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I’m thinking about this because of a review I saw this week of a novel billed in The Times as science fiction, which sounded rather disappointing – and it’s put me on a bit of a mission.
I haven’t read the book so it would be wrong of me to name it, but it concerned a new planet populated by humanlike aliens. The main threads are the bringing of God to the indigenous people, and the exploitation of its resources by mining companies.
It seemed this story could have been set anywhere. The human challenges were no different from those in a historical novel. The other-world setting didn’t add anything fresh, except maybe to save the writer some research. (I see a lot of science fiction – and fantasy – novels that are written for this reason. If you invent the world, you can’t be accused of getting it wrong.)
But shouldn’t we be doing something better with science fiction (and fantasy)?
Bob Shaw says, in How To Write Science Fiction, that science fiction’s defining quality is that it deals with ‘otherness’. Whether it’s in the future, the present or the past, it’s about realities we don’t have at the moment.
He also says that the central idea in a science-fiction story is so important it should have the status of a major character. It needs to be developed and explored. It changes what people can do, creates new situations that illuminate the human condition. It adds a new quality of strangeness. And Shaw also says if that concept is taken away, the story should fall apart.
One of Shaw’s own short stories illustrates this. Light of Other Days sprang from an idea about an invention called ‘slow glass’, which allows you to see an event or a setting that happened years earlier. And so a man whose wife and child died in an accident can still see them, every day, in the windows of his house.
Take, by contrast, Andy Weir’s The Martian. An astronaut is trapped on Mars and has to make enough air, food and water to survive. It’s genuinely an addictive read and I loved it, but it could just as easily be happening in Antarctica or on a deserted island. The science provides the particular challenges and the possibilities, but it does not change the human essence of the story.
We’re used to thinking that any story outside the Earth’s atmosphere is science fiction, but they’re not. They’re survival stories. But take the slow glass out of Light of Other Days and you’d have no story at all. That’s science fiction.
The Martian is a great read. The other novel may be too. But it’s a pity if the critical press and the literary community are presenting them as examples of good science fiction.
Science fiction should be a literature of the imagination. I think it’s a shame if we forget this. The same goes for fantasy – Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is a deeply invented world, and very different from The Jungle Book, which inspired it.
We only have to look at our own, real past to see how science fiction and fantasy should grapple with the idea of transformation. Every invention in the history of humanity shows us this. Think of electric light – we can change society and the very fabric of life with an idea like that. With phones – and particularly mobiles – we are reinventing the way society works, saving lives and creating new types of crime. With scientific narrative non-fiction like Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks we also have a model for writing great science fiction. We can examine the impact of a scientific discovery and the quantum changes it brought, in individual lives and for global corporations.
Science fiction works on this same continuum, the scale of human change. A great science fiction idea should allow us to send humanity to startling new places with new advantages, cruelties and injustices. And those are places in our souls, not just other planets.
So – rant over. I’m hoping this isn’t too abstruse or marginalising for some of the regulars here, but you do know how I love the strange … Do you write science fiction or fantasy? What are the ideas you’re grappling with? How do you refine them or test if they will be bold enough? Would they pass the Bob Shaw test?
POSTSCRIPT How could I have forgotten one of my favourite things about science fiction? It took Dan Holloway to remind me of it in a comment – the reason these ideas prove so beguiling is that they are metaphorically resonant. They enable us to see aspects of humanity that aren’t yet visible. Do read Dan’s full comment below.
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My guest this week is releasing her debut novel, a tale of love, loss and friendship centring on a pair of twins. She says that music was her anchor while she was brainstorming ideas and exploring the characters, helping to deepen her characters and refine her plot points. Her soundtrack ranges from the mournful to the joyous, with tracks by Iggy Pop, Evanescence, Robbie Williams and Samuel Barber. She is Christina Banach and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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Do you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Many of us do. While certain principles can be learned well from both media, others can’t.
I’ve already discussed a few points in previous posts – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view and dialogue. Today I’m going to look at description.
Description in prose aims to give the reader an experience. It fills in the specifics. Description in scripts or screenplays – and novels by writers who don’t read a lot of prose – is often labels or generics. Let me show you what I mean.
The writer who is more tuned to movies might describe ‘1970s furniture’, or ‘a battered car’. But a great description in prose will talk about the chair shaped like a giant egg, the Toyota with a mismatched door and an unlevel fender.
The movie-fan’s description of a person might be ‘a man in his 60s’, or ‘a well-preserved lady’.
