Freedom of Writing, inspiration, Stories, writing prompt

What an idea!

Photo by Tracy Lee, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Some years ago, after rejecting an author’s short story for the Book a Break Anthology, I received a reply in which she acknowledged that a weakness in her story was the idea itself. In actual fact, her idea wasn’t bad; there followed a discussion in which we agreed that while a poor idea brilliantly executed will always be better than a brilliant idea poorly executed, it’s better yet to have a brilliant idea brilliantly executed.  

I’m not sure how or when an idea strikes me as brilliant enough to be developed. The more that development proceeds, it will at some point, inevitably, stop seeming brilliant and turn into a struggle to find the words that will do the original vision justice. For that to happen, though, it had to come through all the previous stages of development unscathed – which means it must have been brilliant enough in the first place, right?

I currently have 72 files in the Ideas folder on my laptop, but the number of actual ideas is much higher because most of them are in a single document. They might run to a couple of lines or a paragraph; often they’re just a few words. Those that emerge from this survival of the fittest are rewarded with a document file to themselves; eventually, they may even get a folder.

The folder stage is reserved for the elite. By that time the text may run from 3000 to 20000 words. I currently have 16 folders, but half of them are gathering the substantial amount of dust that lands on my keyboard. That still makes eight active ideas to keep an eye on, by which I mean that any article I spot related to that idea will be read, sorted into the folder, and may lead to an addition or amendment to the text. But that’s a matter of minutes; at any given time there’s really only one idea bubbling away at the front – the others gently simmer further back.

Whether any of these ideas is brilliant is obviously debatable. And the point remains that it isn’t having ideas that’s hard, it’s doing something decent with them. But brilliant or not, all ideas start with a little spark in the brain that either gathers strength or fizzles out. Putting them in my Ideas folder means that some at least have a chance of surviving, sometimes emerging many years later, like Brood X (though rather less numerous).

As to where they come from, the sources are multiple, but I’m currently drawn to the zaniness one regularly comes across browsing the news. A few examples:

French police say they are building a case against an international gang of toy thieves specialising in stealing Lego – and they have warned specialist shops and even parents to be aware of a global trade in the bricks.

A mafia fugitive has been caught in the Caribbean after appearing on YouTube cooking videos in which he hid his face but inadvertently showed his distinctive tattoos.

In the flesh, Jeanne Pouchain appears very much alive and well. Convincing the French authorities of this has proven another matter. After being declared dead by a court, Pouchain has spent three years trying to have herself officially resuscitated.

A Welsh man has issued a public call to help find two Irish men who helped him return home from Australia in 1965 by packing him up and mailing him in a crate.

Whether any of these will be developed remains to be seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeanne Pouchain eventually makes it past the next couple of stages, reaching the point where the hard slog begins.

And you? How do you handle your ideas?

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book promotion, book sales, marketing, Publisher's Advice

Publishing trends 2022

You may have already come across this list of eight publishing trends singled out by WrittenWordMedia (who amongst other things are behind the widely used Free Booksy and BargainBooksy promotion sites), but if not, here’s what they predict:

  1. Direct sales continue to grow
  2. Indie Authors embrace next-gen tech
  3. BookTok goes mainstream
  4. Book prices will increase
  5. More success for small publishers
  6. Advertising becomes more inclusive
  7. Advertising becomes more expensive and difficult to track
  8. The audiobook market continues to evolve

As an indie author, some of these interest me more than others. The higher cost of advertising, for example, is somewhat discouraging, as this is the year I’ve decided I must take the plunge and give it a try (yes, I know, I’ve been saying that for the past three years, but I’m edging ever closer…).

It’s also worth setting up direct sales from a website, which isn’t complicated to do and costs nothing. I have no illusions about the number of sales that result, but it’s another outlet to add, so why not?

