Quality vs quality (A teaser)

A new essai written especially for my new collection, Style is the Rocket.


In a certain town that you have never heard of, though you may have lived there all your life, two restaurants face each other across a busy street. Both pride themselves upon the quality of their cookery; but if you read the menus posted beside their respective doors, and the little blurb at the head of each, you may come away with the idea that they are not using the word quality in precisely the same way.

The restaurant on the north side of the street has a bare white exterior and a bare white signboard, very chic in a thoroughly minimalist way; and on the signboard you will find this notice:

HOUSE OF MINUS
A Quality Restaurant

Minus Sugar
Minus Fat
Minus Sodium
Minus Cholesterol
Minus Gluten
Minus MSG
Minus Additives
Minus Preservatives
Minus Pesticides
Minus Impurities of Any Kind

The same bare white aesthetic is continued inside, with bare white tables and hard white chairs; and it is rather emphasized by the fact that most of the tables are empty. There are a couple of health-food cranks in one corner, and a lonely old man with digestive trouble sits near the kitchen door. In the middle of the room, a party of avant-garde restaurant critics are talking loudly, praising the wonderful geometric arrangement of the food on their plates, but not actually eating any of it. They can perhaps be excused for this omission.

For in truth, the food at the House of Minus is rather unappealing. The only thing on the menu is a special kind of digestive biscuit, manufactured on the premises, and carefully designed to contain nothing that could injure anybody’s health or offend anybody’s palate. The recipe was dictated by the owner, a self-made man who piled up millions in another line of work, and has convinced himself that sickness and death would depart from the world if only everybody could be made to live on an exclusive diet of these biscuits. Needless to say, he himself never eats there.

On the south side of the street is a bizarre building, as rococo as a wedding-cake, painted in all the colours of a fluorescent nightmare. If you shade your eyes carefully, you will be able to read the sign:

POSITIVE DELIGHTS
A Quality Dining Experience

Fusion Cuisine From Anywhere and Everywhere!
Thrill Your Taste Buds!
Astonish Your Friends!
Every Meal an Original Creation!

This, at any rate, sounds more promising than the Spartan fare across the street; but something seems not quite right, though Positive Delights is considerably busier than the House of Minus. Some of the customers are university students, visiting the place on drunken dares; some are tourists, steered this way by leg-pulling locals. A lot of people eat here once; but the place gets hardly any repeat business, for the delights, sad to say, are booby-trapped.

The cooking is skilful enough, for those of adventurous tastes. The chef has a way of combining the most unlikely ingredients and somehow making it work: it is the only place in the town, or perhaps any other town, where you can get barbecued sardines with a side of chocolate-coated garlic. And there are no words sufficient to describe the ice cream vindaloo.

But there is some question about the ingredients that he uses. Customers have a disturbing tendency to develop food poisoning, or go into anaphylactic shock. The meat dishes are rather suspicious. Small domestic animals go missing in the neighbourhood, and several customers have found dog-licences or bits of collar cooked into their dinners. It is a red-letter day when someone gets a salad that hasn’t got insects in it. Nobody quite knows how the restaurant avoids the wrath of the local health inspector, but somehow it has stayed in business for several years.

Now, the really odd thing about these two establishments is that they actually exist. I have altered the truth in just one detail. The ‘House of Minus’ and ‘Positive Delights’ are not actually restaurants: they are writers.


Read the rest in Style is the Rocket. Now available!

When to cut a manuscript

Those who are regular followers of the doings of Arthur Dent may have received an impression of his character and habits which, while it includes the truth and, of course, nothing but the truth, falls somewhat short, in its composition, of the whole truth in all its glorious aspects.

And the reasons for this are obvious. Editing, selection, the need to balance that which is interesting with that which is relevant and cut out all the tedious happenstance.

Like this for instance. ‘Arthur Dent went to bed. He went up the stairs, all fifteen of them, opened the door, went into his room, took off his shoes and socks and then all the rest of his clothes one by one and left them in a neatly crumpled heap on the floor. He put on his pyjamas, the blue ones with the stripe. He washed his face and hands, cleaned his teeth, went to the lavatory, realized that he had once again got this all in the wrong order, had to wash his hands again and went to bed. He read for fifteen minutes, spending the first ten minutes of that trying to work out where in the book he had got to the previous night, then he turned out the light and within a minute or so more was asleep.

