Category Archives: PK’s Pontifications

Where I pontificate about writing.

IOU a story that works: Narrative Debt

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I first came across the term ‘Narrative Debt’ in the appendices to the extended edition on the Two Towers DVD and it struck a chord with me. As a pantser I work with narrative debt all the time, so I understood the concept; I just didn’t have a name for it.

To my mind it is a variation on ‘Chekov’s Gun’. Anton Chekov said, ‘Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it is not going to be fired, it should not be hanging there.’

Which is a tad prescriptive.

But it also has more than a grain of truth in it.

Not surprising. He was, after all, a great writer.

However, a gun can hang on the wall for an entire novel and still not go off, because the protagonist can’t reach it. He/she might be trying to reach it, they might even get their fingers on it, but the antagonist might stop them pulling the trigger, or they might have unloaded it at some point, or the protagonist might die just as they reach the gun.

The writer’s job is to not  forget that the gun is there, because the reader won’t. ‘Hang about, they’re in the library. There’s a .357 Magnum in that drawer, in the desk that he/she is standing behind. They put it there, you muppet, just shoot the bugger.’  It is best not to make readers think of your hero as an idiot, unless you intend them to think of the hero as an idiot — which is a difficult trick to pull off.

Narrative debt means, to me,  ‘Don’t cheat the reader’. [Caveats apply]

Don’t neglect to tell them something of importance that the POV character would know. (Jack Reacher novels: ‘Echo Burning’: Reacher takes a phone call, gets a one-word answer to a question, but the reader doesn’t know what the answer is until much later.)

Don’t drop in something out of nowhere to fix a plot problem and just leave it there without going back and working it into the plot earlier. (His Dark Materials ‘Amber Spyglass’ too many to mention)

Don’t let a plot, sub-plot, or character just fizzle out and disappear without some kind of closure. (Jason and the Argonauts: Heracles just wanders off halfway through the story and never returns.)

A writer can of course get away with all these things from time to time, (Child and Pullman are very good writers, and Jason and the Argonauts is a couple of thousand years old as a story) but they have to know what they are doing (not entirely sure what the hell Pullman was doing if I am completely honest, very irritating book that). They can’t just do it because it is easier than building a story that works. A writer owes a reader a story that works, that is the contract between the two: ‘Give me your time and I will give you a story worth reading.’

Narrative debt sometimes makes the writing process a lot harder. Tough. That’s the job you sign up to when you decide to become a writer. If you want to just make stuff up that makes no sense, then become a politician (and even they need Spin Doctors to make their nonsense sound reasonable).

A story that works is satisfying. It doesn’t have to tie off every single plot thread in a neat little bow at the end, but it does have to keep its promises to the reader.

I build stories via characters, so most of my narrative debts accrue from interactions between characters and from what I do to them in the process of telling the story.

If I have a character that hates another character and at some point they have to make a decision as to whether or not they save that hated person from some jeopardy, then they have to think about it. They won’t suddenly overturn their entire dynamic with that character just because the plot requires it of them. To be fair, in a first draft they might, but then I will go back and fix it in the second. It is what second drafts are for, fixing plot holes like that.

And usually it is already there in the character, because I know my characters. I treat them as real people. What do you mean you don’t? Oh right, you worked on ‘Lost’ and ‘Heroes’.

In Kinless, I have a character called Kihan. He turns up in the story and makes a decision to do something for this land that he does not know and has no connection with, which will probably result in his death. Several beta readers pointed out that he had no reason to do this in the first draft. However the fix was already there, he had a perfectly valid reason for doing this, it was in the narrative debt relating to the character. He did it because of who he was, what he had been through, and what he wanted to be. And all this leads to what he becomes.

But narrative debt is also a structural thing.

Lovers have to love. Enemies have to fight. Stories have to make sense. A story is a construct. The writer is choosing what to put in and what to leave out. The writer is making choices all the time. The writer’s choices are the story.

Let’s go back to ‘Lord of the Rings’.

