Posts Tagged deepen your story

‘His voice brought me back to where I began’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Joni Rodgers

for logoMy guest this week returns for her third appearance on The Undercover Soundtrack. And it’s for her first novel, which she’s reissuing in a director’s cut, after reclaiming the rights. Plotlines and characters have been reimagined according to her original vision, and music was vital to recreating the book in her mind. Indeed, the story began in music, as she initially didn’t even realise her idea was destined to be a novel. She relates in her post how she’d sit on a gantry with guitar and writing pad, imagining a stage play with songs.  But then the back story began to take shape, and the subtext, and before she knew it, a novel was born. She is NYT bestselling author and ghostwriter Joni Rodgers, one of my partners in crime at the Women Writing Women box set, and she’s on the Red Blog with the Undercover Soundtrack for the novel she contributed, Crazy For Trying.

Women-Writing-Women-Box-Set-Cover_finalJPEGsmlLIMITED OFFER Psst… Outside The Box: Women Writing Women is available only until 24 May. 7 full-length novels for £7.99 or the dollarly equivalent, including My Memories of a Future Life by yours truly. And it vanishes on 24 May.

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The inner horse – and your fictional character’s true nature

Lifeform Three Roz MorrisI was teaching a masterclass at The Guardian yesterday and we were discussing characters. One of my students said this:
‘I think of my characters as horses.’

To be honest, I couldn’t believe my ears. If you know me on Facebook and Twitter, you’ll know I’m rather fond of the equine breed, so when one of my students said ‘I think of my characters as horses’, I thought I was still in bed at home, waiting for the alarm.

Not as mad as it seems

But she went on to explain. She ran a carriage-driving centre, and found that all of her horses were such different temperaments they were a great basis for building fictional characters.

Stay with me here, because it makes glorious sense. One of the fundamentals of a character is what they’re like in the core of their soul, the things they can’t fake or change. Whether they’re bold in new situations, whether they feel safer following the crowd or prefer to be in charge, what kind of personalities annoy them, whether there are bad past experiences that have left scars, whether they’re naturally friendly or touchy-feely, or prefer to keep to themselves, whether they’re gentle or insensitive.

If you hang around horses a lot – and, I can imagine, dogs – you’re used to the company of a creature that can’t pretend. It always shows the material they’re made of. Then if we start to imagine those behaviours translated into a human character, who might try to cover them up, and whose life might make more complex demands…

The Johari Window

Indeed, this is not unlike the Johari Window, which can be useful for designing characters. It’s a grid, split into four, in which you write:

  • the things the character and everyone else knows
  • the things only the character knows
  • the things everyone else knows but the character doesn’t
  • the things that are unknown – the traits, fears, and feelings that no one suspects.

These last two are where we can have most fun with the character: the impulses that drive them, behaviours they are not in control of, and make them complex and interesting.

That’s the horse self. (And a nice excuse for me to include a picture of my own Lifeform Three.)

Use this to write a character who is very different from your own personality

Another student asked how to write a character who is very different from you.

This is where advice to ‘write what you know’ seems somewhat unhelpful. If we followed it we wouldn’t write murderers, queens, abuse victims, abusers, fatally jealous people, talented artists, heiresses, politicians, housemaids in Victorian houses, wizards…

On the other hand, ‘writing what you know’ is the place to start. All characters will have certain traits that we can relate to. Again, these come back to very simple impulses. What do they want to protect? What makes them feel threatened? What gives them joy and release? What makes them feel safe? If you start with those, you can find your way into most characters.

nyn2 2014 smlThere are more tips for your fictional people in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.

Do you have any off-the-wall tips for getting to the hidden depths in a character? All pets welcome.

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How to turn a short story into a novel

I’ve had this question from Kristy Lyseng:
I have trouble when it comes to depth and expanding my writing. I always end up with short pieces. Are there any tips or tricks I could learn for writing longer pieces instead of short ones, both fiction and non-fiction?

Oh what a good question. Here are some ideas.

Stonehenge replica proved disappointingly small in This Is Spinal Tap

Spinal Tap were hoping it would be bigger

How much do you plan?

Maybe you’re confident you can keep control of short pieces, and bring them to a satisfying conclusion. With a short piece, you can keep it all in your mind in one go, but with a novel that’s much harder. So to write something longer, you need more detail, to spend longer in the planning or you’ll run out of puff. (Or, if planning hasn’t been part of your method until now, you’ll probably need to start.)

