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Tuesday, 28 June 2016
Monday, 27 June 2016
Sunday, 26 June 2016
Saturday, 25 June 2016
Friday, 24 June 2016
Thursday, 23 June 2016
Wednesday, 22 June 2016
Our background shapes us. Accepting these differences is the sign of a progressive society; having them is the sign of an interesting culture. Individual differences in how we express ourselves and how we dress are to be welcomed.
(That's not the same as condoning immoral and unethical actions - behaviour which harms other beings will always be despicable.)
Likewise the only reason to visit another place is because that place is different: different speech, different dress, different scenery. One of the things I find sad about corporatisation and globalisation is how it homogenises things, so that exciting independent shops are replaced by chain stores, local cafes forced out by Costa and Starbucks, greengrocers by supermarkets. One town's high street now looks very much like another. Boring.
As a writer it is easy to fall back on the easy option: characters that resemble the author in their values, ways of speaking, ways of thinking, ways of dressing. But that's lazy. We should always listen to other people, observe, try to live in their shoes. And then embody that in our fiction. Next time a protagonist is formed, ask what could be changed to give them depth and reality, how to step outside our comfortable expectations. Why should the active protagonist be a man? Why should the romantic interest be white? Why should the character fit the mould of subjective preconception?
In They Move Below I started this process: characters who were old, young, female, from other places (Somalia, Burma, America). It's part of my writing process now, to try and see if the character can be different from me. But it isn't second nature. I always have to challenge myself to do better.
The other day I mentioned sharing my work. I'm happy with people sharing it for any non-commercial purpose. Feel free to quote, to copy and paste (as long as you reference the source!), to give the e-books to your friends, to use the works in teaching. I plan to embody all this in a Creative commons licence in the near future, so that people who like my work can do far more with it than the restrictive laws normally allow.
Along those lines I was pleased when a teacher and language expert in Scotland wanted to use one of my stories, Sinker, in teaching. Sinker is written in Scots Language. That is one of Scotland's three languages, the other two being Scottish Standard English and Scottish Gaelic.
I was even happier to get this message:
"Read 'Sinker' with my new Higher class. They enjoyed it and pass on their compliments. We stopped before he goes to pee. Only one group wanted McTeagle to kill Auld Ferlie and that because they wanted to know he existed. None like McT. They loved the floating shite (but were a bit reluctant to discuss this with me). They enjoyed the plot, the twist, the strong character and the karma of it. Thank you! Thank you!"I'm so pleased. When I wrote Sinker I went to Scotland; spoke to anglers; read a Scots dictionary; wandered around a loch at night; I always do my best to get into character. (Fans of my Manchester novels will be aware of the lengths I go to for verisimilitude - research trip 1, research trip 2.) So to succeed in some way here is vindication, and makes up for the comments from some readers that Sinker was their least favourite from the collection - they loved the story but found the language too difficult. I understand, but even if it lowers the book's rating I won't apologise or change it. Communication sometimes requires slowing down and listening.
I asked how old the students were and whether it was okay to post about this, since it's the interactions between fiction and readers that fascinate me. I was told:
"We would be honoured. They are 16 or 17. One or two of them said they found the Scots difficult - a standard response of those who do not want to admit to understanding low-status Scots. Fairly put their gas at a peep when I explained your background! They all understood fine then! Haud gaun, ma loon!"So: be proud of where you're from and how you speak.
Embrace your difference.
PS It is the UK's EU Referendum tomorrow. Europe is far from perfect (secret TTIP negotiations, and massive animal farming subsidies are a personal irritation of mine, when other roles far more important to society don't get subsidised), and it's annoying that we're given only the choice of staying or leaving, not any say in reforming or changing things (e.g. "stay under condition X"). On the other hand - and it is a big hand, with chunky fingers and a warm palm - embracing our neighbours and friends is a good thing to do, practically and metaphorically. Working together and accepting differences whilst also seeing similarities under one umbrella, that seems like a good thing to me. When there's a potential for love it is always better to work at a relationship than to walk away.
Monday, 20 June 2016
Peeaboo by Diane Martinez, via Stockvault (image softened and filtered by me)
There are many great sources of images. Some are free, some require payment and licensing. I have reservations about many of the paid-photo sites.
- Some of the sites that sell photos, such as Getty Images, have been accused of favouring aggressive legal threats over more reasonable approaches (sometimes when they don't even have the rights to the image). That immediately puts me off using their services.
- Some paid sites are very US-centric: for example, Shutterstock only offer legal indemnity if you post materials to their US office; a pain for users outside the US, yet we pay the same for the images.
- The growth in popularity of stock photo sites means that the same photos turn up again and again. Only today I saw a design competition entry based around the same photo I had once used. It is a failure of stock photo sites which keep selling the same photo again and again. They don't tell you how many times it has already been sold, so they make this problem much more common than authors would like. There are many examples of the problem here.
And thus it opens the floodgates to all sorts of scams. A common one is to use a fake account to seed photos on stock photo sites (free or paid). Then when the photos are used in good faith, the scammer can send threatening letters claiming extortionate fees to avoid legal action. Even if you buy the photo from a stock site it doesn't mean you are safe - for example the basic Shutterstock licence only agrees to cover you up to $10,000 (which could be a lot less than the courts might make you pay). Oops.
