Teahouse on the Tracks (Alastair Reynolds)
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Wednesday, 23 January 2008
BSFA, Heath Ledger, writing stuff
Now Playing: Some indierock

I got the news that THE PREFECT has been shortlisted for the BSFA award, while my Interzone story from last year, "The Sledge-Maker's Daughter", is up for the short fiction category. Very pleased with this, needless to say - good luck to all involved. You can see the shortlists here:


I got home last night after an enjoyable night out with friends to learn about the sad death of Heath Ledger, one of my favorite young actors. If you pinned me down, I'd probably say that my top film of the last ten years is "A Knight's Tale", that gloriously anachronistic re-take on jousting and all things Medieval. I know some people who dislike it, but it's a film my wife and I have watched with great pleasure many times over - it's up there with Fargo and The Big Lebowski in terms of the number of times we've sat through it, without ever feeling we'd seen it once too many. It's also, of course, a film with lots of quotable lines to bore people with. It was the first film I saw the excellent Paul Bettany in, and - of course - one of Ledger's earliest big films. Somehow I don't think we're ever going to watch it with quite the same sense of unalloyed pleasure.

In the comments for the previous post, "loon" asked me a few questions about writing which I felt would be best served by an entry in its own right, so here goes.

Loon asked if I outlined.  It depends, really. I've written novels with only a vague sense of where I'm going, and I've also written novels based on reasonably detailed notes. THE PREFECT, because it was a twisty sort of book with an underlying procedural theme, seemed to demand outlining on at least a chapter by chapter basis, so that's how I did it. I opened a word file, and made some sketchy notes as to what needed to happen in each chapter - although those chapters were a working convention, more like internal markers, bearing only a vague relationship to the chapters in the final book. HOUSE OF SUNS was always going to be a much looser book, so I did nothing like the same degree of outlining. I did, though, start a notebook in which I explored plot ideas and backstory, and kept that notebook with me wherever I travelled. Much of the book was hatched on the train between Cardiff and Paddington.

My approach to short fiction - by which I mean anything that ain't a novel, up to an including novellas that would easily have qualified as novels forty or fifty years ago - depends on the piece and my mood as I go into it. Generally, I don't feel the need to make outlines or notes when I begin. If I don't have at least an intuitive sense of where I want the story to head, and importantly end, I won't make a start on it. Often, it's seeing that final scene in your head that gives you the mental green light.

It's a rare story indeed that doesn't give me some problems part way through the execution. A detail that I've glossed over in my head turns out to be crucial and problematic, and I can't see my way around it. That's when I get out a sheet of blank A4 paper and start brainstorming my way around the problem. I'll block out the story on a scene by scene basis, with rectangles of text summarising the action in each scene. Typically, I'll know what needs to go in the final box - that's the ending, which - in theory at least - I should already have nailed down, in my head if not on screen. But the nature of the problem usually means there's a box or two which I can't fill. It'll often be the penultimate scene, or pair of scenes, that cause difficulties.

What I find, though, is that the very act of diagramming the problem in paper goes some way to freeing up the mind and pointing to a resolution. If I don't see it immediately, or at least a hint as to where I need to go, I'll block in a number of alternative approaches, running in columns down the page. At that point, there may be one resolution that feels more emotionally satisfying, or in some way more elegant, than the contenders. Or it may be that all possibilities look equally attractive (or unattractive). Really the only thing to do in such a situation is go with your gut instincts and take one approach. In the act of writing, you may feel that one of the other pathways is to be preferred - or you may see a combination of options you didn't notice before. Whatever happens, you've got a story. It may not be the best story in the world, it may not even be the best story you're capable of writing on that day, but it's a starting point for improvement, which is more than can be said for a series of unfinished fragments.

Loon asked what happens when I realise that some technical detail - say, a neat innovation that I can't resist inserting into the story -  invalidates some earlier decision taken in the writing. Well, that's what rewriting is for. It may be that the story can't accommodate the new innovation - it breaks the basic premise. In that case, you shelve the cool idea for another story - maybe it merits one entirely to itself. More often than not, though, the story can be made to function with some deft reworking. Back when I started breaking into the SF magazine market, the way you did this was - horror of horrors - to retype the entire story. (OK, I was a late convert to word processing. I was still usign a manual typewriter well into the nineties). These days, you save a draft to the hard drive and go and make the necessary changes to the working version of the story - dead easy.

As may be evident from the above, I'm an undisciplined and unsystematic writer - I veer from one approach to the next depending on my mood and - just as crucially - whatever it was I did last time. I make great use of scrap paper, post-it notes, and Word documents containing cryptic notes and story ideas. You don't need anything hi-tech, though. One of my favorite writing accessories is an office whiteboard and some coloured markers - great for scrawling mental memos to myself. I also make great use of Word's ability to change font colour. In the middle of a draft, I'll typically select one colour to indicate raw or problematic text, another to indicate text that's been through at least one polish or rewrite, and another to indicate text that I'm happy with and don't envisage changing. The theory is that as the revision work proceeds, you see less and less of the raw colour and more and more of the final one. I'll also use various colour permutations to keep track of viewpoint, narrative track, etc - anything goes, basically.

Posted by voxish at 12:02 PM CET
Updated: Wednesday, 23 January 2008 12:46 PM CET

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