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Stewart Hotston

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

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fantasy

Slavery and economics

Today I bought myself a couple of books on slavery – not novels or histories on different slave systems through the millennia but actual books on how people who kept slaves went about keeping slaves.

The most interesting one is by Jerry Toner although attributed to the Roman cipher of Marcus Sidonius Falx. It’s called How To Manage Your Slaves and considers subjects such as

  • when they should be allowed to have sex
  • how to be a slave master
  • when to buy
  • what makes for a good slave
  • why they shouldn’t all speak the same language and,
  • why freedmen are a problem

It’s tongue in cheek but also solid history (as Toner is a fellow of Classics at Churchill College, Cambridge).

I’ve bought this not because I’m about to go out and re-enact the plot of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout but because I’m developing a pitch about a society whose economy and culture relies on slavery. It’s not enough when world building to know you’re against slavery. I want it to feel authentic. I want you to know, when you read it, what slaves deal with beyond simply being someone else’s property.

Having said that, the subjects covered by Toner are ones you’ll find discussed by economists lamenting people not doing as they’re supposed to right across the world. When people try to design our societies, the language and categories they use for ordinary people are, frighteningly, close to those slave owners use for their slaves. Where capitalism is more unfettered this is often especially the case – where workers are resources like light, space and licenses they are also worryingly open to being treated as if they were just that – inanimate resources. In this light, the best worker is the one who doesn’t get pregnant, doesn’t need lunch, doesn’t want to unionise and certainly doesn’t get sick. I’m reminded we should always be careful of ‘liberalisation of employment legislation’ because it’s really just code for ‘being able to treat workers as commodities’ and that is the very definition of being a slave – being someone else’s property.

My pitch, a fantasy novel with gods and magic, is obviously fiction – but it’s going to have economics, politics and people desperate to find their way to being human and not someone else’s commodity. Part of me hopes that when the book’s written and assuming the pitch is successful, you’ll imbibe my warnings about those who would make us slaves and hold in your minds the actions you might be called on to make if you want to remain free.

 

 

Reflections from a noob on the conservation of information

This weekend I went to Fantasy Con here in the UK and it was brilliant. This is the second convention I’ve been to, after Nineworlds a little earlier in the year. It was a little smaller than I was expecting but filled with people from across the industry – writers, readers, editors, publishers and even an agent or two. I was supposed to be at a LARP (but a broken tarsal put paid to that) but requests that I do a couple of panels sold me on going because, hey, I quite like talking about stuff when asked and in this case they were topics I felt I could at least contribute to without looking silly.

I also went to a bunch of panels and worked hard on BarCon (which as you can imagine included alcohol). There was a sinister room of which Allen Stroud kindly took a few of us on a tour – only to regret it almost instantly.

 

In terms of personal goals I wanted to meet people in the industry, get to know them, explore current trends and figure out where I go next. Talking to someone about pitches (I think it was Jon Oliver from Solaris/Abaddon) reminded me that I hate being sold to and although as an author I need to find a way to communicate what I’m passionate about writing, I was committed to actually having a good time, laughing and making some new friends (if that last isn’t too bold).

I was delightfully entertained by Nate Crowley every time we crossed paths and I hope we get to crew together at Empire next year because I think we’d make a frightening double act.

I have lots of people to thank, not least David Moore and Jon Oliver for always being around to chat to, Adrian Tchaikovsky (and Annie), Phil Sloman, Simon Bestwick, Allen Stroud, Jeanette Ng, Anna Smith Spark, Theresa Derwin and David Tallerman for all being sparkling company and having interesting stuff to say.

The highlight though was that after my comment last week that I wasn’t quite sure what to do next and entirely different option as presented as the most obvious answer. Roped into a discussion about cosmology (in the theoretical physics sense) I got a bit fanboy about information theory and how there’s a great first contact story in it and someone said – ‘don’t just talk about it, write it because I want to read that story.’

