So, the wonderful Nina Allan tagged me for this one. In the last few months alone, she has won the Grande Prix De L’Imaginaire for her short story collection, The Silver Wind, and the BFSA award for her terrific novella, Spin. Another novella, The Gateway, has been nominated for a Shirley Jackson award, and both Spin, and Vivian Guppy and the Brighton Belle have been nominated for a British Fantasy Award. It’s a good job that I think she’s brilliant, otherwise I might have to hate her. You can read her preceding bloghop post here.
At first glance, posting about what you don’t write and what you do seems simple, but it’s actually more of a pain in the bum than I thought it would be. Last bit’s easy, first bit’s not. It’s like that what is your greatest weakness question the HR guy asks you in a job interview. If you say nothing, you look like a smug arse; if you say, ah, yes, I can be a bit of a perfectionist etc etc, you look like a smug arse who’s deliberately missing the point.
Except...it’s not the same. Of course there are things I don’t write about. There are things every writer doesn’t write about. And if I was applying for an interview to be a rocket scientist, they wouldn’t ask me why I didn’t want to be a window cleaner. So...
I just don’t. Couldn’t even if I wanted to. My day job is in the scientific field, specifically physics, but I haven’t ever attempted to translate that knowledge into a story. Not where physics was the story at any rate. I don’t read hard SF partly because I probably wouldn’t understand any of it, but mostly because it just doesn’t appeal to me. I may be doing these stories an injustice, but for me, the science is secondary; the stories, the characters, the emotion is all. As a writer, I don’t want to get bogged down in extensive research, or the terror that at some point my obvious dunderheadedness is going to be exposed. I have a genuine respect for those who can and do write hard SF, but yeah, not for me.
I don’t know if that’s the accepted term these days or not, but it’s still a pretty well established sub-genre of horror fiction: the weird and supernatural hiding within urban chaos and social anonymity or decay. I have tried to write it because I do actually love to read it, and both respect and admire writers like Joel Lane, Conrad Williams, Nicholas Royle, Gary McMahon. And many of the settings for my stories are in deprived and forgotten corners of the world, their characters the disenfranchised and persecuted.
But I think the reason that I don’t do it very well is two-fold: miserablist fiction is, in general, very impassioned, often angry. It tries to say something, to hold up a mirror to us all in the hopes that we will actually look and actually see. And while I admire that, I struggle to emulate it. As much as I’d perhaps want it to be, that is not why I write. I don’t have the mettle for it, the drive. And secondly, even when I try to, a different story always ends up appearing. I use humour a lot in my writing, often unintentionally, and while I’m not saying that miserablist fiction can’t also be funny (Ramsey Campbell is the perfect example of a writer who does both brilliantly), my stories, even when bleak, are always trying to strive for that happy ending, even if it’s just the idea of it, the promise of it over the horizon.
...or Sword and Sorcery, High Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy, I don’t know all the terms - it’s a crazy secondary world out there, you know.
Tolkien did it, and then David Gemmell, Raymond Feist, Robert Jordon, George R.R. flipping Martin etc. You know, and they’re great; I’ve read just about every Gemmell book there ever was, but it is proper old school. The invariably tortured and male hero (I suppose that Game of Thrones, if nothing else, has tried to revise that particular trope), the magicians, the castles, the quests, the chivalry, the trilogies that morph into quintologies, octologies, decologies and so on and so forth. I’m just not sure that there’s anything left to say. And if there is, I know that I’m definitely not one of the ones to say it. I have a long ago written, three hundred thousand word opus hidden under my bed that I can guarantee will never, ever see the light of day. It’s cringe-worthy, derivative, and probably downright plagiaristic. It helped me discover how to write, but it’s very definitely not what I’m supposed to write.
So, what do I write? This is going to be far woollier, I’m afraid.
