Reading and Writing…

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.

Something Wicked This Way Comes….

our-lady-of-the-streets

Friends, Londonauts, Monsterists,

I have news.

The Skyscraper Throne comes to an end this year, when Our Lady of The Streets hits the shelves. And this my friends, is where shit gets heavy. Streets run 1000 degree fevers, sewer dragons battle attack helicopters, and last ditch alliances are forged as Beth and Pen make their last stand.

You might not be able to tell from my laconic internet demeanour (OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD), but I’m quite excited.

So, to get everybody ready for the main event, my esteemed publisher Jo Fletcher Books is doing something very cool.

THE DEETS: Four chapters a week, every week, they’re hosting a reread of the ENTIRE series up to this point, that’s both The City’s Son and the The Glass Republic, with a recap and discussion on Thursdays, starting on 6th of Feb.

At the end of each section, I’ll host here, pass around the virtual hob nobs, and witter a bit about what on earth I was on when I wrote that scene.

Fancy joining the chat? Amazing. Got some burning thoughts on London, or Urban Fantasy? Pull up a virtual chair, crack your knuckles and join in the comments, we’d love to have you. (There’s a prize each week for our favourite comment)

Want to take the chat to twitter? All good, just check out #skyscraperthronereread.

Are you a blogger? Even better. Fancy hosting a week on your own blog, and sharing your own thoughts? Well clearly you are the Sultan of Awesomehood, and it is here ordained that you shall drop a comment here, and we’ll make it happen.

Quick, not wholly cynically mercenary reminderThe City’s Son is only 87p on kindle in the UK right now, so if you want to join in, now is a good cheap time to do it.

Obligatory, but true schmaltzy bit: Stories don’t happen without readers. The ink and paper bit I do is just the blueprint, you’re the ones that build the pylon spiders and crane-fingered demolition gods in your minds. It’s been completely amazing making this happen with you guys and I can’t wait for you to get stuck into the last piece of the puzzle.

Avanti!

Tom

Tis the season…

It’s that time of the year  to cackle fannishly about books we loved last year, and then nominate them for things.  So here are three books I’ll be nominating for the BSFAs, BFS awards and the Hugos:

What I’m nominating this award season:

Machine

 

THE MACHINE – by James Smythe.

What is it?

In a flood-ravaged near future Britain, Beth prepares herself: her husband is coming home.  He was a soldier once, but now he is all but an empty shell, his memories and his personality stolen by The Machine during a botched treatment for PTSD.  Now though, Beth has a Machine of her own, and she’s determined to bring her husband back.

Why am I nominating it?

Because it was the best book I read last year: It’s a short, sharp, moving and immaculately written tale of the psychology of love and loss. With raw honesty, it tackles two of the scariest questions in life: what happens when the people you love change beyond all recognition, and what lengths would you go to if you thought you could change them back?

 

WolfhoundWOLFHOUND CENTURY by Peter Higgins

What is it?

New Weird conspiracy thriller. In a fantastical totalitarian state inspired by Stalinist Russia, Detective Vissarion Lom races to stop a terrorist bent on changing history itself.

Why am I nominating it:

Because the Soviet Russia-analogue is under siege from giant stone angels that fall out of the sky, and because the rain is sentient and giants serve in the secret police, and because all of this is presented with a shrug, as a fait-accompli, because this is the world, deal with it. Also, it nails the most important part of building any secondary world: the atmosphere. You can really feel the cold of the wind, the scratch of the cigarette smoke and the weight of the architecture on every page.

DreamthievesTHE DREAM THIEVES by Maggie Stiefvater

What is it?

Book 2 of the Raven Boys cycle: The only girl in her family who isn’t psychic has teamed up with four boys from the richest school in town to search for the body of ancient Welsh King along a lay line in Northern Virginia.  One of the boys is a ghost, a second bargained away the use of his sense to a sentient forest at the end of book 1, and now it turns out a third can pull objects out of his own dreams. Oh, and there’s a hit man in town too.

Why am I nominating it.

Because despite containing all the bonkers stuff described above, it always feels real and grounded and rooted, and that’s because the characters are real, and grounded and rooted.  Every supernatural problem is balanced and complicated by a real-world one just as engaging. It’s also an excellent example of networked characters, no one fully understands themselves and different POVs reveal different sides of each of them. It’s really beautifully done.

Okay, that’s me. What about you guys? What are you guys nominating?

( P.S You can vote for the Hugos here:  http://www.loncon3.org/nominations.php

The BFSA awards here:

http://www.bsfa.co.uk/bsfa-awards/

and the BFS awards, here:

http://www.britishfantasysociety.co.uk/british-fantasy-awards/the-british-fantasy-awards-a-short-history/)

 

Doctor’s Note

 

Fez 2

Deerstalker

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Sherlock Who,

I know everyone says this, but I really do mean it. It’s not you, it’s me.

