Monthly Archives: August 2010

A Scattered Shower of Thoughts

I have been left home alone for a week.

OK, I am not quite alone, as my brother is still around, but we tend to avoid each other anyway. And there is a ginger and cream night murderer currently sleeping in a ball next to me.

Anyway, at least today I have been all alone.

Today I have been indulging and reading the copy of ‘Zero History’ by William Gibson that arrived earlier. So far so good. Some very interesting ideas in the book. The style is denser and much more opaque. Is this a reflection on the increased complexity and ambiguity that the world has finally been forced to accept because of the financial crisis? Maybe.

I am reminded, because of Gibson’s use of coincidence, of a recent blog post by Ken MacLeod about a discussion he had with Ian Rankin about Ian McEwan’s 2002 novel ‘Saturday’. The concluding remark made by Rankin had me thinking for some of the week about one of the differences between genre and literary fiction. (Yes, I know that you could consider literary fiction to be a genre, but it doesn’t operate in the same way as SF/F. Indulge me.)

‘If guys like us came up with contrivances like that,’ he concluded, ‘the critics would throw stones at us.’

— Ian Rankin

Now I think guys like Ken and Ian could get away with contrivances like the ones they describe in ‘Saturday’ if they wanted, and that the reason that McEwan gets away with them is he has the confidence to make these leaps and, maybe, the ability to pull them off. I have been thinking about this in relation to one of the problems I currently have with genre fiction is the lack of confidence. At the moment conversations around genre seem to always been defensive. Lots of justification of and reasoning about minutiae.

And literary writers have written good genre fiction, and they will continue to; the only difference is that they will likely not worry about how the internal logic and coincidences within their stories is received. They’ll write something and just let it happen without worrying about the precise details. Without having to worry about justifying them to anyone because they know they don’t have to.

This reminds me about the constant low-level debate about realism in table-top RPGs. In my experience a lot of gamers get hung up on realism, even in games with dragons and vampires, without spending time focusing on internal-consistency or necessary narrative simplicity. This is what leads to games having rules for almost every detail and campaigns being a bit kitchen sink. It is one of the reasons why I stopped playing table-top RPGs.

The confidence to make shit up and not bother justifying it. Is that an important part of telling a decent story? Or is it that an important part of being a reader is not being so hypersensitive that suspension of disbelief is broken by obvious contrivances?

Anyway I am alone and I need to cook myself some dinner.

The Five Billion Names of Genre

An exercise. Not a terribly original one, but still an exercise for the imagination.

Below is a list of fifty literary genres and sub-genres taken from Wikipedia’s list. I have added a few genres of my own, and this list is not exhaustive. Take a look at an item on the list below, and tell me about what a genre title suggests to you in a short paragraph.

The only constraint is that you cannot deliberately reference existing works of fiction. I want to hear about possible mes-en-scene, themes and tropes only. No examples.

What is the purpose of this exercise? Well, genres are different for everyone. They are subjective and dependent on personal experience, as they depend on what you have read, seen and heard. So I am interested in what potential genre names suggest. What is the essence of individual genres?

Alternative History
Apocalyptic Fiction
Bizarro Fiction
Christian Science Fiction
Comic Science Fiction
Counterfacual history
Dark Fantasy
Dying Earth
Dystopian Fiction
Epic Fantasy
Feminist Science Fiction
Future Noir

Chris Cunningham

I believe that Chris Cunningham produced some of the best visual horror and science fiction of the late 1990s. Above is a YouTube playlist containing my evidence.

Beauty Is Found in Inconspicuous Places

Beauty is found in inconspicuous places, like on the side of solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle as they fall back to earth. Don’t get bored in the first minute and a half. Keep watching until two minutes, and then I promise you’ll keep watching after.

All this with a contact microphone and a small camera. I’m sure some of my musician friends will find interesting things to do with the sound from this.

Locative Writing Prompts

This is an idea had during a shower so expect all the rigour and quality which is expected of ideas had while washing hair.