Gollum, as a character, had to get his hands on the ring. Aragorn had to become the king. Saruman had to get his come-uppance. Frodo had to be utterly destroyed by his quest to destroy the ring. Those things had to happen because that is the nature of storytelling.

Gollum gets his hands on the ring and in the process destroys it (still the best damn scene in the book). Aragorn had to face up to his fears and surmount them. Saruman betrayed everything he stood for and lost everything because of this betrayal. Frodo had to suffer to get the ring to Mount Doom and such suffering remains with a person. And all the other characters had their own journeys to complete too.

That is narrative debt.

If the ring was destroyed without Gollum getting his hands on it then he would just be an ineffectual monster who was easily defeated. If Aragorn did not grow a pair and step up then he would be an ineffectual hero. If Saruman did all that he did and got off scot free then what is the cost of evil. And if Frodo did all that he did and returned to his previous life without a care, then what is the cost of heroism.

It’s a debt.

It’s a contract with the reader.

The writer makes the deal, ‘Read my story and I won’t let you down, I won’t treat you — the reader — as an idiot, I’ll pay off on the debts my story accrues.’

Otherwise, the reader might as well read Hansard.

 

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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Filed under Character, Character Dynamics, and Character Interactions., Storytelling, Art, and Craft, Structure and Plot

In Praise of Editors: from first draft to last it is always a blast

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I write pretty good prose first time up, but I want my finished work to fall somewhere between pretty good and perfect.

Pretty good, ain’t good enough. And perfect ain’t possible.

And that is where my editors come in.

First up strike the beta readers, who aren’t editors as such but people who read the first draft and go: ‘Did you really mean that?’ ‘What is all that about?’ ‘I like this guy?’ ‘Is this even English?’

So I collate the comments and sigh and grin, and redo it, rework it, retype it all again. That is the end of the first draft and off it flies to my structural editors, who are skilled story-tellers.

They proceed to tear my story apart: ‘Cut this scene.’ ‘Move this to here.’ ‘Use her flaming name.’ ‘This flows like a puddle of water drying in the sun, get it fixed.’

So I rework the whole thing, cut and paste, make the story drive straight from the page into the reader’s brainpan. Then I read it all through, aloud, for flow and shift and change and make it work. That is the end of the second draft and off it goes to my copy-editor, who is a professional of many years experience.

She proceeds to tear my prose apart: ‘That sentence is so convoluted I can’t even see where the thread begins, let alone ends.’ ‘The rule of three is a powerful rhetorical tool, but you don’t have to use it every other flaming paragraph.’ ‘I have not a clue what this thing you just mentioned is doing. What is it for, can you clarify it a bit.’ ‘All that fighting is lovely and all, but should I be yawning?’

So I take the prose apart, make decisions, fix clarity issues, and then read it through, aloud, for flow, again.

And I enjoy every single moment of the process. From first draft to last I am grinning and nodding — and wincing and scratching me poor benighted head as I work out how to fix something that I didn’t even know was there.

 

As a writer, I am always reaching, stretching, taking a wild leap into the dark. I am pushing the boundaries of story and structure, of prose and rhetoric, trying to make the work the best it can possibly be.

And my editors, all of them, are my safety net when I fall short.

Editors are not just there to catch your mistakes, they are not just checking for typos, a freaking machine can do both those things.

Editors are there to make your story fly and your prose sing. If you don’t enjoy being edited then either:

You have the wrong editor.

Or

You should pull your head out of your arse and smell the coffee. Film-makers say that they make their film in the editing suite, because that is where they make the choices that define the flow, the mood, the feel of the movie. Writers make their stories in the edits, in the drafts, where they define and clarify, rework and retype, fix and polish.

And without editors to shine a light you may as well get a trained monkey to do the job, because you is working in the dark, old son.

 

Image attribution: Every stock Photo 

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Filed under Drafting, Editing, and Revising

So who the hell’s head are we in now?

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Transitions between scenes, between acts, between storylines, are an important part of storytelling. They ease the reader from one place to another without making their eyes stop as they pause to try to puzzle out where the hell they are.

But in multiple POV storytelling, transitions are vital.

Who? What? Where? When?

