Kill your darlings

Pigeon bus

I need to kill my darlings.

I’m not talking about that hackneyed ‘get rid of your good writing’ thing that may or may not be good advice (Spoiler: it’s good advice if it’s qualified enough to make it entirely different advice). I’m talking about rather more literal darlings. I’m talking about characters.

In 1998 or thereabouts I came up with a character for a roleplaying game. His name is Andrew Cairns, and he’s Australian. G’day.

A little later, in 2003ish, I came up with another. His name’s Paul Hazel and he was originally a wrestler.

I’ve been carrying these guys with me in my head for nearly two decades. I’ve been on many imaginary adventures with them. Gradually they’ve been moulded and grown far beyond the source material. They now inhabit their own fully-developed worlds.

So when I fancied writing a new novel it seemed natural to turn them into protagonists. I tinkered and shaped in my mind to worldbuild them a framework; to strip them out of their source material and create a universe that’d be worth exploring. I gave them an antagonist and a mission. And I set them loose.

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I’m quite pleased with the result. I’ve created a story with a plausible ‘world’ and a villain who’s a real star. The newly-created characters are fun to write and, I think, read well too.

The characters that hold the story back are, as you’ve probably guessed, Paul Hazel and Andrew Cairns.

The reason for this, I think, is that these two characters are overwritten. I’ve spent too long with them. They’re fully rounded, matured: I’ve not left any room for them to grow.

I listened to a podcast recently which said that the best characters are brought to the world without baggage. Certainly all my favourite characters in my own writing are the last-minute spur-of-the-moment creations.

From the policemen hastily conjured to fill gaps in my first never-to-be-shared novel The Ballad of Lady Grace, to the haunted, sleep-deprived Saira in Oneiromancer, the characters who sing for me are the ones I’d never met before setting finger to keyboard.

Hazel and Cairns came to the novel fully grown. All the interesting things about them had already happened. I left no room for them to grow into, no space for change. They’ve become immutable, ossified.

Man in stone wall 1300w.jpg

They might be well-written, they might be realistic, they might be nuanced and have hidden depths – and let’s not forget the whole novel is built around them – but they’re sucking the life from the story.

All those guides for creating characters (like this, for example; there are hundreds out there) are just guides for carving blocks of wood. If they have any use it’s in helping remember the ideas you come up with on the fly. Otherwise just forget them. Bin them. Burn them.

Write. Let your characters surprise you. Run your plot into a place where you need a person, then click your fingers and bring alive the first thing that comes into your mind.

They’ll be a whole lot more realistic than the person you spent days creating a whole back-story for.

* * *

This blog has been brought to you by a critique by @orcsandelves and a particular podcast from a source that, after going on about relentlessly for the last few months, I am sworn not to name.

 

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Everyday jargonism

Kenning

Last week I talked about Stephen Fry’s The Liar and how it described a world from which I felt alienated. Now it’s time to elaborate on that in yet another book-based ramble. We can but hope that at least one of you will find it interesting.

*Clears throats and adopts lecturing stance*

I’m pretty well grounded in genre fiction: that big, wide tent that covers not only SFF but crime, thrillers, spy novels and horror and, to a lesser extent, LBGT stories. I don’t know so much about literary fiction and, save for inevitable overlap, ‘popular’ fiction such as that produced by Dan Brown and James Patterson. This is another way of saying that I know the ‘rules’ (or tropes) of some forms of fiction but not others.

Knowing the rules is another way of saying that I understand the jargon. I know the shape of a crime story: I understand the differences between a police procedural and a noir thriller. I can instinctively – instinct being another word for experience – tell the difference between epic fantasy and grimdark. Each genre and subgenre has its own shape and structure.

My snobbery is that I have developed a mistrust of literary fiction. I see it as elitist and, to be honest, I’m just not sure what it actually is. Thus I have written off the McEwan’s and Amis’ of the world as being about English professors who attended fee-paying schools before spending three hundred pages agonising over whether or not they should boink their students.

Martin-Amis-and-Ian-McEwan-Mark-Vessey_medium

Martin Amis & Ian McEwan; an image taken from a joint 2014 interview

Which brings us back to The Liar. I felt excluded from this novel – especially in the first half of it – because it described a world I didn’t understand. It was hard for me to feel empathy with its characters because I’ve never known anyone like them. The jargon passed me by, the jokes too ‘in’ to welcome me.

And that got me thinking: this must be what other people feel like all the time.

