Writing, not blogging

It feels faintly ridiculous to write a blog post about not writing more blog posts, but that’s what this is. I’m working on my second novel, and I tend not to read or write much of anything else when I’m in that mode. I guess I turn into even more of a recluse than usual: an intellectual hermit, sealed into my own little bubble of creation. When I was writing Gemsigns last year I’d go days without talking to another soul.

I suspect this isn’t all that healthy, so I’m going to make an effort not to become entirely uncommunicative. There’s also the little matter of the editorial, production and promotional processes leading up to the publication of Gemsigns next March. Indeed, I’m lucky that I do have another book to write by then (manuscript due in April), otherwise I think I’d be completely distracted by what’s already happening and what’s to come. As it is I can’t help feeling a little stunned by something like this. Thank you, Jo Fletcher Books. It makes me feel … it makes me feel … well, wonderful. And like I’ve got to really make sure the second book lives up to the first.

So if you notice me not writing here, rest assured it’s because I’m writing elsewhere. I’ll try to pop in at least every couple of weeks to let you know how I’m getting on, wrestle out loud with literary problems, and share any other news and views. I may post a bit more often to my Facebook page; I’d be chuffed to bits if the people who like this one liked that one as well.

(Oh, and in case anyone’s interested: not counting the reams of notes, character sketches, random phrases and lines of dialogue, the word count for the new book currently stands at 4,800. That’s Chapter 1, most of Chapter 2, and a crucial scene that will form the core of Chapter 3. Given that the target is roughly 100,000+ words and 30-ish chapters, it’s still very early days.)

Ebooks and online writing

I’ve spent the weekend so far responding to questionnaires and compiling information for my publishers, on everything from my favourite tipple to advice for aspiring writers, in preparation for the marketing blitz that is to come. The questions have for the most part been interesting and astute, and have made me think through my responses to a number of issues. Nowhere has my answer been more long-winded than when they asked what I thought of ebooks and online writing, and whether I’d ever done any myself. Clearly there are things I want to say on the subject, so here, in my primary online writing outlet, is what I think and what I hope.

At the risk of offending the purists, I am not one of those who thinks ebooks are somehow a lesser entity to printed books. I don’t think digital publication is a passing fad, or something that will peak at 20-30% of the market while physical books continue to occupy the lion’s share for ever and ever. If you think about it, on an increasingly overcrowded and environmentally polluted and depleted planet it would be crazy if we kept on chopping down trees, in order to chemically process them into blocks of paper, which we then have to find space to store – at both ends of an energy-intensive distribution chain. In the future I’ve imagined for the ®Evolution trilogy anything printed on paper is by definition an antique, and that’s the one thing I’m pretty certain will really be true in another hundred years or so.

But we are still at the early stages of that transition, and another aspect of it is the explosion of writing which is taking place online. One of the very good things about this is that more people are writing; they are using the medium of written language to convey thoughts, feelings, experiences, ideas, interests, philosophies – and they are reaching a wider audience than would ever have been possible before the Internet era, creating new communities unbounded by geography or many of the other traditional parameters like class, race or educational attainment. We are seeing the emergence of a new form of social ecosystem based on written communication. I think this is hugely exciting.

The downside of course is that there is a lot of bad writing online – easy access and the circumvention of any editorial process means that quality has not kept pace with quantity. Digital self-publishing, for example, enables simply atrocious books to be published in overwhelming quantities. But in the long term I’m not too worried, because I think that this particular phenomenon is a fad that will run its course. I think the sheer scale and complexity of online content will throw up new models of curation, upon which we will come to rely to find the products and smaller networks – those social ecosystems – that suit us best. (And for what it’s worth, I don’t think the enduring curation mechanisms are going to be based on the ‘friend’ model which now predominates.)

So what’s my contribution been to the primordial soup of online content? I dove in a couple of years ago by inventing an interactive, collaborative, creative writing exercise facilitator called Scriptopus. It’s essentially a game, in which visitors to the site can flip through a series of stories-in-progress, of which they can see only the last short section. Once they select the one they want to continue, they have to write the next section against the clock. Prior contributors to the same ‘story’ get an email to tell them it has been added to, and the new contributor can also email it to whoever they like, as well as post on their social media networks. After ten contributions the ‘story’ ends and everyone who’s participated gets an email with a link to the finished article. The fun of course is seeing how the initial idea gets transmuted as it passes from one writer to the next.

