Reaching for the Same Packet

I’ve just finished reading Everything I know about Love by Dolly Alderton (paid link). She’s a funny and perceptive writer, who gives a remarkably honest account of her life. This is not an SF book, in fact it’s the opposite of SF. Part of the pleasure of reading a book like this is the insight into another life…

… although I occasionally thought that her struggles sometimes resembled a journey to the shops through a swamp and an artillery range when there was a perfectly good bus running from the end of the street. She never seemed to take the trouble to read the timetable. But I’m sure we all sometimes go the long way round in our lives to discover truths that are obvious to others.

What really struck me, though, was what we had in common.

We both love Joni Mitchell and John Martyn. I think we’re very different people, but we were both drawn to something in their music. It makes me think of two people on opposite aisles reaching for the same packet on a supermarket shelf.

Joni Mitchell’s lyrics exist in CD booklets and liner notes, they’re on the internet (here’s an example of a writers song if there ever was one) but, great as they are, those lyrics are dead until people read them and breathe their own lives into them.

All writing is the same.

So Much Not Said

I was surprised when my daughter told me she’d never seen 2001: A Space Oddysey, so we watched it together.

This film grows on me each time I see it. I love the length of the scenes and how slowly they develop. I love how little action there is and yet how much spectacle. I love the fact that this is a film for adults.

Most of all I love how much is left for the viewer to observe.

The three bodies in a line.

The second ring being built on the space station seen as the Blue Danube is played. 

And always, the silence in space.

This is a different sort of story telling to fantasies like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Those have deep backstories that are recounted at the appropriate times. Lineages are listed, tales are recounted.  There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s appropriate to the form. 

The science in 2001 is equally deeply rooted but it’s never recounted, only implied.

It’s often said that good SF writing explores the edges of ideas. This film is a model of the form.  

It’s worth noting that this way of writing isn’t exclusive to SF. The series Mad Men was constructed this way.  The story isn’t presented as one continuous sweep, but rather as series of disconnected events. It’s left to the viewer to fill in the gaps.

This is my favourite sort of writing


Incidentally, I searched for a picture of silence to accompany this post. I chose the old man as it looked different. Why are so many stock photos of young women?

Inspiration Thursday

Looking for story inspiration?

I was walking through the cellar of my school recently when I came across a trolley full of half used containers of hand sanitiser. It occurred to me that this image would have meant something very different three years ago, before Covid 19.

And that got me thinking, what might it have meant three years ago?  Why would someone be throwing away so much hand sanitiser? What would have happened in a school in, say 2012, that meant they had over ordered hand sanitiser?

And that gave me an idea for a story. Maybe the image has inspired you.  Maybe not.

But what if the trolley wasn’t in a school, but a police station? Or a football stadium? Or on board a submarine?  What if the year was 1957, or 2140? What if the containers were empty, or had never been opened?

I have files of half completed stories based on chance encounters like this one. I never know when I’m going to meet the next image or person that will collide with an existing idea and cause it to burst into life.

That’s part of the fun of being a writer.

Eyes Wide Open

I saw this statue of Justice on a recent holiday. She was standing outside the Palácio da Justiça in Porto. 

The guide on our walking tour explained that the statue was unusual in that she wasn’t blindfolded. This was because the Palace of Justice was designed for the Estado Novo, described by Wikipedia as “one of the longest-surviving authoritarian regimes in Europe in the 20th century”. The statue was a warning to the people, we were told. Justice was watching the people: she knew where they lived.

I was rather impressed by this story, until I did some searching on the internet and realised the statue of Justice on the Old Bailey isn’t blindfolded either. Apparently the idea of a blindfolded Justice was originally a joke, a suggestion that she was blind to society’s injustice. It was only later the blindfold came to represent impartiality.

Another source suggested that the sculptor of the Porto statue wanted the statue to represent the state looking to the future and not being bound by the past.

Thinking about it, I tend to believe this second story. People usually think they’re good guys, even dictators. Those in charge like to think that the people deserve their fate: because they’re lazy or stupid or they simply don’t understand. They don’t like to think it’s their policies and actions that turn people into criminals.

Or perhaps that’s just another story I’ve told myself. 