Literary fictioneers don’t understand genre¹. They feel excluded. All that talk of elves and dwarfs and magic: it’s just another way to determine the in-crowd. It’s easy to pour scorn on something you don’t understand, to say ‘oh, it’s just escapism’ because they can’t imagine that might actually be a metaphor.

Similarly, I don’t get the subtleties of the romance genre. I know a little about the way Mills & Boon, in particular, are written to a formula but I don’t get the subtleties that distinguishes a potboiler from a beloved classic.

But these are little things. Some groups are excluded from the world of books altogether. Which leads us neatly on to Lionel Shriver.

“…literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer from that email that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling.”

Ms Shriver has courted fresh controversy with her complaints against the move for diversity within the publishing world. She worries that welcoming minority groups (especially if it’s a sort of quota system of positive discrimination) into fiction will be detrimental to quality. Why this should be isn’t immediately clear: it implies that the aforementioned gay transgender dropout is incapable of writing quality prose. It overlooks the great advantage that she herself received as a graduate of a private school and all that that implies.

[I last wrote about her views here. Spoiler: I disagreed with her then, too.]

First of all, it’s worth noting that a big reason why literary fiction is what it is because white middle-class men ran publishing for at least a century (and still do, though possibly to a lesser extent). Naturally they gravitated towards books they understood, that spoke to them: that were written in the jargon of their daily lives. Thus the ideal of ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ was to a great extent homogenised, one great circle-jerk of self-congratulatory smuggery.

Nonprofit-communication-is-overflowing-with-jargon.jpg

So it’s no wonder that minority groups see reading as not for them. When people feel that you’re not allowed to wear trainers in a bookshop², just how off-putting is it for BAME readers to be expected to wade through books with not a single character with a name like theirs?

No wonder ‘working class’ people don’t read when the books they like – the romances, the thrillers, the Dan Browns and James Pattersons³ – are derided as ‘silly’ or ‘simplistic’ or ‘unworthy’. Why should they bother? It’s not that books are uncool; it’s that they’re ridiculed for the books they’re drawn to.

[And this can go right back into childhood. So many girls’ stories are about princesses and boys have only ogres to model themselves upon. I’m not sure if it’s available to watch now, but if you get the chance I’d really recommend this documentary for more on the harm we do children through the small sins of stereotyping gender]

I like myself

People like to see themselves in the books they read. There has to be something they can grasp; some aspect of the character or their world they can relate to. That can be as simple as having a woman as a significant character, or someone not born with a silver spoon in their mouth, or as complex as a world with suspiciously familiar nation-states (or planets) in constant turmoil and warfare. Knowledge and experience all count here.

All this might make you think that I’m railing against The Liar and books of that ilk, but I’m not. What I’m doing is coming to terms with my own shortcomings. People who went to public school absolutely deserve to be served by the stories they read – but so do the rest of us, especially those who are typically unrepresented.

Repeat after me: not all books are written with me in mind and that’s okay.

Publishing has for too long been an Old Boys’ Club. Literary fiction is unduly represented in awards and the status it’s accorded is, in my view, unmerited.

Everyone deserves good books. If you want your writing to read a wide audience (which is not that same as more readers; there’s a reason why genre conventions exist in book covers) it might be worth looking at what you’re doing to exclude potential readers, and what you can do to embrace more people.

Oh and Lionel Shriver can just, please, go away.

***

¹Massive generalisation for the purposes of illustrative effect. I’m sure there’s a Classical term for the way I’m using it but the internet has let me down. Hyperbole is the closest I can get.

²This is taken from a conversation on Twitter initiated by Joanne Harris on 28/05/18 with regard to the struggles of UK chain WHSmiths. Her initial statements are thus:

While it may not be the coolest shop on the High Street, research suggests that WH Smith, and not Waterstone’s, is the place where most working-class people buy books. If we care at all about promoting literacy, we should at least be aware of this.

All the replies from well-meaning, middle-class people saying; “Yes, but it needs to stop selling cheap chocolate and tat” may have missed my point. Some people may like cheap chocolate. They may like the fact that WH Smith provides a nonthreatening, familiar environment.

Research strongly suggests that readers from certain backgrounds are less likely to go into Waterstone’s because it looks expensive and intimidating to them. WH Smiths, with its “cheap chocolate and tat”, looks more welcoming. They buy their books there instead.

But I’m also drawing from the responses to this conversation. I personally have no facts & figures, sorry.

