Being realistic

By , 26 April 2007 9:08 pm

I have been very busy this week. ‘They’ have decided to have an internal inspection in college next week, so I decided to do a state-of-the-art, all singing, all dancing lesson on the geology of dams and dam failures. (AS level geology, if you really want to know.) So I started off with the draft of a nice simple lesson then I decided to add a Google Earth section and then a nice little exercise with six diagrams of different dams with potential problems. ‘No sweat’, I said ‘I will dash them off.’

Take this as a piece of advice: you never ‘dash off’ diagrams on the computer. Possibly, if I was using CorelDraw day in and day out, as I once did I might have been faster. But it took hours. Computers really unlock the perfectionist streak in me. You do a diagram and realise that it could look so much better with the rocks angled just a few more degrees. So you tweak and prod and push. And there’s another 10 minutes gone. PowerPoint isn’t much better. You know the sort of thing: you decide to match font size across all the diagrams; then you go for crisping up that slightly blurry image on slide number five and the creation of that really eye-grabbing image on slide eight. And so on.

I mention it here, because this, of course creeps into books, and the writing of them. Because a book is now never entirely cast in stone until that moment when the publisher presses the print button, there is always the possibility of tinkering.

One of the most useful things that I have ever learnt is what I call ‘identifying the point the curve flattens’. I think I learnt it in the days when I had a thing for hi-fi and used to listen and long for various bits and pieces. The idea runs something like this. You get garbage for £200; a modest system for £300 and quite a good one for £400. But at some point the curve starts to flatten out so that to substantially improve on a £500 system takes not £100 but £200. And to substantially improve an £800 system takes another £400 etc. The wisdom goes therefore, that you identify the point at which the curve flattens and purchase there. I have no doubt this wisdom is the basis of some best-selling self-empowerment book.

The principle, though has, I think, a broader application and it’s worthwhile considering in these days when we have so many pressures on us that our precious time is taken away from us. We need to be able to identify the point in any project where it is going to take an awful lot of extra work to achieve anything like a substantial improvement. And that’s the point at which we quit. We give up being perfectionists and aim instead to do the best we can without a ridiculous overspend on time and other things. In a way, I’m sure this is some sort of spiritual gifting: the ability to distinguish the truly and eternally vital from that which is merely temporally – and temporarily – valid. Christians, more than most, are probably inclined to be perfectionists. (Isn’t that why we are Christians? we have failed to meet up to the perfect standard of God’s law. ) It seems to me that perfectionism in a writer is a perilous thing and the bigger the dream , the greater the risk. For us speculative fiction types, with our galaxy spanning visions and casts of dozens, perfectionism is a very perilous matter. To define and describe such created worlds in appropriate detail is a no light task.

I mention it now because all being well, this time next week I will be starting to apply myself to the final book in a great crescendo of activity that ought, God willing, to bring me to its completion by the start of August. And that is only going to be achieved by me taking on what is possible, rather than attempting the utterly impractical. Your prayers would be welcome!

Dealing with demons

By , 20 April 2007 9:11 pm

It’s been a very busy week this week at college, home and church. But I also seem to have ended up preaching twice on Sunday in the middle of vast amounts of marking and preparation. And to make matters worse it’s the hottest sunniest April that anybody can remember and I keep telling myself it’s really important to get out there and get some exercise.

So, in all honesty, I haven’t really been able to give much time to thinking about my own writing this week. But obviously, like everybody else I was appalled and saddened by the ghastly events at Virginia Tech. There have been a few slightly smug comments in the UK that ‘this could only happen in the States’. In the sense of scale, that is broadly true, but we have had our own little massacres, and I don’t see any grounds for complacency. My own observation here is far more to do with the pen than the gun. Actually it isn’t really an observation, it’s more a sort of open-ended cautious comment. The thing is that Cho Seung-hui, the sad and terrible executioner of so many, took creative writing classes in which he expressed something of the hate and turmoil in his own heart.

Now it seems to me as a writer that I – and all of us who write – need to ask whether engaging in the activity of creative writing encouraged this man to pursue his bizarre and ultimately lethal fantasies? It is I suspect one of the earliest questions known to the human race: does thinking about evil, encourage evil? To put it in a crude but memorable aphorism, ‘does writing exorcise daemons or merely exercise them?’ Christians have tended to be rather cautious on creativity. I think the general view has been that there is a general sequence from thought to expression to action and that it is best to stop very early on.

