Autumn’s here

It’s that time of year again. I was moving wood from a delivery into the shed earlier, trug by painful trug (the weekend’s sea kayaking has broken me), and a long V of geese flew in overhead. I sometimes wonder why they talk to each other incessantly as they fly. It looks like so much effort to keep those big bodies up, wings incessantly flapping.

There was a second, smaller V, and a couple of geese broke free from this as I watched, trying to join the larger one. I imagined them worrying about directions — they’re all following Jemima, maybe they know something we don’t; maybe Steve doesn’t have a clue where he’s going and he’s going to turn left over there when he should turn right — as they beat the air furiously with those long wings, slightly akimbo in their sprint across the gap, all against a background chorus of slightly squeaky, syncopated honks I could hear before I spotted the birds and long after they had passed.

I felt the season turn a couple of weeks ago, and while I’m sad to see the back of summer, with its sunny beaches, garden barbecues, fledgling birds, wonderful flowers and hazy warm days of having every window open in this granite fridge we call a house, Autumn has always been my favourite time of year. Here in Scotland we often get the best of the year’s weather in a blissful window on the cusp where summer gives way to autumn; it’s as if the sun realises we are given short change on that front (excuse the pun) and throws an extra week or so of blue skies our way just when we think the cold rains have arrived. It’s warm, but not too warm, with cool, crisp mornings and spectacular sunsets.

It’s fungus season, too. I took this picture in Aviemore at the very end of August:

Fly agaric

Fly Agaric is so beautiful when it breaks through its hood, the red still glossy, the cap unblemished.

This one I took in Keil’s Den, Fife, a couple of weeks later.

Cluster of sulphur

These are Sulphur Tufts, named both for their colour and habit of clumping together. I love taking pictures of fungus. They can be so whimsical.

Speaking of whimsy, yet another story that was supposed to be a flash has grown arms and legs. I’m wrestling my way through thick undergrowth to the end, trusting I can cut it back to something manageable once I’m there. While I thoroughly recommend Rand’s The 10% Solution — especially if you often get comments from crit buddies along the lines of overly wordy, padded prose or over-written — sometimes the machete has to come out before the secateurs.

When short stories aren’t

Although I’ve been putting words on paper since I could hold a pen (I shall dig out some of my earliest journals sometime), I have written purely for myself, not with a view to submitting to market. I started doing that only recently, and I’m still finding out where my strengths and weaknesses lie when writing for others.

Some of them are obvious, such as the struggle I face balancing too much exposition with confusing prose, when part of what I want to do is conjure ambiguous worlds where nothing is definite. My crit groups are invaluable for dealing with these kinds of problems.

Other problems are harder to pin down. My short stories often grow metaphorical arms and legs and tentacles, before ignoring the limitations of limbs and sprouting hyphae all over the place. I end up trapped in something like a web built by a swarm of caffeine-fuelled spiders in a memory palace the size of Hannibal Lecter’s.

If I were writing long form, this would be more useful. Is it, therefore, a good thing or a bad thing? I’m still undecided, but am going to treat it as a good thing for the time being. At the moment, I would rather be in the position of having to cut than to add, except where my crit buddies suggest I can have clarification without straying into wordiness.

A short story I started with a nominal project target of 5,000 words has reached almost 10,000 words with no sign of stopping. It has pages of research and its own Scapple folder. I came back to this piece after several months away from writing, and opened it with a notional inclination towards abandonment. I read what I’d done, and I liked it too much to give up. There’s a story here I want to tell, and whether it ends up as 15k words I cut back to 7k, or 20k I work up to a full length novel, finishing the story at whatever length it turns out to be is something I have to do.

I’ve heard it said that a story ends up the length it needs to be. We’ll call this an experiment.

NOT AT WORLDCON STOP NEED COFFEE STOP AM WRITING AGAIN DON’T WANT TO STOP

This weekend I should be in London, with thousands of other writers and fans of genre fiction. I’m not. I’m still at home in Scotland, where Summer is packing up the last of his bags and preparing to head south, while Autumn stands on the threshold tapping her foot in her impatience to get onto his wonderful carpets and cover them in kipple.

