Characters simply come and find me. They sit down, I offer them a coffee. They tell me their story and then they almost always leave. When a character, after drinking some coffee and briefly telling her story, wants dinner and then a place to sleep and then breakfast and so on, for me the time has come to write the novel. In a novel there’s not much autobiography. There are characters in transit. Naturally, I can project something of my experiences onto these characters, but they have their own autonomy, a personality that is often a mystery to me. I don’t always understand my characters. I write to understand them better.

Dacia Maraini

The Silence of the Outcasts: an interview with Dacia Maraini

Words without borders March 2008

And this brings us to an issue that is never discussed: the dimly glimpsed truth that liking a book cannot, by itself, decide its overall quality. I’ll hurry past the issue with a few assertions:

● ‘Enjoyable is not the same as Good.’
● ‘Enjoyable can be Good.’
● ‘Good can be boring and still be Good.’
● ‘Boring may sometimes mean a work is Bad.’
● ‘Serious work can be entertaining.’
● ‘There are many values in fiction beyond entertainment. It can provoke interest and curiosity, elicit understanding and sympathy, make us feel and think, confront ourselves, and involve us in ways that intellectual discussion can’t – and do all this without being entertaining. In fact, it can be downright disturbing and frightening.’

George Zabrowski
Raising the Net: The C. P. Snow Lecture, Ithaca College, 6 April 1995

The serious writer

March 29, 2018

a city of the future - London

There has always been a difference between the SF author and the author who writes science fiction; the difference, say, between an Isaac Asimov and a George Orwell. These days the difference is becoming increasingly marked. The majority of SF published last year was category fiction, like the western and the detective story, with well-defined conventions within which writers rang changes on familiar themes (space exploration, robots, totalitarian megalopolises) with various degrees of skill. In the past year or so, however, there has been an increase in another kind of SF, written by people whose early reputations were made in the SF magazines but whose work has long since ceased to abide by the category conventions, and which many deny is “proper” SF at all.

When these writers still produce SF it is because they’re moved by the same spirit which produced Wells’ “Time Machine,” Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Orwell’s “1984;” they happen to find certain SF elements useful for expressing their particular moral concerns. These writers include Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Langdon Jones and Americans like Thomas Disch and Harvey Jacobs. Of late, and with similar moral intention, Jack Trevor Story has started to write SF, as have writers like Paul Ableman and Doris Lessing. The difference is between a writer who uses an SF idea and one who writes SF because he can’t easily do anything else. The only pity is that sometimes the better writers are given the least attention. The serious writer who has left the SF category behind him is often more talented and sophisticated.

I hope that next year we shall see closer attention given, say, to Thomas Disch’s “334,” about ordinary New Yorkers managing to live ordinary lives in a world which would seem hellish to us but which they accept (as people do) as perfectly normal. J. G. Ballard’s new novel, provisionally called “Crash,” will have a present day setting and will continue to define its moral themes in terms of man’s relationship to his technological myths (and to his automobiles in particular).

Some of the new SF novels might contain no SF. I speak from experience. It was only after I had finished my last SF novel that I realised I had included less than 400 words of what might reasonably be called science fiction. It wasn’t intentional: it happens naturally during the process of selecting what you need for your theme and discarding what is useless. A good writer, after all, should create his own conventions. Whatever the best SF is these days, it certainly isn’t SF any more.

Michael Moorcock
What does the future hold for Science Fiction
The Guardian 16th September 1971

book portal

When I was nine, possibly ten, an author came to our school to talk about writing. His name was Hugh Scott, and I doubt he’s known outside of Scotland. And even then I haven’t seen him on many shelves in recent years in Scotland either. But he wrote wonderfully creepy children’s stories, where the supernatural was scary, but it was the mundane that was truly terrifying. At least to little ten year old me. It was Scooby Doo meets Paranormal Activity with a bonny braw Scottish-ness to it that I’d never experienced before.

I remember him as a gangling man with a wiry beard that made him look older than he probably was, and he carried a leather bag filled with paper. He had a pen too that was shaped like a carrot, and he used it to scribble down notes between answering our (frankly disinterested) questions. We had no idea who he was you see, no one had made an effort to introduce us to his books. We were simply told one morning, ‘class 1b, there is an author here to talk to you about writing’, and this you see was our introduction to creative writing. We’d surpassed finger painting and macaroni collages. It was time to attempt Words That Were Untrue.