I’m not sure why the Porto Justice has folded up her scales, though. Perhaps you can think of your own story for that…

The Golden Age of Science Writing

Following on from A Visit to the Zeppelin Museum

There is a charge often levelled at the technically inclined that they can’t write. Reading the documentation on 80s and 90s software can go some way to confirming this, however there are some truly excellent technical writers out there. 

One of my favourite books  is On Lisp by Paul Graham. Admittedly, that’s not a title that’s going to get most people’s pulses racing, but if you want a concise, clear and at times witty exploration of a very specialist subject this is the book to read. You might not understand or be interested in the subject, but the writing itself is excellent.

I often think we’re in the Golden Age of science writing.

Popular science books such as The Code Book by Simon Singh; Schrodinger’s Kittens by John Gribbin and Astronomy by Dinah L. Moché to name but a few, explain complex concepts in an entertaining manner. 

The mistake many people make is to confuse the content with the writing.

SF writers have to communicate complex ideas whilst building characters and keeping the plot moving. I don’t say writing SF is necessarily harder as the ideas being communicated aren’t as complex as they ones by science writers (tip – if the idea is that complicated then the story won’t work)

But if you want to learn how to communicate science as an SF writer then these books are a model of the form.

A final note: submission guidelines for many publications note how they’re swamped with stories featuring ideas that have recently appeared in New Scientist.  Remember, don’t study these books for only for ideas: study them for how to write.

What we want them to be

I was travelling on a tram through Manchester during the recent heatwave. Two young women of about the same age were standing by the doors. I was struck by the contrast in their appearance, one wearing shorts and a crop top with long loose shirt over both, the other wearing a hijab and a loose abaya. They were both looking at their phones as they travelled through the city.

Now this is not one of those stories where someone on the tram shouted at one of the women and then someone else defended their right to dress as they pleased to general applause. If anything, the scene seemed so unremarkable that no one but me appeared to have noticed the juxtaposition: it was a great example of the unassuming diversity of modern Manchester.

No, the scene reminded me that we have a tendency to write stories as we want them to be, not as they are. 

When I start a story I default to thinking of what I want it to be, not what it is. I have characters in mind, I have places I want them to be and confrontations pencilled in for them somewhere down the line.  

The more that I write, the more I’m convinced that this is the wrong way to go about things.  I’ve written many times about the importance of following your characters. Put them in a situation and then see how they react to it. When my stories aren’t working its usually because I’ve forgotten my own advice.

The same is true in real life, of course. How often do we listen to what people are really saying and how often do we just impose our own ideas upon them?

A Visit to The Zeppelin Museum

(This article was first posted in 2011 – I’ve reposted it following something I heard this week on the radio…)

Over the summer I visited the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, a small town by Lake Constance in Southern Germany.  The museum was small but well laid out.  I’m not going to discuss here what I saw in there as I use that sort of thing in stories, but it was all interesting stuff. All in all a fascinating visit, marred only at the end by something that is all too common now when visiting technical museums.  Something that annoys me more and more, something that reduces me to standing in the middle of some room loudly asking:

Why is there an art exhibition?

Why, every time I visit the a museum showing steam engines, industry, aeroplanes, cars, anything vaguely scientific, do I have to have an art exhibition thrust upon me?  Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not that I don’t enjoy art galleries, I have even written about them here on occasion.  No, what irritates me is the patronising assumption that whilst I’m looking at a history of how things were made, I also need to be culturally educated in some way by second rate artists who couldn’t get their work displayed anywhere else.

Worse, there will be a sign up explaining to me that there is a link between science and art, and this is going to be demonstrated by some painter’s abstract representation of machinery they probably don’t even understand.  This annoys me for two reasons.  Firstly, you don’t need an artist to show you the link:  the form of just about every machine transcends its function – there is a beauty in the shape of those Zeppelins that is owed to more than just aeronautical design. Why not point that out, rather than forcing me to walk through a selection of badly executed paintings before I rejoin the exhibition I came to see? Secondly, if the link between science and art must be expressed, why, on leaving an exhibition of sculpture or ceramic design, do I never see a small display explaining how the internal combustion engine works?  Don’t supposedly arty types need educating too?

