Here are a few more reviews of books I’ve read recently:
2666, Roberto Bolano
2666 is an amazing book. A series of five novellas, the book is held together by its mediation on violence, its natures, its forms, and its atrocities. At the heart of this is an examination of violence against women, most extraordinarily depicted in the fourth section, which details the deaths of dozens of women and girls in Santa Teresa, inspired by Ciudad Juarez. Taken alone, this section of the book would be an amazing achievement, but placed within the whole of 2666, it lifts the book into something truly mesmerizing, unique, and sadly, timeless.
The English edition of the book is also a beautiful, and amazing piece of translation by Natasha Wimmer. She was awarded the PEN Translation Prize for her work on the book in 2009 and, given the scope, the technique, and the sheer ambition of Bolano’s book, which she managed to convey without flaw, I think she was a very fitting winner.
Woes of the True Policeman, Roberto Bolano
Roberto Bolano’s Woes of the True Policeman is very much like the b-side of a single. A series of out takes, a view of his thought process for characters and arcs that would take place in 2666. In that way, it’s really only a book for those of you who, like me, loved 2666.
The book focuses primarily on Amalfitano, who appears in part one and two of 2666. His homosexuality is briefly mentioned (and then discarded as unlikely) in 2666, but in Woes, it is at the centre of the narrative as, at the age of 50, he discovers a new part of his sexuality through a relationship with a student. Amalfitano’s wife – who is also dead in this version – is radically different to the wife in 2666, and his daughter, Rosa, despite the emphasis on her in Woes, kind of floats around. Archimboldi is mentioned as well, but as a French writer, not a German, and there is an early spin at the centre piece of 2666, the Part About the Crimes. It’s all interesting stuff, and it’s all beautifully translated by Natasha Wimmer, but it never really comes together as an independent thing. Still, like I said, if you enjoyed 2666, there’s a lot here for you.
The Whifefire Crossing, Courtney Schafer
Courtney Schafer’s Whitefire Crossing last night an old school, adventure fantasy novel that will appeal to those who liked 80s fantasy, but modernised for its time. A diverse cast, an interest in the environment (specifically mountains and mountain climbing). I enjoyed it.
It was originally published by Nighshade in 2011, so if it interests you, online is the best way to find it. Nightshade published the sequel, The Tainted City, as well, but then all that shit that was Nightshade came up, and Schafer decided to self publish the third book, The Labyrinth of Flame, after a successful kickstarter. You will definitely need to buy the third online, if you do. As an aside for those of you who like editions to match, Schafer designed the third to look like Nighshade’s previous editions, so together, all three look quite nice.
Darwyn Cooke’s Parker Adaptions: The Hunter, The Outfit, The Score, and Slayground
I read all four of Cooke’s adaptions of four of Richard Stark’s Parker novels over the last month. They’re a quick read, beautiful illustrated and retold, with much, much more work going into each of them than it took for me to read.
The novels follow Parker, a career criminal in the fifties and sixties, who is tough, violent, and who works jobs to finance his life of women and fine hotels. The first of them, the Hunter, was turned into a film called Point Blank in the 70s, I think, with Lee Marvin. Cooke’s adaptions are better than that film, more consistent, and darker, willing to allow Parker to be unpleasant, as he often is to women. All are beautifully illustrated, as I said, and told well, thought Slayground, the last of them, is a bit light on actual story and content. My favourite, I think, was the Score, about robbing an entire mining town. Anyow: beautiful, quite, diverting, and very noir. If you’re a fan of good comics, Cooke’s adaptions are for you.
Just a small update today. If you’re interested, you can get a whole lot of me over at Breaking the Glass Slipper, where I am interviewed by Megan Leigh. We talk about things like diversity, gender equality, being an author, and a bunch of authors.
