Today, I've got the pleasure of hosting a guest blog by my terribly literate friend, Ian Mac an Ghaill. He's an aspiring author, something of a genius, and while you won't hear it here, he has one of the coolest voices in the world. He's currently working on his first novel.
I'll pass you over to Ian as he talks about words, worlds, and Gaiman.
That is a story in itself; told in the first person, present perfect continuous tense, establishing the embryo of a plot (protagonist tells stories) while giving some information about the character (given to reflecting on previous and current actions) and referring to the limits of the protagonist’s experience. It is not a very sophisticated story though. I could not fill 1000 pages with it (unless I wrote each word to be REALLY BIG). It’s also a true story, an autobiography.
When I was very young I decided to write a book. The book had 3 stories (3 that I remember, in any case). I wanted the story typed, like a real book. I think that I was writing by that stage but I can’t be sure and for many years my writing was largely illegible so this may have been common sense on my part. Anyway, I told my stories to a tape recorder and my Dad duly typed them up on a typewriter. Each story was about a paragraph long but the book contained several more pages of illustration (I may add that a face made up of a crude circle with dots for eyes and a line for a mouth was the pinnacle of aesthetics in these illustrations) and I was delighted with what lay between the cardboard covers.
This was my earliest independent attempt at writing a work of fiction. I believe that I have improved since then. I have at the very least written longer works with more complicated vocabulary, whether they are actually better or not is subjective. The longest piece I have ever written is just over 10,000 words and arose as a kind of ‘Marvel’s Spider-man/David Gemmel’s Drenai’ fanfic hybrid but most of what I write is between 1000 and 3000 words. Most of my story-writing has been for essays at school but I always harboured the desire to write an epic.
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Rowling’s Harry Potter, Nix’s Old Kingdom, Colfer’s Artemis Fowl; these were the fictions I wanted to emulate. With one exception (noted above) attempts to do that tended to fizzle out, wasting away because I lacked the necessary craft and diligence to nourish them; my enthusiasm wasn’t enough to sustain them. I never gave up on my ambitions but I stopped trying to make novels appear through sheer force of will.
Then I discovered the stories of Neil Gaiman. I had been in the habit of only reading long fiction; the longer the better and the bigger the world, the more I wanted to know about it. I changed the way that I looked at reading and writing. That seems a grandiose and yet pointless statement; everything that I read or write changes how I read and write but Gaiman’s writing stands out to me as the catalyst for a new reaction to how I understood stories.
He used language in such interesting ways that I could not do other than notice. He even changed writing-styles within stories. Word-choice and sentence structure suddenly came into focus for me in a way that they had not before. For some reason the importance of language and style in writing had not quite clicked with me in the same way before.
There is a reason to choose the word ‘rob’ over the word ‘steal’ or ‘eldritch’ over ‘strange’. ‘Déja vu’ means ‘already seen’ yet English writers often use the French formulation. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were both writers of fiction in 19th century Russia but they wrote very differently. Having said that, maybe Dostoyevsky writes exactly like Tolstoy and the exactitude is lost in my English translations.
I also started reading short fiction, which gave me a better idea of how to pace and structure narratives. I changed the way I approached my school essays (they were now short stories, not stories cut short) and writing short stories changed how I approached longer ones. I am in the process of writing a novel at the moment (not as far as I’d like to be, unfortunately) and I write each chapter as if it were a short story by itself. If nothing else, this makes each foray into writing seem more manageable.
That is the story of how I write stories and how I came to write them in the way in which I do. This may or may not be of any use to anyone and what works for me will most likely not work for anyone else in exactly the same way. I don’t know of any infallible rules for writing and I do strongly believe that there are none.
Joyce’s Ulysses proved that you don’t even need an easily intelligible language or much of a plot. I obsess over synonyms and the mechanics of wording. You don’t have to. You can just write the first words that come into your head. J.R.R. Tolkien was marking exams when he wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” and he had no idea what he meant by writing it.
Write what you like or write what you feel compelled to write. Break whatever rules of writing seem necessary. Write.