Monthly Archives: July 2010

Finding Form in Short Fiction

While reading RSS feeds this morning I came across an article on the Guardian book blog about a small publisher in Cambridge called Salt. One of the titles mentioned, ‘Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story‘, caught my attention because I’m interested in the short story as both a reader and a writer. I do like the novel form, but I adore and appreciate a good short story more than a good novel. It is maybe the hacker instinct working itself out of my mind, as a short story can be looked at as a total object which I can examine the way it works more easily than a novel. This helps me get better a writing, and being able to take apart a short story in this way gives me extra level of enjoyment from an individual story.

I was always the kid that took his toys apart and played with Lego.

Being absolutely broke I can’t hop onto Amazon and buy a copy of the book, but I can look on the website and read the free preview. In the PDF they provide the first essay from the collection. This essay by Graham Mort is called ‘Finding Form in Short Fiction’ and is well worth investigating fully. I just want to highlight one paragraph and bring that to your attention. It involves comics and it involves the short story, and it is a thought that has never occurred to me.

The first short fiction I ever read (by which I mean the short story here rather than the novella) was in the comics and comic books I subscribed to as a child and borrowed from friends. One lad, in particular, had a constant supply of Marvel comics through an older brother. I’m sure that one of the enduring influences of those comics was the use of frames that captured a visual image and moved the action forward in a sequence that resembled a ciné film with intervening frames missing. I realise now that frames equate to paragraphs in a story or stanzas in a poem — to move between them is to move across the white space of the page, which is often a period of implied time. The articulation of those comic strips was something to do with the motion of time within narrative, and with the way in which readers imagine absences.

I must find some time to meditate on this idea.

Hyperthetical Café Rules


If I was to run a café there would be a sheet of paper pasted to the wall written in my angular script. There would be a few simple rules for the customers to keep in mind.

These are the rules:

  1. Serious and not solemn please.
  2. Geek arguments about Batman et al will be met with advanced literature and the ultimate deconstruction of your heroes.
  3. If the background noise starts to make you feel disembodied and loose your sense of self please donate a small amount to the Somafm jar.
  4. Be yourself, be cool.

Fill – Never Again

Russian producer Fill, moniker of Daniil Vavilov, show us this warm, and inviting pathway to his sonic creativity. Led by a symphony of broken drums, as heard in “Alone within Four Walls”, moods are sculpted from unique atmospheres. “Drunk at Nightfall” shows up on the release at its midway point continuing the inviting theme while imparting a more serious tone. The nine-track release finishes up with the aptly named “Tribute”, which offers a glimpse at the producer’s take on a track with a more house-oriented feel.

I rediscovered this album shuffling through my computer’s music folder while checking emails and RSS feeds earlier in the morning. Even though this album is only a few months old I had entirely forgotten about its existence. It had gone from my memory. No doubt this is a direct consequence of downloading far too much music because this is a pleasant recording to listen to.

When I heard the opening section of the second track I thought this was something entirely different, but that’s what kept me listening and when I found it wasn’t what I thought it was I decided to investigate. I dimly recall that there was an intent to burn to a CD-R of this to keep in the car. At these moments these fine relaxing beats are echoing around my living room on a freshly burned disk above drone of the washing machine bleeding in from the kitchen.

The synopsis provided by the netlabel, which I have quoted above, provides an apt and hyperbole1 free description of the album which can be downloaded from the netlabel here or from archive.org.

1 – The one thing I hate above all other problems in publishing is when the publisher hypes up a work with a list of adjectives or a wall of unattributed praise. I want to be given a rough indication of the experience I am about to undergo without being told that it will be brilliant. This simply can not be the case for everything, as some stuff I will always find unenjoyable. However one hopes that the publisher stands behind all of the work they put out, equally, in silence so that the audience can decide if the work is shite or not. When everything is describes as genius then nothing can be.

Moving In

My old laptop has been replaced. It has been dying for a couple of years, and had become a tool to be fought with instead of used invisibly. Of course the Toshiba laptop was four years old and had a hard life of international travel, finishing a university degree and, well, just being used daily for four years by me.

It had some extra memory installed into it a few months ago in the hopes that’d extend the life of it, but that wasn’t helping with the heat it was generating on my lap and terrible sluggishness of Windows XP, so it was time to replace it with a new machine. A lighter and more ergonomic machine.

Thank God for birthdays!

The machine I’ve gotten is an Asus Eee PC 1001HA and it is a nice little computer. It came with Windows XP (yuck!) pre-installed and as my instillation plan went wrong because I erased the Windows restore partition I’ve decided to compromise and duel boot with Ubuntu Netbook Edition instead of just having Ubuntu installed as the single operating system on the computer. This was after spending all of Saturday afternoon making an image file of the Windows XP partition.

Oh well, we all make stupid mistakes, and the Ubuntu partition still has 100Gb to play with.

