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Stewart Hotston

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

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fiction

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.

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.

Fiction and Lies

There comes a point when sane people should stop repeating the same mistakes again and again in the hope that this time it’ll be different. I’m watching a lot of people fall into the following trap:

X utters verifiable lie

Y shouts “That’s a lie, how could you be so dum to think we’d believe you!?”

X Ignores Y and utters verifiable lie.

Y shouts “That’s another lie. My, you’re dumb. How could you believe that? Why would you believe we’d do it. Here’s a reference that proves I’m right.”

X ignores Y and utters a verifiable lie.


If the above seems familiar to you it could be because you’re watching political and media discourse here in Europe or in the US right now.

If, like me, you’re tempted to be Y in the above dialogue, I have some advice. X is not interested in what you have to say because what you’re saying isn’t challenging them.

Lying like this in individuals is considered by most to be a symptom of mental ill health. We don’t consider people suffering from these symptoms to generally be appropriate figures for taking on responsibility (hey, the EU and the UK have entire sets of legislation designed to stop obviously dishonest people taking up roles in finance now).

They do this because there’s no other way to deal with them. You cannot reason or debate with the person whose trade is lies. You cannot shout them down and you can’t turn your back on them. It may seem that this leaves you with little that can be done.

In the ordinary scheme of things you can remove them from their position for not being fit. You can, where the law allows it and someone appropriately qualified signs off, impose a medical solution.

But you can’t give them the oxygen of debate or a sniff of public credibility. You can only call them out for lying – not debate the facts, not try to prove them liars, but simply call them for what they are. This may seem to stoop to their level but debate is fruitless in the public realm with this kind of counterparty because they aren’t telling lies because they’re mistaken or because they are wrong. They’re telling them because it’s in their interests for these lies to be what people believe. Facts are irrelevant in that moment.

Now, facts remain vital but not in the public debate. They remain vital in making decisions, in thinking about risks and in how to handle these liars in private, in places where influence can be brought to bear where ‘face’ won’t be lost.

But ultimately, you simply can’t allow liars to continue lying. And you don’t win that battle with debate. You win it with power.

That’s all very well but what when organisations become ‘mentall unwell?” What about when an organisation suffers from a psychosis which means its real ends are served by inveterate lying? The lying is not the point. It’s the ends towards which the lying is advancing the organisations goals. We must be careful of worrying about the lies and not the reasons for them.

If I think of the lies around Brexit, or Trump’s barefaced making up of a massacre this week, it’s not the lie that’s important. It’s the goal behind the lie.

How do you combat this? I can only offer some suggestions because the real test is in the application.

The first list is what we can ALL do.

  1. It’s not in protest on the streets – not yet at any rate because that should be our last resort when all other mechanisms have been denied us. As as Milan Khundera made abundantly clear – this kind of protest is, ultimately, inauthentic. It’s the equivalent of giving a beggar a few coins when really we need to challenge the entire system that brought them onto the streets in the first place.
  2. It’s in engaging with the liar’s support mechanisms. In this case with their supporters, personally and financially.
  3. It’s in encouraging those ON THE FENCE to take a stand. Because in the end when less than 70% of any electorate takes a stand then there a HUGE amount to play for.
  4. It’s in making sure that the companies we work for take a stand, that they understand that their employees have a morality that they expect them to take a stand on. Consider Uber CEO’s resignation this week from Trump’s board of advisors. It’s a pyrrhic victory, because he could have been persuaded to swing his authority around in Trump’s face rather than walking away (a pointed but ultimately short lived point of influence).
  5. It’s in convincing people to change their sources of information, in stopping them buying the news sources that tell the lies.
  6. It’s in convincing people to put their money where their mouths are and to stop buying or start buying – whatever.
  7. It’s in making sure that, every chance we get, we work to re-humanise those the lies are making into monsters. Don’t allow a single chance to go by.
  8. help the liars friends see that you’re prepared to pay a price to challenge them. Most liars get by on the basis that people only talk about them behind their backs and not to their faces. They rely on not getting challenged, on people preferring to hope that it won’t impact them until it’s all too late and they’re isolated and powerless. At which point? Well, good luck.

With the lies themselves?

  1. Call them out. Don’t let them stand. Don’t wait.
  2. Have facts but don’t think they’re going to help you in public, on the internet or anywhere where personal relationship won’t pull you through.

With the people?

