It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Wonderbook, Jeff VanderMeer

wonderbookThey say everyone has a book inside them. Some people, it seems, even have a book about writing books inside them. While many of the latter have been written by people whose only published work appears to be a book about writing a publishable novel, there are a large number by authors with long and illustrious careers. This is especially true in science fiction and fantasy, a mode of fiction which as been curiously self-fertilising since its inception in the pages of Amazing Stories in 1926. Names from the letters pages of the pulp magazines soon had stories appearing in those same titles. There is a long list of successful science fiction and fantasy writers who have published “how to write” books, from Bob Shaw to Ben Bova, from Lisa Tuttle to Damon Knight, and from Stephen King to Ray Bradbury. And yet, despite the marquee names on the covers, such books are not always useful. Shaw’s How to Write Science Fiction (1993) may be an entertaining read, but its advice can be distilled down to “read lots of books”. The best, despite its age, is probably Knight’s Creating Short Fiction (1981). Bova’s The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells (1994) is simplistic, and the stories – his own, of course – he uses to illustrate his points do the book no favours. However, Bova did go on to edit a series of books on specific aspects of writing science fiction for Writer’s Digest Books and, while necessarily specialist in the topics they cover, they can be helpful.

All of which is a roundabout way of introducing Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer. Vandermeer is no stranger to genre fiction – he is an award-winning writer and anthologist, and he also runs a highly-regarded small press, Cheeky Frawg Books. Wonderbook, subtitled “the illustrated guide to creating imaginative fiction”, has apparently been several years in the making. Given the book’s size, and its copious illustrations, that’s a boast it’s easy to believe. In fact, as an object, Wonderbook is pretty impressive, which is not something that can be said of most “how to write” books.

And yet… There’s something in the whole concept of a “how to write” book which seems vaguely antithetical to the process of creating fiction. The axiom that writing is a craft, that it is a skill set which can be taught, appears to suggest there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. As a result, “how to write” books often come across as prescriptive – “this is what fiction should be”, “this is what genre fiction should be”… And this can lead to a blanding out of literature written in a science fiction or fantasy mode.

If the recent self-publishing boom has taught us anything, it’s not just that everyone has a book in them, but that most of those books really should have never seen the light of day. It’s not simply an inability to tell a compelling story, it’s that many self-published writers simply do not have the language skills – their books are replete with typos, grammatical errors and malapropisms.

But is a facility with written language all that’s required? Certainly, a writer should know what they are doing before they make a deliberate choice not to do it. It’s not that there’s a need for rules, or even accepted ways of doing things… but expectations certainly exist – from editors to readers, from publishers to reviewers…

Wonderbook scores higher in this regard than other books of its ilk – the clue is there in the subtitle. This is a book designed to catalyse the creative process, and then show how to shape that creative impulse. Vandermeer is also clear on Wonderbook’s audience: “although of use to beginner and intermediate writers working in any genre, Wonderbook’s default setting is fantasy rather than realism” (p xiv). The book covers its subject in seven chapters, titled: Inspiration and the Creative Life, The Ecosystem of Story, Beginnings and Endings, Narrative Design, Characterization, Worldbuilding, and Revision. Each chapter contains numerous illustration – some instructional, some merely decorative. There are also a number of sidebar essays by established genre writers, such as Kim Stanley Robinson, Lauren Beukes, Karen Lord, Ursula K Le Guin, Nick Mamatas and Neil Gaiman. And a detailed analysis of Vandermeer’s own novel, Finch.

The sidebar essays demonstrate that asking ten different writers how to write will result in ten different answers, many of which will be either contradictory or too specific to be of much use. Authors with successful careers have by definition experience at writing publishable fiction, but what worked for them is not necessarily transferable. Nor should it be.

There are plenty of examples given of the narrative techniques covered in Wonderbook, but unfortunately some of the details are just plain wrong. The love affair in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 is between Swan and Wahram, not Waltham (p 87). Iain M Banks’s Culture novels do not “postulate a far future in which humankind has spread out across the galaxy”, but are set during our present day – see the novella ‘State of the Art’ (p 147).

Despite all that, if you’re looking for insights into writing for publication successfully, a “how to write” book is not necessarily the best place to look. Shaw’s advice – “read lots of books” – may be trite, but it’s still the best way to learn how to write. Some “how to write” books may present novel-writing as a “get rich quick” scheme, but anyone with any sense knows it’s anything but. Wonderbook makes no such claims: its lessons are clear, its analyses are mostly unobjectionable, the illustrations add welcome texture, and it’s a poor reader who will walk away from the book without learning something. For the “beginner or intermediate writer”, it’s certainly one of the best books available of its type. For the seasoned writer, perhaps not so much – there’s just a little too much which feels restrictive.

But that’s the nature of writing about writing fiction.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #250, January-February 2014.