As Ubuntu is my desktop OS of choice I’ve not noticed any difference between using this netbook and my desktop. This is a good thing. There were a few small problems to deal with once Ubuntu was installed: namely having to install a wireless driver and change a setting in the bootloader to allow all the hotkeys to work. This was no big deal really, especially after the fuck up with the partitioning.

A big pink sticker has been applied to the back of the netbook already but for some reason I’ve not yet removed all the horrible little branding stickers on the front of the computer or the transparent sticker applied to the screen yet.

There’s always a strange period between computers. The time when all the files you need aren’t quite all transferred and everything is quite how you expect. But I suspect that me and Rashomon1 and me should work well together.

I am very pleased with my new toy.

1 – The netbook’s network name is “Rashmon” because the Ubuntu logo reminds me of the stylized flower seen on front of many translations of the Hagakure.

Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour


These are just my first impressions because I only finished reading the last book not very long ago. About an hour ago. I deliberately haven’t given myself much time to reflect on the book and the series as a whole, but I have also read the previous five volumes in the previous twenty-four hours. So I think I’ve got quite a good handle on what’s going on in the last volume.

Well the art is very good. The thick black lines and the lack of detail drawn by Brian Lee O’Malley convey all of the emotion and drama required without cluttering the page. The only problem with the art I have in ‘Scott Pilgrim’, and this has been fixed to some extent in the ‘Finest Hour’, is that many of the characters are hard to tell apart because of the lack of features which sets them apart. Also the layouts in previous volumes were often confusing, but over over the six books O’Malley has become a real master at designing the perfect page. There is some really smart uses of negative space in this book to portray motion and scale. Oh yes the writing is also sharp and witty.

Scrapbook.txt

33,454 actual words
38,848 average 5-letter words
(These words are longer than average.)

194,242 characters including spaces and tabs

155 average 250-word manuscript pages
97 average 400-word technical pages

I started this file in April 2009. It is just a text file that I keep on the desktop of my laptop. This is where blog posts, forum posts which require a bit of care and snippets of fiction start. Also URLs and lists which I might need to remember along with other quick bits of text live in here.

I think 30,000 words of ephemera is pretty good so far. This is a system that works for me, and it keeps all my thoughts in one place. Think of this file as being like an infinitely long Moleskine notebook in what is currently a 195kB and growing text file.

My advice for everybody is to have a scrapbook file.

Post-It Notes

Here are some pictures of some of the post-it notes which have collected on my desk overtime.

You should all I know by now that I can’t spell.

Plastic Futures

Everything ages, and I hope that we can all accept that. Science Fiction is not immune to this. Indeed, it easily falls afoul of time easily by depicting futures which never come to pass and could never have happened. Even when we acknowledge the dictum that SF is always about the present this problem is not wholly solved. We can consider it side-stepped, and made to go away until some future reader looks back without any of the information it was assumed the reader possessed when the story was first written.

If we accept that all science fiction will overtime become more impenetrable to new readers we have to ask how can we deal with this? Yes, we can ignore the problem and carry on telling stories without caring about how legible they are in the future, or we can start to think about how our fictional futures might age and use this to form an understanding of how these stories work. I think that as a first step we can divide our science fictions into two broad categories: the plastic and the organic futures.

(Now this isn’t meant to be a value judgement on the quality of different types of SF; more a comment on the longevity and how the enjoyment of a story will be spread out over time. Please don’t shoot me!)

Organic futures are science fictions which are eclipsed by the real world soon after publication. They are not necessarily predictive, although they may be, but the quality that may best be assigned to them is that they are perceptive. They are intense reads about futures which fall apart five, ten years after publication. Our memories of these stories and the principle enjoyment we gain from them is rooted in their freshness and originality. However overtime these stories become less accessible and enjoyably to new readers. I would argue that the classic works of John Brunner such as: ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ and ‘The Shockwave Rider’ would typify this category. Another writer who works in this spectrum I would suggest is Charles Stross.

Plastic futures are the stories disconnected from the present. They are as enjoyable on the day of publication as they are a generation later. They have long half-lives1. A consequence of this is that they can possess less of an emotional resonance than more organic stories, but the effect that they have is longer lasting as the concepts and themes which these stories tackle are broader than more organic stories. My suggestion for a writers who’s work appears in this category would be Issac Asimov and Iain M. Banks.

Of course there are stories which are neither wholly plastic or organic. 1984 is one example of a novel which has, I think, lost none of its relevance since its 1948 publication.

I discuss this topic because I think that it is a worthwhile way to analyse science fiction. Asking if a proposed future is organic or plastic looks at our relationship with science fiction stories. Do we want futures that last forever, or do we want violent bursts of the future for five minutes?

1 I was tempted to use a radioactive metaphor originally, but I like plastic more. To elaborate, organic futures are like uranium which is energetic and gives off radiation freely until it decays into lead, and plastic futures are like gold and stable and hard to tarnish.