Species as a concept is a lie. The taxonomic division between species and the precise definition of speciesation is mutable and contended; check EO Wilson. “But that’s biology. It’s a blurry, ill-defined kind of science.”
Listen; everything we understand is couched in terms we – or at least a certain number of us – can understand, which involves inventing concepts that break down and make manageable the whole vast and ever-changing universe of space and time, breaking it into chunks that our evolved-on-a-specific-star-orbiting-rock-in-response-to-specific-geographic-and-meteorological-and-environmental-pressures-then-developed-a-culture-and-society-and-culturally-dependent-language-and-thinking-patterns water-based sodium-electricity carbon-driven teeny weeny grey lump brains can digest, with a suitable run-up. We can only perceive directly the most incredibly narrow frequency band of “light” and “sound”; we’re staring at the universe through a slit that makes a letterbox (or the windscreen of a Citroën Dyane if you’re so inclined) look like the Pacific Ocean. Our limitations begin with but are not limited to the fact that our brains evolved for something else entirely and frequently hijack our attempts at objectivity with unconscious bias generated by cultural history or even more stupid things like “the need for sustenance” or “evolutionary focus on reproduction”.
At the end of last year I went to a talk about the archaeology of the Arab Revolt at the British Museum, because I am an adult and can do whatever the hell I want with my free time. There was no free coffee, but during the talk the author of the forthcoming book about the excavations talked about the groundbreaking (I think this is a pun that archaeologists are required by law to make) interdisciplinary approach to finding the right sites for these digs, combining local histories, archive materials, ethnography, a whole lot of disciplines my uneducated Creative Writing BA self thought were the same discipline anyway, and some other stuff, in order to confirm that among other things, a man whose job had been to write detailed and precise reports back to his superiors hadn’t been lying or exaggerating in them about the locations and breadth of various raids during said Revolt.
Further back, Failed Rock Star, walking hair product advert, subject of nationwide sexual fantasies and occasional particle physicist Dr Brian Cox presented a lavish BBC documentary, Wonders of Life, which observant readers blessed with a functioning memory will recall I wanked on about at length here, when I was evidently fairly high on oxytocin:
As soon as you start learning across different disciplines it becomes evident in a way it never was before that everything is in some way relevant to something else: the process of galaxy collisions millions of years ago and millions of light-years away helps to pinpoint the precise point in history in which a terrible plague was presaged by the coming of a new star in the heavens; evolution driven by chemistry and the test of the environment on gene expression helps to explain human behaviour and the propensity for war-making; understanding the chemical nature of love in the brain may one day lead to debates over whether it is ethical to induce empathy in psychopaths and a wave of alternate history fiction about famous tyrants infected with great affection instead, for Literature students to analyse and reframe.
Divisions between chemistry and biology, geography and geology and ecology, meteorology and so on elide part of the picture in order to make it possible to focus on others; but getting down to the human nitty-gritty requires that, at some point, all of universal history is taken into account.
Why does the Apollo Belvedere look like that? Aesthetic choices, culturally-driven (evolution/biology, migration patterns of early humans driven by environmental necessicites relating to ecology and meteorology and evolved needs prior to the mass migration of mankind; cultural interactions between societies growing up due to isolation between different groups); material requirements dictated by physics (geology, crystallogy, material science…); costs (economics, history, the entire network of historical logistics which takes in geography and the limits of the human body and technological development plus information science and historical politics); religion…
Every node of explanation throws up more to be looked at, which connects with other concerns, and other concerns, and no doubt even when everything is explained to a thoroughly subatomic and pre-Big Bang level further complications will continue to arise (I know full well I am not the equal to this, it took my Long-Suffering Boyfriend and I an entire day to even get vaguely to grips with what the concept of a light cone is). There is no limit to the things that can and should be taken into consideration, no end to the distortions to every event or item (or if you want to think of it this way; consider that a leaf is also a time object, and go and have a lie-down) created by other events and items and their interactions with each other; no apparent end-point at which everything becomes simple.
Anyway if any of the staff from Foyles on Charing Cross Road are reading, this is why I was standing in the middle of the history of science section of your book shop looking hunted and chewing my fingernail.
Here are some facts about London: it is old, and it is new. It is disgusting, and it is powerful. These truths are interlinked; foul industries, dirty water, a shambling stream of corpses and fire-halted epidemics give rich foundation to the quasi-religious veneration of our one true God, the golden god, and our old and all-conquering vice: Avarice. Bawd and ideal may be plentiful but the muddy, bloody swamp of a city sinks or swims on its venal lawlessness and nearly two millennia of proof can be dredged up for it.
London creates cultures like a loaf of damp bread. It generates saints. In Camden Town the long, sorrowful face of Amy Winehouse appears in smeared black on buildings like the Madonna on American toast; sheer will supersedes finger-wagging press to create her a modern, Jewish saint; “Don’t venerate an addict” and dire warnings of her moral character fall short and miss the point – Amy is an icon because of her flaws, not in spite of them or in their ignorance. Like Marilyn and Billie Holiday before her, the locality bears witness to struggle and pain paired with eloquence and skill, and raises a broken woman to the status of a divinity. It is a black paint backlash against the madonna/whore dichotomy; let her be both, let her be both.
We have hopes for George Michael, but it’s early days yet.
London makes saints of the ordinary, too; not far from my home there is a shrine. A man, 22, whose name I know but won’t share, died violently in the street in November. In a turbulent time these things go unremarked, but the shop across the street remembers, and his loved ones replenish flowers, candles, photographs, empty whisky bottles. Offerings to somewhere or something, to keep him from fraying in their minds. Devoured by the city, he becomes part of it.
Do the rules of urban sainthood cover the man I saw die this week, his vast white belly unthinkingly exposed as he lay surrounded by green-clad paramedics
and stony-faced on-lookers, spread-eagled by an unsuccessful defibrillator on a cold station floor? If he is canonised by the fleck-marks among the grey, how long for?
But it is a morbid time; it is Dead Winter. The time of year when I am quite grateful to find mould growing on my sandwiches because it proves that something can still grow in this hellish twilight. Past the dimple of midwinter and the instinctive bonfires, this frozen endless coda between the solstice and spring equinox is the time I give real and visceral consideration to the possibility of human sacrifice. At 3pm, already dark, on a night-shift week, I drag myself to he gym to treadmill the black despair into aches via the media of glowing orange numbers and participation in a nationwide detoxification – purificiation – fast-and-atonement ritual as we try to apologise the spring into happening. And I think, yeah, I’d kill a child to bring the sun back right now. Why not? Shit, let’s kill ten and have a nice summer this year.
London is a ritual city. It has no pomp nor splendour, no matter how much gilt we pour on the remaining high traditions or crenellated and NeoGothic excesses we defer to – the rituals are modern in age and pre-Enlightenment in character, private or primal: the weird, carved fish of Guild processions, the prescient and personal libations to a Bacchus tossed in the Fleet in the fourth Century, the roadkill funerals, the furtive wishing coins, knuckles to the window of the London Stone and prayers to the known monsters travelling in the eternal dark beneath the city. From the dank earth we came and shall return; we are filth, stains lapping at the feet of our unsecured glass skyscrapers – we are ugly, and let us remain pox-disfigured grasping mollies, roaring over newsprint…
One could weep for all the histories lost in the foundations of raw progress – the temples destroyed by railways, the birthplaces by bombs, the memories by meretricious, mercantile greed, but London does not stand still and it does not stop – a fossil city is a dead city. Better to build on top of our own sinking rooftops, lay roads over
rivers, and let future archaeologists marvel at our litter as we now paw over the plague-pits Pepys and Defoe’s peers did their best to cover.
