Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Writ of Years

“The burst of elated inspiration stretched on improbably, unbearably, as I wrote and wrote and wrote. The passion of it was a wave of the kind that drags swimmers out to sea to drown, helpless and alone.”

I came across this beautiful story by Brit Mandelo on this morning. ‘The Writ of Years’ is a dark fairy tale about the madness of art, about the foul temptations of plagiarism, about the curse of addiction. For me, it also has a distinctly end-of-year feel, so it seemed appropriate to share my pleasure in it here today.

If I had to name the essence of 2013, I’d say it’s been a year of transition, writing-wise. I spent much of December doing final edits, firstly on a new story that should be appearing sometime next year (more details as soon as I have them) and then on The Race. It was surprising and a little unnerving to me, just how much I found that needed doing, an ample demonstration if any were needed of the truth encapsulated in that da Vinci quote about art never being finished, only abandoned.

Well, I can report that I’ve abandoned The Race, hopefully for the final time. Looking at it now, more than a year after completing what I thought was the final draft, what I see is a book by a writer trying to work out what kind of book she wants to write next, where she wants to go with her writing generally. The stories in Stardust read like the end of a particular trajectory. The Race is the beginning of a new one. Allied, of course, but still new. My writing at the moment feels like a sounding-out of that territory, which is probably why progress over the past few months has seemed slow to me.

Today though I wrote a good big chunk of the new thing, and suddenly it begins to feel as if I might actually have an idea of where the book is going now.

Working title: The Colours of Evening. This may change, but it’s the title of the never-completed story this new one grew out of, so for the moment at least it feels right.

Happy New Year, everyone. Here’s to it.

Well, that was weird

I came here to post something about last night’s Doctor Who, only to find that my previous post had disappeared. Entirely. It wasn’t in the trash, it was nowhere. It was as if it had been sucked through that crack in the known universe people keep spreading rumours about.

I don’t know what I can read into this, other than that it might be some kind of retribution for the fact that I didn’t much care for The Time of the Doctor. For having the sneaking feeling, in fact, that it was a lazy piece of fan-service, something that was cobbled together in a hurry while everyone was still high on the success of the 50th anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor.

Yes, Doctor Who is a show that has come to be defined by its mythos and its season-long story arcs, and as a fan of intricate narratives I don’t have a problem with that, at all. But when an individual episode has no intrinsic worth as story, indeed when it makes no sense as story when taken in isolation, then what we have is lazy, lazy writing, and that’s what we were dished up with yesterday. The only ‘present tense’ narrative strand in The Time of the Doctor had to do with time travel as a novel method for getting your turkey roasted and I know it’s Christmas, but for goodness’ sake, surely there are better story ideas out there?

A sorry end to Matt Smith’s term as the Doctor, in my opinion, and further proof if any were needed that the programme is badly in need of some new blood in the showrunning department.

Still, all was not lost. Mark Gatiss’s documentary on M. R. James was a delight, as was his adaptation of ‘The Tractate Middoth’ immediately before it. A simple story, but effective, and beautifully retold. Perhaps Moffat needs to reacquaint himself with the masters…

I’ve now reinstated my post on what I read in 2013 – let’s hope it stays in place this time. I’ll be watching with interest to see if anything odd happens with this one.

In the meantime, I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas. Heartfelt thanks and good wishes to all those who stop by this blog every once in a while, and looking forward to more musings, rants and meanderings in the coming twelve months.

What I read in 2013

I read 42 novels this year – not so bad, given that I now get through books at roughly half the speed I did when I was a student, and that two of those novels (Richard House’s The Kills and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries) were each around the 1,000pp mark. I still find myself vaguely dissatisfied though, not at the quantity but the quality. Looking down that list, I can’t help feeling – as I do most years, actually – that the books I picked out to read were mainly the wrong stuff. There’s no cohesion to my choices, no structure, no theme. It’s more of a random scattering, with a few stunning hits (the Catton and the House, both masterpieces, Nicholas Royle’s beautifully conciseFirst Novel, Helen Marshall’s deliciously accomplished debut collection Hair Side, Flesh Side, Caitlin R. Kiernan’s sublime The Drowning Girl, also a masterpiece) but with a far larger number of so-whats and not-quite-theres.

One of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life was the six months I spent immersed in the work of Vladimir Nabokov in preparation for writing my postgraduate thesis. I started by reading his complete fiction – twice – and, once I’d done that, I went on to assimilate the majority of the critical commentary that was then (1989) available on it. I found this period of intensive concentration on one writer profoundly fulfilling,  not just because Nabokov is arguably the most achieved writer – certainly the most achieved stylist – of the 20th century, but equally because I gained a sense that I knew this writer’s work, properly and completely, in a way that allowed me a genuine insight into the story arc, if you like, of Nabokov’s career.

I was reminded of just how great this feels when I had a Roberto Bolano binge a couple of years ago, reading 2666The Savage DetectivesLast Evenings on EarthAmuletNazi Literature of the Americas and Distant Star all within a period of a few months. What you get when you undertake a project like that is a sense of being grounded and propelled at the same time, the feeling of constructing an edifice against which you might pit yourself.

That’s what I’ve been missing this year, and that’s what I know I need more of. I’m making an early New Year’s resolution to read in a more considered way next year, to fill in some gaps in my back catalogue, as it were (LanarkDhalgren), to read fewer writers, but in greater depth.

I know I’ll benefit from this, and that my writing will, too.