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10 things I learnt writing space opera

The following may read as pure cynicism, but it’s actually meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I thought it best to mention that before some redditor sees it and starts frothing at the mouth…

1. There is nothing to be learned from analysing other space operas
Why are some space operas successful, and some not? It’s no good looking for a magic ingredient or a magic formula – there isn’t one. This also applies to epic fantasy, another resolutely commercial form of genre fiction. I read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series to see what made its books bestsellers. I couldn’t figure it out. They were terrible and derivative, and often astonishingly dull. They also sold by the boatload. Go figure.

2. Yes, you can be too clever
Space opera is a commercial subgenre of science fiction and has proven wildly successful on television and in the cinema. It is broad-brush literature. Yes, you can get clever with it, but the sort of people who enjoy space opera are unlikely to appreciate it, and the sort of people who like clever fiction are unlikely to pick up a space opera in the first place. This doesn’t mean there aren’t successful exceptions, of course. But. M John Harrison’s Light had his name on the cover, so readers knew exactly what they were getting. And Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy judged the amount of cleverness to include pretty much perfectly.

3. In a trilogy or series, never put off the resolution of minor plot threads or mysteries until the next book
It’s one thing to draw out a plot over the length of a trilogy or series, but that’s the meta-story – no one expects that to be resolved in the first book. But if you’ve included a bunch of minor plot threads, or even a couple of mysteries, you need to resolve them before the end of the book in which they appear. Readers will either conclude the plot thread doesn’t work, the author has forgotten about it, or won’t remember it when you do resolve it in the book following. See above re too clever…

4. Readers will swallow anything… as long as it’s a trope
As Joe Abercrombie tweeted several weeks ago: “Always surprises me the things people find utterly unbelievable in a fantasy. Giant winged lizard? Fine. Female smith? BEYOND RIDICULOUS.” In space opera, that would be: Faster-Than-Light travel? No problem. A society that never developed gunpowder? I DON’T BELIEVE IT. Guess what – it’s all fucking made-up. Every bit of it. Dragons are not real, FTL is not real. So if the author wants to posit a star-faring society without guns, then why the hell not? Um, see above re too clever…

5. Familiarity does not breed contempt, it breeds the moneys
Commercial fiction of any genre trades on the familiar. It exists mostly to be comfort reading, and most people don’t like to have their likes and prejudices questioned. See Puppygate, see Lovecraftgate, see anybody who uses the term “political correctness” or “social justice warrior” unironically. Space opera is big spaceships, big battles, derring-do and as much colour as can be reasonably squeezed into 700 action-packed pages. Themes are big and bold and simple: good people win, bad people lose; evil empires are evil; one man (it’s always a man, of course) with a stout heart can topple the biggest of empires; if you can’t map Middle America values onto a fictional universe, then it is clearly wrong.

6. Unless your space opera is military sf, don’t package it to look anything like military science fiction
If you put a GIANT SPACE BATTLESHIP on the cover of your space opera, most readers will expect to find something inside which is all about the GIANT SPACE BATTLESHIP and nothing else. Manly man human space fleets battling nasty reptile aliens, for example. And when that’s not what’s in there… When people buy a meat pie, they expect to get a pastry shell filled with some sort of flavoured flesh. If it was filled entirely with, say, aubergine, they would be rightly disappointed. Of course, books are not meat pies, and it may well be that a military-sounding book title and a GIANT SPACE BATTLESHIP on the cover are actually relevant to the story, which is, despite all that, not at all military science fiction. But that, of course, is why we have blurbs – and why Kindle books let you read an excerpt.

7. Too much description is a bad thing
Descriptive prose gets in the way of action. Though how immersion is supposed to work without descriptive prose is beyond me– oh wait, clichés. Of course… And you could always stick it in dialogue. Readers like dialogue – it explains things. You know that writers’ maxim: show, don’t tell? It should really be: don’t show, tell it in dialogue. Fact.

8. It’s impossible to know what needs to be explained
Some readers will complain because a space opera’s particular flavour of FTL is not backed up by an info-dump. Others will be unwilling to suspend their disbelief regarding the book’s social set-up without some sort of history lesson to “explain” it. There is no way of knowing what level of exposition is appropriate, or what elements actually require exposition – it varies from reader to reader, from story to story. Personally, I tend to go for “less is more”, but readers seem to trust authors far less these days than they used to.

9. There needs to be a Poe’s Law type thing for pastiches
Science fiction, they say, is a genre in conversation with itself. It might be better to consider it as some sort of colony creature, which passes its genes – ie, tropes – from one generation to the next, slowly evolving, often mutating, as it goes. A GIANT SPACE JELLYFISH. Conversation, after all, it implies some sort of intellectual engagement, and if tropes are what genre uses to propagate itself, you wouldn’t expect them to be used so uncritically so often. So when tropes are indeed pastiched, it’s often impossible to tell if it’s being done ironically or uncritically.