I’ve been writing a few little pocket reviews, of late. I don’t really have the time to write big reviews like I used to (or, admittedly, the inclination), but I’ve been deliberately trying to read more, and occasionally, after I finish a book, I write a paragraph on facebook. I took to dropping them on Goodreads, for no real reason. I’ll probably be erratic about it, but here’s the three I put there. The first is China Mieville’s This Census-Taker, second is Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, and the last is Hilary Mantel’s The Giant, O’Brien. I enjoyed the last most. It was my third Mantel book and I am vaguely of the opinion that I should write her quiet fan letters.
This Census-Taker, China Mieville.
China Mieville’s This Census-Taker is a bit of a missed opportunity, I think.
It’s nicely written (though you do have to ignore Mieville’s clumsy shifts to second person for that). It has a few moments where it’s interesting and creepy, but most of the parts you want more of exist off the page, in the edges, and folds of the book. The census-taker, the keys, the world, all of it is lost in the unreliable narrative of the traumatised boy. If you really like that narrative, the novella will work for you in a big way, but if you find it lacking, you’ll just find it a book that never gets off the ground. Disappointing, but it happens.
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Salman Rushdie.
I liked Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights quite a bit. My original thought, early on in the novel, was that it would be good, but only okay by Rushdie’s output, and that proved right. There was a moment where I thought it would be something else, but the end was a bit on the flat side, so, yeah – but the rating for this, I feel I should say, is three only because I hold Midnight’s Children and Satanic Verses in such high regards. If another author had not written those books, it’d be different.
Regardless, it is a fine and excellent book. Better than most out there. If you are keen on a progressive, fantasy fable driven novel, you will enjoy it quite a bit.
The Giant, O’Brien, Hilary Mantel.
Hilary Mantel’s The Giant, O’Brien, is pretty cool. It’s the third book of Mantel’s I’ve read – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are the other two – and it is probably the darkest of the three. After finishing it, however, I feel like I should write Mantel a little fan letter, and tell her how much I appreciate her use of language, her turns of phrases.
The Giant, O’Brien, is the story of a giant, somewhat mythical, who makes his way from Ireland to England with a band of friends. His goal is to make some money, and return home to alleviate the poverty he and his friends live in. But in England, his size, and the fables he tells, are good enough for a month or two of fame, and soon the corruption of the modern world descends on them. The giant’s narrative is contrasted against that of a surgeon, John Hunter, who pays people to steal bodies for him, and who is interested only in education, in learning. He begins as a slightly distasteful sort, but by the end of the novel, he is one of the few who treats the giant well.
Like I said, it’s a dark book, and darkly humorous at times. But it’s an excellent little book, really, and I will be reading the rest of Mantel’s work.
Last week, Leviathan’s Blood came out in the US. It is now available everywhere it is going to be released.
It has gotten some nice reviews from various places, but it is the middle book in a trilogy, and it could do with some more. Perhaps unsurprisingly, less people review second books, and instead opt to review first – because it is the start – and the last, because it is the end. It’s not a bad thing, except it means that second books can slip by peoples radars, and who would want that to happen to such a fine book as mine, right?
(Well, there’s probably someone, but we’ll ignore them.)
Anyhow: to help push it a long, I have an offer for those of you who have read Leviathan’s Blood, or are reading it. The offer is, at the end, if you drop a review on Amazon and Goodreads, I’ll send you a signed copy of my collection, Dead Americans and Other Stories, or the flip novel I co-wrote with Stephanie Campisi for 12th Planet Press, Above/Below. Stocks are a bit limited, so it is a first in, first served situation, and you can either contact me at benjaminmichaelpeek at gmail dot com or on twitter or facebook. If you’ve got both of those, I might be able to work out something for you.
But as I say, a second book needs your love and exposure, and I’d like to help that happen – so don’t be afraid to hit me up.
Today a box of Leviathan Blood arrived from my US published. The print edition that I kept – I got one last week, but sent it to a friend – managed to push out my shelf of own stuff, so I had to rearrange it. This is it, before, all lined up. Every bit of print, baring the German edition of Leviathan’s Blood, and a few fanzines from the mid-nineties. I think I have the latter around somewhere, still.