The audiobook market is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. The choice there is between going through a professional narrator, which guarantees a certain quality, but is (in my case prohibitively) expensive, and doing it oneself, which means not just mastering the technical constraints but having both the time and the skills for the reading itself.

BookTok? Hmm… At first glance, not for dinosaurs like me. I’ve just about heard of it but haven’t a clue how it works. The only time I visited TikTok, all I saw was young girls dancing or displaying their make up. But apparently it can get a ‘surreal’ number of views. So figuring that even a dinosaur can (to a limited extent) learn, I’ve signed up for Mark Dawson’s TikTok challenge, which starts at the end of this month. More out of curiosity than with any expectation of results. I’ll let you know how it goes.

And you? What are your plans this year for increasing sales of your books?

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writing technique

What would you recommend?

I’m sorry to say I haven’t read Steven King’s On Writing. It seems that I should, because by most accounts it’s excellent, even for those who don’t care much for his fiction. I don’t think it matters that it doesn’t feature in this list of the top 10 books about creative writing – interesting as I’m sure they are, I’m afraid not a single one tempts me.

This isn’t to say I’ve never tried. Sorting through my bookshelves the other day, I came across The Way To Write by John Fairfax and John Moat, with a foreword by the poet Ted Hughes. Fairfax and Moat, poets also, established the Arvon Foundation in 1968, becoming the first in Britain to offer a creative writing course. Today the Foundation offers a multitude of courses, events, conferences and workshops covering every aspect of creative writing.

I skimmed through the book. It came back to me, but the fact that I recalled so little meant I must have skimmed through it the first time, and hadn’t picked it up since. In the year it was published (1999), I was already too far on the quest to find my own ‘voice’ for the (rather underwhelming) tips to have much effect. And I’m of a generation that never knew creative writing courses. They were an American thing.

My opinion now? They help to avoid a lot of trial and error, but at what cost? For the voice to be truly your own, doesn’t it have to involve trial and error? Maybe I’m just used to stumbling along my own path, trying to learn as best I can, reading, analysing, trying things out, deciding for myself.

Later, I bought Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, moved to do so by the insistence of Jay Greenstein that no decent novel could be written without applying Swain’s advice to the letter. The book goes into very precise detail of plot, character, pace – you certainly get your money’s worth. But although I read it more attentively than the Fairfax and Moat, my Kindle tells me I stopped at 63%, and I haven’t been back to it since. Just too stubborn, I guess. I’ll do it my way.

All the same, to prove I didn’t come way entirely empty-handed, here’s the central take home message of Swain’s book:

A story is a chain of scenes and sequels. A scene is a unit of conflict lived through by character and reader. A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes. A scene must (a) provide interest by pitting your focal character against opposition and (b) move the story forward by changing your character’s situation. A scene is composed of a goal (possession of something, relief from something, revenge for something), a conflict (something that opposes the goal), and a disaster (real or potential, so the reader then wants to turn the pages to see how it gets resolved).

All good, sensible suggestions which (for the genre I’ve chosen) I should probably follow more closely than I do. It’s just that I find it hard to apply them consciously as I write. Of course there’s conflict, and goals and opposition, and every so often disaster, but I never set out thinking, ‘Right, this is the goal, and that’s the conflict – now, what’s going to be the disaster?’ Do I do it unconsciously? Perhaps. So much the better if I do. I certainly know when there’s not enough tension in a chapter, and a principle I have is to decide how the chapter will end before I begin it. But the rest is dictated by the overall arc of the story, in which there may be multiple conflicts and strands, and several balls to be kept in the air at once. The end result is never as neat as Swain’s technique would have it.

More inspiring than either of those books was Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel (1986). Less technical, more philosophical, it weaves Kundera’s account of his own writing with his views on what a novel should do: “A novel that does not uncover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral.” In those days I was still pretentious enough to think I could do that. I didn’t know how, but I liked Kundera’s assertion that the modern writer’s greatest asset is the ‘wisdom of uncertainty.’

