Being a perfectionist, ambitious, and having flickering self-confidence is not a great combination.
At times I feel that I’ve stumbled across a great idea, an idea for a novel or other form of fiction which no-one else is writing, and turning it into a major hit is just a matter of putting it down on paper. Unfortunately, turning a vague idea into a practical reality is a little trickier than that.
I’m going to write about a short story I’ve just submitted for consideration for publication.
It’s set in a supernatural world, with the ‘creatures’ in that world being fairly classical ones.
There’s always the chance people will think I’ve jumped on the bandwagon merely because the genre is popular, but I promise I’ve not just seen a crowded market place, and decided to yell out “Me too!”
Although I much prefer science fiction to either fantasy or supernatural as a default, there is a lot of fiction that’s well written in both of those genres.They all tend to be grouped together, as they tend to be stories of larger than life adventures, and each tends to deal with fears and moral issues in an abstract way.
I spent a large amount of my youth watching the Buffy and the X-Files (which is generally more supernatural than sci-fi, despite the presence of the over-arching alien plotline) love Being Human, Dracula (the novel rather than any adaptation) and enjoy what I’ve seen of Supernatural.
Though the ‘supernatural’ genre isn’t my favourite, I have a relatively strong familiarity with it.
This is intended to serve as my introduction to the Insecure Writers’ Support Group – a group ran by Alex J. Cavanaugh over on Blogspot, to give other writers and would-be writers the support we need to get past our debilitating and often idiotic insecurities.
I’ve written a few times in the past few weeks about my often irrational insecurities, so it’s something that definitely makes sense to me.
I’ve wanted to write fiction as long as I can remember, and even started writing a few scifi epics when I was a kid. Even back then, I don’t think I was great at keeping my focus all the way to the end. Though it may be because back then my plans had the habit of expanding much faster than I could write – as a writer’s hint, the other way round works better.
Somewhere along the line, I’ve gotten into the habit of beating myself up when the quality of my writing doesn’t meet the standards I want.
The characters don’t ring true. I’ve not set the scene properly. The plot doesn’t make sense.
While all of these are valid problems that need to be fixed (or compensated for with other strengths) for a long time I’ve allowed them to paralyse me. For instance, I’ve had an idea for a series of space opera short stories that I keep abandoning, and a sitcom pilot script that I’ve returned to again and again but never finished.
I’ve written a few short things of course. There’s a couple of thousand-ish word short stories here on my blog (under Read My Fiction); flash fiction; and short things for various competitions. There’s even been a couple of times I’ve started to write a novel chapter by chapter. My hope was that, by not being weighed down by the theoretical potential of the stories I’ve invested a lot of time and emotional effort into, I’d feel freer to write what came to mind.
Unfortunately, this idea didn’t really work out.
I’m much better at plotting than I am at actually writing, using formats like Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet and the like, and a piece of software called Anthemion Storylines to plot out a fairly detailed story structure. (If you’ve ever seen stories plotted using a series of post-it notes, or little pieces of paper attached to string, that’s basically what Storylines is. But it has the added benefit that the notes don’t fall off the wall.)
I’d even been using a character building idea to put together a detailed picture of each of my main characters.
So by November, I had a detailed story arc to follow, and I knew a lot about my characters, ready to use NaNoWriMo to get this thing finished.
Though the plan was in place, I actually waited until November 4th before starting. Because, as I’ve detailed above, I’m an idiot.
But, I got underway, finding the time to write, sometimes as much as 3,000 words in a single sitting. For those with more consistent writing habits that may not seem like a big deal, but to me it is.
I got close to the end of the first draft, over 20,000 words, after three weeks, but left it another week before going back to finish it off. That instinct inside of me, that says all my cool ideas should be left alone in case I ruin them, just wasn’t giving up.
But, at the weekend, I returned, adding the few more details needed to the end. I then went through, rewriting what I’d done, and finding myself pleasantly surprised at the quality of what I’d written.
I now have a 28,000 word short-story, and I think it’s pretty decent. There’s a central mystery-action story, character conflicts, betrayal and deceit, enemies being forced to work together, moral dilemmas, a dramatic confrontation at the end.