Buddleia reaches for the sky, whole trees hanging out of brick cracks the size of a thumb; black mould marches over my bedroom ceiling; five mice quarrel in hypersonic territorial fury between the rails of the train to Cockfosters and somewhere in those miles of 19°C subterranean veins, rippling through clay like bands of a new composite mineral, we are evolving a new species of mosquito at light speed. The Tube Parasite. Our very own blood-sucker —
— London is a ritual city. We revisit our haunts. We pay our respects. We set our habits like heartbeats, not clockwork. Environment rules apply: the same man who moved me gently out of his path in a crowded, convivial nightclub in Vauxhall by placing the tips of his fingers on the angel tattooed on my neck kept to the etiquette of the Night Tube afterward, hunched up at the far end of a carriage with his eyes locked to his phone, a dozen empty, newspapered seats between us. Courtesy in both worlds: in the sweat and strobes the pressure of his cock on the waistband of my jeans is simple and unimpeachable neutral manners, too.
Condensed, London is a highly-charged space. Widely-spread souls mistake this hyperreal interaction for hostility instead of the hallucinogenic endgame of compressed human interaction. In the countryside I grew up in, friendliness is a two-hour chat with a grinning death’s head stranger; in this hive it is the quick smile to a bus driver from a passenger who has been on this route a decade. It is the small rituals with speed-ravaged 4am shopkeepers. It is catching the eye of the tired passenger who is watching the same pigeon fight that you are. In each of these seconds a week of intimacies unfolds in its own sweet time.
Do not be so quick to hate the ‘bubbles’ in which we dwell. They are beautiful and we have chosen them for a good reason.
Like many people, or indeed the whole of human society, I have a complicated relationship with being on my own. Solitude is frequently cited as the ne plus ultra of modern existence, because everything is loud and constant and I personally live in a large metropolis in a flat with thin walls and an unsafe level of overcrowding; at the same time the press will not shut the hell up about how we’re all ignoring each other because of smartphones (something I’ve experienced plenty of: the friends who beg you to come out with them then spend the entire meal, exhibition, or even, God forbid, play or film, on Facebook talking about something else) and the older generation are increasingly lonely and loneliness is more detrimental to physical health than smoking because humans are social.
It is, admittedly, hard to be genuinely alone in a city because there are people everywhere.
Also like many people I have had the joy of a programme of fairly intensive therapy over the last 18 months, because of Reasons (mental health ones, of course), and can offer the observation from the man in charge of making me a more functional human being that I “isolate myself” from feelings, a problem shared with approximately 49% of the human race.
Isolation, it seems, is bad. The press, again, and psych textbooks, talk about “isolating” people from communities or from their families (allegedly bad), about the “isolating” effect of certain experiences, about the “isolation” of mental illness; more esoterically, in medicine pathogens must be “isolated” to be destroyed. An “isolated” community is a weak one; an “isolated” individual is a vulnerable individual. “Isolation”, then, is bad; presumably this is why, when I was shipped off to school with a lot of other Disruptive, Annoying, and Otherwise Undesirable Teenagers, it was located away from anywhere else. Trying to isolate the infection.
But solitude, according to the spiritual, is good. It allows the space of contemplative thought. Reflection. Lets God into your mind (in much the same way I imagine that solitary confinement lets God and any manner of other hallucinations into the stimulus-deprived mind: tick, tick, I’ve solved the mystery of visitations to Anchorites). How do you tell the difference?
Google Image Search seems to think the answer is all in the angle of your head and the colour saturation of the landscape.
The lazy writer’s explanation for why a character is fine in their own company fails to ring true. “I was an only child,” says the character with a shrug, after fifty years in the Arctic with only a picture of Elvis for company; “I got used to making my own entertainment.” Or, “We always lived in the middle of nowhere anyway.”
Having grown up in some pain-in-the-ass places, in a household containing one other person and one very loud sewing machine, I can confidently state:
Getting used to something is not the same as enjoying it.
You will take any opportunity to catch a lift into the nearest town. Literally any. Oh, the terrible, pointless activities I have engaged in to avoid spending more time sitting in my own room staring at too-familiar posters.
Self-isolation is something the social monkey engages in when it feels threatened. You lock yourself in a toilet cubicle because the braying rugby narks outside seem like they might do a hate crime on you; you choose the hidden library carrel, the agoraphobic’s approach to living in shared accommodation; when the world is full of threats a closed door becomes a shield. Witness, if you like, the fear-riled who squeak indignantly about Britain’s insurmountable immigration, as if all of our major threats have not come from within.
A friend, living alone after a break-up, going through a hell inside his own head, used to travel to a service station cafe at night to “people-watch”; he liked the feeling of being both apart and present.
Alone, but not lonely. Apart, but not isolated.
Much is made by lazy journalists and bloggers of the London commuter’s “bubble” of personal space, which often consists of “their skin + some serious denial” during rush hour. According to people who haven’t travelled on the Underground since 1996, we never make eye contact, never come into physical contact, don’t speak to anyone, and don’t emerge from our hated bubbles of isolation.
Would that were true. A girl sat next to me once to tell me about the abortion she’d embezzled money from her dad to pay for in Nigeria. “I don’t know why I’m telling you,” she said, “I just think someone should know.” Another time, a man barged into me on a nearly-empty Northern Line carriage and shoved a condom in my face in possibly the least coherent sexual proposal I’ve ever been subjected to. I was reading at the time.
A bubble of isolation is a mutually consenting abstention from social interaction which can be breached at any moment. It is fragile, illusory, enforced by talismanic headphones, screens, and books. You cannot be alone on public transport unless you are physically alone.
I’ve never been much good at being alone in public places. Meeting up with people is hell even in the age of continual phone contact (if you are one of those people who feels the need to text people with continual updates of your progress towards a rendezvous I love you, be my friend) and was worse when I was a teenager (I was once stood up in a place that took me three hours by train to reach); I’ve spent enough time at events hiding in toilets waiting for people I knew to show up to have written at least two novels, and the stupid thing is I’m not actually shy. I’ve done stand-up, for Christ’s sake. I repeatedly climbed on stage and invited people to stare at me. Given half a chance and a single pint of cider I will dance on any podium presented to me as long as I know someone else there.
Most idiotic social anxieties are connected to childhood bullying; say the wrong thing and everyone laughs? Glue your mouth shut for thirty years. Always on your own and an easy target for bullies who never face any recriminations? Become a world-class skulker.
Lurking behind bins however does lose its appeal when you’re trying to actually live a life, and since the Great Engendering I’ve been trying to make up for lost time on many fronts. But I’m still missing out on exhibitions, gigs, movies, plays, visits to new places, and explorations of who-knows-what purely because some Safe Person can’t or won’t come with me. Not everyone, apparently, is into “I want to go here and look at a frankly horrifying number of prosthetic eyeballs“; not everyone can find the time to be there when, like some ancient Mayan calender occurrence, Jeremy Bentham’s mummified head is possible to view, or it stops raining for long enough to go to the fucking beach. And, well, sometimes your friends are too broke to indulge in trying this week’s weird food discovery, or too squeamish.
I am determined to try and retry things, now that I have a good idea of who I am, until I know what it is I do and don’t like. This “learning to like stuff you didn’t like” project has yielded progress with food: I’m cautiously capable of ingesting lamb, or I would be if I hadn’t quit meat at the beginning of the year; I got the hang of bananas in 2015 and night shift has dragged me kicking and screaming into the adult consumption of coffee. Beer still tastes filthy.
