stuff.
I’m going to start with generosity and interest. Keep it simple: I’m just going to try to learn to be okay with not knowing how ‘good’ I am, because I’ll never know, because there isn’t an answer.
Instead, I’m just going to try to stay as interested and as generous as I can, because everything I’m really proud of happened either doing something I love, or doing things for people I love.
I don’t know if this sounds familiar to you. I do know some people who I think are the same. Maybe this sounds really hippy shit to you, or maybe I’m just working it out for myself, but I’ll leave this unlocked just in case anyone else feels like it’s relevant.
Last night, Sam Sykes, Chuck Wendig and Kate Elliott were chatting about character death and whether it’s becoming an overused trope in fantasy. Unfortunately, I was asleep for most of it, because: time difference, but I’m awake now and ready to stick my oar in. So without further ado…
Five Reasons not to literally Kill Your Darlings
1) It doesn’t tell you anything about the characters:
The question at the heart of almost every story is ‘what do the characters want?’ These are the stakes, and they drive the character’s actions and so drive the plot. They’re also a fantastic opportunity to say something fascinating and specific about the characters themselves. If your lead character is a budding trapeze artist, desperate for a spot on big-top roster, or a burnt-out competitive eater with one last shot at the Carolina Cronut-Consumption Cup, then those stakes give you all manner of fascinating ways into their brains. If, on the other hand, the answer to the question ‘what do they want?’ is just ‘to stay alive,’ then well, so what? Almost everybody wants to stay alive. The stakes express nothing about the people. More than that, the story doesn’t have to be about them at all, it could be about anyone.
2) Dull, dull, dullity dull.
But least life and death stakes make things exciting, right? Well, sadly no. Not for me anyway. The problem is that so much fantasy fiction defaults to life and death stakes that it’s become kinda empty. ‘Life or death’ is now often just another way of saying ‘Win or lose’.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean you can’t construct a riveting narrative around life and death stakes. The Hunger Games is a perfect example. In the games, winning literally is living, and losing literally means death and I am totally rooting for Katniss to stay alive. But I am rooting for her to live because I like her and want her to win. She’s won me over, by being all brave and resourceful and fragile and resilient and human, and I want her to have what she wants – I would do even if it was an X-factor recording contract. I don’t want her to win merely because it’ll keep her alive.
3) The Tragedy of the Commons
Yaaaaaaaaaaaay, the economics-based argument! (Why am I the only one cheering?)
Ready? Okay, so there’s a field, right? And everyone in town gets to graze their cows on it, and everyone agrees not to graze their cows during Septemberbecause you need to give the grass time to regrow. Only everyone has an incentive to cheat, and take their cows out at night to graze during September because it saves on buying hay. So everyone does that. Result: the grass has no time to regrow, it dies, the cows die, the field gets sold to developers who build a David Hasselhoff Theme Park on it, everyone loses (or wins, I’m not sure.)
Everyone with me? The field we’re all sharing in common is our reader’s sympathy and attention. They invest both in our characters. Individually, we can generate great shock value by say, beheading the guy you thought was going to be the hero of our epic trilogy at the end of book one, but collectively if everyone does that then readers will just stop trusting us, stop investing in our characters and ultimately just feel less when they read. According to some folks, this is already happening. Which, forsooth, doth roundly suck.
4) When they’re dead, they’re dead.
All future narrative choices to do with that character are now stuck in the fridge next to them, under the eggs stuck to the jam. They’re the funny one? No more jokes. They’re the lovable one? (I’m looking at you Joss Whedon) Someone else needs to make the puppy-eyes from now on. They’re the one with the awesome cobra-launching crossbow? Too bad, NO MORE SHALL THE SKY DARKEN WITH OPHIDIAN QUARRELS FLYING TO SMITE THINE ENEMIES. All the work you and the reader have put in building that character up ends here, so you’d better make it worth it, unless…
5)…you pull @*%~#ing resurrection.
Seriously guys? Seriously. It’s one thing to have life or death stakes, and then follow through on that by killing someone (or a bunch of people.) But it is narrative anthrax to then jerk the reader around by bringing your character back to life just because you decide you miss them. It is just possible to do this in a way that works. But probably only once, and it requires rebasing the narrative stakes away from life and death and putting something else equally weighty in to replace them. Doing it over and over to your lead character (*glares at Steven Moffat*) just eliminates all sense of tension and makes it feel like we’re living in a world where nothing has any consequences.
However, with all of that said, here’s…
One Reason to kill your darlings as dead as a very dead thing:
Because you want to write about death.
