Posts Tagged Lifeform Three
I had an interesting comment from a reader of my novel Lifeform Three. She was curious that I’d described a horse’s coat as ‘fur’. Surely the more usual term, she said, is ‘hair’.
She’s not wrong.
‘This might worry readers,’ she went on, ‘who will think you don’t know one end of a horse from the other.’
We’ll return to that in a bit.
The writer’s deception
Fiction writers are, of course, the ultimate fakers. We write experiences we haven’t had. In places we haven’t been to, about people who never existed. And we must make it real. Readers want to believe. Even if they know we can’t have been alive in Victorian London. Or on a fantasy planet.
Vocabulary is one of our tools for this.
1 Vocabulary is occupation, profession
A bomb disposal expert has to sound like a bomb disposal expert. And not just in the way you describe the activities of their work, with technical language and insider shorthand. Their work will give them a life outlook too. Any occupation will add to a character’s slang vocabulary, and even their humour style. Think of medics and their distinctive black humour.
2 Vocabulary is culture and time
Vocabulary shows the culture of the book’s world – the way characters think, the way they behave with each other.
Fantasy authors are a good example. With every word choice, they’re casting the spell of the setting, letting us know we’re not in the everyday. If their world is quasi-medieval, they might choose terms with an archaic or courtly quality.
Historical fiction authors have an additional concern – they mustn’t introduce words or phrases that are inappropriate for the times.
This brings me to character attitudes. Attitudes come from the culture. In our own time, social attitudes change wildly within a decade. Put another way, each era has distinctive values that affect how characters behave to each other. A major bugbear of historical novelists – and readers – is character attitudes that are anachronistic, especially 21st century snark and rebellion. There’s nothing wrong with rebellion, but it must be a kind of rebellion that fits with the times. (Aside: if you want to put ‘bugbear’ in your historical novel, you’re good. It entered English in the 16th century, according to Merriam-Webster.)
3 Vocabulary is individual character
Language also shows character, especially in dialogue and first-person narration (and close third where we follow the character’s thoughts and feelings).
Characters will have different ways of thinking, which come from their education levels, their occupations (or lack of them) and their personalities.
Characters will have their own lexical signature. How they curse. What they say when impressed or upset. Even, how they say hello or goodbye. What they call their parents – Mum and Dad, Mom and Pop, Mummy and Daddy, Mater and Pater. Perhaps one parent is a warm word (Mum), the other is severe (Father). Perhaps they use first names. (There’s loads more about this in my characters book.)
Back to Lifeform Three. Of course – of COURSE – I know the correct term was hair, not fur. So why did I use such a weird word?
1 – Temporal setting – Lifeform Three is set in the future. Terms might have changed. My odd choice of word is a cue to the reader; take notice, this is not your time.
2 – Cultural shift – at the time of Lifeform Three, people don’t encounter horses very much. Or any animal. ‘Normal’ terms are created by communities. Dog owners of the 2020s know what to call everything because there is a long tradition and expertise. They talk to each other, read books, write blogs, go to vets, buy gear. All of that creates a shared vocabulary for talking about dogs. If no one does any of that, there is no shared vocabulary.
3 – Character – the narration is from the point of view of an artificial human, who has to invent his own terms for everything.
As I wrote that scene in Lifeform Three, I felt the term ‘hair’ would be wrong.
My perceptive reader noticed. Wondered why. Which is what I wanted.
And should readers be concerned about my grasp of horse lore? In a superb irony, the idea came from a weird comment by a riding instructor. ‘Ram your outside hand into the horse’s neck,’ she called, ‘right into the fur’.
‘Fur?’ I thought. ‘You always pick such peculiar words.’ Peculiar words were one of her tics, bless her.
Years later, about to type the word ‘hair’, I stopped and thought, is ‘hair’ the best word for this character, in this time? Would another word serve me better?
Sometimes, the strange word is the right word.
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Ruinlust. It’s a word that means ‘the unseemly feeling of attraction to abandoned places and crumbling buildings’. At least, that’s what Robert Macfarlane said when I had a chat with him about it on Twitter. And if anyone would know, he would. (Here’s why.)
