Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Privilege and I

I’ve been learning a lot about the idea of privilege over the last few months, both as an increasing member of the SF/F community, and the Steampunk community.

The argument goes that, being part of the dominant culture, I’m in a position of privilege.  I’m part of the dominate culture because I’m white, male, able-bodied and Western.  I can expect the cultural values I hold to be reflected in the society around me, and I can expect ‘my’ people to be extremely visible--i.e. white, able-bodied Western men on T.V., billboards, adverts etc.  Because of the visibility of WWAM, people in my society will take my opinions more seriously, offer me more respect and more doors will be open for me.  I’ll be recognised as part of the ‘norm’, you see.  The physical and psychological world I live in will be designed more around me than people not of the dominant culture. 

I can’t deny that it’s true.  Imagine you’re, say, eight-foot tall.  You’d have to stoop to go through any shop door, you wouldn’t be able to buy clothes easily, you’d only be able to drive larger cars etc etc.  Next time you’re walking around town, have a look at the amount of steps you need to navigate and imagine you were in a wheelchair, and couldn’t do it.

As a WWAM, the theory says, I’m also not subject to generalisations that other groups are.  You know, like ‘black people are good at dancing’, or ‘women are good cooks’, or ‘Indians like curry’.  People aren’t going to look at me and assume they know things about me based on my skin colour/gender/number of limbs, the way they might look at an Indian-looking person and assume they’re from Banglatown, or look at a Middle-Eastern looking person and assume they’re a Muslim. 

To an extent, I’ve been a victim of it too.  I gave up eating meat a few years ago, and I am so frikking sick of egg or cheese sandwiches.  If I want to have something to eat that I don’t make myself, those are pretty much my only options.  Especially in motorway service stations, although the ‘vegetarian option’ offered by most restaurants is normally little better.  When I give up dairy this year, my options when eating out are petty much reduced to zero, even in restaurants. 

The trouble I find with this notion of privilege is that it lumps all white, English-speaking people together.  Everyone from Scotland, Shetland Isle, Ireland, Wales, England, North American, Canada, parts of the Mediterranean, South Africa and probably a whole bunch of places I’m not too aware off, all in one great big homogenised lump, all sharing the same cultural values and goals.

I’m told this is the sort of thing people who aren’t part of the dominant culture have to put with all the time--e.g. all black people--from every part of the world--can dance.  As an example, a friend of mine drives a very old, very beautiful, very temperamental motorbike.  She had just filled up with petrol and the bike was refusing to start, as is its want.  A man from one of the other pumps came over and told her that he would help.  The problem is that she owns the bike and is very used to dealing with it, knows its moods and how to deal with it, but the man who came to help thought he knew more about it than her because ‘women aren’t good with cars or bikes’, that unspoken assumption he probably hadn’t even realised he held. 

This is a problem in the SF/F community (and by association the Steampunk community), as Jeste de Vries points out in a kind of related post on the Shine! blog:

“On the one hand, it is extremely hard to deny that the majority of both SF writers *and* SF protagonists are white males….

That none of the 57 Hugo Awards for Best Novel have been won by people of colour (and 15 by women), is not a good sign. That all of the SFWA Grand Masters are white, and that only 3 of the 27 SFWA Grand Masters are women doesn’t help matters, either. Compare this with a literary prize like the Man Booker Prize (where 8 people of colour, and 15 women have been awarded among the total of 43 recipients), or the Nobel Prize for Literature (where 9 people of colour, and, admittedly, only 9 women have been awarded among the total of 106 recipients), then one can clearly see that SF still has way to go in that respect. OK: one could also say that the whole of western literature has quite a way to go in that respect, but I do note that the number of ethnic and women recipients of both literature and SF prizes has been going up since, say 1960 or so. If looked from that perspective, SF has much more catching up to do than literature.”

Now, Jeste de Vries’s point is that SF needs to reach out to new markets in order to survive.  It needs to engage with people beyond its WWAM fanbase.  What people don’t seem to mention in posts like the above is that this is SF/F written in English.  How does the distribution of SF/F output relate to the distribution of the English speaking audience? 

According to the Internets, there are about 375 million people in the world who have English as their native language.  The top two countries--the USA and UK--account for 275,922,205 people, or 73.58%.  In the USA, 75.05% of people identify as white, and in the UK 92.10% of people do.  So, of those 375 million people, about 60% identify as White.  Okay, so that’s very rough.  Very, very rough.  But according to that, in order to be representative about 60% of SF/F stories should feature white protagonists. 