Death’s a big deal, it has a hundred per cent fatality rate. It doesn’t make any sense at all to say you shouldn’t include it in a story, because at the end of the day it’s how all stories end. Plus, it’s one of Pratchett’s best characters.
It’s helpful to distinguish death as stakes from death as subject. Loads of stories take death as the latter, which makes sense, because there’s a lot to say. I just finished reading one of the best stories about death I’ve ever seen, George Saunders’ The Tenth Of December. It’s extraordinary because it’s really a story about second chances, and mistakes and forgiveness, and above all about love, which is the only real reason that death matters in the first place.
As ever, write whatever you want to write, read whatever you want to read, and either way godspeed. All I’m saying is that for me as a reader (and as a writer I guess, although it’s a lesson I am totally still learning), the real suspense for any character comes not from one question: Not ‘Will they live?’ not even ‘What do they want?’ but ‘What will they choose?’
Here, have some Dan Le Sac:
P.S. Many, if not all of these points were made on Twitter night by Sam, Chuck, Kate, Jon Grimwood and several others. This is my just my attempt to summarize, catch up and expand on those points.
It’s a really interesting question, partly because, as Nick acknowledged about 4 seconds later, it breaks down under scrutiny, like a Viennetta in a staring match with Superman. After all, if a writer can think up and fully communicate a remarkable life, is it fair to call her writing banal? And equally, isn’t revealing the remarkable in the banality of everyday existence precisely one of the things we expect remarkable writers to do?
the viennetta of post-modernism
So the terms are subjective and unstable, and the whole question is clearly as slippery as a catfish in a lube tank, but before we throw up our hands at the sheer Gauloise-smoking postmodernity of it all, let’s take a closer look at those terms.
‘Banal’ carries a bit of a value judgement, but stripped of that, it conveys everyday, quotidian, familiar.
‘Remarkable’ is precisely the opposite. Things invite remark because they aren’t normal, they are unfamiliar. They are strange.
When you get down to it, what Nick’s question seems to be driving at is the tension between the familiar and the alien; between what we know, and what we have to speculate about; between recognition and estrangement,
Between the True and the New*.
Sam Sykes and Simon Spanton, were chatting about this on Twitter the other day, and I stuck my oar in too, despite not having alliterative ‘s’s in my name. Where I think we got to is that all fiction sits somewhere on a spectrum between pure familiarity and pure estrangement, and all fiction needs to combine the two in various creative ways.
China Miéville’s Xenians are, for example pretty estranging, but the scarab-headed Khepri from Perdido St. Station wouldn’t be parseable at all if we weren’t already familiar with what a scarab was. Equally, even mainstream master of the mimetic McEwan (mmmm) has to deliver some new and surprising perspective on familiar life, or else what would be the point of writing about it at all?
When you think about it this way, both the remarkable and the banal in Nick’s diad are necessary. They’re making the text what it is. If you’ve got a really gobsmackingly strange story to tell, maybe an unvarnished workaday style is what you decide you need to convey the tale effectively. Equally any story about the remarkable in the mundane relies for its power on an act of revelation, of surprising you about things so familiar you don’t even see them. You simply couldn’t have that effect if the subject matter was remarkable at first glance.
The “banal”, as Nick puts it here, is playing the role of ‘‘a repository of dull virtues in time of trouble, someone to carry the can, speak truth and own up in class” as er… Nick puts it elsewhere. The Banal is doing the legwork, it’s the Remarkable’s straight man, its sidekick, the reliable doctor to the Remarkable’s deerstalker-wearing opium fiend.
Still, what I think is really interesting in Nick’s original question isn’t even the Banal vs Remarkable bit, but rather the question itself, ‘Would you rather…?’
What do you prefer, as a reader? What kind of reader are you?
Because let’s not forget, it’s a two-stage reaction, this literary chemistry. The reader’s mind does as much work mediating the word as the writer’s does mediating the world. Ultimately, if a story is estranging, it’s because it’s new to the reader, and if it’s true it’s because it feels true to us.
So what kind of stories do you prefer? Is your particular readerly poison immersing yourself in the bizarre and the extraordinary, and finding the ways it relates to the world you know, or is it in discovering the breathtaking in every day life?
Or both? There’s always both. Both is even better.
*(Bear in mind, this is only an experiential tension, not an existential one. There certainly are propositions that are both true and new – the whole endeavour of science is dedicated to finding out what they are – but for a story to feel true when we’re reading it, it must be because it’s triggered a sense of recognition in us, so it has to be, in some mediated way, familiar.)
Last night was The Kitschies, the award for the most intelligent, entertaining and progressive speculative fiction of the year. A marvellous time was had by all. Awards were given to A Tale for the Time Being, Ancillary Justice, the cover of The Age Atomic and Malorie Freaking Blackman who was right there.