Most novelists plan. They might write a detailed outline they stick to firmly. They might plan and then twist and knead it as other ideas occur to them. But the vast majority of them plan. (Here’s my post on how to write to an outline and still be creative.)

sidebarcropGo the distance

When you write that plan, you need to make sure the idea has enough mileage. This may be where you’re getting stuck and I’ve been there myself. My earliest experiments in writing were longish short stories. I’d get an idea and work it into a situation with a few surprises and a twist at the end. I could get about 5-7,000 words, but no more. I dearly wanted to get my teeth into a big novel, but couldn’t envisage how to make it vast enough.

Actually, the solution was simple. I needed to spend longer on the plan. Some of my short story ideas could have been novels if I’d known how to persevere. Indeed Ever Rest has its germ in a short story I wrote nearly 20 years ago. (It’s wildly different now.)

What to enlarge

So has your idea got the scope to be a novel? There’s only one way to find out. Climb in and explore.

Take your time over it. If it seems to be a short story, let it rest, then come back and see if some of your characters could have bigger lives, or secondary concerns, or the story problem could have more dimensions than you saw initially. Could you add a subplot or a second story arc? Flesh out the characters’ back stories? Increase the significance of the setting in historical and geographical terms? Look for themes and create other story threads that complement them? Look at the structure too. Maybe the structure of your short story is the entire novel arc, super condensed. Maybe what you’ve designed so far is only a section, as far as one of the early turning points, and you could extend it far further. Keep coming back and looking for new layers. You can’t plan a novel quickly, but the more time you spend on it, the more you’ll see.

Here’s my post on how to outline – developed for Nanowrimo, but it lists the essentials for making a good start.  Here’s a post on troubleshooting your novel outline. And here’s one about filling the gaps in your story. And here’s how I work – in pictures.

A writer of two minds

Another thing I didn’t realise in the early days is that you have to be two kinds of writer. One does the big-picture thinking – where are we going, what are we doing, what’s the overall aim? The other is doing the moment-by-moment writing and development, crafting the sentences and enacting the characters. Very few people can do both simultaneously.

The wonders of revision

Also, don’t forget you can revise. You don’t have to get it right in one go. The outline can take you several weeks if you need it. When you’ve written the first draft, you can go back over that too (indeed you should). Here are some posts from my Guardian masterclass on self-editing, which demonstrate all the wonderful ways to improve your book when you revise.

ebookcovernyn3There’s a lot more about adding subplots and generating story in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel.

Do you have difficulty making your stories long enough? Is there a natural length that you handle comfortably and are you happy with that? What would you tell Kristy?

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And then there were three (NYNs)… Do you find plot more difficult than character? Plus the midpoint of Blade Runner

SONY DSCPhew, the plot book is ready. It seems to have taken a marathon of effort; much longer than the characters book. So much that I’m wondering if this tells me something about the nature of plot.

In writing the book, I’ve been pinning down the ultimate essentials – what a plot is, what it needs – whether you’re a genre author, a literary author, or anywhere on the spectrum between the two. Indeed, if you want to defy convention, are there some story and plot principles that still hold? I found there were. I also found that even an apparently loosely structured book followed a few simple patterns.

But honestly, Roz, you’ve been promising this book for most of the year.

Yeah, why did it take me so much longer than characters? As I wrote up the tutorials – starting from blogposts and mentoring notes – I found that each example spawned many possible discussions. There were as many exceptions as rules, possibilities upon possibilities for making a story rich, or exciting, or surprising, or heartbreaking. I have come away with this: although there are certain fundamentals, the department of plot and storytelling is much more tricky, finely balanced and infinitely varied than the department of characters.

You’d think it would be the other way around, because people provide the heart of a book. And aren’t they the most unique element of any story? No, by comparison, fictional characters follow a number of rules we already understand from life – those of how real people behave, are motivated and react. But a plot – what you do with your characters, themes and story metaphors – can go absolutely anywhere, especially in non-genre fiction. Good plotters invent new ways to use events and ideas. Writing this book has taken me on my own journey of understanding. I’ve ended up with a deeper appreciation of the infinite versatility of stories, and indeed a greater sense of wonder.

Or maybe it means only that I find plotting more difficult than creating characters. I wouldn’t be the first author with literary leanings who felt this. And in case this all sounds airy-fairy, let me assure you that the book is about practical advice and examples. Plus games, of course.

