The British Fantasy Society just reviewed Our Child of the Stars warmly. I wrote it in part as a love letter to science fiction, but also to fiction in general. I really want to bring in a broad audience, and certainly the audience has been broad, if not vast.
I spent a lot of time worrying about whether I would manage to alienate both SF readers and general readers. But I had considered less the SF v fantasy argument. The marvellous pair Sue Tingey and Juliet McKenna who blurbed my books, and in Juliet’s case reviewed it for SF magazine Interzone, are fantasy writers.
Many people like both, and most people accept the boundaries are a matter of opinion. Attempts to produce rigorous definitions flounder, in part because some things like time travel machines and faster than light travel are not currently believed possible but look ‘sciencey’ enough to pass.
Ray Bradbury’s books are full of things which include star ships, Mars colonies, and time travel. Yet he claimed that all his work was fantasy except Fahrenheit 451. I’m amused to see genre powerhouse Forbidden Planet list Our Child of the Stars as fantasy, and I can see their point.
I think some of our choices are based on the aesthetic. Bradbury’s dreamy prose, and limited interest in the nuts and bolts, makes his work more like a fantasy.
Stories exist. Genres are helpful, by hinting what the ground rules are, and where to shelve it in the bookshop. Science fiction in particular is vast spanning books which are SF but also allegories, Westerns, Gothic horrors, war stories, satire and social commentary, detective stories, heist movies, dystopias and utopias, coming of age stories… and family dramas.
A lost child, the family who try to protect him and the secret that refuses to stay hidden . . .
Molly and Gene Myers were happy, until tragedy blighted their hopes of children. During the years of darkness and despair, they each put their marriage in jeopardy, but now they are starting to rebuild their fragile bond.
This is the year of Woodstock and the moon landings; war is raging in Vietnam and the superpowers are threatening each other with annihilation.
Then the Meteor crashes into Amber Grove, devastating the small New England town – and changing their lives for ever. Molly, a nurse, caught up in the thick of the disaster, is given care of a desperately ill patient rescued from the wreckage: a sick boy with a remarkable appearance, an orphan who needs a mother.
And soon the whole world will be looking for him.
Cory’s arrival has changed everything. And the Myers will do anything to keep him safe.
A remarkable story of warmth, tenacity and generosity of spirit, set against the backdrop of a fast-changing, terrifying decade.
That night, out in the family boat, when he was ten years old. Sea-mist came from nowhere. He was careless, and fell into chill April water, breathing its knife pain into his lungs. Panic. The current was strong, and the life-jacket could not protect him from cold. The water wanted to hold his head under, a force, a something that wanted to drag him down.
Writing a novel without some kind of a plan is like building a house on quicksand. It is so much harder to fix structural problems at the end of a draft than it is in the development stage.
Well known literary agent Jonny Geller
I don’t agree at all. Structure is a superficial feature of narrative. You can change it whenever you like. What’s truly fundamental is tone. You do need a plan, but the best sequence is–write first, then plan. Then edit with confidence, knowing what you’ve got.
Fantasy superstar Philip Pullman
Here’s the point about writing advice. I’ve learned to be cautious about dogma, because people are fond of saying what that works for them – their brain, their way of thinking – should be universal advice.
Lots of people extol ‘Write every day!’ That’s a great discipline if you can manage it, and for some people the only way to get the time. To be honest, a day of writing and doing nothing else (or two half days) works better for me than seven individual hours on seven different days. (Think about it every day if you can.)
Dogma merchants love the mechanics of writing. Some people handwrite their books in elegant notebooks with a fountain pen they bought at Harrods. Others hammer their old computer like a demented Muppet. Which is right?
I think it depends how you put words together. Some people painfully assemble their sentences like an old watchmaker. They write slowly – add a comma here? Oooh, tricky! What comes out is serviceable. Bit by bit they build the work. So handwriting is fine.
I’m more Kermit thumping out the words on my laptop, to see how the scene works, or whether this approach is too obtuse. I write quick and messy, knowing I will have to go over it again and again. I honestly think I need to write 10,000 words of a major character before I’m clear if they are working. To be forced to handwrite would be unbelievably frustrating. It would be like telling a ‘watchmaking’ writer to write with their feet. I accept the price of this method: writing stuff you change later, deciding an approach is not working, writing stuff you decide to cut.
When it comes to a significant review and edit, I change the font and print it out, and mark it up on paper. This is a deliberate attempt to make the work feel like someone else’s.
Plot or pants? Plan the work or write by the seat of your pants? See the two esteemed figures above. Brian Aldiss claimed to plan books down to paragraph level before he started writing. Stephen King starts with a situation and sees what happens.
I’m more King than Aldiss. However, starting a book without a clear understanding of the final place the characters must end is very dangerous. People don’t forgive poor endings. Where your characters start and end, the challenge they face and the change that happens, is the arc of the book. Starting without this is setting sail in the dark and hoping to find an island which might not be there. I must start knowing an ending, so in one sense I plot.
What is the narrative question, asked early in the book, guiding the book throughout, and answered at the end? Should Hamlet kill his wicked uncle? Can Iago destroy Othello by his lies? Will Romeo and Juliet live happy ever after?
