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Thursday, October 30, 2008

 

Symposium en garde!

The challenge is on! The gauntlet is cast! I feel like broadening my mind, and I'd like some help.

Donalbain, one of our delightful regular posters, has stated that it's possible for anyone to learn mathematics and science, while writing is something only certain people can learn. I'm of the opinion that mathematics and science are, similarly, things that certain people block on past a certain point, no matter how hard they try, and that feeling it's something anyone can learn suggests an instinctive talent for the subject: I base this on the experience of being taught overly advanced maths from the age of fifteen to sixteen and spending an entire year in bewilderment, even though I had a good teacher and sat next to a helpful friend who did understand it.

Well, that sounds like an experiment waiting to happen.

So, here's what I propose. Donalbain, if willing, or someone else if Donalbain prefers to decline, will present me with a mathematical problem it will take a certain amount of understanding to solve, and explain the theory to me. I'll try to solve it.

Similarly, anybody else who feels they have a communicable skill and wants to play, please make an effort to teach me and anybody else who's reading this, how to do whatever it is you do.

At the same time, I'll give some pointers on how to write a six word short story, and anyone who wants to teach me something will, in exchange, have a go at that.

Let's all try to learn each others' skills.

Rather than concluding that anybody could win this debate, which would be confrontational, hard to measure and kind of silly, let's instead fool around for a while, and then I'll do another post where we can report on the experience of trying to learn a new skill, what difficulties we encountered, how it compared to doing the stuff we actually have skills in, and what we feel we've learned.

So, I'll kick off. Here's the best advice I can offer on how to write a six word short story.

The original six word short story was Hemingway's 'For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.' - a really superb piece of writing. The Wired collection is here. I'll quote some examples to illustrate what makes a six word story work.

The most basic, I'd say: think about when in time the story takes place.

Many of the best ones are written post facto, in a way that tells the whole story by implication. Hemingway's is a good example. Something has happened off-stage, in this case the death of a baby, and presumably to people who either can't bear to think of having another one (otherwise they'd keep the shoes for a later child), or are poor enough to need even the small money a second-hand pair of baby shoes would raise. The baby's birth was anticipated, because the shoes were bought in advance. There is, in fact, a beginning, middle and an end: the anticipation of the birth, the death, the grieving aftermath. All of this can be intuited - but it doesn't have to be present. There are some other examples of this: Brian Herbert's 'Epitaph: He shouldn't have fed it', for instance, has the beginning - the joining of man and scary creature - the middle - he fed it - and the end - it killed and possibly ate him. One of my favourites on this blog comes from Robert: 'Professor - re: zombie incident: You're fired.' The story there is clear: the professor tried to create zombies, there was a terrible incident, and while it's now been sorted out nobody's happy with him. These are stories that comment on a 'story' that's already taken place, not summarising it but showing in the fallout what must have happened.

An alternative method is to use reported speech. In this case, you're not looking back on a story, but hearing from somebody at the turning-point: in effect, you're telling the story in the present tense. Rockne S. O'Bannon, for instance, goes with 'It's behind you! Hurry before it' - and the breaking-off indicates exactly how that sentence ends. Ursula K. LeGuin's 'Easy. Just touch the match to' is another example of the same; so is 'Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?' by Eileen Gunn. One of mine is 'Let go, I told them nothing.', which is similarly spoken out of the middle of a crisis. In such cases, you need to consider who's being addressed and under what pressing set of circumstances. A variation is Orson Scott Card's 'I saw, darling, but do lie.'; this is a post facto speech as in the examples above, but the question of who's being addressed is key to the story.

There are certain contexts that lend themselves to six-word stories. Hemingway's is written in a format that naturally would be terse, to wit, an advert. This makes it naturalistic in style even though constrained in form. While this isn't compulsory, it's a good technique to consider: think about formats which naturally would be terse. Margaret Atwood's 'Corpse parts missing. Doctor buys yacht.' and 'Starlet sex scandal. Giant squid involved.', and David Brin's 'Dinosaurs return. Want their oil back.', for instance, have the feel of headlines; the result is that the body text - the full story - is implied. One of mine was 'Wanna break up. Ur 2 emotionl.', which is in text-speak. E-mails, epitaphs, memos, slogans, telegrams, notes to self: all are methods worth considering.

'Wanna break up. Ur 2 emotionl.' is an example of another thing to consider, which is the unreliable narrator. In that instance, the irony plays off the fact that anyone who breaks up in a text message is no judge of how emotional is '2 emotionl'. Raising questions about the reliability of the speaker is a good way to expand the story beyond its narrow margins.

There's another way of making the story seem bigger, which is playing off established storylines or common human experiences. Steven Meretzky's 'Dorothy: "Fuck it, I'll stay here."' is an example of the former, though such stories are not my personal favourites, as they seem closer to gags. Margaret Atwood's 'Longed for him. Got him. Shit.' is an example of the latter, a terse summary of a situation felt by many, as is Bruce Sterling's 'It cost too much, staying human.', and my own 'How hard can it be? Oh.' If you can think of universal stories, they can sometimes be quickly summarised.

Consider, too, the rhythm of your piece. Six words has a finite number of possible combinations: a six-word phrase, a five and a one, three twos, two threes, a two and a four, a one, a two and a three ... oh, heck, I'm not the mathematician, but you see what I'm getting at. Rhythm is an important carrier of story. End on a single-word sentence, like 'Longed for him. Got him. Shit.', and you're likely to get an ironic punch; have a complete sentence, and it's likely to feel more contemplative; two threes or three twos will feel punchier than, say, a two and a four. Think about how the rhythmic possibilities could carry the structure of your story.

Think about the emotional tone. Given the constrictions, writers often go for humour - a quick, ironic piece works well with the form. You can, on the other hand, go for outright tragedy if you choose, as with Hemingway, in which case the brevity stops being the soul of wit and becomes a sad, nothing-else-to-say terseness. Either works fine, but the story needs to have some kind of mood if it's going to be interesting.

That's probably enough instruction to be going on with: think about when in time your story is taking place, who's speaking and how, why they're speaking and what's being implied off-stage. Read as many examples as possible and see if you can get a feel for them.

So, you all do that. What shall I do? Come on, hit me.

Monday, October 27, 2008

 

The dieting model of writing

When people know you're a writer, they often ask for advice on how to write. Almost as often, they don't believe the advice you give.

The trouble is this: answers to questions about writing are, on the whole, simple. How do you come up with story ideas? Well, you think of a bunch of ideas and write the one that seems best to you. How do you write good characters? Well, you think about how people act and try to make your characters act like people. How do you find the discipline to write? Well, you sit your backside down at a desk and turn on the computer.

But give an answer like this, and generally the question gets repeated. It goes more or less like this:

Q: How do you write good dialogue?
A: Well, you think about how people actually talk, and then try to have your characters talk like that.
Q: Yes, but how do you do it?
A: Er ... Well, you think of what your character needs to say, ask yourself how someone would say it, and then write that down.
Q: I know, but how do you make it sound convincing?
A: Well ... you just, you know, try to make it sound convincing. You just, um ... I want to go home...

Thinking about this, it reminds me of nothing so much as someone asking for diet tips. A while ago, I was being measured for a bra, and found that my ribcage measurement was an inch smaller than I'd thought.

'I guess the diet's working,' I remarked.

'Oh,' said the fitting woman, brightening up, 'which one did you use?'

I thought for a minute. 'You don't eat much and you don't put butter on it,' I said.

She gave me a somewhat disappointed look. She had, I think, been expecting me to name a particular diet plan, recommend a book or quote something out of a magazine. My answer was not what she'd been hoping for.

Requests for advice can be a lot like that. Nobody wants to hear you lost weight by eating less and/or exercising more; it may be the only thing that works, but there's always a hope that somehow there might be an alternative answer, some secret method that doesn't going hungry or working out. There ought to be more to it than that.

Similarly, some people keep hoping that, if they ask enough questions or read enough how-to-write books, they'll eventually hit a magic formula that doesn't involve the answer 'You sit down and write.' Because writing is a less commonly discussed phenomenon than dieting, there's even more of a sense that there must be some guilt secret tucked away somewhere. But if there is, I don't know it, and neither does anyone else I know, and I manage to get some writing done anyway.

