Clichés

I’ve noticed a few journals have a list of stories they’d rather not see. These lists can be entertaining but also educational when you realise that your fantastic idea for a story has been done so often that magazines have actually gone to the trouble of including them as ‘things not to do’ in their submission guidelines

Strange Horizons

Here is a selection from the Strange Horizons Website (more at the link above)

  • In the future, criminals are punished much more harshly than they are today.
  • An alien or an AI/robot/android observes and comments on the peculiar habits of humans, for allegedly comic effect.
  • White protagonist is given wise and mystical advice by Holy Simple Native Folk.
  • Brutal violence against women is depicted in loving detail, often in a story that’s ostensibly about violence against women being bad.
  • Baby or child is put in danger, in a contrived way, in order to artificially boost narrative tension.
  • Aliens and/or far-future posthumans think, talk, and behave just like upper-middle-class Americans from the 20th or early 21st century.
  • The narrator and/or male characters in the story are bewildered about women, believing them to conform to any of the standard stereotypes about women: that they’re mysterious, wacky, confusing, unpredictable, changeable, temptresses, etc.
  • Strange and mysterious things keep happening. And keep happening. And keep happening. For over half the story. Relentlessly. Without even a hint of explanation.

Clarkesworld

Here is a selection from Clarkesworld (more at the link above)

  • stories in which the words “thou” or “thine” appear
  • talking cats
  • talking swords
  • stories where the climax is dependent on the spilling of intestines
  • stories that depend on some vestigial belief in Judeo-Christian mythology in order to be frightening (i.e., Cain and Abel are vampires, the End Times are a’ comin’, Communion wine turns to Christ’s literal blood and it’s HIV positive, Satan’s gonna getcha, etc.)
  • stories about young kids playing in some field and discovering ANYTHING. (a body, an alien craft, Excalibur, ANYTHING).
  • “funny” stories that depend on, or even include, puns
  • sexy vampires, wanton werewolves, or lusty pirates
  • zombies or zombie-wannabes
  • stories that take place within an artsy-fartsy bohemia as written by an author who has clearly never experienced one

The best place to learn about clichés and waste a year of your life is on TV Tropes but there are a few things I would like to add to the list:

  • Any American adaptation of a property or idea that is innately tied to another country or culture (I’m looking at you Akira)
  • “Subversions” of genre tropes that aren’t actually subversions of anything (Rothfuss)
  • writers trying to be too fucking clever for their own good (Moffat)
  • Strong female characters that are only sidekicks (Gaiman’s new novel is a good example of both that and the girl sacrificing herself to save a guy)
  • gritty retellings. I like original stories that are gritty and I loved Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight but not everything works as a gritty retelling. Please cheer up, the more gritty stuff I read the more I appreciate absolute nonsense)
  • Magic systems that are pretending not to be magic systems.
  • Following on from that: magic systems that are very vaguely defined and can be used as a fill-all-holes plot fixer

Short Story Sunday: ‘Pocketful of Dharma’ by Paolo Bacigalupi

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I bought this as part of the Humble Bundle months ago. Beacuse it was a lot of books at once it was a while before I got around to reading it. I’ve been dipping in and out of it over the past few weeks. Paolo Bacigalupi is a multi-award winning sci-fi author and it’s easy to see why. This is his debut collection of short stories and ‘Pocketful of Dharma’ was first published in 1999. His stories are original, deep, multi-layered and political. They also feature characters from many different cultures and backgrounds which I loved and you don’t see often enough in science fiction.

However, I found I couldn’t read this book for extended periods of time. It’s quite dense. Worldbuilding is Bacigalupi’s biggest strength but it turns into a weakness as well. ‘A Pocketful of Dharma’ is set in a cyberpunkish version of China told from the point of view of a young street beggar. A new, organic city is growing in the centre and the rich and important are moving there while Jun and his ilk are left on the ever-more squalid streets below relying on the generosity/guilt of tourists to survive. He innocently obtains a data cube that everyone and his mother is after. The data cube turns out to contain the consciousness of the Dalai Lama, who cannot reincarnate until it is destroyed. This is about to cause a war between China, Tibet and several others who all want it for their own ends.

