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Posts Tagged literary fiction
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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‘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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As Oscar Wilde didn’t say: ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken’. (No really, he didn’t.)
In our early novels, we’re more likely to see our main characters as proxies for ourselves. But there comes a stage where we learn more versatility, and to create new hearts, souls and minds to carry our stories. This was one of the interesting findings of a project organised by a team of researchers at Durham University and reported here in The Guardian.
Authors who took part in the survey were asked how they experience their main characters while writing. Those with many books reported that in their early work they saw the main character as a proxy for themselves. Sometimes it was simply wish fulfilment. Sometimes it was a deeper working, perhaps of a problem they couldn’t express in the real world, or an issue they had left undone. It was only in later books that they were aware they were creating individuals who had their own distinct hopes, dreams, values and reactions.
Does it matter?
Interesting though this is, does it matter? It depends. When editing, I’ve certainly seen where it goes wrong. There might be a sense that the main character’s viewpoint is never challenged, or nobody else in the book is as vivid, or all the other characters victimise, worship or pander to the narrator. It can look like the book lacks any perspective that would engage an outsider.
If you’re writing from your own trauma or sense of injustice, no matter how wronged you feel you still have to win the reader round. Indeed Anne R Allen has written hilariously about protagonists who turn readers off - usually because the writer has put themselves too literally into the story.
Here are some of the problems I’ve noticed.
Passive main characters
In a writer’s early books, the main character is often passive. They do very little on their own initiative; they merely react to what is going on. In real life, writing often appeals to people who are observers and analysers. And even if we aren’t, most of us would prefer trouble to go away. But readers find it exasperating if characters don’t at some point take charge or counter-attack. The passive default is generally one of the first reactions a novice writer must unlearn.
Unwillingness to alter events
Sometimes our emotional investment in the book can cloud our critical faculties. At the writing group I used to go to, I remember one lady who read from her novel, which was about a divorce. When we started to question events that seemed far-fetched, she snapped angrily: ‘but that’s what really happened’. Discussions went downhill from there.
Events need to matter more
Drawing on our own experience might produce tunnel vision. It might also stop us taking an idea as far as it could go.
I remember a very early attempt I made to write a story about my experiences with repetitive strain injury when I was a journalist. It was strangely flat. Although I managed to entertain with the strange medical tests, mystery and uncertainty, it was at best lightweight because the stakes weren’t significant. The worst that could happen was that the proxy me might have to get a different job, but that wasn’t a major challenge to my soul that would hook a reader with its urgency. This made me unhappy, because I wanted to write the crisis of somebody’s life…
Then ghostwriting taught me how real life is just material – and material that needs a snappy tailor. (Lots more here about ghostwriting if you’re curious.)
I had a use for my RSI scenario. It was time to adjust real life and amplify. The major amplification was the main character. Now, after writing a lot of fiction as other people, my first novel was the chance to write as me. But my narrator couldn’t be me, the real me muddling through with average demons and crises. She needed desperation. What’s more, her desperation, although it had to be particular to her, had to speak for a more fundamental essence of the human condition – in this case, a search for meaning and love. Perhaps that potential was in my mind all along in that early story, but it didn’t become fully potent until I invented the character who needed it.
If you’ve read My Memories of a Future Life you’ll be recognising her. Carol has elements of my personality and I certainly felt I was her when I wrote her. She comes from things I understand. But she isn’t me. She is herself, created as the person who needs the journey and healing process of that story.
Paftoo of Lifeform Three isn’t me either, though he started with my love of horses and the things we have lost from the past. I then put that in a situation and personality that would cause the utmost trouble, a fight for his very soul. And for Ever Rest I have four, perhaps five viewpoint characters, all with their own consciousnesses, issues and inclinations. I am not those five people.
How to write a character who isn’t like you
Start with something you relate to – what if you lost something that makes you feel alive? Then mine the deeper level and remove yourself. Every time your character reacts, question it. Ask if that’s your own setting, and if it could be bigger, better or different. Find a key for that new character to sing in. Examine their approach to life, betes noires, responses to stress, desires.
In fact, we all have many characters we could create because we already know how to be different. What are you like with your parents? Is it the same as the way you are with your boss? How about the person you are when talking to a person you want to impress, or the head teacher at your child’s school? You already know how to be different at an instinctive level.
So, to mangle the legacy of Oscar even more (because he still didn’t say ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken): don’t be yourself. Use yourself to invent the people your story needs.
Pic of Oscar by Napoleon Sarony, Wikimedia Commons.
There are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated
What stage are you at? Who are your main characters? If you’ve created people who are proxies for you, was that intentional? Unavoidable? Brilliantly effective? Has that caused problems or interesting feedback from readers and editors? Have you created characters who aren’t like you? If you’ve written many books, have you noticed a shift? Let’s share thoughts!
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I’m reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and its style is rather striking. It’s an omniscient narrator hopping between a lot of heads. The dialogue is run into the rest of the prose, with no punctuation to distinguish it from the rest of the prose. Yes, no quote marks. Not even a dash. Sometimes the dialogue has no tags to tell us who’s speaking – or indeed that it is speech. When the characters speak, it’s not even presented in separate sentences, let alone paragraphed.
A typical spread looks like this
Dense, long paragraphs. Rather offputting, isn’t it? It looks like the book will be a horrendous muddle and heavy going. Dave – who will give most styles a fair crack – tossed it down in disgust, muttering about pretentious gimmicks.
It’s certainly risky to mess with the conventions of dialogue. I frequently see novice manuscripts where all the dialogue is reported. This creates a distanced effect, as if no one in the book is really alive. It also creates a dense block of text that – as you can see – looks forbidding to the eye (although not many writers take it to the lengths Saramago has). But Blindness is enhanced by this style. Let’s look at why.
