Short Story Laboratory, or what I learned from going small

A few months ago, something very flattering and totally unexpected happened. Someone I’d met at a con, and who had subsequently read Gemsigns, asked if I would be interested in contributing a short story to an anthology to be published later this year. The theme of the collection is one of the classic scientific conundrums, and the list of people who’d already agreed to take part was impressive. The prospect of getting to add my own take on the topic, and in such starry company, was very exciting. I wanted to say yes immediately. But I hesitated.

Unlike many – possibly most – speculative fiction authors, I’ve never been much of a short story writer. I don’t have a file full of 10-30 page manuscripts, much less a history of publishing same. I did have to write a lot of micro-fiction in order to establish the Scriptopus website in 2010, but those were intentionally constructed as snippets – a paragraph or two that read as a small chunk of a larger work, to encourage the next participant to write the next chunk. The first fully-fledged story that I really wanted to tell emerged as a feature-length screenplay; followed a couple of years later by another screenplay; followed a few years after that by Gemsigns – all 104,000 words of it. Eighteen months later, Binary topped out at 114,000 words. Not exactly GRRM-scale doorstoppers, but – I don’t really have much form when it comes to short fiction.

Which of course (me being me) meant that I really wanted to give it a try. I wanted to see if I could take what I’d learned writing two thematically complex novels, with large casts of characters and multiple interweaving plotlines, and distill the essence of what makes them work into a few thousand words of self-contained story. But I didn’t think it was fair to simply accept the invitation without warning the commissioning editor that it was going to be a bit of a first for me, and I half-expected the enthusiasm on the other end to dim considerably as a result.

Instead I was told – go for it.

So I did, and I learned a few things along the way. One is that what interests me doesn’t seem to change because the frame I’m working in is smaller; so once again, I’ve written a story with some fairly significant ethical questions at its heart. I’m pro-science and pro-technology, but more than anything else I am pro-humanity; and negotiating the intersection between what is possible and what is moral is a theme I keep on returning to in spite of myself.

Another is that, lacking the scale for complicated plot development and lengthy character arcs, short fiction requires some hard choices about what to put in and what to leave out. It seems to me that genre writers mostly tend to focus on plot, often constructing the classic three acts that allow the short story to feel complete but forgoing much exploration of the internal lives of characters (and sometimes forgoing characters altogether). That’s a perfectly legitimate option, of course, but for me a story is made interesting (or not) by the people in it; so I decided to go in virtually the opposite direction, and to focus entirely on what the characters think and feel about the situation they find themselves in.

That meant finding a way of constructing plot almost as a side effect of exploring character; and it also meant accepting that the story remains, at the end, unresolved. It’s up to the reader to draw conclusions about what will or should happen, based on what s/he now knows about the characters. That felt like quite a risky thing to do, and it leads me to a third thing I discovered: short fiction is a great platform for trying things you haven’t tried before. In addition to the open-ended ending, I employed several narrative tricks and techniques that I’ve not (yet) used in my novels. There was a character whose gender I couldn’t decide on; it wasn’t important to the story, so a third of the way in I decided to see if I could write the whole thing without being backed into the pronoun corner (turns out I could). I told it in first-person present-tense, bouncing between four different points of view. I used highly emotive language to construct what is usually posited as an essentially intellectual dilemma.

I don’t think I would have attempted, or could have sustained, that kind of concentrated stylistic experimentation over 100,000+ words. At less than 7000 it was just about do-able, although the jury is still out on the result. I sent the manuscript in a couple of days ago, but the editor is backed up with projects (aren’t we all) and so probably won’t get around to reading it for another few weeks. Which means I probably won’t find out whether it’s been accepted into the anthology for a couple of months yet.

I hope it is, of course – along with my second novel, I’d love this to be the year I also have a professionally published short story. And I hope there’ll be more, but I don’t think I’m going to morph into a prolific short story writer. One of the other things that’s become apparent is that my ideas tend towards the larger scale; a beta reader remarked that the first draft read to him like the opening chapters of a novel, and would I be writing the rest of it?

So now I’m thinking … short stories as a way of developing techniques, themes, characters, which are then more fully explored in a longer piece? Or conversely, focusing more intensely on an aspect of character, theme, technique than is possible in a longer piece? I’d be really curious to know if anyone constructs a dialogue between their long and short fiction in this way, and how well it works for them.