I also loved the Paris Review’s interviews of writers, in paperback in those days, so I couldn’t afford to buy many myself. Now they’re online, though still for a steep enough price to discourage me ($125 for 8 issues, or $85 if you live in the US). To lure you in you get a full interview free – here’s the one of Kundera – and then a glimpse of the others.

Those sort of texts, by the writers whose level of skill I set as my aim, are still the ones I prefer when it comes to gaining an insight into the art of writing. Less about technique than the deeply personal way each one of them works. Perhaps this means I’m not the best placed to reply to a young writer who asked me recently what books I’d recommend to help her improve. Any suggestions?

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writing technique

Words, the long and the short of it

How many different words do you need to know in order to write a book? The works of James Joyce (excluding Finnegan’s Wake) include almost 30,000 unique words, which is a lot. You certainly don’t need that many. But not using them doesn’t necessarily mean not knowing them. According to the researchers at Test Your Vocab, an average native speaker knows 10,000 words by the age of eight, expanding to 20,000 to 35,000 words when they are adults. In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker puts the number higher – 60,000 words for an adult. But as he points out, “people can recognise vastly more words than they have occasion to use.” Furthermore, the unique word criterion may not be the best, since it counts, for example, walk, walks, walking and walked as separate words. If we count lemmas, or word families, instead, we have just one there – walk – and our vocabulary knowledge shrinks accordingly. Linguist Stuart Webb estimates that an adult native speaker knows 15,000 to 20,000 lemmas.

In our everyday conversation, we generally make do with far fewer. With 5000 words, we can have a decent, though limited, conversation, while with 10,000 the number of topics we can discuss increases dramatically. Theoretically, then, we could make do with three or four thousand words to write a novel. Original literature is written for the EFL market using only the two or three thousand most frequent words in English. I’ve read a number myself (a character in Painter Palaver produces such books), and it’s like being immersed in water at body temperature, meeting no resistance but getting no challenge either. Kind of dull, let’s say, even when the story’s decent.

That’s not to say we need to go the James Joyce way – there’s no link between size of vocabulary and quality of writing. Or rather I see it like the link between money and happiness – there has to be a basic amount, but above a certain threshold, you get no extra benefit.

What does this mean for writers? Notably that their productive vocabulary needs to be more readily accessible to them than it is to most non-writers. If you’re anything like me, a sizeable chunk of your time is spent searching for the ‘right’ word. In fact I hope for your sake that you’re not too much like me in that respect, because I suspect I spend far more time on that than most writers. That’s because I suffer from language attrition. For most of my life I’ve been exposed to far more French than English, so although English is my native tongue, I’ve now reached the point where I’m forgetting it. Anyone who tries learning a second language knows that without regular practice, it’s extremely hard to remember, but the same can apply to a first language. Not the syntax, which is largely mastered by the age of three and remains accessible thereafter, but the vocabulary. Words are easy to learn but also easy to forget.

As a result, I experience the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon more often than most : you know the word exists, you have an idea of its ‘shape’ – number of syllables, stress pattern, maybe a vowel sound or two – but the actual word won’t come. But I dare say you’ve experienced it too (am I right there? Comments welcome!) My assumption is that it’s part and parcel of every writer’s experience, and is one reason (amongst many others) why writing is such a challenging activity.

How do I cope? A combination of two approaches. The first is to accept it, recognise that good books can be written without recourse to an extensive vocabulary, and concentrate on using the words I do know to maximum effect. But while that may work to some extent, there are still many occasions when the word I want, the only one that will do, plays hard to get, like a key you’re trying to fish out of a drain hole. Only one thing for it in that case – the thesaurus.

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” Whether Stephen King, who wrote that in 1988, has changed his mind with advancing age I don’t know, but without a thesaurus I’d be sunk. The proviso is that I use it exclusively to fish those keys from the drain hole – words I once knew and used regularly, but can’t quite reach anymore. Not for me the word that struts onto the page like a garishly dressed dandy whose only aim is to upstage all the other words quietly doing their job. I just want the word that knows its place, fits alongside the others, and lets the sentence flow. Upon which contumacious rodomontade I shall terminate.