I was pleased to hear it but then it was pointed out that they were a commissioning editor. So guess what…I’m now writing out and planning that very novella. Which involves me reading information theory thermodynamics papers from Arxiv.org…oh, and the stages of grief as it’s that kind of story.

At the same time I got an open invite to pitch to another publisher whose work I love. I’m now also frantically editing that piece because it’s in need of it but there you go. I’m not sure it’s for them but everyone who’s read the alpha version thinks it’s the most compelling piece I’ve written so you never know…

Drafts, FantasyCon and taking over the world

Short post today. Really to ask for some thoughts.

Tonight I’ve finished an edit on the first book in the fantasy series I’ve got with Ticketyboo Press. This was mainly to tighten the opening based on some beta reader feedback and to bring the overall use of terminology and (some elements) of world plot into line with book two and where I’m going with the story. There’s now a full edit on their side to do – about which I’m pretty excited.

Which means I’ve reached a cross roads.

I’m not ready to start book 3 of that series yet. I need a little break from it to recharge. So I have the following options in front of me which I’ll be mulling over at FantasyCon in between going to panels, being on a couple of panels (which I’m totally excited about) and maybe having a few jars with friends.

  1. Write book 3 of The Oligarchy and finish that series
  2. Edit Immortal Daughter, a fast paced thriller set now which is basically Taken crossed with Logan
  3. Start book 3 of this series!

As we head towards book 1, Dreams of Darkness, coming out, I’ll also be sending out a free copy of a new anthology of stories to people as a thank you for all the support – that’s basically ready to go, it’s just about timing…!

I’ve actually got to sit down with my mentor in the next couple of weeks and work out a plan for drawing up the next story – they want me to focus within a specific genre and then write to its very edges. I’ve got two story ideas I want to rip to pieces with them and hopefully come out of that with something intentionally commercial without losing what I love about writing – the chance to explore my own ideas.

So…feel free to tell me what I should concentrate on next. And if you’re at FantasyCon, come by and say hello.

Do you like losing?

No one likes to lose.

Except…that’s not true is it?

We play games like Lost Souls, where the point is to win but only through grinding loss. We read grimdark in massive numbers where the hero isn’t and no one really wins; traumatised survival really being the best outcome.

In the UK, at least, we love the heroic failure so much there are even books about them that we cherish as national icons.

Except most of that isn’t really failure, not in the immanent, personal sense. Many people (me included) find games where repeated failure is the aim to be off putting. Most of us avoid conflict (if we’re lucky enough to live in stable societies where such a thing can be done). We avoid quitting jobs because of the risk, we worry about doing anything where we might not be great immediately.

Indeed, in many forms of fiction, failure is symptomatic of moral weakness or failure. Often bad guys are flawed in precisely this way – they have failed at something crucial and now are bad as a direct response to that failure.

Perhaps worse still – in real life, although we say we want authenticity, we want leaders who take risks…well we turn on them pretty quickly when they fail to deliver. Consider how so many people turned on Obama because he couldn’t deliver on what they expected from him. (Now you may say it was poor expectation management, but really? Are people so infantile that they believed the extraordinarily complex process of government could deliver whatever baggage they put onto Obama?)

Along with everything else I do, I play and crew a couple of LARPs. I do it because I i) love stories, ii) love hitting other nerds in the face and iii) get to meet a huge bunch of wonderful, kind and funny people in a field with booze and fancy dress.

We had a big battle at one of these over the summer where the players lost the battle in record time. Now, I’m not that interested in discussing here why that was. What I want to talk about is how we respond compared to how we say we respond.

Overall the response was positive – the system is one where if you get it wrong, well there’s some hand holding but not a lot. As far as I’m concerned, the players got it about as wrong as humanly possible.

The aftermath is where I thought it got interesting as it was, for me, like someone had put together a very specific social experiment all for me to observe. I saw all the classic forms of response to failure.

