When I was first published in the mid 1990s a few of the SF authors I got to know had part-time jobs teaching creative writing, or gave ad hoc courses on the subject. I knew then that I couldn’t possibly attempt such a thing. I felt naïve, my debut Memory Seed, extracted from the slush pile at odds of ten thousand to one against, having been written on little more than imaginative power. I had poor grammar knowledge, and had written the draft which got picked on the basis of “this reads okay,” inspired by the writing techniques of authors I liked – for Memory Seed that was Mary Gentle and Gene Wolfe. Mary Gentle used a lot of semicolons, therefore I did too.
These days I feel different. I reckon I could teach a useful course in creative writing, although it would be like no other course because I’d only be able to teach how I do it. But, having recently read a few articles written by various authors on their craft, I thought I’d try some advice-giving myself. So upcoming on the blog it is Author Life week. I hope I can pass on a few useful tips, ideas and insights. What I suggest this week won’t be applicable to all however. Possibly, my advice will only be applicable to me.
- Being There
Being an author is different to being a writer. Writers put words together in an attempt to make a book. Authors put books together in an attempt to make a career.
I’m going to pass over the truisms – patience, persistence, then more persistence – to ask the question relatively few writers, especially new or unpublished writers, ask themselves. Why do you really want to become an author? Can you perhaps imagine the rewards – the money, the fame, the adulation? Especially the adulation. Desire for internet-wide adoration accounts for the desperation you see when new authors fail to make a mark in the ocean of novels, having assuming during the writing that they were bound to succeed. I’ve seen new writers claim they felt a sense of destiny at an early age, a certainty that writing success would be theirs. But destiny is an illusion, a refuge for the narcissistic, who assume they are the centre of the world and that chance, luck and randomness don’t exist. Well, they do.
If you want to become an author for the adulation of your fans, good luck. Having fans is not guaranteed. If you have fans, keeping them is not guaranteed.
As a consequence, you have to take a long-term view if you want to progress from writer to author. Say, twenty years. Or forty. Or perhaps never. A flash-in-the-pan is forgotten the month after. Slow build and slow burn is the way, if there is a way (which there isn’t). Of course, if you only want to be a writer then a flash-in-the-pan might be just the thing.
The best reason to be an author is because you can’t not be one. By this, I don’t mean because you idolise JJ Abrams, Tolkien or George RR Martin. If you do idolise them you’ll just copy them, either consciously or without knowing it. An author isn’t somebody who can’t not be George RR Martin. Authors have an inner drive to create, and in the best, most interesting cases that drive is independent of culture, of the genre or of specific authors. It is fine to be influenced by authors – I’m influenced by Jack Vance, Spike Milligan and Gene Wolfe – but it’s not fine to want to be somebody else. That just displays an internal void.
Then there’s the commercial success. Do you really want that, or would you rather be an artist? The number of authors who are true artists and commercially successful is vanishingly small, so you’d better get used to the idea that art and commerce are separate goals. It’s great when the money rolls in, but never expect it. You will need a 9-5 job that pays the rent, or have a high-earning spouse or just be lucky financially, which of course most people aren’t.
David Bowie said that the best place for an artist to be was just outside their comfort zone. Authors should always have a question at the back of their mind – how can I challenge myself with my next novel? Well, if you can follow your muse as you actively place obstacles in front of yourself then you’re well on the way to becoming a distinctive author. I want my fans to write in their reviews of my novels, ‘Blimey, I’ve never read anything like this before.’
Your brand should be yourself, but that unfortunately means taking the most difficult path of all. Still, that means it’s the most rewarding path. Writing a novel is an intensely personal thing; then you have to put it out there and submit to the opinions of readers. That’s never an easy experience, even if you’re not desperate, not narcissistic or not a fraud.
As an author you can and should take your art seriously, but it’s best not to take yourself seriously.
- In Character
Some of my reviewers have remarked that I’m not an author who “does” character. I think it would be true to say that character focus across my thirteen books does vary. Some of my novels are very character focused, but others are not; and some of the latter were more successful than others. But it is okay to write novels in which the characters are not an overriding, constant focus – for instance if you’re trying to evoke a sense of myth. Characters will usually be the heart of a novel when the reader has finished reading it, but that doesn’t mean you have to be Dickensian-brilliant all the time when you’re writing it. In some novels, the characters won’t be quite as important as in others. I think that’s fine – sometimes you want the reader to have a constant perspective on the feelings and thoughts of the characters, at other times that simply wouldn’t work with the voice you’re using.
