Fighting and Gender, by Nancy Jane Moore

At a recent meeting of my writers’ group, we discussed fight scenes while critiquing an early draft of my novel in progress. The discussion went something like this:

“Women fight differently from men,” one of the guys said in pointing out that the sword fight scenes didn’t vary much.

I didn’t think he was referring to the inaccurate stereotype that women can’t fight, but I also didn’t think his point applied, so I said – speaking as a long-time martial artist and instructor as well as a writer – “In my experience, that’s not always the case, especially with weapons.”

And he replied, “Yeah, but you’re big.”

I let it go at that, because he was right that the fight scenes needed work, but it bothered me. After some reflection, I realized what the problem was: If my experience isn’t key to discussions about how women fight simply because I’m a woman about the size of the average U.S. man, then the issue isn’t biological sex or gender; it’s body size and build.

The average man may be bigger than the average woman, but there are plenty of small men – and big women – in the world. Also, there are some people who don’t fit into standard gendered categories, and they, too, come in a variety of body types. As writers, if we make assumptions about fighting styles based on sex or gender, we’re not going to create scenes that reflect the complexity of real fights.

There is only one situation in which writers should give some consideration to the gender of their fighters, and that’s if they are creating a world in which the culture puts distinct rules on gender behavior. Most current societies give girls and boys very different signals from an early age, with the girls getting the message – incorporating it into their bodies – that they aren’t capable of handling themselves physically in dealing with men, and the boys, regardless of size or skill, learning that they have power over women. In a world in which calling men and boys “girls” (or much less acceptable words for female) is a major insult, women who fight will have to deal with the cultural dynamics.

So if you’re writing a story that includes women warriors, you must give some consideration to societal rules. Is it a society that generally accepts both men and women as soldiers and fighters or is it one that assigns very different roles to each gender, so that a woman fighter must struggle against society to make her place? Women who grow up being told they aren’t capable of competing against men have to deal with that while they’re learning to fight. Men who grow up being told that women are physically inferior have difficulty accepting that women can be good at the arts of war.

However, if your world assumes a higher level of gender equality, women fighters aren’t going to struggle with that particular demon and men aren’t going to make wrong assumptions. In my novel in progress, the culture recognizes both men and women as soldiers. So for my work, and others like it, gender differences are not relevant to fighting styles. But body type is always relevant.

Here are a few ideas about how different body types affect fighting gleaned from my thirty-eight years in martial arts:

  • Big, strong people can succeed on strength and size, as long as the person they’re fighting isn’t either stronger than they are or more skilled as a fighter. Sheer muscle works for them.
  • Smaller people, who often fight someone larger than themselves, must learn good technique because they can’t rely on strength. You can’t out-muscle someone who is stronger than you are. But a smaller person can throw a larger one because it’s easier for them to get under the big person’s center. Every size has advantages.
  • With weapons such as swords and staffs, it’s important to consider wrist strength as well as overall strength. Many of the more subtle moves with weapons require flexibility in the wrist. It is better for a person with small wrists to use a lighter weapon – something I learned the hard way. If your fighting system is built around big, heavy weapons, give your fighters big wrists along with big shoulders.
  • Flexibility can also be quite important and does not always correlate with body type. I trained in karate years ago with a man built like the proverbial fireplug – short, wide shoulders, big torso, short legs – and he could kick me in the head with no problem. Having good knees and being flexible can give a tall person the option of using size or dropping low, which is another useful way to play against type.
  • The only fighters who are going to stand there and trade punches and blocks are young, strong people or, even more likely, drunks. Anyone with skill, not to mention anyone getting on in years, is going to rely on getting out of the way whenever they can.
  • Joint techniques such as those taught in Aikido or ju-jitsu require almost no strength when done properly and can take even the strongest person down.
  • A weak person who knows how to grab using their center rather than their arm strength can stop the movement of a stronger person. And by the way, a grab is best done using the smaller fingers of the hand to grip, not the thumb and forefinger, which are easier to twist away from.

Now that I’ve given the issue some thought, I’m off to rewrite my fight scenes. I think I’ll make one of my male characters short, but very quick and flexible, and one of my women tall and muscular. It’s always fun to play against type.

