“A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synesthesia, and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul, and, yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardize your relationships, and distend your life. You have been warned.”
One of the most rewarding parts of helping other writers is what you learn in exchange. One of my clients, the fascinating David Dakan Allison, sent me the quote above from David Mitchell, author of Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks. I’m in the midst of an email interview with Mitchell at the moment, and tempted to ask him about the idea of art feasting on its maker. It makes me think of the opposing quote from Stephen King, that art exists to support life IE the writer writes a book to get paid so he can live a good life.
I’ve wondered before if King’s On Writing is so popular with aspiring writers because it argues that writing can be all gain and no give. Mitchell’s position is less easy to hear – writing is a gift to the reader because it sucks something essential out of the writer. It’s hard, and possibly bad for us. But then don’t writers just love to mythologise, and what better way to self-mythologise than to claim our art is killing us!
Two great writers arguing two very different opinions on the issue of art. I suspect the one we prefer says as much about ourselves as it does about the argument.
Last year I wrote a short story called A Vast Bit of Hod, which I published to my blog here. As I mentioned at the time, the story is also a riddle. I have congratulated half a dozen people who emailed me the answer. This evening James Everington tweeted me to ask:
btw, when are you going to post the ‘answer’ to the “Vast Bit of Hod” story? It’s been bugging me ever since (in a good way)
Which I have been meaning to do for sometime. So.
Harold, the central character in A Vast Bit of Hod, is completing a crossword when we meet him, behind the counter in the weird antique / collectibles store where the story takes place. The crossword clue is the title of the story. If you aren’t good at anagrams, here is an anagram server to help you. We’ll come back to what the anagram is momentarily.
A Vast Bit of Hod began life when my friend Dana, fellow Clarion writers’ workshop graduate, sent out an email challenge to write a story about a shop that sells lives. Because I’m working on novel length things, I hadn’t written a short story for a time, but this challenge brought an idea to mind that I couldn’t resist. Our Clarion tutor Neil Gaiman says that novels are like a long journey, whereas short stories are like seeing a tree and deciding to climb up it. So I decided to climb this tree.
For three years now I have been studying Buddhism. I enjoy it from an intellectual perspective, and I’ve found the insight meditation techniques it teaches tremendously helpful. Two linked ideas in Buddhism are karma and reincarnation. These are both hard ideas to grasp from a rational perspective. There is no evidence of any mechanism in nature to make ‘what goes around come around’, and very few people I know believe they will come back to life as a goat, or even an Emperor. But as myths they point towards the idea that our behaviour defines our life, an idea I do believe.
So in my shop customers enter to select the new lives which they will incarnate within after when they are reborn. They deposit their old lives in the form of an object which they hand to the shop keeper, and select a new object which symbolises their new life. I’m afraid I’m not very complimentary about the lives many of us choose. In particular I heap a little scorn on the fantasy lives we escape in to, while our actual lives decay around us. For a writer of fantasy, I’m oddly ambivalent about the role of fantasy in our lives.
A Vast Bit of Hod is an anagram for (excluding the ‘of’) Bodhisattva. This is the Buddhist term for, depending on your translation, either humans well on the path to enlightenment, or those who are enlightened but choose to live in the world and help others reach enlightenment. Harold is a little bit of both. He isn’t exactly kind to Anthony, but he does what needs to be done to help the young man move from one life to the next. At the end of the story, Harold is left holding a simple wooden bowl, the traditional begging bowl that is the only possession of Buddhist monks who have renounced all worldly things. Harold has another lifetime or two of suffering before he is ready for nirvana. But first he fancies another biscuit…
The second in a short series of posts accompanying workshops being taught for the Certificate in Creative Writing at Vaughan College. This post is on narrative, and why it is both a simple and deliciously complicated idea.
In Reading Like a Writer, novelist Francine Prose says that the true problem with narration is not who is speaking, but rather who is listening? And sometimes, especially for beginning writers, the problem is understanding that anyone is speaking at all.
We often use the word narrative interchangeably with both story and plot, and forget that while all three refer to some kind of sequence of events, each also has a quite separate specific meaning. A narrative is a told sequence of events. We call the teller a narrator, and the process of telling narration.
When writing a narrative we have to think about the point of view of the teller. Is the narrative being told in first or third person for instance. What is the voice of the narrator? How is it coloured by accent, attitude, emotion or other factors. How much does the teller know about the narrative? These can become thorny, circular arguments for writers, unless they are related back to the fundamental idea that a narrative has to be being told by a person. Sometimes the narrator is the central character, sometimes a subsidiary character or outside observer, sometimes by the author herself, or a combination of all of these.