On the importance of editing

I’ve not been around online much recently. I’m a bit embarrassed that this is my first new post in a month, although I do have a number of very good reasons. There were a few days of being unwell; quite a few more of job-hunting and soul-searching (resulting in the Big Life Decision to not take the excellent position I was being offered, in order to dedicate the next several months to writing the concluding volume of the ®Evolution trilogy – cue lots of deep breaths and sleepless nights); the kerfuffle of transferring from one friend’s flat to another’s, due to builders being in; and the search for my own flat, which to my immense relief and satisfaction was finally concluded last week (hello Victoria Park!). But the thing that has demanded the biggest chunk of my time and attention over the past four weeks has been editing.

Although my second book, Binary, is out in just over two months, a dearth of available copy editors meant that I only got the manuscript back for my review and any final changes at the beginning of the year. (It’s also a big part of why my editor – who, by the way, has the additional responsibility of the entire publishing enterprise that is Jo Fletcher Books – works seven days a week, bringing her considerable skills to bear in order to plug that gap.) Even after the ministrations of the copy editor, followed by two weeks of my own scrutiny (I hasten to add that about half of this was spent on polishing the story, not just the copy), Jo and I went down to the wire a week later, correcting commas and paragraph breaks, tweaking tenses and phrases.

The book that was sent off a scant few hours later to be typeset is much the better for it, which makes the apparent shrinkage in editing as a profession, along with the value placed upon it, so dispiriting. And I don’t just mean copy editing. The ability to look at a text with a critical eye, appreciating its good qualities but also identifying any implausibilities in its plot, inconsistencies in its characterisation and flaws in its prose,  is crucial to the quality of the finished work and happens long before the copy edit. Whether what emerges from that structural review are minor modifications to said plot, characters and prose, or a major edit involving significant changes to the way the narrative is organised and constructed, it is unimaginable that, from first draft to published volume, there are no improvements to be made. Although, sadly, that is what too many authors, and indeed their publishers, seem to think.

I recently picked up a novel that I’ve been dying to read, by an author who I already knew from their online media presence (which is much more disciplined and consistent than mine) and convention appearances to be intelligent, articulate, interesting, and a builder of complex worlds and layered, intricate plots. The book should have been right up my proverbial street – and I made it about 80 pages in before giving up (I’d have chucked it across the room at 40 had I been less enthusiastic about the author). I could see that the worldbuilding and twisty plotting had been meticulously thought through, but the plausibility of the characters and quality of the prose veered wildly from one scene to another, indeed at times from one paragraph to another. It was clunky. It was awkward. The story was clearly there, but it read like the first draft that you dump willy-nilly onto the page in your haste to pin your ideas down before you lose them.

It read like it hadn’t been edited.

Now I have no idea what this particular author’s creative process is like, nor do I judge it; there is no single right way of doing things. I tend to do a lot of editing as I write, which is supposed to be a no-no, but it works for me. And I start each day’s work by reviewing and editing what I did the day before – which usually results in the loss of around 10% of the previous day’s words, further tightens and polishes the prose, helps me pick up on any plot or character problems I might be writing my way into, and gets my head back into the place and the mood of the piece.

Then the whole thing, from opening sentence to final paragraph, gets reviewed and edited by me at least – at least – once before it gets shown to anyone else.

I bite my nails for a few weeks (or if I get the timing right, go on holiday); then I take the initial feedback from editor, agent and beta readers, and work through the manuscript, soup to nuts, again. The result goes back to the structural editor, who reads it a second time and identifies anything that still doesn’t quite click. If there were major problems at that point the script would come straight back to me (this has never yet happened, I’m glad to say). Otherwise it goes on to the copy editor, while I get a note about anything the structural editor recommends I take another look at when I’m going through the copy edit (this is what one of the two weeks I mentioned at the beginning were spent on). The copy edit itself is mostly concerned with correcting punctuation and grammar, suggesting better words and phrases (and in my case, because I lived in the States for many years and Americanisms still sometimes slip through, replacing them with the British equivalent), and pointing out any inconsistencies within the book (and between books, if it’s a series).

Are you counting? That’s at least five editorial passes so far. And there is still one final chance to make minor edits, at the page proof stage. This is the typeset manuscript, the pages as they will look when bound between the covers and placed on the shelves at your friendly local bookseller. You do not want to have many – or, preferably, any – changes at this stage, but the point is you can.