  • People denied it was a failure (the we meant to do it scenario)
  • People denied it was their fault (the it wasn’t my fault scenario, if I’d been in charge, it would have been different!)
  • People denied it was anyone’s fault (the it’s an accident scenario)
  • People blamed others (the It was your fault)
  • People blamed the system (The we were powerless! scenario)
  • People said it was fixed (The ‘we were always going to lose’ scenario alongside the ‘the others cheated’ scenario)

After the initial reactions bubbles took effect where small circles of people were able to claim that ‘lots of people’ agreed with them. Which is another classic case of self-reinforcing socialisation of ideas.

The leaders in that group did not publicly apologise for their role in the debacle, nor did there appear to be much reflection on how they got it wrong…except the next battle evidenced such clear learning that they came in and smashed it out of the park.

Now I wasn’t charged with responding to much of this – to be honest I do it in more challenging contexts (ie where actual money and lives are affected) in real life, so that’s fine by me, but watching the procession was no different to watching people process grief – which is fine, because that’s exactly what losing provokes in us. That dissonance between the world turning out one way and what we expect it to do when we consider that we’re in control.

I was considering how this intersects with real life and why it provoked such a storm of people responding in a classic instinctive sense and it occurred to me, in proper pop-science fashion, that we spend most of our real lives avoiding failure at all costs. I don’t mean that we spend most of our lives succeeding wildly so it’s not an issue. We’re a bit of a cross between Captain Kirk in Wrath of Kahn (who cheated the test designed to make him face failure) and Homer Simpson, who always (haplessly) chooses the easy way out.

We live in a safe culture, sure it has its grinding issues that we can discuss elsewhere, but  we’re bloody fortunate. However, extending Richard Sennett’s argument in The Corrosion of Character that proposes that work regulations are so tight that we no longer have to make moral choices on a day to day basis (which renders us weakly sensitive to them more generally), I wonder if the lack of living in circumstances where we can fail enough to learn how to innovate, respond to it and overcome such challenges does the same for us in terms of how we build the capacity to fail into our characters.

Think about when you failed last. I mean actually failed. Be it relationship, work, in being a good friend. Then think about the things you don’t do because you don’t want to look dumb, or foolish – like dancing, or speaking up in public, or in making yourself vulnerable. I think we actively choose not to fail in that we actively choose not to engage in activities where we think failure is an option.

No, I don’t like failing. I suspect you don’t either. But some failure is good for the soul because it stops us reacting to its inevitable arrival in other contexts like four year olds who think the world is targeting them personally and how dare it.

One of the things I love about the USA is its view of failure is very different. Even legally. Bankruptcy is just another process there – without moral implications of personal failure. It’s one reason why they’re better at taking innovation through from idea to actual business. Sure, it has its downsides as an attitude as well, but I wish we Brits were a bit braver in general.

For my fiction this means that I tend to want characters who are dislikable but go through some change, some failure that forces them to rethink who and what they are. It’s not always successful as many readers want characters who are more like them than not. I struggle with that; it’s not why I read fiction, personally. I want to meet alien ideas, people I detest but who are plausible and situations I’m not going to be in ever. Now, I don’t mind absurdist writing like most grimdark, or epic fantasy, where the characters operate in the far end of what, in our society, we’d designate as seriously mentally ill and in need to some immediate aid. But I prefer properly alien, properly other to the faux other of most fantasy and contemporary fiction.

I hope to write that too.

Not So – How the Ants got their Queen

I’m delighted to say that I’m part of the Not So anthology of stories edited by David Thomas Moore and published by Abaddon. It is slated for release on the 18th April 2018.

The collection is, to quote an ‘Anthology of culturally diverse writers create short works in reaction to Kipling’s Just So Stories

Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories was one of the first true children’s books in the English language, a timeless classic that continues to delight readers to this day. Beautiful, evocative and playful, the stories of How the Whale Got His Throat or the First Letter Written paint a magical, primal world.

It’s also deeply rooted in British colonialism. Kipling saw the Empire as a benign, civilising force, and his writing can be troubling to modern readers. Not So Stories attempts to redress the balance, bringing together new and established writers of colour from around the world to take the Just So Stories back, giving voices to cultures that were long deprived them.