But what does that look like? In prose, it’s the writer’s job to show us – and not just the physical basics of blue eyes, age or a dapper dress sense.
A great piece of prose description will put the person in the room with you, with expressions and impressions that give them life.
Here’s John le Carre from A Small Town in Germany:
Bradfield was a hard-built, self-denying man, thin-boned and well preserved, of that age and generation which can do with very little sleep. *
A writer who doesn’t get a steady diet of prose tends to describe a street as ‘rough’ or ‘average-looking’ or ‘smart’. They might use place names, such as ‘Fenchurch Street’ or ‘Friedrichstrasse’. These names do add a certain atmosphere, but they are little more than labels. They don’t create the experience for the reader.
You need to identify what you want the reader to conclude about the street – and supply the specific details that will let them conclude it. The rough street might have overturned dustbins or litter on a balding patch of grass. The smart one might have front doors painted in expensive shades of sludge. If you want an ‘average’ street, decide what makes the street average and describe that.
That doesn’t mean you can’t also observe that it is ‘average’ – indeed, it might suit the personality of the narrative to add a judgement. But you have to qualify what ‘average’ is. My idea of average won’t be the same as yours – and might not suit your narrative at all.
Versatility of prose
And indeed, prose description can do more than just tell us what’s there. If you’re showing the weather, you can use it to add atmosphere – it can be like music to underline a mood. If you’re writing a description of a person from a character’s point of view, show what jumps out at them, and use it to illuminate their personality or situation. Perhaps he is meeting his girlfriend again after spending time away. Is it like seeing a tunnel back to their old life? Is she less glamorous than he imagined because he’s now moved on? Is she a poignant blast of comfort, showing how lost he now feels?
What’s in your head? Put that on the page
Many writers who make this mistake usually have an impression in their mind’s eye. So you have to make sure to put it into the reader’s imagination. Examine what you want them to see, and write it.
*There’s a longer discussion of this point in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2
Thanks for the pic Daniela Vladimirova
Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good description? Do you have any tips that helped you?
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‘A hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anjali Mitter Duval
Music is at the heart of my guest’s story this week. The setting is 16th century Rajasthan in Northwest India, a landscape of temples and fortresses, jewel-toned textiles, blue skies and golden sand. It’s also the land of kathak, a stamping, rhythmic, hypnotic devotional form of dance practised in Hindu temples by girls who were wedded to the temple’s deity – and wealthy patrons who looked for companions. My guest wrote her story in New England, and listened to the rhythms of the traditional dance to conjure up her novel’s parched, colourful landscape and people, a place where rain was so rare that children would view it with terror. She is Anjali Mitter Duva and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
STOP PRESS! I just got a Google alert that this blog (I’m talking about Nail Your Novel now, not the red one) has been archived for preservation by the British Library as part of its special collection for Arts, Humanities and Literature.
And by the look of it, they’ve been reading for a while because they have screenshots of designs I’d rather leave discreetly in the past… *Slight embarrassment*
Okay, back to the music. Undercover Soundtrack this way.
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Right now, my voice actor Sandy is in her recording booth, speaking like a bod. Lifeform Three, my second novel, is currently in production as an audiobook, so this week I went to an event in London hosted by ACX and the Alliance of Independent Authors. Audible president Jason Ojalvo and author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn were speaking, and they had some interesting points on the business of choosing and working with a voice actor. (For an introduction to how to work with ACX, including auditioning actors, look at this post.)
Male or female
So a female author or a male main character must need a certain gender of voice actor, right? (And if you’re crossing the gender divide, how do you choose?)
Actually, it’s less of a cut-and-dried rule than you’d think. Jason said he’d often had authors who’d specified they wanted a female voice, then when a male actor had auditioned it had been the perfect match – even in genres like romance, whose readership are very definite in their expectations.
Jason made the point that the book – or the author’s work in audio – might have a voice that’s independent of the voice of the author or the character; it is its own identity. We’ll come back to this.
When I originally looked for a voice actor, I specified a British accent, but as many of you probably know, the narrator I chose is from the US. Initially I got a lot of US actors auditioning because I was one of the guinea-pig authors when ACX launched in the UK – they hadn’t yet got a bank of UK actors to choose from. So I heard a smorgasbord of attempts to ‘do British’, some convincing and some not. But I soon realised it didn’t matter after a few minutes anyway. The accent was irrelevant. The interpretation of the book went deeper than a voice’s characteristic twang, or lack of it. What was actually important was the voice actor’s understanding of the work.