I don’t want to get big-headed, but I think this story’s pretty decent.
It’s something that infringes on a number of copyrights, so it won’t be publishable, but it’s good to at least have written a coherent story from start to finish.
However, I actually think that this may be the longest piece of fiction I’ve written from start to finish for over a decade, so I’m pretty chuffed about that.
Once I find the time, I’m pretty upbeat about the next story.
PS To anyone from the Insecure Writers’ Support Group who’s found their way here – I may be away from my desk for a large part of Wednesday. Apologies if I don’t get round to reading many other posts on the day, but I promise I’ll read and comment on the blogs of anyone who posts here!
I’ve done something that I really don’t do often enough, and sat down with no distractions, and written a short piece of prose from beginning to end. No grand, ambitious plans for a multi-storyline epic that fizzle out into nothing, just a brief, punchy little story.
I hope you enjoy it.
Shukhov’s Glass Ceiling
Comrade Sidorova stood on the Middle Line of the Moscow GUM, looking down to the Lower and observing what capitalism had brought upon his country.
Huge arches, maybe fifteen feet across each, contained the glass storefronts of shops owned by multinational corporations. The architecture was stunning – Pomerantsev’s genius had survived communism from beginning to end, which at one point he feared nothing in his beloved homeland would manage. But their use was a barbaric joke – he could see three arches in a row containing the name and products of an American jeans company.
Sidorova had never been able to follow the logic of jeans as a luxury product. He had worn them on occasion in his younger days – they were uncomfortable against the skin, and downright abusive when wet. It was the propaganda which swung it, he had decided – marketing, to use the capitalist term. Perhaps knowing that the product itself was not much use, units of the rough material were moved out of stores worldwide by using imagery of rugged American cowboys and trendy modern party-goers.
It hurt Sidorova’s pride to know that, for many young Russians today, their ideal of masculinity was not their fathers and grandfathers who had worked without complaint in the fields and the military, but an American posing in the Texas sun.
Sidorova looked upward. Shukhov’s glass ceiling was magnificent – even a century after its construction there were few like it anywhere in the world. It flooded the building below in so much light that Sidorova could almost believe a God must have created it. There was a train station in London whose roof was also built more of glass than metal. But even there the ratio of iron to glass weighed more heavily on the side of practicality. Saint Pancreas? Some body part, but he wasn’t sure which. Even the great Victorian engineers – perhaps the greatest engineering nation ever to have lived – could not match the innovative genius of Shukhov.
Beauty comes from that which is natural, Sidorova felt, and man should only interfere when it is a necessity. Centralised planning is the worst form of human interference.
This building had played it’s part in Sidorova’s awakening from his propaganda induced childhood stupor. As a young man, he had been assigned here, in the days when queues for the more practical items it stocked stretched across Red Square.
Although the desperation on the people’s faces were hideous, his superiors had drilled it into him that one day this magnificent, palatial shopping centre would serve it’s purpose, to help feed and clothe the people of the world’s rising superpower. The problem was that the party simply had not had enough time to get things working the way they should.
But the offices of the shopping centre silently debated this point. A few were still used, a faded image of the days when this was the central point of planning for Stalin’s first five-year plan. Many more laid empty, abandoned.
It was as he stood here, in this very spot so many years ago, that he was struck with an idea. Simply seeing the sheer amount of light that flooded in from the ceiling, while the ceiling held solid, was a revelation to him. A combination of nature and man – the warmth of the indoors, with every inch of the hallways flooded with natural sunlight. He saw the beauty of the natural world with eyes that he had never used before, and realised immediately that it must have been a genius who could build such a structure. A genius who built a thing of beauty before the Communist party rose to power.
It was a beauty that was misused by the party – he could see thugs in state uniforms pushing around the poor as they merely looked for enough food to keep their families alive.
Sidorova had thought of the entire building as a new form of propaganda, created not for the glorification of Stalin, but the glorification of the natural world, and the men who could tame it.
As he took the train journey back home, Sidorova appreciated the beauty of the fields, the skies, even the ramshackle huts, in a way he never had before. The thought had simply never occurred to him that Mother Russia could thrive without the party’s blessing, that his dissatisfactions were circles that could not be squared.
