On parents in fiction…

I hope that I’m a good Mummy. I know I don’t spend quite enough time with my children, and that I find their games pretty boring (playing “shops” would have to be the worst, where you line up to buy the same six items over and over and over and over….) But I read to them and sing to them and take them to the park and tell them I love them, and I certainly believe in the power of parenting to help children become good citizens in the world.

But parents in fiction are a different story all together. Parents of fictional protagonists are a difficult category and, often, they end up being complete arseholes. The roll call in my books (the ones I can remember anyway) includes bullies and drunkards (many, many drunkards), ice queens, idiots, psychotics, and neurotics. Often parents are absent all together: dead, missing in action, run off. Why is this so?

First, because parents are inconvenient in fiction. Stories thrive on big conflicts. If, in real life, one found oneself inside such a big conflict (e.g. evil spirits outside your window), the first thing one might do is call Mum (or Dad). Mum (or Dad) would then either (a) encourage you to come home from the haunted cottage on the lonely windswept moor, resulting in NO STORY, or (b) come and help you fight the evil spirits, resulting in too many characters performing the same function. Good parents can really screw up a story, because their default setting in life is to help their children. Bad parents cut their children off, leaving them to resolve conflicts on their own.

Second, because characters are more interesting if they’ve got emotional baggage. It’s one thing for your character to  realise her dreams against insurmountable odds when she’s completely psychologically healthy; but give her a shitload of shame and crippling self-doubt from some past misadventure, and you add layers of complexity, even mystery. And where is the best and most common place to become dysfunctional? Yep, the family home.

So don’t read too much into my own family history from my novels. Sure, my dad was a mess and has appeared in several fictionalised forms throughout, but my mum is more like Stasya in Gold Dust. She’s warm, compassionate, practical, and patient. She’s the first person I’d have by my side, if I ever really had to do battle with evil spirits.

Cambridge calls…

I’ve been asked by the editors of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing to contribute a chapter about creative writing in the genres. This is a very great honour, of course, but also a real pleasure for me to note that genre fiction is at last being recognised as worthy of academic consideration (and Cambridge University Press is obviously a very big deal in terms of shaping opinion in the academy). Do academics really have issues with genre fiction? Well, yes and no. Some genres fare better than others (crime is usually well regarded) but it is still seen as some kind of poor cousin to literary fiction (and when somebody can define that term for me adequately, give me a yell). For example, in a 2003 paper Judy Wilson wrote that genre fiction is “production line work” and “words poured into a mold” and says it has no place in a university creative writing course (this article has rather a tortured metaphor about weeds and how, even if they’re pretty, they need to be pulled out lest they ruin the more esteemed plants they surround). And in 2002, philosopher Nancy J. Holland created this list of adjectives to describe genre fiction: “low-brow”, “transparent”, “not artful”, “flat, without depth”, “the exact same thing.” Apparently, too, its* “cardinal rule” is a happy ending. Hey, Nancy! Go read a couple of my books. You might get a nasty shock.

So, the tide is slowly turning, thanks to the very clever editors of this new collection. Will keep you posted on developments, but I can’t see it being published before end of 2010.

*the easy way to remember which form of “its” to use is this: use its (no apostrophe) where you’d use his (which you’d never apostrophise)

Adventures in first person

Have you tried first, second, and third? No, not bases. Persons? I’m talking viewpoint, not teenage sex (that should get me a few extra hits this week).

After feeling despondent about my first chapter of my new book, I had a 3am epiphany about what was wrong with it. I had written it in 3rd person (“she did this, she did that”) when I really should have written it in 1st person (“I did this, I did that”). All right, it wasn’t so much an epiphany as a strong suspicion, and the only way to test if I were right was to rewrite it. I balked at this of course. I am Dr Decisive when it comes to writing (usually, until book #20 stole my mojo), so it was very painful for me to have to go back to the drawing board over such a small mechanical thing.

But wait, not so fast. Not such a small mechanical thing at all. Not just changing the pronouns. Because I chose to rewrite rather than just edit, I found that the moment I switched into first person, good stuff started to happen.