Project: Stop Being Such A Fucking Coward, Derek has begun.
Bribery with food works wonders. In case anyone wanted wonders worked: bribe me with dinner. I will put up with anything for a free meal, or even just a nice meal.
Shoryu (branches in Soho, Broadgate, and some other places I don’t care about) is a tried-and-tested locale for putting nutrients in my horrible carcass. They sell interesting sides, fun cocktails, and at every time I’ve been in there someone’s been eating alone at the counter, which means eating alone there is Normal.
Normal for me has traditionally been to “hide” in a park to eat alone, because what if I look weird otherwise; dining out, properly, by myself is not quite ground zero of “oh god help me why am I here by myself”, but it’s fairly alarming. After the test case in Solo Adventures (Tokyo Nights in Dalston in the winter) did not go entirely according to plan I’ve been leery of it.
But on Friday I aggressively wanted atsuage tofu and a warm onigiri and nothing, not hell, high water, Delightful Boyfriend’s Japanese food fatigue, nor the entire besuited population of City standing in Broadgate Circle like the most sartorially identikit obstacle course outside of a football match, was going to stop me.
I marched into Suit Hell carrying a backpack full of work-related crap, a book about Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli failing to steal the Arno river, and listening to Leonard Cohen’s The Future at an uncomfortably high volume, because I’m cool and hip and in no way a sad little nerd boy.
And it was fine.
Of course it was fine.
It’s fucking London. I went into a restaurant fully-clothed and didn’t scream abuse at anyone and I have the acknowledged privilege of being so white that I am slightly confident I could take out an actual bomb in a railway terminus and not be shot; animosity and suspicion nil. Reading at the counter? Fine. Photographing my food compulsively? Normal, hello, everyone has Instagram.
And so the spectre of another few thousand instances of muttering provincials and lobbed stones (“Why don’t you move out of London, Derek, you could afford to buy a house?” // “Have you seen The Wicker Man?”), relentless, suffocating gossip, and apparently depthless staring directed at anyone who so much as bleaches their hair has another little wobble.
Take a book. Sit next to the four other individual diners at the counter (all men in our thirties and forties wearing nearly identical shades of blue jumper, I’ll see myself out. Maybe we can start a club). Take a deep breath, and just have dinner by yourself. It will be okay.
Going to places alone isn’t the only question of “being alone”, though. While having a social crutch for handholding, performing a personality at, and avoiding potentially being targeted as a lone imbecile by a hostile world is handy, sometimes the presence of another person or persons is a desperate distraction from a brain that will not shut up.
Picture the scene: you’re on a bus. A London bus.
You’re on the top deck of a bus listening to shitty hard techno from 1995 to keep yourself awake, and rosy-tainted dawn is clawing furiously at your face as you try to whisk your aching brain towards bed. You have been up all night reading the news, which means if you met Rod Liddle on the road you would murder him without blinking, and you are so neurotic about food that you fear dust particles on the bus around you may contain too many calories to be safely inhaled.
Congratulations, you now own a brain that is fizzing. Would you like to ruminate on a lengthy blog post about your failing as a human being? Design vans that sell hot rice? Imaginary arguments with people you haven’t spoken to in upwards of ten years? Obsessive self-flagellation over mistakes you can do nothing about? Planning things you can’t actually act on or do? Run out of words? NO WORRIES WE CAN BOMBARD YOU WITH A CONTINUALLY-SHIFTING PATTERN OF REALLY INSISTENT IMAGES AND FEELINGS AT RATE OF FOUR A SECOND–
Who’d be alone with their own thoughts?
When you can no longer concentrate on the solitude-addict’s best friend, the book, there’s nothing between you and the raw and naked garbage heap of the unfiltered brain. Mine – over-caffeinated, over-tired, bogged down with a night of relentless news and unacknowledged worries – is especially putrid. Even in times outside this nadir of human existence, the shift-change between the vomiting drunks on the 24-hour service and the early-morning workers, even when I’m no longer stuck in the bizarre bubble of returning home as you go to work, the rot is palpable.
Who’d be alone with their own thoughts?
Introspection is allegedly the mark of the intelligent, but it’s possible I’ve done enough to secure my place among the neurotic.
You know what’s cool, though? This very busy city contains quite enough to distract me.
Free exhibition @ The Barbican Centre; rainbow over Stoke Newington; butterfly fish at Kew Gardens; 2300-year-old terracotta pig in the British Museum; taxidermy stag head in Camden Stables Market.
An anti-abstract: I’m not going to use this post to talk about people who deliberately misinterpret Barthes in order to give a psychological assessment to long-dead authors and put words into the mouths of living ones, Tumblr. That would be pointless, and it wouldn’t be fun.
An abstract: I’m going to talk about what I think reading, or indeed watching, or any form of apparently one-sided, supposedly non-interactive communicative art is.
What is reading?
What a bizarre question. What happens when you read something?
Well, your brain makes an attempt to decode the verbal and visual encoding of non-verbal ideas and emotions encoded by someone else’s brain into that medium in an attempt to communicate those ideas to another person, like so:
That little overlap in the middle is to do with shared cultural references, experiences in common (whether culturally expected, like Western children being expected to have some experience of “Christmas”, or universal human experiences, like having a poo), common observations, and of course shared language, whether that language is verbal (I am talking to you in English because my attempts to learn any other languages so far have led to hysterically funny failure; I am a bear of very little brain), or non-verbal (semiotics, sociomusicology, have at you).
When you read, you are trying to extract meaning from a meaning-carrying device primed by someone else.
Reading is a creative act.
In order to read, you create a new universe.
The foundations of that universe are laid in the head or heads of the creator/s of the meaning-carrying device. A code is laid down to be read, a set of instructions to the brain which are both direct and descriptive (“I have hit my foot”, said Peter.) and figurative and evocative (The red fog enveloped Peter’s heart as he swore at the throbbing mass his foot had become.); direct and descriptive code relies a little on shared experience (we assume you have hit your foot, know what a foot is, and what hitting it entails), filling in gaps (it is most likely Peter did not deliberately strike his foot with his own hand, and that he has bumped it against something unnamed, probably while in motion), and so on. Figurative and evocative code requires more faith in the shared experience with the reader, and shared cultural references (red is equal to anger, fog is absence of clarity in thought due to emotional upheaval, we know that Peter’s foot is still a foot but the sensation of pain has transfigured it on an experiential level).
When code is laid down it is inert. A film that is not watched and a book that is not read have no meaning. They have potential meaning, in the way that a rock balanced on top of a gantry has potential energy. This is authorial intent. Without anyone to read it, the intent has no function.
When a reader comes to a text they decode it, but this term implies a simple undoing of the coding process.
What actually takes place is creative interpretation of the code, and in the process of this, a story, or version, is created. Sometimes these deviate drastically from the intended content of the code.
No two stories/versions of the same code are the same.
Every person’s reading of a text, every reading by the same person of the same text, is unique, regardless of what shared opinion of the text they come in with.
Because no two people are the same, and what causes a particular interpretation and emotional reaction – alchemical reaction – is the amalgamation of every single experience, thought, belief, and resonance that one person has had throughout their life, which will inevitably pick out different emphases among the text and trigger different emotional experiences, memories, prejudices, and fears.
