Two Soon-To-Be Available Stories

As you may have read, snow has covered Britain in a thick blanket of shame and embarrassment as a few inches of the white stuff brings our country to a screaming, juddering standstill.

A modest suburban bungalo, the front garden and roof covered in a thick blanket of snow

This was my house yesterday when I left for work. The sight made me skip work, loot several chain stores while I still could, and refuse to doff my cap respectfully when the local landed gentry sailed by on their unicorn-pulled sled. I spent the rest of the day building a guillotine and stalking the royal family through celebrity magazines.

It seems strangely apropos, though.  I have two stories in the birthing canal and almost ready to enter the world, and they both take place in worlds buried beneath snowy blankets.

~*~

The Long Road Home, from Twenty or Less Press

In a snow-covered landscape, a lone humanoid figure contemplates the buried skyscrapers, the falling snow, and the dead body half buried

Three days before hibernation and the corpse of the human ambassador Rembik is sent to investigate is as cold as the winter smothering Rheged.

“Find an answer,” Uncle tells him. “We’ve spent ten years building a relationship with the aliens, and you need to give them a damned good reason not to leave.”

But Rembik and his partner are social outcasts and his girlfriend appears to be in the middle of everything.

Maybe the reason the human’s ghost keeps following Rembik is that they’ve got more in common than either realized.

(I’ve been making the very final edits to The Long Road Home over the past few days. I’m very proud of what Michele, my editor, and I have put together.)

~*~

Journeys in the Winterlands, from Vagrants Among Ruins

Three pictures imposed over each other: the Celtic triple spiral; the Ouroboross; and the chi rho

“The world that we were living in was hanging by a thread.  We could all see it.  If it wasn’t this, then it would have been something else: war, famine, disease… Society could not sustain itself forever.  Everything ends.”

Three writers.  Three stories.  The end of one world.

Nine years ago, the Earth struggled in the throes of an industrial revolution.  Steam trains scythed across the countryside, and great aerostats drifted lazily across the skies.  The cities swelled with factory-smoke and bilge-water while people thrived or starved in their streets.

On All Souls Day, that all changed.  A great star fell into the sky, bringing a perpetual twilight that turned most of the population against each other–twisting men and women into the ferocious, sky-mad Affected.  When the star finally disappeared the world froze.  Now, Callista trudges across the icy wastes in search of her mentor: everyman-turned-folk-hero The Web of the North, who might just be the last frozen glimmer of hope that she has left.

Allegra Hawksmoor, John Reppion and Dylan Fox come together for an exercise in collective storytelling and world-building that will lead you into the ruins of factories submerged beneath the ice, probe the wrecks of burned-out airships, and provide a glimpse into the minds and deranged communities of the Affected and Unaffected that struggled to survive out in the snow.

Flip down the sky-guards on your goggles, and step into the Winterlands…

(I talked about my contribution to the collection in my Next Big Thing post.  The collection, though, is certainly greater than the sum of its parts and full credit needs to go to Allegra for making it live and breathe.)

~*~

Don’t worry.  I’ll let you know–in no uncertain terms–when you can buy them.  The Long Road Home will be available as a download, and Journeys in the Winterlands will be available in both download and dead-tree formats.

Flattr Me!

Jo introduced me to Flattr. The idea is simple: each month you put an amount of money in your Flattr account. Throughout the month, you can ‘Flattr’ webpages. At the end of the month, the money in your Flattr account is divided up between all the pages that you’ve Flattred. It’s a simple way to reward sites that you feel deserve rewarding. It’s a way to support your favourite bloggers or admins. It’s an alternative to watching the Internet drown under advertising.

The only downside is that you can only Flattr sites which have signed up. I signed up because I think the idea is fantastic and want to see it spread as far as possible.

A screenshot from this blog, the 'Flattr' button circled in red, with a red arrow pointing to it.

So, if you’re wondering what this button was all about, then now you know! Sign up to Flattr, and click on it to Flattr a particular article. Or, if you have the Firefox extension installed, you can Flattr the site.

The whole concept just seemed like a worthwhile way to support sites that I value. Now they just need to sign up for it…

Bubblegum Bridges and Shortcuts

Life throws problems at us. The reason they’re problems is that there’s something buried deep inside of us that doesn’t fit with them. However, because it’s buried deep inside, we don’t know about it. So when a problem comes our way, we fix-up an ad-hoc solution to the problem. We grab whatever’s lying around–sticks, leaves, flat stones–and lash them together with bubblegum to make a bridge that gets us to the other side.

