On Interviews

Q & A

I have done two live interviews. I have done two non-live interviews and a further one where I wrote the questions myself. Obviously this qualifies me to give you, Joe and Joanna Public, advice.

It’s worth saying that I didn’t organise any of these myself. My publisher hired a PR agency for its whole range and my particular publicist managed to wrangle these for me. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to examine how you might get these yourself, but that’s for another day.

Buckle up, folks. Here we go:

‘Paper’ Interviews

These are questions received in advance of a deadline, usually via email. The advantage of this is that you can take your time over them; you’re not under pressure to provide an instant response.

The downside is that you can’t really ask for different questions. You (or at least I) also feel more pressure to get it ‘right’; to be interesting and informative.

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Some quick pointers:

  • Read all the questions before you dive in; you might be able to give similar answers to several questions and it’ll help to have an idea of the overall shape of the article
  • Avoid one-word answers. Hopefully you won’t be asked anything that could be answered so simply; you do see them in print but they tend to come from face-to-face interviews (or where the journalist has been very creative)
  • Think about what the interviewer wants – and that usually boils down to something that’ll fill space without alienating their readers. They want as little work as possible. Thus they want good writing and full answers; don’t worry about going on too long (they can cut it back if necessary) but don’t expect them to correct your grammar for you. Errors reflect on you more than they do them
  • If there is a question to which the answer is simply ‘no’ then reinterpret it so you can say something sensible. Example: ‘What impact did playing professional basketball have on your writing?’ could be answered thus: ‘I didn’t actually play professionally but I do like to go for regular walks. I find exercise really helps focus on the knottiest of plot-points…’ That’s an extreme example and you’d like to think that in such cases the journalist would rewrite the question to fit your answer
  • If you’re entirely stymied get back to the interviewer as soon as possible. Don’t sweat on it up to the last minute. Most times things can be changed
  • Similarly, if you have a crisis and can’t make the deadline let them know as soon as possible. Most times articles can be pushed back. Even if the opportunity passes you’ve kept from being blacklisted. There’s always the next novel to promote
  • Get someone you trust to check your answers. My wife is superb at pointing out where my particular brand of dry humour or self-deprecation could be misinterpreted. Some things are perfectly clear in your head but don’t come across on the page. Leave time for a check-and-redraft
  • Link to your work. Even if the article is to be about you and not your magnum opus, it’s nice to add in the odd reference here and there; how does the question you’re answering affect the way you’re writing, or the material you produce?
  • Standard rules of good writing apply. Don’t answer every question the same – vary your sentence & answer length as you would in your prose. Watch out for typos and homonyms
  • Don’t lie. You can tailor your answers to the source material – for example the answers I gave for Living North magazine were not the same as I’d for the Oxford Times – and it’s reasonable to exaggerate certain aspects of your life (such as my affection for my time spent in the Bodleian Library). Just don’t go into outright falsehoods. Stay true to yourself. Lies have a way of taking on lives of their own and creep your ankles, ready to trip you up and scratch your eyes out. Or they may just be a perpetual embarrassment. Either way, not worth the hassle
  • You are interesting. You may not think so, but you are. If you truly can’t think of something distinct about your life you can always play up the Everyman aspect of your life. What could be more relatable than that?

Radio (or similarly ‘live’) interviews

If written interviews are like coursework, a live radio interview is like your final end-of-year exam. But here’s something to take the edge off: your interviewer wants you so succeed. There is an art to interviewing and that’s to make the subject feel at home and to get them talking as if it’s just a friendly chat between the two of you.

That’s why, if you get the chance, you should go and do the interview face-to-face and not over the phone or via Skype. Not always possible, of course. I wasn’t able to get to Guernsey for my interview with their local radio station. Needs must.