In literary criticism, in order to present an interpretation of the text as valid it must be supported with evidence from the text and an argument which convinces and which typically draws on an accredited theoretical framework, or builds it own. In reading, all interpretations are valid, and equally valid, and no one reader’s interpretation may supersede another’s by virtue of authority alone. In fact, the attempt to communicate the experience of reading creates another story/version, that of the experience-telling, which exists between the various readers of the work, and at second-hand, as a catalyst, the creator of the work.
In other words, the story created in the interaction between the creator/s of a work and each individual reader is a private and unique story as it is experienced by the reader. This act of creation is not duplicated, not possible to share in its entirety with anyone, and is not owned by the work’s creator (they only made the code to be read), and not owned by the reader (they brought their self and attendant experiences to the code to read it, but the code is not theirs). It exists independently of both.
Each reading is a temporary and private work of art.
In the depths of the hellish night shift the brain has time to mull over problems not typically considered in a busier, more sunlit atmosphere. In my case I’m lucky enough that there’s someone in the opposite time-zone to me who is also frequently bored in charge of a computer, and has her head screwed on when it comes to the business of writing.
You’ll have to excuse the regular descent into internet vernacular with attendant poor grammar (on my part), spelling, and punctuation. There’s been a tiny amount of censorship and explanation but on the whole I wanted to maintain the authenticity of the original discussion, mostly conducted between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 in the morning in between hating the national press.
Your host, I (YHI): it’s much easier to think when answering questions too
Extraordinary Comic Maker (ECM): yeah, like.. breaking it down into it’s parts to assemble sentences, from nebulous thought into structure, even as it’s growing, helps with untangling and identifying gaps and obvious problems.
This is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of “oh, I won’t answer that question until I’ve done some research/thinking”; I find that in answering a question on the fly it’s a lot easier to bring together elements that are bubbling away beneath the surface and get to a more concrete solution than by toiling away alone in the dark.
YHI: Yes! And in explaining it to someone else, one has to have an idea of what one means. It can be very helpful for filling in the gaps, as you say.
ECM: Yeah, always special to try to explain something and then go …???? I have no idea what I’m trying to describe???
YHI: I find the act of trying solidifies things, possibly due to my DESPERATE NEED to sound like I know what I’m talking about at all times, and suddenly all of the vague “I hadn’t really thought about it’s” turn into “QUICK PULL SOMETHING OUT OF YOUR ASS SO PEOPLE DON’T REALISE HOW DUMB YOU ARE”. Amazing what a panicked ego can achieve.
Personally I’m a big fan of hacking the worst aspects of my personality in order to make things which are usually grotesquely self-destructive work in my favour. I may not be able to change the fact that I’m defeatist, ego-centric, and pathetically keen to sound intelligent at all times, but I can at least work on bending those personality traits into helping me to persist and achieve at least small goals!
Fortunately, ECM knows what I’m talking about:
ECM: Necessity, panic, something, invention? Ohhhhhhhh I know that one. A bit like the “I like how you did x, and how it parallels y” “YES, YES THAT WAS INTENTIONAL, YEAH. (???!!!!!)”
For what it’s worth, I think a lot of the instances of “yes, yes, that was intentional” are at least subconsciously so:
YHI: ah, my old friend “i think that was wholly subconscious but i’m going to pretend i’m totes that clever”
The discussion moved onto the specifics of world-building for a while:
YHI: so useful to have intercultural conflict even between characters which get on – it’s just not a realistic representation of sentience otherwise
At which point ECM gloriously and brilliantly climbed onto a soapbox which I can’t articulate half as well, and I’m going to give you her response in full to mull over for your own writing projects, because she nails so accurately the real core of creating a believable, meaty, weight world:
And yeah, it’s the thing of not wanting to make people too reasonable or emotionally competent. And there should always be more stories about people of different backgrounds and cultures mixing in positive or at least non hostile ways and still being people – that is, a bit dickish and self involved, getting on best when there is a shared goal, running into each other when stress is high, more forgiving and able to handle offence and upset when well rested and secure, more willing to admit guilt when they trust each other, able to compromise but not all the time.
I dunno. I understand all the reasons why fiction matters, that nothing is without ideology in some way, but… arg. People are dickheads and it’s not the end of days. People hurt through well meaning and indifference and spite and and sometimes it doesn’t matter in the slightest and other times it does. Aaaand for the most part people just do not give a shit.
I don’t want tedious ‘if onlys and should be-s’ and I don’t want nightmare ‘if you’re not carefuls’. Not exactly reality but something that breaths, that is recognizable as real, if out of focus, perhaps more interior. Like dreams – moments of sharp focus and lots of dim movement and shapes and knowings.
I want this world to have big difficult powers that wear lots of hats, and the rage felt by not being able to see your enemy, of being under attack and going out of you mind to find the source of the sharp pains that come for invisible sources. And I want these big powers to be mortal and fallible. Always on the brink of finally becoming too arrogant and blind to survive, but mean and determined enough to get where they are. For this universe to heave and shift and everyone just try to hang on and make dinner and a life.
And I want it to over exposed and desperate and cold and quiet. Very very big. Deep, wide, shifting. Big structures that change the shape but not the texture. Things decaying even as they’re built. And new life, always life, thriving and struggling and fucking and getting in it’s own way. No great answer no great conclusion just more of the same until it all ends. Horror and beauty and fart jokes. No right answers and nothing beyond hope and it’s all indifference and bitter unfairness. No special ones. Absolutely no special ones. Not and ideal universe but a universe that has – and fails to live up to it’s – ideals. And for it all to have some fucking bite.
“Horror and beauty and fart jokes”, possibly the greatest manifesto heading you can ask for.
YHI: it makes sense and your ambitions are narratively speaking deeply worthy… i mean, imo, what you’ve set out to do is encompass the entire realistic human experience as painted on a broader canvas, hugely ambitious and right. you can’t just detach any part of existence from all others and have it make sense, the whole machine of environment and prejudice and interaction and history has come together to make every single moment and quirk, right? so the engine of story you’re building is functional and accurate, unlike the “i’d like it to be this colour and the details can just go spit” approach people take most of the time.
Back to specifics:
ECM: I think this story will live and die on how emotionally believable the story is
YHI: All stories worth reading live and die on that. Emotionally unbelievable stories may have technical perfection but no one ever loves them.
And then, my dear audience, she asked me a whole bunch of questions.
How do you manage the emotional integrity of a story?
you keep drawing on the depth of your characters until they feel like real people, you get a template of them in your head and then you drag them out of their depth and bang them into each other; as long as none of their responses feel inauthentic you know it’s working out. sometimes the plot has to change as you go along because the characters have their own life and just won’t do the thing you’ve said they should… it’s usually best to listen at this point. it’s a pretty organic way of working admittedly but you can’t force things. if a character refuses reconciliation and goes for a big sacrifice that’s just what it’s in them to do… When do you know a story is done?
there’s a shape stories have. it’s usually sometime after the lowest point. there’s about three “lowests”, and the absolute lowest is followed by an up-tick, where there’s a kind of cool moment of calm or stasis, usually with the promise that something will happen, but not just yet… that’s where the plot ends. That’s the end of that story. [the “something” that’s about to happen can be of another order of magnitude, dr who is quite a good reference point for this – old dr who anyway. sarah waters is with me on that one]. in terms of “ready to be written” done-ness it’s usually when the fucking thing starts writing itself; the characters start talking and won’t shut up, you’ve assembled something so lively that the narration is burping its way into quiet moments of your life, and the wretched infection has to be written or you will not get a moment’s peace. as soon as i can “hear” it clearly i know it’s approaching readiness.