 

nantalking2Nancy Jane Moore’s science fiction novel The Weave came out in 2015 from Aqueduct Press. Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies was published by PS Publishing 2008. Her most recent publication is a short story in the Book View Café anthology Nevertheless, She Persisted. She started martial arts by wandering into a karate class at the local YMCA in 1979 and holds a fourth degree black belt in Aikido.

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The Parallels Between Singing and Writing by Jacey Bedford

This is all about lessons learned and applied

I used to be a folk singer. No–correction–I am a folk singer, I just don’t do it as a full-time job any more, but even though I’ve officially retired from the road the singing is in me and I don’t think I’ll ever get it out. I don’t even want to. People ask if I miss it. No, I don’t. I don’t miss it because in my head I haven’t really stopped. I’m just on an extended break between tours. As it turns out, that’s almost true. In 2015, Artisan took to the road for a series of reunion gigs, and then ended up playing a couple of festivals in 2016. There are no further plans, but we never say never again.

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Artisan on stage at Owen Sound Summerfolk, Ontario. Yes, that’s me in the middle.

What do I do now? Well, I haven’t retired, that’s for sure. I run a booking agency for other folk performers touring in the UK, and I write science fiction and fantasy. Five novels so far and a sixth due in December 2018.

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Imperial 66

I’ve always written. I started my first novel when I was fifteen–a post apocalyptic dystopia (eat your heart out, Hunger Games fans) peopled by a cast of characters lifted from my favourite bands and thinly disguised. I wrote it long-hand (the first five chapters, anyway, which was as far as I got) and typed it out (slowly and painfully) on a borrowed Imperial 66. I wrote through my twenties, when I was a librarian. When my kids came along I wrote while they slept. (Hence my habit of writing way into the early hours of the morning, which I’ve never been able to break.) And I wrote in the back of the van on the way to gigs.

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My first story sale was to this anthology. Thank you Annie Scarborough!

Music opened up the world for me. I come from a tiny village on the edge of the Yorkshire Pennines. Stick a pin in the middle of the island that is England, Scotland and Wales and I’ll be the one to yell, Ouch! But as Artisan’s popularity grew in the UK, we also got opportunities to travel to the USA, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Germany and Belgium. I got my first writing break through music, via the hugely talented, Nebula Award-winning writer, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, a friend of a group of (musical) friends from Seattle and–as it turns out–an Artisan fan. I would never have asked her to read my work because even as a clueless newbie I knew how many times professional writers get asked for those kind of favours, but my friend mentioned that I wrote. Annie (bless her) offered. She figured that if I was used to entertaining an audience, I probably had a bit of gumption when it came to writing too. That was the first time I’d actually compared notes between the two halves of my life, but what she said made a lot of sense. This is how I see it…

Feedback
When you write a book feedback is slow. From the first once-upon-a-time to the book being out there on bookstore shelves can take years. When you’re on a stage, feedback is instant. Your audience votes with applause and laughter, or if you really suck it votes with its feet. After the show it votes with its wallet at the CD sales table. Obviously, if something works on stage you keep it in the act. If it doesn’t, you drop it.

It may take a lot longer to incorporate feedback into your writing, so you have to try and think ahead and, to a certain extent, second-guess your audience. What will they take to their hearts and what won’t they? This is where being a member of a good critique group or attending an event like Milford really helps.

Jan 2006-05

Jacey and Brian Bedford

Style
I don’t write songs. It takes me a minimum of 120,000 words to explain what my husband, Brian Bedford, can write in four verses. He’s Artisan’s song writer. We want his lyrics to be heard. In transmitting that song to an audience it’s important that we, as singers, don’t stand in front of it. The audience should hear the song, feel it, not be drawn to an examination of singing technique or the clarity of any one voice. If we’re doing our job right, the technique should be invisible. We’re not saying, ‘Listen to me,’ we’re saying, ‘Listen to the song.’

Ditto with writing, especially genre writing. (If you write literary or experimental fiction, all bets are off.) Of course, there’s no One True Way, every writer is different, but this is my take on it. Purple prose, metaphor and alliteration will only take you so far. Just as the singer shouldn’t stand in front of the song, I don’t believe the author should stand in front of the story. I prefer the writing to be clean and elegant, the words apposite, the technique invisible. Lyrical prose is a plus, as long as it doesn’t pop up and distract the reader. While you’re wondering why the author chose to describe a person’s looks as umbelliferous, you’re missing what’s going on. The reader should be able to immerse themselves in what’s happening on the page without thinking about the person who wrote it and why they chose that particular word.