Those four questions have to be answered at every transition from one POV to another.

Why?

Because transitions orientate the reader. They tell them: WHOSE head they are in, WHAT is going on, WHERE it is happening, and WHEN it is happening.

The biggest problem with Multiple POV storytelling, and the reason why they tend to be longer stories than those using a single POV, is the transitions. You always  have to reset the scene if you are using scene-breaks between POVs.

You can’t just switch and hope the reader keeps up. Clarity, always clarity, who/what/where/when needs to be absolutely clear at all times to the reader.

You don’t really want to confuse your reader with the simple stuff, do you?

If you are using POV shifting or Omniscient-head-hopping  then the Where, When, and What are taken care of by the initial Transition into the scene, but you still have to be absolutely clear about Whose eyes the reader is behind.

Think of it like speech attributions. When writing dialogue you have to attribute the lines to a character. You can sometimes do away with the attribution if it is obvious who is speaking, but it does have to be obvious.

It is the same with POV transitions, you can avoid the attribution of a POV but only if it is obvious and it is rarely that obvious. Err on the side of caution and let your editor tell you if it is unneeded.

Don’t go commando if you’ve forgotten to put your jeans on too.

With the more usual (these days) technique of using scene-breaks between POVs, you have to reset the entire scene, every time.

Even when using fast-cutting techniques, in a battle-sequence for instance, the reader still has to be told where on the battlefield the character stands, what is happening immediately around the character, and when all this is occurring.

There are dodges and tricks you can use to avoid too much set-up. It is a fast cut after all. You can avoid the When portion by having a scene every so often that orientates the reader in time, which avoids having to say, ‘three minutes later’ and other clunky phrases.

But clarity is everything. Clarity is the only real rule in writing. Be clear, don’t leave the reader guessing; unless of course you intend to leave the reader guessing, but don’t be ambiguous by mistake. Readers really don’t like that and your book might well make a nice dent in their wall if you irritate them too much. (Ah eBooks, the joy of throwing a crap book across the room will soon be gone from human experience. Shame that, I think its good for the wallpaper, it’s certainly good for the soul.)

Transitions should ideally take place in the first paragraph of a new scene, or as close as possible to it. And the first thing the reader needs to know is WHO. That is a vital bit of information because it orientates readers to the plot. If they know whose head they are in, then they know the back-story, they know that character’s (apparent) role in the story, and therefore they don’t have to think about this stuff.

They can think about all the other good stuff you are putting into the story scene instead.

After Whose head, the reader needs to know Where and When. If the scene is taking place in the same location as the previous scene then you just have to make sure the reader knows it is the same location. If it is happening immediately after the previous scene then, again, you just have make sure the reader knows this.

But if the location has changed or the time has changed then you have to orientate the reader. You have to tell them Where and When. This is like the establishing shot in a film. Is it a room, a moor, a bridge? Is it dawn or night, or day? This stuff is why multiple POV stories are longer, because this is description and no matter how efficient you are at description it takes up words.

Then there is What. This is not about what happens during the scene, because that is the purpose of the scene. It is about what is happening when the scene opens. Is it in the middle of a fight, a love-scene, somebody having a cup of tea. The scene will play out from there, but there is always an initial What, that helps to set the scene.

The easiest way to do this, and this is about as clunky as it gets because it’s an example, so it is deliberately obvious, is:

 David thought about Mary while he walked across Blackfriars Bridge in the moonlight.

David thought = David’s POV or WhoDavid is thinking about Mary = WhatBlackfriars Bridge = WhereMoonlight = When.

Then you can slot all the descriptions and so forth into the scene as usual. The reason that Multiple POV takes up space is because you have to describe it all as the POV character sees them. You can’t go on what another POV character has seen because the reader doesn’t know if this POV character has seen the same thing.

Another reason multiple POVs take up room is because you can’t keep using lines like the one above. Some writers do, some successful writers do, but I’d hardly call it craft. That’s like nailing four roughly equal lengths of wood to another wider piece of wood and calling it a table. It’ll do the job, but it is hardly crafted with loving care.

