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Saturday, June 24, 2006


On my recent trip to Brisbane, I visited my friend Natalie Prior, whose husband is a recorder musician, and when Peter very kindly made me a CD of some music I needed desperately for my work, I suddenly realised what my Garage Band software was for, and that I could do exactly the same thing on my own computer - that finally I could put on to CD some of my irreplaceable tapes. I don’t have the appropriate adaptors, but I have an internal microphone and a good CD/radio/tape deck, so what-the heck!

The tape I wanted to do right away was a filk music collection made especially for me as a gift. As long as I was recording this, it was a great excuse to get out all my filk song collections to listen to, bringing back my early days in fandom. I bought them during the 70s and 80s, when people were recording them. Filking is still a part of science fiction fandom, but those were the golden days, for me, at least, when filking happened at every convention and songs were composed for fans to sing, some by fans such as Leslie Fish and Linda Short, others even by writers. Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson and Joe Haldeman were all known for their filks. Charles De Lint, who sings and plays at cons, says he doesn’t do filks, but was horrified to learn that a humorous song he had composed about Batman counted as filk music.

What is filk music? For the most part, it’s science fiction and fantasy-related music written to existing tunes, which makes them easier for people to sing, as long as they have the words. But there is a lot of original music too - Linda Short’s first album, “Songs Of The Seven”, was all original music, but people complained because they couldn’t just sing them with the words, so she did another, “Ditties From the Edge of The World,” with existing tunes for her original words. There’s something very special - magical! - about sitting around late at night during a con, singing songs related to your passion, some about novels you’ve read, others about novels you might then decide to read as a result. And, of course, there are the media-related songs, about “Star Trek”, “Blake’s Seven” and such. I confess to having written a few myself, just for fun, at one stage. Pretty silly ones, which I certainly realised when Linda recorded one for me, “All My Tribbles”. “Day Trip To Vulcan” went to the tune of “Day Trip To Bangor”, of course, and was a tongue-in-cheek relating of the story of the Trek episode “Amok Time”, as told by “Bones” McCoy. Something along the lines of “Didn’t we have a lovely time/The day we went to Vulcan/The weather was fine, only one-twenty-nine/And that was in the shade, you know...” There were others, even sillier. I never, of course, thought myself anything like the giants of filk music. Well, they could sing, for a start.

My songs weren’t, let’s face it, even as good as the filks we used to sing together in Austrek, my Star Trek club, back in the 1970s. We had some cheeky folk then. My best memory is of one that went to the tune of “Advance Australia Fair”, that started, “Trekkers of the world rejoice, Spock’s in pon farr again/The only question that remains is who and where and when...” but there was another one, very suggestive, that went to the tune of “The Quartermaster’s Store”. I can remember being at a con in Sydney where the guest of honour was George Takei, who wanted to know the Sulu verse and the song’s composer was just too embarrassed to sing it to him!

Linda’s voice was a sweet folk soprano along the lines of Joan Baez, if you can imagine Joan Baez with a northern British accent. Leslie Fish, an American, was more like Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, though huskier, possibly due to her chain smoking. She can sing in a very cheeky style for the humorous songs or powerfully for the serious ones.

Linda Short was a wonderful British filk singer whom I met through “Blake’s Seven” fandom some time in the 1980s. Well, we never actually met, even when I went to England - she was ill at the time and lived, anyway, so far to the north it was just too far to travel. She was a pen pal. I do regret never having met her, especially since she passed away a few years ago, from a breast cancer she assured me had been caught in time.

Over the years, she recorded three tapes. I bought the generally available ones, but one she made for me at Christmas one year when she thought it was the only way to be sure she gave me something I didn’t have. What a treasure it was, too! Several of the songs came from the Westerfilk collection, some were her own, including two with words by Rudyard Kipling, one with words by a very funny British fan writer called Val Douglas and - wince! - my tribbles song. Tonight I got out the tape and, with a lot of messing around, finally managed to get it on to iTunes through Garage band and burn it on to CD, so that I never again have to worry about my precious personal Linda Short filk tape degrading and snapping. Now that she is gone, it is all the more important to make sure her voice stays alive, at least.