‘It was dark. He lay on his left side for a good hour.

‘After that he moved restlessly in his sleep for a moment and then turned over to sleep on his right side. Another hour after this his eyes flickered briefly and he slightly scratched his nose, though there was still a good twenty minutes to go before he turned back on to his left side. And so he whiled the night away, sleeping.

‘At four he got up and went to the lavatory again. He opened the door to the lavatory…’ and so on.

It’s guff. It doesn’t advance the action. It makes for nice fat books such as the American market thrives on, but it doesn’t actually get you anywhere. You don’t, in short, want to know.

—Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Message fiction, Victorian style

But the three hundred and sixty-five authors who try to write new fairy tales are very tiresome. They always begin with a little boy or girl who goes out and meets the fairies of polyanthuses and gardenias and apple blossoms: ‘Flowers and fruits, and other winged things.’ These fairies try to be funny, and fail; or they try to preach, and succeed.

― Andrew Lang

The apple-blossom fairies are mostly gone, thank God, but the same failing recurs in other guises. The same could be said of most of the critical darlings of any given moment, especially in our genre (which is insufferable when not humble): They try to be funny, and fail; or they try to preach, and succeed.

Hat tip to Mary Catelli.

Respect clichés

Respect clichés. Clichés are old and wise and powerful. Nothing gets to be a cliché without being used and used and used — and nothing gets used that much without having a lot going for it.

Mary Catelli

Life, Carbon, and the Tao

My essai for the first anniversary of L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Superversive blog is now up in full:

Part One: What’s so special about carbon?

Part Two: What’s so special about the Tao?

Reposted on SuperversiveSF in one piece.

Go, read, and I hope you enjoy.

In other news, I shall not be writing this week, as I have finally enlisted some help to do a top-to-bottom cleaning of my flat, which is many months overdue. The accumulation of books and papers was making it impossible for me to hoover up the dust, and the dust was making it difficult to do anything else. I have been living largely on a diet of antihistamines and facial tissue. Enough of that!

Legosity

So far, I have described my thoughts about ozamataz up to the point where I asked whether one could attract that kind of self-sustaining fan participation, and if so, how. This is also the point at which the Muse, or the Guardian Angel, or the Collective Subconscious, or Something, stepped in. Perhaps it was the Great Oz himself.

Having worked out something of the nature of ozamataz, I asked my brain: ‘OK, brain, what is it that makes some things have ozamataz when others don’t?’

And my brain, without missing a beat, obligingly answered: ‘Legosity.’

I was duly annoyed, for I then had to figure out what legosity was. My brain is cryptic and has no manners, and seldom troubles to explain itself.

The one thing my brain did deign to tell me is that legosity has something to do with Lego. This made sense on the face of it. Lego toys have an ozamataz of their own. They have inspired movies, games, theme parks, and of course, the imaginations of millions of children the world over. The manufacturer’s recent habit of producing specific single-purpose Lego sets like model kits, which hardly fit together with other Lego and are hardly intended to, is most regrettable. These kits tend to take up shelf space at the toy shops and displace the kind of Lego that you can really play with. But the original bricks and doors and windows, Lego people and Lego cars and Lego trees, and so on – those are still available, and you can do anything with them. Nowadays, you can even buy Lego with moving parts and electric motors, and build Lego machines that can be controlled via computer. There are Lego robots in the world, and serious men with doctorates in the hard sciences have been known to play with them.

As the unfortunate history of the kit-model kind of Lego shows, it is not so much the brand name, or even the mechanical ingenuity of Lego that gives the toys their unique quality. It is the concept. At bottom, Lego consists of a whole range of bits and pieces, all designed to fit together easily and without fuss, so that they can be used to build anything the imagination can conceive. You do not have to be a skilled carpenter, or a watchmaker, or know how to build ships in bottles, to build houses and cities and fairy castles out of Lego. The skill in your fingers (especially a child’s fingers) ceases to be a limit on what you can achieve, and the mind is set free to soar.

Even the name Lego is well chosen, and means, I think, more than its inventor intended. We are assured that it comes from the Danish phrase leg godt, ‘Play well’. But it is also Latin and Greek, and in those languages the word has a wide and subtle range of meanings that reach right down into the guts of the human psyche. [Read more…]

Life, Carbon, and the Tao (part 1 now up)

The estimable L. Jagi Lamplighter is featuring my new essai ‘Life, Carbon, and the Tao’ on her Superversive blog. Part 1 is now up; part 2 to follow next week.