It struck me not so much as just a list of publications, but a strange history of friendships, publishers, and events.
If you look in the centre of the pile, you’ll see two collections, Amazing Heroes and Magistra, both edited by G.W. Thomas. Print on Demand was allowing for a lot of small press publishers to pop up in the early 2000s, and they offered percentages of what was sold, which sounded good, until you realised that no one really bought these books, and a percentage of nothing is nothing. Magistra was a shared world. I wrote a second one, but it never saw print. Amazing Heroes had one of my Allandros and Balor stories, a sword and sorcery series I wrote for a while. The first one appeared in Agog! Fantastic Fiction, edited by Cat Sparks. There’s not much love for that kind of stuff in short fiction, not these days, and I doubled up my unpopularity by making it about half elves and dwarves. Ah well. Serial stuff had its time, and after a few other publications, I ended up drifting to other things.
Forever Shores is the most sentimental anthology I’ve appeared in, I think. It was edited by Peter McNamara and Margaret Winch. Both were ill why they put it together, but I never met either, so I can’t rightly claim that this is why it is a sentimental collection, at least to me. No, it’s sentimental because the first collection of Australian short fiction I ever bought was a book called Alien Shores, edited by the two of them. I still have it – it has this glorious cover of pink and blue. It was that book that introduced me to a path of publication, beginning with my our country.
There’s more, of course. Stories of each. Friends made. Friendships lost. The odd people I met, the relatively normal ones. The ones that got me fan mail. Black Sheep, my first (and to be honest, rough) novel had a piece of it used in a German High School exam, and it still gets reprinted in education books, six or so years later. It was a mess on publication, though. Something happened to the typeset and it was all out. I probably could’ve handled that better, in hindsight, but what is, is. Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, the book I wrote for Deborah Layne’s Wheatland Press is cropped thanks to my fine phone skills, but I always loved that book. Anna Brown did the art and Andrew Macrae did a typeset cover of my head. It was pretty cool, though I hated looking at my head. That book ended up on some University course for a year. It was funny.
I remembering thinking at the time that everything about having a book out was just strange and cool and devastating and awful. It hasn’t really changed since then, to be honest.
Anyhow, a picture of books.
Right now, in Australia, an election is taking place. It is said to be one of Australia’s longest campaigns, coming in at a whole eight weeks. My girlfriend, who is American, thinks that is quite cute of Australia, to have such a ‘long’ campaign, but regardless, this post is about that. If you have no interest, it’s okay to leave.
I told myself that I would stay out of politics. I said I wouldn’t make posts. I wouldn’t get angry. I have a book to sell, so I thought, I’d be nice and polite. No one likes author’s who are mouthy about their politics. But this morning, the Immigration Minister for Australia, Peter Dutton, another in a successive line of pitiless suits who oversee off-shore detention centres, said that asylum seekers were not, ‘numerate or literate in their own language let alone English.’ He went on to actually say the words, ‘These people would be taking Australian jobs,’ as if he were one of the Rednecks off South Park.
It was said for naked political gain, to be perfectly honest. Both major parties – The Liberal/National Coalition, and Labor – have engaged in the race baiting of asylum seekers in elections past and present. Indeed, at the last election, the then Labor Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, claimed that asylum seekers weren’t really true refugees, but rather middle class economic migrants. He claimed that refugees were fleeing to make a better life for themselves not because they had problems back home, but because they saw an opportunity to have a better life. It was an amazing claim. Of course refugees are seeking asylum to make a better life – but you don’t pay a bunch of cash to someone to smuggle you in a boat across the ocean when you can buy a plane ticket and just overstay like thousands of others. In fact, as the Conversation’s fact check of the statement at the time reveals it was wrong, but not because of what Peter Dutton said today. It was wrong because people seeking asylum in Australia were, in 90% of cases, genuine refugees, fleeing persecution in their homes. How much they earned meant absolutely nothing to if they were, or weren’t, a refugee.
