Sunday, 30 November 2014

North by Southwest

Anthologies. Can't get enough of 'em? Indeed, there's no such thing as too many. But sometimes an anthology needs a helping hand to bring it into the world. North Bristol Writers have put together an anthology, North by Southwest, but needs some crowdfunding help get it published.

I should probably mention that it's a rather good collection of stories. (OK, so I should probably also mention that I'm one of the authors.)

But don't just take my word for it. Here's what the inimitable Jonathan L Howard had to say about it:
To whom it may concern,
This prepatent publication features the work of several persons it is my great misfortune to know. Indeed, I have already been acquainted with some of the stories. I must warn you, if you help fund this anthology, you will be instrumental in unleashing a collection of splendid fiction upon an unsuspecting public. Is that what you want? Do you really wish to be forever associated with a “good read”? An “enjoyable collection of eclectic tales”? When you dangle your grandchildren on your knee in some distant time, do you really want the trusting poppets to ask of you, “Grandparental unit, what did you do during the North by Southwest fundraiser?” and for you to have to turn your face to the wall and sob, “Gods forgive me, offspring-of-one-remove, but I donated!” 
Think on, that is all I ask. Think on.
Ready to help? Excellent! Here you go.

And here's the artwork by Claire Hutt that is going to accompany my story, "Like Giants":

Good, isn't it? This good, I'd say (TIA).

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Fifty Shades of Haunting

Hot on the heels of Halloween and just in time for Christmas, "Promises You Can Keep", a ghost story of mine, has been republished in Haunted, a rather nicely produced anthology edited by Alex Davies and Ryan Merrifield. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the book's launch in Derby last weekend.

Speaking of anthologies and launches, I discovered a couple of months back that although my flash fiction piece, "The Same Team", didn't place in the Worcestershire LitFest & Fringe flash fiction competition, it did get selected for inclusion in their anthology, Fifty Flashes of Fiction. The launch is this Sunday; I'll be there.

But if all this anticipation is too much, have some instant flash gratification: "Second Place", which unintentionally coincident with the title is my second contribution to Visual Verse.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

BristolCon Debrief

I seem to have fallen off the blogging wagon. Time to climb back on. A number of things have happened; a few things haven't. But let's start with last month's BristolCon.

It was a fun day and this year I managed to attend more of the conference than in previous years, but arriving home late the night before meant I had a slow start and missed much of the morning programme.

In the afternoon I was on a panel with Stark Holborn, Jonathan L Howard and Kim Lakin-Smith, ably chaired by Jaine Fenn. What did we talk about? Sex and violence. Specifically, its representation in speculative fiction.

The sense was that sexual tension was important and often present, but violence and death were far more commonly and explicitly described than sex. There seems to be an interesting and contradictory double standard that applies inconsistently to violence and sex — as I noted by quoting George R R Martin — which is further complicated by the prevalence of sexualised female characters in many media appearances of speculative fiction, so what should be a positive question of sex becomes conflated with negative representations and their connotations. As the discussion was focused on the written word, however, this latter issue was not really explored — although writing can be graphic, writing is necessarily less visual than, say, a movie.

I went through my own fiction beforehand to get some stats, and it was fairly clear that although relationships are significant and sex is often there in the background, when it comes to describing acts of sex or actual deaths, death wins — a cumulative death toll in my own short stories of around 21 billion (not 14 billion as previously estimated)! Each panellist was also asked about anything that had made them uncomfortable writing or that they would not consider writing. All in all, we plumbed some good depths and slummed in some fine shallows.

I finished off the day with my small workshop on flash fiction. I had been told I could expect two people for the session; I fully expected zero (19:00 on a Saturday night...?); I got three! This turned out to be the right number as it made discussion easy and gave everyone enough time to make suggestions and read out what they'd written. There was a lot to get through in 45 minutes, and I'm not sure it would have scaled easily to many more people within that time constraint. All three were already already familiar with writing, from short stories up to novels, so that offered a good starting point for discussing flash fiction and comparing the differences in constraints and degrees of freedom afforded by a short short form.

I had bookmarks that each featured each of the top ten stories of the 2013 National Flash-Fiction Day micro-fiction competition, stories required to be no more than 100 words in length, so we looked at these as a starting point. We discussed what was constant, such as the need to actually have a story, a recognisable beginning, middle and end, a title, a transition that leads to conclusion. We discussed what was sacrified, such as the scope or depth of characters, background, description and subplotting. But although subplotting may not play as important a role, subtext often remains and, indeed, may be amplified because of the brevity.

