Reading and not reading

James Coates

‘Woman Reading’ by James Coates

If you ever take a look at my book log you’ll notice that my reading has tailed off considerably over the last year. This almost exactly coincides with the leaving of my last job – and, more pertinently, the lack of a regular bus-rides and lunch breaks.

This is a cause of considerable distress to me. I love reading. It remains the source of unalloyed joy and learning and I am always mindful of Stephen King’s maxim: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

But that’s not the whole story, for I have been doing a bunch of reading that hasn’t appeared on my blog, and that’s the proofreading and copy-editing I’ve been doing professionally. I’m not entirely sure why but I don’t think it’s professional to put this on my blog: there’s thoughts of anonymity and confidentiality in mind but they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Regardless, there’s another reason for not putting my proofreading work on my blog and that’s because it’s not reading. It’s work.

I learn a lot from my regular reading-for-fun. It’s how I developed my writing skills and how I learnt as much as I have about the world. But it’s above all for pleasure. I read because I love to read, no matter what the subject or the genre.

Spring+illustration+by+Lee+White

‘Spring’ by Lee White

Proofreading and copy-editing is an entirely different experience. It’s not about enjoyment; it is, first and foremost, work, and it requires discipline to get through. That’s not to say that it can’t be a pleasure – my favourite book of the year so far was one I was given to proofread – but really if you get lost in a proofread you’re not doing your job properly. You get swept up in the flow and the mistakes you’re paid to find slip past.

So I have been missing out on a lot of pleasure over the last year. I need to get back in the saddle – and maybe that will involve dropping some of the worthy books, the non-fiction weighties, and concentrate on sheer pleasure. Maybe that’ll give me a road back in.

But why impoverish myself like that? Maybe it’s better to try and carve out some dedicated reading time – half an hour minimum per day? Surely that’s not much to ask?

Or maybe I should just relax and not let it bother me. I’m still reading. I’m still learning. I’m still in love with books. Circumstances will change again, sooner or later.

I just miss those days of getting through three books a week. What a heavenly time that was.

Some people, no dog

Last Friday I did my first ever ‘Meet the Author’ event, turning out at Earlham library in Norwich to be interrogated by the great and good. Or, at least, to meet the few people who didn’t have anything better to do on a Friday teatime.

Earlham talk

The only photo of the event I have, thanks to my wife having to wrangle the small one whilst 

The crowd was small – it wasn’t quite one man and his dog but it wasn’t too far off. The crowd was bolstered by my own family (a mixed blessing), but an audience is still an audience. And worthy of my best efforts, which I gave in the form of a brief talk, a reading, and a Q&A.

And I had fun, I think, and (I’m told) went down okay. There were enough questions to make the whole thing feel worthwhile – a good one on the use of 1st person as opposed to third, and another on what about the commute from the library to home (as I described in the talk) had given me the idea for a novel set in Antarctica.

Anyway, all this dashing about across the country means I’ve little to discuss this week. I’m a busy bee right now and writing has suffered; I’m still trying to edit the sequel to the sequel to Night Shift, working on my workshop for Edge-Lit (and imbibing as much grimdark as possible before my panel there) – I’m even trying to contemplate writing something new for the first time in years.

So I’m not idle. Promise. I just don’t have much to say right now.

Hope you’re managing to be more productive!

The challenge ahead

So the wheel has turned and another year is upon us. Already 2019 is shaping up to be a busy one: I can see the challenge for me is to be one of balance. Three great gods are jostling for supremacy: the gods of creation, of maintenance, and of prosperity are limbering up as we speak, readying themselves for the unholy smackdown that lyeth within the darkest recesses of my mind.

The need to maintain

Maintain

I can’t track down an artist for this. If it’s you, let me know and I’ll attribute you properly

When I envisioned this answer I was going to write about the pressures of producing this blog. But I realise it’s more than just that; it’s all the background of life. It’s keeping my environment from descending too far into the foetid swamps. It’s about maintaining existence at a basic level of tolerableness.

But yes, mostly it’s about producing my weekly status reports that make up this blog. This matters to me; it’s a constant challenge but also a constant accomplishment.

