Six-String and the Submissions Horse

Am back on the submissions horse after a looong hiatus/ slash/ period of little-to-zero actual writing.

While I get some material down on the page, figure it’s good to keep submitting flash and fragments too, part practice and part motivator.

Carol tucks her ponytail into the back of her dungarees, fingers stained with varnish, nails short. She smokes while working but keeps her goggles on, saving her eyes from wrinkles while scoring lines into her forehead. People think she makes such fine guitars because their shape is womanly, some affinity with the form. Bullshit. Guitars are like the men she’s known: hollow, set in their fretting, stretched by the tension between saddle and head.

Last week, ParagraphPlanet was good enough to post the short short story above, an existing (blogged but unpublished) flash of mine that I reworked and edited down from 96 words to PP’s regulation 75. So there’s that.

Other submission targets are lined up, but the question as always is whether I’ll get any of the current pieces ovefinished to submittable standard.

One line at a time, that’s all you can do.




Somehow, I seem to have convinced myself to take another punt at NaNoWriMo.

November is 12 hours away. I have an unstable character list (the list is unstable, not the characters), some scrappy research, and the whisper of a plot. Also small children to parent and a job.

Twice before I’ve forced myself through the blunt force creative trauma of 50,000 words in a month, in 2010 and 2013. So the attempt rate is dropping, but that’s a pretty limited data set. I’ve “won” NaNoWriMo in those years, and languishing somewhere in a subfolder are the PDF winner’s certificates to prove it.

But both those times, I’ve failed.

2010’s Fantastic Damage (El-P was on repeat) was a desperate smushing together of several long-dormant short story germs. Reader, I did not go back and read it. Or maybe I did and have blanked it out.

2013’s Untitled Longer Project (oh, the mystery!) was a split-hair-over-the-50-thou of preamble and backstory to the novel I wanted to write. But I was deflated by the insipid inconsequentiality of the effort, and after a few weeks of attempting to right the thing, I let it sink to the bottom of my bottomless draw of false writing starts.

You see where I fucked up, right? The first time, it was in dismissing the attempt without even re-reading the thing. The second time, in feeling like the work done was a waste, rather than necessary groundwork to excavate whatever it was that should have been written.

So that’s two valuable lessons learned, albeit at a tortoisal pace. This year will have the immeasurably tougher constraint of working around that parenting business, but on the plus side this year’s idea-nugget feels more viable.

Providing the re-read is done clinically, with a reader’s eye.

Providing the NaNo word dump is sifted carefully, with an honest appreciation for what works and can be built upon.

The point is not so much whether or not I reach 50k. It’s getting teeth stuck into the idea.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

2312_kim_stanley_robinsonEvery few years I’ll think that I don’t read enough science fiction, and that I should dive into some hard SF opus or other, have my mind expanded by all the intergalactic worldgalaxy-building, quantum-powered futurology, and whatnot. My effort for 2016 was 2012’s 2312. And boy was it an effort.

This well-reviewed, Nebula-award winning novel from Kim Stanley Robinson is stuffed with plausible science and technofantasy. It’s packed with interesting ideas: asteroids terraformed from the inside out; the balkanisation of the settled solar system that forms the plot’s political backdrop; the mercurial gender fluidity that propels (kinda) the love story between the two protagonists.

Top marks for the Science. For the Fiction end of things, ehh, not so much.

The best prose is reserved for phenomena. Sunrise on Mercury is “a perpetual blue snarl of hot and hotter”, the sun’s corona dancing fantastically, “all the magnetized arcs and short circuits, the masses of burning hydrogen pitched out at the night”. These passages are enjoyably poetic, but in the main they merely describe, and seldom advance the plot or reveal character.

Human-scale interactions are clumsy, and at times clichéd.Coffee cups are waved around excitedly. The “heroine”, Swan Er Hong (admittedly a great name), beats her tiny fists in frustration against the oversized chest of the “hero”, Wahram.

Props to Robinson for his prescience in populating his novel with gender-fluid characters, in advance of the gender debate going mainstream. At one point he lists 30-odd different genders, and there is a sex scene wherein each party is both – erm – docker and docked. (An inventive, if completely unsexy scene.)

