Guest Post: Stephen Palmer

I suppose Brian Eno is best known for his contribution to music; and a lot of it is great music. I always think of him though for a particular piece of advice: Use your accidents. As a producer, Eno encouraged bands to moderate or even ignore their instinct to produce polished music, in favour of that with the vitality of accidental input.

How does this fit with writing?

When I was putting together the scenario for my new Conjuror Girl trilogy – a steampunk work set in an alternate late Victorian version of my home town of Shrewsbury – I thought everything would be steam, carriages and horse power. Then, reading one day a book about carbon-based fuel, I was struck by a reference to the fractionating column, used by chemists to separate different compounds existing in the same solution. Such a contraption I’d not seen since my school days. I looked up from the book, wondering if I could use the thing for Conjuror Girl, but I thought… nah. Too modern.

Then I reconsidered. The mental image persisted. Chemists did all sorts of things in the late nineteenth century, so was there really a reason to ignore this accidental image? I jotted the idea down, then was suddenly struck with another idea. The dark side of these novels comes in the form of the Reifiers, men with the ability to make real – reify – the contents of their minds. As it is put early on, they can make real their whims and fancies. But to do this they have to impose their minds upon the world, an act of deep selfishness. The consequence of Reification is a black fluid which, lore has it, is composed of pure selfishness; and even Reifiers dare not come into contact with this stuff.

Now I was getting to the kernel of the idea. What if this oily black liquid was composed of different fractions which could be separated in a fractionating column? What if there was a character who did this – a madcap scientist, a petit-Reifier in fact. Suddenly I had a whole new part of the plot, previously blank.

It’s accidents like this which make sub-creation such fun. I usually leave many of a novel’s details vague so that, when I’m writing in the white heat of composition, I can use my imagination for fuel.

And there was another accident which I took advantage of. When I was at school I did history before taking other O-levels, and the first thing we studied was the Danelaw. While talking about school teachers to a friend one day I suddenly remembered history lessons, and the naïve, poorly drawn map I did in my history book of the border between England and the Danelaw, which my teacher wrote poor next to in red pen. Thinking on this, I wondered if I could perpetuate that border and have part of Britain inhabited by Danes…

A final accident, then. When looking at a map of south-east England one time I noticed Sussex, Middlesex and Essex, and their origins in Saxon regions. There was also a Wessex of course. At once I asked myself: why no Nossex? Well, there were no north Saxons to leave such a name. I knew at once that I had to invent the region. So I did. My fictitious Shrewsbury is in Nossex.

Buy Monique Orphan from Amazon

Loncon 3: The 72nd World SF Convention

I’ll be attending Loncon 3, and I hope you are too.

** Final Update 7th August **


Saturday 13:00 – 14:00, London Suite 5 (ExCeL)

Tony Ballantyne, Laura Lam

Come and chat!

I’m moderating the following panel:

I Can’t Do That, Dave: artificial intelligence, imagination, and fear

Sunday 13.30 – 15:00

From the Minds of Iain M Banks’ Culture to Portal’s GLaDOS, artificial intelligences abound in sf, and not infrequently they turn on their creators. Whether as idealisation of reason or deadly threat – or both– why do AIs have such an enduring appeal? Where do fictional AIs
stand in relation to the real-world science? And to what extent has sf explored the ethical questions surrounding the creation of sentience to better serve humankind?

Madeline Ashby, Tony Ballantyne,  Anthony Fucilla, Justina Robson, Tricia Sullivan

I’ll also be on the panel for the following:

British Comics: Influences and Influencers

Friday 11am
130 years ago the emergence of Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday saw the first comic book (as we recognise it) published in the UK. Since then the medium has gone through many cycles of expansion and contraction.

What comic books from outside the UK have been influential upon the development of comic books here – artistically, politically, and thematically?

And how have British comic creators and stories in turn exerted their influence upon the comic book industries in other countries?

Is there a recognisable British comic book tradition? And how is it changing and adapting in an instant, connected world with a multitude of styles and visions?

Urban Fantasy: London

Friday 18:00 – 19:00

The early twenty-first century commercial explosion of urban fantasy — first person, coexisting supernatural creatures, often noirish — was, at least initially, driven by the American market and American writers. Increasingly, however, writers such as Kate Griffin, Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell are writing contemporary urban fantasy set in the UK and, in particular, in London. How has crossing the Atlantic changed this subgenre? How is it similar to or different from older forms of British urban fantasy?

Forte! Classical Music, Opera and the fantastic

Monday 12:00 (noon)
As the mass entertainment of previous centuries and arguably the preferred musical form for current blockbuster movies and games, classical music and, to an extent opera, are natural partners with fantastic story-telling. Panelists explore these connections: both themes of the fantastic in classical compositions and music depicted in SF&F.




500 Horse Burgers

It’s interesting to see how the media reacts to a story.  When there’s a risk of infection, are they going to scaremonger or are they going to be sensible?  It seems that in the case of the horse meat story they’ve decided to be sensible.

For those of you not following the British media, it has been revealed that some meals labelled as containing beef actually contain a percentage of horse meat.    Some of that meat may have come from horses injected with phenylbutazone, or bute.  Bute can have harmful side effects if taken by humans, and so is not an approved drug for humans.

The media could have run with a story along the lines of  “Deadly Horse Burgers Infect our Children”, but instead they went for the far less reactionary “You’d have to eat 500 horse burgers to get a significant dose of bute.”