The society is the focus While there are certain characters who are central, Saramago’s interest is an event that breaks the normal structures of civilisation. The omniscient view and the technique of running the dialogue together in long sentences builds on this. It means they are part of a bigger picture. The focus can be on anyone – the person whose actions are the most interesting or urgent to watch at a given moment.
The main characters become more vulnerable There are key characters, and this style creates a sense that they are more fragile. In any story that follows just a few viewpoints, we’re aware that most of them must continue as consciousnesses until the end of the book. In the dangerous world of this story, anyone could vanish and the world will go on being narrated. So the threat to them is more real.
Nothing is confusing Despite the unconventional presentation, you can usually tell who’s talking. Where you can’t, it’s either not important – or the point is to experience confusion.
It’s set up carefully All stories have to introduce the reader to the rules of the world, and any quirks of the style. Saramago starts as he means to go on, tuning you in so you look carefully at the prose to see if someone’s talking and who it is.
He doesn’t throw us into this many-voiced chorus straight away. The first few chapters follow a limited cast, so we get to know them. This gives us figures who are anchors in the later chapters – if they survive. He assembles a large cast quite quickly, but they are connected with these originals by the establishing scenes so it’s easy to remember who’s who.
There is also a consistency of style, although this may not consciously be noticed by the reader. One paragraph – which may go on for many pages – is a scene.
The story has momentum The style may be unorthodox, but he’s keeping the story moving. Curiosity pulls us along. The stakes keep building, the situation is running further out of control. We keep reading to find where it is going.
I haven’t read very far so I’m looking forward to even more interesting effects, but my final point is this. The run-on presentation with few traditional markers is like hearing a lot of voices and being unable to tell who is who. Isn’t that like being struck blind? It is also panicky, as though things are happening too fast to take proper note of them. It feels out of control (although the writer is tightly in command). You might even say it’s breaking convention as the society of the book is disintegrating. It makes the characters disturbingly into a herd, stripping them of individuality. This clever style choice reflects the experience of the sighted people, who have quarantined the blind people for fear they will catch it. We are at once seeing the story two ways.
This style is creating and amplifying the experience of the world. Wow.
No spoilers, please, as I want to discover the book’s surprises in the proper way… but let’s talk about styles. Have you read a novel with an apparently challenging style that enhances the material?
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This week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write and making a character distinct through dialogue. Today I’m tackling a fundamental misconception about self-editing.
Editing is not just tweaking the language
One lady in the masterclass shared a story that illustrates a common misapprehension of novice writers. She said she had come close to a publishing deal, but the imprint folded. Before that, they mentioned the book had some problems and were talking about editing. On her own again, and unable to ask them any more details, she assumed they must be talking about the language, and so she worked to write it in a more suitable way. Still, though, she was unhappy with it and she knew she hadn’t solved the problems.
Editing veterans will be nodding sagely here, knowing that language is only one of our considerations. I’ve leaped into this trap myself. In the early days when I was querying agents, I’d get feedback that mentioned a few rough areas. I made the only possible assumption – that I needed to make the ‘writing’ somehow better. And so I fiddled, line by line, adding and pruning here and there. I probably ended up with an over-bloated muddle and didn’t touch the underlying problems. I had no idea about the mechanisms that work under the words, and that language is really the skin on top of the structure, pacing and character arcs.
Tomorrow: Putting the book away to get distance
How about you? Have you made the same rookie mistake about editing? Or a different one? Let’s discuss!
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My guest this week admits she is antisocial. She likes to people-watch from behind wide sunglasses, and cocooned inside big headphones. She says her day is characterised by a constant flow of music, which has fed directly into the set of vignettes in the short fiction collection she has just published. I particularly have to thank her for introducing me to one of her special trigger tracks, by Florence + the Machine, as there’s something in it I might need for Ever Rest. And so the muse hops from mind to mind; I hope it will to yours too. She is Amanya Maloba and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
The Self-Editing Masterclass Snapshots will resume tomorrow.
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My guest this week has written a novel of exiles – artists, sculptors and musicians displaced from their home countries by the border shifts after World War II. The central character is doubly exiled, born between genders at a time when such things were poorly understood. Music helped her create their personalities, guide her research and develop their histories. She drew on a rich heritage of opera, jazz and folk – and even composed her own folk song for the novel. She is Kathleen Jones and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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My guest this week describes his writing as a constant state of striving – to achieve the same visceral punch of great music. His books come to him that way too – protagonist, thread and plot in one hit. In fact I’ve actually seen this thunderbolt descend; I was with him on a course one day when he told me he’d just overheard a conversation that gave him an entire plot and its characters in an instant. After that comes the hard work, of course, and music helps him return to that state of fever. The novel he is talking about this week is the first in a crime series, set in the final years of Moorish rule in Spain, and its soundtrack is full of sweat, guitars, lutes and bass. He is David Penny and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, bass, Counting Crows, crime, David Penny, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Grace Potter, guitars, historical crime, historical fiction, historical thriller, Joe Satriano, John Hiatt, literary fiction, literary novels, lute, male writers, Moors, murder, murder mystery, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, neil young, playlist for writers, protagonist, Roz Morris, Spain, surgery, The Red Hill, The Undercover Soundtrack, thrillers, Tinariwen, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing to music
I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘Five characters, five musical identities’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jessica Bell October 29, 2014
- Novels aren’t movies – how to handle passage of time in prose October 26, 2014
- ‘My word-hand is singing’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Marcus Sedgwick October 22, 2014
- Science fiction – have we forgotten what it should be? October 19, 2014
- ‘Is there life after death?’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Christina Banach October 15, 2014
- Novels aren’t movies – how to write great description in prose October 12, 2014
- ‘A hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anjali Mitter Duval October 8, 2014
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