Plot
When you’re putting together a set of songs for a concert you need a beginning a middle and an end. You’re creating a sustainable entertainment arc. Your ‘wake-up’ starter-song should grab your audience’s attention and tell them, ‘This is what you can expect, so listen-up!’ The end should be a big finish to fulfil your promise and raise the roof. Between those two bookends you need a succession of carefully chosen contrasts, each one building on the last; tension and release. If you juxtapose a lively song with an emotional melodic one full of lush harmonies then both songs benefit from the comparison. If you follow a tense, dramatic song (often your mid-point in the set) with a clever and/or amusing little ditty, it gives the audience chance to breathe again, but without losing their attention. Between the songs, you chat to them—miniature stories to lead from one song to the next while setting the right mood. If they call for it, and they always do, you can give them an encore, something to send them home smiling.

When writing it’s often a good plan to start just as things are kicking off, or in the middle of the action (in medias res), and vary the pace, building in an escalating series of events (reversals and pinch points) until you reach a dramatic mid-point, the fulcrum on which the lever of your story balances. A series of transitions holds it all together, just like your links between songs. Then you head for the no-holds-barred finale, probably via another big reversal and pinch point or plot twist. But don’t just stop there–follow it with a resolution. In other words, give them an encore.

Birdsedge Audience

Always keep your audience happy.

Attention Span
All the time, whether singing or writing, you have to hold your audience’s attention. If you turn away and stop to tie your shoelace, literally or figuratively, you’ve lost them. You don’t need to keep up a frenetic pace from start to finish, of course, but you do need to keep up a level of interest, and there should be dramatic tension running through it all. They have to want to turn the page, listen to the next song.

Characters
Your onstage persona is–like the advert says–you, but on a good day. Slightly larger than life, witty, warm, human, humane. Your audience should like you. That’s what will keep them coming back. No matter how much they like your music, if you don’t get them on your side, turn them into friends, they’ll not become steadfast fans. Feeling miserable? Having a bad day? Don’t ever take it out on your audience.

Your reader has to care about your characters, too. They have to want them to succeed in their endeavour, find true love, marry Princess Buttercup, drop the ring into the fires of Mount Doom and return safely, or stick it to a totalitarian state. There’s nothing that will get a book hurled against a wall more quickly than if your characters are unremitting arseholes or dull at ditch-water. I don’t care what happens to these characters–the eight deadly words you never want to hear from your readers.

Untitled-6Reviews
Afterwards there are reviews. We all hope for good ones:

“Artisan aren’t a hard act to follow. All I have to do now is get up here on stage and burst into flames.” –Valdy, Canada.

“Bedford builds a taut story around the dangers of a new world…. Readers who crave high adventure and tense plots will enjoy this voyage into the future.” – Publishers’ Weekly review of Empire of Dust.

“For tight, exciting harmony singing, as well as sheer delight and entertainment, Artisan are the bee’s knees. You’d be mad to miss them.” –St Neot’s Festival.

Good reviews are great. Not so good reviews? Well, you learn from them as well, but though comments in a review may be a consideration when you start the next project, plan the next book, do the next gig, make the next CD, at the end of the day a review is just one person’s opinion. Read it (or don’t) and move on. Your writing and your music come from the heart. They are not just what you do, they are what you are. Trust yourself.

 

jacey-novacon-2012-300pxsquJacey Bedford is a British author published by DAW in the USA. She writes science fiction and fantasy. Her Psi-Tech  SF trilogy  began with Empire of Dust and Crossways and is concluded by Nimbus. There are two books out in her Rowankind trilogy—Winterwood and Silverwolf—and the third—Rowankind—follows in December 2018. She’s agented by Donald Maass of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. You can find out more from her website at http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk, or her blog, Tales from the Typeface http://jaceybedford.wordpress.com

jacey-vancIn another life she sang with a cappella trio Artisan (http://www.artisan-harmony.com) from 1985 to 2005, playing gigs and festivals all over the UK, Canada, the USA (thirty-one North American tours) parts of Europe, Australia and even (once, briefly) Hong Kong. Along with her song-mates, Hilary Spencer and (husband) Brian Bedford, she’s made twelve CDs and a DVD, done reunion tours in 2010 and 2015/16. She keeps her connections to the music world by running a booking agency for folk musicians. (http://www.jacey-bedford.com)

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Less is More – Looking at Jack Vance, by David Gullen

The-Lyonesse-TrilogyI love Jack Vance’s stories for their wit and imagination, and for his accomplished use of language. I’m not alone, he’s inspired a devoted readership*, significant critical praise, and some writers mimic his distinctive style.

