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Monday, March 23, 2009


Doing it for the ship

I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day, herself an aspiring writer, about whether or not a work needs to be read before it was complete. We found ourselves on opposite sides of the debate.

Her view was this: a work of art exists to create an impression in the minds of an audience. Therefore, a work of art that isn't read is like a firework that hasn't been detonated; it hasn't completed its life cycle.

My view was this: a work of art is complete when you write the last word or paint the last stroke. Whether or not it's read has nothing to do with that; it's still a complete work of art even if no one ever sees it.

She made a lot of arguments, but none of them convince me. I've been wondering why I have this opinion.

Part of it seems a question of mathematics: how much audience equals completion? Assuming you sell your work - and that's a big assumption - you have little say over whether anybody buys it. Maybe nobody will. Maybe only a few people will. Maybe lots of people will. Now how many people have to read it? One? Two? A thousand? A million? Is there a point beyond which completeness is reached, or is it a sliding scale - in which case, is a fairly crude bestseller more complete than a subtle and profound succes d'estime that sells far fewer copies? When you get down to specifics, the idea seems unworkable. Even the most obscure work of art is going to be read by one person: the author is always the first reader. It's impossible to write a work of art that no one sees. But to consider a work finished only if it's read by more people, you have to decide on a number, and any number seems arbitrary.

More than that, it's a question of outcome. Put simply, a book isn't a controlled explosion. The author can't influence how the reader reacts to the book. Maybe it'll detonate like a firework in their mind, but maybe they'll cut the firework open, mix the gunpowder into a cake for their least favourite auntie and use the cardboard to prop up an old chair leg - which is to say, the reader's response to the book is something the author can't do anything about. You can write the book as effectively as you're able, but once it's published people will always have their own opinions. Some of them will like it, some will hate it, some will fail to understand what you're on about, and some may completely misinterpret it and decide that you're arguing for a race war or the deification of gerbils. A pyrotechnician can control how a firework will explode, assuming people set light to it correctly: once the taper is lit, the explosion is pre-programmed into the chemistry within the rocket. But reading a book is a far more complex action than lighting a taper, and there's no way of knowing how it will turn out. Was Paul McCartney's work complete when the Manson Family stabbed Sharon Tate?

Furthermore, in the vast majority of cases you'll probably never find out how people reacted. I can tell you the reactions of maybe fifty to a hundred people to my first book, but that's a very tiny fraction of the number of people who've read it. For the others, I just don't know. I probably never will. Which means that there's no point worrying about it. If the readership of those people completes my book, I'll be completely in the dark about whether my book is complete or not; for all I know, thousands of people bought it and never read it. Looking to a book to be completed by its readership is ceding validation to people who care nothing about you, and that's a dangerous business.

I think, from the author's point of view, validation may be what it comes down to. Of course, there's an element of validation for the reader too; being told that you complete a work is very flattering. But 'completing a work' can come uncomfortably close to 'validating a work', and if you depend on other people to validate your work you're in trouble for two reasons: one, you're giving other people too much power over your emotions, and two, you're not actually concentrating on the work - you're not looking for it to validate itself. The first is an issue of self-preservation, but the second is an issue of art. If you consider that a reader validates the work, there's always the chance that you could consider a work complete when it gets a good response, even if you know that you're capable of writing better and some further drafting could have made it more 'complete' artistically. If it's dependent on the reader, why not put in as little effort as you can get away with? I've mentioned before that readers have a tendency to Do The Author's Homework (especially when they're heavily invested in the project because they've spent a lot of emotional energy anticipating it, because all their friends like it, because it presents a view of people that's flattering to them or other reasons that have nothing to do with quality), and an author who believes that readers complete their work can rely on that, the the detriment of their output.

Writing is a self-centred activity. By this I don't mean its selfish, but that it is literally centred on the self. You do it alone; no one can help you in the process unless you have a co-writer, in which case you're centring on two selves. There's always a relationship going on, even in solo writing: the relationship between the artist and the work. Writing advisers often urge you to consider the audience, and they're right insofar as you shouldn't be boring, have the whodunnit revelation depend on clues you haven't bothered to write about or ramble on about stuff that has nothing to do with the plot. But that's just a way of saying 'Make sure your work is interesting.'