10. You can overthrow the universe as long as you put it back how you found it
Nothing ever really changes in space opera – or in epic fantasy, for that matter. Different uniforms but the same old jackboots. You can only take progression so far. See earlier re female smith. Start putting too much progression in there and you put the entire genre at risk – you get Puppygate. Still it’s hardly surprising that a subgenre based on autocratic political models is regressive, it’s written into its DNA. And if you change that, well, you haven’t really got space opera, have you? So keep your universe tidy and put things back where you found them. You know it’s the “right” thing to do…

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Of course, for every point made above, someone is going to name a particular space opera which disproves the point. Which, er, pretty much proves point 1. But when you look at a genre which exists in two distinct markets, one of which is driven by marketing spend (proper published books), and one by weird sales algorithms (self-published Kindle books), it tends to be the more traditional fare which succeeds best in the latter market. Besides, the points made above are not actually meant seriously…

Or are they?


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Reasons to be cheerful… in space opera

Consolatory fantasy typically ends with the existing power structure back in charge, and they’re usually the good guys – no matter how unfair the society – so as a result I suppose that could be seen as optimistic. Of course, the bad guys are always much worse. Most space operas follow a similar set-up. If it’s not the barbarians at the gates, it’s the rot from within. Either way, the empire or republic is in for a kicking and the good guys have to put up the good fight to save it. If the empire does go down in flames, a new more powerful one will rise phoenix-like from its ashes. So far, so consolatory.

I will happily admit I deliberately set out to pastiche the consolatory fantasy template when I wrote A Prospect of War. Here’s the emperor – he’s under threat. So here’s a posse of good guys all set to fight the dark lord and defend the throne. And so the plot of the novel pretty much kicks off the conspiracy and sees the peasant hero gather his forces for the final battle.

However, part of the fun of writing the sequel, A Conflict of Orders, was then carefully upsetting that structure. The final battle takes place halfway through the book, rather than at the end of the trilogy. The villain is defeated (that can hardly be a spoiler) and the throne is once again safe… And then the tone of the story changes…

There is a plot hiding beneath the story of the An Age of Discord trilogy. Hints and clues to it appear in both A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders, and it was always my intention to bring that plot into the light and resolve it in the third and final book, A Want of Reason. But in the years since I finished writing A Conflict of Orders and now – when I have to write A Want of Reason from scratch to complete the trilogy – I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things. Not least what happens in A Want of Reason. Part of this is practical – I put together lots of notes for the third book back when I was writing the first two, but those notes now sit on a dead computer and are inaccessible. But it’s also true that my definition of what constitutes an optimistic ending, never mind an interesting story, has changed in the years since I completed A Conflict of Orders. Which is not to say that A Want of Reason will be a domestic novel – I’m not going to do a Tehanu (much as I would love to)…

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But as A Want of Reason begins to take shape and settle into its story, I’m finding it a much darker novel than I had expected. The focus of the story too has altered, and now rests on a different selection of characters. Casimir Ormuz, the peasant hero, is still there, of course. But his journey to the resolution – never mind the resolution itself – is very different to the one I had originally envisaged.

I wrote each novella (and novel) of the Apollo Quartet to confound reader expectations. I see now that I’d been working to a similar principle – albeit considerably weaker – when I’d written A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders. But for A Want of Reason… I’m going all-out. The good guys will become bad guys, and the bad good, and the ending will neither reinforce the status quo nor raze the empire to the ground.

There’s not much room for innovation in space opera, given that everyone judges the subgenre by its bells and whistles. It’s either the world-building or – and this is a development of the past few years – its gingerbread prose which seeks to disguise common tropes beneath obfuscatory metaphors. The story templates haven’t changed, the tropes certainly haven’t changed. (There’s probably a Tough Guide to Space Opera, er, Space post somewhere in all this.) And those few space operas which have rung changes have generally caused very few waves. Has there, for example, been anything comparable to Nova published in the twenty-first century? (Having said that, are there any space opera authors as fiercely intelligent as Samuel R Delany currently being published?) There’s Ann Leckie’s trilogy of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, of course, which used an astonishing piece of sleight of hand in using female as a default personal gender to add a fresh new flavour to something Iain M Banks had been doing for three decades. And while Banks was certainly more innovative than pretty much every other writer of space opera – a consequence, I suspect, of having one foot in the literary fiction camp – even then he had a tendency to use tropes as they were set up rather than subvert or re-engineer them.

Sadly, Banks is gone and I suspect Leckie’s trilogy will prove a one-off blip. Space opera was already busy retrenching after the exciting times of the British New Space Opera of the eighties and nineties – not just Banks, but Take Back Plenty, Eternal Light, Light… But that movement introduced more of a hard sf sensibility to space opera (and some of the names attached to it, including McAuley and Reynolds, are probably better considered hard sf writers), without substantially changing its story patterns or its commonest tropes.