How to explain? It was great at first. How could it not have been? You had everything: cracking one liners, amazing taste in tweed, and cheekbones I could etch glass with. You had that little bit of glamour, and I was seduced.

It was more than the looks and the wits and the neckwear, though.  I blush a bit to admit it, but I think the real reason I fell for you in the beginning, is you appealed to my ego.

Remember saying this?

‘Of course not, you aren’t afraid of anything, box falls out of the sky, man falls out the box, now he’s opposite you eating fishy custard and you just sit there.  Know what I think? Must be one hell of a scary crack in your wall.’

You made me feel brave.

Remember walking away from the hospital while that triumphant music played, and your brother said our names one after the other over the top of it?  You made me feel powerful.

You made me feel special. This is going to sound goofy, but you made me feel like a hero.

I suppose it was inevitable that it couldn’t last – I mean, no one can feel special forever, right?  And I probably could have gotten used to it only, well, then there was the whole lying thing.

People do say, don’t they, that that’s a bad sign in any relationship, the lying? Especially when it’s not the “that moustache really suits you” sort of lie, but more the, well, the ‘I’m dead’ sort of a lie.

And not to put too fine a point on it Dr Holmes, but you do seem to tell that particular lie rather a lot.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned.  I was, plenty of times. Someone who’s known you a lot longer than me told me: ‘Rule one: The Doctor lies.’  You yourself even called yourself a sociopath. Only, when you and she told me these things you said them with a sort of wry smile, like they were good things, endearing little foibles, and I just sort of laughed them off.

I really, really don’t know why.

But the thing is, Sherloctor, I don’t feel like a hero any more. You’re too smart, and too secretive and you spend too much time leaving me in the dark. If the idea of a hero is that one person can make a difference, the idea behind you seems to be that us children should get out the way and let the grown-up handle it, and that’s just… not inspiring.

Like I said, it’s not you. It’s me. It’s that your kind of heroism doesn’t leave any room for me.  I don’t feel like a hero any more, and I miss it.

So I’m off.  I’ve found a phone box and a magnifying glass and a  tin of (green) paint and I’ve got an elementary knowledge of the crimey-whimey stuff.  I expect I’ll find my way – I learn fast and I’ve got a lot of friends who’ll help me out. Plus, we’ve been running into those angels so often that I’m getting really good at not blinking, so don’t worry about me.

Cheerio then, thanks for everything. It was a blast while it lasted. Try not to actually fall off any buildings while I’m gone.

By the way,  I hope you don’t mind, I took your hat.

Yours (heroically)

Amy Watson.

 

(Thanks to Jon Courtenay Grimwood for ‘Crimey Whimey’)

The Great Escapism

I’ve never liked calling fantasy ‘escapism’, because in constituting real life as something to be escaped, it makes reading fantasy into a kind of running away, something people only do because they’re afraid, and it isn’t that.

You wouldn’t say that everyone who travels does so because they’re fleeing their homeland, would you? Not just because they want their experience to expand a bit beyond the narrow box of their birthplace.  And if Fantasy can take your mind even further afield, to countries where your body could never follow, places that are stranger and wilder than the familiar bus-stops and supermarkets and offices of realistic fiction, then it seems to me it demands a little more courage from its readers, not less.

When I Grow Up…

 

Oh…FP

Goody, we’re doing this again.

An article by Jonathan Myerson (from City University’s creative writing program) has popped up on the Guardian comment blog to proclaim that ‘Children’s fiction is not Great Literature’, and to castigate the University of Kent for retracting the statement on their website saying the same.

Okay, so I’m pretty dumb, I put the remote control in the fridge about 3 times a week, but I’m not so dumb that I don’t know when I’m being baited. I’m like Roger Rabbit listening to ‘shave and a haircut’ being tapped out on the radiator next to my secret compartment, it’s just so *hard* not burst forth and fill in my bit of the song.

Still, rather than dwelling on the manifold and manifest aspects of the article’s wrongheadedness, I want to ask a question: why do we get pieces like this so eye-bleedingly often?

The more I think about this, the more I’m convinced it’s not because the people who write this stuff lack respect for kid’s literature, it’s because they lack respect for kids. Not that they don’t like kids, you understand, they just fundamentally underestimate what it takes to be one. Even the ways in which they cede ground to children’s writing are veiled digs at its readership: ‘ the best children’s books are better structured and written than many adult works’, Myerson admits. Am I crazy, or is he implying that they have to be, because otherwise the fickle infants will get bored and switch to Angry Birds?

Charitably, we might characterize their argument like this: kids are still growing, they’ve only been around for a handful of years, they don’t have the experience, either as readers or human beings, to fully grasp the things adults can. As Myerson puts it, he would not have wanted his own children ‘at 11, 12 or 13 – to confront the complexity and banality of evil’.