The story is good but so much worldbuilding is crammed into so small a space that I can’t help but feel it needed more room to breathe. Casual references leave you wanting more, a lot more. Making the reader work and not belabouring and tiring out every detail can be a good thing but there is a lot of detail without very much explanation. There’s the character and the socio-economic strata of his world, there’s the city he lives in and the spongy living city he aspires to, there’s the life of the gangs around him, there’s the higher political problems, the technology, and the thumbnail sketches of the various other characters that Jun encounters with their own vague motivations… it’s a lot to take in on every page, so much so that it’s hard to get lost in the story itself, and it’s a good one. The characters also take a back-seat in this story, Jun’s the only one I ever felt was a real character. I have this problem with the worldbuilding in some of his other stories but not the character problem thankfully.

It’s definitely worth reading. It paints a bleak, complex picture of people oppressed by society but that picture is highly imaginative and, though he made me work for it, I’m glad I took the time to read it.

Notable lines: A vast biologic city, which other than its life support would then lie dormant as humanity walked its hollowed arteries, clambered through its veins and mailed memories to its skin in the rituals of habitation.

Writing Spots: Keogh’s on Trinity Street

Keogh's Trinity Street Exterior

Keogh’s is a place I walk by frequently and am always tempted by the smell of their baking but I’ve never been inside until today.

It’s a pretty cool little spot, right in the city centre but quiet inside. Very small and cosy. This was planned to be attempt number two at the sex scene I tried and failed to write in Costa.

PROS

  • There were sockets to charge your computer
  • internet (that I didn’t use so I don’t know if it’s any good)
  • nice place, small or large tables, interesting decoration/style without being distracting, windows that open out onto the street and an area to sit outside so it doesn’t get very stuffy
  • the music is decent but not the kind of music I like to write to
  • They didn’t seem to mind me sitting there for hours after only buying one cup of coffee
  • There were others there with laptops so it seems like a writer friendly spot

CONS

  • I’ve seen it very packed at times and hear it can be jammed at rush hour
  • a bit too noisy, too many people, too much movement, too many people walking by the window, talking loudly and generally being distracting. Not quite at the sweet spot yet where there’s enough noise to be a background buzz without being distracting
  • food looked amazing but not exactly cheap
  • staff were kind of abrupt
  • I was sitting next to the window which meant that if anyone was smoking outside the smoke was blown in my direction

After 2 hours 40 minutes I wrote about 800 words, completed the scene (Huzzah) and read four articles to research another story. It cost me less than €3

Overall it was a but too loud and busy, and the smell of smoke was really distracting. Apart from that it was a lot better than Costa. I have a feeling that if I went in at a busy time I’d be rushed out as soon as I was finished my drink

Short Story Sunday: ‘The Blind Chinese Soldiers’ by Hirabayashi Taiko

The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories

I haven’t read any long Japanese literature. It’s only ever been poems and short stories. I’ve seen a lot of their cartoons, films and played the games though. ‘Blind Chinese Soldiers’ is the most striking story I found in this little gem of a collection.

The author is a woman who was writing at a time when both Japanese women writers and working class writers were beginning to distinguish themselves. By all accounts she was incredibly intelligent, very politically active and had a very tough life – she suffered from tuberculosis, cancer and her only child died from malnutrition. Despite this her prose is very measured and avoids the over-the-top flowery sentimentality that would be easy to slip into.

‘Blind Chinese Soldiers’  is set in Japan near the end of World War Two and while much more understated than the obvious comparison that’s part of the point. The whole country was devastated by the war yet very little information was available. The story is set in a train station and as the protagonist is waiting to board his train a lot of Japanese policemen arrive and it turns out that the train is occupied by both Prince Takamatsu and almost 500 Chinese prisoners of war. These soldiers have been blinded, most likely by experimentation and they are lead off the train and treated very roughly by the Japanese escort.

Stop what you’re doing. Go watch this now. Bring tissues.

People stand and gawk but ultimately are more concerned about their own personal tragedies than the larger problems of the country. The train is a great metaphor for this as people come and go, have brief moments of connections and then forget, yet they are all connected through the train of carriages.

There is massive diversity in this collection but this story is so brief – much like the encounter it depicts – so pared back and raw, that it is one of my favourites.