let characters talk to each other in your head, write down what they say, remove approximately 90% of it so that it doesn’t take up four thousand pages. if they won’t talk to each other write about the way they’re not talking to each other and what they interpret from the silences. throw in raymond chandler’s man with a gun to make them interact if necessary. the way i approach it, at least, they should be a) out of water enough to behave beyond the limits of normality as a result of plot events, and b) so well-fleshed that their responses to events can be relied upon to be natural; dialogue follows as a result of that. to take what you’re working on as an example: someone bursts in and demands to see the navigator, clearly not knowing who that is, while [REDACTED, a character specific to ECM’s project] is standing right there. what does he say? what do they say? what information are they trying to convey and how is their ability to convey that impeded by [REDACTED, a character specific to ECM’s project] being a moody bitch at them? eavesdropping conversations was something i was taught to do both in theatre school and on various writing courses, and i did some audio typing work for a friend who needed her phd interviews transcribing; if you spend a little time writing down verbatim what people say to each other (then remove all the fucking repetition and 99% of the hesitations and at least some of the circumlocution) it helps to internalise what natural speech patterns sound like and what kind of character they’re attached to. the aim is to be able to determine who is talking without any attribution [and once you’ve got it settled you can play with it, having people speak in a way that is not natural, and which therefore makes readers feel unsettled]. Single thing you wrote/created that you’re most proud of?
usually this is just “the most recent thing i’ve written and didn’t hate”, and currently really is the case, i have genuine confidence that [it] is probably the most well-constructed and emotionally broad thing, the least over-indulgent thing i’ve written to date. but it’s not ready.
Work that you most admire?
for clarity of vision and character stability, pat barker’s regeneration books. for character voice lolita and the book i’m reading at the moment [this was The Debt To Pleasure, which i wholly recommend]; for break-neck pacing and sheer excitement, glass books; for abject poetry and management of delicate clue-laying and emotional sadism on an incredible scale mary renault – her touch is so light you sometimes have to read and reread to get all of the layers, and the rhythm of her sentences occasionally makes me angry because they’re so WELL BALANCED AND JUST. TOO GOOD. – there are a lot of works where the concept is just mind-blowing but i have no idea if it’s a technical thing or if it’s simply ideas that resonate with me.
What do you find to be the most useful thing to know about a character?
It kind of varies on the character, which is bewilderingly unhelpful, I know. Currently I’ve found things like: the book I’m planning has a major character for whom singing was an important part of his life until various events took place, and now he has lost both that and his very strong religious faith. What has proven to be the key in unlocking him in my head is not this, nor his relationship with his family, but what his voice sounds like now. It changed his look in my head and made him an individual character with his own life. Learning which swear words another character favoured as given me her voice. In [the most recent project] it was getting to grips with how [a major character] felt about his position as a golden boy and what effect that had had on his confidence and also recklessness; sometimes I have to keep prodding a character because they feel flat and weird and wrong and something has to be changed about them and I’m never sure what it’s going to be. But there needs to be a handle onto which I can hang in order to make them solid.
Favourite part of the writing process?
I realise I’m in the minority here but THE ACTUAL WRITING. I hate having a wrestling match with my brain trying to plot things. Once all that is in place the scenes usually just write themselves. It’s like running down hill fast or, at some points, like hitting the crest of a rollercoaster. Fantastic feeling, highly worth it just to submerge myself in a totally different reality that I’m also getting to shape without feeling like it’s me doing it? I think part of the reason it is usually not so hard to write the actual content is that by the time I get started I’ve spent so long with the characters/world that there’s no concern about voice or reality. But easily that “god this stuff is just pouring out of me” sensation.
What writing skill/part of your writing are you most pleased with?
I can guarantee that as soon as I focus on something here I will become dissatisfied with it. Previously I’d have said character voice diversity, but I’ve been on an editing read recently and I’m convinced all my characters sound like me. I guess the ability to provide a sense of place without going overboard on details? Not sure if that’s something I actually manage or if I just leave people floundering in white space though. Oh, emotional impact. I’m okay with that.
What do you find the hardest/want to most improve?
Nuts and bolts: I cannot pace for shit. I have real trouble with cause and effect, my endings are ropy, there is little to get plot resolution happening as a result of character actions rather than as something that happens to them – I suffer from chronic Passive Protagonist Disorder and I don’t think it’s going to clear up until I start writing a different sort of protagonist and that’s not happening until I sort out some mental issues. WHICH IS EMBARRASSING, FRANKLY.
In your opinion, what do you think makes a good protagonist? Or at least a compelling/effective one?
My friend [REDACTED], with whom I disagree about a lot of things, said something very good on this: he said if he has made it through a book for 100 pages and he doesn’t care whether the protagonist gets his heart’s desire or has an anvil dropped on him, the book is lousy and the protagonist is lousy. I am inclined to agree. They need to provoke some kind of strong emotion, even if it is just curiosity, and no matter how repellent they are as a person you need to want them to be in your field of “vision” – you have to want to know what they’re up to, what will happen to them. In effect a species of charm, even if it’s achieved by them being horrifyingly charmless.
More annoyingly the consensus of writing books, which I am less inclined to agree with, is that a protagonist has to be active. Things have to happen because of something they’ve done. I’m kind of a fan of the “giant events far beyond the protagonist’s control” approach as well, if only because a) the universe works that way, and b) I think the individualist, non-fatalistic hero is probably a modern/western invention to a degree. So Budgie’s edict, yes.
what is a protagonist that you would like to write?
a total fucking shit. I wantto be able to write someone with whom I have almost nothing in common and with whom i disagree massively, and still care what happens to them. i want to be able to make myself sympathise with them and care what happens to them, the way that better authors have made me done with complete shit protagonists. in a slightly pseudo-religious sense i think it’s actively important to humanise The Other so that we learn to accept a diversity of viewpoints as being human even as we try to change their views, to approach them as mutable rather than alien and only worthy of destruction and hatred. which means i at some point need to overcome my cowardice relating to being misinterpreted as sharing the views of characters i write, i suppose.
What the most useful thing to keep in mind when going for emotional impact?
small and personal trumps massive and wide-reaching – even if you’re writing about wide-reaching things bring the focus down onto as small a group of people as possible. choose individuals and write about them, pick individual moments rather than a stream – panels/snapshots, not trying to capture the whole event. the glory of the human imagination is that we will fill in the gaps with whatever’s most affecting to us, and the work being done by the reader will surpass anything a writer can do on their own.definitely worth remembering that the consumption of Story is a collaborative act.
i know people go on and on and on about “show, don’t tell”, but it is really important in this area; you only need to devote a sentence or two to the description of an emotion and the rest should be the physical or whatever effects on the character, how they appear, the sensation of that. also with describing an emotion metaphor’s usually helpful? like “mike was sad” blows chunks unless you’re going to contrast it to him either a) being demonstrably not sad (irony) or b) being demonstrably totally fucking devastated (understatement). meanwhile, “mike was hit by a breaking wave of sadness” (or whatever works with your own idiom) is something which makes the experience relatable. “sad” is nebulous. “agony” is relative. “hot needles of shame breaking out in his cheeks” is something most of us are familiar with on a visceral level.
pacing really fucking matters. you can’t pull an immediate emotional impact out of the bag without some build-up – it will just fall flat. you can have tension ticking along in the background of other scenes as you move onto different topics with this “what will happen” hanging over people’s heads, you can twist and bend the narrative however you want, but if you don’t give the moment of emotional impact the space it needs to grow it will just fall flat. also, be wary of either a) getting it over with too quickly – people need to be able to process it and it will feel flat if you just rush past it, or b) dragging it out like you’re milking the damn thing. mawkishness will make readers resent the shit out of it and stop caring both about the event and about the characters.
something that i’ve been writing on my angry post-its to my former self as i go through the first editing pass on my last MS has been “seed this”. it means making sure there are sufficient roots for an event or character leading up to a situation that they feel anchored in the narrative and the world, rather than airlifted in to provide conflict or whatever at an appropriate moment. and be careful of this, readers get fucking irate if they think you’re just playing them for emotional release for no reason, to no end, without any indication of the point of what you’re doing. it has to have a function in the plot, ideally, or in the character’s development. but also yeah, don’t fridge characters either.
