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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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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editing, Literary critique, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Purple Prose

Screen enough stories for publication, and the feeling that you know something becomes hard to shake. You read too many stories. The stories are bad, or good, or very good. Why? Bad stories, forget those. But good or very good? What detracts from the author’s best efforts to tell a very good story? I have the feeling that one culprit is purple prose.

Purple prose is prose that is too elaborate or ornate. Another way to explain this is: The extravagant phrasing of tedious prose really hardly ever enhances the mostly mundane meaning.
For those of you who winced at that, all I meant to say was that purple prose kills the clarity.

I see it too often. Here’s an example that glitters with purple prose.

Saphira’s muscled sides expanded and contracted as the great bellows of her lungs forced air through her scaled nostrils. Eragon thought of the raging inferno that she could now summon at will and send roaring out of her maw. It was an awesome sight when flames hot enough to melt metal rushed past her tongue and ivory teeth without harming them.
Note that I’m not talking about style. That’s Christopher Paolini’s style. But it’s still purple prose.

Let’s read that as the editors at Reedsy.com would have it, without the color purple.
Saphira breathed heavily, her nostrils expelling warm air. Eragon sat and marveled at her power. It was amazing that Saphira’s fiery breath could melt metal, yet she was immune to its harm.
[https://blog.reedsy.com/purple-prose/]

Don’t be afraid to tell your story without embellishment. If you edit unnecessary superlatives out of your work and what’s left is the story you want to tell, that’s very good. All that glitters may be mere distraction.

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About Writers, writing technique

Sterne plans

030718-09-Laurence-Sterne-Literature-History

There has been a couple of mentions of Tristram Shandy on this blog, which led me to have another look at this ‘most modern of 18th century novels’. That’s from the blurb on the back of the Norton Critical edition, which also comes with a number of essays commenting on the work. One of these essays, by Wayne Booth, is called Did Sterne Complete Tristram Shandy?

It’s a good question. Sterne wrote his book in nine volumes released over eight years, the last one a few months before his death. The full title was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, but the narrator, Tristram himself, doesn’t make a physical appearance till almost half way through. For the good reason that he isn’t yet born: the first volumes deal with the circumstances and consequences of his conception.

Sterne is a master of the digression and so bewitchingly precise is his portrayal of his father and his uncle that the reader willingly follows; but at times it does seem that the book is, as E.M. Forster called it, a muddle. Stern was surely the original pantser – someone who writes by the seat of their pants.

 

Nonetheless, Wayne Booth argues that Sterne in fact was a planner. And he points out several examples of foreshadowing that come together in the final volume. I don’t know. It’s not a question I’ve ever asked myself. To me the muddle is entertaining. But in Booth’s prose, it sounds plausible.

These days, foreshadowing is easy, if only retroactively. We can zip back and forth within a text to add the details which give it more cohesion. If I discover late in the book that my character needs a scarf, I can go back and add it to an earlier scene. That wasn’t available in Sterne’s day, at least not to a writer of his spontaneity. The manuscript shows few traces of revision.

As time goes on, I’m drawn increasingly to planning. That might be because I once wrote a long, complex novel, largely unplanned, which took me 20 years. Alas, it didn’t enjoy the popularity of Tristram Shandy, so I turned to crime (well, not literally). Obviously, foreshadowing is vital there: that scarf could well be the murder weapon, so you can’t have it appear from nowhere.

But planning is more than joining the dots. It’s placing the dots in the first place. The number of chapters, the character arcs, the plot beats, the pace. How detailed the plan is depends on each author, but at some point the chapter by chapter outline mutates into the first draft.

My planning has recently become more ambitious. From a single novel to start with, it now stretches over a series of four. It’s the same principle, but dealing with six main characters who feature throughout, so each character’s arc needs to be thought through to the end. I love the challenge of that. But the plan evolves from the idea, not the other way round. I sometimes read about a book’s ‘ideal structure’, but in my opinion, to push an idea into a plan like the one below leaves little room for the organic growth of the story.

book recipe

If you’re thinking of planning a series, here are some useful tips. J.K. Rowling planned the whole of her seven-book series at the start; Emile Zola wrote 20 novels about the Rougon-Macquart family. Me? Four is the limit. I’ve got too many other things to write.

 

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About Writers, writing technique

The Weight of Fiction

Barbell_Feature-732x549

‘The two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’. (David Hare, playwright).