On the surface, this looks reasonable, because after all, kids are still growing. But look at it another way, kids are still growing. They’re learning more and faster than adults do, and what they think and who they are is changing at a terrifying rate. Stories speak to who we are, and kids writers have to find a way to be relevant to identities that are constantly in flux. It’s like trying to crack a safe that’s constantly spinning its own tumblers.

And maybe eleven and twelve and thirteen year olds are ready to learn about the complexity and banality of evil, and maybe they aren’t. But here’s the thing, evil is just going to keep being complex and banal, whether they’re ready for it or not, and kids are going to see that evil on the news and in the playground, and if they’re unlucky they’ll see it in their own damn homes. Great children’s stories, the kind written by Ness and Hardinge and Peet, don’t try and hide that from their readers, they just offer to hold their hands while they face it, and let them know they aren’t alone.

The irony is that there’s a children’s series that’s explicitly about all this: His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. (It’s also a series where questions of good and evil, freedom and safety and control are far from black and white.)

What Pullman and all the best writers of children’s literature know, is that kids aren’t just adults in training, they aren’t waiting to become people when they grow up, they’re people right now.

Won’t somebody please think of the children…

So there’s another ‘won’t somebody please think of the children’ blog up, this time at The Millions. It’s, at minimum, the tenth I’ve seen this year, all based on the same premise: YA fiction is too dark, it’s morally bankrupt, it’s vacuous, it’s harmful to it’s readers, especially the teenaged girls who consume it in their millions. Oh for the halcyon days when romantic fiction portrayed a more positive message about teens, like… Romeo and Juliet.

Oh wait.

The sacred bovinity of old Bill Shakespeare’s double-suicide blockbuster notwithstanding, what these pieces have in common, is their apparent lack of interest in what the readers who love Twilight and The Hunger Games see in those books. In her piece, Ms Mallonee acknowledges that Katniss Everdeen and Bella Swan are influential, and loved by millions, but at no point in more than 3,000 words does she stop to ask why? Which is kinda weird, since her piece seems to be all about how dangerous these books are, you’d have thought that question would be pretty key to her endeavour.

Instead she asks David Levithan, and a some film critics and a bunch of reviewers, all of whom I’d guess are over twenty-five, and none of whom have anything nice to say about Bella Swan. Personally, I can’t say I blame them, I’m not wild about Twilight either. But Twilight isn’t for me. I daresay it’s not for Ms Mallonee either, but if she wanted to know what the people who it is for love about it, there are about a hundred and fifty million of them she could have put the question to.

It’s hard not to believe that the reason she, and everyone else I’ve seen make this argument over the last few months, don’t ask is simply that they don’t care. They’ve made up their minds. They don’t think there are any valid reasons to love these books. Stripped of the sermonizing concern, their argument boils down to: I don’t like Bella Swan, so any reasons you might have to like her must be wrong.

This looks like a statement about the books, but really it’s a statement about their readers. They don’t believe teens (and teen girls in particular) are capable of having an informed and engaged opinion about the books they love, purely because that opinion is one with which they disagree. And that’s nonsense.

Over and over, the article frames the value of teen books in terms of what they can teach us:

“Fantasies can be valuable testaments to the power of literature, allowing readers to work out real-world problems in a metaphorical context and encouraging creativity, courage, and self-sacrifice.”

I’m not convinced that this is the only value to be found in stories – Frances Hardinge says “Books are there, when no one else is”, which I think is a beautiful way of putting it – but its certainly true books can teach us things, things that are worth learning, and things that aren’t.

Who gets to decide which lessons go into which box, though, is a tricky question.

People need to learn, whether they’re sixteen or sixty. It’s axiomatic: living things grow, and conscious living things grow mentally and mental growth is learning, and stories help us do that. Not just for teenagers, all of us. And maybe you think there are some troubling lessons in some of the books we love. Maybe you’re even right, I mean have you read The Lord of the Rings recently?

But have at least enough empathy and respect to ask the opinion of the people you’re trying to save from themselves. You might find that the teenaged girls you’re talking too know all about those problems already, and love Twilight in spite of them. You might find that these girls are smart, articulate, engaged people. You might even find their reasons persuade you. Who knows until you ask?

Furniture

Chest

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I was nine, I had a chest of drawers in my room. It was a massive squat thing,  missing handles on three of its four drawers, the white paint had peeled off in big piebald patches, and the front right leg had sheared away so that it so that tilted forward, bowing to you with a kind of rickety courtesy.

My Dad had dragged it out of an attic somewhere and had been going to smash it up for fire wood, but I insisted I wanted it instead. I think he only let me keep it because it was the sole object in the known universe that could get me to put my clothes away.

