On a stage near you soon: Story Shop

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is on August 12 to 28. It’s the 11th year of Story Shop, the strand I’m part of. Story Shop gives local writers a platform to reach audiences by reading stories. I’ll be reading The First Appointment in which Lynn and Audra go to the doctor. It’s not a usual appointment. Or maybe it’s Lynn and Audra that are unusual.

Story Shop is on every day of the festival and takes place in the Spiegeltent at 15:00. Sometimes, it’s really busy with people having coffee and cake, sometimes it’s Story Shoppers and their friends. If you’re anywhere near Charlotte Square at 15:00, pop in. Whomever is on the stage will appreciate your support. Read the announcement.

I don’t yet know what date I’ll be reading: update to follow.

Appearing on a stage near you soon: Technobabble

One of the things that The Lady Scientists taught me is that I cannot easily learn a script. Not easily – but I can. Glowing with joy at having learned 1,700 words and remembered them when it mattered, I signed up for Illicit Ink‘s next Underground event, Technobabble. All I have to learn for that is 1,000 words.

I felt confident about doing so until I sent the organisers my story yesterday. I only have two weeks. Gasp!

It won’t be a problem. The structure of the piece is such that it should be relatively easy to learn and for most of it, it’s not important that I retell it verbatim.

Writing the piece for this performance was fun and let me play with an idea I’ve had for a while. Usually, I write something and hope to be able to sell it on after performing it. Not this time. This is written as a one off. My aim is to do a performance, feel confident on stage and prove to myself that I can learn a short text. That’s it. There will be no dancing, but there might be sound effects. And a feeling of achievement.

Illicit Ink Underground Technobabble

The Bongo Club
66 Cowgate

Sunday October 5, 20:00 – 22:00

Missing people you’ve never met

Years ago, I turned a page in a newspaper and found out that Tove Jansson had died. It made me cry. It didn’t matter that the news was two years old. I loved Tove because I loved, and still love, some of the characters that she created. I know very little about the woman but I had a strong emotional tie to the writer and her creations.

As a reader, I form relationships with imaginary people, and, sometimes, also with authors. Imaginary relationships with very real writers. Writers have a world-building super-power that I cannot help worshiping them for, and when they go, the loss I feel is real.

A few years after I found out that Tove Jansson had passed away, Kurt Vonnegut died.

Again, I knew very little about Kurt. When I really admire someone, I try not to find out too much about them. Writers, musicians, film stars: if I like their art, I’ve learned not to listen too much what they say, in case they say something dumb. Sometimes dumb stuff ruins good things. I just wish my heroes well and hope they’re sensible, decent and wise people.

I think Kurt was all those things. I hope he was. As a writer, Kurt made me think in new ways and made the world a more interesting place. Slaughterhouse 5 change my universe forever. Kurt had the power to make me laugh and to make me sad. He also made me want to be a better person. Finding out that he’d died made me cry again.

And you know, I never met Kurt Vonnegut but sometimes I miss him. I really miss him.

This morning, I found out that Iain Banks is dying from cancer. It’s a horrible thing to know, and it’s deeply sad for Iain and the people who love him. The news hit the sci-fi fan community hard, and Twitter was all abuzz with grief today. Iain is another writer that has meant a lot to me, and one I’ve actually met. (Once. For 60 seconds.) His Culture novels convinced me that sci-fi could be fun, and The Wasp Factory made me excited about Scottish fiction. I finished Stonemouth just last night and was thinking about re-reading Espedair Street, the first of Iain’s books that I ever read. I was planning to revisit books I haven’t read for a long time. Whit, for example, such a laugh. We were going to have an adventure.

And then, this hopelessly sad news.

To stop myself from missing people I don’t really know, but whose characters feel like friends to me, I’m not writing this evening. Nor am I cleaning, doing the laundry or packing for my week in Basingstoke. Or doing any of the other things that I should be doing.

Instead I’m eating grapes and watching Glee. It’s one way of dealing with an unpleasant reality.

Paper, audio and e-readers. Gotta catch them all?

I do, yes.

I’m an avid consumer of fiction in all its forms: audio books, ebooks, books, comics, films, occasionally even television. Since I started writing, I don’t have much time for TV or film but I continue to read. And listen.