I don’t understand the ‘unseemly’ part, though I suspect Husband Dave might. He is not as ruinlustful as I am. (‘Must we trek all that way to look at that half-derelict tower, Roz?’)
Anyway, how is this connected with ideas and where they come from?
When book blogger Davida Chazan (The Chocolate Lady) reviewed Not Quite Lost, she pounced on a note in the afterword where I mentioned the settings that had appeared in my fiction. A magnificent decaying mansion in Devon. The remains of drowned towns in Suffolk. They were the seeds of Lifeform Three. Ruinlust, through and through.
But settings can give you more than just a sense of place. As I edited, I had a surprise. I wasn’t just dusting off old anecdotes, I was digging the archeology of my own themes and curiosities. Memory, identity. Buried histories. (More about that here.)
Davida asked me to come to her blog and write a proper post about it. It seems that even if you go back into your own past, it’s still a new journey. Out of sight, not out of mind. Do come over.
This week I was pulled into a discussion on Facebook about ghost-writing.
It began when novelist Matt Haig wrote an impassioned opinion in which he lamented the number of books whose true authors were not acknowledged, which kicked off a wide-ranging and emotional debate. One commenter introduced the term ethics and asked me to talk about ghost-writing from that perspective. As that’s far too long and gnarly for a Facebook comment, I thought I’d explore it in a post. Here goes.
What ethical considerations might there be? Looking through the discussion, they seemed to be:
- Is it dishonest to pretend that anybody could write a book?
- Does ghost-writing devalue the contribution of real writers, or appreciation of their skill, especially when so many genuine writers struggle to get published?
I’m going to tackle this in a roundabout way, and first, I think we have to be practical.
Writing is like any other accomplishment you can use commercially. I’ve always earned my living by the word. Long before I dared to be a serious fictioneer, I was writing articles, and editing books and magazines. Just because I can also use writing to make art doesn’t mean I shouldn’t put it to other uses. It’s not sacred and it won’t wear out. If I can write books for myself, why shouldn’t I also write books for others if appropriately rewarded? I don’t have many other options, anyway. I doubt I could even dig roads very well. Anyway, words are a tool of life and we use them for ordering pizza as well as making immortal prose.
What about the sanctity of the byline?
In magazine publishing and non-fiction, you soon learn that the byline hides a lot of other helpers. A person whose name goes on an article – or book – may not be capable of writing to a publishable standard, so an unnamed staffer will lash it into shape. This can frequently be a wholescale rewrite. The originator of the copy still gets the glory, though, because what matters to readers is their knowledge, experience and reputation. That’s the way it goes. The writing/editing staff are technical enablers.
Ghost-writing is not that different. Quite a lot of ghost-writers come from editing and journalism, because they’re already well adapted to this scenario.
Books are rarely solo projects
Here’s another truth. Even where the writer is really the writer, few books are solely the work of one person. Even when we cross from commerce into art.
A quick comparison. Where would musicians be without session players? The Beatles, in their most explorative phase, couldn’t have made their albums without a lot of hired help. And a hefty amount of production from George Martin.
In the book world, agents, MFA tutors, publishers’ editors – and even marketing people – might substantially influence the content. The style and expression may be fine-tuned by the copy editor and even the proof reader. While we would hope that a book with the author’s name on it will substantially be generated and finished by them, there might be a lot of other unsung heroes (or villains) in its genesis. (But lest you think I’m taking too much away from the author, read this – why your editor admires you.)
Art v commerce
Also, consider that not all books are produced from a pure artistic vision. Some are designed from the outset to fit a marketing agenda, and plenty of people seem to like them. Some are adapted to fit a marketing slot (maybe to the dismay of the writer).
Indeed, not all professional writers want to ‘produce art’. They are happy to use their skill and get rewarded, like session musicians. Others have a scorching need to sing their truth. There’s room for both – and some of us do both (in case you think I’m selling my soul, here’s my manifesto for when I write as me) and here’s a piece where three ghost-writers talk about making room for passion projects.
Books are not just books
And books are often used for all sorts of purposes beyond just turning a profit for a publisher. Especially non-fiction, which might be a calling card to further a career.