As I write this I am listening to “Skybound”, a Leslie Fish tape I bought at Aussiecon 2, back in 1985. It’s got some gorgeous pieces on it, but her classic is “Solar Sailors” which was actually released on record and had such delights as “Banned From Argo”, another suggestive ditty about what the Enterprise crew get up to on shore leave - the names are never actually mentioned, but you know who the characters are. I remember singing that one in Israel, to my American room mates, who hadn’t heard of filking before (though they did have a taste for Breton folk music, something I hadn’t discovered before and loved when they played it for me).

Why is it called filk music? I don’t think anyone really knows, though everyone has an opinion. One is that they’re “filched from folk songs”, another that it started with a typo. Probably there are plenty more theories. Whatever the explanation, it’s a wonderful form of expression for SF fans, something I don’t think you’ll find in any other “fandom” , or not to the same extent.

Ah, doesn’t it bring back the memories, listening to it all...?

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A View From The Other Side Of The Slushpile

Like other writers, I’ve experienced the anxiety of sending in a story and waiting for a reply from that magazine overseas, like so many others I’ve had the disappointment of the rejection slip, the annoyance of wondering if my tale had even been read (I still believe that some of them weren’t) or if they had had less of a chance because they weren’t American. I did once have a personal rejection slip from Marion Zimmer Bradley, typed on a manual typewriter and definitely from her, though a friend once told me she had a reputation for not replying personally. I still have it somewhere - it’s the only personal rejection slip I ever got from the US, though I got some from Britain and within Australia, where I live. Those were the days before the Internet, when you had to buy two International Reply Coupons, or visit a philatelist for US stamps, send the thing with a self-addressed envelope and a cover letter that said, “This is a photocopy, so trash it if you don’t want it, but please reply.” And then wait - and wait - and wait. And, after three or four or six months, send a polite letter of inquiry, asking if they’d received your story and sending another SAE with another two reply coupons, which were a very expensive item. And chances were that you would then get your story back, crammed into the envelope, or sent surface mail in a large envelope if it was too long for that, covered in coffee stains and with a printed slip.

You had to really care about your story to keep submitting in those days. I’d usually have more than one doing the rounds, but they were stories I had had to type up a few times because I didn’t have a computer back then; I was very proud of my gorgeous new electronic typewriter, which I had bought with money won in the Mary Grant Bruce Award for children’s fiction. You could actually type up a whole sentence and check it before letting it print!

With the Internet, you no longer have to worry about International Reply Coupons or overseas stamps, for the most part - some publishers still want stories by paper, because they don’t like having to spend time and money on printing out your stories. But mostly, you can just e-mail your magnum opus and it means you probably won’t have to wait six months for news on one short story any more. It also means, unfortunately, that a lot of people take a lot less trouble over their work; it’s just too easy to finish, turn it into an attachment and hit the “send” button.

This has become very clear to me since I’ve started to see the slush pile from the other side.

A couple of years ago, I joined the Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine Co-operative. This is a group of science fiction fans who decided to get together to produce a new Australian magazine that would publish funny SF and fantasy, because there is so little market for either humour or SF (as opposed to fantasy) these days. Naturally, no magazine is going to survive if it’s entirely, or even mainly, dedicated to humour, and it does have a good balance of humour and serious fiction. But we would, it was decided, choose stories that had - well, story - about them rather than angst-ridden mood pieces, say. Stories that entertained, that gave pleasure, would have priority over depressing ones. (Which didn’t mean we wouldn’t take depressing, when it was good - one of our stories that has had the most awards is terribly sad!) A couple of the co-op members - Simon Haynes and Tansy Rayner Roberts - had written funny SF. Simon had had to self-publish his Hal Spacejock novels, but they had done well and have now found a trade publisher. Tansy’s two novels, published by a trade publisher, were out of print, but she had gone on to a successful career of writing short funny fiction.

The magazine has appeared regularly and attracted some good reviews and a number of the stories have been shortlisted for awards or “Best Of” anthologies. That, in its turn, has led to submissions - lots and lots of submissions, many of them from the US, all sent by e-mail, because that’s how we operate. We read them blind, to be fair. Names are removed from the manuscript.