You could tell from the look on Mrs M’s face she thought it was a waste of time. I remember her sitting off to one side marking papers while this tall man sat down on our ridiculously short chairs, and tried to talk to us about what it meant to tell a story. She wasn’t big on telling stories, Mrs M. She was also one of the teachers who used to take my books away from me because they were “too complicated” for me, despite the fact that I was reading them with both interest and ease.

When dad found out he hit the roof. It’s the one and only time he ever showed up to the school when it wasn’t parents night or the school play. After that she just left me alone, but she made it clear to my parents that she resented the fact that a ten year old used words like ‘ubiquitous’ in their essays. Presumably because she had to look it up.

Anyway, Mr Scott, was doing his best to talk to us while Mrs M made scoffing noises from her corner every so often, and you could just tell he was deflating faster than a bouncy castle at a knife sharpening party, so when he asked if any of us had any further questions and no one put their hand up I felt awful. I knew this was not only insulting but also humiliating, even if we were only little children. So I did the only thing I could think of, put my hand up and said “Why do you write?”

I’d always read about characters blinking owlishly, but I’d never actually seen it before. But that’s what he did, peering down at me from behind his wire rim spectacles and dragging tired fingers through his curly beard. I don’t think he expected anyone to ask why he wrote stories. What he wrote about, and where he got his ideas from maybe, and certainly why he wrote about ghosts and other creepy things, but probably not why do you write. And I think he thought perhaps he could have got away with “because it’s fun, and learning is fun, right kids?!”, but part of me will always remember the way the world shifted ever so slightly as it does when something important is about to happen, and this tall streak of a man looked down at me, narrowed his eyes in an assessing manner and said, “Because people told me not to, and words are important.”

I nodded, very seriously in the way children do, and knew this to be a truth.

In my limited experience at that point, I knew certain people (with a sidelong glance to Mrs M who was in turn looking at me as though she’d just known it’d be me that type of question) didn’t like fiction. At least certain types of fiction. I knew for instance that Mrs M liked to read Pride and Prejudice on her lunch break but only because it was sensible fiction, about people that could conceivably be real. The idea that one could not relate to a character simply because they had pointy ears or a jet pack had never occurred to me, and the fact that it’s now twenty years later and people are still arguing about the validity of genre fiction is beyond me, but right there in that little moment, I knew something important had just transpired, with my teacher glaring at me, and this man who told stories to live beginning to smile.

After that the audience turned into a two person conversation, with gradually more and more of my classmates joining in because suddenly it was fun.

Mrs M was pissed and this bedraggled looking man who might have been Santa after some serious dieting, was starting to enjoy himself. As it turned out we had all of his books in our tiny corner library, and in the words of my friend Andrew “hey there’s a giant spider fighting a ghost on this cover! neat!” and the presentation devolved into chaos as we all began reading different books at once and asking questions about each one. “Does she live?”— “What about the talking trees” —“is the ghost evil?” —“can I go to the bathroom, Miss?” —“Wow neat, more spiders!”

After that we were supposed to sit down, quietly (glare glare) and write a short story to show what we had learned from listening to Mr Scott. I won’t pretend I wrote anything remotely good, I was ten and all I could come up with was a story about a magic carrot that made you see words in the dark, but Mr Scott seemed to like it. In fact he seemed to like all of them, probably because they were done with such vibrant enthusiasm in defiance of the people who didn’t want us to.

The following year, when I’d moved into Mrs H’s class — the kind of woman that didn’t take away books from children who loved to read and let them write nonsense in the back of their journals provided they got all their work done — a letter arrived to the school, carefully wedged between several copies of a book which was unheard of at the time, by a new author known as J.K. Rowling.

Mrs H remarked that it was strange that an author would send copies of books that weren’t even his to a school, but I knew why he’d done it. I knew before Mrs H even read the letter.

Because words are important. Words are magical. They’re powerful. And that power ought to be shared. There’s no petty rivalry between story tellers, although there’s plenty who try to insinuate it. There’s plenty who try to say some words are more valuable than others, that somehow their meaning is more important because of when it was written and by whom. Those are the same people who laud Shakespeare from the heavens but refuse to acknowledge that the quote “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them“ is a dick joke.

And although Mr Scott seems to have faded from public literary consumption, I still think about him. I think about his stories, I think about how he recommended another author and sent copies of her books because he knew our school was a puritan shithole that fought against the Wrong Type of Words and would never buy them into the library otherwise. But mostly I think about how he looked at a ten year old like an equal and told her words and important, and people will try to keep you from writing them — so write them anyway.