When you talk about the word-length restrictions of flash fiction people normally think in terms of what you can't have that you have in longer forms, but rarely in terms of what you can have in flash that is not easily afforded in longer forms — intensity and concentration that might be harder for the reader to sustain over longer forms, suspensions of disbelief that might be harder for readers to entertain over longer forms, experimental ideas and writing that might not scale to longer forms, etc.

We also talked about the need to make the title do more work, particularly at the very short end of the flash range, i.e., of the order of a hundred words, the importance and implications of word choice, avoiding punchline endings — the ending must be earned — and the role of the reader.

That's a lot to get covered in 45 minutes... and more if you keep in mind that I'd promised there would be some actual writing in the workshop. To kick off the exercise, I asked each person to spend a couple of minutes writing down something that had happened that morning, at home, at the con or in between. And write it straight — no fiction, no fancy writing, just as it was.

I then asked them to pick a speculative elements and weave it in, elaborating, deleting or rewriting as necessary what was already there. I offered five speculative elements to choose from: dragons, time travel, aliens, portals or elves. We spent just over five minutes on this step.

We then closed it with another couple of minutes to work on beginnings and endings and another minute to add and tweak a title. What did we end up with? Two dragon stories, a portal story and a time-travel tale — yes, I joined in, a last minute decision as I didn't want to be the only one not having any fun! And we had just enough time to each read out our own stories.

Looking back, I realise the impossibility of what we got done, but the resulting discussion and stories suggest it was not all a dream.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Sex! Death! Squid!

BristolCon happenings!

First, a quick catch-up: The Kraken Rises! Fringe event a few weeks back went well, with readings from Scott Lewis, Piotr Świetlik, Ian Millsted, Rosie Oliver and me. I managed to pull off a monopolylogue of my story, #KrakenEvent. What I had initially thought would be near impossible turned out to be a lot of fun, so I hope to read this story out again at some point in future.

I'm also on the programme for BristolCon (Saturday 25th October). What am I doing? Sex and Death! Sorry, that should be Sex or Death?, a panel that asks (and hopes to answer — or at least have fun trying) the question of which is more fun to write, which is more challenging to write and the way in which they are portrayed. A quick look through my own short stories suggests that, while both are common themes, with a cumulative death toll of over 14 billion people (and one cat) and only a couple of stories that come close to describing sexual acts directly, I suspect the answer isn't going to be a long time coming (sic).

What else am I doing? Flash, a-ah! This time the exclamation mark is deserved and included in the title. I'm running a short session in the evening on — you guessed it — flash fiction:
Flash, a-ah! 
At under a thousand words — sometimes under a hundred — flash fiction is the fiction of brevity, the fiction of immediacy, the fiction everyone can have a go at. Doesn't matter whether you write tweets or epic fantasy doorstops, flash is for everyone of us. Come along, find out, try your hand.
During the rest of the day I plan to catch sessions, talk to people, drink coffee.

On the Friday night before the con there is also a "guerilla readings" edition of BristolCon Fringe. It's worth going to, whether to read or to listen. Its format will be similar to the one in August — namely open mic and with a hard five-minute limit on your reading — so a lot of brevity, a lot of fun and much mirth whenever a story crashes the alarmed time limit. If I were able to go I would probably read "AutoKnowMe", a 200-worder recently published by 365 tomorrows. But I will be in transit on Friday evening so you'll just have to read it yourself and imagine it's live and it's me.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

By the Numbers

Last Saturday afternoon was spent at the Foyles Books Are My Bag event, organised by Southville Writers and Bristol Women Writers. The line-up changed a bit from the one originally advertised, but the basic structure of readings was the same, with two rounds of poetry, two rounds of flash, plus a round of longer fiction and also one of non-fiction, with coffee and conversation in between. There were some great readings and it was also great to read — in a bookshop, after all, the walls and furnishings are particularly sympathetic to the written word.

