And welcome to my spot on the smoke tour with Simon Ings insight as to why you need to learn how to write badly before you are able to write well.
ON NOT WALKING INTO DOORS
A door opens, admitting the sound of traffic, a man in a pork-pie hat, and a chickie on a lead. The man leads the chickie up to the bar and greets the barman, a young man with acne and plastered-down hair. The chickie, squatting at its master’s feet, scratches at its neck where the collar has raised a mild red line. The collar is black leather, about an inch thick, and studded with small, rounded stainless steel studs. The chickie gives off scratching and yawns, lips peeling back over its teeth to reveal purplish gums and long, stained teeth. Its incisors are filed to points. It’s looking around the room. It’s going to catch your eye…
Creative writing teachers never teach you what you need to know. They never teach you how to write badly (the first, necessary step to writing well). And they never tell you how all writing is explanation. Fiction. Non-fiction. All of it. It’s explanation. I can’t tell you the number of new writers I’ve met who’ve spent months developing stories to die for but have yet to learn — worse, have yet to realise that they have to learn — how to get their protagonist out of one room and into another room without either confusing or boring the reader.
Bill Gibson tells an amusing story about this. He says he came up with the idea of cyberspace because at the time he had no other technique beyond “jacking in” for moving his characters from one place to another. I suspect you have to be a writer to appreciate the degree to which Bill is not joking.
Writers trained in journalism learn early how to deliver explanations. Unfortunately, they never learn anything else. As a consequence, their attempts at fiction read like readers’ reports on the stories they might have written.
Writers not trained in journalism either perish in unmarked graves, learn on the job, or decide that they are above the whole business entirely and develop, in place of a style, a sort of Parnassian handwaving. There is a special circle of Hell reserved for these people and A N Wilson is in it.
Another circle — a sort of Hell Lite — is reserved for science fiction writers. We’re not above giving explanations but we’re not nearly patient enough or dedicated enough to learn how it’s done. So we “pull a Bill”. Rather than learning how doors work, and how characters pass through them, we invent cyberspace. Rather than learning how sex works on the page, we invent dragons. This is what escapism is.
The escapist fiction that squirts disembodied spirits through cyberspace is a damned sight easier to write, and richer in cheap thrills and unearned moments, than the sort of “mundane” fiction that must be constantly pushing lumps of animated meat through doors.
But science fiction writers are an ambitious lot and (with a few exceptions who will go unnamed), when they’re handed a tool that makes things easy, they will generally see what impossibly difficult things they might also perform with this same tool.
Handed a tool that solves doors, science fiction writers build worlds. Relieved of the need to explain light switches, coffee makers, decrees nisi, and schoolgate politics, they explain star drives, and hive minds, and exactly what consenting adult dragons might get up to with each other when we’re not looking. They create Faberge egg fictions (and if you think I’m being slighting here, then clearly you’ve never been up close to a Faberge egg).
SFF has very little to do with anything, and that is its magic. It starts in escapism and ends by embroiling you in rules of its own.
That’s the good news about science fiction.
The bad news is that, however ambitious you are as an SF writer, the freedom afforded you doesn’t provide the kind of hard knocks that writers of bricks-and-mortar fiction must weather every day of their working lives. Pushing meat through doors makes you strong. Getting your heroine to pour a glass of water — and have that glass of water mean something — is an act of invention infinitely harder to achieve than describing the intricacies of your spaceship.
So when I came to The Smoke, after years of writing non-fiction and regular(ish) fiction, I decided to set a test for myself: to write a science fiction story that thought it was a regular story. That assumed its world was the everyday world. That treated novelties and changes with the combination of fear, sneering and resentment with which real people daily greet new things and new ideas. (Someone just sent an electric sports car into space on the most powerful rocket ever built? How crass!)
I figured the structure of The Smoke would give way eventually, of course: that cracks would appear. But maybe, by then, what spilled out would be cooked into new shapes, Would be genuinely strange, Would be, in the full and proper sense of that term, weird.
“A door opens, admitting the sound of traffic, a man in a pork-pie hat, and a chickie on a lead.”
The day I wrote that, I knew I had a live one.