The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, April 16, 2007

Talk for Birmingham SF Group 13 April 2007

First of all, many thanks for inviting me. There are so many writers and scientists and other interesting people out there that - according to careful scientific studies - statistically, a writer can expect to be invited to speak to any given local SF group at the most twice. The first time it's when their first book comes out and they're new and exciting. The second time is when people are saying things like, 'If we want to hear him again we better invite him now before the Brain Eater comes for him.'

It's great to be back.

What I'd like to talk about is what I've been doing since I was here last. A very little about what I've written and a lot more about how I write.

The first time you asked me here I was asked to say something about the actual process of writing. I had written one book so I was supposed to know all that. And I think I explained that it starts with one or two characters in a situation, and out of the logic of that situation they go into action, and the world sort of builds up around them. I must have said something about writing down lots of notes and cutting them up into little strips and laying them on the floor and crawling around. This was when I was writing on an Amstrad. And I probably explained the whole thing by an analogy with the computer game Civilization II, where you start off with a little guy holding a spear and standing in front of a hut, and as he walks around and steps on to new tiles the world gradually takes shape around him, with the rivers and forests and other societies coming into view.

Now this might not have been the best of analogies because what I didn't mention was that I was absolutely crap at Civ II. There I would be, Emperor Abraham of the Americas - Honest Abe, they called me, at least my flatterers and courtiers did - with my people clawing their way up to some kind of crude early form of feudal system somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard, and my emissaries would keep bringing me alarming news from the science front, like: 'Sioux medicine men discover genetic engineering,' and 'Egyptian priests launch solar observation satellite.' And my adviser would pop up and say: 'Pay the soldiers! Pay the soldiers! ....aaaagghhh'

What I may also have ommitted to tell you was that writing in that gloriously unplanned, make it up as you go along manner takes a very long time. I started writing The Star Fraction in 1987 and it was accepted for publication in 1994. I was working as a programmer all those years and technology had moved on so much that by the time I finished I was working with computers more advanced than those my characters had in chapter one. I had to go back and cut out all the references to Amstrads.

Now this manner of writing is all very well when you have all the time in the world, or think you do, but it doesn't stand up very well to deadlines. So ever since then I've had to plan my books much more in advance. This turned out to be a process rather like programming. It starts with days of staring at a blank screen and sheets of paper with a few scrawls and coffee-mug rings and tear-stains on them. Then you write a few lines of code and you find they don't compile. At least that's what programming was like for me. I mentioned this to a friend who is still a programmer and he said, yeah, that's what it's like for most programmers. Except Charlie Stross, he said. He would look over the spec and then start coding like a man possessed. So writing is like programming for Charlie too. I hear he has eight books coming out this year.

It was while I was writing my second novel, The Stone Canal, that I was shown a very good trick. It's a difficult one to learn for yourself but once you've been shown it it's very easy and you can then do it for other people. The way I learned it was this. I was working at Edinburgh University and I had one novel published and I noticed that the writer in residence, Andrew Greig, was a poet whose work I had much admired. So like any shy student I took a sheaf of poems I'd written over the years and left them in his pigeon-hole, pencilled in an appointment for about a week later and tiptoed away. When the appointment came round and I met Andrew Greig I found he was a sound chap and he quite liked my poems. The longest and most pretentious of them you can find in last year's Novacon special, I'm sure Rog Peyton can sell you one later. More importantly it turned out that Andrew Greig lived about ten minutes walk away from where I live and about thirty seconds walk from the local pub. You can see where this is going. I introduced him to all my skiffy friends and he introduced us to the Scottish literary mafia. And to Shirley Manson, which impresses a lot more people, which is why I take every opportunity for name-dropping.

Anyhow, one evening in the pub I showed Andrew a few pages from Chapter 2 of the manuscript of The Stone Canal, and he read through them and showed me the good trick. He took a sharp pencil and worked over a few paragraphs, crossing out phrases and sometimes whole sentences. He called this removing the fluff. The effect was indeed like removing fluff from a record needle. (If you don't know what that means, ask someone older.) Once he had shown me how to do it I could do it for myself, and since then I've shown other people how to do it.

Another good trick was what he called the massacre of adverbs. You go through your text and take out as many adverbs as possible. You can drop them or you can replace the verb with a more precise one. 'He ran quickly.' No, it's: 'He sprinted.' If you have a word processor, you just use 'Find' on ell wye space ('ly ') and ell wye stop ('ly.'). This works. There are entire genres where people don't use these techniques, you know. There's some minor character in fiction, I forget the novel, but the character is a novelist and she writes historical romances 'full of rapes and adverbs.' Imagine an Arthurian fantasy novel with the fluff removed and the adverbs slaughtered. It would more like Chandler than Mallory. 'That Morgan dame was fey.' 'Down these mean glades a knight must ride.'

