Author Life, Day 2

by stephenpalmersf

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.

  1. 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.


The Girl With Two Souls