Writing Advice: The Toasty Corpse-Shroud of Elitism
I get asked about writing advice all the time, and all the time I refuse to give it because there are others out there doing it better, with far more qualifications in that regard.
But I’ll tell you a story. A story I don’t like thinking about, and don’t often tell.
First, go watch this. It’s a trailer for a movie called Captain Harlock: Space Pirate.
Go on, watch it. I’ll be right here waiting.
I hope you watched it. Now here’s my story.
In 2012, I was a guest of dubious honour at the SFX Weekender. Anyone who knows me well also knows that any time I’m in public it’s automatically the worst day of my life because of that very reason, but even for the barely contained flesh-host of anxieties that the world calls Aaron Dembski-Bowden, that was a particularly tough convention. It lasted several days. There were thousands of people. I had a deadline. People kept recognising me while I was walking to the bar, or taking a piss, or trying to think.
I know, I know – First World problems / it’s such a hard life, etc. I’m not complaining; I’m not saying my life is terrible. My life is awesome. I’m just giving context.
I’m a very private person, held together by white lies and black thread, and I was already in a state of acute discomfort when it came time to sit on a Space Opera discussion panel with three of the best and most famous writers in the science-fiction genre. I was one of five authors asked to be on the panel – and while I’m kinda used to Dan Abnett now (we harass each other over Skype and email often enough), sitting with him on a panel with Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton was nothing short of skull-fuckingly terrifying. I can recall being this scared only two other times: my driving test, and the Black Library Weekender 2012 quiz show, when everyone cheered at the announcement of my name.
At the SFX Weekender, the panel I was already dreading started off with one of the other authors inviting another writerly friend into the group. Which meant there wasn’t enough room at the table. Which meant the last person in line one was left slightly in the shadows, off the edge of the table. This, of course, was me. I could’ve solved it with two seconds of “Can you shuffle up a little?” but I was concentrating hard on trying to look like a normal human being, and not a poor copy of one that was having trouble breathing. I pulsed telepathically to Dan, telling him to notice that I looked like some kind of shadowy loser, and move everyone along on my behalf, but Dan was too busy being effortlessly cool.
Here’s a picture of the scene itself, that I can scarcely bring myself to look at.
I remember practically nothing of what I said, and I don’t really care. What should’ve been one of the coolest moments of my career was an anxiety-blighted nightmare, and getting to meet two of sci-fi’s best and brightest writers (whose work I’d been reading and loving for years) turned into an hour-long war not to get up and go back to my room to hide in the current Word.doc, shielded by my headphones.
I do remember, much to my torment, opening with a pointlessly defiant defence of “why I’m writing tie-in fiction”, citing how the money was so good, as if: a) I’ve ever done this for the fucking money, or b) Any of the people at this table gave a shit about that, or c) Anyone had mentioned it in the first place. I quite literally opened with a knee-jerk lie about myself, nothing to do with the topic, because I felt so defensive. Representing yourself poorly is often a side-effect of serious anxiety issues, and of course, in a beautifully dark cycle, people’s opinions of you are one of the things you get most anxious about. But I don’t want to go into my headspace too much. It’s not hugely relevant.
After the panel ended, Dan got up, smiled and said something that I no longer remember, then swanned away Dannishly to his Next Thing. I had a Next Thing as well, but I could barely move. Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, and the others grouped together, talking on the other end of the table – and why wouldn’t they? They were friends and colleagues, after all. I could’ve gone over to them and insinuated myself in their circle, but I was too shaken, and too self-conscious. Their circle also reminded me unpleasantly of when I’d been in India as a kid, and seen a pack of vultures surrounding a dead dog. You couldn’t see any of the birds’ faces, just black shoulders and black wings, as they picked at what remained of the carcass in their midst. As an idiot kid amazed at how dense this flock of creatures was, I picked up a rock and threw it at the locked wall of vultures. It wasn’t much of a rock, and it bounced harmlessly off one of the birds’ wings, apparently unnoticed. But it was like a rugby scrum: there was no way in or out of it.
There was nothing confrontational or exclusionary about the authors’ huddle, but that was how I felt just seeing it. I saw the vultures again, which put a shitty capstone on an already shitty morning.
I remember, very clearly, wanting someone to come up to me and start a fight. If they did that, then I could hurt them and it wouldn’t be my fault, since I’d not started it. I wanted something else to be damaged for once, instead of myself. I wanted externalisation. Expression. Blunt and stupid as it was.
In a moment that ranks as one of the Top Ten things I’m most grateful for in my entire life, my friend Mark (better known to the world as author Mark C. Newton) came up to me and smiled.
“That went well,” he said.
Reality returned with those words. Back to trying to fake a real person’s facial expressions; back to smiling and hoping it didn’t look false. Everyday normality. I said something I don’t remember, and headed away to the Next Thing (which, as I recall, was some signing).