But it was Labor, in a desperate attempt to hold not onto power, but Opposition, in the 2013 Election, that saw the Detention Camps open on Naura and Manus Island again. Run by a private company, it cost the Australian people over $1 billion dollars in 2014/15 to run, and saw the new Coalition Government, under the then Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison, campaign to have Non-Profit organisations like Save the Children removed from providing care to these people by continually accusing the staff of inciting riots, self harm, and what ever other piece of shit he could find. They were accusations that, only a few weeks ago, were shown to be false. In fact, the environment on Nauru and Manus is so toxic, that when Spanish company Ferrovial took over Broadspectrum (which used to be called Transfield), it announced that it would not be continuing on with that contract. And why would it? In the three and a bit years since the offshore detention centres were re-opened – they were operated during the Howard Government, closed during Rudd, then re-opened during Gillard/Rudd – people have died, been raped, suffered mental anguish, and, most recently, set themselves on fire.
The picture above is by Cathy Wilcox, who drew it after the first man to set himself on fire, Omid Masoulmali, was reported. He died in hospital, later. The reference to drowning comes from the Government’s line that they were, in fact, being humane by keeping these people imprisoned to stop deaths at sea. There are, you see, evil people smugglers. They take advantage of refugees in all kinds of way. Even those economic ones that aren’t really refugees, you see.
You might find it strange that a First World Country like Australia would be held at ransom by an ill defined force of people smugglers, using old, leaking boats to help people flee terrible situations. You might think that such a country would not be cowed into acts that contravene the human rights of individuals, but clearly, you would be wrong.
But why is it done? Why, election after election, is it done?
The answer is simple: because refugees have no voice.
Without a voice, you cannot be defined. Without a voice, you can’t give humanity to your experiences. Without a voice, you can be anything that a 70% Murdoch controlled print media wants you to be. Without a voice, you can be shunted and abused, and you can fill whatever scared, poorly education hole that generates fear in the population. Without a voice, you can be used to hide a lack of vision, economic discipline, and unpopular measures such as cutting health care, schools, and ignoring the environment.
Without a voice, you are, simply, nothing. Not until someone in power makes you something, regardless of what you truly are.
This was shown last week, in a different context, when Duncan Storrar, a poor, working class white man with a history of mental illness, and a lack of education, asked a question of the Assistant Treasurer, Kelly O’Dwyer. He asked her why the budget didn’t help him and she, in a failure she brought upon herself, came across as someone who didn’t give a shit about the poor. In the following days, the Murdoch press went to town on Storrar, ripping into his personal life with such gusto that you might have thought he was a politician accused of illegal donations, or an Attorney General accused of misusing his power. But no. He was just a part time truck driver with a history of drug use and mental abuse who, with benefits, lived at home with his parents. He was also a guy who asked a simple question on a TV show and ended up on suicide watch. He was just a guy who, until that moment O’Dwyer couldn’t answer his question, had no voice in the Australian landscape.
He was torn down to remind everyone of that.
He was torn down in the same way refugees are framed as villains and are sacrificed so that political parties of the day can use racism to get themselves elected.
Int. A small post office in a small shopping mall. A counter with three employees. A pair of scales. A poster for passport photos. The author, an impossible to describe handsome type (the kind that would make Lovecraft squirm in delight) enters with a box of envelopes. They are signed copies of Leviathan’s Blood to be sent out to the winners of a recent competition.
AUS POST EMPLOYEE
Your book is over a kilo in weight.
Later, he regrets everything.
(But, more seriously, grats to those who won. Enjoy the book, tell your friends, share it round, and so forth.)
When I was a kid, I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books.
