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Stewart Hotston

Hope, Anger and Writing

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Writing

On censorship

There’s a typical media bubble furore right now over the ‘censorship’ of Roald Dahl and other older writers who remain, although bafflingly to me, beloved of quite a few people who consider themselves morally right on. Therein comes the exercises where people try to contort themselves into defending something they know is problematic but where admitting that would put them in the position of, outrageously, having to take a look at what they love and questioning the harm it may have done.

So far so normal for my life as a minority among an ever blind to self majority.

Why then am I writing this? Because it’s both too easy to say such nonsense as ‘I read it and didn’t become a racist’ and to simply tell people who like Dahl and Fleming and any host of other writers whose attitudes have aged terribly (and this in itself is a problematic phrase we’ll come back to momentarily) that they’re the problem.

As it’s so often up for debate let me state here that trans people are people. Fully so. Indeed, allyship is fundamentally intersectional and if you come for them then you’ll better come for me too (hey, I know I’m also on the fascists’ list, but it’s worth reminding bullies they can’t pick you off one by one).

What do i think about this?

Firstly it’s not censorship. There is no government censor demanding the offending copies be destroyed and replaced with new bowdlerised versions. So please stop calling it that.

What this is, is revision, amendment, adaptation. I think whether you believe this to be wrong rests on two intersecting sets of attitudes the First is simply – are you prejudiced. If you are then you’re going to struggle accepting there’s anything wrong with Flemings’ happy projection of sexism, racism and ableism in his Bond books. You’re going to struggle to see how buying books from the estate of Dahl doesn’t implicitly condone his virulent anti-semitism. This doesn’t make you a racist or anti-semite or misogynist.

But it makes you a fucking terrible ally. If you are still in the camp that thinks that because it’s not affected you then it must be fine then you are not my ally. Because it’s sure as fuck affected me. The writing of Dahl (mean spirited as it is about people who don’t meet his particular moral norms), the terrible attitude towards anyone not a white british upper class male of Fleming, the out and out racism of Lovecraft. These harm people like me. They harm us twofold. First you keep giving your money to publishers who see you supporting these awful attitudes and so keep publishing them. The second round effects of these do untold harm.

Secondly they harm us because they continue to entrench, in a thousand tiny ways you are fucking blind to, attitudes and behaviours that essentially say white men are ok and everyone else is (slightly to grossly) inferior.

But that’s enough on why these books are problematic.

The question right now is what to do about it.

This brings me to the second set of motivations about amending and adapting literature. Whether you think it exists as a perfect artefact or whether you think culture is a living breathing thing. I’m in the latter camp but if you sit in the former, even if you don’t realise it, then you may well regard adapting ANY work of art as problematic, more so than the messages it contains.

I wonder if you’d rather nazi works of art or the art of the KKK or mussolini and Pinochet’s regime works should be put on display prominently rather than being quietly forgotten? Probably not (unless you’re some kind of edge lord who thinks reductio ad absurdum is a god tier debating technique rather than the province of 10 year olds caught pissing in the sink).

I understand the reasoning. if the work of art is a thing itself, a direct platonic objet d’art then interfering with it is sacrilege. Religious in its level of desecration (apologies of you’re an atheist who feels like this but perhaps you’d be better off taking a long look at how you value objects and what that says about the axioms of your ideological value system). I mean you’re on the wrong side of history, fighting Canute like against the encroaching sea which can easily wipe away your sand castles but at least your position is comprehensible.

For me, someone who continues to face racist abuse and who witnesses and experiences a thousand smaller expressions of unthinking prejudice any attempt to change the framework within which the discussion takes place is a positive one. My kids read and listened to a select few of Dahl’s stories. They hate James Bond and they (and their friends) are all too aware of Lovecraft and mock the racist old bastard whenever he comes up. This is fine by me.