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Literary critique

Write Club

Apart from the online Book Country, I’ve never been in a writers’ group, simply because there isn’t one where I live. There was a time I thought I was missing out, but I’m not so bothered now. All the same, I’m interested to know how they operate, and when Shirley Weir, a contributor to one of the first anthologies I edited, said she was in a group from the UK’s Open University, I asked her if she’d like to write a piece about it.

In 2014, I completed my 3rd and final (so far) course on creative writing with the Open University (fondly known as the OU to its students). As writers and students, we were used to brainstorming with each other during the course, and quite a few of us wanted to keep in touch.

‘Why don’t we create our own writer’s group?’ suggested one bright spark.

And from that idea, Write Club was born. The group is a perfect example of a democracy with even the name being chosen by ballot, with fans of Chuck Palahniuk coming out on top.

Write Club is open to any OU participants past or present. The only other requisite is an interest in writing. Fiction, life writing, poetry, or something unique – any type of writing is welcome. Membership increases every year as more students start studying with the OU. The original committee, with a couple of persistent exceptions, has mainly given way to new members with fresh ideas. Changes for the better are always welcomed.

Socially, members meet in a Facebook group. It’s a relaxed group with daily prompts, but any writing is kept to short (mostly fun, but often dark) pieces. Members are supportive, congratulating fellow members on any achievement from having work published, to becoming a writer with the receipt of a first rejection. This group is also useful for passing on details of writing competitions and other tips.

Any serious writing is kept for the forums nestled on the OU student servers. These are secure and private. So, members can put in writing for advice or review, even if planning to submit elsewhere. There’s no obligation to use the forums, but peer review can be very helpful. To get the correct support, members are encouraged to include headings with abbreviations such as

  • BEG – Beginner,
  • INT – Intermediate,
  • ADV – Advanced
  • JFF. Just For Fun. -You don’t want any critique. You just want to brighten our day with your piece!
  • GF – General Feedback. You want to know if people like your piece, if they would read more, and you require some general opinion of areas of improvement.
  • GP – Grammar and Punctuation. You don’t want feedback on content or techniques, you just require grammar and punctuation feedback.
  • AF – Advanced Feedback. You are happy to receive an in-depth critique, with areas of underdevelopment highlighted, suggestions of improvement in various areas, and an analysis of the literary techniques you have used, and those you may like to consider, should they strengthen your piece.
  • FE -Final Edit. You have received feedback and re-drafted your piece several times. You would like one last check for the purpose of ‘polishing’ up, before submitting to comps or agents.

Although most of the groups’ interactions are in the online forums, we also meet up live once a month online.

We currently have six forums. The original for any short writing piece and announcements of activities, Novel Support, Poet Tree – a poetry forum, Children’s fiction, Non-Fiction and Monthly Meet Up Work-Sharing Space for any homework we give ourselves in the monthly live meetings.

Having a break between OU courses is no excuse for sitting back. Over the summer, the committee, steered ably by the amazing Cinnomen McGuigan, provides weekly writing tasks such as Cluster Club and Character Lab.

As well as our own forums, Write Club helps the OU Students Association to run a monthly online book club, where members chat for an hour a month and share thoughts on a specific read. The reading group uses a Goodreads group to keep book choices together.

It’s common taking part in writing courses run by other institutions (such as those run in the past by Iowa) to come across fellow WC members. And For NaNoWriMo and its camp, Write Club members often share a cabin together. (None of us snore.)

Over recent years, if there is one thing that has kept me writing through my ‘imposter syndrome’ spells, it’s Write Club. I’ve belonged to a couple of local groups, but one gradually died out and the other survived only until lockdown.