I don’t know what, exactly, my fascination was. They were by and large speculative fiction, but not great SF, and they were written in an ordinary, characterless second person. ‘You open the door,’ they would say. ‘You fall down the well.’ But I loved being able to flick back and forth, to jump out of the linear progression of a novel, and flip back and forth.
It was a form of reading that stuck with as I grew older and began writing. I would find, in my work, this desire to push against the traditional linear narrative, or reading from page one to whatever. I remember when I first read Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor how much I enjoyed the simple trick of reversing the page numbers. It was still a pretty linear narrative, however. Few books, I would find, would equal B.S. Johnson’s book in a box, The Unfortunates. Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, maybe. Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions didn’t. But I liked finding the books. I liked seeing how authors challenged the fashion in which you would read. I liked it so much that it began to influence how my own work.
When I sat down to write The Godless, I was interested in doing a linear narrative. In a few of my works before, I’d done thinks you could flip and change around. Above/Below was a flip book that I wrote with Stephanie Campisi, a book that you could read from either side, first. Before that, I did a book called Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, a sort of experimental autobiography. But when I sat down to write The Godless, I wanted to be linear, and I wanted to emulate the structure of a TV show, and it was with some surprise, once I finished, that I realised that you needn’t read the book in a linear fashion. The same is true of Leviathan’s Blood, and will be also true of the final book, The Eternal Kingdom. It emerged rather accidentally from the structural choice I made early on.
Now, I should say that, the books are written to be read in a linear fashion, and if you do that, you certainly aren’t doing anything wrong. But you can, also, read each character arc by itself. You can read them either by section, or by the whole book. For example, if you opened The Godless and turned to ‘Beneath the Skin’, the first episode/chapter of the book after the prologue, you could read scenes 1, 2, 4 ,5, 7, which are Ayae’s scenes, before you turn back and read 3 and 6 of Bueralan’s. In the following episode/chapter, you could do the same, reading 1, 3, 5 and 6 of Bueralan, before turning to 2, 4 and 7 of Ayae. Zaifyr is introduced as a PoV character in ‘The Boy Who Was Destined to Die’, so after that, you just add another break. If you’re particularly keen, you can even go through and just colour tag the particular narrators through the book, and read them in one long uninterrupted break, before reading to the start of the book, and reading a new character. Heast has a few small scenes in The Godless, but he doesn’t become a PoV character truly until Leviathan’s Blood, so you could easily slip him alongside Ayae in The Godless. You could be left with three colours, and three passes to page through the book.
It would change the experience of the book, naturally. It might make it more confusing, it might leave small scenes where characters interact with each other slightly difficult to map out. But it’s not wrong to read it this way, if you wish. I think it would probably work best as a way to map your reread, if you’re so inclined. But I like this idea that you needn’t be forced to read from page 1 to 562, or 698, you know?
As I said, the ‘official’ way to read the Children Trilogy is in a linear fashion. There are benefits to doing that way. Characters mirror each other, arcs bounce, themes develop. But I am also someone who likes to push out of those traditional habits, and if you want to change the book around, cut it up and organise it in different lines, you should feel free to do so.
The Hugo nominations have been announced.
Once again, they are dominated by a slate of nominations from ‘conservative’ SF fans, the Sad and Rabid Puppies. The latter were, it appears, much more successful this year than the former. 64 of the 81 nominations coincide with that slate. Others do appear on the Sad Puppies, however. In fact, the only work to appear in the fiction ballots without also appearing on any of the slates is N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Overall, only 9 of the nominations were not on either slate.
The question that remains, however, is what to do with this? The Hugo has basically become one big yearly troll event, where a bunch of people get up, nominate things they love, and nominate things they don’t, mostly to upset people and push a political point. No matter what you think of Chuck Tingle – and I personally think he seems decent and funny – the nomination of ‘Space Raptor Butt Invasion’, a gay erotica piece, is just the act of a troll who hates gays. It’s a power trip on the part of the Rabid slate, something for them to chuckle over, because gay is funny wrong. When you actually start peeling away the reasons for Tingle’s nomination, it’s actually pretty gross and awful, and continues the larger argument of the slate, which is that speculative fiction isn’t for everyone.