Ozamataz

I have spent the last week or so (when not sleeping off my medications) in a fairly continuous process of brainstorming, chewing over several new-to-me ideas and figuring out how to turn them into actual writing techniques.

I forget exactly what prompted me to revisit the Key & Peele skit I reposted some time ago, in which the duo performed a thorough piss-take on the silly (and often self-inflicted) names one so often sees among American football players. Of all the daft monikers they introduced to the world, one in particular seems to have caught the public imagination: ‘Ozamataz Buckshank’. The name Ozamataz has been ‘repurposed’ for any number of online game characters and social-media personas. I think part of the reason lies in the delivery: in the original skit, the name was pronounced in a drawl reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart. It is, in fact, a fun name to say aloud, and I think that contributes to its popularity. But there may be more to it than that. A name like ‘Jackmerius Tacktheritrix’ or ‘Javaris Jamar Javarison-Lamar’ is too Pythonesque, too blatant in its silliness, to have much staying power. ‘Ozamataz’ is almost, but not quite, realistic; it could plausibly be an actual word.

And so, hearing the name again, I asked myself: If ozamataz were a word, what would it mean?  [Read more…]

Calvin and Hobbes on writing

Hat tip to Malcolm the Cynic.

Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Calvin: 'I used to hate writing assignments, but now I enjoy them. I realized that the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog! Want to see my book report?' Hobbes, reading aloud: 'The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in DICK AND JANE: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes.' Calvin: 'Academia, here I come!'

There are two kinds of people involved in this game, whether as writers, readers, or what have you: Those who agree with Calvin, and those who wish to use writing as an actual means of communication. Which is as much as to say that there are parasites, and there are hosts.

Speaking of Malcolm the Cynic, he has an interesting piece up on Superversive SF: ‘Fixing the Abrams Star Trek Movies’. Very much in the vein of what I did with elements of the Star Wars prequels in ‘Creative discomfort and Star Wars’. I like his take on the Abrams Trek reboot very much.

It’s not ALL about the seat of the chair

Now that our Evil Alter Blogger has had his say about those who sneer at prolific writers, I figure it’s time for me to say something on the matter in propria persona. Herewith, I reproduce a comment I made over at the Passive Voice, which the gracious Carbonel thought well of.

One Scath muses aloud:

I’ve been earning a living as a writer releasing 2 books per year. Wonder what will happen if I up that to 4 per year?

I respond:

Either (a) you will more than double your income, because you are attracting more readers and have twice as many products to sell to each one; or (b) your income per book will suffer because you are rushing yourself to meet an arbitrary production schedule, and not giving the ideas long enough to cook. Or some combination of the two effects. It depends entirely on you and your internal process.

Like most writers I know, I find that the process of coming up with good story ideas is not one that happens solely whilst one is applying the seat of the trousers to the seat of the chair. I can usually come up with enough stuff in twenty-four hours to keep me busy at the keyboard for four or five hours writing it down. I find that if I force myself to spend more hours at the keyboard, I often end up forcing out rubbish just to fill up the time.

Of course everyone’s mileage differs; but that ought to be the real lesson – everyone’s mileage differs. There is nothing inherently wrong with having the fixings in your mind to make one decent book per month, or one per quarter, or one per year, or one per lifetime. (Very few of us can manage one per month. That much time at the keyboard leaves very little time for having enough of a life to feed a fluent stream of new ideas.) The only thing that is unequivocally wrong is trying to base your schedule on someone else’s idea of how much you should write.

If Patty Pretentious says you should write only one book every ten years and it will be a literary masterpiece, she’s almost certainly wrong. If Harry Hackworthy says you should crank out a book every two weeks, just as fast as your fingers can type the words, he is almost certainly wrong. If Sammy Statistics says you should write 1.21 books per year because that is the aurea mediocritas at which the average Great Writer writes the average Great Book, he is almost certainly wrong. Writers, especially great ones, cannot be aggregated in that way.

There’s a reason why Polonius did not say, ‘To the Huffington Post’s own self be true.’ Or even, ‘To thy critique group’s own self be true.’