³Like Footnote no.1 this is a massive, crude oversimplification. I don’t think that the ‘working class’ only read blockbusters, and that blockbusters are only read by the working class. Hell, I’m not even sure who the working class are anymore. Please don’t hate me. I’m just trying to make a point

 

On Chekhov’s Gun and the fantastic

Gun

I was listening to Tim Clare’s wonderful ‘Death of 1,000 Cuts’ podcast – which I recommend most heartily – and, in conversation with Nate Crowley, something came up that caught my ear. He said that Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t apply in science-fiction because we, the reader, expect things they don’t understand to be dropped into the background to help build the world.

I take it we’re all familiar with Chekhov’s Gun, the rule which states that you must “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’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” It has a whole Wikipedia page of its own. That’s how important it is.

Let me just make clear that Tim’s comment was a single sentence that went without consideration – just a passing observation before the conversation went elsewhere. This is in no way a critique of him or his brain, which seems to me both beautiful and wondrous. But, as with all the best things in life, this one idle comment got me thinking: is this true? As a writer of SFF can I lay Chekhov’s Gun aside?

My initial thought is no, you can’t. But we need to dig a little deeper than that, don’t we? This blog won’t write itself, more’s the pity.

The first thing we need to think about is point-of-view. Unless we’re dealing with a fish-out-of-water tale (time-travel, say, or a primitive transported to a technologically advanced world) all the trappings of your POV-character’s world will be familiar to them. It’d be frankly weird for them to explain what a hyperspace drive is if they work with one every day.

It’d be like a character in a contemporary novel describing a television or a bookshelf: we take these items for granted. Only the extraordinary needs description.

Thus we assume that anything that the writer draws specific attention to, especially if the POV character already knows all about it, is significant.

There’s also an element of trust going on. When a writer tosses out concepts like mechs or mer-beasts or strange magicks and then moves on, we as readers have to trust the writer to tell us more if they’re of any importance. Not then and there, for that way leads straight to exposition-ville, but we trust that the writer will slip us the information under the table, as it were, as we get deeper into their world.

mech

A strange mech. As with the rest of the images in this article, I’ve no idea who made it and who owns copyright.

[As an aside, I think writers have got so much better at doing this over the years. Asimov’s The Gods Themselves is my go-to example of how not to do it: it even includes the dreaded sentence “As you know…” which is a sure sign that an exposition-bomb is about to be detonated. And TGT won awards.]

Specific terms and phrases are scattered around in all genres; from underground argot in crime novels, to historical denotations of class, to the ways and means of public schoolboys in literary fiction. These don’t bother us because we trust the writer to explain what matters. The rest is colour.

So the question we should really be asking is this: what’s the difference between Chekhov’s Gun and colour?

And the answer to that is that there shouldn’t be any. Not to the casual eye, at least.
Foreshadowing is vital: the reader must see the crucial element before it becomes significant – if not we’re in breach of Knox’s Commandments. Deus ex machina will swoop down upon us and doom will be our only friend.

Chekhov’s Gun is foreshadowing gone feral. Foreshadowing must be camouflaged; it must be indistinguishable from the background. It must be masked by that ‘colour’ we were talking about before.

Chekhov, however, hurls off his disguise and, slapping his belly to the rhythm of Waltzing Matilda, dances a naked jig before the reader.

Alter Mann.jpg

Be very, very glad that this is the image I’ve chosen to accompany that thought. There were alternatives…

So I respectfully disagree with Tim Clare. Chekhov’s Gun is not excusable in SFF: it’s an error in any genre. Perhaps what he’s really thinking of is jargon – there is, perhaps, a higher likelihood of made-up words in science fiction and fantasy. Let’s not forget that the word ‘orc’ is now widely known where fifty years ago it was practically unknown. ‘Orc’ is jargon that has entered modern parlance. ‘Cyberspace’ is another example, as is ‘hive mind’. Not long ago we needed these terms explaining. Now we don’t.

Characters belong to a time, a place and a culture. They have their own language (and, if you don’t believe these surround us even now, check out Dent’s Modern Tribes) and they think in those terms. We don’t need every single word explained; context will make most things clear.

Context is, as ever, everything. Abandon it at your peril.

I wanna hold your hand

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Escher, Drawing Hands, 1948

I do not have an agent. This bothers me.

The whispers have it that it’s easier to get a publishing deal than it is to get representation. I don’t know about that, but I do have a book coming out and I’m finding myself somewhat at a loss.

Agents are great. For a relatively modest fee (that you don’t pay up front) they make sure your work is tip-top and that you’re not getting screwed in negotiations.

You don’t actually need an agent to do these things for you: you can find beta-readers for free or pay an editorial company to review your work for you. Similarly, I got The Society of Authors to check the proffered contract for me (a free service once membership is paid), which gives me a little more confidence that I’m not going to lose out if everything goes pear-shaped.