It’s an argument I’m tired of, personally. I could go back and forth about it, about the history of SF, about the cool stuff in it, but frankly, why bother? You don’t argue with trolls.
But what can be done? Well, personally, I’d advocate only voting for work that doesn’t appear on either slate, but people will have to make that choice. For some people, it would mean not voting for work that they actively liked. Depending on who you are, or where you fall, you’ll either like that choice, or not.
Beyond that, I think the solution lies with the authors of the work nominated from the slates. I think it’s time for those authors to step up and speak out against this. To take themselves off nominations, to deny awards if they appear on these slates. To deny themselves, basically. A lot of authors believe that to say nothing is the best response, to appear apolitical is safe, won’t hurt their sales, and alienate their fans (and, to be fair, some authors don’t do this). In some ways, it’s true. In others, it’s not. But it is also true that for the authors who appear on the slates – for Brandon Sanderson, Ann Leckie, Stephen King, Jim Butcher, and all the others – that they are being used as pawns. They have become political pieces that others have moved around on a board to make a point. Each author has a subtle and occasionally non-subtle meaning baked within his or her piece, and people use it, one way or another, to bluff the push another author, or as a point that they wish to make (mostly relating to populism equating quality, or adventure equaling fun, and so forth, and so on). I believe that most of the authors who know about the slates, and the Puppies, know this. And, in their desire to ensure that their careers remain safe, that they are not dragged into the bullshit of the Hugos, the silence of authors has allowed them to be moved and displayed across the board as others feel fit.
What can you do, they say. It’s the fans, they say. They do as they wish, they say.
Yet, the author is the creator, is the figure that is rewarded here, and ultimately, the power of the situation sits with them.
Of course, some authors will agree with what the Puppies are doing. Maybe they even think that they have a point. But it is clear that each year this continues, all it does is simply wreck the joint. Now, me, personally, I don’t care about the Hugos: they have never meant a thing to me. I figure it’s because I grew up in Sydney, but there are others who care who are here, so who knows? Maybe it’s just how I am. But this whole thing is not really about the Hugos. It’s about a message to the scene, a message that the yearly trolling is writing clearly, and that is that not everyone is welcome. That SF isn’t a safe place for everyone anymore. That it is not open and inclusive. I know that the Puppies argue that this is what is being done to them, and certainly, as the trolling continues, it becomes as true for them as it does for that new SF fan who is gay, or black, or transgender. Soon, SF will be just as difficult to be part of for those who are conservative as those who are not. Each year that this takes place, each year that fan favourite, popular authors are used as pawns because they are unwilling to speaking out – or because they support it, or because what they say is a nice deflection from other noms – is another year that the whole scene just gets trashed.
My hope is that the authors on the ballots will take themselves off the nomination. That they will do it so that it is clear to their fans that being on the ballot hurts the fans expression of love towards the work. I suspect that it is only this way that will make the Puppies will dry up, though it won’t happen over night. But those with voices – those with millions of fans – are the ones that need to speak. Of course, I could be wrong – and, of equal important, the authors involved have to be willing to take the hit to try and end the trolls. It’ll likely cost them something and maybe they don’t want to spend the personal currency. Hell, maybe they disagree entirely with my view.
Still, you have to wonder just how much longer the scene can stand being pissed on by a disgruntled bunch before people start walking away, and going elsewhere.
Just a quick heads up about some giveaways I’m running on Goodreads.
I’m giving away paperbacks, hardcovers, and signed hardcovers for my two fantasy novels, The Godless, and Leviathan’s Blood. You do, sadly, need an account on Goodreads to enter, but I’m trying it out, to see if it makes for a nice way to bring in more people to the books. We’ll see, I guess.