Back at the beginning of April, my Dad was killed in a motor racing accident in Hockenheim, Germany. I was — am — devastated. The effect has been emotionally overwhelming. For the first time in my whole life, my hypergraphia stopped. It just stopped, as if a switch had flipped into the ‘off’ position. Other than for the day job, I was unable to find it in myself to string words together and put them down on paper. That part of me was numb, unfeeling.

When I forced myself to write, to post on social media, pen a swift report of our inaugural bike ride from Kirkcaldy to Aberdeen, or review a wine for Naked Wines, it didn’t felt like me doing it. The part of me invested in writing had gone on some kind of retreat. I could still put words together, order them grammatically, construct some kind of narrative, assay them for clarity and conciseness, but the results were neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things.

I lost that spark, without which one is not a writer.

For a while I worried this meant I had never been a writer. After all, if it were that important to me, surely I would have carried on despite the grief. Instead I threw myself into triathlon, poring over heart rate charts and race timings. I cleaned my house, decluttered, grew vegetables and flowers, polished my bicycles. Went walking, running, swimming in the sea, paddling.

I’ve hurled myself at anything that constrained me to the Here-Now-Present, because shivering on the other side of a translucent wall of stoicism is an endless ocean of sadness. It leaks tears sometimes, when something happens to bring that loss into my Here-Now-Present.

Writing fiction isn’t Here-Now-Present. It can’t be. It’s anything but Here-Now-Present, and I’ve come to realise it’s the one thing desperately important to me that can’t be condensed into a single mote of ongoing experience.

Writing fiction requires an emotional investment. If you don’t feel your writing, nobody else is going to. My emotions are bruised and swollen and sore; concentrating on physical tasks and pretending I’m fine has been the psychological equivalent of the Rest Ice Compression Elevation approach to dealing with injury.

In the last couple of weeks I have written my first complete story since it happened. It’s not my best piece of work, but it has a beginning, middle and end; conflict and resolution; a character with agency and a certain bleak humour. It’s not the worst thing I have ever written (a label I shall reserve for the Ghostbusters and Blake’s 7 fanfic I wrote when I was at school, before fanfic was a thing). I’ve also picked up a WIP and added some good words — they may not survive the edits, but they are good words. I have submitted a piece to market.

I’m no longer worried that spark is gone forever, which is a small island of relief on that shivering sea.

The lesson here is not that time heals all things — it doesn’t, but it will dull the pain if it can — but that the writer is the most important part of the writing process. You have to look after yourself, and if that means giving up an opportunity because you are not fit, so be it. No athlete would start a race with a broken leg (although he might try to carry on for a while if the injury occurred during it). As much as I really wanted to go to LonCon, I made the right decision.

I could not have coped with WorldCon this year. I am an introvert who works hard at giving the appearance of not being so when it is professionally necessary. It exhausts me. I need to be physically fit enough to tackle the endurance events Summer so thoughtfully brings each year when he sweeps up the leavings of Spring’s exuberance; equally I need to be emotionally fit enough to cope with the mental endurance event of being in the same place as almost 10,000 strangers for 5 days. I am not, and am very grateful to be sufficiently aware of my limitations that I knew better than to try.

Yet, as my writing recovers, and the hypergraphia twitches its millipede feet and considers uncurling to resume its endless meandering around my pathways and byways, I can see a time when I will be.

For that, I am also very grateful.

International Book Day Shelfie

It was International Book Day yesterday, and I kind of missed it. I wish I had some writerly excuse, such as being too busy working on a story to guddle about on the interwebs, but the fact is I was engaged in rescuing my beloved from a collapsed freewheel, and then we both conked out on the sofa. We had a long day of whitewater survival training on Wednesday, and are both very tired and covered in bruises.

Apparently the thing to do is to post a “shelfie” – rather than a badly focused, awkwardly-angled picture of one’s own mug, one posts a picture of one’s bookshelves. I dislike puns, but never mind.

The following are only the shelves in my office. We have more. We have shelves everywhere there is wall space and I’m not likely to walk into them*.Desk Shelfie

This is the shelf next to my desk. It’s mostly comics, reference books and maps. So. Many. Maps. And yet, not enough maps! One day I will have Landrangers covering the entirety of Scotland at the very least. I may even work my way up to the whole of the UK.

I occasionally think about clearing the very top shelf to make more space for books, but then I’d have to find somewhere else to put Cthulhu, Stanshall the mole, Lara and the Sackperson, my molecule building set, Mindflex and Inflatable Wolverine.