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Onto the advice:

  • Pretty much all the above applies
  • If possible, work out what questions you’re liable to be asked. Ways to do this…
    • Ask. You should have a contact either via email, letter or telephone. In my case the publicist arranged it so I asked her. The answers weren’t massively illuminating but better than nothing
    • Listen to the show; see what other guests are asked
    • Find out what materials they might have: did you send them a publicity pack or press release? Have another shuftie at it; consider if there are any threads they might pull upon
  • Try and find a way to describe your work succinctly. This doesn’t have to be the ‘elevator pitch’ – indeed, that’ll probably be too short. You can simply read the blurb, but know this: people can tell when you’re reading from a set text. All you have to is precis it with something like ‘Well, if I might read you the blurb…’
  • Find out where you’re going as soon as possible. Check parking or public transport. Leave plenty of leeway. Take contact details in case of emergency (and emergencies do happen; radio stations know what to do if, by some catastrophic catastrophe, you can’t make it. As long as you let them know ASAP then your bridges won’t be burnt)
  • Assuming you’ve got there in plenty of time, get a glass of water or cup of tea and try to relax. You’ll have to wait for a bit. Everyone will be nice. Smile. Try and enjoy – or at least learn from – the situation
  • It’s okay to be nervous. It shows you care. And a kick of adrenaline will help keep you going
  • What happens next will vary depend on what type of show/organisation you’re on. You might be pointed towards a room all alone with a mic and headphones. You might be in a studio with other guests. You might be in someone’s living room, though in this case it’s unlikely you’ll be recording live
  • You should be given an introduction and cued to talk. Again it hugely helps to have eye-contact with the interviewer (or possibly producer) but it’s not always possible. But deep breath, relax. You’ll be fine
  • Listen to the introduction. The presenter will likely read something about either you, your work, or both. Find the clues: are they reading from your press release? Have they scoped out your blog/Twitter feed? You can get a lot of info from this short eulogy
  • Smile. Thanks to Rod Duncan for this advice. Smiling lifts your voice and helps you project and articulate. It also makes you feel better
  • Listen carefully to the question. Answer it. Again, full answers, not single words. If you really can’t think of a way to answer it properly…
  • …Go in with an idea of what you want to say and turn the question into one you want to answer
  • Try not to leave too much silence. If you need a moment to work out how to answer, say something like ‘Gosh, that’s a tricky question’; it’ll give help camouflage your thinking time. In my first interview I drew out a simple ‘yes’ for long enough to give me a moment to regroup
  • Remember you’re not a politician and the interviewer isn’t trying to trick you. You’re working together to tell a story. And you’re good at that
  • Thank the staff as you leave. If you’re worried about live mics, take your cues from the presenter. Or simply mouth the words
  • Woo! You’ve done it! Congrats!

Homer

And that’s all I have to say on the matter. For now, at least. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions of your own, please do share them. I’d love to hear from you.

Happy writing!

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Sledge-Lit 2018

Those of you who have been following me for years may know that this blog (and my Twitter feed) was originally inspired by several seminars I went on at Winchester Writing Festival 2013. I even wrote a blog post about it, which I’m linking to even if I’m now pretty embarrassed by everything I wrote in the first few years of this blog’s life.

Well, 65 months (and a lot of words) later and I’ve finally made my second writing convention. This one was almost entirely different: Derby’s Sledge-Lit. It was a one-day event and was a lot, lot smaller that Winchester. Smaller is no bad thing. Smaller is more intimate. Sledge-Lit (Edge-Lit’s winter cousin) is also a genre convention, a gathering for followers of science-fiction, fantasy and horror.

Sledge-Lit

So, without further ado, here’s my thoughts on the event. There may also be advice, though I promise nothing.

  • It’s great. Okay, this is definitely not advice, but I had a great time and am already planning my trip to Edge-Lit in the summer
  • Plan ahead. I made a big mistake in not properly scoping out the programme beforehand. I hadn’t realised all the information was available ahead of the day – which I guess shows my naivety – and this meant that I was immediately confronted by hard choices. The sign-ups for various workshops had to be completed straight through the door and I panicked and signed up for pretty much everything. This was not necessarily a mistake, but…
  • I found some workshops a bit basic
  • However, the workshops are still worth doing, if only to have a better chance of chatting with new people. Lectures, panels and talks aren’t so connective
  • I didn’t have the best morning because I failed to make the most of this, mostly because…
  • I’m a bit shy. I mean, you might not believe this because I work hard to appear outgoing. But come lunchtime I’m feeling all down because I’d not learnt much and because I was sitting alone whilst all around me everyone else (it seems) was having fun with friends
  • It follows that if you can find someone to drag along, do. It makes everything easier
  • HOWEVER I didn’t meet anyone – not a single person – who wasn’t happy to talk and wasn’t really nice. The people are what makes an event a success. If you are one of those lucky people who can talk to strangers as if you’ve known them all your life you’ll have an absolute blast
  • I was lucky because I had an ‘in’. I’m a Twitter-friend of Rod Duncan – we’ve met once previously in person – and I got chatting to him after a panel he was chairing. I managed inveigle myself into the company of himself and his colleagues Siobhan Logan and Penny Reeve. I had a great time chatting with them. Almost like I was a real human being
  • Remember a lot of people will want to talk to your hero. Talk don’t stalk
  • Sarah Pinsborough hosted the sweariest raffle in the history of conventions. Or swearing. Or raffles