 The glimmer of the moonlight shone into David’s eyes, reflected from the surface of the Thames, but he hardly noticed. Mary. What should he do about Mary? He turned right onto Blackfriars, the steel cold beneath his hands, when he stopped and stared out over the glimmering river. Did he have the right? Should he do this? Mary. What was he to do about Mary?

Neither is that to be honest, I just knocked it up for this blog. But after an editor has got hold of it, after I have revised it a few times, then it will be crafted with loving care and then — if I’m lucky — it will sing.

Transitions are incredibly important, so make them sing from the page, make the reader barely notice that they are reading a scene-shift.

Because another thing about scene-breaks is that they are where a reader will put the book down and go off to do something else before returning to the book. Scene-breaks and chapter-breaks are like opening lines, so make them sing, but make them into transitions too.

(If you are writing in the Literary Genre, where stories are supposed to be ‘difficult’ and hard to read, just ignore all this. This ain’t art; this is craft. Leaving the reader constantly guessing about all this stuff might well win you a Booker, so go for it — just don’t think writing crafted novels is easy in comparison, it’s the exact opposite.)

 PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

  Image attribution: every stock Photo

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Filed under Narrative Modes and POV, Storytelling, Art, and Craft

Structure is not a Formula

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A formula is a precise mix of ingredients put together in exactly the same way to achieve the same result every time. Which is fine for cleaning agents, but not so good for stories because a formula is easy to see working in a story.

The ‘Ordinary World’ beginning. Oh look he’s a farm boy feeding the chickens. Oh look she’s a cop just going on shift. Oh look he’s a rich playboy waking up from another night of excess. Oh look she’s a CEO dealing with the board.

Yeah, that opening is so stale it’s beginning to stink.

The ‘Refusal of the Call’. Oh look he/she is not going to do whatever it is we know he/she is actually going to do (or there won’t be a story) because he/she is scared/has responsibilities/is an anti-hero (and therefore doesn’t care, until of course they do and that there is their arc all neat and tidy in the formula for you to use)/it goes against their sense of loyalty and duty.

Whatever. Because we’ve seen it a million times before.

It’s easier to see in films of course, because screenplays are simpler than novels (they have to be, the complexity comes from the choices that the actors and director make) but it is much more pernicious in novels, because there are no constraints of time or budget in a novel — so why the hell limit yourself to a formula?

I’m not saying you can’t have an ‘Ordinary World’ opening, or a ‘Refusal of the Call’ moment, or any of the other elements that go to make up a formulaic story (‘The Dark before the Dawn’, ‘The Death of a Beloved character ‘, ‘The Disastrous Mistake’, ‘The whatever-some-writing-teacher/blogger/author.about.writing-used-as-a-shorthand -because-it-made-teaching-the difficult-easier’). These are tropes, archetypal story-telling techniques, they work, but they are not structure, they are not essential, they are just tricks.

Structure is not a trick. Structure is an essential. Without structure you don’t have a story, you just have a series of unconnected events or, worse, a linear progression of things that just happened to happen.

So what is the difference between structure and formula?

In a word: Flexibility.

A structure is not just the parts themselves, it’s not how the parts connect, it isn’t even the arrangements of the parts. A structure is all those things. (Which is what makes it so difficult to explain, which is why writing teachers go for the easy short-hand, which is why structure should be a life-long obsession for a novelist. You ain’t ever done with structure, there’s always more to learn).

Look at the photo at the top of this post. More than likely that is a bridge, or it might be the Eiffel tower, or something else that leaves the skeleton of the structure exposed. Because an arrangement of steel or iron girders is the basic skeleton of a lot of structures.

You can use it to build tall, like the aforementioned Paris landmark, or broad, like the aforementioned crossing point over a river. You can cloak it in concrete and build a skyscraper, or a low-rise block of flats, or an office block, or a factory. You can cloak it in sheets of metal and build a warehouse or aircraft hangar. You can build schools, hospitals, sound-stages, army bases, anything really, all using the same basic structure and all looking completely different because they have completely different purposes.

