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.

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What you don’t know

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Still from Disney’s 1979 film The Black Hole, which I’d never heard of until I went a-hunting for an image for this post

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know I have my strong beliefs. Not many of them, to be sure, but some I return to like a dog to its vomit. One of them is this: you must write what you know.

This is one of those pieces of writing wisdom that has entered popular parlance (can you remember where you first heard it? I can’t; a quick search suggests that Mark Twain might be its originator but this I take with a generous pinch of salt), and I have written about it before. But can we try a little thought experiment? Can we try and examine what happens when you write what you don’t know?

Let’s imagine a house. Think of somewhere you’ve lived. Now it’s not unreasonable to think that if you’re reading this you’re neither madly wealthy nor living in abject poverty so your experiences are probably fairly average.

Now: what if the walls were thinner? What if they were made of plastic panels instead of brick? What if the superstructure had been replaced so many times that none of the original remained? The windows are made from cut-down bottles that shine a kaleidoscope on the battered furniture (nothing matching; salvaged; repaired; cast-offs traded for favours or rescued from the rubbish of the wealthy).

There is no sound-proofing. You can hear everything that happens outside; not only the jet-planes that are constantly circling but the arguments in the shack next door and the fights outside – the ones that make the walls shiver and shake and make you keep a knife by your nest of old newspapers and blankets.

And yet it is still your space. You still sigh in relief when you get inside and shut the ill-fitting door behind you. It is still the place – perhaps the only one – where you can truly let your guard down and be yourself.

With me? Good. Now let’s try and take it in another direction:

You’re in your spaceship. It’s your single most important possession, your lifeblood: the thing you rely on to keep the (space) wolves from the door. It’s second-hand because a two-bit trader like you can’t afford to buy new. Every piece of kit, every wire, every relay has been replaced at least twice. Half the instruments don’t work, their components cannibalised to run more important systems. You had to take out an exorbitant loan to replace the oxygen-scrubber last time it went down on you.

Each trip earns you just enough to buy fuel for the next – maybe, if you’re lucky, with enough on top to keep up with the interest repayments. You still dream of earning enough to retire on a nice little place on Mars but each day you’re getting older and the dream’s not getting any nearer. Guess you should have listened to your Mama and taken that office job on Phobos, huh?

I suppose, in the interests of accuracy, I should make it clear that I have never lived in a shanty nor owned a spaceship working the Mars-Jupiter trading run. I know, I know – what a fraud I am. But I have lived in a house and been in a car. I can imagine what life would be like if you strip away the things you take for granted

I can also go the other way and imagine I was protected by perfection; that everything around me is new, pristine and inviolate (although if you do that it’s almost as good as saying ‘watch all this go wrong’ because them’s the rules).

Take what you know and strip it back. Or build on it. Write what you don’t know.

And, if you’re still in doubt, see what all these famous authors have to say on the subject.

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.

Inappropriate

Shannon Wright.jpeg

Art by Shannon Wright

I have noticed something. Although I’m not too bad about reading female-authored work (around a third of my reading is by women, which isn’t terrible but it should really be half), I am not great at reading books by non-Western people. I know little of Indian literature, of Chinese, South East Asian, of Japanese writing. South America is a total blank and Africa also is hideously unrepresented.

This matters for several reasons. It matters because I’m not getting the full range of human experience; it’s limiting me as a person. It matters because I’m missing out on some great stories. It matters because I’m missing some great ideas for the stealing.

If you’re only reading books by white heterosexual middle-class males then your well will only be drawn by their experiences. You will have only the white-vs-black simplicity of Tolkien. Any attempt to fantasise will have a fundamentally familiar feel, no matter how creative you are within that area. The ‘others’ – be they peoples, races, species or artificial intelligences – are simply ‘us’ through a lens.

And that’s fine. It’s great, in fact. You can write wonderful novels with that base. But by denying yourself the knowledge of all human experience that’s all you have. You could do so much more; aliens who really feel alien; elves that are strange and terrifying, not merely slightly effeminate humans.

When the original Star Trek was made, Russian was foreign enough to stand for a whole alien species. Now we have to look a little further. Would it not be interesting to model an alien race on the beliefs and practices of native Australians or Amazonian tribes? Why not look into counterculture communities to help escape from capitalist orthodoxy and give your creations a totally different feel?

‘But wait,’ I hear you cry, ‘aren’t you just advocating cultural appropriation?’ To which I reply by shifting awkwardly in my seat and mumbling incomprehensibly, before gesturing vaguely in the direction of Joanne Harris, who considered the subject thusly:

1. A growing number of young authors are torn between the desire to write diverse characters and the fear of seeming to appropriate the experience of others. I think it’s possible to do one without the other.

2. Basically, the difference between representation and appropriation is this. In the first case, the author portrays another’s experience with informed respect. In the other, the author re-invents it in their own image, with no attempt at accuracy.

3. And although yes, authors are (quite rightly) free to write on any subject in any way they choose, anything that belittles, or falsely claims knowledge or experience of other cultures is disrespectful of the readership.

4. It’s important, when writing about experiences different to our own, to listen to people who have had those experiences. That means reading their books, too, where possible, and where necessary, hiring them as beta readers.

5. Some authors find they just can’t write diverse characters. This may be due to a lack of research, skill or sensitivity. Either way, if this is the case, they should avoid trying to do so.

6. If an editor comments on an area of perceived cultural insensitivity in your novel, they are not trying to “censor” you. They are trying to safeguard your book, and to stop you making an ass of yourself.

7. You may not always get diversity right. That doesn’t mean you should stop trying to write diverse characters. It just means you need to work harder, listen more carefully, and ask for help when you need it.

8. The further away a person’s experience is from yours, the harder it will be to depict it. Know when to draw the line. Everyone has limits.

9. If you find yourself arguing with people about your depiction of their culture or experience, or trying to tell them that you know better than they do, consider stepping away.

10. If, even after research and consultation and meaning well and working your socks off, you realize you’ve got it wrong, just say so. No-one should be above doing that.

It’s a tricky subject, and is often misrepresented, I think, by people who haven’t quite realized that they’re doing it.

#TenThingsAboutAppropriation
@Joannechocolat, used with permission

If you still doubt, read Terry Pratchett’s Thud. What are the dwarfs and trolls but a stand-in for the two main branches of Islam?*

An excellent way to consider a culture is through its myths, its origin tales, its folk stories. You’ll all be fairly familiar with the Viking gods and the Classical religions of Greece and Rome are scattered throughout our modern writings. But what of Vietnamese, Guinean, Polynesian legends? What am I missing?

Tracking down and researching folk legends is hard work, so, whilst I won’t kick them out of bed for snoring, I’m going to put them onto one side for the time being and focus on simply diversifying my reading. I’m missing out on so much.

Recommendations gratefully received. I’ll be a better writer as a result.

 

*Or possibly two other religions. It’s been a while since I read it, I confess, but Islam’s the one that’s always stuck with me