The thing that worries me is the skew in the numbers.  As someone who’s white, I get to be part of the worldwide 60%, not part of the UK 92.1%.  I worry people are going to say, ‘he’s white and is contributing to the WWAM bias’, and not, ‘he’s from the UK and its fine for him to be a white SF writer because 9 out of 10 people in that country are white’.  I worry that I’m only ever going to be seen as a WWAM writer.

I think the answer is that I’m getting butt-hurt over the fact I’m losing my privilege.  Up until now, I’ve been able to ignore the bias--that’s been my privilege.  Now I’ve lost that privilege and I’m just like everyone else.  Like anybody who loses something they haven’t earned, I feel hard done by.

Or maybe it’s that I’m losing the assumptions I’ve been brought up with, the world I thought I’ve been living in all these years is dissipating, and I’m scared.  Strange New Worlds scare the crap out of me.  People, you see, in Strange New Worlds will hate me, taunt me and keep me ostracised.  (Yes, I do have issues.  I’m working on them, I promise.)

Either way, this is where I find myself…

My Arbitrary Numbering System is Better than Yours

(I actually wrote this on Boxing Day, but didn't have access to the Internet to post it today...)

Jeff VanderMeer and his wife Ann are putting together an anthology of Steampunk short stories called Steampunk Reloaded. The catch is that all the stories have to have been previously published, which is kind of handy for me: The only 'Steampunk' story I have presentable is Of Mice and Journeymen. So, I sent it off for consideration. It'd be nice to be accepted, but my hopes aren't high. They say they want things outside of the of normal Victorian Gentlemen in steam-powered spaceships thing, but I think Journeymen is a bit too far out.

It's not long now before it's exactly a year before the decade of the noughties closes. Apart from three major terrorist attacks in the West, two wars, a world banking crises and a global recession, what the hell has happened this decade?

When I was growing up, my family didn't talk much about the past, about who they were or where they'd come from. There was this set of rules that our extended family worked within, which they never really explained and I never really picked up. (My brother managed to pick them up perfectly though, so I must have been doing something wrong.) Now we're all older, they're a bit more open and I'm a bit more emotionally sensitive.

I spent Christmas Day with my parents, my brother and his finance, and my aunt and uncle. Everyone apart from me, my mother and my aunt (her sister) went to see where my dad works (I'd seen it already), and my aunt started talking.

When they were young, both my maternal grandparents worked. Their children--my mum, my aunt and my uncle--were looked after by a friend a few doors down who had four kids of about the same ages. I'm reliably informed that chaos--and in a few cases, bloodshed--ensued. The children grew up, my mum became a party girl, my aunt became the party girl's older sister and my uncle got into cars. The kids down the road grew up, one joining the army at fifteen, one moving to Australia, the others going their own way too.

The one who joined the army had six weeks leave, and came to see his childhood playmates. Knowing what was what, my aunt kept making excuses and leaving the strapping young lad and my mother the party girl in the room, alone together. Boys, you see, always came around to see her.

It wasn't until my mother cornered her sister in the kitchen and told her that the strapping young army lad hadn't come all this way to be left in the room with the sister of the girl he was in love with that something clicked.

And the best part is that they were married and lived happily ever after, the army lad and my aunt.

Childhood playmates becoming life-long partners. Isn't that the kind of wonderful thing you don't expect to see outside of cheap TV shows? Apparently it happens in my family, too.

(My uncle's career in the army was far from life-long and happy. It's a bit of a shame I can't talk in depth with him about it because it could be a real light on my opinions on armed forces, but I'm not going to poke old, open wounds.)

I'm not going to use that story in anything I write, because I don't want to write cheap TV shows. It's a lovely story, though, perhaps all the better because I'm not going to annex it. It can just stay as it is, a little slice of my family history.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Getting paid to work

Ever since I was about six years old, I've wanted to be 'a writer'.  On my eighteenth birthday, I brought myself a bottle of Champaign which I planned to open and drink when I got my first book deal.

What it means to be 'a writer' is a question that's kept me tossing and turning in my sleep for the past twenty years or so.  Is it when I get my first book published?  When I earn the majority of my income from writing?  When other people start calling me a writer?

By the time I was nineteen, I'd written two novels.  They were high fantasy and probably not great, but it took dedication and inspiration.  Those are the two things that have keep me plugging away at this whole 'writer' thing and kept me convinced this was the path I'm at home on.

I started writing short stories because that's where people like Asimov and Bradbury started (at least, that was my understanding at the time).  In the last few years, I've realised that science-fiction and fantasy short stories are not just an art to themselves but a whole world to themselves. 