Also, I somehow managed to tell one of my favourite authors that he looked like a character out of a Roald Dahl novel, but ‘a Wonka, not a Twit.’ This was meant as a compliment. Clearly I am the EMPEROR of smooth.
I love the Kitschies. I love the criteria, I love that they bother to have criteria, rather than relying on some amorphous notion of ‘best’ which provides no basis for discussion. I also really like their mission statement: ‘elevating the tone of the discussion of genre literature in its many forms.’
That word genre, though,conveys a slippery concept at the best of times. I was chatting to a friend at the end of the night, and she said that in her dealings with the industry, she still encountered a certain condescension towards genre fiction. A slight, unspoken scepticism that it could be proper art. Now, being in the speculative fiction community, of course this irritated me, but equally - being in the speculative fiction community, – I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t seen an equal and opposite reaction from certain quarters, with people saying that so called ‘literary fiction’ is dull, pretentious and empty of story.
Is it just me, or are both of these positions nonsense? I don’t just mean wrong, I mean literally devoid of sense, impossible to parse. Why?
Because the distinction between genre and literary fiction is a literal category mistake.
To paraphrase Hank Green. “Dear people who complain about the genres they’re exposed to: EVERYTHING IS GENRE.”
What are genres? They’re categories, branches on a taxonomic tree. They let us group stories together based on qualities (rayguns say, or cowboys, or ‘orrible murders) that those stories share.
But surely, if we’re going use a genre taxonomy to help us understand our stories (and I see no reason we shouldn’t), it makes no sense at allto then turn around and say some of our stories aren’t in a genre. I mean, what puts these stories off the map? Don’t they have qualities we could use to sort them? Of course they do, we just haven’t bothered.
Does any other field of intellectual endeavour do this? You don’t get zoologists saying ‘Platypus, you TRANSCEND genus. You are just a general animal, because frankly with the whole duck-bill, beaver-tail thing we got really confused.’
He is an enigma, isn’t he?
It’s not that the divisions between genres don’t hold – fuzzy and vague though they necessarily are. Some people like books with spaceships, and some like books with cowboys, and it can make sense to group stories that way*. But what makes as much sense as lead-based toothpaste is to say certain books fall outside genre all together.
It’s as though the Sorting Hat were to think really hard before telling Harry Potter, “You transcend Houses! Congratulations, you’ll have to eat your dinner on your own in the floor. Also, no fancy coloured scarf for you. ’ Harry would say Hogwarts needed a new hat, and I’d be inclined to agree.
When we call a book literary as a synonym for ‘non-genre’, we aren’t saying anything significant about the qualities of the book, all we’re saying is that our taxonomy is incomplete. We’re pointing to the gaps in our genre periodic table. The difference with the actual periodic table is that they knew they were missing elements, and when they found an example of one, they put it in. But the Waterstones general fiction departments are heaving with examples of genres we’ve missed, and are we busy painting ‘21st C. Family Drama’ signs for bookshop shelves? Well, are we?
*Sound of crickets*
And that’s another reason I love the Kitschies, because by shortlisting Thomas Pynchon and Ruth Ozeki next to Ann Leckie and Ramez Naam, they collapse the distinction between literary and genre. A far more interesting question is which genre(s) is the work in, and what literary effects are those tropes being used to achieve?
In other words, is it progressive? Is it intelligent? is it entertaining?
Personally, think we need a new Sorting Hat.
*So long as we’re willing to allow stories that contain both spaceships and cowboys to be in both. Ah, Firefly. Seriously, I think this is another thing we sometimes mean when we say a book transcends genre, like people have recently been saying about M.R. Carey’s The Girl With all the Gifts. They mean it will appeal to fans of lots of different genres, which is just another way of saying it’s in lots of different genres, and not outside genre at all.
Two things have happened repeatedly to me over the last few weeks.
First, books keep telling me that ‘Fiction is the art of using lies to tell the truth.’ Second, people keep asking me if it’s deliberate that all the main characters in The Glass Republic, the second Skyscraper Throne novel, are women.
The more I think about it, the more I think these two things are connected. Bear with me here.
First up, let’s talk about the truth.
No, not that ‘The Truth’, the ordinary every day, law of nature truth. Water flows downhill, the sun rises in the east, my hair isn’t coming back any time soon, Orlando Bloom is a terrible actor. That kind of stuff.
The idea that fiction/storytelling/art is all about ‘using lies to tell the truth’ crops up all over the place. It’s in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, and China Miéville’s Embassytown in almost identical formulations. (It’s entirely possible that both of them are quoting someone else, but if so, Google won’t tell me who.)