To whet your appetite, this is a post I was going to expand for the book and rework with prose examples, but eventually tackled another way. If you’re an old-timer here you might recognise it.

Midpoints on a continuum of change – Blade Runner

neeta lindI never miss an opportunity to talk about Blade Runner. One day Dave and I were discussing it and said: ‘which event is the midpoint?’

My memory does the very opposite of total recall (see what I did there?), so I hazarded that it was where Roy finally finds Pris and they discover they are the last replicants left alive. Or was it the scene where Rachael comes to Deckard’s apartment, they have a heart-to heart about the fact she’s a replicant and get romantic. Or was it both – as each significant story strand might have a midpoint…

When we checked we found the Roy/Pris scene is past the middle. The actual middle is the scene where Deckard’s boss tells him he will have to kill Rachael, even though she’s not one of the renegade bunch in his original brief. We’d both forgotten two other strong turning-point contenders – the scene where Deckard kills the first replicant, Zhora, and feels unexpectedly bad about it. Or the scene where Deckard is nearly killed by Leon and is rescued by Rachael (who has ventured into scuzzy places where nice girls never go). Midpoints galore, it seems.

Midpoint, schmidpoint

Backtrack for a moment. What’s the midpoint anyway and why do we bother to identify it? It’s a moment where the story significantly shifts gear. Readers (and moviegoers) seem to have an internal clock, and generally like it if this shift comes roughly half-way through the story.

Here are some typical forms a midpoint can take.

• It can be a false victory – perhaps the main character has apparently got what they wanted and discovered it was a shallow goal or has got them in big trouble. (Deckard has after all just managed to shoot the first of the replicants he is hunting.)
• It can look like the original quest went horribly wrong and now they have to sort out a much more involved mess.
• It might be an echo of a scene from much earlier in the story, but done for different, more serious reasons.
Whichever it is, at the midpoint everything turns grave. It is a moment when the conflict and journey become internal as well as external. The character’s need is deeper, truer. The consequences become more significant. The characters pass a point of no return.

Back to Blade Runner
The reason we couldn’t remember the actual midpoint of Blade Runner is that there are significant shifts for the characters all the way through. The movie is a continuum of internal change. The characters are transforming inside all the time, discovering deeper needs, acting in the grip of impulses they have never before faced, getting into deeper trouble and discovering profounder joys – which increases what is at stake. Also, there are two protagonists. This is one of the reasons the story has such momentum. It builds and builds, propelling the characters towards what will be the most significant moment of their lives. And every scene has a sense of change.

If you build a story so that every scene commits the characters more drastically, unexpectedly and personally to their path, it will be engrossing.

Thanks for the Blade Runner pic, Neeta Lind  Thanks for the Jenga pic, Ed Garcia

ebookcovernyn3The ebook of Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel is now available on pre-order. It will go on live sale on Twelfth Night, 5th January, and if you order beforehand you can get a special pre-order price.
‘On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords….’ Is that too complicated for an opening scene?

Meanwhile, let’s discuss! Which do you find more difficult – plot or character? I’d also be interested to know what you write – genre, non-genre – to see if there’s any pattern.
And merry Christmas.

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Editing seminar snapshots: writing for a blog vs writing for a book

image_00006smlThis week I’m running a series of the best discussion points from my talk at the Writers & Artists selfpublishing event. So far I’ve covered how producing a good book requires an editorial team, how authors need to allow enough time to use their feedback properly and author control. Today, it’s a rather thoughtful question about writing and self-editing in the digital age.


Who are you? Self-editing to self-censorship

I had a very interesting discussion with a lady who had written a book on creativity, and was turning some of it into a blog. She said she found she was editing differently when putting it on line. Where passages from the book contained deeply personal information, she was removing this, feeling it was not suitable for the public world of a blog, though she was happy to have it in the book.

I wonder, has anyone else experienced this? Are you a different writer in the depths of your book? Less self-conscious perhaps? More secure in your relationship with the reader? Is your blog more of your upbeat, ‘party’ persona and your book a buried, contemplative one?

Last week in Thought Catalog. Porter Anderson talked in about the modern phenomenon of writers sharing so much about their daily lives, which has never been possible before. He asked, does this ready familiarity with an author’s life spoil the mystique necessary to let a book do its proper work on the virgin snow of a reader’s mind?
He talks of ‘a certain remove by the artist of his or her daily private life from the stage…’ so that the book can speak for itself.