I’m past thinking I’m going to change the world with it, or suddenly pull in dozens of new readers all eager to get their hands on my writing. It’s just nice to have my own little corner in which to ramble, into which I can pour the whimsy I have to surgically remove from my books.

Any help to anyone, any actual information or practical assistance to you, the reader, is entirely coincidental.

The need to earn

themoneypack_0

Official paid employment takes up a dozen or so hours a week. But I have recently lucked into a potentially long-lasting stream of freelancing work. This is brilliant. The money’s not, in itself, that great but it has the compensation of being a) something I decide when to work on (within deadlines), and b) interesting.

I get to read next year’s novels now. More, I get a (tiny) say in how they appear. I get paid to read, and to learn.

It also helps arrest my descent into primitive barbarism by helping put food on the table, clothes on my back and nappies on the Smolrus. So it’s mostly a win.

The need to create

creation.jpg

St Matthew from the 9th century Ebbo Gospels

Yeah, so there’s this. I need to make sure I can get on with my own writing; if there is such a thing as ‘the point’ it’s this. I’m a writer. I need to write.

I need to please my publishers by giving them a sequel to reject. I have ambition to do something with some of the short stories I’ve scraped together. I have Brave New Ideas to try and corral into a telling.

One should always be writing. I get the feeling like I’m at a juncture where, in some universes, I’m going to abandon my writing career to move firmly into editorial work. I don’t want it to be this one.

————————-

There is, of course, a lot more things going on than this. More opportunities to push Night Shift might arise. There will doubtless be family crises and maybe even holidays. But, writing-wise, these are the three main avenues I’m looking down.

The challenge is to walk down them all at the same time. The need to earn in many ways comes first as I have to hit deadlines and, with the work being unreliable, be prepared to drop everything when a new opportunity arises. I have to build a reputation and that means doing the job well, on time, and to budget.

But coming first isn’t the same as being the most important. What matters to me as a human being is the act of creation and refinement of my own work. I must ensure that the writing I do for myself doesn’t get squeezed out. Time must be ring-fenced.

My challenge for 2019 is to find a way to control my own destiny. To keep all these balls in the air so that none of them get lost down the back of the sofa of life.

And to make sure the gods don’t sort out their differences and decide I’m the real problem.

On beginnings

Today’s blog is a vague attempt to transform criticism into advice: it’s the result of, thanks to an ill-timed training course, having little actual news to share with you. Please be kind.

Goethe

A novel should open with who and what: who the story is about and what’s at stake.

 

This isn’t wrong but it’s not very helpful either. What if you’ve got multiple point-of-view characters? The ‘who’ becomes a lot more complicated. And as for the ‘what’, surely we can’t be expected to give the whole game away in the first scene?

I’ve been working on the same piece for the over five years now and I’m still stuck on the opening. The novel’s had a new title, new characters and new crimes. The one thing I’ve never got right is this damn beginning. It reads well enough but it doesn’t involve. I’m now coming to the conclusion that at least part of the problem is that I don’t bring in characters quickly enough. Nor do I show (by which I mean illustrate) what really matters.

Who and what.

Why have I neglected these things? I’m not really sure I have an answer: with a 1st-person perspective there’s no real excuse, although I could argue that in a 3rd-person narrative you have to get to the business of who’s talking whereas I’ve got the luxury of condensing voice before formal introductions. But that’s a cop-out, and even if it’s true it helps me not at all.

As for the what, that’s going back to that whole ‘drama’, ‘tension,’ ‘action,’ thing you’ll see interchangeably in any ‘how to write a novel’ guide. It’s the hook. It’s the body on the carpet. It’s the man coming in with a gun.

It’s also the accounts that doesn’t add up, or a particular expression on a stranger’s face, or an unexpected silence; it’s a foreshadowing of deeper waters ahead.

The ‘what’ is a question: it is a problem that must be left unresolved at least until a greater problem can take its place. Sometimes this opening question lasts the whole novel through, but most openings act as a gateway drug: a little question (a hook) to pull you on to the crux.

There’s lots of other things an opening needs to do, of course: you need to establish tone and style and something of location (both spatial and temporal). But those are, essentially, background. They don’t determine whether a reader reads on.

dat and stormyu

Yes, it’s a cliche, but this was once a pretty good way to start a novel, originally coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830

I have my location. The descriptions are good. I just haven’t covered the things that really matter.