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At this point I will step out of list mode momentarily because I’m kind of doing this chronologically and here I left the convention to go and check into my room. I’d booked an AirBnB near the station, about ten minutes’ walk away.

All my ‘friends’ had left. I’d eaten only a sausage roll and a slice of tiffin all days. I was seriously contemplating calling it a moderately-successful night (the chat with Rod and Penny was lovely; the only negative was sitting with Dave Hutchinson in absolute silence for ten minutes because I could think of not a single thing to say to him. I mean, I’d love to read his books – they’re on my mental TBR-shelf – but you can hardly start a conversation with ‘hey, I haven’t got round to you yet; what’s it all about, then?’ can you?), getting a curry and having an early bed.

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I checked in then strolled back to the venue just because it was a nice night and just on the off-chance that someone might approach me to chat. I got a beer and sat on my own; there were maybe a dozen people from the convention still hanging around.

After a drink and maybe another twenty minutes’ silence I finally found a way to sneak into a conversation. And so back to bullet-points:

  • Be patient. Don’t be in a rush to do things
  • Eat more regularly than I did
  • Be prepared to spend a little money. I know, this isn’t easy for everyone. But try and treat yourself to at least one drink – it doesn’t have to be alcoholic; no-one will judge you. Buy books. Enter the raffle. Come ready to have fun and hang your worries on the shelf for a little while
  • You will meet interesting people if you stick around long enough
  • There is no better place to network than the bar/pub…
  • …to which we thence repaired
  • …and it was at this point that the business cards I’d prepared in a last-minute panic came in most handy. See, I’d expected to be handing them out to indie publishers and lost-looking writers and all that. I did give out the odd couple like that, but I found them most useful in the bar afterwards. For although I’d managed to send the printers the draft without my blog or Twitter-handle on it, they proved really useful in getting my name across. We’d chat a bit, do introductions, and I’d whip it out – so to speak – so next morning they’d be able to link to me
  • Don’t stay longer than you feel comfortable. Don’t make yourself ill; if crowds aren’t your thing, don’t feel like you have to drag yourself to the dirty club. You’re not going to make a good impression if you’re asleep on your feet. Most publishers don’t take too kindly to being vomited on
  • Follow up on any contacts you’ve made. If you’ve got an email address just send a quick hello. I’m chronically shy and fearful of this sort of thing; social media makes it all so much easier. Connect on Twitter or Facebook or whatever the cool kids are on nowadays
  • It’s all about making friends. And girls just wanna have fun

And that’s it. I reckon I spent approximately £130 on the entrance fee, accommodation, train-fares, books, and sustenance. Was it worth it? Financially, probably not; maybe some of the people I met will offer me work in the future. I can’t count on that.

But I had a great time. I met a lot of fun, interesting people that I otherwise would have missed. And yes, there are other ways of having fun and other ways of meeting people (and yes, the crowd was overwhelmingly white). I don’t want you to leave this post with the impression that you must go to Sledge-Lit, or any of the other conventions that are sprinkled through the calendar. There are other ways to do it.

But I had a great time. I’m already starting to plan my trip to Edge-Lit 2019.

Edge-Lit

On writing copy

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If you do a search of writing jobs you’ll pretty soon come up with that of copywriter. Sometimes it’ll be called ‘content creator’ or something like that, but it’s all pretty much the same. You’ll be given a topic, maybe some keywords, and told to produce a certain word-count.