A lot of fiction is about place. Fantasy fiction and science fiction have a central element of world building embedded within the philosophy of the genre. Location can be used , and is, to exaggerate themes and ideas in any story with vivid descriptions of the landscapes that the characters are placed within by the author.

Starting a tale in the same mood as “it was a dark and stormy night” does not usually indicate a comedy.

One thing I have learned running Kick1 is that prompts made of words and sentences, also pictures, can be effective starting points for creative writing2. But they are at best two-dimensional. They are sentences, and they are pictures cut from magazines or printed from the internet. You aren’t there, you are just looking at an image or using it to trigger your imagination.

So I am thinking of doing something bigger and more immersive. I am thinking of going to some fantastic and wild places to write on location. Whatever comes to mind as I am standing in the place. There is a long history of this. Because I’m writing this prior to lunch and coffee I’m not going to go find examples.

But the point is that to write about place and evoke the sensation of a place you need to have a bank of experience to draw on. Second-hand from books is great, but to get the small details you need to have been there, or at least somewhere roughly like the imagined landscape.

Maybe what will get written is just lists of words and phrases that occur to me while in a place. I might write some flash fiction or a short story there. Who knows?

Within Leicestershire I can think of half a dozen interesting places. From a Iron Age fort to a supposed druidical alter stone to an Anglo Saxon Christian cross in a graveyard near my house.

There is also a lot of interesting sites in the Peak District. Like really interesting. How about a broken road? There are barrows above that and a medevial castle in a village called, er, Castleton nearby.

Anyone interested in coming on some literary adventures?

1The Kick School of Creative Writing
2 – I still dislike the phrase, but it fits my needs here.


So I am sitting on my sofa watching an an episode of Rebus and writing the opening few paragraphs of this post in a notebook and on my phone. This is a TY series which has two major advantages over other cop dramas. Firstly the opening theme music, and secondly the fact that Ken Stott in the actor who plays Detective Inspector Rebus in the version I watch. He is an actor made to play foul tempered detectives.

If it is late at night and you are able to then watch some Rebus. It is damn good TV.

Now the interesting thing is that I have only read two of the books: ‘Knots and Crosses’ and the short story collection ‘A Good Hanging’. There is a latent desire to to read more of the books, as Ian Rankin is a good writer. But there is a problem: I have already the TV version to watch; I have gotten stuck watching the adaptation. This isn’t a bad thing, as these are good adaptations, but they do have the problem that all adaptations suffer from.

All adaptations are necessary simplifications.

(You can see this by watching the currently airing series Sherlock and comparing with the original short stories and novels. You could probably try the same exercise with Wallander.)

Now there is a good argument to say that what films and TV should draw from as sources of adaptation are short stories which because due to the length of form only cover one idea/plot/theme instead of the multitude that a satisfying novel covers. Sadly short stories are less popular and commercially viable than novels in the present climate. A shame, because most of our cinematic culture is based on reducing more complex works to fit 90 minutes to 120 minutes of screen time.

Of course the best films are made as films first. Just like the best books are made as books first, and the best short stories are written to be short stories.

If you want to see something really interesting watch a game to film translation. Those are weird.

The Games I Am Looking For

I am a reluctant gamer. Sure I played video games as a kid, and while at university I dabbled pretty heavily in tabletop role playing games, but I don’t think, except for a couple of years in my early teens, that I was ever a serious gamer. It was never a lifestyle for me, just a thing I did occasionally.

Now there are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is that my true love and passion is stories. Games, even tabletop role playing games, are not about stories. In a video game you are not in control of the story, there is only the illusion of control. The stories that are generated in table top games are not interesting stories. They are emotionally rich experiences, I will give them that, but they are not detailed or anything more than shadows of the stories they invariably attempt to imitate. At best they are compromised by the limitations of being collaborative and improvised.

There is nothing wrong with this. There are people who do get enjoyment from playing the game, and not the story. There are also plenty of people who aspire to and succeed in enjoying a modern day and paraphernalia ridden version of a camp fire tale. Rich emotional experiences.

I am not one of these people it turns out.