Words and pictures

Previously on this blog: [Words are] the least important part of a novel. Really, for most of the time you spend working on a piece of writing, words are the last things on your mind. So – and in no way contradicting this – here’s a post about the importance of words.

We all know the old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words. In children’s books that’s possibly useful: you don’t have to describe a character if there’s a picture of him/her/it if there’s an illustration right next to you. But if pictures (and covers don’t count, for some reason) aren’t an option there is another way to save yourself time and effort and that’s to pick the right word.

Let’s take an example: let’s consider the difference between ‘task’ and ‘assignment’.

First of all it’s clear that they mean just about the same thing. They’re almost synonymous and you might well use both words in a section to avoid repetition. That’s fine. But they’re not the same. First of all there’s an obvious difference in length and so sentence-rhythm will be affected. The words also come from different roots and it may be that characters favour one word over the over as a consequence of their upbringing.

But more than that: words – just about every word beyond the tiny filler-words that we barely notice – contain subconscious meaning that we’re not even aware of absorbing. But we do all the same.

So: assignment. If you’re carrying out an assignment you are telling me that you’ve been given a job by an authority who has some sort of control over you. It implies a bureaucracy; that one word creates a world around your characters that then never needs to be specifically described. Of course, in practice – and especially in longer fiction – you will actually have drawn a lot of this background. But you don’t have to. You’ve already created the associations in the reader’s mind.

Task is different. It doesn’t have those associations – although it’s not an antonym, so can still refer to a bureaucratically administered context. It refers more simply to a job (and you can consider ‘job’ or ‘chore’ in this context too), and one that has a lot more self-determination to it. If you are assigned a job then it is something direct. If you are given a task it implies a lot more self-control; you yourself determine the way it is carried out, its priority and the effort to which it is given.

The reader won’t consciously appreciate the difference between the terms; you don’t after all, stop to consider the precise meaning of each word in a novel. But it does shape the way you imagine the world, the way you build complexities without spelling out every single detail. It’s why your manuscript comes back with red pen aplenty.

Of course, all bets are off when it comes to dialogue. That’s a different matter entirely and will require a whole new blog-post at some as yet unspecified date.

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The room was blank and cold.

“Choose.”

“What do you mean?” the man said.

“Choose. Add something.” The voice was impersonal, distracted. Neither male nor female, it sounded as if it had been doing this all its life.

“Warmth. Books. A chair.”

The room heated instantly – a comfortable temperature. A rack of shelves appeared on the wall, fading into existence as if they’d always been there. They were covered with brown, dog-eared titles; paperbacks and leather-bound hardbacks. They brought with them the smell of comfort. The man exhaled and fell into the armchair that had just appeared.

“Anything else?”

He realised then that he wasn’t actually hearing the voice. The words were simply appearing in his memory. “But – what do you want?”

“Me? This isn’t about me.” As if it had never considered the possibility. “Choose.”

The man looked around the chamber. “A window. A desk.”

They appeared as if straight from the subconscious; archetype objects. The man got up to tap at the surface of the desk, littered as it was with papers, pens, notes. Not just the object itself, but everything a desk was.

Through the window he saw landscape. It was nowhere and it was everywhere; frictionless, impossible. Even the colours had melted.

“What is this place?”

The voice hesitated. “Is there anything else?”

“I can’t think…”

“It is done, then.”

“Wait!” How he knew the voice was leaving he couldn’t say. Like it was turning away. “Wait – what is this place? What am I doing here?”

“Why, this is Hell, of course.”

“W-what do you mean?”

“This is your existence – I won’t say life, you’re done with that now – until the end of time.”

“But – but wait… Hell? This is –”

“Or Heaven. There’s really no difference.”

He had no words. His mouth flapped open, head shaking.

“It’s sad, really.” The voice – it was distant now, pausing by some invisible exit.

“W-what do you mean?”

“Eternity alone? What –”

“Company! Give me friends, give me my wife –”

“Too late now.”

“Who – who are you?”

“Just a soul who’s far more damned than you.”

The man felt a sigh like a whisper on the wind – except there was no breeze. Nothing moved. The window, he saw now, was closed. Sealed. He knew he’d never be able to get it open, never smash the glass.

He knew he’d still try, though.

He’d spend a long time trying.

*          *          *

 The entity drifted silently through a million blank walls, waiting for its next assignment. It shook its incorporeal head.

“‘What do you want?’” the voice chuckled. “As if, as if…”

The man’s fate wasn’t so bad, not really. At least he had books and paper, could do something to pass the centuries. No, not nearly as bad as the things the entity had seen. But it had hoped… A clever man like that…

“One day,” it sighed. “One day one of them will ask for a door.”

Listen very carefully

I’m a voracious reader. I devour books, racing through the pages as if it’s some sort of competition. I feed on the words, barely giving them chance to breathe before I shove them in my maw and swallow them whole to be digested at my leisure. But that’s not the only way to read.

I’m semi-envious of the gourmets, the ones who take their time, linger on every syllable and drink deep of their meaning. These people find every subtext and double-meaning and who really think of the story in the moment and let it draw them slower into the atmosphere, the world of the novel.

I’ve just finished an audiobook – an occasional pleasure that, for the past decade, has always been dependent on my local library’s stock. It struck me just how different an experience it had been from the way I normally read. When I have a book in my hand I occasionally skim through brief sections. I have a mortal fear of embarrassment and sometimes I rush through scenes of personal humiliation, or awkward dates and the like. Can’t do that with an audiobook. By listening to a recitation a reader loses their control on the material. You’re forced to listen to every single word.

