Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Avoid turkeys this Christmas

I’m linking here to one of my favourite pages of hints and tips for writers. The Turkey City Lexicon is mainly targeted at writers of science fiction, but in actual fact many of the guidelines can be applied to any genre. For any writer, it makes hilarious – and sometimes painful – reading. We’ve all made a few of these gaffes at some point, and no doubt continue to do so.

Everyone will have their own favourites, but here are some of mine. And yes, you are right to think they are favourites because I’ve met them in person.

Signal from Fred

A comic form of the "Dischism" (q.v.) in which the author's subconscious, alarmed by the poor quality of the work, makes unwitting critical comments: "This doesn't make sense." "This is really boring." "This sounds like a bad movie." (Attr. Damon Knight)

Dennis Hopper Syndrome

A story based on some arcane bit of science or folklore, which noodles around producing random weirdness. Then a loony character-actor (usually best played by Dennis Hopper) barges into the story and baldly tells the protagonist what's going on by explaining the underlying mystery in a long bug-eyed rant. (Attr. Howard Waldrop)

The Jar of Tang

"For you see, we are all living in a jar of Tang!" or "For you see, I am a dog!" A story contrived so that the author can spring a silly surprise about its setting. Mainstay of the old Twilight Zone TV show. An entire pointless story contrived so the author can cry "Fooled you!" For instance, the story takes place in a desert of coarse orange sand surrounded by an impenetrable vitrine barrier; surprise! our heroes are microbes in a jar of Tang powdered orange drink.

But they are all my favourites… I have to stop there before I simply copy out the whole page. Enjoy it at your leisure.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Poetry Friday: Eclipse

A rare original poem for Poetry Friday.


the Sun and the Moon
express their love
in brief eclipses

conditions must be
absolutely right

both become
nothing and one
impossibly the same

wedded with a diamond ring

then return to their routine
“We must do this more often.”

but soon the Sun sets
and the Moon forgets

Monday, 10 December 2007

Who’s up for a metaphor?

A metaphor is a glorious thing,
A diamond ring,
The first day of summer…
Use them wisely,
Use them well,
And you'll never know the hell of loneliness

The quote above is from the song ‘Metaphor’ by the Sparks (a band who have raked in the money for over 30 years by being uncommercial). Metaphors are a subject close to my heart. I tend to use them rather a lot, both in writing and conversation. I am especially tickled by the scene in the fourth Star Trek movie when Spock asks Jim, ‘Captain, are you sure it’s not time for a colourful metaphor?’ In fact my use of metaphors borders on binge-use, and many is the time when my friends haven’t the faintest what I am on about, and even I may have lost the thread. (Now circle the metaphors in the paragraph above).
But metaphors are useful when writing, so long as I can rein myself in. ‘Metaphor’ is made up of two words that mean, respectively, ‘Over/across’ and ‘carry/bear’. They are things that can carry something across (and can also be overbearing!). I use them – I try to use them – to convey impressions or experiences that would be laborious, complex, or even impossible to describe in literal terms. Since I write a form of fantasy, this happens rather often.

Metaphors can also serve the function that the soundtrack serves in a film. Actually I have lifted this line from Diana Wynne Jones’s book The Tough Guide to Fantasyland – a merciless blitz on fantasy fiction clichés – specifically the part when she lampoons the use of topsy-turvy phrasing to invoke an epic atmosphere (‘sang they with eagerness and sang their swords with them’). But the appropriate use of metaphors can lift a scene from flat description into something mysteriously alive. If I’m writing a climactic scene, don’t be surprised if the metaphors go into overdrive. Think of it as heavenly choirs on the soundtrack.

After all, in the end, ALL words are metaphors. No word is literally the thing it represents. All are just vehicles that ‘carry across’. I think that the difference between ‘ordinary’ words and the ones we choose to call metaphors, is that metaphors are the experiments, the seedlings, the daringly floated possibilities. Metaphors happen when the writer turns alchemist, mixing colourful compounds in the hope of gold, new life, or anything better than the blank expression on people’s faces that I’ve learned over the years to dread.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Computer says no

Visitors to the Green Knight’s Chapel will be aware that for the past four months I’ve been in a state of apprehension over the fate of the sequel to The Cat Kin. For my part, I know that quite a few Cat Kin readers are anxious to get their hands on part two, entitled Cat’s Paw. Well, at last the long wait is over. But not in the way we all hoped.

FF (that’s ‘Faber and Faber’, by the way) are not going to publish Cat’s Paw. They don’t want it. Apparently, FF don’t think that The Cat Kin was enough of a commercial success to warrant a sequel. I use the past tense ‘was’ even though it’s been out barely six months. Maybe FF don’t think the sequel is good enough? Actually that doesn’t seem to be the case; my Editor was in favour of publishing it, but there are higher powers at work within FF, who see only bottom lines. Possibly due to the positioning of their heads.

No consideration is given to the fact that The Cat Kin received almost no promotion, yet was praised in reviews in The Times, The Telegraph, The Sunday Express and the Financial Times. No-one seems to remember that a sequel is itself a powerful marketing tool, a mobile, viral piece of advertising that creates a snowball effect through word of mouth. The second book sells the first, and vice versa. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that they’ve just sold the German rights, nor that the audiobook rights have been sold. It didn’t sell the required number of units in the first six months, so BLEEP – Computer Says No.

The Cat Kin, to the best of my knowledge, will now be allowed to trickle quietly out of the shops, not to be replaced by new copies, eventually to disappear. In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter, for there are plenty of other books out there, and better. It certainly doesn’t matter to FF, for whom there will be another naively optimistic new writer along in a minute. But it matters to me, and it matters to others: readers young and old who were gracious enough to open my book, give it a chance and let the story take hold of them. Many of them now have that simplest of wishes: to find out what happens next. That I’m not currently in a position to grant this wish, thanks to FF, is perhaps the most aggravating thing of all. I feel as if I’ve somehow let my readers – as few as they may be – down.

Snakes and ladders, this game is, and it looks like I just stepped smack on a snake’s head. Well, I hope it hurt.

I hate to ruin a lovely black mood, but unfortunately I’m going to finish on a positive. I AM going to find a new publisher, and to them I will sell all three Cat Kin books. That’s right, three.