When character is the main focus, I find it’s best to take a soap opera attitude. To keep the tension and readability you have to exploit the reader’s emotions just like they do in EastEnders. In that soap opera the emotional voyeurism is taken to an extreme degree, but it’s the method that counts, not the results on the screen. You have to tend towards melodrama without ever reaching that state. In such circumstances, all the plot comes from the characters. For instance, in The Girl With One Friend, a large part of the plot comes from Erasmus Darwin: from his ham-fisted attempt to get answers out of Sir Tantalus Blackmore, from his apostasy, from his difficulties in communicating what he thinks and feels – especially what he feels for Kora. And the last sentence of that novel is a cliff-hanger leading on to the beginning of the third volume, just like you get at the end of a soap opera episode.
These are all tried and tested techniques, but they’re not clichés. They work because most novels are about insight into other people’s minds. The modern format of the novel arose in the 18th century because at that time people were beginning to benefit from the new spirit of humanism in the West, which included liberalism, individualism and concepts of freedom. People, including those naturally able to be artists, began to conceive of others as individuals whose inner worlds were worth exploring.
Remember: there is no such thing as evil and there is no such thing as good. Your characters should have varying degrees of humanity and inhumanity, with the overwhelming majority of the latter sourced in their childhoods.
Too many writers worry about – if they are a man – not being able to write women characters, or – if they are white – not being able to write black African characters. I begin from a simple start: I take all my characters as flawed human beings. I ignore their gender or race and look at them ‘from the inside.’ Although this is not a perfect method, it is in my experience the best way of approaching this tricky issue. Thus, for instance, in Muezzinland all the characters bar a couple are black Africans. I treated Nshalla and Mnada as the daughters of royalty, not the daughters of Ghanaian royalty. I see no reason why a woman author should not have a valuable insight into the ‘male mind’ or why a black African should not have a worthwhile insight into a ‘white mind.’
The important thing is this: you have to be sincerely interested in your characters. If you’re not, it will come out in your novel and your readers will notice. That will put them off reading; it will deaden the novel. You have to be genuinely curious about other people and their lives. If not, you’ll be writing about various types of cardboard.
- World Building
I’m considered an author who has an ability with place and setting, which is a nice thing to hear and to read in reviews. However, in the majority of my published novels the world building came after some other inspiration. Only in Urbis Morpheos did the world definitively come before anything else. Elsewhere, it was often a tiny detail which sparked the book, such as the imagined scene of moss-covered roofs going down to a seashore which was one of the beginnings of Memory Seed.
World building is in large part about particular details rather than the big picture. I remember – 25 years ago now – receiving comments from a beta reader of Memory Seed which put it all into place for me. I’d written a sentence or two about the street computer screens, which went something like: “A patina of green algae covered the keypad, in which some reveller had scrawled Live it up! with their finger.” My reader highlighted this as something which brought the scene to life. Although it was such a small thing, it brought home to me the importance of tiny details in evoking a scene or a place.
In the Factory Girl trilogy and elsewhere there are other similar ‘small accidents of imagination’ which for me evoke the world – thousands of discarded paper strips blowing on the wind around a railway station concourse; the great cloud hanging above the Factory; the brown overalls of the Clockwork Garden employees: the blue brake lights of the Memory Seed motor-cycles, and deKray’s menthol sweets.
A balance has to be struck in most genre novels between the outré and the normal. If your world is too outré the reader won’t be able to identify with it, but if it’s too ordinary then the sense of wonder diminishes. One way to get around this is to use details which the reader recognises but which signify a wider imaginative world. Douglas Adams was an absolute master of this technique. One of the best examples in THHGTTG is the towel, that most ordinary of household objects, which he elevated to the status of enigma, thereby telling the reader as much about his imagined world as any info-dump.
In Urbis Morpheos my intention was to write a novel set on an Earth almost entirely unrecognisable. I knew this was a bit of a risk, but it was a path I wanted to follow. Most reviews of the novel praise the world-building but find the plot challenging. It was intended to be challenging – that was one of the foundations – but I did make some concessions to the reader’s 21st century world: the use of motor-cycles, the use of some ‘normal’ land features such as woods and forests, the use of inns and taverns as social centres.
