Max J Friedländer

November 1, 2009

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.


KISS

October 28, 2009

“No, father, you never did care about anything except your precious job.”

This is a line from Blood and Iron, spoken by a young woman to her father, and overheard by a nearby robot.  Given the circumstances in which the words were spoken, I originally used an expletive in place of precious.  But then I realised that as the words were being translated by computer as the young woman spoke them, and robots don’t use human expletives which tend be organically based, the sentence would probably read

“No, father, you never did care about anything except your rusting job.”

This is logical, but it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to the reader at first glance as it doesn’t sound like the sort of thing a young woman could say.  I could have put in an explanation (a common writers’ mistake, in my opinion), but that would have slowed down the action, and worse, taken the reader away from the scene and reminded them they were reading a book.

I love a complicated plot, I love hard SF, but when it comes to the writing I always like to Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Anyway, Blood and Iron is finished and should be with Macmillan now.


Reading Aloud

September 28, 2009

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.


Redrafting

September 13, 2009

Julie, a friend of mine, came up with a perfect description of the process.

She said that when you first write a story it’s like a baby:  perfect and precious in your eyes.

After a few redrafts it grows into a young child: you see that  it has its faults, but you love it anyway.

But as  you keep rereading and improving, a story becomes a teenager, lurking in its bedroom and complaining that you don’t understand it anymore. Catch it on a bad day and all you can see is its faults- everything about it irritates you.   If you’re honest with yourself, you realise that you’ve both been in each others company too long: you’ve both changed.

By that time you’re looking forward to the day when your story can go out into the world and start earning a living.  That’s when you can both see the best in one another again.


Entering the Mainstream?

July 8, 2009

Two SF writers have been in the news recently.

The first, Alastair Reynolds, for securing a million pound publishing deal for his next 10 books…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jun/23/alastair-reynolds-1m-contract-science-fiction

The second, Chris Beckett, for winning the Edge Hill prize for short fiction…

http://www.edgehill.ac.uk/news/2009/07/the-turing-test-wins-the-2009-edge-hill-short-story-prize

At times like this, its tempting to say that SF is finally coming of age, that it is finally being accepted by the mainstream.

Of course we’ve all been here before.   Every so often the media takes note of SF, it picks up on a new writer or trend, but the fuss soon dies down and SF is left back where it belongs, if not in the gutter, then beneath mainstream notice.

Should we care?

Well, yes and no.  It’s nice to see two writers get the recognition they deserve.  Actually, nice is not strong enough a word.  I think most of us in the community are very proud of what they have done.  But let’s face it, we don’t need the media to tell us that House of Suns or the Turing Test is worth reading, we knew that already.

It would be nice if there were a few more million pound contracts out there, it would be nice if there were more literary prizes being won within the genre, but the truth is Reynolds and Beckett were good writers without these things, I’m sure they will continue to be so afterwards.

The rest of us will continue to enjoy their work, and that of other writers within the field who have so far escaped mainstream attention.

And if the mainstream doesn’t know about those other writers, then that’s the mainstream’s loss, not ours.


Humility

July 1, 2009

An odd topic for a blog on Robots and Accordions, but I had to do an assembly on the topic this week and it got me thinking about being a writer.

Writers sometimes have an image of being pale types who spend their time locked up with a word processor as they can’t face the real world.  Personal experience suggests that all sorts of people become writers, from sporty extroverts to introverted geeks.  A good thing, as they all bring different perspectives to their work.

But what about humility? Are they a humble bunch?  Well, I have met writers who show off constantly, and other writers who are modest and self effacing.  Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be any correlation, positive or negative, between the level of success enjoyed by the writer and the need to show off.

The trouble is writers are constantly encouraged to raise their profile by attending conventions, doing readings and signings, visiting social networking sites or keeping blogs, just like this one.  Most of these things are admittedly enjoyable, but it can get awkward treading the line between talking about something that you think is interesting and simply showing off.

Is there a problem with showing off in this field?  It irritates me when I see writers bragging about their latest sales figures or new contracts signed, but as some of those writers are far more successful than I, perhaps they have the right idea.  Has anyone been put off buying a book because they know the author to be arrogant?

As I said at the beginning, this entry was brought about by an assembly I was putting together for this week.  Here are a couple of quotes I liked…

You shouldn’t gloat about anything you’ve done:  you ought to keep going and find something better to do

David Packard CEO of HP

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.

C.S.Lewis


Truth is Stranger than Science Fiction 1

May 18, 2009

Imagine an SF story set on a world where countries had long been at war.