  1. Be compassionate, forgiving and never step back from confrontation. It’s only with grace that we can win this sort of fight without giving up what we held as valuable in the first place. If it’s a shouting match or we fight like them (like some idiot said this week about fighting fire with fire…to which I suspect a few firefighters shook their heads) then we’ve lost already because part of their game is to make us like them because that will justify their own narrative better than any lie they could tell.
  2. Do Not close down your social circles to include ONLY those people you already agree with. They might exclude you but you shouldn’t exclude them. The world’s already divided enough and if you really consider freedom of conscience important then having people you disagree with in your life (and who aren’t family) is important. Without these links across otherwise unconnected networks things can get really bad.
  3. Don’t attack PEOPLE. Demolish arguments, call out lying for what it is the moment it starts but don’t make ad hominem attacks because then you’ve lost.
  4. Understand that people aren’t going to like you. That the point of the argument isn’t to be liked because you’re right, progressive, full of hope or just plain nice. It’s to make sure that the things you value continue to have a say in the decisions we make as a society.
  5. Finally, and this is the most important point, understand that the root of what has a lot of people shifting one way rather than another is because they have legitimate concerns. These concerns are rarely articulated for what they are. Instead of ‘how am I going to pay for cancer treatment, or help my kids, or feed myself or grow old without being in poverty,’. Rather they’re articulated as ‘why are they going to get cancer treatment? How did they help their kids when I couldn’t help mine? Why have these people prospered when I haven’t?’ The answers aren’t easy, but the questions are real, valid and call into question a lot of the easy assumptions we make about progressive, liberal capitalism. Be careful of the speck of dust in their eye when we have planks in our own.

That’s not to say we should worry about why ‘we’ lost the election rather than how to deal with an upsurge in racism. That would be to entirely miss the point. Rather I’d advocate thinking about how we can actually have a debate.

Ultimately, liars without power find it hard to step back from the brink. It may well mean power has to be applied more directly but I pray for all I’m worth it doesn’t come to that.

Interview with Fiona Mcvie

I had the pleasure of being interviewed recently over at AuthorsInterviews by the lovely Fiona Mcvie. Go over and see the interview.

I’ve had the final proof read back on A People’s War – just need to agree the final changes and then it’s off to get printed and published…a little late but still in time for Christmas I hope!

S

A People’s War – Cover Reveal

It’s here. At least the cover is almost here. Lawrence Mann has done another bang up job.

This is the cover for the second book in the Oligarchy trilogy. It’s due sometime towards the end of November, but we’ll make sure there’s lots of advance warning. I am looking for a small handful of people who want advance copies in exchange for honest reviews, so please let me know if you’re interested.

The process for creating this cover was simpler than the first one – after developing a sense of the visual representation of the world, Lawrence was quickly able to capture what it was I was hoping for in this cover. It’s not a spoiler but it does represent a key scene from the book.

The story here moves on from that in the first, starting just a few days after the events of A Family War. It moves in a very different direction though as Helena heads off somewhere new for…(no spoilers, Stew!) Reasons ™.

I’ll have a proper blurb in the next week which I’ll post here too. In the meantime, enjoy the cover.

WIP

As promised earlier this week, please find attached a 1,500 word sample for a new novel that’s completely unconnected to the world of Helena Woolf and the Oligarchs.

The novel is provisionally titled ‘Dreams of Darkness’ and stands alone. It’s currently with Ian Whates at NewCon Press, although he’s yet to read it, so there’s no guarantee at all that he’ll a) like it and b) want to publish it. However, Ian has carved out an amazing business in publishing superb stories, so regardless of my involvement you should seek him out and read the people he publishes cos he has a great sense of out of the ordinary writers.

The story asks the question, ‘what if all our myths were true,’ and then says, but if that’s the case, how is it we have the world we have today where science appears to rule and magic, mystery and legends are footnotes in history books.

The sample takes place very near the beginning and features one of the three main characters, a Fae called Maela from one of the Seelie houses. She’s discovered something of critical importance to her people, whose import she doesn’t understand and is travelling home when this part of the tale takes place. Once you’ve read it you’ll understand why I chose the image 🙂

I’d love your feedback on this, especially whether the action is interesting and if you think it would be something you’d read more of.

Cheers – link below

Dreams of Darkness WIP

The next steps to world domination

I may be overstating the level of ambition here.

Except I feel like that’s what I’m learning alongside my publisher, Alternative Realities. We’re talking every day at the moment about marketing, presence and how to push beyond the audience that already exists and create something larger.

To that end I’ve been persuaded that I need to offer people the chance to subscribe to an email list. I’m going to use it sparingly but I can see the sense. So this is me saying, if you fancy hearing about what I’m up to in the writing space, and occasionally the sword fighting space, since it’s MY website, then sign up.

I will also use this to offer excerpts to people of current WIP for comment, feedback and general discussion, so if you fancy getting your name in my stories or getting the chance to shape plot or characters then you should also sign up for that reason too.

Also, in case you hadn’t heard my debut novel came out a couple of weeks ago now. I’ve put up a free sample on Goodreads – so feel free to head on over there and pick it up if you haven’t already given it a go. There’s a tiny little spot on the left hand side under the cover that says ‘read book’ that has it for you.

ta for now

Stew

A Family War – My Cover’s Here!

The cover’s arrived, the cover’s arrived!

So AR are just publishing a short blog on the cover for A Family War, but I thought I’d show it here too. A big shout out again for Lawrence Mann, who did the cover.

I’m really happy with this – it captures the sense of difference between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. The story is a thriller but it’s based in a world where the 1% really have taken it all.

Politics aside, Lawrence has managed to bring in the feel of the City that plays such a central role in the story, a place where everything man has built is on display. Yet it’s not all sweetness and light – the greatest crimes sometimes occur right out in the open.

AR are going to send the opening chapter out to people who’ve signed up to their newsletter, so get on over there and sign up!

Cheers all

S

 

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