To someone hoping for an Atkins writing method, this sounds like bad news, but actually it isn't. As long as you're holding on to the belief that there's a secret, then not knowing it is tremendously discouraging. It separates the world into those in the know and those out of it, and as long as you're out of it, there's no point trying. Once you realise that there is no secret, not knowing how it's done is no obstacle to doing it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

 

No on 8

A couple of days ago, one of my favourite bloggers, Greta Christina, suggested an idea that I'm finally getting round to: an appeal for anyone in America to support the 'No on 8' campaign, which aims to keep it a law on Californian books that same-sex couples can marry.

Greta has already written several eloquent arguments on why civil partnerships aren't enough, emotionally, societally and legally, so I'll point you towards them rather than rehashing them.

What I'd like to say is this: as a straight woman, it pisses me off that gay couples can't marry. I've complained about this before, and here's the gist of my reasons:

1. If the right to marry is dependent on sexual orientation, or anything other than the basic fact of being an adult citizen, then that's the government dictating lifestyle, which does not befit a humane and free society.

2. As long as gay people don't have equal rights in marriage, an ancient human institution is being turned into a lets-exclude-the-queers club, which is a corruption of the very idea of human relationships.

And it pisses me off. I'm getting married next year, and my country only has the separate-but-equal civil partnerships compromise. Therefore, in the middle of the ceremony - a civil ceremony itself, mark you, our marriage is going to be secular - the registrar is going to announce that marriage is legally a union between 'one man and one woman'. I asked if they had to have this, and they said yes they did, it was a legal requirement. Even if my husband and I consider it a morally wrong definition, it has to be included. If we want our marriage to be legal, in fact, we have to endure a moment during the ceremony where the law sticks two fingers up at every gay person in the country, including one of our bridesmaids.

I'm not such a martyr that I'll go on marriage strike for this - I don't see it as an effective protest method, for one thing, because refusing to marry inconveniences no one but ourselves and if we want to convince people who oppose gay marriage, being respectably married ourselves may make gay marriage supporters seem less threatening to the panickers. But I don't like that my gay friends don't have the same rights that I have, not one little bit.

I tried to donate to No on 8, but as I'm not an American citizen, they sent the money back, on the grounds that non-nationals can't donate to political causes. To my mind that's messed up, as this is a human rights issue rather than a political one. Gay marriage in California won't affect me directly, of course, but then neither would gay marriage in Britain, and I still want it, because, y'know, the rights of people who aren't me are still important. Any major nation legalising gay marriage anywhere within itself is a sign of progress: the more such legalisation spreads, the closer we get to gay rights being universal.

So, if anyone reading this actually is American and has a vote, a blog or a fiver they'd like to put to a good cause, please, help out No on 8.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

 

On being really not very famous at all

Donalbain asks:

Have you ever had to deal with fame?

If I get the job I am currently interviewing for, I may well move up to London Town, and one of the strange thoughts I had was how would I react if I saw you while I was buying my cat-repellent. I know it seems odd, but this is something I *honestly* thought about (I have a lot of travelling time and I read blogs on the train!). I came to the conclusion that I would want to say hello, but I would hide the cat-repellent.

Basically it comes down to the fact that the internet is wierd! With ordinary famous people I have no relationship with them.. but if I met YOU in the cat-repellent store, I would feel I already know you and that would mess with the fan-famous person relationship..

So.. I suppose the *real* question is; do you have any comments to make on weird obsessive internet fans as opposed to normal fans?


That's an interesting one, to which I'll have to give a meandering answer, based largely on thoughts about fame in general.

The starting point, for me, is that I really don't think I'm famous. Fame is where people care what dress you wear to the shops; I'm just a slightly successful novelist. Only really, really successful novelists approach anything like fame, and while I'm hoping for the best, I'm definitely not there at the moment.

I remember a stand-up comedian (I forget who, sorry; let's call him John), telling the following anecdote, which sums up quite a lot: a man he'd just met, let's call him Bob, asked him what he did, and John explained that he was a stand-up comedian. Bob's response was, 'Oh, I'd love to be famous.'

Now, the fact that Bob had to ask John what he did suggests that John wasn't as famous as all that to begin with, or at least not famous to Bob. Bob was assuming this man he hadn't heard of was famous, because he worked in a field where famous people inhabit. That's a bit of an assumption.

But John's reflections on the subject were interesting: he said he didn't want to be famous. He wanted to be successful, but that was a different matter. And that's the crux of it. In most areas, you can be successful while remaining cheerfully obscure outside your own field; the chief consultant at my local hospital, whoever that is, can only be a highly successful individual, but who are they? I dunno. In the arts, you need your work to be consumed by people outside your field, not in a one-to-one, come-in-for-a-consultation way, but by people who may never meet you and know of you by reputation only. Hence, the more successful you are, the more famous you're inevitably going to become, because a comedian or writer nobody's heard of will not be successful. A reality TV show contestant is interested in fame for its own sake, but arts people are generally after success, with fame as a necessary incidental - and I'd speculate that people who write to get famous probably don't get published, because it's the wrong motivation.

Hence, being seen as famous is a little strange to me. In my own perception, I'm just a mildly scruffy thirtysomething slacker who's currently getting away with working from home. (A slacker with a work ethic, yes, but it's hard to feel impressive when the postman's seen you in your pyjamas on a Thursday.)

Such fame as I have not being the getting-recognised-in-the-supermarket variety, it does sometimes surprise me that people have heard of me without necessarily having read my book. Often it's people in the publishing industry, but still, it's surprising to find that people I've never met before have an opinion about me. I find I am very, very slightly more famous than them. And that's where social vertigo comes in.

I know, from having been around famous people myself - everybody runs into them occasionally - that it can be a little disconcerting. Encountering someone famous, I get anxious, because it's an odd situation that our brains never had to deal with in the trees: I feel very familiar with this person, and they don't know me from Adam. There's no actual relationship between us, but I have the illusion of one. It makes me feel at a disadvantage; they're higher-status than me, they mean more to me than I do to them (even if I'm not a particular fan, they've at least had some presence in my life); I'm curious about them and I doubt they're curious about me. My usual reaction is to think, Should I do something about this? And then decide, No, if I don't have anything to offer, the best I can do is let them have some privacy and not bother them. It's the sense of not having anything to offer that's key, I think: humans are reciprocal creatures, and a social imbalance like that makes you feel like you ought to do something to even the stakes a bit.

Stephen Fry, who unlike me actually is famous, has some interesting thoughts on the subject. The comfortable encounters for him are the ones where people are friendly and unpressuring: they offer him some courtesy and and goodwill and leave it at that. He's entertained them, they say something nice to him, and things balance out pleasantly for all concerned. Uncomfortable ones involve several things. One is demanding that he perform, which is just rude, but others involve saying 'I bet you get annoyed with people approaching you', as if they weren't doing the same thing themselves, and trying to impress him with factoids, Fry being known as an erudite man. Both of these, I'd say, are a clumsy attempt to equalise the social imbalance: the latter is trying to demonstrate that they're as well-informed as him, while the former is trying to step out of the 'fan' category by allying themselves with him against other fans - trying to hop the fence and start chucking rocks at the other side, perhaps, without much respect for the fact that it's his fence. I can understand these reactions, because it's very hard to know how to behave in such situations (which is why I tend not to approach famous people; if I don't know how to behave, I'd probably make the encounter awkward). The trouble is, these approaches put pressure on the subject to affirm some sense of alliance or similarity with a stranger that they may just not feel is there. After all, they don't know the stranger, and few people like to swear brotherhood with someone who's pressuring them. Common humanity is one thing, but that can be expressed in courtesies; more specific alliances are up to both parties.

Meeting a writer is a slightly different thing (Fry writes novels, of course, but he's best known as a performer), and as writers go I'm not exactly J.K. Rowling in terms of fame, but that sense of pressuring versus unpressuring encounters rings a bell. In my case, at least, any fame I have is largely in a fan's head (especially if they haven't actually read my book, and people do sometimes assume I'm famous when they haven't heard of me, which I'd say proves that I'm not) - and this being a fame-obsessed culture, there can be a sense that you have to deal, not just with someone's perceptions of you as a person, but with their perception of you filtered through their emotions about fame in general. As you don't know what those emotions are to begin with, you can feel the need to step carefully. Possibly they admire fame and will be admiring of you, which is flattering if a little strange the first time you encounter it; possibly they dislike fame, and then you have to be on your guard.