Audio books are controversial. I know lots of people who wouldn’t consider listening to one and who assume – as I did when I started using them – that they are all badly abridged for easy consumption. It is true that I dont always listen very actively but that doesn’t mean that the the books are well produced. The problem with audio is that you tune it out when you need to so there are times when I miss bits. I’ve listened to audio books for years – when cleaning, cooking, showering, commuting, walking, waiting, travelling – but when I really want to pay attention, I get the paper version.

Well, that was before I came decided to read Jo Walton’s Among Others on my phone, came across the Humble Bundle’s e-book bundle, read Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City on a Sony Reader and requested a Kindle for my birthday. I now read on screen more than on paper. The benefit: I don’t need the bedside light on and an e-reader won’t get it’s pages all mushed up in my handbag. Drawbacks: I can’t easily (or legally) borrow digital books from my friends, and, of course, I don’t own these books. And it does doesn’t leave my bibliophile self anything to show off. Empty shelves all around. On the other hand, e-readers are handy for reading out loud too: I’m going to use my Kindle for my next Illicit Ink performance. (December 2nd, 20:00, the Bongo Club. Thank you for asking.)

Of course, I adore books as objects. Their weight, their smell. The different sounds when you flip through a new book – crisp and business-like – or an old one – soft and muted. I like having something in my hand, turning pages looking for nothing in particular, getting ideas and taking notes. Reference books have to be paper, and covered in sticky notes, my own personal index. There’s something particularly lovely about illustrated books. Illustrations look better on paper than on screen: I enjoyed reading Freak Angels on screen but will buy the books to enjoy them properly.

I don’t really care how people read (or consume fiction) as long as they do. When I grew up, we had a black and white television because my mother though colour removed what little creativity and imagination the moving image demanded of you. Words, without images, leave everything to your imagination. Scrawled black marks on a page, or words whispered in your ear, get your brain working, creating images and worlds, guessing what’s coming next.

Other people’s words make us a little richer when we share them.

Illicit Ink: Invisible Ink, tales of espionage

Invisible Ink, The Bongo Club, July 1st, 2012
Invisible Ink, The Bongo Club, July 1st, 2012. Be there or never hear the end of it.

Did I mention I’d signed up for reading at another Illicit Ink event? Only once? It’s due a second mention, then.

This event’s called Invisible Ink and is on this weekend (Sunday, July 1st). You should go. Everyone should. Because it will be awesome.

I wrote two stories for this event but can only read one. The one we’ve chosen is set in Whitby and is towards the sweet end of things as stories go. The other story, which needs a little more work, I have a market in mind for but we’ll see how it goes. I’m trying to keep it sharp and flash but need to cut some words in order to add others that make us care about the main character.

Never mind that, this is where to go on Sunday

Go to the Invisible Ink Facebook page and tell the world you’re going. Then get your friends to come too. That’s what social media’s all about so go be social. (Yeah, baby, yeah?)

If my reading isn’t enough to tempt you – and I’d understand if it isn’t – know that Scotland Tonight’s David Marsland is comparing and Alan Bisset is performing. All this, chocolate cigars and no entrance fee!

The Bongo Club, July 1st, 2012, doors open 19:30.
Moray House, 37 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh

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Inspiration: the quiet beauty of Tove Jansson’s moomin books

When I was a kid, I loved The Exploits of Moominpappa*, a cheerful adventure and coming of age story a self-obsessed moomin troll. I read it several times a year and loved it’s quirky characters and beautiful pictures. As I grew up, other moomin books won me over. I still read them: there are not books just for children.

My favourite moomin book now is Moominpappa at Sea. On one level – the pappa’s – Moominpappa at Sea is about a midlife crisis. For the other characters, it is about other things: loneliness in particular, finding out who you are and where you fit. Jansson lets her characters do what they need to do to deal with the situation they find themselves in, however random their actions might seem. These are flawed, vain and silly character whose very humanity makes them lovable. If I could write characters that were that real, I’d be a very happy writer.

Tove Jansson died in 2001. She’s one of the few authors, like Kurt Vonnegut who passed away in 2007, that I actively miss, even though I never met them. It’s odd to me that you can miss someone you’ve never met, but I do. It’s a sweet melancholy, a regret, I suppose. And that makes sense because the thing about the moomin books that speaks to me is the melancholy that permeates them. Yes, there are cuddly critters and they are outrageously cute at times, but at the heart of Jansson’s writing there’s truth. It tells us that life is beautiful and sad in equal measures. That is something I think we need to be reminded of, regularly.

Moomin kuva, from Wikipedia.