I’ve said before that space opera – if not science fiction itself – is an inherently right-wing genre (even if not all of its practitioners are right-wing). But more than that, I think space opera is inevitably drawn to the right. If someone writes a space opera which isn’t right-wing, it soon veers back to that side of the political spectrum. In part, it’s a function of the political systems which usually appear in space opera: emperors and empresses and empires and bloody great huge space navies. (I don’t, incidentally, hold with the argument that it’s the supposed tyranny of the laws of physics which lends science fiction, especially hard sf, its right-wing character.) However, I do think that science fiction has now, more than ever, reached a position where much of what qualifies as sf is little more than the rote deployment of sf tropes. There’s no insight, no consideration, attached. Put FTL into a story and no one so much as blinks. It’s just part of the furniture. Flat-pack science fiction.

And if you’re going to claim FTL is okay, it’s plausible, because there might be a Kuhnian paradigm shift which means it could happen… Which is, er, not my point at all. The tropes exist, they’re the building blocks of both space opera and science fiction. But I don’t think they should be used uncritically. I’d like to think I haven’t used them myself uncritically. Admittedly, a commercial space opera is likely not the best vehicle to deconstruct space opera tropes (but then I’d have said an commercial fantasy trilogy might not be the best place to deconstruct epic fantasy tropes, but Delany went and wrote his Nevèrÿon novels; but then, Delany…).

My area of interest in writing lies chiefly in the shape of stories, the narrative structures used to present a story in a particular way. I’m not interested in immersion – or rather, no more so than I need for a story’s world to be rigorous in my own mind. I’m not interested in literary techniques designed to make one reader response more likely than others… I jokingly mentioned in a recent conversation that I’d set a story on an exoplanet orbiting Gliese 876 but moved the setting to 61 Virginis because I didn’t think it plausible the story could have taken place given the original star’s distance, and likely travel times, from Earth. This is a science fiction story, of course, which posits a human civilisation across several star systems. No one would have noticed, but it was important to me.

If a science fiction story creates its own world , its version of Mars, Dubai, the Atlantic Ocean, etc, that doesn’t to me mean it does not demand the same level of rigour which pertains in the real world, in mimetic fiction. And at those points where the science fiction touches the real world… then the rigour applies just as much. This was a defining philosophy of the Apollo Quartet. The An Age of Discord space opera trilogy, however, does not touch the real world – at least not to any degree which might affect its setting. But its universe still needs to be internally rigorous. This may be why I find narrative structures and story templates preferable to be experimented upon – because they do not jeopardise rigour. (Yes, yes, you can make a point of ignoring rigour – surrealism, if you will – but that’s a different discussion.)

And so, in a more roundabout way than I am typical guilty of, it’s back to A Want of Reason and my total inability to wrap up what is supposed to be a commercial space opera trilogy in a nicely commercial way. The final chapter of A Conflict of Orders gives a flavour of the third and final book, and it wasn’t until I came back to that chapter a few months ago that I realised exactly what I’d set myself up for. Empress Flavia is on the Imperial Throne – and she’s kicked off a crack-down. When I first wrote it, it probably meant something in terms of my original plan for A Want of Reason. Now, it means: space opera fascism! And that’s what you’ll be getting: a space opera setting that moves ponderously to the right, in order to set up a climax that shifts everything irrevocably to the left. And, meanwhile, your favourite characters? I’ve either dialled them back so far in the narrative they no longer have any agency, or I’ve got them doing stuff villains normally do.

Because. Space opera.


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On writing and how to

I’m probably the last person who should be giving writing advice, which is as good a reason as any for a blog post on the topic. If you want to know how to write short stories which are guaranteed to sell, look elsewhere. I suspect no one else really knows either, they’re just not honest enough to admit it. “Hey, it worked for me – sure it’ll work for you!” Yeah right. If you’re looking for rules on writing readable saleable fiction, I’m the wrong person to ask. If that makes me a dilettante, then so be it. I’m interested in fiction, I’m interested in how fiction works, and I’m interested in using that knowledge to create fiction which does something different. At least, that is, within my chosen genre.

It often seems wannabe writers can’t make a move without bumping into some “rule” or other: “show, don’t tell”, “prose must be transparent to let the story shine through”, “there are only seven plots”, “use a three-act structure”… They’re all bollocks. Fiction, least of all science fiction, is not a programming language. It doesn’t need to be compiled, and it won’t break the reader if, for example, you chose not to use quotation marks around dialogue.

And no one knows why some fiction succeeds and some doesn’t. It is not true that good novels will always see print (never mind sell by the boatload). There are a lot of excellent novels that have never been published, there are a lot of bad novels that have seen print (and some have even been phenomenally successful). There are also a lot of hugely popular novels which garnered a raft of rejections before someone eventually took a chance on them.

As for posterity… Dickens was a hack, an unashamedly populist writer – he even let his readers choose how one novel ended. And Jane Austen was allegedly neither the best writer of her generation nor the most popular – but her novels have endured, while the others are forgotten. Mary Shelly wrote seven novels, but it is her debut, Frankenstein, which is remembered two hundred years later by most people.