I like my audience; the ones who have contacted me about my work have all been very nice people, many of them with lots of interesting things to say. But I don't write for them. I hope they enjoy what I've written, but that's a by-product; that's what happens to the work after it's finished. And I don't consider I'm doing them a disservice by taking this attitude; on the contrary, I think the best I can do for them is to produce the best work I can, and I'm mostly likely to do that when I'm not writing for them.

On the other hand, I don't think I'm exactly writing for myself either. If I want to do something for myself, I take some exercise or have a hot bath or cook something with fresh vegetables. All these things are straightforward to accomplish and produce predictable rewards. Writing is far more complicated.

What comes to my mind is a group of engineers Susan Faludi interviewed in a shipyard that was being shut down despite its good quality of work for her book Stiffed. Despite knowing their jobs were on the way out no matter how well they worked, the men nonetheless finished up with all the patient care and skill they had always shown, benefitting the people who were firing them. When she asked them why, since they might have got some payback by slacking off, she got this reply: 'No, no. Because we don't see it that way ... We were helping the ship.' They loved their work, they took pride in their identity as skilled workers; they didn't work to please their bosses, they worked to created a fine finished ship. That's the artist's attitude. You don't write for the audience, you don't even write for yourself: you write for the book.

To take another line, I'd consider myself an agnostic but the best way I can express the thought is religious: whether or not the book is finished is between you and God. Any audience is always going to be mostly invisible. But the absence of an audience doesn't make the work any the less: Emily Dickinson was still a great poet in her lifetime, even though the vast majority of her poems were locked in a box, and when she sent her friends poems along with bunches of flowers she'd cultivated, 'they valued the posy more than the poetry.' Her works were always beautiful; they just weren't widely called so.

From a writer's point of view, I believe considering your work incomplete until it's read is unwise. It requires wanting something of your audience of strangers that they may never be inclined to give; it also takes your focus off the process and puts it on the effect, something that's always beyond you anyway. Build it well and it'll hold water, but you should never do it for someone else, or even, in the end, for yourself. You do it for the ship.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Behold, a new-look blog!

A lovely fellow at Random House has brought it up to date.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Archaic language

So here's the thing: I wrote a book set in the early Rennaissance. This presented me with a number of issues - how people would think, what they'd wear, how they got from place to place - all of which had their own set of demands. But none was more important than how they spoke.

Dialogue is crucial to establishing character; what people say tells us how they think. If you're writing a book set in your own era, you're writing at a great advantage: your ear is already tuned to all the subtleties of local speech. But wander even a little away from your home turf, and infelicities start popping up like weeds. Even if someone's writing contemporary style, a slight change can affect it. I can think of many American writers who've used idioms slightly wrong for their English characters: phrases that were grammatically correct but very subtly off. (Americans in transatlantic Internet threads who've picked up the word 'wanker' from their British cyber-friends, for instance, often use it in a way that feels not quite right.) Similarly, I'm sure English writers do the same thing to Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders if they're not careful. Often you can hear the echo of quotation marks clicking down onto the word; either it's used in slightly the wrong context, or with slightly the wrong connotations. Word usage isn't just about the basics of grammar; there's also the issue of common usage, the the conventions there are manifold and delicate.

There's a certain latitude in alternate histories because the real people of that time and place aren't around to correct you. But at the same time, it's important to use language that doesn't throw the reader out of context. In the context of science fiction and fantasy, the famous essay on the subject is Ursula LeGuin's From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, which states the following: 'the point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It's not Poughkeepsie. It's different.' - and that if you're setting something in Elfland (by which she means the numinous world of the imagination), your speakers need 'the genuine Elfland accent'; they need to speak in a way that couldn't possibly be mistaken for the modern world.