So it’s back to the beginning with me. Back to try and trap the reader: to tell them whose story this is and why they should care.

Hopefully that’ll be more a case of rearrangement then of a wholesale rewrite: shifting furniture rather than throwing a Molotov cocktail through the window.

Either way the problem child is still a problem. But at least I have some vague idea of how to move forwards.

The way it is

 

English in Asian Airports

Alfie lived at home with his mum, his dad, his sister … and a troop of monkeys. For some reason, no-one could see the monkeys except Alfie. That was just the way it was.

I shouldn’t let a children’s book make me angry. The intended audience don’t care about bad writing, or poor storytelling, though they might not find a book interesting for reasons we might describe as weak structure.

But I am not a child. And the above extract, the opening to No More Monkeys, by Joshua George and Barbara Bakos, makes my blood boil. It’s quite impressive, actually: the sheer badness contained within 33 words. And that they dared to put these words right at the beginning of the book. The publishers have some serious brass neck.

No more monkeys

Shall we start to unpick it? First off: we don’t need ‘at home’ in the first line. Of course he lives at home. He can’t live anywhere else, can he? I’d concede the words might be taken as shorthand for ‘in an ordinary house and not in an igloo or on the moon or in a moon-igloo’ if it wasn’t a picture book. But it is. The ordinariness of the residence is simple to establish.

But that’s not the problem. That is a forgivable error. I don’t demand perfection in children’s books (though maybe I should): I can write that off as part of the voice and the rhythm of the story.

What I can’t forgive are the three little words that open the second sentence.

For some reason.

Let me translate: ‘For some reason’ means ‘the author hasn’t bothered to think about this.’ ‘The author has no respect for his reader.’ ‘It’s too much effort to come up with a real explanation.’

For some reason. Let me tell you, if you ever find yourself writing ‘for some reason’ in your work; or if you have things ‘just the way they’ve always been’, then you’re letting your readers down.

It’s a close cousin to that old beta-reader feedback: if a reader says ‘I didn’t understand this,’ it’s not not good enough to say ‘well that’s because of this complex set of subtleties, and therefore I dismiss your point.’ It doesn’t matter if you’ve considered it if you’ve not explained it.

This doesn’t mean that you have to go into every little thing that underpins your worldbuilding, or even that you have to consider every little variable of, say, the currency system in your world. But anything integral to the plot has to have an explanation. How you communicate that is a different issue.

I find this particular example really galling because it’s so unnecessary. The author could have put ‘The monkeys were invisible to everyone but Alfie’ – no reason is necessary. Or ‘The monkeys would only show themselves to Alfie and were really good at hiding when anyone else was around.’ That one’s nice because it conjures up a clear mental image that the writer and artist could play with. Bonus!

That’s just with two minutes’ thought. You can think of more alternatives yourself. Think of it as a little writing free exercise. You’re welcome.

Error number three: that final sentence. ‘That was just the way it was.’ My god this is horrible. You know what this means? This is the writer saying ‘I know the last sentence wasn’t good enough. Let me just reinforce my laziness by doubling down. No, you’re not allowed to be curious. That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change. Ask no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.’

It’s bad.

It’s the sort of thing you see in books all the time. One of my problems with The Time-Traveller’s Wife is the way the author casually dismisses all possibility of change. It’s been a while since I read it, but there is a point where the narrator says something like ‘it was predestined. There was no way to change the future.’ I nearly screamed. Why? Why is it predestined? Why can’t you change things? Wouldn’t you try? Wouldn’t you at least make the effort?

At the very least, if you don’t know why something happens, keep quiet about it. Shut your bloody trap and let us keep the illusion that you know what you’re talking about.

Right. Rant over. I’m off to take my blood-pressure medication; hopefully I’ll have something more interesting to write about next week.

As you were.

Death to the Editorium!

Egyptian mourning

Sad news! The Editorium is no more. It has ceased to be. It has shuffled off this mortal coil. It is an ex-Editorium.

Yes, I am moving house – moving across counties, no less. So far I have left my phone in IKEA and had to dash back 100 miles for forgotten things. Idiocy is no respecter of location.

The Editorium is dead. But fear not! For, like royalty, no Editorium can die without another rising to take its place.

