Author Life, Day 3

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. 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.

Palmer cov