Fantasia on a theme by Samuel Delaney

This year, my long-time friend Derek Muir attended the Clarion writer’s workshop. One thing he brought back was [an essay called ‘Thickening the Plot’][ttp] by Samuel R Delaney, who had been an instructor at Clarion in the 70s. I bought the larger book that contains it — ‘About Writing: 7 essays, 4 letters, and 5 interviews.’


It’s a wonderful book. In the essay that follows, I have taken some of his ideas, mixed in my own interpretations and thoughts, and generally corrupted and polluted his work to create my own synthesis. What follows, then, should not be taken as his views, but my own.

In the introduction to the book, Samuel R Delaney makes a distinction between three levels of literary skill: those who can’t write, good writers, and talented writers. The first group is basically most people; not illiterate, but people who have neither inclination nor aptitude nor necessity. The next group — good writers — are those who can write grammatically, want to put down fiction, and may have done so. We can imagine that maybe they have done well during English lessons at school and were told they were better than their peers, or had been encouraged by parents. They are probably avid readers. The talented group are people with something extra beyond competence and desire.

It’s the middle group — the good writers — who produce generally poor fiction. How could they not? Who else produces it? Certainly not the non-writers, because they aren’t producing anything, and not the talented, because their stuff is the really good fiction. For me, it was counterintuitive that competent writers are — must be — responsible for bad fiction. Now that that idea is in my head, I can’t seem to shake it.

Delaney writes:

“However paradoxical it sounds, _good writing_ as a set of strictures (that is, when the writing is good and nothing more) produces most bad fiction. On one level or another, the realization of this is finaly what turns most writes away from writing. _Talented writing_ is, however, something else. You need talent to write fiction.”

If you can string a sentence together, but you know you’re not writing to the same standard as the authors of the great classics — authors like Milton, Austen, Dickens, Melville, Hemingway, Lovecraft, Orwell — then you are a Good Writer. And you are probably producing dross.

This comparison with the greatest authors of all time should loom over you and oppress your soul. You must be crushed down by the weight of a thousand masterpieces, each one pressing upon your soul and leaving you awestruck. Then, you must take these great works and absorb them, read them to find their secrets, learning from them what you need to first do as well as them, and then surpass them. Without the visceral, breathless need to reach the very pinnacle of excellence, and without the knowledge of what constitutes that pinnacle, chances are you will not succeed.

Why must you strive to reach so high? Isn’t it enough to be merely good? No. Here’s why.

Let’s imagine you’re a science fiction writer, and you want to write novels, have them published, and see them sell. What you want specifically is this; you want your novel shelved alongside _Neuromancer_ and _1984_ and _The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy_ and _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_. You want me to flick through all these books, and yours, and for me to put those books back on the shelf and take yours to the tills. Well, then you’d better write better cyberpunk than Bill Gibson, or better distopias that George Orwell, or I’ll just buy their books instead. You must aspire to beat the best authors in history at their own game; you are in competition with them. It is not viable to attempt anything less.

For myself, I imagine some avid reader, entering a bookshop and glancing, by chance, at the spine of my book, shelved there under ‘Cooper’. Just to the left are books by C.J Cherryh and Orson Scott Card. To the right, Samuel Delaney and Philip K. Dick. _Even while staring at my book,_ his peripheral vision hits four Hugo-award winning novels. When he reaches out his hand to pick up my book, with the smallest twitch his fingers brush _Ender’s Game_ and _Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?_.

My book has to be very good indeed to make that sale.

The Dark Matter of Writing

I just did an on-line typing speed test, and it turns out I managed 54 words per minute. Which made me wonder — at that speed, how much time would it take me to get a novel written? If I could operate at that rate while writing fiction, what could I get done?

Turns out 24 hours of typing at that speed gets 78,000 words down on paper. That’s a good sized novel, in 24 hours.

Now, if you can actually type out the contents of a novel in 24 hours, what does it mean when someone says they spent 6 months writing a novel? Because it certainly doesn’t mean they spent six months typing. (Butt on seat for two hours a day, that’d be about a million words.)

In fact, it makes you wonder why we call it ‘writing’ in the first place. There may have been a time, I suppose, back when we pressed styluses into clay, when the content we were writing was simple and the process of making marks was laborious. Back then it was reasonable to say we were spending our time writing. But that’s not so any more. With a comfortable word processor, getting words down is trivial. So calling ourselves ‘writers’ is perhaps disingenuous. What we’re doing isn’t writing — can’t be, or we’d be finished much sooner. People would comfortably knock out a novel in a weekend. The bulk of the activity has to be something else; imagining, maybe? daydreaming?

This is one of those posts where I don’t have the answers, but I hope an interesting question. Like dark matter, the real activities of writing fiction are somewhat invisible to us, but constitute the vast majority of the whole. Because from the outside we just look like we’re typing, what we do is called writing. But I feel that might be like calling the act of driving ‘seatbelt-wearing.’ Sure, you wear your seatbelt throughout the whole process, but that’s not where your attention is. It’s not what you’re doing.

So there are some consequences. If writing time is trivial, then any idea which uses the word ‘writing’ to describe fiction-creation is literally incorrect.

For example, a piece of advice handed down with great regularity is this; ‘write every day.’ Is it because the act of committing words is important _per se_? No . The other ‘dark matter’ fiction-making activities must be engaged on a regular basis. ‘Write every day’ gets us sitting down and our heads running the processes that create scenes and characters and drama.

What’s worth considering, then — what constitutes story-making and literature-creation — is a series of processes, mostly mental, mostly transitory, the _final_ process being the mechanical typing of words. I can think of three main processes;

1. Imagine a scene in your story-world.
2. Convert the scene to language in your mind’s ear.
3. Transcribe the language onto paper or computer.

But note how step 3, the writing, is the thing we’re urged to do. It’s backwards. We should be advised to daydream every day. We should be told to babble about what we see in our minds every day. I suppose it’s not surprising that we don’t hear this advice, but these things are the core processes of fiction.

I suppose what I’m looking for, after all this, is an understanding of the mental processes that make up fiction writing. And I don’t what it described in terms of the end results. ‘writing’ creates written words. ‘characterisation’ creates characters. ‘plotting’ creates plot. But words, character, and plot are all artefacts, the output of something, and it doesn’t much help to just make nouns into verbs and talk about writing and characterisation and plotting. I want to talk, and think, about causes, the things that cause plot and cause character and cause language.

PS: It took me exactly 1 hour to write this post of 662 words. Which means only 20% of the time was taken by writing — 80% of the time taken was taken by these other processes.

Translation Party

The rather marvellous [Translation Party]( allows you to enter an english phrase, which gets translated to japanese, then back to english, then back to japanese, continuing until it reaches equilibrium. It’s fun.

Here’s the best I’ve found so far. Sorta explains the WWII war in the pacific;

pearl harbour is heavily defended
Pearl Harbor is a strong advocate
Pearl Harbor is a strong supporter of
Be a strong supporter of the attack on Pearl Harbor
Strongly support the attack on Pearl Harbor
Strongly supports the attack on Pearl Harbor
We strongly support the attack on Pearl Harbor

Some other good ones;

“better to rule in hell than serve in heaven”
> We do recommend that you provide the rule of hell in heaven

“and behold, a pale horse, and him that rode him was death”
> He is a pale horse death

“to be or not to be”
> please.

“cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war”
> Shouting, confused, throwing the dogs of war

“shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
> Summer 2006, any comparison of him?