I don't know about other kinds of fame, but with writing, this phantom conversation can often involve some resentment of the publishing industry. Everybody at least knows a rejected writer, and statements like 'It's impossible to get published, isn't it?' are not uncommon. In that situation, I feel extremely embarrassed: I'm caught between owning myself an apparent exception to the laws of possibility and flatly contradicting someone. What people are often angling for there is a confirmation of their resentment, but I don't resent the publishing industry - and not just because it's published me, I didn't resent it before, even when it was turning down my work. I'd crawl off and cry occasionally like everybody does, but that was just ordinary disappointment. I don't want to ally against an industry I consider the target of a lot of unjustified resentment; I don't like affirming resentment in general, really, because it's not a very healthy emotion. But if I say anything like that, then click, the resentment realigns, and now it's on me. People can get quite righteous when they perceive publishing as oppressing the little guy, and a published author can find themselves viewed as The Man.

People who make that kind of remark are not aware, I think, that this is how it seems from the other side, but if you've succeeded, even a little bit, at something many people aspire to, the risk of being seen as arrogant is high. An aspiring writer who says something like 'Most books that don't sell don't sell because they're bad' is seen as tough-minded and practical; a published writer who says that is seen as stuck up. I've seen more than one blog lay into me furiously for opinions that would have been accepted much more readily if I was unpublished - or at least, might have been disagreed with, but would probably have included less personal speculation about my egocentric motives. Even if it's the exact same opinion you had when you were aspiring, say it after you're published and some people will always assume that fame has gone to your head.

You can, as a result, wind up in situations where you're being pushed to say something you don't think is true, with the risk of a personal attack hanging over you. It's something that in normal human terms oversteps your boundaries - and that can happen in other ways as well. People are much more willing to ask me how much money I earn than they would be if I was an office administrator, for instance, and I personally consider that people's finances are their own business. It's just curiosity, a 'how much do writers usually earn' question, but I still don't want to disclose my bank balance; talking about money is just not one of the things I like to do. Expressing opinions about other works of art can become more fraught: people are quick to see sour grapes in a less successful writer who dislikes the work of a more successful one, and bullying if the roles are reversed. Not being in the mood to answer certain questions can provoke a lot of frustration in someone who feels this is their only chance to ask a real writer something, and while it's understandable, it's also taxing. I've seen more than one internet conversation where people aggressively refuse to sympathise with a writer having a problem for no better reason than a kind of 'my heart bleeds' assumption that being as famous as they are removes their right to be bothered by anything ever again. And so on.

In the case of novelists, there's an added quirk: the novel comes from inside your head. An actor is playing a character, a newscaster's reading the prompts, but a novelist is presenting their own thoughts. You can, to some extent, intuit personality from a person's writing. It's not infallible, because the writing self very often draws on elements of the personality that don't get much use in the rest of the writer's life, but a reader who feels they know something about you based on your book is very possibly right. There's a certain standing-in-your-underwear quality to that thought. Added to this, people sometimes want to discuss your book with you - not unnaturally - including what they think you did wrong. It's just interest in their part, of course, a curiosity about the creative process, but people don't usually get approached by strangers who want to tell them that their filing system uses bad colour coding or their sandwiches need more mayonnaise outside the context of their jobs. Of course, that's the problem: to me, the context of my job is my house, and more particularly my desk: when I'm sitting at my desk, I'm at work, and when I'm walking around, I'm off-duty. But to someone who's read my book, the book is a permanent object, existing round the clock no matter whether I'm sitting at my desk or out partying. The book doesn't go off-duty, which makes it harder for me to declare that I am. Similarly, you don't usually get performance criticism from anyone but your boss, but writers don't have bosses. I tend to think of my publisher as my boss, but certain readers can be a little prone to don the boss hat: after all, my work winds up on their desks, so to speak. Usually readers just want a conversation, and I have the impression that in the cases I've encountered it just doesn't occur to them that it might be, you know, giving me bad news if they say they don't like my work, but here's the thing: we all get quite attached to our own interpretations of a book, and can want the writer to give a kind of seal of approval, a confirmation that our interpretation is a good one. If the interpretation is one the writer doesn't happen to agree with, it's a pickle.

All of this is a bit unnerving to consider when it's applied to you. In my case, as in many, the position is complicated by the limitations of my success: I'm published by a major company, fairly well reviewed, sometimes people have heard of me, and that's about it. (Not that these things aren't cool, of course; they just don't get my personal life in Hello! magazine, thank goodness.) This creates the following dilemma: I'm just about big enough to be resented, but not so big I can get away with bad behaviour. Mel Gibson can drive drunk and rant about Jewish conspiracies and plenty of people will still go to see his movies, and even if they don't he's got enough money to live on for the rest of his life. This cushion of success does not apply to me: any loss of potential audience is a serious matter, and if my writing doesn't make money I'll have to go out and get a grown-up job, which will cut into my writing time. I don't actually feel the urge to drive drunk or spout racist opinions, of course, but as I've said, if somebody has preconceptions about fame and thinks you're famous they're a bit quicker to take exception to you. Tact is called for at all times, for the sake of my grocery bills as much as for the sake of not wanting to be annoying.

Of course, from the other side, approaching a writer is also an anxious business. If you admire a writer, you really want them to like you, because their opinion matters: the same brain that produced stuff that spoke to you is now forming an opinon about you as a person, and if it's negative, that can be crushing. The pressure in encountering someone who knows you by reputation only is that you can feel they want something unspecified from you, but in most cases, I think, what fans really want is to reassure themselves that the writer of these books they enjoy is not such a total jackass that they'd have to reconsider their enjoyment. If I hear an artist I admire is a nice person, there's an inner sigh of relief: I can enjoy their work with no mixed feelings; if I hear they've done something awful, it casts their work in a more doubtful light. It's disappointing when someone you've previously admired does something thoroughly unadmirable. Of course, it's perfectly possible to like someone's work but not their personality, but it's easier if you can like both, which is why it behoves a writer to be nice to fans: if you aren't, you're spoiling their fun. If it's a writer they really admire, then being mean to them is particularly bad, because unkindness from an admired figure is humiliating, and you shouldn't go around humiliating people if you can possibly avoid it. I'm not much of a meet-the-writers-I-admire type myself, so my experience of this is limited, but certainly the idea of annoying a writer I admire makes me want to curl up and hide, and I assume it's the same for other people.

From the writer's side, though, that creates a certain disparity of scale. If someone perceives you as somehow bigger than them, any misstep you make will crash much heavier than if they perceive you as life-sized. You don't want to humiliate someone because that's not a nice thing to do; at the same time, you don't want to antagonise them because there's always the fear they'll retaliate with disproportionate aggression because they think you're way bigger than you really are. The trouble is, you don't know this person, so exactly what's likely to antagonise them can be a matter of guesswork. Some people will assume a writer is a mean narcissist because they've tried to maintain some basic social boundaries; most won't, but you probably won't find out who will until you've already run afoul of them. In consequence, when approaching a writer, looking as unchippy as possible is a good bet.

The weirdest situation is where somebody wants something from you, and they themselves aren't exactly clear what it is. I know from both sides of the fence, for instance, that aspiring writers often feel a compulsion to mention their aspirations to successful ones. I don't know why we do it. What can the successful one actually offer? Connections? Probably not; I certainly wouldn't say 'Well, why don't you give me a copy and I'll pass it on to my publisher?', and I wouldn't expect other writers to either, because there's no way of knowing based on a conversation whether somebody's book is any good or not, and passing on a bad one will tax the patience of somebody who may well be under no obligation to publish you again if you get on their nerves. Advice? Perhaps, which is fine if the aspirant is prepared not to get pissy if the advice isn't the advice they want. Encouragement? Almost certainly, but it doesn't seem like enough. I say again that I've been on both sides of the fence here, so I'm not just swiping, but I think there's also an element of robe-touching going on, a kind of magical thinking: telling the writer your aspirations in the hope that some of their success will somehow rub off on you. I know what that's like from the aspiring side, but from the successful side, it's tricky to handle, because it feels like you're being asked to give something you don't actually have. I don't have a bag of mana that I can open up and share out; I wish I did, but I don't. It can feel, particularly when I'm surrounded by strangers and in a shy mood, like I'm trying to carry on a normal conversation with somebody who keeps fingering the hem of my perfectly ordinary coat. Again, heaven knows I understand the impulse, and if it makes me uncomfortable then part of that is a sense of sympathy, because I've felt the same thing myself, but it does make it an encounter with an unusual amount at stake.