There is no single right way of doing things, and not everyone will be as obsessive about this as me (or indeed my editor). But every book that finds its way into print with an indie or imprint or small press or major publisher will have been read by someone besides the author. That person will most likely have ‘editor’ somewhere in their title. And if a book that ends up printed and on sale still reads like an unedited first draft, what, I ask myself, is that person doing?

Why are they not doing better by their authors? Are the authors ignoring them? Or are the titular editors ignoring what that role requires of them?

(I’m not going to quote any passages or otherwise identify this particular book, but I will say that my experience of it was by no means unique; it was merely the most recent. If anyone’s scratching their head, wondering exactly what I mean by ‘quality of prose’ and wishing for examples of transformative editing, go read this post by utterly fantastic fantasy author Hal Duncan. The target of Hal’s essay is the shibboleth about the wrongness of adjectives, which he dismantles with characteristic élan. The point for mine is that he starts with this incredibly florid sentence:

“Stepping out into the bright sunshine amidst the delicate singing of the birds, she sensed a passionate stirring in her spirit that left her open to the mysterious excitement of the brave challenge that lay ahead of her.”

– which would get the book thrown not just across the room, but out of the window if I happened upon it – and ends with this:

“Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead.”

– which is decriptive and emotive and lyrical, and might actually make you want to know what happens next.)

I don’t doubt there will be readers of this post whose reactions will be something along the lines of: But isn’t it up to the author to be able to write well? That’s what talent is about, surely. And yes, it is. But not even the most talented among us can do our best work in a vacuum. We need feedback. We need criticism. We need people who are themselves talented at unpicking the threads of narrative, and are willing to say to us: This is good, but it could be better. Here’s where it fails. Here’s where you can fix it.

And, even when the content is as good as it can be, we need people who can wrangle copy. We need to acknowledge the importance of how that well-structured story, with its believable characters and elegant, punchy prose is presented to the reader. I recently read another novel, the third in a very successful series; and I could tell that the copy editor had been changed, or gone AWOL, or fallen asleep on the job, somewhere between books two and three. The author’s plotting, characterisation and prose were as enjoyable as ever, but it was full of what I could only assume were uncorrected typos: what was clearly intended to be two sentences separated by a comma instead of a full stop, full stops where there should have been commas, ‘their’ instead of ‘there’, quotation marks opened but not closed … you get the idea. The quality of the story was high; the quality of the text was – not the lowest I’ve seen, but definitely mediocre. If it had been the first book in the series, it might well have prevented me ever picking up the second.

This stuff matters. None of us who write fiction want our readers popped unceremoniously out of their immersion in the worlds we construct. None of us who read it want our own suspension of disbelief to be punctured – whether by a misspelled word, a continuity error, an implausible plot twist or a badly turned phrase. Speaking as a reader, I want more than just a good story – I want it so well told that it beckons me back for a second visit, and a third and a fourth. As a writer I want to tell my stories that well.

So this is more than just a rant: it’s a call for readers and writers to take a good hard look at what we consider to be an acceptable level of quality in professionally published literature. Talent and imagination are essential, of course, but we need to value more than just creativity. We need to value craft. We need to ask for, and accept, criticism. We need to appreciate technique. We need to remember that making art is not an artless enterprise, and that carelessness is not rewarded. We need to honour the gatekeepers who make us better at what we do, and to demand of them that they keep on doing it.

We need to be willing to edit. And be edited.


P.S. While I’ve been writing this post the Binary page proofs have come in. Guess what I’m going to be doing this week?

Defining the dominant narrative, in one sentence

A quote worth sharing:

‘[When we act] as if white people don’t have some sort of racial identity … as if heterosexual people don’t have a sexual orientation, as if men don’t have a gender, [then] the dominant group is rarely challenged to even think about its dominance.’

Jackson Katz

TED Talk: Violence against women – it’s a men’s issue


GEMSIGNS extract on the web, + reviews, + discussion

Civilan Reader has posted an excerpt from Gemsigns, with a review to follow next week:

Excerpt: GEMSIGNS by Stephanie Saulter (Jo Fletcher Books).

There’ve also been two brilliant new reviews this week; one in the current issue of SciFiNow magazine, and the other on the Australian blog Speculating on SpecFic. Both are linked via the Reviews tab above.

And Jo Fletcher Books has contributed to the ongoing debate about gender imbalance in science fiction authorship and readership on their blog, and I’ve added my tuppence in comments; to the effect that the general public’s ongoing perception of SF as being limited only to a certain ‘type’ of book is at least as damaging as the gender issue. You can read that here.