Vance can vividly describe worlds, cities, and dramatic encounters with great economy. Here’s an extract from The Green Pearl, the second book in his brilliant Lyonesse trilogy, where good Prince Ailas fights the undefeated Ska.

“Again Ailas set up his ambush of archers and mounted knights in a copse beside the road. Presently the Ska contingent riding four abreast came into view: seasoned troops, confident but far from reckless. They wore conical black-enamelled steel helmets and shirts of chain mail, as well as greaves. They carried short lances, swords, chain-balls – the so-called ‘morning-stars’ – with bow and arrows in quivers at their saddlebows. As they came placidly along the road, thirty-five Troice knights charged from the copse and galloping downhill with lances levelled, struck into the rear third of the column. To cries of horror and shock the lances drove through chain mail and lifted the riders from their horses, to drop them in the dust beside the road.

Riding up the hill and reforming, they charged once more. From the copse poured arrows, each aimed with careful intent. The commander bawled orders to depart this place of death, and the column started off at full gallop. On the hillside four ropes were cut, allowing a great oak tree to topple across the road, and the Ska troops for a period lost their organization.

Finally, battling desperately, hand to hand, the Ska managed to collect in a small group. Three times Ailas called for surrender before pounding them again with his knights; three times the Ska absorbed the blows and reformed as best they could, and with stern faces hurled themselves upon their enemies.

There was to be no surrender; all would die on the sun-dappled road.”

pexels-photo-208674What has happened here? A careful ambush, two groups of experienced warriors, implacable foes, engaged in a brutal fight. I can see the copse, the hill, the Ska in their armour, feel the remorseless swing of the battle on the dusty road, the desperation and determination – and so much more.

I remember reading this passage for the first time. I turned the page, stopped reading, and went back and read it again. So much had happened in those four short paragraphs it was hard for me to absorb. The images and emotions created in my mind were overwhelmingly intense.

Later on I went back and tried to understand how he had done what he had done. What could I learn? Try it now for yourself – re-read the passage, then turn over the scene in your mind. Landscape, drama, and emotion, and all you are now thinking about was summoned by just 251 words.

I’m not a great fan of deconstructive criticism. It seems to me you either risk taking the work apart so deeply it turns to smoke and blows away, or you read intent into the process that never existed. Without the author all you have is opinion and speculation. Even so, I think you can look at this passage and see what Vance is doing – and not doing ­­– and think about why that might be. Among these things I can see:

– He describes the Ska enemy troop in detail, but not the Troice ambushers. He tells us how very well the enemy are equipped and that they are elite troops and nobody’s fools. On the other hand we know nothing about Ailas’s men’s equipment or quality. Good or bad, we do not know, and yet we are on their side. I can see how this creates additional tension as the ambush opens because we know their mettle has to match that of the Ska but we don’t know if it will.

– He uses very specific words and phrases.  Pairs of words like copse and hill create landscape. Then there is another crank on tension’s ratchet when ‘came placidly’ is followed by ‘charged’ and ‘galloping’. There’s also a great use of the narrative power of three: three times the call to surrender, three times a desperate survival. ‘Battling desperately … a small group’ refuses surrender. Almost now my sympathies change towards the doomed Ska.

– The paragraphs get shorter and shorter and each has a single job. The first sets the scene and unfurls the action. The second demonstrates the effectiveness of the trap. The third compares the doomed valour of the Ska with Ailas’s mercy. And the fourth is the outcome – “all would die on the sun-dappled road.“ Brief, tragic, and quite poetic.

It’s impossible to say how much of this was conscious intent or the instinctive skill of a master craftsman and storyteller. But the paragraph structure of this scene feels deliberate, and the selection of nouns, verbs and adverbs is careful and specific. I think this scene is a great example of Vance’s concise and accurate style, and there’s a great deal to think about and learn from these 251 words.

~

*Few writers can have fans prepared to re-issue their entire body of work, edited and restored as originally intended, an ‘author’s cut’ of their books. I count myself fortunate to have the six-volume condensed edition of this Vance Integral Edition, or VIE.