My story is called How the Ants got their Queen and tracks through the rise of colonialism, its fall and what replaced it in all too many situations. I hope it’s a little gruesome, fun and snarky all in one.

Keep an eye out!

Nineworlds – observations from my first con

I went to #Nineworlds this weekend just gone in Hammersmith (which is in London, UK for those of you who may be unfamiliar). It’s a fan led conference that’s deeply concerned with the stories we tell ourselves and how those help (or hinder) us when we try to construct our identities (whatever those might be). This could be dry, pretentious, domineering or just plain pedantic but #Nineworlds manages to engage with all of the things it cares about successfully – being witty, passionate, respectful and intelligent.

It was also very welcoming, compassionate and wonderfully cool.

I was lucky enough to be speaking on two panels; the first on how we might deal with historic texts which present us now with themes and subject matter that are difficult to reconcile with what we think of as acceptable – be that explicit/implicit racism, sexism or views on what gender identities are acceptable (or even normative). It was a really fun/deep panel and my co-panellists were interesting, from very different backgrounds to me and together I hope we managed to discuss some interesting angles on this subject – I’ve got a post on this theme coming soon and I’ll use that to re-present some of my thinking on this.

What was most wonderful about that panel though was that during the questions, one of the audience members was brave enough to challenge us on something we had been blind to – the trope of the disabled person being morally deficient and how villains were often disabled in some manner as if they deserved it and specifically because the physical circumstance tagged them as evil. That contribution meant the world to me because I was worried about the discussion being didactic and that someone could contribute as they did meant we succeeded in not speaking at the room but in talking among a community.

The other panel was on AI, Robots and the future of work – and was really an excuse to talk about all those subjects we read about weekly where another advance creates something for us to scratch our heads over – be it machine learning running data centres more efficiently, Amazon warehouses being in the dark because the robots don’t need lights or medical diagnoses being done through automated pattern spotting. And yes, we did also talk about socialist utopias, work, the price of labour and the impact of class, race and location on how we live that experience.

My favourite moments being twofold – a story that made people gasp with shock and seeing David Thomas Moore turn into Citizen Smith.

Aside from that I bundled along to a number of panels – my favourite ones being Dr Magnethands, which is a game I shall be inflicting on friends at parties and one on writing from different points of view. That latter one was the writer in me wanting to learn, wanting to see if how I approach my work makes sense and how I could be smarter about it.

Anyway, I’m now knackered, but home. So adieu to #Nineworlds and thanks again.

Oh, and particular thanks to people who shared drinks and panels with me like David Thomas Moore, Jon Oliver, Joseph Adetifa, Sasha Garwood Lloyd, Dolly Garland, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Peter Smallridge, D Franklin, Ed Boff, Sarah Groenwegen, Matthew Blakstad, Peter Ray Allison and Jeannette Ng to mention just a few. (And obvious apologies if I’ve missed you off this list – the fault is mine, not yours!)

Half Way

I’m half way through the Qilin’s Gambit. It’s come at a real pace (for me at any rate) and despite planning to story in more detail than anything I’ve ever plotted out before I’ve been surprised by two things.

The first is the politics in the story. The world is (obviously) the same as for Dreams of Darkness, it is book 2 after all. However, it features an entirely new set of characters set in a parts of our world and the Dream not seen before. Most notably the city of Kunlun (in different forms) out of Japanese and Chinese legend.

The structure of the world is such that the cultures within it are supposed to be ancient, living breathing societies and one of the main protagonists is a refugee who was once a very important person in the land he had to flee.

As a result I’ve found that my characters are very concerned with the threads and ties to their societies, their roles, their positions and the implications of their actions. It’s been a wonderful surprise to have to explore this and I hope it will be as interesting for readers as it’s been for me to write about power like this.

I guess this reprises discussions about power from the other trilogy, The Oligarchy. I know some people simply want action but for me the impact of any violence in what I’m writing takes its foundation from the groundedness of the world in which it happens.