There isn’t anywhere else. We simply need to find a space to put another bookshelf.

We might need a bigger house.

Shelfie 2This is the shelf next to the door. Some fiction, more reference books, the stacks where new acquisitions go before I’ve worked out where to put them (in addition to the pile on the living room table and the other pile in the bedroom).

It’s starting to occur to me I may have a terrible book addiction.

*I walk into things a lot, particularly on the right side, as I have a blind spot the size of Belgium that starts just past my nose, no depth perception and am frequently distracted by the contents of my head. I have enough trouble with door frames without putting additional obstacles in my way.

A poem about a spider

Palpy Pete the Spider

I have met a spider
His name is Palpy Pete
He has a hairy tummy
And hairies on his feet

He’s living by the kitchen
He’s living in the hall
He’s right where I can see him
He’s right there on the wall

I think he seems quite friendly
I think we could be chums
He’s not nearly big enough
To bite me on the bum.

This is, in fact, a Lace webbed spider, a common species with, like many spiders, a strangely romantic name. We don’t get the more common house spider in our cottage, only these ones. The size of the palps leads me to think he’s a male, and he joins the various other creatures sharing our home in being subject to the indignity of a human name. For a while we had a lady Amaurobius similis in the kitchen, called Ophelia, but she vanished several weeks ago, when the temperature dropped. This is the first spider I’ve seen in a while.

I don’t put them outside. They’re indoor spiders, and they’d just come back in again.

Synaesthesia

I have synaesthesia – not one of the easily explainable ones, like numbers have colours, but more of a whole-body topological sort of affair. It’s hard to explain, so I rarely bother trying.

There are experiences, though, that are so overwhelming I occasionally attempt to share them. This evening, coming back from an afternoon out to Haddo House and Formartine’s, I noticed the sky as I parked the car. When I got out, the combination of the air temperature, the smell, the slight breeze and the distant sound of traffic on the A90 combined to give a synaesthetic overlay. Coincidentally, the shapes formed in the sky were of a similar shape and pattern to this cross-wired gestalt.

A little tweaking and it’s close to a pictorial representation of what I felt. Not quite, but close.

Close of Play

Sun settles
Clouds churn
Day dissolves
Nascent night

A 2013 retrospective

I know it’s traditional to look back on the year somewhat closer to Hogmanay, but I never seem to manage it. I’m either early or late, so this year I’m going to be early.

It has been an amazing and exciting year. I’ve had two stories published in anthologies that have put my work on the same ToC as some great authors (Looking Landwards and Fish), and my work has been reviewed positively. On top of that, I’ve gained experience of the business end of editing and publishing, with a stint as slush reader for the Whitecat Publications science fiction and horror imprints, and putting together the Lemon Tree Writers chapbook Point of Balance. I’ve been on local radio three times (here, here and, most recently, here). I’ve taken part in my first spoken word event, and attended a con for the first time as a writer (complete with book signing).

In my last interview, I was asked what the future holds and where I plan to go from here. In responding I dressed it up a bit, but really it’s very simple: MOAR PLEEZ. More of this would make me very happy.

I feel like a contestant on Masterchef and I’ve finally started to find out what my capabilities are. I’m still exploring where my strengths lie, and figuring out how to address my weaknesses. There is so much more to learn, and so many ways to improve. I have 3 star ambitions, and I’m almost — almost! — at the point of believing my palate can take me there, but there’s refinement needed.

There will be a lot of hard work in 2014, and I’m more than up for that. I’m hoping for a little luck with which to season it.

Looking Landwards at BristolCon

Good manners are free

I have a few ambitions as a writer, some predictable, some maybe not so much. There is one I wouldn’t have predicted when I was considering stepping into the big, scary world of submitting to market, but which is now very important to me.

I want to be a writer other people find it pleasant to work with. I want to be the kind of writer who pays attention to submission guidelines, reading periods and deadlines. I want to submit my work when it’s as good as I can make it, and respond promptly, politely and with good grace to editors; or, in the case of rejection, not at all.