Always with an eye on that bottle of Champaign (when I can call myself 'a writer'), I've been following this whole, 'pay rates fail' thing which has been blowing around the blogs at the moment.  How much should writers been paid, and when a writer can call themselves a professional?

The Steampunk Soiree was, financially, a bit of a disaster.  Everybody who attended had a great time and would love to come again, but everybody who attended isn't going to come close to paying for all the bands.  Less professional, and more farce.  A very fun farce, but a farce non-the-less.  We're yet to do the sums, but if we can pay people's expenses it's going to be a miracle of some description (hey, we have our hopes up--it's Christmas, after all!)  Effectively, the artists had to pay to work.

Issue #6 of Steampunk Magazine was, financially, a bit of a disaster too.  It was a lot longer than normal and there wasn't enough money in the kitty to cover expenses.  It was supposed to be my first ever payment for something I'd written, but I waived it and have already happily foregone any payment for anything I write for Issue #7.  And, of course, SPM is released under Creative Commons non-profit accreditation licence, so someone can take Of Mice and Journeymen, reprint it and re-write it as much as they like.

So, let's say a reasonable pro pay rate for a short story is 5 cents a word.  £1 is $1.1211 at the moment, so 1p is 1.1211c.  So, for every word I'd get 4.4599p.  I need about £900 a month to survive.  That means I'd have to sell 20,180 words (or there abouts).  Assuming an average story of mine is 7,000 words, that's three pro-sales a month.   That's also assuming there's no cap on pay and magazines don't mind paying me $350 for a story.  (Of course, this doesn't take into account charges for changing currency which is something that's yet to come up in the Great Pay Debate.)

There's three immediate problems I can see with this:
1) If I quit my day job, I could probably rely on writing one 'as good as I can write' story a month.  A good month could produce three, if it was a really good month;
2) Selling three pro-rate stories a month would mean an awful lot of socialising and networking for me, and people scare me;
3)  After 36 stories in the first year, people are going to get pretty damned sick of me.

There's non-fiction--which is apparently even harder than short story writing to make money out of--and workshops--which runs into 2)--which could top up my earnings.  Maybe there's other avenues I'm not aware of at the moment.  For the moment, though, I've not really got any qualms about ruling out making a living from my writing.

As a result of the pay debate, I've decided to start sending my work to pro- and semi-pro markets.  Maybe I'm not good enough yet, but I'll keep striving to get better.  Am I doing it for the money?  Well, a couple hundred quid would be more than welcome but the short answer is, 'no'.  I'm doing it because the slush pile at those magazines is huge and you've got to really shine to be picked out.  And, probably more importantly, because the people whose work I love reading sometimes read those magazines. 

When one of my stories appears in Interzone along side Jason Sanford, maybe then I'll crack open that bottle.  Or maybe I'll wait until John Reppion says, 'hey Foxie, loved the story--it gave me an amazing idea!'.  Of course, my snarky side wants to wait until one of my stories triggers its own xyz-fail shit storm.

The money=good thing is something deeply embedded in my psyche by a middle-class upbringing (I gave my Dad a copy of 'Mind Games' to read, because I thought he might like to see what his son was doing with his life, and his first question was, 'how much money did this make you then?').  Hanging around with Steampunks is really making me challenge and question that, and more and more I'm convinced that's wrong.  Is playing to a crowd of 40 at a loss better than playing to a crowd of 200 with a nice paycheck?  You can't make a habit out of it, but if those 40 people are inspired and those 200 are just drunk then, well, it probably is.

If I wanted to make money, I'd have followed my brother's lead and become an accountant.  If I want to make money from writing, I'll follow James Patterson and top my bank balance up writing whargarble for the Murdoch press.  I'm not saying these things are easy, but that's where the money is.

If I get myself in the pro markets, maybe in twenty years time someone will offer me a T.V. show.  Maybe by the time we've gone through the sixth Soiree, we'll be able to make a profit, I'll enjoy socialising and people will be saying, 'talk to Foxie, he'll make it happen for you'.  Perhaps people will be thinking, 'I need an opinion on this, what's Foxie thinking?'.  Five years down the line, yeah I'll probably still be in the day job.  Ten years, maybe.  Twenty years?  Thirty years?  I don't know.  Money is nice, but transitory.  Reputation is permanent, and it takes decades to build up one of those.  I've been at this twenty-five years already and maybe I won't be opening that bottle for another twenty-five.  I'm okay with that.  I'm a writer.  As sure as some people are homosexual or Olympic athletes, that's who I am.  That's who I'm going to be until the day I die, so I'm okay going slow and steady because I've got the time.  Hell, that's really all I've got to do with my life.

