Wednesday, 9 February 2011
The first question this week actually came to me through Twitter. Rather strangely, it came from the person who supervises the Twitter account of High Speed trains in Kent - they followed me for about three hours, asked me this and then stopped following me immediately after. But whatever. They asked. I answer.
...do u write for your own escapism into fantasy or is it solely for the benefit of your readers?
Neither. I think that you're confusing the act of 'fantasizing' (or daydreaming), which many people do for escapism, with the publishing genre of fantasy. The publishing genre of fantasy, which comprises a vast and varied field of novels and stories, including some of the most challenging and successful fiction ever written, is not escapist by default or by definition. As a writer it is not easier or more escapist to write fantasy than any other genre, nor does it require lesser dedication to the writing craft or the publishing business. I write fantasy because I love it, and luckily I have garnered an audience of people who like the way I write and are willing to read my books. I'm grateful to these readers, but I don't write for their benefit - I write for my own.
(You might have guessed that this question annoyed me just eeeeever so slightly).
The next question comes from long-time blog readers Isabel and Steph Su as a result of the discussion in the comments after the WAKE UP AND SMELL THE REAL WORLD post. Due to all the holes that years of copy-edits have caused in my brain, I can't actually find Steph Su's comment to quote here, so I'm just posting Isabel's:
I make up my worlds, so how can I include, say, an Asian person in my story if Asia doesn't exist in my book? I'm Brazilian-American, and I'd love to be more open in my stories, but I wonder how I might depict it. I think I'd like my readers to sometimes just imagine the characters the way they want to, instead of me always saying 'this is how my character is depicted' and expecting them to go along with that.
The problem here is that many writers (living, as they do, in the real world, where we like to slap labels on people as soon as we meet them) think, consciously or unconsciously that you need to make characters in a fictional fantasy world somehow analogous to races in the real world. But you don't. You're making up your own lands with their own complex histories of evolution and migration. People's physical and racial characteristics might - in fact, probably should - have developed very differently than those on earth.
For example, in N.K. Jemision's THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, the dominant white race have wildly curly hair while the dark-skinned people have straight hair - very different than on earth. A lot of people also assumed that because N.K. is black her main character must be too. But actually on her blog she said that the main character probably most closely resembles someone from earth's ancient Mayan race, a race that no longer truly exists in our reality.
People are always much more individual than just a block of characteristics with a label on them like WHITE or BLACK or ASIAN. In a world that you've created, a world where everyone's skin is some shade of brown, what would 'black' even mean? In a world where there is no Asia, but 90% of people have smooth, silky dark hair, golden skin and epicanthic folds, these characteristics are just 'normal'. So have fun describing your characters! Love your characters for who they are and luxuriate in their smooth, golden brown, dark pockmocked, milky pale, scarred skin. Rejoice in their dark, round, pale, slanting, eyes. Give them frizzy golden hair, and straight black hair, and freckles and big noses and snub noses and beaky noses, and give them delicate arched brows or straight prominent ones. Don't force yourself to put a label on them like we do in this world. Just let them be who they are.
Now, Isabel also brought up quite an interesting topic in a different comment trail, with regard to her progress on her current story. She said:
Oh yes, wish me luck on Chapter Three. It's giving me grief. Chapter Two went really well, but now I have to write this scene that for some reason is really difficult for me. It's very frustrating. We writers always have that chapter that just doesn't seem to work out. I hope this is it and that my next few chapters are going to be a lot easier going.
I responded (in an off-the-cuff sort of way) that the chapter that was giving her difficulty would probably end up being the best one in the book. Isabel, in the way of desperate, blocked writers everywhere, seized on this and asked me to explain in some useful way - and I realised that although I've discussed this idea a lot with my writer's group, I've not brought it up on the blog before.
So, just in case it's useful, here's my theory on why scenes that flow easily from your pen, as if you had the Muse of Inspiration sitting on your shoulder, often end up reading less well, and needing much more re-writing, than scenes which feel like chipping each word from stone with a blunt spoon.
It's because you think about the stone-chipping scenes more. You yourself are struggling to figure out what's going on, how to express it. You're outside of the magnetic pull of the story's power. You're not living the scene inside your character's head where everything is rushing past in a blur of sensory detail and overwhelming emotion. You're sweating and struggling and trying to somehow make it all make sense - which puts you much, much closer to the position of the reader, who comes into each scene blind, hoping that you, the writer, will show them how it all makes sense.
Those scenes that simply write themselves, that pour out onto the page in a blinding light of joyous knowing, come from a place in your head that is so deeply sunk in the story's world and the character's viewpoint that you take everything for granted. The setting feels real and tangible to you, so you barely bother to describe it. The character's motivation seems completely obvious, so you plough ahead without any time consuming, blocky explanations. The action unfolds in your head with utter, crystalline clarity, so you barely mention what is actually going on. These scenes then quite often seem incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't actually LIVE in your head. And what's worse is that because everytime you re-read these scenes that sense of inspiration lights up again, very often you will be unable to see that the scene is incomprehensible.
I know this from bitter experience. One of the things that I learned (painfully!) from forcing myself to read less than positive reviews of my books on places like Amazon and Goodreads is that a large number of readers found the ending of The Swan Kingdom abrupt and baffling. Many of them stated that they felt as if I'd just run out of ideas and couldn't figure out how to end the book. At first I was stunned to see this because nothing - nothing - could have been further from the truth. The ending was the first scene that I ever came up with for the story. Every word I wrote, every plot event, every bit of character development, had been leading to that ending all along! How could it seem 'cobbled on', as people said?
Because of the way I wrote it. In one sitting, straight through, in a fuzzy-headed blur of inspiration. I was so overjoyed to finally reach the end of the story - this scene I'd been looking forward to nearly a year - that I felt as if the words blasted their way out of me. I had no concern for helping the reader to understand what was happening, or making the way that previous story events had lead to this ending really clear. It all seemed so blindingly obvious and RIGHT to me. And as a result, when my editor gently suggested that the scene felt a bit 'slim', I had no idea what he meant. We revised the manuscript twice, and each time I re-read the scene, I felt pleased with it, so I just added a few extra paragraphs to bulk it out and thought I was done (and unfortunately my editor at the time allowed me to get away with this).
What those negative reviews helped me to understand was that I had failed the reader in the way I ended TSK. My own inspiration blinded me. I didn't write that ending the way it should have been written, the way that would have allowed everyone who read it to see that it was the right, the perfect ending.
Conversely, other scenes in TSK and in DotF, scenes that I hated writing and which made me want to bang my head against the wall, turned out to be surprisingly good when I came to revise them weeks or months later. I even get reader letters and emails sometimes mentioning these scenes, which I feared were dead, dull and uninspired, as favourites. When working on Shadows on the Moon I found that my current editor often ripped my 'inspiration' scenes to shreds, forcing me to re-write them almost from scratch, whereas those chipped-from-rock scenes usually survived almost intact.
I'm not saying that writing in a red-hot blaze of inspiration is always bad. And I'm not saying that you should be thankful for feeling blocked and frustrated and struggling with a scene. I'm just saying that sometimes when despair is gripping you the hardest you're actually doing your best work. And all writers need to keep in mind that even scenes that 'wrote themselves' may need extensive re-writing.
Hope that was useful! Any more questions can be popped into comments or emailed to me through my profile. See you on Friday.