But Write Club keeps going. An online group, lockdown holds no problems for it. When members leave, there are always new students joining. And new members bring enthusiasm and fresh ideas.

When I struggle to write, the daily tasks keep me going. Many are just a matter of writing a few quick sentences (Sundays are six words). It makes the difference between writing (however short) and not writing. I love contributing to this and reading the other contributions.

With so many members, work in progress will always find someone in the forums ready to advise and encourage. Even when I think a story is finished, I’m grateful for suggested improvements which help me improve my technique.

But perhaps the chief advantage of Write Club is that I can be quiet for months, but when I come back, it’s still there going strong.

Over the years, group members have contributed to a number of charity anthologies, held together by a few dedicated members. Participation is as always voluntary, but there are plenty of members happy to contribute.

The next anthology Where’s the Manual? And Other Thoughts on Parenthood is in its final stages. Profits from it will go to Homestart and Save the Children.

Already published anthologies are:

The Other Side of the fence: Real Social Housing Tenants

The Gift

Generations

Footprints and Echoes

2020 Together: An Anthology of Shorts (published to support NHS Charities Together)

2021 Still Together (published to support NHS Charities Together)

I was in on the ground floor of Write Club and although I haven’t put as much time into it recently as some members, I still take part when I can. My own books are written under the pseudo name of Sam Speed and currently are

Flora the Fearless

Three short stories and a novella of a feisty octogenarian.

Dinosaur Diet

A not so cosy murder mystery first in the Dawn’s Dinosaur Detectives series.

With Jurassic Justice, 2nd in Dawn’s Dinosaur Detectives, due out shortly.

Shirley-Anne Weir

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book reviews, writing technique

Dirty Dangling

I was introduced to suspense by our headmaster at primary school. Every afternoon, he read us a chapter from a book, and the one that’s stuck in my mind is Wingless Victory, the story of RAF pilot Sir Basil Embry’s two-month trek through occupied France after being shot down in May 1940. In my memory, every chapter ended with the promise of some dramatic, perilous event to come. A cliff-hanger. The whole class was hooked.

When I wrote my first crime novel, I naturally wanted suspense to be an ingredient. I’m not big on breathless pace for the sake of it, but there was a gradual build-up of tension till two-thirds through, the main character is upstairs in her house investigating the cause of a strange sound when the lights go out. The following chapter moved to a different character’s point of view, and what happened next in the house wasn’t described till sixty pages later.

Much hesitation preceded that choice. Do I do this or not? Will readers be annoyed? In the end I went for it. Sixty pages, I thought, is fair enough; they won’t be dangling for too long. It’s not as if they have to wait till the next book in the series.

The upshot? It earned me a stern rebuke from a certain Elderberry, who in a very well-written review on Amazon downgraded what was to be five stars to three. Crudely manipulative, she said, and I took her point to heart so much that I revised the book, removing both POV switch and cliff-hanger. But the damage was done, and there her review has sat ever since, at the top of the product page, putting people off.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve cooled on cliff-hangers since then. Which doesn’t mean they’re a bad thing entirely, but only, I think, if the resolution comes in the following chapter, or at most the next but one. Not sixty pages later, and never ever in the next book in the series – that’s like the dirty trick in The Walking Dead where fans had to wait a whole year to see who was clubbed to death.

But I do put a lot of thought into chapter endings. An unexpected development, a bit of tension or surprise – surely that can only be good? A few of the more climactic ones from Perfume Island, book number three in the series:

She read the sentence several times, leant back in her chair, clasped her hands together on top of her head. What the hell does that mean? She was raped?

‘And if that’s so,’ said Magali, ‘it means he came over with a specific purpose in mind. To kill Yann.’

‘I just got news from the Border Police. They fished Hafiz Chanfi out of the water an hour ago. What was left of him, anyway.’

He’d been in the lay-by or somewhere close, had sex with Youma and beaten her. But what if his propensity to rape was not the half of it? What if he was also guilty of incest?