In a scene from Indiana Jones, Indy is about to cut the unstable rope bridge

Kind of like this bit, but in reverse. Only the racist Indians are the problems… but they’re still advancing. Best not to think about the analogy too much otherwise it starts to fall apart…

So life rolls another problem our way. It’s a problem because there’s still something buried deep inside ourselves that jars with the outside world. But it’s still buried, and we still don’t know what it is. The bubblegum bridge we built last time–the ad-hoc solution–doesn’t quite work this time. The ground on the other side has shifted and the bridge won’t hold our weight. So, we grab some more of whatever we can find, spit out another wad of gum and fix things up as best we can. And we get across.

But then, there’s another problem. It comes from that same thing, buried inside ourselves. We still aren’t aware it’s the source of all these problems. So, we get chewing on the bubblegum and gather our sticks and stones to remodel our bridge again.

Building these bubblegum bridges starts when we’re very, very young. When we’re very, very young it’s pretty much all we’re capable of. When we become aware of the thing buried inside, the root of these problems, we can tear down the bubblegum bridge and build something sturdy and real.

When we grow into adults still unaware of the root of these problems, the bubblegum bridges become huge, contorted masses kept together only because they’re falling apart in every direction with equal force. Walking across them does us damage. It restricts the choices we are free to make. But the idea of tearing it all down and starting again… a little pain, a few closed doors is so much easier.

Let’s say you, unknown to yourself, believe that everyone you meet hates you. It happens to more people than you’d think. So, the first bubblegum bridge is to avoid everyone. That works for a little while, but not very long. So you start forcing other people to do what you want, because that’s safe. But then people start to avoid you. So you start scripting conversations in your head so it won’t wander into uncomfortable territory. That works for causal interaction, once you get the hang of it. So you avoid anything deeper. You avoid any situation you can’t control. When you can’t avoid those situations, you fall back into being bossy and imposing your will. And if anyone does get close to you, you push them away. But you can’t go to parties because the scripts don’t work there and you end up alone and hiding the shadows of a corner. And you can’t learn archery because there’ll be someone telling you you’re doing things wrong, and you’re only coping mechanism is to try and impose your will.

Bubblegum bridges. Ad-hoc, often destructive solutions to underlying problems which are painful and difficult to find, dig out and deal with. Solutions which have been augmented over a number of years into complicated and treacherous rituals which even you sometimes fall foul of.

I only have a small thought box, you know. I don’t know a lot about neuroscience, and the reading I’ve done seems to be saying that neuroscientists don’t know a huge amount, either. I mean, they have oodles of data but not enough to have a proper name for your thought box. At least, not one they can all agree on. And if they do, I don’t know how to find it and I don’t want to make an arse of myself by mis-sciencing all of ya’ll.

Anyway, your thought box is where your conscious thoughts are. As well as, ‘I want a pickle’-type thoughts, it’s the place where you do all the talking to yourself, the churning over of ideas, the debating over the merits of pickle eating… basically, all the stuff in your brain you’re conscious of.

The size of someone’s cogitatio capsa (does the Latin make you more comfortable? Make this whole ramble seem more sciencey?) is a big determining factor in how smart we think someone is. Take multiplication. Maybe your cogitatio capsa can’t do the maths for 2352×423. So you break it down into bits you can do. The bigger those bits and the more of them you can hold (and more bits mean you’re more likely to make connections between them), the smarter you are.

The bits for me have to be very small. Complex ideas won’t fit in there. This is why I have to write everything down to make sense of it.

It’s also why I have a habit of coming up with these little sayings. ‘Ad-hoc, often destructive do-dah whatsits’ won’t fit in there. The whole reason I have ideas is so I can examine and manipulate them. So I can understand them. So I can use them to talk to myself. The phrase, ‘bubblegum bridges’ fits in quite nicely, and serves as a shortcut to the longer, more complex definition. It leaves plenty of space for other things. I only have to articulate the simple phrase ‘bubblegum bridges’ to get the full benefits of the complete definition.

I don’t think I’m the only one who needs shortcuts to complex ideas. I mean, we have ‘Big Brother’, ‘space race’, ‘multicultural’ and dozens more. If you ever find any of mine useful, then feel free to take them. I won’t lose anything. And I wouldn’t be sharing them if I didn’t want them to be shared.

Bad Words

I find our desire to swear kind of odd. I mean, all words have a greater meaning. The point of language is to condense complicated concepts into easy-to-process sounds so we can exchange complicated ideas. But swearing seems to be something a lot less complicated. It’s a way of adding emphasis. Or saying, ‘that hurt’. Or even just adding a pause into a sentence so you can get the rest of it sorted before saying it.