Hare doesn’t elaborate, but it isn’t hard to see what he means. ‘Literary fiction’ is where anything that isn’t obviously in any other genre gets shoved. Literary fiction is perceived as more profound, harder to read, but ultimately more rewarding than genre fiction. As the Dactyl Foundation puts it, ‘The subject of the work is engaged with something that might be called weighty, questioning how we think, how we make meaning, why things happen the way they do, how we decide what’s right or wrong, or musing over what might have been.’ The consequence of such weightiness is that literary fiction sells less well than genre fiction and even fewer writers make any money out of it. To label a book ‘literary’ will have many a reader running in the opposite direction, because what can a ‘weighty’ book be but heavy going?

When I started out writing, I had literary aspirations. I still do in fact, if by that you mean books that don’t fit into other marketing categories. I have several such WIPs on the back burner, but in the meantime, having decided a while back to write books which would, I hoped, be more commercial, I’ve opted for crime.

Why not romance or science fiction? I don’t remember giving the matter any thought – the choice was almost instinctive. If I look for a reason now, I’d say it was Ten Little Niggers (published in the US, for obvious reasons, as And Then There Were None, but I read the UK’s 1963 Fontana edition, and still see the cover in my mind – the UK title wasn’t changed till 1986). Christie’s novel had it all: claustrophobic setting, relentless succession of deaths, gradual elimination of suspects until, utterly bamboozled, I cried out, ‘So who was it? It’s not possible!’ – only to discover that not only was it possible, but the murderer (and Agatha) had fooled me all along. Inevitably, having read that book, it would never occur to me to write a novel called Leonora in Love or Glitch in the Galaxy.

I take issue, however, with the Dactyl Foundation’s pronouncement. There’s no reason why genre fiction, whether crime or any other, shouldn’t also question how we think or decide what’s right or wrong. Consider these excerpts from top crime writers’ analyses of their favourite crime novels:

Val McDermid on Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Heights: ‘Although Hill’s roots were firmly in the traditional English detective novel, he brought to it an ambivalence and ambiguity that allowed him to display the complexities of contemporary life.’

Sophie Hannah on Agatha Christie’s The Hollow: ‘As well as being a perfectly constructed mystery, it’s a gripping, acutely observed story about a group of people, their ambitions, loves and regrets.’

SJ Watson on Daphné du Maurier’s Rebecca: ‘A dark, brooding psychological thriller, hauntingly beautiful, […] but more importantly, this is an exploration of power, of the men who have it and the women who don’t, and the secrets told to preserve it.’

Susie Steiner on Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution: ‘What stays in the mind is the Peak District community of Scarsdale, the investigator as outsider trying to permeate its secrets. And the sheer quality of the writing.’

Jacob Ross on Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park: ‘A crime novel – like any story – succeeds or fails on the basis of character. Renko confirms this for me every time. It is an incredible feat of character portrayal.’

Other choices in the list speak for themselves: Crime and Punishment, Bleak House, The Moonstone… What is striking is the stress on factors other than plot, such as character, mood, and setting. Proof, surely, that a good crime novel is about a lot more than a detective solving a murder.

The same is true, I’m sure, of any genre. Literariness and weightiness are two different things, and for all the supposed profundity it implies, the label ‘literary’ is more of a burden than an accolade. David Hare is right to be depressed.

 

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About Writers, book reviews, inspiration, Poetry, Stories, Uncategorized, world-building, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Probing Dhalgren

“Be glad you’re not just a character scrawled in the margins of somebody else’s lost notebook: you’d be deadly dull.”

The first time I read Samuel R. Delaney’s masterpiece, I didn’t know a couple of things. In 1975, I was neither privy to writing techniques nor did I know that Dhalgren would become recognized as one of the most profound science fiction novels of all time. I was simply riveted by the setting and the characters. When my Lady gave me an unusual edition this Christmas, I re-read that story I remembered so well from 44 years ago. (It never occurred to me at the time that I would see the year 2020 either, but, that’s another blog.)

If you write sci-fi, then you must attempt to read, or re-read, Dhalgren. If the first scene grabs you, you will be reluctant to put it down 800 pages later. Disclaimer: Like Joyce’s Ulysses, you can’t understand Dhalgren until you’ve read it and once you’ve read it, you can’t explain it. But here are three clues.

