Author Life, Day 4

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. 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!

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Hairy London – cover