* The version of the text I know and love is not the one that was translated into English, unfortunately. I wish they’d issue a new translation because the revised book is better than the original and as a number of really nice touches.

The gender gap: male and female characters in supernatural crime fiction

I’ve read an awful lot of supernatural crime fiction in the last couple of years to understand its conventions. My main character is a woman so I started by reading books about female main characters. At first, I found a lot of American books with female MCs. (Anita Blake, Sooki Stackhouse, Bella Swan, Rachel Morgan, even Kismet Knight. I’ve read them all.) On the one hand it was great that there was clearly a market for female characters. On the other hand, there was something about them that irritated me.

So I looked further and found a bunch of male writers in, what I thought, was the same genre. Mike Carey, Larry Correia, Ben Aaronovich, Malcolm Pryce, even China Mieville, write super-natural crime stories. They were very different from the first set of books that I read.

The problem was that most of the books with female characters fall in the supernatural romance cross-over genre. When I started my research I didn’t know that there was such a thing. I have some reservations about the genre, or rather, the female main characters. I like my main characters, male or female, to have gumption, agency and self-determination.

Part of the pleasure with the romance stories seems to be that the main character is swept along, unable to or stopped from taking control of her own life. Yes, many of them have agency and show pluck, and there are some areas of their lives they have control of – romance not being one of them – but there there’s all the other stuff that I find tedious and that male supernatural crime fiction heroes are delightfully free of. Silk dresses, for example. Male heroes don’t have to go clothes shopping and never risk popping out of their bras.

More importantly, male characters have to make their own decisions about relationships and sex. They can’t defer that to a much older but still young-looking partner. They aren’t always the most mature but they have to be adults: they chose their actions and take the consequences.

Here’s a table of some of the differences that I’ve noticed. I’m being unfair to both female and male male characters – some women have guns and some men have crushes – but I’m OK with that.

Female Main CharactersMale Main Characters
Spend a lot of time talking about clothes and getting dressed, often by their partners who have better taste and more money.Don’t care about clothes.
Are more than commonly attractive and have long, shiny hair. And big breasts.Are nothing special in the looks department but are strong. And clever.
Have a vampire boyfriend who adores her blindly. This gem comes with lots of moolah, an eye for striking outfits, and superb self-control.Are single.
May also have a werewolf boyfriend or other interesting parties that they want to have, or have had, sex with, which is all very confusing both on a physical and moral level.Hook up and move on.
Have psychic super-powers (mind reading is common).Are equally good with a curse or a gun.

Do the gender differences in these books reflect the interests of the male and female reading public? The books sell and, presumably, to their intended audiences. So, I suppose they must. They don’t satisfy me, though, and I hope that there is room for a different kind of main character: a female who isn’t chasing romance. More of a crime fiction main character, in fact.

The main character of my first novel is a young woman with a psychic super-power. She’s also single, a private detective, of sorts, and neither hard-boiled nor meltingly soft. She’s fairly well educated and runs a business with her mum. Because of who she is and what she does, she’s in a tricky position socially and politically. This informs her behaviour. She’s might be pretty, and have long, glossy hair, but I’m not telling. It’s just not as important as all the other stuff that makes her what she is.

Standing up for the short novel

A lot of my favourite books are short. Very short.

  • Slaughterhouse five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • We have always lived in the castle, Shirley Jackson
  • Muminpappan och havet (Muminpapa at sea), Tove Jansson
  • The Powerbook, Jeanette Winterson

To name just a few. A lot of the books that I read for literature history were short. (A short novel is somewhere around 65,000 w0rds. That used to be the length of a novel but now, it’s the length of a short novel or a romance novel. most other genre and literary novels are a lot longer.)

The first ever book I read in English was Animal Farm. I’d read articles, bits of plays, chapters and comics but I hadn’t read a full book. So, I picked up Animal Farm. It’s a classic and I was 16. One the first page I underlined and looked up 12 words. Then I got bored with detailed understanding and went for the gist. A year later I we read The Great Gatsby for English. That was followed by The Human Factor by Graham Greene, Winnie the Pooh and several others. All short.

When I left Sweden to go to Scotland, the guys at work gave me a gift. My manager picked out two (short) books in English for me: Tidings by William Wharton and And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave. At the time, I knew Cave as a song and lyrics writer and I adored him. The book blew me away. It was rich, it was partially phonetic, it was Gothic, it was weird, it was endlessly strange and invigorating. I loved it. It took me a while to get around to reading Tidings but really enjoyed it when I did.

