I, Smith is a sort of multiple pile up of comedy influences, from Ealing Comedy, through the Goons, the Pink Panther, Tom Sharpe, the Young Ones, and an unhealthy does of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue.
It was originally written 25 years ago as a collaboration between me and my best friend, David Mitchell. (David has gone on to become a bit of a mainstay of UK television and radio, in particular on "panel shows." I'm vaguely conscious that a significant proportion of the people who read my blog are not British... and I suspect for the non British this book will be rather like an anthropological expedition rather than light entertainment.)
A few years ago the original manuscript—printed on dot-matrix fanfold—resurfaced in my attic and I convinced Ray Fripp to help me make it into an actual book. I'm still waiting for him to forgive me.
Anyway, if you like a lot of silliness, and don't have the kind of exacting standards of storytelling you'd expect of your editor, you might quite enjoy reading it.
If you've been looking at my Youtube channel lately, you might have noticed that I'm talking a lot about fables - and telling them. This is not for nothing. I'm setting up a new project, and part of it is my new book (as opposed to I, Smith which is very definitely an old book). Who Owns Your Story? is both a collection of fables, and a fable in itself. But if you've seen my Youtube ep. on the subject, you'll know that doesn't mean it has a simple moral.
Instead, my book raises some complex but important questions about not only the role of stories and storytellers in our culture, but about what stories mean to everyone. Part of that is why you, as a writer, matter. And part of it is about how stories matter to everyone.
Who Owns Your Story? Will be available to buy early next month. If you want a reminder on launch day, enter your email address at the bottom of this page.
(The gorgeous picture, for the cover of my new book, is by my friend Heidi Love. She's available for designs and illustrations. Contact me if you want to know more.)
Railing at the Sky:
Why isn't the World the way I think it should be?
I read a piece on childrearing recently that defined the "ages of magical thinking" as being from 0 to somewhere between 6 years and 8 years old.
This kind of magical thinking is characterized by the belief that things 'just are.' Food, warmth, comfort, appear as if from nowhere. Very young children have no conception of things coming from anywhere, but soon begin to associate communications with consequences.
"I cry, I am fed."
Magical Thinking is the belief that the crying is the cause of the feeding.
We encourage this sort of thinking in younger children because doing so encourages clear communication. I constantly asked both my children 'how do you ask nicely?' so that they would frame their demands as requests, but also so that they would make their requests clearly.
In "magical" cause and effect, the child (we are told) believes that making a demand "conjures" something from nothing. At some point (the developmental psychologist tells us), this is overtaken by the growing perception that there are more complex processes at work. That something cannot come from nothing; that the refrigerator isn't a cornucopia: once a week, someone refills it.
Personally I think this idea that the child thinks something is conjured from nothing is overcomplicated. Magic is metaphysical; sophisticated. I don't think babies care about anything being conjured. I don't thing they think about anything further than cause and effect.
That's the reason toddlers start casting spells.
Parents the world over, to varying degrees and using various protocols, try to teach their children to communicate politely. Politeness is a cultural construct that has endured because it works. Although it has acquired a baggage of connotations of class, education, nationality, underneath, politeness is about clarity of communication. By formalizing the exchange of request and assent, it gives all parties time to consider and understand the nature of the request and the consequences of assenting. Politeness makes communication easier; less stressful. So we teach it.
The first thing children learn about politeness? Because of the way we teach it, they learn that if they find the correct form of words, they will get what they want.
That is indistinguishable from a magic spell.
From the age when children start forming their own sentences, we start teaching them about consequences.
Consequences are a step beyond casting a spell with politeness. The politeness spell may have one of two outcomes. If I ask nicely for a second helping of desert, either I will get a second helping, or I will not.
But some situations have unknown outcomes, or worse, probabilistic outcomes, or even worse than that, far future outcomes.
Unknown outcomes occur as soon as you ask a stranger a question; step outside the protocols of your immediate family and things might not operate in the same way. Ask mummy for a chocolate at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way, and she will give you one. Ask the woman at the store to give you a chocolate, and she may not reply to you at all. Instead she asks your mummy, "is it all right to give him a chocolate?"
Probabilistic outcomes can be harmless; the sky is full of dark clouds. It might rain. But it might not. Probabilistic outcomes can be harmful; run out suddenly into the road and you might be struck by a moving vehicle. But there might be no vehicle.
Far future outcomes are first encountered with things like diet and hygiene: "brush your teeth or they'll all fall out... eventually."
The game of consequences is all about guessing a future outcome when the result isn't a simple binary yes/no.
The game of consequences is taught by storytelling.
I'm a story hunter. I hunt stories. I've found loads of them. I find them everywhere. Whole goddam world is lousy with stories.
The most basic cautionary advice for avoiding dangers is an if/then/else statement that is the template for most stories.
If you are walking along the road then don't suddenly run across to the other side else the driver of a vehicle might not be able to stop in time and squash you flat.
This is a story.
As we get older, the stories become more complex, and to play the game of consequences we have to combine different stories with our experiences in order to try to guess the possible outcomes of completely new situations. New to us, and even new to the world.
That's why we need, desire, and consume fiction. It's practice. It's learning. And we repurpose stories constantly in order to find out the consequences of highly complex situations. That's sophisticated thinking.
But it's still magical, sometimes.
Can Stories Remake the World?
Sometimes, in philosophical, moral or ethical discussions, I catch myself describing the world as if it were the way I think it ought to be. Here's a couple of examples:
Those statements sound like observations, and there is certainly some truth in them. They also don't sound much like a toddler's magic spell. But they are a description of the world the way I would like it to be. And I believe that by spreading stories about the way the world should, you influence it to become that way. If nothing else than by reassuring people who think that way already that it's okay to think that way, and that it's okay to talk about it.
It's the hidden power of stories, which is routinely harnessed to manipulate you in anything from political propaganda to the feudal structure of the workplace to advertizing, to press scaremongering and sensationalism.
That hidden power can also be harnessed to do good in the world.
The more stories you tell about the world the way it ought to be, the easier, less anxious, less stressful it will become for people to change it.
From the first time I "unlocked" my new 'phone, I could see that a change that I had long expected in personal tech was starting to take place.
The image is the sony xperia compact z5 - the cell phone I use. To unlock it, you touch the power button. There is a fingerprint reader in the power button.
The change I'm referring to is passive authentification.
Passive authentification is when instead of your having to enter codes or passwords, the tech identifies you. You probably already have it on your laptop computer: when you switch on, the face in front of the webcam is compared with a stored image of your face, and your account/session can be started automatically.
The technology identifies you automatically, so you don't have to.
This terrifies people - but it doesn't have to.
It has the advantage that once technology can identify you reliably, you don't have to memorize codes or passwords or carry tokens around with you.
You are your password - literally.
Literally; technology looks at you, scans you, touches you, smells you, hears you. And uses all of this to be sure that you are you.
Another promise that failed to be delivered long, long ago now, was the revolution promised by Java - that it would no longer matter what hardware we used. Your computer would be stored on the internet somewhere, and all you had to do was identify yourself to the technology, and your computer would be there in front of you.
This is shell technology. A screen, a keyboard, a webcam, that aren't part of a single computer, but become the interfaces for whatever computer you need to use them through.
Now that everyone has (or seems to have) a smartphone, everyone has a hugely powerful computer in their pocket (if it's small enough to fit in a pocket). If you want proof that shell technology is becoming a reality you only have to look at the Superbook.
The Superbook looks like a laptop computer, but it's just a keyboard, a screen, a battery and some connectivity electronics. You connect your smartphone to it. The smartphone provides the computing power, the Superbook provides the interface.
"Mike" my stick-figure-guy (as opposed to my artist galihwindu's awesome stick figures) is shown here in a mainframe computer. As it turns out, I can just about manage a clipboard but it's very difficult to do a stick-figure labcoat.
In the beginning, a computer was installed in a special room, and did literally thousands of calculations a second. A computer was a place you went to get a job done that previously might have needed hundreds of people (whose jobtitle, incidentally, was either clerk, calculator or computer!)
Mike looks excited (I hope) because he's got his first personal computer, so it's probably around 1982. The first ones were commercialized in the late 1970s but they were for specialists. The tipping point for use of personal computers for work was the invention of the computerized spreadsheet, around 1983, and everyone started using it when Microsoft Excel for Windows was released, in 1987.
At this stage, a computer came in several boxes and there were all sorts of cables to connect, and you had to understand things like config.sys, autoexec.bat and system.ini - by which I mean you literally had to understand what the configuration information in those files meant. It was like the wild west, man.