All hail the Editorium! I shall shortly be tipper-tapping away in a room of one’s own: in the meantime, let’s all raise a glass to the place where I wrote all those thousands of words.

I will, at least. And you’re free to join me.

cheers__by_natoli-d9b782h

Image stolen from natoli.deviantart.com

On Chekhov’s Gun and the fantastic

Gun

I was listening to Tim Clare’s wonderful ‘Death of 1,000 Cuts’ podcast – which I recommend most heartily – and, in conversation with Nate Crowley, something came up that caught my ear. He said that Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t apply in science-fiction because we, the reader, expect things they don’t understand to be dropped into the background to help build the world.

I take it we’re all familiar with Chekhov’s Gun, the rule which states that you must “remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” It has a whole Wikipedia page of its own. That’s how important it is.

Let me just make clear that Tim’s comment was a single sentence that went without consideration – just a passing observation before the conversation went elsewhere. This is in no way a critique of him or his brain, which seems to me both beautiful and wondrous. But, as with all the best things in life, this one idle comment got me thinking: is this true? As a writer of SFF can I lay Chekhov’s Gun aside?

My initial thought is no, you can’t. But we need to dig a little deeper than that, don’t we? This blog won’t write itself, more’s the pity.

The first thing we need to think about is point-of-view. Unless we’re dealing with a fish-out-of-water tale (time-travel, say, or a primitive transported to a technologically advanced world) all the trappings of your POV-character’s world will be familiar to them. It’d be frankly weird for them to explain what a hyperspace drive is if they work with one every day.

It’d be like a character in a contemporary novel describing a television or a bookshelf: we take these items for granted. Only the extraordinary needs description.

Thus we assume that anything that the writer draws specific attention to, especially if the POV character already knows all about it, is significant.

There’s also an element of trust going on. When a writer tosses out concepts like mechs or mer-beasts or strange magicks and then moves on, we as readers have to trust the writer to tell us more if they’re of any importance. Not then and there, for that way leads straight to exposition-ville, but we trust that the writer will slip us the information under the table, as it were, as we get deeper into their world.

mech

A strange mech. As with the rest of the images in this article, I’ve no idea who made it and who owns copyright.

[As an aside, I think writers have got so much better at doing this over the years. Asimov’s The Gods Themselves is my go-to example of how not to do it: it even includes the dreaded sentence “As you know…” which is a sure sign that an exposition-bomb is about to be detonated. And TGT won awards.]

Specific terms and phrases are scattered around in all genres; from underground argot in crime novels, to historical denotations of class, to the ways and means of public schoolboys in literary fiction. These don’t bother us because we trust the writer to explain what matters. The rest is colour.

So the question we should really be asking is this: what’s the difference between Chekhov’s Gun and colour?

And the answer to that is that there shouldn’t be any. Not to the casual eye, at least.
Foreshadowing is vital: the reader must see the crucial element before it becomes significant – if not we’re in breach of Knox’s Commandments. Deus ex machina will swoop down upon us and doom will be our only friend.

Chekhov’s Gun is foreshadowing gone feral. Foreshadowing must be camouflaged; it must be indistinguishable from the background. It must be masked by that ‘colour’ we were talking about before.

Chekhov, however, hurls off his disguise and, slapping his belly to the rhythm of Waltzing Matilda, dances a naked jig before the reader.

Alter Mann.jpg

Be very, very glad that this is the image I’ve chosen to accompany that thought. There were alternatives…

So I respectfully disagree with Tim Clare. Chekhov’s Gun is not excusable in SFF: it’s an error in any genre. Perhaps what he’s really thinking of is jargon – there is, perhaps, a higher likelihood of made-up words in science fiction and fantasy. Let’s not forget that the word ‘orc’ is now widely known where fifty years ago it was practically unknown. ‘Orc’ is jargon that has entered modern parlance. ‘Cyberspace’ is another example, as is ‘hive mind’. Not long ago we needed these terms explaining. Now we don’t.

Characters belong to a time, a place and a culture. They have their own language (and, if you don’t believe these surround us even now, check out Dent’s Modern Tribes) and they think in those terms. We don’t need every single word explained; context will make most things clear.

Context is, as ever, everything. Abandon it at your peril.