Thursday, 26 May 2011

Suspension of disbelief

In What You Might Lose By Becoming a Writer Carlo Gébler wrote that "When I read, whatever I read, I examine and analyze. This is partly in order to judge the artifact and rank it, but also, and perhaps mostly, I am doing this so that I can learn from it. ... This attitude applies not just to books but to everything". Amongst the follow-ups were

  • Tania Hershman - "I know I read short stories with half an eye out for the how of it, how and why what works works, so I can learn from it. But then I do that with novels, with TV programs (how does that character seem so real?) and other fictional universes"
  • Vanessa Gebbie - "it now takes a very good book to make me fall into the fictive dream we aim to create!"

At workshops I listen that way, and that's how I often read stories too, at least in part. Sometimes when I write I cater for readers unwilling to suspend disbelief (e.g. Method of Loci). Expanding the borders of the story might keep such readers inside the text rather than them observing it from the outside. The disadvantage is that the extra authorial or metafictional voice will distract the disbelief-suspenders.

Metafiction gets a bad press, but rather than being viewed as pretentious or academic, it can be thought of as a fun way to keep the attention of anticipatory readers. I think readers are more familiar with meta-fiction techniques nowadays, because they see them used elsewhere. The stage magicians Penn and Teller sometimes discuss techniques and use transparent props (in order to spring a further surprise later). Movies often have associated soundtracks or documentaries that recount how they were made. Sometimes it's possible to slip some metafiction into a story without upsetting those readers who want to be immersed - one of the characters can be a writer for example, agonising over the writing of a story that turns out to be the current story.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011


Well, that's what I'll call them - facts (sometimes contextless and isolated) that are put into poems. They can be interesting in their own right - strange but true. They can be a piece of information everyone's expected to know (e.g. "London's the biggest city in England"), the reader thus expected to ponder on the implications (easiest city to be lonely in?). They can be a minor piece of knowledge shared by reader and poet, perhaps a piece of public knowledge that had a particular significance to the poet. As an example of their usage, here's the first and the final stanza from "Then in the twentieth century" which won 2nd Prize in the 2002 National Poetry Competition. It's by David Hart.

Then in the twentieth century they invented transparent adhesive tape,
the first record played on Radio 1 was Flowers In The Rain by the Move,
and whereas ink had previously been in pots, now it was in cartridges.
Men quarrelled about scrolls found in pots near the Dead Sea, the library
at Norwich burned down, milk was pasteurised by law, I have four children,
all adult now, small islands became uninhabited, Harpo never spoke on film.

Most of these factoids seem to lack any special significance to the persona, nor do they seem closely inter-related. There's not really any narrative either. There's some theoretical justification for this approach. Facts help to anchor the poem to the verifiable world, and are never really isolated.

  • "although it is possible to reach what I have stated to be the first end of art, the representation of facts, without reaching the second, the representation of thoughts, yet it is altogether impossible to reach the second with having previously reached the first", Ruskin, "Modern Painters"
  • "Structuralism ... starts off from the observation that every concept in a given system is determined by all other concepts of the system and has no significance by itself alone ... there is an interrelation between the data (facts) and the philosophical assumptions, not a unilateral dependence", Garvin, "a Prague School Reader on Esthetics, Literary Structure and Style"

Supposed facts may be loaded with implicit assumptions. There's psychological justification too - after all, what we remember isn't just the personal, or the personal responses to public events, we also remember public events much as many others might.

Some poets never use this approach - it's non-lyrical; just dead facts; a collage that depends on juxtaposition; an essay. I like Hart's poem and the style. I use factoids - I like finding out that Defoe, when he was pilloried for criticising the authorities in 1703, was pelted by the public with flowers, or that Hitler and Wittgenstein went to the same school. In the poetry game, facts play a role they don't play in prose. They're perhaps further from poetic truth than beautiful imagery is, but they're useful all the same.

  • "beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know", Keats, "Ode On A Grecian Urn"
  • "Art arises out of our desire for both beauty and truth and our knowledge that they are not identical", Auden, "The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays",
  • "Every poem starts out as either true or beautiful. Then you try to make the true ones seem beautiful and the beautiful ones true", Larkin

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Notes about "Iron Birds"

Some audience reaction after a recent reading suggests that "Iron Birds" from my booklet needs an explanation. Unless you know about Cargo Cults, "Iron Birds" will be tricky, so here's an info-dump: when technologically advanced cultures visit more primitive, isolated ones, they often give presents. After the visitors leave, a religion might develop in the hope of getting more presents, based on rituals - building imitation landing strips and planes, or imitating the behaviour of people with walkie-talkies, etc. The title alludes to the primitives' impression of planes. Some isolated poetry writers are being compared to Cargo Culters. The poem begins

You lay out words to tempt them,
another poem about poetry.

Later they're mockingly told to "Murder the medicine men. Empty your shelves." (medicine men are the wise men, the lecturers; shelves can have both food and books). At the end the hopeful visions of vapour trails are compared to scratch marks fading on a lover's body.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Online Fiction Workshops

Here's an attempted round-up of online Fiction forums. It's bound to be lacking in many respects, so feel free to add comments.

Why go online?

When online writers groups appeared I thought traditional writers groups would peter away. If local experience is anything to go by however, the opposite's the case. Nowadays, online groups and traditional groups happily co-exist and proliferate, though online groups have the advantage that they're open 24/7 and are available to people who'd have trouble getting to physical meetings.

I think that with poetry groups it's easier to keep more people happy than with fiction groups (the same difference applies to magazines). I only write a story a month, if that, and can barely provide enough material for a monthly traditional meeting. Most poets can manage at least one poem per month, and the text doesn't take 15 minutes to deliver so most of the meeting can be devoted to comment. Online fiction groups don't have these time restrictions. Even so, an online fiction group would need many members if they were all like me, to avoid long periods of silence (off-putting to prospective members). Most of these groups have hundreds of members, most of them inactive most of the time.

All of the online story forums offer the ability to post stories and comment on them. There are pros and cons of even this basic functionality. Downsides include

  • Risk of stories/ideas being stolen
  • Risk of not being published in magazines because the magazines might consider posted stories as being already "published"

Amongst the benefits are

  • Getting feedback and marketing help (including help with international markets)
  • Getting noticed by agents and editors
  • Getting practise at writing criticism
  • Socialising

How to choose a group

Like traditional groups, online groups can be dominated by a few people who post too many stories, post awful stories, or post aggressive crits. I think most online groups have rules and moderators, but you'd better check before joining in. Also look at how busy the site is.

With online groups, people will always have the text before them when they comment, and they won't have to react immediately. This should improve the quality of the criticism. Even so, sites are often lacking in Deep Crit (in the public sections anyway). Assess the quality of the comments.

Sites are becoming increasingly sophisticated, using features familiar to Facebook or Blog users, and replicating the better features of traditional groups. Options include

  • A rating system
  • "Story of the week" features
  • Extra information (competition news, etc) and discussion Forums
  • Genre-specifics forums and expert forums
  • Some private sections, and the ability to create private sub-groups (which helps with the pilfering problem)
  • Offline (real-time) chat to individuals

Some of these options might be especially useful to you, giving you a chance to use a site to do one-stop-shopping. Here are some sites that offer a wide array of forums

The following sites focus more narrowly on story-writing

Some sites focus on a particular genre. Here are a few of the Flash Fiction ones -

There's also lesbian fiction, etc.