Not exactly cliff-hangers, perhaps, but hopefully with enough drama to have the reader wanting to know more. Manipulation, sure, but don’t we manipulate with every word we write?

If you’re bent on cliff-hangers yourself, below are some tips I found on the MasterClass website (the full article is here).

  1. Withhold key information from a reader. Try narrating from the point of view of a character who doesn’t know all the information.
  2. Stay grounded in a protagonist’s sensory experience. Let the audience experience the cliffhanger the same way the character does. The character’s point of view will invariably provide a heightened sense of urgency..
  3. Keep each chapter ending concise and cut out superfluous descriptions. A great cliffhanger can be watered down by detail that would fit better somewhere else in the chapter. The end of the chapter should be taut.
  4. Make your cliffhanger scenes focus on your main character. A reader is more likely to push past the end of a chapter if a plot twist or suspenseful shift in the storyline focuses on the protagonist rather than an antagonist or ancillary character.
  5. Keep your plotlines distinct. End chapters with a cliffhanger for one particular plotline, and address other plot lines elsewhere.
  6. Remember that a cliffhanger is not a spoiler. As you develop your writing craft, take care to write chapter endings that offer foreshadowing and build suspense, but do not spoil any information that would be better saved for the very end—whether that’s a final scene, final confrontation, or, in the case of television, a season finale.
  7. Use a flashback as a cliffhanger. Flashbacks can make good cliffhangers if they reveal new information that affects the present-day action of the story. As such, a properly constructed chapter-ending flashback can fit the definition of cliffhanger.
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writing technique

How do you do it?

Manuscript of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

I don’t mean creatively – we had some excellent advice on that a few weeks back. But I’m curious about the logistics. How does it get from your brain to the final text? For what it’s worth, here’s what I do myself.

Pen and paper. Many people type directly, I know, but I can’t do that. Any pen will do (though I have my favourites), any notebook too (but a preference for spiral, as it’s easy to rip out the pages). I’ve tried to keep separate notebooks for different ideas, but despite my best intentions, they always end up full of disparate notes, with arrows going back and forth from one section to the next. At some point it all gets too confusing and I type everything up. (How on earth did Flaubert and others manage without a word processor?)

For that I dictate into Google Docs. It gets a lot of words wrong, makes a hash of punctuation, and puts unwanted capitals all over the place. But it does a reasonable job, and certainly saves me time compared to typing. It’s far less accurate than Dragon, but has the advantage of being free. Here’s a comprehensive comparison of some different tools available.

Several years ago I bought Scrivener. I wrote a post comparing it to a Heath Robinson machine – an ingenious, complicated device that doesn’t do very much. Certainly I was put off by the frustrating attempts to master it. Who wades through a manual of 360 pages? Not me. Nor did I want to pay $200 for a course explaining it all. But I stuck at it enough to revise my opinion somewhat, and I use it now to organise the typed manuscript as it evolves. There are lots of buttons and bells I don’t bother with, but the basic arrangement into easily navigable chapters is a boon. I can also add notes about characters, setting etc, which I previously put in a separate Word document. So yes, even if I only use a fraction of it, it’s well worth the $40 I paid.

When a draft is finished in Scrivener, I export it to Word and print it out. Then I revise, and the arrows go all over the place again. Rinse and repeat till I’m satisfied – or rather till I decide that at some point I have to consider it’s finished.

Curiosity, as I say. I’m happy enough with the procedure as is, but I dare say there are gains of efficiency I could make. Time-saving tricks, better software options – any suggestions? How do you do it yourself?

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About Writers, world-building, writing technique

How much world?

Alex’s Sci-Fi World by Matt Schaefer

I don’t write, or even read, much sci-fi, but I do have a trilogy planned that takes place on another planet. I don’t know if it qualifies as sci-fi since the inhabitants are as human-like as hobbits and face very human problems. Really it’s just an excuse for me to give free rein to my imagination by writing a story about humans without the constraint of respecting earthly reality.

