Friday, 9 March 2007

On simplicity as a virtue

First of all, thanks to all who read this. Just because no-one posts comments doesn't mean that it's not read. This week, for instance, someone from California and a student in one of my classes, admitted to being regular readers.

Now, this week's observation Often when authors go on about writing, they talk about the big stuff. You know, how to create some wonderful epic spanning centuries or galaxies; how to put meaning into the text or even how to make significance significant. What I want to do today is just go to the other end of the scale and make some points about rather trivial elements of writing. Actually, though, when you put them all together, something rather important emerges.

Hint one: avoid characters with names that resemble common verbs.
In this last book of the Lamb among the Stars series, a character called Luke has an important part to play. But it's a problem name, because you can never say ‘Luke looked pale’ or ‘Luke looked away’. Avoid Luke! Equally, there is a fairly common Arabic name, Said (sometimes spelled Sayed) which is also unusable: you really don't want to have to write ‘Said said’. Of course, you can work around this, but it often looks obvious. There are probably lots of other names with similar problems. I know it's not just a problem with me because I remember reading a detective novelist, bitterly lamenting she had called her protagonist Parker, because she always kept having to avoid ‘Parker parked the car’.

Hint Two: keep names simple.
In the very first drafts of the first book of my series I decided that I wanted everybody to have either a patronym or matronym. If you are unfamiliar with this, it's the sort of thing you get in Russian literature, where the character is, say, called Stephan Borisovitch Tallin or something like this. The Borisovitch means that he is ‘the son of Boris’. It allows the writer to refer to his protagonist as a) Stephan, b) Borisovitch or c) Tallin. It's a nice and atmospheric system, but it doesn't half make for confusing books. So, I dropped it fairly early on.

Rule Three: Avoid meetings with lots of people.
The English language (or possibly language generally) does not easily handle the sort of complex meeting where everybody says things. If you're not careful, it can take several pages for even a relatively simple discussion to take place. X speaks, then Y, then Z and then X interrupts him. And each time you have to explain who is saying what. It's much simpler to have meetings between one or two people. In that case, you can even go for a whole page without having to say who is actually speaking, because it is so obvious from the text.

Rule Four: Try to keep the exotic stuff under control.
In an alien world set far in the future it would be really quite logical to have twelve months, all with totally different names to those we know. And, while we're at it, to have days of the week that are totally different. The effect, of course, would be to heighten the sense of alienness. It would also be to utterly bemuse and confuse the poor reader and have him or her constantly resorting to some voluminous appendix.

The fact is that any writer who persists with writing will soon find out that writing is a very artificial business. You start off by thinking that you are going to try and accurately depict something that is going on, and then you realise that it is far easier to keep things simple. One of the interesting things about fantasy or speculative fiction is that you can simplify worlds and that can help with plots. Sometimes the real world is appallingly complex. To talk of a subject of which I know a little because I was there, I suspect there are probably no more than one or two people in the whole world who could give anything like an accurate account of the shifting loyalties and treacheries of the forty or so militia groups that battled their way through the Lebanese civil war. Were I to try to accurately depict events there all but the most devoted reader would throw the manuscript in away in confusion and dismay.

Ironically, speculative fiction can allow us to simplify things. And sometimes, in order to tell a good tale or make a point, reality has to be simplified. Complexity is rarely a friend of communication.