The 90%

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So, a lot of my genre writing friends are upset at Ian McEwan’s casual dismissal of science fiction in an interview about his new novel, Machines Like Me, which, by all measures of the term, is definitely science fiction, entailing alternate history and artificial intelligence. I haven’t read the book but a copy is winging its way to me as I type. I expect I will read it soon and will either love it or hate it. That’s how I feel about all of McEwan’s books.

I suppose the dissing of SF by McEwen is particularly galling, especially since we only recently got Margaret Atwood to acknowledge that maybe she has been writing SF all along. McEwen is not exactly nobody, winner of both the Whitbread and Booker prizes, with several of his novels made into films.

I actually expect that in both Atwood’s case and McEwen’s, the dismissal of SF was genuine and heartfelt but came from a place of ignorance and stand as a direct corollary of Sturgeon’s Law.

Theodore Sturgeon once opened his Guest of Honour speech at the World Science Fiction Convention with the words “90% of science fiction is crap” before relieving the stunned audience by adding “90% of everything is crap.”

Given that literary writers either don’t read much SF but get it from movies (where 90% is more like 94% IMHO) or, if they do, only occasionally or in their teen years. Chances are, if Sturgeon is correct, that all they were ever exposed to was, in fact, crap. I mean, imagine if your primary exposure to SF was the John Norman Gor novels, you, too, might have a low opinion of SF.

The whole war between literary and genre fiction is a bit of a phony one any way. Some say it began when literary writers got jealous of how much money genre writers seemed to be making while they were struggling in garrets, but, given McEwen’s success, that can hardly be a factor there. Another one may be that it is fashionable for literary writers to look down on genre writers as somewhat less capable or educated or as pandering to the masses. None of that was ever true, in particular. Most golden age writers were either experienced journalists or, more likely, people with science or engineering degrees (rather than English majors). Autodidacts were no more or less common in SF than they were in the literary book shelves. And as for pandering to the masses, it was remarkable how hard some writers tried to do exactly that. Hemingway and Tennessee Williams constantly worried about how to increase their popular exposure.

Besides, the disdain goes both ways. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard genre writers of all stripes dismiss the quality of literary books and the character of their authors. And I’m sure with McEwen there has to be a little of: Damn it, he’s pouching in my forest when I’m barely making a living.

Personally, I think the line between genre and literary is a one with blurred edges and significant gaps, no matter how vigorously both sides try to defend the ramparts. And that is all for the good. One of the ways to ensure you fall in the 90% bracket is to narrow your focus and exclude exceptional works of whatever style. Maybe that’s what changed Atwood’s mind—someone exposed her to the 10% of SF that isn’t crap.

And that’s 10 minutes.

Relevance

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I was playing Cards Against Humanity for the first time yesterday and I came a cross a word which I didn’t have a clue as to its meaning—though I suspected it was something sexual. When the game was over, I asked my hipper, younger friend what it meant, though I also suspected I didn’t want to know. I was both right and wrong. As explained, it was vaguely disgusting (although I later found out her definition was wrong) and clearly not a word I was ever going to use myself—but at the same time I did want to know simply so I could be attuned to what people were doing and thinking. I wanted to be relevant.

Relevance—the ability to understand and comment appropriately on a topic—is something most people strive for all their lives. Most of you are probably trying to do it right now.

Certainly, as a policy adviser, it was my job to be relevant, to know enough about a wide range of subjects that, if I couldn’t immediately comment, I could quickly research to make useful remarks or give cogent advice. It was a struggle sometimes and, frankly, some topics constantly eluded me. Unlike some people, I usually was smart enough not to venture an opinion about something I was completely unaware of.

Relevance is what I have striven for as a writer. I try to keep up with the latest trends in fiction. I read a lot and listen to what other people are saying about the field. I think I have a sense of what the cool kids are doing, well enough to make reasonably intelligent critical comments or editorial suggestions.

