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.

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Death to the Editorium!

Egyptian mourning

Sad news! The Editorium is no more. It has ceased to be. It has shuffled off this mortal coil. It is an ex-Editorium.

Yes, I am moving house – moving across counties, no less. So far I have left my phone in IKEA and had to dash back 100 miles for forgotten things. Idiocy is no respecter of location.

The Editorium is dead. But fear not! For, like royalty, no Editorium can die without another rising to take its place.

All hail the Editorium! I shall shortly be tipper-tapping away in a room of one’s own: in the meantime, let’s all raise a glass to the place where I wrote all those thousands of words.

I will, at least. And you’re free to join me.

cheers__by_natoli-d9b782h

Image stolen from natoli.deviantart.com

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.

What you don’t know

black-hole-cygnus-crop.jpg

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.

Tales of a fifth draft nothing

Matchsticks 2

I can’t find an original artist to credit for this so my efforts to be better at unthieving are thwarted

I am – somewhat to my surprise – approaching the end of another draft of Oneiromancer. This is the fifth time I’ve been though it; here are some random-ish thoughts on the process and the results.

  •  It’s done! Until the next time I do it, it’s done!
  •  It took forever. Due to child-wrangling issues and the perversity of life in general, this draft took around ten months to complete
  • Because of this, changes I made in August took until February to be acted upon. This is not ideal, but…
  • …It was aided by my Big Spreadsheet of Things, upon which I noted the page numbers of each chapter, a rough account of what happens in each scene, and through whose eyes we view it. This meant finding errant links was simpler than would otherwise been, and swearing was kept to a minimum
  • This is, hopefully, the last really substantive edit I’ll have to do…
  • …But I know this won’t be the case as no novel survives contact with the industry
  • The problem with taking a long time over an edit comes when you take a big chunk o’ work from the beginning and reinsert it two-thirds of the way through. Can you remember just what you were thinking six months earlier? You can not. If you’re lucky you left yourself a treasure map and a series of ever more intricate clues which lead you further and further into a conspiracy spanning continents, decades, and, quite possibly, planes of existence
  • Cryptic notes are often worse than no notes
  • If you can cut, cut. Unless you shouldn’t. In which case, add
  • Writing is confusing
  • The novel is, generally, not too bad: much of the plot hangs together…
  • …But I still worry, especially about characters, mood, and finding the right balance between description and overwhelming the reader
  • The climax still thrills me, which is clearly a good sign. The problem is that, in this state, you can miss errors as you’re too eager, or too much seeing what you want to see and not what’s actually there
  • Worrying over fine details is, at this stage, pointless. If the hook’s strong enough, if I can get someone to read past the first ten chapters they’ll stick with me until the end. Then they’ll tell me everything I did wrong and I can fix it
  • Getting someone to read past the first ten chapter (and by ‘someone’ I mean an agent or editor) is the tricky bit
  • The novel currently stands at 125,776 words. The previous draft was 130,767. That’s a trimming of 4,990 words, or (roughly) a twenty-sixth. Should more go? Draft One was 140,034, so we’re heading in the right direction. Obviously I’m presupposing that shorter is better, but that’s not true. Leaner is better, but muscle weighs more than fat and skeletons rarely know true love

And that’s all, folks. Now I have to think about something different to blog about for the next few weeks until I’m deep into a new project. Hopefully I’ll have exciting Night Shift news for you soon too. Smoke me a kipper, wonderful folk, and I’ll be back for breakfast.

Addressing the elephant

Dapper Cthulu Diana Levin.jpg

Dapper Cthulu by Diana Levin. You can find (and buy) more of her work here

When you’re setting a scene you have to give the reader all the information they need and not a jot more. You must sum up a location’s feel (which might encompass smell, background noise and even air pressure) as briefly as possibly. You can’t overload the reader with detail, but you must give them the vital information.

It is, in other words, bloody difficult.

My general guide for description is to put in anything the protagonist/POV character would notice in the order he or she would see them. Thus: people first, then obvious abnormalities, then temperature/smells/sounds and then, if we get that far, into the mundane.

But there are so many exceptions. It’s almost a trope now, but I’m noticing more and more the delayed surprise:

It was a totally normal park. Playground with its swings and slides; bowling green with its perfectly manicured surface, and standing proud in its midst, bearing the pavilion roof like a parasol, the Great Lord Cthulu in all his glory. As His tentacles dismantled the remnants of the Eastbourne Ladies’ Bowling Team, I knew it was going to be one of those days.

In less ridiculous setups you’ll have the POV character entering a room; you’ll have every single detail lovingly described, and then some sort of dismissive comment: “of course, I couldn’t take it in properly as I was distracted by the eviscerated corpse lying in the middle of the floor.”

This sort of thing works for humour or for situational irony but it breaks the rules of common sense. As soon as you go into a new space the most important thing will immediately catch the eye: to deny the reader this sort of elephant in the room is something you can do once, maybe twice a novel, no more.