The laptop computer is named for a way of using it to which it is singularly unsuited. However it was the first serious attempt at a portable computer, and the laptop was, for more than a decade, the most portable form of multi-purpose microcomputer available.
Mobile telephony has gone through its own evolutions, at the same time. A lot of people think the cell-phone is so called because 'cell' is another word for 'battery.' It isn't, but I'll leave you to dive down that rabbit hole in your own time.
I'm reminding Mike of his first "brickphone", his first flip-phone, his ridiculous "phablet" and his "smart watch".
You remember I said that a mainframe computer, that filled up often an entire floor of an office building, could do thousands of calculations a second?
Your smartphone can do billions of calculations a second. Think about that for a second. It's more than a million times more powerful than a computer that fifty years ago, could only be bought by governments and large corporations.
The Microsoft Kinect is a device that enables you to control a game with your console without needing a control device. You don't have a mouse or a keyboard or a joystick or joypad.
The Kinect watches you, and you use gestures to control the console, making selections in menus or playing games.
It's important to understand that this technology exists, and understand how it's used, so if you want a demo:
Aside from the truly awful music, this is a good illustration of it's use.
You may have already heard of the "internet of things" and the "smart home" - all sorts of electronic devices are increasingly connected to the internet. You might not be surprised to learn that the latest printers from HP all use your internet connection to update their own software automatically, so you no longer get pestered by messages asking you to "download and install the latest firmware".
For a printer that seems pretty normal. But there are already other household devices that are run by their own software (usually called 'firmware' for unimportant reasons). There's no reason why you shouldn't see, in the near future, a message on the front of your washing-machine asking you to wait 10 seconds while it downloads an update to ensure it has a suitable wash cycle for the new pants you ARE WEARING.
All these things are leading somewhere very specific.
Right now, technology seems ubiquitous to the point of intrusive. But soon, it'll be discreet to the point of invisible.
Here's Mike in the near future, with all the tech he ever needs to carry about with him:
I'm going to try to paint you a picture of a few basic things that you do now, and what they're going to look like in a few short years' time.
If Mike's at home, all he needs to do is say, aloud, "I'd like to make a call."
Whatever room he's in will have a discreet flat screen which most of the time is probably matching the patterned wallpaper of his living area. It displays his list of most recent contacts, but all he has to do to place the call is say "call Alice and Bob."
A 3 way call is set up automatically. Alice and Bob's faces appear on the screen, and they start chatting. Mike decides to fix himself a cup of coffee, so he heads into the kitchen. The screen in the living area goes back to patterned wallpaper and the screen in the kitchen comes on, so he can continue the call unbroken.
If he's out and about, he might need to take a small, portable screen/camera/microphone with him as I don't think being followed everywhere by a phonedrone will be practical once everyone wants one! Implanted microphones and speakers are probably a little further in the future, right now. But the portable device he's carrying isn't a phone, it's a shell. It has a device that recognizes him, and downloads his preferences into it. It gets his contact list from the web - no need to store anything locally. Mike probably doesn't even own the device. If he's in the city he can probably pick one up at the coffee stand and leave it (at the end of the call) in a bus depot.
Netflix and the like are already transforming the scheduling experience, which is nice. And with TVs now able to connect to the web, you can already see how a TV is becoming a shell technology. It's just another screen; the sound just another sound. And if you have screens and speakers everywhere in the house?
Mike is binge-watching Game of Thrones series 22. Partway through he gets up to make himself a meal, so the show transfers to the kitchen screen. He decides to eat his meal on the deck, so the screen out on the deck rises up from between the begonias and the one in the kitchen switches back off.
Mike heads into his writing nook and sits in his office-chair. The screen comes on automatically, and he says "picking up where we left off."
Mike is old enough to have learned to touch-type and has never got into the habit of dictating, even though he knows it works extremely well now. So he rests his hands on the blank wooden desk in front of him, and a keyboard is laser projected under his fingers.
He begins to type, fingertips tapping lightly on the teak veneer.
When he has a correction to make, he makes a few gestures in the empty air, and a word moves to a different spot in the sentence.
Later on, he's back in the kitchen and he has an awesome idea for the next paragraph. He sits at the counter, puts his hands in front of him, and says "picking up where we left off." The screen on the wall opposite him lights up, and the keys appear under his fingers...
...you won't need a mobile device, because all the devices you need will be around you, but visible only when you need them
...you won't need usernames and passwords because technology will recognize you the same way other people do.
...you won't need to store anything "locally" - everything will be "on the cloud" in distributed storage (stored in multiple copies in multiple locations) so the only way you'll ever lose a manuscript is if civilization itself comes to an end.
I can't say. What I can say is that looking back on the last 40 years of evolution in technology, in society and in world culture, that there is one thing of which you can be certain:
Things change, and will keep changing.
I don't mean I can't define tasks, then assign them a date and time when I'll do them. I can do that. Anyone can.
If you're a self-published author, you'll know this particular pain well. There's something authors do well, right? Write, right?
We authors write, and we write good. And anything that has to do with the creative parts of our job, like working with editors and cover artists, or writing guest blogs, or being interviewed - anything that relates directly to our work, we do that pretty well.
But if you want to be self-published, that isn't all you have to do.
You also have to manage your social media to build your list. You have to manage your promos, your giveaways; you have to do regular content for your list and for your own blog. You have to keep producing original, interesting, engaging stuff that you can use to drive traffic to those all important landing pages.
And that is on top of organizing and managing the writing itself, and all the palaver of preparing a book for publication.
And for most self-published authors, all that is also on top of your day job, your kids, your husband, your dog, your cat...
I feel your pain. I suck at scheduling.
Not because I can't get stuff done. Not because I can't find the time for it, or work out in advance when I can do it.
Because I just can't keep to a schedule. And neither can you.
It's impossible to keep to the schedule, no matter how carefully worked out it is. And because you can't keep to it you get behind. Because what you didn't have time for yesterday, you try to do today, because otherwise it will get out of order as well as late and then... and then where will you be?
It's impossible to keep to the schedule because, yes, all those conflicting demands on your time are all subject to being thrown off track by new demands. Your priorities can change from one day to the next even when your not relying on, or being relied on, by other people. You have new ideas. You have days where you hate everything you wrote.
It's impossible to keep to the schedule because some days, you just don't feel like doing the task you've scheduled for that day.
It's okay. A lot of what we do requires an effort of concentration. It requires us to be in the right frame of mind.
There are days when it would be crazy of me to go on twitter because I'd come across as a total flake (rather than a bumbling amateur - which seems to be acceptable); and when I better keep of Facebook or I'd rant endlessly and aimlessly in the comments of someone else's great post.
There are days when I start, and delete, the same blog post five or six times.
There are days when I have an awesome idea for a newsletter for my mailing list.
There are days when I see a new way of explaining something.
There are days when I just want to spend hours going through my old notes to see if there's new content to be found.
...when the time is right to write, and when the time is dead wrong.
I certainly do. If I have a list of tasks to do, and I assign a day or a time to them, when that time comes I've no guarantee that I'll be able to do the task.
This means that the calendar actually works against me. The more I have scheduled, the less I can do. So even though when I'm really overloaded with all sorts of different tasks, planning out everything over the next couple of weeks so everything has it's dedicated day makes it all look doable, and leaves me feeling reassured that it will get done, usually about a quarter of the tasks still don't get done.
Which means I need another solution.
Kanban, my research told me, is the technique of the moment. I didn't know it at the time, but Trello - which many people swear by, but which I find worse than useless - is inspired by a procedural organization system for teamwork called "Kanban."
Systems like Trello claim to be inspired by Kanban, but basically use a set of virtual boards to which virtual stickies can be affixed, each of which represents a task. Kanban works very well in agile production where there are many small teams. For one person alone... let's just say it didn't work for me, and leave it at that.
I was taking some down time, and one of my particular pleasures is to scoff at the absurd ideas in the "Design" category on Kickstarter - some of which are, frankly, brilliant, and others less so. There, I came across this delightful madness:
This is the desktop ATC Board - 45 days to go (at time of writing) and it's already funded. What is it? It's the system historically used by air traffic control to stack em, pack em and rack em.
The air traffic control strip rack has three huge advantages over every other organization system:
Any freelancer has all sorts of different tasks to do; admin, production, promotion, communication... and most of these tasks are only weakly interdependent. Some are repeating, but in most, there is some elasticity in the delivery date. There's little harm being late, and a small advantage to being early.