But after my conversation with the blogging writer, I wonder this: what might we keep back for a book, let ourselves tell only in a story? Surely a person who is committed to writing always holds something in reserve, a true kernel that gets its expression only in communication with the page, that indeed maybe doesn’t exist except in the private vault where the book speaks for us. That’s what makes us writers. Perhaps on our blogs we are comparatively extrovert. We may not mean to censor or conceal; we tailor our copy for a short-order medium. In our books, we inhabit an introverse. Do you?

Thanks to Henry Hyde for the pic of me, and to Sean Mundy on Flickr for the eye.

Anyway, let’s discuss. Does this say something about the different qualities of blogs versus books? Does it suggest what we might be missing if more of our reading time is taken up by ephemeral media such as blogs and newspapers, rather than books? Especially as we increasingly read them all on the one device? And where are you most you? Am I mad?

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Editing seminar snapshots: negative criticism and author control

image_00006smlThis week I’m running a series of the best discussion points from my talk at the Writers & Artists selfpublishing event. So far I’ve covered how producing a good book requires an editorial team and how authors need to allow enough time to use their feedback properly. Today, it’s how to cope with criticism.


Editing – an ordeal or not?

Henry Hyde (who took the pic of me!) asked the very good question of how writers respond when they receive a report. He’s the editor of a magazine, and said that contributors are often aghast when their work is red-penned. So what the blazes does a writer make of a 40-page document of major changes (as I described in my previous post)?

Well, I try to be gentle. I also encourage the author to see the report as criticism of the work, not them – although it’s often hard for them to see that. The more writing you do in a professional environment, the thicker your soles become and the more you’re able to see a manuscript as a work for others to help you with, rather than a bundle of your most tender nerve-endings.

It helps to have sensitive criticism, though. In traditional publishing, I’ve had savage editors who seemed to relish their chance to tear an author down – and generous souls who make it clear they are working for a book they already believe in. I hope I’ve learned from them how to be the latter.

The author has control

One author brought up an interesting point about a copy editor who had rewritten her dialogue, converting it unsuitably from period to a modern voice. With hindsight it was clear that the editor was probably working in an area outside her experience and thought all books should be edited the same way – a salutary warning to choose your team carefully. And several authors asked: ‘what if the author disagrees with the editor’?

A good question. It is, of course, entirely up to you what you do with a proof-reader’s tweaks or an editor’s recommendations. You are in control. Burn the report if you like, we’ll never know – but we’d prefer to think we’d been useful. I’m careful to make suggestions rather than must-dos, and to encourage an author to explore what they’re aiming for.

A good editor will also try to ensure they’re in tune with the author before any precious words change hands (let alone precious $$$). (Here’s my post on how a good editor helps you be yourself.  I’m not tooting my own trumpet here – for most of you who are reading this, it’s likely I won’t be the right editor. Be highly wary of anyone who says they can developmentally edit absolutely anything.)

Let me reiterate: it’s your book. YOUR book. The editor, copy editor and proof reader make suggestions, not commands. (The same applies in a traditional publishing contract, provided you haven’t assigned moral rights – which isn’t usual.)
Use this power wisely. (And, to return to Messrs Jon Fine and Joe Konrath , don’t publish shit.)

Thanks Toni Holopainen for the pic of the man undergoing a thorough edit
Next (and finally): self-editing to self-censorship
If you’ve worked with editors, how did you feel about their criticisms? If you’ve been through this process several times, have you toughened up? Have you disagreed with an editor’s suggestions, and what came of it? Have you ever paid for an editorial service and concluded it was a waste of time and money? Let’s discuss!

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Editing seminar snapshots – how long to allow for rewrites

w&alogoThis week I’m running a series of the best discussion points from my talk at the Writers & Artists selfpublishing event. Yesterday I covered how producing a good book requires an editorial team. Today, it’s about allowing enough time to use their feedback properly.image_00007sml

meatballpaper 014

Editing – will it derail your schedule?