And Sandy, regardless of the flavour of her English, was the most in tune with the novel. She also liked a lot of books that I liked. I picked her.
Same voice for all your books?
Jason said if you have a series, listeners expect the same voice throughout or it breaks the story world. Authors of standalone books, obviously, might search for new narrators each time. I’m happy with Sandy for both my novels even though they are different in tone – because she works well with my style and outlook.
Joanna has two series, so she cast a narrator for each. Funnily enough, we might have ended up with the same one, as the narrator for her dark crime series was one of the auditioners for My Memories of a Future Life! Small world.
Hunting for narrators
You’re not limited to only the voice actors who approach you – and indeed, many authors don’t find an ideal match that way. Jason encouraged authors to hunt around the ACX narrator profiles, listen to their samples and invite them to audition for yours. Or some authors do what I did – if you know a voice actor who’d be perfect, introduce them to the system.
Working with unfamiliar accents
Joanna, like me, is British, and ended up working with an American narrator. Once into the recording process she found there were pronunciations that were alien to her Brit-tuned ears but natural to the US narrator. What to do about them? Tomayto or tomahhto?
Before recordings start, you need to discuss this, and also tricky pronunciations such as character or place names. Sandy and I talked about it. I suspected there would be many more variations than I’d have be able to think of. If I’d decided ‘leisure’ couldn’t be ‘leesure’, I’d have then, for the sake of consistency, had to pull her up on words I never dreamed had a US difference until I heard them.
And the difference goes further than isolated words – sentence emphasis is also radically different. US English stresses the adjective in a phrase like ‘lying on a sticky mat’. UK English stresses the noun (UK: ‘on a sticky mat’, US: ‘on a sticky mat’).
I didn’t want to stilt my narrator with unnecessary strictures so I asked her to pronounce her usual way. I’m glad, because there were hundreds of differences. Hundreds. It would have been madness. In any case, that didn’t matter. So long as the interpretation of the line was true, the emotion understood, the accent was irrelevant.
Joanna had also come to this conclusion, saying there’s a lot we need to leave to the narrator’s judgement and style. She intervened in place name pronunciations, but allowed everything else to go with the actor’s natural style and emphasis.
Having said that, an audiobook is a creative relationship. The voice actor is expecting you to guide them on interpretation. Sandy and I spent several emails discussing how the bod characters in Lifeform Three should sound and what their individual characteristics were. I sent her short recordings of how they seemed in my own head as I wrote them, which she turned into polished performances. It was quite a feat for her – sometimes she had four or five characters in one scene and had to inhabit all those minds, as well as switching to thoughtful narration. For me it was easy because I wrote them. For her, it was mind-and-tongue gymnastics.
You can probably see why questions of ‘leesure’ versus ‘lezzure’ cease to be important. Forget them.
Don’t expect a drama performance
Jason pointed out that the audiobook isn’t a stage or film performance. It’s a reading – a quieter, more subtle business. Characters’ accents don’t need to be full-on impersonations, they are a hint. Passages of emotion don’t have to be performed, merely rendered so they bring to life what is already in the prose.
In prose, the writer has already done the job on the page. The voice actor is converting that into sound. It’s intimate; it’s not slaughtering the back row. It’s murmuring in your ears.
The voice that is the best conduit for your work
Ultimately, the best narrator is the right person to inhabit the book and bring it alive, from its lightest moments to its darkest corners. If you’re weighing up possible narrators, be prepared to revise what you imagined. If you thought the narrator should be British or male, but the more true interpretation, the one that gives you goosebumps, is US and female, that actor is the one to choose. The differences will vanish as soon as the listener gets into the story. After a minute or two, they won’t notice.
Since I released My Memories of a Future Life, some people have asked me why I chose an American, and indeed have mentioned it in reviews. Then they report that they got immersed. Your best narrator is the person who can inhabit the book, who can become its voice in the reader’s head and make them forget everything else.
Thanks for the pic Michael Mol
Any tips or questions to add? Have you made an audiobook? If you listen to a lot of audiobooks, do you have any feedback on what makes a good narrator? Let’s discuss!
