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Writing for your audience

Unless you’re just writing for yourself, thinking about your audience is an important part of writing. It’s something I’ve been trained to do, and that I thought I was good at. But a couple of recent discussions have made me realise that I could do much better.

Thinking about my audience was a big part of my last job. They were labelled ‘customers’ not ‘audience’, but it came down to the same thing. After all, as a writer your audience are the customers for your work. While I was in that job I wrote and edited a lot of documents, and I was always thinking about the readers. How good was their grasp of written English? What things did we take for granted that they wouldn’t? Were we actually telling them what we thought we were telling them? How would font and format affect the reading experience?

When I’m writing fiction, thinking about audience is different. I write short stories to fit the requirements of particular markets, in terms of word count, genres, tone and content. If I come up with an idea that inspires me I think about what genre it fits into and what those readers expect.

Then there’s writing against expectations. I try not to fall into gender stereotypes in my stories, but that creates challenges. As I recently discovered when presenting a story to my writing group, readers picture a character the minute they’re mentioned. If that character doesn’t fit their default expectations – for example a soldier who’s female – then you need to make that clear quickly, or the reading experience will be disrupted later.

But a comment from glenatron on my post about editing made me realise my limitations. When I’m editing I don’t usually consider my audience, I just look for passages that don’t feel right to me. And I have a default picture of my readers, someone with a similar background and understanding of the world to me. But considering my response to a post by Liza of Classy Cat Books made me rethink this. There I was considering the extreme example of small children, but there are other assumptions we make about our default reader, beyond being an adult. If I want to reach anyone beyond middle class white British blokes like myself then I need to think about who else my audience could be, and how I write for them.

This is about thinking beyond yourself, putting your reader at the centre of your writing. It’s not a simple thing, or something anyone can perfect. It has as many facets as there are readers in the world. But it seems to me that it’s worth exploring more.

So, what do you think about this? If you write, how and when do you think about your audience? If you read (and these are written words, so I know you do) do you notice whether a book seems written for you, or perhaps more obviously when it really isn’t? What other thoughts do you have on the subject? Let me know in the comments – I’m only just starting to think about this, and am interested to get some other points of view.

Pratchett and Baxter’s The Long Earth

Yesterday, I finished reading Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth. I’m a huge Pratchett fan, and was really looking forward to reading this, but it’s left me with mixed feelings. I don’t know how much that stems from my experience of writing, or how much I just understand it better because of that.

First up, all the good stuff. This is a great piece of world building. Or worlds building, given that it’s a story about travel across multiple worlds. We get flashes of exotic settings, chases with boar-riding chimps, forests as vast as the imagination. The social and economic consequences are well thought through – of course large parts of England would become depopulated if you could just step into another world. Who’d choose Hackney over Eden?

There are some interesting characters – Lobsang the computer reincarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist being the stand-out example. The writing is clear and un-fussy, really letting the story flow, though that does make the occasional Pratchettism feel out of place.

But the bit I struggled with was the plot. After the initial set-up, not a huge amount seemed to change. Different worlds and places were introduced, but they didn’t significantly shape events. The main character, Joshua, went along for the ride with Lobsang but lacked any sense of purpose himself. They seldom seemed in real danger of being thwarted in their mission of exploration.

Meanwhile small sub-plots popped up in the background, almost entirely detached from the main story. And while they came together in the end it was in a fairly token way, with the three strands not affecting each others’ outcomes.

The end result was a pleasant read, but one that left me feeling dissatisfied. This is clearly set-up for a series, but 350 pages is a long time to spend on set-up. I enjoyed it, and will probably read the sequel that’s out this year, but I wouldn’t re-read it, unlike most of Pratchett’s other books.

What I don’t know is how much my response to this is shaped by writing plot. If I’d read this five years ago would I have thought it was brilliant? Or would I have had the same feeling of dissatisfaction, but been unable to articulate where it came from? I don’t know, and I’m curious about that.

So if you’re reading this, and you’ve also read The Long Earth, let me know what you think. It may help me disentangle my own thoughts.

Editing for better

When we try to refine something, whether it’s a story, an essay, or a recipe for chilli, we tend to look for what doesn’t work. An attitude of ‘if it’s not broke don’t fix it’ prevails. But while this is fine for avoiding producing rubbish, it doesn’t help us step up our game from good to awesome. So this week, I’ve been trying a different approach to editing, one inspired by my old job.

I used to work in continuous improvement. It’s an area full of meaningless buzz-words and over-extended job titles, but where we actually did some good. My job was to help people improve their working processes, and to keep improving them. Not just to respond to the broken bits, but to keep refining, on the basis that you can always do better.