An author shouldn’t be afraid of putting their disposition into their world. An author should have something to say. I’m occasionally criticized for being didactic, but that’s because my novels are always about something other than the plot/narrative. I do have something to say, and that’s fine. Nor should an author be afraid of being partisan – you’re not writing a scientific report. Put your thoughts and feelings into your world via its structure, make it coherent, have positive and negative players, then watch it go…
Always remember though that plot in 90% of cases comes from the characters. One of the best lessons I ever taught myself was when I was starting out, writing a novel that fizzled out about three quarters of the way through. A few weeks later I realised that all I had done was describe the world via an extended journey. There was virtually no plot, and that was why the novel had burned out. Having said that, some authors (China Mieville, Colin Greenland) can make a novel out of a journey; a novel where the journey is the point can work well. But you have to be skilled to pull it off, and usually that will be through the various fates of the characters.
I aim to make my worlds strange, wonderful and beautiful. It’s one of the great joys of creativity that imagination can produce any kind of world, possible and impossible.
- Language Issues
My mother – who has never read a single word of any of my novels – recently told me that she had decided to read The Girl With Two Souls “to get an idea of what your style is like.” I had to explain to her that to get an idea of my style – my voice – she’d need to read all my novels. I can’t read authors who use the same voice, even the same world, novel after novel after novel. That’s why, for all his brilliance, I couldn’t read more than about five Terry Pratchett novels.
It is okay for language use and writing style to change from novel to novel. That’s part of the fun of exploration – and authors should be explorers. If you get a subconscious voice saying “you ought to write it using this kind of language” before you begin a new work, you should listen. That little voice will be a very important part of the impact of the book. When I settled down to write Hairy London – which came pretty much improvised and unedited out of my subconscious – I knew the language would be madcap, surreal, flowery, absurd. Many words or phrases that I used were intended to make the reader’s job of imagining quite unusual; and one or two were, in Zen-like fashion, impossible to analyse. That surreality was part of the fun of writing (it was important to me that my sense of fun be conveyed to the reader), and so it was part of the language style too. Hence, the hot-air floating devices which you and I would call a balloon were placed somewhere between a balloon and an animal. It was just that kind of novel. To my delight, some of the reviews remarked that only I could have written the book.
Occasionally my methods don’t work. I wrote the published version of Beautiful Intelligence after Hairy London, and I think I had a kind of ‘surreal hangover,’ which meant the language use for Beautiful Intelligence sometimes didn’t work. Well, that’s life. You live and learn.
As many others have observed, prose should be like music. I’ve always thought this a particularly useful analogy. If you as a writer are sensitive to music, you can use that same sensitivity later to get a feel for your prose. Typically this is best done some time after you’ve written it. I usually give my novels two honing sessions, which have at the very least 3-4 months between them; the subconscious retains prose and mental images for a while, and that function is best avoided when editing.
As for grammar, I’ve never been one for taking it as seriously as many new or aspiring authors take it. My advice is always to concentrate on the quality of your imagination, not the orthodoxy of your prose. If the words work, they work. Nor do I think you necessarily have to know the rules to break them, although I do think that is a firm basis for iconoclastic success. What matters is (a) language matching novel and (b) prose being musical. When I was starting out in the 1980s I tried to make my sentences flow, but beyond that I didn’t know what I was doing. I think my musicality helped.
I also think that writing technique is an over-rated concept. Authors in my opinion should worry more about the quality of their imagination. Show not tell? Well, sometimes tell is better. Filter words? Meh. Use of ‘however’ not at the beginning of a sentence? If the sentence works, who cares? Begin a new paragraph with and? Why not?
The one element of technique however that I would emphasise is point of view switching. That really is a no-no, because regardless of the style – close, quite close, even omniscient sometimes – you want to avoid occasions where reading is interrupted because the reader can’t work out who is thinking what and doing what. For a close POV work it is particularly important never to head-hop. But even in omniscient mode you can invisibly guide and support the reader, for instance by using the ‘new’ character’s name at the start of the sentence where the POV switches, and heading off from there. The music will carry the reader if you do it well.
Interrupting the reader’s moment-by-moment experience of the narrative because of writing style is in a nutshell what not to do. For instance, in the matter of Yorkshire dialect for the Factory Girl trilogy I had to follow a difficult tightrope – simultaneously making the dialogue realistic but never so realistic that the reader couldn’t work out what was being said. That really was quite tricky. I had to devise some rules in advance that were not authentic, but which made sure my readers wouldn’t be confused by dialect words.
Other early advice I received was to avoid similes and use metaphors. Recently I’ve seen advice to the effect that metaphors also are becoming beyond the pale… I think in small doses they are fine though. But as Gene Wolfe said, a cliché is better than the phrase which does not work.