Which brings me to a major ethical question: making a chump look like a champion. Is that dishonest?
I’m talking, of course, about Tony Schwartz, who wrote The Art of the Deal with Donald Trump. Here’s where he reveals the reality behind the myth. You might ask if he should have quit when he realised how much fabrication he would need to do? Well Schwartz’s experience is definitely extreme, but he wouldn’t be the first ghost-writer who had a very bumpy ride. Sometimes, that’s what it takes to make a competent book.
Since ethics are our subject here, you might ask whether Schwartz was right to speak out. No easy answers, I’m afraid. Opinions in my ghostwriting circle are very divided. Confidentiality is written in our marrow, even without non-disclosure agreements. We’ll all take secrets to our graves, like doctors or priests. One argument is that because Schwartz got a co-credit, he’s at least able to admit the fact of his contribution, if not the extent. Another argument is that even doctors and priests are allowed to break confidentiality if it would prevent serious harm. (Footnote: but see PatriciaRuthSusan’s comment below.)
Publishing is a business
But there’s one more ethical question we have to consider. Publishing is commercial. Most publishers couldn’t survive without blockbusters. Publishers want books they know they can sell, and a writer who already has notoriety seems a safer bet than one who hasn’t. Some of those blockbusters will be written by – or helped significantly by – ghost-writers.
This shadowy art is propping up all those more ‘pure’ books – if not in specific publishers, in the wider publishing ecosystem. Books with a massive turnover keep an entire infrastructure in business – printers, agents, review outlets, warehousing, conferences, industry journals, ancillary services like Nielsen. Ghost-writing helps to create an environment where our genuine work can live. And that goes for the individual ghost-writers too, who can fund their art by hiring out their craft.
‘Let’s not lose the writer’
In his post, Matt Haig said: ‘The essence of so much art starts with words on a page. Writers are not second to reality TV stars and musicians and actors and comedians. We shape thoughts, we provide escapes, we offer comforts just as well as any other art form. So let’s not lose the writer.’
Absolutely. I’ve got obstinate views about artistic integrity. I’m the first to shout for people to write from the heart, guts and soul, and to hell with market fashions. But not everybody fits a publisher’s wish-list and we do have to earn a living. Often, it’s better paid to be a secret pen than to write your own books. And ghost-writing has brought me experiences I would never have had otherwise, privileged insights into the human condition (it’s not all Zoella). It doesn’t have to be cynical.
Matt Haig also said:
‘We want to know Van Gogh painted Van Gogh paintings. But with writers it seems like we are not allowed to care.’
I absolutely care. I agree a thousand per cent that the current of connection between writer and reader is special and trusting. And when many folk are breaking their hearts trying to get a book deal, these ghosted celeb books leave them spitting nails (if not nailed novels).
I get it. Really I do. I’ve queried all my books with traditional publishers, and I’ve had the red mist when they tell me ‘it’s very good but nobody knows who you are’. The best was this rejection letter for Lifeform Three: ‘only Michael Morpurgo is allowed to publish unconventional stories about horses’.
It’s sad and wrong that good writers can’t get the breaks they deserve. But if you use writing as a trade as well as an art, that doesn’t make you a lesser artist. Neither writers nor publishing can live on art alone. Publishing needs commercial and ghost-written books as its day job; just as most writers do. That doesn’t mean it’s done without care and professionalism or that it is not rewarding beyond the money; but it is done to make other things possible.
That’s the ethics of ghost-writing.
Thanks for the Superman pic Klobetime on Flickr
And, ahem, if ghost-writing might suit you, I have a professional course.
When astronaut Major Tim Peake blasted off for the International Space Station, the UK literary community launched a project of its own. One Giant Read is described as ‘a shared reading experience from Literature Works in partnership with the UK Space Agency, Royal National Institute for Blind People and supported by Gollancz, the Poetry Archive and Plymouth University’.
I’m beyond delighted that Lifeform Three is included in this month’s edition, which explores artificial intelligence in both the provable world (I refer you to that fetching shot of Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game) and in speculative fiction.