Stravinsky said, ‘The magic happens at the keyboard.’ Writing deepens understanding of the characters, brings out themes, helps you understand this new idea is a better challenge than the old one. I’m also terrified that a detailed plan will remove the impetus to write the damn thing, just as telling someone a short story idea often stops me writing the story.
I start with a rough idea of what will happen, a one side plan. I write a lot, and it makes me reconsider the plan. Sometimes I pause a good way in and redo the plan. But the plan is the servant not the master.
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I’m due to get my latest set of edits soon. When I signed with Jo my editor for Our Child in the Stars, I knew from day one that she would want three broad things.
A developmental edit, which suggests changes to the structure and tone of the book at a para, line, scene, page, chapter level – character, setting, stylistic choices all up for comment – phew;
When that’s done, a copy or line edit, which literally goes through the book line by line saying delete this, unnecessary repetition – phew;
and finally, proof-reading, which a fresh set of eyes takes on, checking again eg grammar and consistency about italics etc.
[Added: of course these phases are not rigidly separate. Things occur to editor and author in the discussions.]
No surprise that people have said things like, ‘Won’t this ruin the book?’ ‘Will it still be your book?’
The core thing is that my editor and I share a vision for the book. What Jo is doing is helping make it happen. Following untold years in the book mines, her experience helps shape delivering the story well (pace and structure), dialling things up where needed, bringing things out. If we did not share a vision, then the discussions would be short.
So, ‘There is too much warm family stuff’ is not a line I could work with. ‘This bit could be faster’, I could.
Imagine you write and direct an amateur play. You plan to put it on, at your own expense in the local Scout Hut. Local rehearsals go well, your friends are impressed. Then an impresario is given a copy, and they want to pay you to put it on. Bigger theatre, bigger budget, paying the actors, the stamp of success. How exciting!
That impresario likes it, they really do, they read hundreds of plays before picking this one. But they have put on the odd play or thirty before, and they know what works. They will come back with a string of points. All that comic stuff in Act Two slows the pace and reduces the drama. Do you need both the heroine’s brothers? They seem very samey, and it’s boring when they talk to each other. You need to work on the final speech, which seems to cut across the theme. The set design is very bland. Is there a reason the period is so vague?
Some of this is so obviously right you nod. Some of this might be very challenging. You had some clear ideas right back at the beginning you might need to give up on. Some comments you vow you will agree to only over your dead body. Some involves looking up the first draft again and getting out bits you’d abandoned.
Your initial response might be to Google ‘How much assassinate theatre person London?’ Or that it would take a year to do all that, so the play is doomed. But you remember that Shakespeare probably had the same thing, and less time to do it in.
So, you muse on it all. Somewhere, some of the more critical points start to strike you as having the ring of truth. The editor’s suggested cuts in Act Two miss the mark, but you realise a much better way of addressing her concerns. You find you don’t care that much about one brother or two, and just roll over on that. The finale speech is really important, you will need to discuss what she means further. If she didn’t understand… that means you need to flag the theme up even stronger and earlier in the play. And she’s just factually wrong on Norfolk sheep farming.
You see the point. Of course, in a play, the actors are important co-creators, as is the director, the designer and a host of other people. A book comes down to you and the editor.
What you end up with, you both hope, is a work which delivers in the real world the characters, story and themes of your play/book, but more effectively. So, during the edit, there will be cursing, but you are working with a professional who after all, is investing time and money your book’s success. To stretch another metaphor, it’s like a marriage. If you ask ‘who is winning’ the relationship is in trouble. The book ought to be winning, and the readers.
An agent tweeted recently that editing was ‘enjoyable’. I’d say it’s more like doing a run for charity. Some of the training, some of the post training, the run itself, the aftermath – some of this is enjoyable. Some bits aren’t, some bits involve sweating and swearing, but you know you need to see those through to do what you want to achieve.
A few years back, I sat down and wrote, unprompted and off the top of my head, in five minutes, the books I wished I had written. Are these favourites? They are certainly not perfect, there are cogent criticisms of each of them. If I had written them, they would have had different faults. But these were the books that came to mind, without perusing lists of the canon.
Northern Lights – (Philip Pullman)
A Wizard of Earthsea, and The Left Hand of Darkness – (Ursula K Le Guin)
Player of Games – (Iain M Banks)
The Handmaid’s Tale – (Margaret Atwood)
The Persian Boy, and The King Must Die – (Mary Renault)
1984 and Animal Farm – (George Orwell)
Easter – (Michael Arditti)
The Sparrow – (Maria Doria Russell)
Revisiting this list recently I added
The Girl with all the Gifts – (M R Carey)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane – (Neil Gaiman)
The Name of the Rose – (Umberto Eco)
Binti – Nnedi Okorafor
Commentary on this
These immerse you in their world with complete authority
Nearly all have great characters you care about.
They do tend to address issues however obliquely
The only ‘contemporary novel’ is Easter, a satire. Well, an everything.
None of the thrillers, spy fiction, or detective stories make it in.
It is interesting that writers I really rate and recommend do not have a single work that leaps out.
To take some examples, Saki, Borges, Ray Bradbury, Angela Carter I think of as short story writers. No P G Woodhouse book or story is strikingly better than the next one.
Remember this list is books where I thought, I wish I had written this. That’s not ‘fave read’ (many are), or ‘most impressed by’.