First, a background note:
This is one of those blog hop things where one writer makes a blog post and tags others to follow on with a post on the same subject. In this case, I was tagged by Neil Williamson, a writer I’ve long-admired and whose fabulous novel The Moon King is just out. Also tagged in Neil’s post were Chris Beckett and James Everington, so I’m keeping excellent company.
So… what are three things I don’t write? This is actually a tough one, given that I write in many different genres under a few different pen-names.
- What I’m asked for.
One of my favourite things is to be asked to write something specific – a story for a themed anthology, a feature on a particular subject. But I always want to do things differently. Hell, my first reaction when Neil asked if I’d like to write this blog piece was to wonder how I could subvert it and write something completely different. Don’t get me wrong: I can and do hit the brief when required, and like almost any writing project I enjoy doing so, but my inclination is always to look for another direction. I could dress this up in all kinds of ways: if you’re writing for a themed anthology, for example, it makes sense to write that story that just hits the brief but is totally different, rather than one of the many that hit the brief comfortably, and predictably. So is it a deliberate career strategy? God no! It’s a gut thing, an instant reaction that has often served me well; the career strategy is to then step back and judge whether to trust that instinct or rein it in.
- The same story, over and over again.
Years – decades! – ago, one then-prominent anthology editor told me about a dinner party he’d just attended with other then-prominent anthology and magazine editors. They got to talking about the new wave of writers emerging at the time (this was late 1980s or early 1990s, when the Interzone generation were starting to get lots of attention). They discussed various names and when mine came up, this editor said that what he really liked about me was that whenever he got an A4 envelope with my return address on it (that shows how long ago this was), he never knew what was going to be inside. He meant this in a good way, not a creepy-stalker way. He explained that every story I sent him was different to the last; the others around the table agreed that this was so. Career strategy? Again: God no! A career strategy would have been to hit a trope and hit it strong, not keep flitting around between all the multitude of things that interested me. A career strategy would have been to accept that huge offer I received from a leading US publisher to write a sequel to my first novel (military SF), rather than insist on following my muse and writing a fantasy novel about the death of fantasy…
Sorry, I know this reveals my inner heathen, but I just don’t get poetry, no matter how hard I try. Sometimes, when poetry is being read, it works for me. I love John Hegley’s work, for instance, but that’s probably more because it’s funny and comes close to stand-up comedy; I’ve enjoyed Martin Newell’s work, too, for similar reasons (he lives in the same village as me, so I’ve heard him read a few times). At least when poetry is being read I have someone controlling the pacing for me; if I’m reading poetry myself I think I rush, as if I’m reading prose, and I don’t give the words the space and time they need. Music works far better for me: I understand lyrics, and I write songs because when poetry is tied to music I can get my head around it – the words are paced for me. But poetry in its own right? I don’t get it, and so, however much I’d like to, there’s really no point in me trying to write any.
And now for three things I do write:
- Scenes that not only make the reader squirm and wonder where the fuck they came from but which do the same to me.
My virtual reality novel The Accord had several such scenes, one of which actually prompted one of my writing students to stop me in the street and, with a somewhat aghast look on his face, ask me what was wrong with my head; he meant it as a compliment. The premise of the book is that what is, in effect, a VR heaven has been created where you are uploaded on your death and are then immortal; in a world devastated by climate change and resource shortages, there’s a scene in a refugee camp where a VR team is recording people’s personas so they can then be uploaded when ready. A mother waits until her little daughter has been recorded and then, as calm as anything, murders her child in front of everyone so that the girl will not have to wait. I didn’t see that scene coming until it unfolded before me, and I could barely type fast enough to keep up. When I finished writing the scene I was exhausted and spent and had no idea what had just happened. There are other far more extreme mind-fuck scenes in that book, and I still don’t know where they came from. What they do have in common is that they take a premise and extrapolate it as far as possible. And then some. As far as I’m concerned, hitting those scenes are as good as the writing process can ever be.
- Certain tropes I never thought I’d tackle.
This year marks 25 years as a professionally-published writer for me. Passing 20 years and then approaching 25 seemed to trigger something; that and editing a book about the sub-genres of SF for Palgrave Macmillan. These things made me aware of which genre tropes I’d tackled, and which I’ve avoided. And they made me wonder why. Three big ones stood out: aliens, alternate history and time travel. I could have taken this as a challenge to go ahead and write about these subjects, but I didn’t. Not consciously, at least. Subconsciously, however, it seemed to set the what-if? part of my mind working. I didn’t write aliens because I couldn’t make them convincing enough for me to last the duration of an entire novel. I didn’t want to write aliens that were merely humans in rubber suits, but then if you write something truly alien how do you get inside it enough to find any kind of story we can relate to? I didn’t do alternate history because I don’t have enough historical expertise to either come up with the inspiration or make it credible. I didn’t do time travel because, well, it’s all been done before, hasn’t it? So that what-if? part of my mind came up with Harmony, a novel crammed full of aliens in what was to me the ultimate alternate history, addressing the Fermi paradox as an added bonus; that it was shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award was an added added bonus. And Tomorrow, a time travel story that goes to town with the whole concept as a bunch of teenagers struggle with destiny and a future that nobody in their right mind would want.
I’ve included this, at least partly because it’s a bit of a surprise to myself, so maybe it will be to whoever reads this, too. A little context… Back in the early days my output was probably fifty-fifty between horror and other genres. My first novel was SF; when I finished the first draft of that I was on such an adrenalin rush that the very next day I started an unplanned horror novel. That second novel never sold, but I think it shows at least that my attentions were divided. My short fiction included a lot of horror, enough to later be gathered together in the collection Embrace. But then it kind of tailed off. I was finding more success as an SF author, and that seemed to feed the part of my brain that came up with ideas: as SF took up an increasing proportion of my time, so more and more of the new ideas were SF, too. Looking through my bibliography, I see that my last published horror story was “Embrace”, back in May 2004. (As a sidenote, most of my teen fiction as Nick Gifford was dark stuff, but even there, the most recent horror novel came out in 2005.) But recently things have changed again. I’ve returned to full-time writing and for one reason or another my short fiction has turned to horror, once more. I’ve just sold a horror story I’m particularly pleased with to Postscripts, and the next thing I do after drafting this blog post will be editing another new horror tale, a particularly creepy piece where I’ve tried to make a modern office a dark and scary place. Given some of the places I’ve worked, perhaps that’s not too much of a stretch, but hey.
Passing it on
To keep this blog hop going, I’ve asked three more fabulous authors to tell us three things they write about, and three they don’t: Kim Lakin-Smith, Stephen Palmer and Mike Revell. I’ll link to their pieces when they’re up.