Don’t mistake vernacular (like the brutalist or modernist eyesores) for structure. The structure, the skeleton, is flexible, because it is not a formula.

A formula has structure because it too is an holistic whole, but it is the same holistic whole every time. It is one version of a structure repeated ad infinitum like those suburban housing estates where every house is a rabbit hutch, but you can choose the colour of the doors. To make them ‘more individual’ you might be allowed to choose from 3 or 4 basic floor-plans and tweak them a bit, but really they are a formula based on how much they cost to build against how much they can be sold for.

I’m sure you, like me, have got lost in a suburban estate at some point. It’s because all the houses follow a formula, but you already knew that, only you probably said ‘Everywhere looks the same as everywhere else’, or words to that effect.

Personally, I like the seven-act structure in my work, because it gives me all the flexibility I need. I can write a circular story, or an action/adventure story, or a love story, or a Thriller, or Fantasy or Science Fiction, or any other genre — except the Literary genre of course, they think structure and plot are four-letter words and they are only half-wrong (as always).

However, if you look up seven-act structure on the web, as I have (and I was quite disheartened by the experience) then people talk about twist-points, pinch-points, or (dear god in heaven, no) reverses, which is only talking about the ‘connections’ between the parts (acts).

It isn’t talking about the acts in terms of what the acts are supposed to do. The first act of a seven act structure is the introduction, the second act: the set-up, and so on. It isn’t talking about how the parts are arranged within the structure. You can break a structure up, rearrange the parts, make it a non-linear narrative, and — so long as the structural integrity is preserved — the story will still work.

Pinch-points and twist-points are just the points where the acts meet, they are the joints between the girders (if you will). Reverses are just one single bloody form of joint. Start talking about reverses (or rising/declining tension for that matter) and you have begun to turn a flexible structure into a rigid formula.

Because you aren’t talking about structure in the abstract any more. You are making the abstract concrete, which is not what structure is. It is like saying that the steel frame of a building will always have identical stresses, identical requirements, no matter what the terrain, or the purpose, or the artistic intent behind the architect’s vision.

Okay this is getting a bit long now, so I’ll stop there. As Louise said, on July the Thirteenth [http://firedancebooks.com/blog/?p=344] (which directly inspired this blog) ‘Structure… well you can talk about that for ever. So I won’t.’

I of course will, because I quite like talking forever J.

Structure is incredibly important in novels. It’s what makes them stand-up rather than flop around on the floor like a jellied mess of ‘things just happened’.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘Firedance Blogs’: http://firedancebooks.com/blog/

Licence and attribution for image: Everystockphoto

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Filed under Structure and Plot

Science Fiction in the Doldrums

There has been a rash of New schools in SF recently: New Pulp, New Weird, Strange SF, Optimistic SF, and the grand daddy of them all (since it started up around a decade ago) Mundane SF. There are more of course, but these are the ones that spring directly into my mind. You could even argue that Steampunk and its progeny (Diesel Punk, Clock Punk, Bio Punk—yeah I know that is a more direct offshoot of Cyberpunk—et al.) are part of the same movement.

What is the movement?

To give Science Fiction a new course when the winds of change are disturbed, erratic, leaving the genre becalmed. SF relies on change, it needs to lift the seeing glass to its eye and look ahead to new lands, new ideas, new knowledge. But the doldrums have it now and the oars are out, pulling it towards cleaner winds.

The problem?

None of the oarsmen (writers, critics, fans, publishers) can agree on which direction to row, so the ship circles endlessly as people argue about definitions and directions.

Why has this come about?

The problem lies not within the writers or the fans or the publishers or the words written down upon a page. The problem lies within the stars, or rather within science itself.

Science is in a period of evidence gathering right now. Like Copernicus, scientists are amassing data. They are waiting on the next Newton, Einstein, Bohr, Everett, to come along and create a new paradigm. They know that the theories they have right now don’t work. They know that Dark Matter and Dark Energy are fudges; they hope that they exist, because it will make everything easier, but easy is not something the universe provides—as a general rule.

So they amass data. They find the Higgs particle, they map the heavens in greater and greater detail, they take little slivers of data and try to say, ‘this means this,’ without anything to really stand on.