We then had a brief interlude for relishing the mere memory of the moments when creation is easy.
ECM: I get that glorious creative-iron-filings-aligned thing with painting sometimes – like for bloody once one’s brain is doing what it should, all the things that don’t work in every other fucking circumstance pulling together and functioning in an almost unconscious effortlessness. feels like being a dancer or a sea gull or something, but mentally. never lasts but worth going through the agony and self doubt to do it again. and again. and again.
This seems like as good a point as any to end a very long post full of rambling about the Process, because what she says about the sensation of writing or creating anything, when it works, is all that really needs to be said about that. We are drawn to this annoying, gruelling, frequently otherwise unrewarding path of activity littered with mistakes and disappointments for that addictive experience of the whoosh of creation – when everything goes right and there’s no casting about for words or overstepping lines or wondering what happens next, only the unstumbling rush forward through scenes or colours or compositions, which is worth a thousand of any other kind of experience you could ask for.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the praise and the money when the finished product briefly catches people’s eye, but that’s not why I do it, and I don’t think that’s why anyone else does it, either.
Sometimes the flow of work at my workplace doesn’t keep pace with how quickly I process it and by “sometimes” I mean “often”. Unfortunately by 5am I’ve also lost the ability to form sentences and can’t productively use the time to work on book projects, and I can’t look at hardcore pornography because I’m at work.
Recently I decided that I’d try copying a painting by one of my (current) favourite painters, Newlyn School artist and Notorious HeterosexualHenry Scott Tuke, whose primary fodder of sun-kissed naked boys viewed from behind is mysteriously not banned by my workplace, on the grounds that if it’s rendered in paint it’s not pornography.
Now there’s a good reason my tag for attempts at freehand lineart on my less official blog is “derek can’t draw”, and it’s also fairly self-evident. I hear that practice makes perfect, but I also hear my dear chum Jamie McKelvie’s complaints about sciatica brought on by endless drawing and think that art is entirely Too Dangerous for a fragile flower like me, and stick to lifting heavy things in the bathroom instead.
Being for all intents and purposes nailed to my bastard desk for at least another hour with nothing else to do I thought I’d take my life and back muscles into my own hands and give it a try anyway:
My brush pen had run out. Under normal circumstances I would take this as a Sign From God that it is not to be, but alas God is going to have to signal a bit harder (say, for instance, by letting me go home) under conditions like these–
Merciful fucking Christ, have I always been this bad at art?
I made an attempt to block it out with a wee figure in the corner but as you can see this did not help in the slightest.
Trying to go for something more stylised and less naturalistic is not helping. It’s getting worse. It’s getting worse the more I do it.
Look at that leg what is happening to his leg?
The point at which sleep deprivation and hallucinogenic drugs become a very similar experience: the arms are improving (for a given value of improving) but the legs are making me concerned that I’ve experienced neurological damage and just haven’t noticed yet (Will Graham, I am coming for your crown). Do I have encephalitis or am I just incredibly stupid?
Don’t answer that.
Experimenting with an edict from friend Kev about letting “mistakes” become part of your style, as well as with a slightly better block-out. Not worried about club foot, jug ears, crab hand, or banana fingers, but that leg. It’s broken. There’s a gravitational issue going on – his arm’s supposed to be resting on his knee and there’s this smashed noodle happening there instead.
Frustration takes hold. None of these poses are right. There’s a distinct, leggy problem occurring and re-occurring, like someone has lost his grip on anatomy and probably shouldn’t be trying to draw at 5am after about 260mg of caffeine anyway.
This calls for drastic measures. Fling open a new tab. Find some anatomy guides. This one was of the musculature of the leg (and leg bones), in case this is not clear from the gargoyle scratchings I committed to paper.
Commentary written on my drawing is fairly standard practice: earlier in the night I tried to redesign a character and every sketch was accompanied by criticism from the drawings themselves and protests that they wanted to be left in peace.
The thigh bone’s connect to the shin bones and the shin bones are connected to the heel bone and the heel bone rests on the ground, Derek, because you’re not a horse.
Making the body see-through to get an idea of where all the limbs sit helps, as does temporarily changing to a different pen.
I mean look, his elbow’s bulbous but at least his leg’s not broken any more.
Combining with the character redesign. The leg is still fucked but eh. How much more can I do?
After all, until I can get the hang of the line of gravity in a figure anatomy is going to be a dead duck anyway.
Please bear with me. I’m about to use the phrase “some young people of my acquaintance” and make myself sound roughly a million years old, which I suppose in comparison to these people ten years my junior I might as well be. I’m also going to throw out the relevant quote at the beginning of this post and then explain myself as I go along.
I’ve listened to so many life-histories; I don’t know why, I always seem to pitch up when they’ve had a drink too many, or a knock too many, or something. It’s loneliness that rots them, every time. A starving man won’t notice a dirty plate.
The Charioteer, Mary Renault
This comes from the exemplary and heart-rending novel by Mary Renault and is spoken by a disillusioned gay man who has spent a sizeable portion of his adult life interacting with the gay scene of the 1930s and 40s, both in the UK and overseas, as a member of the Merchant Navy. As with many things in that book, I found this line in particular very close to home the first time I read it, but the full impact of the phrase “A starving man won’t notice a dirty plate” has only come into focus for me recently.
I waste many valuable hours of my life on a social media site called Tumblr. Unlike most of the social media sites I’ve wasted my adult life on since 2001, this one has a marked skewing towards a younger demographic, both younger in the sense of age and in the sense of life experience and emotional maturity. It is viewed – not always correctly – as a safe haven for gender and sexual minorities, people of colour, free-thinkers, and other youth whose treatment by mainstream internet society may not always be the kindest. It is fair to say that the dogged bigotry of the internet doesn’t exactly fade away in these circumstances, and the site is also rife with racism, anti-semitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, death threats, exhortations to suicide, and the tedious teenage tendency to accuse anyone and everyone of being “fake”.
In my penance for whatever crime I committed that makes me think it’s a good idea to be there (there are lots of nice wildlife photos and some pleasant interior design blogs), I’ve become familiar with sides of my younger friends which I might not otherwise have gotten to grips with in more structured or long-form environments, and one of the major factors is this:
Representation over quality
It had been driving me nuts, and will probably continue to do so for a while even after this particular revelation. A lot of noise is made about the presence (or absence) of characters with whom the above demographics can identify, and in every request post and review no mention is ever made of the quality of the writing beyond whether it conforms to or subverts harmful stereotypes and tropes (such as Women in Refrigerators Syndrome, Magical Negro, Bury Your Gays/The Tragic Homosexual, and so on).