This is, I presume, why most Christians have accepted that there ought to be some sort of censorship. I remember once when I was doing my postgraduate teacher training a lecturer saying, ‘I am not a Christian myself, but I do wonder what Christians have got against creativity.’ I remember thinking at the time that he had really rather overlooked the potential for evil to hijack creativity. Christians do applaud creativity, but we recognize that the world being the sinful place that it is, creativity can be warped. We can do without more creative ways of killing people quickly or rendering cities uninhabitable.

So am I against creative writing? Well, a dramatic case like this is probably not a good basis to generalize from. Nevertheless we surely need to be aware that creativity is not neutral. In the light of this terrible tale I’m glad that those of us who are Christian writers write within limits. Sometimes those limits are irritating, particularly when you really feel the urge to outdo Stephen King in the gore and pain stakes. But maybe there is a wisdom in restraint. Not everything in the garden of creativity is good. Maybe we need courage to say of things that are written: this is not neutral; this is not harmless; stop it before someone gets hurt!

On memorable reporting

By , 13 April 2007 7:59 pm

I’ve had a busy second week of the holidays, making some good progress on the final book and doing a lot of preparation for teaching next week. I had a couple of nice e-mails, and someone pointed out that there is a small but perfectly formed group discussing my books on a Facebook group. I have also written a longer article for the Speculative Faith website on writing and theology. I should post that on Saturday 14th. Go and seek it out.

In between all this I have started reading Robert Fisk’s fat tome, on his thirty years in the Middle East, entitled The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East. For those who don’t know, Fisk is a British journalist and commentator on the Middle East; the area being the way it is, he is pretty much what we used to call a ‘war correspondent’. For a year we lived about 100 yards away from him in Beirut, and I’d often see him on his balcony. I also once asked him a question about postmodernism at a seminar; as I expected, that topic got very short shrift and my colleagues in the social sciences looked very uneasy.

Anyway Fisk is pretty controversial in some circles because of his appalling pessimism (which in the Middle East tends to be a safe bet) and the fact that he has been very negative about Western intervention and has had some very hard things to say about Israel. Although I mention him here for reasons other than his ‘politics’ it is worth saying that although his handling of the historical facts can be sometimes lax, his descriptions of the events he has witnessed seem to me to be accurate. I lived in Beirut from 1980 to 84 and 94 to 98. Where he recorded events I was close to, I feel he has been truthful. I derive a wry amusement that our paths must have crossed quite a lot: him trying to get close to terrible events and me trying to get away from them.

Anyway, it’s a variable book and gloomy enough to drain the smile off the most upbeat personality so I why do I mention it? The reason is that I think this book, and good reporting generally are excellent things for fiction writers to read. You may think that is surprising. After all, surely shouldn’t fiction writers read fiction? Perhaps, but don’t overlook good reportage. Let me explain why.

In a way, what we are trying to do is tell stories in a manner that involves the reader with an economy of words. Now in the case of what is called ‘speculative fiction’, and I suppose also historical fiction, we are struggling to tell stories of people and events who are distanced from our readers by time, space or alien cultures. Despite this we want people to identify with our heroes and villains. We want to make them, and their plight, seem real. And furthermore, most of us are trying to do it with an economy of words; we cannot afford to spend a page describing a space ship or a castle, we need to move on and tell the story.

It strikes me that reporters, particularly foreign correspondents, face similar dilemmas. In very limited words, they have to tell us about a situation which may be very remote. Most of us do not know what it is like to be an observer of an utterly chaotic firefight or a shabby bureaucratic fix-up in some sweaty, dusty part of the Middle East. Reporters have to make it real. They have to make us care about the Iranian or the Iraqi suddenly face-to-face with death. They have to tell it in such a way that even if we are reading it while eating our cornflakes or waiting for our train, it sticks in our mind. They have to stay fresh and shun clichés. And this is what Fisk is supreme at. Whatever his merits as historian, he is a very gifted observer. With a rare economy of words he can set the scene, portray a character and involve us. Sometimes against our will, he drags us into the shabby, shameful mess of it all.