Scriptopus generates an astonishing range of brilliant, quirky, sometimes kinky ideas, and writing that ranges from sublimely beautiful to barely comprehensible. I don’t write on it myself much anymore, but I had to create a lot of the initial content so there would be enough ‘story starters’ for visitors to choose from. I still find it very useful when I am stuck and just not feeling very creative; fortunately that doesn’t happen too often. What it has and continues to do for me though – apart from helping me develop skill, confidence and expertise as a writer-entrepreneur – is develop my thinking around this idea of curation.

If I could afford it my next step would be to create tools that could sort the snippets of contributed prose both qualitatively and thematically, enabling like-minded and similarly-skilled writers to form tighter, better matched collaborations. What stories might come out of that?

Charlie Hill’s Literary Fiction Manifesto

I’m Pressing This amusing, perceptive and heartfelt post on the state of and prospects for literary fiction; it deserves a discussion I think. I’ve already added my own comment.

writers’ hub – Literary Fiction Manifesto – Charlie Hill.

Working title

A few fellow travellers in the online community have asked the title of my recently-completed novel – so that they can spot it when it arrives in their local bookshop. Charmed though I am by the sweet confidence of this request (of course it’ll get published, of course it’ll end up in a Waterstones or Borders somewhere near you … do you know what the odds are, people?!), I remain unsure of whether or how to respond. That’s because while I know what I call it, it’s not at all certain that a publisher will want to stick with my moniker. I sympathise. At this point I’m not even sure I want to stick with it, for reasons that will become clear. But I do need to respond, maybe spread the dilemma around a bit. Here goes.

To tell this story properly I should start at the beginning, with a quote from the 1967 preface to The Book of Imaginary Beings by the incomparable Jorge Luis Borges:

“We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon in the same way that we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that fits man’s imagination …”

That struck me when I first read it several years ago as a wonderfully elegant metaphor for what it is we do when we read and when we write – we take something completely invented, and from it try to extrapolate a recognisable truth. When I started writing my novel almost a year ago I knew I didn’t know what to call it yet, so I filed those earliest drafts as The Meaning of Dragons. I suspect I will use this again and again, as an obtuse but portentous working title, until I know what it is I’m really writing about.

As happened with the current novel. Ten thousand words or so in I had the principle characters, events and narrative arc, and had set the various parallel plotlines off and running. I knew what it was, and I had a new working title that actually captures what the story is about: ®Evolution. Yep, you got it. The book is about a revolution in terms of an upheaval; and revolutions in terms of repeating cycles of events; and the artificially engineered evolution of the human species by massively powerful corporations for equally massive financial gain. The circle around the ‘R’ to create the commercial registration mark both tells you there’s a mercantile imperative at work, and subtly hints at an orbit, the sense of something revolving. I wasn’t sure at first, but as the chapters rolled past and the story took on the weight and heft of truth, it felt right. I was writing about the ®Evolution.

The problem, of course, is that it’s a visual quip. The triple entendre only works when it’s read, not spoken. Say it out loud and you lose two-thirds of the meaning. Plus, verbalised it’s no longer unique. As my agent put it, there’s a lot of revolutions out there.

Had I thought of any alternative titles? Just, you know, in case.

So, I’ve been trying to. It’s been tough. I’m committed to the ®Evolution. But having had to think about a potential two more books to follow the first has helped, because now I can envisage them as a sequence of stories which together would chronicle the ®Evolution. I could make it the omnibus title instead of the name of one particular novel.

On the off chance that that’s how it pans out, the title of my first book might end up being Gemsign, which also encapsulates many of the key elements of the story. And before you ask, I’m not going to even begin to explain the significance of that word to you – not yet, anyway. Feels like tempting fate. When I know it’s really on the way to a bookshop near you, I’ll tell you what it means.

By which time, it might be called something else.