NANP: Naming the ®Evolution | Angels of Retribution

I’ve declared a bit of a moratorium on blogging until Binary is finished and handed in (about 2 weeks to go I reckon). But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy elsewhere! Blogger and reviewer Abhinav Jain invited me to contribute to his ongoing Names: A New Perspective series of guest posts, in which authors talk about the significance of the names and naming conventions they use in their work; their importance to the overall fabric and texture of the story; and the challenges of choosing the right strategy. Naturally, I was delighted to accept. So follow the link to read about what it was like to name the  ®Evolution, and do check out the other posts in the series as well – some very useful tricks and techniques are discussed. I’m struck by the fact that despite the many, many different ways there are to address this aspect of storytelling, a common feature is the importance we all attach to it. To quote myself: Names unlock stories.

NANP: Naming the ®Evolution | Angels of Retribution.

Thank you Abhinav, it was a pleasure to participate!

Writers’ Room: Stephanie Saulter on Sci-Fi | Free Word Centre

Many thanks to Sam Sedgman and Free Word Online for inviting me into the Writers’ Room this week. Here’s the result.

Writers’ Room: Stephanie Saulter on Sci-Fi | Free Word Centre.

The author of ‘Gemsigns’ takes literary snobs to task with a passionate defence of science-fiction, and explains how she managed to fit writing a debut novel into the rest of her life.

Why are you a writer?

Because I can be.

I know the more fashionable answer is something along the lines of ‘because I just have to be’ or ‘because I couldn’t possibly be anything else.’ No disrespect whatsoever to those writers, but the simple truth is that I have spent most of my life not being one, and it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise. Being a writer felt like the apex: the thing I would do when I felt that I knew enough, understood enough, could risk enough, to do it well. All those years of not being a writer were, to a fairly conscious degree, training to become one. There’s a real sense of reward about it: I’ve worked hard to build my own understanding of the world, I’ve remained curious, I’ve paid attention to other people’s stories – both the ones they tell themselves and others, and the ones they unconsciously live every day. There’s a moment when all of that starts to gel, when you think ‘I know what’s going on here. I can turn this into stories of my own. I can start to be a writer.’ 

This is your debut – how did you fit writing a novel into everything else in your life?

Strangely, that was the easy part. I had taken redundancy and gone freelance in the latter part of 2010, and had moved out of London into the Devon countryside to boot. It was April 2011 and I’d just finished a major project – so there was a bit of extra cash in the bank account – and I was waiting for word on several more that were in the pipeline. I had a bit of slack time, so I started organising several years’ worth of notes and research into the outline for the novel that had been steadily growing in my head for all of that time. And then I started writing it, and I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. As luck would have it, all of the jobs I was waiting on fell through. As even better luck would have it, two of my best friends came to stay over the May bank holiday, read what I’d written, and said ‘You need to stick with this. If you can afford to spend the next few months writing it, that’s what you should do.’ I knew I could rely both on their judgement and their honesty; they wouldn’t have told me that if it wasn’t really what they thought. And it was one of the few times in my life when I could afford to. So I did, to the exclusion of everything else.

Sci-Fi is often given short shrift by book critics – even though it’s enduringly popular and the home of some of our most politically-aware writing. What drew you to the genre?

I’ve never not read speculative fiction, whether based in fantasy or science. Two of my favourite and most formative books – I read them both for the first time when very young – are The Lord of the Rings and Frank Herbert’s Dune, and I suspect the course of my life in fiction was pretty much charted there. While fantasy lets you imagine a different world entirely, science fiction provides a vehicle for thinking about where our current challenges and dilemmas and obsessions may lead us. In Gemsigns in particular I wanted to look at how patterns of human behaviour recur and are endlessly explained and excused away. I wanted to examine belief systems – in a world in which science has quite literally and unequivocally been the salvation of humankind, does its works then go unquestioned in the same way that perceived acts of god are unquestioned among those of a religious bent? And what place does religion have in such a world? Is it progressive or static or reactionary? Does it survive at all?

