Archive | June 2009

Best Served Cold – or with a nice cup of tea and a comfy sofa

Because once picked up, it’s quite hard to put down again. Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie arrived last night and threw all my (admittedly vague) plans for doing something constructive into disarray.

I very much enjoyed The First Law trilogy. It wouldn’t be going too far to say that it restored my faith in fantasy (along with Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora). But there’s always the worry that the next book won’t be as good. It’s happened before.

Happily, Best Served Cold was as good and I spent yesterday evening curled up on the sofa reading. If you don’t want to take my word for it, here’s an extract. I didn’t dare bring it to work to read at lunchtime.

Hub, Issue 89

Hub again. I’m a little behind, but only by a week now.

Issue 89 provides Storm CHASER by Craig Pirrall. I liked this. Love the idea of a storm in a bottle and I’d have coughed up the forty bucks. The characters are very vivid for such a short piece. Again, I was disappointed that it ended so quickly.

Full Disk Recovery

I have my hard drive back. I have all my stories and bits of writing. I am so happy.

It did cross my mind that the hard drive was completely dead but time and money (thanks to very generous parents) have brought my stuff back. I now have two external hard drives and proper back ups.

I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve read writers exhorting other writers to back everything up, usually because they’ve lost years worth of work themselves. I know, as a reasonably technology-literate, fully paid up member of the 21st century, that copies are vital. I’ve even watched the Blackadder 3 episode, Ink and Incapability, with horror, imagining what it would be like to write without a PC. Just imagine, if you had to start from scratch if your dictionary got burnt. The horror; the despair; the finger cramp.

And yet…. It remained an item on a to-do list. And if the hard drive hadn’t died, it probably would still be an item on a to-do list.

I’m not pondering this because I want to celebrate the return of my stories or punish myself for procrastination. I’m doing it because it reveals to me something about how caution, or the lack of it, informs our behaviour and therefore that of our characters. In most cases our charaters will know what they should do but that doesn’t mean they will do it.

Hub, Issue 88

It’s the Tuesday post! Today, I’m going to review Hub. A nice short story to read and ponder while I eat my sandwich.

The story in Issue 88 is Red Rover, Red Rover by Janet Loftis. This is fantastic. Children, horror and excellent writing. It is really quite creepy and that sandwich is not settling well. My only complaint was that it ended. I’d love to read what happened next.

Commas and getting used to a new routine

I’m on week four of the new job. It’s pay day on Friday, woohoo. I’m still not in much of a routine with writing in the evenings and weekends but I am pleased that I have done something in the last few weeks. At the end of last week I was noticeably less tired so I remain positive about my ability to continue to write.

What I have been doing is posting blogs and I’ve noticed that the time pressure is not good for my writing. Reviewing Electric Spec last week felt rushed and as if I hadn’t given enough thought to what I was saying. As it was, it took me several days to read the whole magazine.

That led me to thoughts about commas. Most of the stories I read seemed to have an overabundance of commas and there was only really one in which it contributed to building the atmosphere. So, what’s the problem with commas? I think it stems from the gap between written and spoken english.

When people speak they rarely form good sentences; they hesitate, they use fillers, they repeat themselves and they go off on tangents. Accurately transcribed speech might appear to require the use of a lot of commas because of all the pauses. It’s a common myth that the comma is used to show where a person should breathe if they were reading out loud.

There are three separate issues here. One, how accurately should prose in fiction recreate the spoken word? Two, what are commas for? And three, what effect does overusing commas have on prose?

Personally, I think prose in fiction should not attempt to recreate how people speak. Even in dialogue you’re really aiming for an idealisation of speech. Written english benefits from being much more thought through than everyday speech. We can be more eloquent and more effective. I have found that working on my skills in terms of using punctuation and grammar has increased my power and control over my writing. I am better able to say exactly what I mean to say and better able to identify what feels instinctively wrong.

Commas have four purposes; listing, joining, gapping and bracketing. One of the most useful online resources I’ve found for punctuation is Larry Trask’s Guide. I don’t think I can say anything about the uses of commas more clearly than this.

Which brings me to my third point, what does the overuse of commas do to prose? There are two types of overuse: liberally sprinkled commas where the writer would pause if speaking and correctly used bracketing commas in sentences overloaded with weak interruptions or parenthetical clauses. Both have the same effect. The prose is choppy, especially if the clauses are short, and has a feeling of breathlessness. This can be used to great effect where the writer wants to create an atmosphere of tension. The sense of breathlessness is reminiscent of the fight/flight response and the accompanying hyper-alertness. Coupled with a first person POV, it it is a useful technique for establishing empathy with a character. Or it can convey dislocation and disorientation if the commas are used to create convoluted, disjointed sentences. The reader shares the overload of input without the reassurance of structure.

The comma is not an everyday, throwaway piece of punctuation. Using it with care and thought has dramatically improved my writing.

Electric Spec, Volume 4, Issue 1

I haven’t reviewed Electric Spec before. I first heard of them via the first page contest they were holding on their blog. The editors’ comments on the work submitted to them were very thoughtful and interesting. They publish quarterly and are a paying market.