But this gender fluidity has negligible effect on the plot, and less on the characters. Swan is currently more female than male, Wahram more male than female, and as per the fist-beating scene above, there’s nothing aside from the bare facts of birthing history and gentials to give any sense of what that all might mean for their identity, their personality, their character.

Similarly, by now humans have begun speciation, with “talls” and “smalls” hailing from different areas in the solar system. But does this have much bearing on the narrative? Only once, during a gravity failure on an evacuating spaceship:

Genette stumped about them, cheerfully giving orders, and they dragged Wahram to a wall with a railing. Once there Wahram was able to pull himself along on his knees, red-faced and gasping. He fixed Genette with a bulbous eye.

“Thank you, I can proceed now. Please go help someone who can’t. I’m happy to see how the laws of proportion help you here, my friend.”

The inspector paused briefly to mime a stalwart boxer’s stance. “Every small takes up the call! None never yet died by natural cause!”

The boxer’s stance, the clunky dialogue… yeesh! In fact that whole episode is a nadir, with conversations about whether the ship’s insurance will compensate everyone EVACUATED INTO SPACE, and regular reassurances that everyone is going to/has escaped the vessel unharmed, and merely has to wait around to be collected. OK, so Wahram and Swan float around a while, but on a ship with hundreds (thousands?) of people, there are no casualties?

And here’s the worst fault. THERE ARE NO STAKES. There is a world-remaking event on Earth, which is planned sketchily, executed undramatically, and has absolutely no consequences. There is a flimsy mystery, with distant actors. Swan meets no resistance in her attempts to clear it all up, which she does a good hundred pages (if not more) after the mystery has been clear for even the most oblivious reader. There is danger at the start of the book, which arrives without foreshadowing or warning, and which is followed by MULTIPLE chapters of WALKING, interspersed only with whistling and episodes of diahrrea.

It was vexing at the time, now I spell it out like that, it’s downright baffling. And that’s one of the stronger sections of the book. As it goes on, the writing becomes more uneven. There are sentences so downright baffling that they only make sense as placeholders of a work in progress:

Everything on the water moved at a watery pace, including the water itself.

And it’s a real shame, because – digressions on space economics aside (shades of The Phantom Menace) – the interesting ideas never stop flowing. Interstitial chapters function as brain dumps for a lot of this background, written in snippets as if excavated from found documents, though it left me wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to have incorporated all that world-building in the narrative, saving leftover concepts for another work.

I want to remember this book for this kind of thing:

if you program a purpose into a computer program, does that constitute its will? Does it have free will, if a programmer programmed its purpose? Is that programming any different from the way we are programmed by our genes and brains? Is a programmed will a servile will? Is human will a servile will? And is not the servile will the home and source of all feelings of defilement, infection, transgression, and rage?

But it’s too much to have to wade through all that clunkiness, the cliché and unintentional comedy. I rarely leave a book unfinished, so persisted with this, but redemption never came, and it’ll be another few years before I dare scratch the hard sci-fi itch again.

Priorities: Reading v Writing v Due Date

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsNo GoodReads Reading Challenge for me this year. I reached last year’s target, again thanks to a few choice graphic novels/comic hardbacks to counterbalance doorstep’s like The Luminaries. But TB-brutally-H it felt as if I was reading to bump up the book count, with the target always to finish fast. Is that conducive to good reading? Wide reading, intensive reading, yes. Clinical, technical, checkbox reading, yes. Not so much with the luxuriating in a text, wallowing there, inhabiting it body and soul.

There’s also the twinge of cynicism I can’t help but feel about GoodReads now that it’s Amazon-owned. In that light, the Reading Challenge just feels like a prompt to buy, buy, buy more inventory.

Reading is no problem. But it’s writing I need to be doing more of. Isn’t that always the complaint? Write, write more, write about anything. To blah or not to blah. Here it comes, another blogpost about blogposts. *SHUDDERS*

It’s never a thoughtful blogpost for me. Is that a mistake? Instead, it’s the first draft brain dump. Unedited stunt writing, unexpurgated, a la Knausgård – who BTW in Book 2 of My Struggle (“A Man In Love“) is coming across as a total dick, which okay is a bravery all of its own, an honesty less glamorous than petty criminality or heroin hijinks, because let’s be honest who comes off best, the helpless addict or the father whinging about his childcare duties? So Knausgård struggles against the selflessness required to be a parent in order to pursue the erasure of self he finds in writing. Transcendence, flow, engagement… it’s all pushing up towards the point of Maslow’s pyramid. Right?

