my philosophy of writing

Posted on Thursday, June 28th, 2012 at 15:01

This post is perhaps a little pretentious and possibly silly given that I am unpublished, but it is a post that I feel I should make before I move into the final stages of actually uploading my novels and letting people read them.

Before I begin…

I am, at least partially, dyslexic; I easily confuse words that have a similar shape (by a definition of similar only known to the neural nets that inhabit my visual cortex). My dyslexia does not stop me from reading, but it does complicate writing, which I’ll post about some other time, this one will wander and ramble enough as it is.

I’m not a philosopher… I have never studied philosophy, theology or meta-physics. I know very little about the subjects, and certainly don’t know all the appropriate terms and jargon that these extensive subjects have developed over the centuries that they have existed. Neither do I believe any of that to be relevant to either this post or my ability to philosophise.

I got into computers at an early age, when my primary school purchased an Acorn BBC model B in 1981. I learned to program from the age of 6, it’s a skill that relates to writing in some simple ways, you write a program in the same way you write a story, only the reader is THE most pedantic, stupid beast that you will ever write for. The rules and syntax of most computer languages are much more precise than the loose style guides that serve for syntax in English.

I was trained as a scientist, specifically a physicist. Science is one of the descendants of philosophy, specifically the schools of natural philosophy, and it would be easy to consider Physics as Philosophy and Mathematics eldest grandchild. Physics is hard, it is hard to learn, hard to do well, has rigid inflexible rules, and is a suitable ruler against which the universe may be measured, it creates (or perhaps simply describes) and examines the Physical model of the universe (or multiverse or Omniverse); because of this, in most physicists opinion their science is THE science, it governs all science from its Hierophant’s throne.

For some physicists chemistry is nothing more than a collection of rules that arise as a consequence of the physics of atomic structure (the observant will note the missing verbs required to make such a statement). Biology extends from chemistry into the specific rules governing organic molecules. Medical Science looks at the rules governing the cells of animal (and usually human) biology. Neuroscience and Immunology extend the model once more, examining specific classes of cells within the human being. And so on, each step looking at a smaller and smaller specialization of a model that extends from the original Physical model. Like all models, this is not true, but it can still be  a useful model.

In the beginning

I read a lot. The small, post-industrial, bucolic, Salopian town that I grew up in had a tiny public library and I found limited choices for a young person interested in computers and science. I did find a few books that had pictures of computers, robots and space-ships and read them all. Having read a random collection of Science-Fiction I began reading the other books on the same shelves.

One teacher read the class ‘The Hobbit‘ at some point during my primary school, I think I was nine. Suddenly I had another shelf of books to read. My reading spread, like a virus I consumed everything I could. I began to try new things, to find other genres and find what I liked about them, and what I didn’t. I ploughed through the ‘Lord of The Rings‘ in a weekend before I’d left Primary School — I was, perhaps as old as 10 —  and loved Middle-Earth, as not just a story, but as a mythopeic geography.

Secondary school was a Catholic college that was an hour and half bus journey away from the ancient farmhouse that I grew up in, every morning I would ride and hour and half to school on a clapped-out, shuddering Midland Red with the number 9 lighting its way. Leaving so early in the morning that, on most school days, dawn occurred during the bus ride. It was too dark and shaky to read on that bus and I had no friends that attended the same school for the first year I went, so I sculpted and explored worlds in my mind, told myself stories that entertained me. The evening, return journey would leave me in darkness at the edge of the valley my childhood home stood across from.

The Otherworld

In my mind’s eye there are terrifying vistas, worlds that burn in flame, torn in twain, there are beautiful visions of alien landscapes where float fruit detach from towering trees and drift upon the wind, showering the ground beneath with a peppering of seeds and spores. I know these places, a part of me has lived there for decades, they are the safe places that I go to when I must escape the world about me.

For the longest time, these worlds were mine alone, when asked to write a story in class, I would not open a window upon my world, but would create another realm which would fulfil the criteria required by the assignment. I got good at throwing together strange worlds to act as a background to a simple story, it gave my writing apparent depth, that it was really lacking.