By the time he reached home, his mind was consumed with blasphemous ideas.
Sidorova did not consider himself a killjoy, he knew there were important things in life beside bread and water. But he also knew the profit margins on trousers, sports shoes, jewellery, and considered it a sick joke that so much of the price went to the propagandists. In Asia the clothing was crafted by workers who toiled for pennies.
Banner after banner on the Lower Line bore a single message – advertisements for a perfume company. Giant bottles were painted on the sheets, repeated over and over, lest consumers forget their implicit message – CONSUME! – in the seconds walking from one to the next.
Despite Sidorova’s melancholy, he knew that, beyond doubt, what he saw around him was better than what had gone before. He had no doubts over the side in the struggle he had chosen, and, were he required to do so, he would do the same again without a moment’s doubt. But he had dreamed – more than that, believed – that the fall of communism would see power given to the people. That they would no longer be manipulated into actions for the benefit of the powerful.
Thinking back over his life, Sidorova realised what it was he missed about communism – the struggle against it.
The secret meetings. The walks through the streets of Moscow on winter days when the poor starved and his breath seemed to freeze in the air… He was warmed by the knowledge that he and his colleagues were struggling together for the common good.
But now… Who was left who would struggle with him against the modern propaganda for over-priced trousers?
I’ve been updating this blog irregularly for about half a year now, with a variety of subjects. I’ve dropped links to my articles on Born Offside, and rather silly spoof news on The Leaky Wiki, as well as a few reviews and analysis of books and television here, and off-format silliness that wouldn’t fit on The Leaky Wiki.
But despite being an asipring fiction writer, I’ve not actually put any fiction up yet. Partially this is because of not finishing things off, partially this is about not wanting to share small things that could be developed into something bigger and longer. But I intend to start putting up some short prose on here, for your reading pleasure as you wile away a few minutes on the weekend. I hope you enjoy…
Don’t Tell Me To Be Quiet
Joanie and Mitchell had been tossing and turning through the night, woken again and again by their beautiful young genius.
As new parents, they’d followed tradition, and taken it in turns to respond to the demands of the new life they’d created – this was the third time Mitchell had been called from his bed that night. He wished he was a more old-fashioned man, wished he was some sort of horrible old-school misogynist, who left all aspects of child-rearing to his wife. He wasn’t a bad man – at least he didn’t think so – he just wanted sleep.
Already, nine days after birth, Precious Symphony Polyphonic Jones was progressing faster than the books said she should. Mitchell was sure he’d heard her say ‘ma’ the other day, but it could have been a belch.
Mitchell held his armful of joy, whispering to her in a cheerful tone.
“Who’s a special girl? You are! Yes you are!”
Holding her tightly, he swung round, hoping the motion would relax her. It was a sort of a centrifugal effect, with Precious pressed tightly against his body, in an intimate grip.
“You’re going to do something amazing with your life, because you’re my indigo princess, aren’t you? Aren’t you, sweetie?”
Mitchell was tempted to say something really awful, something he knew he shouldn’t.
“But if you’re going to be a lawyer or a doctor, and save the whales or cure malaria, you’ll need to get some sleep. Sleep is good!”
Mitchell knew it was wrong to tell a child how to behave, and they should decide for themselves. He felt awful as soon as he’d said it.
But it seemed to work.
He placed the quiet Precious into her cot, hoping he hadn’t traumatised her too badly. He knew she would grow up to be something amazing – he saw it in her eyes. He just had to make sure not to destroy her natural spark.
As he turned to leave, Mitchell heard a voice coming from the cot.
“Don’t tell me to be quiet!”
I’m a fan of Isaac Asimov, particularly the Foundation trilogy, and though I’ve read a fair few of his other books as well there’s a lot I haven’t (he’s one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century, having written over 500 books). Although best known for his fiction, he also wrote numerous textbooks on subjects such as biochemistry, physics and astronomy.
The sheer number of stories he wrote means that there’s obviously a variation in quality – I remember reading one of the further books in the Foundation saga, that felt like a bland tie-in to an interesting universe – a bit like a mediocre writer being given access to write in the Star Wars or Star Trek official tie-ins. Not as low as fan fiction, but not what you’d expect from one of the giants of his genre, either.