Unfortunately, some people had trouble getting their heads around this. If I suggested changing something, they would often tell me it worked well enough, so why bother? Of course, the answer was that it could work even better, but that was a surprisingly hard sell. If something is good enough, if it has no troublesome errors, most of us are pre-disposed to leave it as it is, to say ‘that’ll do’. As someone whose job was to take us beyond ‘that’ll do’, it drove me nuts.

Fast forward to this Tuesday, and I realised I was taking that exact attitude to my own writing, at least where reading for edits was concerned. When I read a first draft of a story I was looking for what was wrong, with the intention of fixing it. That needs doing, of course, but that mentality meant I was reading for ‘good enough’.

Yesterday I picked up a chapter and started reading with a different approach. For every single paragraph, I was going to find a way that it could be improved. Whether it was fixing an error, making a description more poetic, adding character, foreshadowing a later development, whatever seemed most appropriate. I wasn’t going to settle for fixing it. I was going to improve everything.

It’s a slower process. It’s a more tiring process. But ultimately, I think it’ll yield better results.

Those of you who write, how do you read for edits? Do you look for errors? Do you focus on particular aspects of your writing? Are you already doing what I’ve just worked out? Let me know. I’m interested to learn from others’ methods.

And all of you, whatever you’re doing, don’t just settle for good enough – find something you’re working on and aim for awesome.

Here endeth the preaching.

Tackling stereotypes – friendly orcs and pink engineers

A couple of recent articles on tor.com got me thinking again about stereotypes, their uses and pitfalls in popular culture.

In the first article, G Willow Wilson discussed shifting portrayals of orcs, from mindless villains to something more sympathetic and nuanced. Having a variety of interpretations of this classic race enriches fantasy, giving us interesting variations on a theme. It means that I can’t just read the word ‘orc’ and assume that’s a straight-forward villain. This means I’ll put more thought into my reading experience. It also means the author can’t just write ‘orc’ and expect me to have a complete picture – this may slow their story down a little, but will also force them to think these creatures through in more depth, or even to think up a more original race.

As the article highlights, this isn’t just about culture. Though I’m sure it wasn’t Tolkien’s conscious intention, his ugly, villainous orcs coming out of the east tapped into some pretty nasty prejudices of his era. By featuring in such a widely successful series of books they could help to reinforce those associations in people’s minds, and so have a social effect.

The second article, by Emily Asher-Perrin, is about a construction toy aimed at girls. This is all about the social implications of culture, trying to break through gender stereotypes in toy design to break down gender divisions in society. It also shows how, while playing with culture can have social implications, playing with social implications can enliven culture. In looking for a way to get girls into engineering, Debra Sterling has created a toy that combines story telling with construction to create something novel. That’s cool in itself. I like books, I like building, I’m excited to see the two together.

When we set out to be subversive in our culture, to undermine stereotypes or challenge assumptions, we risk becoming preachy. These are serious subjects, but treating them absolutely seriously risks putting people off. And worse, it’s no fun. As the comments on Wilson’s article show, this can create quite a backlash. But tackling stereotypes can be fun, it can create novelty. Instead of a pamphlet on social division it can be a gentleman orc or a princess with a spanner.

Can you think of examples where popular culture, and particularly geek culture, has challenged stereotypes in a fun way? Post them in the comments below. I’m always interested in more ammunition for my view that serious issues don’t have to mean serious faces.

Piecing together a past

A recent post about time by everwalker got me thinking about how we relate to the past in fiction.

Often, the past is a matter of back story, presented in scattered references throughout the story, or in cruder examples dumped on the reader through dialogue and exposition. Uncovering that past becomes a matter of literary archaeology, piecing together the clues so that you can understand where the characters are coming from. That’s part of why the exposition dump is less satisfying to read – it takes away the satisfaction of putting together the pieces.

Time travel stories are obviously different. Characters step back into the past, whether their own personal past, as in Looper, or a bit of history, as in Doctor Who. This allows the story teller to play with our perspective on reality, to question how reliable the truth is that’s been presented to us, as when The Doctor discovered that the eruption at Pompeii was caused by an alien. It also raises questions about how we are shaped by our past, as when history is re-written and characters change – shown entertainingly, if not coherently, when a character in Misfits headbutted Hitler.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHq4fpeW-O0&w=560&h=315]

 

Writers can play around with the past through story structure too. Iain M Banks did this in Use of Weapons, with one narrative strand moving forward and the other back, diverging chronologically but coming together thematically. While challenging to pull off, this can make for some interesting storytelling, and give the writer more control over the order they reveal information in. And of course this can be used to heighten tensions and create dramatic irony – those moments when a character says ‘of course that could never happen’, but we know it’s happened there three weeks into the future.

