Why everyone should be a science fiction fan, by Ben Jeapes

Giles Coren’s first and so far only novel, Winkler, was published in 2005. He got a £30k advance, it was slated in reviews, it won a Bad Sex Award, and combined hardback and paperback sales barely nudged the 1000 mark. He retired hurt, not to mention baffled, and stuck to non-fiction.

GilesCoren-failed bookTen years later he felt brave enough to make a documentary about it. Links have changed since I first saw it, but search “Giles Coren my failed novel” and you’ll find it. It’s really quite touching as you see the penny begin to drop. He speaks to the reviewers who had slated it. He listens in on a book club tearing it apart. He takes the first chapters to a creative writing course workshop. He tries rereading it himself and finds it unbearable. (He can’t get through the Bad Sex Award-winning passage without breaking down into laughter.) He listenes in awe to the likes of David Mitchell and Jeffrey Archer as they describe their highly disciplined writing habits, and admits to the latter that he had basically been lazy.

And he comes to the conclusion that this was the first novel everyone has – the one that should be written and then spend the rest of eternity in a trunk in the attic. Only, because he was Giles Coren, his got sold for a £30k advance. You sense that even he feels the injustice of this. No one likes being done a favour.

But here’s the thing. Coren was born in 1969. He’s in his late 40s, but I can’t imagine his discoveries and revelations being news to anyone past their late 20s or even late teens. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been spoiled by growing up in the science fiction community, where expertise and experience flow like milk and honey. I read Dave Langford’s columns in 8000 Plus. I went to Milford. I jostled with the large crowd trying to get through the narrow doorway of Interzone acceptance. I knew it took hard work. I knew that if you didn’t think this was your best yet then you didn’t send it in. How did anyone not know that?

Conclusion: everyone should be an sf fan.

One thing Coren doesn’t do is confront his agent or his editor of ten years ago to ask what the hell they thought they were doing, letting it be published in the first place. They must have known it was rubbish. Sadly, we can probably guess the answer: he was Giles Coren and they assumed it would sell. You can’t blame them for the commercial realities of life.

The programme ends on a high note with Coren talking to William Nicholson, who is in his late sixties, the winner of many awards, and who thinks he’s just about getting the hang of it now.

The one drawback of the entire show is that for a terrible five minutes I found myself warming to Jeffrey Archer.

 

bjeapes01Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 7 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer. His first Milford was at Margate in 1991, which shows (a) how far Milford has come in the past 26 years and (b) qualifies him as a Great Old One, in Milford terms at least. www.benjeapes.com

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Stepping Over the Bones by Matt Colborn

The other day, seeking inspiration on the Internet, I came across the following:

“There is no happily ever after in life, or in the career you’re building. There’s no gold medal. No end to the race. There is just the endless marathon through a desert teaming with snakes and jagged rocks and riddled with the bones of exhausted colleagues who have fallen along the way.”

This statement, by Locus blogger Kameron Hurley, sums up how a lot of professional writers seem to feel. There’s no sense of joy, just a miserable, endless slog to the career grave. But how do professional writers end up like this? And why do they seem to accept it

A fictional example may help. Guido, a young lad in Michael Ende’s children’s novel Momo, becomes popular by making up fabulous stories about the town in which he lives. To begin with, he tells these stories for the joy of it, and they are wild, imaginative and exciting.

This is bad news for the villains in the book, the grey men who steal time, who decide to neutralize Guido. They do this by giving him his heart’s desire. First, he gets in a newspaper, and then is ‘discovered’ by television and radio. Soon he is famous, in demand, and completely miserable.

I’m sure that Guido’s dilemma sounds very familiar. There is the sense that fun will be jettisoned as one’s career develops, and professional commitments squeeze out silly daydreams. The transition from amateur to professional, then, is the change from a giddy daydreamer to a serious-minded, professional adult.

But if professional life is really so miserable, and demands the sacrifice of vitality and playfulness, is it worth the effort? What is the use of selling a million copies of a book, if you’re left a hollow shell, robotically writing the next New York Times bestseller? Even worse, what if you jettison those precious parts of yourself, and fail anyway?

It is my belief that maturity, in any part of life, should not mean slaughtering one’s soul.

When developing a professional writing career, there is always a danger that extrinsic motivations will begin to seem more important than intrinsic reasons for writing. This is one of the seductions of becoming a professional.

Extrinsic motivations are things like money, or getting your short stories and novels published, getting fabulous reviews, gaining a large online audience and maybe even an award or two. Extrinsic motivation also has a negative side, called fear.

Intrinsic motivation, by contrast, means play and imagination. It means writing for the fun of it, taking pride in one’s work, and enjoying the act of creation.