The first issue of this year came out on February 28. It contains six stories, the first of which is A Crowd of Possibilities by Eric Del Carlo. It starts slowly but it’s worth persevering with. At the beginning I found the staccato style of writing irritating. This was the point I think, as the author gradually builds a sense of dislocation. At the end it all makes sense and works up into a good story.

The Boogie-Woogie, Time-Traveling, Cyborg Blues by Barton Paul Levenson is really good. The tension of the story is set up very quickly and maintained all the way through. Backstory is nicely handled through dialogue, raising some interesting questions about the possible future. I liked this.

RepFix by K.P. Graham is also very good. It’s really well written and presents a plausible world without stopping to explain the details. It shows confidence. What I didn’t like about this is that it was a little coy with the details. We are told characters swear and use bad language, we are told that the main character is a depraved criminal. I find it irritating to have these things hidden behind a veil. If they are important enough to mention at all, then they are important enough to show.

Story number four is Kitsune-tsuki by Justin A. Williams. I love the way this starts by dropping you right into the action. The later action scene is also good; it’s exciting, well paced and dramatic. The bits inbetween are a bit slow and saggy. I struggled to keep reading. The ending was a bit cliched for my taste as well.

The next story, Hair and Hearts by Alison J. Littlewood, was wonderful. As it went along it really drew me in. It made me laugh although it’s not humourous story. If I’m being pedantic, I might say it suffers from an over-use of commas. That seems to have been a theme in this collection of stories. The effect is to make the narrative feel breathless and jumpy. Sometimes this is appropriate and sometimes it works against a story.

The last tale in this issue, The Girl Door by Jennifer Linnaea, doesn’t suffer from an over-use of commas. This is the best of the issue. The writing is excellent and the fantasy is multi-layered and symbolic. Linnaea is saying an awful lot beyond the simple story of a father protecting his child.

Being Human

I just watched the first episode of Being Human. Wow. It’s amazing. The writing and acting is really very good. After the appalling sub-Buffy mess of Demons and the fun-but-a-bit-rubbish Primeval, this was wonderful. Such a joy to watch something this good.

The comedy was funny – I laughed out loud – and the drama was tense. I can’t wait for episode 2.

Hub, Issue 87

Ah, these one story issues of Hub are perfect for reading and reviewing in your lunchbreak.

Issue 87’s story in Nightlife by Dean Grondo. Wow, that’s disturbing. I think I’m actually horrified. This is a snippet of an insight into the mind of a serial killer. There’s no attempt to construct a narrative or give any backstory and I think that shows just how competent and assured the writing is. All throughout the story I was thinking in a slightly hysterical way ‘but why? Why?’ and no why was given. It would have been a much weaker piece if the author had attempted to answer the questions. I’m not sure I actually liked it but it’s the first time in ages I’ve been really disturbed by a horror story – and isn’t that exactly what the genre is supposed to do? I’ll be looking out for more of Grondo’s work.

Crossed Genres, Issue 5

Issue 5 of Crossed Genres is sci-fi/fantasy crossed with humour. There are five stories.

The first is Archimedes Nesselrode by Justine Graykin. The start of this put me off. I think perhaps this information could have been worked into the story as part of the narrative, rather than as an introductory scene. The setting is lovely but I think Graykin has missed a trick. Her writing is competent but her style is quite matter of fact and works against the picture she’s trying to convey. The characters didn’t really come across well and it didn’t make me laugh.

A Simple Matter by Linda Linsey did make me laugh. I loved the updated take on fairy godmother stories. More could have been made of the ending, which struck me as a little hurried, and the ‘twist’ was telegraphed early on. Although I was amused by it.

I really liked the concept of Condiment Wars by Jill Afzelius. It’s inventive and entertaining. The pacing is good and the author draws the ending out nicely. There were a few moments that made me smile and I’d be interested in reading the further adventures of ketchup and mustard. I found the writing style laboured though. It seemed a little unsophisticated and often the dialogue was stilted. As it’s a dialogue-heavy story (in principle, a good thing) this is quite important. This is a great idea that would have benefitted from a serious re-write.

Story number 4 is A Smoking Idol by Max Orkis. Well, it’s not so much a story as an anecdote. This is some good writing; I’m just not sure this piece showcases it that well.

The final piece is A Tale of Two Bureaucracies by Jeremy Zimmerman. Hee. This is genuinely amusing – or at least, genuinely appeals to my sense of humour. It’s also well written and an intelligent take on bureaucracy. Zimmerman had a story in Issue three that I really liked. And just checking back I realise I haven’t reviewed Issue 4. Ooops. Anyway, this tickled me. Definitely the best of the bunch.

Three out of five of the writers in this issue are women. I’ve no idea whether this was done consciously or not, but I would like to commend Crossed Genres for equal gender representation in this issue.

Time to Write

The day job is going well but naturally a lot of my headspace is being used for learning about the job. Fortunately it’s not completely new and I’m looking forward to being able to write in the evenings once I get to grips with it. I plan to blog at lunchtimes.

Currently I’m reviewing Crossed Genres, Issue 5. In the meantime, I thought I’d post just to have something fresh up here and to let you know that the deadline for Crossed Genres, Issue 9, is 30th June. They are looking for sci-fi/fantasy stories with an alternative history theme.