 

gullen-dkg1-2012David Gullen was born in South Africa and baptised by King Neptune at the equator. His short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including New Scientist’s ARC, Albedo 1, and the Sensorama anthology from Eibonvale. He is a winner of the Aeon Award and been shortlisted for the James White Award. His novel, Shopocalypse, was published by Clarion (2013) and will be re-issued by NewCon Press later this year. He is also one of the judges for the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award. David lives in Surrey, England, with the fantasy writer Gaie Sebold and too many tree ferns.

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Going on holiday by mistake – Follycon18, by Philip A Suggars

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Insert “it’s grim up north” caption here.

So I hadn’t really planned to go to Eastercon, but Donna Bond from Newcon press mentioned that they’d be launching this year’s edition of the Best of British Science Fiction, (henceforth known as “BoB”) at the convention; and I thought: you know what, one of the things that sucks about being a writer is that you tend to suffer in silence and celebrate (mostly) in private. Seeing as I’m pleased about getting into this anthology, why don’t I give this book launch thingy a go?

To be honest, I always feel a bit weird about conventions. I’m an introvert by nature, which means that as much fun as it is to meet people, a con tends to send my battery into power saving mode pretty quickly. But the other important thing I’ve learned about cons is that the more you attend the easier they become.

The first convention I went to was the 2013 Eastercon, which, if memory serves, was held on a roundabout somewhere outside Bradford. I don’t think I knew a single person there and the only other people I spoke to were Aliette de Bodard and Adrian Tchaikovsky. (Aliette was judging the James White Award and I’d snagged the runner-up prize; Adrian was propping up the bar, both were a pleasure to talk to.)  I spent most of the rest of my time there earnestly sitting in on panels, making notes like Rory Gilmore at a safety briefing.

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Gentle convention goers. (Including, I think, an attention rapt Gareth L. Powell over on the left and the legendary Jim Burns on the right). Photo Ian Whates.

I still find cons a bit of a struggle, but since attending Milford Writer’s Conference a couple of times there are usually a few friendly faces that I can chat to rather than having to make copious notes on, “The parallels between the Vulcan Pon Farr and the sex lives of IT workers”. So this time it was great to catch up with other writers from the Milford stable, including Guy T. Martland, Carl Allery, Sue Oke, Jacey Bedford and Matt Colborn. That said, Guy’s feline-overlord, Gordon, seems to have developed an unhealthy obsession with my pet, Ziggy.

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From left to right: Ian Watson, Andy West and yours truly, looking pensive (and no doubt pondering something portentous.) Photo Chrissy Leonhardt

The BoB launch was a bigger deal than I expected, although this might have had something to do with Ian Whates’ offer of free drink for all attendees. There were about a hundred and twenty people packed into the Drawing Room by the time we kicked off, so many in fact that by the time I had squeezed onto the panel, peeps were already being turned away.

Sticking to health and safety required numbers was probably just as well though, given the stream that bubbled from the bar’s ceiling at all hours and the bits of masonry that dropped from the roof during the Future of Cities panel (allegedly).

(I’m reading such conspicuous decrepitude as our hotel cosplaying The Bradbury from Bladerunner rather than as some sort of extended metaphor for #brexit.)

Ian Whates introduced each of Newcon’s new books, along with readings from Jaine Fenn (The Martian Job) and Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tales of the Apt: For Love of Distant Shores). The highlight of the launch was probably Ian Watson’s brilliant stream of consciousness précis of Assassins’ Legacy which he co-wrote with Andy West. Ian managed to rattle away for what seemed like a good five minutes without hesitation, deviation or repetition (or even pausing to take a breath). Hopefully, someone had Nicholas Parsons on speed dial.

IMG_2127Donna Scott introduced good old BoB. It’s a slightly surreal experience to have ended up in an anthology including writers like Ken McLeod, Adam Roberts, Jaine Fenn, Eric Brown, Lavie Tidhar, E.J. Swift, Anne Charnock, Natalia Theodoridou and Jeff Noon. Especially as Jeff Noon’s brilliant, hyper-trippy ‘Vurt’ was one of the books that made me want to start writing science fiction in the first place. (I still highly recommend it). During the signing I got the chance to talk writer-stuff with Anne Charnock (just ahead of her BFSA award win).  I explained how I thought I’d messed up my first novel and she told me how she had approached her third and gave me a bit of useful writerly advice: that pretty much every book is different and that stuffing it up early on is usually an integral part of writing it.