But that doesn’t make me relevant. My own stories don’t seem to resonate much with editors these days. That may just be a phase or maybe my time has come and gone. It happens to most of us and, sometimes, the only answer is not to try to be young and hip and cool and diverse (hard when you are an old white man) but to shrug and move on to other things – like cooking exotic foods or traveling to mountaintops. Maybe it would be better if a lot of people—and not just old ones—stopped trying so hard being relevant to the wider world (or, at least, attempting to impose their own sense of importance on the culture) and tried to be relevant to themselves, their families and their closest friends.

I doubt if many will follow my advice—the quest for relevance is a struggle against the grave. Yet, maybe they should acknowledge that relevance is like any other social commodity. You have a lot of it at one time and you can use it to build up your laurels (that you can then uncomfortably rest on) and create a legacy or you can spend it on making irrelevant comments that make you look foolish and out of touch (says the guy who insists on writing political blogs two years after leaving the field of advising politicians).

Still, I will struggle to understand new technologies, (I took part in a fascinating meeting about block chains today) social media—which in “my day” consisted of showing people slides of my last vacation—and following the latest trends in politics (how is this different than the 1930s?) and cultural transformation. Because the alternative might be to retire to Cambodia and stare at the waves all day.

And that’s ten minutes.

Resolutions 2018

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Resolutions are made to be broken so there is little point in making ones that are easy to keep. With that in mind, here are my ten commitments for the New Year.

  1. I will buy no books.

    Seriously, I absolutely gorged on books in 2017 and now they sit on shelves and bedside piles or wink at me from the screen of my e-reader. I bought enough books in the last month alone to last me until August – not counting the literally hundreds of books I’ve promised myself to read eventually. Eventually means now.

    Estimated date of breaking this resolution: April 27 or the first really crappy day in March.

  2. I will write twice as much as I did last year.

    I wrote nearly 140,000 words of new fiction and about 15000 words of blogging last year. So I’ll need to produce 310,000 words total in 2018. Well, that’s merely 6000 words a week, every week without fail. Ha ha ha… head slams on desk.

    Estimated date of failure: January 7

  3. I will lose 50 pounds or if you prefer 23 kilograms

    Easy peasy. I’ll simply do what I’ve been doing all year. Gain five pounds – lose them – gain them back – and so on and so on. Ten cycles and I’m done.

    Oh, you mean, my weight should be fifty pounds less one year from today. No problem, I’ll get right on that.

    Estimated date of failure: Tomorrow

  4. I will walk briskly for an hour a day on average.

    This one could be tricky. I only need to walk for 365 hours for the whole year – though I don’t think I can count walks to the fridge or to restaurants or the LCBO. Probably not brisk enough. Still, it might be feasible.

    Though, given the current weather in Ottawa, I’ll already by 11 hours behind by the time we fly to Mexico on the 12th. I’ll quickly make that up on the beach. Then there is March to contend with and next December…

    Estimated date of failure: December 10th

  5. I will drink less.

    No problem here. I could hardly drink more and it would take too much planning to drink the exact same amount. But I do worry about eggnog.

    Estimated date of failure: December 24

  6. I will be less facetious.

    Estimated date of failure: Sometime later today.

  7. I will keep all my promises.

    Well, I promised ten resolutions and there are only seven, so…

    Estimated date of failure: Already accomplished.

And that’s ten minutes.

Putting It Off

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They say that nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging. Personally, I doubt I would be able to think anything if I knew they were going to put a noose around my neck – but that may just be me.

You would think that after 40 some years of working and having to meet deadlines, I’d be better at getting things started. Sadly, no. If they offered degrees in procrastination I’d almost certainly have a Ph.D – if I ever got around to applying for it. It’s not that I don’t work hard; it’s not even that I don’t want to work hard. I do. I enjoy work – whatever that work is – once I get stuck in.

But starting is always a challenge. Take today. I normally write my ten minutes when I first get up. But now it’s almost 10:30 and I’m just getting started. And I’m only doing it so I don’t have to begin the number one item on my list – which is to re-write the story my critique group commented on. Nearly two weeks ago.

I try every trick in the book – endless lists, arbitrary deadlines, self-loathing – but none of them seem to work. Maybe I should threaten to kill myself at the end of an unproductive day. Good night, Hayden. Good work. Most likely kill you in the morning.