I’m a bit unsure on how to classify and review a short story collection. A novel is a story, which has an arc, characters, emotional and story rises and falls. A collection works in a slightly different way – it’s a series of smaller, micro-stories, which may make it tempting to create groupings around the story that don’t properly fit. So apologies in advance if I do that.
It might be an odd thing to say, but while Asimov is widely thought of as one science fiction’s all time greats, in some ways he’s very underrated.
Generally its acknowledged that Asimov’s characters aren’t his strongest point – while compelling, they tend to lack the complexity and internal conflict of truly outstanding characters. While this is a weakness I agree with, I find myself tempted to associate this with an overall lack of imagination. When I’ve not read any Asimov for a while, I tend to fall into the trap of thinking of his stories that I have liked as childish enjoyments, that I’ve now outgrown – enjoyments like Thunderbirds or Power Rangers.
But Isaac Asimov does have a wild and varied imagination, and Robot Dreams is a strong sampling of his work – 21 stories first published between 1947 and 1989, across 42 years, on a range of subjects and themes.
One of the things that’s striking about the collection as a whole is a 50s sensibility. It’s hard to pin down what I mean by this, but it’s a sensation I felt for most of the stories… Think of a world of picket fences, of neatly mowed lawns, and straightforward characters who are relatively self-aware and not overly deceptive. Everything I’ve read of Philip K. Dick’s has been messy, complicated – Asimov, here in particular, feels straightforward.
Not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s a sensation I felt across stories. In particular, Lest We Remember revolves around a young couple, the female of the pair referring to themselves as ‘The firm of Jonny and Sue’, which has a particularly ‘gee whizz’ feel to it.
Most of the stories are set ‘ten minutes in the future’ – dealing with developments and trends that, for all we know, could be beginning now. The Billiard Ball is a story of two scientists, rivals since university, one a Nobel prize-winning theoretician, the other a practical engineer who’s became very rich by putting the former’s ideas into practice.
Multivac, an advanced computer used by Asimov across many of his stories, is used to decide an election in Franchise, as a dating machine in True Love, and to create new jokes in Jokester.
And Breeds There A Man? follows Ralson, a scientist working on a missile defence system during the Cold War who suffers from as a strange delusion.
All of these appear to be set either in the twenty-first century or an imagined time between Asimov’s present and ours – these stories have the feel of being both familiar and fanciful, rooted in the present, but looking out to the future.
And there are other stories that are wildly imaginative – there’s a story set on an isolated asteroid, which has its own strange society; the story of the struggles to set up an independent Mars Colony; post-humanism; a time-travelling Neanderthal; life after death; and a few stories about life that’s advanced beyond our understanding.
Of all the stories, there’s only Eyes Do More Than See that I’d consider a bad story – because of a twist that’s heavy handedly emotional. And even that story has the virtue of being short.
The remainder of the stories are all compelling, for a variety of reasons – mystery, concern for characters, a sense of adventure.
My favourite of the stories is The Martian Way. Set in the early days of the Mars Colony, where Humans have started to settle on Mars with the cost being borne mainly by Earth and subsidised by ‘Scavengers’ who capture the debris left by various spaceships over the years between now and then.
A charismatic politician wants to cut back on the costs of the space programme, a programme that is unlikely to break into profit during his lifetime or that of any of his voters. So, seemingly faced with no option but to return to Earth, one of the Scavengers comes up with a bold plan, that will require pushing technology further than anyone considers possible, in order to ensure Martian independence.
I don’t want to say what the action involves, as I was struck by the sense of audacity and I wouldn’t want to spoil this. But the story has a similar feel to stories about the Apollo programme – astronauts going out on highly dangerous missions, pushing back the boundaries of engineering and of known science, the boundaries of what can be done. It’s the kind of subject that I find really stirring and inspiring when done well, and it’s done really well here.
Remarkably, despite it’s similarities in feel to the Apollo programme, this story was written in 1952, five years before Sputnik was put into orbit, and nine before Yuri Gagarin became the first Human in space.