So an ideal allows you to list your tasks, categorize them, assign hard deadlines, a few dependencies, but most of all
allows you to choose which task to do according to what sort of task you feel like doing
The ATC board does this... but it's not very portable, and has certain notable limitations.
Before I started looking for the ideal system I scribbled a drawing.
This here is me, sitting in front of my Tasks Cabinet.
In the green drawers are tasks that either have no deadline, or have no urgency. Some of them are just ideas.
In the yellow drawers are tasks that either repeat, or will take a longer time to carry out.
In the red drawers are tasks whose deadline is fast approaching or (let's face it) is already past.
Each day, I can consult the list of tasks to be done today, tomorrow, this week or just soon and I can decide which ones to do, based on my state of mind.
This has three major advantages:
Once I'd worked all that out, I spent two days trying out various systems and software for task management.
Nothing was absolutely ideal. But one thing comes very, very close.
ASANA is an online task management system, that can be used by teams or by individuals.
It's simple task management, with some sorting and planning and organization. With alerts, notifications, integration with Google Calendar, and apps for your mobile device of choice.
I find that especially useful as I often have ideas for content or courses, or just advice to give to my authors or my mailing list, and all I have to do is create a new task on the Asana app on my phone.
A long, long time ago, I worked in business process analysis. I mapped processes to turn them into online workflows during the dotcom bubble, when online for most people still meant dial-up. It was fun... people say it was kinda like the Wild West which is, y'know, a romantic exaggeration i.e. a lie.
But it did teach me the secret to organizing any individuals work.
You have to select, or create, a workflow that matches how you work, not try to fit yourself into a workflow you're convinced ought to work.
People beat themselves up over "being disorganized" when in reality, they're trying to squeeze themselves into a workflow that doesn't suit them.
TL;DR: you don't suck at scheduling. Scheduling isn't the system for you.
Fairytale - The Prince who was really a Princess
In the winter of 2014/2015 I read several of Andrew Lang's fairy books, including one I had never read before.
Overdosing like that has an effect, of course, and I wrote the short story that I'm reproducing below. I suspect there's also a little influence from the surprisingly challenging and satisfying casual game "Long Live the Queen."
Given the themes, the 'gender neutral' stick figure from one of my infographics seemed like a good illustration!
There was an old King, who had a young queen who bore him only daughters. Such was the custom of the time, that should a King wish his daughters to marry, he must part with some of his land, giving it as a gift to whatever Prince might win his daughter's heart. For it was also the unlucky custom of the time that a Princess could only marry a Prince, and Princes, who were raised to rule, would only seek the hand of a Princess whose father could offer them some sizeable territory.
Luckily, the old King had lived a long life, he had been married more than twice, and made a number of conquests, but after the marriage of his twelfth daughter, he began to imagine the borders of his kingdom closing in, and to fear that if he ever did have a son, it would be a sorry small kingdom indeed that he would inherit. So he resolved to have no further children.
A few more years passed, and the King began to feel his great age, and to fear that he had not done his duty to his Kingdom in not providing it with a son to rule it. His wife was still young and beautiful, but if he died, she would be at the mercy of the surrounding Kingdoms which abounded with dukes and princelings, many of whom would pursue her to marry her for her Kingdom, and many others who would simply take it with an army.
He resolved to try one final time to have a son. He told himself that if it was a daughter, he would choose the Prince to marry her, announcing it to all the world, so that he would at least be able to name his heir. And if a son, so much the better. However, he failed to tell this to his wife.
When the child was born, it was, as all the others had been, a girl. Beautiful, strong and bonny, but a source only of grief to her mother who so loved the old King that she swore the midwife to secrecy, and had it announced that she had at last borne a son.
There was much feasting and rejoicing.
The young prince, who was really a princess, grew up healthy and strong on a diet of good meat and fresh air. Every weekday he, who was really a she, learned his letters, studied statecraft and warcraft in the mornings, and horsemanship and swordsmanship in the afternoon, manners, charm and cheer in the evenings; on Saturdays he, who was really a she, rode with the hunt or did falconing, and on Sundays gave alms to the poor, and studied piety.
The King provided the finest teachers, trainers and tutors in the land. And if any of them discovered the Prince's secret, none of them revealed it.
Now it so happened that the King's eldest daughter had married a bad Prince named Hasba. He had recently become King of his own Kingdom, and had begun to turn his greedy eyes to the Kingdoms around him. Greedy King Hasba had already enlarged his kindom several times over, through clever politics, through extortion, and through war, until it almost completely surrounded the Old King's lands.
The Old King died when the Prince, who was really a princess, was fourteen years old. Handsome and strong, but not yet in his majority. Before there was a chance to crown him, however, Greedy King Hasba invaded with a great army.
The only person who was ready was the Queen, for she had been warned in a letter from her eldest daughter, who although almost as greedy as her husband, had felt a few mild pangs of guilt when she learned of his plans.
Very early one morning, the Queen came to the Prince's chamber, bade him rouse and clothe himself; the Queen took a small purse of gold, and the Prince, who was really a princess, took a small gold ring. With the sound and clamour of war approaching, they stole away on swift horses, into the great forest that bordered the Kingdom.
They didn't have time to bring much more than their clothes with them, and soon they were lost, cold and hungry.It began to grow dark, but just as they were beginning to lose hope, they came upon a large house in a clearing.
"This will surely be the den of some Bandits," said the Queen, but the Prince, who was really a princess, insisted that they must find warmth and shelter, and risk what they must within.
To their surprise, the house seemed to be recently deserted, for though there was a fire in the hearth and food and drink on the table, with torches and candles lit about the place, they could find no sign of any people.
They resolved to eat their fill, and should someone come, they would give them a little from their small purse of gold.
Finding a small bedroom, they slept well, although the Prince had to rise twice in the night to feed the fire. In the morning there was still no sign of the house's owners, but the day had dawned bright and clear, so the Prince went outside to prepare the horses.
The horses were nowhere to be seen. Outside the house was a small clearing, completely and tightly enclosed by the forest, with no sign of road or path or trackway.
There was some magic or mischief afoot, but the Prince did not want to alarm the Queen. Returning to the cottage he told her that she should take some breakfast, while he scouted the path, to find a proper route through the forest.
The Prince, who was really a Princess, hadn't ventured far into the forest when he heard an unruly commotion behind him, and at once hurried back to the house. On the lawn was a group of a hundred fat black ponies, and from within there came the noise of revelry and carousing.
The Prince crept to a window and saw to his horror that the house was indeed occupied by bandits, who on discovering the Queen had apparently pressed her to all sorts of indignities, and the Prince watched as she hurried from place to place, serving the Bandits their dinner, and suffering their harsh words and rough hands.
Though strong, and well taught and well practised, the Prince knew well that he had not the strength or skill to confront a hundred bandits, so resolved to seek help where he might find it.
The Prince hurried off through the forest, careless of wild beasts or pursuit, since haste could be the only deliverance of his unfortunate mother.
At length, he came to another clearing. All around the clearing were stalls and stands, as if for a village market, and gay flags and bunting hung from the trees. But all was not gay and cheerful, for among the flags and pennants were also the corpses of crows and butchered rats. The strangest of the spectacle was that although the stalls seemed to have been set up only that morning, there was no sign of any sellers.
As the Prince, who was really a Princess, crept into the centre of the clearing, a strange music started up, and he spied a movement from one of the stalls. The stall itself was bedecked with many wonders. Boxes of jewels and gems overflowed; fine silks were draped across beautiful tapestries and lace as fine as frost. Gowns and dresses from far corners of the world, boots and shoes of surpassing workmanship and a bridle of dragonskin. In the centre sparkled a remarkable breastplate that shone with the light of a thousand suns, and across it lay a sword so sharp that the very air seemed to be cut into blue light around it.
From behind the stall came a strange dancing figure, draped in a hooded robe of midnight black. The figure danced and turned in the strange music, until finally stopping before the Prince, and revealing her face.
She seemed to be a woman of great age, but her age did not seem to have affected the agility and strength of her body, nor the beauty of her voice when she spoke, with an elegant calm.
"Young Prince, what gift do you bring me, that I may aid you in your quest?"
The Prince, who was really a Princess, understood at once that this was an ensorcelled clearing, and the woman a hag or witch, and that he might find some aid, but as likely there would be some trap or terrible bargain to be struck.
"I have nothing of value but my little gold ring and my secret," said the Prince, "And neither are of much value since I no longer have a kingdom to be Prince of. But I must find a means to rescue my mother from the clutches of cruel bandits, and I will repay any aid by whatever means is demanded."
