Notes from Loncon 3: Of interest to a British writer

This year I went to my first convention: the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. I went to a lot of panels, a LOT of panels. And I took a lot of notes.

I’m going to share a few of my notes here. Rather than chronologically, I’ve grouped the panels thematically. This first set of panels were of interest to me as a writer, specifically as a British writer of short stories.

Short Fiction is Dead, Long Live Short Fiction

Liz Gorinsky, Ellen Datlow, Simon Ings, Keffy Kehrli, Ann Leckie

This panel sought to discuss the shifts in the short fiction market and its current state.

My takeaways:

  • The market is diversifying. In addition to the larger markets, many smaller markets are popping up to fill a particular niche. As a result boundaries between genres are both blurring and, perhaps, also becoming more specific, as these smaller markets can aim for a small and dedicated readership and can develop a community around exploring a particular voice or possibility. (It was noted that perhaps the diversity and spread of the short story market was a factor in the Hugo Award for Best Short Story only having four finalists, as only four stories got more than 5% of the nominating ballots: ~43 out of 865. The ballots were so spread otherwise.)
  • US writers dominate the markets. The ‘why’ of this was discussed.
    For Brits (and other Anglophones) it was suggested that they are afraid to send to the US markets. Though it doesn’t work the other way around; Simon Ings from the UK market Arc says he gets a lot of US submissions and not that many from Brits. What the US has, that Britain lacks, are a pulp tradition, many lodestone magazines, and an educational culture around writing.
    For writers in other languages and coming from their own literary traditions, the primacy of US markets is thought to be intimidating. Translation is a big hurdle in short fiction. Editors are reluctant to commission translations, as there is a risk they will dislike the finished product. Many authors have their stories translated (by themselves, by friends, or by professional translators) before submitting. Editors on the panel said they read stories in translation on their slush pile with a more open mind as the stories will often need an edit.
  • New markets backed up by Kickstarters (or similar) often seem to come out of the fanzine tradition. In many cases the editors and slush readers are not paid. This mechanism was not seen as sustainable. Also the main failing of these markets seems to be in sorting out a distribution pipeline for the product.

The World at Worldcon: The State of British SF

Glyn Morgan, Jo Fletcher, Lesley Hall, Dr Paul March-Russell, Simon Spanton

This panel sought to discuss the current state of the British market and how is has developed in the years since the last British Worldcon.

My takeaways:

  • The recent recession has had a strong impact on the market. The big publishers have drawn in their horns and played it safe. This has allowed smaller presses the space to take risks.
    It has made it harder to launch new authors and also to maintain authors who had been recently taken on, but hadn’t established themselves strongly, quickly.
    While there are more SF&F publishers, or more publishers with SF&F divisions, this does not necessarily lead to larger sales in SF&F.
  • Ebooks.  Ebooks were also cited as influencing and benefitting from a movement towards brevity of form.
    Ebooks also provide self-publishing authors the chance to react quickly to market trends. By contrast, in traditional publishing, writers trying to emulate what’s popular now are too late. Don’t be reactive.
    Ebooks make things easier for the standalone novel. There is often a perception, especially in fantasy, that things must come in series.
    More people are happy to read on their phones. Also the audiobook market is on the increase. This shows the appetite people have for story and can lead to an increase in the market.
    [In 2013: 40% of fiction market is ebooks]
  • How books are sold. The number of high street retailers has dwindled in the past 10 years from (maybe) five to just one: Waterstones. In part this could be seen as a response to a growing ebook market.  Once you lose bookshops, you lose curation and suggestion power.
    How do you find out about a book? When the point of sale is Amazon (or similar) the recommendations can be narrowing – more of the same.
    How do you decide whether to buy a book? There is so much review information out there, how do you process and weigh it? Ebooks provide sample chapters.
  • Genre. Genre was conceived as a selling tool, not a reading tool. It is only in the last 30/40 years that books have been sold by genre. Publishers sometimes choose to market their genre books as mainstream to increase the potential audience.
    [In 2013: The #1 mainstream novel sold 600,000 print copies, the #1 SF&F (probably GRRM) sold 166,000.]
    Many on the panel were not in favour of fragmentation of the market into pieces, as this creates pigeonholes that are constricting. However, people writing from outside of genre traditions can sometimes be less constricted because they are coming to SF&F fresher.
    [In 2013: 43% of the SF&F market was in epic fantasy (probably GRRM again!)]
  • The state of British SF&F: This can’t be defined while we’re in it. It can only be defined in hindsight. Trends that were mentioned included: a recent explosion of new voices and talent, a tendency to greater diversification, a tendency for non-genre writers to engage with genre, return of shorter forms (e.g. novellas).
    British SF should not be easily definable in the same way that British identity should not be easily definable. We are many things.
    Who is the British SF&F audience? Wider now than just literature. Movies, TV and comics often bring people into the genre. SF&F has made a bigger impact on the mainstream. Because of this, are we – the SF&F community , the sorts of people who go to cons- no longer the main audience? Is the SF&F community engaged with everyone it should be? And are those people outside of the SF&F community’s conversation the ones who are leading SF&F right now? (Stated as points to ponder – none of the panellists offered answers to these.)

The numbers bolded in square brackets did not come from this panel, but from “UK SF&F by the numbers”, a panel I did not attend. A friend who did attend it relayed these numbers to me and I thought they would be of interest in this context.

New home

Home sweet home

Much turmoil recently. Since last I posted, we’ve moved house, which is always more hassle and confusion and time than you’d expect – even having been through the process before.