When you’re reading stories weekly, always hoping that the next one you open will be Hugo material, you begin to wonder how many people study their market before hitting “send”. Some of it is good mainstream stuff that should, however, never have been sent to a genre magazine. Some of it is obviously fresh from a writing course, done as an exercise and sent to every possible market on the list. Some of it is clearly by teenage boys who are still writing space battles and alien invasion stories. Actually, I don’t mind the teenage stuff, because I think it’s great that kids are having a go and some of them, while unpublishable, are written by kids you know are going to be writing the real stuff in a few years and I’ll be pleased to say I once slushed their work.

Most of the slush I read is clearly written by adults who should have known better. They’re adults, but they’re still writing alien invasion stories, usually about staunch Americans battling the villainous aliens. Or they’ll come up with a cute idea and write it into a story, without bothering to create characters you can care about. The entire story is usually written entirely for the punchline or for the idea itself. “Ha ha, it’s a Western set in space, get it?” or “Hee hee, the spaceship is really the Star of Bethlehem” and so on. (I recently did read a Star of Bethlehem story which I found quite touching, even if Arthur C. Clarke did it far better, and it was by no means a Clarke ripoff, concentrating on a different angle, and I passed it on to the next round of readers.)

Sometimes the story could have been good if the author had put it away for a while and had another look at it. I read it and say, “yes, yes, nicely-written, but this or that part of the story just doesn’t make sense and the story falls apart as a result”.

Often, the worst stories are the ones that are the longest - I have read excruciatingly awful stories of novella length and no good ones. I have, in all but one case, made myself read the whole thing anyway, because it’s someone’s baby which I am going to have to call ugly and I keep hoping there will be some part of it that I can say something positive about. We send feedback, you see, which is one reason why so many people submit - I know of at least one case where the rejected writer had been using us as a free feedback agency and was most annoyed when people actually liked her story but couldn’t find a spot for it! She hadn’t got anything she could use to re-write and send it elsewhere. The one time when I didn’t finish the story, I skipped through to the end and found there wasn’t actually an ending - it was 9200 words long and something had gone wrong in the sending. So, long as it was, it had actually been longer!

Very occasionally, I receive a story of which I say, “Oh, that was wonderful!” But only occasionally - and it invariably turns out to be by a well-known writer who knows his or her stuff.

One thing I have learned from all this is never again to send off anything I don’t care about deeply, anything that was just a bright idea on my part - “what if the inhabitants of Sodom were all vampires ...?”, for example - and always to put it away before sending off. It means I’m writing fewer short stories - most of my professional writing these days is commissioned non-fiction and articles for children - but when I do write fiction, it’s going to mean something. I don’t care. There’s still plenty of material which I can go back to, when I am ready to ask myself why I wrote it, and some stories that were rejected and put away have material I can use elsewhere.

Not everyone has the benefit of reading slush, but I can only hope that some writers who get lots of rejection slips will learn the same lessons I’ve learned from being on the other side of the slush pile. And I’ll continue looking for that potential Hugo-winner...

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Quentaris (or is that pronounced Kentaris?)

It's a series of books designed to introduce children to fantasy fiction - sort of a junior Thieves' World (in that it's a shared universe) with a touch of Ankh-Morpork, and it's doing very well, sales-wise. It's doing well in my library too, because I promote it. I have been reading my way through the series in hopes of getting one to write, and have managed to get hold of most of them. The series is a lot of fun and would be great fun to write. Children like fantasy, they enjoy sword-waving and this series works also for young adults, though not the kind who have read Lord of the Rings, but then it's not designed for them. Each story introduces more characters, buildings and such, which then become a part of the universe, but they're stand-alone, so none of this fat trilogy business where you have to read them all and read them in order.

That definitely meets with my approval! (I'm the one who suggested a panel on "The Dreaded Trilogy" at a Continuum and then found myself the only panel member who wasn't a trilogy writer, and we were facing a full-up hall with a lot of annoyed readers who HATE having to buy three books for one story. Hmm, maybe the subject for another post).