This is one way to quantify risk in way that people can easily understand.  I remember back in the 1980s when AIDS awareness was first being raised, it was asked if you could catch aids from saliva – could you catch AIDS from kissing?  Popular wisdom back then had it that you would have to drink a bucket of saliva in order to catch AIDS.

Now, I don’t know whether its true that you can be made ill from 500 horse burgers or a bucket of spit, I’m more interested in the way the risk is presented.

When the MMR scare was at its height a question frequently asked by the media was “Can you guarantee that the MMR jab is 100% safe?”  The answer, as they must have known, was no.  Nothing is 100% safe. So why ask the question?  Why not say that you would need 500 injections or a bucket full of the stuff to quantify the risk?

I can only suppose because they wanted to scare people.  This may well have been because they genuinely believed that MMR was dangerous and that people should be scared.  Or maybe that’s just a load of horse burgers.

A Forest

I attended some training this week on teaching literacy to teenagers. I was told that the key to persuasive writing was to remember A FOREST: Alliteration, Facts, Opinions, Rhetorical Questions, Examples, Statistics, rule of Three.

Now, I don’t disagree with this. These are all effective techniques in my opinion. More than that, there is a circularity in education which means that if someone says A FOREST is the key to persuasive writing then the markscheme in some future exam will only judge a piece of writing to be persuasive if there is A FOREST there, and who doesn’t want to do well in an exam?

I dutifully wrote up my piece of persuasive writing and was given someone else’s to check.  As is always the case I was asked to suggest improvements. The piece was very good, the only remark I could make was it had used too much alliteration. I was asked what I meant, too much alliteration, and I pointed out how this technique had been used at the start, in the middle and at the end of the piece. A good 15% of the piece was alliteration, alliteration, alliteration…

And that’s when something occurred to me. The difference between teaching English and writing. Don’t think I’m having a go at teachers, I’ve been one for twenty years. The point is that a teacher will flag up all the clever stuff in a piece of writing. They will point out the techniques the writer has used and discuss them with the class. And this is the right thing to do as the pupils will learn by example.

But now look at this from the writer’s point of view. They writer will have done all of those things, but if they know their stuff they won’t make them too obvious. They’ll have buried those tricks in the flow of the text; they don’t want the reader tripping over them.

It’s good advice to any writer: don’t remind the reader they are reading. Keep it flowing, if they’re stopping to admire your wordplay they’re not immersed in the story.

Les Miserables: Not SF

…well, you probably knew that anyway.

I saw the film last weekend.  I like musicals, though this one is not a favourite – I think the music is rather uneven, magnificent in parts, almost trite in others. But this isn’t a film review or music blog even if I am going to write about Anne Hathaway singing I Dreamed a Dream.

Now, I don’t particularly like this song.  I’m not sure that I liked it originally, I’ve heard it too many times to register it now.

…until Anne Hathaway sang it.  I’d read what a great performance she gave, I wasn’t prepared for just how great.  It’s a little unfair that a song, merely by its own popularity can become a cliché (think Bohemian Rhapsody or Nessun Dorma)  but Hathaway made it sound as if it was being sung for the first time.  More, she made me feel the emotions the song was trying to evoke.  That made me think about writing…

It reminded me that one of the great things about literature is that sometimes it can take something commonplace and everyday and make the reader look at it with new eyes.  It can retell an old story and make the reader experience it as if it were fresh. This isn’t what SF does.  SF  extrapolates a premise into something new, it’s not there to reveal something you already know.

I’m not saying that you will never read SF that makes you look at the familiar with new eyes.  Of course you will.  Avoiding cliche is part and parcel of good writing, and there are some great writers writing SF.

You’ll find romance in some SF, but SF is not romance.  You’ll also find comedy, though that isn’t a necessary component.  A good SF tale will contain many strands, but not all of those strands are necessary to make it SF.

Update 13 Feb 2013

I notice that Anne Hathaway won a BAFTA for her performance this weekend. No doubt she intends to thank me for the part I played in getting her noticed. I’ve not heard anything yet.

Alt.Fiction Spring Writing Weekend

Alt.Fiction is proud to present its Spring Writing Weekend – the perfect chance for writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror to meet and work with like-minded people and enjoy workshops and talks with established authors in the field. Offering workshops, feedback sessions and expert advice, these weekends are sure to both inform and inspire.

Spring Writing Weekend, 20th-22nd May

Guest Speakers:

Tony Ballantyne – science fiction writer of the Recursion Trilogy and the Penrose Series
Simon Clark – acclaimed horror novelist and author of The Night of the Triffids

Venue: Legacy Chesterfield Hotel, Malkin Street, Chesterfield, S41 7UA

With a convenient location next to Chesterfield rail station and a wide range of leisure facilities, the Legacy Chesterfield Hotel is a great place to work and
The Spring Writing Weekend costs just £180, including two nights’ shared accommodation, all meals and hot drinks, plus a full programme of writing activities throughout Saturday and Sunday featuring two guest authors.

To book your place, or for any enquiries, email [email protected] or call Alex on 07896 228367

A £90 deposit is required to confirm your place, with a further £90 to be paid at least one week before the event. Deposits are non-refundable except in case of event cancellation. No refunds will be given in case of any changes to guest authors, or in the event of participants being unable to attend for any reason. Please note, the deadline for booking your place is 13 May 2011.

Alt.Fiction is a trading name of Writing East Midlands