Roughly, the idea is that fiction works the same way as the metaphors it so often employs. When Macbeth says ‘sleep knits up the ravelled sleeve of care’ he’s saying something true, even if care isn’t literally a sleeve and sleep – afflicted with the same lack of opposable thumbs that almost all nouns suffer from – can’t literally handle a knitting needle. In the same way, 1984 expresses truths about power and oppression, despite clocks never really having struck thirteen in Airstrip One.
This model also firmly establishes the relationship between the lie and the truth: the lie is the delivery system, and the truth is the payload, the lie is the means, and the truth is the end, the lie is the meat-grinder and the truth is… you get the idea.
Except it’s (obviously) more complicated that, because the truth is a means as well as an end. To see why, we need to look at another fantastical bugbear: world building.
World building gets a bad rap. The way it gets talked about, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s an exotic fetish that only SFF writers indulge in between rounds of Magic: The Gathering*. The truth is though, all fiction builds a world. All stories paint a picture of a way our world could be if things were different. The only thing that sets the genres apart is how different.
The point is that the world of the story, the stage Martin has built for his drama to play out on, is built of truth as well as lies. It accurately represents the real world in some ways, and in other ways distorts it.
But so what? Why does any of this matter?
It matters because if your job is interweaving truth and lies, it’s really important to keep an eye on which is which.
And so we come back to the question I’ve been asked four times in the past month: is it deliberate that every major character in The Glass Republic – Pen,the lead; her best friend Beth, her love interest, the villain and the villain’s chief lieutenant -are all women?
The answer is a big fat no. I picked most of those characters when writing The City’s Son, and didn’t have a particular eye on the gender balance of its sequel when I did. But the answer is also an equally big, equally fat yes, because when I wrote The City’s Son, I was also writing a world in where dramas would play out in which the chief actors on all sides were women, and when The Glass Republic came along it was one of those dramas.
And the only reason I built the world of The Skyscraper Throne that way, is because that’s the way the real world is.
In other words, it’s the truth. Not a profound truth, certainly not an insight, just one of the many ordinary things about the real world the story didn’t change, like the direction of the flow of the Thames.
Now, in principle, I have no objection to changing things. I changed loads. I added in runaway train ghosts and glass-skinned streetlamp spirits and a crane-fingered demolition god. I’m a borderline lunatic fantasist, I’ll change anything I want about the world if I have a reason. But I why would I change the fact that women can be as heroic and villainous and powerful and desperate and interesting as anyone else, and certainly enough to dominate a story? Not only do I not have a reason to write that world, but a lot of people a lot more eloquent than me have written about the harm it causes when people do.
I don’t want to make this out to be worse than it is. There are thousands of writers far more skilled than me, writing stories with exquisite care and attention to which parts of their fictional worlds are true and which false, but there are also apparently enough people not doing that that it’s set up a norm. A norm that means that I get asked ‘why so many women?’ – as if that couldn’t just happen in any fictional universe from time to time.
Which, if those universes are supposed to represent the width and breadth of our imaginings, not just of the way things are, but of the way things could be, is obviously nuts.
There are a million reasons to have your story deviate from reality. Reality, after all, sucks donkey balls a lot of the time. Maybe you’re painting a world that’s more hopeful, or more fun, more terrifying or just plain cooler than the real one. But it strikes me that it is important to think about it, to at least have a reason, and to make sure you’re happy with it, before you mix that lie into what’s true.
*(I’m a mono-black control fella myself, that Pestilence/Chimeric Idol combo is a killerˆ
Just had an interesting little chat with Kate Elliott and Kameron Hurley on twitter, the practical upshot of which is that I’m going to blog a bit more about how I wrote my books, and what I think they’re actually saying.
I’ve always been a bit reticent about doing that, mostly because of the following convictions: (a) writers write. (b) readers read. (c) the deconstruction and analysis of stories is fundamentally an act of reading rather than writing.
Now obviously most people online take up both roles at different times and in different contexts, but the fact remains – just because I wrote The Skyscraper Throne novels doesn’t give me any particular advantage in reading them.
What I’m coming around to is the belief that it doesn’t give me a disadvantage either. I’ve burned a lot of daylight and lost a lot of sleep in these books, that gives me a specific perspective, not a better or more right one than any other reader, but different to most. And the discussion with Kameron and Kate persuaded me that it’s a perspective people might find more interesting that I’d previously allowed.
So there’ll be a few more posts, here and other places, dedicated to my reading of Beth and Pen’s adventures, as well as the writing of them. Dissent, as ever, is more than welcome.