For whatever reason — nothing that I planned and nothing that comes to mind — I ended up choosing stories with intentionally precise word counts:  "In Love and Debt""First Date, Last Date""I Think I Get It""A Higher Calling" and "Authenticity". That's two drabbles (100 words), a dribble and a half (75 words) and two drouble-plus-dribbles (250 words, and yes a 200-worder is a drouble and a 50-worder is a dribble, but apart from the coined compound usage in this blog I'm not aware of a name for a 250-worder). Having introduced the idea of names for certain exact word counts, I ended up giving a disclaimer before my last story reading that not all flash was defined like this!

It was then my turn to sit back and be entertained by some of Bristol and Jamaica's finest over at the Watershed, picking up a bite to eat at Falafel King en route.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

What's Going On and What's Gone

Coming up this Saturday is the free Books Are My Bag event at Foyles in Bristol. During the afternoon and early evening there will be readings, talks, workshops and coffee. The event is being organised by Southville Writers and Bristol Women Writers and features Ali Bacon, Jean Burnett, Judy Darley, Mike Manson, Nina Milton, Amy Morse, Jo Reed, Shirley Wright, me and others. Given the nature of the space, I guess I'd better choose the flashes I read with a more sensitive eye than usual — sexual themes and strong language may not be appreciated by regular shoppers and their children!

Straight after that I'll be hightailing it over to the Watershed for the Bristol Festival of Literature's Speakeasy event.

But in the midst of all this literary and spoken-word revelry, a farewell: Acoustic Night Bristol at Halo has called it a day. The open mic nights were well run and the sound and lighting were great, and performers were always photographed and offered a recording of their performances. Although I only had the opportunity to read there twice (this year and last), I will miss the possibility that there could have been a next year.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Genre Binge

The last couple of weeks have been somewhat genre immersed, starting with a visit to the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff with the kids and ending with, well, going to the cinema to see Peter Capaldi's first outing as the Doctor with family and friends.

We went to the precursor of the Experience a few years ago. The boys were younger and hadn't watched Doctor Who and there wasn't really much beyond bits of sets and costumes. The Experience, however, lives up to its name, with a lot more space (and time...), memorabilia, scene setting and history, plus a nice interactive start to each visit. Oh, and a shop that's worth raiding before Christmas for the Whovian in your life.

Later that week I took the older son, Stefan (who is, as it happens, also a published SF author), to Loncon, the 2014 Worldcon. The whole event spanned five days and one end of the ExCeL; we went for a long weekend. Inevitably the popular press focused on the most visible aspect of the con — cosplay — because, I guess, it's simplest thing to do — it's obvious, visual and satisfies a stereotype (no matter what else is said). There is, however, a bit more to the landscape of speculative fiction than costuming, but panel sessions on diversity in SF, historical research in fantasy worldbuilding, hard science from contemporary space travel to the environment, the underlying linguistics behind conlangs and literary academic perspectives on genre are somewhat less photogenic than people dressing up. That said, I did get to sit on that throne.

As well as a great art exhibition, with some drop-in life drawing classes close by (we both dropped in), there was an extensive dealer room and fan area. There was also an open mic opportunity, where I read out "Milk Teeth and Chocolate Eggs" in competition with no small amount of background noise.

It's been a while since my previous World Science Fiction convention visits (ahem, quite a while... Conspiracy in Brighton in 1987 and ConFederation in Atlanta in 1986), and I would have liked to have spent more time at Loncon, attended more panel sessions, etc. But that's what the future is for. More importantly, Stefan had a blast (and found comics and gimmickry to spend money on). It was a very social affair, and I bumped into many of the BristolCon crowd as well as people I know through the ACCU.

And speaking of BristolCon, last Monday was the one-year anniversary of the BristolCon Fringe, which was celebrated with an open mic evening rather than scheduled readers. Many of those who read had read in the last year at a Fringe night, but there were plenty of new voices as well. Each reader was given an alarm-enforced five-minute limit, which added a lighter note to some of the darker themes explored. Readings ranged from book or short story extracts to flash fiction and poetry. I read out "To Catch a Falling Leaf" with plenty of time to spare. In the second half, after all those who wanted to read had read, we were given the opportunity to read again, so I read "Fallen Apples" and "Poseidon's Child".

I had been in two minds (or two halves of one...) as to whether or not to go, having spent the weekend at Worldcon, but my frequent travel-induced absence tipped the balance in favour of going. The half of my mind that had wanted to go jeered "I told you so!" at the reluctant, stay-at-home half. The quality and atmosphere were a good reminder why people keep coming every month and why I hope this is the first year of many.