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From left to right: Adrian Tchaikovsky, Jaine Fenn, Ian Watson, Andy West and yours truly enjoying Ian’s speed-of-thought summary of “Assassins’ Legacy”. Photo Chrissy Leonhardt

All too soon, I was rattling back home on the train, thinking to myself that despite all the pain-in-the-butt-holio of getting up to Harrogate, it’s those sort of moments which make cons worthwhile. That is, the luxury of just being a writer for a while and the opportunity to talk and think about nothing else.

 

psuggarsPhilip A. Suggars is a British writer with a single yellow eye in the middle of his forehead and a collection of vintage binoculars. His work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Persistent Visions, Interzone and The Best of British Science-Fiction anthology series as well as being performed by Starship Sofa, Far Fetched Fables and the London Liars’ League. He has won the Ilkley Short Story award, was runner up for the James White Award and has been longlisted for BSFA short story award. He lives with three hairless primates and a (no longer) imaginary cat. Visit him at http://www.philipasuggars.com or follow him on twitter @felipeazucares.

 

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Where I’m at, by Ben Jeapes

Milford 98 Ben Jeapes

Young Mr. Jeapes at Milford 1998

Once upon a time there was a young man with the twin ambitions, not incompatible, of making it big in publishing and becoming a successful writer. How did he do?

Well, the publishing happened, for a good few years. It didn’t take him long to discover that the bits he enjoyed most were editorial work and hands-on production. The bits that are actually more necessary from a business point of view – acquisitions, marketing, royalties, accounts in general, strategy – tended to leave him cold. His ambition to grease his way up any of those particular poles was therefore limited from the start, which led to a career of middling editorial sort of work – books, journals, more books, more journals, more books and oh, a magazine –culminating in the creation and liquidation of his own company.

After that he rather felt he had had his fun in publishing and looked around for something with a compatible skillset requirement. Thus he found himself working in communications and marketing for a large computer network, accidentally becoming a technical writer in the process. His job was meant to be waiting for technical experts to write something, whereupon he would edit and publish it, but it soon turned out that everyone was happier if he talked to the technical experts, wrote it up on their behalf and then edited and published it. When redundancy struck he moved less happily on to a firm that manufactures scientific instruments, who had said they wanted someone creative, but were actually after a tame word monkey who would produce maybe 100-200 words a month that perfectly, via some process of telepathy, matched what the MD wanted that day. Any actual creativity very quickly got slapped down. It was not a happy arrangement, but it paid the bills.

But, meanwhile, the writing! What happened there?

To his great surprise, it came to the rescue. Eventually.

It all went swimmingly at first. The writing was very specifically science fiction – okay, and fantasy if pushed, but sf most of all. Stories were sprayed at Interzone – and other outlets, but mostly Interzone – until a few stuck. An agent was acquired, novels were written and even sold. Four in total. And then?

Well, that company that I, I mean he … I … he … oh, okay, I (you’d guessed, hadn’t you?) founded? It published science fiction. What else was this life-long sf fan going to publish? And it broke the subject. I’ve never been able to work out why. Maybe I looked too closely at what goes on behind the scenes – I saw the wooden supports that hold up the sets and suddenly could no longer suspend the disbelief. I can still read it but the drive to write it had just gone.

Phoenicia - JeapesThere again it’s possible I had just told all the stories that were bubbling inside me. I wrote a few more pieces, using up the last of the ideas bubbling away in the background. One of them (Phoenicia’s Worlds) [http://www.benjeapes.com/index.php/phoenicias-worlds/] actually got published, but most of it has just dwindled onto the backburner of my hard drive.

Meanwhile, while I was flailing around for income in the early years of this century, I encountered Working Partners  and became Sebastian Rook, writing the first three of the Vampire Plagues series – Mayan vampires in Victorian London, for readers aged <=12. That was fun, and I could use my genre experience to deliver that little extra to the plots (though I say it myself). The plot for book 1 came ready made, but I could make some suggestions that were retrofitted into the series background; I was consulted heavily on the plot for book 2; and for book 3 we all sat down in a room together and hacked the plot out from scratch.