Science fiction should be willing to stretch the boundaries of narrative and genre. That it usually doesn’t is a result of the fact it is, at heart, a form of pulp fiction. It had its beginnings in pulp magazines, and though it has at times tried to throw off its origins – the New Wave being the most celebrated attempt – the basic form usually ends up prevailing. And not necessarily for the right reasons.

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It’s a long-accepted truism science fiction readers are more open-minded, more willing to accept the Other, than readers of other genres… Or are they? Has sf become a victim of its own success? Its most prevalent models have proven so popular across most media that all forms of science fiction are assumed to be of that type. It’s an easy argument to believe – the Sad Puppies certainly fell for it – but it’s not in the slightest bit true. Science fiction is a broad church, and it’s long been my contention that those who take the trouble to admire, and understand, how the genre operates will make better use of the tools available to a writer.

So it’s all very well just blithely introducing FTL into a science fiction text, because the story requires several different locations and the genre insists they be separated by light-years. Except… Firefly put all its worlds in a single planetary system. Not, it has to be said, a particularly plausible solution, but at least it was an attempt to address a common sf stumbling block: space is big, hugely mind-bogglingly big. There are remarkably few science fiction novels which take account of that – notable examples being the current fad (see below) for generation starship stories, such as Aurora and Children of Time.

But if Whedon failed to interrogate the tropes he deployed – no real surprise there – there’s no reason why other writers cannot. There is no GREAT BIG BOOK OF TROPES which must be obeyed. There are no rules which dictate how tropes should be deployed. No matter what some people might insist. Making use of them the same way everyone else has done is just lazy writing, cheap shorthand for complex objects (as is hiding those tropes under a thin veneer of metaphor – but that’s a rant for another time). Each trope certainly exists for a reason, and it makes for much more interesting fiction, to me, if it is the reason that’s interrogated.

The big point about writing, the thing that drives all others, is that you get out what you put in. But your readers probably won’t. There are tricks you can use to trigger a specific reader response, but sooner or later your readers will spot those tricks and they will no longer work. So you might as well write something which meets your own objectives and not those of some mythical reader. The market does not exist, it’s an emergent phenomenon – so it’s no good writing “to the market” because there’s no such thing. And should you decide to try – well, by the time you’ve written your novel, the fad is likely over, unless you’re uncannily good at trendspotting. You can only write to please yourself and hope it pleases others…

It’s not like I’m one to talk. The Apollo Quartet has sold in total some 3000 copies over 3.5 years, of which just over half were sales of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. I was surprised during a conversation at Fantasycon 2015 to be told the Apollo Quartet is held in high regard. It often feels like “regard” should have a number attached and I know – from tracking my own sales – what that number is for the Apollo Quartet. Certainly among my friends and acquaintances, the four books have their fans. But not every review of them has been complimentary or fulsome.

I wrote each book of the Apollo Quartet to deliberately not be what readers of the preceding book had praised. People liked that Adrift on the Sea of Rains was literary, so I wrote The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to be a science fiction puzzle narrative. With each book I tried to push the boundaries of narrative and narrative structure. I made a number of artistic decisions which readers have questioned – not just the lack of quotation marks, but also the lack of closure, the refusal to spell out acronyms, the use of inference to link two narratives… the choice by myself to make the reader work to understand the story. I didn’t intend the Apollo Quartet to be light reading, and that dictated how I approached writing it.

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There is, now I think about it, another reason why I’m a poor choice of person to write about writing science fiction: I can’t stick to the point, and I’m not entirely sure if this piece is in any way helpful. Writing advice is a poisoned chalice at the best of times – success is too individual for any particular technique to be held up as a general guideline. (I’m assuming a basic facility with language, of course). Having said that, one piece of advice I can give: get yourself a sympathetic group of beta readers. They will tell you what works and what doesn’t. Don’t just bang your novel up on Kindle, unseen by anyone else. (And don’t get me started on self-published 99p science fiction novels – that’s a rant for another day.)

There’s an unspoken compact between writer and reader. You can either stick to it… or have a bit of fun with it. Personally, I think the latter makes for more interesting fiction. Unfortunately, the former is more likely to result in successful fiction. You pays your money and you takes your choice…


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This has been going on

A few bits and pieces of news from these parts, just for a change. I keep on forgetting to do this sort of stuff. Bad me.

First up, Karen Burnham reviewed the entire Apollo Quartet in Strange Horizons here. SH do good, thorough reviews – and this is one of them.

I wrote a small piece on breaking the fourth wall in fiction for a guest post on Gillian Polack’s blog. You can find it here.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains is now available in Spanish! It’s the title story in the anthology, A la Deriva en el Mar de las Lluvias y Otros Relatos, which is now available from a variety of places, including Amazon.