"A pretty speech young Prince," said the hag, "And I have much that may help you." She led him to her stall, and showed him the many objects of great magic.
"Here is the gown of Loltha. Any man who wears it is transformed into beautiful woman, and it is beyond the means of any divination to see through the disguise. Here is the bridle of the Dragon King, which when the magic words 'Awake my steed' are spoken will summon the Dragon Horse, that can be ridden to the ends of the World and back untiring. Here are the shoes of Queen Abtath, that will make any woman the greatest dancer in all the world, and here are the boots of Ironsmith Wild that give the strength to carry any load. This is the sword and breastplate of the Angel of Silver. It is said that the sword will cut anything and the breastplate protects from all harm…" and so she went on, until the Prince was dizzy with all the great magics and how any one of the least of them would be enough to help him to defeat the bandits."
Now my young Prince," the hag continued, "my price is very small. I will not ask your small ring or your small secret, since you have nothing else. Give me but what I ask, and in return I will give you the magical gift that will most aid you in your quest."
"Ask what you will," the Prince, who was really a Princess, replied with all the manner and charm that he had been taught, "and if it is in my power to give, I will give it."
Of course, the hag was up to no good. She herself possessed a powerful charm. She made the same promises to anyone who passed her way, and as soon as she used the charm, they were in her power, and she would take all that they had, and send them naked into the forest to be devoured by the wild beasts.
"All you need do is give me one kiss upon my lips, to show that in spite of my great age, you, a young man, will show that my beauty is still great."
This did not seem too high a price to the Prince, even though it seemed a little vain. He assented and kissed her.
The hag's charm was that any man who kissed her fell at once under her spell, and she did not hesitate to boast and crow.
"And now," the hag shouted, "as all men, you are in my power, and will give me all that you have, and go naked into the forest, there to be killed and devoured by wild beasts."
But the Prince was not a man, but a Princess, and the hag's charm had no power over him. All at once he snatched up the glittering sword, and struck off the hag's head with a single blow.
The hag's body transformed into a pile of a thousand frogs, that hopped off in all directions, leaving nothing but her midnight black robes and her strange charm. The Prince felt that the charm was probably wicked, and struck it with the sword, shattering it to dust.
The Prince at once fell to looking over the various objects of great magic on the hag's stall. He put on the breastplate of the Angel of Silver and buckled on the sword. He pulled on the boots of Ironsmith Wild, and took up the Dragon King's bridle, saying at once the magic words.
Fortunately, the Dragon Horse, fiery eyed and ill-tempered though it was, had magical saddle bags. Most of the hag's magical hoard was unidentified and unlabelled, so the Prince, who was really a princess, took only what the hag had already described, and added to this a few small items that did have labels, such as a Bottle of Everpure water and a Key of All Locks, and other sundries of improbable usefulness, that the Prince supposed he would probably be able to sell for a King's ransom and hence buy himself a King's Kingdom.
The Prince sprang easily into the saddle, and bade the horse gallop with all speed to the bandit's house.
His arrival in the clearing on a tall black dragonskinned horse with fiery eyes did not go unnoticed. The Bandits, who were well fed and a little the worse for drink, climbed onto their fat black ponies and charged at the Prince, all at once.
The Dragon Horse was deft and agile, and dodged here and there, so that the Bandit's arrows flew wide and hallebards fell through empty air. As the Dragon Horse dodged about beneath him, the Prince, who was really a Princess, swung stabbed and chopped with the Sword of the Angel of Silver that was so sharp that it cut the air into blue and green fire around it. Soon, ninety-nine bandits lay dead.
The Prince jumped out of the saddle, and ran into the house.
The Chief Bandit sat, careless of all danger, in a large chair by the fire, a mug of ale in one hand, and the Queen, looking a little flushed and tired but largely unharmed, sitting on his knee.
"Let go my royal mother and prepare to defend yourself!" the Prince shouted a clear challenge, as he had been taught to do.
The Chief Bandit rose lazily to his feet.
"My dear boy," he said, " You clearly know how to fight well, and I doubt I could catch you if you ran. But fight me and you will surely die, since one must die and it cannot be me. On the day I was born I was dipped in the River of War and wet from head to foot, so not even an ankle was not touched by the strange water. It was prophesied that no man could ever harm me."
But the Prince was not a man, but a Princess, and the Chief Bandit's geas could not affect him. He drew his sword and struck off the Chief Bandit's head with a single blow.
The Queen was overjoyed to see the Prince safe and sound, and even more so when the Prince related his adventures.
"With all these magics," said the Queen, "you will be able to take back the Kingdom that is rightfully yours. But although a Prince you seem, you are a Princess, and a Princess cannot have a Kingdom without a Prince. Luckily, I heard the Bandits speak of a young and foolish Prince held captive by a Troll just beyond the mountain to the south. If you free him, he will surely help you win back your Kingdom."
The Prince, who was really a Princess, had been hoping one day to become a King who was really a Queen, but did not doubt the wisdom of his mother's words.
They gathered provisions and loaded up the magic saddle-bags of the Dragon Horse. The Dragon Horse was so large that it could easily carry both of them, and the Prince bade the horse take them to the cave of the Troll that lived beyond the mountain to the south.
It so happened that a kindly Duke lived in a tower not far from the cave, and he agreed to lodge the Queen while the Prince, who was really a Princess, continued his quest.
The path up to the Troll's cave was strewn with rocks and boulders and also strewn with skeletons of men, none of which had feet.
The Prince was nearly at the top of the path when a mighty voice rang out in mighty challenge.
"Who approaches the cave of the Mighty Ghroll?"
Tall as five men, with three heads and seven arms, the Mighty Ghroll stood before the cave, menace on all three of his countenances.
Remembering the importance of truth and politeness, the Prince, who was really a Princess, replied, a little awkwardly.
"I am a poor Prince who has lost his Kingdom, and have come to rescue . . . another Prince, who I hope will aid me in my quest. Will you release him or shall I have to fight or make ransom?"
The Troll was a little taken aback by the Prince's honesty and politeness, but it was his custom to make adventurers fulfil strange and impossible tasks in order to win his favour.
"Very well," said the Troll with a wry smile, "You need only complete one challenge and I will allow you to free the other Prince. Follow."
The Troll walked into the cave, and the Prince, who was really a Princess, had to run to keep up, having only normal sized legs. Deep in the mountain, the tunnel expanded, into a vast empty room with a floor of polished red granite, and lit like a ballroom by ten thousand candles. In the middle of the floor stood a man made entirely of brass, dressed in a brass tailcoat with a brass rose in his buttonhole and brass dancing shoes.
"Your challenge," said the Troll, "is to dance with the Dancing Man until he tires.
"The Prince at once turned and ran from the cave, and the Troll stared after him, the wry smile turned to surprise on two of his three faces, but the third face also turned to surprise as they heard the sound of feet hurrying back into the cave.
The Prince, of course, had run to the Dragon Horse to fetch the shoes of Queen Abtath, which fit him especially well, since he was really a Princess.
Without another word, the Prince took the hand of the Dancing Man, and placed another hand carefully upon his waist, and an unseen orchestra struck up.
For many hours they danced. The Dancing Man was an excellent partner, and since the Prince had been taught to dance as a man, graciously allowed him to lead. The Dancing Man's brass shoes struck occasional sparks as the shoes of Queen Abtath glid and flew across the granite floor, and never before had the Troll's six eyes beheld such a spectacle. Hours turned into days and days to weeks until, one morning, the Dancing Man's hips gave the smallest creak, and he suddenly stopped still, to dance no more.
By now, the Troll was not surprised. Two of his heads had begun to suspect some sort of sorcery after the third day, and the third head had begun to expect that they Prince would succeed after the first week. So all the rest of the while they had been trying to think of ways to keep their bargain and get revenge for having lost the pleasure of cutting off the Prince's feet (as they would have done).
"Now," said the Prince, still full of vigour, "you promised to allow me to free the other Prince."
"I did," said the Troll, adding gleefully, "so go and free him. If you can."
The Prince, who was really a Princess, ran off into the Troll's dungeon to seek the imprisoned Prince. Eventually, he heard the prisoner's mournful cries, and sought him out, in a deep, dark pit.
He was bound and weighed down with heavy chains, was thin, unshaven, filthy, his eyes sad and piteous as his mournful cries.
"Now, " said the Prince who was really a Princess, "cease your complaining, for I have come to rescue you."