So why am I bothered by not having an agent? Well, at the moment it’s this: what happens next?

I’m a debut novelist: I have a book coming out. I know that I’m expected (and want) to help promote my book. I don’t know how to do this. Am I responsible for sorting out podcast appearances? Launch events? Press releases?

I know I can ask my publishers this but I’m afraid to hassle them. I don’t want to be that person – the one who’s looking over their shoulders all the time asking ‘are we there yet?’ And yes, I know that says more about me that it does about the world; and yes, I’d probably have the same fear about hassling an agent.

There are other things too, though, like the possibility of getting another book published. My publisher has the right of first refusal on my next work. When the hell am I supposed to broach the issue with them? How do I best present myself to get a career and not be just a one-off?

I guess what I really want is for someone to be there for me. I want reassurance. I want someone there to hold my hand.

An agent is not a therapist and I know that what I’m saying here may make all reputable agents black-ball me forevermore. But I want to be good at what I do. I feel like I’m not doing enough to sell myself; that I’m spending too much time on the whole ‘writing’ thing and not enough of building my brand.

I also feel like I’m trapped: that this ‘rights to the next book’ will act as a disincentive to agents in the future, even though I signed the deal knowing full well what I was getting into.

I am worrying too much. This is almost certainly the case. That doesn’t make it better. What I really need is someone to help me organise this period, to tell me what I should be doing, to act as a guide and a confidante.

Thankfully I’ve got Twitter. And so do you. Never has it been so easy to ask for advice, to go direct to the people who a) know what they’re talking about, and b) are willing to share their time and expertise.

Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, I find myself dependent on the kindness of strangers. Now I just need to get over my fears of bothering them.

On luck

Compoco Black Cat

Enamel badge from Compoco. Not a recommendation, merely an apposite image

Way back in the mists of time I attended my one and only writing conference. The keynote speaker was Julian Fellowes and the theme of his talk was this: we don’t know any more than you.

The people who have ‘made it’, he said, had done so through luck. There was no real advice they could give other than the technical; there was no road-map to Successville.

[I accepted this at the time but now I wonder how true that is: could white male upper-class privilege have had something to do with it? But that’s a subject for another day]

Now, five years later, I find myself in possession of a publishing deal – for the same book, incidentally, that I was hawking at the aforementioned conference – and now I ask myself: how did this happen?

The answer is, of course, luck.

Through sheer good fortune my manuscript found itself on the desk of a person who was looking for that particular story at that particular time. On another day she’d have been running late and would skim my work without really taking it in. Or she’d have just signed a remarkably similar novel by someone else. Maybe she’d have been dyspeptic after an especially generous lunch and would have been too distracted to appreciate genius.

Luck: someone retweeted a submissions-request from a new imprint on Twitter. Luck: I decided to send them my novel and not just try and drum up some proofreading work, which had been my initial plan. Luck: without really trying, or putting much thought into it, I bashed out a cover letter that didn’t send them rushing to the ‘delete’ button so fast they gave their fingers a friction burn.

Luck: it fell into the inbox of someone who saw potential profit (not the same as talent; not by a long shot, and perhaps rarer) in my work.

Ultimately, the decision whether or not your book gets an agent or gets published is out of your hands.

But sometimes you will hit the right person in the right mood on the right day. And it’s for those narrow windows that you must make sure your work has the biggest chance of success. To do that you must:

  • Write a novel (or other work of your choosing)
  • Edit that novel
  • Edit it again
  • Another edit can’t hurt
  • Find the right agent/publisher for your work. I mean really – don’t waste your time sending a gritty urban noir to a lit-fiction specialist. The only special opportunity you’re giving them is the opportunity to turn you into another irritated ‘don’t do this’ screed on Twitter
  • Write a good synopsis
  • Check the submission guidelines. Check them twice. Keep the webpage open and keep checking as you…
  • …Write a solid cover letter

None of this will result in guaranteed publication. What it means is that, when the dominoes finally fall your way, you have a chance.

[And don’t expect the offer of representation/publication to be the final stop on your journey. There will be more editing to come]

Imagine what’d happen if all the stars aligned and you got the right editor/agent in the perfect mood – and your work wasn’t up to scratch.

Luck? Yes, it’s luck. But you’re not helpless before the fickle fates. Improve the odds. Write a good story and follow the rules and you’re already ahead of the curve. Hell, go out and network if you’re the sort of person who can do such a thing.

Then go out and write a better story.