Notable Lines: All of them half-closed their eyes as if it were too bright, and tears were dripping from every eye. It was certain that every one of them was blind.

Writing spots: Costa Coffee on Dawson street

So I’ve recently started doing the majority of my writing in cafés and other places that are not my home. (I also recently bought a Mac. I know, I’ve become the enemy)

Some places are better than others for a variety of reasons so I’ve decided to write about why this is just in case it helps anyone else who needs a quiet spot in the city to write. I will source my images from the internet. I know I’m about three quarters of the way towards mutating into a hipster but I refuse to start taking pictures of my food and coffee just yet.

The corner or Dawson and Nassau Street

PROS

  • good coffee, prices are okay depending on what you order. Good cakes and food too. So it has passed the first hurdle.
  • Wifi Access
  • loyalty cards if you’re into that kind of thing (personally I keep losing them and don’t have the patience for points systems. I got rid of mine once I realised I had more empty loyalty cards than money in my purse.
  • very pretty, nice surroundings, and a fireplace that I really hope they light in the winter time
  • very central, very convenient if you’re in town
  • the music is not unbearable
  • they don’t seem to mind you eating food from outside. I was blatantly eating a kit-kat with my coffee and no-one said anything

CONS

  • the WiFi is kind of crap, it’s that bitbuzz thing which periodically logs you off and is just generally annoying
  • no sockets to charge your computer (or else the sockets are very well hidden)
  • It’s a bit too central. I went in for a bit of quiet writing and immediately ran into a friend I haven’t seen in years so got distracted talking to them. The last few times I was in this Costa I ran into people I know and I’m not even from Dublin
  • I sat down and a family with small children sat next to me. Now this was distracting enough with the loud talking and fidgeting and spilling their drinks everywhere and interrupting me to ask about my computer, but it was also kind of awkward because I was in the middle of writing a sex scene – it threw me off to say the least so I decided to write this instead.

After 1 hr 30 minutes my word count is 400 words and my pocket is €2.50 lighter

Overall Costa fails, I will keep searching for the holy grail of writing spots, I know if must exist somewhere in this city and if I believe and my heart is pure I will find it

Short Story Sunday: ‘The Fog’ by Freya McClements

I know it’s technically Monday but I haven’t gone to bed yet so it still feels like Sunday. That means short story Sunday ahoy! This week’s story is ‘The Fog’ by Freya McClements, whose debut collection of short stories is published by Guildhall Press. ‘The Fog’ can be read on Darker Times Fiction.  They run a monthly competition for short stories, flash fiction and poetry. The Fog won the June edition of the competition.

It is written in the second person as if the narrator is instructing the reader, inviting them into an incredibly atmospheric world. Unfortunately the atmosphere sort of takes precedence from the very beginning and other plot moments aren’t as strong as they could have been.

Perhaps it’s because of the fabulous summer weather we’ve been having recently but some of the images in the story fell quite flat and seemed too melodramatic.

we live our lives in the light. We draw sustenance from it, worship it, work in it. From its dark companion we shy away

While this image could have something to say in other circumstances I don’t know any characters, an plot or action, event the set-up remains a mystery to me so it’s kind of hard to get into mood of the story. The whole thing comes across as a little bit overwrought. This is a shame because when they plot does appear it’s very interesting. It’s about Jack the Ripper and the narrator leads you through the streets of Whitechapel looking for a murderer and in doing so prompts the reader to question their own motivations in following and indeed the motivations of anyone who is fascinated by true crime and gawks along at stories of murders, glued to television coverage of death and destruction.

The much-maligned second person perspective is handled deftly and is appropriate to the story and the atmosphere. There’s a tendency for writers to belabour the point when using second person but McClements  doesn’t beat us about the head with it, using it sparingly to engage the reader and to restablish her excellent atmosphere and letting it slide into the background when not needed. I’d recommend this story to anyone who would like to see an example of well crafted second person narrative (even if it is technically a first person addressing a second) and for fans of horror and drama.

The story takes an interesting turn at the end and McClements handles her theme, message and techniques well, I just feel that it was a bit heavy on melodrama without enough details or character building. However, I would like to read more of McClements’ work.

Notable Lines: I wonder… Forgive my forwardness, but what nightmares have you fashioned just now from out of my words?