It all sounds ungracious, doesn't it? I don't mean any of it that way. The trouble is this: I like to oblige people, but when talking to someone who has the idea that I'm famous, what I could do to oblige them becomes more and more nebulous, and more and more dependent on my accepting a persona of 'fame' that really doesn't reflect how I feel as a person. But on the other hand, people who've approached me about my book have tended to be nice, friendly folk who are after all going out on a limb by approaching me. A lot of my issues about being approached are really nothing more than shyness of one kind or another, a fear of displeasing people, and as a professional and a human being who ought to be capable of some manners, it's on me to appreciate the courage and goodwill they've extended in coming over to say hello.

So in terms of being approached as a 'famous person', my feelings are pretty much exactly what they would be about any other kind of approach. If someone wants to come up and say hi, then that's great; if they want to come up and say 'Hi, I like your book', that's lovely, because it's very nice to be praised. A pleasant encounter can ensue - but the reason it's pleasant is the same reason any encounter is pleasant: the person who's approached is just relating to me human-to-human rather than fan-to-famous-person. The thing is, writing books is a normal activity to me. I do it on a regular basis and much of it is grunge work of one kind or another; signing copies, going to book-related parties and general glitz is a tiny, tiny, tiny proportion of the work. If someone thinks I'm famous, I get confused, but if someone wants a friendly chat, I'm delighted. I like friendly chats.

On the other hand, if somebody wants me to do something for them, such read their work or recommend them to my agent or publisher, that's awkward, because people generally don't walk up to strangers and ask them for favours out of nowhere. Reading work is something I have a standing 'no' policy on for exactly that reason: if I say yes to one person, it becomes personal if I say no to another, and once again, offence threatens. (Recommendations likewise: I'm happy to give general advice on how to look for an agent or publisher, but passing on work to my agent or publisher is something I'm not comfortable with, because it's my reputation on the block if they don't like it.)

Internet fans, in a way, are perhaps the easiest proposition. If Donalbain happens to see me buying cat-repellent and comes over to say 'Hi! I'm Donalbain, you remember me?', for instance, the imbalance is less, because I do know something about the person I'm talking to; there is a relationship, albeit a virtual one. Being terrible with names, there's always the scary possibility that my mind will go blank and offend the speaker, but if they don't mind reminding me, that's another matter. This hasn't happened, but I would expect it to be easier in many ways than most such encounters. The flashpoint is probably this: people's writing and speaking personas are very different, so we might wind up startling each other. There's always the possibility that we might find we have little to say to each other in person - an internet relationship doesn't necessarily translate into a real-life one, and this is something I feel about other situations as well; I have internet friends on other sites, but I have no idea if we'd get on if we actually met, and I don't think we should feel that we had to for the internet friendship to be worthwhile - but with a degree of mutual tolerance, I see no reason why such an encounter shouldn't be amicable.

Anyway, if anyone reading this spots me somewhere and wants to come over and say hello, then feel free, unless I'm crying, in mid-argument with someone or otherwise in one of those situations where you'd like a little space if it was you. (Not that I walk around the city crying and quarrelling as a rule; just sayin.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

 

Proofing Mikalogue


Kit: Mika, stop messing with my proofs!

Mika: No.

Kit: Mika, that's enough. You've tried to chew them, to put pawprints on them, to fight them...

Mika: Someday will win, too!

Kit: If I hand in a set of cat-mauled proofs, I'll look very unprofessional.

Mika: If proof is sound, Mika cannot disprove it. Should let Mika expose your so-called proofs to purr review.

Kit: No, Mika, proofs as in proof reading. I'm trying to proof read my novel and you're getting in the way.

Mika: They is gettin in way of you payin attention to Mika.

Kit: I have a deadline, sweetie. This is what pays for your cat food.

Mika: Is not hungry right now, thanks. Prefer to fite paper.

Kit: Mika, this is awkward of you. Reading proofs is hard work even without you chewing them.

Mika: Nibble novel!

Kit: Good girls don't chew my work.

Mika: Is demonstrably untrue. Mika the Good chews your work. Refute your thesis by counter-evidence. You do not understand concept of proof as well as you think.

Kit: Well, one of us doesn't, clearly.

Mika: And can only be you, for Mika is perfect.

Kit: If you don't leave my work alone, I'm going to have to remove you by physical force.

Mika: Weapon of the censor! Burnin is no argument! Hey, put down at once! At once! Hey!

Kit: Go on, go play in the garden.

Mika: Noble Mika is intellectual martyr. Be advised, good peoples of blog, do not buy book of this mean woman.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

 

Okay, final check

I've going over the proofs of the next novel, and I want to make sure I've got the right names in the acknowledgements for everybody who helped me out on that nitpicking post; you know who you are, I'm sure. So, here's the list:

Naomi, Donalbain, Jane Draycott, Jill Heather Flegg, Ursula L, Jos, Cowboy Diva, Robb, Joolya, Christopher Subich, Hapax, Linda Coleman, Practicallyevil, Wesley Parish, Margaret Yang, Sunlizzard, Lauren, Ecks, Michael Mock, Sheila O'Shea, Alfgifu.

If you're not on that list and should be, or if I've spelled your name wrong or used an internet handle when you'd prefer your actual name or vice versa, please either e-mail me at kitwhitfield@hotmail.com or post your objection on the thread here by the end of the week. This is more or less the last call; after this, I won't be able to do much about it, so please let me know quickly if anything's wrong.

 

Should you start with short stories?

Amaryllis asks:

This is also a "just curiosity" question. I heard a novelist say recently that when she began to think seriously of writing fiction for publication, she was advised to begin with short stories. The implication being, I guess, to start small and work her way up. But she tried writing short fiction and hated it, feeling more at home with the novel form from the beginning.

So, did you begin with short stories and move on/up to novels? I see you've got two excellent stories posted here; do you still write short stories for publication? for practice? For fun? Would you advise an aspiring young writer to begin with shorter fiction?


I did begin by writing short stories - but that doesn't mean anyone else has to.

Commercially, there's no need to start with short stories. In fact, starting with novels is probably the better idea: the market for short stories is notoriously bad, for the simple reason that most readers prefer something longer. Reading anything new requires getting your head around some new concepts, and short stories demand a higher mental-effort-to-story ratio than novels, hence most people don't buy them and it's quite hard to sell them. People will advise short story competitions, and while there's nothing wrong with that, and it might make an agent view you with a little more interest if you send in your novel with some short story credits, if your aim is publication you might as well jump in the deep end as not. (And as far as getting an agent goes, the only thing that really matters is whether they like your book. It can be the first or the fiftieth thing that you've written; it's the book that counts.)

In terms of convenience, it can be easier to find writing classes that handle short stories, for a simple reason: short stories can be written and read quickly, which makes it easier for the teacher and class to absorb the work and give feedback. Feedback on a novel extract is something I've seen tried in varying classes, almost invariably with limited success: getting hung up on a single section is the last thing a first draft needs, and it's hard for a class to give sensible advice about writing they haven't read. In a class of twenty, it would be demanding, to say the least, if everybody had to read everybody else's novel in its entirety, so if you're looking for a class to get you started, short stories are the form best adapted to that environment. That's another reason why people often begin that way. (Though having said that, it's important to stress that just because people often begin with short stories, it doesn't mean they're a 'beginner's form'; good short stories take just as much investment as novels in terms of passion and concentration, and some people argue they take more, because you have to do more in less space.)

Artistically? Well, how long is a piece of string? The usual reason people recommend short stories is that they're, well, shorter. If you've never written anything before, a short story may feel less intimidating than starting on a novel. The amount of verbiage is limited; the amount of plot you have to juggle is small enough that you can keep it all in your head without having to refer to notes; you'll have a finished piece quicker; friends may be more willing to read it; it can feel less high-pressure than beginning a whole book. If you've never tried it before, betting on finishing a hundred thousand words may seem like worse odds than finishing five thousand, and 'Will I ever finish it?' is one of the plague questions of the first-time novelist. So yes, a short story often is how people start, because it's less scary. And there's nothing wrong with that: writing is scary, and finding ways in is a good thing.

On the other hand, I find short stories more nerve-wracking in some ways. Some people are starters and some people are finishers, and I'm definitely in the latter category; unlike some of my friends who have a new idea every other week, I have about one good idea every two years or so. Consequently, I hang on to them with limpet-like tenacity: as long as I'm in the middle of a novel, I don't have to worry about what I'll write next week. Writing short stories, you're going to need a steady supply of new ideas, and not everybody is an ideas man. So short stories can test my nerve because I run up against the 'what do I do next?' anxiety much more often.