The problem is that extrinsic motivations tend to stifle intrinsic motivations. It’s quite striking, sometimes, how many professional column writers tend to focus on the external and tangible at the expense of the inner.

This switch in motivations occurs because of the conflict between the imaginative life and surviving in capitalism. Ursula Le Guin was correct to say that “the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed,” and that “amused contempt is about the pleasantest emotion either partner feels for the other.”

This conflict is most visible when authors feel forced to ‘brand’ and market themselves as disposable products. It is perhaps an indicator of how deeply consumerist values have penetrated that we don’t see how inhumane this demand actually is.

The solution to this is to go back to basics, and remember what got us excited about storytelling in the first place.

When I first started telling stories, as a small child, I had no thought of publication. Like Guido, I loved exploring imaginary and fantastic worlds. For me, storytelling was an expression of the rich, often frightening but always vital world in which I lived.

Good writing demands the recovery of that inner life, and a refusal to be dominated by money, fame or fear. The imagination, which is like fire, needs air to breathe.

Sources:
Kameron’s Hurley’s column
‘Staying Awaken’ by Ursula Le Guin

matt-colborn-mugshotMatt Colborn is a freelance writer and academic with a doctorate in cognitive science. He has written for the Guardian as well as SFX and Interzone magazines. He writes across the spectrum of speculative fiction. He published a collection of short fiction, ‘City in the Dusk and Other Stories,’ in 2013 and is currently completing a novel. His website is at http://mattcolbornwriter.blogspot.co.uk

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Pick and Mix Story Ideas

2012-09 Milford Trigonos

Picture Prompt 1

Contributors: Jim Anderson, Jacey Bedford, Karen Brenchley, Dave Gullen, Jackie Hatton, Terry Jackman, Ben Jeapes, Sue Thomason. (All picture prompt images (c) Jacey Bedford.)

Readers often ask writers where they get their ideas from. Most writers have more ideas than they can ever use, therefore not all of them are developed. The writers credited above contributed random story ideas for your edification and delight.

Give the same prompt to ten different writers and you’ll end up with ten completely different stories. You can even use the same prompt more than once.

Picture prompt:

  1. “Space travel has a very high energy cost and very high levels of emissions. Surely it is against any commitment to sustainability for this to be permitted ‘for fun’.” (quote from recent newspaper)
  2. Too busy for a real holiday I book a VR holiday. I’m sitting in the VR aeroplane and somebody hijacks it.
  3. Roll up, roll up. See the world’s smallest dragon…
  4. ‘Rights broker’ for different classes of being (e.g. human with genetic upgrades) – rights (to live, to work etc.) are treated as commodities.
  5. In 2005, a representative of the Geographers’ A-Z Map Company told the BBC that their London map-book contained more than 100 fabricated (i.e. fictional) streets. (condensed from recent copy of THE BIG ISSUE)
  6. If you’re swinging from a rope inside a long brick tube with daylight a hundred feet above you, do you climb up or down? It all depends whether it’s a chimney or a well.
  7. As a combination of To Serve Man and Masterchef, what sort of story can people make out of human cuisine as a new delicacy on an alien world.
  8. You’re much less likely to encounter wandering monsters when following a road.
  9. A woman living in a small country village awakens to a great shuddering thud. She rushes outside expecting to find a fallen tree. Instead she finds a largish metallic sphere.
  10. One day gravity inverts and everything falls up into the sky.

    IMG_0639

    Picture Prompt 2

  11. First contact between invisible, mass-sensing aliens and humans, who can’t see them.
  12. Smile. The corners of her mouth drew back suddenly like playhouse curtains opening for the final act of a macabre mystery.
  13. Person followed everywhere by ghost of 2-year-old toddler child they don’t have – child is left over from temporal realignment.
  14. “My vegetable love shall grow (Vaster than empires and more slow)” — To His Coy Mistress. I know some people love their vegetables, but this could become… horrifying.
  15. A tale of life at one of the stops on the underground railway smuggling the last of the faeries to a safe place.
  16. Shipcomp, please. Ten years on a space ship is such a long time to be cooped up together – can you prove your love will last the journey?
  17. Rowan tree – mountain ash – a magical tree in suburbia.
  18. “Well now, It’s all a matter of how much offspring are worth in the current market, Madam. These things fluctuate quite a lot, you know.”
  19. Guinevere’s second-youngest sister
  20. “We knew the tide had turned when the number of civilians shot for cannibalism began to go down.”
2012-09 Carnarfon Castle walls