As it happens, one of the books I read partly for pleasure and partly for research for The Stone Canal in fact does read like a historical novel written in the hard-boiled style. It's called Njal's Saga. Here's how it begins: 'There was a man called Mord Fiddle, who was the son of Sighvat the Red. Mord was a powerful chieftain, and lived at Voll in the Rangriver plains. He was also a very experienced lawyer [...]' The femme fatale of this saga is a woman called Hallgerd. Here are the descriptions of her. At the beginning she is a little girl her playing on the floor, and: 'she was a tall, beautiful child whose hair hung down to her waist.' A little later:

'We now return to Hallgerd, Hoskuld's daughter, who had grown up to be a woman of great beauty. She was very tall, which earned her the nickname Long-Legs, and her lovely hair was now so long that it could veil her whole body. She was impetuous and wilful.' Somehow that last bit doesn't come as a surprise.

Later still, Gunnar meets her at the Althing:

'Hallgerd was wearing a red, richly-decorated tunic under a scarlet cloak trimmed all the way down with lace. Her beautiful thick hair flowed down over her bosom.' These six sentences are all the description you'll get of her. And from them you quite understand why two of her husbands have already been killed and why there are a lot more men murdered before the story is over.

There are a lot of court scenes in Njal's Saga. That's what the Icelanders did, by the way. Every so often they'd kill each other and then they'd sue each other. There's one scene where they're about to start killing each other in court, until somebody - obviously an experienced lawyer - points that it's going to be far too expensive, and everyone backs down. About two thirds of the way through the book the whole of Iceland converts to Christianity. It slowly dawns on them that it's OK to forgive people. You don't need to keep up all this vengeance business. Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord. You can just see them thinking, 'Christ, what a relief.' Of course, because it is a tragic tale, that happens too late. Towards the end there is the most moving single line of dialogue I've ever read, but you can find that for yourself. My advice to anyone here who is writing fantasy is: walk past the shelves of fantasy trilogy bricks. Head for the black Penguins. Steal from the best.

The research reason I had for reading Njal's Saga for was to steal the legal system. The American libertarian writer David Friedman had held up mediaeval Iceland as a model of anarcho-capitalism, and I took him at his word. I sent him a copy of The Stone Canal, and when he read my next book, The Cassini Division, he spotted an inconsistency in my physics which no one else had noticed. So don't try to outrun an economist. He may accelerate faster than you think.

My first four books were what I later called the Fall Revolution books. They had as their theme the collapse of socialism and the persistence of revolutionary politics and especially of obscure revolutionary sects. When Andrew Greig had read the final one, The Sky Road, he said, 'I'm all Fourth Internationaled out.'

I took the hint. I then wrote the three Engines of Light books - they were meant to be a series but they ended up as a trilogy - and a couple of stand-alone space operas, Newton's Wake and Learning the World. Around about this time I started muttering about how we'd done New Space Opera, and now maybe we should try New British Catastrophe. My editor and my agent got wind of this and pointed out that near-future political stuff and SF disguised as technothrillers were doing very well in the charts, and if this time I promised to write something like that with no obscure TLAs - which as you know stands for Three Letter Abbreviations - for obscure political sects they would be very happy for me to do it, so I did.

Here it is, The Execution Channel. Or I could read from the opening chapter of the book I'm writing now, The Night Sessions.

Which I did. Thanks again to the Brum Group for their invitation, and their hospitality, and special thanks to Rog Peyton.]


Which version of Njal's Saga is that?

The version I see turns:

"'There was a man called Mord Fiddle, who was the son of Sighvat the Red. Mord was a powerful chieftain, and lived at Voll in the Rangriver plains. He was also a very experienced lawyer [...]"


"There was a man named Mord whose surname was Fiddle; he was the son of Sigvat the Red, and he dwelt at the "Vale" in the Rangrivervales. He was a mighty chief, and a great taker up of suits, and so great a lawyer that no judgments were thought lawful unless he had a hand in them."

The translation I quoted is the Penguin Classics version.

Great post, Ken! Very funny.

David Friedman, btw, got his PhD in physics, and went into economics later.

The inconsistency he noticed, was it the wormhole continuing to allow comets through once it's stopped accelerating? Because that kinda stumped me... =)

And, just by the by, if you ever get the bug in you to write another tome for the Fall Revolution... Well, I know I'm not the only one who'll welcome it with open arms. Or at the very least, an open wallet.

Thanks for the trick about the adverbs, by the way; once I'm done with The Revenant, I'll run through it like that and see what happens.

I know you didn't post it for me, but I can never thank you properly for all the help you've given me with that novel, from the brief read-through to this blogged advice. Take care, and thanks for keeping up the good work!

I read the Engines of Light series this year, but I can't say I'm Christopher Hilled out. Very well done. Your description of Icelandic "anarcho-capitalism" is a classic, BTW.

thank you very nıce muck vary very comment...

I thought that the Fall Revolution novels were all about the RCP and its successor groups. Furedi with robots and guns.

Steven, you got that right. Kevin, tjic, thanks for the kind words.

Andrew ... the novels were never about the Furedi tendency and it isn't even represented fictionally in the books, but my reading of that tendency's journals in the 90s definitely influenced the world of the books, so - well spotted.

Fluff-removal I like. I haven't written much fiction, but as a reviewer I always find the trick is to write up to the word limit, leave it overnight, then write all the other stuff I'd forgotten about and make it fit. I hated doing 'precis' exercises at school, but some of it must have gone in.

Incidentally, cheers for blogrolling Actually Existing, but could you replace it with the new gaff (where I've linked to this post, in the course of a thing about J.K. Rowling)? Ta.

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Post a Comment