At some point, swear words had some meaning. Taking the Lord’s name in vain guaranteed a lifetime boiling in Satan’s personal barbecue pit. If you were willing to risk that, then what you were saying must be important.

Food Photos & pictures of BBQ, Barbecue food cooking available as stock photos, pictures & images & also to download as photo art prints.

To be honest, as a vegetarian most barbecues are a kind of hell.  I don’t mind the cooking meat, it’s the snarky comments from that get on my wick.  If you want to tie your perception of maleness to dead flesh, that’s weird but I’m not going to stop you.  Just stop picking on me for not doing it!  And put me on a corn-on-the-cob.

But swear words these days? They don’t mean anything. Sure, they have literal meanings. ‘Fuck’ is to have sex, ‘shit’, ‘cunt’, ‘piss’ etc. I mean, we all know what they mean. But in the context they’re used, the literal meaning have almost no place. Every time you swear, you could take whatever word you were going to use and just say ‘swear’. Sure, there are a few occasions when you want the literal meaning but far more often you’ll have just hit your thumb with a hammer or just really fucking love ice cream.

(On a side-note, isn’t it interesting how all our swear words are to do with our bodies? Especially the icky, slimy bits of our bodies that are, none-the-less, biological necessities.)

We are taught by society, and we teach children, that these words are BAD. We don’t really go into the why’s. They’re just bad words and we shouldn’t say them. Even though they don’t really mean anything.

Then there are… other words. Words that do mean something. Words that are bad, because they hurt people. Like ‘bitch’, or ‘Oriental’, or ‘whore’, or using ‘gay’ as an insult. Yet if we try to tell people they shouldn’t use them, they get all precious about their freedom of speech and stick the ‘political correct Nazi’ badge on you.

Seriously, it’s not okay to refer to the fact that we defecate but it’s fine to reduce an entire race or gender or sexuality to sub-humanity. That doesn’t paint a very flattering portrait of us, folks.

TV chef Gordon Ramsay, famous for cooking and swearing an awful lot.

This is someone who likes bad words.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka Kansas demonstrate against homosexuality

These are people who like words which are bad.

And one of them is bleeped more than R2-D2, and the other has their right to speak supported by the highest court in their country.  What a world, eh?

What I’ve Learned About Writing in 2012

How long do I have to do this before it becomes a tradition? I think the definition of a tradition is something everyone does but doesn’t really know why, other than ‘it’s tradition’. So, maybe a few more years yet.

First up, stats!

2012 saw 15 submissions of 7 new stories. Only one of them has found a home. That’s down on the last two years. I’m okay with that.

Why? Read on…

So, what have I learned?

1) Write active
Don’t say what your characters are doing. Say how it feels. Character’s falling down a muddy bank and into a river? Well, they’re not going to know what’s going on until they stop falling and pull themselves back into the fresh air. What are they experiencing? The world tumbling around them? Shoulders hurting as they tumble, legs being bent in weird directions? Even if they’re just walking down the road. What are they noticing? How does the air taste?

This ties into the whole passive voice thing. I actually think I’ve got some kind of grip on that now. Verbs should not be the subject of your sentence! The subject of the sentence should be the thing holding the reader’s interest. The reason they’re reading the story. It should be the character, or the artefact, or the wibbly portal that’s opening up over Yorkshire.

In a scene from Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum holds a flair and runs from the t-rex

But what’s really interesting is that Jeff Goldblum is running. Huh? ‘Running from what?’ Oh, nothing special. Just, you know, a boring old… thing.

2) I have a problem with homophones and look-alike words
I’ve never been diagnosed with dyslexia, or any other kind of disorder like that. However, after over a dozen readings I still missed a point where I’d written ‘diaphragm’ instead of ‘diagram’. I just read over it. Every single time.

And the difference between ‘steel’ and ‘steal’ just won’t stick in my head. I mean, I can see they’re two different words but when they’re in a story, they might as well be the same.

A Guiness poster, showing a working man carrying a steel girder with one hand and merrily trotting along.  It's captioned, 'Guiness, for Strength'.

And for stealing steel! … Steeling steal? Ah, crap.

And then there’s the times I miss out words and don’t notice. No matter how many times I read it, the gap doesn’t present itself to me. Or the superfluous words, they don’t register either. And then they I did something. See that? If that was in the middle of a story, it wouldn’t register.

