Friday, June 29, 2012

Decaying To Mere Fact

Where do writers get their short-story ideas?  Seven years ago I was a speaker on a panel about the future, at an event organised by the Royal Society and the ICA.  You know: science and the arts.  One of the topics we kicked around was the synthesis of meat using some kind of nanotech device that would be as cheap and easy to use as a microwave.  Synthetic meat is hardly a new idea, in science fiction.  Vat-grown chicken helps to feed the overpopulated world of Fredrik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, published in 1953, for instance.  But there's an old rule of thumb that you can generate stories by thinking about who might be hurt or threatened by new technology, and when I was heading home after the event, walking past the bouncers outside a throbbing nightclub, it struck me that if celebrity stalkers found a use for cheap meat makers, then celebrities might need to take elaborate countermeasures.

I turned this notion into a short story that was published in Nature.  You can read it here.  Seven years later, a couple of things I stumbled across in the same week suggest that the future, or what I like to call the consensual present, has caught up with that little story.  First, there's the news that Madonna employs a sterilisation team, because she's worried about fans getting hold of her DNA.  And in an article on the manufacture of artificial meat, there's the following exchange between the author and a scientist:
"Could you make fake panda?"
"What about human?"
"Don't go there."
As far as I'm concerned, Madonna isn't paranoid, but prescient.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Shortly Appearing

This Wednesday, I'm the guest at the monthly meeting of the British Science Fiction Association, where I'll be interviewed by award-winning critic Paul Kincaid.  It's free, starts at 7.00 pm, and takes place in the Cellar Bar of the Melton Mowbray pub, 18 Holborn, London.  There'll be a raffle, apparently; I'll bring some of my books, for prizes.  More details, and a map, here.

Show Time

I'm not a huge fan of that commonplace tyranny of the writing manual, 'show don't tell.'  Avoid exposition and other forms of authorial narrative.  View scenes only through the camera of close third person.  Don't tell the reader that a character is brave, or foolhardy, or tired: show the character performing some action that illustrates the point.  Always dramatize.

Novels aren't movies, which unless they resort to clunky exposition in dialogue, are more or less all show.  But novels can use allusion and metaphor, condense time and action, generalise, describe internal psychological states.  And too often, in a novel, showing takes longer than telling.  'She was afraid' is better than 'She clasped her hands tightly together to stop them shaking.'  Neither are especially satisfactory, but at least the first is short and to the point.  (Of course, evoking the psychological state without resorting to physical symptoms is better still.)  Which isn't to say that there's anything wrong with dramatisation, or the vivid illustrative action.  A narrative that explains everything leaves no room for the reader; it would be as tedious as a story in which every action is described, moment by moment.  And it's important to keep the character in focus, to see and feel a scene through her eyes, her reactions.

Something I'm reminding myself page by page, paragraph by paragraph, as I press on with the final draft of Evening's Empires.  Here, for instance, is a pretty bad bit of tell not show:
Tamonash Pilot, Hari’s uncle, his father’s younger brother, was about the same age now as Aakash had been when he’d passed over.  A stocky old man with a hawkish profile and bristling white eyebrows, dressed in simple black coveralls, so closely resembling Aakash that it was a shock to see him waiting in the bustle and flow of the elevator terminal.
There are all kinds of things wrong with this, but what's especially wrong is that I'm not only telling myself what's happening, using information the protagonist doesn't yet know, but I'm telling it back to front. My first drafts are, shamefully, littered with place-holders like this.  This is closer to a final version:
When he followed Bo out of the booming elevator from the docks, Hari saw his father standing in the bustle and flow of the dispersing passengers.  A stocky old man with the familiar hawkish profile and bristling white eyebrows, but clean-shaven, dressed in black coveralls.  Smiling now, holding out his hands, saying, ‘Gajananvihari!  Nephew!  How good it is to meet you at last!  I am Tamonash.  Welcome to Down Town.  Welcome to Ophir.’
Followed by a chunk of exposition that gets past the whole awkward and overly-familiar getting-to-know-you scene as quickly as possible.  I guess the main rule is, whatever works.
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