You see, the usual argument over whether to choose first or third person is simple, and goes like this:
First person = direct & engaging, but limited access
Third person = great access, but loss of directness
Second person = only crazy people write this way

I’ve never had much trouble creating a direct, emotional connection in third person, so it’s my usual preference. But on this occasion, I found that using first person forced me to account more fully for the character’s feelings and motivations; that I couldn’t gloss over anything anymore; that I had to be specific. Compare for yourself:

Beattie Blaxland had dreams. Big dreams. Fashions and fabrics and fortune. In her hurley bed, rolled out on the floor of her parents’ room in their finger-chilling tenement flat, she imagined in vivid, yearning detail a future version of herself: poised, proud, almost regal. She had never imagined-nor believed it possible-that she would find herself pregnant to her married lover at the age of only eighteen.

I had dreams. Big dreams. Not the confused patchwork dreams that invade sleep. No, these were the dreams with which I comforted myself before sleep, in my hurley bed rolled out on the floor of my parents’ finger-chilling tenement flat. Vivid, yearning dreams. A life of fashion and fabrics; and fortune of course. A life where the dismal truth about my dismal family could never touch me again. One thing I never dreamed was that I would find myself pregnant to my married lover, just before my nineteenth birthday. All through February, I obsessively counted the weeks and counted them again, bending my mind backwards, trying to make sense of the dates. My stomach flipped at the smell of food, my breasts grew tender and, by the first of March, I had finally come to believe that  a child-that Henry MacConnell’s child-was growing inside me.

Please don’t take this to mean that I think all stories should be written in first person: far from it. First person has massive pitfalls, especially for the inexperienced writer (where every first person character winds up sounding exactly the same as the others). But this actual switch of perspective has me feeling like I’m inside the story well and truly now, that it’s possible to write it well and on time, and that I will enjoy the company of my latest imaginary friend.

Year’s Best Fantasy

vglgIn other news…

My story “The Forest”, which was published in Dreaming Again last year, has been selected for Tor Books’ Year’s Best Fantasy collection in the US. This is beautiful surprise: essentially, the short stories that go in YBF are the ones that the editor has selected as the best from all around the world in the calendar year. So it’s a big international honour.

On top of that, I am delighted to tell you that the American Library Association has named The Veil of Gold (as it’s known in the States) as best fantasy novel on its 2009 reading list! I’m particularly pleased about this one, as I bled into that book. Bleeding into a book should always bring rewards (as long as it’s your own; not just some random one you pick up at a store).

Colour me smug!

Is it work, or is it play?

I can’t figure out if writing is my job or my hobby. Putting aside the money, this is one issue that continues to confound me. When I’m not writing, or it’s hard, and the deadline is approaching, and I’d really just rather be on the couch reading a novel, it feels like a job: I have to be organised, keep regular hours, meet goals, etc. And a bloody hard job, too. I’d often rather go in to work at uni; at least there I know what to do and when to do it.

But when the writing is flowing, or I’m sitting in a cafe roughing out scene ideas, or I find a particular piece of research that sparks off a chain of great ideas, then it’s a hobby. Something I do to relax, to have fun, to recreate.

Why does it matter if it’s a job or a hobby? Well, it’s the whole life-balance thing. I subscribe wholly to the theory that a rewarding and happy life comes from loving well, working well, and playing well.  Loving, that’s easy (though I did coin a new term for how one feels living with small children: demorexhaustalised). Working, I do plenty of that and it’s interesting and rewarding. But playing? Is that my writing time, or my meagre 5 hours or so a week of World of Warcraft? If it’s the latter, then I’m out of balance. If it’s the former, then I win life.

So is the answer to play more MMORPGs?* Or is it to stop all this pointless blogging and write a bit more?

Field of Clouds is past 5000 words as of today. My writing buddy has proclaimed that it’s not the pile of utter shite I fear it is, so I guess I just put my head down and keep going. At the moment, it doesn’t much feel like fun. But, as always, that’s subject to change without notice. The only way out is through.

* Massively multi-player online role playing games (or “many men online role playing as girls”)