My editor then changed jobs, inherited an adventure series in the name of a Real Life TV Celebrity, and offered me the chance to ghostwrite it. Not genre at all – at least, not my usual genre. But genre of a sort, and nicely paying too. Then, rather like a series of H-bomb tests causing something ancient and terrible beneath the Pacific to stir, this caught the attention of my agent, who had not had a lot to do with my career in the intervening years but whose attention I badly needed to catch.

At his suggestion I started working on a series of historical adventures, and fingers are crossed as to its success. No luck yet, but … I have come to the conclusion that every historical writer should be an sf writer first. No one knows they are living in the past. As a rule, everyone lives in the most present and up to date world they have ever known, even if it has standards and mores that are utterly alien to cultures that actually come later. For them this is normality and it must be presented as such, with all the important differences signalled to the reader via means other than an “As you know, Bob” speech every couple of pages. A 32-gun frigate may seem quaint to us but it’s as exciting as a starship to a young man from the late eighteenth century.

And while all that was going on in the background, the ghostwriting suddenly took off, with me not being paid just to write but also to plot and plan and develop the series. Which, when translated into pounds, = enough to live off, which is all you can really ask for, isn’t it?

And so that is where I am. By a series of utterly logical steps I am a publisher and science fiction writer who is not currently working in publishing or writing science fiction, and has a lurking suspicion that this is How It Is Meant to Be. At least for now. And really quite happy about it.

Keep watching.

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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The Silicon Critic by David Langford

Milford participants often have distinctive personal crotchets when commenting on stories, and John Brunner’s (as I remember from the 1980s) was a particular sensitivity to repetition. Sometimes it seemed that the unintended re-use of a significant word too soon after its last appearance pained him more than a gaping plot hole. The “deliberate repetition for effect” card could be played only so often, especially if you hadn’t noticed the repetition of “repetition” and the fact that it’s now appeared four times in one paragraph.

Terry Pratchett was another author who worried about such things. In 1998 he invited me to write a little Windows application to monitor his own use of favourite words. This, he stipulated, was to be named Bicarb because the idea was to stop you repeating.

The computer screen here ripples and blurs to indicate a flashback. With (as we later decided) more enthusiasm than common sense, Chris Priest and I had ventured into selling home-made software as Ansible Information from the mid-1980s. Most of our products were deadly serious attempts to add new facilities to now-obsolete word processors running on computers of yore: one example was a utility called AnsibleIndex that could generate a book index of sorts from chapter documents written in LocoScript on the dread Amstrad PCW. If you remember that machine’s green screen, hideous slowness and oblong “floppy” disks, you are not alone.

aiq-headDespite our stern and earnest aims, cheerfulness occasionally broke in. One day for Chris’s amusement I fudged up an IBM PC-DOS program called Drivel that spewed out endless Extruded Fantasy Product titles. A Scroll of Steel, Gemhunter of Giantfalcon, Eye of Starnymph, The Bluebull and the Dreadflame, The Chaos Leperstaff … and so on, forever. “Make it more versatile and we could sell this!” said Chris, and Drivel duly became A.I.Q. (a name meant to suggest Artificial Intelligence, but deniably) with a wide variety of lexicons to generate cod Shakespearean verse, revolting recipes, banal aphorisms, terrible pulp SF and even – as a selling point for authors – plot ideas for short stories. All through the magic of the random number generator. An even less lucrative Windows version followed. By way of brand identity, the product logo was a chap with an ideally shaped head from a 1904 phrenology manual.

Somewhat more useful was Grease, which gobbles down your story or novel or dekalogy and spits out a report of the words most frequently used. That is, the significant words. Grease comes with an editable list of common words to be ignored, “the” and “is” and other basic nuts and bolts of prose. With these filtered out, the pitiless focus is on those distinctive words you resort to again and again, perhaps without consciously noticing. The specific inspiration for Grease was David Lodge’s 1984 academic comedy Small World, much enjoyed by both Chris Priest and myself. One minor strand involves a novelist’s traumatic discovery that his complete works have been analysed in just this way by fanatical researchers, who report that the significant word he most often uses is … “grease”. Now you know how programs get their names.

greaseExperimenting with Grease led Terry Pratchett to request Bicarb as a more finely tuned detector of embarrassment. Rather than merely counting distinctive words, this one looks for their repetition within a specified interval – 100 words by default, but I made that configurable and Terry may have changed it. Thus the use of a favourite word like “rebarbative” twice within a hundred-word passage will cause Bicarb to pause, silently highlight both occurrences, and await your horrified reaction.