"It is hopeless," the imprisoned Prince replied, "for the chains of the Troll are cursed. All who seek to free me and cannot are themselves enchained, by the ankles, and the Troll cuts off their feet to remove and eat them."
"But the others who have tried did not have a Key of All Locks," the Prince who was really a Princess replied, producing it with a flourish. However, he soon discovered that even the Key of All Locks was of no use, since the imprisoned Prince's chains had no keyhole.
The imprisoned Prince nodded resignedly, but the Prince who was really a Princess remembered his lessons, and did not give up so easily. He drew out the Sword of the Angel of Silver, and cut through the chains as easily as through a loaf of bread.
But as they fell away from the wrists and ankles of the imprisoned Prince, he saw to his dismay a strange transformation take place, for the curse of the chains was such that they made woman appear to be man, so before his eyes the imprisoned Prince became a beautiful Princess. The rescued Princess was so grateful that she showered the Prince who was really a Princess with embraces and kisses, and was surprised at his apparent lack of joy at this development.
"Come," said at length the Prince who was really a Princess, "let us escape this dungeon and take council with my Mother and her new friend the kindly Duke." So saying, He took up the broken manacles of the cursed chain and placed them in his sack, explaining to the rescued Princess that he collected all he could that was magical.
On arrival in the great ballroom under the mountain, they saw that the Troll waxed with anger, and at once threw itself upon the Prince who was really a Princess, intent on rending him limb from limb. But the claws of his seven hands skidded across the breastplate of the Angel of Silver and the fangs of his three mouths found no purchase anywhere on the Prince's body as long as he wore the armour.
The Prince who was really a Princess drew his glittering sword and struck off two of the Troll's heads, which tumbled away across the polished red granite, cursing and spitting as they went. The Troll hesitated.
The Prince remembered his lessons in piety, and declared, "I can yet be merciful if you will promise to mend your ways and let us go in peace."
In fear for his immortal life, the Troll promised that henceforth he would waylay and imprison only the wicked, and so the Prince who was really a Princess and the rescued Princess went back up the tunnel to the entrance of the cave, where the Dragon Horse waited to bring them safely back to the tower of the Kindly Duke.
The Kindly Duke was overjoyed to see that the Prince had rescued a Princess, and was confused as to why the Queen seemed less happy about it.
The rescued Princess was, for her part, deeply enamoured of her rescuer, though she realized, of course, that they could not be married until the Prince had reclaimed his Kingdom.
"My father," said the rescued Princess, "is King of Araby, and will surely provide you with a mighty army with which to reconquer your Kingdom."
Upon hearing this, the Queen resolved that it was best that the Prince, who was really a Princess, should continue to appear to be a Prince, if this was a safe means of obtaining an army.
The next day, the Prince who was really a Princess, and the rescued Princess, took their leave of the Kindly Duke, and set off upon the Dragon Horse for Araby.
Many would have been their adventures upon that long road, had it not been for the swiftness of the steed of the Dragon King. But as it was, before long and without incident, they were received a the tented palace of the King of Araby, who wept for joy at the sight of his lost daughter, and the handsome and noble young Prince who had delivered her.
The Prince who was really a Princess told the King of Araby the sad tale of the loss of his father's Kingdom, and the King of Araby at once declared that he would bestow upon him one of his nine armies of Djinn, that he could reclaim his Kingdom.
This was good fortune indeed, since it was a long road back to the North, and no ordinary army could keep pace with the Dragon Horse. But any one of the Nine Armies of Djinn was fast enough to arrive in advance.
And so it was that a mere few days later, the young Queen and the Kindly Duke, the Prince who was really a Princess, and the rescued Princess, and the Dragon Horse, and the great host of one of the King of Araby's Nine Armies of Djinn, stood at the edge of the great forest that encircled the Kingdom.Emissaries were sent to the Queen's eldest daughter, begging that she prepare for sudden invasion and reconquest, but the eldest daughter sent back a message that filled all with dismay.
The Greedy King, the message said, possessed a magic throne, and once he had sat upon the throne in any Kingdom, no man could take it from him, neither through force of arms, nor subterfuge, nor by theft nor by process of law.
"Well," said the Prince who was really a Princess, who read the wording of the magic with great care, "that's convenient."
"I for one," replied the Queen with a conspiratorial nod, "am beginning to see a pattern."
The Prince who was really a Princess rode out at the head of his great army, the rescued Princess at his side, and was met upon the official field of battle by the Greedy King and his Wife, with their great army.
The Greedy King was not concerned by the Prince's Dragon Steed, not his glittering breastplate and shining sword, nor by his magic boots, nor even by the thousands of Djinn who stood, screaming, behind him. He sat, complacent upon his magic throne, that was borne on a bier by ten huge slaves.
Now the Greedy King's wife was, after all, the Prince who was really a Princess's sister, so he didn't feel altogether right about just striking the Greedy King's head off with a single blow. So, as was the custom, they met alone between their two armies, and the Prince who was really a Princess bent close to the Greedy King, and whispered his secret in the Greedy King's ear.
Upon hearing the secret, the Greedy King looked again at the Dragon Horse, he looked again at the glittering breastplate and the magic boots, and the shining sword that cut the very air into blue fire, at the vast army of screaming Djinn, one of the King of Araby's Nine armies, and grew suddenly rather pale.
"Now," said the Prince, "I suggest you take your Magic Throne and your army, and you leave my Kingdom never to return, and in return I will tell noone the secret of your vulnerability."
The Greedy King made no reply, but instead departed at once for his own Kingdom, and indeed handed over several other Kingdoms to the Prince who was really a Princess, in the hope that no longer surrounded, the Prince would be more likely to keep his promise.
The young Queen and the Kindly Duke were at once summoned, and preparations were made for the Prince's coronation.
It was, of course, the expectation of every subject that the Prince would marry the rescued Princess, so the Prince, who was really a Princess, felt that it was only fair to reveal his secret to her, also. At first she was downcast, because even if they kept the secret, they could still never have an heir. But the Prince pointed out that this was really of little concern, since they had magical chains that could make any woman into a man, and a magical gown that could make any man into a woman, and all manner of other magical objects and trinkets besides, so they could do much as they wanted.
The Prince who was really a Princess was crowned King who is really a Queen, and he married the rescued Princess and they lived long and happy lives. And she bore him several sons and daughters, and in his turn, he bore her several sons and daughters, since it didn't much matter which of them wore the chains. And of their many sons, some were probably really daughters, and of their many daughters, some were probably really sons. It hardly really matters.
My mum can't stand fantasy, because it isn't real. If you ask her about fantasy, she'll complain about magic spells and monsters and elves and hobbits and whatnot.
My mum is one of the smartest people I know. She has a PhD (Petrarch et le Pétrarquisme avant le Pleiade if you're interested), and has read way more books than I have. She's tried all the great fantasy books, and read C S Lewis as a child - but thought of it as more of a fairytale.
So why would someone with such broad and well educated literary tastes detest fantasy? Is it because it's unreal, or doesn't try to be real? Is it because it's escapist or trivial?
Or is it because a lot of fantasy is bad fantasy?
There are two distinct fantasy paradigms, and any fantasy from high, through epic, to urban, naturalistic or magical realism, is based in one of the two. To a less prominent extent, most Science Fiction also fits into one of these two.
One is Fantasy as Agency, the other Fantasy as Environment
In Fantasy as Agency, fantastical elements are built into the plot. The most common form of this is of fantastical elements acting as a means to and end; it's necessary to acquire and master them to be able to complete the quest.
In Fantasy as Environment, fantastical elements are part of the landscape, part of the everyday activities of people going about their daily lives; to complete his quest, the hero will encounter both fantastical and non-fantastical obstacles. The object of the quest might be fantastical in nature, but the objective of the story is not.
Either of these can result in bad fantasy. But Fantasy as Agency is the most usual culprit, and in one, very specific, form.
Seriously, folks, we do.
What is magic in stories? What is it for?
I've written about magic before. Quite a lot actually, and to help with this post, I've posted a couple of chapters from my book, Edit Ready.
You can read them now, if you like:
In most fantasy books, magic is a means of achieving goals that would otherwise be impossible, or provides a variety of alternative means to solve problems that would be unavailable in the real world, because... well let's face it: because physics.
Magic is also a source of problems, difficulties and obstacles that don't exist in the real world. However, usually, when magic creates a problem in a book, it's an analogy to some form of real world problem.