Some of my favourite examples come not from sci-fi but from sitcoms. Before he was the brains behind Doctor Who, Steven Moffat wrote Coupling, in which time was fractured to comedic and dramatic effect several times, most notably in the episode Nine and a Half Minutes, which showed the same period of time from three different perspectives, giving the same events different meaning in each version. And then there’s How I Met Your Mother, a mostly unremarkable American sitcom, but which presents the whole show as past events told by an unreliable narrator, allowing his faulty memory, imagination and deceptions to be presented directly on screen, as he rambles around and occasionally re-writes his own past.

The past isn’t just a foreign country. It’s a puzzle that has to be pieced together any time we write a story. But it’s a puzzle with many different solutions, and the order we put it in, as much as the pieces, help create the story. I haven’t had the courage to properly experiment with this yet, but I look forward to the day when I will. And in the meantime, if you can think of other good examples, let me know below.

Reading Railsea

China Miéville’s Railsea just won a well-deserved Locus award. I imagine his trophy cabinet’s getting pretty full right now, and deservedly so. Railsea is a great story, full of ingenuity and originality, just like most of Miéville’s work.

Railsea is the story of Sham, an apprentice doctor on a mole hunting train. This set-up is analogous to a whaling ship, but in a dystopian world where endless train tracks wind between isolated islands of safety and civilisation. This is a young adult novel, with the inevitable character arc of personal growth, building confidence and learning about the wider world. But that’s not a short-coming. It makes for a strong, familiar arc that helps carry the reader through a lot that’s unfamiliar.

Because the unfamiliar is where Miéville really excels. As with The City And The City, he’s taken a completely different starting point from most fantasy and extrapolated it into a rich and fascinating world, with its own politics, cultures, and of course hazards for the characters to overcome.

Miéville uses a variety of different literary tricks to help build the story. He references other novels – most obviously Moby Dick – in ways that don’t disrupt the story. You don’t have to get the references to understand what’s happening, or to enjoy the parts of the story where they take place. It’s just that, for example, knowing Thomas the Tank Engine gives one scene extra appeal.

If you look, you can see the tools on display here. Cliffhangers, foreshadowing, and the set-up of story elements for later all help build the tension and structure the story. Meta-textual details, such as interspersing the text with illustrations of the story’s wild beasts, help build the semi-Victorian tone and add variety to the reading experience. Again, this adds to the sense of the unfamiliar, of something new and exciting and a bit scary.

This is a book that’s smart, that treats its audience as smart, that encourages and supports the audience in reading in a smart way. It rewards careful reading without punishing those who just want to crack on through the adventure. It proves that fantasy can use radically different settings without losing its audience.

Go read Railsea. It deserves that award, and it deserves your time. And then read some more of Miéville’s books, because the things that are great about this are what’s great about all his work. I can’t wait to see what he comes out with next.

Staying creative

Creativity’s a funny thing. We talk about it as if it’s a limited resource, but sometimes it’s more like a chemical reaction that, once it gets going, expands and sustains itself.

Mrs K’s great-uncle recently died. I only met him a few times, but I always found him inspiring. He spent his career as a doctor, but in his spare time he was always creating – welding, gardening, inventing, picking up hobbies and crafts like a toddler picks up carpet fluff. This was a guy who, in his late eighties, invented a device for helping patients sit themselves up in hospital beds. When Mrs K and I got married, he turned a cava bottle into a vase as a present, and engraved it with the date of our wedding. He might as well have engraved it with ‘I am eighty-eight, and I am still the most awesome person here’.

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Not shown: the sixty-seven other things he created that day
Uncle Charles’s creativity wasn’t a limited resource that kept running out. It was the fuel that sustained him, that kept him lively and engaged with the world until a sudden and brutal cancer took him at the age of ninety-two. Creating things spurred further creativity in him, and gave him the energy to keep going.

I suspect that the same happens, in little ways, to all of us. I know that by the time I finish one blog post I’ve come up with ideas for three more. Nothing inspires me to write like doing some writing. Creating makes me feel alive, whether it’s planting the garden, cooking an interesting dinner, or writing a story about Victorian adventurers fighting giant rats. If we horde and defend our creativity it withers. If we use it, even when getting started feels like a struggle, it will sustain us.

So here’s to you Charles, inspiring me once again. And to the rest of you, get out there and create. Make a collage. Write a poem. Draw a picture in ketchup on your fried egg sandwich. These are the things we live for.

Mm, fried egg sandwich.

Pratchett’s voice and losing the flow

We’re told that bad writing can knock a reader out of the text, spoiling the flow of a story. But I realised this week that good writing, if it’s not consistent, can do the same thing.