But of course they inhabit a world which has other constraints, so I’ll have to decide how much of that world to describe. In other words, the world-building issue. We always have it, but a story set on earth can rely on shared assumptions about how the world operates. Not so on another planet, where we can make the world as we want, but then we have to replace those unwritten assumptions with explicit information. What will my inhabitants eat? How will they dress? Travel? Communicate? What are their towns and cities like? The list is almost endless.

Here are a few thoughts on the matter from some proper sci-fi writers:

Alastair Reynolds. My approach to world-building is a bit smoke and mirrors – there’s only as much as you need to carry the story. I think of it as one of those sets they used to have for cowboy films: the facades look good, but if you walk around the back, it’s all props and plywood. I don’t want to sound lazy, but I want to do as little as possible. I don’t need to know how the sewage system works to tell a story about someone on another planet.

Nnedi Okorafor. My stories tend to start with the characters. Then I look through their eyes (or however they “see”), minds, perspectives to observe the world. Typically this happens the moment the character exists. So I know the world not long after I know the characters. I walk through it, I smell the air, listen to the gossip, observe its insect world, hear its history through various perspectives, and so on … I experience it.

AnnLeckie. I try to choose details that are real – the whole of human history and culture is fantastically varied – and that seem to fit together. In real life, cultures and histories are full of things that contradict each other. There will be one common narrative of how things happen, how people live and eat and so on, but people won’t actually always do things that way. I try to include such moments, because it makes my world more three-dimensional. I also leave some things unexplained or just referred to, as though the world is much bigger than just this one story and won’t all fit in the pages.

Kim Stanley Robinson. I don’t like the term world-building. I’d say there’s no such thing – it’s a term out of a vocabulary that grew in writing workshops to help writers talk about the craft of fiction. But the writer should remember that these diagnostic terms are not what the reader feels while reading: the reader reads in a kind of dreamlike state in which the events of a story really happen. So the writer should focus on somehow forwarding the story. That’s the only imperative: make that “willing suspension of disbelief” go into action, and take the reader away.

These are just excerpts – the full article is here. It’s given me some useful pointers on how to set about it. But I’m sure you have others – whether you write sci-fi or not, how do you build your worlds?

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About Writers

It’s fun, right?

Sarah Waters: When you approach your desk in the morning, do you ever find yourself wanting to run screaming in the opposite direction? If so, how do you get yourself to sit down and start writing? (I’m asking for a friend.)
Hilary Mantel: I haven’t the energy for running and screaming but often I want to lie and groan under a tarpaulin.

Many years ago I went to a writers’ round table conference at the Edinburgh Literary Festival. I only recall two of the participants now: Gore Vidal (because he was Gore Vidal), and the late, great Beryl Bainbridge, on account of her reply to a question from a member of the audience.

‘How,’ she was asked, ‘do you overcome the urge to stay away from your desk and do all the other things that need to be done, such as the housework?’ For a moment, Bainbridge was flummoxed, as if trying to get her head round such a bizarre question. Then she explained that she’d never had that urge; her urge was to write, which was what she did while the house descended into chaos and grime around her.

I’m fully with Bainbridge here. (Not, I hasten to add, because Mrs B does the housework – she’s kept busy by her own projects, so it’s only when a certain threshold is reached that we tackle the chaos and grime.) It might even be said that searching for an excuse not to write means that you’re not really a writer. Significantly, in her question to Mantel, Sarah Waters added that she was asking for a friend; I’m sure that she, indubitably a writer, approaches her desk very differently.

Up to a point, though, I can see where Mantel is coming from when she says that being a novelist is no fun. The frustration when a paragraph won’t come right, the anxiety when the plot won’t hold together, the dreadful uncertainty about where the whole thing is heading. John Banville puts it more strikingly: ‘Writing a novel is like wading through wet sand, at night, in a storm, with no lantern to guide one’s steps and no lighthouse to warn of the submerged reefs and wrecks that lie ahead.’