I hadn't read the essay when I started In Great Waters, but I instinctively agreed with its principles - or at least, with the principle that language needed to suit setting. Bareback, after all, is set in an imaginary world and the characters' speech is entirely modern, but that was a deliberately chosen effect: the whole idea of the book was to throw the idea of 'normal' into question, and having characters speak like normal contemporary people about abnormal events helped create some tension about the idea.

But then, the world in which the live is very similar to ours except for one crucial difference. Other eras have other priorities which affect how people think; they have different etiquettes; the pace of life is not the same. If your characters talk exactly like you do, it feels pointless; you might as well have set it in the modern world. It simply makes the author look as if they haven't immersed themselves in the world they've created, and if they haven't done that it's unreasonable to expect the reader to. Why jump into a pool the architect won't swim in?

At the same time, there are great effects to be had from contrasting dialogue with description. A shining examplar of this is Toni Morrison. Her narrative prose is vivid, extraordinary; dense with metaphor and vibrant with eloquence, challenging and elegant as poetry. Her characters speak vividly too, but their speech is to the point and colloquial. The narrative accent is entirely new; as it twists and tends language into new forms, it takes on an air of timelessness: we've never heard anybody speak like this. The characters' accents, on the other hand, are concrete and real: they're of particular times and places, the accent of a specific people. Between the two styles exists a lively harmony that makes the books infinitely richer, and conveys an important truth: the language of thought and experience is not the same as the language we use in conversation.

So dialogue was important. But there was a balance to be struck. To have completely period language presented two major drawbacks. First, I'm simply not a linguistic historian, and anyone other than an expert is liable to take a nasty purler trying to recreate a whole idiom. Second, even if I did manage it, it's close to a foreign tongue: readers would have to work so hard to understand what the characters were saying that most of the emotional impact would be lost. Perhaps if it had been written to be performed rather than read it might have been different - Shakespeare and his contemporaries are far easier to follow on stage than on the page - but this was a novel, and overly period speech would simply slow the reader down.

On the other hand, modern speech was totally inappropriate. These were not people in a modern situation. Our contemporary speech is casual, informal; we mostly speak it to our friends. We live in a world that idealises democracy even if it doesn't always live up to it, and that considers formality to be stiff and uncool rather than elegant or gracious; our idiom reflects that. The characters I created live in formal surroundings, in situations where careless talk can literally mean the difference between life and death, where rank is essential and language itself is an issue: one of the protagonists doesn't speak English at the beginning of the story and dislikes having to learn it, so using it at all is a political act of sorts. Very few of the characters are relaxed; sharing their thoughts at all is a difficult proposition, fraught with issues of trust and caution.

So how to manage it? In the end, the only thing to do was strike a balance. What I put together was a form of speech that was simple-sounding but governed by slightly antiquated grammar. I stuck to a few simple rules, bending them only when it was impossible to convey things otherwise. Some of it I wrote by ear, but here are a few concrete rules:

- Contractions were to be avoided; 'he is' rather than 'he's' became the order of the day. Very possibly Renaissance people did contract words - and sometimes different words; Shakespeare used 'a' as a contraction for 'he' on occasion, for instance - but on the page, 'he's' looks casual, and hence overly modern.

- Some archaic words were favoured; 'You say it very ill' rather than 'You say it very badly', for instance. Others, equally appropriate, were ruled out. 'Mayhap', for instance, would have been correct contextually, but I wasn't prepared to use it; it's a word I personally associate with high-fantasy novels of the kind that seem to have flushing toilets and machine-washable clothes in the background - ie rather sentimental. (It also has a slightly countrified air to my ears, I'm not sure why. Possibly it's because of the archaic rural use of 'happen', as in 'Happen I'll come by on Tuesday', but I'm really not sure.) Archaic words that sounded too much like they should be spoken at a costume party were out, but archaic words that were plain and clear remained.