Probably because of this, I've written about three short stories in my life, and once I got started on novels, that's where I stayed. But really, it's a question of how long you need to tell the story. The first few ideas I had could be told quickly; subsequent ideas have needed a novel to work them out. If I have a short idea tomorrow, I'll write it into a short story; if not, I won't. No big deal.

The main thing is this: any work of fiction should be as long as it needs to be and no more. I remember being in a writing class where a novice got quite upset at the teacher for saying this in answer to her question about how long a short story should be, but he was right. Some stories need a lot of expansion, some fit into small spaces. Hapax commented in the last thread:

I have found, to my horror, that my "natural" writing length seems to be the novella -- which is fine if you're already a successful author, but impossible to get anyone to take seriously if you're not. So I slice, and lose the heart of a piece; or I pad, and bloat the thing into verbal gas. Neither of which is a happy ending for me OR my stories.

And that's the problem: trying to force a story away from its proper length does it no good at all. Procrustean editing is bad for fiction. If you're hoping to sell a novel, the best advice is probably to keep writing stories of whatever length seems right to the best of your ability and just see what happens. Not every story comes out the same length; Bareback was 195,000 words in its first draft and 145,000 in its final; the second novel was 119,000 in its first draft and about 135,000 in its final (I think). That's a substantial difference, especially when you look at the first drafts. A story that's naturally fifty thousand words long will never make a novel; the choice is between a bad novel and a good novella, and the latter is preferable. So it's better to finish it, pat yourself on the back for finishing a work of art (no small feat), pat yourself again for putting art ahead of market considerations (for commercial as well as artistic reasons, in fact: the market primarily wants good works of art), and then move on. Maybe the next story will be forty thousand words, which means another pat on the back; maybe the one after that will be seventy thousand - and that's just about long enough for a novel.

There's a strong temptation with writing, which is to believe that this story has to be the one that sells, this has to be the one that makes it through. But that puts too much pressure on the story; it becomes about the end result rather than the work itself. Better to approach each new work as an experiment and let it play out how it will. If you want to write a novel, odds are you'll eventually hit a story that'll come out more or less novel-length on its own.

So should aspiring writers begin with short stories? Yes, if they feel like it. If they don't, they shouldn't. It really is as simple as that.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

 

Learning to be a writer?

Donalbain asks:

Kit! I has question!

I can not write. At least I can not write in the make-up-things-and-enthrall people style. I am very good at the writing of factual, specialised sciencey nerdy journal articles..

Do you think it is possible to LEARN to write? Not to a published, proper writer level, but so that I can enjoy doing it, and maybe someone might enjoy what I write?



That's a difficult question. Some writers say no, some say yes; a lot, I think, depends on how much they feel they 'learned' to write themselves.

I certainly think it's possible to educate oneself out of one style and into another. I've worked as a copywriter, for instance, but when I came out of university, my non-fiction writing style was extremely dense and academic, totally unsaleable. I'd picked up the technical style of a university, but it was completely wrong for jacket copy or press releases; I had to learn a new style. I was lucky in my first boss, who was a real mentor and helped me learn how to be punchier. That learning experience was a success; I've been paid for copywriting since, and wrote my own jacket copy for both my novels, at least in the UK editions (and did some tweaking on Benighted as well).

So do I think it's possible to learn a different style? Yes, definitely. Fiction, though, isn't just a matter of style. A good style helps, but fiction has an unsual problem: you're on your own resources when it comes to substance as well. Analysing a text, blurbing a product, describing a theory: all of these situations give you something to work on. You don't have to invent a new scientific theory or gadget before you write about it; some of the thinking has already been done for you. You're describing something that's already there.

With fiction, you're on your own with a blank page. There's nothing there unless you create it. You need to do your own plotting, character development, scene-setting and so on. Learning how to do those things well is a more complicated question.

If we get into how to learn those things, I at least fall into a bit of a haze. Mostly I learned about character development from watching how people around me behave and speculating about how they feel, and from paying close attention to my own thoughts and feelings and postulating that probably everybody thinks and feels according the same basic principles but widely varying experiences. Plotting I simply don't know; I'm a maker-up-as-I-go who tends to have a basic end in mind but no clear picture of how I'm going to get there, so it's a question of working out what would be plausible and what would be interesting. Scene-setting is about balancing what the reader needs to know against what the narrative voice is likely to observe.

All of these issues, I have no personal prescription for; I have to work it out as I go, mostly by instinct. Instinct can be developed, but in my experience it's been a solitary course of self-education, and I'm wary of drawing any general conclusions from it. I can get away with basing all my characters' reactions on my own thought processes because I control their world; if I try that on real people, I'm likely to come a cropper.

I'd say that writing fiction requires an informed imagination. By this I mean you need a combination of several factors. Part of the 'informed' element is that you have to read a lot; I can't think of any writers who don't love to read, and if someone doesn't love to read, I find it hard to imagine that they'd enjoy writing. Making notes while you read isn't necessary - or at least, I don't do it; instead, you just put yourself in a nourishing bath of good fiction and start absorbing by osmosis. The more good stuff you read or watch, the more experience you have of what works and what doesn't, and that's knowledge you need to have.

At the same time, you have to be an open and thoughtful observer of the world around you; as Ruskin says, 'You will never love art well till you love what she mirrors better'. Even very fantastical art has to be drawn from life; Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell wouldn't be half as good as it was, for instance, without its sense of history and landscape, of scholarship and climate and human behaviour. Unless you can figure out a way to write a story without characters (in which case you probably don't need anybody's advice), you will at least have people in your story, and the more close to real people they are, the better the story will read. You have to educate yourself by living as well as by reading.

The other factor is imagination, and that's the kicker: different imaginations work differently, and some people have more trouble accessing theirs than others. To some extent it's a matter of habit - once you get used to using your imagination, it comes easier - but there's a difference between imagination and fantasy. I might spend ten minutes at the bus stop noodling away with a vague story in my head about how I defeat the Martians and get personally thanked by the Queen, but I wouldn't say I was composing fiction in that moment. Because it's a daydream, I can skip the difficult bits. How would I get through the hull of their battleship? Oh, well, I'll deal with that later, but it'll make a big, satisfying explosion anyway. Why don't their megawatt cannons destroy me? Well, I have a cannon-proof outfit that, um, that Nick Cave gave me! Yes, that would be fun. Would I have to curtsey to the Queen if I didn't want to? Well, it's my daydream, so she can make an exception for me. And so on. It's a silly example, but it points up the problem: a story in the head can be fudged. If I was sitting down in front of my computer to write the story of How Kit Defeated The Martians, I'd have to start using both rigor (Nick Cave probably doesn't have a cannon-proof suit, and even if he did there's no reason he'd give it to me) and genuine invention (I'd have to figure out how I'd actually get through the hull of their spaceship, and that would involve coming up with some imaginary technology, maybe some new characters who could provide it, backstories and personalities for them, resolutions for their personal stories, and some scenes in which we see the technology introduced).

So imagination and daydreaming are not necessarily the same thing. To get to the imagination, the fertile source, the best method I've found is through forms of play. I write three pages of whatever I like every morning just to get my hand moving; automatic writing, in which you can say whatever you want, is a good way to get going. (I'd recommend Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones for more on this subject.) Playing with your imagination versus daydreaming is the difference between playing a sport and watching it: the former is more rewarding, more engaged and fun and leaves you with better memories, but it takes more energy.

But because everybody's imagination is different, everyone has to be an auto-didact. I know how I learned to use mine, but I can't speak for anybody else.

The question of whether you can learn to enjoy writing is something I couldn't comment on. Enjoyment is subjective. If you're writing for fun, then you know whether you're having fun or not, and if you're not, then you have to ask yourself, What can I do to make this more fun? If you're not trying to sell anything, that's very liberating: you can do something completely silly. I can't introduce a brass band of ducks parading in a victory march around the ankles of my heroes when I'm writing a novel professionally, but if you're just entertaining yourself, why not? The idea is to please yourself, and you're your best judge on that.