Things changed one day in 1989, when I was on holiday with a friend and his family; a caravan holiday near Tenby in South-West Wales. For the first time, I was away on holiday without my parents and had money of my own. Just inside Tenby, inside the medieval walls of the city was a narrow mercantile alley, one side embedded in the castle-like walls, the other old houses and shops that sold the usual seaside assortments of ice-cream, kites, buckets and spades and postcards; and then the Games store. I can’t remember the name of the store, it has probably long gone, I haven’t been to Tenby in twenty years, but it was an Aladdin’s cave of games. Chess sets, boardgames, and nestled behind a stand of cheap lead miniatures of Orcs and Knights I found AD&D second edition.

I was entranced. Here was a guide to not only creating fantasy stories, but playing them. I purchased the set, blowing almost all of my spending money, and read them the rest of that day. That night I ran a simple adventure for my friend and his father and sister. They investigated a cave near their farm that a gang of thieving, murderous Goblins had moved into.  I was hooked, the rest of them, not so much. I practised and found friends who did want to play, one of them had the complete original D&D boxed sets and delighted in being a Dungeonmaster (DM). I practised and played, and told stories and built grand, insane worlds for friends to explore. I’d like to think I got pretty good.

Now I was letting flickers of stories from in my head, leak into the Dungeons, or more often the world above the Dungeons. When someone asked a question about a detail I hadn’t considered my unconscious mind would supply an answer, often a surprising and deeply interesting answer that more than once derailed a carefully planned adventure.

Roleplaying is a lot like writing, and I’d recommend anyone that intends to write Fantasy plays. It teaches you a vocabulary of medieval terms, that while not quite accurate is internally consistent and lets all players understand what is meant by a Halberd, Trebuchet, Bodkin or Buckler (for example). It teaches you to create vivid descriptions that the DM and the players share, and construct together. You may write a detailed description of an ancient tomb, thinking you have accurately described everything about the place, even down to the thin layer of dust that is strangely white and clings to the dark granite filling cracks and crannies; until a dwarf character drags his finger through the dust and licks it asking you what it tastes of. The answer is not to be found in your notes, you just thought white dust sounded cool for the tomb. Is it stone or bone? he asked, prompting for what he thinks must be an important clue. What’s white and tastes of something? you ask yourself — its flour! The dwarf instantly calls out, that the room is trapped, and someone has covered their tracks with the flour. It wasn’t, according to the notes, but the Orcs barracked in the next chamber take it as a cue to burst into the room.

The player and the DM created that tension and action between each other. It wasn’t in the notes that way. The same kind of interaction happens between a writer and a reader, but without the feedback from the reader. As a DM I can see if I’ve got them hooked, how they engage with the world. As a writer, I can’t. I can let someone read a story or novel, but I can never really judge how well it has worked, unless they tell me.

The Art of a well-chosen word

Writing about unreal things is a difficult discipline, it’s not Rocket Science, but then I find Rocket Science easy, it is after all fairly easily programmed ballistic calculations. On the one hand, the characters are all aware of the world around them, on the other the reader is not. If  you describe a character as being a Lart Farmer, you can leave it up to the reader to decide what a Lart is, especially if it isn’t going to be important again. If you want to make the reader aware of the Lart, to understand a little something about a Lart farmer, then you can have the reader encounter the Lart before meeting the Farmer, it often doesn’t take much.

The hawk circled high over the fields of Lart…

  •  The purple, sweet-tasting, seed-heads swollen in the sun and ripening ready for the luxuriant harvest-festival bread. – Larts are a highly prized cereal or grain plant, probably a form of grass.
  • The purple sap, so prized by the dyers and artists that they called it liquid inspiration, stained the oozing buds. – Larts are a possibly narcotic plant that produces an ink.
  • They continued grazing, short beaks plucking at the long grass, scales shimmering in the afternoon sun. – Larts are an animal, that may be reptilian.
  • that formed a regular patchwork, each field identical in size and shape. – A Lart is a measure of property.
  • the small, peaceful Kingdom almost seemed to bore the hawk as it wheeled away. – Lart is a Kingdom.

