Monday 22 March 2010

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I’ve just finished N.K. Jemisin’s ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ and a damn fine book it is too. In turns intriguing, terrifying and exciting it follows the story Yeine Darr a formerly outcast scion of the family that rules the world (the eponymous Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) who is summoned unexpectedly to Sky, the centre of all power, as part of a Machiavellian succession plot. Now I like castlepunk but this takes palace intrigue throws in half the spice cupboard and a shelf full of metaphysics and turns the heat up to eleven. I had really good time reading it and that’s what counts for me.

From a craft perspective I was particularly struck by how cleverly Jemisin starts the book. Yeine Darr, the narrator, keeps restarting her story as she remembers things that she needs to tell you before she can continue. Done skilfully, as it is here, this allows Jemisin to lay down some serious pipe without holding up the story or breaking reader immersion and give us an insight into Yeine’s own mental state. I’m looking forward to the next book.

Monday 15 March 2010

Writing the Other 2: It Depends on Who the Camera is

First some caveats: I have no academic training whatsoever and the following blog has been written because I’ve decided to articulate some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for ages now(1). I make no claims to academic rigour or any other perspective than the tools I have devised to successfully write things down and then sell them. I hope some of it will be useful but I offer no guarantees. Anyone stealing this material to form the basis of an essay or, god help you, a thesis or something had better be prepared a) for abject failure or b), in the unlikely event of procuring a passing grade, to provide monetary compensation(2). Anyway moving on…

Since I write Science Fiction and Fantasy my definition of the other is quite wide and some issues that apply to some others don’t apply to other others(4). This blog will strive to differentiate and classify the various others into groups and then look at the relative levels of knowledge required to write with confidence(5).

Others, for the purpose of writing fiction, have two principle characteristics: one) what I think of their basic type, contemporary, historical and the fantastic, and two) their prominence in the fiction; point of view, foreground and background. We will deal with prominence first since this is the easiest.

A background character is precisely that; a character that exists only because you don’t want to have your principles act(6) against a void. In this case you can get away with a few telling details, often just a name, mode of dress or verbal tic providing, and this is important, you don’t step on a cliché bomb(7). Heinlein does a lot of this in Starship Troopers to show that his Terran Federation is an equal opportunities fascist state and my favourite example is a line from Robert Holmes’ classic ‘Talons of Weng Chiang’(9) “I was with the Filipino Army during their final advance on Reykjavik” which conjures up a far future in which the balance of power has radically shifted away from where it rests now.

Never get background characters confused with background; if your main characters are operating in another culture, say Feudal Japan, then you’re going to need something more than a verbal tic to get you through the chapter.

A foreground character, or culture come to think of it, is one who interacts enough with your point of view characters for the reader/viewer to get a real sense of their personality. If their role is tightly circumscribed within the work, they’re the pathologist in a crime story, for example, and we only meet them in the lab during autopsies – then as with a background character you can get away with a few telling details. If you’re planning to portray a truly multicultural society then you may have no choice but to treat some of your characters this way – just think about what you’re doing and have some respect for your own ignorance(10). Americans face a particular pitfall when writing about Europe, particularly Ireland and the UK, in thinking that a shared history, literature and pop culture(11) equates to a real familiarity with a particular culture(12). To write a foreground character with confidence you need, what I’ve decided to call on this instance, a working knowledge of their culture.

Point of view: writing point of view, which includes close 3rd person, of a character requires more than a working knowledge of their culture - you must be able to think yourself into their heads and that requires you to embrace the other to the point where it ceases to be the other and that, my friends, is a whole different ballgame(13)

Next time on Writing the Other ‘Oi! Who are you calling the other?’