I had tremendous luck when it came to getting a deal for Night Shift. But I earned that luck by working damn hard through nine or so drafts, by beating my synopsis into shape and by evolving my submission technique over many years.

The dice will roll your way eventually – probably more often than you think. It’s up to you to be ready to take advantage.

Say what?

Empty Dad.jpg

This image is all over the internet but I can’t find an original source to credit. And yes, he does look remarkably like me

The hardest thing about writing is working out what you want to say.

It all looks simple enough. ‘I want to write a story about a robot gardener who makes it his mission to reforest the Earth.’ Great stuff. So you sit down and open a new document and…

Nothing. Nada. Not a sausage.

I’ve just got to the second scene of my latest rewrite of Australis. I’ve known for some time that I wanted the major rewrites to start here but now I’m there:

  • Where am I going to set it? The original scene was a cocktail-style gathering, which I always felt uncomfortable about. Now I have the chance to relocate it, but… where?
  • Who’s in it? Again, the original was a chance to introduce some key figures (and yes, I know cocktail party = clichéd way of bombarding the reader with names – another reason I wanted it to change). What do I do now? If I don’t introduce people here I have to introduce them later. Who has to be here; who must be shown up front and centre?
  • What do they want? This is a little easier: there is a disturbance they want stopped. But what sub-motives are going on around me?
  • What does the reader need to know of these sub-motives?
  • What tension is there? Tension is what keeps the reader reading. It has to be there; but it can’t be too obvious. Can it?
  • What motion is there? This comes back to setting: does the robot gardener have a workshop? Then maybe his visitor is handling his tools. In the cocktail party there will the supping of drinks and the chomping of canapés. But now I’m rewriting my scene in a more open space, who, how and where will people move to?
  • How do I give all this information without going into reams of description? How can I be concise whilst still keeping all my balls in the air?

These are basic things but they have to be worked out either before or during the writing. Actually getting the words down – and the choices that reveal character, mood and so on – is the final task.

But even then, even when you know all this, when you think you have all the answers, you still have to get something down on the page. And that’s the hardest thing of all.

Atelodemiourgiopapyrophobia – the fear of imperfect creative activity on paper.

It’s not knowing what to say. It’s not knowing how to say it. It’s everything happening at once as the mind gets stuck in a logjam and can’t clear room to set one word after another.

And it’s just as hard in the editing stage as it is to set the first word on that white blank page. In some ways it’s harder: you have to change everything whilst also keeping everything.

For the time being I’m ignoring character, nuance and any form of subtlety – in other words I’m trying to forget the last of my bullet points. I’m concentrating on the broad strokes. Because, at this stage, any attempt to be note-perfect is bound to fail; there’ll always be something I’ve forgotten to say; something that needs adding. Concentrate on the basics – they’re hard enough as it is.

The first word brings the second. And the third. And on until the whole sentence is out.

And then you might have to delete it all and start again, but at least you know what doesn’t work.

Put everything down. Get everything together. Work on the aesthetics later.

The neverending

DTRH

To all you sensible people out there: I’m sorry.

A few weeks ago I mused on whether I should go back to rewrite old material or if I should crack on with something new. The overwhelming (single) response was that I should move on.

Well I’m sorry. I’ve let you down, I’ve let myself down, I’ve let the school down.

I’ve started to take Australis to pieces. I’ve given it a new name, even a new folder in my master ‘Writing’ file. I come armed with a spreadsheet and a new approach. The intention is to use pretty much all of the old writing, pretty much, but with new motives, mischiefs and mishaps superimposed.

Simple. Should take me a few hours and then it’s to the pub.

 

Dorfl fanart

Dorfl, From Pratchett’s Feet of Clay; fan art by somone whose name I can’t find by whose tumblr page is here

 

This is a stupid idea, I know that. It’ll take months and I’m not exactly short of other things to work on. Thing is, I need this to work. It’s more than just a novel, it’s the middle book of a trilogy; it’s the book that I need to sell to my publisher so I can build a career and not just be a one-off.

That’s not true either. I know I could self-pub the second- and third parts (and I might still do that) but I can’t bring myself to release something that I don’t think is good enough.

And that’s the real reason I need to do this. I need this thorn to be gone from my foot. It bugs me, it bugs me, it bugs me. It is unfinished business.

Stubbornness is an underrated quality in a writer. Sometimes you have nothing but grim bloody determination to get going; writing can be a slog and discouragement lies round every corner.

Sometimes all you can do is flick the vicars* to the world and carry on regardless.

 

____________________

*A quick internet search suggests that I am the only person in the world who uses this phrase. I mean, of course, raising two fingers in a manner generally considered impolite.