I’m currently reading Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth. As you’d expect, it’s really rather good, with an intriguing premise, engaging characters, and flowing prose. But there were a couple of points early on when that prose took a strongly Pratchett turn, where his authorial voice took over for a paragraph, and it jolted me right out of the story.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Terry Pratchett. I have nearly all his books, even the couple of sci-fi ones he did before the Discworld. I enjoy his whimsical authorial voice – one of the most distinctive in modern writing. But that’s the problem, it’s very distinctive. When you’re reading a book that’s just by Pratchett, that voice is there the whole time, its wit and wonder woven through the story. It makes you more aware of the author on your shoulder, pointing out the absurdities of the world, but that’s part of the ride.

Most of the prose in The Long Earth is more transparent. It’s well written in the way that makes you forget it’s there, letting you be completely absorbed by the story. So when I hit a Pratchettism, even an excellent one, the sudden authorial presence comes as a shock, and a reminder that, to point out the obvious, someone wrote this.

It’s the same problem I had with one of the stories in Joumana Haddad’s Madinah collection. Except there the author made himself so prominent, and there was so little story, that it was just a dozen pages of irredeemable annoyance. At least in The Long Earth it’s a piece of something good that, by being unexpected, unfortunately disrupts the flow of the other good stuff.

I’m still loving The Long Earth, but we often learn from flaws. I guess my take-away from this is to aim for consistency. Also to go back and read some more Pratchett, because wow but Pyramids was awesome.

Has anyone else come across examples of this? Are there other authors where you’re very aware of their distinctive voice? What effect does that have on your reading experience? And am I right about Pyramids or what? Share some thoughts below – I know my opinion, I want to hear yours.

Overthinking it?

I love thinking about society and culture. There’s nothing I won’t analyse and discuss, from the Hunger Games to the state of modern education. Thinking in itself is a pleasure. But I’ve recently realised that this sort of analysis can work in two different ways, and mixing them up can cause problems. So today’s the flip-side of my last blog post – today’s all about thinking.

My friend John recently introduced me to the joys of Overthinking It, the website that ‘subjects the popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve’. I love their tongue in cheek analysis of such apparently shallow subjects as Taylor Swift’s 22. This is thinking as play, kicking ideas around to see what happens. Insincere fun.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0xiUM6YZwI&w=560&h=315]

Then there’s the sincere analysis. The most obvious example around culture is the way that feminist writers discuss the impact of, for example, a Disney doll. But this also covers topics such as the themes and characters in Game of Thrones. It can just be academic, but it can be about issues with real social impact.

The line between the two is often blurred. Cracked’s After Hours videos, my favourite examples of this kind of thinking, deliberately veer back and forth between plausible analysis and absurdity. This makes the absurd even more entertaining, and the critical analysis more accessible. But in doing so it can make significant points seem absurd and open valid arguments to attack as just ‘overthinking it’.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t mix up the two – far from it. But next time a piece of analysis seems to stretch the bounds of plausibility, think to yourself – is this sincere, playful, or both? Can just part of it matter?

Reading with feeling

‘One reviewer didn’t even talk about the plot, just about how the book made him feel.’ – Neil Gaiman

It’s a funny thing about novels – a huge part of the experience is how they make you feel, but we’ll often discuss our thoughts on them rather than our feelings.

The Neil Gaiman quote above comes from a Q&A session. What’s interesting to me is that, even to Gaiman, that review stood out. We’re used to reviewers talking about structure, about descriptive skill, about plot. But how often do they mention the many different emotions the book evoked? Yet that’s what many people will read the book for.

It’s often the same when we talk about our favourite characters. If I’m discussing Game of Thrones with my brother (it comes up at least once per conversation) we’ll talk about the things characters did – Tyrion said something funny, a Stark did something noble but stupid again. We’ll talk about theories on where the characters are heading (what GoT fan hasn’t discussed Jon Snow’s lineage?). But have I ever said out loud that Petyr Baelish fills me with queasy unease and guilty admiration? That my 95% rage at Joffrey is tempered by 5% pity at his messy upbringing? That my pride in seeing Arya grow up is mingled with real worry at what sort of person she’ll become?

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmHyJhQvdIE&w=560&h=315]

queasy admiration all the way

These are feelings the author has set out to inspire, and yet when we analyse a book we’ll often ignore them. Perhaps that’s just a matter of habit, born of education and reading others’ reviews. Perhaps it’s because our feelings are subjective, and so it’s harder to argue our case. Perhaps it’s because they’re not entirely consistent, and admitting our own inconsistencies is a difficult thing to do. After all, who wants to admit they feel a little sorry for Joffrey, when he spends his whole time being so awful?

Joffrey

Next time you’re discussing a book, take the time to feel as well as to think. To poke around in ugly emotions. Maybe step back into thoughts again and work out why. I started when I read that Gaiman quote all of twenty minutes ago, and I’m already interested in the results.

Now I’m off to watch some Game of Thrones. I’m feeling the need to go hate Petyr Bealish. It’s just so satisfying.