Dhalgren presents reality on the edge of perception, before we process it. “Even if the quotidian surface sits on it a bit askew.”

+++Finally Dragon Lady called down: “You still okay…?”
+++“Yeah.” Kidd took a breath. “I’ll tie the rope around him. You can haul him up.” He slipped the rope from under his arms, pulled it over his head, but left it around one shoulder; he stepped forward on the oozy filth, stooped, and tugged a leg from where it had wedged between two blackened bumper plates.
+++“… is he alive?” Thirteen called.
+++Kidd took another breath. “Naw.” He pulled at the arm, got a grip around the chest, which was all soft against him. His own shirt front soaked immediately. Blood dribbled along his forearm. Standing, he dragged the body back a step. A foot caught, pulled free; the leg fell back against his thigh — his thigh wet, warm, to the knee. Dragging it, limp, reaching for the rope, he thought: Is this what turns on blood and blade freaks? He thought of Tak, he thought of George, hunted in himself for any idle sexuality: he found it, disconcertingly, a small warmth above the loins that, as he bared his teeth and the rope slid through his sticky hand, went out. “Let me have another couple of feet!” Well, he had found it before in auto wrecks, in blue plush, in roots, in wet wood with the bark just stripped.

In that moment before we process reality, censorship is not possible.

Often, the real world occurs on the edge of a dream.

Ahead, he could see the taller buildings. Smoke had gnawed away the upper stories. Stealthily, he descended into the injured city.
It does not offer me any protection, this mist; rather a refracting grid through which to view the violent machine, explore the technocracy of the eye itself, spelunk the semi-circular canal. I am traveling my own optic nerve.

Note the slip from third person into first person.

The story is show-no-tell to the point where the reader knows no more than is seen through the eyes of the main character, who struggles to understand what he is experiencing.

The smoke was so thick he wondered if the glass were opaque and he only misremembered it as clear–
Well–” Madam Brown pushed open the cracked door– “what do you think of the Richards after your first day on the job?”
“I don’t think anything.” Kidd stretched in the over-thick night. “I’m just an observer.”

In the end, each reader is left with their own thoughts about Dhalgren. “I would never presume to say what they meant,” Ernest Newboy, the poet, says when asked what poems mean. To me, Dhalgren is epic poetry in prose.

And that’s all I got; three clues and an ongoing fascination. What did you take away from this novel?

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humor, Uncategorized, writing technique

WRITING FUNNY

 – from the editors of Sci-Fi Lampoon Magazine

Humor is as spontaneous as slipping on a banana peel. At the core of every joke, somebody is hurt who didn’t see it coming.

Humor is cathartic. 9/11 happened right after the staff of the online satire newspaper, The Onion, moved to New York. They worried, “Can we be funny?” Their writers satirized the hijackers as being tortured in Christian Hell by demons. The God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule issue was a smash hit. Fan mail showed that readers found release in ridiculing the terrorists.

Humor has sharply defined limits, as a French comedian discovered when he was charged with “defending terrorists” for his comment about a video. The video showed ISIS beheading a Frenchman. The comedian quipped, “It’s in the French tradition.” Now, I thought that funny because I’m not French. But know your readers. Don’t pull a Gilbert Gottfried. A couple weeks after 9/11, he performed at the roast of Hugh Hefner telling a New York audience, “I have to leave early tonight, I have a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight — they said I have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” Gilbert immediately knew he’d blundered, “I don’t think anyone’s lost an audience bigger than I did at that point. They were booing and hissing.” Being offensive is not funny. Keep in mind that humor must be perceived as funny.

The dictionary first defines humor as a quality that makes something laughable or amusing. Duh! A more useful definition follows: “The ability to perceive, enjoy, or express what is amusing, comical, incongruous, or absurd.” Not much better, but at least it shows that funny requires agreement. The author perceives something funny and the reader finds it amusing. Show your work to others before deciding it’s funny.

Two things on “how.” Humor has to connect with your audience. George Carlin knew this. “There was about a two-year period at the end of the ’60s, when I realized I was in the wrong place and entertaining the wrong people with the wrong material and that I was not being true to myself.” It can’t be forced. Steven Wright knows this. “I don’t go off and sit down and try to write material, because then it’s contrived and forced. I just live my life, and I see things in a word or a situation or a concept, and it will create a joke for me.”