The hidden code of character names

I’ve been thinking a lot about names recently, as anyone who read my recent post about the tribulations of trying to name this blog will know. It reminded me of an online conversation I participated in some months ago, about examples of books in which character names provided powerful subliminal messages about the world and events of the story, and indeed about the characters themselves.

I was in the midst of writing my first novel at the time, and in the earlier planning stages had been struck by how much easier it was to write my core characters once I’d figured out what their names were. I seemed, suddenly, to know them better and to have a more profound understanding of their significance to the story and each other. Their names have meaning; they are part of the DNA, the hidden code that underpins the structure and themes of the story.

Going through this process myself made me think about other books I’ve loved wherein names have provided a subtle, subconscious signal about who and what the characters are. Two of my favourite examples, which I contributed to that online conversation I mentioned, are The Lord of the Rings and The Silence of the Lambs.

As I read and reread The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time, I was struck by how Tolkien constructed names that ‘fit’ each of the races in his story, managing somehow to encapsulate the entire cultural identity of a character in their name. They are internally consistent in terms of the syntax and structure of language for that people, and are instantly evocative. The Hobbits are small, straightforward, simple country folk given to hearty jokes and earthy pursuits, and their names reflect that – Bilbo, Frodo, Merry, Pippin, Sam. The Elves, with their grandeur, magic and ancient heritage tend to have long, lyrical names – Elrond, Galadriel, Legolas, Arwen Undomiel. The Men (humans) are somewhere in between, and their names tend to reflect their degree of nobility, which in the mythology of the book is indicated by how “close” they are to elf-culture; so Aragorn, noblest of all, could be an elf-name, while Boromir, Faramir and Denethor are almost elf-like but starting to have harder consonants. The names of the people of Rohan – Eomer, Eowyn and Theoden being the most famous – repeat the ‘eo’ syllable and so have that sense of family identity, helping to reinforce that while also ‘noble’ humans, they are something of an offshoot. The pattern holds true for the other subgroups of Men, the Dwarves, the Orcs and so on.

The Silence of the Lambs is a bit more obvious, but no less effective for that. I’ve always thought that the names of the two main characters tell you everything you need to know about who they are and what they mean to the story. ‘Hannibal Lecter’ combines a legendary king who was almost superhuman in his ambition, daring and appetite for violence with a surname that sounds like ‘lectern’ or ‘lecture’ – intellectual, dry, a bit pedantic. ‘Clarice Starling’ evokes clarity, innocence, and a vision of something wild and yet vulnerable. It combines a sense of integrity with a sense of striving – taking to the air, reaching for the stars – just like the character.

How about you? Has anyone out there struggled to find just the right name for a character, something that would quietly capture their essence without being too obviously symbolic? Do you have any really good (or bad) examples to share from published books? I’d love to hear from you.

What’s in a genre? Unpicking science fiction, fantasy and horror

My bookshelves are bastions of unreality. Narnia and Middle-Earth, Dune and the Culture. Morgan and Mieville. Gaiman and Pullman. Joe Hill and H.P. Lovecraft. The direction of my reading has been second to the right and straight on ’til morning since I was young enough to want to be Wendy.

Most bookshops stack the stuff I love in a corner labelled Fantasy/Sci Fi/Horror, and they do indeed sit very comfortably on a continuum of related reading experiences. As a reader, I never thought too much about the underlying structure of the fantastical. As a writer, I have to. And I’ve discovered that the distinctions which are often subtle for the reader can be quite profound for the writer.

All three genres posit a reality that is different than the humdrum, everyday “real world” that we all inhabit; the writer has to create that reality and draw the reader into it. This is worldbuilding, and while it’s a necessary element of almost every story, its demands on the imagination are arguably greater for horror, fantasy and science fiction than for other genres. But there are some key differences between these broad categories of the unreal. I find them in the measure of internal coherence required of the fictional world; the degree of continuity between it and the “real” world; and the amount of explanation that needs to be provided to the reader.