Do I think these authors and others like them should be banned or actually censored (and gosh, because we’re talking about changing windows of acceptability among the MAJORITY here, that’s a lot of authors and artists)?

No. I do not.

I think we should be honest about the fact that in giving people like me a voice, in your recognising me as a proper human being who is worth every bit as much as you that we must alter what we think is acceptable to say, express, paint, sing and write about. I think we must look at our histories in which your parents were abusers of mine in a thousand ways even when they were kind because of the nature of the imperial and classist society they lived in and consider the legacies of that upon ourselves today.

I think that if we can change the landscape for the better even if only for a few that is worth doing because we are doing something right now that will echo through the years to come. But we do not forget the past. We do not exploit the past for gain. We do not pretend it didn’t happen but we do not hold it over one another either. If we truly want equity and equality then we must, especially the representatives of the majority, accept that our tastes should be open to change in order to lift others around us up.

Far too often in these debates those who have never been harmed because they’re in the majority scoff at those who have been harmed and, worse still, mock those allies who are trying to make our culture somewhere safer for those who are harmed by old attitudes and the power structures they still represent.

This is no way to treat those trying to do good. This is no way to make me feel safe around you. When I hear your comments I mark you as someone who is at best cloth eared and tone deaf but who is, at worst, willfully ignorant and therefore not someone who I can trust in any way at all.

If that causes you to think about what you say then I want you to know this is no condemnation – I hope you see this as me being vulnerable (and spikey as a result natch) about how your attitudes impinge upon my life and my experience of the spaces we share together.

So no to censorship. This isn’t censorship. It’s people in some small places trying to make things more inclusive and contemporary (just like those books were when they were published). They’re trying to update the hymns and when you object on the spurious reasons I’m seeing all over the place, you are the crusties sitting at the back of church demanding hymns are sung exactly as they were written three hundred years ago. Regardless of the fact they were contemporary back then, regardless of the fact they were often mixed up, rejigged and adapted to their situation then. You see the ossification of the object and assume that’s the pure form rather than realising that like any fossil, the stone version of the bones has seen not just the life stripped away but the meat, sinew and blood too. The fossil is nothing more than a fractured memory as far from the real thing as a painting of someone in love is from love itself.

The question I’d ask is – are you an ally? if you are then perhaps a little more nuance and a lot more empathy about the people whose lives are actually involved might go a long way to helping you understand why these small acts – so irritatingly silly to you – are actually wonderful signs of rebellion against prejudice and hatred.

Words matter or people wouldn’t be arguing over them.

Making the most of surviving

With Tangle’s Game on sale right now (go here or wherever you get your books from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tangles-Game-Stewart-Hotston-ebook/dp/B07PFDTKT1)I thought I’d talk about one of the events which happens to the main character and where it comes from. The reason? Well, setting aside the racist bile I’ve had for writing about people who aren’t White or from the misogynistic tech bros who hate the fact a woman’s involved in a thriller about Blockchains, it’s about why someone who’s under threat one moment might then turn around and work with those self same people the next.

The inspiration for this scene comes from my own life and that of a couple of friends of mine and was instrumental in exploring the kind of person the main character is.

When I was in my late teens I found myself doing youth work in East Germany. The country was only four years after the fall of the Berlin wall and was still recovering from decades of declining infrastructure and struggling to integrate with its much wealthier western counterpart. The town I was in still had bullet holes in the walls of its buildings from WWII.

One evening I was inside the youth centre and a young lad came in and said ‘there are some people outside who want to talk to you.’ The look on their face was one of nervous fear and when I asked why they looked nervous it turned out that a bunch of skin heads with problematic t-shirts and tattoos were outside demanding to speak to me. These young men had a reputation and I was the only brown face (literally) for dozens of miles around.

So, guts in my throat, I went to speak with them. I have never been more scared in my life. We talked for a while and eventually I asked why they wanted to talk to me and they were pretty candid about my colour and that I was British. We talked some more and I asked if they were racist (yes, the stupidity of youth). We talked around their answer (which was yes, but) and I talked to them about why and the conversation went somewhere very interesting.