Writers should be paid a fair wage for their work, but that's never going to happen when there's so many of us.  Unless your name comes out the cosmic lottery machine, you're never going to make a living from just writing fiction.  (Oh, people win every week but you'd be daft to count on paying your mortgage with a lottery ticket.)  The underlying problem which no amount of e-ink can change is that there is not the audience to support SF/F writers.  Even with the success of Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek:  Reboot, the general public don't particularly want to read thought-provoking, innovative SF/F short stories.  They want Opera and Will Smith.  They want to give their money to franchises they can trust, actors they know and authors who entertain without challenging.  It takes a degree of imagination and intelligence to gain something from the SF/F short story world as it is at the moment, and the general public are increasingly wanting to just dumbly consume. 

So if you're arguing that writers should be able to make a living from their work, you've lost before you've begun.  There's not enough interest to generate enough money to make that position viable.  It's not the fault of the magazines or the writers or the advertisers.  What we produce simply isn't what the masses--the paying public--wants. 

We publish to talk to each other, to inspire each other.  A story in a pro magazine means that an editor with a towering slush pile has decided this piece has something to say.  That's why I'll read and think about everything in Interzone, regardless of how much I personally enjoy the story.  I don't think I'm the only one who thinks like that, either.  5c a word is the honey which brings in the bees, and the editors need to fulfil their end of the bargain by picking the diamonds out the slush.  That's their reputation and track record.  The currency itself becomes a value, a number in part of a larger equation and independent of what goods and services it can be exchanged for.

But that's just me.  If the majority of writers in the SF/F world agreed, John Scalzi and everyone else wouldn't have batted at eyelid at Black Matrix, instead just deciding that the number the equation came out with was too low and passing on to other things.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

A Bridge's Tale

Let me tell you a story.

Like many people who write, I keep a note book. I use it both to note down ideas, and to develop them.

(^my notebook^)

Yes, this story has pictures. That’s the kind of story it is. (They were taken on my camera phone, though, so the quality isn't great. Sorry about that...)

Angeline of the Woods started off as a doodle I made at the Asylum while waiting for other people to show up for the creative writing workshop. A couple weeks after getting back, I put the few ideas I’d had into my notebook and began to poke them to see how they’d grow. After a couple of pages of thought-association, I hit a wall. So, I doodled a picture of the town the story is set in:

I drew the river. Then the town and the woods the titular Angeline would be Of. Towards the top of the woods, I marked an area ‘fuel allotments’ because I grew up within walking distance of a fair few acres of fuel allotments, and they were very special to me when I was young. I drew in some trees, some houses, some roads, a little picture of Angeline…

And you see that bridge? I put that in last, because I figured that the people in town would need a way to get to the fuel allotments. Then I noticed that the river flowed from north to south, and the bridge was north of the town. That meant that the ships would have to be able to fit under the bridge. As the town was just above sea level, that meant the bridge would have to be pretty large, and significantly raised above the level of the town. People would still have to be able to get over the bridge--how else would they get their fuel from the allotments?--so that meant there would have to be ramps of some sort leading up to it.

Hey… I was beginning to think, this bridge is going to pretty much dominate the town. The town was built around the docks so the bridge couldn’t be an expansion of an older bridge (otherwise the ships wouldn’t be able to get in). Huge projects like that are prestige projects, built to make a statement more than anything else. Who would do that, I wondered?

I got distracted before I could figure that out. Would a bridge--with two huge arches like in my doodle--even be able to support itself or would physics be against it? Well, three hours of Google and Wikipedia later, I was satisfied physics would be kind to the bridge.

So, back to the question of who built it, and why. The ships coming into the town are the lost and deserted ships of all time and space. Those ships which disappear without a trace, those who end up in Davey Jones’ locker, those who sail into the mist and reappear years later… those are the ships which come through. Maybe one of these ships was carrying a Brunel-esque engineer, someone with the knowledge, vision and determination to see through a project of such magnitude.

He must, I decided, have done it to free the people of the town. To free them from whom? Well… before the bridge was built, the townspeople must have moved from one side to the other. The County Road is on the other side of the river, and that sounds like an important road. So, whoever controls travel across the river controls who gets fuel and when, and who gets through to the County Road and when. Our Brunelian engineer was enraged by this evil cartel of ferry operators and the absolute power they wielded, so he decided to free the town! Yay!

Obviously, he couldn’t rely on the ferry operators ferrying his stone from the County Road to his building site and he couldn’t just wait around and hope a ship would come in with the vast amount of stone he would need. So the stone would have to be local. From my previous time with Wikipedia and Google, I had discovered that a bridge of such magnitude would probably have to be built from granite if it was going to last.