It’s as if I thought that at my age, I really shouldn’t have to work anymore. Nonsense! As everyone on Facebook tells me, if you aren’t being continuously creative and productive, you’re not really living. Which makes me wonder why they spend so much time on Facebook telling me how to live my life.

Oh well, nothing to do but forge ahead. As soon as this is finished, polished and posted with any relevant links I can dream up, I’ll get right to those re-writes. It’s not that it will be so hard – I’ve already re-written the story six times in my head (mostly while lying in bed, urging myself to get up and start the day).

Of course, I’m a little grubby and need a shower – clearly you can’t work effectively if you don’t smell fresh and clean.

Okay, so I’ll admit it, I’m really only writing about procrastination so I can avoid the really tough ten minute diatribe I should be writing. If I was really determined I’d scrap this nonsense and do the really important work of making the world a better place.

Maybe tomorrow.

First I have to have a shower. Then my second cup of coffee (one can’t be brilliant on a single cup) and then maybe I should think about those edits again before I commit myself to electrons. Then, it will be lunch. But after that for sure.

Though I do have a date to go see Logan this afternoon. Oh, hell.

I guess there’s always later. Is it later now?

And that’s ten minutes.

Retirement

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In two weeks I will be retired, or as a friend of mine wisely calls it, refocused. Still it will be a strange thing not to work for someone else. I took my first paid job when I was fourteen (though I did freelance for a few years before that as a lawnmower and snow-shoveller and berry-picker). I still have the pay-stub from my first regular job. It was for $4.65 for 3.5 hours work. That was obviously a long time ago.

Since then I’ve worked for a lot of different people and organizations – mostly on regular salary though sometimes on contract. It has been a varied life. I’ve worked as a library assistant, a gardener, a chemist, a research manager, a house painter, a labour negotiator, an actor, a bartender, a pizza cook, an arts administrator, a policy advisor, a medical researcher, a telemarketer, a political assistant and several other professions I now forget.

During that time I did work for myself as well. I spent my teenage years selling greeting cards door-to-door and, later, took research jobs on contract. Of course, I’ve been a freelance writer for more than  25 years and, most recently, an editor and publisher for my own company.

I expect that I’ll keep writing on a regular basis and I hope to even make some money in the process. But it’s not the same as having to go to the office every day. I only have myself to answer to and only I can make me sit at the computer and work. I expect to be a pretty easy going boss. Although I intend to write a novel between now and the end of September, that’s only about 900 words a day of new prose. I can generally do that in an hour or two. There will be research, of course, and re-writing and editing, not to mention the publishing company, but still, I don’t plan to write every day and I don’t plan to work any more than 4 hours in any given day.

But what will I do to fill the time? After spending most of my life working 8 or more hours a day – for someone far less easy going than me – what will I do to stop from being bored?

Even to ask that question suggests you don’t know me very well. I can’t stand being inactive – it doesn’t just bore me it makes me grumpy. So I will read and walk and talk and party and cook and travel and photograph and think and watch and listen and play and dream up adventures to do or write about.

Retirement? I don’t think so. Refocus – it is a wiser term.

And that’s ten minutes.

Making Stories

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Once, while doing a reading at an SF convention, I was asked: that’s a good story; did you download it from the Internet? Granted the questioner was slightly drunk and, one suspects, majorly stupid but still, the same question in other forms does arise. How do you come up with those crazy ideas? Or more politely, where do you get your story ideas?

The easy answer is: stories are everywhere.

Or you could respond facetiously as in: I buy them by the gross from Walmart. And now, with the rise of writing bots, one might actually say you downloaded them from the internet.

At a more recent reading, I tried to illustrate the multiple sources of story by reading bits of three and describing how they came about.

The first was Marion’s War which appeared last year in the anthology, Strangers Among Us. That story, about an elderly soldier suffering the effects of a war with aliens, arose directly from personal experience. I experienced mild PTSD after witnessing the murder of Cpl Nathan Cirillo at the War Memorial in Ottawa – a story many of you have heard before. That inspired me to look into the issue of soldiers’ mental health and led directly to writing what I consider to be one of my best stories ever.

