18 June, 2009

A strangely emotional day...

I had my last meeting with Paul McAuley recently. It's funny studying under someone whom I'm a genuine fan of. (Don't end a sentence with a preposition? That's a French rule, popularised by Victorian snobs. At least I think they were Victorian. They were definitely snobs, and they were wrong. It's not an English rule.) I really wanted to impress him, which I think I accomplished as far as I could reasonably hope for. (There I go again.) He sent me off with kind words in a signed book, kind words in person and a hand shake. I got the impression he genuinely hopes I do well, which makes me happy. At the same time, there was the distinct melancholy of a good thing having come to an end. He has more to teach, I have more to learn, and frankly, I like the man. He's kind, unassuming, fiercely intelligent and generous with his time. If you ever read this, Paul, a thousand times thank you.

Just in case anyone ever reads this blog looking for writing advice, I'll share two things with you. First you should know that in my last meeting I had re-drafted a story called Dud Hands, which will probably wind up called something else.

The first thing relates to my last post about hooks. I had complained about a story I read in which the author didn't explain enough about his world at the beginning. Sometimes this is done extremely well. I recently read something by James Patrick Kelly, published in Asimov's Science Fiction, that started right in the middle of a visual scene. That's a great way to start a story, but it doesn't always work. It worked for James Patrick Kelly, not for the other guy who shall remain nameless. But Paul asked me an important question when I complained.

I said I didn't know enough, and he asked, "Did you want to know? Because that's the whole point."

Truth is, I didn't want to know in a good way. It was more a process of Sci-fi jargon clouding my experience of the narrative. James Patrick Kelly, on the other hand, was extremely artful about withholding information. I wanted to know, and nano-seconds before it became irritating, at the precise cusp between intrigue and annoyance, he told/showed me. Always take the reader where the reader wants to go. When Sol Stein said otherwise, he was talking about withholding resolution artfully, not pissing people off with stories that fail to keep their implicit promises. There is a promise that runs through all fiction, constantly, and a writer must never break it.

What's Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman about, for instance? It's about a feisty, intelligent girl and her conflict with the status quo. What happens in the first scene? She learns something intriguing and potentially quite horrid about the status quo. She is in conflict with the status quo from that moment on, and she wants to know more about the thing she learned. So do we.

Tada! That leads me to the second important thing I learned. This I found so insightful I wrote it on my wall. For this comment alone I must thank Paul McAuley. It's a real gem and it's something hard for a new writer to realise:

The reader isn't following the story. The reader is following the character.

I don't know what you'll get from that, but alarm bells rang for me. It's why one should never ask (as I used to), "What happens next?" (Scott Bradfield once told me that I agonized over the wrong things. Ding ding.) One should instead ask, "What would my character do here?" I think, in the few seconds it took for me to hear those words, I became a better writer.

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