But what the hell kind of forest would grow on a bedrock of granite, especially where there was enough at hand to blast out the ground and built a bridge of? Wikipedia failed me. I dropped all other quests, and focused. Search term after search term found themselves in my search bar to be sent scurrying across the web. Eventually, I gained enough XP to level up my Google-fu and found an answer.

(The Granite-Forest quest lead to another one about the sort of undergrowth which would grow in such a forest, but that’s another story.)

Armed with my notes

I started writing.

The bridge was only built two generations ago, so as well as dominating the town physically it’s also going to be pretty dominate psychologically. Everyone living in the town would have had a part to play in its story.

Nigel, the kind-hearted local lad Feathers recruits to help him, tells Feathers of his grandfather’s part:
“Grandfather helped to build the bridge,” Nigel said. “Happiest damned day of his life was when he took his family and walked across to t'other side…pushed his wife off the side, see. They hanged him from the scaffolding over the second arch. Told my girl he's ghost stays there, guards the county road as penance. Makes her proud, that. Great-grandfather guarding the whole town an' all.”

He’s proud of his grandfather, in an odd sort of way.

The bridge does restrict the traffic which can get to the town docks. Anything taller than a clipper would have trouble, for example. Luckily, Nigel knew the town’s ingenious solution:
“The bridgemen used to run this town,” Nigel said. “Grandfather used to say about these big platforms what used to float from one side of the river to t'other. Four bridgeman to move it, two to steer. Only way to get to the county road over the water was on the platform, so if you wanted anything--food, horses, wood, anything--you'd have to take a platform and pay the bridgemen. Then a man came along. On a big iron ship that moved God only knows how. Took one look at the bridgemen, and stood in the town square and told everyone he was going to build us a bridge. So he did. Everyone watched as he built up them banks on each side and as this thing slowly came to be. When it was finished, bridgemen went broke in a month. He was walking along the riverside, passed by a gang of bridgemen, fell in the water and drowned.”

Nigel shrugged as if that was all there was to the story. Feathers took his hands off the windowsill and linked them behind his back.

“What happened to the bridgemen?” he asked.

“One of the workers from the boat who'd built the bridge, he brought all the platforms and made them into the Grossanlegen. Everyone winds up happy.”

That’s all from the first draft. (Grossanlegen is a crude German translation for ‘Big Docks’.)

When editing, I strive to remove any ounce of fat I can find. You know how much of the bridge’s story has survived to the third draft?

Yep. None.

I mean, it was great fun to explore the bridge’s history, to literally build it up and watch as it grew and the history of the town grew with it. It was gratifying to listen as Nigel made the bridge a real, tangible thing with its own past, memories and legends. But it didn’t add anything to the story of Angeline of the Woods. So it had to go.

There are no scared cows in the editing room. Editor Foxie is a cruel, cruel man.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

A bit about writing

You know you’re in a bad place when the thought of reading through your own story fills you with a sense of dread. I’ve been getting that a lot recently, but writing is supposed to be a release, isn’t it?

Angeline of the Woods is now into a third draft and I had a moment this morning where it felt like everything came together. I dropped a few inconsequential words onto the page, there was a click, and suddenly the machine started to work. It needs a bit of tinkering, but it’s turning over and doing what it’s supposed to do.

The ‘sense of dread’ is something that’s been lingering over me since the car died. Every time I try and do something, there it is, blocking the way like some vast Internet slob, his Dorito-dusted gut lolloping over his keyboard.

Maybe I’m experiencing a temporary reprieve, or maybe it’s starting to pass. Either way, the Steampunk Soiree is this weekend and then Christmas shortly after. The Soiree, I’m reminding myself, is going to be fantastic--people I like, music I love, dancing, museums, markets… what else could I want? Christmas, well. I’m sure I saw tinsel in shops in August, but it’s almost over now. Just more three weeks of hated Christmas music in every single damned shop. I’m spending it with family this year, who at least have central heating. They’re lovely people and I’ve got no real complaints about them, I’m just not really a ‘Christmas’ person.

I have to get a move on with Symphonie Magnifique, too. Crossed Genres are putting together a ‘Steampunk’ issue, and of course I have to throw something in there. It’s about Frenchmen, and women, in space in 1869 (or maybe 1871). As well as Symphonie, I’m going to have a crack at writing an article--How Re-writing the Past is Going to Change the Future--about Steampunk culture, how the aesthetic translates to sustainable living, user-serviceable products, all that stuff.

And after being pointed to two very interesting articles there by Jason Sanford, I’ve started following Jeff van der Meer’s blog. He’s a man who knows his writing.