Subgenre "a boy and his dragon" is all about how a young boy, generally an outsider or a loner, probably with a poor relationship with his parents (or an orphan) who fits in badly with his peer group, befriends a young dragon and through their cooperation, comes of age. It's an oft-mocked archetype (I often mock it, at least) but it can be (and has been) done extremely well, and it's popular. It's also rather fun to edit, and an extremely good story to attempt if you are a first time writer.
There are always elements of wish-fulfillment in it; there's usually a scene where the dragon chases away some bullying kids. There's usually a scene where the dragon saves a remote homestead. There's almost always a scene where the dragon saves the village and the villagers gain a grudging respect for the boy, and a fearful, grudging acceptance of the dragon.
But because the dragon is a separate entity, the author has to work with the interaction and cooperation of two personalities, and this generally results in characters that are more accessible, and a story that is less likely to wallow in self-indulgence or go completely off the rails than it's BAD FANTASY counterpart, A Boy and his Magic.
This story starts with the same boy. But he either discovers a magical artifact, or makes a faustian pact, or discovers an old tome, or is apprenticed to an aging, embittered, alcoholic wizard, and turns out to be naturally gifted.
The story soon becomes about how the boy develops in, and masters his power, and then, well...
Okay, so not always. Sometimes the boy doesn't settle old scores. But usually he does. Sometimes he doesn't lord it over all those who used to look down on him. Actually, sometimes he just laughs up his sleeve at them.
What's wrong with this story, apart from how predictable and lazy and banal it is, is that the boy's mastery of magic becomes a means to an end, and that end... it's just power over the world. It's a childish fantasy of adulthood, that most of us know adulthood is nothing like.
And that's what BAD FANTASY does.
Bad fantasy offers fantastical solutions to real problems.
Whereas the boy and his dragon is about how a relationship with another person helps the boy to grow up, boy and his magic just hands the boy a really big stick, and he beats all the bad people with it, without growing up at all.
It's exactly the same with Science Fiction. Most of those people who say they don't like or never read science fiction (yes, this includes my mum), expect Science Fiction to propose imaginary technology to deal with real problems. Just ask. That's what most of them think Science Fiction is - being able to do stuff we can't do (yet) through made up or at best extrapolated sci-tech.
And that sort of SF does exist. It's called "Bad Science Fiction."
Good science fiction provides an alternate setting for real problems, or, best of all, imagines real people in situations that can't exist, and explores their reactions to it, in a realistic way.
(With an honorable mention to all the SF where real world solutions are sought by real people for problems caused by imagined or near-future sci-tech, especially where this involves ethics. Yes. SF is often about ethics. Who knew?)
... there sits Pan, cross-legged, the trills from his pipe flowing downstream in harmony with the babbling of the water. And the boy with the dragon is hand in hand with the boy with the magic, the dozing dragon coiled loosely around the grassy tump on which they sit. The dragon boy is trying, patiently, to explain how listening, and how kindness, and friendship, are the routes to adulthood, while the magic boy stares in wonder at how it is possible to be so calm, and so contented.
You see, fantasy stories are almost always allegories for the process of making sense of the adult world. If you hand someone fabulous godlike powers when their a kid, they don't grow up. And no matter how much success they achieve, no matter how much dominion they obtain, they never really come to understand other people, and never find happiness.
Give a child a dragon to tame, and the child will learn to interact with other people or die trying.
I put it to you that one of this year's American Presidential Candidates is Magic Boy, and the other is Dragon Boy. I'll... er... leave you to guess which is which, and most of all, which one has read the most good stories.
The story takes place in an imagined world, so it doesn’t have real-world placenames. The place is inhabited by indigenous flora and fauna that are unknown on Earth, so they have their own, local names. And the folks that live there have, to coin a phrase, never heard of Birmingham.
So of course, the names of all these things: the people, the plants and animals, the places, have to be different than anything you could encounter on Earth, right?
You’ve had the experience – because, like me, you love your science fiction and you love your fantasy – and it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the classic, the retro, the crossover, the social, the literary, the romantic, epic or erotic: the names have to be exotic, so at least half of them are impossible to pronounce, and half of the rest you can’t be sure what pronunciation is intended.
The remaining 25% are either words of 1 syllable or they follow the rules.
As an author you should be worried about immersion. Immersion is the reader’s sensation of experiencing the story without being aware of the narrative mechanism, or to put it another way, the reader is enjoying the story without having to think about how the story is being told.
Anything you do that makes the reader stop to think forces the reader to think about the narration itself. There are plenty of ways to do this, but the Rules of Names are the simplest way to avoid doing it with names.
You see, in an unreal world, there’s another thing that they don’t have:
English (or insert Tellurian language of your choice).
And if you draw attention to names by making the names so difficult to pronounce that an English Speaking Reader has to stop to think, you risk the English Speaking Reader wondering why everyone in your non-Earth world is speaking English. This is the concept breaker of all non-Earth stories.
Even if it doesn’t get this bad, the reader is still going to have a hard time remembering who is who if she can’t say their names every time.
That is what the rules are for.
People are lazy.
Wait, I’ll say that in a broader sense. Nature is lazy.
Now you might find this opinion piece hard to swallow if you’re a young Earth creationist, and you might even find it problematic if you believe that God thought of evolution long before man was smart enough to catch up, although I hope you won’t.
I’m not a God denier, but a seeker of truth, and I think if God exists, then the more you learn about the Universe, the more you learn about Him, and the more you discover how inadequate your past understanding was compared with the awesome vastness of Creation.
You won’t often hear me talk about God, but in my experience, folks with strong religious convictions are often great storytellers. And I want as many as possible of the people with the storytelling urge to come along with me to the end of this line of argument.
All the evidence of the natural world is that nature tends towards both kinds of laziness. Nature won’ t try to specialize if generalizing will do. Nature won’t try to improve beyond good enough.
But also, Nature will tend to favor the solution that requires the least resources. The latter sometimes results in unexpected consequences.
In theory, apes like us should really be sitting on the sea shore stuffing our faces with shellfish all day, and doing very little else.
But Nature has a few other features that seem to conflict with this.
The main concern of nature is not to perpetuate any particular species, but to perpetuate Life. (If you are religiously inclined, and prefer to discover God through discovering His Creation) you’ve only got to look at the fossil record to see all the mass extinction events were followed by immediate and accelerated proliferations of life.
New lifeforms appear, and fill the gaps left by the recently extinct. And life endures by the simple expedient of diversity.
The more different lifeforms there are, the better the chance that some of them will survive mass extinction events. That’s the extreme example, it goes right down to the small, local and ephemeral, like culture: the more diversity there is within a population, the better that population’s ability to solve problems and adapt to a changing environment.
Diversity is not something to be tolerated, but something to be sought. It’s not desirable, though, it’s mission critical. Without it, you can’t meet unknown challenges.
Diversity results in competition. All it needs is an overlap between the resources being exploited by separate species, and the species are in competition – when one finds a better way to exploit the resources, the other suffers.
And this drives nature’s desire for efficiency. Get more resources for less effort.
It’s nature, folks. Spend less, acquire more, out-compete the neighbours.
It is out of instinct that many, though not all, of us (diversity) apply the laziness test to almost every need, demand, requirement or request that is presented to us. The laziness test comes in three stages:
The laziness test is vital, because it reveals the consequences of not doing something. And you may find that dealing with the consequences of not doing it requires less effort than doing the thing!
But the laziness test is insidious, and stage 3 is where the test can become dangerous.
Working on and sharing in writers’ creative process, I’ve encountered all sorts of people, and I’ve discovered that there is a strong generalization that I can make about writers’ attitudes to their own efforts at self-improvement.
If you are over 35, male, white and speak English as a first language, you are lazy to the detriment of your own creative output. In short, if you fit that demographic, you work less hard at learning to be a better writer.
My theory is that our culture cocoons white men. It’s more praising and accepting of their work, and less critical of it. Our culture tolerates less effort from white men.
Women and all people from ethnic and racial minorities have to work much harder to get the same level of praise, recognition and success.
And they do work much harder.
But the cocoon has a negative consequences for the over 35 white males. Because they have been spared the criticism, because they have not had to suffer so many rejections, because they have been challenged with the almost universal: “what makes you think I should read your work?” with not nearly as much aggression as the women and the people of color, they haven’t learned to adapt to it.
The white guys don’t know how to take criticism. They don’t know how to look at and address their weaknesses. They don’t know how to push themselves, and how to seek out the knowledge that will lift them above the competition. Because they haven’t had to.