They said they were ashamed of being German. That they felt their country had failed and instead they admired Britain. They’d got it all wrong, if you see what I mean, because the things they’d clung to in their search for meaning were all the wrong elements of what it means to be British (at least for me). We talked some more and by the end of it they were pretty much chaperoning me around the site. I was no longer terrified but I had no idea where those young men were going to end up in future. Yet I’d gone from terror and understanding they were admitting being racists to them seeing me as someone they were proud to know.

Another example is of a situation where I intervened in a fight where a single man was getting beaten up by a group of three. I didn’t throw any punches but asked what they were doing and why. They threatened to beat the crap out of me but I refused to back down and basically told them that, yes they could, but then what? I refused to allow them to be in charge of the situation. Did I trust them? No. Did I expect to get beaten up? About 50/50. But I wasn’t going to let them continue and I knew I could be in charge. We talked and talked until one of them, looking completely defeated just turned to me and said ‘you’re a really good talker, aren’t you.’ They left the man alone and after that, when they saw me around town we would talk and they would be really friendly. Once again, I’d been terrified but on a dime it had flipped to being something I could control.

In Tangle’s Game, my protagonist Amanda, is faced early on by an antagonist who wants something from her – it’s not personal, it’s transactional and realising this, she turns the situation on its head by giving them exactly what they think they want. It brings them under her sway and gives her agency when moments before they’d been threatening to take it from her.

The criticism it’s received is that it seems unrealistic that anyone would do that. My counter is I’ve done it. I’ve had friends do it in a more similar way to what happens in the book where they’ve faced potentially catastrophic situations and have effectively taken charge and bought their way out, either literally with money or with influence and power. In facing situations like that I’ve found the only way to navigate them is to switch off my emotions and make the interaction entirely transactional (by switch off I mean have them come back later to bite me in the ass but, hey, better than a melt down on the spot). There’s a rhythm to transactional interactions which allows for deeply unexpected outcomes for everyone and, often, allows for compromise where emotional responses cannot deliver the same.

This is a long way of saying that, often, what appears as inconsistency in others is actually a cap in our own experience. Because we haven’t been through the same kinds of situation as them, haven’t experienced power exercised in that way and haven’t had to deal with those extenuating circumstances where it’s not simply about the thing in front of you but all the other plates you’re juggling at the same time.

Stories and Uncertainty

Humans are story telling creatures. We are adapted to look for patterns and this can play out in our stories about ourselves and how we see the world. There’s no evidence to suggest our propensity to see patterns in randomness is the grounding for our being creatures who search for meaning but what is meaning except a pattern which we can articulate and whose framework we can place ourselves within.

The last few weeks at work have seen many, many high level discussions about the future. Or THE FUTURE if you prefer. Which isn’t that different to normal. When we do deals, when we’re planning strategy across the UK, Europe, APAC and the US we spend a lot of time on these questions.

However, right now there is no narrative we can construct which makes sense. Everything is fraught with problems. Every strategy governments and (more relevant for me, companies) come up with can be picked apart.

We invest on the basis of stories which make sense when picked apart. There will be maths, rigour etc. But in the end they serve to tell a coherent narrative upon which we will make decisions.

Where our stories fail we experience crisis. At least in my experience. Where our stories won’t explain we flail. Sometimes we look for new stories but what I observe most often is fragmentation. We look for elements and fractions which confirm the interpretation of the world we want to be true. It is not a moral failing even if it is a failing of mindful discipline. We all struggle with this. Here’s my own case – when CV-19 first hit in Jan, I didn’t believe it would strike us as it has done. H1N1, the last global pandemic hit 100m infections and about 1m dead. It hadn’t seen anything like the kind of response we’re talking about now. We’re at 200,000 infections globally right now…compared to 100,000,000 for H1N1. So I just couldn’t see how the two had any kind of equivalence. And I said so quite loudly – partly, especially into Feb, there was a decent amount of hysteria already festering around the edges of the markets.