(1) Along with the Glee cover version of Amy Whitehouse’s ‘Rehab’.
(2) I’ve had some hard times(3) and this has eroded my sense of humour about copyright infringement.
(3) I wanted to put ‘Will write for food’ on my card but my agent said no.
(4) Or indeed to other’s other others.
(5) They tried to make me go to rehab but I said no, no, no…
(6) I’m using ‘act’ in the broad sense of the word here.
(7) Cliché bombs and how to avoid them will be covered in a later blog but for now the rule of thumb is to avoid getting your telling detail from: i) film or TV, ii) background characters in other authors works, iii) some vague recollection about something that guy you knew did years ago…(8)
(8) If only you could remember his name.
(9) Both of these works have their own problems however.
(10) Surgeon’s Law applies to your casual knowledge of other cultures; 90% of everything you think you know is bollocks.
(11) And language of course.
(12) A good example of this is Lt. Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5 whose characterisation, while strong, is the product of the Russian Jewish immigrant culture of America with a few cold war cliché’s thrown in – rather than any imagined St Petersburg of the 23rd Century.
(13) Possibly one day cricket(14).
(14) I’d rather be home with Ray I ain’t got seventy days…

Thursday 11 March 2010

Mokit on a Tricycle

Spring is in the air, daffodils are thrusting their way through the dog poo, spontaneous singing can be heard from the high rise blocks and film crews are out gambolling on Primrose Hill. This is a favoured location for film crews, not only does it have good sightlines, a spectacular view over London but being Primrose Hill the producers can pop back to their nearby £1,000,000+ Regency Townhouse for a quick spot of lunch and sex with the nanny.

This particular crew were filming a young kid cycling down the steep slope of the hill and, because dead children can cause productions to over run, they had child, tricycle and camera mounted on a motorised flatbed. There was, what back in the 1980s we used to call an AFM (assistant floor manager), standing at the bottom of the hill with a walkie talkie trying to keep unsuitable people out of shot.

We exchanged cheerful nods and I opined that I'd never seen a mokit on a tricycle before, he gave me the glassy eyed grin of someone being forced to talk to weirdos all day, and I walked on whistling cheerfully in the knowledge that my fat backside was waddling away in at least one of the takes.

Monday 8 March 2010

Writing the Other: The Thing About Pimp Culture

The epigram on this subject is that you should write the other only when it ceases to be the other. This is both glib, true and, on its own, not very helpful. Over the next few weeks(1) I will be looking at how I approach writing the other in the hope that it might prove useful to other writers. Later blogs will look at what we mean by ‘the other’ and what actions we can take to make the other not the other. So to start off we’ll ask the question – why should you care?

Once when I was young, stupid and not enjoying myself at a party (2) a white art school student was enthusiastically telling me about the influences on his film project. ‘I’m really into pimp culture,’ he shouted over the music, ‘I want to start this film with this guy in the suit and the hat and he turns round to the camera and says “Get down you ho”.’ He didn’t specify that the guy in the suit and the hat were black (3) but I think it’s a fair assumption that he probably was. I remember staring at him and thinking ‘what the fuck?’ but being too drunk and stupid to say anything coherent in reply.

Now that I’m older and wiser and have had things carefully explained to me(4) I can articulate what was bothering me(5). This young man, who would have been mortified to have been described as racist, had not only drawn his information entirely from film and TV(6) but planned to use the caricature without any thought to the political and cultural context that had created it in the first place. In other words he thought it was up for grabs to use as he saw fit(8) he thought he knew what he was talking about..

Anyway, moving on, if you want to write about the other with confidence then the other must become so familiar to you that it ceases to be the other.

Which leads to the question – what is the other? And that is the subject of the next blog.

(1) Unless I wander off and lose interest.
(2) The bulk of early 1980s.
(3) Or even African-American.
(4) Often in a loud voice.
(5) Apart from the staggeringly ignorant racism obviously.
(6) I will be discussing why film and TV constitute the least useful source of information about the lives of anyone other than rich white media professionals in a future blog, or possibly several future blogs depending on how worked up I get(7).
(7) See footnote (1)
(8) There’s probably a sociological term for this.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

My Mellifluous Cephalopod

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve just done a 3 book deal with Del Rey the first book to be published in spring 2011. The announcement by my agent is here and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank John and John, my agents at Zeno, for the brilliant job they’ve done flogging the manuscript and Andrew Cartmel for his continuous support during the writing process. Watch this space for further announcements.