And, if you’re stuck, don’t think about the words – imagine it better!
- The Art Of Authoring
So, is it art or is it something else? Or is this in fact a false distinction?
For me, it’s art. Some writers of my acquaintance are uncomfortable with saying their work is art because they’re worried about mockery and censure. But every human being could be an artist, if they were allowed to develop themselves. Unfortunately most models of education, West and East, are based on the Industrial Revolution method: make all children aim for exactly the same goals ready for employment. The stem of our word education is educare, related to educere, to lead forth, to bring out. Education should be more about fostering what’s already there and less about putting stuff in.
For an artist or a non-artist, 5* reviews are an illusion. Aim for 3.5 and hope for at least one 1* review. If you’ve become an author but haven’t got people disliking your work, you’re either too boring or too predictable. Art should never be boring or predictable.
For me, a glorious failure is better in some ways than a predictable success, although it’s not necessarily much better – that depends on the ambition of the failed vision. Courage is a useful quality in an author, albeit rather a rare one. I aim to stay in the Bowie zone. For me, tradition, predictability and repetition are elements of passivity. I would go back to one of my previous worlds, but only for the most fabulous of reasons. For me the thrill is almost always in new territory. Yet we mustn’t forget that the Bowie of ‘Starman,’ ‘Life On Mars’ and ‘Kooks’ was also the Bowie of Tin Machine, which I disliked as much as everyone else…
So, what is art?
Amy was so entranced by the beauty of the antelope pictured in the book that quite without realising it she took a pencil from the pocket of her dress and began sketching it on the blank page opposite. “This is the imaginary antelope,” she thought, as she continued to sketch. “I shall give it extra-twirly prongs!”
When she finished her picture she showed it to the Land Whale and to the Parrot, eliciting their approval. “I did tell you the book required respect,” said the Land Whale, “for the beings within it are real. They themselves inspire the imaginary ones.”
“Why,” Amy said, taking her book of aphorisms from her pocket, “I do believe King George the Fourth had something to say on that subject. And here it is!” – There are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination.
Creativity is the human imaginative response to the real world: there are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination. Creativity is a direct consequence of sensitivity, of emotionality, of a holistic view. If you read accounts penned by artists like Matisse, Da Vinci and Cezanne they all describe their art as a response to what they see in the real world – usually, though not exclusively, in nature. As Matisse said:
“The painter must have no preconceived notion of the model – his spirit must be open and receive everything, just as in a landscape he would take in every one of the scents of the air… I am incapable of making a slavish copy of Nature. Instead I feel compelled to interpret it…”
And art does have meaning. It’s the cynic’s response to wonder whether it might not. Art always has meaning because meaning is all about coherence. The incoherent view is never accessible by others: if it is incoherent, what’s the point? Incoherence is tantamount to madness – a personal religion: no followers.
All this is not to say that authors who write for money or who don’t consider their work to be art are in the wrong; far from it. They should do what they like, and they contribute a huge amount to cultural life. In this omnibus blog I’ve tried to describe what works for me, and then generalise. But variety is the spice of life. My feeling is that it’s best for an author to interpret rather than to copy.
Personally, I prefer to make the best that I possibly can of the first draft. I’ve found that if I need to do a second, or even a third draft then a lot of the magic leaks out. It does vary however. The second draft of Memory Seed was the one which caught Orbit Books’ eye and lifted me out of the slush pile. What I try to do on my first draft is capture in as intense a way as possible all the magic and wonder I’m feeling as I create, then convey that to the reader. Usually it just doesn’t feel the same second or third time. But there are always exceptions. Beautiful Intelligence for instance was a merging of two separate drafts.
And you should make your readers work for their reward. All the novels that mean the most to me are challenging novels, where I’ve had to put a lot in to get a lot out. Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun is the example I usually give, but there are others. You have to really concentrate on Dune for instance to get everything out that Frank Herbert put in, even in that first, brilliantly plotted work, which is simple compared with later works in the same universe. But this is a long term strategy for an author. By writing challenging, dense or enigmatic novels you follow a course where the tactic often leads to reader loss, even though the strategy is a recipe for achievement, and a possible gain of readers.
An author should write for their readers, but not for their fans.
So it’s all about the magic; and sometimes that just isn’t there. Sometimes you have to accept the circumstance, press the delete button and never return.
Enjoy your creativity!