This is not an attack on science. This has happened before, moving from the geocentric model to the heliocentric model happened because of the evidence amassed by Copernicus and Galileo, because of the elliptical orbits plotted by Kepler, which gave Newton all the data he required to come up with his theory. At least, this time, science doesn’t have to deal with the inquisition.

The same thing is happening in the biological sciences, the genome project, and its successors, is evidence gathering at its finest. They are mapping the genes of life on Earth and discovering that things don’t quite add up, which is where epigenetics comes lunging into the debate.

Scientists know this is true. They know that their models of the universe and life are incomplete, they know they are waiting on enough data, they know they are waiting on the next genius who can use that data to make sense of it all.

But this all leaves Science Fiction in irons, waiting for a theory to start up the wild speculation and considered extrapolation that defines the genre.

The first true Science Fiction novel is generally considered to be Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein‘, which was built on the discovery that dead flesh could be reanimated by electricity. Jules Verne built his stories on the technological advances of the 19th century, that onrushing wave of progress that changed the world forever. HG Well’s ‘Time Machine‘ was really about the new scientific theory of evolution as was ‘War of the Worlds‘.

Then came Einstein. EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s ‘Classic Lensman Series‘ (that was on the covers of the books I read as a kid and that is how I think of it) invented the Inertialess Drive so that his characters could travel faster than the speed of light. He also used antimatter and evolution in his stories, plus the—very popular but since happily discredited—science of eugenics. He also created Space Opera as a by-product of his musings.

Do you see it yet?

Science Fiction needs Science to advance, to come up with new theories, to provide the winds for its sails.

Golden Age Science Fiction surfed Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and Evolution, with a large doses of Eugenics and Cloning thrown into the mix.

New Wave Science Fiction dived into the underbelly of Science Fiction, using the new ‘sciences’ (in quotes because a science without a paradigm is not a science IMHO) of psychology and sociology and so forth to allow them to breathe down there in the deeps.

Cyberpunk was built on the onrushing wave of progress in electronics that changed the world.

Each of these periods changed Science Fiction completely. The Golden Age created the majority of the tropes. The New Wave subverted most of the tropes. And Cyberpunk gave a whole viewpoint on the tropes.

The New (there’s that word again) Space Operas could not exist without cyberpunk. It informs all the Shipminds, and Zones, and so forth.

Something else to note.

Jules Verne wrote his stories around the 1870s (or thereabouts). HG Wells wrote his stories around the turn of the 20th century. The Golden Age ran from about the 1920s to 1940s (this is where I could really do with doing some serious research (which I didn’t have time for)—Pulp Era, Golden Age, to me they are the same thing, but not to Wiki. The New Wave ran from about the 1960s. And Cyberpunk began in the 1980s.

So every 20 years or so Science Fiction has renewed itself.

It’s been 30 years since Cyberpunk, and no new thrust has appeared.

Steampunk looked backwards (and Jules Verne did not write Steampunk—just because you like his stories and try to recreate them with a more modern sensibility does not mean he was writing Steampunk 140 years ago. He was writing about the future. Steampunk isn’t. I like Steampunk, I like the sensibility of it, but this really irritates me).

Mundane Science Fiction takes the premise that Science Fiction should only use the known laws of the Universe. I can understand the reasoning. When people are out there calling Star Wars Science Fiction, you really want to stand up and say, ‘No, Science Fiction is based on scientific plausibility.’ Which means you need an answer when somebody says, ‘what about FTL, telepathy, parallel worlds etc, are they scientifically plausible?’ So Mundane Science Fiction is born. It would be an interesting challenge to write a story in that field, but it really isn’t the future of SF. It’s too limited.

But the new generation of Science Fiction fans and writers know that the field needs to renew itself. They understand that the clock is ticking. They want their new paradigm.

But Science is data gathering. All the current theories have been around for a while. None of them quite match the evidence and there are the fudgicles of, ‘the equations only work if we postulate that 90 plus percent of the universe is invisible’, ticking away like a time-bomb. The same is true in the biological science because they now have plenty of evidence that genetics is a hell of a lot stranger than they first thought. And the same is also true of the cognitive science (the grandchild of the ‘Soft’ sciences) because they are having a bit of difficulty defining consciousness.