The other surprise for me is how my female protagonists (book 1 had two male and one female. Book 2 focusses on two female and one male) are growing. I’m super conscious of trying to treat them as people with their own agency with their own battles and pasts but they’ve also surprised me in demanding that their responses are their own. To be honest it’s been a real lesson in dwelling on what they’re facing before simply letting my fingers get on and write them.

Anyway, I’m only half way, so I better get back to it…

Wonder Woman

I’m going to start with a couple of short points – in case you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing. This is effectively spoiler free, so you can read it without ruining your lunch.

  1. This is the super hero movie all the others want to be
  2. If you have boys – take them to see this movie because it’s damned important they see it
  3. If you have girls – take them to see this movie because it’s damned important they see it
  4. If you are alive, go see this film because it’s important and we could only wish that more like it get greenlit by a moribund and imaginatively bankrupt English speaking movie system.

More substantially? Wonder woman had me sold long before the point where I couldn’t dislike this film no matter what happened. The origin story was so creatively presented, so quickly delivered and then so smoothly led into the establishment of a character driven by goodness (like Superman but warmer, with real heart).

But the defining moment where I knew I’d love this film? The point where they’re at London Bridge railway station (I presume) and we see soldiers on the platform. Soldiers wearing turbans, brown soldiers, white soldiers, black soldiers. ALL the soldiers of empire. It respects the armed forces, it respects the empire as it was then and it respects me, as a brown man, because it showed something that was true then and is true now – there are non-white people in London, in the UK and we’ve always been here, fighting for this country. It is a more honest representation of this country than a dozen other war films I could mention. Ironically, when you look at the separation of colours it’s a peculiarly modern (i.e. victorian) thing. Ahem. Moving on.

Representation is in the marrow of this film. Not anachronistically. Those soldiers belonged there. What you don’t see out and about in London are other women. Diana Prince is all alone out there – and her demands for equality are from the bewildered who doesn’t even begin to understand why a man would utter the words ‘who let that woman in here?’

I was excited beforehand for my wife and daughter – because with literally dozens of hero movies, there’s NONE in the modern era where a woman in the hero. We could talk about the disastrous cat woman or elektra but really? Those were movies for teenage boys – they were the ones with agency not the heroines who were lingered over and sexualised as their main selling point. Now Gal Gadot is very easy on the eyes but the ogling? It’s over Chris Pine. Her beauty? A distraction according to those around her. They’re interested in what she can do, in what she has to say. It’s as remarkable as it is uplifting.

Additionally, this film doesn’t offer easy answers around good and evil. Not by a long shot. There is evil, but it’s in actions, not in peoples’ souls per se. No one is beyond redemption. This dilemma is central to the film’s story and it’s handled well.

In that sense the lack of overt discussion about feminism is to miss the point – this film is so focussed on Diana’s agency that it doesn’t need to tell you that. It get show don’t tell so right it hurts me with joy.

Now to the sad bit. We saw this tonight – Friday evening, prime showing and the cinema was only two thirds full. This is a tent pole movie and it’s bloody good as well but the cinema’s capacity didn’t reflect that. I’ve seen people (ok, men) say this isn’t a film for them. I’ve had men and women surprised that I’m interested in seeing it. Not being someone to let the opinions of others go unquestioned I’ve probed on their reasons every time and most are capable of saying it’s because they’re not excited about it because the hero is a woman when pressed with questions designed to get them to utter what they really feel.

This makes me sad Stewart.

Boys of ALL ages should see this film so we can learn about respecting the agency of women. It’s not a ‘woman’s’ film. It’s a film with a woman in it who is capable, intelligent and a real person. Boys should be shown this image of women all the time, but they’re not and the truth is, when a movie like this comes and she’s there centre screen, they have what I’d call a ‘Hilary’ moment…they find reasons other than the real one not to give it a chance. I told my son tonight that he should fall in love with that kind of woman – intelligent, knows her own mind, who cares about justice and doing right.

He said, ‘you mean someone like mummy?’ My work there is done (until he hits puberty at least).

