Saturday, December 24, 2011

China Mieville and Preserving the Mystery

I have read an entire, 400-page book today: Embassytown by China Miéville. And it has made me think. So, I thought I would record some of my thoughts here, for me and maybe for you too. This novel is his 9th book - 8 previous novels and one short story collection - and it is quite astonishing. And I might even say brilliant. It is a novel about language, about truth and lies, about simile and metaphor, set on another planet about humans and aliens. It is unlike anything I have ever read before, anything. It itself is a metaphor.

What's so amazing is Miéville's language. Look at this, the opening paragraph of the book:
The children of the embassy all saw the boat land. Their teachers and shiftparents had had them painting it for days. One wall of the room had been given over to their ideas. It's been centuries since any voidcraft vented fire, as they imagined this one doing, but it's a tradition to represent them with such trails. When I was young, I painted ships in the same way. 
Anyone understand this? Anyone know exactly where we are, what's going on? How many words we've never seen before? Enough to signal we're in a new territory, literally and linguistically.

Perhaps this is familiar from science fiction novels, I don't know. I'm reading more and more work that is labelled "science fiction" but Miéville prefers to call his writing "new weird" and that sounds about right to me. Anyway, there are those readers who will no doubt be put off by this opening, or if not then by all the continuing novelty that swiftly follows. This is an introduction that is almost an anti-introduction. It almost says: "You will not understand me, but if you persevere it will be worth it". And it is.

Suffice it to say, Embassytown is an immensely complex novel which employs Miéville's new and highly inventive language and concepts to illustrate fundamentals about how we communicate, the need to be able to lie, and about love, friendship, community, safety, war and power. He doesn't provide definitions of his many, many new words, and that's what captivated me - I had to work hard, I couldn't skim anything, just to keep my footing, or at least one foot on the ground! And I loved that.

Now here's an interesting thing: I found the final 100 pages less compelling. Yes,  it was a happy-ish ending, yes it tied up lots of loose ends. But I think it was more than that, I believe it was because I finally understood all the new words, got to grips with the novel concepts, which species was which, who did what. The mystery? Gone.

This made me think, of course, about my own writing. And also about the stories i am reading as part of the sifting I am doing for a short story competition. How often do you read a story that keeps you working hard? How much more compelling is it if the story doesn't give itself away too soon? However, the majority of the stories I've read for competitions not only give it away, they then add far too much information. Background, backstory... descriptions, explanations... All of which, for this reader at least, serve to push me away from the story. I think, Well, why should I keep reading? What's there left to find out? What's the mystery?

I do try and apply this to my own work, although it's harder to know how a reader who is not me will read it, since I am all-knowing (well mostly) about my own story. I tend to err on the side of too mysterious, too cryptic and minimalist, I think. But I think that it's better to err on that side, have your reader a little confused and curious than pile on information and lose their interest completely.

What helps (and here's a clumsy segue into the other thing I wanted to mention!) is having a trusted reader or group of readers read your work, not something I do that often anymore. "Trusted" is not easy to come by, and as Robin Black talks about in her excellent blog post over at Beyond the Margins,  sharing work can lead to horrible experiences. She suggests that reading and commenting on a writing colleague's work should be "a process of honoring the fact that the piece exists at all, as opposed to shredding or praising it." I like this very very much, she gives eminently sensible advice and airs issues that are not often talked about public. Check out the blog post,  On Reading One Another's Work.

I also highly recommend China Miéville's writings. I loved his short story collection, Looking for Jake (published in 2005 and reviewed on The Short Review here), which is weird but very different from Embassytown, and am going to seek out more of his books. I hear him speak recently at the One Culture science and literature festival held in the Royal Society in London and was extremely impressed by the way he talks about writing, about stories, about genre pigeon-holing. You can read a blog report of that event on the Royal Society's blog.