Characters always, always come first for me. Without wanting to sound like a wanker about it, they dictate the story rather than the other way around. I know that I have a good ear for dialogue, and I’ve literally made a career out of earwigging: anywhere and everywhere. I even have an app on my phone specifically to note down brilliant words or turns of phrase that I hear on trains, in pubs, at work, on holiday. Perhaps part of that is being Scottish. I grew up hearing such a huge variety of different ways of saying the same thing; sometimes of saying a thing that doesn’t actually mean a thing in any other dialect or language. Which is invaluable. It’s taught me to love words and the unique ways in which people use them, twist them, interpret them.
And I do hear voices in my head. Sometimes when I’m writing, I have whole conversations with them. The gift of good characterisation and good dialogue is that it allows you to dispense with so much dry description, which can be a slog for any reader. If you’ve got the voices and characterisation right, the reader should instinctively know who is speaking at all times without ever being told. It’s also a brilliant vehicle for show don’t tell (technically it is telling, but you get my drift). It might be pretentious to say so, but by the end of a short story, novella, novel I know all of my characters so well that they feel almost as real to me as anyone who, well, actually is. And often I like them a whole lot better.
(Pretentious wanker disclaimer again): setting is another character, perhaps even the most important one of all. A sense of place should be absolute; it should be alive, visceral, and completely realised. If you strive to make the reader feel like they’ve actually met and gotten to know the characters in your story, it’s equally important to make them believe that they’ve been exactly where those characters live: that they’ve walked its streets, or drunk in its pub, or sat in its bow, or swum in its ocean, or navigated its stars.
It can be easier, of course, to use a place that is already familiar: a city or town that I’ve lived in or visited, but often it’s an amalgamation of many settings and the smallest of observed detail. I take photographs, I buy pictures, I read books. I spy just as much as I eavesdrop. And as long as I know my setting as intimately as I want the reader to, whether that place is a contemporary city, a fictional village, an apocalyptic wasteland, or a solar-sailed space capsule is absolutely irrelevant.
Ah now, I know what you’re thinking, but that’s not it. I’ve read those kind of books too: the ones where the plot, narrative, characterisation - the whole kit and caboodle - is one giant set piece for an incredibly clever grand reveal that renders pretty much everything that has gone before obsolete. No matter how ingenious the final twist, the path to get there - essentially the entire book, give or take a chapter - is inevitably mired in confusion and contradiction. Characters behave in ways that people never would, the plot jumps from here to there and back again with illogical and dizzying speed, and even though the reader is expecting some kind of clever and unexpected payoff (generally because they’ve been promised that in the blurb), the body of the story, the essence of it, nearly the entirety of it, is basically foreplay. Confusing, exasperating, and overly protracted foreplay.
What I mean are the small twists, the slow accumulation of them on the road towards The End; some swiftly revealed, others only hinted at, but always entirely guessable, entirely comprehensible, entirely logical. I love, love, love changing readers’ minds without them realising that that’s what I’m trying to do. I love writing about characters who are fluid, accessible, unreliable. If I can make a reader begin to love a character that they at first loathed, or vice versa, than I’m very happy. If I can turn a situation or a climax on its head without the reader ever seeing it coming; without them recognising all that foreplay for what it really was, then I’m even happier. It doesn’t always work, of course, and often requires a ridiculous amount of forward planning and very careful timing, but when it does it feels amazing. I love writing, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t, but in those moments when a story comes together exactly in the way that I wanted it to, sometimes without my actually knowing exactly how I wanted it to, nothing in this world - or any other - feels better.
So, that’s me. And I can now hand over the baton to my tag-ees:
First up, is British Fantasy Award winning Ray Cluley, whose ability to switch between the thought-provoking and resonant to the funny and genuinely moving, puts him into the same want to hate him but I can’t camp as Nina. His novella, Water for Drowning, is coming soon from This Is Horror, and he has a debut short story collection coming out with ChiZine next year.
And secondly, the brilliant Priya Sharma, who has been in more best of anthologies than you could shake a stick at (most recently, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Vol.6, with her fantastically disturbing story, the Anatomist’s Mnemonic). And whose impeccable sense of place and character and, above all, story is equally impressive, equally enviable.