Monthly Archives: November 2010

New Look

You might have noticed that I have changed the theme of the site. The previous theme was great, but it just wasn’t me. There was something just a little bit too cluttered and ornamental for my liking about the theme. Also this theme appears to handle quotes and images with more sanity as well.

Will post a little bit of something later, but additions here are going to be slow until at least the 18th of December. However in spite of that I started a newsletter using tiny letter which I’ll be throwing material at this week. The newsletter is called “Things Never Said” there is likely to be a small crossover with material that gets published to this site.

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Coffee Woes

Oh shit the French press broke.

Like really properly broke.

Improvise!

William S. Burroughs – Critics

Critics constantly complain that writers are lacking in standards, yet they themselves seem to have no standards other than personal prejudice for literary criticism. (…) such standards do exist. Matthew Arnold set up three criteria for criticism: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it? (…) 3. Does the work exhibit “high seriousness”? That is, does it touch on basic issues of good and evil, life and death and the human condition. I would also apply a fourth criterion (…) Write about what you know. More writers fail because they try to write about things they don’t know than for any other reason.

William S. Burroughs, ‘A Review of the Reviewers’

Why I am Not Doing NaNoWriMo

This year unlike the previous two years I am not taking park in NaNoWriMo. This isn’t because I think that the exercise is a bad or worthless one, I don’t. But I also don’t think that it is the right exercise to encourage the habit of writing in everyone, and that some of NaNoWriMo’s flaws are serious if you hold a specific philosophy towards writing. The reason why I am not doing NaNoWriMo is that it makes me by week two terribly unhappy and depressed.

This is because of my own individual approach to writing. I will illustrate this with a wonky, imprecise extended climbing metaphor. You have been warned. Bouldering is a discipline of rock climbing dedicated to the act of climbing short, but technically hard “problems.” Sport climbing is a form of free climbing that can vary in length but uses fixed bolts in the rock for the climber to clip their rope to so they don’t, er, die. As in bouldering the expectation is to generally be climbing on the edge of one’s ability, but falling off, failure, is OK because you can keep working a problem/route until you have climbed it.

This is perfectionist climbing, and I think quite a fitting analogy to the process of writing short fiction which is my current interest. Write a bit, evaluate it, rewrite it until I’m happy with it.

What then is NaNoWriMo using this climbing metaphor? Well, let’s say that NaNoWriMo to me feels like a long walk up a flight of stairs with a lot of company. This hike is fifty thousand steps long and it doesn’t matter if you walk in full strikes or tired, weary dragging of the feet. It doesn’t matter, just as long as you climb the flight of stairs in a month. Yes, this is a much less poetic description than the camp I rest in, but, eh, that’s how it feels to me and it just doesn’t appeal or get me writing.

Just writing fifty-thousand words doesn’t make a novel. While E.M. Forster’s definition of a novel as being any text over fifty-thousand words is generally pretty sound, it does come with a couple of implicit assumptions about dramatic structure and the overall shape of the text. Most texts written during NaNoWriMo aren’t likely to be the first draft of a novel, let alone a good or bad one. Maybe draft 0.5. This comes back to my preoccupation of writing as a highly technical exercise, like climbing, where the individual moves and the overall sequence of moves matter. So while everything I write doesn’t have to be perfect I do like to revise and rework as I go. I like to fall off, have another look and a think and then try again repeatedly until it is right.

NaNoWriMo isn’t for me. It isn’t a problem of discipline (I write most days all year round) just of attitude and temperament.

I must add that I do deeply approve of the social side of NaNoWriMo, even if the exercise doesn’t work for me, and that I am typing and rewriting this from my composition book during the local area write-in for NaNoWriMo.

Will Ellwood
Coffee Republic, Leicester
Sunday, 7th November

William Gibson on Genre

Genre is that dubious bargain whereby the reader is offered (for our present purposes) a novel, a form whose very name promises a new experience, but offers, in genre, the implicit and crucial promise of the repetition of previous pleasures.

— William Gibson (Sui Generis: A Testimony, his introduction to Rudy Rucker’s WareTetralogy)

Interesting point of view, no? What do you think?

Gouge Away


It is readily accepted by most sane people that much of Ernest Hemingway’s short fiction is his best work. Many of these stories are not what today we would call short stories, but instead are perfect examples of flash fiction. A few weeks ago I bought a copy of “The First Forty-Nine Stories” from Amazon and I have devoured its contents. I am very fond of the story “Old Man at the Bridge.”

Still a mystery remains for me about one aspect of the collection. I have not been able to find any reference to this anywhere, so maybe someone will provide more information. A quirk of the collection is that between many of the short stories listed in the contents are other stories always less than a page and always given a chapter number.

Personally, I find many of these mystery stories are the best stories in the book. The topics covered are fairly similar: most of the stories are about The Great War or bull fighting. Quite a few of them feature Nick Adams. Always, however, the stories are tight and say just enough to convey a point.

These are fine examples of precision storytelling. Take a look at the story called “Chapter V”:

They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.

There are no simplistic rules for wannabe writers to be found here. All I will do is ask you a question which takes you down an interesting avenue of thought for both readers and writers. (This question can also be applied to games, films, comics, whatever.) How much can be taken away from a text until it becomes incoherent?

You have your homework. I encourage you to think about it. And if anyone thinks that Hemingway’s six word story is a clever answer, they are wrong. Generally most attempts to tell stories in such a confined space rely on abandoning the techniques of normal length fiction and rapidly become uninteresting experiments with no real substance. It is also the obvious answer and provides little added understanding. Think harder!

M. John Harrison: No Escape

“In the end you have to judge reality as the place where there are consequences. Anything else is willful and childish. Anything else is self-induced blindness, denial of the consequence of being alive, which is that you’ll die. You know you’re alive. My problem with cyberpunks is when they ask, ‘How do you know?’ Well, you put your hand down in front of a taxi. See how you feel with your hand under the wheel, see how well you use a keyboard afterwards; then tell me stuff about, ‘I don’t know whether it’s real or not.’ I don’t want to live in models, fictions, possibilities, alternate realities or multiverses: that’s for kiddies. I want to live and die as a human being in what is.”

— M John Harrison

Taken from the extract of an interview conducted with M John Harrison for Locus 2003 Issue 12.