The second was called The Burdens We Bear, which appeared in another anthology, The Sum of Us, this year. This story came about through the tried and true method of brainstorming. I took a number of key words from the anthology’s guidelines and then tried to imagine connections between them, free associating images and situations until, out of a mass of connecting and overlapping circles, a character and a story appeared. Quite literally, it was a story out of thin air (as I like to describe the space between my ears.

Finally, I read from a new, as yet untitled, unfinished and unsold story. That one came out of the other main source of stories from me – experiences that others have and that I learn about by observing, interacting, reading or researching. I was recently in Puerto Escondido, Mexico and, while there, I spent a lot of time walking around, looking at things and listening to people. I had one conversation with a couple in their forties who described their kids’ interest in travelling around – experiencing things while remaining largely disengaged from the world. These twenty somethings travel from place to place, working for food and shelter and spending most of their spare cash on tattoos and piercings. I now had a setting and some characters and when I brought in a theme of running away from political engagement, I had a story.

Stories, for me, almost always come from observing, feeling, thinking and pondering what it is that I’ve seen or felt or thought that causes me problems. Then, in my effort to solve those problems, I turn to fiction, to story.

And that’s ten minutes.

Gatekeepers

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The other day, a friend was critical of the arts granting process, objecting to the fact that writers had to have had 2 or more ‘professional’ publications to qualify for a grant, effectively excluding self-published writers no matter how successful they had been at selling their work. He went on to suggest that similar restrictions were not placed on musicians or dancers or painters.

The latter statement is simply not true. Except for occasional special programs to encourage new artists, (Canada Council used to have a category called Explorations grants – I applied unsuccessfully several times when I was starting out), all grants require that artists demonstrate they are professionals or on their way to becoming one. The wording differs but essentially it says you must be making an effort to make art a significant part of your work and livelihood. One of the ways you have historically done that is through professional publications (or performances in a professional venue or showings in a professional gallery).

But, of course, the world is changing. More and more people are self-publishing or, if you prefer, indie publishing. Some of them are quite good. And granting agencies and professional organizations are responding. For example SFWA – the organization representing professional science fiction and fantasy writers – recently changed their membership requirements to include indie publishers, provided they had made an income from their writing equivalent to the minimum advance required for traditional published writers (roughly $3000USD in a single year). In this case they are using the marketplace to establish your professional standards. Given how few indie authors make that, it still represents a significant barrier and keeps the organization ‘professional’ in its mandate.

The Canada Council of the Arts studied ways that it can be more relevant and helpful in the digital age. It is doubtful they will base their qualifications on income but nonetheless they are looking for ways to include professional artists who have been previously excluded. I strongly suggest those interested to provide input in the still on-going consultation process.

But why have qualifications at all? Why not let anyone who claims to be an artist apply and let the chips and grant dollars fall where they may?

Two reasons come to mind. First most professional artists served an apprenticeship, years or sometimes even decades working on their craft – getting rejected and then accepted, taking courses and workshops and finally winning acceptance from the larger community. A lot of them – myself included – resent the fact that all that might have been pointless. We could have just slapped together a document on our first try and then with the click of mouse published it on Amazon. We take some comfort that most of those books don’t get read but take even more in the idea that they aren’t viewed as professional.

For grant agencies there are practical concerns. They already can’t fund all the proposals that do get through the qualification process. Dropping those requirements would lead to flood of applications – almost all of which wouldn’t and, in fact, shouldn’t be funded. The purpose of government grants is to fund people to become self-supporting artists not to support their hobbies or whims. Sorry. And, on top of that, the only way they could judge the quality of someone’s work – without the screening of professional gatekeepers – would be to actually read the self-published books themselves.

Not only would the workload overwhelm the lightly-paid juries, it would probably burn the eyes out of their heads. Because while some self-published work is very good, the vast majority is unreadable drek. Trust me – having read some of the things at the bottom of my own slush pile, I know. Oh, god, how I know.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.