If you want to ask those kinds of questions in fiction, if you want to speculate about what the answers may be, then you have to root the world you want to explore in some kind of internally consistent logic.  One route to that is the complete otherness of fantasy, but I prefer the connection with our current reality that scientific speculation provides. That seems to me an entirely sensible and artistically valid route to take, but there’s a very weird pathology at work in the way that most mainstream critics, and even many regular readers, view science fiction. It is a perpetually limited vision which has little in common with the reality of the genre. For one thing it’s generally presumed that if it’s labelled ‘science fiction’ it has to take place in the far future, in space, with aliens and robots and ray guns. Not that I don’t love a bit of space opera myself, but I am forever having to explain that this is not a prerequisite – not least when it comes to my own work, which has no anti-gravity or esoteric weaponry whatsoever and takes place mainly in the East End of London.

Another presumption is that stories rooted in speculation about where scientific development might take us cannot possibly have any literary merit; that they are by definition tech-heavy thrillers with little character development or emotional weight. It’s a bizarre view that having the one somehow precludes the other. Now it’s certainly true that there are a lot of SF & F novels out there that we could probably all agree aren’t  literary masterpieces, but I’m not aware of any other genre – crime, romance, or even the vaunted category known as Literary Fiction – that is universally judged by its least accomplished examples. I never know if the lit-crit establishment that looks down its collective nose at science fiction is being accidentally obtuse or intentionally obfuscatory, but they certainly manage a strong line in self-deception. What kind of books do they think Frankenstein and Brave New World and 1984 were, before they were deemed classics? Do they really imagine that Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell are not writing about the possible futures that might result from the decisions we make in the present? Have they not noticed that Hilary Mantel, celebrated author of, among other things, Beyond Black, is a jaw-droppingly good writer of supernatural horror as well as historical fiction – and that she illustrates the human condition just as well there?

Gemsigns, by Stephanie Saulter

How do you write?

When I’m in the early stages of a project, trying to work out what it’s about and who’s in it and what happens, I tend to scribble in notebooks and carry them around with me. It’s sort of the stream-of-consciousness phase when you are following the threads in your head, making connections. The writing down of things at this stage is more mnemonic than anything else. It’s not exclusively longhand, sometimes there are rambling, random screeds typed into the computer, or tapped out on my phone. A lot of it may look suspiciously like gazing blankly out of the window with a cooling cup of tea in your hand, or going for long, aimless walks in the country, but it’s all part of the process of writing. And it’s iterative; I have episodes like that throughout. I find you need them, as you work through knotty plot points and develop character arcs.

But when I actually feel the shape of the thing strongly enough in my head to be able to start turning it into prose, I write on my laptop (which is a MacBook Pro if anyone wants to know; I used Microsoft Word for Gemsigns, Scrivener for Binary). I find it very difficult to pop in and out of story-mode, so I try to dedicate big chunks of time to it; I haven’t yet got the knack of how to do something else all day and then write for a couple hours at night. So I’ll set aside a span of days in which that is all I’m going to be doing, and I treat it like a job; I start around 9 or 10 in the morning and I go all day. I usually begin by going over what I did the day before, which serves both as a first edit and to get me back into the mood and moment of the piece; and then I take it forward. I’ll have a word count I want to hit: I feel defeated if I miss it and triumphant if I exceed it. In theory I stop around 6 in the evening, make dinner, and that’s it for the day. In practice, especially if it’s going well or if I’m close to the end of a scene or a chapter, I go back to it and work into the night. Having a laptop means I can move around the house, so although I often start in my office in the basement, which has the ergonomic chair and the desk at the right height, I tend to migrate up into the kitchen or out into the conservatory. I’ve written huge amounts of both books sitting cross-legged on the sofa. It’s hell on my back, but good for the words.

If I’m in the mood to write it doesn’t matter whether I’m in the city or the country; the last really good bit of work I did on Binary was in the Barbican Library in London. But being able to take a break and go for a stroll along country lanes at four o’ clock in the afternoon was great for Gemsigns. By then you’ve been working solidly for a few hours and you need a breather and to take stock, and there’s usually some unforeseen problem that needs solving. The solution would almost always emerge about ten minutes after I’d left the house. All my farming neighbours got used to seeing me standing stock still in the middle of some muddy track, making notes on my phone. The arch-villain emerged fully formed out of a hedgerow one day, and some of the most cutting lines of dialogue were composed in the company of sheep.

What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned from writing?

That because it was easy today doesn’t mean it’ll be easy tomorrow. As a rule, the more you do something the better you get at it and the easier it becomes. Maybe that will happen for me with writing too, but it hasn’t yet. I’ve been struck, as many new novelists are, by the challenges of the second book. Some of the things that felt almost reflexive with Gemsigns, that just sailed out of my head through my hands and onto the page without any fuss at all, have been a real struggle with Binary. And some of the things I felt most unsure of with Gemsigns have been the simplest, most fun parts of writing Binary. I’ve learned not to presume that because I’ve written one decent book I can now just churn them out. Getting it right on the page is a constant challenge.