After years of fighting, culminating in two devastating wars, an understanding is reached and the countries agree to a peace of sorts.  The occasional skirmish may still take place, there are some very nasty incidents of ethnic cleansing, but generally the populations get along. 

Now, instead of fighting, the countries have an annual contest to see who can write and perform the best song, choosing their best writers and performers to represent them.  The few countries who treat the whole thing as a joke are treated with suspicion at best.

You couldn’t write a story like this (or if you did, you would have trouble selling it, I’m sure) but this is what happens every year at the Eurovision Song Contest.  It took place this weekend, and for once, I watched it. Furthermore,  I enjoyed it, I thought the songs weren’t bad, I admired Andrew Lloyd Webber for sticking his head above the parapet, I thought the swimmers in the plastic pools suspended above the audience were truly amazing (and if you haven’t seen them, you should.)

And, not for the first time, I found myself wondering about how SF writers are supposed to think up new ideas when the real world is so much stranger.  It’s only the lack of robots in the competition that give me hope I’ll still be in a job next year.

My favourite entry?  Portugal, of course.  They had an accordionist in their act.


Pat Mills

May 12, 2009

I’ve included this entry in the Interviews category to make up for the fact that I forgot to mention Pat Mills…

Let me explain.  Interviews usually include a question along the lines of “Who are your biggest influences”, but it wasn’t until I was reading this weeks 2000AD I realised I hadn’t been mentioning one of my biggest: Pat Mills.  Now, its not within the scope of this blog to write biographies (its scope is Robots and Accordions, as I’ve mentioned before), so follow the link if you want to know more about him, but I’m including this entry to make up for Mills’s omission from recent interviews.

So why Pat Mills?  Well, his stories Robusters, ABC Warriors and Metalzoic all featured robots and were an undeniable influence on me, but there is more to it than that.

I grew up on three great comics writers, Alan Moore, John Wagner and Pat Mills.  Mills was always my favourite:  for the breadth of his imagination (Nemesis book 4 is surely the birth of Steampunk), his attention to detail (the research that went into Slaine spawned many imitators), but mostly for his depth of character.  Fitting real characters into SF or Fantasy settings can be a challenge, Mills manages it better than the others, to my mind.

I could go on, in fact I think I will  in another entry some time, but for the moment, here are some recommendations:

Marshall Law

Charley’s War

Nemesis Book 1 


My Robot’s Got No Nose

May 6, 2009

As far as I can remember, only one robot in Twisted Metal has a nose, and she uses this to sniff petrol.  Although all the robots on the planet Penrose have the capacity to install a nose, very few of them choose to do so.  The robots of Shull, in particular, live in a place with very few organic compounds, and so have little reason to smell things.  They prefer to use the metal to make something else.

It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who has ever been on a writing course to discover this made writing the book (and the sequel) something of a challenge.  Would be writers are always advised to make use of all five senses when describing things, and this is good counsel.  The sense of smell is particularly evocative (the smell of the sea and sun tan lotion always makes me think of holidays, for example) and to remove this sense from the book was a great wrench.

But I had to do it.  The novel is written from the point of view of robots, and the robots in the book have no need to smell things.  

Did it make a difference to the reader of the book?  Did anyone even notice?  I’d be interested to hear what people think…


Spiers and Boden

April 6, 2009

This blog has been noticeably lacking in accordions lately, so now is probably a good time to mention seeing Spiers and Boden (http://www.spiersandboden.com)   at the Bury Met this weekend.  This has something to do with writing, so keep reading even if you don’t like folk music…

Now, as I may have mentioned before, this blog does not do reviews,  (Rather, it does robots and accordions), but I was struck by something as I watched the show.  Nowadays, through the use of computer sampling, a musician has a world of sounds at their fingertips as they sit down to play.  You would think that so much choice would lead to greater variety, however, all too often it can restrict people and lead to a sameness of production and arrangement.

But when you are restricted to a fiddle and a selection of melodeons then you have to work harder to vary the sound, and this is what Spiers and Boden did very successfully, keeping the audience interested for a two hour show. (Here’s a great site about melodeons, btw, especially if you’re not sure what one is http://info.melodeon.net/)

So, what does this have to do with writing?  Well, when sitting down to write SF, you have the whole universe at your fingertips.  So much choice can lead to writers block, or at least, a sameness of what is produced.  This enormous variety can actually be to the detriment of the author.  That’s why when I get stuck I concentrate on the smaller picture.

Sometimes it does you good to restrict yourself.