A Conflict of Orders, the sequel to A Prospect of War, is now available as an ebook (Amazon UK | Amazon US). The signed limited hardback will appear at the end of October.

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There’s a “story behind the story” piece on A Conflict of Orders on upcoming4.me here. Meanwhile, work on the third and final book of the trilogy, A Want of Reason, continues.

I sold a science fiction short story to Interzone. It’s called ‘Geologic’, is set on an exoplanet with high atmospheric pressure, and should be appearing in issue 262 in January 2016. I also contributed an editorial to issue 260, about the Sad/Rabid Puppy Hugo mess.

Oh, and I have a new cat, a ginger tom called Oscar. Say hello.

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Is that the book you really meant to write?

So that’s A Conflict of Orders, the sequel to A Prospect of War and the second book of my space opera trilogy, handed over to the publisher. Now I’ve got to make a start on the third book. And I’d say I’ve got carte blanche, literally, except I haven’t really, because there’s a plot laid out in the first two books and there’s all that foreshadowing I’ve done and the hints and clues I’ve dropped… But I’ve still got plenty of room to manoeuvre, and after writing the Apollo Quartet I’m going to take every damn inch available. Not just because I can but because I want to.

When I started writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I was trying to capture what it actually felt like to be wearing an Apollo era spacesuit on the Moon. It would be an act of imagination, of course – I’m not an astronaut, I’ve never been to the Moon, I’ve never worn a A7LB. But I’d read plenty of astronaut autobiographies and books about spacesuits and NASA technical documentation from the Apollo flights. And it struck me a Cormac McCarthy-like prose style would be good for evoking the desolation of the lunar surface. So I wrote my novella about a group of astronauts in an Apollo programme which had continued into the 1980s, and who were now stranded at a Moon base after the Earth had destroyed itself during a nuclear war.

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I made certain artistic decisions that were, well, not the way you were “supposed” to do things. A long glossary. Astronauts that spoke like real astronauts, with no concessions made to the reader. No quote marks around the dialogue. I had no idea what sort of reception Adrift on the Sea of Rains would receive, but I was dead set on it being exactly the way I wanted it to be…

The rest, as they say, is history.

However, I’d foolishly decided to make my novella the first of a quartet. The Apollo Quartet. It had a nice ring to it. I went through a number of story ideas before eventually settling on what became the second book, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself – and then ditching the original structure after a comment in a review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains – none of which is especially relevant, as the point of this post is… writing sequels.

There are several different types of sequel. The most obvious is the one which continues the story begun in the preceding volume. Some of these can stand-alone, but many read like one humongous book split into several smaller volumes. Other types of sequel may be set in the same universe, and feature exactly the same cast, but follow a different plot – and those various plots may themselves contribute to a greater story arc (or simply fill in more details about the series’ world or protagonist). Some sequels share only a setting, but may reference the events of earlier books in the series.

Of course, a sequel doesn’t have to follow the story or protagonist or setting, the link might be more tenuous. Theme, for example. It might even be extra-textual. As it is in the Apollo Quartet. Although Adrift on the Sea of Rains has no real closure, the story would not be continued in the next novella, it would never be continued. The only link would be that provided by the quartet’s title: the Apollo programme. That’s about as extra-textual as you can get: imagined variations on a real-world space programme.

As for the second book’s story… The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of doing exactly the opposite of what was expected. People had said Adrift on the Sea of Rains was literary rather than science fiction, so I’d write The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to appeal more to a reader of science fiction (but I gave it a literary title because why not). The narrative would be a puzzle, one that no character in the story could solve, and I wasn’t going to explain it either. All the clues would be there, but the reader would have to put it all together themselves. That would likely piss some people off, but that was the plan. Especially since I wasn’t even going to put the main plot front and centre but hide it behind the two narratives. The idea was to write exactly what admirers of the first book weren’t expecting or, from their comments, didn’t especially want.

So I did.

Some liked it more than the first book, some didn’t.

But then I had to do something completely different for the third book.

If Adrift on the Sea of Rains was more literary than sf, and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself was more sf than literary, then book three would be… neither. The Apollo Quartet was based on alternate takes on the Apollo programme, but I’d make this third novella pure alternate history. The Mercury 13 provided the perfect opportunity to do so. But I also wanted to write about the bathyscaphe Trieste, and while I had the perfect story for it – the recovery of a spy satellite film canister – there was no obvious link, or indeed any link, to the Apollo programme. However, since part of the philosophy behind the Apollo Quartet was making the reader do the work, it occurred to me I didn’t need to explicitly document the link. A few hints, and let the reader figure it out. I’d done that in The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, it’s just that in this novella one narrative was not a consequence of the other, because the consequences took place outside the story.

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This became Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (the most Lowry-esque title of the entire quartet).