Writing things that other people enjoy is a question I find best left alone. I know I sometimes say, 'Your readers won't enjoy it if you do this' ... but I'm putting myself in the category of 'reader' there: I wouldn't enjoy my work if I scamped on this or that. You're always your own first audience; if other people enjoy your work too, that's a bonus. But it's something to think about after you've finished writing. If you think about it while you're writing, your attention is on the end, not the means - and writing is all means. Other people are a question for later. If you're writing something specifically to amuse somebody else, that's a different question; then it becomes a game between the two of you. The Exquisite Corpse game I posted recently, for instance, was a game I was playing with two other people, and baffling or amusing each other was part of the fun. That can be a good way to play; banging ideas around with friends is great entertainment. But if they're not doing audience participation, I wouldn't worry about 'em.

Can some people never learn to write stuff that others enjoy? This is a question that sends many a published writer into diplomatic knots, because if you say 'no', people leap to accuse you of arrogance, meanness and trying to keep the competition down. Being completely honest, I'd say that probably some people can't. I base this less on other people's writing than on the knowledge of my own limitations. For instance: I could study and study, but I seriously doubt I could ever learn to compose a good tune, never mind a symphony. I enjoy listening to music, but if I try to compose it, I feel like I'm trying to see with my elbows. If I'm like that about music, it seems logical to assume that some people are like that about writing. On the other hand, this doesn't mean I'm not allowed to hum in the shower.

The question, really, is why you'd want to write if you feel unable to. There are lots of other hobbies. Wanting to write suggests one of two things - though if I've missed something, do say so. First possiblity: you feel, for some reason, that you should enjoy writing, because you enjoy reading or have friends who enjoy it or believe people who think writers are better than other people or some other reason. If that's the case, then take it from me: you don't have to enjoy it. (Even I don't enjoy it all the time, but that's a separate question.) If you don't enjoy doing it, then don't stress yourself; go have fun doing something you actually like. Second possibility: you actually do enjoy it, but are worried that you're only allowed to enjoy writing stuff that's 'good', and that if you 'can't write', you need to learn better before your fun is justified. To which I'd say: fun is its own reward. I'm a rotten draftsman, but I enjoy the odd doodle nonetheless. I mean, look at these shaky little rabbits I drew. If I think I have to draw like Durer before I'm allowed to enjoy sketching bunnies, then I'd have to feel bad about my drawing. But I don't. I love those little guys. There's no technical skill in them at all, but who cares? It was fun.

It can be hard to feel like you're entitled to write, even just in the privacy of your own home. Heaven knows why, but I've felt it, and so do a lot of people. Other people enjoying your work is very validating; it makes you feel like you have some kind of permission. So, if that's what you're worried about, then here: have my blessing. I'm officially permitting you to have fun writing if you want. Same to everyone reading this: I hereby mandate that you can all enjoy yourselves writing, and as it's my blog, this law is now absolute. But worry about whether you're pleasing yourselves rather than other people. When it comes to writing for fun, this is the principle: Other people? Stuff 'em.

Friday, October 10, 2008

 

Mikalogue meets exercise


Mika: The wheels on the thingy go round an round, round an round, round an round...

Kit: Hi baby. What are you singing about?

Mika: Ah. Mika has bone to pick with you.

Kit: A real bone? Chicken bones are dangerous, sweetie.

MIka: No, metaforical bone. You should know what those are. You said you riter.

Kit: Yes, I do know, thank you precious. So what's the problem?

Mika: It are this cross-trainer.

Kit: But it's lovely! It means Daddy and I get lots of exercise, and then we have more energy to play with you.

Mika: But you locks Mika out of room when you work out!

Kit: I know, honey. We're sorry to do it. But you keep trying to chase the pedals, and we're worrying about you getting your important head bopped.

Mika: Round an round, round an round! Mika chase! It moves, must jump on it!

Kit: Yes, that's exactly why we lock you out.

Mika: Mika liked what was here before better.

Kit: What, the plant we moved to make room for the machine?

Mika: Yes. Where is it, Mika's toy?

Kit: Out in the garden, dying, I'm afraid, dear. You climbed and chewed it so much it was falling to pieces.

Mika: Chase it! Leaves bounce when Mika hits them! Mika kills moving leaves! Mika the mighty!

Kit: We're sorry to have moved it, but you were shredding it.

Mika: You replace Mika's toy with toy for you that you don't let Mika play with.

Kit: Sigh... I guess you're right, sweetie.

Mika: You disturbs order of universe.

Kit: Well, we're sorry. But we've got lots of other toys for you.

Mika: Everything is toy for Mika!

Kit: Then the universe can't be out of balance, can it? Not if it's all your toy anyway?

Mika: Your sophistries are unsound. Get rid of cross trainer.

Kit: No, honey, we're not going to do that.

Mika: But if you get all muscly and thin, what will Mika knead when is needin cuddles?

Kit: Oh, sweetie. There'll always be cuddles for Mika!

Mika: Really?

Kit: Of course, honey. Would you like one now?

Mika: No thank you, for Mika sees fly! Flee, fly, for hour of doom is comin after you with big clawy paws! Mika the mighty!

Monday, October 06, 2008

 

Literary Exquisite Corpse, or, It's Your Problem Now

My friend Claire introduced me to a game recently that I think is well worth sharing: a game we've called It's Your Problem Now, for reasons that will become obvious. It's a game for two to four players, ideally, though you can do it with more.

The rules are simple. Everyone has a piece of paper and a pen. Everyone comes up with the title for a book, then passes the paper along to the player on their left. You look at the title you've been given, then write a blurb for said imaginary book, then pass along again. Next, everyone writes the book's first paragraph or passage, then passes it on; finally, you write the imaginary book's final paragraph. Then you all read aloud.

Unlike traditional Exquisite Corpse, the challenge is to keep things reasonably consistent, while retaining the freedom to throw new things into the mix. There can be an element of mischievous snookering of the next player - coming up with a tricky title is fun, for instance - but it's mostly collaborative. It's also very good for your confidence: it's surprising what you can come up with when there's nothing at stake. As much as anything else, it's an object lesson in how inventive you can be when you relax.

So, for your amusement, I'm presenting the ones that we came up with, in case anyone wants to read them. There are six, so read as many as you like. Following on, shall we play it in the thread? Rules are as follows: everyone has to follow in sequence - so if one person puts up a title, the next person does the blurb, and so on. Let's play!

(Professional disclaimer, in case anyone spots an awkward sentence and decides never to buy one of that stupid Kit Whitfield's books on the strength of it: these passages are, of course, rough, given that they were written at speed.)



C: The Unanswered Garden

---

K: Lilian Helm was fresh out of college, with a mountain of student debt and her dead father's debts to pay beside, when the offer came: a six-month live-in placement at Michaelmas Hall, restoring the neglected building to its former glory.

At first, the offer seemed too good to be true. But then the dreams started. Who was the white-clad girl who sighed in the darkness? What was the secret of the sunken garden, with its dying roses and mysterious carved love-seat? And what was the truth behind her mysterious employer?

---

G: Michaelmas Hall, 1792

My dearest Jane,

I doubt that this letter will reach you. It seems impossible that his Grace, whose ministers and messengers keep him so well informed of all mankind's affairs, will neglect to intercept this - particularly as I make no effort to conceal it. But in the event that it does, one day, come into your hands, at least know this - that you were right and I have always loved you.

As for you, your Grace, if I guess right, by the time you read this I will be dead and you will only be beginning to understand how I have deceived you. A lesser man would be concerned about the money; we both know what troubles you - and I promise you, the book is not destroyed, nor shall it be. Ask your servants if they can help you - but unless I miss my guess, the diabolical intellect does not encompass horticulture. I will not say that I remain your 'honourable servant' or any similar such nonsense, for I have been about the worst servant it is possible to be - instead, I will merely conclude by wishing you frustration in life and damnation in death -

Yours,
Raphael Vespucci

---

C: The scream had come from the garden. Lilian ran towards it, her breath sobbing in her throat. If she could be in time! If she could only be in time!

She was too late. Hector lay on the round lawn, his sightless eyes gazing up at the sky, the book still clutched in his stiffening hand.

He had used it, as she had begged him not to. The curse was lifted. She was safe.

And Hector was lost, for ever.



G: The Crown of Shadows

---

C: Mary was the love of Jed's life, the only thing that gave his existence meaning. Her death in a freak car accident almost destroyed him. Over her grave, he made her a promise: he woudl get her back, he would see her walk in the sunlight again. Whatever it took.

Even if it meant turning back to the old ways of his father and grandfather, the ways he'd spent a lifetime trying to escape from.