I have a new love story with the short novel. It’s not just because the longest novel I can write at the moment is a short one. It’s also because the longest novel I can read when I’m writing is a short one. I work. I write. I read before I fall asleep. I don’t get through that many pages anymore. It’s a depressing fact, but since I started taking my writing seriously, I read less. There are only so many hours in a day. Sigh.

The short novel, when it’s good, shows mastery of the form and focus of thought. In a long novel – the genre I write in produces novels of between 120,000 and 175,000 words – there’s room for long speeches, long descriptions, long battles, many characters and many asides. You can pad a little bit – not too much or your readers will notice, but you can. There’s no room for padding in flash fiction. There’s no room for padding in a short story. There’s little room for padding in a short novel. There is, no matter how much action, troupe movement and character development, a lot of room for padding in a long novel.

My goal is to write long novels. It has to be: the genre I write in is one of big tomes, it is not one of slim volumes, easy to carry in a back pocket or handbag. I’m working on how to find a balance. Writing what I want to write and at a length I can manage.

Yeah, that’s the wrong way around, isn’t it? Either I write something that fits a shorter form, or I get comfortable with longer stories. I’m working my way up to a longer story and I’m trying to write long without padding. It’s not a small challenge.

Reading fiction for research

Last year I wrote a novel as part of NaNoWriMo. It was great fun and I produced many words. I’ve been editing it down into something that can be shared with people not my boyfriend ever since. As part of this process I’ve been doing research to make sure that I don’t lie more than necessary.

Research can be great fun. You learn a lot of interesting stuff. But only a fraction of what you learn will feed into the final story. Sometimes I research things and realise that none of what I’ve just learn needs to go in to the story. It’s like doing research for an academic essay: only in first year do you include everything you know. After that you do a lot of research that you don’t refer to. (Hurrah for bibliographies: you can show off in fiction writing too but most of the time no one cares. Unless you get it wrong.) But that’s for a different post.

A lot of my research has been in and around the type of novel I wrote last year. This means reading many, many books in the same genre. Yay, you might think, but no, it’s not all good. Urban fantasy, which is one name for what I wrote, is fairly popular at the moment. There’s a lot of books out there set in modern settings but with an alternative super-natural edge. I’ve found that there’s a particular type of this kind of fiction that I don’t love. It’s vampire fancier fiction.

It gets on my nerves

When I was 19 I fell in love with Lestat. When I was 23 I fell out of love with him again. Many years later I have completely lost interest in the problems of going out with a vampire and rather enjoy the kind of tales where there is no vampire romance or, indeed, no romance. (Gasp! According to the research I’ve just lost the female audience. Because we’re all the same.)

The spurious love story is one of my pet peeves. It irritates me equally in films and books.

What I read

Here’s a list of what I read as part of my research:

  • Ben Aaronovitch: Midnight Riot, Moon Over Soho
  • Brom: The Child Theif
  • Gail Carriger: Soulless
  • Larry Correia: Hard Magic, Monster Hunter International, Monster Hunter Vendetta
  • Laurell K. Hamilton: Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter (1-11)
  • Deborah Harkness: A Discovery of Witches
  • Charlaine Harris: Southern Vampires (1-11)
  • Kim Harrison: The Hollows (1-8)
  • Tobsha Learner: The Witch of Cologne
  • Malcolm Pryce: Aberystwyth Mon Amour
  • Phil Rickman: The Wine of Angels
  • Brandon Sanderson: The Final Empire

(Why are the H’s so very prolific?) Sometimes I go too far and read too much of what’s of no use to me, but there you go. I think I’ve had a fairly good grounding in contemporary urban fantasy and caught some steam punk and other genres too.

What I like

What I have found is that I have a European, and possibly male, sensibility. I get bored with descriptions of clothing and hair styles. Colour is good: I like background and texture, but there’s only so much detail that I want.

I like solid characters from a moral universe similar to mine. Overt religiosity, sexual squeamishness or intolerance irritates me. (Unless there’s a reason for it to be there.) My cultural upbringing shines through in my tastes: I’m northern European in my attitudes. This is what I learned by doing research into my genre. It wasn’t what I had expected to learn. My hope was to unlock the secret of a successful urban fantasy novel.

Maybe I did unlock the secret only to find that the ingredients bore me.