What are you reading at the moment? And how is it?

Cloud Atlas, and it’s wonderful, but honestly it doesn’t lend itself to my schedule at the moment. I’m finding I don’t have time for more than half an hour’s reading late at night, and it’s the wrong kind of book for that. Cloud Atlas is a novel you should curl up with on a long, lazy afternoon with no distractions. A good book for a tedious train journey. I may have to finish it on one of those.

Stephanie Saulter is the author of Gemsigns, available from Jo Fletcher Books.

How to Help Debut (or, really, any) Authors

A really great primer from Laura Lam on what debut authors need from their readers.

Laura Lam

I’ve had quite a few people (well, okay, like 5) ask me the best way to support me, and so I thought I’d collate the information I’ve learned. Obviously, this isn’t a completely altruistic post (as evidenced by my clever buy links) and it’d be wonderful if you use this information to help Pantomime, but some of this was new to me, it might be for you as well, and you can use it to help all the wonderful books that need a little extra love.

Buy the book

Yes, seems obvious, but really the best way to support an author is to pay with your dollar/pound/currency of choice. Debuts especially live and die by the numbers, especially in the early months. These numbers can have a huge impact on the writer’s career, such as if further books in the series are commissioned.

If you can’t buy it: request…

View original post 1,141 more words

Of giants and gentlemen

Gosh, that was fun.

I’ve been trying to figure out what my FantasyCon highlight was. There were the free books courtesy of a host of SFF major and indie publishers, and the free booze courtesy (mostly) of Jo Fletcher Books, and being introduced to the great and the good by the lovely Nicola Budd thusly: ‘Oh, have you met Stephanie? She’s one of our authors.’ There was the almost-impossible SFF trivia quiz which we came oh-so-close to winning, and the casual chat about one of my favourite authors with one of my favourite publishers, during which just enough was said about his next book to have me literally salivating in anticipation. It might have been getting to know the delightful Tom Pollock, reading (over and over) the inscription he wrote in my copy of The City’s Son or hearing him read the first chapter of its as-yet-unfinished sequel The Glass Republic; or laughing and talking literature with the equally delightful Snorri Kristjansson, whose first novel The Swords of Good Men I’m now looking forward to just as much.

But on reflection, wonderful as all those moments were, THE moment was something else. And I didn’t even know it at the time.

It was at the JFB 1st-anniversary party on Saturday night, surrounded by the beautiful books they’ve published over the past year and the beautiful bookmarks showcasing some of the volumes – including mine – coming next year. I started chatting to another of the authors whose novel Planesrunner is also featured on said bookmark. He was a convivial bloke named Ian McDonald, possessed of a thick brogue, a battered black leather jacket and amusingly wry commentary about books that do well in the US but not the UK and vice versa, for no reason that anyone can work out. There was something very familiar about him, though we clearly had never met before, and I blame the wine for me not paying sufficient attention to that fact at the time. He politely asked about me, and I gushed forth – as I’m afraid I may have done rather a lot – about how amazed and lucky I felt to be an about-to-be-published writer, how quickly and unexpectedly it had all happened, that a year ago I hadn’t even finished writing the novel whose cover art we were admiring. He blinked in what looked like genuine surprise and complimented me, something along the lines of: that’s pretty unusual, must be a really good book. So they tell me, I said, but let’s see what the punters think when it comes time to drop a tenner on it at Waterstones. And we had a chuckle, and shortly after that the currents of the party pulled us in different directions, as they do, and I didn’t see him again.

I wish I could say that the penny dropped the moment that scruffy jacket disappeared into the crowd, that waves of enlightenment parted around him and crashed over me in a well-deserved tsunami. I’m afraid it took a little longer, but I got there in the end. Ian McDonald. That’s the guy who wrote River of Gods and Brasyl, along with a host of other award-winning and -nominated books of the past twenty-odd years. The BSFA, Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke. That Ian McDonald. Look him up if you don’t know. I did, as the penny pirouetted to a halt with a mocking tinkle. I must have not-quite-recognised him from a book jacket, or maybe from a webcast interview he did with that aforementioned favourite author of mine, talking about their respective Great Works. And he must have clocked me as an oblivious newbie, unaware of the extent of my own ignorance, and just let it go.