As someone who at least thinks they work hard on the actual quality of their work beyond including characters that represent the astonishing and diverse reality of human society, it’s been very frustrating seeing everything run through various demographic tests and either discarded (understandable: no matter how wonderful the writing, there are only so many times you can read about a white middle-aged man’s midlife crisis without wanting to throw bricks, even if he does cook meth while he’s doing it) or accepted on that basis (slightly harder to countenance as some of the things hailed as the second coming of TV are outright dogshit except for the casting).
But I think now I’m being unfair.
I’ve forgotten what it was like for me, as a teenager, as a younger adult, as an undergraduate, shifting through a world made up of straight white men having straight white crises all through every angle of popular and literary fiction, in every imaginable medium, with women and homosexuals and people who weren’t bloody white or any combination of the above only ever showing up to be subject rather than object – at best. Most of the time these categories were fulfilled by bad guys, tragic dead best friends, romantic prizes…
And when I was their age I did read an unimaginable mountain of shit purely because it had the scarce heroines who didn’t succumb to matrimony, the gay characters at all never mind the ones who didn’t die or who eventually found love; I read god knows how many harrowing and miserable accounts of slavery and racism purely because I was sick of seeing the same faces in my mind’s eye.
And to be fair to this next generation, they’ve been consistent. They want to see their own faces in the mirror of art so badly that they don’t care how revolting the mirror, as long as it doesn’t distort their experiences.
Or to put it in Mary Renault’s terms: a starving man won’t notice a dirty plate.
Getting used to it
The edge has come off the “lack of representation” agonies for me, over time. I discovered the internet at the close of 1999 and fanfic in 2002 and scarcely looked back. DIY media seemed like the answer to the paucity in mainstream media, and if the DIY side carried over some of the same bigotries – if it too looked a bit white, a bit male, a bit heterosexual at times – then that was surely a habit that would eventually recede when the creators started making their own work instead of drawing on properties that were heavily white, male, and heterosexual… right?
The other reason the edge has come off is that there is improvement. There are more properties with the requisite character attributions – nowhere near enough, but more than there were when I was growing up. There is also more access to them – I can watch, conceivably, damn near anything. I can read damn near anything. These were not options growing up a five mile walk from a small library, with a black and white TV that showed four channels and a parent who threw a fit if I tried to watch the actually interesting stuff that was mysteriously only ever on at 2AM. And so because things have improved so much, I can afford to be picky.
Or: the plate is a little fuller than it was, so I notice the dirt.
But we’re not well-fed. The plate is far from full. The generation after mine have grown up with the ability to read and watch whatever they damn well please. They’ve grown up on internet fanfiction not-quite-filling the gaps. Their tastes are shaped by a media that purports to pander to them, and then doesn’t – as opposed to mine, shaped by a media that made no pretence of giving me what I asked for.
Perhaps they’re in a better position to kick up a stink, to notice that their plate isn’t full, and to not tolerate the introduction of three french fries in the name of a four-course dinner. To someone raised on half a french fry it seems ludicrous and greedy and tiresome – won’t anyone see how dirty this plate is? – but I forget, they’re not used to starving for representation to the point where the hunger becomes normality, and until they’re either fed or accustomed to it, they’re not going to give a damn about the state of the plate.
With any luck, they won’t ever have to get used to being starved.
If one was so inclined (which I am) it would be easy enough to argue that Western Masculinity has been undergoing a dramatic change in nature over the last century, far more rigorous and bewildering than that of Industrialisation and the rise of the merchantile classes spreading the notions of masculine power and responsibility through more individuals. Improvements in communication, I think, may have a lot to do with it: women more able to speak to each other without interruption, across countries and continents, are more able to organise and achieve what their forebears were already battling for.
It would be hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the notion of the All Powerful Upper Class White Empire Male began to decline, because it hasn’t been an abrupt descent, but a series of small jerks and crunches. Doubtless each of the World Wars have played a part in crushing class barriers and gender inequalities. For Britain, the dissolution of the Empire brought more and more knocks to the notion of Natural Leader role we’d collectively brainwashed ourselves into thinking we deserved.
The imminent crash of Western Masculinity & Power, and the conflict between a fully-bought subscription to the idea of Masculine Power & Responsibility/The Empire and the necessary sense of Otherness derived from being homosexual (or merely not-heterosexual) is, I think, a potent source of fascination for me and at least partially at root in my interest in figures like T. E. Lawrence and Siegfried Sassoon.
There is none of the sense of righteous struggle that there is in more visibly maligned demographics of the time: while there is the sense of secrecy and imposition of internal struggle due to societal homophobia, sexual orientation is one of the few things than CAN remain secret, festering as an internal wound comprised of self-disgust and fear of exposure. With the misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, classism, and other vicious prejudices in the last days at the height of an already-fading empire, there was no option for recipients of this treatment to participate in expected rule while carrying their own weight of internal self-horror with them.
Righteousness without hypocrisy bores me as a reader: it interests me more to see individuals unpicking their own beliefs and in conflict with themselves, and T. E., at least, is a rich seam of internal conflict. He is rabidly, ashamedly self-aware, and in later life filled up letters to Charlotte Shaw with self-analysis and recrimination for earlier views. Even in the midst of driving the engine of Empire he was engaged in doubt, piling transparent (even to him) self-deception over his too-soon clarity at what he was enabling. In hypocrisy and in self-pity, in high-mindedness born of torturous childhoods (the standard fare for men destined to Run An Empire: psychological destruction and the attempted murder of compassion), queer manhood in the upper and upper middle classes as the Empire reached the brink is a specific and heady drug.
There is again, I think, a particular idea that role models and subjections of historical fascination must be morally upright, and people we want to emulate rather than learn from, which remains with us from childhood. Peter Pevensie, who becomes a fine and wise heroic figure of a man, is a children’s role model. Sad, flawed, mistake-making men who are not quite brave enough to completely destroy their own privileges or buck the narrative that claims they somehow deserve them – who eat themselves from the inside while pouring their best efforts into Not Failing those they feel responsible for* are mine. Not because I think I ought to be like them, but because I think there’s a lot to be learned about how to improve from both their failures and their successes, and from their blind spots as well as their self-awareness.
More than this, I suspect I have a certain amount of fondness for them because it is handy to be reminded that at least some people felt that the powerful place they occupied in society conferred a responsibility of care onto them. I don’t believe it was universal, and I am sure there are people who still hold that belief, but it feels less as if that is the case; perhaps it is only that the few individuals who feel a real sense of responsibility for those less powerful than them no longer have such eloquent and self-assured figureheads.
Perhaps I will be optimistic, and suggest that the power in society is more evenly shared. It doesn’t look that way from here.
At a recent event, one of the questions raised by other participants at the writers’ surgery was that of world-building, reminding me again that for some reason not everyone spends the majority of their waking life engaged in ironing out logical creases in a world of their own devising (or several worlds), and that like all unfamiliar tasks, at first jumping into doing this can seem quite daunting to those that don’t do it.
There are any number of ways to winkle open the shell of a new world in order to make sense of it:
If you’re the kind of writer who finds it easiest to come up with a character rather than the other elements of the story, all you need to do is work out what has made them the person that they are. Find the parts of them that have been broken or abraded and then deduce how: was she abducted by pirates? Great! This world has piracy. How common is it? Where was she living when she was abducted? How did they react? Where is the piracy concentrated around? What is the official response from the monarchy or government? Is there a governing body where your character comes from? How does it work?
As you can see, a lot of world-building – indeed, a lot of writing in general – comes from seeking answers for questions that arise as a logical consequence of previous ones. Finding the right question to start them off is the key, and fortunately there are a lot of “right questions” to choose from. Sometimes telling a friend – or a stranger on a train – about the germ of your story is a good way to get those questions rolling in, and can help a lot in finding unanswered nagging problems you may have overlooked in your close examination of the world.