Right from the moment I’d decided Adrift on the Sea of Rains would be the first book of the Apollo Quartet I knew what the final book would be about: the wife of a real-life Apollo astronaut who wrote science fiction. Because I wanted to juxtapose the invented space travel of her imaginary worlds with the real space travel of his. I also liked the idea of ending a trio of alternate Apollo histories with the real Apollo programme. In other words, this fourth novella wouldn’t even be science fiction.

Except, I went and spoiled things. First, I decided to make it a novel, rather than a novella. I’d originally planned to have two narratives – one would be the protagonist’s real life, the other would be one of her stories. But that felt too much like Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. When I started writing the novel, I decided to namecheck only women science fiction writers, but it occurred to me I could make more of a point by setting my story in a world in which science fiction was a women’s genre. And from that point, I was just throwing stuff in to make reading the novel as rich an experience as possible – not just the names of real-world women sf authors, but also references to well-known sf stories. I put the protagonist’s story in the centre of the novel and used the first half to show the inspiration for it and the second half to reflect its plot. Not to mention hints back to the earlier books of the quartet…

This was All That Outer Space Allows.

So none of the books of the Apollo Quartet are actual sequels according to the commonly-understood meaning of the term. And I approached each one with the intention of surprising, and possibly annoying, those who had admired the previous book. It seems to have worked. And it worked for me too as a way of finding my way into the stories of the quartet. Sometimes, as a writer, you need that. It’s easy enough when the plot of book 1 follows through into books 2 and 3 and 4, all you’re doing then is delaying the resolution – and, since you don’t want those sequels to be pure padding, complicating the resolution. You’re basically lay the groundwork for closure.

But closure is a commercial fiction thing, like transparent prose and sympathetic protagonists. And that’s particuarly true of genre fiction. Readers expect everything to be neatly resolved by the time they reach the last page. The Good King is back on the throne and the Dark Lord defeated. The alien invasion has been rebuffed and it was all because they needed our water. The drop-out hacker has found the secret at the heart of the evil corporation and revealed it to the world, which is rightly appalled (but nothing actually changes, of course).

Thing is, stories don’t actually need to end neatly. They don’t even need to end. And good books are those where it feels as though the universe continues to exist even after you’ve turned the last page. You can have giant novels split into multiple parts of publication, you can have a series where the same cast in the same setting experience different stories… or you can play around with the concept of “sequel”, much as you can play around with narrative and its various constituents. And doing that’s a lot more fun than putting the same old group of people through yet another lot of jeopardy, all in the name of drama.

But what about the space opera, you ask. That’s one enormous novel split into three, or at least that’s what the blurb implies. True, each book doesn’t really stand alone, and they need to be read in order. But even within the constraints imposed by a single story told over three books, I like to think I’ve bent the sequel template a little out of shape. Because a common complaint levelled at the second books of trilogies is that they do little more than move the cast into position for the big showdown in book three. I wanted to avoid that in A Conflict of Orders. So I changed the story. I stuck to the overall plot: evil duke conspires to take the imperial throne, ingenu from the sticks leads the opposition. But instead of continuing the story from the good guys’ point of view, I decided to give equal narrative space to the bad guys. And then I flipped the conspiracy on its head.

Structurally, A Conflict of Orders rings a few small changes. Since A Prospect of War was about putting a force together to combat the Serpent’s forces, clearly a big battle was in the offing. In epic fantasy, this is usually left until the very end, when the forces of good and evil line up against each other and everybody throws everything they’ve got against each other… And somehow or other the good guys manage to win the day. But there was no way I was going to drag the preparations for the final battle out over book two and half of book three. So I made it the centre-piece of A Conflict of Orders. And I described using short chapters, so I had lots of viewpoints of the action. And then, once the battle was over, I moved the plot into second-gear. The Admiral and her forces have won the day, and now it’s all a matter of cleaning up. Except there’s more going on than originally appeared to be the case… And that’s what book three, A Want of Reason, will resolve.

So, in terms of sequels, the space opera trilogy, An Age of Discord, doesn’t follow the typical pattern of a linear plot split over three volumes. In point of fact, there are three nested stories going on, and each volume resolves one of them. It’ll likely do my credibility no good, but this structure was partly inspired by EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. Now they’re not very good books – Smith’s, that is – and the writing in them is mostly embarrassing. I’d also question their historical importance. But one thing they did really well was escalate jeopardy. No sooner had Kimball Kinnison defeated one villainous conspiracy then it was revealed there was a higher level of villains who had been controlling it. (To be fair, this structure was somewhat spoiled by the series being published in book form in internal chronology order, which revealed the over-arching struggle between the Arisians and the Eddorians right at the start.)

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I’m not about to reveal the plot of A Want of Reason, and not just because it has yet to be written and even I don’t know how it will probably go. I’m thinking I might have a go at introducing Marxism into space opera, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ve already thrown away the plan I’d had in the back of my mind when I wrote A Conflict of Orders (for the record, it was an historical narrative thread, set 1000 years in the past, which would explain the trilogy’s underlying conspiracy). Having said all that, A Conflict of Orders very much ends, as A Prospect of War did, with the various narrative threads poised to make the jump to the next level. Casimir Ormuz and the Admiral have raised their forces, and they’re about the meet the Serpent’s army and navy in battle… And more than that, I probably shouldn’t say…

You’ll just have to read the book to find out.