So, our advice to authors is to simply relax. Write funny speculative fiction that offers your readers some cathartic release in this fucked-up world. And remember, you can’t know something is funny until you laugh at it. Humor is as spontaneous to the writer as it is to the reader.

Sci-Fi Lampoon Magazine
Issue 2 is at the publishers!
Now accepting stories for Issue 3 http://scifilampoon.com/submissions/

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About Writers, blogging, inspiration, Research, Uncategorized, writing technique

On Falling in the Name of Research

by George Salis 

The act of writing a novel elicits a series of revelations punctuated by epiphanies. I will share with you two major eureka moments that occurred during the writing of my debut novel Sea Above, Sun Below.

Connected to the myth of Icarus and other vertiginous tales of yore, my novel features a group of skydivers who fall, metaphorically and literally. I’m afraid of heights but I felt like I needed to skydive in the name of research for my novel. As it happens, I loved the surreal experience so much I would do it again. Strapped to my instructor, we waddled to the plane’s open door, and he stood on the edge while I dangled unfathomably high above the earth and with fear I reached out to grip the metal portal, but the instructor gently pried me from even that precarious perch, and then the insensate suck, the slip from everything into nothing, and I realized this was it, that I was truly falling, skydiving, and the wind felt as though the sky wanted to make my mouth and lungs home, palate-scouring, and the seconds were drawn out into a brief infinity, an eternal moment. From there, the world below struggled between a two-dimensional illusion and the reality of three.

Yet, for all that that’s worth, I was fairly surprised to discover, once my feet were on the ground and I was back at my writing desk, that my skydiving description was quite accurate before I had conducted my research and so I ended up adding only a single sentence afterward: “Up here, while the wind became a chorus of tragic furies, the sun detached from the sky, letting the earth revolve like an orrery.” This is one example in which I learned to trust my own instincts, my own imagination. Was skydiving worth the effort, the confronting of fear? Absolutely. Research still has many benefits and can be a delight in and of itself. I should add that while the experience of falling conformed quite uncannily with my predescription, as it were, I did add a plethora of details from my experience within the skydiving hangar, such as the almost anachronistic bowling balls littering the hangar floor which I learned are used to push out air from the parachutes while folding them back into their packs for the next fall. So, aside from personal development, research can give you all those minute details which enhance a fictional scene, but if you cannot afford to go to Japan, for example, then you should rest easy knowing that you have the power to evoke your own germane version of the country.

Also, do not underestimate academic research, which is often less expensive and no less simmering with potential details, for one’s picture of a place or person will always be incomplete and eventually all that’s left for you to do is continue writing.

Mentally juggling and tallying the oftentimes ambiguous constituents of a novel in one’s head, even with the aid of notes and miscellaneous marginalia, can cause a daunting dizziness. To lessen the vertigo, I offer this lesson: I learned that it’s much more manageable to write each chapter as a short story (with chronology being far from a priority). There are certain aspects the short story is known for, yet there is no reason such aspects should be exclusive to it: an ensorcelling first sentence; a strategic entrance into the very story of the story; a self-containment that can feel like a certain tightness, which is not to suggest that you should avoid digressions (they can be, as Ray Bradbury said in defiance of Shakespeare’s Polonius, the soul of wit); an immediacy of image or action or development; and it allows you to weave your novel as if it were a tapestry, depending on the type of novel you are writing. I’m enamored with stories within stories, stories besides stories, in the vein of The Thousand and One Nights or Cloud Atlas, so my novel contains around ten different threads which were written with the mentality, the focused lens, of the short story, connected thematically, genetically, and more. An additional benefit to this method/perspective is that while you work on your long project, you might be able to send out some pieces of it for potential publication. Before Sea Above, Sun Below recently came out as a whole through River Boat Books, I was able to publish ten pieces from it, and in a few cases I received edits on the stories which ultimately helped the final vision.

It is worth noting that you should rage against my advice as you see fit. By all means, do the opposite of what I say if it works for you. Or better yet, use your finger to write your novel in the fog on a mirror; spin around quickly ten times before you sit down for the day’s quota; whisper your sentences backward to yourself; write your dreams then dream what you wrote. Who truly knows what will help?

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below (River Boat Books). His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, The Sunlight Press, Unreal Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is the editor of The Collidescope and is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland.

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