It would never have occurred to me, back when I only wrote for myself, that this would be a thing. I’ve heard some tales that really surprised me, about writers answering rejection letters with abusive emails describing the editor as a jackass who doesn’t recognise genius when he/she sees it. In my time as a slush reader I’ve seen submissions that have completely boggled my mind; I had no idea there were so many ways to fail at submission guidelines.

Good manners cost nothing, but leave an impression. Any sane person is more likely to consider working with someone who is polite and professional than someone who throws her toys out of the pram in the face of criticism or takes forever to respond to requests.

I haven’t managed a pro-sale yet. There is a list of markets I would love to crack, and a number of other achievements I hope to unlock one day. They will require hard work, dedication and not a little luck, because there are things I will need that are outside my control. Being courteous and professional? That’s entirely down to me, and there’s no excuse not to have it already.

trophy4

BristolCon and Looking Landwards

It’s only a couple of weeks until BristolCon, where I’ll be helping to launch Looking Landwards, the NewCon Press anthology containing my story When Shepherds Dream of Electric Sheep. As I’m still in the early days of my writing career, when every sale feels like a miracle, I’m a little over-excited. There aren’t many conventions in the UK compared to the busy American schedule, and I live so far north I’ve only been to one thus far.

Here’s the official publicity for the book. I’m sharing a ToC with some amazing people. Last week — despite a possibly fractured, and definitely painful wrist — I signed a ridiculous number of sheets of paper for the limited edition hardcover. I can’t wait to see this book and read the other stories.

Looking Landwards Cover

With the impending crises of climate change, scarcity of water, dwindling energy reserves and spiraling global populations, the effective management of our land and the food it produces has never been more relevant. Established in 1938 by a small group of far-seeing and enthusiastic engineers and agriculturalists, the Institution of Agricultural Engineers provides a professional nexus for the scientists, technologists, engineers, and managers working in the many and varied forms of land-based industry.

In 1988 the IAgrE marked its 50th anniversary with a publication that considered the changing face of farming and agricultural engineering over the previous half century. In 2013, to mark their 75th anniversary, they have chosen to commission a book that looks forward at what the future might hold. To help them achieve this, they approached NewCon Press.

Looking Landwards represents NewCon Press’ first ever open submissions anthology. We have been overwhelmed by the response, receiving submissions not only from within the UK but also from the USA, Australia, mainland Europe, Africa, and Asia; from professional writers and would-be writers, from scientists and engineers who are actively involved in dealing with the book’s themes to people who have simply been inspired by them. Looking Landwards features the very best of these stories. Twenty-three works of science fiction and speculation that dare to look to the future and examine what lies ahead for farming, for agricultural engineering and for all of us.

Contents:

  1. Introduction by Andy Newbold and Chris Whetnall of the IAgrE
  2. The Blossom Project – M Frost
  3. Contraband – Terry Martin
  4. When Shepherds Dream of Electric Sheep – Sam Fleming
  5. Inversion Centre – Darren Goossens
  6. Ode to an Earthworm – Gareth D Jones
  7. A Touch of Frost – Renee Stern
  8. The World Coyote Made – Jetse de Vries
  9. Earthen – Alicia Cole
  10. Soul Food – Kim Lakin-Smith
  11. Charlie’s Ant – Adrian Tchaikovsky
  12. Cellular Level – J E Bryant
  13. My Oasis Tower – Holly Ice
  14. Throw Back – Gill Shutt
  15. Mary on the Edge – Steven Pirie
  16. Landward – Den Patrick
  17. Long Indeed Do We Live… – Storm Constantine
  18. Tractor Time – Kate Wilson
  19. Veggie Moon – Neal Wooten
  20. Wheat – Kevin Burke
  21. Blight – Dev Agarwal
  22. Black Shuck – Henry Gee
  23. A Season – Rebecca J. Payne
  24. The Last Star – Nigel Edwards
  25. About the Authors

 

Released 28th October 2013, Looking Landwards will be published as:

A5 paperback (ISBN 978-1-907069-59-8) Price: £11.99 (UK), $20.99 (USA)
A numbered, limited edition hardback, each copy signed by all the contributing authors(ISBN: 978-1-907069-58-1) Price: £29.99

To find out more about the Institution of Agricultural Engineers and their work, visit them at: http://www.iagre.org/about/about.