The latest oarsmen calling out the stroke as ‘New Weird, New Pulp.’ ‘Same diff look at that unusual wave over there “Strange SF”.’ ‘Oh why can’t we be more optimistic?’ ‘Because the world is going to hell in a hand basket.’ ‘Pull this way.’ ‘No that way.’ ‘No over there.’ ‘Dammit I’m hungry.’ ‘I’m thirsty, any more of that “pan-galactic gargle blaster” left?” are all trying to spot the clouds building over the new lands, are trying to see the landlubber birds flying towards them, overheating the arguments as they try to see the surf crashing onto the beaches of the next reinvention of the genre.

It will arrive, we will get there, its only a matter of time. But really, Science, pull your bloody finger out, I’m getting heatstroke here.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Filed under Genres and other foolishness

My Caveats

These are my caveats, which I have formulated over decades. One is personal, but the other two are universal. I suggest all writers engrave two and three upon their brain-pans in indelible, glow-in-the-dark, neuronal script.

  • Caveat One: I may not know what I’m blathering about.
  • Caveat Two: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong.
  • Caveat Three: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

Caveat One is obviously personal. This caveat is on my twitter account (@PKgesic) and also goes in the signature of any forum I join. I’m just warning people that I may be talking utter nonsense and they should really check it out for themselves rather than taking my word for it. I will quite happily pontificate on subjects ranging from the theory of mind to why the world economy is so messed up and what the hell is going to happen next. On most of these subjects my knowledge is autodidactic and therefore may be very very wrong. It doesn’t stop me spouting, but it should give people pause before they swim with the flow of my babbling opinions.

The caveat is not entirely personal however. I’ve never met an opinion I didn’t like to deconstruct and everybody else should do the same. Never take anything as read – no matter how worthy and respected the source.

Caveat Two is a result of too many writing rules being thrown at me on various writing sites. I suspect a lot of these rules began life on agent and editor sites, even in submission guidelines: this is what we do not want to see. Then bloggers, and other people who like something as complicated as reader taste simplified, took them up as battle-cries in the war against creativity. Yes, you can get all these things wrong, but that doesn’t mean they are rules.

Note: I am not talking about the rules of grammar here. Punctuation, word-usage, sentence structure, and so forth are essential for clear prose. Clarity of prose is essential for understanding. Comprehension is essential for…well, everything really. Ambiguity in your plotting is fine, everybody likes an unreliable narrator, but you really shouldn’t leave your reader scratching their head over your sentences. There are of course stylistic choices and flourishes you can use, but grammar is not something you can simply ignore.

Caveat Three is really just a warning.

If you read — for instance — ‘Show Don’t Tell’ on a website then you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that that person is talking out of their arse. If they give an example, which turns one word into fifty, then they ate a really hot curry and you are about to suffer the after-effects.

Only if they say something like ‘It is best to show rather than tell, because it places the reader in the scene. However, telling does have its uses’  are they actually speaking out of their mouths (yes, I know they are actually posting to a blog and not speaking, but once you start using a metaphor you really should follow through to the bitter end. In my humble opinion of course). The same goes for adverbs, dialogue tags, and any of the other myriad little things a writer should bear in mind when writing or revising.

I am as guilty as anybody else of saying ‘you should always’ or ‘you should never’ in critiques and edits, because sometimes the person you are critting or editing really needs to know that having a different dialogue tag after every single piece of dialogue is somewhat distracting to the reader. A certain amount of firmness is needed at that point. But my caveats are always there to let the writer know that everything to do with writing is subjective.

There you go, an insight into my philosophy of writing. Which I suppose counts as an introduction.

A version of this was posted to ‘of Altered States’ as part of my introduction to that site: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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“Oi, buddy, you’re a writer, right? Where do you get your ideas from?”

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

I had no real idea what I was going to write this week then this turned  up on io9. Thank you, Mr Heinlein (and thank you io9 for sticking it where I could see it). Problem solved.