Picture prompt 3

11-00 thin ice

Picture prompt 4

Ilkley Moor cross 2-sm

Picture prompt 5

2002 wallclimb

Picture prompt 6

Tree Fire 005

Picture prompt 7

US March 03 Silver Birch in snow

Picture prompt 8

US March 03 026

Picture prompt 9

stonegate dark 2

Pictire prompt 10

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Make Me Care by Sue Thomason

Writer, I have just picked up your novel, and I’m reading the opening pages. I’ve opened the door of the mind-transporter; here comes my first glimpse of a whole new world. It looks good, and something fascinating is going on over there… And then this big hairy bloodspattered guy walks casually over, sword in one hand, blaster in the other, and he smells of garlic and belches into my face, and I slam the transporter door closed and put it hastily back on the shelf because I don’t want to spend the next few hours sitting next to him. The problem here, Writer, is that I have not warmed to your protagonist.

Big problem.

Last time I critted an opening-chapter protagonist I didn’t warm to, Writer’s reply was “I’ll make him nicer.”

And I thought, that isn’t quite what I need. I’m happy to spend time with people who aren’t nice. Paul Atreides isn’t nice; neither is Sparrowhawk. Breq Mianaai isn’t nice. Granny Weatherwax isn’t nice. So what exactly is the problem here?

Then I found a quote from John Yorke’s book INTO THE WOODS: “The protagonist is… the person the audience care most about. ‘Care’ is often translated as ‘like’, which is why so many writers are given the note ‘Can you make them nice?’” And I thought YES, that’s it! Protagonist, you don’t have to be nice, but you do have to care about stuff, and you have to make me care about that stuff too. You have to show me your agenda, part of it at least. If I don’t understand what you’re doing straight away, I have to have a reason to want to hang around and find out more. We have to build a good relationship, fast; in the opening pages. You have to win my trust, to convince me that whatever you’re telling the rest of the cast, you’re being honest with me, you’re opening up to me. The garlic’s because of the ongoing vampire problem. You’re spattered with blood because you’ve just come from the field hospital. The sword is your recently-dead sister’s, the blaster is a sterile-field generator, you’re hairy because you’ve just worked a triple shift trying to save as many people as possible, with no time off for grooming. You’re sorry about the belch; coming off-shift you were so thirsty that you drank a litre of Choke. And you’ve always hated being so big. You bang your head on doorframes, your feet stick off the end of your sleep-mat, and people are scared of you because you’re big. You so hate that.

Now – too late – now I’m starting to understand. If I had known all that, or even some of that, before I met you, I wouldn’t have slammed the door on you. You’re bitter; yes, I’m really not surprised. You’re twisted; yes, who wouldn’t be, after what you’ve gone through? You’ve done some dreadful things, killing your sister for example; some people might call that monstrous, but I can see why you thought it was right, why you felt you had to do that. I understand. I empathise. I want to support you now; I’m cheering for you. You’re telling me your story, and I care about how it comes out. I hope you solve your problems. I want you to survive, and learn, and change. I want to spend an evening with you, sometime soon. I’ll buy dinner. Tell me more…

Sue Thomason

Sue Thomason

I currently live in rural North Yorkshire, near the sea, with an ex-GP and up to 5 cats. Varied involvement with written SF has included a handful of published short stories, reviewing for both VECTOR and FOUNDATION, co-editing an anthology of locally-based SF/F stories, and being Chair of Milford.  I write fiction mostly for my own entertainment and to find out what happens (often this surprises me). My other interests include outdoor pursuits, gardening, classical/early/folk music, and collecting interesting or unusual paper clips.

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I don’t know what colour the wallpaper is – by Marion Pitman

wallpaperI don’t know what colour the wallpaper is, or what flowers are growing in the garden. I only work out with an enormous effort what season it is, what the weather is doing, what day of the week it is. I’m not talking about my everyday life – well, not every day. If there is some telling detail – the smell of stale beer, chewing gum under the table, the sound of seagulls in hobnailed boots dancing on the roof – that will, for me, suffice for atmosphere. World building is not my thing. It took me three years to finish reading the Lord of the Rings – whole chapters of nothing but weather. Apparently that was something Tolkien and Lewis had in common – a passion for weather.

If you ask me which comes first for me, character or plot, I’d have to say neither – what comes first is story, people in a situation, in a relationship or network of relationships. Story is not plot. Plot has to be worked out once you know the story. You can tell the same story with different plots. And you can do the relationships with different characters.

If I’m trying to write something in a particular setting, or with particular characters, my mind is a blank until I can find a story that suits that setting or those characters. A Story – ancient, immortal, winding through human minds since there were such things. And it doesn’t boil down to boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets eaten by something from the outer darkness.