For most of human history all stories were told. We passed them from one teller to the next, through an oral storytelling tradition stretching over thousands of years. Even once we began to record stories in writing, the written word was still written to be read aloud. With printing and mass literacy came the possibility for novels that were written to be read from the page. But without an actual human voice there to give the words shape, the writer has to work even harder to create the voice and viewpoint of the narrator. So it was really with cinema and TV that we began to lose the relationship between narrative and the voice of a narrator.
When you as a writer know who is telling the narrative, and also as Francine Prose suggests who they are telling it to, the entire writing process becomes both easier and filled with many more sophisticated opportunities. Take a simple children’s story like Jack and the Beanstalk. Imagine that Jack is telling the narrative as an old man, reflecting on his youthful adventure. Then imagine that he is telling it to the giant, somehow recovered from his fall from the beanstalk. Maybe the story is being told over a flagon of ale at an inn, two old men (or one old man and a very old monster!) reminiscing about better days. Or perhaps Jack is telling the story to his own wastrel son, an old man telling a young one what life is really about. With a scenario like this in mind, the richness and details of the story just come flooding out.
Once we understand as writers that there always has to be someone telling the narrative, and someone listening, we can work with that understanding in subtle ways. The narrator can be made invisible, the narrative transparent. As long as we as the writer understand how the narrative works, the workings can be hidden from the reader. The best narratives often work this way.
Imagine a woman (or man) recounting a serious crime she has committed, such as a bank robbery or even a murder. In the space of one page, have the woman first recount the crime to another criminal she wants to impress. Then secondly, also in the space of a page, have her recount it to a judge who she wants a pardon from.
There’s a nice idea in the Ricky Gervais movie The Invention of Lying, where in a world without lies, films are now factual scripts read by their authors directly to a camera. Without lies you can’t have fiction. Or actors. In fact you can’t have films as we know them. Films are treated like books. And of course, that does not work.
There is a grammar to film. The intercutting of shots and scenes, the abbreviated narratives imposed by the act structure. These things are transparent to us because we grow up with them. But you can see their evolution in the history of film. From the Lumiere Brothers Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, through Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps scene and Orson Welles’ Citizen Cane, to the shaky cam of Saving Private Ryan. Film seems to most of us almost as natural as reality. But it is pure constructed artifice, projected at 24 frames a second.
Far fewer people learn the grammar of novels. More than ever before, but still a minority. There was never a golden age of fictional literacy in the world. Even Dickens, one of the first true literary superstars, only sold to a small number of well educated people, although he was read to a few more. We might be on the brink of such a golden age, but we aren’t there yet.
Literacy, in the West at least, is near universal. We can read cereal packets and glossy magazines no problem. But constructing a narrative out of words, sentences, paragraphs and pages can be more problematic. The Novel is a powerful narrative form, but like any form it relies on the readers familiarity with the rules of its grammar in order to work. Readers who are blind to qualities of voice and rhythm for instance often struggle with literary writing that relies on those tools.
So the popular novel performs a remarkable chameleon act, and adopts the grammar of film as its own. Scenes and settings are laid out like the opening shots taken through a camera. Most of the page is filled with dialogue, with instructions like stage prompts to inform the reader what the absent actors would be doing if they were there. Visual detail dominates description. And there is little indication of what is going on inside any characters head unless it’s revealed by an external gesture. ‘Bob nodded his head sideways with a wink of the eye.’ Do you know why Bob did that? Neither do I. The writer knows, but he’s not letting on.
Novels that only ape the grammar of film fail in more ways than one. It’s a common technique in franchise novels, where the reader can imagine all the details of the scenes and characters of their favourite TV show as they read. But they aren’t really satisfying. They are just filler between seasons of the TV show. They’re quick to write because, like FanFic, if you just sit on the surface of the narrative with characters and situations that have already been defined, there isn’t that much to think about.
And they absolutely don’t satisfy people who love reading for its own sake. Remember those prose films from The Invention of Lying? Remember how ridiculous and boring those films were? Well that’s how ridiculous and boring a book that limits itself to the grammar of film seems to me. And a LOT of other people. It’s why readers scream ‘MY EYES! MY EYES!’ when forced to read a page of Dan Brown style prose. It’s why SF, Fantasy and Horror that is written for readers trained to the grammar of film and TV, however well done, will always fail as literature. Trying to make a book work like a film is a nice shortcut, but in the end it doesn’t lead anywhere worthwhile.
A good friend has just sold a debut story to an excellent but non-paying market. There are a lot of markets for short fiction. Many of them are bad. Some of them pay. Some of the ones that pay the most are the worst. In the world of short fiction money is a very bad way of assessing quality.