And that, in microcosm, was what made FantasyCon such a good experience. The warmth and welcome, the genuine enthusiasm and complete lack of pretension, the amused and kindly forbearance of the veterans for the novices. The fact that a giant of our genre was nice enough to let me prattle on, and felt absolutely no need to clue me in to who he was. To say and not say exactly the things that made me feel that I belonged there, just as he did.

Mr. McDonald, sir: I salute you. Better late than never.

Creating smart characters

I’ve been procrastinating this morning by browsing writing questions on Quora. Someone wanted tips for creating a character who is smarter than they are, and I was struck that most of the answers seemed to assume this must be a very difficult thing to do. Suggestions ranged from role-playing; to the Arthur Conan Doyle method (have a character of normal intelligence, i.e. Dr. Watson, describe the character of greater intelligence, i.e. Sherlock Holmes); to making the character confusing and incomprehensible; to not even attempting the task.

Now I write a lot of very smart characters, some of whom are definitely smarter than me, and I don’t find it that hard at all. You don’t need to make every line they speak or every action they take redolent of their greater intellect, unless you are actively trying to present their cleverness as the only interesting thing about them and the only reason they are in your story. Instead give them a quirk, some character trait that suggests quick thinking or the kind of specific intelligence you want to convey.

For instance: I’ve created a character who likes wordplay and aphorisms. He tends to drop them into conversation, either to amuse the friend he’s speaking to or stump someone who’s annoying him. The rest of his conversation is intelligent in an unintimidating way, but just four or five of these zingers scattered throughout the novel is enough to give the impression of a really big brain at work. Another possibility would be a prodigious memory, someone who remembers the details of things they read or saw long ago. Or you could give your character a facility with numbers – have them add things up in their head before the person with the calculator or cash register can give them the total, for example.

How you do it will depend on the type of story you’re telling and the purpose of the character in it, but think about the things that make you form an impression of someone’s intelligence in real life. It will rarely be because they suddenly start spouting the laws of particle physics or deduce what you had for breakfast from the stain on your tie. It’ll be the way in which they speak, what they do for a living, the esoteric subjects they seem to know a lot about, how insightful they are. Utilise those kinds of naturalistic cues in your writing and it will be easier to make your character’s intelligence believable.

Angst and the second book

It’s been a month since I said I’d try to post at least a couple of times a month. Heigh-ho. There’s one rash promise scuppered a-borning.

The book is going well, I think. I probably won’t know for sure for another month or so, when I can see if where the opening I’ve constructed is taking me is where I intended to be. Or is even remotely interesting. (I assure you that these are quite distinct, though hopefully not mutually exclusive outcomes.)

I keep thinking it’s harder than the first book, although looking back that one certainly didn’t feel easy at the time. But it is a technical challenge of a different order entirely. I have to reintroduce a world and characters that I’ve already established in Gemsigns, in sufficient detail to orient new readers and to remind those for whom some time may pass between books; but not in so much detail that I am essentially repeating huge chunks of Gemsigns. I have to try and preserve at least some of the secrets of Gemsigns, so that this book doesn’t entirely spoil that one for those who may come to this first.

Some of those secrets so fundamentally inform what happens next – what I’m writing now – that I can’t post excerpts without undermining the pleasure that I hope you, my potential, prospective readers, will get from Gemsigns. I’m meeting with my publishers in a few weeks, and I’ll talk to them about posting a few extracts from Gemsigns now and then. Which, in addition to hopefully generating interest and feedback, will also boost my blog output with little or no extra effort on my part.

Yes, I know that is a completely self-serving and cheeky reason, but don’t beat me up too badly. Please. I was novel-writing until 1 o’clock this morning, and I suspect I may not have had enough coffee.

(Progress report: 20,000+ words, chapters 1-6 complete, plus another long-ish and crucial scene which will go … somewhere. Soon. All major and most minor characters – some of whom are new to this book – have been introduced; plots and sub-plots are up and running. Fairly happy with the prose, although I do have to watch out for seepage: I read a Philip Pullman novel a few weeks ago and for a moment I too was writing retro Victoriana; then an Iain Banks novel and suddenly there was a fair bit of existential angst; now GK Chesterton and an invasion of Edwardian rhetoric. The good news is I can spot and block it pretty quickly. But it is interesting.)

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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