And perhaps, as 2011 draws to a close and 2012 approaches, next year will be a year of opening ourselves up to the mysterious in our writing? Of giving the reader some space to figure things out for him or herself? And of celebrating that in our colleagues' work too, if they share it with us. A giving-in to the not-knowing, perhaps. Because, really, what do we actually know? Happy holidays, everyone.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Story in New Scientist

This has definitely got to be one of the highlights of my year - a year which began with my short story in science journal Nature ends with my science-inspired short story in science magazine New Scientist's Dec 24th print edition, available worldwide! It's not available online, so if you fancy reading it, I'm sure it's in your local newsagent, or whatever the equivalent is outside the UK. I'm unbelievably excited about this - they asked me for a story, which is something I'd dreamed of for years. Thank you, New Scientist! Happy holidays to all!

ADDENDUM: turns out it is published online too, on the New Scientist blog!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Workshop with Sarah Salway: Postcards to Yourself

Thanks to Sue G for drawing my attention to this - so that I can draw your attention to it! Sarah Salway and I co-tutored an Arvon Foundation course in May so I know firsthand what a fantastic teacher/tutor/inspiring person she is. She is running a course entitled "Postcards to Yourself" together with Alison Piasecka, who runs Moving Thru Transitions, here in the UK in February, here are more details:

POSTCARDS TO YOURSELF in Othona, East Anglia  22-24 February 2012 
A 3 day workshop led by Sarah Salway and Alison:   
Wish you were … where? 
Do you want to rediscover that creative spark you thought you’d lost and have fun exploring your life on the page through a varied series of short guided writing exercises? During this course, you’ll forget the grammar police, red pens and even neat handwriting as you give yourself space to tune your unique writing voice, liberate your imagination and use language as a map to support your journey to self-discovery and growth.  You’ll write at your own pace, and with absolutely no need to share unless you want to. No previous writing experience is necessary. 
For prices and more information click here

There is only space for 10 people, and the place itself looks stunning, so I would get your skates on... (anyone snowed in today? Very bright and sunny here in Bristol!). Have a lovely weekend.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Vote for your favourite particle-accelerator-inspired flash story!

So, this UK particle accelerator, Diamond Light Source, held a short story and a flash fiction competition. And I went in for both. And now the flash fiction entries are all posted on the website, and you can vote. For your favourites. Not that I'm saying anything. Not that I'm happening to mention mine is called The Beam Line. (Others I know on the list are Pete Dominican and Kevlin Henney). This is just for your information. Right? Ok. Here's the website. (You do have to very quickly register to vote. Just so you know. In case... ) I'll be quiet now.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Juno Charm visits the blog

Photo: Emilia Krysztofiak
I am very luck in that I have many multi-talented writer friends, one of whom is Nuala Ní Chonchúir - she writes short stories, novels, poetry. Nuala - who is the same age as I am - has published, umm, let's see, three short story collections (Nude, To the World of Men Welcome, The Wind Across the Grass), a novel (You) and now her fourth  poetry collection, The Juno Charm, (the others are Molly's Daughter, Tattoo Tatu, Portrait of the Artist with Red Car). Do I feel inadequate? Is this about me? No, it isn't. It's about Nuala. Here's her full bio:

Born in Dublin in 1970, Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in Galway county. Her début novel You (New Island, 2010) was called ‘a heart-warmer’ by The Irish Times and ‘a gem’ by The Irish Examiner. Her third short story collection Nude (Salt, 2009)) was shortlisted for the UK’s Edge Hill Prize. Her second short story collection To The World of Men, Welcome has just been re-issued by Arlen House in an expanded paperback edition. The Juno Charm, her third full poetry collection, was launched in November.

I am delighted to be hosting this stop on her blog tour for The Juno Charm, an exquisite, moving, lyrical, visceral - and often very funny - collection of poetry. Since I am a poetry novice attempting to write a few poems, I used this as a chance to pick my talented friend's brain, get some tips. I hope you'll find it interesting too - and it will whet your appetite for the book, which would make an ideal seasonal gift!

Tania: Welcome, Nuala!  Your poems are a wonderful combination of very physical and visceral and soaring flights of language. You use some words I have never heard of (English words!) but didn't want to look them up, I loved the not-knowing. How do you write your poems? Do you search for words that are new to you?