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We often don’t realise what surprises our own work holds for us. My guest this week tells me that while writing her post, she realised she was seeing her novel in a fresh light. She’s been on this series before, so is no stranger to Undercover Soundtracks. This time she has a psycho-sexual tale of a husband who vanishes and a wife who follows him into a seductive, mysterious and dangerous night world in which they all become creatures of darkness, ‘skinny-dipping in deep greenish hued waters charged with sexual tension and lustful predilections’. The novel is Lady Limbo, the writer is Sunday Times Fiction Prize nominee Consuelo Roland, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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Every week, my bookseller friend Peter Snell gets customers who ask him nervously: ‘how do I write’ and ‘how do I get published’? Sometimes they give him manuscripts or book proposals. I get emails with the same questions.
So we decided to team up for a series of shows for Surrey Hills Radio. If you’re a regular on this blog, you’re probably beyond starter-level advice, but if you’re feeling your way, or your friends or family have always hankered to do what you do, this might be just the ticket.
If you follow me on Facebook you’ll have seen the various pictures of us goofing with a fuzzy microphone, recording in the bookshop while customers slink past with bemused expressions. (Yes, that tiny gizmo is the complete mobile recording kit. It’s adorable.) So far the shows have been available only at the time of broadcast on Surrey Hills Radio (Wed afternoons at 2pm BST), but the studio guys have now made podcasts so you can listen whenever you want. Shows in the back catalogue have covered
- giving yourself permission to write
- establishing a writing habit
- thinking like a writer
- getting published 101
- how to self-publish.
This week’s show will be on planning a non-fiction book and the show after that will be outlining a novel – and will also include sneak peeks of the advice I’ve been cooking up for my third Nail Your Novel, on plot. So you want to be a writer? We have the inside knowledge. Do drop by.
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Do you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Have you cut your writing teeth on the wisdom of the hallowed screenwriting gurus (McKee, Field and Goldman)? Are you a screenwriter who’s making the switch to novels?
If so, you’ll certainly know some great storytelling tricks, but the two disciplines are different. Some movie techniques simply don’t translate to the page.
Indeed, if you’re writing your novel as though it’s a movie in your head, your ideas might not work as powerfully as they should.
I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view. There are other crucial differences between screen and page, so over the next few posts I’m going to look at them in detail.
Film is a visual medium. If we’re watching a scene in a movie where two characters were talking, the words they say are not as noticeable as the characters’ expressions, their actions and the way they do things – whether it’s picking a lock, walking home late at night, sharpening a sword or getting progressively and endearingly sozzled. And so the actors’ moves, the camera angles and the emphasis of the lighting are telling the story just as much as any words the characters are uttering. Indeed, you could probably watch a well-made dialogue scene with the sound off and still understand the thrust of it. An argument, a reconciliation, etc.
On the page, however, the prose does everything. But what I often find with writers who are tuned to the screen is that they don’t realise how much more work a dialogue scene in prose has to do. They haven’t got actors, or a lighting crew, or a set designer, or a composer who will add the other pieces to take the story forward.
They’re good at getting their characters talking, and sounding natural, but their dialogue scenes lack half the information they need to move the story on. They’re imagining it on a screen, and they’re writing what the characters would say and do, but they miss out the impact of the scene’s actions, realisations, changes in mood and plot revelations. All this is part of the story – and it has to come through the characters’ lines and your narration.
If you’ve learned your writing from movies, add these tips to your arsenal for good prose dialogue scenes:
Banter and quips In a movie, atmospheric natter and irrelevant quips are a great way to create a sense of a mood or character. On the page, this quickly looks aimless. Also in a movie, you can have them breaking into a bank vault while bantering – the story is happening at the same time as the visuals. On the page, we can only see one thing at a time. When using inconsequential chat, social niceties and companionable remarks, keep it concise, or find a way to make it purposeful.
Internal reactions The screenplay-tuned writer often doesn’t use internal dialogue, because an actor would add the expressions. Also, most films show a story from a third-person point of view. But in prose you can show what a character thinks and feels. Either you can do this with a close third-person point of view, or a first-person point of view, or by showing reactions through a physical act like clenching a fist. If a character is keeping their reactions hidden from the other characters in the scene, make sure we see they are seething – or celebrating – under the surface.
Silence, pauses and non-verbals Remember we see dialogue as well as hear it – don’t forget to include the characters’ reactions and non-verbal responses in your scene. Use your narration to create pauses. Make them sigh, look out of the window. Let them change their expression.
Prose is your background music Take charge of the scene’s environment. Create atmosphere through your description of the setting. A dripping tap in a moment of silence might increase a sense of tension. Rain might echo a character’s sadness or make a happy moment seem deliriously unreal.