- Most importantly - though I don't know if this would leap out at a reader - the present continuous tense was used with care. The present continous is the tense I'm using as I'm typing this sentence you're reading - words that end in 'ing', basically. The present continuous has been on the rise for centuries, and it's still increasing in usage; people nowadays sometimes say 'How are you spelling that?', for instance, which would have been grammatically incorrect just a few decades ago. Language changes all the time. But a few centuries ago, it just wasn't used as much. There are only a few examples in Shakespeare, and they're quite specific. For instance, in The Two Gentleman of Verona:

DUKE: Sir Valentine, whither away so fast?

VALENTINE: Please it your grace, there is a messenger
That stays to bear my letters to my friends,
And I am going to deliver them.

Or I am dying, Egypt, dying, in Antony and Cleopatra. Or Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe, in Othello. What you'll notice about these is that the present continuous is used to indicate that something is in progress at the time of speaking. If you say 'I am going', it isn't a prediction of the future, it's a description of what you're doing right this second. So that was the way I used it in In Great Waters; 'He will be king' rather than 'He's going to be king', for instance. The present continuous was reserved for simultaneous expression, such as 'He is hurting your wife' when her screams can actually be heard in the background. It's interesting how much it changes language when you simply drop a commonly-used tense.

All these things became an interesting issue to debate with myself as well. I can't even tell you how long I hesitated over various choices - whether to keep 'What have you been doing', for example, which used the continuous form of the verb (I kept it in the end, because 'What have you done' would have conveyed a different meaning). There was one character I kind of wanted to use contractions, but I eventually decided against it in the name of consistency.

I live in continual fear that stuff has slipped through the net, but on the whole, my use of language in dialogue was impressionistic rather than historically accurate. What I was aiming for was a reasonably timeless form of speech, antique-sounding enough to give an archaic feel but modern enough to be clearly comprehensible.

Another element is that it's contrasted with another language: the language of the deepsmen. I had no intention of trying to reproduce such language on the page: the deepsmen are a different species with entirely different vocal apparatus, and the English alphabet was simply not designed with their phonemes in mind. As a result, it's presented entirely in italicised translation (I have no time for Tourette's Foreignitis) - but as it's translated for the benefit of the reader, it's translated into a somewhat more modern style. As languages go it's unusually direct, and hence needed to be rendered directly to the reader in a style familiar to them. Similarly, thoughts are often presented in a slightly less archaic form, because the language of thoughts is universal and not precisely verbal. There are several languages in play, in fact, all of them rendered in English and all of them to some extent a translation.

Any rendering of speech is partly artificial. In The Journalist and The Murderer, Janet Malcolm remarks:

One of the striking instances of the necessity for this mediation - showing how the literally true may actually be a kind of falsification of reality - is offered by a transcript of tape-recorded speech. When we talk with somebody, we are not aware of the strangeness of the language we are speaking. Our ear takes it in as English, and only if we see it transcribed verbatim do we realise that it is a kind of foreign tongue. What the tape recorder has revealed about human speech - that Moliere's M. Jourdain was mistaken: we do not, after all, speak in prose - is something like what the nineteenth-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies revealed about animal locomotion ... As everyone who has studied transcripts of tape-recorded speech knows, we all seem to be extremely reluctant to come right out and say what we mean - thus the bizarre syntax, the hesitations, the circumlocutions, the repetitions, the contradictions, the lacunae in almost every non-sentence.

Any novelist writing dialogue has to decide on a balance between realism and naturalism - which are not the same things. Any rendering of speech is an approximation. The thing to do, ultimately, is to consider how convincing the reader will find it and what use of language best conveys atmosphere and emotion. Idiom is a fascinating mass of subtleties that you play with at your own risk.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


A Mikalogue that takes place several times a day

There has been a Mikalogue requested, so here we go. This conversation is a frequent one in our house.

Mika: Feeeed Mika! Feeeeeeeeeed! FEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEED!

Kit: Sweetie, I just fed you half an hour ago.

Mika: Wants more. Feeeed!

Kit: No, honey, you'll run out of food before the end of the day and be hungry all night.

Mika: Won't, is more in bag!