“Oi, buddy, you’re a writer, right? Where do you get your ideas from?”

I should imagine all writers get asked this question—a lot. You can cube that number for writers of Speculative Fiction, and you can cube it again for Science Fiction writers on their own. It’s understandable really.

Everybody, who isn’t a writer, is curious about where writers get their ideas. Writers are less curious and more envious when somebody comes up with a great idea (a ‘Bugger, wish I’d thought of that’ moment is something all writers will recognise (Check THIS out, so very envious).

With non-Speculative Fiction (excepting maybe Crime Fiction, where people back slowly away from the writer in case the scribe feels like doing a little hands-on research) people can kinda see where the idea might come from: a marriage break-up, an historical incident, a present-day incident, a conversation overheard in the street, and so on. Those sort of things make sense to readers, because everybody with an imagination will have had those moments of wondering.

With Fantasy, people can kinda see that the idea may derive from the 7000 odd years of mythology and legend that just sits there in the collective unconscious. Horror pretty much comes from the same place as Fantasy, but it does cross the line into Science Fiction (and Crime Fiction).

But pure SF?

Heinlein’s letter shows the answer. I don’t know if he trawled through his notebooks for his friend Theodore Sturgeon, or if he just started spilling ideas onto the page in a flood, it could have been either, but the important thing is that all the ideas actually built an entire world in very few words.

Even the ‘ghost cat’ idea creates a world in sixteen words.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a reason why Heinlein is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) Science Fiction writers. This flood of ideas is part of the why and the world creation is a lot of the rest of it. Everything connects together in Heinlein’s work. He describes a world from the inside in a master class of how to do exposition. (Read the beginning of Starbeast if you don’t believe me). He takes an idea to its logical conclusion and that logical conclusion is the world building, then he lets his characters loose in that world.

Not many writers can do that. Really. It’s a rare gift.

However, the ideas bit is what all Science Fiction writers do automatically. We don’t even think about it. Some science journal or political journal has some article and we instantly think, ‘hmmm, I wonder?’

I wonder: if building bots that mimic human play in online games  will lead to them being used as NPC characters in new games, which will lead to Machine Intelligences being released onto the net; if sons leaving DNA in the mother will allow dead sons to be cloned from these tissues at some point in the future (it is probable that daughters leave the same DNA behind, but male DNA is easier to find in a woman); and so on. Instant extrapolation.

And this happens pretty much anytime I read anything scientific, or political, or sociological, or…okay pretty much anything I read about pretty much anything…because I’ve trained my brain over decades to do this. And all those stray thoughts stick somewhere in my memory. I only write down really cool ideas (or what I think are really cool ideas). I actually learn about stuff by writing stories about them. Sometimes the stories fail, but I’ve figured out sommat about the idea, then later that same idea will pop up in another story, which works because I understand the idea better now.

Don’t get me wrong here, a lot of writers will do the same thing, some will probably have looked at my two instant extrapolations above and gone “Is that all you saw? Sheesh, what about this…?”

But to answer the question ‘where do SF writers get their ideas from?’ is easy, from reading stuff and wondering how the hell it would affect the world. The “My God, what if” of Brian Aldiss.

If dead children can be cloned from DNA left behind in the mother, what about taking that same DNA and using it to create ‘spare-part’ clones for the children? What about using it to create a designer clone because the first (naturally born) version turned out a bit disappointing? What would happen if the ‘natural’ child was disinherited and the ‘designer’ child became the heir? What would it be like to have a younger, ‘suped-up’, version of you running around with all the money you should have inherited? What would a world that allowed this to happen be like?

That’s where we get our ideas from. But of course, Heinlein, Asimov, Clark, Anderson, Wyndham, Le Guin, Shelley, Wells, Aldiss, Verne, Gibson, Vinge, and all the rest of the greats, have been doing the same thing for centuries.

And doing it better.

But what can I do? My brain is trained now, so I’m stuck with it.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Filed under Genres and other foolishness, Storytelling, Art, and Craft, World Building