So yes, we have a baby on the way, and that was probably the impetus for this post. We’re moving, and I’m freelancing, and I still need to learn Swedish (not nearly fluent yet). And even now it’s hard enough to maintain the writing necessary to keep contributing to the Amsterdam writing group that I’m still Skyping in to. How’s having a baby going to impact that? Or will it bring regularity and order to our lives, minute-to-minute scheduling that magically *does* give me the space to write?

Naming Conventions in Dune

It was one of the customs the two sons of Jamis had explained to him by indirection telling him they wore no green because they accepted him as guardian-father. ‘Are you the Lisan al-Gaib?’ they had asked. And Paul had sensed the jihad in their words shrugged off the question with one of his own – learning then that Kaleff the elder of the two was ten and the natural son of Geoff. Orlop the younger was eight the natural son of Jamis.

– Frank Herbert, Dune

Sorry, “Geoff”? Worst – sci-fi name – ever. Sticks out like a sore thumb in that little vignette of desert blood debt adoption. “Paul” you can get on board with, especially given the name’s roots and Dune‘s Abrahamically religious themes. But GEOFF?!

Contrast A Song of Ice and Fire, where many recognisable names are given a slight twist. Geoffrey becomes Joffrey, Peter is Petyr, and Edward Eddard. That’s fine, that works. I buy that.

So, Dune, hey? Yes, world building, and yes, that’s a daring Middle East analogy for a book written in 1965. All the same: tedious/turgid, much? Oh boy.

One can write having slept badly

One of those problems – though of course one of the least important – was those very writers from the provinces, who typically visited the literary workshops of other writer from the provinces who’d arrived in the capital some time ago and who were no longer writers from the provinces, or they pretended not to be, or the writers wrote in squalid pensions or in houses they shared with friends, usually from the same provinces, and later they worked in shops or drugstores or – if they were lucky – in bookstores, almost always with ridiculous schedules that ended up impairing their ability to dedicate themselves seriously to writing and, as a result, sooner or later, the writers from the provinces ended up hating literature, which they practised dog-tired, writing in crowded buses or on the metro, since writing otherwise robbed the hours of sleep necessary to put up with their bosses and customers and the weather and the long rides on the bus or the metro, and because this always seemed to be one step further than the place where they had arrived; the writers from the provinces always gave the impression that they would achieve literature with their next story or poem, that they were at the gates of a discovery that they weren’t in a condition to realize, though, because unfortunately to write one needs to have slept at least six hours and have a full stomach and, when it’s possible, not to work at a drugstore. Further: one can write having slept badly and while feeling atrociously hungry, but never while working at a drugstore; it’s sad but true.

– Patricio Pron, A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs (from Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists

Oh, not to be a writer from the provinces! But oh, even to be that.

Picking up the pen today.

Holiday Reading: Sardinia Edition

EganGoonA 9 book/2 week holiday seems like pretty good going. Decent mix of holiday fun and overdue quality reads. I *was* aiming for 10 (with William Boyd’s Restless lined up next), but with The Luminaries (hella long) and Moby Dick (often turgid) to slog through, I was happy with this:

  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carré
  • A Death in the Family (My Struggle #1), Karl Ove Knausgård
  • Sea and Sardinia, DH Lawrence
  • The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt
  • Moby Dick, Herman Melville
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
  • Revival, Vol. 1: You’re Among Friends, Tim Seeley with Mike Norton & Mark Englert
  • NOS4A2, Joe Hill
  • The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

And started on the plane back:

  • Stranger Things Happen, Kelly Link

The lone duffer was Sea and Sardinia, in which DH Lawrence reveals himself an elitist prig, viciously stereotyping Sardinians, Sicilians, and more while at the same time bemoaning how he is stereotyped by them. Lawrence’s lack of empathy and self-awareness in this travelogue make him seem thoroughly repellent, and therefore the occasional snatches of beautiful writing ring cynically hollow.

More importantly, the gold stars go to: le Carré’s The Spy…, which is tense, absorbing, and morally disturbing; and the very funny, and equally moving, A Visit from the Goon Squad. I know I’m late to that particular party, but …Goon Squad really is a must, must, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer-just-get-on-and-do-it must-read. You know what to do.