I always think you can map a book to two axes: focus and travel.
The more you move along one axis, the less you move along the other. So if your story is packed full of excitement and plot twists (travel) there is less time to explore character (focus).
Ann Tyler’s books provide a good illustration of this. While many books mentioned on this site contain a cast of thousands and a span of light years and centuries, her books have a much narrower focus.
I love Ann Tyler’s books, though I haven’t read one in a long time. I started reading Redhead by the Side of the Road (sponsored link) on a long journey last week and finished it in two sittings. The story deals with one man living in a basement apartment. It rarely moves beyond that setting, and that’s a necessary part of its charm.
It’s all about breadth v depth. Both are worth exploring when writing. Both lead to fascinating books. But don’t try and do both at the same time.
Speaking of Roald Dahl, I’ve been re reading some of his short stories following the rewriting debate. I’d forgotten that he’d written SF. I’m thinking of stories such as Royal Jelly and, more topically, The Great Automatic Grammatizator which goes some way towards predicting the effects of software such as ChatGPT.
What I’m particularly noticing is a marked difference in his regular style and that of his SF stories. These have more in common with the SF that was current when he was writing (certainly the SF that I was reading when I first encountered Dahl.)
In those days SF tended to be about people solving a problem: why did the robot behave in a such a way? Why did the people on the planet disappear? There is this element to Dahl’s SF stories: a premise is extrapolated and then unravelled by the hero.
But compare this with Dahl’s regular stories. In these the protagonist is more likely to take risks. They create the problems, rather than solving them. They jump off a ship to make it slow down so they can win a sweepstake. They use identical dogs to raise the odds at a greyhound race. In these often macabre stories the tension is built internally to the protagonist, rather than externally.
There’s a very different feel to these stories, one that I’ve been thinking about over the past few days as I write myself.
I’ve never had someone change my stories in a way that I disagree with.
My work has been edited – of course it has. Editors have suggested many many changes to my work. They’ve clarified sentences that were hard to understand, they’ve cut boring passages and moved other passages around to make them more interesting.
No one has ever forced me to write something I don’t believe in.
So I’ve been wondering what I would think if an editor asked me to change the description of a character from fat to enormous. They might feel that the story was implying that to be fat was to be greedy. As I don’t believe that to be the case I’d probably want to change the word to avoid misunderstanding.
When I first read the above article I was against the idea of rewriting books, but the more I think about it the more I wonder if I’m really upset about the feeling that it’s my childhood that’s being rewritten. When I take the time to consider, many of the changes listed in the article seem quite reasonable. Language and attitudes change over time.
Rewrite is an emotive word. Is it a rewrite if the sense of the text isn’t changing, or is it just a judicious edit?
By way of illustration, I’ll quote my daughter. I bought her a collection of Jeeves and Wooster stories for Christmas. This is what she said:
“Dad this book you’ve bought me has so many iterations of the N word, and the climax involves him getting into black face.”
Should that text be edited to change the N word, should the climax be rewritten? Or should it be left as it is? I have my own opinion on this, but that’s for another post.
Something like don’t forget the pasta, and I found myself just looking at the words.
I was thinking about all these things that we write, all these words that we scribble with a pen or tap out on a keyboard or thumb onto a phone and then think nothing else of them. And yet those words were important enough to write at the time, and the fact of writing them lends them a certain permanence.
I type up so many words – emails confirming my attendance at a meeting or messages thanking a friend – and those words are backed up and the backups backed up to three generations and then those words reside on servers probably never to be seen again. All those words that were important enough to put down at the time and are then forgotten.
Words like this blog post. I like to think it’s interesting enough to read now, I’m under no illusions that people will be looking at in 100 years time.
I’ve been looking at ChatGPT – the AI writer. It’s very impressive, but there’s no intent behind the words, no history or provenance or web of interactions that led to its words being written in the first place.
For that reason alone what ChatGPT writes will always be less interesting than something written by a human.
Why? Because blogging once a week helps instill the discipline necessary to becoming a writer. It forces you to actually publish your work rather endlessly revising it. If you’re lucky somebody might even read what you’ve written: treat that as a bonus.
I’ve given this advice many times: it’s rarely acted upon.
Even by myself.
My writing juddered to a halt around 2018. Family circumstances slowed me down, then Covid finished me off. Spending up to fourteen hours a day at a computer in my day job as teacher meant I had no wish to sit down afterwards and write. The ideas kept coming thick and fast, I’d just lost the urge to knit them together.
And then last year I finally followed my own advice. The discipline of posting here once a week has been enough for me to start writing properly again. I’m now 60K into a novel (that’s probably about a third of the way, see here for why) and I’m working on short stories again.
Thank you to all those who’ve given feedback here. Your encouragement has kept me blogging which has got me writing again.
Like all wannabe writers I wanted to do the fantasy version, but I could never get the ideas to fly. When I picked up the first Discworld book I realised that this was it, the book we had all been trying to write. Terry, of course, did it far better than I could.
1 . Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
I’m sure something similar applies to books and music.