If you haven’t heard of The Godless or Leviathan’s Blood, they are the first two books in the Children Trilogy. The third one will be The Eternal Kingdom. It will be out next year. But if you haven’t heard of them, they are books set in a world where a war of the gods has broken the sun, turned the ocean black, and left the corpses of gods scattered across the lands, altering it. In that world, the divinity of the gods has begun to seep into men and women, giving them powers. For some, it is good. For others, it is bad. You can wake up one day and find that your body burns, or that flowers have begun to grow out of your skin. You can find yourself thrown out of your family and friends, and feared, for who you have become. In that world, an army is marching on a small town in the mountains called Mireea. In that town, Ayae, a cartographer’s apprentice, is about to wake up. The exiled baron turned saboteur, Bueralan Le, is about to take on a job for the ruler of that town. And Zaifyr, who knows what happens to the dead in a world without gods, is about to arrive.
I have had great fun writing the books. They’re a love letter to the fantasy I loved as a child, and the literature I love as an adult.
As always, if you have read the books, tell a friend, leave a review, and all that fine, excellent stuff that helps get the word out. And if you’re a reviewer, and you’d like a copy, email me through the page here and I’ll hook you up.
Anyhow: enjoy the giveaways, all.
Imagine that you are empty.
That’s how you should begin to think of yourself at the start of your career as an author. You won’t, but it is how you should. I certainly didn’t think of myself as being empty, twenty odd years ago. I thought I was well read, I thought I knew the craft, and I thought I had it worked out. Of course, I wasn’t, didn’t, and nothing was like I thought. Instead, I was empty. Maybe a few drops here and there, but nothing worth noting, and certainly nothing to make me realise how poorly read I was.
It might sound like a strange way to begin what is essentially a piece of unasked advice, but when you start out wanting to be an author, what you start out learning first, is how to read. Most people are bad readers. They have a lot of bad habits: they skim, they skip, they have partial understandings of techniques, and firm beliefs in what makes good writing good, and bad writing bad. To a degree, education systems foster those habits. You can, and a lot of students do, write essays having partially read the book. You can use sparknotes and another’s essay to fill in the gaps. High School also invites you to have partial understanding of social and literary movements, such as feminism, post modernity, and so on and so forth, so that you can write confidently about it. And bare in mind that I haven’t even begun to discuss the difference between a well marked piece of creative writing and a publishable story. But, anyhow: there’s a lot of things that go into developing a bad reading habit, and some of it is the books you read, some of it is the pursuit of marks, and some of it is something else, and then something else again. It is just best to think that, when you wish to become an artist, you have to rework how you approach the art.
Your first few years of being an author will therefor be about learning how to read and how to approach the work of others and the work of yourself. That doesn’t mean you won’t sell stories, or novels, or poetry, or essays, or whatever during that time. You may. You may not. But one piece sold is not a career made, and quite often, it is the second piece that is harder.
See, when I talk about being an author, I don’t think in one piece of work, but a body of work. I think of a lifetime given over to a pursuit of art, of an expression of yourself. I think of the evolution of yourself, marked through your work. For me, that is what being an author is about.
Not everyone does, mind you. Everyone works differently. For one author, it might simply be about one book. For another, it might be about a piece here, a piece there, and not a single one is anything but a product made to be sold, and one with little to no impact on the self. There’s nothing wrong with those choices because there is no rule but for art but the one you create yourself. My rule is not your rule, your rule is not my rule. It is a pretty simple concept, really.
But: lets return to the idea that you’re empty.
The question then is how do you fill yourself up?
There are lots of answers for that. Personally, I think it begins when you leave High School, and you leave an education system that is designed to provide you with a general and broad ranged introduction to many disciplines. I don’t think I’ll find many people who will disagree that specialist training begins once you leave High School.