We’ve been here almost two months and we’re still clambering around boxes in most rooms. In part because, coming out of rented, we haven’t much large furniture to unpack into. In part because there’s so much to do to make the house right for us that there’s no point unpacking rooms until we’ve gutted them. It’s a long road, but a fun one, with a fine destination.

Speaking of new and shiny, I thought it was time for a new style on this blog. So here’s Shine On, which I fell in love with the moment I saw the owl.

Slave to the tomato

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Recently, I’ve been attempting to use the pomodoro technique to increase my productivity.

Overview: You work continuously on a single task for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. After four 25 minute work intervals, you take a longer break of 20 minutes or so.

Sounds simple enough, right. What’s surprisingly difficult is keeping out the distractions, even for a period as short as 25 minutes. My mind is constantly churning with such thoughts as:
“I wonder if I have any new email…”
“I should update my LoveFilm list…”
“I’ll just look on wikipedia for that barely related thing…”
“Oooh, but I need to do that today…”
“I wonder what the weather’s like…”
“I’m hungry…”

It goes on. My mind is like a greedy, hyperactive butterfly. The benefit of this technique is that when the clock is on, you resist these distractions. You capture them, pin them down on a piece of paper and let them languish there until the timer stops, then deal with them in the break or in a later 25 minute interval. My hope is that continued application of this discipline will train my mind to concentrate once again.

Another benefit is to my health. I sit at a desk all day and type. It’s wrecking my back and wrists. The 5 minute breaks are a godsend, a visible and audible reminder to get off my backside, walk around, have a drink of water and generally decompress.

Me and pomodoro work well together at the moment. I’m using the tremendously customisable Clockwork Tomato Android app as my timer. If you’re interested in trying pomodoro, check this app out. It’s the best one I’ve tried.

5k back to couch

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Well I did my best and got up to doing the full 30 minutes on the NHS Couch to 5k programme, though I wasn’t up to the full distance. And then…

  • I got a job with an hour long commute each way
  • Winter happened

So I haven’t run for over a month now and, having got out of the habit, it’s going to be hard to get back into it when it’s either dark or raining when I get home. The new plan is to hibernate for the winter and get back into it for spring.

Semicolons: A rant with pictures

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I have a love/hate relationship with the semicolon. To be specific, the semicolon with which I am in this relationship I not the semicolon that acts as a boss-comma.  The boss-comma semicolon performs admirably the function of making clear lists of phrases that embrace internal commas. I’m fine with this usage. This semicolon is invisible to me – as all good uses of punctuation should be.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

No. My turbulent relationship is with the semicolon used to join clauses. Used correctly, it joins independent clauses. Used often to join up any damned fragments the writer wants to mash together.

I’ve recently joined a critique group. This week the pieces submitted were so this with semicolons, I thought I was reading a Java class.

Side note: Has anyone ever tried writing a narrative within the  strictures of a programming language? Would it be fascinating or dull to read?

Obtrusive and irritating are the nicest things I can find to say about the parade of semicolons in these pieces. The nib of my red pen was worn to a nub. My attitude to those who use semicolons can be summed up in the following diagram:

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  • Use too many semicolons – you look pretentious
  • Use them incorrectly – you look like an idiot
  • Use semicolons incorrectly all over your writing – you look like a pretentious idiot

While the boundaries of correct usage are solid, the boundaries of what constitutes too many semicolons are blurry. It depends entirely on how good a writer you are and whether these usages are not only correct, but appropriate.

That’s the hate out of the way. As for the love… When I see a writer use a semicolon for its intended purpose, in a sentence that it perfectly fits and enhances, it makes me happy. It gives me a level of craft to aspire to (because I’m definitely not yet in the class of confident and stylish semicolon users).

Until then, this is the advice I follow and I urge folks to do the same:

Use them correctly; use them sparingly; use them elegantly.

Writing at the speed of story

I’ve noticed that my writings fall into one of two buckets. The labels for these buckets haven’t crystallised for me yet. Not “short and long”, not “character-driven and plot-driven”, not “good and bad” – these do have some truth in them. Maybe “fast and slow”, though those words don’t describe how I write them – a “slow” piece might flow out much more freely than a “fast” piece that had to be dragged out by its ankles a word at a time. These descriptions apply more to my mental attitude about a piece.

Often I find that when writing a strongly plotted novel or short story, the plot rushes me through. These are my “fast” stories. I see the dots and I’m in a hurry to join them. My fingers furiously forge the chain of causality that is plot. I hit each scene like a pinball and bounce off in search of the next. I don’t have a metaphor for the kind of writer that I want to be, but I can tell you it isn’t “a pinball”.

Of the stories I’ve had published by others, 2/3 were not that plot driven. Yes, there was forward motion carrying the tale through the scenes, but it was not the focus of the story. In those pieces, my focus was inside each scene and on making them evocative and forceful. These are my “slow” stories. They are almost always short and I can see why: when the destination is close, I can take the journey more slowly.

My problem is a problem of tense. Writing the “fast” stories, I concentrate on “What is going to happen next?”; writing the slow, “Where am I now?”. I believe I get better writing out of myself when I hold the second question in mind.

I’m finally beginning to edit a novel that’s been languishing in first draft purgatory for over a year. The edit is hard, because this is a book from the “fast” bucket. I’m not present in the scenes. I’m in the next scene, waiting for my words to find a way to get there. They catch up; I skip on. Much of my description feels perfunctory or for pacing or to provide a floor plan for my characters to move around in without tripping over any continuity mistakes.

I’m taking my despair as a good sign – it lets me know I’ve learned things and grown as a writer over the last year or so.

There’s more to learn yet.

I must learn to linger. I must learn to stay inside a scene and run my fingers through it, taste the air, spy out the bright details.

In this way, I can create more stories to be proud of.