It’s quite tempting, really. You’re a writer; you know how words work; you’ve seen a lot of bad writing on the net (where a lot of this copy will end up) and you know you can do better.

Let’s leave aside some seriously dodgy practices that companies use to avoid paying their writers (who are, of course, freelance so they have limited employment rights); let me just come to the point.

Writing copy is incredibly difficult.

This blog is full of copy (and, to be clear, Google tells me copy is ‘text written for the purposes of advertising or marketing’). In this case I’m essentially marketing myself. I’m attempting to ‘build brand awareness’ by creating little essays on the craft and difficulties I’ve found in writing fiction. I’m hoping to build trust in my readership as to my competence and interestingness.

I therefore feel justified in saying in job applications that I’m used to producing copy.
This week I had to write an article for my (former) local newspaper. It’s a little quid-pro-quo: I give them a little piece to fill their pages and in return I get a namecheck. I get the cover of my book in a thumbnail and hopefully (although I’m a little sceptical) a few extra sales.

500 words. That’s all it was. But it was perhaps the most difficult 500 words I’ve ever written.

The is in part because the brief (which unfortunately I don’t think I can share) was dictated to me and contained a few assumptions which weren’t justified and was also quite vague. It was partly that the word count was too big to just toss away but too short to really go into any depth.

I worked damn hard at it. I had two full drafts rejected more or less out of hand by my wife, who acts as emergency consultant on such things. It took me working right up until the eleventh hour on deadline night to get something I was happy(ish) with.

Now I know that this piece of writing doesn’t matter. The paper’s editors don’t care too much about quality – it’ll reflect on me more than it will them. To them it’s a useful little space-filler and, if it really doesn’t work for them, they’re under no obligation to print it.

No, the only person who cares is me.

I should use this as a warning; I should say that you must be wary of accepting commissions that take a disproportionate amount of time or energy or drain your happiness. But let me just say this: no writing is wasted. The article I wrote may be mined for future use. It’s likely that I’ll be asked questions about the article’s subject in the weeks ahead: If nothing else I’ve just had an annoying amount of practice in answering them.

It’s also a good writing exercise. Copywriting is a skill, and, like all skills, it can be learnt and developed. What took me days of struggle this week might be tossed off in a few hours in a year’s time.

Although, given that I still struggle weekly to produce this blog, maybe I’m not the best person to be giving this advice.

On beginnings

Today’s blog is a vague attempt to transform criticism into advice: it’s the result of, thanks to an ill-timed training course, having little actual news to share with you. Please be kind.

Goethe

A novel should open with who and what: who the story is about and what’s at stake.

 

This isn’t wrong but it’s not very helpful either. What if you’ve got multiple point-of-view characters? The ‘who’ becomes a lot more complicated. And as for the ‘what’, surely we can’t be expected to give the whole game away in the first scene?

I’ve been working on the same piece for the over five years now and I’m still stuck on the opening. The novel’s had a new title, new characters and new crimes. The one thing I’ve never got right is this damn beginning. It reads well enough but it doesn’t involve. I’m now coming to the conclusion that at least part of the problem is that I don’t bring in characters quickly enough. Nor do I show (by which I mean illustrate) what really matters.

Who and what.

Why have I neglected these things? I’m not really sure I have an answer: with a 1st-person perspective there’s no real excuse, although I could argue that in a 3rd-person narrative you have to get to the business of who’s talking whereas I’ve got the luxury of condensing voice before formal introductions. But that’s a cop-out, and even if it’s true it helps me not at all.

As for the what, that’s going back to that whole ‘drama’, ‘tension,’ ‘action,’ thing you’ll see interchangeably in any ‘how to write a novel’ guide. It’s the hook. It’s the body on the carpet. It’s the man coming in with a gun.

It’s also the accounts that doesn’t add up, or a particular expression on a stranger’s face, or an unexpected silence; it’s a foreshadowing of deeper waters ahead.

The ‘what’ is a question: it is a problem that must be left unresolved at least until a greater problem can take its place. Sometimes this opening question lasts the whole novel through, but most openings act as a gateway drug: a little question (a hook) to pull you on to the crux.

