Saturday, August 25, 2007

Infinity And Beyond

Set up when the interweb was mostly fields brimming with golden idealism, infinityplus was one of first sites for free fiction and reviews and is still one of the best (more than 2 million words of free fiction), going static after ten years hard work by its publisher and editor, Keith Brooke.

For its tenth anniversary:
* Cross Roads Blues by Paul McAuley [novelette, 25-Aug-07, R]
* Inheritance by Paul McAuley [novelette, 25-Aug-07, R/revised]
* Paul McAuley interviewed by Stuart Carter [non-fiction, 25-Aug-07, 1W]
* Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese by Nicola Griffith [short story, 25-Aug-07, R]
* Freezing Geezers by Kit Reed [short story, 25-Aug-07, R]
* The Edge of Nowhere by James Patrick Kelly [novelette, 25-Aug-07, R]
* Distant Galaxies Colliding by Gareth L Powell [short story, 25-Aug-07, R]
* Three Days in a Border Town by Jeff VanderMeer [novelette, 25-Aug-07, R]
* Tall Tales on the Iron Horse by Colin P Davies [short story, 25-Aug-07, R]
* What's Up Tiger Lily? a novelette by Paul Di Filippo [novelette, 25-Aug-07, R]
* And in the end... a last word from Keith Brooke

Friday, August 24, 2007

Whack-A-Mole Spooks And Butt-Kickin’ Bravos

Trashotron’s take on Cowboy Angels.

Without Prejudice

The latest issue of New Scientist contains an interview with Jeanette Winterson. As is all too often the case with ‘literary’ novelists who commit science fiction, she wants to make it clear that what she has written isn’t in any way SF:

Q: What do you think about novelists and science?
A: I hate science fiction . . .
Q: What’s your next book about?
A: . . . A girl builds a multi-gendered robot, which then kills her parents because it sees them mistreat her, so they both go on the run.

Actually, it’s slightly unfair to stitch her up by ellipsis. Her full answer to the question about novelists and science was this:

A: I hate science fiction. But good writers about science, such as Jim Crace or Margaret Atwood, are great. They take on science because it’s crucial to our world, and they use language to give energy to ideas. Others just borrow science and it ends up like the emperor’s new clothes, with no understanding of the material. But you shouldn’t fake it because science is too important, it’s the basis for our lives. I expect a lot more science in fiction because science is so rich.

Which is exactly what the best science fiction novels and stories, and ‘literary’ novels dealing with science, are all about. What a pity that Winterson had to spoil some common sense with a crass disclaimer.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

More Advertisments For Myself.

I’ve put up an extract from Cowboy Angels (publication date, 29 days and counting) over on my website, adding to the free stuff already there.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Why I Write Short Stories

It isn’t for the money. You can’t make a living from writing science-fiction short stories. As John Scalzi recently pointed out, rates when Robert Heinlein started out, back in the 1940s, were much higher than they are now. Although you can earn much more in some markets outside the genre, the average in the SF field seems to be around four to eight cents (two to four pence) a word. This isn’t the fault of the markets; magazines are selling fewer copies than in SF’s Golden Age, and rates reflect that. But it means that if I write and sell a 3000 word short story, I can expect to be paid around 120 pounds sterling if I luck out on the high rate. If it was the best kind of short story, the kind that writes itself, it might have taken me three days to finish. That’s forty pounds a day, which isn’t bad, but isn't exactly in the comfort zone either. I’d be earning over 14,000 pounds a year if I could turn out and sell a story every three days, but of course, that's not really possible - I’d have to finish and sell 120 stories a year. There’s some extra money to factor in, of course, if I can resell published stories to collections, my own or reprint anthologies. One of my short stories has been reprinted more than ten times, earning far more than its original fee. But as far as I’m concerned, novels are where the real money is (which isn’t why I write them, or not entirely).

When I started out, I wrote and sold a bunch of short stories before I wrote and sold my first novel. It was the traditional route to becoming a professional SF writer. Things are a bit different now. It’s no longer necessary to make a name for yourself in the short story markets before writing and selling your novel; instead, it’s essential that you get a good, smart, hungry agent who can push your portion and outline. And there are certainly plenty of younger writers, especially those working in the heroic fantasy field, who started their careers as novelists and have never written a short story in their life. But almost all the writers of my generation here in Britain started out by publishing short stories (the only exception I can think of is Gwyneth Jones). I’m pretty sure it’s the same in the States. So, my first short stories were not only provided invaluable writing experience; they were also in part advertisements for myself.

And perhaps that’s a small part of the reason for continuing to write short stories, but it’s by no means the main reason. Now, I do it because I like to mess around with ideas - not just the ideas that form the story’s backbone, but with ideas about structure and form, voice and pace. It’s a form of play. I can also use short stories to explore and elaborate worlds that I may use in novels, or uncover corners of the world of a novel I’ve just written. The Quiet War stories are a good example of that. Over the past decade, I’ve written stories that I’m now mining, mostly indirectly, for material to supply two big novels. Right now, I’m working on a couple of stories about a shabby little interstellar empire, set in the very near future. And I have to admit that I still enjoy the tremendous satisfaction of working quickly and in a small compass, taking one idea and pushing it as far as it will go, or knocking two ideas together to see what will happen, or creating a moment that illuminates an entire life. If things go right, I have a finished piece in a few days. I tell you, it’s as bad as crack cocaine. Plus, when things go right, I get paid for it, too. It beats working for a living.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Never Mind the Width...

From a recent interview with Norman Mailer: ‘With a novel you have to be good for months at a time. With a short story you only have to be good for a week.’

If it wasn’t for nicely impish allusion to writing as an alternative to hellraising and carousing - as a form of distraction - this would of course be little more than a pretty obvious truism. Novels are longer: therefore they take longer to write, epic marathons to the brief sprints of short stories. But there’s a little more to it than that, of course. Writing a novel is a sustained act of imagination, sure, but as well as simple linear quantitative measurements there are crucial qualitative differences between writing a novel and writing a short story, too. For one thing, the imaginative act of writing a short story is more focused and sustained than that of writing a novel. Everything counts in a short story. A novel is roomy, able to contain all kinds of digressions and expansiveness. Short stories are what they are, no more, no less. And the best kind of short story (as mentioned a couple of entries ago) appears all at once, in the round: subject, theme, narrative and voice all in place, gliding out on its own melting. As far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t happen too often. But after I’ve trashed my way to the conclusion of a first draft, I usually know what’s gone wrong, what needs to be taken out and what is missing, and after that I have the whole thing in my head, like a three-dimensional model that can examined from any angle. All that remains to be done is pruning and polishing and tightening.

This happens with novels too, but at a much later stage, and it’s less global, more mechanical - it’s the point where I really have to get down to knitting everything together, when I know, for instance, that taking out a bit of exposition on page 23 will affect the long-delayed meeting of two characters on page 412. Novels by their very nature are imperfect. There’s always minor compromise somewhere in the structure, a few factual errors or contradictions, and in genre novels particularly there are sentences and paragraphs that exist only as bridges or exposition or explanation. Bits of plumbing or bracing left exposed. No matter how much you prune and compress, it’s impossible to submerge all information beneath the surface of the narrative.

But short stories, because they are shorter pieces of prose (although their narratives may encompass entire lifetimes), hold out the possibility of perfection. Maybe that’s why I haven’t given up on them, even though the economics of the short story market means that they are, for professional writers, luxury goods. The possibility of perfection. The satisfaction of fully realising an idea in just a few days, from first light to Fall. The knowledge that if you fail, it is not an important failure.
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