Nuala: I’m now very curious to know what those words were!! [Tania: here are some of them: "jiddering", "drupe", "anchoritic", "lanugo", "vernix", "ocellated"] My poems are written when something flashes into my mind’s eye because of something I have read/seen/heard. Lots of thing interest me but in order to make a poem, a thing has to really grab me and nag at me until I write about it. Like most writers, I love to add to my word-hoard. I use the thesaurus and dictionary daily, when I write, because it’s important to me to always use the right word. I hope that by being a careful writer – meaning one who cares about everything from words to grammar to the overall feel and look of a poem – that I will eventually write something of worth. So, yes, I am always alert to new words and often that new word by itself will spark a poem. ‘Peabiddy’ – Flannery O’Connor’s word for peachicks (baby peacocks) – was a new word to me and it became the apt title to the poem ‘Peabiddy’ which is about my daughter Juno’s birth and my hopes for her. Here’s the text of it:


The flaps opened and out you popped,
biddy-in-the-box, one wing raised
in a super-heroine’s salute.

We put you there, cock and hen,
rattling feathers and shrieking softly
under canvas in a midland field.

You, our emerald peabiddy,
the actual fact of you musters pride
as we watch amazed at your evolution.

How you stomp on sturdy legs and
perfect your calls: the eee-ow of your tribe,
the vowels and consonants of ours.

Safe passage – we cannot fly with you –
but our nest will always be here and
we can guarantee a soft landing.

T: Just a gorgeous poem, thank you! Many of the poems here deal with extremely personal experiences – sex, miscarriage, birth – is this something you feel that poetry helps you express in a way you can't in other forms – fiction or non-fiction?

N: My poetry tends to be about my life (other than when it involves narratives of other people’s lives, like van Gogh, Kahlo etc.). So it centres a lot on life events like birth, death, illness etc. My fiction tends to me more made-up, that is, not drawn directly from my life, but it will always contain parts of me – my opinions and experiences. I have written about all the same things in fiction (pregnancy loss, sex etc.) but I have transposed those things onto people who are clearly not me. It can be nerve-wracking, in that sense, when a poetry collection comes out because now people know all about the real, raw me, rather than the disguised, fictional me :)

T:Your poems seem to be in conversation with each other, reading the book in one go is a wonderful, complete experience. Was this in any way planned??

N: It wasn’t planned in that the poems were written over a four year period and they reflect what was happening to me and obsessing me over those years and before that. So the writing just grows organically out of whatever is going on, in this case marriage breakdown, divorce, pregnancy loss, remarriage, new love, new baby. So if it’s a conversation, it’s one with myself, trying to make sense of all the ups and downs of the past few years. The planning came later, then, in the ordering of the book – which poem to put where. That’s always a daunting experience but satisfying when the book has a narrative flow. I also ended and began with poems on a high note, to lure the reader in!

T: One final question? What advice would you have for a beginner poet , especially one who writes in other forms (i.e. me!)?

N: Read lots of contemporary poetry - find out what people are writing about and how they are doing it. Go to poetry readings and listen to your peers. Some poets read wonderfully and can be an inspiration. Learn a little about form - you don't have to write in forms but it's good to know a little about them. Maybe get a copy of The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, edited by Eavan Boland and Mark Strand. Write about the things that possess and interest you, the things that are dear to your heart. You knit, Tania - I challenge you to write a knitting poem! Thanks so much for having me here today. Next week my virtual tour takes me to Mel Ulm’s The Reading Life blog in the Philippines.


Thank you so much, Nuala, for visiting the blog and for sharing something with us about your process and the writing of poetry, what it means to you. (I have the Mark Strand book so i am on the right track!) Nuala blogs at Women Rule Writer, where you can follow the previous and next stops on her tour. You can buy The Juno Charm here. Go on, you know you want to!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Flashing at the Bridport Open Book Festival

I just spent four wonderful days in Bridport, a town near the Dorset coast, which may be small in size but is bursting with arts activities! I was honoured to be running two flash fiction workshops as part of the first Open Book festival with Vanessa Gebbie, and she has just done a great write-up of our time there on her blog, so good that I can't top it! Head over there to see what went on...

But just before you go - a big thank you to all those who came and wrote flash fiction with us, it was an honour writing with you. There seemed to be a kind of "religious" conversion taking place amongst a few who had never "flashed" before, and it was a joy to see - and hear - tiny stories by those who had never known that they could write such things. Such wonderful stories, too...!