However, my story was wrong. I was wrong. I was wrong a second time – which is I couldn’t conceive of us shutting ourselves away for what is (people are saying) likely to be months not weeks. Certainly we have been given no end date.

Yet all of this hasn’t stopped people from all walks complaining bitterly and loudly that those trying to grapple with these decisions have got it wrong every step of the way. There may well be some element of that criticism that’s correct. Yet correct in what sense? Do we want to minimise deaths? Of course! Do we want to make sure we don’t cripple the economy? Of course! Do we want to ensure we come through this outbreak more resilient should it resurge? Of course! Can we do all three? Nobody knows. And no one has a mandate to say which combination of those three priorities is the preferred one and the one we’re going to aim for. There is no story here which is nuanced enough to allow for the deeply complex uncertainties to be expressed in a simple linear narrative. Hence we struggle to articulate both the issues and our fears. You could even argue that our inability to articulate the issues exacerbates our sense of anxiety. It’s certainly led to me reading more about the subject (even if much of that material turns out to be complete guff).

Then there are those who deliberately peddle nonsense like the fake cases of people taking ibuprofen on Cork who died from complications with CV-19. Or whatever version you came across. A set of falsehoods so egregious even the BBC was moved to write an article discussing the case.

Some smart arse will reply ‘but the chief medical officer said…’. Yes they said ‘don’t use it if it’s dangerous for you. Which is freaking common sense and, perhaps surprisingly, applied before CV-19. So don’t @ me with your counterfactuals.

(ed: he’s taken his pills, rant over)

What’s the point of this post? A couple of things drove me to write it.

First – we are in a time when stories about the way the world works are not going to serve us. Venal corporations vs. valiant individuals will not help. Corrupt government vs. the populace won’t help. Callous youth against vulnerable boomers won’t help. We have to do better.

We have to tell a different story – one where we don’t know the end, where we don’t know the rules of the story and are actual participants rather than the writers of it, rather than observers who’ve divined how it’s going to end and are on the ‘right side’.

I believe this can make us kinder – because to exist in this kind of story is to admit we don’t know and if we don’t know, the kind of empathy we’d like to have expressed towards us should also allow us to express empathy to others. Because we’re all in the same boat.

Second. We have to accept (if not embrace) the uncertainty inherent in our situation. We have to be wary of any stories right now which purport to tell us how the world is, how it’s working and how it’s going to turn out. I’m not proposing ignoring well researched evidence and science. What I’m saying is we have to simply gather than information and refuse to draw conclusions because the period of time in which the dataset’s being written is weeks and months, not the 24 hour news cycle. I recognise how stressful this is.

There’s an old maxim for people floating on the stock exchange – don’t look at the prices. Buffet said the same to investors – don’t second guess, don’t even check. Just invest and go away until such time as you need the money.

It applies here – constant reviewing of the information won’t yield insight. Especially when we’re dealing with radical uncertainty. Imagine one of those old war games on consoles/PCs such as Command & Conquer. Right now we’re effectively still in the home base and the fog of war covers the whole map – looking again and again at the map won’t help us because we can’t see the critical information needed to arrive at meaningful conclusions. We have no choice but to accept we are living with uncertainty. We still have to make decisions. Which is a right pain – but you know what? It’s highly unlikely we’ll make them any less badly than normal – because most of us are bad at making decisions anyway – factoring in the wrong considerations, biases and emotions as a matter of course.

All of this is a long way of saying – there are a lot of pressures out there right now which can be interpreted as telling us to act selfishly, to see others as ripe for ridicule and disdain and constant criticism. However, this is the perfect time to remind ourselves we live in stories of the everyday where none of us can be certain and hence all of us can be kind.