There are programs out there designed to help with these problems. Things like Read and Write, and Ginger. However, none of the ones I’ve found work with Ubuntu. No, not even through WINE. However, I have started to use Orca Screen Reader. It, erm, reads out what’s on the screen. And it’s really helped with those missing words and those look-alikes. Stared vs. starred is one I can never get. But Orca gets it for me.

It’s quite possible that this selective blindness accounts, at least in some part, for my less than stellar publishing record. It’s also possible that I’m just crap.

3) Getting published is less important than getting people.
This is that ‘why’ I was talking about earlier.

This isn’t about networking. This is about having other people to share the world with.

Take movies and TV shows, for example. I’ve realised I’m an horrific voyeur. I enjoy someone else enjoying something on TV as much–maybe more–than I enjoy what we’re watching.

And I need to have that in my life. I need to have something other than the whims of the slush reader to dictate my happiness. And I need to share my happiness with people who want to share it.

This is the sort of thing you’re supposed to learn sometime around puberty. It’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to learn how to do before you leave school. Who says you’re supposed to? You know. People. By the time you leave university you’re supposed be a fully-rounded human being, who can make friends by themselves, who can take pleasure in other people’s company, who doesn’t see other people as a drain on their time that could be better spent elsewhere. I feel as if I’m a good twenty years behind where I should be, socially. Why did it take me until I’m 32 to realise this?

Of course, all that is a lie. All this ‘supposed to’ malarky. Whenever that train of thought leaves the tracks, I force myself to take a breath and be thankful it didn’t take me until I was 33. Or 40. Or eighty. Because damn, on that score, I’m lucky.

Anyway, back to people and writing. I’m not going to stop writing any more than I’m going to stop breathing. I’m just going to take some time away from it and give it to… well, other people. And if I think a story is great and no one wants to publish it, I’ll publish it. It won’t get me any closer to Interzone or Asimov’s but it’ll be doing more than if it just sat on my hard drive.

So, where are these ‘people’ going to come from? Well, two places.

A man stands, covered head-to-toe in bees

Gah! People! They’re all over me! Get ‘em off! Getemoff– Wait, this actually feels quite good… Ho! Hold it! You going to crawl in there, you need to buy me a drink first…

The first is the big, scary, unpleasant world. I joined Reddit a few weeks ago. I made my first post without sitting on the sidelines for months as I learned the rules. Couldn’t have done that a few years ago. And I’ve started archery. Hobbies are good, right? Especially hobbies that’ll come in useful after society collapses.

The second is the people already in my life. People like Allegra, and Jo, and my family. No more discounting! No more telling myself that the people who care enough about me to make time in their lives for me don’t count because, seriously, what kind of idiot would make time for me?

All I need now is some of that new-fangled confidence stuff I’ve heard people talk about.

And yes, this is an important lesson about writing. A very important one. If I’m part of the world around me, if I can let other people into my world, then I’ll be able to create far more enticing and rich imaginary worlds and far more nuanced and believable characters. If the thought of someone valuing me doesn’t make me run screaming from whatever room I’m in, then when opportunities come along I’ll be able to grab them with both hands and if I crash and burn then, hey, not the end of the world. Where’s the next one coming from?

So. That was 2012. What does 2013 hold? Come on, motherfucker, let’s see what you’ve got.

(Now, if you’ll excuse me, this sudden outburst of floatation has run out and I need to find a corner to whimper in…)

Jurassic Park picture from here. Guinness ad from here. Man covered in bees from here.

Floating

Not Waving, But Drowning by Stevie Smith (1953)

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

~ * ~

I’ve found it difficult to get people to understand what it’s like in my head. I have no other frame of reference. And, well, neither do they.

The metaphor I’ve fallen back on most is that of swimming. In my life, I’m in a huge sea with no land anywhere in sight. The only way to stay above the waves is to swim. Constantly. Every damned minute. If you stop swimming, you start drowning. It’s why I sometimes just feel so… tired. Why I just want to be able to rest, to not have to fight to keep my head above water.

I’ve spent most of my life sinking. Just like in real life, my natural buoyancy level has been somewhere above my eyebrows. So, if I want to breathe air and not water, I need to keep on swimming…

Recently, though… Things have been different. There are times when the water line is under my mouth. Times when I can put all my energy into getting somewhere, instead of spending most of it staying afloat. Times of floatation.

It may be the same small victory as the last one, but now I have a concise way of expressing it. That means I have a concise way of thinking about it, and that’s the first step to understanding it.

A powerboat travelling at high speeds, thrown off the water's surface after hitting a wave

Next step, motherfuckers!

Picture from Wikipedia