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Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Books 2020, 24)

I wasn’t quite sure about this at first. I know it won awards and all that. It was assigned for the ‘Genre’ module of my Creative Writing masters,1 but it didn’t immediately grab me.

But I came round to it. It’s set in the very far future, because there are examples of technology that is old, but people don’t understand it. Reminiscent of Viriconium or Against A Dark Background in that way. And ‘Home is the pink one’ — star — suggests that Sol has got very old. Like, billions of years older than now. Which feels wrong, because humans should have changed a lot more in that time.

The titular character is the first of her people to leave Earth (we assume it’s Earth, anyway) to go to Oomza University, which appears to be a whole planet that’s a university, and takes people from many different species and civilisations.

Things happen on the way, as you might expect. It’s good, and I’m keen to read the sequels.

  1. As such it’s an odd choice: for the crime and historical fiction we got long novels, and even for YA it’s a full-length novel. But for SF: a novella. 

Masters Update

We’re halfway through the first term of my Creative Writing masters course. Those five weeks went fast, but 2020 is The Year When Time Was Weird, for everyone. How is it going, you ask.1

Pretty well, thanks. At first glance, with only two actual sessions, the workload looked light. But as is common with postgraduate courses, you have a lot of work to do on your own. Add to that, it’s a writing course: we have to write, and you can’t do that while sitting in a class.

Or you could, for small exercises, and I think maybe they would be asking us to do that kind of thing if this were a conventional year and we were sitting in a seminar room in Bloomsbury. It is, however, the most unconventional of years, and we are sitting in our own homes on Microsoft Teams.

There are two modules. Everyone does the Writing and Reading Seminar, where we focus on short stories. Each week we read and discuss two or three assigned stories, with there being a theme or area of focus: Character. Voice, Territory, for example. Then we workshop pieces submitted by three members of the class. Everyone gets to submit a piece of up to 4000 words, twice this term.

For my first piece I decided to get out of my comfort zone (such as it is) and write a purely realist piece. No spaceships, no magic; no element of the fantastic whatsoever. I think it worked out pretty well.

Those pieces are not assessed, but in January we have to submit a 4000-word piece that will be. I only recently learned that this piece has to be a reworking of one of the two pieces we’ll have workshopped in class. I don’t think I’d have done anything differently, but I would have liked to have known that sooner.

The second module I’m doing is called Contemporary Writing 2: Genre2, or just ‘Genre.’ We spend two weeks on each of these genres: crime, science fiction, historical fiction, and young adult fiction.3 There’s a novel assigned for each one. The first week has a two short, prerecorded lectures, and in the seminar we discuss those, and techniques, and the assigned novel.

For the second week we each write a 1000-word piece in the genre in question, and some of us have the pieces workshopped. We got to choose the genres in which we wanted to be workshopped. I chose SF and crime. Even those of us who aren’t being workshopped in a given week have our pieces discussed on the class forum.

So as you can see, there’s quite a lot of reading, analysis, and commenting, as well as actual writing.

I’m enjoying it a lot, but if you were to ask me what I’ve learned, I’m not sure I could specify that yet. However, the practice, the fact of looking at my own writing and that of others, professionally-published and not, in great detail: that alone is bound to improve my writing, I feel.

Right now it’s reading week. I don’t recall having such a thing back when I was an undergraduate, but maybe we did. They’re standard now, just like half-term breaks at school.4 So we have no classes, and some extra short stories to read, and time to catch up on the novels. I finished Wolf Hall yesterday, so I only have The Hate U Give to read for YA. Plenty of time to get some writing done.

Oh, and a couple of homework assignments, too. All work is homework, of course.

  1. I’m always confused about how you should punctuate that idiom. I’m asking a question: it needs a question mark. But neither of these look right:

    • How is it going? you ask.
    • How is it going, you ask?

    It should really be:

    • How is it going?’ you ask.

    But that makes it too much like I’m writing dialogue in a a second-person narrative, and it doesn’t really fit with the overall feel of a blog post.

    The way I’ve written it above has no question mark at all, and that can’t be right. 

  2. I’ve yet to learn what ‘Contemporary Writing 1’ is, or was, or if there ever was one. 

  3. I’d argue that YA is a target market, not a genre, but never mind. 

  4. It was during my primary school years that Scotland introduced the week-long half-term break in October. ‘The October Week,’ as it was called, and it was definitely a new thing at the time. I was aware of it particularly because my Mum was a primary school teacher. I can’t find any evidence of it now, because there are so many other pages about half-term holiday dates and history projects for October half term. But if my memory is not totally faulty, that’s the truth of it. 

When Election Night Went On For Days

For the first time in my life (apart from occasional odd minutes in hotels on business trips) I’m watching CNN. It’s 5am on the US east coast, 3am on the west; yet every few seconds, it seems like, we get this:

A placeholder card on CNN Go, saying that a commercial break is in progress and that the broadcast will resume momentarily.
An ad break on CNN International

Sometimes, too, there’s an actual advert, but luckily I’ve been able to scrub through them.

The actual coverage is good, though. They’re providing good information, lots of details. They’re also calling out Trump’s lies, as is the proper thing to do.

Of course, since most of the time there’s nothing much happening, they’re having a hard time of it.

We remain gripped.

Writing About Writing About Typography

Robin Rendle writes about writing about typography, but he has lessons for all of us who want to write well.

Though I don’t entirely agree with his viewpoint about the particular sentence he criticises. Here it is:

A revival is based on historical models, made suitable for contemporary use, adapted to the typographical and technical needs of today, but nevertheless relies on a personal response to the historical style.

The ‘revival’ it’s talking about involves recreating old typefaces, and/or building new versions of them. It’s from a site called The Rosart Project, set up by some students of typography.

Rendle’s essay at an improved version of that sentence is this:

Type designers will often look at letterforms that were made in the past and then redraw them for modern day use. This is called a “revival” by the type community but I like to think of it as a remix: a type designer will unavoidably apply their own style and harmonies, their own deviations and melodies to the song.

Every remix is different, every remix is important.

Which is certainly brighter, has a bit more sparkle, and arguably is easier to understand. But I don’t think the original is that bad. Certainly not as bad as Rendle thinks. He says:

what does any of this mean? The words make sense but it’s written in a style that’s familiar to anyone that reads about the field of typography. It’s what’s known to folks outside the field as “academic writing” but it’s what I consider to simply be bad writing—it’s waffling and unclear.

It’s what is often called dry, I’d say, certainly compared to the alternative. But I don’t think it deserves quite the fire he brings to it. Of course he’s only doing it — he says, and I believe him — because he loves the project, and wants to ‘see the whole typographic community break the shackles of this style of writing.’

Which is fair enough. I’d certainly rather read a piece in Rendle’s style than much academic writing. So I guess maybe I do agree with him after all. His final advice to the typographic community could apply just about anywhere where words are used:

write to swoon, to convince, to make a stranger fall in love. Abandon the academic style, because it’s making your beautiful work so very boring.

The Secret Place by Tana French (Books 2020, 23)

Crime fiction set in Dublin. In a posh boarding school, specifically, which causes it to have elements of young adult (YA) fiction. We studied it for the ‘Genre’ module of my MA course. It went dips into magic realism, so it’s particularly appropriate.

I hadn’t read any of French’s books before. This is volume five in a series about the Dublin Murder Squad, but they’re only loosely linked. I enjoyed it a lot, and wouldn’t mind reading more.

She has a great way with colour imagery, and compelling characters.