---

K: 'I don't think I can do this,' Jed said.

'What's the worst that can happen?' Mary laughed. Sunlight glinted as she tossed her blonde hair out of her eyes. She twirled around before him on her skates, graceful as a swallow, then turned back to him, smiling that warm, wide grin that always made his heart skip. 'I'll hold on to you. You'll be fine.'

Jed staggered to his feet. The boots were supposed to clamp his angkles firmly, but he didn't feel secure: no one with feet his size had ankles that skinny, he was sure. He was probably going to fall and break into a million pieces. For a moment he overbalanced, plunging towards the ice, and then Mary caught him firmly, her hands on his. 'That's it,' she said.

Dad would laugh if he could see me now, Jed thought. God, I don't even want to picture what he'd say. 'Okay, I'm up,' he said. 'I'm doing this!'

'Terrific.' Mary grinned again. 'Now all you have to do is move.'

'Ah. That's, um...'

'Come on.' Mary started gliding backwards, her legs scissoring in and out in a smooth rhythm. The movement of her thighs distracted Jed for a moment, and she shook his arms gently. 'Don't look at your feet,' she said. 'It's easier to stay up if you don't look down.'

Jed found himself being pulled forward. Mary wasn't moving fast, but the world seemed to be slipping under his feet. He risked a grin himself, hoping for another laugh from her. 'I think you're going to get me killed,' he said.

Mary laughed, shrugged, as if nothing in the world would ever trouble her. 'Who wants to live for ever?' she said.

---

G: As suddenly as it had begun, the storm died away. The shape in the doorway, so like Mary, so unlike her, slipped backwards with its dying wasp gait and turned away from him, covering its face as if ashamed. Then it, too, was gone.

'That is why you will always be weak,' said Ebeneezer. Jed noticed that his father was still bleeding from the side of his head. 'To open that door and not see what lies on the other side of it - to not even look...'

Jed twisted the bootlace in his hands. He remembered the chill, the sound of a blade cutting into ice at a short, sharp stop.

'Maybe it's for the best,' he said, and shut the door. 'She was always so graceful...'



K: Anchorite City

---

G: In the cities of the future, everyone is permanently plugged into their rosary - a tiny collection of beads with enough computer memory to store an entire lifetime with music and subliminal instructions. It's almost like nobody ever listens to anybody else at all.

But when Peter's rosary breaks in a freak accident, he is forced to the margins of society, unsure how to think or feel without the music that everyone around him hears.

There, he discovers the Trappists, who have taken a vow of silence - and they reveal to him the true secret behind the all embracing music of the spheres...

---

C: In the cavern under the city, there was no music. No sound but the soft rustling of robes as they gathered. Their hoods were pulled forwards, hiding their faces. If one was caught, they would not be able to identify the others.

The leader held out his hand. In it lay something that glittered slightly in the dim light.

'It is time now,' he said.

---

K: The three of them stood, arm in arm. Rachel rasied her eyes to the top of the ruined tower, adn her hand slipped down, clasped around Peter's in a warm, comforting grip. No one moved to break the silence. Just in this moment, there was nothing they needed to say.



C: When The Clouds Left

---

K: Sally never saw the problem. Why shouldn't she be friends with Jessie Cloud next door? Sure, Jessie and her family were black in an otherwise white town, but Sally didn't understand why the adults got so worked up about that - or why they wouldn't explain to her what they were so worried about. Funny Jessie and her kind, anxious-eyed parents became a nest for Sally, a place of fun and refuge from the colder world outside. But then one morning Sally woke up to see a moving van pulling down the road and her best friend gone. No explanation, no letters, no reason anyone could tell her. And Sally found herself alone in a tight-lipped community, with a gap in her life - a gap filled with questions she needed answers to.

---

G: In retrospect, it was obvious - but then, these things always are - 'twenty twenty hindsight', her mother used to say. Context changed everything.

Still, Sally thought, you had to hand it to the universe. It had style.

She had kept that Coke bottle - the old fashioned, thick bottomed kind - that exact same Coke bottle - on her shelf for years. Refused every attempt by her mother to get her to throw it out.

All that time, she had thought it was her last link to her friend, one tiny, tacky thing she could rely on. Would she have kept it if she had known? Of course. If anything, she would have been more likely to keep it.

But she would have felt very differently about it, and that would have mattered.

Context changed everything.

---

C: After a moment, Jessie reached her hand across the table. And after a moment, Sally took it. They looked at each other in silence.

'What now?' Sally asked at last.

'I don't know,' Jessie said. 'I don't know.'

But she didn't pull her hand away.




G: The Unbearable Likeness of Beings

---

C: This is the world through Hamburg's eyes. A six-foot dog catcher from Brooklyn, Hamburg drifts through his days, watching incuriously as the life of the city plays itself out in front of his dull brown eyes. 'They're all the same,' Hamburg grunts into his mid-day sandwich. But the time is coming when Hamburg will find that very similarity too much to bear...

---

K: Dogs, you could tell apart. There were scraggly mutts, stinking to high heaven, with their abandoned whines and broken paws. There were overbred Afghans, their silky coats dreadlocking in the rain, picking their way across pavements they never thought they'd see except through the windows of their owners BMWs. There were short-legged Daschunds trying for dignity and scrabbling off the kerbsides, snarling Poms like lost, vindictive teddy bears, Goldens tarnished with pollution and dust. But that was dogs. People, as far as Hamburg could see, were all the same.

---

G: Behind him, all the children began to dance, and as they danced, they too, like the dogs, began to rise into the air. And so Hamburg watched as they danced into the transforming light and disappeared. He munched a pretzel, sour with meditation, and turned to the Lord Mayor. 'That,' he said, 'is why you ought to pay your civil servants.' And although many other things would be said in the months and years to come throughout the newly depopulated and canine-free island of Manhattan, in tones of fear, exasperation - or, amongst those who had oftened been irritated by the depradations of small children and dogs in public spaces, tones of mild relief - nothing truer or wiser would be uttered, and nothing more needed to be said.

(Gareth gets the Lord of Misrule Prize for that ending, we reckon.)



K: Legs and the Men I Sing
(This was me winding up my fiance, who had to go next; you see what I mean about snookering. Though as you can see, it didn't phase him a jot.)

---

G: Anita de Vere is bored with everything - her job in PR, her socialite friends and, most of all, her boring boyfriend Derek.

But a chance reunion with an old friend sends her life in new and interesting directions - to the French Riviera and into the path of an impossibly infuriating and improbably seductive Professor of Ancient Greek.

---

C: 'Anita!' roared Mr Edwards.

She leapt up from her chair, narrowly missed tripping herself on a computer cable, and dashed into his office. 'What is it?' she asked breathlessly.

He skimmed a piece of paper across the desk at her. 'Look at that! Call that a press release?'

---

K: Spiros grinned, his tanned body gleaming against the white of the boat, and pushed his glasses back up his nose. 'This is a trip to the temple of Aphrodite,' he said. 'I'm sure you'll like learning about her.'

Thursday, October 02, 2008

 

Choosing character names

Another interesting question from Amaryllis, who I'd like to stick around forever and keep asking questions...

I've alway been interested in names, personal and geographical-- derivations, meanings, associations. To take an example not at random, "Lola" made me think both of "Laurel," victorious, and "Dolores," sorowful. How do you name your characters?

I don't have any fixed method. Sometimes names just occur to me, sometimes I have to cycle through a large variety. The main thing I'd say is that I go by what feels right, in ways that I can usually rationalise afterwards - but the logic comes after the choice.

'Lola', for instance, occurred to me partly because I'd been reading a book with a heroine who seemed to have some similar traits to how I pictured my Lola, but it also just seemed to work. It had a certain softness to it that, to my mind, suggested vulnerability, while at the same time, the Ls slipping all over the place had a certain earthy untidiness that sounded appropriately rough; words like 'lopped' and 'lopsided' come to mind. It was sexual without being refined, unusual without being weird. With that character, her family address her by her middle name, May, which I chose largely because it was a stark contrast: innocent-sounding, with overtones of youth or naivete that contrasted with her image of herself outside her family context. The names just occurred to me and felt right.

On the other hand, naming her boyfriend took ages. I spent an entire evening going through the phone book considering first names before finally settling on 'Paul'. It didn't seem a dramatic enough name to justify the search, but then again, it seemed to work: ordinary enough to be reassuring but not common enough to be bland; soft on the ears without being sissy. Once I'd started, it stuck.