One of the points I made was how long to allow for rewrites after the editor has done their worst – er, best. (Here’s my post on a publishing schedule for indie authors. )

I get a lot of enquiries from first-time authors who have already set a publication date and allowed a nominal fortnight or so to sort out the book after my report. They have no idea how deep a developmental edit might go. Especially for a first novel, or a first leap into an unfamiliar genre, you might need a few months to tune the book up. I know some writers who’ve taken a year on a rewrite, and I recently wrote a document of 20,000 words on a book of 100,000. Equally, other authors don’t need as much reworking and should have a usable manuscript inside a month.

But don’t make a schedule until your editor delivers their verdict – er, worst.

Thanks, Henry Hyde, for the pic of me :)
Next (after a brief sojourn at The Undercover Soundtrack): negative criticism
Have you had editorial feedback (whether from an editor or critique partners) that required major rewrites? How long did it take you to knock the manuscript into its new shape? Were you surprised?

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Editing seminar snapshots – from Writers & Artists self-publishing day

w&alogoimage_00007smlAs you might have seen from various flurries on Facebook and Twitter, last weekend I gave a talk at the Writers & Artists selfpublishing event in London. There are some interesting discussion points I want to share, and some of you will have crawled out of Nanowrimo and won’t be in the mood for a giant reading task, so I’ll be posting them in short bites over the next 6 days.

Editing – many minds make your book better

My task at the event was to explain the various steps of editing and why they were important – developmental editing, copy editing and proof reading (here’s my post on a publishing schedule for indie authors ).

This care with the book content was an absolute gold standard for the day, and was stressed over and again – guided rewriting with expert help, and attention to detail.

JJ Marsh of Triskele Books  in her talk on how their collective works, said that the combined critical talents of her fellow authors had made her books far better than she could have made them on her own. Psychological thriller writer Mark Edwards, women’s fiction author Talli Roland all talked about the people who helped shoulder the responsibility of getting the book to a publishable standard. Jon Fine, director of author and publisher relations at Amazon, cut to the chase by quoting thriller selfpublishing phenomenon Joe Konrath : ‘Don’t publish shit.’ (Next time I’ll just say that.)

Some of the delegates didn’t need to be told anyway. From a show of hands, roughly a fifth of them had already been working with editors, in thriving professional relationships where their limits were being pushed and they were being challenged to raise their game. If there’s one advantage selfpublishing can give us, it’s the control over our destiny and artistic output, and many of these writers were committed to making books they could be proud of.

Eek, the cost!

True, good editing comes at a cost. Jeremy Thompson of the Matador selfpublishing imprint gave grim warnings about companies that advertise editing services for just $99. And it probably seems unjust that a pastime that should be so cheap has such a steep price tag. Writing is free as air, after all. But publishing isn’t. It never has been. No manuscript ever arrived at a publisher and went straight onto the presses. It went through careful stages of professional refinement – which takes time and money.

That said, there are ways to get useful developmental help without breaking the bank – here’s my post on 4 low-cost ways to get writing tuition if you can’t afford an editor.

Thanks for the picture, Henry Hyde

Tomorrow: how long to allow for rewrites
Have you worked with an editor or critique partner who helped you improve your book? Or perhaps the opposite….? Let’s discuss!

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‘Each morning, there was a chapter to listen to’ – guest post at Jane Davis’s blog on making audiobooks with ACX

rozjaneToday I’m at Jane Davis’s blog, reflecting on the experience of making Lifeform Three and My Memories of a Future Life into Audible books. If you’ve been following my audiobook journey for a while you may find the ‘how-to’ section is familiar material, but there are plenty of more reflective moments – so I hope they’ll encourage and inspire you if you’re considering an audiobook too.

I also want to introduce Jane Davis. I first spotted her when The Guardian newspaper featured our novels in an article about quality indie authors. I tried to drag her onto The Undercover Soundtrack, but alas she was too honest and told me that music hasn’t really featured in her creative process. So I’ll tell you a little more about her here. She secured jane davis1a publishing contract when her debut manuscript won the Daily Mail First Novel Award, but has since gone proudly indie, following up with four other titles that deal with tricky subjects in thoughtfully honed prose. Her titles are delicious and hopefully will give you an appetite for more – I Stopped Time, A Funeral For An Owl, An Unchoreographed Life. There’s more about Jane and her books here.

So do join us at her blog for audiobooks, the inside experience.

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Science fiction – have we forgotten what it should be?

Pioneer-10-and-11-plaqueWhat makes a story science fiction? Is it an otherworldly location, the science, the time in which it is set?

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.

shawTake, 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.

shawScience 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.

shawScience 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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