There is a popular myth that back in the good old days writers could make a living from short fiction. It’s a myth continued in the idea of the ‘pro-rate’ of pay for short fiction. 5 cents a word can add up to a nice little bonus payment, but it’s only professional money if you are living in the 1920s. And only then if you lived on beans and fresh air. The only reason the ‘pro-rate’ matters at all is because it gives at least some indication that the publisher is committed enough to invest a little cash in their enterprise.
The only real measure of a short fiction market is the quality of its curation. As readers we rely on editors to curate the best material to suit our interests. That is why the average start-up fiction magazine that publishes thirty stories lacks any value, while the excellent Clarkesworld which publishes just two stories a month has become the top market in short SF. As writers, publication in an excellently curated market is one of the best indications that you work has achieved quality.
Writing fiction is not a manufacturing process. Success is not a product of your Rate of Productivity x Stories Published x Cents per Word. A dozen stories in a dozen ‘pro-rate’ markets can mean less than one story, in one well curated market which puts it in front of the right eye-balls.
Here is a fact that us writers are struggling to wrap out heads around. Content is no longer in scarce supply. There will be more content generated in the time it takes me to type this sentence than any of us could consume in a lifetime. Putting content in to the world doesn’t make you special. It doesn’t even make you interesting. It just makes you another source of noise that people get better at tuning out with every passing day.
SIDENOTE: If you have ever used the word content to describe you’re own writing you are lost far from the true path. Start making you’re way back, there is still time to catch up.
Some of us, noting that in the attention economy demand far outstrips supply, toy with ways to use less of the scarce resource. Surely, in the fierce competition for human eye-ball time, stories that take only moments to read will multiply their chances of survival? Every fifteen minutes, somewhere on the internet, a new flash fiction publisher is launched. Where are they all? Does anyone read them? Anyone?
There is a basic principle that all salesmen know: It’s easier to close a big deal than a small one. Because you never sell the reality of the cost, you sell the dream of the reward. The bigger the deal, the bigger the dream. Billion £/$ deals are agreed in two sentences with a handshake over a drunken lunch, while the rest of us spend an hour choosing between two different mobile phone contracts separated by pennies, and probably end up getting neither, because the truth is we don’t really care.
A book is never a big deal financially, unless it’s Newton’s Principia Mathematica or some such. But in the attention economy, a book is a very big deal. A book eats up hours of scarce eye-ball time. Our eyes could be looking at anything in that time…they could be gazing on miracles. And yet, every hour of every day, billions of us, choose to point our eyes at bits of paper with squiggles on. Why? Because implicit in that big deal is a big dream…that the book in our hands will unlock new potential in our minds and in our lives. That is the great dream that great books offer us all.
Flash fiction takes that dream and throws a glass of luke warm water in its face. Flash fiction is like opening a sales pitch with an apology for the poor quality of your product. What kind of dream is flash fiction offering? A cheap and dowdy one. Flash fiction sells itself as being perfect for people who only want to read for five minutes on their multi-function smartphone during their morning commute to their corporate job. To paraphrase Bill Hicks…the reason I read is so I don’t end up like those people.
At the start of the 21st Century, in the midst of the information revolution, is no time for books to be backing down. Books are the Jesuit missionaries of the intellect. They get sent out in to the barbarian world to bring civilisation. The great books of the future won’t apologise for their existence by trying to hide away in the gaps between other things. Like the great books of the past they will demand attention, in exchange for the dream of better things.
I want you to tell me a story. I want to hear your voice like a whisper coming up from the page even though you are thousand miles or a hundred years away. I want you to command my attention like a master storyteller bringing a hall full of rowdy warriors to silence with a tale of the weird and fantastic. I want every word you use to count, because if you wouldn’t stand and say them to an audience, why print them on the page?
Please don’t show me a story. Please don’t waste tens of thousands of words describing the technicolor movie spooling in your head because I’m not going to waste my time reading them. Please don’t open your novel with pages and pages of words describing the setting and the characters in endless, pointless detail because if you can’t create the image in a sentence a paragraph won’t do it any better. Please don’t treat your novel like a screenplay, or a stageplay, or a poem, or a comic script, or a feature article, or a blog post, or a text message, or like a fucking twitter update. Because it’s a novel, and it isn’t any of these things any more than a car is a plane or a boat or a hover craft, and trying to drive it like one is going to lead to disaster.
If you don’t tell me the story first it doesn’t matter how hard your try and show it to me later, because you have already lost my attention. Which is why I’m writing this post, because I’m looking at a pile of new novels for review, and too many of them want to show me spectacular images but have completely forgotten to tell me the story first. So please, for the sake of my meagre reading time, tell don’t show.
Writer. Columnist for The Guardian. Writing teacher.