Spoken word, seasoned with citrus

Recently I’ve been pretty busy on the writing front. On the 7th September I was one of the guests on the Literature Show, alongside my fellow Point of Balance writers Pam, Morag and Haworth. If you missed it (let’s face it, you probably did), you can listen again at mixcloud. We were there to promote the chapbook and you can hear me and my fellow writers reading excerpts from the pieces in the book. I also took the chance to sneak in a signal boost for Minister of Chance, as the movie is in pre-production.

[Naturally, if you haven’t already listened to it, do so immediately (IT’S FREE, THERE’S NO EXCUSE) and then please bung some dosh Dan’s way. It’s still entirely crowd-funded.]

Last weekend I had two launch events for the chapbook and my first spoken word event, Lemon Zest.

The first launch event was at Better Read Books in Ellon. It was a lovely evening; we were guests at a regular poetry evening (even though there isn’t any poetry in the book). We heard some fanastic poems — including a telling of the story of Noah in Doric — and I picked up a copy of Cathrynne M. Valente’s Deathless in hardback. I was surprised to see this volume in a local store. Clearly, Better Read Books is an amazing bookshop. They have a fabulous selection of second-hand and illustrated texts, and Euan is the only person so far to engage with me enthusiastically on the topic of 18th century automata. Euan and Bill definitely deserve support (and they have signed copies of the chapbook for sale). We sold a few copies, but most interest was in the cover, and so Frood ended up getting all the attention.

Saturday’s launch went well, too. That was held at the regular LTW meeting venue, so the regulars turned up, although it was nice to see some unfamiliar faces. Then, on the Sunday, was Lemon Zest. We had our first run through the programme during the afternoon, with the show proper that evening.

I’ve had plenty of experience of public speaking throughout my career, so I don’t get nervous, as a rule. I was lucky enough to have a mother who was hot on grammar and diction, and being understood isn’t a worry, but I’ve never considered myself to be a natural performer. (My run as the evil magician in my primary school’s version of Aladdin And His Lamp doesn’t count, despite the standing ovation.) I don’t write with a view to the piece being performed, even though reading out loud is an essential part of my writing process.

The story I read at Lemon Zest is a homage to Russell T. Davies called Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go And Do Something Less Boring Instead? Those who grew up with British Television in the 70s and 80s may remember the show the title references. I’m very fond of this flash piece, which grew from a prompt in one of the group’s 10 minute writing exercises — I like the layers of meaning and internal reflections — and although I’ve not yet succeeded in selling it, it’s had some encouraging rejections. My outfit for the occasion was a nod to Christopher Eccleston’s 9th Doctor, I had 11’s sonic screwdriver poking out of my pocket, my piece was cunningly disguised in an antique storybook the colour of the TARDIS, and I introduced the piece as ‘Sam does Jackanory’ to put people in the mood.

Yet, watching the other group members, I realised I was outclassed in reading for an audience. Richie Brown’s tale of bringing King George III to the 21st century was very well performed, which is hardly surprising given that he’s one of the driving forces behind Demented Eloquence North. The undisputed highlight of the show, however, was Pam’s sketch Mike and Susan, in which Bill Robertson and Helen Elizabeth Ramsay played a couple discussing how they might go about spicing up their love life.

For me it was both an enjoyable and educational evening. Audiences, I realised, go to these events to be amused and entertained, and they’ll enjoy things that make them laugh more than things that make them think (although you’re onto a winner if you can do both). A lot of it was undoubtedly lack of practise and experience, but as an introvert who takes as much pleasure in the construction of a sentence as in the overall story, I think performing to an audience is not the best way to show off my work. Unless, perhaps, I get someone else to read it.

I put a lot of effort into the chapbook and I’m very pleased with the result. Mark Pithie put a lot of work into Lemon Zest, and I hope he’s also very pleased with the result. There are some talented people in LTW, particularly when it comes to writing for performance, and Mark did an excellent job organising an evening for them to demonstrate it.

Point of Balance will be available at LTW events until we sort out wider distribution. In the meantime, if you want a copy (if only so you can feast your eyes on the gorgeous cover, to which the photos don’t do justice), drop me a line at sam [at] ravenbait [dot] com and I’ll see what I can do. Cover price is 4 of your Earth pounds, all of which goes towards keeping Lemon Tree Writers up and running, including putting on events like Lemon Zest for all to enjoy.