My parents urged me to let them get rid of it. It was ugly and termite-chewed and it gave off a faint smell of damp loam that soaked into my socks. My Mum and Dad kept offering to buy me a new chest of drawers, but I wouldn’t let them, because this one was mine in a way a new one could never be.  I had claimed it. I was a kid, and I had no money and no power, the only things I could really possess were the things no one else valued, so I determined to build my kingdom from them.

By virtue of no one else wanting it, the old chest of drawers had passed out of their world, and into mine. It was subject to my imagination.

My fantasy for the chest was straightforward. I wanted to be kind to it, to treat it with the dignity befitting it’s former majesty. I brought my Thundercats t-shirts to it like bearing tribute to an old king, fallen on hard times, huddled around a trash-can fire under Southwark Bridge.

I wish I could remember what had happened to that chest of drawers, but it has passed out of even my world now. Maybe it went to a dump, and maybe some other kid salvaged it from that place and gave it a few more weeks of love and reverence. Most likely my Dad did it into firewood in the end.  But even if that chest of drawers is no longer subject to me, I’m still subject to it, because I’m still doing what it taught me.

I write a lot about discarded things. My fancies for them now are a little more elaborate: empty eggshell eyes and broken mirror doorways, landfill palaces and demolition-site killing fields, but at heart it’s the same thing. I just make a little space in my world for the furniture no one else wants in theirs: patch up its paintwork and stick a book under it’s broken leg, and then bring it tribute for a while.

Brie, Banquets and Badass Sex.

Tis the season to titter prudishly, as with the repetitive tediousness of an absent minded cock slapping, the bad sex award shortlist has come round again. I usually ignore the BS award, as I would urge you to – nothing is more worthy of your inattention. This year, however, one of the books on the shortlist surprised me:

TLB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Banquet – Jonathan Grimwood.

Why was I surprised? Because Jonathan Grimwood is the all-but-impenetrable secret identity of Jon Courtenay Grimwood – cyber-noir writer extraordinaire.

Full disclosure, I’m a big JCG fan, and some of the sex scenes in his earlier books are hotter than the volcanic core of a fresh-out-of-the-toaster poptart. He excels at writing about the pleasures (and pains) of the flesh, so when I saw his name on the list, I thought ‘JCG, what on earth went wrong?’

Well, reader, I read The Last Banquet, and guess what: nothing went wrong. The sex is fantastic.

The BS award website quotes the following short extract for our dairy delectation:

“Reaching behind me, I found the Brie and broke off a fragment, sucking her nipple through it. She tasted almost as she had the day I took the drop of milk on my finger.”

See? Fantastic.

I say that not because I’m overly turned on by the thought of sucking a nipple through a fragment of brie (though if you do happen to be a pappilactophile, more power to your cheese-covered arm), but because the sex scenes in TLB, and there are many, are some of the best in-character writing I’ve read this year.

A couple of days back I asked Twitter to recommend good sex writing. I got a wild variety of responses, including a lot of fanfic, and several shout-outs to Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts. In addition, a good few people asked:

‘Isn’t what would count for you as good sex writing, too personal for us to judge?’

Well… yes and no.

If my unimpeachably scientific experiment with social media proves anything, it’s that what tickles the naughty centres in our brains is deeply personal* and subjective. Hardly an earth-shaking conclusion, I know. Except that if this is true for real people, it’s just as true for characters, which makes a sex scene one of the most telling things you can write to delineate and illuminate the people in your story.

That’s where TLB excels. Protagonist Jean-Marie D’Aumout’s bedroom antics are simultaneously analytical and joyous. He’s a scientist who loves to get his hands dirty. His natural taxonomic eye (and tongue) don’t distance him from the world, they bring him closer, and always, always everything comes back to his one true obsession: taste.

Grimwood gives you all that, from one two-line sex scene. Plus he works in the phrase ‘a secret known only to him, and to the chief condom-maker to the Ottoman Sultan.’ And if that’s not a phrase to conjure with, then you can just go ahead and paddle me, because I don’t know what to say to you.

And that’s why, for all that teh hawtness is subjective and personal (like all art), there is such a thing as good sex writing that we can recognize and recommend. The point of it though, isn’t necessarily to turn you on, but to tell the story, to let you get to know the characters in their most intimate space. That’s why reading a sex scene out of context will tell you pretty much nothing, and also why the Bad Sex award is full of B.S.

P.S To anyone about to tell me not to take the BSA so seriously, let me assure you that there is nothing on our lovely verdant planet I take less seriously than the Bad Sex Award. For all that, I think it’s become a form of mild censure via embarrassment that’s at best pointless and at worst slightly unhelpful. Exponentially more importantly though, I wanted to say ‘chief condom-maker to the Ottoman Sultan.’