In horror, the reader is given little or no information about the hidden mechanics of the storyworld; it often appears to be the same as the “real” world (and therefore to require no explanation), until weird things start to happen. Then the inexplicability of events, and their disconnection from a rational, coherent framework wherein they make sense in relation to other events is what drives the sense of apprehension and terror. (A caveat: this applies more to modern horror writing. Classic novels such as Frankenstein and Dracula were written following what we would now think of as a science fiction or fantasy approach to worldbuilding.)

In fantasy, the reader is given a greater degree of explanation for how the world of the story works, which is necessary as it is usually immediately obvious that it is not the “real” world. These explanations are often elaborate and detailed, but they only need to be internally coherent – in other words they only need to make sense within the covers of the book, within the world of the story. The laws and logic of the fantasy world can be completely disconnected from the “real” world, as long as the story obeys the special rules of the fantasy world.

In science fiction lots of explanation is required, and it needs to be both internally coherent and to have some continuity with the “real” world. The physical reality of the science fiction story needs to follow the same basic rules as the “real” world, or at any rate to provide a rational explanation for any discrepancies. Science fiction need not always be set in the future; but wherever and whenever the story occurs, and however profoundly different the world it inhabits, the reader needs a plausible connection between the “here” of the real world and the “there” of the science fiction world. A fantasy world does not require the same degree of plausibility.

It seems to me that this sequence represents an ascending order of difficulty for the writer as worldbuilder. In horror the storyworld does not need to make rational sense; in fantasy it needs to make sense internally, but not externally; in science fiction it needs to be plausible both internally and externally. (I’m not, by the way, suggesting that it’s easier to write horror than science fiction – far from it. Creating the suspension of disbelief necessary to make you scared of an implausible monster is a tough trick.)

Having managed to unpick the nature of the writers’ challenges and readers’ complicity in constructing these imaginary settings, we inevitably run up against the stuff that just doesn’t seem to fit. Novels like The Time Traveller’s Wife or Never Let Me Go create a problem for genre cubbyholers. The scenarios they posit should be classic science fiction Big Ideas – but the authors make no real attempt to explain the how or why of the situations the characters find themselves in. Their worlds could be ours, but for the disconnects – an unrecognisable history that just is, seemingly impossible stuff that just happens. And excellent and acclaimed though these books are, there remains a sneaking sense of unease amongst both the SF geeks who want an explanation, dammit, and aren’t entirely inclined to trust an author who doesn’t give them one; and the snobbish literati who can’t quite put to bed the suspicion that they’ve been conned into reading something that smacks – gasp, shudder – of sci fi. Horrors.

Which, actually, is pretty close to the mark. I’m not a genre pedant; I’m happy to simply read a good book. But if I had to shelve these two in my fantasy bookshop of the fantastical, under Horror they would go.

Have you decided on a name yet?

As a new blogger, I’ve run up against a quandary. What do I call the thing?

I hadn’t thought about it in advance, and the reams of instruction and advice that WordPress kindly provides does not appear to extend to the dark art of choosing the right name. And it is an important decision, as any poorly-titled adolescent will tell you. The right one will help win you friends and followers, impress them with your wit and worth, make you memorable. The wrong one – not so much. But I hadn’t considered any of this yet, so I started off using my own name, and staring blankly at the invitation to add something descriptive. What was this blog going to be about? Why was I here? A phrase drifted into my head, a line from an old song that seemed to capture it. And so I started off as Stephanie Saulter | talking back to the night.

But then, a couple of days later as I trawled through experimenting with widgets and themes, I got to thinking. I already have something of an online identity as Scriptopus, the creative writing web app I started a couple of years ago. It’s my handle on Twitter and Goodreads. Shouldn’t I be consistent? Maintain that name, the already familiar tagline? I found where you could change it and, hey presto, became Scriptopus | How many stories can you write today?

And that was okay for a couple more days, during which I was focused on something other than setting up the blog. But then I came back to it, and I thought Hang on. I’ve got this wrong. The Scriptopus website is about group writing. It’s fundamentally collaborative. This blog is supposed to be about what I write, read and think. An expression of the individual, not a report from the collective. Plus by then I’d figured out how to manipulate menus and pages. I realised I could do my duty to the website without saying anything, much less emblazoning it across the header, simply by inserting a tab with a link. So I did that, and reverted to the original title/tag combination, and loaded up a few poems and bits of prose, and went away happy.