Now, what’s available to you after that is a whole lot of options, and none of them are wrong. There’s university, college, workshops, and more, and none. If you want to go off, and learn about literature yourself, and discover all the different forms and concepts, you are more than welcome to it. Just promise me you won’t go down one of those anti-intellectual arguing paths, where you say that education is a waste, that real life is where it is, and so on, and so forth. It may seem like I have a jaded view of school, but I value it enormously. I’m just realistic about what it produces. School does not pop you out of a shell, ready made, to be anything, be it an author, or a lawyer, or a mechanic. Education, in whatever form it takes after you have finished school, remains important, and just like bagging life experience isn’t doing you any good, taking up an anti-intellectual stance isn’t going to help you, either. Never mind the fact that as an author you have begun to take part in an intellectual exercise. So, if you go it alone, sweet – use whatever is available to you, and read as widely as you can, and write as much as you can – but don’t hate the part of yourself that you use to make art with. If for no other reason, it makes me sad to see that, and who in this world wants to make me sad?
Lets pretend the answer is no one, shall we?
Anyhow, so, instead of going it alone, what if you decide to go into University, or college, or partake in workshops, or mentors, or writing groups – what can you expect from them?
Well, firstly, you cannot expect to be published. If any of those things promise that you will be, at the end, published, or publishable, you ought to view it as a red flag. If there was a simple course that allowed you to learn how to write fiction and then, after two weeks, six months, or three years, become Published Author With Good Contract, there’d be a line for the factory it was held in. It’s just not a promise you can believe in. For some people it will happen, of course, but that has little to do with the course. A course may help you learn how to submit, but if that course takes anything over half an hour to show you how to do that, you’re probably being ripped off (and even then, half an hour is allowing for a lot of unnecessary discussion).
What you should expect is time and exposure. I’ll start with the second, first, because exposure can mean a different thing here, and I do not mean published without payment (which is often called ‘exposure’). No, when I say exposure, what I mean is that a good course, workshop, or whatever, will expose you to writing you haven’t seen, or heard of. Authors, genres, forms – it is from each of these that you will begin to learn the craft of an author. You will learn how to use techniques as simple as metaphor and third or second or first person, and techniques as complex as page space, thematic development, and the like. They are crafts you will have to learn one way or another and anyone who tells you that these things can’t be taught, or that you simply must have ‘it’ is not someone you want to learn from. There is plenty of craft to learn in fiction while you are discovering your voice, and your ideas, and your self, that nebulous ‘it’ factor that the most impressive, and best of authors have that we all admire.
The next is time. Time, as you get older, is one of the most precious things available to an author. A lot of things will get in the way of your fiction, from work, to partners, to family, to whatever else you can think of. It all eats up your time, especially if you’re not making a living out of your art, which, at the start of your career, is pretty much a given. The ability to give yourself over to thoughts about fiction, either yours or another’s, is perhaps the biggest gift that any workshop or course can give you. To simply have that time opened to you, and separated from the daily requirements of life, is a huge boon, and I personally used it a lot in the early years of what I refer to as my career. It was especially important because, if I had been left to go it alone, I do not think I would have had the self discipline, or the tools, to force myself to write, and to discover new authors, and new forms of writing. That time that I got out of University was the biggest gift to me as a new author and, if you need that time, you shouldn’t be afraid to grab it where you can. It won’t be for everyone, of course – either because some don’t like education, or because some can’t afford it, but if you can do it, and it does work for you, then grab it.
(In relation to the cost, I can only hope that you are as lucky as I was that the Australian Government had a scheme that allowed you to defer the payment of your debts, and that if you completed further study in a set time frame, it was free. If you don’t have that available, don’t be afraid to find good online communities and forums, and writing communities in the real world.)
Anyhow, that’s enough for today. Next week, I reckon I’ll write another piece in the topic, and continue it forward. Or, I won’t. But I think I will: it’s mostly about organising my own thoughts and the thoughts are there. If it helps people out, all good.