Kit: I know, honey, but the vet and I talked about what would be a good amount of food for you every day, so I measure it out. You don't want to be a fat kitty, do you?

Mika: Don't caaare! Feeeed!

Kit: But if you get fat you won't be able to jump on things so easily. You'll be uncomfortable.

Mika: You is underminin Mika's self-esteem.

Kit: The vet didn't call you fat, sweetie, she just said not to let you get fat.

Mika: Don like vet. Sticks in needles and messes with eyes and always has to go there in horrible box! Now is tryin to starve Mika.

Kit: Not starve you, honey, just keep you healthy.

Mika: Feeeeed!

Kit: Mika. Darling. I've consulted with a qualified professional about the optimum healthy amount of food for you per day. This is what we agreed on.

Mika: Mika is consultin with Mika's stomach. We agrees you should feed more.

Kit: No.

Mika: Is goin to cry at you till you give in.

Kit: If I give you a little bit will you hush up and let me work?

Mika: Yes.

Kit: Okay, here you go.

Mika: ... for about half an hour.

Thursday, March 05, 2009


Launch day!

Just a reminder: I'll be signing books at 2pm in Goldboro Books in central London. I'm only going in to sign a job lot so I'll probably be out by around 2.30, but if anyone wants to pop in and say hi, that's where I'll be...

Right, got a lot to organise, so gotta dash.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


Book Two out tomorrow!

... or, a view from inside the process.

Today's the last day I'll officially be a one-book author. It's a curious difference of perspective, when I think about it, that has to do with publishing times.

In Great Waters was finished in its first draft over a year ago. Prior to that, I'd been working on it for two years. It's been part of my life, in short, for more than three years, which is a long, long time when you think about something every day. It's become part of my history, a way of defining an era in my life, a tremendous learning experience that let me see a lot of things about myself I previously didn't know.

It's sometimes odd to reflect that when I interact with people in public, what they encounter is Kit Whitfield, author of Bareback.

The book everyone has read was written a long time ago. In Great Waters is far more present in my mind - but until tomorrow, Bareback is still my sole public face. People know more about my cat than my second novel, and she's been in my life for only a third as long as In Great Waters has.

What are the effects? Well, a certain sense of anxiety is one; on the whole I'm a conscientious person, and while it's bad business not to mention my forthcoming book, I feel a bit shy talking about it - for all I know, nobody will like it. (Though my publicist says there are some good reviews forthcoming.) On the other hand, just talking about myself as the author of the book people have read feels weird; that's me three years ago, a much younger and less experienced person.

Talking about In Great Waters and what I consider the difficulties and successes of it is an open issue as well: I've only got my own and my editor's opinion to confirm that the successes are successes rather than massive mistakes, and talking about the difficulties before people have read it raises the spectre of calling attention to problems that people might otherwise not notice. The latter is, I suspect, somewhat chimerical; if the problems are there people will probably notice them whether I say anything or not, and if they were solved then talking about how I tackled them becomes a success story. I once met a successful creative person who'd produced a certain work of art I personally considered faulty; in conversation the person mentioned something about the process of creating it that confirmed a suspicion I'd had. But the suspicion was there well before I met the creator; the inside scoop didn't call my attention to it, it simply gave me the ego-boost of considering myself a perceptive person. (Not that I wanted to crow at the creator's expense; I liked them a lot. I just didn't consider it their best work.) I think it's safe to assume that my readers, who are an intelligent and wonderful bunch of people who absolutely love to buy lots of copies of my work, lots and lots of copies, will form their own opinions no matter what I say.

In any event, all these concerns will be moot tomorrow. No more will I have to blush when asked 'What are your books called?' and try to reconcile the plurals. No, tomorrow my second book is out. I'm pleased with it, I hope others will be as well ... and now I just have to wait for the reviews, which is pretty much like waiting for exam results. That's one thing I've learned since my first book anyway: you can drive yourself crazy with nerves waiting too intensively. This time, I'm not going to look for them. My publicist will send them to me when they emerge; I'm just going to pretend they aren't happening and get on with my life.


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