But none of this deters me enough to keep me away from my desk. I love the challenge of solving the problems as I go, I love seeing each draft get successively richer, more detailed, and I love the satisfaction that comes with knowing when I’ve got something right. Sure, the end result always falls short of the vision, but that’s what spurs me on to write the next one. No one’s denying it’s an effort, there’s always a struggle involved. But surely that’s where the pleasure lies, isn’t it? A vaccuum cleaner? What’s that?

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reading, writing technique

Reading Matters

One piece of advice often given to writers is to read. It might seem obvious: you can’t learn to write unless you’ve been exposed to many, many examples of other people’s writing. But looking closer it isn’t very clear how this works, and there aren’t many activities where the same advice applies. Teaching perhaps: if you want to teach it helps to observe other teachers. But you won’t learn to play the piano by listening to Chopin, nor learn to drive by sitting in a car with Lewis Hamilton.

I think there are two ways the reading-writing relationship can operate, explicit and implicit. In my student days we used to engage in literary analysis, dissecting a text to see how such and such an effect was achieved. A writer could then consciously apply a similar technique to their own writing. But such deliberate imitation will surely be sterile. I went through a Kerouac phase in my youth, but his influence was more on my outlook than on my writing; the only time I tried to imitate the breathlessness of his style, the result was rubbish. Or rather, it might have been fine if Kerouac hadn’t already done it, but to a reader it would come across only as what it was: imitation. Writing is all about finding your own voice.

Which is where the implicit learning comes in, the cumulative effect of the millions of sentences we’ve read. Here we pick up not just the obvious points of vocabulary and syntax, but the more subtle matter of style. But every writer’s style is different so what is the result of reading 100 different writers? Is our writing then a mishmash of them all? More likely, we’ll be receptive to the style of writers we enjoy, the others having only a minimal effect. But if, out of those 100 writers, there are 20 we enjoy, we still have to find a style of our own, so how does reading those 20 writers help us?

The question could be, and often is, put another way: who are the writers that have influenced you? Here again, I think there are two ways of looking at it. There are writers who have revealed to me the many forms a novel can take, extended the boundaries of what I saw as possible. Virginia Woolf, for example, showed me how a character’s inner life can be portrayed; Gabriel Garcia Márquez showed me that reality can be bent in different ways according to our purpose. These are general lessons that stay with us all our lives, to be tapped into at will. But there’s also the more transient influence of the books we read while we’re working on our own. Some writers, I know, don’t read while they’re writing, precisely in order to escape that influence. And I can understand that – we don’t want the call of another’s voice to deflect the one we’ve been honing for so long. And it’s insidious. I recently read Bleak House, thinking that I couldn’t be influenced by such outmoded prose, but 700 pages of Dickens gets into your mind and I found my sentences becoming a little bit more elaborate, more ornate. So there’s a lot to be said for not reading at all while writing, or at most reading non-fiction. But I find it hard to back off completely, and now I trust my own judgement to tell me if I’m straying too far in one direction or another.

For example, I’ve just finished Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which, with its scrupulously detailed dissection of the central character’s emotions, is far removed from what I’m writing myself. But it so happens that I’d chosen anyway to grant more prominence to my own character’s state of mind, and I’m ready to be receptive to the ways it can be done. What’s important is to be vigilant, rein back if I’ve gone too far, not lose sight of the overall blend of character and plot. I have no doubt that in the revision process, I’ll need to delete or attenuate certain passages, because after all, it’s a mystery novel, not an exploration of a person’s character. But there’s no reason why a mystery novel can’t do that as well – it’s simply a matter of how the two are dosed.

Perfecting our own unique voice, developing it to accommodate the overall purpose of our novel, all the while drawing upon what we read – writing is decidedly a complex and mysterious affair .

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