In contrast to The Martian Way, Little Lost Robot and Robot Dreams are small-scale stories, a combination of mystery and moral discussion. In the former, Susan Calvin, a leading robopsychologist and one of Asimov’s recurring characters, is called to a remote scientific base to find the whereabouts of a missing robot. The robot has had its programming, it’s Three Laws altered in such a way that would make it dangerous if it manages to stowaway back to Earth. Robot Dreams features Calvin again, and a robot that has developed the capacity to dream.
The use of robots as a metaphor for slavery is an old idea, in fact dating back as far as the origin of the word robot. What’s unusual is that the story would normally feature a kind, caring protagonist, one who argues for the robots’ right to be considered equals. In both of these stories the characters are hard-headed. In fact when the missing robot in Little Lost Robot hides amongst 63 physically identical machines, Calvin immediately recommends destroying all of them, and is talked out of it on economic, not moral grounds. This is despite the fact that she herself believes the robots have developed a limited form of sentience.
It’s an interesting approach – but I think by not explicitly stating the ‘moral’ of the story it’s made more powerful, and prompts more thoughts as to whether these machines genuinely are sophisticated enough to be considered worthy of equality. It also means that these two stories remain powerful and fresh – despite the former being written over half a century ago, and being made familiar by numerous imitations.
On the whole, these are stories that are positive and forward-looking – not ‘Frankenstein stories’ about humanity going too far, ‘playing God’ and being smacked down for it, but stories about the positive results of scientific advancement.
But there are a number of satirical and cynical stories. The Machine That Won The War, tells of a meeting in the aftermath of a victorious war, and discussion of the brilliant machine that helped them achieve victory; Franchise is set in a world where presidential elections are decided by one vote, of a man chosen by Multivac as the ultimate average American; and Lest We Remember is the story of how gaining new, almost supernatural skills brings out the worst impulses in its hero.
One major flaw struck me was the gender politics of some of the stories. Though I get the feeling that Asimov would consider himself a feminist from the stories, I counted six significant female characters across the twenty-one stories (Susan Calvin appearing twice). Two of these six are defined to a large extent by their spouse, one works as a nanny, a stereotypically feminine role, and one is an extremely meek scientist whose husband explicitly states that there aren’t many career women like her on Earth. The Machine That Won The War; The Last Question and The Feeling Of Power all have a number of male scientists and soldiers whose personalities aren’t important to the story, and could be changed to women by a simple change of name and pronoun, so it makes me a little uncomfortable that the characters are so overwhelmingly male.
Having said that, Susan Calvin is probably the most interesting character in the book, so Asimov is clearly capable of writing women..I think maybe he just underestimated how quickly society would move towards female equality in the workplace.
I’m honestly not sure whether to include this paragraph or not, because it feels like I’m picking on Asimov for a flaw he couldn’t realistically be expected to see as a flaw, a manner of thinking he was conditioned into by his experiences. But it was something I felt as a flaw when reading, so I think probably worth mentioning.
I really enjoyed the collection – despite being a fan, I’ve not read either I, Robot, his definitive book, (which Little Lost Robot is taken from) or The Gods Themselves and Gold, both Hugo award winners, but I am definitely more motivated to seek them out now.
Given the sheer amount of stories Asimov has written, not all of them will be worth reading – but I’d say that twenty of the twenty-one in this collection are.
Verdict: While characters aren’t his strongest point, Robot Dreams is a collection of idea-based scifi from a master of the genre.
Like many across the world who want to be writers but keep putting it off, I’ve been taking part in NaNoWriMo.
But rather than using the month, as intended, to get an entire novel written, I’ve used the thing for two different purposes – to get a short story written, and to get started with writing a blog.
The blog so far has been a partial success I’d say – got a fair few things down there, starting to get into a rhythm.
The short story, a science fiction story set on a space ship in the distant future (I never said it was anything profound) is something I’ve went back to on and off for a few years.
I’ve had greater problems with this. Mainly around self-consciousness – I tend to feel, when I’m writing, ‘did I do this right? Does this work?’
So I’ll obsess over whether jokes are funny, action sequences are exciting enough, and so on.