More importantly, you’re made to experience the work at a more measured, slower pace than normal. And just by slowing things down you’re fundamentally changing your experience. The pregnant pauses you skipped, the descriptions that went past in a blur; here they’re all measured out, apportioned. You’re listening to someone else’s interpretation of the text and you’re being told details that you’d have missed, or only absorbed subconsciously, if it’d been you reading.

One of the most frequent pieces of advice I’ve come across for authors is that they should read their own texts out loud as an extra test of the material. This tendency to skip words affects authors as much as readers; it’s quite amazing how much bad writing you miss when you’re editing. For some reason the brain just doesn’t see it. At some level you know you’ve written a scene or paragraph that doesn’t have real purpose but, because there’s nothing actually wrong with it you pass over. Again and again and again. The lazy part of the brain refuses to let you focus on the problem. Forcing yourself to read every single work out loud makes you face up to your errors.

But for me it’s just a pleasure. To allow words to roll over you, to experience the visceral thrill of the imagination in a way that seems to pass through your ears and enter the brain directly. Now the only words I miss occur when it’s time for a coffee, because I can bear to hit the pause button. I’d much prefer to lose a bit of meaning than to lose the atmosphere that these soft voices build in us.

Thanks to a birthday present from my significant other (or ‘wife’, depending) I now have a regular supply of audiobooks at my command. And I can’t wait to immerse myself in other worlds. It’s never easier to lose yourself in a story than when it’s being read to you, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re four or forty. We should never let ‘growing up’ take away the glory of the imagination.

Back to school

There’s a ring on my finger and I am a very happy bunny. But now it’s back to school, back to battling the evil forces of paid employment for time to write. After a few weeks of altered priorities it’s a struggle to get the brain together. I’d not expected the post-project depression to hit me quite so hard. I should have known better.

I took last week off to be with the woman, and I’m hugely grateful for that. But now I’m back and I’m determined to get back with the flow. I don’t like having nothing to do. I crave the tiny bits of stress – not too much, just enough to focus and drive – that comes from a major undertaking such as planning a wedding, or indeed a novel. For years I’ve known that I should always have at least one creative outlet on the go at any one time. But it’s always hard to get back in the swim after a break, and that’s where I am right now.

So, here’s a recap. Night Shift. Ninth draft. Major reworking – which means I have to think as well as do.

What I’m trying to achieve is to shift the story from an adventure into a psychological thriller. Yes, I know that the novel will get classified as science-fiction whatever the actual ‘feel’ of the book will be, but still. Having squashed some plot-holes in the last run-through (8a; my draft-numbering system is somewhat erratic) I’m now focussing on small things such as character, motivation and background. It’s not easy. I’m not an expert at any particular genre and this is new territory for me.

So how do I go about it? In recent posts I’ve included pictures of my planning sheets and that really symbolises my writing process at the moment. I’m going back to the very beginning. I’m really thinking. How and why did this person get here? How would they react in any particular situation?

One of my major characters is an African engineer called Max. I know her pretty well. I’ve got a good idea of her background and her personality, but a few days ago I realised I still don’t know enough. Because I’m writing in the first-person I never really looked beyond my protagonist for action. But even – especially – when looking through the eyes of a single person it’s vital to know how those around him will behave. How will Max feel when asked this or that question? What will my supporting cast be doing, how will they be feeling when a crisis hits?

I have to know. I have to know what’s happening off-camera for all the characters in the novel. In an emergency, who will panic? Who will be pragmatic? Who will start the rumours and who will listen to them? All the characters I’ve created are specialists, experts: I have no fools. And only fools listen blindly to their leaders. The rest will act depending on their personalities and backgrounds.

Even if this has little bearing on my story I still need to know what they’re doing and how they’re feeling. For a plot isn’t one thing happening after another, it’s things happening as a direct consequence of what went before. A stray word said in jest can resonate through a novel; a single action made with the best intentions can come back to haunt you. This is dramatic irony. This is the stuff that stories are made of.

So I’m rewriting not so much the story (this time) but the people. Not changing them per se, more trying to give them room to breathe. And always thinking about what’s going on off-camera, because real people don’t stand around waiting for the protagonist to interact with them.

And, of course, I’m still shuffling scenes around and fixing the remaining logic-gaps within my world. In summary: there’s still a lot of work to do. But the novel will be a lot more convincing if I can get it right this time.

Intermission

Apologies for the erratic posting recently. I got married at the weekend and am spending a few days off with the other half. It’s lovely to be able to take the time just with her, but it does take a toll on the old writing.

Writing requires regular commitment. After only two weeks away from the page I’m finding it hard to get going. For the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long I’m catching myself looking for excuses not to write. But at the same time I’m feeling an enormous pressure to get on with things. I’ve got work to do. I’m mid-project and these few days off are perfect for getting down to it.

But thinking is hard work and the brain is lazy. How many times to you actually think, actually work your mind every day? Not many. It’s so easy to go through life on automatic that weeks can pass without doing any actual brain-work. You have to train your mind into the habit – and that, as much as anything else, is what writing is. It’s thinking, it’s working; it’s finding that moment when the brakes come off and you find the flow – where the mind ticks into a higher gear and you can sweep a perfect paragraph onto the page.

And so I’m struggling to find the will because being comfortable and loved and lazy are so pleasant. But the tendency to be idle is bashing against my love of writing and my guilt – I think that’s the right emotion – at not getting words down. So I am gritting my teeth and I’m beginning to realise how determined I am to get this work done. Not because I have to but because I want to. Because I love to create.

But of course the missus comes first. We’re going on a mini-moon tomorrow, just a few days away to celebrate – please don’t for a moment feel all this angst and firstworldproblemery comes from anything other than the joy of the marriage and my beloved – and I’ll be missing writing again.

Monday. I’ll be back and working on Monday, and every weekday thereafter.