The phone book is a useful resource for surnames if you're aiming for a contemporary setting. With Bareback, for instance, I picked out two possible surnames for my heroine, Galley and Keir; the latter I ended up giving to her sister, while 'Galley' seemed exactly right for my mixed-up lass: harsh-sounding to contrast with her soft forename, with overtones of 'gallows' and 'galley slave' (also with printed galleys of books, though that struck me as an amusing irony rather than a reason to use it). Surnames, which can contain actual words, need to be chosen carefully: they convey a lot of suggestion, which you want to make use of without overplaying it.

Ethnicity is something I often try to convey in names as much as in descriptions, because breaking off to describe someone's race too much can feel awkward at best, and at worst tokenistic, as if you assume everyone's white unless explicitly stated. So with some character names, I have to rely on names I'm actually familiar with from other cultures, and try to convey things with that - and sometimes wait and see whether anyone picks it up. The lawyer Adnan Franklin in Bareback, for instance, is intended to be mixed race - Asian forename, European surname - but my heroine's caste-detectors orient more to lycanthropy than to race, so she doesn't bother to mention it, and the name remains the only marker.

Setting affects it a lot. My second novel is set considerably further back in the past, and consequently a lot of names were ruled out. My fiance, bless him, identified a useful resource early on in the process: a guide for people wanting to attend Renaissance fairs. While such fairs sound very strange from my English perspective, and about the last way I'd want to spend a weekend myself, the person who put the website together had evidently done their research, and it chimed with something I already knew: picking first names, I'd be choosing from a very limited list. I could call my heroine Anne, Mary, Margaret, Jane or Katherine, and that was about it; similarly, I could call my hero Henry, Richard, John, Edward, or possibly Robert, Francis or Thomas at a stretch. This simplified my choices somewhat.

The two personalities pushed towards opposite decisions. I went with 'Anne' as appropriately young-sounding; with the exception of 'Jane', which had too many echoes of Lady Jane Grey (was wrong for the character), it was the only name on the list that sounded informal enough to my modern ears to get close to the character. I could have shorted Margaret to Meg, I suppose (any variation of Katherine was unworkable for me, given that my own name is Katharine and it's hard to keep perspective on a character with a name like yours), but that wouldn't have worked: Anne is a somewhat lonely character, expected to fulfil her social role by most people around her and, crucially, by herself as well. A nickname wouldn't work with that; Anne doesn't think of herself in casual terms. Possibly I had some verbal echo of Anne of Green Gables in my head, an orphan who tries to make the best of things, but if so, it wasn't very conscious. Mostly, I liked the name because it was pretty but not weak, timeless-sounding and intimate without being off-hand. It's a name I've always liked anyway, which made it more pleasant to write her perspective.

'Henry' I chose for more or less opposite reasons. Partly, when I thought of the original English kings, the Henrys had the right feel, usurping Henry VII and aggressive Henry VIII in particular. More important, it's a name that can't be shortened. In modern usage, Henry is not exactly obscure - it's not like calling someone Aelfric or Ethelbert - but its pet forms, Harry and Hal, are a long way from their origin, to the point where Harry is now an independent name. (I even have a fine nephew called Harry, and that's the name on his birth certificate; 'Henry' is nowhere in sight.) Given that England, at least, is heaving with Ricks and Eds and Wills, using Richard or Edward or William in its full form would have felt a bit Eddie Haskell, which is entirely wrong for my confrontational protagonist: a name that couldn't be shortened except to a pet form - and I'd expect Henry to resist nicknames, as people making free with his identity discomfits him at the best of times - had the right ring. The most important factor of all was this: Henry's name is foisted on him at the age of five, and sits a little ill with him. A name comfortably familiar, like 'John', wouldn't have worked: I needed a name that felt a bit formal without being so easy to abbreviate that it sounded sissy.

Fundamentally, I wanted my heroine's name to feel close and my hero's to feel distant. All of this is something I'm figuring out post facto; at the time, I was simply going with what felt right.

The surnames were a particularly useful resource: they had a good, consistent feel, familiar-sounding while not, on the whole, being names you generally encounter. Picking them out, I went by a certain logic that I think I'll leave for readers to spot, if they choose - I'll come back to this once the book's out, if anyone wishes, but it would be a bit heavy-handed to point it out at this stage. (My extremely alert editor only noticed it when I mentioned it to her, so hopefully it's not too obtrusive.) In any case, there was an attempt to use names as a kind of background world-building, something that didn't need spelling out but gave the place a flavour.

The book I'm currently writing has more modern names - Rose, Lucy, Sylvia, Louis, Sarah. One of the factors I've considered here is how somebody came by their name in the first place. I have an Arthur, for instance, whose mother chose a prototypically English name, which expresses a certain family dynamic that affects his sense of nationality. My heroine, Rose, is the younger daughter of Sylvia and the younger sister of Lucy: there, I was thinking about the kind of names you might get cropping up in the same family. Sylvia is presented as a charming and basically good person with a big moral blind spot when it comes to her younger daughter; the name, to me, suggested beauty without formality, given its original meaning of 'forest'. It also had overtones of the poem 'Who is Sylvia', which, as well as its connotations of loveliness, had an interestingly questioning beginning: 'Who is Sylvia? / What is she / That all our swains commend her?' Sylvia is viewed with deep ambivalence by her daughter, and that slight air of uncertainty worked well with that. Having the concept of Sylvia, I need to consider how she'd name her daughters. The names she'd choose, I felt, would be pretty ones; there were certain overtones as well. 'Lucy', the name of the elder, means 'light'; as Lucy is the favourite, the light of her mother's life, and Rose feels something of a shadow to Lucy, the meaning sat well; from Rose's perspective, I would imagine she views her own pretty name, fairly or not, as something of a consolation prize, a well-meant gift that doesn't quite make amends: roses don't grow without light. (I don't think I'd say anything that obvious in the book, so I might as well say it here.)

I didn't, though, sit down and think of the meanings before choosing the names. Rather, I shuffled through a selection of names in my head, and when one sounded right, thought for a while about why. Usually it chimed with other facts that were already in my head - that 'Lucy' means light, that there's a poem called 'Who is Sylvia?' - but I heard the chime before I heard the explanation. There's a lot of stuff rattling around inside the average brain, and in my experience, choosing names is often a matter of bouncing one name after another around in there and seeing if anything makes a pleasing noise when struck.

In contradiction to this, I'd say that it's best to be careful in being over-specific when it comes to name meanings. If you want to write a passionate character and you call her Scarlett McFire, you're probably hammering the point, and, worse, you're confining your character to a single property. Scarlett McFire might well be passionate, but if that's the name you have to write out every time you talk about her doing something, it's going to limit your understanding of her and she's likely to come out as having very few personality traits except passion. If you do manage to round her out, the overly-defined name is going to leap out at the readers too, and even if they don't mentally award you their book club's Annual Captain Obvious Cup, they may have difficulty seeing past the name. If that's a route you want to go down, try to be evocative rather than blunt. Calling someone Patience Makepeace is like trying to publish your preliminary notes; think of a surname that has soothing overtones, like Meadowes or Poole, and a first name that's soft on the ear, like Laura or Susan. 'Susan Poole' sounds just as relaxed as 'Patience Makepeace' - and probably more so, since she isn't carrying such a heavy handle around.

Some names occur straight away; others have to be thought of later. There's a character in my current novel that my notes presently refer to as 'Mr Horrible'; I expect his characterisation will round out a bit once I've settled on a name. At the moment, he's mostly a plot concept, and will remain so until I call him something.

I've said elsewhere that I have little patience with names made up purely to sound good: things like ethnicity, language group and psychological probability tend to get subsumed into an author's fondness for pretty sounds. If I was going to make up names, I'd have to do a lot of thinking about a character's culture and what I wanted the names to suggest. It can be done, and it's effective when it works, but it's a whole can-o-worms that should never be opened gratuitously. Cultural background yes, name porn no, is my basic rule.

To sum up, then, I have a few basic rules when it comes to names.

1. Pick a name the character's dear old mum and dad might conceivably choose for their little offspring.
2. Go by what sounds right for the character's cultural background.
3. Be appropriate, but try not to bid for the Captain Obvious Award.
4. Think about how the name sounds, run it through your mind and see if it works.
5. Use the phone book or baby name guides if you get stuck.

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