There’s lots of other things an opening needs to do, of course: you need to establish tone and style and something of location (both spatial and temporal). But those are, essentially, background. They don’t determine whether a reader reads on.

dat and stormyu

Yes, it’s a cliche, but this was once a pretty good way to start a novel, originally coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830

I have my location. The descriptions are good. I just haven’t covered the things that really matter.

So it’s back to the beginning with me. Back to try and trap the reader: to tell them whose story this is and why they should care.

Hopefully that’ll be more a case of rearrangement then of a wholesale rewrite: shifting furniture rather than throwing a Molotov cocktail through the window.

Either way the problem child is still a problem. But at least I have some vague idea of how to move forwards.

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.

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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.

 

The way it is

 

English in Asian Airports

Alfie lived at home with his mum, his dad, his sister … and a troop of monkeys. For some reason, no-one could see the monkeys except Alfie. That was just the way it was.

I shouldn’t let a children’s book make me angry. The intended audience don’t care about bad writing, or poor storytelling, though they might not find a book interesting for reasons we might describe as weak structure.

But I am not a child. And the above extract, the opening to No More Monkeys, by Joshua George and Barbara Bakos, makes my blood boil. It’s quite impressive, actually: the sheer badness contained within 33 words. And that they dared to put these words right at the beginning of the book. The publishers have some serious brass neck.

No more monkeys

Shall we start to unpick it? First off: we don’t need ‘at home’ in the first line. Of course he lives at home. He can’t live anywhere else, can he? I’d concede the words might be taken as shorthand for ‘in an ordinary house and not in an igloo or on the moon or in a moon-igloo’ if it wasn’t a picture book. But it is. The ordinariness of the residence is simple to establish.

But that’s not the problem. That is a forgivable error. I don’t demand perfection in children’s books (though maybe I should): I can write that off as part of the voice and the rhythm of the story.

What I can’t forgive are the three little words that open the second sentence.

For some reason.

Let me translate: ‘For some reason’ means ‘the author hasn’t bothered to think about this.’ ‘The author has no respect for his reader.’ ‘It’s too much effort to come up with a real explanation.’

For some reason. Let me tell you, if you ever find yourself writing ‘for some reason’ in your work; or if you have things ‘just the way they’ve always been’, then you’re letting your readers down.

It’s a close cousin to that old beta-reader feedback: if a reader says ‘I didn’t understand this,’ it’s not not good enough to say ‘well that’s because of this complex set of subtleties, and therefore I dismiss your point.’ It doesn’t matter if you’ve considered it if you’ve not explained it.

This doesn’t mean that you have to go into every little thing that underpins your worldbuilding, or even that you have to consider every little variable of, say, the currency system in your world. But anything integral to the plot has to have an explanation. How you communicate that is a different issue.

I find this particular example really galling because it’s so unnecessary. The author could have put ‘The monkeys were invisible to everyone but Alfie’ – no reason is necessary. Or ‘The monkeys would only show themselves to Alfie and were really good at hiding when anyone else was around.’ That one’s nice because it conjures up a clear mental image that the writer and artist could play with. Bonus!

That’s just with two minutes’ thought. You can think of more alternatives yourself. Think of it as a little writing free exercise. You’re welcome.

Error number three: that final sentence. ‘That was just the way it was.’ My god this is horrible. You know what this means? This is the writer saying ‘I know the last sentence wasn’t good enough. Let me just reinforce my laziness by doubling down. No, you’re not allowed to be curious. That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change. Ask no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.’

It’s bad.

It’s the sort of thing you see in books all the time. One of my problems with The Time-Traveller’s Wife is the way the author casually dismisses all possibility of change. It’s been a while since I read it, but there is a point where the narrator says something like ‘it was predestined. There was no way to change the future.’ I nearly screamed. Why? Why is it predestined? Why can’t you change things? Wouldn’t you try? Wouldn’t you at least make the effort?

At the very least, if you don’t know why something happens, keep quiet about it. Shut your bloody trap and let us keep the illusion that you know what you’re talking about.

Right. Rant over. I’m off to take my blood-pressure medication; hopefully I’ll have something more interesting to write about next week.

As you were.

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.