I go to story telling sessions, occasionally tell a story. You hear all sorts of stories – anecdotes, extended jokes, shaggy dog stories, folk tales, ghost stories, re-tellings of epics or ancient myths. You’ve usually got about ten minutes, max. So in terms of story length it’s a short-short. You’ve got to grab the audience and get them to listen, and follow what’s happening – they can’t turn back to check a detail. You have to set the scene very quickly – There was a king, and he had three sons; there was a woodcutter who was very poor, and couldn’t feed his children; three giraffes walk into a bar; I was staying in a small hotel on Dartmoor – there is no time to describe the wallpaper, unless it has a vital bearing on the story. You may repeat a phrase, to keep people following on; it will be a memorable phrase, and central to the story. But the story is the main thing.

Music Bone cover 01cAnd, rather unfortunately, that’s the way I tend to write. I often have to go back and put in descriptive detail afterwards. I often don’t even know in any detail what the characters look like. What my characters do, in spades, is talk. Sometimes there’s nothing but conversation for pages – which can get on people’s nerves, after all.

(I read somewhere that E. M. Forster once said, “The novel tells a story – oh dear, yes, I suppose it does.” He would have preferred to be freed from the necessity.)

A traditional story is timeless, the location is wherever the story is told, the characters are archetypes. The listener can project characteristics on to them; they themselves have only the minimum necessary for the story to work out. The writer of fiction takes Story and gives it a local habitation and a name. Some people do this brilliantly; every word they write pins the thing in time and space (which, if it’s contemporary, is fine if you write fast and have a publisher; if you’re trying to sell the thing five years later you have to keep changing the details – but I digress). The characters become individuals the reader would know if they met them – people with a back story, with idiosyncrasies – and of course wallpaper.

I can see the appeal of this. But is there not also an appeal in pure story – story that can happen anywhere, to anyone, at any time? Unless it is yellow, do we need to know the colour of the wallpaper?

Marion & bookMarion Pitman sells second-hand books on the internet and pretends it brings in a living. Her first short-story collection, Music in the Bone, came out from Alchemy Press in 2016, and her short fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. She mostly writes ghost stories, but also dabbles in science fiction, fantasy and westerns. She has no cats, and would like to live in Piccadilly, in a flat like Lord Peter Wimsey’s.

http://www.marionpitman.co.uk http://andallshallbewelldotcom.wordpress.com

Marion’s story collection, Music in the Bone, is now available from Alchemy Press.

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Milford Writers of Colour Bursary Awards

We are delighted to announce that the two bursary places for the 2017 Milford have been awarded to… <drum roll> Suyi Davies Okungbowa from Lagos, Nigeria, and Dolly Garland from London, UK. We’re looking forward to seeing them both in September.

Making a decision was tough and, in the end, part of the committee’s decision was based on who we thought would benefit most from attending Milford and who could bring most to the Milford table. Both writers have been published (one of the general Milford requirements) and details can be found on their own web pages.

Here are a couple of extracts from their applications.

Suyi Davies OkungbowaSuyi’s: “Lagos, where I currently live, is more accepting. There are safer spaces here. That is why it’s easier for me to realise something else: there are still walls. Bigger, angrier ones of the world, standing tall and looking down at me, reminding me that I’m African. Reminding me that that I cannot stray too far from what is allowed of my identity, or else. The walls frown whenever I try to tell stories about aliens or witches or robot police. How dare you do that? Do you not know your boundaries?

So I want to press the eject button and fly. Sail clear over them all and continue sailing. I want to fully and finally become. Benin and Lagos and Nigeria will no longer contain me: only the world and the galaxies beyond will be sufficient. I want to write speculative narratives that speak of African and human experiences, and cast them out to the farthest reaches of the universe where they will poke deep and often. I want to do this well, and to do that, I must first become a better writer.”

 

Dolly GarlandDolly: “I now clearly identify as a SFF writer, though more fantasy than science fiction. My fantasy worlds revolve around Indian mythology, but my stories are often muddled in cultures, as I am. Identity is a funny thing. I never labelled myself. I simply adapted to whatever country I happened to be in. But for a lot of non-Indians, I was Indian, Indian-American, Indian-British, or British. For a lot of Indians, I was a Westerner, an ABCD (a derogatory term – American Born Confused Desi – an Indian/Pakistani who simply looks the part but has no knowledge of their ancestral culture), or a NRI (Non-Resident Indian). Recently, as a part of the research for a paper I’m presenting on Writing and Identity at Imperial College in 2017, I asked various people how they see me in terms of cultural/ethnic identity. Without exception, the people who know me the best – despite their diverse geographical, racial, educational and financial backgrounds – gave similar answers, the essence of which was that I blur cultural boundaries. Those who do not know me well gave me more definitive, limiting labels.

