I finished checking the page proofs for Blood and Iron today. I’ve posted an extract over on my website: follow the link http://www.tonyballantyne.com/?page_id=178
SF Writer and scriptwriter Philip Palmer asked me to contribute to his SF Song of the Week feature. You can read about it by following the link. I won’t give the game away by saying what it is (how about that for suspense?), but I’ll point out that I remember listening to this at university and thinking “That would make a good story”.
That got me thinking about music that has inspired me to write. More on that, I think, in a later blog.
I watched the film The African Queen for the first time yesterday, and very enjoyable it was too.
Now, alongside Robots and Accordions, this blog celebrates good writing, and the screenplay had that in abundance. I was particularly taken by a scene near the beginning of the film where Katherine Hepburn’s character kneels at the bedside of her brother. He’s going mad, having just seen the Germans destroy the village where he works as a missionary, and he is reliving his past life. Whilst his sister listens, he talks about how he must pass his exams tomorrow in order to become successful in life. If he doesn’t pass, he resolves to become a missionary and in that way perform the Lord’s work. He decides, that being the case, he will take his sister with him, wherever he is sent.
There’s a really nice example of the writer’s craft in the above scene: many different bits of information being conveyed by one monologue. First, there is the brother’s madness, which is distressing for his sister and the viewer. Second, we get see a little of the brother’s back story. And thirdly, there is the look of hurt on Katherine Hepburn’s face when her brother describes her as ‘not a comely woman’. All that emotion conveyed in a couple of sentences.
I love this sort of economical writing, I’d rather see it than overblown prose any day. Three for the price of one.
I came across Friedländer in Michael Frayn’s novel Headlong (which comes thoroughly recommended).
Max J. Friedländer , 1867-1958, was a German art historian who, according to Frayn, warned against the “vanity of attempting to describe pictures in detail”. Friedländer recommends “the strictest economy of words”, limiting oneself to “aphoristic remarks, put together unsystematically”. The advice struck a chord with me on reading the book, and, as I discovered on subsequently searching the web, it seems to have struck a chord with others.
The advice reminds me of the eyeball kick, mentioned by the the Turkey City Lexicon, amongst other guides:
That perfect, telling detail that creates an instant visual image. The ideal of certain postmodern schools of SF is to achieve a “crammed prose” full of “eyeball kicks.”
It wasn’t always thus. Chesterton opened one of his Father Brown stories to excellent effect with paragraphs of atmospheric description of dark and sinister pine forests, but this is old fashioned writing in the days of big budget movies, especially for those of us working in the SF field. You’re never going to get the reader to imagine the same spectacle as they can be seen on the big screen, but you can arrest them with the small details (It’s years since I read Schindler’s List, but the image that to always comes to my mind from that book is not the barbed wire or the soldiers, but the little girl in the red coat).
Personally, I don’t like passages describing scenery, I like to keep such things to a minimum, but maybe that’s a matter of taste.
Or maybe not. You’d be surprised how much description a reader fills in for themselves. Think of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. About the only description Austen gives is that he is tall. The rest is left to the reader’s imagination.
Listening to David-Rees Thomas’s excellent reading of my story, “The Waters of Meribah” the other day, I was struck by just how awkward some of the sentences were. This is not the fault of David’s reading, I should explain, but my writing.
No false modesty: I can give two reasons for this. Firstly, and I’ve heard many other writers say this, when you read any piece of your own work once it’s published on publication, its always the case that every mistake and piece of bad writing becomes glaringly obvious in a way that it never did when you were still redrafting.
But secondly, and this is the main point here, back when I wrote “Waters” I hadn’t yet learned the trick of reading my stories aloud when redrafting. I don’t always do this now, if I’m honest, mainly due to pressure of time, but it’s a good trick to learn. Reading aloud makes you more aware of the rhythms in the dialogue. It exposes wordy sentences and unnatural expressions, and it makes you realise just how awkward some of your sentences are prose is.
Most importantly though, you experience the story via another input stream and this gives the brain a different perspective on the work. (Similarly, some writers re key in the entire final draft of a story in order to send it through the brain in a different way).
By way of experiment, I just went through the above text reading it aloud. I’ve marked my deletions using strikethrough.
See? It works.