I became acutely aware of all the significant reiterations in Terry’s test document, which was the first draft of Carpe Jugulum (1998). Refinements were added: besides the “always ignore” list of commonplace terms, there was clearly a need for an “ignore for this book project” list, which filled up with character and place names from Carpe Jugulum and Discworld in general. Terry seemed pleased enough with the results.

By then, Ansible Information was already fading away. Both Chris and I had found other things to do, and Bicarb never went on sale to our hapless customers. In fact Chris never saw it until this year, when in the course of some mysterious literary research he reacquainted himself with Grease and I suggested that with a few cosmetic tweaks to bring it up to date, Bicarb might also be useful. He tried it and reported: “Bicarb is a weapon of mass destruction! I ran it over Indoctrinaire, and crept away, limping and bleeding.” Just like a Milford session, then.

Ansible Information, you will be relieved to know, has long ceased trading. But many of its doomed products – including all those named above – can still be downloaded at no charge from https://ai.ansible.uk/. Can you resist learning whether your favourite word is “grease” or something even more alarming?

 

langfordDavid Langford, as his mother used to put it, hasn’t had a real job since 1980. Since then he has published lots of stories and books – most recently the column collection All Good Things: The Last SFX Visions from NewCon Press – won a number of awards and tried in vain to give up publishing the SF newsletter Ansible (1979-current). He spends too much time working as a principal editor, with John Clute, of the SF Encyclopedia. More at ansible.uk and news.ansible.uk.

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Response to a Flashy Challenge by Jim Anderson

So this past weekend (7 and 8 April), I’ve been taking part in Sci-Fi-London 48 Hour Flash Fiction 2018.  On the Saturday morning, I was given the title for the story I would write (Fully Immersed), along with a line of dialogue that must be included (“Think of the good times, when we thought it was never going to end.”) and an optional scientific idea (Earth starts receiving transmissions from the multiverse) to use if I so desire.  I then needed to write and submit my story, between 1000 and 2000 words, by Monday morning.

It was interesting ride.  As I write this, back during that weekend, the story is done, barring one last pass for proofreading, and what I find most entertaining is that the finished story bears little resemblance to my first musings of Saturday morning.

Typewriter 3There are a lot of things I don’t know about the event, such as whether each person entering gets a separate title and a separate line of dialogue, or whether they are reused, because I’d be curious to see what other people would do, or would have done, with the same title and line of dialogue.  Or the same line of dialogue and a different scientific idea.

But that’s idle speculation.  Where might some non-idle speculation take me?  It’s tempting to speculate about the difference between internal and external deadlines, as I’m much better, almost infinitely better perhaps, at honouring one than the other.  It’s tempting to speculate about trying to put together a story in just a couple of days, but this is something that other people have much more experience of than I do.

But let’s speculate differently.  I’m starting to think about writing in the same way I think about cooking.  Each story has its own set of ingredients, but I’ve watched enough Master Chef to know that a talented chef can take the same seemingly unenviable ingredients and make something spectacular, whereas I might make something that’s merely edible. And this is the thing I want to understand: how to write the Michelin star quality stories.

And this gets me to the main realization I’ve had this weekend.  I’m happy with the story I wrote.  It’s not perfect but it is beyond merely edible, I think.  But I could keep tinkering with it until the end of time.

When I’m doing my writing for work, mathematics papers or policy documents, I sometimes find myself in cycles where I’m changing the order of presentation, making changes to notation and terminology, but I’m making no essential changes to the story I’m telling.  There, I find it easy for me to let it go, because what matters more is the content.  Once I know the theorem is true and the proof is correct and complete, the finer details of readability don’t matter quite so much.

And that’s the lesson I need to bring into my fiction writing.  Stories are never finished; they are merely submitted.  Having to take a story from nascent beginning to submitted finish in 48 hours is a good reminder of this, and so roll on the next deadline!

 

jim_andersonJim Anderson (available on-line at http://www.multijimbo.com) is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Southampton, and is also the Associate Dean (Education and Student Experience) for the Faculty of Social, Human and Mathematical Sciences. Beyond mathematics, he practices the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido and writes science fiction and fantasy.

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