And here there is another point. Where Fisk gets his morality from I have not yet found. He is no Christian. But the book exudes morality: there a righteous indignation that runs throughout it. You may argue that in places it is unbalanced, or even misdirected, but it is there. And not to be angry about what has transpired in the Middle East in the last 30 years would be a terrible thing. And that’s something else that we need more of in our Christian fiction; a burning anger with evil and injustice.

I have a little list

By , 6 April 2007 8:48 am

First of all happy Easter to all my readers and may the meaning of the season not be lost in spring cleaning, chocolate eating, enjoying the first warm weather of the year or being nice to Easter bunnies. I spent the first three days of this week tagging along on a university geology trip and it was a profitable and, for the most part, very pleasant experience.

I don’t read a lot of popular fiction these days (I just don’t have the time) but for this trip I picked up a thick paperback novel. I don’t wish to name names (I’m a coward) but it had been a massive bestseller in its native country for two years and came with a various quotes on the front that made you think you were in for a good read. Frankly, dear reader, as the current phrase goes, ‘it sucked’.

Now when I came back I had a nice e-mail asking me about the books that had influenced me which I meant to post on the blog but, in a fit of tiredness, deleted it by accident. Anyway, that prompted my thinking in my usual perverse manner about the bad books that have influenced me. I think the aspiring writer should either read very good books to learn things to imitate or bad books to learn things to avoid. I’m not sure of the merits of mediocre books: I suspect, like the Laodicean church, they are best spat out as being neither one nor the other.

My readers being a literate sort, you are no doubt aware of the splendid song in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado in which the Lord High Executioner sings:

“As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I’ve got a little list—I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed—who never would be missed!”

Well, I have a little list of novels that won’t be missed. You may wish to add your own.

Novels that are fourth volume of a trilogy. In other words, the book that really shouldn’t have been written because the seam was thoroughly mined out. But the author was desperately strapped for cash so he or she thought they could revisit their wastepaper bin with profit.

Novels that flaunt their writer’s encyclopaedic knowledge. You know the sort of thing, where every alternate paragraph is the author’s lecture on how St Ebinot’s church has an architrave that is the high point of 16th century Caruthusian architecture or the gearshift on the Clarkson M20x Mark III has a distinctive notchy feel to it at speed. Yawn.

Novels that display their writer’s total ignorance of the world. I remember one book that talked about the sands of southern Lebanon, and if memory serves me well, had it populated by camels. There is no sand and no camels. None. Someone else wrote “the Mujahideen picked up the rifle”. Sorry, Mujahideen is plural; the singular is mujahid.

Novels that assume that the morals and thought patterns of contemporary Western culture are universal. This is very common. The writer assumes that for all the differences of culture and religion and language they are (or were) ‘just like us’. So in a historical novel set in the Reformation we have a hero or heroine who thinks like an early 21st century Brit or American and treats religious matters as peripheral to their lives. Most unlikely. Or, we have a novel set in the Middle East which fails to deal with the motivation of seeking honour and avoiding shame that runs throughout society there.

Novels that create unbelievable heroes. The classic example is the smartarse (sorry guys but this is a blog)—and it is mostly a hero—who can strip and clean a 9 mm Kwangi semiautomatic pistol with his toothbrush, speaks six major languages fluently and can tell you tell which Bordeaux is the best with venison.

Novels that are derivative. For instance, any fantasy novel that has a motley band of dwarves, elves, halflings and wizards trying to seek/destroy a ring/sword/crown of power/destiny/doom, etc. Sorry, been there, done that and got the mithril shirt. Ditto for the terrible secret that will undermine Christianity.

Novels that toy with spiritual matters. You know the sort of thing. The writer clearly has not the slightest interest in or understanding of Christianity but suddenly in an attempt to claim significance weighs into some theological discussion, where he or she is manifestly out of their depth. Do these people not appreciate that actually theology is a respectable discipline where almost all the big issues have been discussed and beaten to death many times over many years?

Novels that think that weight equals value. The epic eight-hundred page works with a vast array of characters who are so unmemorable that you really do not care in the slightest when they fall to their deaths over cliffs or are eaten by rabid hedgehogs or simply disappear out of the volume.

Oh dear, how long have I wasted with such things? I want my time back!

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