Sunday, 27 May 2012

Murder Your Darlings

It makes me laugh when I hear people say that they don’t like fantasy or science fiction novels because ‘it’s not real’. All fiction, by definition, is made up. Yet, when it comes to imaginary monsters or aliens or magicians with pointy hats and white beards, many people don’t want to read something so removed from reality. The reason I have a problem with this isn’t that some people don’t want to read the sort of book that I happen to write. These differences in taste are what make the world interesting. But their reasoning does bother me. And this is because all book are about people. In 1984, Orwell made his people into pigs to show the dangers of totalitarianism; Philip K. Dick used androids to make us think about what makes us human in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; Tolkien had hobbits and elves and wizards, but The Lord of the Rings was about the power of temptation, and humanity’s relationship with death. 

There are very few new ideas in the world, but there are a million ways of saying them. The eternal question of what makes us human doesn’t change if you happen to dress it up with the odd dragon. Love still conquers all if it is up against fairies and talking trees. I personally read books in the hope that they will teach me something new, or make me think about something in a different way. And all  it takes is someone to package those ideas up in a way that resonates with me. The plot might be a post-apocalyptic fight for survival, but the message is on the futility of war, or the strength of the human spirit, or maybe even the meaning of life.

One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is your ‘voice’. It can be a richness of prose like Dickens, or the inclusion of certain recognisable elements like Roald Dahl or quirks of language like Shakespeare. Or it can be a unique approach to the rules of grammar reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy. While few think about it, your real-life voice is just as unique and just as capable of boring or intriguing or exciting those who listen to us. There are people who we enjoy talking to, and there are those who change us—they find a way to say something that gets under our skin and makes us rethink our opinions. The same goes for books. On his literary inspirations, Martin Amis said: “I find another thing about getting older is that your library gets not bigger but smaller, that you return to the key writers who seem to speak to you with a special intimacy. Others you admire or are bored by, but these writers seem to awaken something in you.”

There’s a form of magic to finding a way to say something in a way that sneaks into the head and heart of a reader, and plants the seed that will grow into a new way of thinking about something. But that’s the important part—to only sow the seed instead of trying to ram a fully grown tree down someone’s throat. It’s a sneaky kind of persuasion—tricking someone into coming up with the very idea that you wanted them to have without even noticing you, the writer, quietly whispering in their ear. However, try too hard and a writer’s voice becomes a boastful five-year-old screaming ‘look at me, look at me.’ And it’s something many novice writers struggle with. The fine line between cultivating a unique voice and ensuring that this voice is unobtrusive enough that the reader doesn’t feel clubbed into submission.

There’s a saying among writers: ‘Murder your darlings.’ British writer Arthur Quiller-Couch is quoted as saying, "Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press." It all comes back to the need to control that writer’s voice to a point where it flows over a reader instead of drowning them in a sea of flowery language and esoteric wit. But it’s a paradox for beginning writers who, at the same time as needing to develop their unique voice, also need to know when to rein it in.

My stomach always lurches when I hear writers utter the words, ‘my book is my baby’. It’s a commonly known fact that people tend to lose their objectivity when it comes to their own kids. Revising a novel from first draft terribleness to something others might actually want to read involves listening to criticism, and then ripping all your precious words apart and sticking them back together again. Few people are willing to dismember their ‘babies’ to create Frankenstein’s monster. But the words on the page are not the story, they are merely a vessel to sneak your ideas into someone else’s mind. Words are the tools, but the art is the ideas they conjure in the reader’s head.

The same goes for any career other than writing, science included. Presenting a graph of your data isn’t enough if you can’t find a way to package it as something others want to read. I’m not talking about clever turns of phrase or poetic descriptions, which have no place in scientific writing. The words don’t need to be beautiful to do their job, but it’s a mistake to think they don’t matter. They need to gently prod the reader in the right direction by highlighting the important parts, allowing fellow scientists to reach the same conclusions that the author did, only in the space of thirty minutes rather than ten years. You can’t shout your side of the argument and expect others to give in—a fault I do sometimes see with scientists’ attempts to deal with certain controversial subjects such as cloning. You have to say it in a way that makes someone listen, and then makes them think.

That’s the secret behind any good writing—whether it’s designed to entertain or educate, whether it’s about bacteria or dragons. In the end, everything is about people and how we fit into the world around us.

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