Maybe you’re a plot-driven writer. The obstacles that come up, and the antagonism your characters are up against, will also tell you about the world that they’re involved in. Stuck on the wrong side of a mountain range? This is when you find out what level of technology your world has. Hero has to battle a five-headed dragon? There are dragons in this world! How common are they? Do people know they exist? What methods have people developed for dealing with dragons? How intelligent are the dragons? Are five-headed dragons usual or unusual? What folklore is there about them and how accurate is it? Perhaps your hero’s found herself thrown into a dungeon: where’s the dungeon, what’s the legal and judicial system of that place like, what are the loopholes in it, and how has that helped to shape the way the people in that place behave?
Even if you’re the kind of writer who finds that you get your seeds in the form of snatches of dialogue, there’s a way in. The way people talk tells us a lot about their culture. For example, in English, the language still shows the marks of over 1,400 years of Christianity. Even now, non-religious people exclaim ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘for Pete’s sake’ (after St Peter), or ‘bloody hell’. This example isn’t to imply that you have to concentrate exclusively on religion, either: it’s true of every idiom that what’s important or reviled in a culture seeps in, what’s admired becomes transmuted to imply admiration in other quarters. “Three sheets to the wind” as a euphemism for drunkenness comes from a sailing nation, and has less resonance if you’re landlocked and desert-based. Beautiful women are said to ‘walk with an elephant’s gait‘ in some parts of our world, drawing on the known delicacy and elegance of the elephant’s tread, and the way that this very valuable animal can pass through a forest without snapping a single twig if she chooses. Imagine that the same compliment were paid to someone whose only knowledge of an elephant is that it is very heavy: not quite the same effect! Turns of phrase can provide an immediate in, as can questions about where and why the conversation is taking place, who is holding it, and what will happen if they are found out.
A detailed and convincing fictional world will always be aided by a detailed and broad-running understanding of our world. Reading dribs and drabs of history – preferably from sources who like to join the dots to show how the loss of one crucial city led to the ‘discovery’ of a new continent, or how the defeat of an armada led to the confidence to form an empire, which had other drastic effects further on down the line – is a great way to start. Remembering that every culture within every given world has a different view of how history happened is another; not just creation myths, but the outcomes of battles (and which battles they remember), which interactions are deemed important, and the costs of them. Remembering that even in our one world there are countless ways that people have come together to solve the problems of existing in their environment and against the pressures put upon them by natural disasters and hostile neighbours; using these differences as a springboard, but never copying them. If you must draw on a cultural history for world-building it’s always advisable to look back into the history of your own culture: there will be surprises in there, dead ends you can pursue to other logical conclusions (what if Britain had successfully remained a republic in the 17th century?). There are always fascinating elements strewn throughout the history of the world, but never pull a George Lucas: don’t assume that because the fascinating headgear of Mongolian monarchs is alien to you, that someone else reading won’t immediately recognise it.
World-building is the place where the glorious free-form flights of your unbridled imagination meet with the bridle of logic and consequence and come together to form, I guess, a chariot of convincing story and setting. Enjoy that strained metaphor: it probably came from a culture that’s had a long historical reliance on horses.
In writing The Circle this November I tried out a thing which I have been interested in for a while and which I suspect may be verboten in some people’s books: having a narrator who has a character of their own, and isn’t part of the story (and thus an omniscient-third for the narration).
In first-person stories the narrator is usually expected to be the protagonist and usually the hero, and sometimes (such as Maria McCann’s sublime As Meat Loves Salt, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita) the author will play with this expectation of heroism and the narrator-protagonist is revealed to be the monster of the piece all along; this is often done through the use of an unreliable narrator, one of my favourite kinds. These stories allow the author to force the reader to use their head a little more instead of being carried along on the tide of the narrative: one is supposed to stop and apply a formula of “wait but he/she said this earlier” or “remember not to trust this person”; there is even comedy, in some cases, in the dissonance between the narrator’s perception of the event and the evidence of the event as seen without the distorting filter of their reality. I have two first-person stories (Tame, The Breaking of M) as Melissa Snowndon and one (Protect Me From What I Want) in which the dissonance between the narrator’s statements about themselves and their evident behaviour are supposed to be the source of humour and occasional tragedy. The gap between what a narrator is prepared to reveal about themselves and what they have actually revealed in relating their own behaviour can make for compelling reading as the riddle of a personality is solved.
In close-third the voice and beliefs of the character should seep through more subtly: this type of narration seems to cause a lot of confusion among readers, with angry reviews on places like Amazon and Goodreads suggesting that the story represents the belief of the author rather than the belief of the viewpoint character (not always the same thing: I have just after all spent a month writing from the perspective of several white Edwardian men of reasonable means and their social norms are not my social norms); then again there are those who are determined that Nabokov must share every expression opinion with Humbert Humbert, so I’m not sure it’s so much a flaw in the narration form as it is a flaw in the intelligence of the reader. I’ve used multiple-viewpoint close-third for Pass the Parcel, in which it is directly possible to see from one section to the next the difference between how someone sees themselves and how others see them; and single-viewpoint close-third for The Other Daughter, which to my mind created a claustrophobic and traumatic narrative in which it was often impossible to see what was coming until it was almost upon the reader. This is a limitation which needn’t be a limitation: seeding the narrative with oncoming tragedy/events that the reader will spot even while the viewpoint character does not is a common enough trick.
The present narrator – that is, a third-person omniscient narrator whose character and voice is such that they become a distinctive part of the story, holding opinions or leading the gaze of the reader rather than merely dumping the events on them as if this occurred naturally – is in my memory associated with children’s fiction (specifically the works of Roald Dahl and C S Lewis, upon whose work I unfortunately cut my teeth, along with a slew of books by Tolkien, Dick King Smith, Colin Dann, Willard Price, and Hugh Lofting, rendering me infinitely “problematic” in the idiom of the current age), and with comedy (Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which breaks a lot of fiction-writing “rules” and is the better for it). By “present” I mean “here” rather than “in this moment” (that would be the present tense).
Throughout my education and the proliferation of articles about fiction, and conversations with friends, I’ve been exposed to the idea that a present narrator is a quaint anomaly, a relic of another time, shoved in the corner along with Improving Fiction and Gothic Horror as curiosities of the past. I am rather fond of the Present Narrator. I am rather fond of first person narration also; it holds up well for War of the Worlds, and the Present Narrator handing over to the first person in The Time Machine lends the story a certain air of credibility. It’s not just H G Wells – as mentioned above there are authors whose stock-in-trade involves the presence of the narrator, pointing at things, judging the characters, making jokes at their expense, or simply telling the reader that X character is a big liar. In terms of readerly difficulty, then, perhaps it is – or is seen as – the entry-level. It separates the beliefs of the narrator from the beliefs of the characters; it tells the reader when the character is wrong or being mendacious or will be proven wrong later. No alarms, no surprises: except it doesn’t have to be that way.
The Present Narrator, like the first-person narrator, the third-person-close-narration, comes with its own set of expectations. We expect the Present Narrator to have the whole story. We expect them, the conduit to the fictional world, to tell us the “truth”, while pointing out the lies of the characters; we expect them to be on our side, if not that of the characters; we expect them to perhaps mislead us a little, but not a lot.
Knowledge of expectations from a certain format in writing is an invitation to overturn them.