It’s been another weird year for SFF. There have been some highly promising debuts (Matt Hill’s The Folded Man, for example, really won my heart with its honesty and vigour, its flawlessly evoked sense of place) and new works from younger writers (James Smythe’s The Machine is a fine piece of work and solidly confirms Smythe’s status as a writer to watch) but aside from Chris Priest’s The Adjacent, where are the big beasts? As Adam Roberts notes in his insightful and fascinatingly interrogative review for Strange Horizons, Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam is just too frustratingly, well, insane in its future-world sections to be wholeheartedly recommendable. I suppose what I’m yearning for is for someone to write a beautiful whopping genius monster of a novel like The Luminaries, but with a driving speculative element at its core.

I’ll keep searching, and hoping. In the meantime, just to add that there are only four weeks left now for all you BSFA members out there to place your nominations for the BSFA Awards. The list of noms so far is here – but do remember that the appearance of a title on this list does not by any means guarantee that it is ‘safe’. The shortlist is decided on the number of nominations per item, so whether you see your favourite here or not, get nominating! You can nominate as many works per category as you like.

And while we’re on the subject, I would like to mention two ‘late tackles’ on my 2013 reading slate, both of which have raised my spirits and my optimism about SF considerably. The first is Kameron Hurley’s novel God’s War. This was originally published in the States two years ago, but its UK release by Del Rey earlier this year makes it eligible for BSFA nomination right now. I was aware of the great press this book received when it first came out, but I somehow never got round to reading it. I was therefore very pleased to receive a free copy in my goodie bag at WFC in October. I started reading it at the back end of last week and was impressed from the very first page. I adore the writing – that uniquely satisfying combination of sharp-edged and lyrical – and both the world and the characters Hurley creates have my intellect and my emotions fizzing with pleasure. What a wonderful book! This is exactly the kind of SF I want to be reading – humming with ideas yet character-led – and if the rest of God’s War is as good as what I’ve read so far I shall be devouring the rest of the series asap and drawing copious inspiration from it as I go. Nominate! Nominate now!

My second lucky discovery is in the short fiction category, China Mieville’s ‘The 9th Technique’, which he wrote as an ‘apology’ for not being able to MC World Fantasy as he’d been scheduled to do, and made available to the WFC membership in the form of a chapbook.

I read this story just an hour or two ago, and it is stunning. I’m fascinated to note a certain shift in Mieville’s use of language, away from the baroque word-building we are used to from him and towards a slightly more pared-down, harder-edged style, which I like enormously. There’s a rigour to this story, an edge of bleakness that suits the subject matter (weird – very weird – goings-on in the temporal and moral hinterland of the Iraq war) perfectly. It’s impossible not to start wondering if Mieville might perhaps be planning something of this kind at novel-length..? All I know is that if he were, I’d be standing in line to read it.

For now, I just hope that this story will soon be made available to a wider readership, because this is the kind of work that reminds us what great SF writing is all about – that drive, that assured technique, that punch-to-the-gut excitement – and it deserves to be read.

“When I like a story it’s because it does something.”

The most inspiring thing I’ve read this week is Lisa Allardice’s interview with Alice Munro for The Guardian. I remember the day Munro won the Nobel because I was just able to catch the live result before we went to collect John Clute from the station – he was here for lunch. As a Canadian, John was delighted by the news, and we spent some time discussing exactly what it is that makes Munro so special.

For me, it’s the deftness of her sentences (never showy but always rich, always perfectly finished) combined with the hyper-reality that characterises all of her stories. It would be wrong to call Munro a magical realist – her use of the fantastic is not so overt as that – but there is something about the world she creates, nonetheless, a particular way of seeing that seems tinged with a constant awareness of the un-usual.

She writes about ordinary people, people who are often trapped within lives that seem too small for them, yet they are made extraordinary by their gifts of perception.

It seems clear that in this respect at least all of Munro’s characters are versions of Munro herself. Reading about her life difficulties filled me with that odd mixture of anger and gladness that always overcomes me when I hear about writers – often women, but not always – who have faced a disproportionate struggle to be heard.

With hindsight, it seems inevitable that a talent such as Munro’s would be recognised. But for her, at the time, her isolation was a source of genuine despair.

Reading about her writing process – “…everything by hand just the way it comes to me and then I rearrange, and rewrite and rewrite. It might take me six months at least. It might even take me a year. I will be going over it and over it.” – is just massively helpful and inspiring. To know that the apparent spontaneity of these perfect stories, their intrinsic rightness, is something that even Munro has to pick away at – I find that greatly comforting.

I’m still working on the final edits for The Race. The edits Ian suggested are very light indeed, so it’s not his fault – but as usual I’m finding dozens and dozens of things I want to change, and so the process is taking longer than I thought it would. I’m seeing this less as a problem and more as a god-sent opportunity to get the manuscript exactly how I want it.

It’s fascinating, reading the book again after almost seven months of not looking at it at all. I hope it’s now better than it was when I sent it in. And the first responses have been so generous, which is hugely encouraging.

Meanwhile, work on the new book continues. Chris finally let me read the first section of his new one earlier in the week. I think it might be the most exciting thing he’s yet written.

Not helped by having two cats more or less permanently in residence on top of his printer.


E.J. Swift on The Race

I’m working on the final edits for The Race at the moment, and so it’s particularly exciting to be able to post a first reaction to the book from E. J. Swift, who read it in manuscript recently and delivered her generous and positive verdict at her blog:

“The directness of the writing cuts right to the emotional heart of the characters, but it is also the details, the sensory descriptions, which linger. Allan’s work always reveals a strong affinity with the natural world, and in this case the novel is a damning indictment of the environmental consequences of fracking on the Sussex countryside; an engagement with place at once lyrical and political. Evocative and compelling, this is an irresistible read.”

At this stage, with some months still to go before the novel is published, and with only a handful of people having read it, it’s really very gratifying and cheering to get this kind of reaction, and I’m looking forward to posting more snippets of news about The Race in the near future.