In fact, back when culture was wholly dominated by the white patriarchy, they realized that they could apply stage three of the laziness test to creative writing – to writing of any kind – by mystifying creativity, and mystifying talent.
The idea that creative talent is something that can’t be understood, that either you have or you don’t have, is an invention (a relatively recent invention) that exists to protect those who make their living from it.
Even more, it exists to protect the minimum level of effort that they put into their work.
Even academic analysis and literary criticism work to perpetuate this, because they analyse the output – they analyse what the writer created, not the process of creation, which is protected from close scrutiny lest the competition discover that through study and practice, through imitation and emulation, through mastery of meaning and language, through immersion in culture and cultural history, anyone can become a great creative talent.
And today, it’s the women and the minorities, who have to be more open to and accepting of criticism, who have accepted the challenge to justify their claim to creativity, who have become more prepared to test, try and experiment, more prepared to seek and to learn, more prepared to find out how to become masters of the craft of creative writing, in order to be able to create great art.
If you’ve swallowed the fiction that greatness in creative writing is a mystery, then you’re stunting your creative ability, even if you are over 35, white and male.
But if you’re not, and you have the hunger for writing, you feel the urge to tell stories, then you’re already looking for how to become a great writer, and doing that is about putting in the hours. But not just hours writing.
Hours reading. Hours talking and listening to people. Hours going to shows. Hours watching the television. Hours reading the news. Hours exchanging views on forums and social media. Hours studying the work, but also the lives, of great writers.
Hours studying their sources and their inspirations.
The third kind of laziness is “engineer’s laziness.” The engineer who builds a bridge four times stronger than it needs to be because that way it will require less maintenance and won’t need to be replaced in a few years’ time.
Applying engineer’s laziness to creative writing is just the same. Bite the bullet, do the hard work now, so you won’t have to repeat it later. Build your knowledge and understanding so you can draw upon it later, while writing.
As an author, to varying degrees, you will inevitably have two ambitions:
Notice the word “great” is left out of the second one. No mistake.
What’s awesome about publishing and reading today is that there have never been more readers, and selling your book to readers has never been easier. Which means that although there may be no shortcut to greatness, there is a shortcut to sales.
Because you can sell a book as soon as it’s written. The same day (if you do a small amount of planning).
Which means you can put in all those hours that are needed to hone, perfect and master your creative abilities, and get paid for it.Continue reading
There are a lot of reasons why there aren’t great novelists anymore.
I’m assuming you know what I mean by a great novelist. It’s someone whose fame as a writer of fiction is justified through the undeniable quality of their writing. Someone whose literary education, understanding, experience, effort, innovation and output is the source of their celebrity.
These people are easy to list. Whatever country you grew up in, you can list those writers because they’re the ones you had to read at school. If you’re British they include names like Dickens and Lawrence. If you’re American they include names like Twain and Steinbeck. If you’re French it’ll include Hugo and Balzac, if you’re German it’s people like Goethe and Boll (if it’s possible to suggest there have been people like Goethe). If you’re … okay this is starting to look like padding. You get the general idea.
Many of the great novelists you can list will be from before 1900, but the twentieth century was the peak of great novelists.
It peaked because of two things. Adult literacy rose faster than ever before, which drove a huge increase in demand for books to read, so everyone getting published, regardless of whether or not they were great, was selling lots of books. This meant that there was a big market for greatness, because there was a big market for everything.
But by the 1980s, publishers were feeling the pressure from other entertainment media, and had begun to change their publication model away from having many authors and many titles, to the “bestseller” model that is still familiar today – but which is probably beginning to fade. I suspect it peaked in the early 2000s though some insiders say it peaked earlier than that.
The result of this change was a squeeze on the number of people who could be published, and a shift of publisher’s priorities away from writers who would be admired for their literary quality, towards writers who could stimulate a public phenomenon – what today is called “going viral”.
There is an impression in recent culture, that is perhaps finally fading, that there is, a narrow group of intellectuals and critics who decided amongst themselves who was allowed to be thought of as serious writer, who could be a writer of Literature and therefore be authorized to vie for the title of Great Novelist. But if this is coming to an end, who, in the future, will be able to make that crucial pontification, who will be able to say, ex cathedra, that anyone is a Great Novelist? Maybe no one.
The period known as The Enlightenment began sometime in the early 17th century and ran (officially) until the late 18th century. It’s dates are sometimes given as 1630 to 1780. I had to look that up. I can’t memorize dates. Mostly because I don’t want to. And I have this thing call the “internet.”
The Enlightenment was characterized by major advances in science, technology, academic study and both political, social and ethical philosophy. It is said to be characterized by a rise in individual responsibility and a weakening of traditional authority.
Every country in Europe had its Enlightenment figures (as did the Thirteen Colonies that would later become the USA), with France, the UK and the German states having perhaps more than their fair share – for a number of reasons.
Almost all the major contributors to this movement had the same kind of education. They were privately tutored by specialists of all kinds, typically selected by their avant-garde parents. If you were a child of wealthy intellectuals, or wealthy social climbers who wanted intellectual children, or wealthy aristocrats who wanted fashionable children, you got an unique education, oriented specifically for you, and following the whims and caprices of your parents and tutors.
New Teaching, new thinking.
This created unique thinkers. People who saw the world in a way that was unique to them, and who, therefore, sought out the company of others who were equally different, which only further broadened their knowledge and horizons.
it is not, therefore, surprising, that those among them whose education had a literary bias became great writers. “Literary bias” makes it sound like a small thing. But education of the period was founded in the study of classical literature in the original language, and in a volume of reading that is almost unimaginable to us today, even though we have so much more choice as to what to read.
That kind of education is rare today. The only thing that comes close is some kinds of home schooling, though homeschooling today is rarely as intensive as it was during the Enlightenment.
You might not be surprised to learn that I know a few people who can and do. I can read classical Latin, if slowly, and with a dictionary to hand. But most of the great writers studied it properly in the original language.
Whatever cultural tradition you live in today will have been influenced by a small number of famous texts that were known and studied for hundreds, even thousands of years. All the stories you know will be in some way derived from those stories.
Most great writers studied those stories intensively and extensively – they studied all of them, in depth. Their understanding, therefore, of the archetypes of the stories central to modern culture is much deeper than ours. They also read and studied in detail the major religious texts of their region of the world, which also have a lasting influence on the nature of the stories that we tell today – on their structure, their orientation, even the way that we present characters to the reader.
Poetry was seen as a way of passing the time. Few were the wealthy intellectuals or aristocrats who did not both study and write poetry. Poets came in and out of fashion, and people learned their works to be able to recite them as a form both of entertainment and of intellectual stimulation.
Poetry was, therefore, not a marginal activity, or a hobby, and not at all a solitary or contemplative activity. It was competitive. It was social. Skill with poetry was considered essential to proving your intellectual worth.
The study and practice of poetry has a very particular effect on your language skills, and your understanding of how verbal communication works. With the added social and competitive element, there was strong motivation to excel at poetry, and great writers of fiction almost always do.
From at least the early 17th century, publishers were people who were passionate about books. There was a lot of money to be made in publishing, and there have been several periods in the history of the last 300 years where publishers have actively sought out writers and convinced them to try their hand at novel writing.
The relationship between the author and his publisher, or, more recently, his literary agent, used to be a lot less clearly defined. It’s not for nothing that terms like agent, editor and publisher still get confused by laymen, since until recently, these roles were not clearly defined or separate.
I have certainly already mentioned elsewhere the original “author’s editor,” Max Perkins.
Perkins worked most famously with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Not only did he help them to knock their books into shape, he gave advice, he interceded with publishers, he occasionally bailed them out or bankrolled their projects.
He may have been the most famous, but he was typical of a long tradition of editors working for publishing houses large and small, who made it their business to nurture talent; to see potential and show authors how to realize their potential.
With the rise of the bestseller culture that I mentioned at the beginning of this article, came pressure to write faster, to get to press faster, to sell faster, and, most of all, to develop author bankability™.
The risk of selling books on the name of the author has always been there – that the author will become complacent, and make less effort with later books, knowing that the public will buy anything with their name on. But once the publisher’s business model came to rely on this, it became inevitable that the author’s editor, who slowly nurtured talent until they began to achieve their potential for greatness, would soon disappear.
… In fact…
These are only five of the many factors that made the Great Novelists of the past unique.
But take heart, gentle writer.
One of the effects of mass education and the rise of the mass market paperback is the destruction of literary snobbery.
Most readers are not looking to be impressed or edified. They don’t want to read a book by someone better read, better researched, better educated, better cultivated than they are.