When I was at university we all claimed to have heard the original series broadcast on Radio 4 in 1978. I suspect it wasn’t just me lying when we made this claim. I’d have been 11 or 12 when the program was first broadcast and probably too young to understand the humour. And of course I didn’t listen to Radio 4 in those days.
As this post is about Terry Pratchett it seemed appropriate to include footnotes.
I took a parcel to be returned to Amazon to the shop around the corner and I realised I’d predicted this in Recursion. It might not seem that big a deal, but when I wrote my first novel a communication shop seemed a pretty good extrapolation of the world at the time. Back then if you wanted to return a parcel you had to go to the post office.
Better than that, though, is when I thought people lying in bed sending text messages in the middle of the night. This is was in my story Restoring the Balance, Too, first published in Interzone. Texting was a new thing, and it occurred to me that people feeling lonely in the night might speak to their friends in this manner.
Lots of other people had the same idea, of course, but it was original to me at the time and I got really quite excited by the possibilities.
All of this sounds pretty mundane, I’m sure.
And all of this is pretty irrelevant. SF isn’t there to predict the future, but to extrapolate the present, and getting it right doesn’t make a good story. Still, there’s a quiet sense of satisfaction on getting it right slightly ahead of every one else.
The third time I predicted the future was when I wrote about the robots on Penrose, but you’ll have to wait a couple of hundred years to see that one come true.
On Sunday I’m going to my writing group. There are number of authors there, some well established, some newer. All of them provide valuable feedback. As I’ve written elsewhere, the advice I’d give my younger self as a writer would be to join a writing group much sooner.
Anyway, one of the stories I’m currently critting has caught my attention. It’s by a new member: it’s a great story and is very well written apart from one thing. I think the rest of the group will already know what I’m going to say when I talk about this one…
I don’t like made up words.
R’hellono. Zhve-lenga. iSto(click)xxz.
I just made those up. They’re supposed to sound exotic, they’re supposed to evoke an otherworldly atmosphere and I suppose they do providing you don’t drench the MS in them. You can just about get away with that sort of thing in fantasy when you have humans speaking.
But it has no place in SF.
The chances of an alien being able to communicate with us directly are small. The chances that they would actually use sounds in the human range – rather than using radio waves; or making light flicker or even just moving their ears like a dog are infinitesimal. Why would a crystalline alien race who communicate by changing the ionic balance in chemical solutions be called the V’llorr? The aliens wouldn’t be able to make those sounds, so why would humans call them that? Surely they’d give them nicknames, scientific names, or name them after their place of origin.
I dwelt on this in my Penrose series. The robots came from another planet, everything they said was translated into English (or the language of the edition). Read A Note from the Author in Stories from the Northern Road for more details.
If you were to be friends with an alien, you might as well call it Hilary. You’re not insulting it, it can’t understand the sounds you’re making. And it’s probably calling you a similar name in its own language.
There’s online debate at the moment about this advice traditionally given to writers. A lot of people are saying it’s over rated, that there are many times when trying to show not tell ends up getting in the way of the story. Sometimes a quick information dump is best.
They’re right. But they’re missing the point.
As Sol Stein said, story telling is all about communicating emotion. And as every romance reader and writer (and I used to be one of them) knows, it’s not enough to tell someone you love them, you have to show them.
How can a writer convince the reader that two people are in love?
It’s not enough to say that someone is attractive. In a traditional romance the man is nearly always tall and dark and handsome. Does this make him desirable? Maybe, if that’s your type, but it’s not enough. Maybe he’s good with his hands, maybe he’s thoughtful and compassionate. Better, but this is still really just telling.
How do you show that two people are attracted to each other? They blink, they blush, they get tongue tied, they laugh too long at each other’s jokes, they touch each other on the arm… They do things for each other.
Romance is a big emotion, it drives a plot. In some ways it’s an easier thing to write. How do you show that two people simply like each other, that they get along?
Learning how to do this is part of the craft writing, it comes with practice. It’s great to see it done well. Here’s a good example.
My mother would play songs such as The Sounds of Christmas, It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas and Christmas is a Feeling in Your Heart as we decorated the Christmas tree. His singing makes me think of bowls of satsumas on the sideboard, Terry’s Chocolate Oranges and soaking wet gloves from throwing snowballs.
Looking at those songs now, it occurs to me that – just like the advice given to beginning writers – the lyricists were trying to engage the senses with regards to Christmas. They’ve covered three of them.
But what about the others? I’m not just talking about the taste and smell of Christmas. It’s reckoned there are between 9 and 21 senses (Google it if you don’t believe me.)
So why not write a songs about an exteroceptive sense like flavour, a sense put together by the brain from taste and smell? It should be quite easy to write about the Flavours of Christmas.
It might be harder to write about interoceptive senses such as feeling your stomach gurgling. Harder, but not impossible.
Here’s a Christmas Challenge for my song writer friends.
Write The Proprioception of Christmas.
Proprioception refers to the way you can tell the position of your body. It’s proprioception that allows you to touch your nose with your eyes closed. If that doesn’t say Christmas I don’t know what does.