There’s a lot more about writing good dialogue scenes in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2. And Nail Your Novel 3 will concentrate on plot – so if that sounds like your cup of tea, sign up for my newsletter to get word as soon as it’s available.
Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good dialogue scenes? Do you have any tips that helped you?
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My guest this week describes his novel’s main character as a folk-punk protest singer in a collapsing American economy in the near future. We all know how books can transform us into the characters we are creating, and my guest temporarily became a songwriter as this book was forming, despite being (as he says) completely unmusical in real life. Alongside the prose, he built a portfolio of the main character’s songs that marked the story’s adventures and friendships. Some were inspired by musically accomplished friends; others by playing Tom Waits, Deer Tick and Bob Dylan to keep the vibe. When his publisher, Montag Press, came on board, the editor suggested more musicians for the creative mix – thus proving his views of the novel were in harmony with those of the writer. Trevor Richardson is on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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Why? Because they looked like they had the potential to be significant.
I’m not going to tell you the true details, of course, so this is a paraphrase. Broadly speaking, the characters have formed a new business venture. If it succeeds, it gives the narrator a new start in life. Also there’s a romance that will be threatened, because the girlfriend wants to settle somewhere else. The business makes this more tricky. Yet the writer summarised this period of preparation and change.
It’s fair enough to fast forward if there was nothing interesting to show. But during those hours, the characters are playing unfamiliar roles, and getting closer to their hopes and dreams. Relationships will change because of the responsibilities. Tensions will be growing. I said to my client: are you sure there is nothing interesting in these scenes? Do you really want to leave them out? To me, they’re gaps in the narrative.
I’ve often been guilty of this myself. I’ll be working through my outline and I’ll find a section where I’ve glossed over a set of events, not imagining they might hold important developments. I hadn’t given them a moment’s thought, but as I write, I detect this is leaving an unacceptable hole, disconnecting the reader from the characters’ arcs.
However, I don’t know what to write in these scenes. I certainly don’t know what might make the scene interesting. So what do I do? Apply backside to seat, start the fingers and let the characters guide me.
Some of my most satisfying scenes were born this way. It might be a good campfire moment, a small-hours conversation that turns surprisingly confidential. It might be a time to have an argument, confess some back story or blurt out something unwise because a character is ratty and tired. There might be a switch in a character’s attitude, a hardening of resolve, a feeling that this venture is committing my people to a disastrous path.
I start by writing any old nonsense and look for the point where the significance begins to grow. I might cut 90% of it later, but some part of this new material is usually valuable. And if I’d let myself summarise, I’d never have found it.
Gaps in research
Another reason I might dodge writing a scene like this is because, well, I didn’t do the homework. I have no idea what the practicalities of the situation would be. You’ll probably agree that’s a lame reason to leave a scene out, and might shortchange the reader. Writer, get thyself to Wikipedia.
Not all summary is bad!
Summary can be good, of course. You have to condense sometimes. But if you’re summarising scenes only because you find it too difficult to jump into them, or you hadn’t thought what they might contain, or you don’t have the knowledge to write them, don’t assume the story doesn’t need them. Get in and start exploring. You might be surprised.
Thanks for the pic Alistair Sutton
Have you surprised yourself with a scene you summarised and then wrote out at greater length? Let’s share examples! (I’d share some from my own work but, having a direly inefficient memory, I can’t remember what they are. So it’s over to you.)
authors, character arc, characters take over, deepen your story, entertainment, fiction, Fix and Finish With Confidence, gaps in the narrative, having ideas, how to write a book, how to write a novel, inspiration, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, novels, publishing, Roz Morris, show don't tell, show not tell, summarised scenes, summarising scenes, when you don't know what to write, writer's block, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel
I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘Hidden forms that tell a story’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Stephen Weinstock November 19, 2014
- I name this book… tips for choosing a good title November 16, 2014
- ‘Each morning, there was a chapter to listen to’ – guest post at Jane Davis’s blog on making audiobooks with ACX November 13, 2014
- ‘Spurred by the song’s rhythm, my typing fingers flew’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Dianne Greenlay November 12, 2014
- A good editor helps you to be yourself November 9, 2014
- ‘A lyric, a tune fragment, a thrilling chord run’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, JW Hicks November 5, 2014
- Something wicked this way comes: plot book ready soon November 2, 2014
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See what I did there…