The reader has the world revealed to him (or more normally her) without having to have the Lart discussed. When we meet the Lart farmer we don’t need the exposition fairy to tell us what a Lart is, and we definitely do not require someone who has grown up in that world ask stupidly, what a Lart is.

There is another corollary to this, it again comes from Roleplaying and is quite famous, you can read a version of it here. The player misunderstands the word Gazebo, he doesn’t know what it means, and thinks that he should attack it. If he was a reader, while you may think he’s an idiot for not going and looking the word up, his plight is understandable… Although how much worse would it have been if the DM had misunderstood the word. If the DM had wanted to create a new creature, and not knowing the word existed had Portmanteaued Gazelle and an interesting word he found that meant sacrifice ‘ebo’. He would have wondered why the players weren’t intrigued by his new creature, wanting to know more about its fur, magical attacks or treasure.

Words matter. They are the only way we have to communicate with writing. There is no tone to carry hints, no facial expression to give subtext. All we have are rhythm, structure, syntax and rhyme to add flavour beyond our choice of letters. This makes that choice of words impossibly important.

I have a distinct, baroque vocabulary that I have cultivated through reading Lovecraft, Wells, and Burroughs. Once these words were common, known to the erudite and loquacious masses, but we are slipping ever faster into a dark age of change, now they are odd, strange words, that add fear and confusion to the sentences they inhabit. English is changing, perhaps faster than it has ever changed before. Communication is becoming universal, but it is the hubbub of the humdrum that dominates, not the eloquence of a golden age.  Understanding is a multi-faceted thing, I do not expect the reader to know what all the words mean, instead I want to invoke a sensation. If I wish to explain I may speak plainly in an info-dump, or by metaphor and analogy construct fantastic, flawed models that I hope convey more than mere data. There is little entertainment in an info-dump as any student will confirm.

If a reader does know what the words mean, that’s fine… They are the correct words to describe the subject, but they are not the stripped down, functionally discrete vocabulary of the twenty-first century, and I would be foolish to expect every reader to know the same selection of words as I. Indeed for some, the word collection, or even choice (no matter the grammatical nightmare that would cause) would be better than selection in that sentence, but selection is a more refined process than the uniformity of collecting or the instinctual grasping at choices.

I love words, learning them, using them, abusing them, hunting the most elusive and pinning their butterfly corpses to the page; but I also love that I speak a language that has rules that not only (perhaps loosely) defines how words may be used, but also has (even more hidden and weak) rules for creating and crafting them. I’ll verb a noun or noun a verb if it helps me tell a story; helps me be understood.

Does that sound odd? That I love the baroque, the anachronistic, the aoristic,  and yet I will employ slang to get my meaning across? The old-fashioned, classical, antiquarian words that mean just the right thing can confabulate with incorrect words creating a sentence that carry not just the meaning, or emotion, but the essence perfectly.

It’s just my opinion of course, and few people have read my writing, even with this trilogy that I am about to release very few people have read it. They have read the first draft, which was almost Byzantine, a grand sprawling form, intricate and fiddly. Or they may have read my second draft, where I broke the single story into three books. Rewriting sections to move what was before separated within the novel so that each book could, conceivably stand alone. As yet only one person has read the third draft, with its corrected grammar; its rough scars and amputations from the second draft soothed and treated with medicinal words.

Soon it will be read, proofread, and finally I will publish. I’ll reserve the right to re-edit it later, perhaps a mainstream publisher may tempt me with a lucrative, commercial contract and I’ll insist that a professional editor suffers my tortured tenses and brings forth a definitive edition, but I doubt it. The best I really hope for is that somewhere, a person I have never met will read the words that I have nailed to the wall, and they will see beyond the flaws, even beyond the structure, the characters, the themes, the UFOs, Dragons and Faeries and they will enjoy.