Now, the rest of the Weekender was nowhere near as bad as that experience, and I crossed paths with the various characters in this pointless drama later, in much less idiotic ways. That’s not my point. I try to use my memory of that discussion panel every time I feel myself on the edge of knee-jerk elitism with anything. The sheer irrational emotion of the moment, in how defensive I felt in the presence of established, famous authors. The teeth-clenchingly fervent defence of my work when it wasn’t even being challenged. I think back to that insecurity when I’d otherwise say “This sucks” and move on.
I think about how angry and worried I was, so instinctively certain my heroes were looking down at me and what I did. Whether they were or not is irrelevant – it’s my reaction and thought process that was so unhealthy, so boxed-in.
Which brings me back to Captain Harlock: Space Pirate.
I watched that trailer last night, and my thoughts went like this:
“An anime thing? Ugh. Jesus, this narration is agonisingly cheesy. Oh my God, more Final Fantasy-style girl-boys with shit hair. Christ, this is every cliche’ ever, condensed into a single trailer. That spaceship looks hilarious. Who’d fucking build that? Their uniforms look like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
My elitism kicked in with brutal force, as it often does with everyone who likes anything, when they instinctively confuse “What I like” with “What’s objectively good”. This trailer didn’t look like ‘serious’ sci-fi, therefore the movie would be shit. The characters were Final Fantasytastic, so they were stupid. And so on. You see it everywhere, most often with movie reviews, but anywhere there’s an opinion, you’ll find that kind of bias. “It’s not my thing, therefore here are the reasons why it’s terrible.”
Except… I don’t need all my sci-fi and fantasy to be serious, or to be presented in a certain tone. I love The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy. How to Train Your Dragon is one of my favourite films. Christ, I love Babylon 5, but I can never bring myself to argue when someone points out all its bad points. The fucking thing was a triumph for me in spite of a bajillion flaws. I like Star Wars. I like family films. Yet I hated this trailer because Ha-ha, it looks silly and Japanese and a skull spaceship and lol anime amirite.
I caught myself doing it, and rewatched the trailer. Now, I have no idea what Captain Harlock is beyond this trailer, but on a second watching, my thoughts were like this:
“This looks… cute. That ship is so fucking melodramatic, but I dig it. It suits the setting. That fat guy with the goggles looks like he’ll be awesome. The battle scenes look cool as shit. Who’s that green girl? That looks like a difficult love story. I love that shit. The art direction on this is pretty damn unique. Those deep-sea diver guys look all kinds of rad. The captain has an alien bird-thing! I love animal companions in sci-fi and fantasy, they’re one of my fave things ever. I’m all over that. Damn, that guy hugging the hologram – his wife must be dead or something. These space battles look fucking killer. Oh shit, that green girl is, like, dissolving or something. I bet she becomes human.”
Like I said, I have no idea what this movie is about, other than it’s apparently based on an older cartoon. But beyond my knee-jerk bias, this has a huge chunk of the stuff I love in a good story. Fucking spaceships at war. Massive baroque-looking warships and huge boarding actions. Themes and concepts I try to put in most of my own writing, and the same ideas and ideals that are in the stuff I love to read. There’s an animal companion (of a dark kind…) in The Talon of Horus. There’s a complicated love story somewhere in everything I write, and the one(s) in The Talon of Horus are loud and proud, much like the Chief and Cortana in Halo – it doesn’t need to be traditional love, it’s more a matter of loyalty and affection, above and beyond the call. And I’ve always said that if I ever get to write a novel about the Space Wolves, fuck you, the main character will be best pals with a Fenrisian Blackmane wolf, and I don’t care what anyone says. Warriors and loyal beasts = rad.
So, if you want any advice about writing, it all comes back to that old adage of “Read, read, read” and “Watch, watch, watch”. I’m not advocating changing your tastes. I’m not advocating liking stuff that sucks. I’m advocating trying something new and seeing how it goes, because elitism may be a toasty and comforting blanket to wrap around yourself, but it’s also a sign of insecurity. After a while, it starts to stunt your growth. Read outside your favourite genre. Do the same with movies. Look for the universal appeal in things you wouldn’t usually consider. The best science-fiction and fantasy is the best because it’s about people and creatures in believable, nuanced situations, and we see their actions and reactions as believable in context. If it could happen anywhere, not just in space or Krynn or Middle-Earth, or wherever, then it’s got a good foundation.
Don’t let yourself be comforted by your own secret fear and jaded anger. I promise you, it’s not a pleasant way to be. I almost pissed all over what looks like a fun fairy tale in space (that Alexander’s sure to love, and that I’d have loved as a kid) out of knee-jerk elitism. Because 40K is so super-serious. Because I’m so worthy and above anime, or whatever.
And now I can’t wait for this film.
On the other hand, maybe just ignore my stupid over-analysing. Katie watched the Captain Harlock trailer, too. This was her reply:
“Emo Sky Pirates. Sold.”