My fiction is not about pursuing any agenda, but this experience of being labelled as well as cultural reflections, invariably affect my viewpoint and my writing. It is perhaps a good thing, because this has enabled me to eventually grow into creating my unique fantasy world that is non-European (having first started off writing a “normal” western world), and bring to the genre a little bit more diversity.”

One of the 2017 Milford bursaries was donated by the 8Squared Eastercon and the second was given by a writer donor who wishes to remain anonymous. We offer our thanks.

The Milford Committee hopes to be able to provide future bursaries. If anyone would like to help fund them (donating a little or a lot) please feel free to contact us via the Milford website: http://www.milfordSF.co.uk.

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Write What Someone Knows by Ben Jeapes

“Bad books on writing tell you to “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW”, a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.” – Joe Haldeman

And yet Joe Haldeman’s novel The Forever War was heavily influenced by his experiences as a Vietnam vet. I’m nowhere near brave enough to disagree with Joe Haldeman but fortunately I don’t think I have to. We agree from different directions.

Five Lies Creative Writing Teachers Tell makes the same point. It’s good but often misused advice, and it’s the misuse that gets dealt with on that link: the advice being hammered in to the point where you’re not even allowed to use your imagination. As the writer points out, J.K. Rowling isn’t really a wizard, but “The good tutor will get to know you, and encourage work which is attentive to your experiences”.

I would take that further: “your or at least someone’s experiences”.

Because, yes, writing has to start with what is known. My most basic level of knowledge is knowing what it is to be alive. I’m a human being with a place in the world – sensory input going 24/7, human relationships, knowing what I like and what I don’t. A character on a page has to give the impression of a similar level of existence. If you can’t believe they existed before you opened the book, or that they will go on existing after you close it, then the author isn’t writing what they know.

But with that given, then it’s time to start making stuff up. Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity is told from the point of view of the native of a planet with a surface gravity 700 times stronger than our own, which is laughably petty compared to the world of Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg, where it’s 67 billion times stronger. Neither author can claim first-hand knowledge of such environments, but they too can start with the basic knowledge of being alive and take it from there.

My type of science fiction tends to be closer to home, with mostly human characters. I’ve never time travelled – but I have been in some fairly insalubrious third world slums, so if I want to imagine a European city of previous centuries, that’s what I picture. I’ve never worn a spacesuit, but I have scuba dived: I know the sounds and sensations and slightly claustrophobic feeling of being enclosed by your personal life support system, keeping you alive bare centimetres from an environment that could kill you, simultaneously giving you immense freedom and severely curtailing your possibilities. I’ve never been in a spaceship, but I’ve travelled by aeroplane, so I know that illusion of normality coupled with the ever-present knowledge at the back of your head that you’re in the belly of a fantastically complicated machine hurtling through the sky several miles above the ground and that isn’t normal at all.

Other things I have done: driven a car; sailed a boat; grown up in an army family; fired several types of gun; stood on the floor of an active volcano; walked up Snowdon, across Salisbury Plain and through an Indonesian rain forest (not all on the same day); flown an aeroplane under supervision; taken off, flown and landed a glider solo; been in unrequited love. I’ve never divorced, had a serious illness or died, but friends have and (sorry guys) you can bet I was paying close attention. And each of those experiences, or scenarios developed and extrapolated from them, has appeared in my published writing.

The Teen the Witch and the Thief coverThe Comeback of the King coverTed, the titular teen of The Teen, the Witch & the Thief, has a stepfather Barry with whom he doesn’t get on. An unexpected pleasure of writing The Comeback of the King was being able to give new depth to Barry that was entirely consistent with what we learned of him in the first book, but which showed a lot more sympathy. The reason: between writing the first and second books, I became a stepfather of a teenager myself. I tip my hat to all Barrys everywhere.

Alumni of the Milford writers’ workshop have access to the Milford Skills List. Everyone who attends gets a chance to write down a few areas of expertise that they are willing to share with other members. And fantastically useful it is too. I was recently able to quiz a retired GP on the best kind of fracture to have, from a dramatic point of view, and how to perform a field amputation. I doubt she has any direct experience of the latter, but again, based on what she does know she was able to extrapolate.

So there you have it – write what you know, or failing that, find out what someone else knows, and write that. And then do something new with it.

 

bjeapes01Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 7 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer. His first Milford was at Margate in 1991, which shows (a) how far Milford has come in the past 26 years and (b) qualifies him as a Great Old One, in Milford terms at least. www.benjeapes.com

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