Post Cyberpunk Larp

Got your attention? I hope so.

I challenged a friend of mine a few months ago on whether they’d be interested in and whether they could think of a way of turning the world in which A Family War exists into a LARP.

The problem with any sci fi LARP is really getting into the details of scifi – you know, those computers, AI, futuristic weaponry, hacking and the like.

My mate Andy has come up with a neat solution for the physical aspects and I think I’ve worked out how to do the electronic side so that players could experience both.

There are pinterest boards, ideas for plot and I’m going to start thinking about approaching the site and asking a small, select bunch of people if they’d be part of the team that could put this together…

However, the other important thing to note is that it’ll be kind of a post-cyberpunk theme. Beyond the cybernetics and implants that made cyberpunk such a thing. Gibson has been writing it for ages (ie, he moved on from cyberpunk a long time ago) and I realised in talking to Andy that The Oligarchy is also post cyberpunk.

Funny how these things emerge…

More news as it’s ready but for now this is very much at ideas stage. One thing though…if you were interested it would be great to know.

The game’ll be limited numbers and limited run – and it’ll be openly pvp (although pve will be the main focus), cos what’s drama without conflict?

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.

Slavery

If you follow this blog even a little you’ll have read posts from me about racism, inequality and other related themes over the years. However, it’s in reading the three books I want to talk about here that have really challenged me over the last year.

WARNING – I use racial terms some of you may find uncomfortable or offensive. This is not meant as anything except a review of how these books have effected me but consider this your trigger warning.

The first of the three is Lincoln’s biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s a book that is epic in its scope and puts a number of subjects into sharp focus for me. The first of these is the cause of the civil war in the US. It’s clear it was about slavery, it’s also clear from this startling work that modern debates about ‘heritage’ mean slavers’ heritage of being able to claim that it’s ok to enslave non-whites because they’re sons of Ham, and it’s ok to treat them as worse than cattle (for what farmer would beat their cattle to death with regular abandon?). From Goodwin’s meticulous description of the events of the time, it’s very clear that the heritage argument is one for white people being at the centre of all and for everyone else to be disenfranchised.

Furthermore, I have very few heroes but Lincoln is one of them. A flawed man capable of change, of growth and, most importantly, seeing how to get what he wanted – even if that took years to achieve. A man capable of welding together people from all walks of life, of winning them over and of creating coalitions capable of achieving more than anyone thought possible. My heart aches over the possibilities lost in the aftermath of his murder.

It also highlights just how dangerous it was to be someone who was abolitionist. It wasn’t an opinion one had, it was, for those who were committed, a way of life that involved fighting, violence (both political and actual) and real danger. I suppose this isn’t different to most political movements – they’re founded on the recognition of incipient violence for a cause. This last point is one our political systems today suppress with every tool at their disposal because the possibility that we would be that politically conscious threatens the system most of us live within (and prosper from). It may feel that these people were the same as us but their lives appear, when you think through what they really faced, a distance from me that makes it an effort just to put myself in their shoes and imagine how they feel. Their concerns were different to ours, their perils alien and their fights distinct.

Although grounded in tales of individuals, the book delivers a grand political overview.

The work of fiction, The Underground Railroad, delivers the personal account to go with the political of Lincoln. Set before Lincoln (and indeed, mashing up several periods of time to tell its story) the novel follows the life of Cora, a typical black slave living in the south of the United States. Owned. Referred to as it because property doesn’t have the dignity of being recognised as human or gendered.

It is a brutal book – in that it doesn’t flinch from detailing actual events and treatments of slaves as they happened. It’s easy to watch films and see slaves treated as indentured workers but this isn’t how it was for much of US slavery’s existence. With a sickening post-hoc rationalisation, white slave owning culture was comfortable with lynching people (both white and black) for helping slaves escape, it was comfortable with torture and that torture was carried out by children, women and men. Children informed on abolitionist parents. Runaways were lynched (if they were lucky) or tortured to death in public if they were unlucky.