Joy Demorra
Meeting an Author

easier when I was young

January 20, 2018

face

I wanted to make sense of my childhood. I wanted to write it all down – but I couldn’t write it as it happened. I had to turn it into fiction because I didn’t want my parents to see it.

It was easier when I was young because I had no standards – I would just write. It was wonderful. I wouldn’t bother whether it was any good. It gets worse the more you know – your standards go up and up and you realise you can’t reach them.

Beryl Bainbridge
Why I write

Good read for a cold Sunday

December 3, 2017

some writerly advice

November 17, 2017

When I was a young bookseller in Oxford, I was fortunate enough to have lunch with Agatha Christie at All Souls College. She was very grand but all sweetness, and I plucked up the courage to look for some writerly advice, asking how she came up with such complex novels that tie together so neatly. She told me she wrote the books as normal, all the way through, before pausing at the penultimate chapter. She’d then work out who was the least likely character to have committed the crime and go back to fix a few train timetables, alter some relationships and make sure it all made sense, before proceeding to the end.

Brian Aldiss
Interview with Guy Kelly in The Telegraph 31st October 2015

Needing aliens

November 10, 2017

Cover art for Paranoid Boyd #2 by Black Malcerta

When I decided to make the leap from writing contemporary fantasy to writing a space opera series with my book The Wrong Stars, I spent a lot of time thinking about the elements of the genre I love most and wanted to explore…I started thinking about aliens.

I knew my series needed aliens, just like it needed mysterious ancient technological artifacts, space pirates, snarky computers, and cool spaceships. Turning to the task of creating aliens right after I’d put together my (mostly) human crew made me hyperaware of the issue of culture. One thing that bothers me in some science fiction (more often cinematic and televisual than written, but often there, too) is alien monocultures. Unless you’re talking about the Borg or Cybermen or other sorts of hive-minds, it never made sense to me to have an entire species of aliens with a single culture. How many thousands of cultures are there on Earth, after all, and how many subcultures within those cultures? From differences in music, religion, recreation, art, literature, food, philosophy, sexual preferences — cultures and subcultures get so wonderfully and weirdly granular. And yet, so often when our fictional humans encounter aliens, they discover the whole species consists of noble warriors or aloof philosophers or sadistic experimenters or ruthless capitalists. Where are the pacifist Klingons who run sustainable free-range krada ranches? Where are the Wookies who like to shave their entire bodies and refuse to celebrate Life Day because it’s gone too corporate? The Volus philanthropists? The punk rock Vulcans? Sure, sometimes there’s a plot point involving some rogue weirdo outlier, but in any alien species there should plausibly be whole communities, whole cities, whole religions or sects or affinity groups, who march to the beat of a different Kintarrian Death Drum.

I didn’t want to have an alien monoculture…but I see why writers do it that way. It’s hard enough to create an alien race without accounting for their ten thousand cultural variants too. Trying to cover a halfway plausible range of cultures would be unwieldy, impractical, and would serve as a distraction to readers anyway. Still, I wanted to address my annoyance, so I thought: wouldn’t it be funny if my aliens were defined by their very lack of a single culture? If, indeed, they had a culture of inconsistency, mutual exclusion, contradiction, and self-invention?

That’s how the Liars were born. That’s not what my aliens call themselves – they call themselves thousands of different things – but it’s what humans call them, eventually.

Tim Pratt
Would I Lie to You? Creating Alien Cultures

Antonio Lee

Yes – oh, dear, yes – the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish that it was not so, that it could be something different–melody, or perception of truth, not this low atavistic form.

For the more we look at the story (the story that is a story, mind), the more we disentangle it from the finer growths that it supports, the less shall we find to admire. It runs like a backbone – or may I say a tapeworm, for its beginning and end are arbitrary. It is immensely old – goes back to Neolithic times, perhaps to Palaeolithic. Neanderthal man listened to stories, if one may judge by the shape of his skull. . . .

When we isolate the story like this from the nobler aspects through which it moves, and hold it out on the forceps – wriggling and interminable, the naked worm of time – it presents an appearance that is both unlovely and dull.

E M Forster
Aspects of the Novel

1. My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.

2. Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.

3. Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel.

4. If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction.

5. Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development.

6. Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.

7. For a good melodrama study the famous “Lester Dent master plot formula” which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.

8. If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.

9. Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery).

10. Ignore all proffered rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.

Michael Moorcock
Golden Rules for Writers
The Guardian, 22nd February 2010