I recently read a novel where the climax was set in a wedding. The cheat started several scenes before, however, when the wedding invitations turned up without the name of the groom. That information is so basic that its omission because the largest, most obstreperous elephant in the history of pachyderms. Lulu got nothing on this papa.

But it got worse. The wedding arrived – and the groom still wasn’t named! He became a sort of giant, floating question mark that dominated proceedings without doing a thing. The longer it went on the more ridiculous it became. There was no way the eventual reveal could have been anything but a disappointment.

So: don’t try and be clever. Address the elephant.

I don’t actually mean that. Do try and be clever. Take risks. Experiment. Just be aware that there’s a damn good chance it won’t work. Not the first time you try, at least.

The problem with scene-setting is that it takes time: not time in the writing, though that can be considerable, but in the reading. The easiest way to kill excitement is to take time to describe the surroundings, thus:

I turned into an alley and was brought up short by the sight of three skeletons mugging an old lady. The alley was thirty feet long and narrow enough to touch the sides with a bit of a stretch. The cobbles underfoot were treacherous, mortar long-since eroded and slick with grime. The first skeleton was the tallest; the second had only one leg but sported a pith helmet of the sort adored by Victorian explorers. The third seemed to be that of a dog walking on its hind legs. The old lady was about 5’2” and wore a bonnet decorated not with ribbons or flowers but with a hedgehog of tiny blades.

I hoisted my riding crop and stepped forwards…

At which point the reader is wondering what the hell the skeletons and their victim doing whilst the protagonist was itemising every item in sight (plus smell and sound, of course). Were they looking impatiently at their watches (I assume all skeletons have waistcoats and fob watches. It’s practically a law)? Were they bitching with the old lady – “Ooh, protagonists today – You remember that nice young Conan? I’d have been scattered across the floor already…”? Did they do the old Police Squad freeze?

It’s an alley. Unless there’s some crucial plot-thing – maybe it turns a sharp corner that someone’s hiding behind – it’s an alley. Add in one smell, one texture and move on.

My sanity is slipping away. I can feel Cthulu’s dread appendage on my shoulder and I fear I begin to rant. Time to do something mundane like make a potion a nice cup of tea*.

If you survive the Dark Lord’s attentions I’ll see you next week. Don’t forget to look me up on Twitter @RobinTriggs.

*A sure sign of madness as I don’t drink tea. Sorry. I wish I did, but there you are

On being interesting

Interesting
Part of writing is selling yourself and part of selling yourself is being interesting. This is not easy. Not for me, at least.

Should you have the great fortune to be picked up by an agent or somehow manage to inveigle a publishing contract you become a commodity. The publishing industry needs a package, an angle, a way to attract attention to your work. That might just be you.

You won’t immediately be dispatched to do interviews with the great and the good. Journalism is an overstretched industry and most interviews you see are self-written: the tired journo will give it the once-over, maybe cut a few key sentences and shove it in, a way of filling up a column that otherwise she’d have to think about. Here, done and gone.

Occasionally, though, your life will chime into the zeitgeist. Said tired journo will be struggling to fill her pages and something you mentioned as an aside will strike her as worthy of deeper exploration. Maybe you’ll get that elusive personal chat (sometimes in person, sometimes via Skype or telephone) and what you said on the spur of the moment will be unpicked, stretched, your viscera unravelled in front of you.

This is good. This is what you (or at least your backers) want. It’s your job to think of something you’ve done, seen or been that might attract attention – no matter if you wanted to talk about it; no matter if you’re forced to examine some aspect of yourself you wish was left so far in the back of the closet that it might as well be in Narnia.

More likely you – as a newbie writer – will be mining the ‘local interest’ seam. It’s not the Times Literary Supplement you’ll be aiming for, it’ll be the parish magazine. Think about all the places you’ve lived, all the great bookshops you’ve frequented, the library in which you were raised: that’s your target market.

Example: my parents used to take me to Bingley library every week, until I was old enough to go on my own, and until I was old enough to go to Bradford Central Library on my own. Thus I’d be looking to the local Telegraph and Argus for publicity. They’d find me a lot more interesting than the Shetland Advertiser, especially as I just made that up.

Note that people are interested in people, not work. Unless your story is truly fascinating, a hot-button-clickbait-zeitgeist-relevant-to-everyone-world-shaker, it’s you, not your work, that sells.

Everyone is interesting. I’ve never yet met a single person who hasn’t at least one good tale to tell. And if you’re reading this then you’ve got something I’d love to hear about, be it your achievements, your ambitions or your frustrations. Not yet had the moment to do what you really want to do? The story of why you want to do that one thing, or your reasons why you haven’t yet done it – well, the key word there is ‘story’.

Think of it this way: if you were in a novel, what would you accentuate of your own life? What would you hide? What would people want to read about you?

And then forget all that. Because all people really want to know about is where you grew up.