You’ve figured out the pattern by now.

I’ve been reading blogs, you see. Other people’s. I’ve been laughing at the creativity of their nomenclature, nodding solemn agreement with their witty tags, and noticing that very few of the good ones use anything as pedestrian and unmemorable as a personal name. It seems like a point of pride almost. And I’d like to feel I belong to this club.

So back to Settings > General > Site Title > Tagline. And a growing sense of ridiculousness. I’m annoyed with myself now, and to anyone else I may have annoyed along the way, my deepest apologies. I’ve made a decision: my name in the URL and authorial credits, the former tagline as title, a simple description. That’s it. This is it, at the top of the screen. No more faffing about. Done.

Unless of course …

Poetic distraction

I don’t write poetry. Not really. Not seriously. And on the very odd occasion when I very occasionally do, I am invariably in a mood which can only be described as weird.

It’s a conflicted condition: at once focused and distracted, overflowing with language yet linguistically constrained, dreamy and jittery. It puzzles me. And, I suppose, the writing of a poem is a way of trying to impose some kind of structure and sense on an insensible state. Like being caught in a riptide, the only way out is to swim with it for a while, appearing to give in until you can sneak out, at the gentlest of angles, before the current catches on. To scratch the itch that will placate, but never exorcise, this particular imp.

I drifted into this once-in-a-blue-moon mood last week, around the same time I was setting up this blog, working on a structural revision of the final chapter of my novel, and writing copy for a business website. Now multitasking is something I’m good at, but this was a bit much. My brain didn’t exactly seize up, but my subconscious serenely reprioritised. Laptop abandoned, I found myself in the window seat, notebook on knee, pencil in hand and bleak winter landscape arrayed before me. I could have been a Bronte heroine.

The funny thing, though, about surrendering to that sweet melancholy, is how the words just come. And how, even though no one but you may ever quite grasp the sense or the structure you see in it, you know when the words are perfect, or when they’re close but not quite right, or when they are as awkward and wrong as a mistranslated verse. You feel the rhythm of it. You move to the beat.

I wrote the damn poem. I’m not displeased with it. Getting it down felt like waking up.

You can read it here.

Neil Gaiman on Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton

I know, I know. Another post that’s actually not mine. I’ve been busy, honest. And it’s Neil Gaiman, and it is, as always, brilliant. I don’t know Chesterton as well as I should, but he speaks for me on Lewis and Tolkien.

Goodreads | Neil Gaiman’s Blog – A speech I once gave: On Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton – January 25, 2012 23:23.

On becoming a writer

I’m a writer.  I never used to say that out loud, and it still sounds strange and new to me. Which is odd, because I have written and written and written, for years and years and years. Oh, it never said so on a business card. Those always said Manager of this, Director of that. Executive. Consultant. Different responsibilities, different industries even. But all of them, without exception, required thinking about things, and the coherent organisation of those thoughts into a narrative, and the writing down of that narrative. Marketing copy, reports, proposals, policies, strategies. Not as boring as it sounds, and it pays the bills, and I’m good at it.

But the really interesting stuff was always … the other stuff. Scribbled down randomly, irregularly, almost in secret. In the last five minutes before falling asleep, or between appointments. Half an hour’s jolting ride on a train, pen skipping and juddering across a poem or an essay or an imagined conversation. A weekend, maybe, spent in pyjamas, lost in an idea, a marathon effort to get – it – down before time and mental space ran out.

Gradually, more of this. More time, commitment, more of a need for it. As with so much else it turns out the more you do, the more you can do. So weekends become weeks, weeks become months. Verses become poems, a snatch of dialogue morphs into a screenplay. An idea, a strange, shapeless notion about an inexplicable character in an unthinkable circumstance reveals itself as a novel. And that has turned out to be the most powerful experience yet. You become omnipotent, layering slivers of reality onto a foundation of whim, until the world inside your head feels as complex as the one outside.

There’s no going back after that. I’m a writer. Here I am.

  • 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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