As a reader (or jump to “as a writer“)
Thought not. Well, I’ll just talk to myself until someone comes along.
I am a lifelong fan of speculative fiction, which is a clunky and not very evocative term that encompasses science fiction, fantasy and horror.
From reading fantasy books at boarding school using no more than the tiny little light built into my cheap casio wristwatch, to having to find additional shelving for my science fiction collection after a move because… how many boxes?? … my love affair with speculative fiction has been a constant companion for as long as I can remember.
Calling out favourites is always dangerous as it has a tendency to polarise opinion and limit perspective, but I think I’m on fairly safe ground when I name Iain M. Banks and Ursula Le Guin as the authors who made me realise that these genres, often looked down upon by mainstream fiction and relegated to a corner of the bookstore, next to either the children’s books or the erotica, could actually be used to great effect to make you think, to illustrate moral dilemmas, to bring to life stories in a way that didn’t result in empty flights of fancy, but in real characters, embedded into real narratives.
But finding good speculative fiction to read was hard at first. A lot of what I read lacked the subtlety, self-control or the strong hand with characters needed to give the stories the depth and richness I was looking for. When you can rewrite even the rules of physics, it’s all to easy to lose focus on those aspects that give stories a real relevance to us today. These strengths were missing from much of what I had been reading for pleasure for a long time.
Then I crashed into The Player of Games, a book that very much opened my eyes, and I stopped reading for a while. I stopped because in comparison, I thought that much of what I’d been feeding my brain from this genre was rubbish.
That’s what happens when you pick novels off a shelf because of the picture on the cover or the blurb on the back, or worse, the prominence of the position in the bookshop.
A few years and a lot of research later, I was reading Neal Stephenson, Orson Scott Card, Alastair Reynolds to name a cross section of a group populated by many, many others. I understood that while there’s still an awful lot of filler material out there, satisfying a childlike urge to wander the stars or solve problems with a wand, there’s also a great deal of extremely good writing that holds its own against the standards of anything in the broader fiction category. The authors named above are a small selection of what you’ll now find on my shelf (and in the boxes, and in the garage, and under the bed, and in my ereader).
As a writer
When you love a genre in fiction, you inevitably write. Perhaps it’s just in your head to start with, and maybe at the outset you’re only putting together the pieces of narratives read elsewhere in a way that makes you happy. Sooner or later though, you have story fragments in your head that are wholly yours. They may be naive, their quality may be questionable, but they’re there and they’re persistent.
The best way to get them out is to write them down, but when looked at in the cold light of day, these story fragments aren’t all that great. And they’re still just fragments.
So either you stop there or you start rewriting, reorganising, rethinking and generally creating what a more professional writer would call a first draft.
Sooner or later, you have dozens of these unfinished animals sitting in a folder or a hard drive. You wonder if they’re any good. It’s hard to tell without exposing them to the critical judgement of strangers. In the end, curiosity gets the better of you. You do a little research and send some stories to a few magazines. Then you wait as people you don’t know scan the document and throw it out with the majority of everything that passes their desk.
Here begins the love affair with the rejection letter. Typically short, utterly frustrating, inscrutable and uncommunicative, it’s a long-form version of the word “No” that’s not actually all that long. As they pile up, they begin to feel like a rejection of your potential as a writer.
I played this game a few times, and it occurred to me that although I was getting better, I would get better faster if I actually had some feedback on the stories I wrote, so I started sharing with a few select friends. A couple of comments for which I am ever thankful:
- If these were the first pages of a novel available for free on Amazon, I would buy it without hesitation. (thank you James).
- I don’t know why you don’t get this published (about a story that had been rejected by literally every magazine that would consider it).
- It’s obvious you can write. Stop worrying about that. Now you need to find the audience that wants to read this, or change what you’re writing to match the audience you want to write for.
This website is a home for my writerly things, call them what you like. But if you like what you read, please let me know. Feedback is oxygen to the author’s flickering candle.