What readers want from an author is simple: they want an author who cares about giving them the reading experience that they want. They want a reader who wants to satisfy them.
Now some readers just want a thrill, others want nostalgia, some want a scare, or a threat, or to be shocked or challenged. It’s not just about pleasing the reader. It’s about giving the reader what they want.
You don’t have to be a Great Writer to do that.
You do have to be a good writer. You need a minimum of knowledge and skill, and those do take both learning and practice.
But to be a success at writing, you don’t have to be unique or special. You do have to be dedicated.
You don’t have to be out of the reader’s league. You do have to care about what readers want.
You will never be a Great Novelist. But you shouldn’t try to be.
If not Great, then what?
It may be that Greatness is still possible. But if it is, it cannot be the same kind of greatness, or in any case, the wellspring of future greatness will not be found where it was once found.
After all, the uniqueness of the great writers of the last couple of hundred years came from more from social inequality than almost anything else. Name any 20 great novelists from before 1900 and you’ll be hard pressed to find any women, anyone not either from an wealthy or an aristocratic family, anyone who isn’t very, very white.
Having the time for the kind of education and life of adventure and discovery that made a great novelist in the past was strictly the reserve of privilege. It is to be hoped that level of privilege will not repeat itself.
Find your uniqueness.
I still think that the best source of greatness for a writer is uniqueness. You aren’t going to find your uniqueness by looking into yourself. Uniqueness has to be earned through unique experiences.
With so many people on Earth now, having a single unique experience is pretty unlikely. But having a unique combination of experiences should be possible. Build your uniqueness by seeking diversity in all your experiences.
The easiest way to do this is always to take the long route. Always to choose the more difficult option. Do what makes you feel uncomfortable.
As long as these are finite experiences, they won’t ruin your life; for instance, don’t take a job you know you can’t do. Don’t marry someone you can’t stand.
All these are examples of the kind of experiences you should be looking for. They will all affect the way you think, the way you see yourself and other people, the way you look at the world. Only do the ones you have never done, and prefer the ones you really don’t think you want to do:
Look for any other experiences that are on offer. The principle is that they should be experiences that you had to look for.
Nothing that would have fallen into your lap.
Will this make you unique?
I don’t know. But it will prepare the ground on which future greatness might, one day, be built.Continue reading
When you’re ready to do character thoughts with sarcasm, you know you don’t need to think about POV any more.
At the end of this post I’ve done a bulleted list to show you what you need to do to POV like a boss, so you don’t have to wade through my rambling, if compelling explanation.
Here’s a jump for the TL;DR version.
I’m constantly trying to convince my authors to stop thinking about POV.
Something has happened amongst all you self-taught writers (and even some of the qualified ones, whatever that means) to convince you that for every story you write you have to take a conscious decision about POV, and think about it all the time.
The least egregious consequence of this is that the story slavishly follows one character at a time…
The worst consequences come when the author can’t stop himself from constantly reminding the reader whose POV is currently in focus…
This might sound a little strong, but I think I’m expected to be controversial where possible.
I’ve been told there’s this elusive quality called “clickbait” and I have to track it like a good little snarkhunter, but all sarcasm aside (for at least the next couple of sentences), conscious POV usually results in poor style.
Conscious POV – which is when the author consciously chooses to limit the reader’s experiences to those of one character at a time – is a gimmick.
Like 1st person narrative, present tense or “unreliable narrator” it’s a form of exoticism that an author should certainly learn how to use, and then employ occasionally, with care, for powerful effect.
You may have heard me make this claim before, and the more I examine the question, the more true I think it is.
3rd/past/omni is the narrative voice of fairy tales. It’s the narrative voice of Homer and Virgil.
It’s the narrative voice of preschool and early learning (although some authors of these ‘readers’ make the bizarre error of using the present tense to ‘make it easier.’)
My theory is that they are confusing learning to read with learning a foreign language.
It is the default narrative voice for thousands of years of written and oral storytelling. That sort of thing has long term consequences.
It means that any other narrative voice is exotic – if even mildly. So the choice of another narrative voice should come with other conscious choices.
In reality, I always encourage new writers to use the narrative voice that comes naturally to them.
The great writers – the really experienced ones, whose work will be remembered long after they’re dead – know that you either choose a different narrative voice because it will make the story stronger, or because they want the story to be bounded or limited, in an unusual way.
But one of the ultimate aims of the writer – a primary reason why I describe my exercises for writers as writer’s Kung Fu – is to pass unnoticed. The writer who succeeds in truly immersing the reader in his story does so by drawing attention to the story, not to himself.
You don’t want the reader to think “what a great writer” until she has finished the book. How to stay out of the way of the story should be your constant study; any time where you use an exotic narrative voice, you will draw attention to yourself, and to your technique.
It is possible to sidestep the whole issue of POV.
Narrow or strict POV is a device whose purpose is to limit the flow of information to the reader, which contains its own justification.
Usually, withholding information from the reader is a great way to annoy the reader, especially if you plan to spring it on the reader just before the climax, as a means of artificially raising the stakes.
But if you’ve withheld information because the main character had no way of knowing it, and the reader has got used to knowing only what the main character knows, then the reader will swallow your clumsy plotting without complaint.
That’s the theory in any case. (I managed to keep off the sarcasm for several paragraphs there!)
Sidestepping the issue of POV is as simple as just deciding what you intend to reveal, and what you don’t intend to reveal.
That’s definitely an oversimplification, right? Not really.
Most of the time, when telling a story, you’re recounting a series of events that happen to, are influenced by, and have consequences for, some people (characters).
To the observer, to a third party, those consequences may be shown. But the observer can also infer, deduce, intuit or, often, empathize those consequences: if the hero’s wife is murdered, you hardly need mention that the hero feels grief.
The third party is the reader.
I go to a lot of trouble to explain to writers that a work of fiction is an act of communication between two people – the author and the reader. But the principal conceit of fiction is that the reader is a third party, an observer.
In some fiction traditions, this goes as far as the writer imagining that he is telling the story to a character, and that if a reader comes along, this is coincidental.
But you should be aware that this is a conceit. A narrative device that ensures that writer and reader are on the same wavelength (a figure of speech which, to touch the mask, is a means of ensuring that you and I are sharing the same cultural tradition).
If you have read my blog before, or you have read my Editor’s Guide to Writing Fiction, you will be used to my vaunting of editor and writer Emma Darwin, and you may already have noticed that I’m working my way towards repeating a lesson I’ve taught elsewhere. Emma took the French lit. crit. category of pensée indirecte libre and evolved it into Free Indirect POV.
Free Indirect is when you relate a character’s point of view without saying so. Without having a convention to show whose POV it is.
To do so, you have to be a little more relaxed about what the reader is, or is not aware of. It works best if you have the self-discipline to keep to one main character per story, so that you don’t have to keep signposting the POV.
The ultimate aim of every author should always be to bring the reader to a point that is stronger than the trust required for so-called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. The point is one of willing complicity in the pretense.
How can you make a reader complicit?
By showing the reader that they are complicit. Jane Austen does it by sharing a joke with the reader at a character’s expense, right at the start of the book.
You might need a little more practice before you can get to that point. But once a character is well enough established, once the reader has got to know them well, the reader will start to have genuine expectations of the character.
To get to this point, however, you have to have shown how the character behaves. You have to have placed them in a number of situations that will have revealed their values, foibles, caprices.
It’s no good telling the reader that the character is needlessly finicky about trivialities, f’rinstance, you have to show enough incidents where this behavior creates obstacles or problems for the story, the character, or the people around them.
Once you know that the reader shares your opinion of the character, you have complicity.
The best measure of whether the complicity is sufficient is to see if you think you can get away with making a sarcastic observation about a character. If it seems okay to you, and your Beta Readers swallow it, then you’re probably doing okay.
Here’s an example from a soon-to-be-published series I’m working on right now. Esper, the character in question, has been established as meek but principled. Full of self-doubt, but with occasional flashes of resolve.
She’s also young, and the memory of being a childhood outcast – poor and a little nerdy – still smarts. She’s just gotten hold of a tablet computer…
It was an OmniWalker Tudor, last year’s most popular high-end model—not that Esper had followed such trends, or quietly envied the Harmony Bay scientists’ children who carried them.
Under normal circumstances, when editing, I would have flagged ‘not that’ as chatty – breaking the narrative register – and suggested something a little more formal.
But this is a point of complicity between author and reader, and therefore exactly the right time to break the normal narrative register to make a colloquial observation to the reader.