I am not arguing for a moment there is no link between science and art.  Of course there is, although every so often I hear a report on the TV or radio discussing a new artist who is producing revolutionary work combining the two.  Is this supposed to be news?  I know lots of people who have been doing just that for years.

Haven’t the BBC heard of Science Fiction?

Eddie Stobart: Trucks & Trailers

As it says on Wikipedia: Eddie Stobart: Trucks & Trailers is a documentary television programme series exploring the world of the Eddie Stobart haulage company.

My father in law used to watch this program, and I would occasionally watch an episode with him. 

If you want to know about story telling, watch this program. The writers were experts at making a drama out of very little. When you’re writing SF it’s easy to create conflict. Destroy a spaceship, a city, an entire planet and let the other side retaliate.

This programme didn’t have the luxury of such exotic material, and yet it somehow contrived to keep viewers on the edge of the seat as we watched a driver attempting to move a load from Leicester to Milton Keynes! A distance of 55 miles! In under 2 hours!

The commentators breathless delivery was such that  you could easily forget that 55 miles in 2 hours is an average speed of just under 30 miles an hour.  Not that it mattered when a red traffic light could take on the aspect of a major catastrophe.

When storytelling is this effective you might ask yourself Who needs robots?  And there is a certain truth that some SF stories get so caught up in the sound and fury they end up signifying nothing. But it’s equally true that I was never moved by an episode of Trucks and Trailers in the same way I was moved by say Slaughterhouse 5...

Picture this:

There’s a post that occasionally does the rounds on the internet challenging beginner writers to describe a woman in a picture. The woman in question would generally perceived to be attractive, the assumption behind the task is that some writers will concentrate on her physical appearance. The challenge is seen by some as a test or a trap.

The post is a good test for beginner writers, though not for the reason some think it is. The reason is that no writer worth their salt would describe a character solely as a list of physical characteristics. No fiction writer, I should say. Fiction writing is about communicating emotion, not recounting facts.

You might be surprised how little physical description is included on books.

Mr Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, one of the most eligible men in fiction is famously described as tall and dark. That’s it. It’s his character, his actions, that make him attractive.

When asked to describe someone in their story, a writer would think about the character first. Are they clever, shy, mean, manipulative, generous?  Does anything about their appearance suggest this?

Beauty is subjective, how are you going to make your character attractive to the reader?

Enjoy the Ride

A friend of mine – he reads this blog so he’ll know this post is partly about him – always wanted to play the guitar. When it came to his fortieth birthday he decided it was now or never and he bought himself his first instrument. 

Fast forward six months and he sat down before us, his work colleagues, and gave a very credible performance of three songs. 

He received our compliments and applause with quiet satisfaction.

“See?” he said, “And you all laughed when I said I would learn guitar. You all thought I couldn’t do it!”

It’s a great story, but actually, that wasn’t what happened.

One of our circle is an expert guitarist: he offered a lot of initial advice. We’d all clubbed together to buy a set of guitar lessons as a birthday present and we’d offered nothing but support and encouragement as he learned.

That’s not as good a story, that’s just real life.

I recently watched and enjoyed Only Murders in the Building. Only Murders is a good old fashioned whodunnit. Interestingly – in fact it’s the point of this post – I spotted the murderer right at the beginning.

Not through my detective skills: I have none. Rather, through my writerly skills. I can usually spot the murderer in a whodunit. I recognize the form of the story, the misdirections the writer is using and so on.  (In the interests of full disclosure I should admit  that I had an advantage as I actually own the obscure item that was a vital clue).

The thing is, I didn’t enjoy the story any less for knowing the answer in advance.  When I was a kid I always knew that James Bond was going to defeat the baddies, I still enjoyed the ride.

I enjoyed the ride.

Enjoying the ride is a what a story is all about. It’s very easy when writing stories to get caught up with the making sure the plot is unfolding properly.  This especially true in SF when the central idea can be very impressive. One of my favourite SF inventions is Ice 9, in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. However, Ice 9 is a conceit, not a story. What makes Cat’s Cradle such a great book is the ride. The cast of characters; the bizarre situations; Vonnegut’s pithy observations and turn of phrase; his compassion and understanding.

It’s been said many times but it’s worth repeating: a story is a journey, not a destination.