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Breaking the wall, breaking the wall

There comes a moment in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) when Paul, one of the two young men who has invaded the holiday home of a middle-class Austrian couple, turns to the camera and winks at the audience. Breaking the fourth wall is shocking because the compact between film-maker and viewer, or writer and reader, is suddenly revealed as completely artificial and based wholly on trust. Yet that compact exists only as a matter of expectation, because that’s the way stories are. We know the book we are reading, the movie we are watching, is an invention, a fabrication. There might be elements of fact to it – that street in New York really does look like that, for example – but the people whose story we are following, they aren’t real, if we visit New York we’re not going to bump into them, we’re not going to reminisce with them about the events of this story which they experienced and we witnessed… That’s how fiction works.

Kim Stanley Robinson has said that he considers exposition to be “just another narrative tool”. Exposition is important to science fiction and fantasy. Genre stories may take place in entirely invented worlds, ones in which the reader has no actual knowledge or experience, no built-in map to help navigate it and its societies or technologies… And so the author must explain those fabricated details. Otherwise elements of the story may not make sense, or may in fact be completely impossible to parse.

Of course, in most cases, this information is already known to the story’s characters – they know how to navigate their world. This is why the “As you know” conversation, where one character explains something to a second who already knows it because the reader needs to be informed, is the most egregious form of exposition. No one actually does this: “I’m just off to the supermarket, which, as you know, is a large store that sells a variety of foodstuffs at competitive prices.” Even successful authors still use “As you know”. They shouldn’t. It’s a failure of craft. It is also, when you think about it, breaking the fourth wall.

If a narrative is tightly limited, constrained the POV of the protagonist, why should the author need to explain anything? The character already knows it, or has come to terms with the fact they do not need to know. Not everyone who travels by air in 2015 understands how jet engines work, so why should everyone who travels between stars need to understand how FTL works? The problem with exposition is that it can only work by breaking point-of-view. In other words, exposition breaks the fourth wall.

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Not an issue, of course, if the narrative is written in third person omniscient, but that voice is much less popular now than it once was, and almost non-existent at the more commercial end of popular fiction. It might also be argued that omniscient POVs pretty much straddles the fourth wall anyway – and there are certainly examples in literary fiction where an omniscient POV is used to make explicit the fictive nature of a story.

And yet… immersion requires a level of knowledge about the world of the story to work, and without a narrative angel sitting on the reader’s shoulder whispering exposition, how is the reader to truly immerse themselves in an invented world?

The point here is not that exposition is necessary, but that it is crude. It is not the techniques used for exposition that are crude – “As you know” conversations, wodges of explanatory text aimed directly at the reader… Exposition itself is crude. It breaks the fourth wall, it exists only because the reader is aware, consciously or subconsciously, of the reader-writer compact. Without the reader’s acceptance of the fictive nature of the story, exposition could not exist. It would make no sense.

That compact, however, is a real thing. And it is possible to make use of it in ways that fiction normally does not. In Apollo Quartet 2, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, for example, I set out the clues to a puzzle which I knew the protagonist of the story could not solve. But the reader could. I did so by using a a device which is so blatantly expositional it can only exist outside the story: the glossary.

In Apollo Quartet 4, All That Outer Space Allows, on the other hand, I decided to do things differently. I had originally intended to write it firmly within Ginny’s point of view, and rely on a general air of familiarity – ie, the USA in the 1960s – to allow the reader to accept those aspects new to them. But I also made some artistic decisions specific to my story – such as naming Ginny’s husband Walden, because All That Outer Space Allows was partly inspired by Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie, All That Heaven Allows, in which Thoreau’s polemic is prominently mentioned – and it occurred to me that there was no need to rely on the reader’s extra-textual knowledge to spot that connection… Because I could break the fourth wall and make the link explicitly. So I did.

And once I’d done that, it occurred to me there were other aspects of my novel that could be “enhanced” by the sort of commentary open only to the author or a critic. Not to explain the purpose of a scene – that surely should be obvious – but to give some indication of why a particular scene might exist, or indeed provide what would normally be extra-textual knowledge in order to strengthen the novel’s argument.

There is, it has to be said, a fine line to be trod here. Particularly with science fiction. How… porous should the fourth wall be? If well-handled exposition allows the world of the story to leak out into the narrative, and badly-handled exposition is akin to a series of windows in the wall… I chose to build doors in my fourth wall. All That Outer Space Allows is a novel about writing science fiction, and so it seemed especially apposite to draw attention to the fictive nature of the story by breaking the fourth wall and commenting directly on the narrative. And doing so in, and as part of, the narrative.

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