Here is an example of this kind of problem in action. Some say even Getty have taken part in similar scams.
Current copyright law means that even when you are sensible, you can still get caught out. Bear in mind the tips on my images page. No-one wants to face this situation. Also consider taking your own photos, which is easy and much lower risk, depending on the subject. Graphic software like Gimp makes it easy to edit images and composite them together.
There's a storm comin'. Be careful out there.
Tuesday, 14 June 2016
Tuesday, 7 June 2016
Monday, 6 June 2016
Wednesday, 1 June 2016
Image courtesy of WernerB via Pixabay
I'm a writer. Writers create characters. Characters that can be believed because they have pasts and needs. Their needs drive them to act and react.
Writers create stories. Stories come from actions and reactions.
Writers are selective. They don't write everything about the world and the character. They choose the elements that are required to imbue the story with meaning. Other elements are severely cut, then thrown away.
Elements are often used as symbols to reinforce that meaning. This makes the work feel rounded and complete and satisfying to a reader, even when the mood is dark. Not all elements are consciously chosen by the author - no human has 100% understanding of themself - but the elements and symbols still appear in the story. It doesn't matter how they got there; just that they exist. The reader sees the symbol, and ponders it, and only fully understands it towards the end.
Writers can use words to experiment and work things out.
I care about all sorts of issues. I'm a vegan, so as well as enjoying chocolate cake and pizza and crunchy fresh salads I also care about the environment and what my species does to the world, to each other, to other species. I care about animals, and that includes humans (humans are a species of animal - mammal, in our case - something that is often forgotten). I want a future with a beautiful world that supports all life, where possessions are less important than happiness, where compassion comes before profit, and where unspoilt wild spaces are not seen as potential sites for "development".
All this inevitably creeps into some of my stories and characters. Note "creeps in" - not replaces. A flavour rather than an overpowering taste.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is one of those things that you can be blissfully unaware of, then find out about, and then the world tilts. You wonder if you read it right. Then your perception changes. If you are unaware of what it is then please go and read this Wikipedia article. There is more information on the sites of these organisations, which are all well worth visiting and supporting:
I'm not just talking about women here, or "other" cultures. I'm not focussing on one element or application and excusing another. Even the Western medical profession has a lot to answer for. I was circumcised as a child. I had no say in it. There were no health issues calling for it. Back then it was apparently standard practice in some hospitals. Skin was just cut away and incinerated as part of normal procedure. "Alas poor foreskin, I never got to know him well," as Shakespeare might have written.
In my latest collection, They Move Below, many stories have undercurrents, themes that tie in to story via character and symbol. Tales of capture and mistreatment, colonial appropriation, consumerism, advertising, cultural miasma. There is also a story called Web. It's written from the perspective of a Somalian immigrant and victim of FGM. A story of regret and understanding; of victims striking back, both up and down the hierarchy; of guilt; of sympathy; and of trying to understand any form of abuse. Probably more, that I don't want to think about. Just because I class it as horror doesn't mean it involves zombies. In fact, it would have sat just as well in one of my more literary works. Sometimes life is dark. Childhood particularly, because you're more vulnerable and dependent then. Though sometimes children are resilient. They come through.
Note that Web is not _about_ FGM. Like most stories, it has many ingredients. If anything, the story is about a life that has little freedom seeking a way out; the germinating seed trapped under pavement and pushing against it without understanding why it can't reach the light. Here FGM is more a symbol of oppression, or removed choice, of losing the only possessions we have inalienable rights to: freedom, and control of our own bodies.
Consenting adults can choose what they do to themselves. As long as it is a free choice. No force, no coercion, no social pressures. Pressuring people to do things against their will is still a form of force, even if it doesn't involve ropes and locked doors, just as not all injuries leave visible marks.
I mentioned some charities doing good work to raise awareness of the issue through education and advocacy. I support many charities, in different ways; yesterday I offered some of them free use of my story if there was any way it could be used to benefit their cause (e.g. if they compiled an anthology of essays and fiction which could be sold to generate campaign funds). I think writers can do a lot of good work. Many writers do: I'm proud of and admire most of my colleagues. And not just the writers. I've been impressed with OpenBooks, an e-book distributor that began by challenging conventional views and treating the customer with respect - no DRM on books, and the reader pays what they think the book is worth after they have read it, based on the culture of trust. How often have you been persuaded to buy something due to advertising blurb and then found there is no substance to it? How often has an unknown gem touched your heart and stayed with you for life? This is a system that sees justice for both. OpenBooks apparently planning to move even more towards social and ethical issues in an attempt to make sure its business benefits the world. Admirable. We all gain.
Social issues will probably be more overt in my next book. Stories about coming of age and social responsibility; prejudice and conformity; freedom and patriarchy; women's issues; the connection of life; love; commodification of bodies. Hopefully the elements make the stories stronger. Fiction shouldn't shy away from real world issues. Fiction exists to make us think.
PS In case this worries any of of my existing fans: I still love chainsaws and zombies, so rest assured that my horror stories still involve plenty of classic nastiness, tentacled monsters, and tense chases; while my literary fiction still includes nerdy obsessive blokes, strong women, love, and easter eggs that probably only 1% of readers will ever find. It can't be called fiction unless story comes first.
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