Girls should see this because, like Rey, in the Force Awakens, she’s all those things I’ve described above. Even better than in the TFA, where her independence is pointed up for laughs, here it’s simply a given. More than that, it’s inspiring, it brings out the best in others, washes away their cynicism (and if there’s one thing we all need it’s an antidote to our world weary cynicism).

I want MORE movies like this. I worry that with a half empty cinema on it’s biggest night that I’m going to be disappointed. I worry because I fear for why people aren’t going to see it. I worry that they don’t even understand the depth of their own prejudice.

Go see this film and, hey, if you agree with me – share this post as widely as you can. Maybe we can convince a few others to give it a chance too.

Right, I’m off to book my second viewing.

Do we improve?

I’m not a fan of self improvement. I’m pretty much the cantankerous bugger who emerged out of being a clueless but unaccountably angry teenager twenty years ago. I suspect friends who know me well probably stop telling me what new diet they’re on, what new method of giving up this or that habit they dislike because they know I’ll sneer and ask them to show me the peer reviewed papers that suggest the method will work to change who they are.

It’s not that I’m some sort of essentialist about human character, it’s just that I’ve reflected on my own utterly inability to overcome (for any real length of time) my own predilections and gut responses that I simply don’t buy that a book or course can manage it – especially when the best studies show that such ideas are nonsense dressed up in respectability to fleece those who should know better via their anxieties. As Maria Konnikova would say – we’re all of us capable of being conned.

However, there are some things we can get better at. Skills being one of them.

My first book, A Family War, came out last May and did ok for itself. People bought it and, if the reviews are genuine, they seemed to enjoy it. However, at the risk of putting anyone off buying it I wasn’t completely happy.

I wrote the first draft of that book in 2005. It lived many lives, losing characters and chapters, before I believed that someone might take it seriously enough to publish it. After a long journey involved a couple of agents and a couple of publishers it got there via Matt at Alternative Realities.

However, I felt it dragged a little in the middle. I felt it wasn’t as tight as it could be. Looking back now I wistfully wish I could have led with the writing I’m delivering now because I think it’s so much better.

That hasn’t happened by accident. It’s also not largely happened just by magic, or me writing more. It’s happened by me listening to people, seeking out other, better writers to give me honest feedback. Asking readers to say what they liked but also what they found a bore, or off putting.

Writers like Adrian Faulkner, Sarah Cawkwell, Jo Zebedee, Adam Nevill and James Brogden. All of them have helped me immensely at various points – if you don’t read their books, then you should. Except for Adrian. You’ll have to wait for his proper debut – it’s going to blow your socks off.

Of the readers? I’ll spare their blushes.

I’ve also learned the rudiments of editing – which has taught me some of my own blind spots in the process.

I have always believed in the stories I’ve written but where I hope, and trust, that I’ve improved is in the character work and the tightness of the writing. Hey, I’m still at the point where entire openings or characters have to be lost or changed to work, but these days I can see them a bit clearer.

The other big change was that in my first novel I didn’t plan. I had an end I wanted my character to get to. I had a world that had been built from my own experience in tech and science. But I had not chapter plans, not character arcs already determined in my head.

I was lucky – it largely worked. But these days I plan. I look at my characters and feel what motivates them, where they’re going and what they’re going to experience along the way. I’ve found it far from being constraining (my original worry was that knowing the future course of the story would mean its actual writing was boring). Instead I’ve found it allows me to deliver something tighter, something much better connected to its own sense of purpose.

Now, you might come across Dreams of Darkness later this year (and an awesome cover reveal is going to come soon) and think this post was just me stroking my own ego. Even if you do, I think I’m more comfortable about my writing now than when I first wrote A Family War.

Part of me is saying – if you didn’t finish A Family War, don’t go away! Try Dreams of Darkness.

Part of me is saying – if you did like it? Well wait till you get a load of what’s coming!

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Damyanti Biswas is an author, blogger, animal-lover, spiritualist. Her work is represented by Ed Wilson from the Johnson & Alcock agency. When not pottering about with her plants or her aquariums, you can find her nose deep in a book, or baking up a storm.

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