In a sign that everyone knows that slavery is iniquitous, blacks are killed for learning to read and a black library becomes a focal point for white violence because it’s too many ideas for a negro. The culture was one of ‘natural order’ where White people were in charge and any ‘negro’ who thought beyond being a slave was uppity, dangerous, asking for it. Freedmen were killed by ‘recovery patrols’ with impunity because they’re only one step away from being chattel.

One argument was that to deal with the fact that there were more slaves than whites – sterilising them would solve the problem over time – especially it would help if they decided to rise up and treat the whites like they’d treated the blacks.

There is no freedom from slavery – even freedmen know this, their dreams replete with memories of beatings, of those who were killed or abused by those whose power over them was utter and unaccountable. Being oppressed twists the mind, breaks the heart in a way that may be impossible to recover from. It raises questions of whether, decades after the end of segregation, the US can safely conclude that the legacy of slavery and the suppression of the ‘other’ has passed or whether it continues to influence the culture, say in laws passed during Jim Crow, in basic cultural tropes and in the application of funding, judgements and a myriad other handles that impinge on civic life.

The character in the book is deeply suspicious of all whites. That may be unfair, but let’s be real – a slave has good cause to hold this view – even when a small minority give their own lives to help them. It questions whether there is a ‘black’ culture and challenges its own main character as to whether there is a ‘white’ culture. There’s reference to Europeans, Whites, Irish and the like. All of which the main character rejects even as the author makes sure to make the distinction. It’s a masterful presentation of the issues in and around a story that is deeply focussed on the personal disaster of being a slave from birth.

You may think Game of Thrones has a high body count (among it’s almost exclusively white cast) but this is worse because it’s not just murder, it’s the complete massacre of agency through repeated abuse followed, eventually, but the death of the body.

If the thought of slavery doesn’t make you sick you’ve either not understood it or there’s something wrong with you. It’s really that simple.

And so we come to the last of the three – The Sellout. This is a vicious, acid burning satire about living as a black person in the modern US. It’s about a black man who ends up owning a slave (who volunteers to become his slave) and the world they both live in that can find space for this relationship to arise and then how it responds to it.

It is harsh, whipcrack smart and extremely funny but it presents a society which I realised that although I’ve seen representations of elsewhere, is one I don’t know and one I don’t experience. It was more alien to me than both Lincoln and the life shown in The Underground Railroad. Which was a shock – that something contemporary was so much more alien than I expected.

Both novels are hard reads in their own way. I know plenty of people who will not read them because they present difficult subjects and all they want from their fiction is ‘escapism’. I lament the intellectual torpor of these peers of mine and I worry that their apathy is half of why the issues discussed in these books persisted for so long in the first place. Fiction like this should be essential reading because it can awaken the heart, it can shake us out of our comfortable self-indulgence. For people who claim to be ‘good’ or ‘moral’, fiction like this should demand their attention because it reminds us all that we’re really not very far away from such horrendous times. Moreso than any non-fiction, because fiction makes it personal and thrusts it into your face and asks you for your empathy.  Sorry – this is my ‘why fiction is so important’ rant.

I recommend all three books. They’ve each served to awaken my political sensibilities more than much of the news on the same subjects in the last year (although the two have worked together I’m sure). I’d start with The Underground Railroad because it’s the most personal, the most accessible.

In the end, slavery and its legacy is still very much alive for most of us both directly (for isntance, find a stone built house in Bath or Bristol not made possible by  the slave trade) or indirectly (US culture is so heavy with its legacy it’s impossible to list all the ways their language, tropes and stereotypes code slavery into the mainstream consciousness). This triplet of books opens a door into this discussion.

As a writer – these books have challenged me to present worlds and stories that take the lives of all those involved in these kinds of relationships more seriously. It’s a frightening task that I know I’m not up to.

 

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…

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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